White House press secretary Sean Spicer takes questions at a press briefing at the White House on Jan. 24 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Media critic

Minutes ago, CNN announced on air a breaking-news story. U.S. investigators, said correspondent Jim Sciutto on Jake Tapper’s show “The Lead,” have corroborated “some of the communications detailed in a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent.” Prior to this reporting, sources have insisted that details in that dossier, an explosive document that shook the news stream in January, were unverified. Now, according to reporting by Sciutto and colleague Evan Perez, “multiple current and former U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials tell CNN that intelligence intercepts of foreign nationals confirm that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier.” There’s no confirmation about the content of those communications, nor is there any confirmation of the more “salacious” allegations in the dossier.

So what did White House press secretary Sean Spicer say? “We continue to be disgusted by CNN’s fake news reporting.”

News about the dossier first emerged shortly before the election via David Corn of Mother Jones, who provided a sketch of the sort of information that it contained. There things sat through the election and deep into the transition period. In January, CNN reported that discussions of the dossier had bubbled all the way up to the presidential level — and that both Trump and then-President Obama had been told about its claims. The document itself originated as opposition research against Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Following CNN’s January scoop, BuzzFeed published the whole thing.

As it turned out, Spicer’s “fake news” comeback wasn’t the totality of his response over this story. Perez said on Tapper’s show that the press secretary subsequently sought another bite at the apple. “This is more fake news. It is about time CNN focused on the success the president has had bringing back jobs, protecting the nation and strengthening relationships with Japan and other nations. The president won the election because of his vision and message for the nation.”


The response from officialdom aligns with an authoritarian’s refusal to face facts. After CNN broke its January story of high-level briefings on the dossier, Trump attempted to discredit the outlet by lumping it with BuzzFeed’s hasty and irresponsible decision to simply plop the unconfirmed dossier on its website. “You are fake news,” thundered Trump in a clash with CNN correspondent Jim Acosta at a Jan. 11 press conference. Such protestations notwithstanding, CNN’s reporting on the travels of the dossier up through the ranks of government remained intact — there wasn’t a fake word in it.

Did Spicer and Co. even consider the reporting to which they were responding? Though CNN reports a level of corroboration in its story, the particulars are far from scandalous. Not only does the sleuthing fall short of confirming the out-there parts of the dossier, it “relates to conversations between foreign nationals,” according to CNN. And that draws a fake-news response from the White House press secretary?

That Spicer would resort to this slander in his response to a request for comment is at once outrageous and no surprise whatsoever. That he would seek to steer CNN toward the White House’s job performance before its first unemployment report speaks to the White House’s comfort level with an independent press. Minimal, that is.