In mid-January, a BuzzFeed News report hit the news cycle like a mile-wide asteroid landing on Earth.
Its assertion was stunning: that President Trump had directed his fixer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress in 2017 about negotiations the previous year to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. And that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III possessed documentation of this; and further, that Cohen had acknowledged those instructions in interviews with Mueller’s office.
Suddenly, the word “suborning” was wildly trending because to induce someone to lie under oath is to suborn perjury — which happens to be a felony.
But then the explosive story seemed to fall apart. Other news organizations were unable to match it; they could not report their own versions of it with their own sources.
And then, stunningly, Mueller’s office issued a brief, devastating statement disputing aspects of the BuzzFeed report.
From glory to goat: The story once praised to the skies as brilliant, game-changing reporting was disparaged everywhere as altogether wrong. The Washington Post wrote an especially tough piece, positing Mueller’s statement as a takedown of the story generally, not merely a parsing of details.
Predictably, Trump jumped in, calling the story “a disgrace to journalism.” Even “Saturday Night Live” took aim, with Weekend Update co-anchor Colin Jost quipping, “The details were so sketchy that even Mueller’s team had to be like, ‘Okay, fake news.’ ”
But then, on Wednesday, along came Cohen himself in his long-delayed congressional testimony, an all-day television spectacle.
And if you believe him, you might be inclined to think that BuzzFeed mostly got it right.
Cohen said both in writing and in spoken testimony that Trump told him — in informal code that they both understood — to lie. He said that Trump’s lawyers edited his statement to Congress to conform with that.
And so, the pendulum swung back wildly. “BuzzFeed was right!!!” tweeted Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist-turned-Trump-bashing author. “Pretty good day for @buzzfeednews,” wrote Dan Kennedy, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University.
There were holdouts.
Richard Tofel, president of the investigative reporting nonprofit organization ProPublica, wrote: “It looks like the big @BuzzFeed story from January about Trump telling Cohen to lie to Congress is wrong.” Its first, seventh and eighth paragraphs didn’t square with Cohen’s opening statement, Tofel wrote.
If you think the only thing that news stories have to do is get things mostly right, Wednesday was a vindicating day for BuzzFeed, which has stalwartly stood by its story.
Cohen corroborated the thrust of the report: that Trump made it clear that he wanted his fixer to lie about the Moscow Tower project, including in his statements to Congress. Cohen was to stick to the lie that Trump’s involvement ended in January of 2016 even though it went on for many months after that.
From Cohen’s written testimony: “Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates.”
But, he continued: “In conversations we had during the campaign, at the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him, he would look me in the eye and tell me, ‘There’s no business in Russia,’ and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie. There were at least a half-dozen times between the Iowa caucuses in January 2016 and the end of June when he would ask me, ‘How’s it going in Russia?’ — referring to the Moscow Tower project.”
The problem is that’s not how BuzzFeed expressed what happened. Its first paragraph read: “President Donald Trump directed his longtime attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.”
And a little later, in the eighth paragraph, BuzzFeed underlines the importance of its finding, calling it “a significant new frontier: It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.”
On Wednesday afternoon, I talked by phone with Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, who said he was satisfied that Cohen’s testimony “lines up very closely with what we reported he had told the special counsel.”
I asked Smith (who edited the story) if he would have done it differently, knowing what he knows now.
“You don’t get those kind of mulligans,” he said. He said he continues to think that the use of “directed” in the headline and the first paragraph was justified, and that the story holds up.
I continue to believe that the use of the word “explicitly” was an overstatement in the story — a bridge too far — because it was contradicted by Cohen in writing.
Smith told me that he wishes that Mueller’s office had told BuzzFeed reporters about its concerns before publication, rather than announcing them to the world afterward.
BuzzFeed was rightly criticized for sending Mueller’s office only a brief, sketchy description of the story as it sought comment before publication. The response was a no comment.
Of course, it’s not certain that Mueller’s office would have said more if it had known more.
BuzzFeed’s overall reporting on the Moscow Tower project has been outstanding, and Smith is a visionary editor. But by apparently overstating the case in this story, and by not doing everything possible to get a full response beforehand, BuzzFeed not only inflicted a wound on itself, but it also gave ammunition to those who seek to undermine the journalism that is more important than ever.
Yes, the story’s overall scope holds up. And more details will emerge that may provide further corroboration — for example, about specific editing by White House lawyers of Cohen’s testimony to Congress and about what was said in a hazily described meeting involving Trump, lawyer Jay Sekulow and Cohen.
But I keep remembering the high praise I once heard about a well-respected investigative editor: “He always wants to dial back the story 10 percent.”
In this overwrought moment where journalism is so crucial and so under attack, that sounds better than ever.
This column has been updated.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan