The White House Correspondent’s Dinner Saturday night was a platform for the media to push back against the most powerful man in the world, the president of the United States. While Donald Trump constantly derides the top brands in American journalism as Fake News, the WHCA’s prize committee presented the Merriman Smith Award for broadcast journalism to CNN’s Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, Jake Tapper, and Carl Bernstein for their Jan. 10, 2017 story reporting that Barack Obama’s four intelligence chiefs briefed Donald Trump that Russia had compromising information on the President-elect.
The compromising information—ranging from allegations of the Trump team’s criminal activities to the sexual depravities of Trump himself—was sourced to a 35-page-long opposition research file allegedly authored by the ex-British spy Christopher Steele. The so-called Steele dossier was funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which hired the Washington, D.C. opposition research firm Fusion GPS to produce and disseminate it to the press. As the award citation explains: “Thanks to this CNN investigation, ‘the dossier’ is now part of the lexicon.”
CNN has never disclosed the close relationship between Evan Perez, one of the reporters on the Jan. 10, 2017 story, and his former Wall Street Journal colleagues who went on to start Fusion GPS, including the company’s founder Glenn Simpson. Nor did the Merriman Smith prize committee acknowledge how the dossier on which the leading lights of the news business have again staked their institutional credibility was disseminated to the public.
That story is now coming into focus with the recent release of seven government documents that together detail a working partnership between spy agencies and the press that helped a political attack meme go viral, even though the evidence on which it was based was demonstrably false. While this type of relationship—let’s call it collusion—may be routine in Third World countries, it does not bode well for the health of the American press, or our democratic institutions.
Of the seven memos written by former director of the FBI James Comey to document his meetings with Trump, two tell the first part of the story. Comey was one of the four intelligence chiefs who met with the president-elect at Trump Tower on Jan. 6, 2017. Comey wrote that at the end of the meeting, the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper specifically wanted him to speak to Trump “alone or in a very small group.”
Then Comey told Trump that “the Russians allegedly had tapes involving him and prostitutes at the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow from about 2013. I said I wasn’t saying this was true,” Comey continued, “only that I wanted him to know both that it had been reported and that the reports were in many hands. I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook.”
In the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s 253-page-long Report on Russian Active Measures that was published last week, James Clapper says he “discuss[ed] the dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper.” Clapper claims their discussion “took place in early January 2017, around the time [intelligence community] leaders briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on ‘the Christopher Steele information.’ ”*
Since then, thousands of articles on the Trump-Russia collusion story have been spoon-fed to a pliant digital press by cabals of political operatives and ex-spooks. Lies, innuendo, wild conspiracy theorizing, and the insistent assumption of guilt have replaced old-fashioned rules of sourcing, objectivity, and basic plausibility. While the social cost of this radical departure from these century-old norms is likely to be high, it has acquired two main forms of justification, the twin pillars of the new press.
The first reason, popular on both the left and among the Never Trump coterie on the right, is the assertion that Trump is a dangerous fascist who is on the verge of overthrowing the rule of law in America, an emergency that, if real, might indeed call for extreme measures, like throwing the principles of evidence-based reporting out the window. The problem with this argument being that however obvious and galling the man’s flaws are, no evidence for the thesis that Donald Trump intends to do away with Congress and the courts and rule by his own Trumpian fiat exists, at least not on planet earth. The assertion that such evidence does exist is the province of lunatics, and of people who find it useful to goose them on social media, or take their money.
The second reason for the departures from legal, institutional, and procedural norms that propagating a conspiracy theory requires is far more troubling. The lies and misinformation spoon-fed to the press by former high intelligence officials, who are now cashing paychecks from the same news outlets that they partnered with, are part of an ongoing campaign which, if successful, will protect those ex-spy chiefs from the legal consequences of their own law-breaking while in office.
For example, the House Intelligence Committee report found that James Clapper “flatly denied ‘discussing[ing] the dossier [compiled by Steele] or any other intelligence related to Russia hacking of the 2016 election with journalists.’ ” Yet while Clapper may now find himself in trouble for lying to Congress—which he has done before on extremely consequential subjects, like the extent of America’s domestic spying programs, apparently without damaging his credibility as a “news source”—he has carved a new job out of a possible crime. In August 2017, CNN hired him as an analyst, creating the appearance, at least, that the network is now paying him for the information he leaked to them. At the same time, it provides him with a platform to run an offense shielding him from the legal consequences of his actions. Presumably, Clapper will continue to justify his actions as a public official on-air while denying any wrong-doing, and his “analysis” will be presented to viewers as impartial and truthful.
