Roughly 24 hours after Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned, the New York Times on Tuesday night reported that members of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other associates had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials. But critics of the “liberal” and “mainstream” media are dismissing it as just another example of thinly-sourced, leaks-based reporting that is far too quick to jump to the conclusion that Trump is in bed with Vladimir Putin.
The following tweets from conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich may give you a good sense of how liberals and conservatives are reacting to the Times story in their respective echo chambers:
The third & 24th paras are also important but won't be highlighted by many in media. https://t.co/8pJhEtT9Fi
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) February 15, 2017
The trail linking Trump to Russian interference in the election is getting closer and closer.
According to four… https://t.co/741fdQJ0Iw
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) February 15, 2017
So, what are the facts here?
The Times story relies on four anonymous sources, a mix of “current and former American officials,” but does not specify their roles or the function of their agencies (i.e. law enforcement, intelligence, etc). These four sources claim that the “phone records and intercepted calls” of Trump campaign officials and Trump associates indicate that they had repeated contact with members of Russian intelligence.
Why were Trump campaign staffers and associates being spied on in the first place? Three of the officials claim that the FBI and the NSA (the story uses the broader term “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies”) began intercepting the communications of Trump’s staff in order to learn whether they were cooperating with Russian intelligence to hack the U.S. presidential election.
In a nutshell, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement wanted to find out if Trump’s campaign was working with Russian spies to hack the U.S. presidential election. Did they find that evidence?
No. At least not yet. As the Times states: “The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.”
Still, the Times story contradicts comments made by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom have said their campaign had no contact with Russian intelligence before the election. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, just hours before the Times story broke, reasserted this claim.
The Trump team’s claims also contradict comments that Russian foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov made a few days after the election, in which he agreed that there were “contacts” between Russian officials and Trump’s team.
The Times story quotes Ryabkov from an interview he gave to Russia’s Interfax news agency on Nov. 10, 2016, two days after Election Day in the U.S. You can read the full interview here, with a translation of the relevant portion of the interview below:
“We are doing that and doing at the stage of the campaign. It is clear that people who are called members of his inner circle, we are mostly known. These are people who in the United States have always been in the mind, which held very responsible positions. Not to say that all but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian officials.
“The problem of the moment is that the very statement of the obvious, it would seem, for all things natural such natural circumstances, suddenly becomes the subject of some obscure discussions, speculations. No sooner had the President of the Russian Federation congratulated Trump, as in the European and American TV channels talking heads began to talk about ‘what it means, and why it is so, and that’s what would have happened if it were not so,’ and so on.
“This not normal. Diplomatic protocol and etiquette in general centuries suggests that in such a situation, sent a message of congratulations, welcoming. It lays some thoughts besides just congratulations, confirming in this case, as did Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, our readiness to normalize relations, I am sorry that I eating a word, the development of relations. The same did Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev in greeting pensions.
“This is normal. However, there are people who have fallen to such an extent in the suspicion of Russia, who are trying to see in it something else. How to overcome it—the big question.
We do not reject any of the opportunity for dialogue and cooperation, and we are in a time when this will be ready, will be willing to American colleagues, immediately engage in such work. But we do not hurry, do not customize. Everything must be built in a peaceful manner, on the basis of clear objectives, we, who are now facing the transition team. They will now be created in all the American agencies. They have already created. Kerry, for example, said this in relation to the State Department.”
The FBI and the Department of Justice began extensively investigating both the Podesta Institute and the firm of Trump operative Paul Manafort back in August 2016. This was part of a wider anti-corruption probe into Ukraine, specifically the alleged corruption of the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine and the work of Manafort’s firm.
Manafort (who helped Gerald Ford win the 1976 Republican National Convention and was appointed by Reagan in 1981 to serve on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s board of directors) resigned from the Trump campaign a week before the news broke of the DOJ and FBI probe.
Despite all this, many people—not just Trump supporters—are skeptical of reports based on anonymous sources, as the Times story is. Does that make it less trustworthy?
The Washington Post noted that we’ve seen a bevy of explosive news stories that rely on anonymous sources since Trump took office. Established media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post generally exercise a high degree of caution with using anonymous sources. The three reporters (Matt Apuzzo, Mark Mazetti, Michael S. Schmidt) who worked on the Times piece are all based in Washington, D.C., and have written extensively about intelligence agencies, national security, and defense, which means they likely maintain high-level sources who would have access to the kinds of information revealed in their story.
All that said, there is a level of trust readers must put in the publications themselves, since they’re the one’s vouching for the information. The Times and other publications have gotten stories based on anonymous sources wrong in the past—remember those weapons of mass destruction? But news outlets’ entire existence relies on their reliability, and the Times has been consistent on major stories under the current leadership.
Trump supporters who dismiss the Times story as part of a “liberal coup” on the Trump White House should take note of this: Hillary Clinton‘s supporters blame two of the reporters, Apuzzo and Schmidt, for stirring up months of Republican outrage over her emails after they broke the news in July 2015 that two inspector generals asked the Department of Justice to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email system during her tenure as secretary of state.