One constant in the government’s 23-month-old Trump-Russia inquisition is that people in the know — the investigators themselves — say there has been a rash of bogus news stories.
No fewer than four who are deeply involved in the investigation have condemned the bad reporting publicly.
The question is, which stories? Insiders don’t usually say, but Trump associates have plenty of candidates.
The man who knows the most, special counsel Robert Mueller, issued via a spokesperson the most recent warning about inaccurate reporting on what he is investigating.
“What I have been telling all reporters is that many stories about our investigation have been inaccurate,” the spokesperson said in a statement reported by The Daily Caller and confirmed by The Washington Times. “Be very cautious about any source that claims to have knowledge about our investigation and dig deep into what they claim before reporting on it. If another outlet reports something, don’t run with it unless you have your own sourcing to back it up.”
Such scathing press criticism began nearly a year ago with former FBI Director James B. Comey’s appearance before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“There have been many, many stories purportedly based on classified information about — well, about lots of stuff — but especially about Russia that are just dead wrong,” Mr. Comey testified.
Republican senators prodded him on one particular story: a February 2017 article in The New York Times that said the U.S. gathered large amounts of intercepts and phone records between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence for a year before the election.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, said that “on February 14th, The New York Times published a story, the headline of which was, ‘Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.’ You were asked earlier if that was an inaccurate story, and you said ‘in the main.’ Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?”
Mr. Comey answered, “Yes.”
He testified that when the story appeared he was so alarmed that he took the extraordinary step of contacting congressional leaders to wave them off the claim.
The story bolstered the Democratic Party narrative of collusion between Trump campaign operatives and Moscow as Congress launched multiple investigations.
Five months after Mr. Comey’s testimony, another key investigator — Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and intelligence committee chairman — said so many stories had been erroneous that he planned to point them out in the panel’s final report.
“We’re not going to investigate news organizations, but we will use the findings of our report to let the American people hold every news organization accountable for what they portrayed as fact, in many cases without sources — at least, no sources that would admit to it,” Mr. Burr told Politico. “And I think, when we finish our report, we will find that quite a few news organizations ran stories that were not factual.”
Mr. Burr’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, told Fox News’ Mark Levin last month that erroneous anti-Trump stories are evidence of his assertion that “90 percent of the media is far-left.”
“The media in this country is dead. It no longer exists, and the American people need to understand this,” Mr. Nunes said.
Although Mr. Mueller, Mr. Comey, Mr. Burr and Mr. Nunes provide scant examples, Trump representatives are not shy.
Mr. Nunes’ allies say he was particularly upset with false reporting on the impact of Moscow-bought ads that appeared on Facebook. One report said Russian trolls targeted swing states that voted for Donald Trump. But numbers for Wisconsin, for example, showed only several hundreds ads, none of which mentioned Hillary Clinton or Mr. Trump.
Michael Caputo, who briefly served as a Trump media adviser during the Republican National Convention, told The Washington Times, “I think there have been dozens of stories that have been terribly wrong. People’s reputations have been damaged as a result of it. And there is no recourse.”
Mr. Caputo’s example of “completely erroneous” storylines is candidate Trump’s position on U.S. support for Ukraine as stated in the 2016 Republican Party platform. It is likely that press reports on the episode prompted the FBI to investigate something as banal as drafting a party position paper.
The anti-Trump narrative asserts that his people removed language calling for lethal aid and thus did a favor for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In other words, collusion.
That language was in an amendment submitted by one delegate. The platform at that point already included tough anti-Putin passages and a vow to support Kiev.
The “lethal” wording was not adopted because such a commitment would get the candidate far ahead of what the Obama administration was doing for Ukraine at the time. The final document vowed to “support” the Ukrainian military.
“This was ‘diplo’ speak for lethal aid,” said Mr. Caputo, using a diminutive of diplomatic. “From our prospective, there was no change in the Republican platform.”
Once in office, the Trump team did approve in December lethal aid for Ukraine in the form of Javelin anti-armor missiles.
One of the more tantalizing news stories for anti-Trumpers comes out of the Christopher Steele dossier, as well as other collusion claims that remain unconfirmed.
Mr. Steele told the stunning story of Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, secretly traveling to Prague in August 2016 to meet with Putin aides and hatch a cover-up of suspected Russian-Trump hacking into Democratic Party computers.
With the dossier’s posting by BuzzFeed on Jan. 10, 2017, Mr. Cohen immediately denied the story as fiction. He showed his passport to reporters as well as proof of his trip to California in August to visit his son.
Since then, there has been no independent proof of a Prague visit. Meanwhile, Mr. Cohen has found himself under criminal investigation for his business practices in New York not related to Mr. Mueller’s Russia inquiry.
Mr. Cohen seemed to have put the Prague tale to rest. But then McClatchy News published a story this month saying Mr. Mueller has evidence that Mr. Cohen went to Prague via Germany.
Mr. Cohen tweeted a fresh denial.
It was the McClatchy story that prompted The Daily Caller to inquire with Mr. Mueller’s spokesperson. While not commenting directly on the story, the spokesperson talked of many inaccurate stories that have appeared since Mr. Mueller started his investigation in May.
The Russia-Trump beat has resulted in a number of journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize to The New York Times.