This is the second part of the Erik Wemple Blog’s look at the media implications of the Mueller report. The first part, available here, looked at which news organizations contributed articles and interviews that were cited in the report’s many footnotes, along with the plume of reporting that was confirmed or credited by the investigation.
Obstruction: The Place to Be
At a New York Times event following the release of the Mueller report, Washington correspondent Michael S. Schmidt talked about a long-running debate he has had with colleague Mark Mazzetti, “Mark and I have a friendly rivalry between obstruction and collusion. And I’m more of an obstruction guy,” said Schmidt. That he is. Schmidt’s articles on obstruction — often co-written with White House reporter Maggie Haberman and others — are cited repeatedly in the Mueller report.
In the spring and summer of 2017, following the appointment of Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel, Schmidt assessed his options. Whereas the Russia-collusion stuff had been around for about a year, a new strand was beginning to emerge. On June 14, 2017, The Post reported that Trump was being investigated by the special counsel for possible obstruction of justice. There was at least a fork or two in this journalistic path. “If I try and cover all of this, and get an inch deep on a bunch of things, I will go nowhere,” Schmidt recalls thinking. Back when Schmidt covered drugs and sports, he drilled down on one investigation. “I knew in this case, I had to pick just one issue and I had to know it back and forth. That was the only way to succeed in such a crowded media landscape,” he says.
It got even narrower than all that. As Schmidt dug deeper, he decided to examine the comings and goings of one Trump White House official. “I basically became obsessed with [now-former White House counsel Donald] McGahn,” says Schmidt. That comment may come across as the sort of secret that a reporter would reveal only after the story had concluded. Not so: The Trump/McGahn/Mueller firing story makes this observation: “[McGahn] has been involved in nearly every key decision Mr. Trump has made — like the firing of the former F.B.I. director — that is being scrutinized by Mr. Mueller.”
That crosscutting involvement explains why there are more than 500 mentions of “McGahn” in Volume II of the Mueller report. “I thought early on that [McGahn] was going to be the key and tried to write about everything he was involved in. He was in between Trump and obstructing justice; he was the brake; he was the major guardrail; and he becomes Mueller’s star witness.”
Choosing a focus is one thing; turning tips and hunches into publishable stories is quite another. Says Schmidt of Haberman: “She has the amazing ability to take things that you heard and go and get them confirmed with people who know the answers."
The newspaper chain is marooned with its reporting that lends credence to a claim — in the Russian dossier compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele — that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had a meeting in Prague with “Kremlin officials” in 2016. “Sources: Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier,” reported Greg Gordon and Peter Stone in April 2018; they later reported that a Cohen phone pinged on a cell tower around Prague. Cohen has issued repeated denials of such a meeting, and the Mueller report credits it. “Cohen had never traveled to Prague and was not concerned about those allegations, which he believed were provably false,” notes the report.
A post-Mueller editor’s note from McClatchy addresses the situation:
Editor’s Note: Robert Mueller’s report to the attorney general states that Mr. Cohen was not in Prague. It is silent on whether the investigation received evidence that Mr. Cohen’s phone pinged in or near Prague, as McClatchy reported.
We asked McClatchy whether a correction or retraction might be more appropriate than an editor’s note: Company spokeswoman Jeanne Segal responded:
McClatchy’s story on April 13, 2018 reported that Mueller’s team had received evidence that Cohen was in Prague in summer, 2016. Our subsequent story on December 27, 2018 reported that Mueller had evidence that a foreign intelligence agency had picked up a signal from a cell tower placing one of Cohen’s phones in the Prague area. The Mueller report states Mr. Cohen was not in Prague, and we reported this and also added editor’s notes to previous stories. The Mueller report makes no statement on whether the investigation ever had evidence that Mr. Cohen was in Prague or that his phone pinged in or near Prague, as McClatchy reported.
That’s what we call a punt. McClatchy reported that Mueller had evidence about Cohen-Prague; in a document disclosing his findings, Mueller cited no such evidence. Those circumstances argue for something far stronger than a weaselly editor’s note.
