The office of special counsel Robert Mueller rarely releases public statements, and when it does it’s almost always through court filings and indictments. But on Friday, the special counsel's spokesman actually got to speak, refuting a blockbuster report by BuzzFeed News that alleged President Trump instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about their efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Yet the statement released by Peter Carr, Mueller’s spokesperson, was so vague that it raised its own set of questions about what exactly is in dispute — and whether Mueller was knocking down the entire story, or only parts of it. The Washington Post suggested it was the former, citing unnamed sources who said the rebuttal was meant to be taken broadly.
“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 read.
On Saturday, BuzzFeed stood by the story, saying its reporters had “reconfirmed” their work and “seen no indication that any specific aspect of our story is inaccurate. We remain confident in what we’ve reported, and will share more as we are able.”
The special counsel’s office declined to elaborate to VICE News on its original statement. Cohen’s representative Lanny Davis said his client would neither deny or confirm the report. “The story stands on its own,” Davis later told NBC’s "Meet the Press."
The dispute between Mueller’s office and BuzzFeed marks the first skirmish in the coming war over how and when Mueller’s conclusions are made public and distributed — and what those conclusions mean. Cohen himself is set to testify before the House on Feb. 7, and so far he’s resisted calls for him to clear up the BuzzFeed confusion. It’s less than clear whether he’ll change his mind by February.
Legal experts puzzled over Carr’s terse legalese but noted that the rarity of public statements by the special counsel suggested Mueller felt an overwhelming urgency to correct the record.
“The language here is very hard to parse,” said Jill Wine-Banks, a former member of the prosecution team during the Watergate scandal. “The statement sounds as if it’s tweaking around the edges. But it doesn’t make sense to think that they would release such a statement simply to tweak around the edges.”
Cohen pleaded guilty to nine felonies, including one count of lying to Congress about the Moscow project and to orchestrating hush-money payments to two women who claimed to have slept with Trump. He was sentenced to 36 months in prison in December and will begin serving in March.
Here’s what we know.
We know Cohen lied
There's no dispute that Cohen lied about the proposed Moscow project to Congress — he pleaded guilty to it in late November. And Mueller’s sentencing memo, released Dec. 7, 2018, makes plain that Cohen lied under oath to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1," the legal code name for Trump.
And those lies were meant to sync up with Trump’s public statements: “I made these misstatements to be consistent with Individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to Individual 1,” Cohen said in court.
But this is where things start to differ significantly. BuzzFeed’s report, citing two sources familiar with the special counsel’s investigation, goes further, claiming that Cohen told those lies at the express instruction of Trump.
Mueller’s Dec. 7 filing in the Cohen case is far less conclusive than BuzzFeed’s account. Although Mueller’s document asserts Cohen had “contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017-2018 time period,” and that he shared his planned response with an unidentified person or people, it doesn’t specifically connect those two data points or name-drop Trump.
“Cohen 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,” the document reads.
On Friday, The New York Times appeared to further challenge BuzzFeed’s story by reporting that Cohen did not claim Trump had “pressured him to lie to Congress,” according to a person familiar with his testimony to the special counsel’s prosecutors.
The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reported that Mueller’s statement sought to correct BuzzFeed’s assertion that Mueller’s team had gathered “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents” proving Trump’s role.
Trump’s Cohen problems
Trump and the White House gleefully mocked the report. “Fake News is truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!,” Trump tweeted.
Trump has told 7,645 false or misleading claims as of Dec. 30, according to the Washington Post’s ongoing database, which fact-checks Trump’s statements as president.
This also isn’t the first time the president has been accused of instructing someone else to lie. In fact, after initial denials, Trump’s lawyers eventually admitted the president dictated his eldest son Don Jr’s false statement regarding the nature of the infamous Trump Tower meeting.
Nor is it the first time Trump has been accused of directing illegal behavior.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have said Cohen acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump when he orchestrated hush money payments to two women during the 2016 presidential election.
“With respect to the conduct charged in these Counts, Michael kept his client contemporaneously informed and acted on his client’s instructions,” says the SDNY’s November 30th sentencing memo.
The fight for Mueller’s findings
In the wake of BuzzFeed’s initial report, Democratic members of Congress, including Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, began to say that the explosive allegation could warrant taking steps toward removing Trump from office.
The story’s impact on Congress likely put pressure on the special counsel’s office to speak out, legal experts told VICE News.
“It began to look like people were getting ready to take action before the investigation was completed,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. “That may have been what spurred the special counsel’s office to make a public statement, when they have declined to do so in the past — even when other press reports have contained some significant inaccuracies.”
The controversy also may be a preview of battle that’s about to erupt over the special counsel’s findings.
Mueller’s marching orders call for him to send a “confidential” report to the attorney general. But this week, Trump’s new pick for the AG job, William Barr, told Congress that he isn’t sure yet how much of that document will be released to the public.
Democrats have chafed at the idea that select passages of the Mueller report may be shielded from public view by the Trump administration, and suggested they may subpoena the document if it’s hidden from them. If so, that would launch a titanic legal struggle between Congress and the White House over the limits of executive power in American politics.
“There’s a doggedness on our side to do everything we can to read every word of that report,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who sits on the House intelligence and judiciary committees, told VICE News this week before the BuzzFeed controversy erupted. “If a word is hidden from us, then it’s not complete.”
The Chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, has said that Cohen’s appearance next month will be closely coordinated with Mueller’s team so as not to interfere with the investigation.
As for BuzzFeed’s request for an explanation from Mueller himself, experts warned no one should hold their breath.
“I understand why BuzzFeed is asking for a clarification, but I also think they won’t get one — and that they shouldn’t get one,” Wine-Banks said.
Disclosure : Jason Leopold, one of the reporters who broke BuzzFeed’s bombshell report, was a former reporter for VICE News. Leopold has written significant stories for both VICE News and later for BuzzFeed, where his reporting on Russia earned him a Pulitzer prize nomination in 2018.
Cover: Then-FBI Director Robert Mueller listens as President Barack Obama speaks to staff members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force Headquarters in New York, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)