Dear Jeff Gerth: Peter Strzok Is Not a Media Critic

I really hope that after this and one more post on CJR’s series performing “Russiagate,” I’ll be done for good. CJR is not going to correct, much less retract, a piece that makes clear errors and relies on an undisclosed Russian intelligence product. So all that’s left is to describe what CJR might have done — as editor Kyle Pope has said was his goal — to say something new about the journalism on the Russian investigation, which I’ll do in a follow-up.

But Jeff Gerth said something in last week’s Zoom conference that revealed a(nother) serious cognitive problem with his project. [Since CJR did not record the event, Dan Froomkin downloaded the closed captions to provide an approximation, which I’ve posted here.] When invited to address any question that the moderator, Berkeley School of Journalism Dean, Geeta Anand, had not asked, Gerth addressed why he (claimed to) focus so closely on the NYT.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:21
Well, I wanted to address a question that I’ve been asked quite a bit that didn’t come up here, which is why I focused so much on the New York Times.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:34
And so my answer to that question is threefold.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:39
One. It’s the most influential. No widely read news outlet.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:03:46
Certainly in America, perhaps in the World number 2. It’s the only news organization whose coverage of the Trump Russia matter was repeatedly criticized by the FBI in internal documents that later became public.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:11
And obviously, if other news organizations have been criticized by the FBI in documents, I would have reported on that as well.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:20
But the New York Times stood out. That regard. So that’s a second reason.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:26
And the third reason is, that the times provided a valuable window into their editorial and repertory decision making by allowing a filmmaker into the newsroom for a year and a half, and then you know the fruits of it became a 4 part series that aired in 2

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:50
1,018, and so that offered invaluable.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:04:57
Raw material for any journalist. Looking at at this story, and a lot of the documentarians work feature.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:05:09
The stories that I was interested in, as well as the stories that the FBI was internally being quite critical of, as well.

[Jeff Gerth] 14:05:19
So those those are the the main reasons why there’s so much in the piece about the New York Times. [my emphasis]

Now, as I have shown, Gerth actually didn’t focus on the NYT. His main villains — those who chased the Steele dossier — published elsewhere. And he ignored almost all of NYT’s Pulitzer winning coverage of Russia. He ignored a September 2016 story revealing how often Julian Assange’s Wikileaks releases served Russia’s political interests. He ignored a December 2016 epic that described the Russian hack-and-leak from the DNC perspective, one that completely debunks Gerth’s claims that the hack-and-leak had limited impact on Hillary’s campaign. He ignored other 2016 Pulitzer-winning stories — on Russia hunting down its enemies in other countriesRussia’s use of disinformationthe elite hackers Russia was recruiting, and Russia’s cultivation of the far right — that show the framework with which NYT’s editors came to their 2017 coverage. He ignored a 2017 report on the Russian contacts that Jared Kushner omitted from his application for clearance. He ignored a 2017 report that Trump knew Mike Flynn had been an unregistered agent for Turkey before Trump appointed him to be National Security Adviser. He may or may not have ignored a 2017 story on how Trump bragged to Sergey Lavrov that he fired Jim Comey to end the Russian investigation, but if he mentioned it, he ignored the Comey part, which undermined Gerth’s own wildly generous interpretation of Trump’s related comments to Lester Holt. Gerth included two (one, two) of three stories on the June 9 meeting, but not the one revealing that Trump had drafted Don Jr’s false statement about the meeting. That’s particularly problematic given that Gerth’s treatment of an interview NYT did with Trump (the only story linked in this paragraph that wasn’t part of NYT’s two Pulitzer winning packages) focused on the dossier and not the discussion Trump had with Putin about the topic he used for his cover story about the June 9 meeting.

This would have been a very different series had Gerth really focused on the NYT, as he claims to think he did.

But something Gerth said really surprised me. A key to his purported reason to (claim to) focus on the NYT is that, he describes, the FBI “criticized” NYT’s coverage. NYT was, “the only news organization whose coverage of the Trump Russia matter was repeatedly criticized by the FBI in internal documents that later became public,” Gerth said. The documentary The Fourth Estate focused on, “the stories that the FBI was internally being quite critical of,” Gerth claimed.

He even asserted that the NYT was the only outlet on whose coverage the FBI was closely focused. “If other news organizations have been criticized by the FBI in documents, I would have reported on that as well.” That claim would be quite a shock to Andy McCabe, whose focus on the WSJ coverage of the Clinton Foundation showed up in two DOJ IG Reports and provided the bogus excuse for his firing. And if Gerth had covered the Mike Flynn case with any level of attention, he would also know that the FBI launched an investigation into some of Sara Carter’s inaccurate reporting, which had been fed to her by Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Barbara Ledeen. Bizarrely, in his coverage of the dossier, Gerth made no mention of the sustained FBI discussions of the September 2016 Michael Isikoff story based on Christopher Steele’s reporting, even though they appear in the DOJ IG Report on the Carter Page FISAs; he discussed the Isikoff story at length, but not the FBI effort to confirm whether Steele or Glenn Simpson was Isikoff’s source.

Gerth doesn’t even account for all the discussions of news coverage in Peter Strzok’s texts, though one such text appears to be one of the two instances of “criticism” of the NYT he speaks of.

My own coverage of Strzok’s sustained attention to such stories — as well as Mueller’s attempts to track how investigative subjects worked the press, including Konstantin Kilimnik — is what made Gerth’s claims so confusing to me.

It led me to suspect Gerth totally misunderstood the purpose of Strzok’s annotation, and thereby saw it as something different than the attempts to stave off clear errors in Devlin Barrett or Sara Carter’s reporting, the woefully belated effort to attribute the Yahoo reporting, to say nothing of efforts to learn how Roger Stone and Kilimnik were planting false stories as part of their attempts to cover their tracks.

The FBI has no business in doing press criticism (though it does attempt to correct dangerously incorrect reporting). It does, however, have reason to track classified or investigative leaks and public claims made by subjects of their investigation. Which is what the reams full of records on Strzok’s work show him doing.

In my own coverage of the Strzok annotation on which Gerth hangs most of his claim of FBI criticism of the NYT, I surmised that it arose out of his focus on leaks. Some of it clearly seems to reflect concern that the NSA might be not be turning over everything it had found. And Strzok’s observation that the NYT falsely believed an investigation into Stone had already been opened may have come in handy nine months later, when they learned from Ann Donaldson that Richard Burr had provided Don McGahn that same false information just weeks later. Indeed, the identification of a common false belief shared by the NYT and SSCI’s Chair might explain why DOJ refused to share the most sensitive details of the Russian investigation with the committee.

I asked Strzok why he had done the annotation. He explained: “Critique played no role — nobody’s got time for that. My purpose was to figure out who’s talking and whether they had info they weren’t sharing with us and/or whether they were leaking to shape the public political narrative.”

In other words, it was perfectly consistent with all the other known efforts by the FBI to track public reports on ongoing investigations. It was an effort to understand what partners and subjects of the investigation were sharing with reliable journalists. And while the annotation shows two clearly incorrect beliefs on the part of the NYT — that an investigation into Stone had already been opened and that the FBI specifically already had call record returns on Trump’s associates — many of the other observations could have multiple explanations, including that the NYT learned of ties, later confirmed, between Trump’s people and Russian spooks before the FBI did. If that’s the explanation, NYT should be lauded, not criticized.

Those stories in which NYT was so far ahead of the FBI are absolutely ripe for review. I don’t fault Gerth’s focus on them; I fault his silence and at times misrepresentation about the rest of NYT’s coverage. But if you’re going to look at those four stories (one, two. threefour) alleging many ties between Trump and Russia — if you’re going to imagine you’re anchoring an entire 23,000 word piece on the NYT based on the FBI attention to several of those stories — you need, first, to understand what you’re looking at.

Gerth imagined he was looking at the FBI doing media criticism. In a sense, he may have been right. What distinguishes Strzok’s apparent effort to understand an outlier NYT story from Gerth’s attempt to understand the Russia coverage is that Strzok had a better handle on the known facts and he tried to understand why reports deviated from those known facts.

