WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump took an unusual step Saturday: He thanked Robert Mueller.
Normally a critic over the Russia investigation, Trump said he is gratified that Mueller and the special counsel’s office disputes a highly publicized news report that had accused the president of ordering former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.
“I very much appreciate that,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
In a rare public statement, Mueller’s office on Friday criticized a BuzzFeed News report saying that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the timing of talks on a proposed Trump project in Russia.
“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,” said Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller’s office.
Despite worldwide coverage and big interest, Mueller’s office has stayed mostly quiet on reports regarding the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The BuzzFeed report alleged that Trump instructed Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Organization’s pursuit of a deal to build a luxury residential high-rise in the center of Moscow, hoping to conceal these actions during his presidential bid.
The story also asserted that Mueller’s office knew of the president’s alleged actions after obtaining information through internal emails, text messages and multiple interviews.
The report revived discussions about the possibility of impeaching Trump and emboldened House Democrats who vowed to investigate the allegations.
While Mueller’s office disputed how BuzzFeed characterized statements, documents and testimony in its story, the statement did not include specifics or a sweeping denial of the story’s overall theme: that the president directed Cohen to lie to Congress.
Trump and aides denounced both the story and the media in general for reporting on it.
“It’s a total phony story,” Trump said.
BuzzFeed defended its story.
“We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it,” editor-in-chief Ben Smith tweeted, “and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.”
Cohen, 52, is expected to begin a three-year prison sentence in March after pleading guilty to federal financial crimes, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress, which was at the heart of the BuzzFeed story.
Cohen admitted he wasn’t truthful when he told the Senate and House Intelligence Committees that all discussions about a Moscow development had ceased in January 2016, knowing that such efforts had continued through at least June – in the heat of the campaign and as Trump repeatedly denied any links to Russia.
Prosecutors have asserted in court documents filed late last year that the tower project “likely required the assistance of the Russian government. And if completed, the company stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues.”
The court documents did not address whether Cohen’s false statements about the Moscow tower discussions were prompted by any other consideration than an attempt to personally shield the campaign from public association with Russia.