The Mueller report released today confirms journalism that President Donald Trump denied. It takes us behind the scenes to see unfolding stories that, until now, have been told by confidential sources, stories that the president called “fake.”
As I read the Muller report, I was looking for examples of how closely the special counsel tracked journalists’ reports of the Trump administration.
There are lots of examples of how the president denied stories that the report said were true. One example (on page 114) included this passage:
It points to reports from CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times that said the president had called for Mueller’s firing but that the White House staff wouldn’t go along. The Mueller report also says the president later denied to staff that he ordered Mueller’s firing and that the news reporting was “bullshit.” The special prosecutor said that the president ordered McGhan to write a letter saying the press reports were untrue, and McGhan refused, saying the reports were accurate. (Page 116) The president, when asked about The New York Times’ story, said, “Fake News, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake story.”
Journalists reported widely in the summer of 2016 that the president was pressing his attorney, Michael Cohen, to get a billion-dollar hotel deal in Moscow “locked and loaded.” The deal, according to the Mueller report, had attracted Russian president Vladimir Putin’s interest. As journalists were reporting about the alleged conflicts with Trump’s business interest in Russia, the president said, “He had nothing to do with Russia.” But the Mueller report says that shortly after Trump said he had nothing to do with the Russians, he checked with Cohen to see how the Trump Tower Moscow was going.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders took a hit in the special counsel’s report. When the president fired FBI Director James Comey, Sanders told reporters that the firing followed “countless” comments from FBI agents that they had lost confidence in Comey. But Sanders told Mueller’s team that her comments were not “founded on anything,” according to the report.
The report also includes a questionnaire the president filled out for Mueller. In that document, Trump played down the Trump Moscow project and said he “was not enthused” about it.
In January 2017, with the election over, a New York Times journalist contacted Cohen about the Russia business connections. According to the Mueller report, Cohen said Trump told him to “stay on message,” and so Cohen told the reporter that talks with the Russians ended in January 2017, even though that was not true (page 138, section 2). The special counsel report also identifies Cohen as a confidential source for an August 2017 Washington Post story saying that the Trump Tower Moscow plan was abandoned in January 2017.
On April 21, 2018, Trump went on Twitter to attack the New York Times and a “third rate reporter” whom he said were “going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship to me.” The Mueller report included (page 146, section 2) a passage quoting Robert Costello, a friend of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s legal counsel, assuring Cohen that, “you are loved,” and that Cohen should “Sleep well tonight. You have friends in high places.”
The special counsel’s report also gives us a more solid and sourced estimate of how widespread the Russians’ pro-Trump/anti-Clinton messages were on social media. The investigation says the IRA (the Internet Research Agency, funded by a Russian businessman) was created to “sow discord” in the U.S. election. Beginning in 2014, the IRA took to social media, buying ads, posing as Americans and sounding like social activists. By Election Day 2016, the IRA was running 470 Facebook pages, posted 80,000 posts and reached 126 million readers. Another one and a half million people had read IRA messages on Twitter (section 1, page 25).
The Mueller report said the IRA’s social media posts gained momentum when high-profile people including Fox News anchor Sean Hannity and Roger Stone responded to the posts (section 1, page 28).
The Mueller report also alerts readers to the number of times that the IRA staged pro-Trump rallies in Florida, Pennsylvania and New York (section 1, page 31).
Journalists would be right, in the future, to not just cover rallies but ask who is really organizing them.
Journalists who have been skeptical and cautious about the so-called pee tape were right to be careful, the Mueller report said. The special counsel could not confirm the existence of an undercover video of Donald Trump consorting with Russian prostitutes in a 2013 trip to Moscow.
While the special counsel’s report does confirm key details of some of the stories Trump called fake, the Mueller investigation did not confirm a controversial BuzzFeed story from Jan. 17, 2019 that said the president had directed his longtime lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about Trump’s Moscow hotel plans.