BuzzFeed is (in)famous for publishing the Steele dossier but their reporting is sufficiently well regarded to have made them a Pulitzer finalist last year. They publish interesting investigative pieces about all sorts of things regularly. (Some end up in our Headlines section.) They have some credibility. Which means last night’s Trump scoop amounts to an unusual wager given the gravity of the allegation involved: Simply put, either the president is finished or BuzzFeed’s credibility is.
Before you watch BuzzFeed co-author Jason Leopold comment on what he has and hasn’t seen by way of hard evidence, watch White House spox Hogan Gidley pressed about the story this morning on Fox News. Gidley had plenty of invective for BuzzFeed and for Michael Cohen but Bill Hemmer found it curious that he wouldn’t straightforwardedly deny BuzzFeed’s report. It … is curious, come to think of it.
when asked directly White House press secretary Hogan Gidley refuses three times to say whether the Buzzfeed report is true or false.pic.twitter.com/trP7ZlpolN
— Alex Thomas (@AlexThomasDC) January 18, 2019
With 95 percent probability, here’s what happened. Gidley walked into Trump’s office this morning, told him he’d be on Fox News and would surely be asked about the BuzzFeed story, and asked him what he should say. “Tell them it’s bullsh*t,” Trump said, naturally. At which point the horrifying thought occurred to Gidley, “He said the Stormy Daniels story was bullsh*t too.” So Gidley had a choice. Either he could go on television, flatly deny the allegations, and risk having that clip thrown in his face every day for the rest of his life if the BuzzFeed report turns out to be true and ends in Trump’s impeachment and removal…
…or he could dodge the question. Attack BuzzFeed, attack Cohen, but as to the specific claim that Trump told Cohen to lie under oath? No comment. Gidley simply doesn’t trust his own boss’s integrity enough to believe with total confidence that he never suborned perjury.
As for Leopold, watch the clip below. Wasn’t it just a few hours ago that his co-author on the piece, Anthony Cormier, told CNN that they hadn’t seen documents? Mediaite emailed Leopold to clarify that:
Mediaite contacted Leopold for his response to Cormier’s statement that he hasn’t personally seen the documents cited in their report. He responded with “Yes. Anthony said HE had not personally seen the documents.”
So Leopold saw documents, huh? Bear in mind, Leopold’s confidence in his sourcing has blown up spectacularly in his face before. And if you listen carefully to what he says in the clip below, you might find it a bit slippery. He makes the comment about documents in the context of his broader coverage of Trump Tower Moscow, which has been going on for months. As I understand him, he’s not necessarily saying that he’s seen documentary evidence of the specific claim made last night, that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress under oath. He’s saying that he’s seen some documents in the course of reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow probe. Hmmmm.
There’s other reason to doubt here:
1. It's hard to take Buzzfeed, which pushed the debunked dossier, too seriously.
2. If Cohen had such incriminating info:
a) Why no mention in his plea?
b) Don't you think he'd have a cooperation agreement?
c) Do you think he'd be spending any time in jail?
— Scott Ruesterholz (@Read_N_Learn) January 18, 2019
Ed made that point this morning too. Michael Cohen has information that will lead to the impeachment and removal of the president, and he’s shared that information with the feds, and there’s … no indication of it anywhere, including in his plea agreement? And it wasn’t so valuable to the DOJ as to earn Cohen full immunity from prosecution in exchange?
There are reasons to believe there’s something to the story too, though, starting with the high stakes I mentioned above. Leopold, Cormier, and BuzzFeed’s editors are obviously keenly aware of the magnitude of the charge here. They’re accusing a sitting president of a crime that makes his removal from office conceivable, even with a Republican majority in the Senate. They also must be aware that we’ll know whether they were right or wrong sooner rather than later. This charge won’t hang out there forever unresolved, like Michael Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague per the Steele dossier. Mueller’s working on his report, it may be ready as soon as next month, and this claim — if true — will be a key part of it. If the report emerges and there’s nothing in there about suborning perjury, BuzzFeed’s reputation will never recover. This isn’t a case like the dossier where they’re publishing someone else’s work product with no claims as to its veracity. They’re putting their own names to it. Every political scoop they publish for the next 20 years will be challenged by citing to the Leopold/Cormier fiasco. It’s basically professional suicide unless they really do have good reason to be confident in the reporting.
And so maybe they do. We’ll know soon!
Two things to bear in mind about all this as the war of words intensifies. One: Although Trumpers like Gidley and Rudy Giuliani are keen to note that Cohen is a sleazy liar whom no one with an ounce of sense would trust (which is totally true), the BuzzFeed story explicitly says that the feds have other evidence that Trump told him to lie to Congress. Quote: “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.” This isn’t a case of Cohen telling the DOJ something and prosecutors uncritically believing it. It’s not even a case of Cohen telling them something and then the feds going looking for evidence to corroborate it. They learned from other witnesses, and from documents, that Trump had encouraged Cohen to perjure himself and then Cohen confirmed it, or so BuzzFeed says. “Don’t believe Cohen!” is a red herring with respect to the specific facts being alleged here.
Two: Cohen is often referred to as Trump’s right-hand man, the stooge who knows where all the bodies are buried within the Trump Organization. But that’s not quite true. The real brains of the Trump Org is Allen Weisselberg, the company’s longtime chief financial officer. Weisselberg was … granted immunity by the feds last summer. If there’s anyone within the Trump Organization who’d be positioned to know what orders Trump was giving to underlings, he’s the guy — and he’s been working with the DOJ since at least August. That might be a red herring too, of course: Weisselberg isn’t even named in BuzzFeed’s story. But if you’re thinking that any information the feds have via the Trump Org must have originated with sleazy liar Michael Cohen, you should rethink. Weisselberg may be a corroborating witness. And the more corroborating witnesses there are, the more serious this gets.