On Jan. 9, The Post reported that then-President Donald Trump, in a call with Georgia’s lead elections investigator, Frances Watson, had instructed her to “find the fraud.” He mentioned that she could become a “national hero,” reported the newspaper.
The story landed on top of a tumult with little equal in modern memory: Since Nov. 3, 2020, Trump and his allies have attempted to convince his supporters that Joe Biden stole the election. That lie provided the rhetorical impetus for Trump supporters to storm the Capitol in January just as Congress was taking up the electoral college results.
Evidence of Trump’s improper actions regarding those results piled up before and after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Here’s the timeline: On Jan. 2, Trump took part in a phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, pressuring him to “‘find’ enough votes to overturn his defeat.” The next day, Post reporter Amy Gardner surfaced a recording of that call. Then, on Jan. 9, Gardner broke the now-corrected story of Trump’s call with Watson, which had taken place on Dec. 23. Tracking the phone history of a malfeasant president is a big job.
In a time of much overblown chatter about election irregularities, this call between the president of the United States and a state-level investigator was the real irregularity. “That was an ongoing investigation,” Raffensperger told The Post at the time. “I don’t believe that an elected official should be involved in that process.”
The call happened; it was an abuse of presidential authority; and it failed to corrupt the investigators working under Raffensperger. But Trump wasn’t quite the plain-spoken rogue depicted in The Post’s story. We know this because the Wall Street Journal’s Cameron McWhirter last week published a recording of Trump’s six-minute call with Watson.
On the recording, there was no “find the fraud.” But there was this: “If you can get to Fulton, you are going to find things that are going to be unbelievable — the dishonesty,” said Trump.
There was no “national hero.” But there was this: “When the right answer comes out, you’ll be praised. … People will say, ‘Great.’ Because that’s what it’s about — that ability to check and to make it right,” Trump told Watson.
The Post’s account of the call rested on one source — “an individual familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the conversation.” Though that source wasn’t identified in the Jan. 9 story, The Post did identify her in its follow-up based on the Wall Street Journal scoop: “The Washington Post reported on the substance of Trump’s Dec. 23 call in January, describing him saying that Watson should ‘find the fraud’ and that she would be a ‘national hero,’ based on an account from Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state, whom Watson briefed on his comments.”
In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Fuchs said, “I believe the story accurately reflected the investigator’s interpretation of the call. The only mistake here was in the direct quotes, and they should have been more of a summary.” Fuchs said that The Post disclosed her role in the story with her permission, and that she’d gotten the debriefing from the investigator — a direct report of hers — “shortly” after the call from Trump concluded.
“I think it’s pretty absurd for anybody to suggest that the president wasn’t urging the investigator to ‘find the fraud,’” Fuchs added, “These are quotes that [Watson] told me at the time.”
The New York Times quickly matched The Post’s reporting, including the inaccurate quotes. It added a correction on Monday. CNN has appended this editor’s note to its story: “An earlier version of this story, published January 9, presented paraphrasing of the President’s comments to the Georgia elections investigator as direct quotes. The story has been updated following the discovery of an audio recording of the call.” ABC News dealt with the issue via an editor’s note.
We asked The Post about claims that the newspaper’s action amounts to a retraction and about its reliance on one source for the quotes. In a statement, The Post responded:
We corrected the story and published a separate news story last week — at the top of our site and on the front page — after we learned that our source had not been precise in relaying then President Trump’s words. We are not retracting our January story because it conveyed the substance of Trump’s attempt to influence the work of Georgia’s elections investigators.
That, it did. Misreporting the words of the highest elected official in the land is a serious lapse — and one that, in this case, seems so unnecessary: The existence of the call itself is a towering exclusive. When it comes to phone calls, the only good sources are the ones who are dialed in. The former president’s partisans will attempt to memorialize The Post’s story as a fabrication or “fake news.” But a central fact remains: As the Journal’s recording attests, Trump behaved with all the crooked intent and suggestion that he brought to every other crisis of his presidency.
Read more from Erik Wemple: