BuzzFeed stands by report. TRANSCRIPT: 1/18/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests:
Ben Smith, Michael Isikoff
Transcript:

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST:  – the question of the time line, right?  So,

when you say wait for Mueller, it`s one thing if that`s two weeks.  It`s

another thing if it`s four months or six months or a year. 

 

Lisa Green and Ellie Mistal, thank you so much for joining us. 

 

That is ALL IN for this evening. 

 

“THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW” starts right now. 

 

Good evening, Rachel.

 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Chris.  Thank you, my friend. 

Much appreciated.  Have a great weekend. 

 

HAYES:  Thank you.

 

MADDOW:  And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.  Happy Friday. 

 

This weekend will mark two years since the inauguration of this most

unusual presidency.  It turns out if you want to think of this as kind of a

week-long celebration that we`ve been having, leading up to that two-year

anniversary, it`s been a pretty intense week.  I mean, think about what has

happened over the past week. 

 

“The New York Times” reported a week ago that the FBI opened an inquiry

into whether or not the president was secretly working on behalf of Russia

while he was president of the United States. 

 

Soon thereafter, CNN published excerpts from the closed-door congressional

interview of the FBI general counsel.  The interview that had apparently

been part of the predicate for that “New York Times” article and what CNN

published was just as hair-raising.  FBI general counsel James baker

telling the congressional committee, quote, if the president of the United

States fired James Comey at the behest of the Russian government, that

would be unlawful and unconstitutional. 

 

A Republican congressman then responded to baker and said, quote, is that

what happened here?  And Baker responded, quote, I don`t know.  Then an FBI

lawyer, quote, cut off additional questions on that line of inquiry.  If

the president of the United States fired Jim Comey at the behest of the

Russian government, I don`t know, maybe that`s what happened. 

 

Then, “The Washington Post” reported that President Trump confiscated notes

from his translator and refused to allow any U.S. official to know what was

discussed in any of his in-person meetings with Vladimir Putin. 

Then, “The New York Times” reported that after the first one of those

meetings, the one from which he apparently took his translator`s notes, the

president got on Air Force One fly home after that meeting and from Air

Force One, he called a reporter at “The New York Times” that we now know is

David Sanger, called David Sanger to make the case to him, I guess

potentially on behalf of the Russian government, we don`t know but he made

this case to “The New York Times” reporter that Russia had been falsely

accused of interfering in the 2016 election.  Russia was not falsely

accused of that.  Why was he telling that to a “New York Times” reporter? 

 

Then as we were absorbing that new information, “The New York Times”

further reported that Trump repeatedly inquired/insisted over the past year

that the United States should destroy NATO.  The United States should pull

out of NATO, which of course is the apex of all of Russia`s greatest wishes

and desires.  Again, this is all this week. 

 

I mean, this week, the president`s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen

also expressed fears for his own safety and for the safety of his family if

he goes ahead with his previously announced plans to testify before

Congress on February 7th.  Cohen`s relationship with the president and him

becoming a cooperating witness for multiple sets of prosecutors has already

resulted in federal prosecutors in New York designating the presidents an

individual one for having allegedly directed Michael Cohen to commit

campaign finance felonies. 

 

Now, this week, “The Wall Street Journal” reported that Cohen was paid by

Trump during the campaign to finance an operation in which Cohen attempted

to rig online polls in Trump`s favor.  Cohen was reportedly paid $50,000 by

Trump for that operation.  He then turned around, Cohen then turned around

and paid his contractor who was working on that operation $12,000 in cash

in a Walmart bag which also included a used boxing glove.  OK. 

 

“Vanity Fair” reported here on our air last night, reporter Emily Jane Fox

reported here last night that Michael Cohen has documentation that Trump

directed that operation, that campaign expenditure, just like he did the

other campaign finance shenanigans that have now been charged by the

Southern District of New York as felonies.  And then, again, this is all

the same week.  This is how we are leading up to the two-year anniversary

of Trump being sworn in, all this same week. 

 

Now, “BuzzFeed” news has been the source of an all-day furor today with

their just volcanically explosive reporting that President Trump personally

instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about how long negotiations

went on and how involved Trump and his family were.  Remember, Michael

Cohen has pled guilty lying to Congress about that.  The “BuzzFeed”

reporting is that Trump directed Cohen to make those false statements. 

 

“BuzzFeed” reports that, quote, the special counsel`s office learned about

Trump`s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with

multiple witnesses from the Trump organization and internal company e-

mails, text messages and a cache of other documents, and “BuzzFeed” further

reports that Cohen then confirmed this to Mueller`s team.  Again, that the

president directed him to lie to Congress to cover up at least some aspect

of the Trump Tower Moscow project. 

 

That`s what the week has been like.  Now, tonight, just as we were getting

on the air, after a day in which multiple members of Congress described the

“BuzzFeed” report as if true, the most serious allegations against Trump

yet.  If true, definitely the grounds for impeachment.  If true, an

inflection point in the entire scandal surrounding this presidency from the

outset. 

