Reporters often try to connect the dots. But sometimes, dots can’t really be connected – or they are misplaced.
Since the release of the House Intelligence Committee report on Russian election interference, one of the findings by the majority – Finding #44 – has attracted a lot of attention in the right-leaning media: “Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, now a CNN national security analyst, provided inconsistent testimony to the Committee about his contacts with the media, including CNN.”
The theory is that Clapper pushed then-FBI director James B. Comey to brief President-elect Donald Trump about the dossier with salacious material about Trump in Russia and then tipped CNN’s Tapper about the briefing so CNN would have a hook to report on the dossier’s existence. CNN’s reporting then prompted BuzzFeed to publish the document in full. Clapper was supposedly rewarded for his assistance with a CNN gig.
But after investigating this theory, we find it is based on sloppy dot-connecting. Let’s take a look.
One fallacy that non-journalists often make is that reporters are handed leaks on a silver patter. If only it were so, especially in the national security realm. The reality is that scoops come about only after a reporter pulls at various threads, speaking to a variety of sources to figure out what is happening behind closed doors. It’s often like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
In other words, the director of national intelligence doesn’t really contact a reporter and give him or her a scoop. The leaks come from people several circles away from the center of power – and you generally only hear from the top person if he or she is trying to convince you that you have the story wrong.
Still, a narrative about Clapper has taken hold, in part because of information contained in Comey’s private memos that were recently released by Congress.
“I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook,” Comey said in his memo recounting the Jan. 6, 2017, briefing in which he first told Trump about the dossier – a series of raw intelligence reports collected by a former British spy under contract with a firm working for Democrats. The dossier included allegations that Russia had compromising sexual material on Trump from a visit to Moscow. Many major news organizations at the time had copies or were aware of the allegations but had held off writing about it without confirmation.
In a Jan. 28 memo recounting a dinner with Trump, Comey wrote: “I explained again why I had thought it important that he know about it. I also explained that one of the reasons we told him was that the media, CNN in particular, was telling us they were about to run with it.”
Four days after the Jan. 6 briefing, four CNN reporters, including Tapper, broke a story headlined: “Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him.” The article was sourced to “multiple U.S. officials,” and it was pegged to the Jan. 6 briefing.
The House committee’s majority report says that Clapper first denied discussing the dossier “or any other intelligence related to Russia hacking of the 2016 election with journalists.” But then it says he subsequently acknowledged discussing the dossier with Tapper.
“Clapper’s discussion with Tapper took place in early January 2017, around the time IC [intelligence community] leaders briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump,” the report says. The source of this claim is an interview with Clapper by the House Intelligence Committee on July 17, 2017.
The majority report suggests Clapper tried to cover his tracks by issuing a statement the day after the CNN report was published. Clapper said he called Trump and “expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security.”
All of this would be startling if it were true. But the “minority views” issued by the Democrats include a fuller transcript of the interview, not just snippets as in the majority report. It becomes clear that the “subsequent” acknowledgement of discussing the dossier with Tapper was literally the very next question. It’s not as if Clapper amended his testimony, as the report suggests.
Moreover, nowhere does Clapper place the date of speaking to Tapper as early January. The committee majority just assumed that from his answer, he meant January when he said he discussed it with Tapper “after it [the dossier] was out.”
Q: Did you discuss the dossier or any other intelligence related to Russia hacking of the 2016 election with journalists?
Q: Did you confirm or corroborate the contents of the dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper?
CLAPPER: Well, by the time of that, they already knew about it. By the time it was — it was after — I don’t know exactly the sequence there, but it was pretty close to when we briefed it and when it was out all over the place. The media had it by the way. We were kind of behind the power curve, because the media, many media outlets that I understood had that, had the dossier for some time, as did people on the Hill.
Q: Do you have any idea how they had it, how they got it?
CLAPPER: The media?
CLAPPER: I do not.***
Q: Was it your testimony earlier that you did, in fact, discuss the so-called dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper?
CLAPPER: Well, after it was out, yeah.
Q: And by out, what do you mean by that?
CLAPPER: Well, once it was public. It wasn’t — you know, it wasn’t like this is an Intelligence Community document or anything. This was out in the media.
Clapper’s answers are vague. He initially did not directly answer the question about Tapper, instead answering about “they” — the media in general — and giving a time period of “pretty close to when we briefed.” Then, when specifically asked about Tapper again, he simply says they spoke “after it was out.”
You can see that no one specifically pinned Clapper down on the date. That’s a big missing piece of the puzzle. So The Fact Checker contacted Clapper and asked him when he spoke with Tapper.
“The first time I had any interaction with Jake Tapper was on May 14,” he said, referring to a 2017 appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” This was after Clapper became a CNN commentator – and four months after Comey’s briefing with Trump.
Note that Clapper said interaction – that means interviews, emails, text messages, anything. The two men simply did not have a relationship. (A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing sourcing questions.)
Tapper, in fact, in 2014 had been an aggressive questioner about whether Clapper misled Congress about mass surveillance. In an interview, he asked then-President Obama whether he wasn’t disappointed in Clapper’s admission that he gave Congress “the least untruthful” answer he could give. (Clapper also earned Pinocchios for that low point in his tenure.)
Clapper said the majority report “deliberately conflated” his interview to make it appear he had spoken to Tapper in January, but he insisted that was not the case.
“I did not leak the dossier” when he was in government, he said. “I didn’t talk out about it with the media.” By the time he left government, when Trump took the oath of office, the dossier was public. But in any case, he did not speak to Tapper about it until May — the first time they ever spoke.
As for the theory that he urged Comey to discuss the dossier with Trump to give the news media a hook for a story, he insisted “it did not occur to me.”
We sought comment from the House Intelligence Committee’s communications director, Jack Langer. He responded: “These questions are jokes, right?”
[Update: The Federalist, which has promoted this alleged Clapper-Tapper link, attacked this fact check for ignoring “basic facts.” In particular, it pointed to a line in the “minority views” document that it claimed showed that even Democrats supported that idea that Clapper spoke to Tapper when he was director of national intelligence.
In reporting this fact check, we had noted that line and asked a spokesman for the Democrats about it. “Having now read that section again, I can see how you think the Minority in its Views is referring to his time as DNI; but that would be an incorrect reading,” he said, explaining that the Democrats were only referencing the conclusion of the majority report. We agree the line has led to confusion — and now The Federalist is citing it, though apparently the publication did not bother to ask the Democratic staff about it — so it certainly should be made clearer.]
The Pinocchio Test
In light of Clapper’s statement that the first time he ever spoke to Tapper was in May 2017, this whole scenario falls apart. We would have preferred an on-the-record confirmation from CNN, but we understand the reluctance of news organizations to discuss source relationships.
But even if one does not think Clapper is a credible source because of his false testimony to Congress, a close reading of the House majority report and the minority document shows that Clapper never said he spoke to Tapper in January.
The committee assumed that “after it was out” and “once it was public” meant “early January.” But reporters know they need to pin down dates, especially when sources are vague in their answers. (The overall questioning was not very precise.) The majority failed to do that and jumped to conclusions that appear not to be warranted.
We’re going to leave this without Pinocchios at the moment. But we urge the House Intelligence Committee to update and correct its report in light of this new information – and the pundits echoing its talking points to dial back their rhetoric.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Keep tabs on Trump’s promises with our Trump Promise Tracker
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter