The allegations overnight that Donald Trump ordered Michael Cohen to lie to Congress have roiled Washington. Trump has yet to respond directly to the allegations which, if true, would constitute both obstruction of justice and suborning perjury. At the moment, the only source for this information remains sources reported by Buzzfeed. And though Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has disputed the news by pointing rather improbably to the fact that Michael Cohen … lied, according to the original articles, Trump’s instructions to lie were already known to the special counsel’s office through testimony from multiple witnesses and through documentation. Michael Cohen isn’t alleged to be the source of this information. He only confirmed information already in Robert Mueller’s possession.
As the Washington Post reports, this news has Democrats responding in shocked rage. While there is definite caution about a report coming from a single publication, the news has brought talk of impeachment to the forefront.
Adam Schiff: The allegation that the President of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee … is among the most serious to date. We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true.
Former attorney general Eric Holder insisted that, if this allegation is true, the House should immediately begin impeachment proceedings. California representative Ted Lieu stated that “it is time for the House Judiciary Committee to start holding hearings to establish a record of whether the President of the United States committed high crimes.”
A great deal of attention has also fallen on the the testimony of attorney general nominee William Barr. Both in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and in the unsolicited letter that Barr produced last year expressing his concern about the potential direction of the special counsel investigation, Barr was unequivocal in stating that such action would constitute obstruction.
The first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon was specifically that he “engaged personally and through his subordinates and agents in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation.” This action by Trump would seem to easily rise to that standard.
Cohen wasn’t the only one who lied about the information about Trump’s “Moscow Project” that’s at the heart of the current controversy. Donald Trump Jr. is known to have repeated some of the same information about the attempt to build a Trump skyscraper in Russia. Trump Jr. also denied having personal knowledge of the project—a statement that is contradicted by Cohen’s recent testimony. Other witnesses may have given similar testimony in closed-door sessions.
Attorney general nominee Barr generated controversy expressly because of his attempt to take an area of obstruction off the table, sending a memo to the Justice Department stating that Trump should not be subject to obstruction charges for dismissing James Comey. However, as the Washington Post details, it wasn’t just Democrats on the Judicial Committee who received confirmation from Barr that actions such as those described in the Buzzfeed article would definitely fit the bill.
Graham: So if there was some reason to believe that the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely, that could be obstruction of justice?
Barr: Yes. Under an obstruction statute, yes.
Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar followed up on the same area.
Klobuchar: You wrote on page one that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?
Barr: Yes. Well, you know, any person who persuades another.
Klobuchar: You also said that a president—or any person—convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?
Klobuchar: And on page two, you said that a president deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence would be obstruction. Is that correct?
The focus on this exact item during the Senate hearing may have been coincidental—after all, Trump has lied almost uncounted times in public, and it seems unsurprising that some of his surrogates may have repeated his lies while testifying under oath. However, the focus here may also indicate that senators already had some awareness concerning Trump’s suborning perjury through other channels, possibly including the Senate’s own ongoing investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia.
Should the information produced by Buzzfeed be confirmed by other sources, there seems little doubt that it will greatly increase pressure for impeachment proceedings to begin against Trump, even if no final report has come from Robert Mueller’s office. Some representatives have also called for Mueller to release information on this specific issue in advance of a final report.
Trump’s real estate project in Moscow, from which he stood to benefit to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, represents all on its own sufficient inducement for Trump to potentially cooperate with Russian attempts to undermine an American election. That Trump subsequently lied about the status of the project, the dates of the project, and his knowledge of the project shows that he was aware that this subject could be, or could be seen as, pay-off for his actions in coordination with the Russian government. Instructing witnesses to lie about the information appears to be direct and indisputable obstruction on a point central to the investigation.
Unless this report is quickly withdrawn, those who have been anxious to see the beginnings of impeachment are very likely to get their wish.