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

Guests: Ben Smith, Michael Isikoff

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.


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.


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. 


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.


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. 


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.


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. 


Good evening, Lawrence. 

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