Updated 12:45 p.m. | There are no shutdown talks with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Donald Trump’s Friday schedule and no invitations for any have been extended, even as White House aides claim the president put the kibosh on her Afghanistan trip in part to keep her on U.S. soil to cut a deal.
What’s more, an explosive report that Trump directed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie during testimony to Congress likely will only drive the White House and Democrats further apart, making a border security deal needed to reopen the government even harder as Washington becomes increasingly toxic.
House Democrats are already saying that the Judiciary and Intelligence committees will investigate the allegations in that report.
“If [Pelosi] leaves, she guarantees that the second round of paychecks to 800,000 federal workers won’t go out. The deadline to make that deal is midnight on Tuesday,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, referring to a deal to get those workers paid.
But when the president’s Friday public schedule was released late Thursday evening, there was only one event on it: a 12:45 p.m. Oval Office meeting with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that will be closed to the press. Previous shutdown-related meetings with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York have been listed on Trump’s public schedule.
White House officials gave no indication Thursday night that any invitations to the top House and Senate Democrats are going out anytime soon.
Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political science professor, says what’s needed to break the impasse is a “game-changing event.”
One might have emerged — but not the kind to bring Trump and Democrats back to the negotiating table — Thursday night when BuzzFeed published its report of Trump allegedly directing Cohen to commit perjury, citing “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”
On Jan. 11, 2017, Trump tweeted this: “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” Trump has made repeated claims in public remarks since before he became president and since.
Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
BuzzFeed reported that after the 2016 presidential election, Trump personally instructed Cohn to lie about his company’s push — led by Cohen — to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, which the president believed would yield $300 million in profits. He wanted his then-lawyer to lie by saying talks with Russians about the proposed project ended months earlier, when in fact they stretched through most of the 2016 campaign.
The article includes what might be a “game-changing event” with this line: “But Cohen’s testimony marks a significant new frontier: It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.”
Committing perjury is a crime. And so is directing or advising another person to do so, raising the stakes for the president as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III continues his Russia election meddling probe.
The White House broke its silence on the piece around 10 a.m. Friday — using an interview on typically friendly Fox News to do so. That came just before Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley declined to comment on the BuzzFeed report when approached by a throng of reporters on the executive mansion’s North Lawn.
“I’ve got a 10:30 meeting,” he said at 10:15 a.m. “I can’t guys.” Several reporters asked him to answer “yes or no” whether the president directed Cohen to lie.
But minutes earlier, on Fox, he said it is “absolutely ludicrous that we are giving any credence and credibility to … BuzzFeed.” He knocked one of the article’s authors for an earlier Friday television interview in which, in Gidley’s words, “he couldn’t corroborate any of his own evidence — there is nothing in that piece that can be corroborated.”
Asked by two Fox anchors the same yes or no question, Gidley only said of the article: “The premise is ridiculous. It doesn’t warrant a response from the White House.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway later declined to answer yes or no following her own television appearance.
With just minutes notice, the White House, apparently eager to steer media coverage away from the Cohen bombshell, announced Trump would meet with North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol at 12:15 p.m. in the Oval Office. “They will discuss relations between the two countries and continued progress on North Korea’s final, fully verified denuclearization,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Though Justice Department guidance states a sitting president cannot be indicted, should Mueller confirm the BuzzFeed report and possibly add further details, it could intensify pressure from Pelosi’s left flank to begin impeachment proceedings. Mueller could even recommend Trump be charged when he leaves office, shedding the legal protections of the Office of the President.
The bombshell report makes several lines of questioning by Republican and Democratic senators this week during two days of confirmation hearing testimony by William Barr — Trump’s nominee for attorney general — seem prescient.
Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar referenced a memo Barr wrote about the special counsel probe. She noted he “wrote on page 1 that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?”
“That, yes,” he responded. “Any, well any person who persuades another, yeah.”
Klobuchar then asked this: “You also said that a president or any person convincing a witness to change testimony would be obstruction. Is that right?”
“Yes,” the likely next top federal law enforcement official responded.
She wasn’t finished, asking next: “And on page 2 you said that a president deliberately impairing the integrity or availability of evidence would be an [obstruction]. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Barr responded.
Klobuchar is a potential Democratic presidential candidate, but the perjury probing during Barr’s hearings was bipartisan. Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham also sought clarity.
The South Carolina Republican asked Barr if he believes it would be a crime if “the president tried to coach somebody not to testify, or testify falsely.” Barr answered without hesitation: “Yes,” adding: “Under an obstruction statute, yes.”
Benjamin Wittes, of the Lawfare blog and Brookings Institution, called the BuzzFeed article “a very big deal.”
This story is a very big deal. It's a big enough deal that I'm going to refrain from commenting on it tonight. I and the team will put together our thoughts early in the morning over coffee on @lawfareblog. Good night. Yours til the ship sinks!— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) January 18, 2019
And in a sign of how the most left-leaning parts of Pelosi’s caucus will pull her further from a shutdown-ending deal with the president, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro of Texas tweeted this: “If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.”
If the @BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) January 18, 2019
Trump, too, will be pulled toward his base. For instance, former Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News Friday morning that the report is an “absurdity,” adding: “Buzzfeed is the equivalent of those tabloids at the grocery store ... that introduce you to martians. ... [Cohen] was trying to please the investigators.”
“We have never seen this level of hostility between a speaker and a president of the United States,” Gingrich said in an ominous assessment of the odds of a deal.
Trump’s move to postpone Pelosi’s trip was counterprogramming to several negative stories for Trump on Thursday. Political commentator Ana Navaro warned Friday that the former reality television host might be plotting something even bigger to end the week to drown out the BuzzFeed backlash.
“Brace yourself, America. Only God knows what #PresidentLoco will do to try to distract and deflect from this new bomb-shell. Declare a National Emergency?” she tweeted. “Don’t put it past him.”