WASHINGTON — The two most important words in American politics today are these two: "if true."
"President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter," Buzzfeed News reported last night.
Importantly, the article adds, "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 emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents. Cohen then acknowledged those instructions during his interviews with that office."
NBC News has not yet confirmed the Buzzfeed report. But if true — and if Mueller does have the receipts — why is this news significant?
Well, in 1974, the first article of impeachment against Richard Nixon was obstruction of justice for - among other things - "approving, condoning, acquiescing in, and counselling witnesses with respect to the giving of false or misleading statements to lawfully authorized investigative officers and employees of the United States."
It also included approving/condoning/counseling "false or misleading testimony in duly instituted judicial and congressional proceedings."
In 1998, the first article of impeachment against Bill Clinton included "efforts to influence the testimony of witnesses and to impede the discovery of evidence."
And just this week, President Trump's attorney general pick, William Barr, was asked this question:
KLOBUCHAR: "In your memo … you wrote on Page 1 that a president persuading a person to commit perjury would be obstruction. Is that right?
BARR: Yes… Any person who persuades another…
Bottom line: The chances of impeachment proceedings against Trump — remember, impeachment is the debate about whether a president committed high crimes and misdemeanors, not removal from office — are much higher today than they were yesterday.
Also, if Mueller does have these company emails, text messages and other documents, WHAT ELSE does he know that hasn't been reported yet?
Trump reportedly instructing his attorney/fixer to lie to Congress is a really big deal. But the subject matter of the lie — business dealings with Russia — might even be bigger
While the prospect that the president of the United States asked his former lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress is a BIG story, let's also don't lose sight of what Cohen actually told Congress: that Trump's business dealings with Russia stopped in January 2016 instead of June 2016.
As Mueller revealed back in November:
"The Moscow Project was discussed multiple times within the Company and did not end in January 2016. Instead, as late as approximately June 2016, COHEN … discussed efforts to obtain Russian governmental approval for the Moscow Project."
And what was Trump saying about Russia on the campaign trail back then?
Here was Trump in December 2015, when MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asked him about Vladimir Putin's killing of journalists: "He's running his country. And at least he's a leader — unlike what we have in this country.
Here was Trump downplaying Russia's hostilities with Ukraine in a March 2016 New York Times interview: "Now I'm all for Ukraine, I have friends that live in Ukraine, but it didn't seem to me, when the Ukrainian problem arose, you know, not so long ago, and we were, and Russia was getting very confrontational, it didn't seem to me like anyone else cared other than us. And we are the least affected by what happens with Ukraine because we're the farthest away. But even their neighbors didn't seem to be talking about it. And, you know, you look at Germany, you look at other countries, and they didn't seem to be very much involved. It was all about us and Russia. And I wondered, why is it that countries that are bordering the Ukraine and near the Ukraine — why is it that they're not more involved? Why is it that they are not more involved? Why is it always the United States that gets right in the middle of things?"
And here was Trump in an April 2016 foreign policy speech calling for stronger relations with Russia: "I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only is possible, absolutely possible. Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries. Some say the Russians won't be reasonable. I intend to find out. If we can't make a deal under my administration, a deal that's great — not good, great — for America, but also good for Russia, then we will quickly walk from the table. It's as simple as that. We're going to find out."
So remember, the business dealings with Russia — combined with what he said about Russia and Putin during the campaign — are just as important, if not more so, than what Trump directed Cohen to do regarding his congressional testimony.
The "Jerk Store" School of Politics: When the White House becomes a "Seinfeld" episode
The day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that she was delaying President Trump's State of the Union speech due to the shutdown — which today enters its 28th day — the president responded this way on Thursday:
"President Donald Trump said Thursday that he was canceling Speaker Nancy Pelosi's previously undisclosed trip to war-torn Afghanistan, telling the woman second in line to the presidency that she can't use a military jet but is welcome to fly commercially if she wants," NBC's Jonathan Allen, Allan Smith and Dartunorro Clark write.
It's reminiscent of this exchange:
You know, George, the ocean called. They're running out of shrimp.
Oh yeah, Ron, well, the Jerk Store called — they're running out of you.
Oh, and what did we learn AFTER Trump canceled Pelosi's CODEL to Afghanistan? "First Lady Melania Trump flew to Florida Thursday for a weekend vacation on a government plane, according to a law enforcement source," per NBC's Monica Alba.
Just asking: Did Trump do Pelosi a favor here — by scrapping a flight (even to Afghanistan) during a shutdown? What would have been the reaction had Pelosi gone on that flight?
This week's five overlooked political stories
New developments in the Russia investigation. The shutdown. The emerging 2020 race. There's so much big political news these days that other significant stories — ones that would have dominated coverage for days during the Obama or Bush presidencies — don't get the attention they deserve.
So we're beginning a new weekly feature: listing the five overlooked stories in American politics. These are stories/developments that got attention, but barely. Here's our Top 5:
- Trump discussed pulling the U.S. from NATO: "Senior administration officials told The New York Times that several times over the course of 2018, Mr. Trump privately said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Current and former officials who support the alliance said they feared Mr. Trump could return to his threat as allied military spending continued to lag behind the goals the president had set."
- Inspector general rips the GSA for punting on a possible emoluments violation: "The inspector general of the General Services Administration, the government agency that controls federal property, said Wednesday that the agency had failed to consider whether President Donald Trump's lease on the Washington building that houses the Trump Hotel violated either the Constitution or the terms of the lease. The IG report did not reach a conclusion on either of those issues, but said GSA lawyers should have," per NBC's Pete Williams.
- Judge rules against Trump administration's citizenship question on Census: "A federal judge in New York has ruled against the Trump administration's decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census," NPR reported.
- Pentagon develops plan to scrutinize recruits with green cards: "The Pentagon, citing terrorism and espionage fears, is developing a plan to scrutinize prospective recruits with foreign ties, including some U.S. citizens, after a related effort targeting thousands of green-card holders was blocked by a federal judge last year," the Washington Post says.
- The Trump administration drafted its family separation policy for migrants in late 2017: "Trump administration officials weighed speeding up the deportation of migrant children by denying them their legal right to asylum hearings after separating them from their parents, according to comments on a late 2017 draft of what became the administration's family separation policy obtained by NBC News."
The Dean "scream" — the first viral moment in American politics — turns 15
Tomorrow — January 19 — marks the 15th anniversary of the famous/infamous Dean "scream" in Iowa. And as one of us writes, it became arguably the first viral moment in American politics — two weeks before Facebook was created, a year before there was a YouTube and two years before Twitter.
Not only did Dean's "Yaaaaaaaay" launch TV stories and late-night jokes, those on the Pre-Social Media Internet turned it into mp3 remixes like this one with Lil Jon and this one with Ozzy Ozbourne's "Crazy Train."
It was the first political meme — before anyone had ever heard the word "meme."
And it was the forerunner for all the viral political moments we've seen since then:
- George Allen's, R-Va., "Macaca" moment
- "I've got a crush on Obama"
- John McCain telling a woman that Barack Obama wasn't an Arab
- Rick Perry's "Oops"
- Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair
- Mitt Romney's 47 percent video
- Marco Rubio drinking that water during his State of the Union response
- The bird that landed on Bernie Sanders' podium
- And Donald Trump descending that escalator to announce his presidential bid.