Joe Strupp

Author ››› Joe Strupp
  • Experts: Reporters Should Demand Proof That Trump And His Family Have Severed Ties With Their Business

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Government ethics experts say President-elect Donald Trump needs to divest himself completely of his business holdings to avoid any conflict of interest, and that he should give reporters legal documentation of his plan when he unveils it in two weeks.

    The president-elect has recently faced heavy criticism over a vast array of potential conflicts of interest between his business empire and his upcoming administration.

    On Wednesday, Trump issued a series of tweets announcing a “major news conference” with his children in which he will “discuss the fact that [he] will be leaving” his business “in total.” Trump claimed that while he was not legally “mandated” to make this move, he felt it “is visually important, as President, to in no way have a conflict of interest with my various businesses.”

    Many major media outlets responded to Trump’s announcement with headlines parroting Trump’s suggestion that he will be completely cutting ties to focus on the presidency and avoid conflicts.

    But legal experts tell Media Matters that Trump’s vague announcement does little to address the potential conflicts, and any plan short of Trump completely selling his interests will leave the window open for an ethical mess. They also point out that Trump simply claiming to be separate from the business but leaving his children in charge is another major ethical red flag.

    Geoffrey Hazard, professor of law and a government ethics expert at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and University of California Hastings Law School in San Francisco, said the president-elect should sell all of his business holdings: “Get it as far away from your personal control as you can. Legally, it is not too complicated.”

    Hazard said the Trump children should "clearly not" be given control of the organization "because they are still his children. They can communicate with each other by nods and winks and they will.”

    “He ought to be able to point to a set of legal documents and say about them, ‘Here’s what we’ve done,'” Hazard added. “He ought to turn over a stack of papers that [journalists] could give to their legal people to look at.”

    Stephen Gillers, New York University Law School professor of legal ethics, also said complete divestiture is needed.

    “To really cut the concerns he has to sell all of his interests in all of the Trump properties,” Gillers said. “The conflict concern is those might influence his decisions as president. He has to have no financial interest in the profit or loss of any of the Trump enterprises. Give no reason to question whether he made a decision because it’s good for the business.”

    Gillers suggested reporters should directly ask Trump on December 15, “Will you divest yourself of any financial interest of any properties of Trump Enterprises? And if you don’t, how will we know that the decisions as president have not been influenced by business considerations?”

    “To divest himself will require a lot of lawyering,” Gillers said. “It will not be easy but it can be done and proof of that should be made available to the public.”

    (An illustration of one of the many potential conflicts of interest looming for the Trump administration, via The New York Times.)

    Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, MO, said his tweets do not detail how far he will remove himself from the businesses. She said that needs to be asked by the press.

    “That addresses whether he will focus on the presidency, but that does not address in any way the initial conflicts he has through his ownership interests,” she said of his tweets. “He needs to divest from his business interest. It means to sell it -- that’s the only way that he can move forward in the government without people reasonably being concerned that his government decisions are motivated by his personal financial interests.”

    As for reporters seeking answers, she said they “need to see the documents, we all need to see the documents because Mr. Trump has a habit of saying two things that are mutually exclusive and he does them at the same time. The focus has to be on whether he has actually divested or not.”

    Richard Painter, a former ethics attorney for the George W. Bush White House, said via email that any separation from The Trump Organization “is not enough unless he is going to sell the businesses.”

    Painter followed that with a long list of potential conflicts that could arise otherwise. Those include:

    “Payments from foreign governments that violate the Emoluments Clause (foreign diplomats staying in hotels, parties thrown by foreign governments in hotels, loans from the Bank of China, rent paid by foreign governments and companies controlled by foreign governments in office buildings, etc.); appearances of quid pro quo (bribery, solicitation of a bribe or offering a bribe) every time ANYBODY working for either the government or the Trump business organization talks about both government business and Trump organization business in the same conversations or even with the same people; and litigation risk.”

    “Under the Jones v. Clinton case the President can be sued in his personal capacity and presumably also can be required to testify in other lawsuits,” Painter explained. “If Trump owns the businesses it will be a lot easier for plaintiffs lawyers to sue him personally and even if they do not to require his testimony, than it would be if he sell the businesses.”

    He said reporters need to ask, “Is he going to divest and if not how is he going to deal with these problems that I mention?”

  • Former Members Of Senate Credentialing Committee Alarmed At Bannon's "Shady" Relationship With Breitbart

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Breitbart.com’s request for permanent Capitol Hill press credentials is sparking concern from former members of the committee that approves those passes, who say Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon’s new White House advisory role could pose a "shady" conflict.

    Politico recently reported that Breitbart, the far-right conservative website headed by Bannon for years, had applied for permanent credentials with the Standing Committee of the Senate Press Gallery, which decides who may receive the coveted credentials.

    The request comes as Bannon, the recent chair/CEO of Breitbart, was named chief strategist and senior counselor for President-elect Donald Trump. (Bannon has been "on leave" from the site since he left to help head Trump's campaign in August.)                 

    The Standing Committee’s policy expressly forbids any news organization with a conflict of interest to receive a credential. This week, Media Matters issued an open letter calling on the committee to reject the credential request "based on Breitbart’s disqualifying inability to demonstrate editorial independence as required" by the committee rules. 

