Photographic illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev / Intelligencer; Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images
Did BuzzFeed News commit one of the worst journalistic errors of the last decade, falsely accusing the incumbent president of an impeachable offense?
The answer to this new question that hangs over the Trump-Russia investigation may not be so simple. Last week, after the outlet published what appeared to be one of the greatest achievements of the Trump era, he said that Donald Trump had urged his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, and that Cohen had reported this to the office of the Special Advisor Robert Mueller – Mueller's office issued a brief public statement that BuzzFeed had misinterpreted some parts of the story. It was clear that the report had reached a sensitive point because it was the first time that Mueller's team had said something to the press in almost 20 months.
Instead of issuing a correction, BuzzFeed reporters said they received additional confirmation over the weekend that their reports were accurate. "This will be confirmed," one of the two reporters, Anthony Cormier, told CNN on Sunday. "This story is accurate." But no other journalist has been able to verify the story independently.
While it is possible that BuzzFeed is simply putting a front, it seems unlikely. A careful review of all developments since last Thursday suggests that something more complicated is happening here, more than journalists simply ruining or fabricating information. The disconnection seems to be elsewhere, perhaps between Mueller's office and BuzzFeed's anonymous sources. Even national security reporters do not know who to believe. Like NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted On Sunday, "information is missing here, and until it comes out, having an opinion is dangerous".
With that in mind, here is a summary of what we know and exactly what information may be missing:
The underlying story involves Trump's negotiations to build a tower in Moscow, which was projected as the tallest building in Europe. Congress was concerned about how much these negotiations had been superimposed on Trump's presidential campaign. A little over a year ago, Cohen told Congress in a statement that the talks with Russia had ceased in January 2016, when records revealed that they had entered at least that summer, as the same BuzzFeed duo (Cormier and his colleague Jason Leopold) reported last year. (Rudy Giuliani he told NBC on Sunday that the conversations may have extended until Trump's election).
Cohen also told Congress that he "never agreed" to travel to Russia to work on the project and said he had never spoken to the Russian government about it, all of which was false. Ultimately, Cohen accepted these lies, claiming in November the charge of making false statements to Congress. In court, he said he had lied alone "to be consistent" with Trump's "political messages" and for the sake of loyalty.
The big news from BuzzFeed last week was that Trump organized Cohen to tell the lies and that Cohen had informed Mueller of this when he pleaded guilty. Several Democrats in Congress quickly posted on Twitter that, if true, they would be grounds for accusing the president, presumably in charge of obstructing justice.
Seven years after its release, BuzzFeed News apparently still struggles to be taken seriously. Saturday night live I took the opportunity this weekend to repeat a joke about the publication. "Look, BuzzFeed, we all think it's good that you want to help," said the presenter of the "Weekend Update" Michael Che, "but this is not what we need from you." You are all BuzzFeed, you make memes and lists. "
But the truth is that the BuzzFeed research team, which comprises around 20 reporters, is one of the strongest in the country. Cormier, a newspaper veteran, has won a Pulitzer Prize for his reports on mental hospitals in Florida. Leopold, his companion in this story, has less flawless credentials: his record of accuracy is "marked", according to his own testimony, and he committed a series of serious errors, if not of deliberate ethical violations, early in his career. But none of his work in recent years has been seriously challenged. Along with other BuzzFeed colleagues, he was nominated for a Pulitzer last year for his work in a series of murders apparently linked to Vladimir Putin. In addition, Cormier, recognizing the irregular record of Leopold, has said that he himself verified everything in the story.
Leopold and Cormier have reported extensively on Trump's business affairs in Russia and have published numerous stories related to Mueller's research that were then verified by other means, which means that they seem to have as deep an origin in this area as any other person. The two men worked on Cohen's story for months. Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News, said he and at least two other editors read it before publication.
Despite his proven journalistic skills, it is true that BuzzFeed's contact with Mueller's office was somewhat arrogant this time. Leopold sent an email to Mueller's spokesman, Peter Carr, just a few hours before publication. He told Carr that the story would be about Trump ordering Cohen to lie, but he made no reference to the special lawyer's office.
