Update: The special counsel’s office has criticized the BuzzFeed report. For more, click here.
For three years, political pundits have been predicting Donald Trump’s political downfall — and for three years he’s consistently proved them wrong.
But on Thursday night, the dam may finally have broken.
In a blockbuster scoop, the online news outlet BuzzFeed reported that the president “directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen” — not me, but the other one — “to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.”
These allegations are not based on Cohen’s statements, but rather on “interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.” In other words, special counsel Robert Mueller has receipts.
If this story is true and if Mueller has the evidence that BuzzFeed claims he does, it would show that Trump committed a felony — the subornation of perjury — from the White House. While Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, denied the report, I see no reason to doubt it. BuzzFeed’s reporting is backed up by the fact that last year Cohen pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to Congress about precisely this Trump project in Moscow.
That is a qualitatively different story than everything we’ve learned up to this point about Trump’s wrongdoing.
The cynical will argue that Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and congressional Republicans still wouldn’t do anything about it. After what’s happened over the past two years, that’s a plausible analysis.
But at the same time, we’ve never seen a story like this in the past two years.
The first and most direct impact of it will be to push Democrats ever closer to impeachment proceedings. Last night, several congressional Democrats made clear on social media that they consider this report evidence of obstruction of justice. Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called for hearings “to find out if it’s true.”
If the story proves correct, House Democrats will find it increasingly difficult to ignore the growing calls for impeachment, particularly as more and more news outlets make the case for it.
For Republicans, their studied indifference to the president’s law-breaking will also become that much more difficult to maintain.
After all, the BuzzFeed report isn’t a confusing story about whether hush money to a porn star counts as an illegal campaign contribution. There are no possible claims that Trump’s alleged actions were a prerogative of the president, as in the firing of former FBI director James Comey. There’s no ambiguity that Trump’s enablers can use to give him the benefit of the doubt. The narrative here is rather simple and easy for voters to understand — the president instructing his “fixer” to lie to Congress about his own business dealings with Russia. If that’s what the evidence shows, what’s the innocent explanation for it?
Finally, there’s another pressure point that could increase the political stakes. Three weeks from now Cohen is scheduled to testify to Congress. If he tells this story and if he provides evidence to back up his claims, it will be like former Nixon counsel John Dean testifying to Congress about Watergate . . . with the only difference being that it’ll be like John Dean on a case of Red Bull.
A couple of months ago, few of us were even focused on the Trump Tower project in Moscow. But now that strand of the Trump-Russia story has yielded the first serious piece of evidence that Trump committed a crime while in office. Imagine how much more Mueller has uncovered, and Cohen could potentially reveal in congressional testimony.
If the story proves correct, House Democrats will find it difficult to ignore the calls for impeachment.
Republicans have long maintained their support for Trump not because they particularly like him, but because they are afraid of alienating his rabid supporters. That cynical and amoral political calculation has held true for nearly three years. But such a calculus is not immune to shifting political winds. At some point the negative consequences of backing Trump will become greater than the positive effects of abandoning him.
The BuzzFeed story might only be the amuse-bouche for the larger meal to come. Trump will continue to survive, until he doesn’t.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.