By Karen Freifeld and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two leading Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives promised to investigate U.S. President Donald Trump’s dealings with his personal lawyer Michael Cohen after a media report said Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress in violation of U.S. law.
The BuzzFeed news website, citing two law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter, said on Thursday that Trump and Cohen hatched a plan to continue efforts to build a Trump Tower in Russia during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. After Trump won the election, he personally directed Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and has been cooperating with investigators, to lie to U.S. lawmakers about their endeavors, the report said.
Cohen, who served for years as Trump’s “fixer” and once said he would “take a bullet” for him, received a three-year sentence in December for lying to Congress and campaign law violations and is set to start serving it in March.
Trump, in a tweet on Friday, said Cohen was lying in order to get less prison time and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said, “He is lying to make a motion to reduce.”
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley also blasted the report and Cohen in an interview on Fox News. Pressed on whether Trump had asked Cohen to lie as the report said, Gidley did not answer the directly, saying, “The premise is ridiculous.”
Cohen adviser Lanny Davis said he and Cohen declined to comment on the report. Cohen’s lawyer, Guy Petrillo, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“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,” U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said on Twitter late on Thursday following the Buzzfeed report. “We will do what’s necessary to find out if it’s true.”
Representative Jerrold Nadler said on Twitter that the House Judiciary Committee, which he heads, also would investigate.
“We know that the President has engaged in a long pattern of obstruction,” he said. “Directing a subordinate to lie to Congress is a federal crime.”
Directing or encouraging someone to lie under oath is a crime known as subornation of perjury, but the report also raises question about obstruction of justice and conspiracy. While the U.S. Department of Justice has previously concluded that a sitting U.S. president cannot be charged while in office, such an allegation, if found true, could fuel impeachment proceedings in Congress.
“It’s a seismic event,” Andy Wright, an associate White House counsel under former Democratic President Barack Obama, told Reuters.
EMAILS, TEXTS, DOCUMENTS
Trump repeatedly has denied collusion with Russia and slammed U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which already has led to several indictments and guilty pleas, as a “witch hunt.” Russia also has rejected U.S. intelligence findings that Moscow interfered in U.S. politics in the 2016 election in an effort to boost Trump and harm his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.
The congressional committees headed by Schiff and Nadler are among several also investigating Russian interference.
BuzzFeed said the U.S. Special Counsel’s Office found out about Trump’s instructions to Cohen throughout internal Trump Organization emails, witness interviews, text messages and other documents, and that Cohen told prosecutors about the directive in an interview.
Representatives for the U.S. Special Counsel’s Office declined to comment. Representatives for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
The report raises the stakes for Cohen’s planned Feb. 7 testimony before Congress.
Democrats, who took over the U.S. House of Representatives this month, have generally been cautious regarding any talk of impeachment to remove Trump from office although some members of its more liberal wing have pushed for such a resolution. It would face an uphill battle in the Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans have a majority.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office had no comment on the BuzzFeed report.
Trump that month told reporters at the White House that he pursued the Moscow project during his campaign but decided not to follow through with it but that “there would have been nothing wrong if I did do it.” He said repeatedly during the presidential campaign that he had no ties or business dealings with Russia.
BuzzFeed on Thursday also reported that Cohen regularly updated Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. and his daughter Ivanka Trump, who is now a top White House adviser, about the Moscow project.
A spokesman for Abbe Lowell, a lawyer for Ivanka Trump, said she was minimally involved in the development. Representatives for Trump Jr., who has also testified previously before Congress, did not respond to a request for comment.
(Additional reporting by Nathan Layne, Mark Hosenball and David Alexander; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Trott)