 

That “if true” caveat tonight itself blew up when the special counsel`s

office made this exceedingly rare public statement in response to the

“BuzzFeed” reporting.  Quote: “BuzzFeed`s” description of special

statements – excuse me.  “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.  That is from Peter Carr, the spokesman for the

special counsel`s office. 

 

Now, I have on the air previously expressed envy and jealousy for Peter

Carr because that seems like a great job if you`re the spokesman for the

special counsel`s office, your job is to never say anything, right?  The

special counsel`s office almost never makes public comments. 

 

I mean, we did a little survey of this tonight, at least as quickly as we

could.  We could only come up with three previous instances in the entirety

of the Mueller investigation in which Peter Carr has spoken on the record

to a reporter about what`s going on in the investigation. 

 

The first one was April of last year.  “McClatchy” had published a story

saying that the Mueller team had evidence that Michael Cohen had, in fact,

travelled to Prague, which would appear to buttress an allegation in the

Christopher Steele dossier that Cohen had gone to Prague to meet with

Russians about the election interference campaign.  Cohen has denied that

that happened but “McClatchy” published this piece in April saying that

Mueller had evidence that it did happen. 

 

After that report, we got a very – at that point I think unprecedented

statement from the spokesman for the special counsel.  Not directly

disputing the “McClatchy” story but giving a sort of general warning to the

press that there had been lots of inaccuracies out there and every

journalist should be very careful about their sourcing. 

 

Quote: Many stories about our investigation have been inaccurate.  Be very

cautious about any source that claims to have knowledge about our

investigation, and dig into what they claim before reporting on.

 

So, that was last April from the special counsel`s office.  Then six months

later, in October, after some strange reporting that somebody was maybe

trying to shop false sexual harassment allegations about Robert Mueller to

the press, the special counsel`s office put out a statement saying that

they had referred the matter to the FBI. 

 

Finally, last month, reporter Michael Isikoff at Yahoo News got the special

counsel`s office to confirm that a key filing from the special counsel in

the Paul Manafort case would be public.  There had been a lot of

speculation as to whether it would be sealed or whether it would be public-

facing.  That was a very minor comment from the special counsel but it was

super helpful for all of us planning to cover that development in the Paul

Manafort case. 

 

But we think that`s kind of it.  We think that`s the universe of the number

of times the special counsel`s office has made an on the record comment to

a reporter.  But now tonight they have really put out a big one.  They have

said this, pushing back on “BuzzFeed`s” big scoop today. 

 

Now, I should say that the “BuzzFeed” editor-in-chief is going to be here

tonight to respond to this, but this is what we got from the special

counsel`s office from Peter Carr. 

 

Quote: “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.

 

That`s what we got from the special counsel`s office.  We are going to hear

from “BuzzFeed`s” editor-in-chief tonight who has put out his own

statement.  Quote: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed

it and urge the special counsel to make clear what he`s disputing.

 

That`s where we are tonight.  Happy two years of the Trump administration,

right?  This is how we`re celebrating the two-year jubilee in our country

with this week-long celebration of absolutely terrifying neck-snapping

news. 

 

We`re also in day 28 of a government shutdown.  There`s apparently not

going to be a State of the Union this year and the administration as of

today is officially dropping sanctions on companies associated with the

Russian oligarch who is sanctioned for election interference.  How is your

family celebrating the anniversary?  Because that`s what we`re doing as a

country. 

 

As I mentioned, the editor-in-chief of “BuzzFeed,” Ben Smith, tonight has

put out its own statement responding to the special counsel after the

special counsel put out an incredibly rare statement disputing reporting

from “BuzzFeed” today.  We`re joined now by Ben Smith, who is the editor-

in-chief of “BuzzFeed” news. 

 

Ben, thank you very much for joining us tonight.  It`s short notice. 

 

BEN SMITH, BUZZFEED, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF (via telephone):  Thanks for having me

on, Rachel.  Sorry I couldn`t make it up there in person. 

 

MADDOW:   That`s OK.  Let me know, first of all, what`s the status of

reporting this out in your shop and the response that you guys are trying

to assemble in terms of what the special counsel`s office has said tonight. 

 

SMITH:  You know, we`re obviously continuing to chase the story, as we have

been for two years, and, you know, right now trying to understand the

special counsel – what this special – what the special counsel is

actually saying in his statement, which is obviously disputing some element

of our story but it`s very difficult to understand which one. 

 

MADDOW:  Have you had interaction with the special counsel`s office about

this specific story prior to getting the statement tonight from Peter Carr? 

 

SMITH:  I personally haven`t, but obviously the reporters have reached out

to them before.  They declined to comment, but did send over bits of

Michael Cohen`s testimony.  And then 24 hours later released this. 

 

We spoke to – we have, you know, we describe our sources here as federal

law enforcement officials involved in the investigation of the matter of

the Trump Tower Moscow, and we`re not playing games with that

characterization.  These are strong sources close to the investigation. 

