Buzzfeed Reporters Admit They Got Blockbuster Trump Story Wrong

Buzzfeed Reporters Admit They Got Blockbuster Trump Story Wrong
Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, hands out free copies of a BuzzFeed newspaper outside the Union Square subway station in New York City on March 6, 2019. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Two Buzzfeed reporters admitted in a new interview that they got part of a blockbuster story about President Donald Trump wrong, which was debunked by the report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller months after the special counsel’s office publicly said the story was inaccurate.

At least two stories from the openly anti-Trump outlet were proven to have errors by Mueller’s report. Both stories were written by Jason Leopold, who has a history of plagiarism, and Anthony Cormier. Both articles also relied on anonymous sources.

Neither the reporter nor Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith have apologized for publishing incorrect information.

One story claimed that “President Trump directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow tower project.”

NTD Photo
The logo of news website BuzzFeed is seen on a computer screen in Wash., on March 25, 2014. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

The story relied on two anonymous sources and claimed that Cohen told investigators working for special counsel Robert Mueller that Trump told him to lie about talks he had with a Russian official for a Trump Tower project.

Cohen’s alleged lie was claiming talks fell apart in January 2016 when they actually ended in June 2016. The article also claimed that Mueller’s office obtained documents of Trump’s alleged instructions to Cohen, such as internal Trump Organization emails. Leopold also said he’d seen the documents personally, while Cormier said he had not.

Mueller’s office took the notable step of issuing a statement saying the article was wrong, the first time it did so during the yearslong investigation.

In a new podcast interview with Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare, another openly anti-Trump website, Cormier and Leopold discussed the debunked story.

Special counsel Robert Mueller after attending church
Special counsel Robert Mueller after attending church in Washington on March 24, 2019. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Cormier said that he started to probe Cohen’s past as part of an investigation into Trump’s campaign.

“Our job was never to really examine the dossier, but we knew that Cohen in this case was a big sort of part of that and knew that he had played a role in 2016,” Cormier said of the now debunked dossier ostensibly compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, who said his purpose was to prevent Trump from being elected.

“We were pretty fortunate to work with some pretty incredible sources that gave us insight,” he added. Leopold also said that their sources weren’t speaking with anyone else. “The sources had been right in the past,” Cormier later added.

Wittes asked the reporters how they felt when Mueller took the abnormal step of publicly saying the story was wrong.

President Donald Trump answers questions
President Donald Trump answers questions as he departs the White House on April 26, 2019. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“I was confused, because the statement just contained a string of words that I didn’t feel at the time went so far as to essentially knock down the entire story. It was truly a feeling of confusion, and at the same time, a determination … to find out what happened behind the scenes,” Leopold said.

“Reading it, and knowing what Anthony and I had gleaned from our sources, what we knew about what went on behind the scenes during Michael Cohen’s discussions, I still felt pretty confident.”

“That’s not the traditional way that a government body would challenge a story,” Cormier claimed, saying he would have expected more specific comments. “In this case, it seemed very broad and we were unable to, in our own interpretation of the records and in subsequent calls to them, to figure out what exactly they were challenging. All we care about is getting it right, and if we’ve gotten it wrong, we really need to amend the public record.”

“I felt incredibly depressed and sort of beside myself,” Cormier said, noting that he called an editor at Buzzfeed and “was prepared to resign.”

“I was deeply hurt because you had folks like Jeffrey Toobin saying on the television that I had committed some grievous sin against journalism,” he added. “The idea that I had somehow besmirched the good name of my colleagues and of myself, I was practically inconsolable for several days.”

Michael Cohen testifies in Washington
Michael Cohen, former attorney for President Donald Trump, testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 27, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Cormier said he then began to believe that their mistake was understandable. “These sources had gotten this right in the past, we know that we acted in good faith, we took the appropriate steps to run this not past just one, two, but other folks,” he said. “I kept looking at it going, ‘Wait a second, how did we get this wrong, and could it be that this is a matter of interpretation?'”

Leopold agreed, saying Mueller’s team seemed to interpret the evidence differently, compared with their sources, who said that Cohen was explicitly directed to lie.

“Our sources interpreted evidence one way but Mueller’s office interpreted it another way,” Leopold said. “It’s not lost on either Anthony or I that our story did say ‘explicit’ and Cohen made it clear in his testimony that it was ‘implicit’ but, you know, I think that he understood it to be explicit,” he claimed.

Cormier again defended Buzzfeed’s sources, naming them as federal law enforcement officials who interviewed Cohen and took notes of the interview. “They felt very, very confident that what he was telling them was that he was instructed or directed by the president to lie to Congress. That was their interpretation of Michael Cohen’s interviews. They felt that they had enough to say this definitively.”

In fact, Mueller’s team wrote in the report: “Cohen said that he and the President did not explicitly discuss whether Cohen’s testimony about the Trump Tower Moscow project would be or was false, and the President did not direct him to provide false testimony. Cohen also said he did not tell the President about the specifics of his planned testimony.”

The team added that while there is evidence “that the President knew Cohen provided false testimony to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project, the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”

Mueller team disputes Buzzfeed report
(L): Disputed Buzzfeed report was published on Jan. 17, 2019. (Screenshot/Buzzfeed) (R): Former FBI director Robert Mueller on Oct. 28, 2013. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Cormier blamed the false story on what he saw as “cracks” that formed inside the special counsel’s office, claiming there was a deep divide between people working on the case. “We got caught kind of in the middle,” he said.

Wittes asked if the writers thought there was a fundamental error in the story or if they were only partially wrong.

“As a journalist, you cannot get the gist right. I have to get it all right. I have to get every single syllable correct and in this case, I did not,” Cormier responded.

“I wrote that it was an explicit instruction, when in fact the evidence now shows that it was not explicit.

“While it does appear that Michael Cohen was in some form instructed, told, directed to lie, that the thesis of the story is sound … we got ‘explicit’ wrong. I take full responsibility for that. All I can do is do better in the future.”

Leopold concurred, saying, “Anthony summed it up well. I completely agree.”

The admission comes after Cormier said at an investigative journalism symposium that Steel’s dossier is a “[expletive]-up document,” reported the right-leaning Washington Times. He then referenced how Buzzfeed published the document, which was full of unsubstantiated claims.

“I’m going to say that. It was a [expletive]-up document,” he added. “I think we need to know more about where it came from. Why it is. What it means. But I still defend the right and decision to publish it because I believe in radical transparency. And if the U.S. government is passing that kind of intel to the president and president-elect, I think you guys deserve to know.”

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