Lies, innuendo, wild conspiracy theorizing, and the insistent assumption of guilt have replaced old-fashioned rules of sourcing, objectivity, and basic plausibility.
Nor is Clapper the only source of misinformation to land a paying job with a news outlet he leaked to while ostensibly protecting America’s secrets. Former CIA head John Brennan, another spy chief at the Trump briefing, won a TV deal with NBC in what, if you look at it from the wrong angle—or the right angle—might appear to be a payment in kind for leaking politically charged information and perhaps even classified intelligence. It’s enough to make any real journalist nauseous—or would be, if there were any real journalists left in Washington, as opposed to people who give each other awards for printing stuff that’s spoon-fed to them by oppo shops and spies with clear political agendas. How embarrassing.
If it’s hard to see how the press is going to find its way out of this hole, that’s because the news industry has collectively decided to keep digging. The 2018 Pulitzer for National Reporting wasn’t awarded to a single story, or an individual reporter, or one newspaper’s investigative team. Uniquely, it went to the staffs of America’s two biggest newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post. The citation congratulates them “for deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.”
In other words, the Pulitzer committee rewarded the industry as a whole for its work on the Trump-Russia collusion story. If it hadn’t, it would have been seen as an enormous rebuke, implying that every news organization in America had wasted half of its dwindling budgets and an even larger portion of its remaining credibility on a dog’s breakfast of rumors and innuendo that turned out not to be worth the candle.
What the aftermath of the Washington, D.C. awards season made clear is that the institutional need to justify the massive sunk cost of the Trump-Russia collusion fairy tale will continue to haunt the news business, by forcing reporters to continually obfuscate the epic scale of the disaster that they and their colleagues have visited upon the profession. Reporters for major outlets with skin in the game—meaning all of them—are obliged to keep on fooling readers into thinking that all those breathless Trump-Russia stories they read last year were true, or more or less true, even when they were mainly or entirely false.
On Friday, for example, the New York Times reported that the Russian lawyer who met with Donald Trump, Jr. and other Trump circle figures had closer ties to the Kremlin than she previously let on. According to the Times, “Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, worked hand in glove with Russia’s chief legal office to thwart a Justice Department civil fraud case against a well-connected Russian firm”—a fact that Tablet, for example, reported from readily-available sources last summer.
The Times story reports that Veselnitskaya acknowledged in an interview with NBC News that she is a “source of information for a top Kremlin official”—Russia’s prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika. “I am a lawyer, and I am an informant,” said Veselnitskaya. “Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.”
Now watch carefully, in order to understand how the sausage is made and then re-made. The paper writes that Veselnitskaya “appears to have recanted her earlier denials of Russian government ties”—yet she’s been saying for more than a year that she was hooked into high-level Kremlin officials. In fact, she was quoted in a Nov. 10, 2017 article saying virtually the same thing to another NBC News reporter, regarding the same fraud case: “I was in effect, the primary source of this information for the Russian Prosecutor General’s office.”
So why is the New York Times reporting the latest NBC News interview as breaking news? To understand the point of the Times story, you have to know what’s still missing. As history is selectively rewritten to remove the most obvious departures from verifiable reality, without acknowledging the scale of prior mistakes and untruths, the news product resembles the products of a state-controlled press, in which maintaining the credibility of the governing elite requires pulling the wool over the eyes of readers, who are expected to actively and passively cooperate in being fooled.
Here’s the story in full:
A British music publicist arranged Veselnitskaya’s June 9, 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. at the Trump Tower by promising dirt on Clinton. “If it’s what you say, I love it,” the president’s eldest son replied by email.
But Veselnitskaya had nothing on Clinton. She wanted to discuss the U.S. law imposing sanctions on Russian government officials and other figures close to Russian president Vladimir Putin who are implicated in the detention and death of Sergei Magnitsky. He was a Russian tax accountant hired in 2007 by the Chicago-born financier William Browder to investigate the misappropriation of $230 million in taxes that Browder’s firm had paid to the Russian government. Magnitsky was arrested in 2008 and was found dead a year later in a Moscow jail cell. The Magnitsky Act is the sanctions legislation that Browder spearheaded to punish those involved, and fire a shot across Putin’s bow.
