Democrats in Congress vowed Friday to aggressively investigate a new report that President Donald Trump personally directed his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the president's push for a Moscow real estate project ahead of the 2016 election.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his panel would "get to the bottom" of the allegations in a Thursday night report from BuzzFeed News that have caused an uproar among congressional Democrats.
"We know that the President has engaged in a long pattern of obstruction," Nadler said in a tweet. "Directing a subordinate to lie to Congress is a federal crime. The @HouseJudiciary Committee's job is to get to the bottom of it, and we will do that work."
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also said that his panel would do "what's necessary to find out if it's true" that Trump had directed Cohen, a longtime loyalist and fixer, to lie to Congress about plans for a massive Trump Tower in Moscow.
"These allegations may prove unfounded, but, if true, they would constitute both the subornation of perjury as well as obstruction of justice," Schiff said in a statement Friday morning. "Our committee is already working to secure additional witness testimony and documents related to the Trump Tower Moscow deal and other investigative matters."
Early Friday afternoon, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani issued a flat denial of the BuzzFeed story.
"Any suggestion - from any source - that the President counselled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false," Giuliani said in a statement. "Today's claims are just more made-up lies born of Michael Cohen's malice and desperation, in an effort to reduce his sentence."
The BuzzFeed report cited two unnamed federal law enforcement officials who say Cohen acknowledged in interviews with the office of special counsel Robert Mueller that the president directed him to deceive Congress about key facts linking Trump to the proposed deal in Russia. Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying under oath about those details.
The Washington Post has not independently verified the report, on which congressional Republicans have largely remained silent.
In his first public comments on the report, Trump went on Twitter on Friday morning to quote a Fox News reporter, Kevin Corke, as saying, "Don't forget, Michael Cohen has already been convicted of perjury and fraud, and as recently as this week, the Wall Street Journal has suggested that he may have stolen tens of thousands of dollars...."
"Lying to reduce his jail time!" Trump added in his own words.
The Journal story to which Trump referred reported that Cohen had hired a technology company to help rig online polls in Trump's favor ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The report said that Cohen sought a larger reimbursement from Trump and his company than what he paid the technology company.
During an appearance on Fox News on Friday morning, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley did not directly answer questions about whether Trump had directed Cohen to lie to Congress but sought to attack the credibility of both Cohen and BuzzFeed.
"This is absolutely ludicrous that we are giving any type of credence or credibility to a news outlet like BuzzFeed," Gidley said. "There is nothing in that piece that can be corroborated. ... "There's just using innuendo and shady sources."
According to the BuzzFeed report, the special counsel's office learned about Trump's directive for Cohen to lie through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and what BuzzFeed described as "a cache of other documents."
Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews the special counsel's office, BuzzFeed reported.
In a statement, Lanny Davis, a legal communications adviser to Cohen, said that both he and Cohen are declining to respond to reporters' questions "out of respect for Mr. Mueller's and the Office of Special Counsel's investigation."
In television interviews Friday morning, most Democrats were careful to couch their reaction to the BuzzFeed story on the condition that it turns out to be true.
"If this is true, what it means is this is more evidence that the president has violated his oath of office," Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said during an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "If he told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, if he suborned perjury, this is as serious as it gets."
Several Democrats - inside and outside of Congress - raised the spectre of impeachment if the story proved true.
"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.
Eric Holder, who served as attorney general and is eyeing a 2020 Democratic presidential bid, tweeted Thursday night that Congress should start impeachment hearings if the story is accurate.
"If true - and proof must be examined - Congress must begin impeachment proceedings and Barr must refer, at a minimum, the relevant portions of material discovered by Mueller. This is a potential inflection point," he wrote.
In November, Cohen admitted he had falsely told Congress that Trump's efforts to build a condo tower in Moscow ended in January 2016, when, in reality, those efforts continued through that June.
As Mueller noted, Cohen's testimony was an attempt to "minimise links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1," which is how Trump is referred to in the report. Trump had repeatedly insisted on the campaign trail that he had no ongoing business interests in Russia, even as the deal continued to unfold.
In court documents, Cohen admitted that he briefed Trump on his ongoing negotiations with Russian officials about the proposed deal and said that he had consulted with Trump's team before his false testimony before Congress. But he never said in those documents that Trump himself played any role in encouraging his false testimony.