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Trump, Cohen, Mueller, and BuzzFeed

How journalism is practiced in the age of Trump.

January 22, 2019

As Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers once said in a slightly less significant context, everyone just needs to R-E-L-A-X about this kerfuffle over BuzzFeed News’ “scoop” last Thursday that had President Donald Trump directly ordering his longtime lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump team’s Russia ties.

On Friday, Peter Carr, a spokesman for Special Counsel Robert Mueller, took the rare step of issuing a statement in response to a news story, saying vaguely that the BuzzFeed report was “not accurate.” Carr’s statement prompted a round of triumphant told-you-so’s – not to mention attacks on the Fake News – from the president’s supporters. It also prompted major news outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post to rush out stories that expressed skepticism about the BuzzFeed report and took spin from administration sources at more-or-less face value.

The facts of the BuzzFeed story may turn out to be right, or they may turn out to be wrong. We’ll know soon enough, and now’s not the time to speculate. What we can do, on the other hand, is learn a few lessons about law, politics, and journalism from the episode.

One. It’s true that too many serious journalists rushed to repeat, without independent confirmation, BuzzFeed’s “scoop” about Trump suborning perjury. But it’s also true that many of those same reporters rushed too quickly to distance themselves from BuzzFeed in the wake of Carr’s statement. The first rush to judgment without corroboration in the competitive crush for “hot takes” is a mistake straight out of Journalism 101. The second tut-tut rush to judgment, as if Carr’s word is gospel, goes to the more complex question of how journalism is practiced in the age of Trump.

Take the fact that the president is a serial liar who isn’t always candid with the subordinates he sends out into the world to spin for him. Add to that the fact that he’s surrounded himself with sycophants who seem to have no hesitation to lie to further the administration’s aims. Then mix in a level of anti-media bias by administration officials that we haven’t seen since the Nixon presidency. If you were rightly skeptical of the use of unnamed administration sources during more traditional presidencies, you ought to be particularly cynical about their use with Trump in the White House and at the Justice Department.

Two. The whole kerfuffle among media insiders is an excellent illustration of how reporters and sources use each other. If the BuzzFeed folks were perhaps too eager to trust their sources – from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, I bet – then the tick-tock, “anti-BuzzFeed” response articles from the Times and the Post betrayed anew the way those organizations often undermine their own credibility in the name of access to Trump and whichever sketchy insiders (hey there, Rudy) happen to be in vogue at the White House at any given time. Glass houses, baby.

One person familiar with Mr. Cohen’s testimony to the special counsel’s prosecutors said that Mr. Cohen did not state that the president had pressured him to lie to Congress,” is what the Times reported after Carr tried to shoot down the BuzzFeed story. “In the view of the special counsel’s office,” the BuzzFeed story was wrong, “two people familiar with the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations,” is how the Post put it. Why should we believe one set of anonymous sources over the other? And how about fewer knee-jerk hot takes and more analysis that reminds us that merely “encouraging perjury,” even without explicit directive, also is a federal crime?

Three: The truth is we don’t know today whether Trump directly told Cohen to lie to Congress and we shouldn’t now automatically rule it out as a possibility just because the special counsel’s office seems to say so. As I was last Friday when the story first broke, I am still with legal analyst Marcy Wheeler on all this. As she has long insisted, Mueller and company have plenty of reasons to want to bolster Cohen’s credibility for his testimony (and perhaps cross-examination) to come. That would explain why there appears to be a gap in the way federal law enforcement officials from different offices are categorizing what was said and done between Trump and Cohen. It all may come down to what the word “directives” means in the context of this case. Cohen already has conceded, in court papers, that he lied because of his “fierce loyalty to Client-1” and that his illegal conduct “was intended to benefit Client-1, in accordance with Client-1’s directives.” Trump, we know, is “Client-1.” Just precisely what those “directives” were, and how they were passed from Trump to Cohen and whether they constitute “encouragement,” is the mystery not just at the heart of the BuzzFeed story but the broader story of what the Trump team did behind the backs of the American people during and after the 2016 election.

Four. On Sunday, Trump lawyer (and former U.S. Attorney) Rudy Giuliani seemed to suggest that Mueller was prompted to issue the “not accurate” statement by someone at the White House or Justice Department. On Monday, Guiliani told CNN that Trump’s legal team reached out to Mueller after the BuzzFeed story. Who was it? Was it Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein? Was it Trump toady Matthew Whitaker, the acting attorney general? That’s arguably a bigger part of this story than the details of what Trump said, or didn’t say, to Cohen because if it’s true then we have an example of White House pressure on Mueller to try to clean up an allegation that Trump committed a crime.

Giuliani’s flat-out crazy Sunday appearances – so what if Trump and Cohen talked about Cohen’s testimony, he told one interviewer – are good for something, however. They are a reminder that whatever ebbs and flows may come in the coverage of this story, whatever flaws may exist in the work of the journalists trying to make sense of it, the truth is there is historic crime and corruption at the heart of what happened here. And there is every reason, plus plenty of evidence already made public, that puts the president at the center of it all. The bad guys in this story aren’t the ones trying to figure out what happened. The bad guys are the ones hiding what happened. That’s not a hot take, is it? It shouldn’t be.

(Image: Getty)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.