They`re involved in the investigation who we spoke to after the publication

of the story as well as before and who told us it was accurate and stood by

it. 

 

MADDOW:  Let me just – I`m not actually sure I heard what you said in

terms of contact with the special counsel`s office ahead of publication,

your reporters contacted the special counsel`s office and put the full

story to them or put – you said pieces of Michael Cohen`s testimony to

them? 

 

SMITH:  I`m sorry.  Put a summary – as you usually do, we`re preparing to

report this.  Do you have any comment?  They declined to comment but then

did send over an element of Michael Cohen`s, you know, the publicly-

released his sort of confession. 

 

MADDOW:  Uh-huh.  And you said that you`ve spoken with the sources for this

story since publication and since the response tonight from the special

counsel`s office.  Your sources –

 

SMITH:  Since publication. 

 

MADDOW:  OK.  And there`s – your sources are not backing off what they`ve

 

SMITH:  Not at all. 

 

MADDOW:  – told your reporters.  Are you confident that these sources are

in a position to know what they tell you they know? 

 

SMITH:  Yes, we are. 

 

MADDOW:  OK.  Ben, obviously one of the black boxes here is the Justice

Department structure around the special counsel`s office, and there`s been

movement there.  We`ve had the – Jeff Sessions be recused.  We`ve had him

leave.  We`ve got an acting attorney general there now. 

 

There`s different reporting about whether or not the Acting Attorney

General Matt Whitaker or Rod Rosenstein is overseeing the investigation or

dealing with important developments in the investigation on a day-to-day

basis.  Do you have any concern that this statement from the special

counsel`s office might be an effort to dissuade you and dissuade your

reporters from pursuing this, even if it is accurate, either because it

interferences with the special counsel`s investigation in some way or it is

otherwise too uncomfortable as territory for this Justice Department? 

 

SMITH:  I mean, you know, there`s a – these are some of the best lawyers

in America here and this statement is obviously crafted by lawyers to mean

something.  It is not totally clear what it means.  But, you know, and I

think we would like to know what it means.  It`s hard to speculate on the

motive when you aren`t really clear on what it means. 

 

MADDOW:  Uh-hmm.  Do you have anything that you can tell us in terms of

what we should expect for next steps?  Obviously, if the story needs to be

withdrawn or corrected, I`m assuming that you will do that.  If you can add

to your reporting in a way that pushes the special counsel on this dispute,

I imagine we`ll hear that from your reporters as well? 

 

SMITH:  Yes, Anthony and Jason are continuing to, you know, obviously

tonight report – report very, very hard on this.  You know, and, again,

this – one thing I think worth noting is that this is – this is a

specific line of the Russia investigation.  This is the Trump Tower Moscow

story, which these reporters were way, way out in front on, broke big

elements of.  That did sit out there for awhile last year before they were

at the heart of the Cohen indictment. 

 

MADDOW:  Uh-hmm. 

 

SMITH:  So this isn`t coming out of a blue sky.  This is a line of

reporting that has been repeatedly vindicated. 

 

MADDOW:  Ben Smith, “BuzzFeed`s” editor-in-chief, at a very kinetic moment

in “BuzzFeed” right now.  Ben, thank you very much for being with us. 

Appreciate it. 

 

SMITH:  Thank you, Rachel. 

 

MADDOW:  All right.  So, this has been a rollicking day on this story, this

bombshell pushback from the special counsel`s office on “BuzzFeed`s”

bombshell reporting has created a bunch of questions.  I mean, you heard me

discuss some of them there with Ben in terms of those reporters standing by

the story, what he says that these reporters absolutely pushed our

understanding in terms of what the Trump Tower Moscow scandal is.  It`s

true they did the definitive reporting in terms of us understanding how big

the Trump Tower Moscow project was, how long it went on for. 

 

It was “BuzzFeed`s” reporting on that story that I think laid the

groundwork for us to understand what anybody was talking about when Michael

Cohen turned up in court in November to plead guilty to lying to Congress,

related to his previous testimony about Trump tower Moscow. 

 

I mean, all of these things are moving parts, but these have proven to be

well-sourced reporters who have been ahead of everybody else and whose

previous reporter has been borne out in court by things said by the special

counsel. 

 

So there`s reporting questions here.  There`s very interesting questions

why the special counsel`s office is speaking up on this story when they

almost speak on nothing.  And there`s legal questions, of course, about

what this reporting would mean and what the apparent scare over this story

means moving forward. 

 

We`ve got some expert help to tackle all of that coming up.  Stay with us.  

 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

 

MADDOW:  Go back to the day that Michael Cohen was last charged in federal

court, because for a long time now, I`ve been really stumped about

something that happened that day.  I mean, the first time he was charged in

federal court that made much more sense.  The first time he was charged in

federal court was August, this past year.  It feels like a million years

ago but it was only in August.  But that was not too much of a surprise. 

