Did BuzzFeed News commit one of the worst journalistic blunders of the past decade, falsely accusing the sitting president of an impeachable offense?
The answer to this new question hanging over the Trump-Russia investigation might not be so simple. Last week, after the outlet published what seemed like one of the biggest scoops of the Trump era — saying Donald Trump had urged his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, and that Cohen had reported this to the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller — Mueller’s office issued a brief public statement saying BuzzFeed had gotten parts of the story wrong. It was clear the report had hit a sensitive spot because this was the first time that Mueller’s team had said anything to the press in almost 20 months.
Instead of issuing a correction, BuzzFeed’s reporters said they received further confirmation over the weekend that their reporting was accurate. “This is going to be borne out,” one of the two reporters, Anthony Cormier, told CNN on Sunday. “This story is accurate.” But no other journalists have been able to verify the story independently.
While it’s possible BuzzFeed is just putting up a front, it seems unlikely. A careful review of all the developments since last Thursday suggests that something more complicated is going on here — more than reporters simply screwing up or fabricating information. The disconnect seems to lie elsewhere, perhaps between Mueller’s office and BuzzFeed’s anonymous sources. Even national-security reporters don’t know whom to believe. As the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen tweeted on Sunday, “There’s missing information here, and until it comes out having an opinion is hazardous.”
With that in mind, here’s a rundown of what we do know and exactly what information might be missing:
We know Cohen lied to Congress on Trump’s behalf
The underlying story involves Trump’s negotiations to build a tower in Moscow, which was projected to be the tallest building in Europe. Congress was concerned about how much those negotiations had overlapped with Trump’s presidential campaign. Slightly more than a year ago, Cohen told Congress in a statement that talks with Russia had ceased in January 2016 — when records later revealed that they had gone on at least into that summer, as the same BuzzFeed duo (Cormier and his colleague Jason Leopold) reported last year. (Rudy Giuliani told NBC on Sunday that the talks may have extended all the way up to Trump’s election.)
Cohen also told Congress that he’d “never agreed” to travel to Russia to work on the project and claimed he’d never spoken about it with the Russian government, all of which was false. Cohen ultimately owned up to these lies, pleading in November to the charge of making false statements to Congress. In court, he said he’d lied only “to be consistent” with Trump’s “political messaging” and for the sake of loyalty.
BuzzFeed’s big scoop last week was that Trump ordered Cohen to tell the lies and that Cohen had reported this to Mueller when he pleaded guilty. A number of congressional Democrats promptly tweeted that if it proved true, it would be grounds to impeach the president, presumably on the charge of obstructing justice.
We know BuzzFeed has earned the benefit of the doubt
Seven years after its launch, BuzzFeed News apparently still struggles to be taken seriously. Saturday Night Live took the opportunity this weekend to repeat a tired joke about the publication. “Look, BuzzFeed, we all think it’s great that you want to help,” said “Weekend Update” host Michael Che, “but this is not what we need from you. Y’all are BuzzFeed, you do memes and lists.”
But the truth is that BuzzFeed’s investigative outfit, which comprises about 20 reporters, is one of the most robust in the country. Cormier, a newspaper veteran, has won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on mental hospitals in Florida. Leopold, his partner on this story, has less impeccable credentials: His record for accuracy is “checkered,” by his own testimony, and he committed a number of serious errors, if not deliberate ethical breaches, 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 on a series on assassinations apparently linked to Vladimir Putin. Moreover, Cormier, acknowledging Leopold’s spotty record, has said that he verified everything in the story himself.
Leopold and Cormier have both reported extensively on Trump’s business affairs in Russia and have broken numerous stories related to Mueller’s investigation that were later verified by other outlets — meaning they seem to be as deeply sourced in this area as anyone. The two men worked on the Cohen story for months. Ben Smith, BuzzFeed News’s editor-in-chief, said he and at least two other editors read it before publication.
We know the story caught Mueller’s office by surprise
Despite their proven journalistic skills, it’s true that BuzzFeed’s contact with Mueller’s office was a little cavalier this time around. Leopold emailed Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, only hours before publication. He told Carr the story would be about Trump ordering Cohen to lie — but he made no reference to the special counsel’s office.
