That New York Times article from Oct. 31, 2016, on the FBI investigation into the links between Russia and the Trump campaign won’t stop wiggling around in the newspaper’s archives. “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” reads the headline over a piece that addressed an ongoing probe that hadn’t yet “found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” The story continues: “And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”
That article has been an item of intense interest among anti-Trumpers ever since it hit the Internet, as it essentially rebutted other stories suggesting that the ties between Team Trump and Russia merited a great deal of continued scrutiny. During this pre-election period, both Slate and Mother Jones had published stories suggesting bona fide connections. And just a little over a week ago, the New York Times itself reported that as far back as July 2016, the FBI started a Russia-Trump probe in large part because of a tip from the Australians about a Trump campaign aide — George Papadopoulos — boasting to an Australian official about Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton in May 2016, two months before the WikiLeaks emails hit the Internet.
Now there’s more: A just-released transcript from the testimony of Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn R. Simpson before the Senate Judiciary Committee has launched another dart at the explosive October 2016 New York Times story. A former Wall Street Journal reporter-turned-opposition research entrepreneur, Simpson has risen to national prominence through the Russia-Trump miasma. It was Simpson’s firm, after all, that engaged former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele to study then-candidate Donald Trump’s Russia connections. Steele’s work came to constitute the so-called dossier featuring a number of salacious allegations about Trump’s conduct. The dossier was funded by pro-Hillary Clinton interests.
Upset by what he’d learned about Trump, Steele approached the FBI and a debriefing took place. That’s not all: Fusion and Steele himself briefed news outlets on the findings. Among those outlets was the New York Times. As the transcript states, the New York Times took part in two briefings with Fusion/Steele — one in late September and the other in mid-October. The upshot here is that the newspaper published its no-link story just a couple of weeks after the second briefing.
That juxtaposition apparently stirred Steele. Here’s Simpson:
Later in the session, Simpson is asked whether the New York Times story was at odds with his understanding of the FBI’s efforts. “Exactly,” he replied. Continuing, he said, “it was disclosing the existence of an FBI investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia, which, to my recollection, was the first time that anyone reported that the FBI was looking at whether the Trump campaign had ties to the Kremlin but at the same time saying that they had investigated this and not found anything, which threw cold water on the whole question through the election.”
The New York Times report, as it turns out, had an unforeseen impact: “Chris was confused and somewhat disturbed and didn’t think he understood the landscape and I think both of us felt like things were happening that we didn’t understand and that we must not know everything about, and therefore, you know, in a situation like that the smart thing to do is stand down,” reads the Simpson transcript.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, told the Erik Wemple Blog earlier this month: “It is fair to say we know a lot more now about what the government knew about Russian meddling than we did before the election. We would have cast that story differently but it was never meant to give the Trump campaign a clean bill of health. It reflected the FBI’s skepticism, which was made public after the campaign. And which was all we could report at that moment. By the way, the question of whether there was collusion remains the subject of the investigation.” Another top New York Times official told this blog that the key paragraph of the story — about how there was a serious investigation that hadn’t yet found evidence linking Team Trump to “Russia’s election operations” — “pretty much stands up” to this day.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there’s a competing version of events on the official record — namely, that the newspaper or the FBI more broadly was being manipulated by pro-Trump interests. Leak by leak, transcript by transcript, a more definitive picture will inevitably emerge.
Read more by Erik Wemple: