When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, earlier this week whether it would be a crime if “the president tried to coach somebody not to testify, or testify falsely,” Barr was unequivocal: “Yes,” the nominee replied. “Under an obstruction statute, yes.”
Now that an explosive story published Thursday by BuzzFeed News alleges that Trump did just that, by ordering Michael Cohen, his former attorney, to lie to Congress, Barr’s answer puts the White House in an awkward position, legal experts observed. In fact, Barr said the same when pushed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), as well as in his own written statements. He has affirmed his view at least three times, both in a once-private memo and in sworn testimony.
Citing two unnamed federal law enforcement officials, BuzzFeed reported that Trump told Cohen to mislead Congress about business dealings in Moscow in the run-up to the 2016 election. In November, the once-loyal fixer for Trump pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the project. In December, he was sentenced to three years in prison for what a federal judge called a “veritable smorgasbord of criminal conduct.” He is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee next month.
BuzzFeed said that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s office has more evidence than just Cohen’s testimony that Trump directed him to lie to Congress. The report said Cohen’s testimony is backed up by “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”
The White House didn’t immediately return a request for comment Thursday. Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, sought to cast doubt on the story by saying, “If you believe Cohen I can get you a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
But Democrats said that if the report is accurate, Trump must quickly be held to account for his role in the perjury, with some raising the specter of impeachment.
“The allegation that the President of the United States may have suborned perjury before our committee in an effort to curtail the investigation and cover up his business dealings with Russia is among the most serious to date,” tweeted Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true.”
Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday morning, called the story “as serious as it gets.”
“If this is true, what it means is this is more evidence that the president has violated his oath of office,” Deutch said. “If he told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, if he suborned perjury, this is as serious as it gets.”
“If the @Buzzfeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached,” tweeted Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
“It limits Barr’s ability to take a particular position in defense of the president, but that position would have been an untenable one anyway,” Sklansky said in an interview with the Washington Post. “It would have been more awkward to defend the nomination of an attorney general who didn’t think this is obstruction of justice. It’s not a controversial position.”
Barr, who was previously attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, left little doubt about his views in an unsolicited memo that he addressed to the Justice Department last year. Made public by the Wall Street Journal in December, the 20-page document criticized Mueller for apparently focusing on actions that Barr claimed did not constitute obstruction, such as firing government employees. But he was equally clear about what he termed a “classic sense” of criminal obstruction — “sabotaging a proceeding’s truth-finding function.”
The attorney and member of the Republican Party laid out acts amounting to obstruction: “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.”
The act of suborning perjury, or directing someone to commit perjury, would constitute obstruction of justice, Sklansky said, because it clearly involves corrupt intent, the element that Barr and others believe is missing from Trump’s decision to terminate government officials, such as his firing of former FBI director James Comey. “It’s hard to see how you can ask somebody to lie to Congress about a material fact without having a corrupt intent,” the Stanford professor said.
When Barr came before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Democrats seized on his memo to question his capacity to oversee the special counsel’s investigation fairly. They argued that his expansive vision of presidential power made him too partial to the White House’s defiant stance.
Ironically, the very same document articulating views that some feared had endeared Barr to Trump could now end up creating distance between the president and his attorney general, should he be confirmed.
“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,” said Graham, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“Yes,” Barr answered. “Under an obstruction statute, yes.”
“So if there’s some evidence that the president tried to conceal evidence, that would be obstruction of justice potentially, right?” continued Graham, who has defended Mueller even as he has accused parts of the intelligence community for mishandling investigations arising from the 2016 election.
“Right,” Barr affirmed.
Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, took up a similar line of questioning.
Referring to Barr’s memo, she asked, “You wrote on page one that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?”
“Yes,” the nominee 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,” he replied.
“And on page two, you said that a president deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence would be obstruction,” she continued. “Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Barr said.
This dialogue hardly seemed decisive at the time because Barr’s professed view reflects mainstream legal thinking, which makes the actions described in the BuzzFeed story all the more striking, Sklansky said.
“If the president directed his lawyer to lie to Congress, that’s very serious criminal behavior, and I think it’s the kind of behavior that many, many people will find troubling,” he said. “Any fair-minded person should find it troubling if it’s true.”
Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general of the United States during the Obama administration, reached a similar conclusion, telling CNN’s Don Lemon, “It is a federal crime to order someone to lie in their testimony to Congress. That’s what the BuzzFeed article says, and it says that Mueller has corroborated that with email, text messages, electronic information and the like.”
“It’s a blockbuster,” Katyal concluded. On Twitter, he also suggested that the actions reported by BuzzFeed paralleled the impeachment charges against President Richard M. Nixon.
Isaac Stanley-Becker writes for the Washington Post. Tim Elfrink of the Washington Post contributed to this report.