    Given Bannon’s ties to Breitbart, former members of the committee -- which is comprised of Congressional correspondents -- fear it could pose a problem. They requested anonymity due to concerns about retaliation.

    “You would be terribly concerned about conflict of interest and how to guard against this,” said one former committee member. “On the face of it, the question people have is, ‘are we comfortable with the fact that someone in the White House now seems to have potentially this role influencing what appears in a publication?’ You can’t know that until you look at the structure. My first question would be can he reach over any type of firewall in terms of what stories are covered?

    “You have to be editorially independent from anything that’s not a news organization and by virtue of having someone in the White House and having editorial influence over Breitbart, if he did, he would violate the standard.”

     Another former committee member echoed that view.

    “That would be something to be raised by the committee, it won’t be just rubber-stamped for it I assume,” the former member said. “You need to know if there is a clear separation from the ownership. The concern they normally have is if there is a potential for conflict of interest between what the ownership is doing and the reporting.”

    The person added, “If he took a leave of absence, you would have to take his word for it that he would not be interfering, they would have to look at it carefully. I don’t think they would take his word for it. It seems likely they would take a hard look and make sure it is correct.”

    A third former committee member said a Breitbert credential “sounds a little shady.”

    “It sounds like something that if we were on the standing committee, we would have to look at closely,” the correspondent said. “That is the biggest role of the committee, making sure there is that firewall. … The White House and Congress are obviously very closely related, if you are someone who might benefit from what happens on one of those sides and can benefit financially from one of those things it can get really mixed up.”

    Another former committee member said this was the first such conflict to arise in their time in the congressional press corps.

    “I’ve never seen a situation where somebody in the administration had a connection to a news organization that is seeking a credential,” the former member said. “The concern is that if it’s not an independent news organization, the person would be acting as an agent for the administration on the hill. You don’t want someone acting as a lobbyist.”

  • Veteran White House Correspondents Speak Out On The “Danger” Of Trump’s Press Treatment

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team's behavior toward the press in the nine days since he was elected -- including Trump ditching the press to have dinner Tuesday night in New York City -- is renewing concerns from veteran White House reporters about how a Trump administration will deal with the media.

    Trump and his allies have waged an unprecedented war on the press since the start of his presidential campaign. The president-elect has repeatedly verbally attacked reporters, canceled media credentials for critical outlets, and suggested as a candidate that he would “open up our libel laws” as president to making suing media easier. 

    Since he won the presidential election on November 8, Trump has continued to lash out at the media through his Twitter account, sending numerous tweets targeting The New York Times for its reporting.  

    Trump and his team have also drawn criticism for not keeping the media updated on his schedule and whereabouts. Tuesday night, he left Trump Tower unannounced for a surprise dinner at a Manhattan restaurant after reporters covering him were originally told he was in for the night. (There was also confusion among media figures on Wednesday over which city the president-elect was in.)

    His actions sparked official criticism from White House Correspondents Association (WHCA) President Jeff Mason, who issued a statement saying that “it is unacceptable for the next president of the United States to travel without a regular pool to record his movements and inform the public about his whereabouts. The White House Correspondents' Association is pleased to hear reassurances by the Trump transition team that it will respect long-held traditions of press access at the White House and support a pool structure. But the time to act on that promise is now.”

    Leaders of 18 journalism organizations, including the National Press Club and the American Society of News Editors, offered their own joint letter to Trump urging that press access be improved going forward.

    “Being president is an enormous responsibility and working with the White House Correspondents’ Association to ensure journalists' access is one small but important part of that,” the letter said, in part. “We call on you to commit to a protective press pool from now until the final day of your presidency. We respectfully ask you to instill a spirit of openness and transparency in your administration in many ways but first and foremost via the press pool."

    Media Matters reached out to several current and former White House correspondents and WHCA presidents who said the dinner stunt is a worrisome sign that Trump may seek to bypass the press once he is in office. They said pool coverage of his activities is vital in case of a crisis or news making events.

    They also said Trump’s behavior both this past week and during the campaign -- including attacking critical media outlets and withholding important information -– is a troubling sign for how his administration will approach the media. 

    “The thing with the dinner is troubling,” said Steve Thomma, politics and government editor at McClatchy and a former White House Correspondents Association president. “It costs the president-elect nothing to have the press follow him in the motorcade. They will not sit at the next table, he will never see them. We are there in case something happens. Even 30 cars back in the motorcade. That is just being vindictive then.”

    He also questioned the way some appointments are being revealed.

    “As he rolls out the senior officers, [hopefully] he will do it in person and take questions from the press about it, that is what we did with the last two transitions,” Thomma said. “He did not do that with the chief of staff announcement. I remain hopeful, but we have not seen or heard from him in a long time.”

    He later added, “It is an understandable fear that he will cut off people and exclude people from Air Force One, those are fears, but there is reason to be optimistic that he will still talk to the broader media.” 

    George Condon, a National Journal White House correspondent who has covered the White House since 1982 and also served as WHCA president in 1993, said the press access is vital.

    “There is a long recognition by multiple White Houses that the public has the right to know what is going on with the president and where he is,” said Condon, noting that if that does not occur, “the public is short-changed and doesn’t know what the president is doing and when he’s doing it. We’re giving him a lot of power and in return you are going to sacrifice a lot of your privacy.”

