The entire basis of a big Washington Post report on President Trump’s involvement in the FBI Russia investigation is at best a thirdhand account from anonymous officials of a conversation that happened almost three months ago.
The scoop is a big one, if true. Adam Entous reports Trump asked a top intelligence official to persuade former FBI Director James Comey to shift the focus of the Russia investigation away from then-national security adviser Mike Flynn.
Such an ask from Trump would solidify the narrative he has improperly interfered with the Russia investigation, and that he fired Comey because he didn’t like the way he was handling it. But the sourcing here is dubious. Entous attributes the information to “officials familiar with the account Coats gave to associates.”
Let’s look at how far this account had to travel to get to Entous at The Washington Post, assuming the conversation actually happened (none of those present have confirmed this).
Trump has a private conversation with Coats and Pompeo. Coats discusses the contents of that conversation with some “associates” — who either do or do not have an official capacity, Entous never specifies. Those associates in turn relay what is now a secondhand account to some “officials.”
At this point we’re playing a game of telephone through likely politically motivated sources. And the story could have traveled through several more rounds of recounting in the intervening months before making it to Entous at The Washington Post.
What exactly does Entous mean by “associate” here? Are these other high-ranking intelligence officials? Former officials? Coats’ favorite staffers? The guy who does his dry cleaning? And what bar does a source have to meet to be considered “familiar with” an account of an account? The wording in the report seems deliberately vague, perhaps in order to lend the report greater credence, perhaps to justifiably protect sources. We don’t know.
Entous has previously demonstrated a willingness to run with big Russia scoops before thoroughly vetting the facts. He and a colleague reported Russia hacked the U.S. power grid in December, but the story turned out to be totally false when the electric company (which had not been contacted) quickly revealed the hack had nothing to do with the U.S. electrical grid and may not have even happened.
In another big Russia hacking story on the CIA conclusion regarding interference, Entous and his colleagues cited one anonymous source with only secondhand knowledge of the matter. The source was cited as a “U.S. official” who was “briefed” on the presentation the CIA gave Senators — essentially a person who was briefed on a brief. This is another game of telephone and falls well below what used to be the standard bar for journalism: two sources with firsthand knowledge of the story.
Entous is also at the center of a more recent Washington Post report on Russian interference that is founded on an anonymous letter the paper has refused to publish. The story is another big scoop — that Jared Kushner wanted a secret channel for Trump to communicate with Russia ahead of taking office. But no one has independently verified the existence or content of the letter that formed the basis of the scoop. And The Washington Post has not explained why editors have refused to publish the letter.
In each of these examples, Entous and his editors ignore what used to be standard rules of journalism for the sake of quickly pushing big scoops that play nicely into the media’s big Russia narrative.
(Fox News, for its part, quoted an anonymous official saying it wasn’t Kushner, but Kislyak who suggested the back channel. Establishment media quickly pounced on the single source story. Oddly, nobody seemed to notice Fox’s source claimed to be in the room at the time of the exchange.)
Entous explicitly connects the dots for the reader in the latest scoop on Coats between Trump allegedly trying to shut down the investigation and suspicions he and his campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election.
“The events involving Coats show the president went further than just asking intelligence officials to deny publicly the existence of any evidence showing collusion during the 2016 election, as The Washington Post reported in May,” Entous writes. “The interaction with Coats indicates that Trump aimed to enlist top officials to have Comey curtail the bureau’s probe.”
But not once in the story does Entous even mention there is as yet no evidence Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia, despite what has already been a lengthy FBI investigation.
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