Gerth, over and over, simply imposed his own conclusions onto the things that he saw.


CJR’s Error at Word 18

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

“Wink:” Where Jeff Gerth’s “No There, There” in the Russian Investigation Went

Columbia Journalism Review–and Now Columbia School of Journalism–Have a Russian Intelligence Problem

Dear Jeff Gerth: Peter Strzok Is Not a Media Critic

My own disclosure statement

An attempted reconstruction of the articles Gerth includes in his inquiry

A list of the questions I sent to CJR

Columbia Journalism Review–and Now Columbia School of Journalism–Have a Russian Intelligence Problem

On Tuesday, Columbia Journalism Review quietly staged the Zoom conference intended to address the many problems with Jeff Gerth’s series on “Russiagate” [sic], which I wrote about in a long series. After they rescheduled the original date because of an illness, they did not alert those who had previously signed up, meaning a number of people missed it. Nor did they record the event. It had the feel of a formality designed to claim they had listened, without actually doing so.

Nothing demonstrates the inadequacy of the event so well as the fact that no one — not moderator and Berkeley School of Journalism Dean Geeta Anand, not Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb, and not CJR Editor Kyle Pope — addressed the fact that Jeff Gerth had cited an unreliable Russian intelligence product as part of his attack on Hillary Clinton without informing readers he had done so.

I described that he had done so in this post, but I’m going to try to simplify this still further in hopes Columbia will understand how inexcusable this is — how badly this violates every tenet of ethical journalism.

As part of his description of Hillary’s response to being victimized in a hack-and-leak campaign, Gerth described that Clinton approved a plan to vilify Trump by making Russian interference itself a scandal.

The disclosures, while not helpful to Clinton, energized the promotion of the Russia narrative to the media by her aides and Fusion investigators. On July 24, Robby Mook, Hillary’s campaign manager, told CNN and ABC that Trump himself had “changed the platform” to become “more pro-Russian” and that the hack and dump “was done by the Russians for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” according to unnamed “experts.”

Still, the campaign’s effort “did not succeed,” campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri would write in the Washington Post the next year. So, on July 26, the campaign allegedly upped the ante. Behind the scenes, Clinton was said to have approved a “proposal from one of her foreign-policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services,” according to notes, declassified in 2020, of a briefing CIA director John Brennan gave President Obama a few days later. [my emphasis]

The claim is a central part of Gerth’s narrative, which adopts many of the theories John Durham floated in his two failed prosecutions, suggesting that the press’ concerns about Trump and Russia stemmed exclusively from efforts — the dossier and the Alfa Bank anomaly — generated by Hillary, and not by Carter Page’s weird behavior in Moscow, Paul Manafort’s ties to oligarchs with ties to Russia, or all the lies Trump’s people told in 2017 about their own ties to Russia.

The claim is a central part of Jeff Gerth’s narrative, and it is based on a Russian intelligence product of uncertain reliability.

These are the notes of Brennan’s briefing to Obama. Here, though not in an earlier part of this section, Gerth quotes directly from the notes (though Gerth cuts the words “alleged approval”).

This is the letter John Ratcliffe wrote to Lindsey Graham about the briefing before he declassified the notes themselves. The letter quotes the notes and unlike Gerth, he does not cut the words, “alleged approval,” so there can be no doubt that that’s what Ratcliffe was addressing. Ratcliffe’s letter explicitly says that the Intelligence Community “does not know the accuracy of the allegation” or whether it was “exaggeration or fabrication.”

  • In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee. The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.
  • According to his handwritten notes, former Central Intelligence Agency Director Brennan subsequently briefed President Obama and other senior national security officials on the intelligence, including the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.”

It’s bad enough that Gerth takes out the use of “alleged” included in the notes itself and in Ratcliffe’s description of the report.

But it is inexcusable that Gerth does not tell readers this claim comes from a Russian intelligence report, one that even John Ratcliffe warned might not be reliable, might even be a fabrication! Gerth describes that “Clinton was said” to have formulated this plan, without telling readers that Russian spooks were the ones who said it. He simply adopts the accusation made by Russian spies without notice he had done so.

Before writing this up, I asked Kyle Pope about this twice, first in my general list of questions, then in a specific follow-up.

Finally, you did not answer this question.

Do you believe your treatment of the John Brennan briefing should have revealed the briefing was based on a Russian intelligence document? Do you believe you should have noted the John Ratcliffe warning that, “The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication”? Is there a reason you’re certain the date was July 26 when it’s not clear whether it says 26 or 28?

Is it your view that CJR owes its readers neither notice that it is relying on a Russian intelligence report for its interpretations about Hillary Clinton’s motives nor reveal that the IC would not vouch for the accuracy of that report?

I got no answer. Since Tuesday’s event, I’ve since asked for comment from Dean Cobb, who provided no response, as well as Dean Anand (whose assistant said she may get back to me later).

Jeff Gerth, and through him, CJR, and through CJR, the Columbia Journalism School apparently believe it is sound journalism, in a piece that demands greater transparency from others commenting on sloppy reporting about Russia’s campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, to quote from a description of a Russian intelligence report that may have been part of that campaign to interfere in the 2016 election, without disclosing that he was doing so.

There are unretracted clear errors throughout Gerth’s piece that also went unremarked in Tuesday’s event; rather than explaining why those errors remain uncorrected in a piece complaining about the errors of others, Gerth twice claimed his was a, “very factual chronological story” with no pushback. When I asked about them before doing my piece, Pope dismissed those errors as merely a matter of opinion.

But about this undisclosed use of a Russian intelligence product that could be a fabrication, there is no dispute. It’s right there in the warning Ratcliffe gave before he released the notes. “The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.” But that didn’t stop Gerth from using it. He used it anyway, with no disclosure about who made this allegation or the IC warning about its uncertain reliability.

And Columbia University’s journalism establishment stubbornly stands by that non-disclosure.


CJR’s Error at Word 18

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

“Wink:” Where Jeff Gerth’s “No There, There” in the Russian Investigation Went

Columbia Journalism Review–and Now Columbia School of Journalism–Have a Russian Intelligence Problem

Dear Jeff Gerth: Peter Strzok Is Not a Media Critic

My own disclosure statement

An attempted reconstruction of the articles Gerth includes in his inquiry

A list of the questions I sent to CJR

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

In Part One of this series, I noted that Jeff Gerth couldn’t make it through his first sentence without making an error (two errors, if you’re a hard grader). In Part Three, I noted that the fact set Gerth draws on is not the Mueller investigation itself or even the underlying Russian hack-and-leak campaign, but the investigations into that investigation.

That’s how Gerth came to rely on a Russian intelligence report of uncertain reliability to make claims about Hillary Clinton’s motives without actually disclosing he was doing it.

Gerth’s reliance on people like Lindsey Graham and Sidney Powell and John Durham and a host of angry men who post highlighted screen caps on Twitter is a problem, because they’re not reliable. They’re the obvious source of many of his outright errors.

Gerth falsely claimed the DOJ IG Report vindicated Devin Nunes’ memo – but he didn’t check that (I did). He applauded retractions based off John Durham claims that couldn’t withstand the scrutiny of a jury. At least twice, he falsely claimed that investigations – the SSCI investigation’s findings about Konstantin Kilimnik, Mueller’s investigations about Prigozhin’s ties to the Russian government – showed no evidence rather than that much of it remains classified.

These are just a few of a host of smaller errors that would have been caught in any robust fact check.

Gerth invents exculpatory evidence Bill Barr says doesn’t exist

Some of his bigger errors, though, are especially revealing.

Of particular interest, given how Gerth ignores much of NYT and (especially) WaPo reporting about Mike Flynn, he misrepresents what happened with Trump’s former National Security Adviser. In Part Four of his piece, Gerth accurately describes DOJ’s claimed reason for reversing the prosecution of Flynn.

In May 2020, the Justice Department dropped the case against Flynn for lying to the FBI after a review by Jensen, the US Attorney in St. Louis. The department cited the FBI’s “frail and shifting justifications for its ongoing probe of Mr. Flynn” and said that the FBI interview of Flynn was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”

In making fact claims about the Flynn investigation, Gerth doesn’t describe how obviously false this claim was. He doesn’t meet his own standard of referring to competing sides of an issue – particularly egregious given how radically DOJ’s own position changed between January and May. 

But at least he accurately reported what DOJ claimed.

In Part Three, however, Gerth falsely claims that DOJ found “exculpatory” evidence, which Gerth surely knows has a legal meaning.

Flynn later tried to withdraw his plea after a Justice Department review found exculpatory evidence, including the fact that the lead agent on his case wanted to shut it down in early January but was overruled by higher-ups. The Justice Department then moved to have the charges dismissed, but a federal judge wanted to know more, so Flynn was pardoned by Trump.


Other FBI documents, released in 2020, reflect the same assessment: the inquiry into possible ties between the campaign and Russia, according to one of the agents involved in the case, “seemed to be winding down” then. [my emphasis]

DOJ found no exculpatory evidence; if they had, it would have amounted to a Brady violation. Long before DOJ reversed course on the Flynn prosecution, it had argued that Flynn was not entitled to much of the evidence Bill Barr subsequently made available. In any case, Judge Emmet Sullivan, the judge who, since presiding over the Ted Stevens case, has adopted a particularly expansive view of Brady material, wrote a meticulous, 92-page opinion, ruling that none of that was Brady material. Jocelyn Ballantine, the AUSA stuck trying to reverse course on claims she had previously made to the court, described that DOJ’s reversal on Flynn was discretionary.

While those documents, along with other recently available information, see, e.g., Doc. 198-6, are relevant to the government’s discretionary decision to dismiss this case, the government’s motion is not based on defendant Flynn’s broad allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Flynn’s allegations are unfounded and provide no basis for impugning the prosecutors from the D.C. United States Attorney’s Office. 

Barr repeated that assessment in testimony to the House Judiciary Committee – there was no Brady violation. 

Mr. Collins: (01:17:42)

Well, there’s another part of this as well that concerns what has been given to the courts and in the interviews, and that is that the facts were not disclosed to Flynn prior to the interview. That seems like a Brady violation, to me. Do you believe that there’s a Brady violation there in this case? [crosstalk 01:17:56]

Wiliam Barr: (01:17:56)

No, there wasn’t a Brady violation there, but I think what the council concluded was that the only purpose of the interview, the only purpose was to try to catch him in saying something that they could then say was a lie.

The only one who said there was exculpatory information was Sidney Powell, the same person who would go on to claim that “no reasonable person” would believe her election fraud claims were statements of fact. That’s the standard CJR adopted in this series, the Sidney Powell standard.

And when Sullivan issued a final ruling in the case – stating that Flynn’s pardon did not render him innocent – Sullivan noted that “the government had been aware of much of this evidence since early on in the case,” meaning it would be covered by his earlier Brady opinion (indeed, almost all of the “new” documents were specifically addressed in his earlier Brady opinion).

Along with his false claim about exculpatory information, Gerth’s relies on an unusual interview of case agent Bill Barnett (the bolded language above; Gerth neither names nor links the interview), which is particularly problematic. That’s true, first of all, because in the interview, Barnett suggests (improbably) he did not understand the counterintelligence side of the investigation (a point Jim Comey made in congressional testimony). His claims about the evidence conflict with known details. Even so, his interview shows that he believed that Flynn lied in his interview with the FBI, contradicting a key false claim made by “Russiagate” purveyors talking about Flynn’s case. Worse, from a legal perspective, when DOJ submitted his memo to the docket, they redacted AUSA Brandon Van Grack’s name in the interview report, which had the effect of hiding from Judge Sullivan material information – that Barnett had no complaints with Van Grack’s performance and that Van Grack made sure Barnett’s favorable views about Trump and KT McFarland were aired in prosecutorial decisions. That is, the memo actually proves that DOJ was trying to hide that there was no exculpatory information, not that there was any.

To sustain his false claims about Flynn, then, Gerth does the same thing he did with his purported review of NYT and WaPo reporting: rely on a “Russiagate” narrative, rather than the actual facts.

Gerth plays “gotcha” with thin evidence before the evidence is collected

Gerth’s errors about the investigation get far weirder in a series of instances where Gerth scolds the press for not covering statements – either released after some delay or spoken retrospectively – to claim there was no substance to the investigation.

WaPo only included James Clapper’s statement that, by the end of his tenure, the intelligence community had found no evidence of “collusion” at the end of a story otherwise focused on his denial that Trump himself had been targeted under FISA, Gerth complains, “while the Times ignored it” in their story. But, as Clapper noted himself in the interview in question, that reflected the investigation as it existed on January 20, 2017, over forty days earlier. “This could have unfolded or become available in the time since I left the government.” Clapper was right: In the interim period, Flynn had lied to the FBI about his calls with Sergey Kislyak during the transition (which, again, was covered in stories that Gerth omitted from his review of NYT and WaPo reporting) and Papadopoulos had confirmed he got advance notice of the Russian interference, while lying about the timing of it. This is a favorite “Russiagate” move, but it’s just stupid, demanding anyone measure the facts of an investigation by what it used to look like several months in the past.

Gerth also complains that the NYT “omitted” any mention of a text Pete Strzok sent Lisa Page on May 19, 2017 after it was publicly released on January 23, 2018. In the text, Strzok explains that he might not join the Mueller team because “my gut sense and concern there’s no there there.” Gerth suggests reporting it, eight months after the fact, “might have helped readers better understand why Mueller failed to bring any criminal charges involving collusion [sic] or conspiracy with Russia.”

Yet the disclosure in no way substantiates what Gerth fancies it does – because (as other documents he relies on show, as well as a great deal of public documentation about the investigation he does not mention) – with the very notable exception of the FISA warrants targeting Carter Page, the investigation had barely begun to obtain warrants to collect evidence yet in May 2017. Indeed, Strzok’s is one of several comments that Gerth seizes on that reveal the former FBI agent didn’t have it in for Trump and instead repeatedly took steps to protect Trump and Flynn’s interests. But Gerth never complains that the press didn’t cover that aspect of the leaked texts and declassified investigative records. As noted, Gerth opines that, “One traditional journalistic standard that wasn’t always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative.” The implications of the investigative steps Strzok actually took in the Russian investigation are clearly an example, but not one Gerth has any interest in.

A particularly bizarre example of this is when Gerth relies on a comment that Rod Rosenstein made, in 2020, about the state of the investigation when he approved a memo scoping the investigation on August 2, 2017. “By August, the collusion [sic] investigation had not panned out, according to 2020 testimony by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who oversaw Mueller,” Gerth claims.

He appears to base that claim on this exchange with Lindsey Graham on June 3, 2020:

Lindsey Graham: (34:20) I’m not arguing with you about assigning it to Mueller. I’m saying, was there a legitimate reason to believe that any of the people named in this letter were actively working with the Russians in August, 2017?

Rod Rosenstein: (34:34) In August, 2017?

Lindsey Graham: (34:36) That’s when you signed the memo.

Rod Rosenstein: (34:38) My understanding, Senator, was that there was reasonable suspicion.

Lindsey Graham: (34:42) What is it? What was it?

Rod Rosenstein: (34:44) Now, again, Senator, the investigation has concluded and these people were not conspiring with the Russians, the information available at the time included-

Lindsey Graham: (34:55) Well, why do we have the Mueller investigation at all, if we had concluded they working with the Russians?

Rod Rosenstein: (35:00) I don’t believe we had concluded it at that time.

Lindsey Graham: (35:02) I am saying in January the 4th, 2017, the FBI had discounted Flynn, there was no evidence that Carter Page worked with the Russians, the dossier was a bunch of garbage and Papadopoulos is all over the place, not knowing he’s being recorded, denying working with the Russians, nobody’s ever been prosecuted for working with the Russians. The point is the whole concept that the campaign was colluding with the Russians, there was no there there in August, 2017. Do you agree with that general statement or not?

