WASHINGTON — The drumbeat of impeachment grew a little louder in Washington on Friday following an explosive media report that alleges the president of the United States directed his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the timing of discussions to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

The BuzzFeed News story — unconfirmed and based on anonymous law-enforcement sources claiming knowledge of what Cohen has told special counsel Robert Mueller, whose office is disputing the report — landed like a thunderclap among Democrats.

“These allegations may prove unfounded, but if true, they would constitute both the subordination of perjury as well as obstruction of justice,” Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

“As a counterintelligence concern of the greatest magnitude, and given that these alleged efforts were intended to interfere with our investigation, our committee is determined to get to the bottom of this and follow the evidence wherever it may lead.”

Later Friday, the special counsel’s office issued a rare statement denying elements of the story, saying 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.”

Editor-in-chief Ben Smith told CNN that BuzzFeed News stands by its story, and he urged Mueller’s office to provide more specifics about what precisely they are disputing.

Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy, perhaps nervous about attorney-general nominee William Barr’s committee testimony earlier this week that hinted the full contents of Mueller’s long-awaited report might not be made public, suggested the story makes matters more urgent than ever. 

“If Mueller does have multiple sources confirming Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, then we need to know this ASAP,” he tweeted. “Mueller shouldn’t end his inquiry, but it’s about time for him to show Congress his cards before it’s too late for us to act.”  

The reaction from Texas Democrat and House intelligence committee member Joaquin Castro was decidedly more concise: “If the BuzzFeed story is true, President Trump must resign or be impeached.”

Cohen, of course, has a credibility problem. He has already pleaded guilty to the deception in question: telling the Senate and House intelligence committees the Trump Tower Moscow talks had ended in January 2016 when in fact they continued until June. He was also convicted of tax fraud and campaign-finance charges linked to payments made on Trump’s behalf to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.

“Michael Cohen is a convicted criminal and a liar,” Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said Friday in a statement that dismissed the BuzzFeed allegations as “categorically false.”

“Today’s claims are just more made-up lies borne of Michael Cohen’s malice and desperation, in an effort to reduce his sentence.”

Cohen, who has agreed to testify before the House Oversight Committee next month, has already been sentenced to three years in prison — a fact that didn’t seem to deter Giuliani or his most famous client from their leniency theory. 

“Lying to reduce his jail time!” Trump fumed on Twitter, later retweeting expressions of support that seized on the statement from the special counsel to denounce the BuzzFeed story as fake news.

Impeachment, of course, is a double-edged sword — one many more moderate and politically savvy Democrats are wary of wielding.

It backfired most famously in 1998, when the Republican majority in Congress, egged on by ambitious then-speaker Newt Gingrich, pushed to impeach Bill Clinton over perjury and obstruction-of-justice charges linked to the allegations of sexual misconduct that plagued his presidency.

Gingrich, who was convinced impeachment proceedings would give the Republicans 30 or 40 more House seats in that year’s midterm elections, was instead forced to eventually hand over the gavel after the GOP majority shrank by five seats.

The House of Representatives could pass articles of impeachment but it would take a two-thirds majority in the Senate to remove Trump from the presidency. Since Republicans still control the Senate, any articles of impeachment would be unlikely to pass without a measure of GOP support, said Paul Beck, a politics professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.

“How much these possible revelations will move Republicans towards impeachment, and ultimately conviction, is the question,” Beck said.

“If the impeachment is solely a Democratic action, conviction will assuredly not follow in the Republican-controlled Senate. So Republicans are the ones to watch — and public opinion polls that might influence their positions.” 

A number of recent polls suggest Trump’s approval ratings are on the decline, but that has more to do with his protracted fight with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the federal government shutdown, the longest in U.S. history with no signs of a resolution any time soon.

“Democrats are willing to let Trump look like an idiot on this and inflict more self-induced harm,” said Melissa Haussman, a professor and specialist in U.S. politics at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

“On the other hand, the Democrats have to appear to try to deal with this shutdown too, or else everybody will be wearing it in 2020. I think we’re getting close to a point of no return where it doesn’t help anybody.”

—Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

The Canadian Press