 

Michael Cohen`s office and his home and his hotel room and safety deposit

box has all, raided by FBI agents in April.  So, they had all these files,

all these records, those computers, iPads, phones, electronic devices, we

had known they had taken a ton of evidence in conjunction with the

execution of those search warrants in April because we could see a lot of

the fighting over the admissibility of that evidence in court. 

 

So when he turned up in August in federal court, there was sort of a sense

that we knew we were going to see him in court sooner or later.  The

charges also kind of made sense, given what we knew the FBI had taken from

him and what they had been looking at. 

 

On that first day of his in court in August, Michael Cohen pled guilty to

five counts, five felony counts of tax evasion.  There was consulting that

he had done that he hadn`t paid taxes on.  There were some real estate

sales he brokered that he hadn`t paid taxes on.  He also apparently sold a

fancy purse.  Seriously.  He had brokered the sale of a fancy purse and had

not paid taxes on that either. 

 

Most of his tax trouble, though, related to his involvement in the taxi

business, and that, too, made sense, at least from the perspective of those

of us on the outside watching this case trying to make sense of it.  The

taxi business charges made sense because Michael Cohen`s partner in the

taxi business had himself turned up in court in may and at that court

appearance in May, that guy was allowed to – I mean, it seemed like he was

allowed to absolutely skate on what otherwise looked like a whole list of

big serious charges. 

 

This guy, this nickname is literally “The Taxi King.”  He was Michael

Cohen`s taxi business partner and finance guy.  And he got this whole host

of charges against him boiled down to basically nothing in a New York state

courtroom in may in exchange for him becoming a cooperating witness for the

government.  So, it made sense that anything that might have been a little

bit hinky with Michael Cohen`s finances in the taxi business made sense

that prosecutors would be able to nail down evidence of that once they got

his partner to cooperate, right? 

 

So, him turning up in court, Michael Cohen turning up in court in August,

it was dramatic but it was also sort of orderly in terms of us

understanding the plot here.  Law enforcement in New York gets search

warrants to raid him and his office.  They flip his business partner with a

matter of months.  By the end of the summer, they`ve got home in court

pleading guilty on five felony tax evasion charges and a bank fraud charge. 

In that instance, it was him lying to IRS, it wasn`t him lying to a bank in

order to get a loan. 

 

So, all of that, Michael Cohen`s first day in federal court, that all made

sense.  It made sense that he was in court in New York.  It made sense that

it was the U.S. attorney`s office from New York that had their guy out

there on the steps sort of pounding his chest a little bit over Michael

Cohen`s guilty pleadings that day.  Now, of course, in terms of the

national impact of that court appearance, the blaring headlines out of that

day were about the other two financial felonies that Michael pled to at the

same time, because those other two weren`t just about his business

practices or his taxes or his handbag resale hobby.  Those other two

felonies were about the guy he worked for for more than a decade. 

 

The other two felonies were the campaign finance felonies that Cohen pled

to, felonies he said Donald Trump had directed him to commit.  Those two

felonies involved hush money payments that were designed to influence the

presidential election by keeping secret allegations of extramarital affairs

involving Mr. Trump.  So, those two felonies were the really big

exclamation points that first day Michael Cohen turned up in federal court

in New York. 

 

And those exclamation points were well-deserved, right?  Those are serious

felonies.  He pled guilty to them.  He and prosecutors both implicated the

sitting president of the United States in participating in those felonies. 

 

But, again, for those of us watching from outside this case, trying to keep

track, trying to figure out, you know, what this all means and where this

is all going for the country at large, for this presidency, for the

existential question of this presidency, which is whether it was borne out

of a foreign intelligence operation, right, the related question of whether

we are still living with a knowing participant in that foreign intelligence

operation living in the White House. 

 

I mean, for those of us just as citizens watching Michael Cohen, watching

him in court as one player in this larger story, that first day he was in

court in New York in August was actually pretty – it was – it was a

pretty cut and dry understandable thing, even if it was dramatic, right? 

They got his financial records, got his business contacts, they followed

the money, U.S. attorney`s office in New York nailed him on these

financial-related felonies.  Guilty day one.  I understand that.  We all

did. 

 

Before today, though, I did not understand Michael Cohen day two in federal

court.  Because fast forward 100 days past the time when he first appeared

in federal court in August in that relatively cut and dry day when he pled

guilty to eight felonies, you fast forward 100 days after that, and,

surprise been Michael Cohen was back in court again right at the end of

November.  This time it was different in every way.  This time, for one, it

was different prosecutors. 

 

When he was back in federal court in November, it was the special counsel

Robert Mueller, his prosecutors, not the U.S. attorney`s office in New

York.  And this time Cohen was pleading guilty again but to a totally

different species of crime.  This time it was a felony false statements

charge about lying to Congress.  Lying to Congress about something

Mueller`s prosecutors called “The Moscow project.” 

 

The Moscow project was the Trump Organization plan to build a Trump tower

in Russia.  It was reportedly going to be financed by sanctioned Russian

banks, building the tower would have required the approval and the

facilitation of the Kremlin.  Prosecutors say it was a project that could

potentially produce hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for

President Trump and his business. 

