Criminal Justice

President Donald Trump, Michael Cohen and attorney general nominee William Barr.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that President Donald Trump allegedly directed lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to a BuzzFeed report on Thursday.

The article is leading to a re-examination of attorney general nominee William Barr’s unsolicited memo on obstruction of justice. The initial focus was on Barr’s disagreement with the special counsel’s apparent obstruction investigation, but now the focus is on its reference to suborning perjury as classic obstruction, the Washington Post reports.

The BuzzFeed News account says Cohen told Mueller that Trump directed him after the election to lie to Congress about the timing of the Trump Tower negotiations. Trump allegedly told Cohen to tell Congress that negotiations ended months earlier than they actually did to obscure Trump’s involvement. The story is based on information from two anonymous federal law enforcement officials.

According to BuzzFeed’s sources, Cohen acknowledged the directive to lie after the special counsel’s office already had gathered information about it from witness interviews, emails, text messages and a cache of other documents.

Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying to about the project to the Senate and House intelligence committees.

The BuzzFeed report says “attorneys close to the administration” helped Cohen prepare his testimony, but BuzzFeed’s sources did not present evidence that the lawyers knew the statements were false. A lawyer for former White House counsel Don McGahn said McGahn “had no involvement with or knowledge of Michael Cohen’s testimony.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, said his committee will investigate the allegations, report BuzzFeed News and the Washington Post. Some are saying the allegations, if true, would be grounds for impeachment.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, is taking another look at Barr’s unsolicited June 2018 memo to the Justice Department in which he said Mueller was apparently “proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws” in his investigation of Trump.

The memo said that suborning perjury or inducing a witness to change testimony amounts to obstruction in the “classic sense.” Barr thought Mueller’s obstruction investigation appeared to be focusing on other alleged matters: Trump telling then-FBI Director James Comey he hoped he could let go of the investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Trump later firing Comey.

Investigation of the interactions with Comey would amount to “an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws,” Barr wrote. Such an investigation would “reach facially lawful actions taken by the president in exercising the discretion vested in him by the Constitution.”

“Obviously, the president and any other official can commit obstruction in this classic sense of sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function,” Barr wrote.

“Thus, for example, if a president knowingly destroys or alters evidence, suborns perjury or induces a witness to change testimony, or commits any act deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence, then he, like anyone else, commits the crime of obstruction. Indeed, the acts of obstruction alleged against Presidents Nixon and Clinton in their respective impeachments were all such ‘bad acts’ involving the impairment of evidence. … The president, as far as I know, is not being accused of engaging in any wrongful act of evidence impairment.”

Barr also confirmed his views on classic obstruction during his confirmation hearing. The Washington Post highlights this exchange between Barr and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

Graham asked Barr whether it would be a crime if “the president tried to coach somebody not to testify or testify falsely.”

“Yes,” Barr answered. “Under an obstruction statute, yes.”

Barr gave a similar answer to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, who referred to specific pages of Barr’s memo.

“You wrote on page one that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?”

“Yes,” Barr said. “Well, you know, any person who persuades another.”

“You also said that a president—or any person—convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction,” Klobuchar said. “Is that right?”

“Yes,” Barr said.

Typo in sixth paragraph corrected at 10:50 a.m.