In an age of unyielding appetite for all things Trump, big news travels fast.
So when BuzzFeed News reported on Thursday that the president had instructed his lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, to lie in his testimony to Congress — a felony — the assertion ricocheted around the cable TV ecosystem and into the halls of Congress, where Democratic lawmakers publicly mused on impeachment.
Unlike past articles on the possible ties between Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia, however, this one was not followed by similar stories from other news organizations, who proved unable to corroborate its findings with reporting of their own. And on Friday, the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, broke precedent by issuing a denial, interrupting nearly 20 months of silence from Mr. Mueller on news reports swirling around his investigation.
Whether BuzzFeed’s reporting can stand up to further scrutiny is now at the center of a test of the news media’s credibility. President Trump seized on the special counsel’s denial to continue making the case that the press is biased against him. Journalists expressed the worry that a retraction could undermine Americans’ trust in their work.
BuzzFeed News said on Saturday that it remained confident in the article and its two authors, one of whom won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2016. “We wouldn’t have published it if we hadn’t felt comfortable with it,” Ben Smith, the site’s editor in chief, said in an interview. “We were careful and thorough.”
Mr. Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House on Saturday, called the article “a disgrace to our country.” He added, “It’s going to take a long time for the mainstream media to recover its credibility.”
The episode underscored the risks and temptations that go with reporting on the legal labyrinth of Mr. Mueller’s investigation, the outcome of which may help determine the fate of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
BuzzFeed’s findings were attributed to two unnamed federal law enforcement officers with knowledge of the special counsel’s investigation. One of the reporters, Anthony Cormier, said on CNN that he had not reviewed the underlying documents, but that the two sources had, and they were “fully, 100 percent read-in to that aspect of the special counsel’s investigation.”
Mr. Cormier and his co-writer, Jason Leopold, have written well-received investigative articles on Mr. Trump and a Moscow tower project that involved President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The latest piece, though, was more dramatic in reporting that Mr. Trump had instructed Mr. Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow project and that Mr. Mueller’s office was aware of this conduct.
The BuzzFeed article was the talk of TV pundits and news websites for 24 hours — until Peter Carr, Mr. Mueller’s spokesman, weighed in. Mr. Carr, whose stoicism is so well-known in Washington that he has the nickname “Mr. No-Comment,” wrote: “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.”
Several reporters who cover the Justice Department said they interpreted the statement as a full denial of BuzzFeed’s conclusions. Mr. Smith, in the interview, said the wording of Mr. Carr’s statement was imprecise, adding that he was “eager to understand” which specific aspects of the article the special counsel’s office had denied. Asked if the statement had caught him by surprise, Mr. Smith replied, “You always have to be ready for everything in this business.”
BuzzFeed News, the reporting division of a website better known for viral videos and quizzes, has scrambled for respect and recognition since its founding eight years ago. Under the direction of Mr. Smith, a longtime political journalist, the site has pursued ambitious stories. Last year it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for an inquiry into the deaths of Russians in England, which Mr. Leopold worked on.
BuzzFeed’s longtime investigative editor, Mark Schoofs, left in August for an academic post at the University of Southern California. His replacement, Heidi Blake, who is based in London, edited the Cohen piece, along with Mr. Smith and Ariel Kaminer, a senior investigations editor, both of whom are based in New York.
This is not the site’s first brush with controversy. In January 2017, Mr. Smith was the first editor to publish the explosive, but unverified, dossier compiled by the former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele during the 2016 campaign. Besides earning ire from the White House, and some scolding from media ethicists, the site was also sued for libel by Mr. Cohen in a case that was later dropped. Last month, a federal judge ruled in favor of BuzzFeed in a separate dossier-related lawsuit.
Mr. Leopold, who is based in Los Angeles and known for his mastery of Freedom of Information laws, has a self-described “checkered past” in journalism that includes retracted reporting and accusations of plagiarism. In 2006, he reported for TruthOut.org, a liberal website, that Karl Rove, a senior adviser to then-president George W. Bush, would soon be indicted; the story proved false. Mr. Leopold has also spoken openly about his recovery from addiction. Asked about Mr. Leopold’s past, Mr. Smith pointed to his Pulitzer Prize nomination last year.
The contentiousness over the recent BuzzFeed article is unlikely to abate soon.
Its central assertion pleased many liberals impatient for Mr. Mueller to release his findings. Democratic lawmakers were quick to write on Twitter that, “if true,” the article’s findings could lead to impeachment. In covering the reaction to its own scoop, BuzzFeed ran the headline, “More And More Democrats Are Suggesting Trump Should Be Impeached After He Told His Lawyer Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress.”
The cold water of Mr. Carr’s denial led some journalists to cringe on-air in real time. “This is a bad day for us,” the CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said on Friday, after his network had devoted many segments to dissecting the piece. “It reinforces every bad stereotype about the news media.”
The president’s son, Donald J. Trump Jr., a relentless media critic, responded in his own way, on Twitter: “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!”
One side effect of the BuzzFeed article was that it made for a rare moment of agreement between the president and the man who has been investigating him.
“I appreciate the special counsel coming out with a statement,” Mr. Trump told reporters on Saturday. “I think it was very appropriate that they did so. I very much appreciate that.”