- BuzzFeed published a bombshell story in January asserting that President Donald Trump ordered his former fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans for a Trump-branded skyscraper in Moscow.
- No other news outlet matched the story, and the redacted version of special counsel Mueller’s report appears to discredit it.
- BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief said the site relied on notes written by a law enforcement official during Cohen’s interview with the FBI.
- The notes, which appear to implicate Donald Trump, Jr., raise further questions about the accuracy of BuzzFeed’s reporting.
- The site hasn’t yet retracted the story, leaving it hanging in limbo.
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When BuzzFeed reported on January 17 that President Donald Trump ordered his former fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans for a Trump-branded skyscraper in Moscow, the upstart outlet framed the story as a revelation of world-historical importance – “the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” – and a vindication for BuzzFeed’s ambitious newsroom.
Unlike other bombshells to emerge from the Russia investigation, this was the first to unambiguously accuse a sitting president of committing a serious crime in office. And the story’s headline – “President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project” – lacked any caveats or hedges. Moreover, reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold said Mueller’s team had evidence showing Trump instructed Cohen to lie.
The story sent Washington into a frenzy. Some Democratic members of Congress began discussing impeachment.
But no other outlet was able to match the story. A day later, BuzzFeed suddenly found itself on the defensive when special counsel Robert Mueller publicly challenged the accuracy of the site’s reporting – an extraordinary move from an office that almost always refused to discuss its ongoing investigation.
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” his office’s statement said.
Mueller’s views have not evolved since. In a redacted version of his report about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, released on Thursday by the Department of Justice, his team again disputed the claim that Trump directed Cohen to lie on his behalf.
“There is evidence … that the president knew Cohen provided false testimony to Congress [but] the evidence to us does not establish the president directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony,” the report stated.
BuzzFeed continues to defend story
The stakes of BuzzFeed’s story were incredibly high. It dropped at a pivotal moment in Mueller’s investigation, at the same time accusations of “fake news” against journalists were reaching their highest pitch. (A Pew Research Center survey from 2018 found that only 21% of Americans have a lot of trust in the news media.)
“Whether BuzzFeed’s reporting can stand up to further scrutiny is now at the center of a test of the news media’s credibility,” The New York Times noted in January. “President Trump seized on the special counsel’s denial to continue making the case that the press is biased against him. Journalists expressed the worry that a retraction could undermine Americans’ trust in their work.”
Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, appears reluctant to back down. On Thursday night, just hours after Mueller’s report became public, Smith addressed the obvious contradiction between his site’s reporting and Mueller’s conclusion.
“Our sources – federal law enforcement officials – interpreted the evidence Cohen presented as meaning that the president ‘directed’ Cohen to lie,” he wrote in a post for the site. “We now know that Mueller did not.”
Rather than retract the story or issue a correction – as CNN did when it reported in June 2017 that Congress was investigating ties between a Russian investment fund and Trump officials – Smith characterized the post as an “update” and left the original headline standing.
Smith’s post attempted to reconcile the differences between BuzzFeed’s reporting and Mueller’s report by zeroing in on the site’s sources, who remain unnamed, and their apparent failure to correctly interpret Cohen’s evidence. This lends some clarity to how BuzzFeed went about reporting their story, but it also confuses things further.
BuzzFeed’s story relied on notes taken by a law enforcement source
By all appearances, the original story was, in part, based on Trump Organization documents and testimonies obtained by the special counsel, and Cohen’s subsequent corroboration of their contents with the same office. Cormier and Leopold explicitly told interviewers that at least one of them – Leopold – had seen the documents in the story.
Reporters prize documents because they tend to form the official record within larger entities like the federal government. They’re much less fickle than human sources, who may stop talking or provide inaccurate information. The fact that BuzzFeed employed documents sent a signal that their reporting was legitimate.
In his update, Smith described some of the documents that led to Cormier and Leopold’s report. Confusingly, these are not the same documents described in the January story.
Smith wrote that “our story was based on detailed information from senior law enforcement sources. That reporting included documents – specifically, pages of notes that were taken during an interview of Cohen by the FBI.” The author of the notes, Smith added, was “one law enforcement source.” The original story did not mention any notes, or characterize any documents in those terms.
It’s not entirely clear whether the documents Smith referenced in his update were the only ones that supported the disputed story. A BuzzFeed spokesman would say only the update “speaks for itself” and that it was “not meant to clarify a reporter’s comments to the media.” (Leopold said in interviews that he had seen the documents himself.)
Smith’s update did not refer to any Trump Organization documents supposedly obtained by the special counsel. This is particularly noteworthy because the original story characterized these documents as pivotal: “The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”
It’s also significant because, according to BuzzFeed’s January report, the Trump Organization documents were compelling enough for Mueller to interview Cohen about them. The documents Smith mentioned in his update, by contrast, consisted of notes jotted down by a single law enforcement official in a very different setting: Cohen’s interview with the FBI. There is an enormous difference between these two kinds of documents – one made clear by the outcome of BuzzFeed’s reporting.
The notes themselves invite further scrutiny. One note, for example, appears to implicate Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., in a coordinated effort to convince Cohen to deceive Congress. “Cohen told [Mueller] he was asked to lie by DJT/DJT Jr., lawyers,” the note said.
Without a transcript of Cohen’s interview, it’s difficult to explain the note’s reference to Trump, Jr. Still, it raises serious questions about BuzzFeed’s process for evaluating the notes in question. Zero news outlets have connected Trump, Jr., even in passing, to the falsehoods of Cohen’s Congressional testimony. If BuzzFeed trusted their source, and their source’s notes, why didn’t their story mention Trump, Jr.’s alleged involvement, too?
Cohen’s own testimony contradicts BuzzFeed’s reporting
Much of the dispute surrounding BuzzFeed’s reporting found a resolution earlier this year. In February, Cohen told Congress that Trump’s directive to lie came in the form of an informal code that both parties understood. While the precise nature of this code remains somewhat mysterious, Cohen’s testimony confirmed his former boss did not directly tell him to lie – once again contradicting BuzzFeed’s original story.
The consequences of this episode go beyond the walls of BuzzFeed’s newsroom. “By apparently overstating the case in this story, and by not doing everything possible to get a full response beforehand, BuzzFeed not only inflicted a wound on itself, but it also gave ammunition to those who seek to undermine the journalism that is more important than ever,” media critic Margaret Sullivan noted in a February column for The Washington Post.
Less certain is how the story might change BuzzFeed itself. In a March interview with The New Yorker, Leopold staunchly defended the site’s editorial process and standards. His and Cormier’s story “was vetted by multiple editors and lawyers, and we did not publish it until everyone was satisfied that the reporting was rock-solid.”
Cormier and Leopold have been largely silent on the issue since the release of Mueller’s report. And it seems, for now, that their updated story will remain uncorrected.