Rod Rosenstein: (35:39) I agree with that general statement. [my emphasis]

Gerth’s apparent citation of this exchange is telling. The hearing itself was part of a concerted effort by a Trump ally — relying on people like Bill Barnett — to muddle the actual results of the Mueller investigation. Gerth makes much of Mueller’s “painful” delivery during the Special Counsel’s May 2019 congressional testimony, but in this Senate hearing, Rosenstein – who was struggling to answer why he authorized the most problematic FISA application targeting Carter Page – proved easily bullied. Sure, he did “agree with [Lindsey Graham’s] general statement” that “there was no there there in August, 2017” when Rosenstein had written a new scope statement for the investigation. But Rosenstein said that just 61 seconds after he noted that he understood Mueller to have “reasonable suspicion” that Trump’s associates were working with Russia.

And as Gerth and Graham are both supposed to understand, the [Acting] Attorney General supervising a Special Counsel investigation is not involved in the day-to-day steps of it. Rosenstein’s answers make it clear he either didn’t remember, didn’t know, or didn’t want to talk about those details.

In fact, the public record shows, Mueller had more than reasonable suspicion that Trump’s aides had inappropriate contacts with Russians or others involved in the interference operation. 

Just days earlier, on July 28, 2017, DOJ had already established probable cause to arrest George Papadopoulos for false statements and obstructing the investigation. His FBI interviews in the days after August 2 would go to the core questions of the campaign’s knowledge and encouragement of Russia’s interference. On August 11, Papadopoulos described, but then backed off certainty about, a memory of Sam Clovis getting upset when Papadopoulos told Clovis “they,” the Russians, have Hillary’s emails. On September 19, Papadopoulos professed to be unable to explain what his own notes planning a September 2016 meeting in London with the “Office of Putin” meant.

The investigation into Paul Manafort, too, was only beginning to take steps that would reveal suspect ties to Russia. Also on July 28, for example, DOJ obtained the first known warrant including conspiracy among the charges under investigation, and the first known warrant listing the June 9 meeting within the scope of the investigation. On August 17, DOJ would show probable cause to obtain emails from Manafort’s business involving Manafort, Gates, and Konstantin Kilimnik that would (among other things) show damning messages sent between Manafort and Kilimnik using the foldering technique, likely including Manafort’s sustained involvement in a plan to carve up Ukraine that started on August 2, 2016 (which Gerth omits from his description of that meeting).

Similarly, Mueller was still collecting evidence explaining why Flynn might have lied about his calls with Sergey Kislyak. On August 25, Mueller obtained a probable cause warrant to access devices owned by the GSA showing that Flynn had coordinated his calls with other transition officials, including those with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, when he called Kislyak to undermine Obama’s sanctions against Russia.

Plus, Mueller was just beginning to investigate at least two Trump associates that Rosenstein would include in an expanded scope in October 2017. On July 18, Mueller would obtain a probable cause warrant that built off Suspicious Activity Reports submitted to Treasury. That first known warrant targeting Michael Cohen never mentioned the long-debunked allegations about Cohen in the Steele dossier. Instead, the warrant affidavit would cite five deposits in the first five months of 2017 from Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova Group, totaling over $400K, $300K in payments from Korean Aerospace Industries, and almost $200K from Novartis, all of which conflicted with Cohen’s claim that the bank account in question would focus on domestic clients. On August 1, Mueller would obtain a probable cause warrant for Cohen’s Trump Organization emails from Microsoft. Mueller did so using a loophole that Microsoft would sue to close shortly afterwards, a move which likely stymied the investigation into a suspected $10 million donation to Trump, via an Egyptian bank, that kept him in the race in September 2016. That warrant for Trump Organization emails likely obtained Cohen’s January 2016 contact with the Kremlin – the one not turned over, to Congress at least, in response to a subpoena – a contact that Cohen would lie to Congress about four week later

On August 7, Mueller used a probable cause warrant to obtain Roger Stone’s Twitter content, which revealed a mid-October 2016 exchange with WikiLeaks that disproved the rat-fucker’s public claims that he had never communicated with WikiLeaks during the campaign (a fact that Gerth gets wrong in the less than 1% of his series he dedicates to Stone). It also revealed that the day after the election, WikiLeaks assured Stone via DM that “we are now more free to communicate.” Those communications would, in one week (the subsequent investigation showed), turn into pardon discussions, which provides important background to the June 2017 Twitter DMs Stone had with Julian Assange, obtained with that August warrant, about “doing everything possible to address [Assange’s] issues at the highest level of Government.”

Gerth’s reliance on Rosenstein, at best, ignores the context of the former Deputy Attorney General’s quivering in the face of his own exposure in the errors in the Carter Page applications. It ignores Rosenstein’s statement, 61 seconds earlier, about reasonable suspicion. More importantly, it relies on a witness who wouldn’t know what investigators had discovered and by when, all the while remaining blissfully ignorant of (or, worse, suppressing) publicly available details that reveal the actual state of the investigation in August 2017.

Based on such a shoddy reporting approach, Gerth calls all these investigative discoveries – details about plans for a meeting with Putin’s office in September 2016, foldered emails about carving up Ukraine, coordination with Mar-a-Lago on Flynn’s calls about sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, $400K in suspicious payments from a Russian oligarch, and proof that Stone was lying about contact with WikiLeaks – “no there, there.” 

Gerth insists that journalists should disclose the known details about the investigation – such as that Strzok didn’t think there would be anything before Mueller started obtaining warrants to check — but rather than holding himself to that standard, he instead makes provably false statements about what investigators knew, and could have known, when. 

When asked about both the Flynn and the Rosenstein claims, twice, CJR did not respond. “[T]he vast majority of items” I raised “are editorial notes from you, as in ways you would have written the piece differently,” Pope said in response to my list of questions, “rather than issues of fact that need to be addressed by CJR.”

Sweeping misstatements about trolls

Gerth’s legal misrepresentations are perhaps most telling in his discussion of the case against Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, twelve human trolls who worked for Internet Research Agency, the IRA itself, and two shell companies Prigozhin allegedly used to fund the IRA. 

This is going to get weedy, but it’s important because it’s an instance where Gerth simply adopts the false claims of another “Russiagate” propagandist as his own.

Gerth makes two claims: That the judge handling the case “rebuked” “the Mueller [R]eport” for claiming the “IRA” was part of a “sweeping” Russian government effort when (Gerth claimed) prosecutors weren’t prepared to prove that tie. And, he claims, “one criminal case” was dropped by DOJ.

The Mueller report’s implication that the IRA was part of a “sweeping” Russian government meddling campaign in 2016 was later rebuked by a federal Judge handling an IRA-related case. The indictment of the IRA, the judge found, alleged “only private conduct by private actors” and “does not link the [IRA] to the Russian government.” The prosecutors made clear they were not prepared to show that the IRA efforts were a government operation. Mueller’s report does refer to “ties” between Putin and the owner of the IRA—he is sometimes referred to as “Putin’s Cook”—and the fact that “the two have appeared together in public photographs.” Mueller’s source for that was an article in the Times.


(One criminal case involving Russian trolling that was prosecuted was dropped by the Justice Department in March 2020. The Times, in its story about the decision, only quoted the prosecutor, while the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post also included quotes from the Russian company’s American lawyer.)

Before I lay out the many errors here, let me address Gerth’s complaint that the NYT quoted only prosecutors in their stories about DOJ’s decision to drop charges against Concord, whereas the WSJ and WaPo “include[] quotes from the Russian company’s American lawyer.” He doesn’t mention that NYT quoted a Twitter account boasting of leaking Mueller’s materials, one proximate reason DOJ dropped the case. But the entire complaint underscores Gerth’s fundamental misrepresentation of this issue: The dispute in question was a dispute about prejudicial pretrial statements, not about what prosecutors planned to prove in court. After Judge Dabney Friedrich issued her rebuke, neither side was supposed to be giving quotes to journalists. 

And because DOJ didn’t dismiss an entire criminal case, DOJ remained gagged under Judge Friedrich’s order. DOJ dismissed only the charges against the defendants in question, which Gerth describes as the “IRA” (Internet Research Agency) five times in one paragraph.

But Gerth got the defendant wrong. Here’s the passage of the judge’s order Gerth claims to be citing.