Carr declined to comment, but then the story’s contents caught him off guard, according to the Washington Post. “People familiar with the matter said Carr told others in the government that he would have more vigorously discouraged the reporters from proceeding with the story had he known it would allege Cohen had told the special counsel Trump directed him to lie — or that the special counsel was said to have learned this through interviews with Trump Organization witnesses, as well as internal company emails and text messages,” the Post wrote.
Smith defended Leopold on Brian Stelter’s CNN show Sunday, saying the email had gotten to the “heart of the story.” “It has not been our experience that the special counsel is forthcoming with information,” he added.
We don’t know exactly what Mueller is disputing
The statement from Mueller’s office, released on Friday, was just a single, vague, lawyerly sentence: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the special counsel’s office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s congressional testimony are not accurate.”
Most journalists covering the aftermath believe the special counsel’s office is challenging BuzzFeed’s main scoop. The Washington Post said this definitively, which has led to speculation that the paper confirmed it with Mueller’s office.
But the Mueller team’s statement doesn’t say it outright, a point Smith harped on over the weekend. “We are eager to understand which characterizations Mueller is talking about there,” Smith said on Sunday. “We haven’t heard where the gap is and where we can continue our reporting.” He said BuzzFeed hadn’t heard from Mueller’s office directly.
We don’t know who BuzzFeed’s sources were
The publication cited “two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter.” Smith noted on Sunday that reporters sometimes exaggerate the credentials of their anonymous sources, but he said BuzzFeed hadn’t done that here. “In this case, these are very narrow, very strong descriptors,” he told Stelter.
But who were they exactly? The best bet is that they’re federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York, the court division where Cohen was sentenced. Prosecutors in that office would have been privy to details of the case and wouldn’t have been subject to the gag order Mueller imposes on his own staff.
Cormier also told CNN on Saturday morning that he had more sources than the two mentioned in the story. “I am telling you, our sourcing goes beyond the two that I was able to put on the record,” he said.
However, by late Sunday morning, after one of Trump’s attorneys had called for a leak investigation, Smith and Cormier had become noticeably more reserved. When Stelter asked on air whether they had additional sources, Smith replied, “Reporters certainly sometimes do that, but I think that you say what you say in the story, and you stand by what you say in the story.”
There’s also a discrepancy about whether the reporters saw critical documents themselves or only know about them secondhand. On Sunday, Smith and Cormier declined to clear it up. “There are a lot of limits around what we can say,” in light of the potential leak investigation, Smith explained.
We know BuzzFeed is standing behind the story
It’s worth remembering that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein got a story wrong in the course of their reporting on Watergate. The way it’s recounted in All the President’s Men — both the book and the film — it resulted partly from a misunderstanding between Bernstein and a source.
This is not what happened in BuzzFeed’s case, according to Cormier. “I have further confirmation that this is right,” he told Stelter on Sunday. “We’re being told to stand our ground. Our reporting is going to be borne out.”
We don’t know exactly what Trump said to Cohen
It seems possible that this is all a matter of interpretation. Stelter asked if perhaps Trump had only given Cohen vague instructions, along the line of “Take care of this for me,” rather than specifically telling him to lie. “We don’t 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 reported — that the president of the United States directed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress — is accurate.”
We don’t know why Mueller cares so much
The statement marked the first time in nearly 20 months that Mueller’s office has made any comment regarding its investigation. He’s been silent amid the constant attacks on his credibility and character; and in fact, Carr, his spokesman, is known around Washington as “Mr. No Comment.” So why did this particular story provoke a response?
Perhaps, as the journalist Marcy Wheeler has suggested, Mueller was afraid the story damaged his hard-earned reputation for not leaking. In that case, the statement could have blunted the damage and served as a warning to the Southern District — if indeed that’s where BuzzFeed’s sources came from — to knock it off.
Whatever the case, it does seem like some kind of power play is happening here. It’s possible Mueller was sending a message to the sources, not to the rest of us. If that’s the case, he probably saw this widespread confusion — which will likely be cleared up at some point, anyway — as a necessary side effect.
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