NEW YORK ― Nine days before the 2016 election, The New York Times reported that the FBI had found “no clear link” between Donald Trump and Russia. The article was touted by the Republican’s presidential campaign as having “completely debunked” allegations of nefarious ties to the Russian government.
CNN, MSNBC and Fox News discussed the newspaper’s report. Breitbart News and Kremlin-backed RT leaped on the story, too. And top-rated radio host Rush Limbaugh proclaimed on Nov. 1 to his millions of listeners: “The New York Times came out with a piece last night: There is no Donald Trump link to Russia.”
The Times’ story never exonerated Trump and his team, as Limbaugh claimed, because that would’ve been impossible to do at the time. The FBI’s investigations, along with those of other intelligence agencies, were ongoing. But the story’s framing and headline ― “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia” ― led to perceptions that the Republican nominee was in the clear.
In the article, the Times noted that law enforcement officials said no evidence had turned up “so far,” but that caveat may have been lost on readers scanning headlines across social media or hearing commentary on cable news. The Times also reported that intelligence officials didn’t believe at the time that Russia was trying to specifically assist Trump. Yet, after the election, the intelligence community concluded Russia wasn’t a neutral disrupter of American politics but had interfered to help Trump win. The Times also reported weeks later that three Trump associates ― former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former adviser Carter Page and Republican operative and sometimes adviser Roger Stone ― were under investigation over suspected Russian ties.
Even amid a recent deluge of bombshells about communications between Trump campaign staffers and Russia, there hasn’t been a smoking gun proving coordination between the two sides in trying to influence the election. But the newly reported revelations that members of Trump’s team spoke to Russian intelligence officials regularly during the campaign call into question the claims made in that much-cited Times report dropped in the final stretch of the 2016 race.
The law enforcement officials who told the Times that they had found no direct Trump-Russia tie may not have been intentionally misleading the paper. They may not have known then that the FBI (as well as intelligence agencies) had intercepted communications months earlier. Yet the October article helped tamp down speculation during a critical final week in the election. In light of the latest information, it has gotten renewed attention as the Russia story rapidly advances.
Last week, The Washington Post reported that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition, a revelation that led to Flynn’s resignation Monday. That night, the Post also reported that “U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 presidential campaign” showed Flynn was in touch with Kislyak.
CNN followed by reporting that Trump aides were in “constant communication” with top Russian officials during the campaign. And The New York Times reported Tuesday night that law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted communications during the campaign between members of Trump’s campaign and senior Russian intelligence officials.
The Times’ front-page scoop seemed to fly in the face of the paper’s pre-election story. One Democratic pollster’s juxtaposition of the headlines from then and now was widely circulated on Twitter, leading to more than 10,000 likes and retweets.
Adam Jentleson, who had served as deputy chief of staff to former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), responded that the October story “will go down in history as one of the greatest journalistic screw-ups of all time.” He likened the reporting to that of “Judy Miller,” an ex-Times reporter who credulously covered the George W. Bush administration’s bogus case for war in Iraq.
Jentleson’s recent critique follows his December claim that the Times ignored Reid as he offered contrary information. The Times’ Oct. 31 story didn’t include any interview with Reid but did mention the senator’s letter sent to FBI Director James Comey days earlier accusing the agency of not being forthcoming about ties between Trump and Russia.
“It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisers, and the Russian government — a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity,” Reid wrote. “The public has a right to know this information.”
The reference to Reid’s October letter, however, came after the Times already cited officials’ claims of finding no conclusive link with regard to multiple FBI investigations, as Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers wrote:
Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.
On Tuesday, however, the Times reported that the FBI had obtained “phone records and intercepted calls” between members of Trump’s presidential campaign and other Trump associates during the campaign.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.
Joseph Kahn, the managing editor of The New York Times, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday afternoon, prior to the paper’s scoop that night, that he saw no need to revisit the Oct. 31 story. When the article was published, he said, the FBI had not found “any conclusive or direct link.”
“If at some point it were to emerge that the FBI, prior to Oct. 31, had firm evidence linking Trump to the Russian government, that would be a major story that the Times would cover aggressively,” Kahn said. “I think you’d agree that if the FBI had clear evidence of such ties prior to Oct 31, the implications would be larger than the accuracy of that story.”
Kahn’s right. Such revelations would only raise more questions about how the FBI under Director Comey conducted itself during the 2016 election. On Oct. 28, Comey sent a vague letter to Congress indicating there could be more emails related to an earlier investigation into Clinton’s use of a private server. Some experts believe his letter helped tip the election to Trump.
The Times has faced scrutiny before over its pre-election coverage of the Russia links. Times Public Editor Liz Spayd recently argued that the Times “was too timid” when it came to reporting on Russia allegations last fall. Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet dismissed her column as “fairly ridiculous.”
Though the Times noted Tuesday night that officials “said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation” between the Trump campaign and Russian government, the description of the FBI having intercepted communications last year calls into question the claims of unnamed officials last October.
Kahn didn’t further address the Oct. 31 story when reached Wednesday morning. In an email, Kahn said the Times has “a crack team of journalists digging into every angle of the story.”
“Our focus, now as it was last fall, is on getting out the full story about the Russia issue,” he said.
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