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Week 87: Did BuzzFeed Drop a Bombshell or Just Bomb?

Knocked out just last week by the informed speculation that Donald Trump might be a Russian spy or a dupe, Russia-scandal watchers received another cranial blow this week. In a story that caused everybody who quoted it to preface their remarks with the statement, “If true,” BuzzFeed reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier ignited impeachment passions by alleging late Thursday that President Donald Trump “personally instructed” his then-attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about talks to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

The political and media frenzy detonated by the BuzzFeed story fizzled by Friday evening as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office, which almost never comments on news stories, took aim at BuzzFeed, issuing this 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.”

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Vacant on specifics, the Mueller statement was immediately parried by BuzzFeed Editor Ben Smith, who asserted, “We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.”

When the BuzzFeed story broke, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani responded almost immediately, “If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.” The president reprised that theme in the morning in a tweet that noted Cohen’s confession to perjury and fraud charges. Hogan Gidley, a White House deputy press secretary, likewise questioned Cohen’s veracity and BuzzFeed’s credibility in a Fox News segment, but declined to respond on three occasions if the allegation was true. The Trump universe was slow to actually deny the account, waiting until noon Friday for Giuliani to file a statement with reporters declaring “categorically false” the assertion that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress. (Cohen originally told Congress the project was shelved in January, but later admitted to Mueller in his guilty plea that Trump pursued it well into June.)

Again, Giuliani characterized Cohen as a criminal and liar. But Giuliani didn’t puncture the BuzzFeed account. To begin with, BuzzFeed didn’t source its knowledge directly to Cohen but to two anonymous federal law enforcement officers. It also claimed that special counsel Robert S. Mueller had learned of Trump’s instruction “through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents,” in addition to Cohen’s interviews with the Mueller office.

Former federal prosecutor and current George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason surmised that BuzzFeed’s likely source was FBI agents working the Southern District of New York case against Cohen. For one thing, Mueller doesn’t leak and FBI agents, who have been known to leak, “would know about all things Cohen, including materials seized during search warrants at his home & office that may be some of ‘cache’ of supporting evidence,” Eliason tweeted. If Eliason is right, that might explain some of the confusion: The BuzzFeed story could be right about what the Southern District had concluded about Cohen’s behavior but have overshot what Mueller’s team thinks. Remember, the Friday evening statement from Mueller doesn’t say the BuzzFeed account is all wet, just that it’s inaccurate in its description of what the Mueller office has learned.

It goes without saying that the onus is on BuzzFeed to straighten out what has now become a very curvaceous story. Helping nobody corroborate anything, Cohen tendered a “no comment” to the story on Friday afternoon (before Mueller weighed in) via attorney Lanny Davis, who added, Cohen “had nothing to do with the writing of the story, he didn’t initiate the story. It was done by independent reporting. So, the story stands on its own.”

Earlier in the day on Capitol Hill, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, (D-R.I.), tweeted that if true, Trump was guilty of criminal obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury, conspiracy, and “likely aiding and abetting perjury.” Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas), completed Whitehorse’s thought, tweeting, “If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.” His brother, presidential candidate Julián Castro, seconded the thought on television, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) urged Congress to dig for more.

Riding accidental shotgun on the now-rolling impeachment stagecoach was none other than Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, who earlier this week answered in the affirmative at his confirmation hearing when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked, “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?” Said Barr, “Yes. Under an obstruction statute, yes.” And this is the guy Trump picked for the job.

Providing Trump with unexpected support was his usual critic, George Conway (Mr. Kellyanne Conway), who tweeted a critique to Jason Leopold’s assertion that he had seen and been briefed on documents in his reporting on the story. “What kind of documents? Who created them? What do they say? How do they prove subornation of perjury?” Conway asked. Excellent questions, and please add me to the very long list of people who would like to see them answered, and fast.

In a Friday evening broadcast, CNN correspondent Jessica Schneider triangulated the BuzzFeed report with Mueller’s sentencing memo for Cohen. Cohen, the sentencing memo said, “described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it.” Likewise, the memo echoes BuzzFeed’s account of how Cohen planned a possible travel by Trump (aka “Individual 1”) to Russia.

Adam Serwer of the Atlantic, who urged Trump’s impeachment in a cover story just prior to the BuzzFeed scoop, reloaded his argument with the new ammunition. If true, Serwer wrote, the BuzzFeed story pales against the previous allegations of obstruction, which Trump previously explained away as being consistent with the Article II powers of the president (examples: telling FBI Director James B. Comey to take it easy on national security advisor Michael Flynn or firing of Comey when he refused). The BuzzFeed piece unambiguously has the president suborning perjury by telling Cohen to lie to Congress protect his potentially lucrative Moscow real-estate deal from scrutiny. In the words of one former federal prosecutor quoted by Serwer, Trump is left with “no wiggle room” if this is the case.

Trump’s troubles only cascade from there. BuzzFeed claims that Trump told Cohen to “plan a trip to Russia during the campaign, where the candidate could meet face-to-face with Putin,” which adds kindling to the argument that Trump was sucking up hard to the Russian for personal gain at the same time the Russians were monkeywrenching the election. In this formulation, obstruction of justice constitutes collusion, as a Lawfare headline put it before BuzzFeed went to press.

As usual, my former editor Garrett M. Graff puts it in Wired, the new report will allow Mueller to “paint a broader picture of Trump’s apparent years-long effort to hide the truth of his dealings with Russia, during the campaign, the transition, and even into the White House” where he routinely tut-tutted talk of Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign and treated Russian President Vladimir Putin as a more reliable source on the subject of meddling than his own intelligence corps.

The BuzzFeed piece also points a dagger at Trump’s family. Donald Trump Jr. told a Senate committee in 2017 that he was “peripherally aware” of the Trump Tower Moscow plans, but BuzzFeed claims multiple, detailed briefings from Cohen about the Moscow project’s progress with Junior and his sister, Ivanka Trump. Again, if true, Junior could face perjury prosecution. Ivanka’s jeopardy is lower because she hasn’t testified before Congress. That didn’t stop Peter Mirijanian, a spokesperson for Ivanka’s attorney, from trying to put some extra daylight between her and the shadowy project. “Ms. Trump did not know about this proposal until after a non-binding letter of intent had been signed, never talked to anyone outside the Organization about the proposal, never visited the prospective project site and, even internally, was only minimally involved,” Mirijanian, told BuzzFeed News.

Another potential vulnerability of the BuzzFeed story was probed by CNN before Mueller’s office sounded off. The piece that charted the “checkered past” of one of the story’s co-authors, Jason Leopold. In 2002, Salon unpublished a Leopold story after determining it was “riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations.” In 2006, Leopold wrote in Truthout.org that Karl Rove’s indictment was “imminent” in the Valerie Plame case. The imminent moment never came. Leopold’s giant whiffs should count against him forever and a day, of course, but burying this story will require more from Trump world than citing Leopold’s faulty back pages. Leopold isn’t on trial. But Trump could be.

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Is the best path to an impeachment beaten by a stagecoach, a bus, or a Snowcat? Send word via mail to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have drawn up articles of impeachment against my Twitter feed, which will be represented on the House floor by my RSS feed.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

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