US President Donald Trump is making what is perhaps the most serious accusation against The New York Times in its recent history, which is that it at least in part fabricated its story of multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence of 13th February 2017 by attributing it to briefings provided to The New York Times by anonymous officials who don’t exist.
In what looks to me like an attempt to divert attention away from this accusation, The New York Times’s various media allies are talking up claims that the White House supposedly breached rules by talking to the FBI about The New York Times story.
Supposedly these rules, which exist in order to protect the FBI’s independence in its conduct of investigations, were breached on 14th February 2017 (the day after The New York Times published its story) when Reince Priebus, Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff, contacted the FBI to obtain information about The New York Times story and to see whether the FBI might be prepared to publish a rebuttal (it declined to do so, but “greenlighted” Priebus to do so instead).
I am no expert about these rules. However I find the claim that they somehow prohibit the White House from seeking information from the FBI about a story like The New York Times story frankly bizarre. It would mean that whilst The New York Times is allowed to talk to the FBI about a story involving the White House, the White House is not allowed to talk to the FBI about a story involving itself.
That strikes me as not only absurd but as inherently unfair. It would mean that whilst the White House can be crucified every day by stories planted in the media as a result of ‘anonymous leaks’ given to the media by members of the FBI, it is prohibited from talking to the FBI directly about such stories, and is prohibited from obtaining from the FBI directly the information it needs to refute them.
The rules in question clearly exist in order to prevent the Executive Branch from meddling in the conduct of FBI investigations. There is no evidence Priebus or anyone else in the White House sought to meddle in any FBI investigation. As the White House says, Priebus did not speak to the FBI about any FBI investigation but about a New York Times story which sought to harm the White House.
I would add that the rules appear to be a matter of customary practice rather than law. On any interpretation of the rules Priebus did not therefore break the law. So far as I can see he acted throughout in an entirely reasonable way. Presumably if he had not done so, then the senior officials of the FBI he spoke to (Director James Comey and Assistant Director Andrew McCabe) would have refused to speak to him.
Like so many of the other supposedly wicked actions of the Trump administration, this one looks to me to have been spun out of nothing. In this case it appears to have been done in order to draw attention away from the serious accusation against The New York Times that the President is making.
The President’s accusation against The New York Times is concrete and very serious.
And I want you all to know we are fighting the fake news. It’s fake. Phony. Fake. A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said nine people have confirmed. There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. And I said give me a break because I know the people. I know who they talked to. There were no nine people. But they say nine people. And somebody reads it and they say, oh, nine people, they have nine sources. They make up sources.
(bold italics added)
President Trump is here directly accusing The New York Times of either completely fabricating a story or – which is scarcely better – of puffing it up to make it appear more credible than it is by inventing more sources for it than actually exist.
That is an extraordinarily serious allegation to make against any newspaper. It is particularly serious when it is made against The New York Times, which promotes itself as “the paper of record”. It would mean that in this case “the record” has in part been made up.
Moreover in making this charge the President says that he has actual knowledge of who the leakers might be because the members of his campaign team who the FBI is investigating have told him who the investigators are, and that he knows that there cannot be nine of them as The New York Times says.
I would add that whilst I obviously do not know this for a fact, I suspect the President knows (or thinks he knows) more about this affair than he says.
Like many other people whenever I read a piece in the media or elsewhere that cites anonymous sources I often wonder who these sources are and whether they actually exist.
Sometimes I am quite sure that the sources are made up. Some years ago I read a piece about the conflict in the northern Caucasus which repeatedly cited multiple anonymous sources to support some pretty remarkable claims. I suspect there was in fact only one source but that the writer (a well known journalist) wanted to give the impression there was more than one to give his piece more credibility.
A more famous example is the book that Alexander Litvinenko, the former FSB agent who was poisoned with polonium in London, co-authored about the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings. The book backed its claims of Russian state involvement in those bombings with just too many anonymous sources for me to find it in the end credible.
However there are other writers who regularly cite information given them anonymously whose record of reliability is such as to put the existence of their sources and the accuracy with which they are being reported beyond doubt. Well known examples are the two veteran US investigative reporters Robert Parry and Seymour Hersh. That does not incidentally mean that the sources are always right, or that Parry and Hersh always put the right weight on them.
Until very recently I would have placed The New York Times in the same category as Parry and Hersh. No less a person than the President of the United States is however now challenging The New York Times by saying it has made up its sources when publishing a story alleging contacts between members of the President’s team and the agents of a foreign power. He is also saying that The New York Times’s word and that of other media allied to it about the existence of their sources cannot be relied on unless the identity of the sources is published.
I cannot recall a more straightforward and serious challenge to The New York Times’s journalistic standards and integrity. I look forward to seeing what it will do to rebut it.
In the meantime I would say that the attempt to divert attention away from the President’s challenge by conjuring up yet another bogus story about Reince Priebus’s conversations with the FBI does not look good.