In his Thursday testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI director James B. Comey said that a controversial New York Times story in February about alleged contacts between Trump intimates and Russian officials was bogus. “In the main, it was not true,” he said.
“The challenge, and I’m not picking on reporters, about writing stories about classified information is the people talking about it often don’t really know what’s going on and those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it,” said Comey during questioning from Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho). “And we don’t call the press and say, ‘Hey, you got that thing wrong.’ ”
The comments from Comey revive a rather heated media-politics brushfire from the very early days of the Trump administration. Published amid the ouster of then-national security adviser Michael Flynn over his statements about contacts with Russia, the Feb. 14 New York Times story contained ordnance. The opening sentence: “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.” Though the story said that officials had found no evidence of collusion by Trump associates with Russia, it alleged that the intercepted communications “alarmed” U.S. officials because it overlapped with Trump’s complimentary comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin.
One of the people picked up on the surveillance, reported the New York Times, was Paul Manafort, who served for a time as Trump’s presidential campaign chairman. Manafort called the reporting “absurd.” A correction added on the day of publication read, “An earlier version of this article misstated the number of people (in addition to Paul Manafort) whom the F.B.I. has examined. It is at least three, not at least four.” And the newspaper acknowledged the limitations of its reporting: “The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself,” noted the story.
Lack of detail notwithstanding, the story shook the White House. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told “Fox News Sunday,” “The New York Times put out an article with no direct sources that said that the Trump campaign had constant contacts with Russian spies, basically, you know, some treasonous type of accusations. We have now all kinds of people looking into this. I can assure you and I have been approved to say this — that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it’s grossly overstated and it was wrong. And there’s nothing to it.”
Not only that: CNN reported that the White House had asked top FBI personnel to rebut the New York Times piece, perhaps by speaking to reporters on background — even though the White House at the time was denouncing anonymous sources. The FBI declined to do so at the time.
Attacks from folks such as Priebus prompted New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet to issue this defense: “The Times had numerous sources confirming this story. Attacking it does not make it less true.”
Things have changed. Before, White House officials — a crew known to blast the media for often specious and baseless reasons — were blasting the story. Now a straight-shooting former FBI director is blasting the story. In addition, Comey confirmed Risch’s contentions that the former FBI director responded to the New York Times story by checking with his intelligence sources and informing lawmakers that it wasn’t accurate.
We’ve asked the New York Times for a fresh response. A New York Times spokesperson tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “As we have said previously, we believe in the accuracy of our reporting. Our reporters are currently looking into Mr. Comey’s statement about our story and we plan to report back as soon as we can.”
UPDATE: The New York Times has provided a new statement on this matter:
The New York Times has published an examination of Mr. Comey’s statements today, which reviews our previous coverage and found no evidence that any prior reporting was inaccurate. In fact, subsequent reporting by The Times and other media outlets has verified our reporting as the story makes clear.
Neither the F.B.I., nor Mr. Comey would comment or elaborate on what Mr. Comey believes to be incorrect. Should they provide more information, we would review that as well.