But the indictment, which alleges that private Russian entities and individuals conducted an “information warfare” campaign designed to sow discord among U.S. voters, Indictment ¶ 10, does not link the defendants to the Russian government. Save for a single allegation that Concord and Concord Catering had several “government contracts” (with no further elaboration), id. ¶ 11, the indictment alleges only private conduct by private actors. [my emphasis]

“The defendants” here were Concord Management and Consulting, the shell companies Prigozhin allegedly used to fund the IRA, the same defendants against which DOJ dropped charges. (Friedrich refers to IRA as Concord’s “co-defendant” when she discusses them.) The difference matters because – as even that passage makes clear – there was no question about the contracts that Concord had with the Russian government.

DOJ dismissed the charges against Concord because it was acting as a true shell company, using its flexibility as a corporate person to show up to contest the charges and obtain sensitive discovery, while dodging parts of the protective order and any possibility it would ever be arrested. I laid out DOJ’s decision to drop the charges, rebutting false claims from both right and left, in this post. Gerth must know that the decision only pertained to two corporate shell defendants. The WSJ story he cites, for example, makes that clear in the headline: “Judge Dismisses Part of Robert Mueller’s Case Against Russian Firm.” The NYT version clarified the dismissal involved just “two Russian shell companies.” 

And as for Friedrich’s rebuke, as I noted, it was about pretrial prejudice, Concord’s ability to get a fair trial, not about what prosecutors planned to prove at trial. Gerth appears to have made up the claim that prosecutors “made clear they were not prepared to show that the IRA [sic] efforts were a government operation.” On the contrary, prosecutor Jonathan Kravis explained in a hearing on Concord’s motion that they had not yet decided whether they would present it at trial.

THE COURT: And is that something that the government plans to introduce at trial in this case?

KRAVIS: I’m not certain of the answer to that question at this point.

Given the charges, they didn’t need to prove that Concord was working with the Russian government. The single conspiracy count against Concord didn’t require proving Prigozhin’s substantial ties to the Russian government. It required showing only that members of the conspiracy deliberately thwarted FEC and DOJ’s ability to enforce campaign finance and FARA laws, both of which only require a tie to a foreign principal, not a foreign government.

Similarly, Gerth falsely insinuates that Mueller didn’t have evidence of such ties by suggesting the only evidence in the report was a reference to a NYT article. As he did with the SSCI case laying out reasons it judged Kilimnik to be a spy, Gerth is here referring to a two page, almost entirely redacted section, and insinuating that a bunch of redacted evidence is the same as no evidence, just a reference to the NYT. A sentence unsealed after this dispute shows that this passage relied, in part, on details of Prigozhin’s ties to the Russian military.

Finally, Gerth misrepresents both the substance of the rebuke and its primary target. Concord’s complaint about prejudicial language (both the alleged tie to Russia and outright claims it was illegal) focused first and foremost on Bill Barr’s language, and only secondarily on the Mueller Report. While Friedrich’s order rebuking the government did cite language in the Mueller Report, she deemed that language a violation in conjunction with Barr’s far more definitive tie between Russia and the corporate defendants, particularly made in Senate testimony. 

Similarly, the Attorney General drew a link between the Russian government and this case during a press conference in which he stated that “[t]he Special Counsel’s report outlines two main efforts by the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.” Press Conference Tr. (emphasis added). The “[f]irst” involved “efforts by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with close ties to the Russian government, to sow social discord among American voters through disinformation and social media operations.” Id. The “[s]econd” involved “efforts by Russian military officials associated with the GRU,” a Russian intelligence agency, to hack and leak private documents and emails from the Democratic Party and the Clinton Campaign. Id. The Attorney General further stated the Report’s “bottom line”: “After nearly two years of investigation, thousands of subpoenas, and hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the Special Counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those schemes.” Id. (emphases added). In context, it is clear that one of these “efforts” or “schemes” attributed to the Russian government was the information warfare campaign alleged in the indictment. Id. Thus, the Attorney General “confirmed” what the indictment does not allege—that Concord’s and its co-defendants’ activities were “sponsored” by the “Russian government” and part of a two-pronged attack on our nation’s democratic institutions. Id. This bottom-line conclusion was highlighted in multiple press articles following the Report’s release.

In fact, Friedrich pointed to Mueller’s closing press conference on May 29 as proof of the care with which DOJ was trying to avoid such prejudice.

In delivering his remarks, the Special Counsel carefully distinguished between the efforts by “Russian intelligence officers who were part of the Russian military” and the efforts detailed “in a separate indictment” by “a private Russian entity engaged in a social media operation where Russian citizens posed as Americans in order to interfere in the election.” Special Counsel Statement Tr. (emphases added). He also repeatedly referred to the activities described in the Report as “allegations” and made clear that his Office was “not commenting on the guilt or innocence of any specific defendant.” Id. The Special Counsel added that the defendants were “presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in court.”

As to Gerth’s insinuation that Friedrich was rebuking Mueller for including “IRA” in his observation that, “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” she did not include the “sweeping” comment quoted by Gerth. While Concord cited the “sweeping” language in its initial motion, it dropped it in its reply. The reference didn’t come up in the hearing on the matter. And Friedrich’s order did not mention the “sweeping and systematic” claim either, which in the report was tied to the hack-and-leak campaign. So not only wasn’t that claim rebuked, but by yoking that claim to IRA, Gerth is doing precisely what Concord complained about, applying language that pertained to other parts of Russia’s operation to Prigozhin’s corporations. Gerth is himself engaged in the kind of sloppy journalism that Concord complained about.

Virtually everything Gerth said in his comments about “IRA” was wrong in one way or another.

The sloppiness of this section is important for another reason.

As far as I’m aware, the claims were first made by Aaron Maté in a piece listing questions he wanted asked in Mueller’s congressional testimony.

Why did you suggest that juvenile clickbait from a Russian troll farm was part of a “sweeping and systematic” Russian government interference effort?

The Mueller report begins by declaring that “[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” A few paragraphs later, Mueller tells us that Russian interference occurred “principally through two operations.” The first of these operations was “a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” carried out by a Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The inference here is that the IRA was a part of the Russian government’s “sweeping and systematic” interference campaign. Yet Mueller’s team has been forced to admit in court that this was a false insinuation. Earlier this month, a federal judge rebuked Mueller and the Justice Department for suggesting that the troll farm’s social media activities “were undertaken on behalf of, if not at the direction of, the Russian government.” US District Judge Dabney Friedrich noted that Mueller’s February 2018 indictment of the IRA “does not link the [IRA] to the Russian government” and alleges “only private conduct by private actors.” Jonathan Kravis, a senior prosecutor on the Mueller team, acknowledged that this is the case. “[T]he report itself does not state anywhere that the Russian government was behind the Internet Research Agency activity,” Kravis told the court.

Maté made the claim that “sweeping” was included in there, he made the claim (and the substitution in brackets) that this was about the IRA, Maté made up the claim that this was about evidence rather than pretrial prejudice (indeed, his first version of this, since corrected, falsely attributed Concord’s complaint that DOJ had “improperly suggested a link” between “IRA and the Kremlin” to Friedrich). Most of Gerth’s errors first appeared in Maté’s piece, and Gerth doesn’t include Maté’s one quote – Friedrich’s judgment that the Mueller Report had suggested the trolling done by Concord’s co-defendant IRA was “undertaken on behalf of … the Russian government” – where Friedrich most directly condemned the Report.

From Maté’s piece, the claims were magnified through “Russiagate” channels and invoked days later in some erroneous questioning by Tom McClintock in the Mueller appearance that Gerth invoked in word 18 of his 23,000 word series.

MCCLINTOCK: But — but you — you have left the clear impression throughout the country, through your report, that it — it was the Russian government behind the troll farms. And yet, when you’re called upon to provide actual evidence in court, you fail to do so.

MUELLER: Well, I would again dispute your characterization of what occurred in that — in that proceeding.

Gerth, who starts his 23,000-word series citing Mueller’s testimony and scolds journalists repeatedly for not presenting contrary views, doesn’t include Mueller directly disputing the claim – made by McClintock, made by Gerth, and made by Maté – that the government failed to present such evidence. Gerth has been told his claims here are false, in the Mueller testimony he made the opening gambit of his series. And yet, he repeated Maté’s errors anyway.

