WASHINGTON — Democrats vowed Friday to investigate allegations that President Donald Trump instructed his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about Trump’s pursuit of a proposed hotel and condo complex in Moscow during the 2016 presidential campaign.
If confirmed, the allegations would pose a direct threat to the White House by suggesting Trump committed a felony while in office. It’s against the law to suborn perjury and Congress could consider it an impeachable offense.
Cohen pleaded guilty last year in New York to lying under oath and other crimes, and he will start a three-year prison term in March. He is scheduled to testify before Congress on Feb. 7 and undoubtedly will face questions about his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to find Russian backers for a Trump Tower in Moscow.
According to the report in BuzzFeed News, Cohen briefed Trump or members of his immediate family 10 separate times during the campaign about his push to lock down a deal and send Trump to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There was no independent confirmation of the report in BuzzFeed, and the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, strongly denied it.
“Any suggestion — from any source — that the President counseled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false,” Giuliani said in a statement.
“Today’s claims,” he added, “are just more made-up lies born of Michael Cohen’s malice and desperation, in an effort to reduce his sentence.”
BuzzFeed cited unnamed law enforcement officials who said special counsel Robert Mueller had obtained emails and other documents from Cohen and the Trump Organization to support the allegations.
Lanny Davis, a spokesman for Cohen, declined to comment.
“Out of respect for Mr. Mueller’s and the Office of Special Counsel’s investigation, Mr. Cohen declined to respond to the questions asked by the reporters and so do I,” he said in a statement.
With Democrats now leading the House of Representatives, both the House judiciary and the House intelligence committees vowed to investigate the BuzzFeed report.
“These allegations may prove unfounded, but, if true, they would constitute both the subornation of perjury as well as obstruction of justice,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the intelligence committee.
“This moves right to the top of the agenda,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
“I hope it’s not true,” Raskin said. “Alas, it is all believable given the president’s penchant for lying and apparent indifference to the truth.”
Democratic leaders have been reluctant to race toward impeachment proceedings, but the new allegations — if confirmed — could make that more likely.
“If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached,” tweeted Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
One of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal was “counseling witnesses with respect to the giving of … false or misleading testimony” during judicial and congressional proceedings. Nixon resigned in 1974 before he was impeached.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said it was important for the special counsel to share what he knew with Congress “ASAP.”
“Mueller shouldn’t end his inquiry,” he tweeted, “but it’s about time for him to show Congress his cards before it’s too late for us to act.”
Mueller has been investigating whether the Trump campaign illegally cooperated with a Kremlin-backed effort to influence the U.S. election, as well as whether the president has obstructed justice by interfering with the probe.
Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, said during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday that the president would have obstructed justice if he urged someone to lie.
“If there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked during the hearing.
“Yes,” Barr replied.
Appearing before House and Senate committees in 2017, Cohen lied about the proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow. Trump had sought the project for decades, and Mueller’s office said it could have generated hundreds of million in profits for him.
During his testimony, Cohen downplayed how often he talked with Trump about the project, and he falsely denied speaking to a Russian government office about it.
He also said he had abandoned the deal in January 2016, before the Iowa caucuses kicked off the nominating process, even though negotiations with Russian officials continued until June, when Trump had effectively secured the Republican presidential nomination.
“The fact that Cohen continued to work on the project and discuss it with Individual 1 well into the campaign was material to the ongoing congressional and (special counsel) investigations, particularly because it occurred at a time of sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the U.S. presidential election,” the special counsel’s office wrote in a court filing before Cohen was sentenced. Individual 1 was understood to be Trump.