    Another White House correspondent, who requested anonymity, said Trump’s actions so far raise multiple issues.

    “There are two levels of concern,” he said. “The first is the rhetoric on the campaign trail, libel laws and banning reporters from campaign events, invective against reporters. The second level is just logistic in setting up White House coverage in the Trump era.”

    He said of the dinner escapade: “We are not interested in telling the public whether he uses A1 Steak Sauce, the great concern is the press pool’s ability to relay the president’s location and possibly his message in the event of a national crisis.”

    Ed Chen, a former WHCA president in 2009-2010, covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg for 11 years.

    According to Chen, “It is really incumbent upon the president-elect and his people, however they feel about the press, to consider starting today having a protective travel pool with him at all times.”

    For Steve Scully, C-SPAN senior executive producer and political editor and a former WHCA president in 2006-2007, “the same concerns we had on the campaign trail have been magnified as a president-elect.”  

    “It goes with the territory, it’s part of the job and what he signed up for,” Scully said about keeping reporters in the loop on Trump’s actions. “He was very anti-press during the campaign. He taunted his supporters to go after the media, the media has always been an easy target and we can handle that. But the standard protocol that has been in place stays in place with President Trump.”

    Andy Alexander, a former Washington bureau chief for Cox Media, said the press can fight back.

    “What should reporters do?” he asked via email “They need to constantly push back and persistently make their compelling case for why access is critical to informing citizens. Beyond that, the best way to respond is to redouble efforts to produce journalism that is accurate, fair, incisive, independent, ambitious, courageous and in the public interest.”

    James Gerstenzang, who covered the White House for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press from 1977 through 2008, said those who brush off the dinner incident do not understand the need for constant press access.

    “It’s not simply thumbing his nose at the press, its thumbing his nose at the public’s right to know,” he said. “This is not the matter of him being entitled to certain personal privacy, it is the public’s right to know about the activities of the person they elected. Everything he does is a reflection of the office and has a potential impact on the people of the country. How do we know that at any moment it isn’t relevant or it is relevant? You need to be there.”

    He later added, “The danger goes to the heart of an informed electorate. How can voters be informed if they don’t have access to unbiased accurate information?”

  • Conservative Israel Advocacy Groups Pass On Bannon Criticism As J Street And Other Jewish Groups Condemn "Horrifying" Hiring

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Conservative-leaning Israel advocacy groups are defending or refusing to condemn President-elect Donald Trump’s choice of Stephen Bannon for a senior White House role despite his history of promoting anti-Semitism. Their behavior is in stark contrast to leaders of other Jewish and civil rights groups, who are criticizing the move as “deeply troubling” and “horrifying.”

    Bannon’s hiring has sparked widespread criticism, due to his reported anti-Semitism (his ex-wife swore in court that Bannon had said “he doesn’t like Jews”), and his years of making Breitbart News home base for the white nationalist “alt-right.” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt condemned the move in a statement Sunday, saying, "It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the 'alt-right' — a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists — is slated to be a senior staff member in the 'people's house.’” Progressive Israel advocacy group J Street also condemned Bannon, saying that he "has an extensive history of championing the views of the extreme right in the United States and around the world."

    But the conservative-leaning American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has avoided weighing in, saying in a statement that it “has a long-standing policy of not taking positions on presidential appointments.” And Republican Jewish Coalition board member Bernie Marcus has defended Bannon.

    Meanwhile, in interviews with Media Matters, several other Jewish leaders are joining the chorus speaking out against Bannon. 

    “The President is entitled to choose advisors who he believes will help him implement his agenda. However, both in his roles as editor of the Breitbart website and as a strategist in the Trump campaign, Mr. Bannon was responsible for the advancement of ideologies antithetical to our nation,” Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “Including anti-Semitism, misogyny, racism and Islamophobia. There should be no place for such views in the White House.”

    Bend the Arc Jewish Action CEO Stosh Cotler called the choice “horrifying.”

    “President-elect Trump’s selection of Stephen Bannon, a professional purveyor of white nationalist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, as his top adviser is as horrifying as it is unsurprising,” Cotler said in a statement. “Those of us who were alarmed by Trump's campaign when it began over a year ago are starting to see the things we feared come to pass, and this is one of them - the elevation of an avowed bigot to a position of incredible official power. 

    “On Election Day, a majority of voters rejected the hatred central to the Trump campaign. We know many of them would join us in condemning this attempt by the President-elect to normalize and legitimize white supremacy, and we call on leaders across the political spectrum to denounce it as well.”

    National Council of Jewish Women CEO Nancy K. Kaufman said in a statement she was “utterly appalled.”

    “As former chairman of the ‘alt-right’ web outlet Breitbart News, Bannon has made his white-supremacist, racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim views widely known,” the statement said, in part. “Upon joining the Trump campaign, Bannon roused a large portion of Trump’s base with a hateful mix of conspiracy theories, bigotry, misogyny, racism, and homophobia.

    “If President-elect Trump truly wants to bring together his supporters with the majority of the country that voted against him — by a margin that is nearing two million people, Bannon and his ilk must be barred from his administration. This appointment requires no Senate confirmation. It is up to the president-elect to show leadership for all Americans by reversing this dreadful decision immediately.”

    Leaders of other civil rights groups are also strongly criticizing Bannon's hiring. 

    “It sends the exact wrong message,” said National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial, who added that Bannon is a “racist, homophobic, misogynistic defender of the alt-right white nationalist interest in this country. His selection in such an important position certainly isn’t consistent with what the president-elect said on election night, that he would work to unify the nation.”

    Morial said Bannon “has been right at the center of the angry white nationalist movement in this country. For him to hold a position as chief strategist on par with the chief of staff does not send a message of unity, but a message of division.”

    Farhana Khera, President and Executive Director of Muslim Advocates, said, "for Americans who care about our commitment to pluralism, tolerance and equality for all, the choice of Steve Bannon to be the President-elect's chief strategist is deeply troubling. If your hair wasn't already on fire with the election of Trump, it should be now."

    In contrast to appalled civil rights and Jewish leaders, white nationalist media figures and leaders are thrilled

  • Clinton Post-Presidency Biographer Rips “Obsessed” And "Unbalanced" Coverage Of The Clintons

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    The author of a new book on Bill Clinton’s post-presidency says the media has dropped the ball in its coverage of the Clinton Foundation, downplaying the positive work it has done in favor of pushing inaccurate supposed “scandals” about the organization.

    Joe Conason, a veteran author of several political books and editor of The National Memo, recently released Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton.

    The book lays out many of Clinton’s efforts since he left office in 2001, largely focused on the Clinton Foundation and the former president’s philanthropic work. 

    In a recent interview with Media Matters, Conason highlighted how Clinton’s work since leaving the White House is often under-reported and wrongly portrayed. He said much of this is due to conservative media either misrepresenting the facts or spreading untruths.

    “I think given the scale of what he has done, very few people understand how important it was,” Conason said. “I lay that on the news media in general, which has been friendly to him at different times and at times less-friendly.

    “Certainly, very few people understand the importance and the scale of what he did in the AIDS fight alone, the fight to stop the AIDS pandemic. He was one of the first major public figures along with Nelson Mandela to say that we needed to do something to help the millions of people who were going to die from AIDS in the developing world.”

    In addition, Conason said alleged scandals by Hillary Clinton get a major boost from many on the right, usually without a basis in fact.

    “Meanwhile, they’re obsessed with every moment of anything political about Hillary Clinton or about him or a scandal or any of that stuff and it’s unfortunate and it is unbalanced,” Conason said. “The problem is that the level of skepticism that ought to be applied by our colleagues to a report in a place like Drudge is just absent.”

    As an example, Conason cited the popular conservative lie – which was repeated by Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in a debate – that the Clinton Foundation does not actually devote much money to charity.

    “There was one sort of amazing myth that was put out, it was put out by Carly Fiorina and by various right wing authors and websites and news outlets that the Clinton Foundation wasn’t really a foundation at all because they were only spending nine percent of their assets on charity and the rest of it was going to somewhere else,” Conason explained. “The truth was they were reading the tax returns wrong. It was true that the Clinton Foundation was only giving about nine percent of its assets in grants annually. But it is an operating foundation. The main thing they do isn’t making grants like the Gates Foundation or the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation.

    “They are using their money to pay for programs that the Clinton Foundation is doing through its various initiatives. So they misinterpreted that and they willfully did it. And Reince Priebus talked about it and Mike Pence has talked about it and they’ve been fact-checked over and over again and it’s a complete lie.”

    He also cited the growing use of false equivalency among many in the press: the view that both sides are equally problematic and should be treated with a similar disdain or scrutiny despite the more egregious behavior of one of the parties.

    “There’s always a tendency towards false equivalency, it’s not just with the Clintons,” he said. “This becomes more intense in campaign season because news organizations I think understandably want to feel they’ve been fair in an election and not tilted towards one side or the other. 

    “The problem was that for such a long time in this campaign, because the campaigns go on forever -- so for the first, let’s say year of the 2016 presidential campaign, so much of the focus was on Hillary Clinton and her problems and her faults and her mistakes. Very little discussion of the Trump Foundation or Trump’s business or Trump’s connections to organized crime or Trump’s connections to Russia and other unsavory regimes. All of that has been left sort of to the end. 

    “We‘ve had some very good coverage of those stories in the last few months. But the problem is the cake was kind of baked before that by all of the coverage of her and the emails, excessive coverage of the emails in my view compared with the failure to adequately explore Trump beginning when it was clear he was going to be a dominant figure in the Republican primaries.”

    Conason also slammed the recent coverage of the FBI letter that indicated it had found new emails that “appear to be pertinent to the” investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, but failed to provide specifics, thus sparking wild speculation by many in the media that turned out to be incorrect. (Comey announced Sunday -- after my conversation with Conason -- that the FBI had again cleared Clinton.)

    “The press’ job is to make sure that this is presented in a context that voters and all citizens can understand,” he said of the email letter reporting. “And I think many of them failed to do that in the first instance.”

    Then there is coverage of Conason’s book itself, which has not gotten as much attention as the sensationalist and error-filled Clinton Cash by conservative activist Peter Schweizer. 

