A Bad Media Day
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 19, 2019
Throughout yesterday’s political shows, the talk on cable television got more and more sure that President Trump now was legally cornered by a report that he had his longtime fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.
Though there were caveats, it was unnerving that the story couldn’t be matched by another other news outlet beyond BuzzFeed News. If felt as if it could be an example of media people were running with allegations that have yet to be confirmed, never mind adjudicated.
As I listened, I told myself repeatedly that I would have preferred that they were talking about how redoubling their own reporting efforts to confirm the report rather than jumping quickly to conclusions about impeachment or resignation.
Then came the rare announcement from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s office: BuzzFeed had it wrong, the special counsel said. “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office and characterization of documents obtained by this office regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.”
It’s the moment every news organization hates to hear. Two anonymous sources, word of backup documents, and yet, a denial by the folks who should know.
BuzzFeed News said it was sticking by its report that Trump had directed longtime attorney Michael Cohen “to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.” They also report that Trump supported a plan devised by Cohen to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 campaign to discuss a potential Trump Tower in Moscow.
The suggestion was there that there is evidence of this, with lots of documents, between Cohen and the family about the tower project, as well as whatever Mueller has as backup for this line of prosecution thinking.
Now it’s a mess. It may end up being true, but for details, or not. But a day’s worth of fairly hysterical reaction — all performed within the well-worn roles of this familiar play — are unsettling at best, and disturbing at worst.
The president, of course, simply attacked Cohen as a liar — and again vaguely threatened Cohen’s father-in-law for something apparently illegal. Presidential mouthpiece Rudy Giuliani, who has lost virtually all credibility, did deny the report, joining in painting Cohen as a liar.
It was troubling that Cohen was not the source of this report. It was two unidentified federal law enforcement officials said to be involved in the investigation. BuzzFeed reports that Mueller’s office learned of Trump’s directive through “internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents” and interviews with multiple witnesses. “Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.
While taking care to repeated the “if this proves to be true” caveat, television pundits and contributors were sure — and persuasive — that directing a witness to lie to Congress would put the Russia issues right at Trump’s feet and would represent a true, prosecutable case of obstruction of justice., and certainly an impeachable offense.
Somehow all this was creating more pressure for Michael Cohen to testifying publicly before Congress on Feb. 7. But Cohen may not be allowed to speak to this question, as it remains a matter still before Mueller.
It is true that Cohen has been convicted for his actions in paying off women who were sexual partners with President Trump and for lying to Congress. But he is on a campaign of truth-telling, he says, to reclaim his life, even as he draws constant rebuke from the president.
Under questioning this last week from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, William P. Barr, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, had just testified in his confirmation hearings about how such an action would indeed be considered a crime, would be obstruction of justice and prosecutable.
Democratic congressional leaders were quick to jump on the news to say, “if true,” the allegations are the most serious to date in the multi-pronged Russia investigations. Unlike many others in the debated series of events, lying to Congress and directing perjury could be separately identified as a reason to vote impeachment. If the evidence for these narrower charges could be persuasive to some Republicans. To get a conviction, two-thirds of the Republican-majority Senate would have to vote for conviction.
So far, most Republican senators have remained silent, leaving it to Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and conservative pundits to attack Cohen.
The content of the disclosures obviously is important. It is incumbent on the rest of us to make sure it is true before we jump all over the news.