Firing James Comey does not amount to obstruction of justice. Telling Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about a real-estate deal in Russia almost certainly would be. Buzzfeed reported last night that Donald Trump “personally instructed” his personal attorney to give the false testimony to intelligence committees in both chambers that resulted in a three-year sentence for Cohen.
If true, this is a very big problem for the White House, but there’s at least a little room for skepticism:
President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter. …
Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying about the deal in testimony and in a two-page statement to the Senate and House intelligence committees. Special counsel Robert Mueller noted that Cohen’s false claim that the project ended in January 2016 was an attempt to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1” — widely understood to be Trump — “in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.”
Now the two sources have told BuzzFeed News that Cohen also told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie — by claiming that negotiations ended months earlier than they actually did — in order to obscure Trump’s involvement.
Is it true, however? Buzzfeed claims that the special counsel already has the goods on this particular point:
The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.
CNN also wonders whether it’s true. If it is, former FBI agent Asha Rangappa notes, Mueller would likely have it cold:
Former FBI special agent @AshaRangappa_: “If this story is true, Mueller has the receipts… Mueller has more information than we know and… Donald Trump was involved in a very in-the-weeds degree with what’s happening with the people around him.” https://t.co/JAvA6EWJZA pic.twitter.com/B3Ncfb3A8F
— New Day (@NewDay) January 18, 2019
This thread has been building for some time, ever since Cohen began cooperating with prosecutors. A few weeks ago, Cohen claimed to have been in “close and regular contact” with administration officials while preparing his congressional testimony, part of his filing to reduce his sentence after his plea deal. At the time, it sounded as though Cohen was accusing White House staff and lawyers of suborning perjury. However, if this report is true, then the suborning came from the highest point on the White House org chart.
That filing, however, is where some room for skepticism emerges. If Trump told Cohen to lie, why not just say so in the filing? Why not just tell the judge that he got instructed to lie by President Trump — or “Individual-1,” the reference used in filings for Cohen’s case? That would certainly be a lot more interesting than just a passive implication of subornation by White House staff, which is what Cohen’s filing suggested. If Cohen really wanted a sentence reduction, that certainly would have gotten the judge’s attention. And for that matter, why sentence Cohen at all at that point if Trump suborned perjury? One would expect a prosecutor to hold off sentencing for a major material witness until after a trial, in order to ensure that the witness didn’t change his story — especially one with a track record of changing stories, like Cohen.
Needless to say, the House Intelligence Committee under Democratic leadership has taken a keen interest in finding the answers to those and other questions:
“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,” committee chairman Adam Schiff said in a statement. “We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true.” …
Other Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee agreed that the new revelation about Trump’s involvement in the Moscow project and Cohen’s testimony should be investigated as part of the panel’s reinvigorated Russia inquiry. Democrats, who won control of the House and its committees in November, plan to restart the probe in the weeks ahead after Republicans shuttered it last year.
“As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I believe Congress should immediately investigate Michael Cohen’s claim, based on this reporting, that the President directed him to lie to Congress during its Russia investigation,” Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told BuzzFeed News. “Such an instruction would amount to obstruction of justice.”
They may have to wait for Mueller to finish his probe to start digging around for the evidence that Rangappa assumes the special counsel has for this claim. Otherwise it might end up crossing up Mueller’s investigators as they try to conclude their probe. If they do get evidence of subornation of perjury, it’s a clear predicate for impeachment, especially given the separation-of-powers issue in having a president instruct people to lie to Congress. That kind of violation might even get a few Senate Republicans to consider removal.
But it’s still an if, and a curiously late development in the Michael Cohen arc of this saga. If it has any legs, we’ll know next month when Cohen testifies to the House Oversight Committee, unless Mueller files his report first.