A number of other stories related in some way to the Russia probe came under fire. Some emerged stronger than others:
• BuzzFeed launched a cable-news craze with its January story that President Trump had “directed” Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow deal. One of the lines in the story, co-written by Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, contains this assertion: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.”
Mueller tamped it down: “Cohen said that he and the President did not explicitly discuss whether Cohen’s testimony about the Trump Tower Moscow project would be or was false, and the President did not direct him to provide false testimony.” BuzzFeed responded to the static with a piece by Editor in Chief Ben Smith explaining the sourcing and documentation behind the report. The bottom line: “Our sources — federal law enforcement officials — interpreted the evidence Cohen presented as meaning that the president ‘directed’ Cohen to lie. We now know that Mueller did not,” wrote Smith.
There’s a compelling case for Smith’s explanation: In today’s world, stories that misfire get tarred as either “fake news” or stories made up to drive clicks. Far from that model, BuzzFeed’s story was based on real sources and missed the mark by a tight margin — right neighborhood, wrong house.
But miss it did. One one side, BuzzFeed has anonymous sources characterizing the evidence in Mueller’s possession: “The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents,” noted the January BuzzFeed story. On the other side, Mueller, on the record, is characterizing the evidence in Mueller’s possession: “With regard to Cohen’s false statements to Congress, while there is evidence . . . that the President knew Cohen provided false testimony to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project, the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”
During a Lawfare podcast with Benjamin Wittes, Cormier said, “As a journalist, you cannot get the gist right. I have to get it all right. I have to get every single syllable correct. And in this case, I did not, that I wrote that it was an explicit instruction. When, in fact, the evidence shows that it was not explicit.”
That admission would appear to trigger an automatic correction, right? “No,” responds BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal. “Ben [Smith] wrote a long explanation, which we attached to the original story, outlining a disagreement among federal law enforcement officials about how to assess the evidence.”
• The Guardian reported that Paul Manafort “held secret talks with [Julian] Assange in Ecuadorian embassy, sources say.” That story got no help from Mueller and continues to define the lonely and dreaded life of the permanent exclusive.
• The New York Times in February 2017 reported that Trump campaign officials had “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence — a story that James B. Comey, during congressional testimony following his dismissal as FBI director, said was “in the main . . . not true.” The Times itself wrote up Comey’s remarks and stood by the story, noting that there had been news reports about such contacts and positing that in Russia, the term “intelligence officials” encompasses quite an assortment of creatures. From that story:
Several former American intelligence and law enforcement officials have said that other American agencies have a broader definition, especially when it comes to Russia. They said that President Vladimir V. Putin uses an extensive network of government officials and private citizens with deep links to Russian spy services who supplement the intelligence apparatus and report back to the Kremlin. At least some of the contacts, they said, involved Russians who fit into this category.
Yet the original story carried a lead saying this: “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.” Bolding added because “senior Russian intelligence officials” sounds like full-time spies, at least to the Erik Wemple Blog. There have been reports of contacts between Trump associates and folks tied to Russian intelligence.
During a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Elisabeth Bumiller, the Times’s Washington bureau chief, said, “Without getting into too many details; we’re fine with that story. There may have been some semantic issues with that story.” And Schmidt, the lead reporter on the original story, said the newspaper sought a deeper discussion with the government on the story’s merits. “We went back to them. We said, ‘Tell us what’s wrong with the story,’ and they said it’s classified. And we said, ‘If it’s wrong, facts that are wrong aren’t classified.’ We subsequently were told that it was right by others.”
“Russian intelligence” semantics notwithstanding, this particular New York Times story contained this passage:
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. 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.
• CNN misreported a story about Comey’s congressional testimony in 2017, saying he would contradict Trump on a key point. He didn’t. In another doozy, CNN reported in December 2017 that Donald Trump Jr. had received an encryption key for an upcoming WikiLeaks dump — upon closer inspection, however, that WikiLeaks dump had already occurred. It was an innocuous “heads-up” email.
Perhaps more egregious than the behavior of CNN in this instance was that of NBC News, which followed the faulty CNN scoop and later made some thoroughgoing edits to the story.