Carr declined to comment, but then the content of the story took him off guard, according to Washington. Submit. "People familiar with the matter said that Carr told others in the government that he would have more vigorously discouraged reporters from continuing with the story if he had known that he would claim that Cohen had told the special lawyer that Trump had told him to lie. , or that the special lawyer was said to have learned this through interviews with witnesses from the Trump Organization, as well as internal company emails and text messages. " Submit wrote.
Smith defended Leopold on Brian Stelter's CNN show on Sunday, saying email had reached the "heart of the story." "It has not been our experience that the special council arrives with information," he added.
The statement from Mueller's office, published on Friday, was just a vague and lawyer's phrase: "BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the special attorney's office, and the characterization of documents and testimonies obtained by this office, with respect to Michael Cohen's testimony at the Congress is not accurate. "
Most journalists covering the aftermath believe that the office of the special advisor is challenging the main scoop of BuzzFeed. The washington Submit Having said this definitely, what has led to speculation That the newspaper confirmed it with Mueller's office.
But Mueller's team statement does not say it openly, a point Smith mentioned during the weekend. "We are anxious to understand what characterizations Mueller is talking about there," Smith said Sunday. "We have not heard where the gap is and where we can continue with our reports." He said that BuzzFeed had not heard directly from Mueller's office.
The publication cited "two federal law enforcement officers involved in an investigation of the matter." Smith said on Sunday that reporters sometimes exaggerate the credentials of their anonymous sources, but said that BuzzFeed had not done that here. "In this case, these are very narrow and very strong descriptors," he told Stelter.
But who were they exactly? The best option is that they are federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, the division of the court where Cohen was sentenced. The prosecutors of that office would have been aware of the details of the case and would not have been subject to the gag order that Mueller imposed on his own staff.
Cormier also told CNN on Saturday morning that he had more sources than the two mentioned in the story. "I tell them that our supply goes beyond the two that I could put in the registry," he said.
However, late on Sunday morning, after one of Trump's lawyers had requested a leak investigation, Smith and Cormier had become noticeably more secretive. When Stelter asked the air if they had additional sources, Smith replied: "Reporters sometimes do that, but I think you say what it says in the story, and you endorse what it says in the story."
There is also a discrepancy about whether the reporters saw critical documents by themselves or only know them second-hand. On Sunday, Smith and Cormier refused to clarify it. "There are many limits on what we can say," in light of the possible leak investigation, Smith explained.
It is worth remembering that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were wrong with the story in the course of their Watergate reports. The way it is counted in All the president's men – both the book and the film – resulted in part from a misunderstanding between Bernstein and a source.
This is do not What happened in the case of BuzzFeed, according to Cormier. "I have another confirmation that this is correct," he told Stelter on Sunday. "We are told to stand firm, our report will be confirmed."
It seems possible that all this is a matter of interpretation. Stelter asked if perhaps Trump had only given vague instructions to Cohen, in the line of "Take care of this for me," instead of specifically telling him to lie. "We do not know," Cormier replied. "We're trying to get the exact language that was used in this conversation, and we'll get there one day." But he reiterated: "What we report – that the president of the United States ordered Michael Cohen to lie to Congress – is precise."
The statement marked the first time in almost 20 months that Mueller's office made any comment regarding his investigation. He has remained silent amid the constant attacks on his credibility and character; and indeed, Carr, his spokesman, is known throughout Washington as "Mr. No comments." So, why did this particular story elicit an answer?
Perhaps, as the journalist Marcy Wheeler suggested, Mueller feared that history would damage his reputation won by not leaking. In that case, the statement could have mitigated the damage and served as a warning to the Southern District, if that's where the BuzzFeed sources come from, so that's not the case.
In any case, it seems that some kind of power game is happening here. It is possible that Mueller sent a message to the sources, not to the rest of us. If that is the case, you probably saw this generalized confusion, which will probably become clear at some point, anyway, as a necessary side effect.