Within the decision of the Mueller team to dispute the explosive story of BuzzFeed on Trump and Cohen

Matt Zapotosky

National security journalist covering the Department of Justice.

Devlin Barrett

Reporter focused on national security and compliance with the law.

When a BuzzFeed reporter first sought comment on the explosive news network report that President Trump had ordered his lawyer to lie to Congress, the spokesman for special lawyer Robert S. Mueller III treated the request as if it was almost any other news.

The reporter informed Mueller's spokesman, Peter Carr, that he and a colleague had "a story to come by saying that Michael Cohen was directed by President Trump himself to lie to Congress about his negotiations related to the Trump Moscow project," according to copies of your emails. provided by a BuzzFeed spokesperson. Importantly, the reporter made no reference to the special lawyer's office or evidence that Mueller's investigators had discovered.

"We will refuse to comment," replied Carr, a family refrain for those in the media that cover Mueller's work.

The innocuous exchange belied the chaos it would cause. When BuzzFeed published the story hours later, it far exceeded Carr's initial impression, people who were familiar with the subject said that the report stated that Cohen, the former Trump lawyer and the repairman, "told the special lawyer that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie, "and that Mueller's office learned of the directive" through interviews with multiple witnesses of the Trump Organization and internal emails of the company, text messages and a cache of other documents. "

[BuzzFeed’s stumble is highest-profile misstep at a time when press is under greatest scrutiny]

In the opinion of the special lawyer's office, that was wrong, said two people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations. And with the Democrats raising the specter of investigation and impeachment, Mueller's team began to discuss a step it had never taken before: to publicly contest the reports on the evidence in its ongoing investigation.

Within 24 hours of the story's publication, the special attorney's office issued a statement doing that. Trump, who called the media "enemy of the people," said on Saturday the special lawyer's statement as evidence of what he sees as a bias by journalists against him.

"I think the BuzzFeed piece was a shame for our country. "It was a shame for journalism, and I also think the traditional media coverage was shameful, and I think it's going to take a long time for the traditional media to regain their credibility," Trump said on Saturday. "It has lost tremendous credibility, and believe me, that hurts when I see it."

BuzzFeed has maintained its report.

"As we have reconfirmed our reports, we have not seen any indication that any specific aspect of our history is inaccurate." We remain confident in what we have reported and will share more as much as possible, "said Matt Mittenthal, media spokesperson. news, Saturday.

People familiar with the matter said that Carr told others in the government that he would have more vigorously discouraged reporters from continuing with the story if he had known that he would claim that Cohen had told the special lawyer that Trump had asked him to lie, or that the special advice was It is said that I learned this through interviews with witnesses of the Trump Organization, as well as internal emails of the company and text messages.

Carr declined to comment for this story beyond the statement of the special attorney's office issued Friday.

After Carr refused to comment on BuzzFeed, but before the story was published, he sent reporter Jason Leopold a partial transcript of Cohen's hearing, in which Cohen admitted to lying to Congress about the schedule of related discussions. with a possible Trump Tower project in Moscow. According to the emails provided by the BuzzFeed spokesperson. Cohen had falsely claimed that the company's efforts to build the tower ended in January 2016, when in fact the discussions continued until June of that year, when Trump was securing the Republican nomination for president.

"I made these erroneous statements to be consistent with the political messages of the individual 1 and for loyalty to the individual 1," Cohen said in his hearing of allegations late last year, using the term "individual 1" to refer to Trump.

Carr, according to people familiar with the matter, expected Leopold to notice that Cohen had not said during the hearing that Trump had explicitly ordered him to lie. But Leopold, who co-authored the story with journalist Anthony Cormier, told the spokesman he was not receiving any signal, and Carr recognized the point.

"I am not reading what you sent and I have interpreted it as an FYI," wrote Leopold.

"Right, just an FYI," Carr replied.

A person within the Trump Organization said that a BuzzFeed reporter also spoke with an organization lawyer hours before the story was published and was warned that the story was flawed and that it should be examined further. Mittenthal said: "We trust our sources about the organization that is still in charge of the Donald Trump family." That organization is directly involved in the allegations related to the Trump Tower Moscow project and refused to speak in the file of our history".

The language that Cohen and his representatives used in court had been ambiguous. Cohen had pleaded guilty in two cases: one for lying to Congress about the Moscow project and another for financing campaign violations for secret money payments to women who had alleged issues with Trump.

Although neither Cohen nor his representatives had explicitly said that Trump ordered Cohen to lie The congress, Guy Petrillo, Cohen's attorney, wrote in a memo before his sentencing: "We dealt with allegations of false statements of campaign finance because they both arose from Michael's fierce loyalty to Client-1. In each case, the conduct was intended to benefit Client-1, in accordance with Client-1 directives. "

Client-1 refers to Trump. Petrillo declined to comment on Saturday. It is not clear exactly what the "directives" referred to by Petrillo were referring to, although he did not claim elsewhere in the memo that Trump explicitly instructed Cohen to lie to Congress. He wrote that Cohen was "in close and regular contact with the White House staff and the Client 1 legal counsel" while preparing his testimony and "knew specifically." . . that Client-1 and its public spokespersons were trying to show contact with Russian representatives in any way by Client-1, the Campaign or the Trump Organization as if they had effectively finished before the Iowa committees on February 1, 2016 "

People familiar with the matter said after BuzzFeed published its story, which was attributed to "two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter," the special attorney's office reviewed the evidence to determine whether there were documents or witness interviews as described. , reach out to those who thought they might have an interest in the case.

They did not find any, said these people. That, people said, is in part the reason why Mueller's office took almost a day to dispute the story publicly. Meanwhile, cable news media and other media organizations, including The Washington Post, dissected its possible implications, even when its reporters could not confirm it independently.

Speaking of the failure of the special lawyer to find support for the story, Mittenthal, the spokesperson for BuzzFeed, said: "Our high-level sources of law enforcement, which have helped corroborate months of accurate reports on the Trump Tower agreement. Moscow and its consequences, have said otherwise We hope to receive further clarifications from the Special Adviser in the near future ".

Two people familiar with the matter said lawyers from the special attorney's office discussed the statement internally, rather than consulting with the Justice Department's leaders, for much of the day. In the advanced stages of those talks, the deputy attorney general's office called to ask if the special lawyer was planning any kind of response and was informed that a statement was being prepared, the people said.

Around 7:30 p.m. On Friday, Carr distributed it to numerous media outlets by email.

"BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the Office of the Special Adviser and the characterization of the documents and testimony obtained by this office, with respect to testimony at the Michael Cohen Congress are not correct," he wrote.

People familiar with the matter said that the special lawyer's office meant that the statement was a denial of the central theses of BuzzFeed's story, particularly those that made reference to what Cohen had told the special lawyer, and the evidence that I had compiled.

BuzzFeed, however, claimed that the language was not specific about what was being challenged.

"We support our reports and the sources that informed it, and we urge the Special Council to clarify what it is disputing," BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith said in response to the special lawyer's statement.

Cohen has not addressed the BuzzFeed reports, and BuzzFeed has made it clear that it was not the source of his story. Lanny J. Davis, a legal and communications adviser to Cohen, said that before issuing the special attorney's statement, "Out of respect for the investigation of Mr. Mueller and the Office of Special Counsel, Mr. Cohen refused to answer the questions posed by the reporters and me too. "He refused to speak after the special attorney's office issued the statement.

Cohen declined to comment on Saturday.

Shane Harris and Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.

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