There's very little good news for President Trump these days. His White House is dealing with not one but two (!) explosive reports that his aides and associates were in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. But there is one bright spot for Trump: Both of the stories use zero on-the-record sources to back up their claims.
CNN, which produced one of the reports, cited "multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials." The New York Times, which published the other, was a bit more specific: "four current and former American officials."
Predictably, the use of anonymous sources opened the door for Trump to call the reports "nonsense" and "fake news," though he might have inadvertently lent credence to the stories by tweeting that "information is being illegally given ... by the intelligence community."
Which is it? Is the media making up fake nonsense? Or is the intelligence community leaking real information? Both things can't be true.
Unnamed sources are often critical contributors to important news reports and, as I have noted before, Trump has no problem with them, when he finds their disclosures helpful.
But anonymity invariably promotes skepticism about sources' motives. The Times wrote that "all of the current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified." That makes sense; it also makes sense to wonder whether these officials have political agendas and to consider what they might not be revealing.
Though the Times and CNN relied exclusively on unnamed sources, both loaded up their reports with caveats.
From the Times:
- The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election. The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.
- It is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society.
- It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.
- Officials emphasized that communications between campaign staff and representatives of foreign governments are not unusual.
- Investigators have not reached a judgment on the intent of those conversations.
- These officials cautioned the Russians could have been exaggerating their access.
- The communications were gathered as part of routine US intelligence collection and not because people close to Trump were being targeted.
The bottom line is there is no proof that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the presidential election. Absent such proof, the significance of communication between the campaign and Russian intelligence officials is unclear.
It is worth remembering that just a few weeks ago Times public editor Liz Spayd wrote that the newspaper should have been more aggressive in its reporting on Trump and Russia before the election. She wrote:
The idea that you only publish once every piece of information is in and fully vetted is a false construct.
If you know the FBI is investigating, say, a presidential candidate, using significant resources and with explosive consequences, that should be enough to write. Not a “gotcha” story that asserts unsubstantiated facts. But a piece that describes the nature of the investigations, the unexplained but damning leads, with emphasis on what is known and what isn’t.
The Times appears to have taken Spayd's critique to heart.