BuzzFeed News has tonight printed perhaps the most damaging claim against Donald Trump yet, a claim that, if true (a very big “if”), produces evidence against the president that is remarkably similar to evidence used to support articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. And while there are numerous news reports regarding Trump’s activities that either remain unproven or have been debunked, this report is rendered especially plausible by documents the special counsel’s office filed just last month.
Let’s break this down, step-by-step:
First, the BuzzFeed report claims that Trump “directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.” BuzzFeed relies on “two [anonymous] federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”
[T]he 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.
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.
Recall that in December Robert Mueller’s office filed a sentencing memo describing the extent of Cohen’s cooperation with the special counsel. A close read of the document shows that the special counsel dropped hints of some very interesting additional evidence in the case. Here’s how I analyzed the memo:
the special counsel takes pains to note that Cohen’s false statements to investigators were “deliberate and premeditated” and “did not spring spontaneously from a line of examination or a heated colloquy during a congressional hearing.” His lies were in a “written submission” and a “prepared opening statement.” These lies were allegedly told to “minimize the links” between the Moscow Trump Tower project and Trump himself.
Also — and this is crucial — the memo notes that Cohen has been cooperating in describing the “circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries” [emphasis added].
In plain English, this means that it is highly likely that senior Trump officials reviewed Cohen’s prepared, false testimony before he lied to Congress. This raises two important questions. Was Trump aware of the substance of Cohen’s testimony? If so, was Trump aware that Cohen’s testimony was false?
Now, why are these particular claims so important? First, because they go a long way towards meeting the elements of the crime of subornation of perjury. Here’s how the DOJ describes the crime:
To establish a case of subornation of perjury, a prosecutor must demonstrate that perjury was committed; that the defendant procured the perjury corruptly, knowing, believing or having reason to believe it to be false testimony; and that the defendant knew, believed or had reason to believe that the perjurer had knowledge of the falsity of his or her testimony.
If Trump “directed” Cohen — his own attorney — to lie, he faces very real legal jeopardy. In fact, Trump’s alleged misconduct now tracks the alleged misconduct of Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. In his articles of impeachment (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached), Nixon was accused of, among other things:
approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counselling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States and false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings.
Bill Clinton faced similar claims. For example:
(1) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to execute a sworn affidavit in that proceeding that he knew to be perjurious, false and misleading.
(2) On or about December 17, 1997, William Jefferson Clinton corruptly encouraged a witness in a Federal civil rights action brought against him to give perjurious, false and misleading testimony if and when called to testify personally in that proceeding.
There is more to the BuzzFeed report, including claims that Trump family members received “regular, detailed” briefings about the project and claims that Trump supported a plan to meet Putin during the campaign in part to “jump-start the tower negotiations,” but the allegation that Trump suborned perjury is easily the most significant.
Again, we don’t have confirmation of these claims, but they are very troubling indeed. And let’s recall, the alleged order to lie was about the immensely important matter of a presidential candidate’s reported desire to secure an extremely lucrative business deal from arguably our nation’s chief geopolitical foe — a foe that was even then attempting to interfere with an American presidential election. This is a serious matter. It’s vital that we learn promptly whether this report is supported by meaningful evidence. If Robert Mueller has the goods, we need to see them. Soon.