    “It received about one percent of the coverage of Clinton Cash I would estimate,” he said. “My understanding and I think I said this in my book, dark money from the Republican side put about $1 million into promoting Clinton Cash aside from whatever the publisher was going to do and that makes a big difference. So I don’t know what they spent that money on but they said ‘we’re going to promote this book,’ and Steve Bannon, who was the head of the think tank that produced that book, the Breitbart-type think tank and is now running the Trump campaign, they put together a million dollars from their dark money donors. That think tank, which is also a tax-exempt foundation, doesn’t have to report who the donors are, unlike the Clinton Foundation which has disclosed 99% of its donors, they don’t have to disclose anything. 

    “So I don’t know who did this, they put a lot of money behind it and the result was that Clinton Cash was all over CNN, all over the networks, all over the radio. I’ve gotten some good coverage, I don’t want to whine, but nothing like -- I went on CNN one time, that doesn’t make any sense.”

  • FBI Veterans, Historians See Leaks As “Dangerous” And “Unprecedented”

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    The recent FBI leaks about the bureau’s investigations surrounding Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton are “dangerous” for democracy and “unprecedented,” according to FBI historians and former agents who tell Media Matters that the leaks harm the FBI’s reputation and unfairly influence the presidential election.

    FBI Director James Comey has been widely criticized for his decision to send a vague letter last Friday to Congress announcing that the FBI had identified and planned to review additional emails “that appear to be pertinent” to its investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.

    In the wake of Comey’s letter, numerous leaks have emerged from the FBI. The Guardian reported that the leaks have been designed to hurt Clinton’s campaign, due to factions within the bureau that are “pro-Trump.” According to one agent quoted by the paper, “The FBI is Trumpland.”

    Several historians and former agents spoke with Media Matters and said the unusual leaking of information and subsequent media reports can do damage not only to the current presidential election but also to the FBI’s effectiveness and the nation’s democracy.  

    “It is a big negative to the country. It pollutes the image of democracy. It is completely incompatible with democracy,” said Kenneth O’Reilly, the author of three FBI books and a professor emeritus at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. “In the good old days, [leakers] were either fired or sent to a field office and you didn’t have so much of that as an issue. You have renegade agents and they are a lot harder to control. You are having these factions and there is one faction in there and their whole life mission is to get the Clintons.”

    Sanford J. Ungar, a scholar in residence at Georgetown University and the author of FBI: An Uncensored Look Behind the Walls, agreed.

    “If the bureau is perceived as being partisan, it loses credibility. People are less willing to talk with them and it is a major setback. It is just a bizarre development in the past few days,” he said. “The bureau’s reputation is quick to be weakened and hard to recover.”

    He later added, “Now I have to wonder if there is somebody in a very influential, well-placed position at the FBI who has some very particularly strong feelings about this election, who wants to leak as much as possible to affect this election.”

    Douglas Charles, a Penn State Greater Allegheny associate professor of history who has written three books on the FBI, said this kind of activity is not the normal course of FBI business -- and for good reason.

    “Most people understand leaks like this don’t happen very often for the FBI,” Charles said, later adding, “These leaks say to me there is some rift of some kind. In one way or another, it is influencing the election, for good or bad, which is something the FBI is not supposed to do or be involved in. There is a danger of the FBI becoming too involved in politics like the Hoover era. It was behind the scenes and quiet [back then], not so up front and blatant as this is. The worst that happens is the damage to its reputation, and its reputation is maybe one of its most important things because if it is damaged that affects it going forward.”

    Tim Weiner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and FBI historian, echoed that view.

    “Normally, [the Department of] Justice would not be bad-mouthing the director of the FBI and the director of the FBI would not be discussing an investigation that at the time had barely been hatched,” he said. “It’s the power of the information that is disclosed that makes readers spit out their coffee in the morning.”

    Nancy Savage, executive director of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, said not only are such leaks unacceptable among agents, but they are often wrong.

    “That is pretty unprecedented,” Savage, who spent 35 years as an agent, said of the leaks. “Leaks are leaks -- they aren’t necessarily accurate and sometimes you can get people who have their personal ax to grind and their own view of it.”

    James Wedick, a former FBI agent who served for over three decades, also offered concern about the accuracy.

    “There are some leaks now and I am dubious exactly how good the leaks are,” he said. “You don’t know who is providing the information and you don’t know if it is good information and it may have some effect on the election. These agents take their oaths seriously. You are not going to find many agents willing to leak information, so I am suspect of it. If it does happen, it is dangerous, it is bad.”

    Leaking “does damage to the reputation of the agency,” said Binny Miller, a former Justice Department attorney and a professor at American University Washington College of Law. “I haven’t seen this kind of thing in the press about any other things the FBI has investigated. The problem with leaks is the people who make the leaks, you cannot asses it. A government agency needs to speak with one voice. You could compromise an investigation.”

    Athan Theoharis, a professor emeritus and FBI historian at Marquette University, said it’s simply “really dangerous.” 

    “The Clinton leaks are particularly egregious because they occur in the midst of a presidential campaign. You shouldn’t be doing anything that has political ramifications,” he said in an interview. 

  • Former Prosecutors Criticize Media’s “Uninformed Speculation” On FBI Email Letter

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Several former prosecutors are criticizing the wildly speculative and overblown media coverage of FBI Director James Comey’s Friday letter announcing that the bureau plans to review additional emails that “appear to be pertinent” to its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.

