President-elect Donald Trump is dodging serious questions raised by a blockbuster CNN story that top U.S. intelligence officials presented Trump with documents including Russian claims that they have “compromising” information about the president-elect. Instead, he is trying to turn the conversation into a discussion about ethics in political journalism, and some in the press are playing along, helping the president-elect avoid accountability.
Yesterday, CNN reported that intelligence officials had presented information to President Obama and Trump that “Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump” and that “there was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.” The allegations were presented in a two-page synopsis of 35 pages of memos authored by a British former intelligence officer, which CNN obtained but did not publish.
CNN had not been able to verify the allegations in those memos, which have reportedly been “circulating as far back as last summer,” and the FBI is still reviewing the allegations. But according to CNN, “US intelligence agencies have now checked out the former British intelligence operative and his vast network throughout Europe and find him and his sources to be credible enough to include some of the information in the presentations to the President and President-elect a few days ago.”
Shortly after CNN’s report came out, BuzzFeed published the memos. The site acknowledged that its own reporters had been unable to verify the contents but said it released them anyway “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”
In their responses, Trump and his allies have either deliberately conflated those two stories -- the raw information published by BuzzFeed and the journalism produced by CNN -- or focused solely on BuzzFeed in order to sidestep the serious questions raised by CNN’s report.
Last night on Twitter, Trump himself declared the stories “FAKE NEWS” before highlighting an attack on the BuzzFeed story by LifeZette, a fringe website founded by conservative radio host Laura Ingraham that has pushed false conspiracy theories.
Trump’s pick for White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, opened Trump’s press conference today by lashing out at “outrageous and highly irresponsible” BuzzFeed, then falsely suggested that CNN had also published the memos:
Trump’s defense has actually included citing the Kremlin’s denial as evidence that the story isn’t true. And yet, some in the media have followed along, conflating BuzzFeed’s work with CNN’s and focusing on BuzzFeed’s decision to release the memo rather than engaging with the troubling implications of the CNN report.
“Why would BuzzFeed and why would CNN put out these reports that are unsubstantiated and they can't name a source?” Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt asked incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus this morning. “Because it’s irresponsible and it's what's horrible about politics and what’s happening in America,” Priebus replied. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”
“Right now there’s no story here," Mika Brzezinski said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “The two outlets [Buzzfeed and CNN] that are actually going with this and releasing it are continuing to make the same mistakes they made in the run-up to this election, which is to let their bias get in the way of actually finding out what the facts are and putting them out there.”
By playing Trump’s game, these media figures are ignoring incredibly important questions that get to the heart of the democratic process.
CNN’s report suggests that top U.S. intelligence officials suspect that a presidential candidate’s associates may have colluded with a foreign, hostile government to influence the election.
It suggests that our officials found allegations about Russian claims of possessing “compromising” information about the president-elect to be valid enough to include in briefing documents.
That information was reportedly delivered to Trump, and given the events of the last day it’s unclear whether he read it.
The president-elect has responded by siding with that hostile foreign government over the apparent concerns of the U.S. intelligence community.
Reporters need to keep their eyes on the ball, and off their navels.