Editorials: When anything goes
Robert Mueller warns the press to beware of fake news
If Robert Mueller ever needs work, we would be happy to commend him to a school of journalism looking for a dean.
The special counsel, or prosecutor, looking for evidence that Donald Trump conspired with Vladimir Putin to cook the 2016 presidential election, warns editors of news outlets peddling hyped stories to beware. “Many” articles about his investigation have been wrong.
“What I have been telling all reporters is that many stories about our investigation have been inaccurate,” Mr. Mueller says through his spokesman. “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.”
Mr. Mueller, a man careful with his supply of facts, did not cite a specific story which might be based on a reporter’s imagination, but his pointed warning followed a story by the McClatchy newspapers that the president’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, did in fact travel to Prague to confer with unnamed Russians to cook the American election results to a Russian recipe. Perhaps the timing of the Mueller advice is mere co-incidence. Or perhaps not.
The gossip about Mr. Cohen’s trip to Prague — which he has denied with heat, over and over again — was meant to confirm details in the infamous dossier put together by a research firm called Fusion GPS for the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, which paid for it.
The dossier, including salacious but unlikely tales of naughty behavior by Mr. Trump, has been widely discounted right and left, even by some Democrats eager to believe everything bad about the president.
The story about Mr. Cohen traveling to Prague defies credulity. For one thing, he denied under oath going there, under penalty of perjury, and on Saturday, the day after the McClatchy report, he tweeted another denial: “Bad reporting, bad information and bad story by reporter Peter Stone. No matter how many times they report it, I have never been to Prague. I was in LA with my son.” If he’s lying about it, the FBI could track his movements easily and quickly.
Mr. Cohen has provided trip records to reporters to show that he was, in fact, in California during the time he was said to have been in the Czech capital. The Prague trip emerged again in the wake of the Mueller raid on Mr. Cohen’s home and law office, with suggestions that the raid netted the smoking gun, or at least smoking documents, confirming details of the mystery trip.
If this episode was a result of deliberate invention of factoids — fake news, in other words — it was a serious miscalculation of time and place. Once the press makes a villain of a public figure, anything goes. Supervising editors can discard due care. The same press that insists on calling Bashar Assad’s chemical-weapons massacre of his own people “an alleged attack” is eager to take accounts of Trump mal- and misfeasance at face value. No need to use the weasel word.
The story that Mr. Cohen went to Prague in behalf of “Trump treason” has been retailed to anyone who would listen by Glenn Simpson, cofounder of Fusion GPS, who told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that Mr. Cohen may have traveled to Prague by a Russian’s private plane or even a yacht. This is meant to explain how Mr. Cohen could have bypassed immigration authorities and why there was no Czech stamp in his passport. Who then are skeptics to believe, Mr. Simpson, or their own eyes?
The McClatchy reporters with the Prague scoop reported in January, as Rowan Scarborough reminded readers of The Washington Times, that the FBI was investigating whether “millions of dollars in Russian funds” had wound up in the accounts of a political-action committee of the National Rifle Association. The NRA says it never happened. The story was not confirmed by any of the news outlets always on the scout for wrongdoing by the NRA and other hobgoblins that stalk the Washington swamp.
Trump Derangement Syndrome has damaged many things in Washington, not least the credibility of oncereliable organs of the establishment press. Robert Mueller’s warning to credulous editors and reporters is much needed. This is not the era of hard-nosed editors with no patience with the sloppy or the dishonest. In certain newsrooms anything goes. Self-inflicted wounds can be fatal, too.