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The White House And Congress React To The Explosive Cohen Allegations


Washington, D.C., is known for gossip and leaks. But when it comes to the special counsel's investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, Robert Mueller's office has been tight-lipped. But last night, they issued a rare statement saying that a BuzzFeed news story alleging that Trump told his former lawyer to lie to Congress is not accurate. NPR's justice reporter Ryan Lucas is here to try and walk us through it. Ryan, thanks so much for being with us.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Let's go through this, once again, emphasizing, special counsel says the story is not accurate. What about it caused such commotion?

LUCAS: Well, BuzzFeed cites two anonymous law enforcement officials who they say have firsthand knowledge of these matters. And what the story alleges is that Michael Cohen told the special counsel that Trump personally instructed Cohen to lie to lawmakers about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and say that it ended months earlier than it actually did. The point of the lie, BuzzFeed says, was to hide Trump's involvement in this. Remember, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about this Trump Tower project. He told lawmakers that it ended in January, when, in fact, these talks ran until the summer of 2016 - so deep into the presidential campaign. The other notable aspect of this story is that BuzzFeed says investigators have other evidence, such as Trump Organization emails, text messages, other witnesses, to corroborate it, which is a very important point.

SIMON: Special counsel's office says the story is not accurate.

LUCAS: That's right. The spokesman for the special counsel's office, Peter Carr, took the exceedingly rare step last night of issuing a statement. And the statement reads in full, (reading) 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 it. That's the full statement - 28 words that essentially denies the BuzzFeed report. As you said earlier, it really is rare for Mueller's office to issue a statement of any sort. Mueller's office has spoken through indictments, court filings, in court itself, but we do not hear them come out in issued statements like this.

SIMON: BuzzFeed says they still stand by their story.

LUCAS: That's right. The editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, told NPR's All Things Considered last night that the publication stands behind its reporters and the story as published.

SIMON: And the White House has had a response?

LUCAS: Well, the president's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani - yesterday, he weighed in. He denied the report, called it categorically false. And then late last night after the special counsel statement came out, the president himself tweeted about it. He took a jab at BuzzFeed - not his favorite news organization to begin with. And he said a very sad day for journalism but a great day for our country.

SIMON: The story generated an - got an awful lot of attention yesterday.

LUCAS: Oh, yeah.

SIMON: There were...

LUCAS: Oh, yeah.

SIMON: ...There were these endless panel discussions, always predicated on if the story is true. If the story is true. Now that the special counsel says it's not accurate, where does that leave things?

LUCAS: Well, it's been interesting to watch Capitol Hill in particular on this. There was, as you noted, an enormous response on TV yesterday, but there was from Democrats, as well. Republicans, on the other hand, were largely silent about this. But the reason that this created so much interest is pretty simple. The central assertion of the story is that Trump ordered Cohen to lie to congressional investigators. That would amount to getting a witness to provide false testimony. And that is a crime. Democrats jumped all over this. The top Democrats on the House Judiciary and House Intelligence committees, Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff, both noted that the allegations in BuzzFeed's report would amount to a federal crime. They vowed to get to the bottom of it. Now that Democrats have control of the House, that actually has some heft behind it.

Some Democrats went even further. They began tossing around the idea of impeachment. That's a reflection of the stakes of all of this. I will add I have not seen any comments at this point this morning from Democrats since Mueller's office issued its statement disputing the report.

SIMON: And Michael Cohen will get a chance to go on the record under oath about this and much else next month, won't he?

LUCAS: That's right. Cohen is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee on February 7. This will be a public hearing. There was always going to be a lot of interest in this. It's going to be off the charts now. Lawmakers may try to get clarity on this story - ask him whether Trump instructed him to lie to Congress. But there's a catch. The chairman of the committee, Elijah Cummings, says he doesn't want to interfere with Mueller's investigation. Cohen has previously refused to answer questions related to the Russia investigation in public. So we may not get all the answers that we're looking for.

SIMON: Thanks very much, Ryan Lucas.

LUCAS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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