President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney and personal "fixer" Michael Cohen to lie to Congress in 2017 about a Trump Tower project in Moscow, BuzzFeed News reported late Thursday, citing two federal law enforcement officials involved in investigating the case. The story sparked immediate backlash from Democratic lawmakers and a denial from the president's attorney Rudy Giuliani.
"If the Buzzfeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached," Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said. (Casto's brother, Julian, the former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Barack Obama, has formally thrown his candidacy to be the Democratic Party's nominee for president in 2020.)
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told the Associated Press that his committee would “do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true,” noting that the claim that Trump had instructed Cohen to lie to legislators “in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date.”
"We know that the President has engaged in a long pattern of obstruction," added Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). "Directing a subordinate to lie to Congress is a federal crime."
Nadler added that the job of the House Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, was to get to the bottom of such allegations, and "we will do that work."
"If this report is accurate, Trump committed subornation of perjury, punishable by five years imprisonment under 18 U.S. Code § 1622," Harvard law scholar Laurence Tribe added on Twitter.
The president refuted the allegations on his favorite social media platform, tweeting his allegation that Cohen was merely "lying to reduce his jail time."
Meanwhile, his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, attempted to pour cold water on the developing political fire. "If you believe Cohen, I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge," Giuliani said in response to the explosive report, according to The Washington Post's Philip Rucker.
Trump also supported a plan Cohen set up to visit Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign to personally meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Trump-branded skyscraper, which never materialized as the project ultimately fell through, according to BuzzFeed News.
During the presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly and vehemently denied he had any business interests in Russia. However, even as he told the American public that he had no business deals in Russia, Trump and his children Ivanka, the president's eldest daughter and a senior White House adviser, and Donald Trump Jr., the president's eldest son, received "regular, detailed updates" about the real estate project from Cohen, who led the project for them. Additionally, Trump had "at least 10 face-to-face meetings with Cohen about the deal during the campaign," BuzzFeed News reported, citing the two law enforcement sources.
In November, Cohen pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to Congress in 2017 about the work he did to pursue the real-estate deal on behalf of the then-presidential candidate. At the time, Cohen said the president's company pursued the development during the Republican primary, but that talks ended "for a variety of business reasons" in January 2016. His plea, however, indicated that discussions extended much longer into the presidential campaign than he had indicated — into June 2016. Cohen also claimed that Trump was personally aware of the deal, signing a letter of intent and discussing it with Cohen on two other occasions.
In response to Cohen's guilty plea, Trump wrote on Twitter that his business dealings were "very legal" and "very cool." He told reporters at the time, "When I'm running for president, that doesn't mean I'm not allowed to do business." The president also and called Cohen "a weak person and not a very smart person," and said that his company’s plans in Moscow was "a well-known project" that he ultimately aborted.
Special counsel Robert Mueller noted that Cohen made the false statements to "minimize links between the Moscow Project and [Trump]" and to "give the false impression that the Moscow Project ended before 'the Iowa caucus and . . . the very first primary,' in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations."
BuzzFeed News wrote, "Cohen's testimony marks a significant new frontier: It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia."
Mueller's team credited Cohen with providing "useful information" about the ongoing Russia investigation, as well as "relevant information" about his contacts with people connected to the White in 2017 and 2018, suggesting an ongoing inquiry into obstruction of justice. Notably, the special counsel indicates that Cohen "described the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries, while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements within it." That statement signals that Mueller believes someone in the Trump administration knew of and approved in advance Cohen's misleading statements to Congress, which is potentially impeachable if Trump himself is implicated.
Ivanka, meanwhile, was reportedly expected to oversee the development of a spa at the Moscow tower and personally recommended an architect. She allegedly connected Cohen to a Russian weightlifter in 2015 who offered "synergy on a government level." The champion heavyweight weightlifter, Dmitry Klokov, suggested setting up a meeting with Trump and Putin, but Cohen, who reportedly exchanged at least two emails and one phone call with the athlete, refused the offer.
Peter Mirijanian, a spokesperson for Abbe Lowell, ethics counsel for Ivanka Trump, told BuzzFeed News that she was only "minimally involved" in the project. "Ms. Trump did not know about this proposal until after a non-binding letter of intent had been signed, never talked to anyone outside the Organization about the proposal, never visited the prospective project site and, even internally, was only minimally involved," Mirijanian wrote.
Don Jr. testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Sept. 7, 2017 that he was only "peripherally aware" of the plan to build a tower in Moscow. "Most of my knowledge has been gained since, as it relates to hearing about it over the last few weeks," he said. But, according to BuzzFeed News, Don Jr. and Cohen had "multiple, detailed conversations on this subject during the campaign."
Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison in December, was previously one of the president's most loyal and ardent defenders in business and in politics. He indicated earlier this year that his loyalty to Trump might be wavering as he vowed to "put family and country first" by cooperating with prosecutors. His decision to cooperate with Mueller has made him arguably one of the most key witnesses against his former boss — and the special counsel's office, for its part, appears to view Cohen as a valuable cooperator who can highlight Trump's business dealings as Mueller continues to probe any connection the president has to Russia. Mueller's prosecutors did not recommend a specific sentence in their case and said that Cohen should not receive additional prison time beyond his sentence in the New York case.
Cohen will testify publicly before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Feb. 7.