In turn, Veselnitskaya was hired to represent a firm owned by Kremlin associates charged by the Justice Department with laundering some of the profits from the tax fraud that Magnitsky was investigating on behalf of Browder when he was arrested. Since the fraud case and the Magnitsky Act touch on Russian national interests, as well as Putin’s personal interests, it’s only natural the lawyer handling the case would be in close touch with the Kremlin’s top lawyer.
Yet the Times piece from last week barely touched on Magnitsky. His case, the story explains, “became a cause célèbre in Washington,”—in fact it gave rise to American legislation. The Times article didn’t mention Browder at all. Why? Because that would’ve widened the lens of a story that is tasked to show the Trump team’s ties to Kremlin affiliates, and raised some uncomfortable questions that undermine the governing narrative, which is that Trump colluded with Russia in order to steal the Presidency from Hillary Clinton.
More detail in the Times story would show that one of Veselnitskaya’s partners in the anti-Magnitsky campaign was Fusion GPS. Glenn Simpson’s opposition research shop had been brought on to run a smear campaign against Browder in the press. The talking points on Magnitsky and Browder that Veselnitskaya recited in the Trump Tower meeting, talking points that she previously shared with Russia’s prosecutor general, were quite literally written by Fusion GPS.
But wait. Fusion GPS—that’s the same firm that was hired by the Clinton campaign and the DNC to produce the Steele dossier. So Fusion GPS disseminated reports of the Trump team’s ties to Russia in order to warn America of a possible criminal conspiracy that would sell out U.S. interests in exchange for help securing the presidency—while it also worked on a campaign defending Kremlin interests by undermining an American law. How, you ask, is that possible? And why didn’t the Times report that salient fact?
Because the Times was in bed with Fusion GPS too. William Browder told me that when he was trying to get various journalists to report on Fusion GPS’ role in the campaign against him and the Magnitsky Act, he found that the company’s founder Glenn Simpson “was so deeply embedded as a source for different stories, no one wanted to write a story about him.”
In Simpson’s Aug. 22, 2017 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee he was asked about the veracity of the Steele dossier. In his answer, Simpson notes that one of the “key lines” in the Steele dossier states that Trump “and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his democratic and other political rivals.” In retrospect, says Simpson, “we now know this was pretty right on target in terms on what it says… [the dossier] depicts them as accepting information. What we have seen to date with the disclosures this year is they were at a minimum super interested in getting information.”
A congressional aide asked Simpson to specify what he meant by “disclosures this year.” Simpson replied: “The Trump Tower meeting.”
So, according to Simpson, the Trump Tower meeting proved the part of the Steele dossier that claimed the Trump team was taking the Kremlin’s dirt is true—meaning that Simpson is virtually admitting that the meeting between Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya, his business partner, was a set up. The dossier memo that claims the Trump team wanted dirt on Clinton is dated June 20, a week and a half after the June 9 meeting—at which that dirt was offered, and which was arranged to help establish the collusion thesis. In Simpson’s Aug. 22, 2017 testimony, the phrase “disclosures this year” refers to a New York Times article published a little more than a month previously, July 8, reporting that the president’s eldest son met the previous year with a Russian lawyer, who, according to the Times, “has connections to the Kremlin.” Who, you might ask, gave that story to the Times?
Even the Times’ original story on the Veselnitskaya meeting emphasized her links to the Kremlin. That’s the point of the set-up, to underscore her relationship with Russian officials in order to substantiate the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. Yet now, that information, which the paper itself reported, has been retroactively imagined away. The purpose of the recent Times story—asserting no one really knew before now of her deep Kremlin links—is to cover the paper’s own role in the operation, while perpetuating the Trump-Russia narrative.
While it is difficult even for partisans to retail the literal version of the collusion thesis with a straight face, some version of that narrative, however qualified, or figurative, has to be true—or else the Times, like the Post, CNN, NBC, and countless other media organizations have printed thousands of stories and editorials whose underlying premise is simply false, sending the reputations of dozens of reporters and opinionators up in smoke, Pulitzer Prizes and all.
It’s hard to imagine anything worse for a democracy than journalists coordinating with political operatives and spies who are paid by the press to leak information about American citizens. But that’s where we are. We have hit rock-bottom.
Correction, May 2, 2018: A previous version of this piece inaccurately characterized CNN’s reporting. Tablet should have called Jake Tapper for comment, but did not. Tablet regrets this lapse, which led to an inaccurate description of Tapper’s own involvement in the story.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).