The chair of the House Judiciary Committee will ask the acting head of the Justice Department about his communications with the White House in the wake of BuzzFeed News’ report that President Trump directed his personal lawyer to lie to Congress.
Committee chair Jerry Nadler has told acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker that he will be asked about whether he discussed the report, or the decision by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller to issue a statement disputing it, at a hearing on Feb. 8.
“If so, with whom?” Nadler told Whitaker he plans to ask, in a letter dated Tuesday. “What was discussed?”
BuzzFeed News reported on Thursday that Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen, his longtime personal attorney, to lie to Congress about a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen pleaded guilty in November to lying to the House and Senate Intelligence committees about when the planned deal ended. Mueller has previously noted that Cohen’s false claim that the project concluded in January 2016 was an attempt to “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1” — widely understood to be Trump — “in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.”
Cohen’s lawyers have said in court filings that he acted out of “fierce loyalty” to Trump. “[T]he conduct was intended to benefit Client-1, in accordance with Client-1’s directives,” they wrote.
On Friday, Mueller issued a rare statement, saying, “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.” BuzzFeed News stands by its story and the two law enforcement sources who informed it.
Over the weekend, Rudy Giuliani — Trump’s current lawyer — sought to refute the story, but revealed that Trump might have discussed Cohen’s testimony with him beforehand and that discussions about the Trump Moscow project continued all the way until the election. Giuliani has since attempted to walk back some of his comments, saying that Trump and Cohen never discussed his testimony.
Giuliani told CNN that Trump's legal team had reached out to Mueller's office Friday morning, after BuzzFeed published its story. He declined to provide further details about what was said.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s office had called Mueller’s team to inquire if the special counsel planned to respond to the story, and was informed a statement was being prepared.
Nadler says he is providing Whitaker with the questions in advance so that he can determine whether Trump will invoke executive privilege, which would prevent Whitaker from talking about certain conversations he has had with the president.
“Short of a direct and appropriate invocation of executive privilege, I will expect you to answer these questions fully and to the best of your knowledge,” Nadler says. “Similarly, I would view with considerable skepticism any effort to decline to answer on the basis that the inquiry is related to an ongoing criminal investigation.”
The committee could resort to the “compulsory process,” meaning a subpoena, if Whitaker doesn’t fully answer questions, Nadler says.
Nadler has already vowed to examine Trump’s actions as they relate to Cohen’s false testimony following the report by BuzzFeed News. "We know that the President has engaged in a long pattern of obstruction," Nadler tweeted Friday. "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.” Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have also vowed to investigate the revelations.