Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office has disputed key elements of a media report that President Donald Trump directed his former lawyer to lie to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal, raising questions about a story that has dominated US news coverage for the past 24 hours.
BuzzFeed News reported late on Thursday that Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer who is slated to go to prison for lying to Congress and other crimes, told investigators working for Mueller that Trump had instructed him to lie about efforts to build a skyscraper in Moscow while he was running for president.
"BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the Special Counsel's Office, and characterisation of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen's Congressional testimony are not accurate," Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, said in the special counsel's first comment on a media report since its probe started 20 months ago.
While Carr did not directly address whether there was evidence that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, he disputed portions of the story about how BuzzFeed corroborated the explosive allegations against Trump.
Citing information from two federal law enforcement officials, BuzzFeed said Cohen told the special counsel that after the 2016 presidential election Trump instructed him to tell Congress that negotiations over the Moscow project had ended earlier than they had in order to obscure Trump's involvement.
Carr's statement also appeared to dispute BuzzFeed's assertion that the special counsel learned about Trump's directive from interviews with employees of the Trump Organization, emails, text messages and other documents.
BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith said in a statement: "We stand by the reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he's disputing."
After the BuzzFeed report was published on Thursday night, investigators in the US Senate and House of Representatives said they planned to investigate the allegations, while some Democrats described the report as a game-changer that, if true, could be grounds for impeaching the president.
Earlier on Friday, the White House said the story was false. "Look, that's absolutely ridiculous," spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters.
David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor, said Mueller's decision to comment highlighted the significance of the allegations made in the BuzzFeed article and the attention it was getting in the media and among lawmakers.
"They are making a public comment to tell everyone to calm down," Weinstein said. "He doesn't want people to think his silence is confirming the truthfulness of the report."
Trump said on Twitter that Cohen was lying to get less prison time.
Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said in a statement that any suggestion that Trump told Cohen to lie is "categorically false".
Representatives for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment on the BuzzFeed report.
Cohen, who once said he was so loyal to Trump that he would "take a bullet" for him, is scheduled to begin a three-year prison sentence in March after pleading guilty to charges including campaign finance violations, tax evasion and lying to Congress.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the allegation that Trump may have directed Cohen to lie under oath "is among the most serious to date."
"We will do what's necessary to find out if it's true," Schiff, also a Democrat, said on Twitter.
Australian Associated Press