The Scoop That Wasn’t

For a day or so, it looked like impeachment would start happening right away. Then the Special Counsel’s Office doused the flames. Now what?


Thursday, BuzzFeed electrified the country with this claim:

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.

The accusation seemed especially strong, because it supposedly rested on much more than just Cohen’s word.

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.

For most of Friday, the media buzzed with the implications. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent compared this moment to the appearance of the tapes that brought down Richard Nixon.

if BuzzFeed’s stunning new report is true, we could be looking at a real inflection point in this whole story

Others referred to the report as a “game-changer”, the first easily-grasped-by-the-public evidence that Trump had committed a significant crime. Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks told Lawrence O’Donnell:

This is exactly the Watergate model. … This should be enough. … Even the Republican Senate is going to have to say, “We’ve been had.”

And then Friday night the Special Counsel’s office, which hardly ever comments on any news report, released 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

That’s not the money quote from a longer statement; that’s the whole thing. But what does it mean? It asserts the existence of inaccuracies, but doesn’t say what they are. And it doesn’t even hint at what the actual truth might be. As best I can tell, it does two things:

  • It monkey-wrenches the drive to a quick impeachment.
  • It keeps us all in suspense about what Bob Mueller’s office will eventually report.

Reading the tea leaves. For its part, BuzzFeed rechecked its sources and didn’t back down. Editor Ben Smith responded:

We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,

That’s the big question: Is the whole story “inaccurate”, or just some small detail? And what was it about this story that made Mueller’s office decide it needed to comment?

On Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night, several good insights pointed in opposite directions. Rachel herself related the would-be scoop to an earlier puzzle: Why was Michael Cohen charged with lying to Congress to begin with? He had already pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, and the Special Counsel didn’t ask for any additional jail time for Cohen. So why was that worth everybody’s time?

The Buzzfeed story, Maddow observed, offered an answer to that question: The charge against Cohen sets up a later charge against someone else, presumably Trump. If you’re going to accuse Trump of suborning perjury, it helps if you’ve already established that there was a perjury.

She then talked to Michael Isikoff, one of the top reporters on this beat. Isikoff said the original BuzzFeed article was full of “red flags” that should have made us all cautious. It contained no details about when or how Trump gave Cohen his instructions. What texts and emails could the article have been referring to, when Trump himself doesn’t write texts or emails? Cohen’s guilty plea had offered him a perfect opportunity to implicate Trump, and he didn’t.

Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg, who has worked with Mueller, tried to read the tea leaves of the Special Counsel statement, and came up with a very narrow interpretation:

The Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the Buzzfeed story. But I think in the main, what you can glean from their December 7 sentencing [of Michael Cohen] memorandum is that the core of the Buzzfeed story is accurate.

But the Washington Post’s anonymous sources come to the opposite conclusion.

People familiar with the matter said the special counsel’s office meant the statement to be a denial of the central theses of the BuzzFeed story — particularly those that referenced what Cohen had told the special counsel, and what evidence the special counsel had gathered.

The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow offers an in-between perspective. First, BuzzFeed took a bigger chance on its reporting than he was willing to take.

I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind.

But Farrow mostly agrees with the story.

Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress “in accordance with” or “to support and advance” Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.

This is consistent with numerous reports that The Trump Organization works like a Mafia family: The Boss indicates what he wants to happen without leaving specific instructions that can be quoted in court. (Not “Kill that guy”, but “Take care of the situation” or “I think you know what to do”.) Cohen may well have known what Trump wanted done without being able to point to any specific instructions. There might well be “supporting documents”, but of an indirect sort (i.e., Trump Organization people trying to coordinate their stories) rather than written directives from Trump himself.

One of the more interesting speculations is that the conflicting sources are in rival offices: the SCO on the one hand and the Southern District of New York US Attorney on the other.

Impeachment. To me, this whole incident underlines a point that Yoni Appelbaum makes in the current issue of The Atlantic, in an article written before the BuzzFeed article: America needs a formal, dignified, judicious impeachment process, rather than what’s happening now.

The investigation of Trump’s possible crimes, and the corresponding destructive effects on our democracy, should be happening in public view, not behind closed doors at the Special Counsel’s Office, or through anonymous sources in the press.

For decades, we have been talking about the expanding power of the Imperial Presidency, and what should be done about it, if anything. But just as important is the Shrinking Congress.

The fight over whether Trump should be removed from office is already raging, and distorting everything it touches. Activists are radicalizing in opposition to a president they regard as dangerous. Within the government, unelected bureaucrats who believe the president is acting unlawfully are disregarding his orders, or working to subvert his agenda. By denying the debate its proper outlet, Congress has succeeded only in intensifying its pressures. And by declining to tackle the question head-on, it has deprived itself of its primary means of reining in the chief executive.

Is the continuance of the Trump administration dangerous to democracy? That question needs an open debate, with the relevant information made public and the relevant witnesses questioned where everyone can hear them. We shouldn’t be waiting for Bob Mueller to save us, and in the meantime debating over whose anonymous sources really know what they’re talking about.

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Comments

  • Rebecca Stith  On January 21, 2019 at 10:34 am

    More analysis of Buzzfeed-Mueller by an attorney on a closed fb group site. Post does a good job explaining why the main inaccuracy is that SDNY, not Mueller, has the texts, emails, etc., confirming the story.

    >

  • Nancy Rubinstein  On January 21, 2019 at 11:06 am

    So I guess they’ll just have to use tax evasion, the old fashioned way of bringing down the (Mafiosa) Don.

  • reverendsax  On January 21, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Thank you for this precise summary of this week’s news cycle tornado around BuzzFeed. The two choices are paralyzing: The longer Mueller waits and Congress does nothing, the greater the chaos and threat of larger explosions, and a formal impeachment process with inadequate evidence, failing to secure bi-partisan support in Congress and a conviction in the Senate could result in the total downfall of the Republic.

  • Michael Wells  On January 21, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    This is a discussion worth having but not one that confuses or conflates a criminal investigation by law enforcement authorities and an impeachment process. Use the Nixon second term as a template. Special Counsels (then Special Prosecutors) Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski conducted criminal investigations, obtained some convictions and were proceeding to a conclusion / recommendation. As part of those proceedings, Nixon became an unindicted co-conspirator. The House began impeachment proceedings that resulted in passage of Articles of Impeachment. Before both were completed, Nixon resigned. One can’t have a reasonable prospect of a “non-partisan” (read: successful) impeachment without proof that even hard core Trump supporters couldn’t ignore.

    • George Washington, Jr.  On January 21, 2019 at 4:06 pm

      What would that proof be? Trump’s most fervent supporters wouldn’t even accept a direct admission of guilt from the man himself.

      • Michael Wells  On January 21, 2019 at 4:26 pm

        No one is more skeptical than I about “reaching” Trump voters. I am talking about reaching a sufficient number of Republican office holders by threatening their job security. Remember that many of them accepted NRA money that may have come from Russia. Many will be faced with engaged Democratic voters if they survive a right-wing primary challenge. Polls suggest softening of Trump core voters. Conviction on impeachment requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Failure to convict will only embolden Trump and his allies. If we take that action, we need to succeed.

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