BuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president

First there was collusion. Then there was obstruction. Then there was subornation. As the Russia investigation has migrated to every new allegation, a host of experts have proclaimed conclusive grounds for the imminent prosecution and impeachment of President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE, soon followed by calls for immediate impeachment proceedings, only to be followed by mitigating or conflicting evidence on each allegation.

The latest allegation called a “slam dunk” followed a BuzzFeed story that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE has proof that Trump told his attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress. The same news cycle quickly began, even though the story was long on allegations and short on evidence. Then later that night, the Mueller team released a rare public statement that proved to be the ultimate buzzkill for the breaking news: “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.”

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What is most striking about this boom and bust pattern is how it is repeated with such regularity and so little scrutiny in the media. The president may well be shown to have committed criminal or impeachable acts including subornation. That, however, will require concrete evidence and the satisfaction of the elements of a specific crime. Mueller may supply such facts or he may not. It is the seeming refusal to accept the latter possibility that has increasingly distorted media coverage.

The subornation crime is the latest example. Cohen said he gave false information to federal investigators and to Congress about the effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Cohen told Congress that the attempts to secure the deal ended in January 2016, well before the first Republican presidential primary. Cohen now maintains that attempts continued until June 2016, the same month as the infamous meeting in Trump Tower in New York between Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpTrump Jr. slams 2020 Dems as 'more concerned' about rights of murderers than legal gun owners It is wrong to say 'no collusion' Nadler: I don't understand why Mueller didn't charge Donald Trump Jr., others in Trump Tower meeting MORE, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump claims Mueller didn't speak to those 'closest' to him It is wrong to say 'no collusion' The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? MORE, Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortPoll: Nearly half of Republicans say no one on Trump campaign committed a crime It is wrong to say 'no collusion' The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? MORE, and Russians promising evidence of crimes committed by Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rips Krugman, NYT after columnist writes GOP no longer believes in American values Klobuchar jokes to Cuomo: 'I feel you creeping over my shoulder' but 'not in a Trumpian manner' Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment MORE or her private foundation. It also was just a few months before the election.

The discrepancy raises reasonable questions about statements made by Trump during the campaign, as well as statements made by Trump Jr. and Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpA Trump visit to Africa is important — and carries some urgency On The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job MORE about their own involvement in the planning. But those statements do not, on their face, make a strong case for criminal charges. Trump denied “any business deal” in Moscow, which is not necessarily contradicted by the account of Cohen, who was setting up a potential deal that fell through and did not result in the meeting being discussed.

Trump later insisted he never denied pursuing deals. In November 2018 after the Cohen plea, Trump said about the election, “There was a good chance that I would not have won, in which case I would have gone back into the business. Why should I lose lots of opportunities?” In the end, these statements were not made under oath or to investigators. Even if Trump is viewed as lying about the deal, it is not a crime for politicians to lie to the American public. If it were, Washington would be a ghost town.

Then there is statement by Trump Jr. that his knowledge of the deal was “peripheral” and claims by Ivanka of having marginal involvement. Those descriptions are difficult to use as a basis for perjury alone. They are subjective views of the relative involvement or knowledge of one project among many business endeavors. While there may be other challenged statements, it is quite difficult to imagine a charge that Trump Jr. should have said “occasional” or “periodic” knowledge rather than “peripheral.”

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That brings us back to subornation. Cohen has suggested that he lied to Congress either with the knowledge or the direction of Trump. If that were proven, the president could be guilty of suborning perjury, which is a clear federal crime and would be an obvious ground for impeachment. Moreover, his nominee for attorney general, William Barr, testified in his Senate hearing this week that he does believe a president can be charged with subornation and obstruction for encouraging people to lie.

However, Cohen also has said that he tailored his testimony to public statements by Trump, which is materially different from being told to lie. To establish this crime under Justice Department guidelines, prosecutors must show that a “defendant procured the perjury corruptly, knowing, believing, or having reason to believe it to be false testimony” and that the “defendant knew, believed, or had reason to believe that the perjurer had knowledge of the falsity of his or her testimony.” That requires evidence of intent and knowledge by Trump of when the negotiations or discussions ended, as well as a clear effort to get Cohen to move that date back.

Finally, there is the question of whether such a claim alone would be sufficient for impeachment. Subornation was indeed part of both the impeachment articles against Richard Nixon and Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFive town hall takeaways: Warren shines, Sanders gives ammo to critics Heavy lapses in judgment are politicizing the justice system Bernie Sanders claims his Sister Souljah moment MORE. When I testified during the Clinton impeachment hearings in 1998, I maintained that lying under oath is indeed a “high crime and misdemeanor” for the purpose of impeachment. The same is true about subornation if proven.

Yet, many members of Congress who called for possible impeachment proceedings this week also voted against the impeachment of Clinton on the same grounds back then. Monica Lewinsky recently confirmed that Clinton pressured her to lie to federal investigators and a federal court. Clinton had brought in his friend, Vernon Jordan, who not only arranged for the lawyer who drafted and filed a false affidavit but also helped Lewinsky, who had very little work experience, secure a lucrative job offer with Revlon, a company where Jordan served on the board of directors.

So Clinton lied under oath, lied to federal investigators, and allegedly suborned perjury. A judge later reaffirmed that his testimony was obvious perjury. When Article III containing those allegations was brought to the floor, the voting members included many current Democratic leaders who insisted that none of it satisfied the standard for impeachment. In the House, they included Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiPence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Julián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Swalwell on impeachment: 'We're on that road' after Mueller report MORE, Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersHarris says Congress should take steps toward impeaching Trump On The Money: Cain withdraws from Fed consideration | Says he didn't want 'pay cut' | Trump sues to block subpoena for financial records | Dems plot next move in Trump tax-return battle Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment MORE, Benjamin Cardin, Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsWhite House moves to block official from congressional testimony despite subpoena The Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics On The Money: Cain withdraws from Fed consideration | Says he didn't want 'pay cut' | Trump sues to block subpoena for financial records | Dems plot next move in Trump tax-return battle MORE, Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment Democrats leave impeachment on the table MORE, Jerry NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerKlobuchar on impeachment: 'I'm the jury' Where 2020 Democratic candidates stand on impeachment Pelosi downplays impeachment post-Mueller report MORE, and others. Over in the Senate, Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenAndrew Cuomo: Biden has best chance at 'main goal' of beating Trump Poll: Buttigieg tops Harris, O'Rourke as momentum builds Buttigieg responds to accusation of pushing a 'hate hoax' about Pence MORE, Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMJ Hegar announces Texas Senate bid Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars Dem legal analyst says media 'overplayed' hand in Mueller coverage MORE, Richard DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' Congress opens door to fraught immigration talks McConnell: 'Past time' for immigration-border security deal MORE, Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinDems reject Barr's offer to view Mueller report with fewer redactions Five takeaways from Mueller's report Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE, Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyDurbin calls Mueller report findings on Trump team 'troubling' 20 Dems demand no more money for ICE agents, Trump wall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump, Dems prep for Mueller report's release MORE, Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Acting Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange MORE, and others voted against conviction.

None of this means a case will not be made for subornation, obstruction, or other crimes against Trump. Moreover, if proven, Trump should be impeached. While these members were wrong in 1998, they would be justified in voting for impeachment on the very grounds they rejected when a Democratic president was the one being judged. For the moment, however, the only thing that is worse than ignoring the evidence of crimes by a president is ignoring the absence of evidence against a president.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.