Stand up for facts and support PolitiFact.
Now is your chance to go on the record as supporting trusted, factual information by joining PolitiFact’s Truth Squad. Contributions or gifts to PolitiFact, which is part of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Poynter Institute, are tax deductible.
I would like to contribute
The blockbuster testimony of President Donald Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen drew fresh attention to a BuzzFeed News report that has been assailed as inaccurate. Some said his testimony corroborated the report, while others hearing Cohen said it did little to prop up the report’s central assertion.
We’ll help you sort out the differing takes.
In January, BuzzFeed News reported that Trump had explicitly ordered Cohen to lie by telling Congress that negotiations over a Trump Tower Moscow proposal ended earlier in the 2016 presidential campaign season than they actually had.
Cohen certainly did lie to lawmakers about the project: He pled guilty in the Southern District of New York for doing so. Cohen admitted to falsely telling Congress he had briefed Trump on the the Russian-based development proposal only three times, and that negotiations broke down in January 2016.
In fact, talks continued as late as June 2016, after Trump became the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, and updates had been more extensive than what Cohen said.
When he entered his guilty plea in a Manhattan federal court in Nov. 2018, Cohen said fealty to Trump drove his behavior.
"I made these misstatements to be consistent with individual 1’s political messaging and out of loyalty to individual 1," Cohen, who previously identified "individual 1" as Trump, said in court, according to Reuters.
Two months later, BuzzFeed dropped its report. "President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project," the headline read.
"Cohen's testimony marks a significant new frontier," BuzzFeed wrote, citing two unnamed federal law enforcement officials involved in investigating the matter. "It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia."
The report also claimed Cohen personally updated Trump about the construction proposal 10 times, and said Trump had encouraged a plan by Cohen for Trump to meet personally with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign.
But the bombshell claim was undeniably this: Trump had directed Cohen to lie under oath, a felony known as suborning perjury.
In a rare move, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team issued a public statement denying the report, and Trump said the story was "a disgrace to journalism."
So, what did Cohen have to say about why he lied, and whether he was directed by Trump?
Cohen told lawmakers he lied out of a sense of loyalty to the president, and to harmonize with Trump’s political messaging. He also said he was driven to lie because Trump had indirectly told him to do so.
"Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates," Cohen said, reading from prepared remarks. "In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me there’s no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing.
"In his way," Cohen said, "he was telling me to lie."
To some, Cohen’s claim positively contradicted BuzzFeed.
"BuzzFeed alleged Trump ‘directed’ and ‘personally instructed’ Cohen to lie," tweeted Washington Post Justice Department reporter Matt Zapotosky. "Cohen says the opposite of that. ‘Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.’ "
Zapotosky quickly posted another tweet pointing out that Cohen "later suggests he knew Trump wanted him to lie to Congress," which noted that Cohen seemed to conclude this based on intuition.
But that didn’t placate some media members who took issue with Zapotosky’s characterization that Cohen’s testimony said "the opposite" of BuzzFeed’s findings.
"This is some wildly persnickety nonsense, my dude, and it seems to intentionally miss the forest for the trees," tweeted NBC News reporter Ben Collins. BuzzFeed’s Director of Communications zeroed in on the characterization too.
As the explicit versus implicit debate rages on, it’s safe to say the extent to which Cohen’s testimony does or doesn’t support BuzzFeed’s report is open to interpretation.
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed told the Washington Post it stands by its report.
BuzzFeed, "President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project," Jan. 17, 2019
Michael Cohen, prepared remarks, Feb. 27, 2018
Reuters, "Trump ex-lawyer pleads guilty to lying about Moscow tower project," Nov. 29, 2018
Washington Post, "After Cohen’s hearing, the BuzzFeed bombshell that Mueller disputed looks better — and worse," Feb. 28, 2019
PolitiFact, "The Russia investigation and Donald Trump: a timeline from on-the-record sources," Jan. 29, 2019