 

This Moscow project was something the Trump Organization was pursuing

actively and working on during the campaign, even while the president was

publicly maintaining that he had no business, no deals, zero investments in

Russia.  But what Cohen pled guilty to that day in court in November, his

second day in court, was lying to Congress about this Moscow project.  He

told Congress the effort was over and done with by January 2016, by the

time of the Iowa caucuses.  That apparently wasn`t true.  Work on the

project apparently went on for months thereafter. 

 

He also apparently minimized in his testimony any prospect of him traveling

to Russia to pursue that deal.  He also minimized the contacts he had with

the Kremlin as part of pursuing the deal.  And we learned that when Cohen

turned up in court that second time in November to plead guilty to that one

additional charge in federal court. 

 

But why did that day even happen?  I mean, as far as we know, nobody else

is being charged with lying to Congress.  Not through any or all of the –

all the other mishegoss in this case thus far.  Given that Michael Cohen

had just pled guilty to eight other serious felonies, tacking on this one

extra lying to Congress charge, it wasn`t going to make much of a

difference in his fate. 

 

In fact, explicitly, it will not make any difference in his fate.  When it

came time a few days later for Cohen to be sentenced, Mueller`s prosecutors

actually told judge in his case that they were perfectly happy for this

lying to Congress charge to just be folded in with the other felonies Cohen

had already pled guilty to in August.  Make it all one case, Judge.  That`s

fine. 

 

And you might remember in Cohen`s sentencing day in December, remember how

he had kind of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sentencing recommendation.  The

New York federal prosecutors, the ones who hit him with those eight

financial felonies, they told the judge, hey, throw the book at him.  He`s

a cretin.  He committed these terrible crimes.  He barely helped us with

Cooperation at all.  He`s a bad guy.  You should nail him judge. 

 

When it came to the sort of extra charge, the one that arrived later from

Mueller, the lying to Congress charge about the Trump Tower Moscow thing,

Mueller`s recommendation to the judge was basically, hey, judge, we know

it`s bad to lie to Congress.  We know this is technically a serious thing,

but he doesn`t need any extra jail time for this.  Whatever he`s getting on

the eight other felonies do what you got to do, judge, but this lying to

Congress thing, we don`t want him to be punished extra for that at all. 

 

That has sort of stuck in my craw ever since, because why did Mueller`s

team go through the trouble of hauling Michael Cohen back into court and

charging him with that one extra thing?  Why bring him?  Why go through the

bother?  I`m not trying to minimize the seriousness of lying to Congress. 

You should never do it and if you do lie to Congress, you should probably

go to jail for it. 

 

But in this case, it`s not like Congress even knew they`d been lied to.  I

mean, did Congress really have any reason to believe that Trump Tower

Moscow planning went through June 2016 instead of just through January

2016?  And that was the kind of material lie they should be worried about

from Cohen`s testimony? 

 

I mean, it would be one thing if Congress knew it had been lied to and

they`re very upset about it and they therefore referred Michael Cohen for

prosecution, and that`s why Mueller brought this charge of lying to

Congress.  That`s not at all what happened here. 

 

Ellen Nakashima at “The Washington Post” nailed this down the day after

Cohen appeared in court on the lying to Congress charge.  Quote: The

Intelligence Committee did not refer Cohen`s case for prosecution, rather,

a committee staffer said the special counsel Robert Mueller asked the

committee for the transcript of Cohen`s interview with them.  Mueller was

given a copy of Cohen`s testimony with the consent of Michael Cohen`s

attorney. 

 

So it seems like – it seems like this is what may have happened here.  It

seems like in the course of the time Michael Cohen was cooperating with

prosecutors, he apparently let them know something about that false

testimony he`d given to the Intelligence Committee about Trump Tower

Moscow.  Mueller then confirmed the content of his congressional testimony

by getting a copy of the interview transcript from the Senate Intelligence

Committee.  Mueller then went through the trouble of bringing Cohen back to

court in federal court again and charging him for that false testimony

while simultaneously telling the, judge, hey, don`t give him any extra time

in jail for this.  He really is helping us.  He`s being great.  This is not

worth one extra day in jail, OK, Judge? 

 

When “BuzzFeed” published this story late last night about Cohen`s false

testimony to Congress, this bombshell story that lit up the news cycle all

day today, the narrative of “BuzzFeed`s” story finally made it seem like

Cohen being charged for lying to Congress might make sense because if that

“BuzzFeed” story were true, that Mueller didn`t just collect evidence in

the course of his inquiry that indicated Cohen lied to Congress, if the

“BuzzFeed” story were true and Mueller also collected evidence in the

course of his inquiry that indicated that the president directed Cohen to

lie to Congress, well, then it would suddenly make sense that Mueller`s

prosecutors would go out of their way to haul Michael Cohen back into

court, separate and apart from all those other felonies related to his

finances.  They haul him back in court, make him plead guilty to the crime

of lying oh congress, even though they wanted to make sure that additional

guilty plea would have no effect on Cohen`s ultimate fate. 

