Accuracy in Media

It was the big scoop of the day – President Trump had tried to get Attorney General William Barr to hold a press conference saying Trump had done nothing illegal with regard to Ukraine, but the attorney general declined.

“The request from Trump traveled from the president to other White House officials and eventually to the White House,” wrote Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey and Carol Leonnig of the Post under the headline: “Trump wanted Barr to hold news conference saying the president broke no laws in call with Ukrainian leader.”

Trump “has mentioned Barr’s demurral to associates in recent weeks, saying he wished Barr would have held the news conference, Trump advisers say.” But it was not forthcoming because the Justice Department “has sought some distance from the White House, particularly on matters relating to the burgeoning controversy over Trump’s dealings on Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry they sparked.”

The story is attributed to “people familiar with the matter” who, in some cases, “spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the politically fraught situation.”

The president denied it in a tweet, saying “The degenerate Washington Post MADE UP the story about me asking Bill Barr to hold a news conference. Never happened, and there were no sources!”

If it turns out Trump is right, it wouldn’t be the first time.

The origin of the Ukraine story provides an example. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the intelligence community inspector general had sought to transmit an anonymous whistleblower complaint, but the White House stopped him to avoid embarrassment. Trump promptly released a transcript of the call.

There was the story in January that Trump had ordered his personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie in congressional testimony about his business dealings with Russia – an account so far from the truth that then-special counsel Robert Mueller publicly denied it through a spokesman.

There also was the story that Cohen’s cell phone had “pinged” towers in Prague, which would mean he lied about never having gone to Czechoslovakia on behalf of Trump. There was Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC reporting that Deutsche Bank in Germany had revealed Trump’s loans were co-signed by Russian oligarchs, only to have to apologize a day later when the story turned out to be false.

There was the story on CNN in June 2017 that Anthony Scaramucci, who worked briefly in Trump’s communications office, was secretly doing business with a $10 billion Russian investment firm – after which CNN had to retract the story and dismiss the three men responsible for it.

And the story that a server in Trump Tower had been communicating with a Russian bank and the one saying Paul Manafort, briefly a Trump campaign official, had three times visited Julian Assange in his hideout in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Later that year, CNN announced Donald Trump Jr. had been offered advance access to hacked Democrat emails, and MSNBC and CBS “confirmed” this occurred and that it was evidence the Trump campaign colluded with WikiLeaks. It turned out Trump Jr. received an email saying to look at the WikiLeaks dump – but only after it had been made public.

Other stories, such as ones about C-SPAN being hacked by a Russian news site, Russians infiltrating U.S. politics by causing more than 200 websites to become “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season,” Russians hacking into Vermont’s electrical supply and Russia targeting U.S. diplomats at the Cuban embassy using a “super-sophisticated sonic microwave weapon” were designed to make the president look complicit or powerless against the Russians.  

Glenn Greenwalt of the Intercept provided an important point on these missteps. “Note that all of these ‘errors’ go in only one direction: namely, exaggerating the grave threat posed by Moscow and the Trump circle’s connection to it.” Mistakes are inevitable, he wrote, but “if that’s being done in good faith, one would expect the errors would be roughly 50/50 in terms of the agenda served by the false stories. That is most definitely not the case here.”

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