This article has been corrected.
This tweet, retweeted thousands of times, is at best misleading.
Russia govnt falsified an email. Then Trump recited the falsified email at a rally. Only those two knew it. How? https://t.co/1d5qvU01Yi
— Kurt Eichenwald (@kurteichenwald) October 11, 2016
Kurt Eichenwald is a reporter and writer who has been dogged in looking at Donald Trump over the course of the campaign. It was Eichenwald who reported that Trump had apparently violated the Cuban embargo in the 1990s and who has written about a number of his investigations into Trump's business ties.
The link in the tweet above goes to another article at Newsweek that outlines how Trump gave a rally crowd in Pennsylvania on Monday night incorrect information that Eichenwald traced back to Russian intelligence.
But that's shortening up the timeline in the misleading way that Eichenwald does in his tweet. In reality, the only proved issue is that Trump will happily pick any news off the Internet and broadcast it to the world, accurate or not.
The timeline of what happened is easy to reconstruct. On Monday morning, WikiLeaks released a new batch of emails that appear to have been hacked from the account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman. These hacks have been tied to the Russian government by the United States intelligence community.
One of the emails ended up at a website called Sputnik News. Sputnik, as we have noted before, was founded by and is still funded by the Russian government, with the apparent goal of bolstering its worldview internationally. That said, Sputnik has a reasonably large audience: A million people like it on Facebook, and nearly 200,000 follow it on Twitter. Sputnik writes and publishes articles about things in the news, often with a Russia-friendly slant.
At about 5 p.m. Eastern on Monday, Sputnik ran its article on an email from the Podesta dump that appears to have come from longtime Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal. (The timing can be determined by the timestamp on the article, which is seven hours ahead of Eastern time in the United States.)
“The attack was almost certainly preventable,” Sputnik reports Blumenthal writing to Podesta about the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2012. “Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya.”
But Sputnik either misread or misrepresented the contents of the email. The original makes clear that Blumenthal was passing along a news article — from Newsweek, by Eichenwald — and not sharing his own thoughts. (In fact, the original email suggests that Blumenthal was passing along the article because it mentions himself, if for no other reason.) This isn't a “falsification” of the email, as Eichenwald puts it, since the email is there in the batch. In the most charitable interpretation, it's a sloppy misreading of it.
Perhaps realizing that, Sputnik pulled the article at some point.
At about 6 p.m. Eastern, Trump was scheduled to take the stage at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. During his speech, he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and said, “This just came out a little while ago.” The “this” appears to have been the alleged confession by Blumenthal that was misreported by Sputnik. The crowd, as Eichenwald notes, began to boo Hillary Clinton.
How could Trump have gotten that? He could have gotten a secret message from a KGB agent posing as a hot dog vendor in the rally arena, the two surreptitiously meeting after Trump gave the appropriate hand signal. Or maybe one of his allies, who follows Sputnik, saw the article and was like, “Hey, Donald, check this out.”
Update: Or another option. BuzzFeed News' Jon Passatino notes on Twitter that the Sputnik article may not even have been the source of Trump's comments. It may have been a tweet from earlier in the day which included the precise language Trump read.
And since that tweet has now been deleted, here’s a screenshot of it. Posted at 8:28 am PT pic.twitter.com/5FftXcS7fB
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) October 11, 2016
There's a great deal of evidence suggesting that Russia is pulling whatever levers are in reach to aid the candidacy of Trump. Intelligence agencies believe that Russia has been involved in politically linked email hacks like Podesta's and that such content has, in some way, ended up at Wikileaks. We know Russia publishes Sputnik News. But we don't know that there's any direct link between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, and this article from Eichenwald — his suggestive tweets notwithstanding — does not prove there is.
What should cause alarm in this situation is another facet of what happened. It's not that Trump is a Putin marionette, it's that he seems to have pulled bad information off a questionable website and presented it on live television to an audience of thousands without skepticism. This is an indictment of his judgment, not of his loyalty.
But it's a slightly less splashy headline.
This article's original description of how information may have ended up at Wikileaks has been clarified.