Maté is one of the many “Russiagate” proponents – along with Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Paul Sperry, John Solomon, Barry Maier – of whom Gerth speaks favorably at length (curiously, he doesn’t mention Chuck Ross, who unlike the others did important, substantive reporting on the dossier). I asked Pope whether Gerth had assessed some of the erroneous reports of these “Russiagate” figures, and mentioned this misrepresentation of Friedrich’s order specifically.

Do you believe Aaron Maté’s treatment of the Concord prosecution is accurate (including his misrepresentation of an order Dabney Friedrich issued, which this piece appears to rely on)? [my emphasis]

Pope refused to address the erroneous reporting of “Russiagate” proponents that Gerth was citing approvingly. “[Y]ou ask us to comment on or defend the actions of other people and institutions, including Trump, the FBI, Erik Wemple, the Department of Justice, Glenn Greenwald, and others. Those questions should be addressed to them, not us.”

No. Since CJR adopted Maté’s errors as their own, the question was rightly addressed to Pope. 

Pope’s silence about questions specifically raised about Maté, his refusal to own up to the errors Gerth borrowed from him, are particularly telling: In Duncan Campbell’s recent description of how CJR spiked a story on the Nation magazine’s credulous Russian reporting, Campbell revealed that the last edits Pope made before sending it to an interminable fact check pertained to Maté.

Pope then wanted the 6,000-word and fully edited report cut by 1,000 words, mainly to remove material about the errors in The Nation article. Among sections cut down were passages showing how, from 2014 onwards, vanden Heuvel had hired a series of pro-Russian correspondents after they had praised her husband. Among the new intake was a Russian and Syrian Government supporting broadcaster, Aaron Maté, taken on in 2017 after he had platformed Cohen on his show The Real News.

Maté became the magazine’s prolific ‘Russiagate’ correspondent. Vanden Heuvel was later to tell Maté in a broadcast in October 2020 that “Steve always valued your work… your writing for The Nation was always important to him as it is to me… I think what you do at RealClearInvestigations is factual, is bullet–, and I was reading them to Steve in the last weeks, trying to rile him up.” Maté responded: “I’m forever indebted to you and Steve.”

That is, CJR has covered for Maté in the past, and here they refuse to hold themselves accountable for adopting his errors.

The Columbia Journalism Review blew off one or another clear error – errors that came from people like Sidney Powell! – by claiming the actual facts were mere “editorial notes.”

And along the way, Gerth declared that details about plans for a meeting with Putin’s office in September 2016, foldered emails about carving up Ukraine, coordination with Mar-a-Lago on Flynn’s calls about sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, $400K in suspicious payments from a Russian oligarch, and proof that Stone was lying about contact with WikiLeaks amounted to “no there there.” 

CJR claimed that it “has been examining the American media’s coverage of Trump and Russia in granular detail.” This review has shown how ridiculous that claim is. What it did, in the name of scolding other journalists while misrepresenting their work, was create the “Russiagate” narrative they defined the entire project by. They did so by skipping key events of 2016, ignoring the vast majority of the NYT and WaPo reporting they claimed to review, substituting the dossier for actual media coverage, and passing off a Russian intelligence product with no notice. To prove they found the “Russiagate” narrative they had dishonestly created, they simply parroted  the work of people from their same “Russiagate” bubble, all the while ignoring vast swaths of contradictory evidence in the documentary record. 

CJR invented a Russiagate narrative via omission and factual error. Then they boasted that they had found what their own journalistic failures created.

Update: A stats prof from Columbia caught Gerth making errors — or more likely, adopting others’ errors — in his key statistical claim about declining trust for media.


CJR’s Error at Word 18

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

“Wink:” Where Jeff Gerth’s “No There, There” in the Russian Investigation Went

My own disclosure statement

An attempted reconstruction of the articles Gerth includes in his inquiry

A list of the questions I sent to CJR

Update: Date of Papadopoulos’ claimed inability to read his own notes corrected.

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

In his CJR series claiming the NYT and WaPo botched coverage of the Russian investigation, Jeff Gerth makes a great show of transparency, with the same disclosure statement appended to each installment of his 23,000-word series.

But the statements hide the most important details, given Gerth’s project (and his past history tilting at Hillary Clinton’s windmills and other real estate investments). For example, when he says he “helped ProPublica decide whether to collaborate with a book that was critical of the Clintons’ involvement with Russia; the arrangement didn’t happen,” he doesn’t explain whether that book was Clinton Cash, a piece of political oppo research written by Steve Bannon associate Peter Schweitzer that has a structurally similar position, in the 2016 election, as the Steele dossier does. When he says that he “approached [the NYT] on my own about the Clinton family foundation,” but “expressed disappointment to one of the Times reporters about the final result,” he’s engaged in press criticism about his own work, without disclosing which work that is (in his series he otherwise discusses this story about Clinton Cash and the Foundation). When he discloses that he wrote about Clinton at ProPublica, he does not explicitly describe a story he wrote using emails stolen by Guccifer 1.0, Marcel Lazar, putting him at the forefront of the relentless reporting on Hillary based on stolen documents.

There’s nothing, per se, wrong with writing about those things.

Where it becomes a problem, however, is in the way Gerth approaches his project, purportedly an attempt to decide why, after the 2016 election, trust in media nose-dived. Even beyond limiting his project to just the NYT and WaPo – or rather, claiming to; as I showed, he ignored great swaths of the most important work from both – Gerth simply assumes that the thing that damaged press credibility in 2016 was coverage of the Russian investigation, and not any of the other closely linked politicized investigations into one or another of the candidates, including the ones he played a role in. 

There have been at least six investigations, at least four criminal, of events tied to the 2016 election:

  • The investigation into Hillary Clinton’s server that arose partly out of the Benghazi investigation and partly as a result of a hack of Sidney Blumenthal
  • An investigation of the Clinton Foundation, predicated in part by oppo research from Steve Bannon associate Peter Schweitzer, an investigation which leaked in the weeks leading up to the election and which was staffed by an FBI team that included a pro-Trump agent running an informant targeting the Foundation
  • The investigation into two strands of Russia’s influence operation – a hack-and-leak and a social media campaign – which ultimately merged, in part, with Crossfire Hurricane, under Robert Mueller
  • The UNSUB investigation, named Crossfire Hurricane, that attempted to learn which Trump aide got a tip that Russia would intervene to help beat Hillary; this investigation became the Mueller investigation
  • A review by US Attorney John Huber of Uranium One allegations against Hillary
  • The Durham investigation that Bill Barr would initiate, with no evidence that a crime had been committed, into the initiation of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation

That should provide the opportunity to apply a consistent approach to covering the investigations, particularly for someone lecturing others about press standards. But it would require including the Clinton server and Clinton Foundation coverage – coverage including Gerth’s own – somewhere besides the disclosures section. It would require reviewing documentation showing the Trump team’s plotting to find Hillary’s deleted emails – including consideration of plans to reach out to hostile intelligence services to do so. 

And it would require reviewing Trump’s efforts to optimize the release of the files stolen by Russian hackers, something that Mark Meadows, in describing allegations that the Trump campaign might be “benefitting from Hillary Clinton emails,” said would be “collusion.” George Papadopoulos himself told Stefan Halper that “reaching out to wiki leaks or whoever it is … to tell them please work with us, collaborate,” as Stone undeniably attempted, would be “a form of treason.” Yet Gerth doesn’t consider whether the media’s relentless focus on the emails stolen from the Democrats, and not the investigation into that theft, drove at least part of the ensuing distrust in the media.

Along with avoiding those issues, Gerth ignores many of the materials released as part of the Mueller investigation (and most of the materials released in two Congressional investigations), and instead draws on materials released in the investigation into the Russian investigation, whether by Congress or as part of Durham’s two failed prosecutions. That is his fact-set: not the underlying “collusion” (adopting Meadows’ measure), not the investigation itself, but the effort to weaponize the investigation.

