The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s attack on ‘nine sources’ sounds a lot like the news story that started Flynn chaos

President Trump addresses the crowd during the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Today President Trump gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). So the question wasn’t whether he would criticize the media; it was how he would criticize the media.

As it turned out, he copied the talking points churned out over the weekend by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. “I think that the media should stop with this unnamed source stuff,” Priebus told “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson. “Put names on a piece of paper and print it. If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed.” That said, Priebus in another interview spoke in favor of “background” briefings in which administration officials bar the use of their names to spin reporters.

Picking up on the theme, Trump railed: “I’m against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.”

At the beginning of his speech to the 2017 CPAC, Feb. 24, President Trump slammed "fake news" organizations, saying the media should be required to name sources (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

This, from a fellow who has declared that leakers will “pay a big price.

In his broadside against unnamed sources, Trump went into a fair bit of detail. “A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are — they are the enemy of the people,” he said. “Because they have no sources — they just make them up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said nine people have confirmed. There are no nine people, I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. I said, ‘Give me a break.’ Because I know the people, I know who they talk to. There were no nine people. They say nine people. Somebody reads it and thinks nine people, they have nine sources. They make up sources. They’re very dishonest people.”

Ask Erik Wemple your questions about the ‘mainstream media’

The Erik Wemple Blog doesn’t keep a spreadsheet of the various stories that happen to rely on nine sources. Yet there’s this Feb. 9 piece from The Post: “National security adviser Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador, despite denials, officials say.”

Follow Erik Wemple's opinionsFollow

That’s the story that set in motion a series of events that ended in Flynn’s departure from the Trump White House. It claimed that Flynn indeed discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition — even though Vice President Pence had insisted in an interview that this discussion hadn’t taken place. Here’s the critical sourcing sentence in the story:

“Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters,” read the story, which had three reporters in its byline and four contributors. At the time the story ran, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Post Managing Editor Cameron Barr if the newspaper cited so many sources because of the ambient confusion within the Trump administration. He responded, “Whenever we rely on anonymous sources, we do whatever we can to provide readers with information that helps them assess their credibility. In this case, it was appropriate to let readers know that a significant number of sources were telling us the same thing.”

Chaos followed the report, as White House officials gave conflicting accounts of what had happened between Flynn and his colleagues. One moment, the president had confidence in Flynn; another moment, he was evaluating the situation. Then Flynn was dismissed. “The president was very concerned that Gen. Flynn had misled the vice president and others,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a press briefing.

Trump was a big fan of Wikileaks – but he doesn't like leaks from his own administration (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

That statement served as tidy confirmation of the story. Even so, Trump apparently chose this piece to attack from the CPAC podium. The Erik Wemple Blog asked Spicer via email whether it was indeed the story subject to his sniping; we haven’t yet heard back. The upper ranks of The Post appear to have concluded that they were the subject of Trump’s sourcing complaint. Just as Trump was finishing his remarks, Executive Editor Marty Baron issued this statement:

Everything we published regarding Gen. Flynn was true, as confirmed by subsequent events and on-the-record statements from administration officials themselves. The story led directly to the general’s dismissal as national security adviser. Calling press reports fake doesn’t make them so.

That Trump would choose — again, apparently — a fully confirmed story to attack in front of a CPAC audience says something about today’s politics: It doesn’t matter that these slams against the press are easily rebutted after the fact. It doesn’t matter that people disprove them through the use of links and logic. Media criticism has become dogma, something to be believed and applauded.