    Comey’s letter has been criticized by figures across the political spectrum due to its vagueness and apparent defiance of Justice Department precedent. This weekend, the Clinton campaign distributed a letter featuring several dozen former federal prosecutors and officials at the Department of Justice “expressing serious concerns over FBI Director Comey's departure from long-standing department protocols.”

    In interviews with Media Matters, several signatories of the letter were critical of the “firestorm of misinformation” and baseless speculation that has dominated media coverage of Comey’s actions since Friday.

    “It’s a predictable result of what happens when you depart from well-settled DOJ practice regarding criminal investigations,” said Tony West, a former U.S. Associate Attorney General from 2012 to 2014. “Oftentimes it’s uninformed speculation. It created a firestorm of misinformation and misinterpretation and speculation from the media and political commentators.”

    He later added, “There’s a tension between trying to be first and fast and trying to be accurate. I find that with stories like this, it’s not unlike what I experienced in the Justice Department – you would have an incident and early intelligence on that incident and oftentimes the early intelligence is incorrect. You see that play out with stories like this. It is very difficult to correct first impressions.”

    Stuart M. Gerson, former acting U.S. Attorney General and a former Assistant Attorney General from 1989 to 1993, agreed.

    “The problem with it is we are in an age of scoop journalism. Finding an accurate picture requires a lot more experience, judgment and perception,” Gerson said in an interview. “There is nothing in that letter that suggests there is a single culpable email, there is not even an indication of that. They should have dug further. There should have been tougher interviews of sources. There needed to be something more from the Justice Department itself. More real reporting.”

    For Donald B. Ayer, a former deputy U.S. Attorney General from 1989 to 1990, there was “a lot of confusion surrounding” Comey’s letter that should have sparked caution.

    “Who knew what?” he said. “The media is running around trying to pick up the story and examine it. The letter he wrote wasn’t a masterpiece of clarity.”

    “To the extent the media reported they were emails from Hillary Clinton, no one ever said that,” he added, later saying of the media reaction, “there were people with their hair on fire, ‘oh my God,’ ‘the end of the world is upon us,’ there was a lot of alarm.”

    Ayer also stressed that Comey’s letter said “he had no way to know that there was any information at all that they had that had any bearing. If the press was really trying hard, they could have deduced that they had come upon things to look at, but we don’t know anything about them. That would have been better than to put talking heads on TV to speculate on what it might be.”

    Jamie Gorelick, former Deputy Attorney General of the United States, struck a similar note, saying Comey's letter was "so unusual that it allowed kind of rank speculation.”

    Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. Attorney from 2009 to 2014, accused many in the press of being “more focused on the sensationalist headline of reopening the investigation and nefarious speculation. They could have been more careful reporting, going beyond the FBI’s letter. There were more questions raised than answered by that letter.”

    Bill Nettles, former U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina from 2010 to 2016, said many in the news media should have just reported what was known and not guessed at what was not revealed yet.

    “Just to report the letter and then let it speak for itself,” Nettles said. “You’ve got all of these people with opinions who would rather be in the media than be right. Do a little bit more in-depth reporting and let more facts come out.”

    Donald Stern, former U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts from 1993 to 2000, said the letter’s vagueness and timing “led to the kind of rampant, unwarranted and purely speculative reporting of what the FBI had and what it meant. Some of it is uninformed speculation and some of it is speculation without knowing what to make of it.”

    Asked what the press should be doing differently, he said, “put it in context, parse the language that Comey is saying and make clear he is really not saying anything of substance, that they do not know what is relevant and they don’t even have [the emails] in their possession yet. In that way, a much more restrained way, would have been the way to go.”

  • Election Experts: Trump Ally Roger Stone’s Exit Polling Plan Smacks Of “Intimidation”

    Expert: "There Is Little Doubt That Any Such ‘Exit Polling’ Would Be Extremely Biased"

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Election experts and polling veterans tell Media Matters that the plan by longtime Donald Trump adviser and friend Roger Stone to unleash hundreds of untrained “exit poll” watchers in search of vote theft on Election Day risks intimidating voters in the targeted communities. They also explain that unprofessional exit polling is a nonsensical way to discover alleged voter fraud and vote rigging, which is "extremely rare" in the first place.

    Stone, an ardent conspiracy theorist and devoted Trump ally, has for months been warning that Democrats are planning to “rig” and “steal” the election for Hillary Clinton. (Trump has echoed this warning in numerous campaign rallies.)

    Stone heads the 527 group Stop the Steal, which has announced plans to conduct “targeted EXIT-POLLING in targeted states and targeted localities that we believe the Democrats could manipulate based on their local control, to determine if the results of the vote have been skewed by manipulation.” The Guardian, in a piece that quoted several experts raising concerns about Stone’s proposal, noted that Stone and his group plan to “conduct exit polling in Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, Richmond and Fayetteville – all locations in pivotal swing states." Stone has been recruiting volunteers for the project from far-right sources like the audience of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' radio program. 

    After the Huffington Post raised concerns about plans listed on Stop the Steal to have election-watchers wear official-looking ID badges and videotape inside polling places, Stone said he “ordered them taken down” from the site and stressed that he would “operate within the confines of election law.”

