Making sense of the BuzzFeed bombshell — and what, if anything, went wrong

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

BuzzFeed News reports that “two federal law enforcement officials” have seen evidence that President Trump “directed” his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie under oath when he testified before Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller takes the unusual step of having his spokesman denounce the story as “not accurate.” BuzzFeed’s reporters and their editor vociferously insist that they and their unnamed sources are standing behind their account.

Within 24 hours last week, what looked like a serious threat to the Trump presidency had collapsed into one big honking mess. Nor does it appear that we’re any closer to resolution. A number of media observers have pointed out that no other news organization has been able to confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting. That’s significant, of course. But no one has been able to knock it down, either.

So what is going on? Let me offer a speculative answer, based on the belief that Mueller’s office, BuzzFeed’s journalists, and their sources are all trying their best to tell the truth: everyone is right. BuzzFeed’s story is essentially accurate, but is flawed in some important way that hasn’t been explained. Mueller, worried that Trump might blow up the investigation, took advantage of those flaws to discredit the entire story. If that was Mueller’s intention, it worked, as Trump praised him after the statement was released.

In the past few days we’ve heard much about the famous mistake that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made when they were hammering away at the Watergate story for The Washington Post: They attributed an otherwise accurate account of corruption within the Nixon White House to grand jury testimony that did not exist. Their error was seen as so damaging that they offered their resignations.

“Look, reporters make mistakes. News organizations make mistakes. In Watergate, we made a mistake, a very serious mistake,” Bernstein said this past Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” But, he continued, within days the Post was vindicated when it became clear that the information they had reported was true.

The parallels between BuzzFeed’s story and Woodward and Bernstein’s erroneous attribution, though, only go so far. I think a closer analogy involves James Comey’s testimony in June 2017 before the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly after Trump had fired him as FBI director. Comey was asked about a Times story that had been published four months earlier claiming that members of Trump’s campaign “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” Comey replied that “in the main, it was not true.”

As with the BuzzFeed report, no details were offered as to what was wrong with the Times story. Here we are, more than a year and a half later, and we still don’t know what Comey was referring to. Was it the sourcing? The underlying facts? The Times article reporting on Comey’s complaint noted that there was considerable evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government even then. Today, of course, there is far more evidence, going all the way up to Trump’s extremely guilty campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

If we assume that the basic facts of BuzzFeed’s report are correct, then what might have gone wrong enough for Mueller to issue his extraordinary statement? Writing at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall speculated that the information came not from the special counsel’s office but, rather, from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The BuzzFeed story specifically cited the special counsel’s office, but Marshall pointed out that it’s not always clear who is doing what. “The SDNY is notoriously more porous to the press than the Special Counsel’s Office,” Marshall wrote. “So we have a kind of information that seems more likely to come out of New York and an office there that seems considerably more likely to leak.”

National security blogger Marcy Wheeler, while praising the BuzzFeed report in some respects, was also critical of it for making “an absurd claim that this is the first time we’ve heard that Trump told someone to lie.” She added: “The BuzzFeed story is important for the concrete details it adds to a story we already knew — and these reporters deserve a ton of kudos for consistently leading on this part of the story. But it has unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies, in a way that could have detrimental effect on the country’s ability to actually obtain some kind of justice for those lies.”

The journalists who worked on the BuzzFeed story are first-rate. Jason Leopold, despite some serious ethical lapses early in his career, is a dogged investigative reporter who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Anthony Cormier, whose byline also appeared on the story, won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2016 when he was with the Tampa Bay Times. BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith is well regarded.

And yet there was one obvious shortcoming. According to The Washington Post, BuzzFeed’s outreach to Mueller spokesman Peter Carr for comment before publication was unacceptably vague: “Importantly, the reporter made no reference to the special counsel’s office specifically or evidence that Mueller’s investigators had uncovered.” When the story was published a short while later, the Post continued, “it far exceeded Carr’s initial impression.”

If BuzzFeed failed to give the special counsel’s office fair notice of what was coming, that would help explain the controversy that broke out after they hit “publish.” But it still doesn’t tell us what, if anything, BuzzFeed got wrong — or whether we’ll ever know.

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