 

If the “BuzzFeed” story were true that Mueller`s prosecutors had both

evidence that Cohen committed that crime and evidence Trump directed him to

commit that crime, it would make sense that they brought him back into

court, because then the reason they would have brought him back into court

is because they were laying the predicates with the courts, in fact, here

on the record is Cohen pleading guilty to lying to Congress.  That would

then set them up basically so they could subsequently charge another person

with directing Cohen to commit that crime.  You can`t charge someone with

suborning perjury unless you have established for the record that perjury,

in fact, occurred, right? 

 

It has never made sense to me why Mueller`s prosecutors would hustle Cohen

back into court to have him plead guilty to that one extra charge after all

the felonies he already pled to and specifically for no additional

punishment.  If that lying to Congress charge was not laying the predicate

for other people to be charged with related crimes, I mean, with this

pushback from the special counsel`s office on “BuzzFeed`s” report tonight,

if that means that`s not where this was going after all, then how do they

explain that part of the story?  How do we understand that random,

standalone, no punishment after the fact charge brought by Mueller even

after it was clear that Cohen was already going to jail on all those other

crimes? 

 

I have just the person to ask.  That`s next.

 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

 

MADDOW:  Starting late last night and continuing into now, we have been

unpacking this story published by “BuzzFeed” news, reporting that the

president directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the

Trump Tower Moscow project and reporting that the special counsel learned

this both from Cohen but also from other witnesses and from other

documents. 

 

Then suddenly late tonight, the special counsel`s office issued a statement

disputing at least the part of the story that has to do with the special

counsel.  Mueller`s office saying in this, again, rare statement tonight

that “BuzzFeed`s”, quote, 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. 

 

Description of specific statements.  Description of specific statements. 

Characterization of documents and testimony obtained by the office. 

 

Tonight, “BuzzFeed” says they stand by their reporting and they say they

are urging the special counsel to make clear exactly what his office is

disputing here. 

 

Joining us now is Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney in the Eastern

District of Virginia, former senior FBI and Justice Department official. 

 

Mr. Rosenberg, good to have you with us tonight.  Thank you for making

time. 

 

CHUCK ROSENBERG, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY:  My pleasure.  Thank you for having

me. 

 

MADDOW:  I want you to tell me what you think is about this.  Your feelings

about the reporting in the first instance, but also this statement from the

special counsel`s office about it. 

 

ROSENBERG:  You know, there is an aspect of 5-year-old soccer to this.  If

you watch kids play, they mass together and every now and then the ball

squirts loose and they run over to the ball together.  We did that in

respect to the “BuzzFeed” story and I fear we`re doing that now with

respect to the Mueller statement. 

 

I think what you said earlier about the prosecutors laying a predicate when

Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress is exactly right, and here`s why. 

Go back to first principles.  Look at what the Mueller team said in their

sentencing memorandum regarding Michael Cohen and that charge of lying to

Congress.  If you don`t mind, Rachel, I`d like to read just one sentence to

you. 

 

MADDOW:  Please? 

 

ROSENBERG:  Yes.  The information provided by Cohen about the Moscow

project in these proffer sessions is consistent with and corroborated by

other information obtained in the course of the special counsel office`s

investigation. 

 

That`s Mueller`s own words, right?  They`re saying that what Cohen said

about the Moscow project, the lies to Congress, others being involved, the

fact that the Mueller team has corroborating information in their

possession comes right from Mueller himself.  I think that`s what really

matters here. 

 

MADDOW:  So if – just to drill down on the importance of that, they`ve got

information from Cohen that according to the special counsel`s office is

corroborated by other evidence. 

 

ROSENBERG:  That`s right. 

 

MADDOW:  And that is what they stated in conjunction or in support of

Cohen`s guilty plea to lying to Congress about this matter.  I will say one

of the main questions, the most potent questions, I think, about this

“BuzzFeed” reporting today has been, well, if Mueller has this evidence

that Cohen was directed to lie when he lied to Congress, why wasn`t that

charged or otherwise indicated in court that day in November when Cohen was

there pleading guilty to lying to Congress?  Would you expect if the

special counsel`s office did have the kind of information that “BuzzFeed”

says they have that somebody directed Cohen to do this?  Would you expect

that to have turned up in that day – in the charging documents that day in

court when Cohen pled? 

 

ROSENBERG:  No, not necessarily.  Because you want to keep some of your

powder dry.  Laying the predicate, as you said earlier, is precisely, I

think, what the Mueller team is doing here.  They want to use Michael Cohen

or any defendant for that matter – look, generically, you have a defendant

plead guilty to conduct that he committed when you want to use that

defendant against others who did the same thing, whether it`s the taxi

king, whether it`s Michael Cohen.  You have them plead to a set of

operative facts describing what they did because some day down the road,

you`re going to use them to help you get others who did the same thing. 

That`s what I think happened here. 

