Reporter with checkered past comes back with Trump Tower Moscow bombshells for BuzzFeed
Posted January 18, 2019 12:04 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2019 1:36 p.m. EST
CNN — Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, two reporters for BuzzFeed News, may have just scored the scoop that, if it is ultimately confirmed, irrevocably changes the course of the Trump presidency. If so, it will represent for Leopold the apex of a comeback from a troubled personal and professional past.
On Thursday evening, the duo published a bombshell: A report that President Donald Trump personally directed Michael Cohen, his former attorney, to lie to Congress about the Moscow Trump Tower project.
If the story is accurate, it means Trump asked Cohen to commit perjury, a federal crime and potentially impeachable offense. The story has not yet been corroborated by CNN or any other news outlet, but there are six distinct areas where reporting from the bombshell lines up with court records, including the charging documents against Cohen, sentencing memos, and hearings.
Since it was published, the story has dominated cable news and caught the eye of Congressional Democrats. In a tweet, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said his committee would "get to the bottom of it."
Leopold and Cormier have broken a number of major stories on Trump Tower and Russia that have proven true. But the intense attention to their latest scoop has also resurfaced Leopold's checkered past.
Leopold, a former Los Angeles Times, Dow Jones, and Vice News reporter who has been at BuzzFeed since 2017, was involved in several major scandals that called into question the veracity of his reporting during George W. Bush's presidency.
In 2002, Salon.com removed a story Leopold had written as a freelancer for the site. Salon said that as it investigated a piece he wrote about Enron, including an allegation of plagiarism against him, Leopold "distributed an account of events" that was "riddled with inaccuracies and misrepresentations." Ultimately Salon said it "reluctantly had to conclude" Leopold's piece carried "an instance of plagiarism," despite his strong denials.
After the scandal, Leopold wrote a book in which he said he had engaged in "lying, cheating, and backstabbing" in his life; battled mental illness; and struggled with substance abuse.
"I have a checkered past, and I was hoping that by coming clean about my own past, it would allow me to move forward," Leopold wrote, according to a 2005 article in The Washington Post.
But in 2006, Leopold found himself again in controversy. He reported for Truthout.org that then-top White House aide Karl Rove had told then-President Bush and other administration officials that he was going to be indicted in relation to the Valerie Plame affair. Leopold cited "people knowledgeable about these discussions" and reported Rove's "indictment is imminent." But Rove never faced any charges.
A 2015 profile of Leopold in The New York Times noted that he has "been through a series of scandals." But the Times also noted Leopold was able to make a comeback by breaking stories uncovered through the submission of Freedom of Information Act requests. He earned the nickname, featured in his Twitter profile, of the "FOIA terrorist."
"I love the score," he told the Times "So maybe there's this drug-ish thing in me that still exists, maybe that was always part of my personality. I love the score. I love the score! Particularly when it is from the government! I just got you to give me your own documents, you know!"
Leopold joined Vice News in 2014 and in 2017 was hired by BuzzFeed News where he and Cormier have led reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow project.
In 2018, Leopold was a finalist for a 2018 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a story the committee described as a "stunning probe across two continents that proved that operatives with apparent ties to Vladimir Putin have engaged in a targeted killing campaign against his perceived enemies on British and American soil."
In April, Leopold and Cormier reported that a former Russian spy had assisted Trump's business team in working on a potential deal to build a tower in Moscow, citing two sources familiar with the matter, despite Trump saying during the 2016 campaign that he had no business with Russia.
In May, Leopold and Cormier published what they called the "definitive story" on the Trump Tower Moscow project.
And then, in November, Leopold and Cormier broke news that the Trump Organization had planned to give Russian President Vladimir Putin a $50 million penthouse in the proposed tower. Asked about the idea of giving Putin the penthouse in the potential tower, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani initially said Trump "never heard of this" and that "the concept never got anywhere beyond an unfunded letter of intent and never even a proposal or draft contract." CNN later obtained a document showing Trump had, in fact, signed a letter of intent to move forward with negotiations, despite Giuliani's claim.
Those stories ultimately led to Thursday's bombshell.
Talking by phone Friday morning on "New Day," Cormier was asked about Leopold's past. Cormier said his story was "100%" solid and that his sourcing "goes beyond" the two law enforcement sources in BuzzFeed News' story.
"I am the individual who confirmed and verified that," Cormier said, adding that he and Leopold were "able to gather information from individuals who know this happened."
Reached for comment on Friday, Leopold referred questions to BuzzFeed News spokesperson Matt Mittenthal.
In a statement, Mittenthal vigorously stood by BuzzFeed News' story and denounced online criticism that Leopold faced on Friday, much of which came from Trump supporters using his past to discredit Thursday's report.
"Jason is one of the best journalists in the world, and he has proven it, with reporting that's been months ahead of developments in the Mueller investigation," Mittenthal said. "His and Anthony's work has been proven to be true at every turn -- and it's interesting that these personal attacks are surfacing only now, as the facts become more dangerous for the individuals involved. BuzzFeed News stands by this story 100%."
In a statement released after this story initially published, Giuliani said, "Any suggestion -- from any source -- that the President counseled Michael Cohen to lie is categorically false. Michael Cohen is a convicted criminal and a liar. To quote the prosecutors, he has traded on 'a pattern of lies and dishonesty over an extended period of time' and for that 'he is going to pay a very, very serious price.'
"Today's claims are just more made-up lies born of Michael Cohen's malice and desperation, in an effort to reduce his sentence."
Cormier earlier denied to NPR that Cohen was a source for the story.