The New York Times is standing by a disputed bombshell report from February that associates of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign “had repeated contacts” with senior Russian intelligence officials.
During a Senate hearing Thursday, former FBI Director James Comey challenged the accuracy of the story, responding “yes” when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked whether it would be “fair to characterize” the Times’ Feb. 14 story “as almost entirely wrong.”
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) similarly asked Comey whether it would be “a fair statement” to say the Times report “was not true.”
“In the main, it was not true,” he responded.
Comey didn’t specify which details he believed to be inaccurate, a point The Times made in a Thursday article on the former FBI director’s remarks. That piece was written by Michael Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo, the three reporters behind the February story.
“Multiple news outlets have since published accounts that support the main elements of The Times’s article, including information about phone calls and in-person meetings between Mr. Trump’s advisers and Russians, some believed to be connected to Russian intelligence,” the paper reported.
Though its “original sources could not immediately be reached” following Comey’s remarks, the Times noted that “in the months since the article was published, they have indicated that they believed the account was solid.”
A Times spokesperson said in a statement that the new report had “found no evidence that any prior reporting was inaccurate.”
“Neither the F.B.I., nor Mr. Comey would comment or elaborate on what Mr. Comey believes to be incorrect,” the spokesperson added. “Should they provide more information, we would review that as well.”
Schmidt said Friday that his team has spent an “enormous” amount of time rereporting the story since its initial publication and speculated about which parts of the story the FBI might have taken issue with.
“We think maybe the FBI may be putting a fine definition on ‘intelligence officials,’” he said. “They may be saying that the amount of intercepted calls we think there were was wrong. But our reporting still supports it.”
While Thursday’s hearing was damaging for the president, with Comey recalling Trump’s requests to stop investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn and blasting the administration for lies and attempts to defame him, the criticism of the Times’ story gives ammunition to the president’s supporters who view the news media as overhyping the ongoing Russia investigation. The Republican National Committee blasted out an email Thursday afternoon with the subject “The New York Times Has Some Explaining To Do.”
Comey’s remarks Thursday may give weight to previous denials from the Trump White House, which routinely dismisses critical and unflattering news stories as inaccurate or “fake.”
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Feb. 19 on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that officials at the “top levels of the intelligence community” had assured him the Times story “was grossly overstated, and inaccurate and totally wrong.”
Five days later, CNN reported that Priebus had asked the FBI to rebut both the Times’ and its own reporting on communications between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence. White House officials responded by claiming Priebus asked Comey and then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to knock down the reports after they privately told him the information wasn’t accurate.
New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said amid the earlier White House criticism that “the Times had numerous sources confirming this story” and “attacking it does not make it less true.”
Hayley Miller contributed reporting.
This article has been updated with comment from Schmidt.