 

But you don`t want to sort of lay all of your cards on the table as a

prosecutor, because you`re still investigating that thing, that conduct,

the others who were involved in it.  So, what the Mueller team did makes

sense to me, and the way they described it really in some ways buttresses

the core of the “BuzzFeed” story. 

 

Now, obviously, the Mueller team is pushing back on aspects of the

“BuzzFeed” story.  But I think in the main, what you can glean from their

December 7th sentencing memorandum is that the core of the “BuzzFeed” story

is accurate. 

 

MADDOW:  In terms of that – the way they are pushing back, I mean, we

heard from Ben Smith, who is the editor at “BuzzFeed,” very early on in the

show tonight plainly frustrated with trying to parse the special counsel`s

statement. 

 

ROSENBERG:  Uh-hmm. 

 

MADDOW:  Trying to understand what exactly was in dispute.  I mean, what

the statement says is that what`s not accurate is “BuzzFeed`s” description

of specific statements to the special counsel`s office and “BuzzFeed`s”

characterization of documents and testimony obtained by the office. 

 

Do you think that if Mueller`s office wanted to say this allegation is

false, the president didn`t direct Cohen to lie, they could have put out a

more blunt statement that wasn`t parsing this so tightly? 

 

ROSENBERG:  Absolutely.  It would have been very simple to say the

reporting is dead-wrong in every respect.  They didn`t do that. 

 

And I think the emphasis you put on those words, the specific descriptions,

the characterizations, sort of is a window into the thinking of the Mueller

team.  There are parts of the reporting that trouble them. 

 

I have no idea, Rachel, by the way, why they decided on this occasion to

push back on a story.  I`m sure there are other stories that got other

things wrong.  But, again in the main, I come back to this point, it seems

to me that the core of the story is correct and we can determine that from

the Mueller team`s own court filing.  That`s really the best place to look,

I think, all the time for what`s really going on in this case. 

 

MADDOW:  Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of

Virginia, former senior FBI and Justice Department official and clarion

voice, as always.  Chuck, thank you very much.  Much appreciated. 

 

ROSENBERG:  Thank you.  My pleasure. 

 

MADDOW:  All right.  So, we are following this extraordinary reporting in

this story.  The famously silent special counsel`s office speaking tonight,

pushing back on the “BuzzFeed” report but in a very narrow way.  You`re as

likely to get a response out of the special counsel`s office as you are to

get attacked by wombats, or to be eaten by a shark when you`re inland.  But

we are about to talk to somebody who has actually been on the receiving end

of a special counsel comment and he joins us next. 

 

Stay with us. 

 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

 

MADDOW:  Who knew that January would have 850 days this year?  If the news

keeps going on at this rate, on this jagged a course, we`re all going to

need neck braces to keep up with it.  As the special counsel`s office

tonight pushes back on “BuzzFeed`s” bombshell reporting that the president

ordered his longtime personal lawyer to lie to Congress.  Lying to Congress

is a felony to which his longtime personal lawyer already pled guilty. 

 

As we are making our way through the impact of that statement and that

reporting tonight, one of America`s legendary investigative reporters,

Michael Isikoff, is going to join us here in just a moment. 

 

But I want to tell you that we also just got this from another young

legendary investigative reporter, from Ronan Farrow, who won the Pulitzer

Prize last year for his reporting on the #metoo movement and Harvey

Weinstein.  Ronan Farrow just posted this.  Quote: I can`t speak to

BuzzFeed`s sourcing but for what it`s worth, I declined to run with parts

of the narrative they conveyed based on a source central to the story

repeatedly disputing the idea that Trump directly issued orders of that

kind.  Note that the general thrust of Cohen lying to Congress in

accordance with or to support and advance Trump`s agenda per Cohen`s legal

memo is not in dispute.  The source disputed the further, more specific

idea that Trump issued and memorialized repeated direct instructions. 

 

Again, that being posted tonight by Ronan Farrow, saying basically he had

access to, as he puts it, parts of the narrative that “BuzzFeed” conveyed

in their story and felt it was so strongly disputed by a single source

central to the story that he did not run with it himself. 

 

Well, as I said, Michael Isikoff is going to be joining us this morning. 

Stay with us.  Lots more to get into tonight.

 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

 

MADDOW:  Before their statement tonight pushing back on the “BuzzFeed”

reporting, we actually think the last statement – last public statement

from the special counsel`s office went to reporter Michael Isikoff at Yahoo

News.  When he got the special counsel to confirm that a key filing in the

Manafort case would be public, special counsel`s office told Isikoff, yes,

this filing will be public, and we were all agog.  Michael Isikoff, how did

you get them to speak? 

 

Joining us now is the great Michael Isikoff, chief investigative

correspondent for Yahoo News.  He`s the co-author with David Corn of

“Russian Roulette”. 

 

Michael, it is great to have you here.  Thanks for making time tonight. 

 

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO NEWS:  Great to

be with you, Rachel. 

