As quickly as it prompted a media and political firestorm after it was published on Thursday, BuzzFeed’s report accusing President Donald Trump of ordering Michael Cohen to give false testimony regarding a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow is now giving those in Trump’s circle new ammunition to accuse the media of unfairly attacking the president.
In a rare response to the report, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office issued a statement on Friday disputing BuzzFeed’s reporting.
“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,” Mueller spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement to the news site.
So far, BuzzFeed is standing by its reporting in the story. “In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel’s spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing,” BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith tweeted.
Smith and reporters Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier also gave statements defending their reporting to several news networks on Friday. Smith urged Mueller’s office to clarify its statement to point out what the news site got wrong. However, that’s probably not going to happen until Mueller’s final report on the investigation is completed.
The report cites “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter” who allegedly told BuzzFeed “that Cohen also told the special counsel that after the election, the president personally instructed him to lie…”
The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office.
On Saturday, several observers, trying to parse the special counsel’s statement, pointed to the unlikelihood that Trump would have put such an order for Cohen to lie to Congress in emails, texts, or other documents. The president doesn’t frequently use email, and leaving a paper trail of such crimes would be reckless, they noted.
Speaking from the White House lawn on Saturday, Trump responded to the BuzzFeed backlash by calling it a “total phony story.”
“I appreciate the special counsel coming out with a statement last night,” Trump said. “I think that the BuzzFeed piece was a disgrace to our country. It was a disgrace to journalism…I think it’s going to take a long time for the mainstream media to recover its credibility,” Trump said.
“It hurts me to say it, but mainstream media has totally lost its credibility,” he added.
On Friday, investigative reporter Ronan Farrow acknowledged that he has been working on a similar story, but declined to run with part of the narrative contained in the BuzzFeed piece. “I can’t speak to Buzzfeed’s sourcing, but, for what it’s worth, I declined to run with parts of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that kind,” Farrow tweeted.
He added: “Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress ‘in accordance with’ or ‘to support and advance’ Trump’s agenda (per Cohen’s legal memo) is not in dispute. The source disputed the further, more specific idea that Trump issued—and memorialized—repeated direct instructions.”
As predicted, Team Trump is striking back hard, pointing to the BuzzFeed story as justification for its endless attacks on “fake news.” Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani blamed the story on the “Deep State.”
“BuzzFeed story is acknowledged #FAKENEWS and comes from so-called federal law enforcement, Deep State. Maybe time to say there’s a real danger to our rights here if we keep let this happening,” he tweeted.
“This is just the most egregious example of the rampant unfairness that has tainted this partisan witch-hunt from the beginning. The utter hatred for @realDonaldTrump has empowered a legion of back stabbers wielding flamboyant falsehoods to undermine @POTUS,” Geraldo Rivera tweeted.
As of this writing, Donald Trump Jr. has tweeted or retweeted comments about the BuzzFeed story, and reactions to it, at least 40 times.
“If you’re skeptical about the accuracy of a story, how about NOT giving it non-stop, wall to wall coverage on your network? You just can’t help yourselves!!!” he said in one tweet. He has a point there. However, I’m not sure the son of the most lying president in U.S. history is the best person to deliver that message.
As to how this drama will play out, only time will tell. But Team Trump just got a big bump in its efforts to gaslight the American public, and yesterday was a tough day for journalism.