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By Dartunorro Clark and Ken Dilanian
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office issued a rare public statement Friday night that disputes a BuzzFeed News report that President Donald Trump had directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.
BuzzFeed News on Thursday evening reported that Cohen told special counsel Robert Mueller the president personally instructed him to lie to Congressional investigators in order to minimize links between Trump and his Moscow building project, citing two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter. The report also alleged that Cohen was directed to give a false impression that the project had ended before it actually did.
NBC News has not independently confirmed this report.
On Friday evening, a full day after the story appeared, the special counsel’s office issued a statement.
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” the statement said.
BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, responded to the special counsel’s statement on Twitter, saying, “We stand by our reporting and the sources he informed it.” He asked the special counsel to make clear what he is disputing.
After the story was published Thursday evening, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called the allegation the “most serious to date” and said that his committee would look into the matter.
“The allegation that the President of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date,” Schiff said in a tweet. “We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true.”
Schiff added in a formal statement on Friday that his committee is working to secure documents and additional witness testimony to look into the Trump Tower Moscow deal.
“As a counterintelligence concern of the greatest magnitude, and given that these alleged efforts were intended to interfere with our investigation, our Committee is determined to get to the bottom of this and follow the evidence wherever it may lead,” he said.
The White House has referred inquiries to the outside legal team. Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, said in a statement to NBC News on Friday that, “If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Guiliani later refuted the allegations in an additional statement to NBC News: “Any suggestion — from any source — that the President counseled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false. Michael Cohen is a convicted criminal and a liar. To quote the prosecutors, he has traded on ‘a pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time’ and for that ‘he is going to pay a very, very serious price.’ Today’s claims are just more made-up lies born of Michael Cohen’s malice and desperation, in an effort to reduce his sentence.”
Trump, in his first reaction to the report, tweeted a quote from a Fox News correspondent and added that Cohen is “lying to reduce his jail time!” He also included an apparent reference to Cohen’s father-in-law, who reportedly loaned roughly $20 million to a Chicago cab mogul who was mentioned in FBI search warrants for Cohen.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, declined to comment on Friday when asked about the report. His office, through a spokesman, reiterated that Burr has “said on multiple occasions that the Committee has asked Michael Cohen to return for additional interviews.”
BuzzFeed News reported that the special counsel’s office learned about Trump directing Cohen to lie through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization. The special counsel also obtained internal company emails, text messages and other documents, the report said.
Cohen, 52, pleaded guilty in federal court in November to a single count of making false statements to Congress about the project. He admitted to making several significant lies to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last year about Trump’s Moscow project, including testimony that the project had ended in January 2016 because of “business reasons.”
Former attorney general Eric Holder said in a tweet on Friday that if the report is true, Congress should jump-start impeachment proceedings.
“If true – and proof must be examined – Congress must begin impeachment proceedings and Barr must refer, at a minimum, the relevant portions of material discovered by Mueller. This is a potential inflection point,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on Friday that the Trump “must be held accountable” if he told Cohen to lie because, if the report is true, “the president committed a crime.”
“I again call on my Republican colleagues to join in a bipartisan effort to get the facts to the American people, who deserve to know the full story of what happened during and after the 2016 election,” she said. “If these latest allegations are true, they’re too serious to be ignored or withheld from public scrutiny.”
Mark Warner, D-Va, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the committee has invited Cohen back to in early February to address his previous testimony and the Buzzfeed report.
“We don’t know whether the new report about Cohen being told to lie by the president is true or not, we’ll have to ask Mr. Cohen that, but it sure as heck explains why Michael Cohen lied in earlier testimony to our committee, and one of the reasons why he’s being sentenced on a going forward basis,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the allegations underscore the need to have Mueller’s investigation to proceed unimpeded.
“I’ve seen the article and if it’s accurate, I would say the Mueller investigation, all the more reason, has to proceed,” he said.
Other Democratic lawmakers pounced on the report, with some calling for Trump’s impeachment.
“If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, tweeted Thursday evening.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said on Thursday that Mueller should not end his Russian investigation and to also brief Congress on its progress.
“Listen, if Mueller does have multiple sources confirming Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then we need to know this ASAP. Mueller shouldn’t end his inquiry, but it’s about time for him to show Congress his cards before it’s too late for us to act,” he said.
“If the President directed Cohen to lie to Congress, that is obstruction of justice. Period. Full stop,” Rep. David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, said in a tweet on Thursday.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., on Friday also said that if the report is proven true, Trump should resign or be impeached.
“If this report of Trump suborning false testimony is confirmed, then Trump committed a felony and must resign or be impeached,” he said on Twitter, adding in a second tweet that “the Mueller report must be released to Congress and the public.”
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., the chairman of the House Ethics Committee, sidestepped questions on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” about whether the allegation should lead to impeachment, but said “this is as serious as it gets.”
“This is more evidence that the president has violated his oath of office,” he said. “If he told Michael Cohen to lie Congress, if he suborned perjury, this is as serious as it gets.”
Earlier this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, if it would be obstruction of justice if the president asked someone to give false testimony. Barr answered in the affirmative.
“So if there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice,” Graham asked.
“Yes. Under an obstruction statute, yes,” Barr responded, adding that it would also include if the president tried to conceal evidence.
Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to the president, told Fox News on Friday questioned Buzzfeed’s credibility and expressed dismay that law enforcement officials connected to the investigation were the apparent sources for the Buzzfeed report.
“I’m very, very dismayed that the sourcing in this particular article are two law enforcement officials who are connected to the investigation. That should send a chill down everybody’s spine. People should not be leaking information from investigations,” she said.