    But the underlying plan to conduct amateur exit polling is still extremely problematic, several election law experts and polling veterans told Media Matters.  

    “From what I’ve read about it, this doesn’t sound like exit polling of the traditional sense, it sounds to me as if there is a targeting of certain communities, primarily minority communities and we fear this is going to have an intimidating effect,” Ezra Rosenberg, co-director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in an interview. “Voters are supposed to be free in their voting. This seems to be pointed in absolutely the wrong direction.”

    He later added, “We certainly do have a fear of intimidation when they focus on areas of disproportionately large minority populations. It is just wrong. It has an intimidating effect.”

    Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political science professor and author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States, said he was “very skeptical about the accuracy of any exit polling conducted by Mr. Stone and his allies. He is a well-known right-wing provocateur and there is little doubt that any such ‘exit polling’ would be extremely biased.”

    “The kind of vote fraud Trump and Stone have been warning about is, in fact, extremely rare. There are lots of real problems with the way elections are conducted in the U.S., but that is not one of them," Abramowitz said. 

    Rick Hasen, a professor and political campaign expert at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, likened Stone’s plan to a “goon squad.”

    ”It does not sound like a sensible exit polling strategy,” he said. “Why target only these nine cities? Exit polling is best to get a snapshot of the electorate, not to ferret out supposed voter fraud. Impersonation fraud -- the kind of fraud Trump and his allies have been talking about -- is extremely rare and I can’t find evidence it has been used to try to sway an election at least since the 1980s.”

    Richard Benedetto, professor of journalism at American University School of Public Affairs, disputed that any of Stone’s methods could wind up helping a legal challenge of the election results.

    “It won’t be an admissible thing in court, you need to be able to prove real fraud, not hearsay stuff,” Benedetto said. “That the people who voted were not the actual people, you have to have evidence of that. There is a lot of exit polling that goes on and most of it is pretty bad, most of it is unscientific. You have to have a scientific sample.”

    Lorraine Minnite, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, Camden, conducted exit polls in New York as a political science professor at Barnard College. She said Stone’s lack of credibility hurts any such effort by him to examine the voting.

    “It doesn’t sound like what they are doing is an exit poll,” she said in an interview. “He is not a credible person when it comes to elections and campaign tactics.”

    As for claims of voter fraud, she said, “That’s not factually accurate and there is no evidence to support a claim like that. It doesn’t make any sense. If what is happening is voter imposters, I don’t understand how somebody doing an exit poll is going to uncover that.” 

    Nate Persily is a Stanford Law School professor and elections expert who also served as the Senior Research Director for the Presidential Commission on Election Administration after the 2012 election. He called in person voter fraud “incredibly rare.”

    “In person voter fraud at polling places … is a terribly inefficient (and easily discoverable) way to rig an election,” Persily said via email. “It would require enlisting hordes of voters to go from polling place to polling place pretending to be someone they are not.”

  • Jewish Leaders Call Out New Breitbart Radio Host Curt Schilling For His “Offensive” And “Bigoted” Commentary

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Breitbart News’ hiring of disgraced broadcaster Curt Schilling for an online radio show is drawing criticism from Jewish leaders who contend his history of anti-Semitic and offensive commentary should disqualify him from the job.

    Schilling is a former baseball star who was fired from ESPN in April after he shared an anti-transgender image on Facebook. He had previously been suspended from the network for comparing Muslims to Nazis on Twitter.

    In other social media postings, Schilling has repeatedly demonized Muslims as killers, shared a picture calling Hillary Clinton a drunk murderer, and suggested civil rights leaders like Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) aren't patriotic.

    Schilling, who plans to run for the Senate in Massachusetts as a Republican, recently drew criticism for asking CNN anchor Jake Tapper to explain how “as a person who is practicing the Jewish faith … people of Jewish faith can back the Democratic Party” given that the party has supposedly been “so clearly anti-Jewish Israel.” Tapper responded that while he doesn’t “speak for Jews,” he believes that Jewish Americans prioritize what they see as the interests of their own country over those of Israel.

    Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, called his remarks “tone-deaf.”

    “Curt Schilling may have been a major league pitcher, but he’s a bush league commentator,” Moline said. “His tone-deaf remarks about Jewish Americans are just the latest in a long line of offensive statements that call into question his judgment and values. His Facebook page alone, where he has compared Muslims to Nazis and praised the Confederacy, renders him unfit for public office. Sadly we should expect no better from Schilling after he joins on with Breitbart – an outlet that wears its bigotry as a badge of honor.”

    Ben Shnider, national political director of J Street, said the only way Schilling could get on the air now is through discredited groups like Breitbart.

    “It’s clear that mainstream media outlets would not hire him,” Shnider said. “His comments to Jake Tapper were incredibly offensive. He has a long track record of incredibly offensive statements whether it’s about our community or other Americans. It’s simply unthinkable that any outlet would give him a mouthpiece.”

    Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, echoed that view.

    "Schilling, Breitbart, Breitbart's former-CEO-turned-Trump-campaign-manager Steve Bannon, and Trump himself all have two things in common: a love of Donald Trump and a willingness to employ bigoted statements and images about Muslims, Jews and members of the LGBTQ community that resonate with the alt-right,” she said in a statement. “The elevation of someone as blatantly bigoted and anti-Semitic as Schilling to a national media position is yet another side effect of the Trump campaign and a preview of what a Trump presidency could look like, and that is why Bend the Arc Jewish Action has been working so hard for over a year to oppose Trump's campaign."

    Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judiasm, also called out Schilling, saying, “Of course, Breitbart is free to hire whoever they would like. Curt Schilling has expressed simplistic, offensive and bigoted perspectives about Jews, Muslims, women, transgender people and civil rights activists.”

    He added of Schilling’s recent comments to Jake Tapper (and his subsequent appearance on MSNBC to defend himself), “I disagree with Schilling’s analysis of the US-Israel relationship. American Jews, like every other religious group in our country, hold diverse political views. Many of us are focused on the ongoing work of racial justice, economic opportunity, religious freedom and pluralism, women’s rights, environmental protection and the full inclusion of transgender people in our religious and civic institutions. These are values and issues that many American Jews reflect on when they decide which candidates to support for elected office.”

    Update:

    Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director for T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, also criticized Schilling in a statement to Media Matters: 

    Curt Schilling’s remarks over the weekend to Jake Tapper on the political preferences of American Jews demonstrate a lack of awareness and understanding both of the issues that matter to our community, and of what it means to be pro-Israel. American Jews, as a whole, support public policies that protect those who are most vulnerable -- including racial, ethnic, and religious minorities; immigrants and refugees; women, and LGBT people -- as well as the long-term security of Israel, living in peace with its neighbors. Schilling has shown that he is out of his depth in the political arena and should stick to commentary on baseball.

  • Journalists Who Covered Florida Recount Say There's No Comparison Between Gore And Trump

    Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

    Donald Trump supporters have been defending the presidential nominee’s warnings about a “rigged” election and refusal to say he will accept the results in November by claiming Trump is merely doing the same thing former Vice President Al Gore did in 2000. But reporters who covered that year’s Florida recount tell Media Matters that the people pushing that comparison either “haven’t done their homework or they are being disingenuous.”

    During Wednesday night’s third and final presidential debate, Trump sparked widespread criticism by telling moderator Chris Wallace that he will “keep you in suspense” over whether he will accept the outcome of the election.

    Immediately following the debate, Trump surrogates, media allies, and campaign officials quickly went to work pretending that Trump’s assertion -- which journalists and experts have called “horrifying” and “disqualifying” -- was actually no big deal, because he was merely doing the same thing Gore did following the 2000 election.

    But for reporters and editors who covered the Florida recount, there is no comparison.

    “The two situations are not even remotely similar," recalled Martin Merzer, a former Miami Herald senior writer who was among the lead recount journalists at the time. "In 2000, the recount was mandated by the state because of the narrowness of the margin. They haven’t done their homework or they are being disingenuous. At no point before, during, or after that election was voter fraud an issue and at no point three weeks before the election did any candidate refuse to accept the result.”

    He also had a warning for journalists who might try to compare the two this year: “Any reporter who just does a he said/she said on this is not doing his or her work because the cases are not similar and a little bit of research could show how dissimilar they are.”

    Trump, echoing his conspiracy theorist media allies, has spent months warning his supporters that the November results might be “rigged” against him.

    Tim Nickens, who was the St. Petersburg Times political editor in 2000, agreed that the situations are not similar. 

    “I don’t think it’s the same at all,” Nickens, now editorial page editor at the renamed Tampa Bay Times, said. “Gore was never claiming the election was rigged as I recall, certainly not right out of the box. You may remember in the pre-dawn hours he was heading to concede.

    “As the things unfolded, Gore raised questions in specific counties, not the entire state,” Nickens said. “And then after 36 days of this and the court ruled, he could have continued to dispute it then in a P.R. sort of a way and he didn’t do that. Trump has no evidence or anything other than saying, ‘If I lose, I should have won.’”

    Adam Clymer, a former New York Times political reporter who covered elements of the recount, points out that Gore never questioned the validity of the process and certainly not in advance.

    “He didn’t announce in advance that he didn’t trust it,” Clymer remembers, later adding, “I don’t think it’s comparable. People have always challenged results when they thought there were irregularities. What is different about Trump is announcing in advance he may not accept the results.”

    John Zarrella, a former CNN correspondent on the Florida recount, said there was no pre-vote claim of rigging as there is with Trump.

    “In 2000, the result was not called into question until after the votes were cast,” he said via email. “And only after an automatic machine recount was triggered in Florida. So at this point, what is there to compare?”

    George Bennett, a Palm Beach Post reporter who was on the recount story, said that was only disputed afterward and because it was “freakishly close.”

    “There was a lot of dispute over what the rules would be over recounting ballots,” Bennett said. “It was contested after the fact and not beforehand. Trump is saying something three weeks before. The 2000 recount was hotly contested, but it was after the election.”

    Tom Fiedler, former Miami Herald political editor and editorial page editor in 2000, said anyone seeking to compare Trump’s actions with Gore is displaying “either an ignorance of the facts or a deliberate attempt to distort them.”

    “The Gore campaign never alleged that the system was rigged or the outcome in any way unfair,” Fiedler added via email. “Again, the entire series of lawsuits and court hearings was about the determining voter intent on the uncounted ballots.”