For more on Russia-related miscues, see Matt Taibbi, who believes that the media’s handling of the Russia story is a breakdown on the order of the Iraq War. The Erik Wemple Blog disputes any such characterization and points to the plume of reporting that wasn’t just accurate in a general, approximate sense; it was accurate in a precise, bull’s eye sense.
As for the erroneous reports, journalism is executed by human beings, fallible ones. While many other occupations — major league pitchers, for example, or surgeons — have considered what are expected error rates, journalism hasn’t done so. It bumps along on the idealistic and foolhardy conceit that no error is ever acceptable or understandable. It’s this very sensibility — factual errors are considered doomsday events — that conditions editors across the land to sidestep corrections for clear, documented mistakes in favor of “editor’s notes,” “clarifications” and “updates.” And it allows folks to point to a handful of faulty stories — among hundreds of thousands of righteous ones — as evidence of systematic corruption.
In a March 27 letter to Attorney General William P. Barr, Mueller argued that a “central purpose” for the appointment of the special counsel was “to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
A worthy purpose, considering that the decay of trust and the primacy of partisanship in the United States are such that Mueller was among the few people in law enforcement with sufficient credibility to undertake an investigation of a sitting president.
Amid such political sniping, it’s best to cite C-SPAN as much as possible. This is an organization, after all, whose very own phone bill is bipartisan:
As demonstrated in the chart below, C-SPAN’s all-caps pop up again and again in the Mueller report.
Robert Browning, the executive director of the C-SPAN archives, tells the Erik Wemple Blog: “As an independent media organization, we do want to cover the material so that people can make up their own minds. . . . What did Trump say at X point and what did Barr say?” The report cited C-SPAN videos from news briefings at the White House, an Ohio campaign rally and “pool sprays” in which the president answers questions from the media. The organization’s operating budget is $60 million per year.
For Mueller’s team, there’s something clinical and neutral about how C-SPAN headlines its videos. For example, a briefing from then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Feb. 14, 2017, is categorized as “Sean Spicer, White House Daily Briefing, C-SPAN (Feb. 14, 2017).” That formulation serves the purposes of the special counsel far better than, say, a headline based on the same briefing: “Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer have their own ‘alternative facts’ on Flynn’s resignation.”
Protecting reporting from lies
Reporters covering the Trump White House long ago moved to the default of expecting lies from official sources. The countermeasure has been to layer sourcing on top of sourcing, plus plenty of documents.
Sometimes, however, misinformation trickles through.
As the Mueller report documents, longtime Trump fixer Michael Cohen adhered to a so-called “party line” when it came to answering questions about the president’s interests in Russia. Even though Cohen and Trump continued pursuing the famous Trump Tower Moscow project at least through June 2016 — after the real estate mogul had clinched the Republican Party nomination — Cohen spread lies that the project had concluded in early 2016. “Cohen was concerned that truthful answers about the Trump Tower Moscow project might not be consistent with the ‘message’ that the President-Elect had no relationship with Russia,” reads the report.
That message leeched into the media.
In February 2017, the New York Times published a piece on a plan to lift sanctions on Russia. It’s a complicated yarn that involves Felix Sater, a Russian-born businessman who worked on deals with the Trump Organization. From the story:
[Sater] said he had been working on a plan for a Trump Tower in Moscow with a Russian real estate developer as recently as the fall of 2015, one that he said had come to a halt because of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. (Mr. Cohen said the Trump Organization had received a letter of intent for a project in Moscow from a Russian real estate developer at that time but determined that the project was not feasible.)
The Mueller report concluded that this assertion was “consistent with Cohen’s intended party line message.”
Nor did Cohen stop there. He submitted to Congress false information about the timeline of the Trump Tower Moscow project, a misstep to which he would later plead guilty. And if you’ll lie to Congress, well then, why not lie to The Post? From the report:
At the same time that Cohen finalized his written submission to Congress, he served as a source for a Washington Post story published on August 27, 2017, that reported in depth for the first time that the Trump Organization was “pursuing a plan to develop a massive Trump Tower in Moscow” at the same time as candidate Trump was “running for president in late 2015 and early 2016.” The article reported that “the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.” Cohen recalled that in speaking to the Post, he held to the false story that negotiations for the deal ceased in January 2016.
