Mueller disputes report that Trump directed Cohen to lie

‘BuzzFeed description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office ... not accurate’

US president Donald Trump on Twitter referred to the special counsel’s statement as “a very sad day for journalism, but a great day for our Country!” Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

US president Donald Trump on Twitter referred to the special counsel’s statement as “a very sad day for journalism, but a great day for our Country!” Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election disputed on Friday a report that said US president Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his role in negotiations to build a skyscraper in Moscow.

Cohen was Mr Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer. The rare public statement by a spokesman for special counsel Robert Mueller challenged the facts of an article published by BuzzFeed News on Thursday saying that Cohen had told prosecutors about being pressured by the president before his congressional testimony.

“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterisation of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate,” said spokesman Peter Carr.

The BuzzFeed report led to a flurry of reactions by senior members of Congress before Mr Carr’s statement who said that the allegations, if true, could be grounds for initiating impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump. The president responded on Twitter late Friday, calling the special counsel’s statement “a very sad day for journalism, but a great day for our Country!”

A proven effort by Mr Trump to pressure a witness to commit perjury would be one of the most damning revelations so far in the investigation into Russia’s attempts to sabotage the 2016 presidential election and could be the cornerstone of a case that the president obstructed justice to keep investigators at bay.

The White House and lawyers for Mr Trump vigorously denied the BuzzFeed report even before the special counsel’s office weighed in. “Two words sum it up better than anything anybody else can say, and that is ‘categorically false,’ ” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday. BuzzFeed News maintained that its report was accurate. Editor Ben Smith said after Mr Mueller’s office disputed the account, “we stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it and we urge the special counsel to make clear what he’s disputing”.

Mr Carr’s statement was unusual because it appeared to be the first time he had publicly challenged the facts of a media account that had generated significant attention for its revelations about the president.

One person familiar with Cohen’s testimony to the special counsel’s prosecutors said that Cohen did not state that the president had pressured him to lie to Congress. Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the house intelligence committee, said his panel would investigate the BuzzFeed report and was “already working to secure additional witness testimony and documents related to the Trump Tower Moscow deal and other investigative matters”.

If true, said Mr Schiff, the allegations “would constitute both the subornation of perjury as well as obstruction of justice”. Democrat Joaquin Castro, another member of the house intelligence committee, tweeted that “if the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached”. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the senate intelligence committee, said the panel expected Cohen to be back to testify privately in early February.

Could this produce a tipping effect?

The report added another jolt to a chaotic week for the White House, which has had to fend off questions about recent revelations that FBI counterintelligence agents began investigating Mr Trump in 2017 and that he has tried to conceal details from senior administration officials about his interactions with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In a December court filing, prosecutors working for Mr Mueller described how Cohen had repeatedly lied to Congress about the length of negotiations over the Trump Tower Moscow deal and about Mr Trump’s involvement in the project. Cohen had told lawmakers that the negotiations ended in January 2016 – before the first presidential primaries – and were never discussed extensively among executives of the Trump organisation. In fact, according to prosecutors, the discussions continued as late as June 2016, after Mr Trump was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

They also said Cohen discussed the progress of the Moscow project with Mr Trump more frequently than he had told the committee and had briefed members of Mr Trump’s family about the negotiations. When he appeared in court to plead guilty to lying to Congress, Cohen said he had concealed his interactions with Russian officials and the fact that he asked Mr Trump to travel to Russia to promote the deal because he wanted to support Mr Trump’s “political messaging”. –New York Times Service