Outrage, excitement, and thorough confusion —a day after Buzzfeed the waters are perfectly muddy

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Washington Post / YouTube Why the BuzzFeed Trump Cohen story 1547916582.jpg...
Washington Post / YouTube

The article published by Buzzfeed on Friday, contending that Michael Cohen lied to Congress on direct orders from Donald Trump, was a revelation so riveting that it seemed to penetrate even a Washington that had become inured to the endless chain of outrages emerging from the Trump White House. The reaction across the media and inside Congress was swift and strong. Both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee announced investigations into the matter, and Senator Jeff Merkley gave what might be the most succinct review of the day

Merkley: If this report of Trump suborning false testimony is confirmed, then Trump committed a felony and must resign or being impeached.

But through the day, that confirmation was slow to appear. On Friday afternoon, CNN published a comparison of the Buzzfeed information to information available from recent court filings from both the Southern District of New York and the Special Counsel’s office, and found that the claims in the Buzzfeed article seemed to align. But Buzzfeed claimed more than just interpretation of data already available. According to their article, they had been informed by two “law enforcement officials.”

And while the early response from Trump surrogates concentrated on attacking Cohen, the article didn’t place the weight of evidence on Cohen’s shoulders. Instead, it claimed that Cohen had only “confirmed” evidence already collected by the special counsel’s office in the form of “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.” The apparent strength of this supposed evidence helped power trust in the story. And since much of the kickback from Trump’s end did not deny the underlying story, what appeared to be a series of non-denial denials only fueled greater acceptance.

But then on Friday evening, after a day of reporting, calls for action, and expanding reactions to the story, Peter Carr, spokesman from the special counsel office, made an unexpected announcement.

And everything — everything — flew into doubt.

Carr: 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.

How rare is such a statement from Carr? The Salt Lake Tribune dubbed Utah native Carr “Mr. No Comment” for his standard reply to all questions and speculation.

There are very good reasons for Carr to remain silent. It’s difficult for any investigation to carry out its mission effectively if all the information it gathers spills into the public. The special counsel could find it much more difficult to obtain accurate testimony when witnesses are already aware of what others have said. Evidence has a way of disappearing if suspects know investigators are looking in their direction. There seems little doubt that Robert Mueller and the special counsel team want to develop the evidence in their own way, on their own timetable.

But that’s not an answer. The number of articles speculating about evidence and actions in the special counsel’s office are endless. Every court document released brings a flurry of attempts to peel back what’s behind all the black bars of redaction. In print, online, and on screen, speculation about the actions of Robert Mueller is the game that Washington has been playing for almost two years. But Mr. No Comment has made no comment.

The special counsel’s office hasn’t even found it necessary to make a comment on the Q-Anon conspiracy, which claims that Mueller is secretly working with Trump and that, unknown to the general public, the real target of the investigation is Hillary Clinton, democratic officials, and the boundless “deep state,” all of whom are going to be hauled away any minute now. Or … now. Or …

Anyway, when other stories claiming to have the real scoop about the goings on in the SCO haven’t merited so much as a raised eyebrow from the stone-faced Carr, why take the time to debunk this particular article? And why wait until a day had passed, the story had been widely reported, Congress had initiated actions around it, and outrage level had tipped into over into the that darn camel’s back is sure enough broken now range?

The Washington Post has speculated that this “huge step” by Carr would be taken “only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect.” In other words, the story was just so wrong that Mueller’s team had to react.

That’s a stupid answer.

Wrong is the easiest thing to be. Everyone speculating about the investigation manages to be completely wrong. I know I do. Repeatedly.

The only two possibilities that seem at all reasonable are:

1) Demean the sources
Buzzfeed claimed that their article wasn’t based on interpretation of data already in the public eye, but came from information provided by two “law enforcement sources.” In an investigation that had been as notably sealed as the Mueller investigation, the idea that anyone with inside knowledge might be ferrying that data to the press is anathema. It’s possible that Carr was making a statement aimed at making the media think twice about using information from anyone coming forward. This might also explain the apparent scope of the denial which narrows itself down to “description of specific statements” and “characterization of documents” but doesn’t just blast the core concept out of the water. If Carr meant to make it clear that anyone showing up at the Washington Post or New York Times claiming to have the inside scoop should be pushed away with 21 and a half foot poles … that could do it.

2) Slow the roll
The real difference between this speculative article on the Mueller investigation and every other speculative article on the Mueller investigation wasn’t the content, it was the response. The intent of Carr’s statement might not have been so much to debunk Buzzfeed’s article as to keep the lanes clear for the investigation by slowing down the round of scaffold-building that the article seemed to have triggered. There’s little doubt that Democrats will continue with the investigations that were announced yesterday, but those committee investigations will take some time to get on their feet. By putting out this statement, Carr may have intended to cool down hot heads who were looking for a source of (non-tiki style) torches and pitchforks. As one of those hotheads said on Friday:

Impeachment now seems to be in the wind. In fact, it seems safe to say that it would at this point take a compelling argument from Democratic leadership—or an equally compelling statement that Mueller was going to wrap up Real Soon Now—to halt at least the opening rounds of impeachment proceedings. Because … damn.

Carr may have simply meant to provide that compelling argument to slow your damn roll, bud.

So, where is America on Saturday morning? Perfectly confused. Waters … really really muddy. Buzzfeed not only continues to back their story, but one of the reporters involved is now claiming to have seen some of the documents — presumably the same ones that Carr said were characterized incorrectly.

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James Simcoe
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James Simcoe

This is Mueller’s wording: The truth of Trump instructing Cohen is not disputed, or he would have pounced on that. He is bring the attention back around to his office as the source for ‘The Report’, which term also means any documentation that exists, (tapes!) as well to emphasize that any Democrat in the House needs to base a case for impeachment on what The Report says, not an (accurate) news source.