That’s how Gerth comes up with this statement of the scope of what he includes in “Russiagate.”

By 2016, as Trump’s political viability grew and he voiced admiration for Russia’s “strong leader,” Clinton and her campaign would secretly sponsor and publicly promote an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that there was a secret alliance between Trump and Russia. The media would eventually play a role in all that, but at the outset, reporters viewed Trump and his candidacy as a sideshow.

When he first raises it, Gerth doesn’t date the timing of this claimed effort.

That’s important because Gerth obscures the public reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia, barely addresses the reliable open source research Fusion was doing on the topic (which was the part of the project taken over after Paul Singer stopped paying), and completely leaves out Trump efforts that were underway already by then.

For example, Gerth made much of a June 17, 2016 WaPo story, on which Tom Hamburger had the lead byline, which described Trump’s business pursuits in Russia, including his ties with Aras Agalarov. It was a remarkable story, particularly when you consider WaPo focused on Trump’s ties with Agalarov just 8 days after Agalarov arranged the June 9 meeting, promising “high level and sensitive information … that is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Gerth raises no questions about the accuracy of the report – indeed, much of it has since been confirmed by the Russia investigation. Rather, he notes that Hamburger, “was a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had worked with [Glenn] Simpson; the two were friends, according to Simpson’s book,” as if any association with Fusion would taint otherwise solid reporting.

But WaPo’s story came out before the first of Steele’s dossier reports, and Gerth himself distinguished between the “records on Trump’s business dealings and associates, some with Russia ties,” that Fusion collected via open source and the dossier (Gerth falsely suggests that Fusion stopped its open source research after the Democrats started paying). If Hamburger had an assist from Fusion, he would have been relying on their accurate work.

Gerth also doesn’t mention, at all, that WaPo reported on Carter Page’s comments in Moscow on July 7, 12 days before the first dossier report on Page’s trip. 

Gerth focuses closely on Josh Rogin’s critique of the treatment of the RNC platform regarding Ukraine, but presents no evidence that Hillary seeded the critique or that Hillary’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, should have doubted it before he focused attention on it (the best pre-Mueller Report debunking of Rogin’s claims about the platform came from Byron York, but not until November 2017). Much of this early reporting was organic, and even assuming the Hamburger story relied on Fusion research and that research was conducted after the Democrats started paying, it would be little different from the Schweitzer efforts about which Gerth is almost silent.

Meanwhile, the Trump campaign was already pursuing emails – both the 30,000 emails from Hillary’s server she had deleted, and whatever emails became available from the Russian hack of Democratic targets. For example, GOP Senate staffer Barbara Ledeen BCCed Mike Flynn on a pitch to journalist Catherine Herridge on May 24 promising stories about Hillary emails found on the dark web. Ledeen sent Flynn more information on June 16, which he called, “amazing!” Per Flynn’s testimony to the FBI, Ledeen’s pursuit, which continued up to the election, included travel by others overseas in search of emails purportedly hosted in Eastern Europe. 

Rick Gates testified that Roger Stone claimed to have knowledge, prior to Julian Assange’s public announcement on June 12, that WikiLeaks had Hillary’s 30,000 deleted emails. He claimed that in a call on June 15, Stone said he was in touch with Guccifer 2.0, the persona alleged to be set up by Russian intelligence officers. He explained that when Stone asked for contact information for Jared Kushner that same day, Stone intended to debrief Jared and another campaign aide about the DNC’s announcement they’d been hacked. Gates testified at Stone’s trial that the campaign thought the hack of the DNC would give the campaign “a leg up.” Even accounting for uncertainty about which efforts were an attempt to get the deleted Hillary emails and which were an attempt to optimize the hacked emails, Stone’s efforts easily meet the definition of “collusion” – seeking to benefit from the stolen emails – that Mark Meadows adopted in 2018.

And the drumbeat coverage of Hillary’s server was part of what set up the later WikiLeaks releases. That’s a press coverage issue – a matter that undoubtedly led to frustration among many with the press, but not one that Gerth, who wrote an early article in the unrelenting mass of coverage, chose to mention.

Gerth’s efforts to pitch the Russian investigation as uniquely corrupt get more problematic once he tries to date the purported Hillary “conspiracy theory” that Trump’s campaign – which had already accepted a meeting promising help from Russia – did have ties to Russia.

In coverage of the initial release of the stolen DNC emails, Gerth makes much of the fact that Fusion GPS founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch traveled to the 2016 DNC convention a few hours away in Philly, though he doesn’t describe a single thing they did there. 

At the end of July, the DNC held its nominating convention in Philadelphia. In attendance were legions of journalists, as well as Simpson and Fritsch. On the eve of the events, the hacked emails from the DNC were dumped, angering supporters of Bernie Sanders, who saw confirmation in the messages of their fears that the committee had favored Hillary.

The disclosures, while not helpful to Clinton, energized the promotion of the Russia narrative to the media by her aides and Fusion investigators. On July 24, Robby Mook, Hillary’s campaign manager, told CNN and ABC that Trump himself had “changed the platform” to become “more pro-Russian” and that the hack and dump “was done by the Russians for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” according to unnamed “experts.”

Still, the campaign’s effort “did not succeed,” campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri would write in the Washington Post the next year. So, on July 26, the campaign allegedly upped the ante. Behind the scenes, Clinton was said to have approved a “proposal from one of her foreign-policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services,” according to notes, declassified in 2020, of a briefing CIA director John Brennan gave President Obama a few days later. [my emphasis]

But, just as John Durham did, Gerth treats the release of emails on the most important day of Hillary’s campaign – stolen by Russia – as merely “not helpful,” rather than an unprecedented attack on the country and democracy and a presidential candidate. (Gerth, based primarily on the public uncertainty about how WikiLeaks got the emails, claims elsewhere the attribution of the hack to Russia, “is far from definitive,” an opinion which CJR presents while ignoring virtually all of the evidence, not to mention a 2016 NYT Pulitzer-winning story presenting what the hack looked like to the Democrats). And rather than focusing on Hillary as the victim of a hack-and-leak — something reflected in documents released in the Michael Sussmann trial that Gerth elsewhere relies on but ignores here — Gerth instead describes being targeted by a hack-and-leak operation as an opportunity to “promot[e] the Russia narrative to the media by her aides and Fusion investigators.” 

Even at this level, Gerth’s description is astounding. He cites Jennifer Palmieri, writing in 2017, claiming she later confirmed this was all just about “promoting the Russia narrative.” But Palmieri’s “did not succeed” comment was not just or even primarily about Trump’s encouragement of the operation, it was about accountability for Russia, a topic the importance of which would have been reinforced had Gerth reviewed more of the 2016 NYT stories that won a Pulitzer prize. Indeed, Palmieri described how, “the sheer spectacle of Trump” distracted from Russia’s influence operation, a worthy topic for a 23,000-word narrative trying to understand the press coverage of 2016, and one that might better explain Trump’s always-contradictory claims in press conferences than Gerth’s far less convincing explanations.

Gerth’s misrepresentation about Palmieri’s 2017 piece is all the more important given how his sloppiness soon turns to malpractice. The Brennan briefing he cites (bolded above), one of Gerth’s primary pieces of proof that Hillary promoted a secret “conspiracy theory” and one that falls far short of his claim that she was claiming “a secret alliance between Trump and Russia,” comes from a document released by John Ratcliffe in September 2020, as part of Trump’s effort (with Bill Barr) to weaponize the Russian investigation before the election. 

When that document was released, I noted that its distribution represented the same unmasking of identities in intelligence reports that had provoked Republican complaints for three years –  something that itself probably merited more press coverage. Gerth, however, uses it to suggest that any attempt by Hillary to impose a cost on Trump for exploiting Russian interference –  something the Mueller Report concluded he did – was itself scandalous. “[T]he Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the Mueller Report concluded in the same sentence that stopped short of alleging a conspiracy.

