Mueller Team Disputes BuzzFeed Article — So What’s Really Going On? [Opinion]

Drew Angerer; Alex WongGetty Images

On Friday, a spokesman for Robert Mueller and the special counsel team of investigators disputed elements of a BuzzFeed News article that suggested President Donald Trump had asked his former lawyer to lie before Congress.

That BuzzFeed News piece suggested that Trump had told former “fixer” lawyer Michael Cohen to tell Congressional committees that the Trump Organization had stopped attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow in January of 2016, before the first nomination elections began in that presidential campaign year. In fact, the Trump Organization had kept up negotiations with the Kremlin into June of 2016.

The fact that Cohen did lie has been well known for at least a couple of months now. The added information that BuzzFeed News included in its recent story was that Trump had told Cohen to lie, which could amount to charges of suborning perjury against the president, as previous reporting from the Inquisitr pointed out.

A day after that report from BuzzFeed News came out, however, the special counsel made a rare public statement contradicting details found within it. “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,” spokesman Peter Carr said, per reporting from the New York Times.

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After news of the statement from the special counsel’s office made the rounds, Trump himself took to Twitter, authoring a tweet that called the BuzzFeed News report “disgraceful coverage.”

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith, in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, said that he stands by his reporters’ original article. He added that the special counsel is “obviously disputing some element of our story, but it’s very difficult to understand which one,” per a tweet from the Rachel Maddow blog.

By my logic, one of three possibilities is happening here. I’ll go through them one-by-one.

First: the BuzzFeed News article is mostly accurate, but has a few details wrong. The special counsel believed that there was enough wrong to warrant an official statement disputing the article, but not going into details what was wrong.

This can include a theory that was making the rounds on Twitter shortly after the special counsel statement was made — that the “federal law enforcement officials” that BuzzFeed News had as its sources aren’t actually part of the special counsel, but perhaps part of an offshoot investigation with knowledge of what’s happening.

Columnist Charles Pierce suggested as much in a tweet of his own. “[Journalist] Marcy Wheeler argues, and I agree, that the leak came from the SDNY. And, yes, the SC freaked about it,” he wrote.

Second: The details reported by BuzzFeed News are mostly accurate, but the special counsel doesn’t want to have aspects of its final report leaked out like this to the public. Their denial could be a ruse, meant to dissuade people from believing the article before all the facts are presented to the Justice Department.

And third: BuzzFeed News made a mistake and based its reporting on shoddy research. Or, they made it all up, as a way to rile up the president for whatever unknown reason.

The truth of the matter won’t be known for some time, I predict. But if we use Occam’s razor as a guide, I believe we must rule out the third possibility. BuzzFeed News has done tremendously positive and outstanding reporting in the past, and there’s little reason to believe in this instance that isn’t still the case.

There is a possibility that their journalists made a mistake, or were misled by their sources. But among the three options above, I believe it to be the least likely.

The ambiguity of the special counsel office’s statement makes it difficult to discern what exactly it is that they’re disputing. And so I’m not inclined to disbelieve the BuzzFeed News article just quote yet.

Think about it in allegorical terms. In an ordinary conversation between yourself and a friend, where you’re arguing over an arbitrary mistake one of you has done, the facts of the situation can often get muddled. If your friend says that you spilled wine on her carpet last Thursday night, and you dispute those facts, what is it you’re saying exactly?

Your friend would be wise to be skeptical of your argument, at least until you explained in detail what you’re disputing exactly (the time of the offense, or the action of spilling the wine?).

Similarly, the special counsel’s words in the statement outlined above don’t really give us any reason to completely dismiss BuzzFeed’s reporting. Maybe something was off about it, but what exactly as of right now is unknown.

Until we know for certain what’s going on, we shouldn’t assume that the BuzzFeed report was necessarily wrong. Healthy skepticism is perhaps warranted, but not to the degree that some, including the president, have tried to insinuate.