 

MADDOW:  So you are as deep in this story as anyone.  You are better with

sources than anybody that I know.  And you are an encyclopedia who never

lets go of any word or fact you have ever learned.  Given that, given what

I think of as your sort of encyclopedic knowledge, what do you think is

important about the BuzzFeed reporting and about the special counsel

responding? 

 

ISIKOFF:  Well, look, you know, there were red flags about the “BuzzFeed”

story from the get-go.  I mean, you know, you have this really bold lead

that the president directed Michael Cohen to lie.  But no detail on where,

when, how, how was it communicated, what exactly is the president supposed

to have said? 

 

And, you know, those details are the ball game.  And it`s also, you know –

and then the documents that are referred to.  What are the documents? 

Where did they come from? 

 

We know that the president doesn`t use e-mails or texts.  So, you know,

whose e-mails and texts would corroborate a statement by Cohen? 

 

It`s also worth noting that, you know, it was inconsistent with Cohen`s own

words when he pled guilty to lying about the Trump Tower Moscow meeting. 

He said in federal court that day, I made these statements to be consistent

with Individual One, that`s Donald Trump`s political messaging, and out of

loyalty to Individual One, Donald Trump. 

 

He didn`t say anything about being directed to make the statements.  He

said he was trying to be consistent with Trump`s messaging. 

 

So, all that was good reason to question the story from the get-go.  And I

think when you get the special counsel`s statement, which obviously was

tailored to what was attributed to Mueller`s office itself.  That`s why it

was so carefully worded.  It was talking about what “BuzzFeed” said about

what the special counsel had accumulated. 

 

But all that said, I just want to make one point.  The unfortunate thing

about a story like this is, it distracts from what we do know and what is

real and what is significant.  And that`s what Cohen pled to in the first

place. 

 

He was the personal lawyer for Donald Trump.  He was in direct

communication during the presidential campaign with a Kremlin official

about securing land and financing for a deal that could allow the president

the then candidate to make hundreds of millions of dollars.  That was a

conflict of interest.  That was significant in and of itself. 

 

MADDOW:  Michael, let me ask you about what you just said about Cohen`s

statement when he pled guilty about lying to Congress on this.  As you

point out, and I`m so glad you brought this up.  He said, I lied to

Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project, so that my testimony would

be consistent with what Trump had said as a candidate. 

 

It wasn`t, though.  Because his specific lie was that Trump – that the

Trump tower Moscow project had ended – the planning for that ended in

January. 

 

ISIKOFF:  In January, right. 

 

MADDOW:  – ended several months later.  And actually, the summer of 2016. 

 

Trump had never made any claims like that at all.  Trump had claimed as a

candidate that he had no deals in Russia, no pending deals, no investment,

nothing going on whatsoever.  Trump had never given anything so finally

nuanced as to explain the exact kind of lie that Cohen would have made

about the timing of that deal.  That`s part of this that I never understood

about why Cohen need to lie in that way. 

 

ISIKOFF:  Well, there was some reporting about this at some point.  And,

you know, I have to say, as – however encyclopedic you think I am on this,

I`m a little fuzzy an exactly when the first reports on the Trump Tower

Moscow projects emerged.  But certainly at a minimum, by saying it ended in

January at the time of the Iowa caucus rather than in June after all the

primaries and Trump was the nominee, you were distancing the candidate

during the campaign from the project.  That it ended early on, and didn`t

go on, you know, well after that. 

 

And I think also, as I pointed out before, you know, to me, one of the most

damning things in that plea was that Cohen, you know, was in direct

communication with a Kremlin official, a deputy to Dmitry Peskov, Putin`s

top, you know, press aide, about getting land and financing for the deal. 

That was pretty – you know, important information that we didn`t know

until Michael Cohen pled guilty to it. 

 

MADDOW:  Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo News,

coauthor of “Russian Roulette” with David Corn, Mike, thanks very much for

being here.  Much appreciated. 

 

ISIKOFF:  Thanks.

 

MADDOW:  All right.  We`ll be right back.  Stay with us.

 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

 

MADDOW:  You know it`s been a heck of a week.  I know you might feel like

you need to rest for a minute.  But I have to warn you that something is

coming. 

 

It`s going to be Infrastructure Week again.  The first time Trump announced

Infrastructure Week, he was going to – that was back in 2017, got a little

overshadowed by the public congressional testimony of the FBI director he

had just fired.  Then they tried to do infrastructure week over again. 

Trump celebrated that iteration of Infrastructure Week by defending the

white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville. 

 

And then they tried Infrastructure Week again and that`s when Michael Cohen

admitted to paying hush money to a porn star to influence the election. 

Needless to say, we have never gotten any infrastructure work from this

White House, and after the week that we`ve just had, I don`t know that we

can take another infrastructure week right now.  But they`re apparently

trying another one.  Hold on! 

 

That does it for us tonight.  We`ll see you again tomorrow. 

 

Now, it`s time for “THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL”. 

 

Good evening, Lawrence. 

 

                                                                                                               

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