Both The Post story and the New York Times story retain the assertions about the early demise of the Trump Tower Moscow project. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked both newspapers whether revisions are warranted. Steven Ginsberg, national editor for The Post, responded, “The story is an accurate account of what we knew at that time. As is always the case, when we learned new information that added to our understanding of the story we shared it with readers.” Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for the New York Times, responded, “The Times has thoroughly covered new information that established that Cohen lied on numerous occasions. As a general rule, we do not update years old stories.”
There’s a logic to these very similar responses. Reaching into the archives to tweak aging stories every time events shift can mire a news organization in the past, tying up resources that could be channeled toward tomorrow’s scoops. The unfortunate upshot, at least in this case, is that the liars win.
How to Interview Trump
No one will ever mistake Ainsley Earhardt for a journalist. She sits on the “Fox & Friends” couch each day and finds ways to minimize Trump’s latest embarrassment. “All I really worry about is my little world,” she once told Elle magazine. “I do want everyone to be happy and safe.”
Yet Earhardt’s August 2018 interview with the president earned five footnoted citations in the Mueller report. The folks in the special counsel’s office weren’t the only ones who found the session worthy of note. The Erik Wemple Blog wrote it up, as did Vox, CNN and others. Have a look for yourself:
As Trump prattles on about his fantastic accomplishments — and how the media “doesn’t like to cover that kind of thing” — Earhardt responds, “Right.” Though Earhardt occasionally chimed in with a question or a topic, the president used the session to riff about stuff. After Earhardt asked about Cohen’s plea deal, for example, Trump went off:
Because he — because he makes a better deal when he uses me, like everybody else. And one of the reasons I respect Paul Manafort so much is he went through that trial — you know, they make up stories, people make up stories. This whole thing about flipping, they call it. I know all about flipping — for 30, 40 years I’ve been watching flippers. Everything’s wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go. It almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair. Because if somebody is going to give, spend five years like Michael Cohen, or 10 years or 15 years in jail because of a taxicab industry, because he defrauded some banks — the last two were the tiny ones — campaign violations are considered not a big deal, frankly . . . It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal. You get 10 years in jail, but if you say bad things about somebody — in other words, make up stories if you don’t know, make up stories.
Those comments interested Mueller, whose report quoted the Manafort-flipping sequence, among others.
Just goes to show: Prying news out of Trump requires little in the way of interviewing skills. He’ll bury himself with ignorant and un-self-aware remarks.
There’s more proof of this dynamic in the black-and-white of the Mueller report. In July 2017, New York Times reporters Peter Baker, Schmidt and Haberman conversed with Trump about his travels politics, health care and so on. Have a look at the excerpts: The reporters avoid the traditional, direct Q-and-A, focusing instead on shepherding Trump from topic to topic, certain that if he feels comfortable, he’ll make news. And he did, right here:
Trump: Because I have done nothing wrong. A special counsel should never have been appointed in this case.
Baker: Can we put that on the record?
Trump: Because so far, the only — yeah, you can put it down.
Schmidt: Was that [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions’s mistake or [Deputy Attorney General Rod J.] Rosenstein’s mistake?
Trump: Look, Sessions gets the job. Right after he gets the job, he recuses himself.
Baker: Was that a mistake?
Trump: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.
Haberman: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?
Trump: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.
Trump: Who is he? And Jeff hardly knew. He’s from Baltimore.
Mueller cites that New York Times “interview” six times. As the report narrates, Hope Hicks, the loyal communications staffer who has since left the White House, was present for the “unplanned” interview with the New York Times reporters. And she was freaked out, too. “Hicks . . . recalled trying to ‘throw [herself] between the reporters and [the President]’ to stop parts of the interview, but the President ‘loved the interview,’” says the report.
Alas, Hicks was right: The president’s remarks touched off a public drama with Sessions, and Mueller would go on to cite the interview in his damning section on obstruction.