There’s no scandal there. Trump did exploit Hillary’s woes, and had already been doing so, for more than a month, by the time of Brennan’s briefing. It was, per documents released as part of the Mueller investigation and the SSCI Report, a key campaign focus. To suggest Hillary’s efforts to exploit Trump’s goading of the Russians was more sinister than it was, Gerth misstates what the briefing said. “[V]ilify[ing] Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services” becomes, in Gerth’s earlier translation of it, “promot[ing] an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that there was a secret alliance between Trump and Russia.” Brennan’s briefing didn’t say Hillary was planning to claim there was an alliance between Trump and Russia.

Worse still, Gerth hides a critical detail about that document. When Ratcliffe shared it with Lindsey Graham in 2020, Trump’s Director of National Intelligence did so with a warning: The document was a Russian intelligence report, and even four years later, the Intelligence Community still didn’t know how reliable it was.

The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.

Gerth makes no mention of the warning. None. He simply parrots a Russian intelligence product of uncertain reliability without notice that it is one. 

During Ratcliffe’s confirmation to become Trump’s top spook, the press laid out how Ratcliffe misrepresented his background to get elected. Yet Gerth, in the middle of a 23,000 word screed lecturing other journalists they need to be more transparent, fails to match even Ratcliffe’s standard for disclosure. He doesn’t reveal that one of his only pieces of evidence to support his thesis is a Russian intelligence product that the IC would not verify. 

I asked CJR editor Kyle Pope twice whether the outlet should have disclosed this, first in my general list of questions, then in a specific follow-up.

Finally, you did not answer this question.

Do you believe your treatment of the John Brennan briefing should have revealed the briefing was based on a Russian intelligence document? Do you believe you should have noted the John Ratcliffe warning that, “The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication”? Is there a reason you’re certain the date was July 26 when it’s not clear whether it says 26 or 28?

Is it your view that CJR owes its readers neither notice that it is relying on a Russian intelligence report for its interpretations about Hillary Clinton’s motives nor reveal that the IC would not vouch for the accuracy of that report?

I got no answer.

Compare that with Gerth’s incomplete treatment of Trump’s actions at the time. In the passage immediately following one where he misrepresents Palmieri’s column and then relies on a Russian intelligence product to describe Hillary’s intent, he accuses the press of misrepresenting Trump’s intent in their coverage of the statement, “Russia if you’re listening.”

Trump, unaware of any plan to tie him to the Kremlin, pumped life into the sputtering Russia narrative. Asked about the DNC hacks by reporters at his Trump National Doral Miami golf resort on July 27, he said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the thirty thousand emails that are missing.” The quip was picked up everywhere. Clinton national-security aide Jake Sullivan quickly seized on the remarks, calling them “a national-security issue.” The comment became a major exhibit over the next several years for those who believed Trump had an untoward relationship with Russia. Clinton’s own Russia baggage, meantime, began to fade into the background.

Hope Hicks, Trump’s press aide, later testified to Congress that she told Trump some in the media were taking his statement “quite literally” but that she believed it was “a joke.”

I asked Trump what he meant. “If you look at the whole tape,” he said in an interview, “it is obvious that it was being said sarcastically,” a point he made at the time.

I reviewed the tape. After several minutes of repeated questions about Russia, Trump’s facial demeanor evolved, to what seemed like his TV entertainer mode; that’s when, in response to a final Russia question, he said the widely quoted words. Then, appearing to be playful, he said the leakers “would probably be rewarded mightily by the press” if they found Clinton’s long-lost emails, because they contained “some beauties.” Trump, after talking with Hicks that day in Florida, sought to control the damage by tweeting that whoever had Clinton’s deleted emails “should share them with the FBI.”

Before I get into Gerth’s backflips to diminish damning aspects of Trump’s press conference, let me address his claim that, “Clinton’s own Russia baggage, meantime, began to fade into the background.” First, though this is his second reference to what he claims is real Russian baggage on Hillary’s part, Gerth never subjects the claim of baggage to his own standard, which is that, short of a charged criminal conspiracy, such allegations are merely a “conspiracy theory.” He never mentions that these allegations were part of the Clinton Foundation investigation (itself significantly predicated on the Clinton Cash narrative and according to the DOJ IG Report, investigated by a pro-Trump FBI agent), a subsequent review done by a Trump US Attorney, and even reviewed by the Durham investigation. Three different DOJ investigations made nothing of these allegations, yet Gerth treats them as more worthy of press coverage than the Russian ties that Trump’s aides lied to the FBI to cover up.

Worse still, Gerth’s claim is factually wrong. In precisely this period, the NYPost rolled out another Peter Schweitzer product, again crafted in close coordination with soon-to-be Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon, alleging improprieties  pertaining to Russia, this time focused on John Podesta. The narrative had been in the works since March, even before the Russian hack of Hillary’s campaign manager. A 2017 Berkman Center report on the press and propaganda in the 2016 election showed that coverage of the topic spiked through much of August.

As it laid out, the later spike in attention – the one Gerth says doesn’t exist – milked the earlier coverage by the NYT for credibility, coverage that Gerth might or might not have had a hand in.

As the Trump campaign sought to resurface the Clinton Foundation allegations, that early 2015 New York Times story became the second most shared story about the Clinton Foundation on Facebook in August 2016.

Gerth’s omission of this spike in attention is not just a factual error, it’s a fatal error for someone claiming to write about the Russian investigation. That’s because the packaging of these allegations was a central part of Mueller’s investigation into Stone’s alleged request that Jerome Corsi help him craft a cover story in the days after he predicted it would soon be John Podesta’s time in a barrel, in a period when Stone was pitching both Manafort and then Bannon on a way to win dirty.

And to the extent Stone was trying to cover something up, it would have been efforts to optimize the WikiLeaks releases, efforts that preceded the date of the Brennan briefing. The date of the briefing is uncertain (Gerth agrees with Ratcliffe’s reading that it took place on July 26, not July 28, though Brennan’s handwriting and a redaction obscure that), but one way or another, the briefing took place after Manafort ordered Rick Gates to ask Roger Stone to pursue more emails (though Gerth doesn’t mention that) and after Stone instructed Corsi to check with Julian Assange about them (something else Gerth doesn’t mention). It comes days before Stone sent Trump pro-Russian tweets that, he claimed, Trump had requested (they had spoken for ten minutes the night he sent them). It comes in the same time period, according to a Paul Manafort interview with the FBI, when, “Stone told Manafort that there would be a WikiLeaks drop of emails with Podesta, and that Podesta would be ‘in the barrel’ and Manafort would be vindicated.” It’s not me or Hillary Clinton saying that, or – worse! – the NYT. It’s Stone’s life-long friend and Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

Based on his review of Trump’s facial expression, Gerth seems to credit Hope Hicks and Trump’s suggestion that his comment, inviting Russia to go get more Hillary emails, was just a joke. (Gerth doesn’t mention that Russian hackers swarmed a new Hillary target hours later.) But that should not matter! Even if that’s all this was, a presidential candidate, making light of the fact that his opponent was the victim of a serious crime, no matter the culprit, that should be taboo in political campaigns.

And even though Gerth insists, here and in his coverage of Trump’s Lester Holt and Helsinki comments, that Trump’s damning seemingly pro-Russian comments would look less damning if journalists simply consulted the full context, he doesn’t do that himself. 

He doesn’t mention that in the same presser Trump made two more damning comments, which would also be a key focus of the Russian investigation. “We’ll be looking” at recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, said Trump. And he claimed he had already “decided not to do” any of the real estate deals he had considered in Russia (a claim belied by Michael Cohen’s later cooperation and therefore Trump’s most damning lie to Mueller). 

Both of these comments were important details in continuing suspicion about Trump. Indeed, Trump’s false claim about real estate deals is critical in understanding why the Michael Cohen allegations in the dossier might be deliberate disinformation, designed to exploit the fact that Russia knew Trump had lied to cover up an election-year contact that Cohen had with the Kremlin. And Trump’s disavowal of ongoing business pursuits was one of the reasons, records from the Michael Sussmann case made clear, that researchers who discovered an anomaly tying a Trump marketing server to Russia’s Alfa Bank latched onto the anomaly. These statements in Trump’s presser were central to what came next, regardless of what facial expression Trump adopted when saying them. But Gerth simply doesn’t mention them, choosing instead to blame much of what followed on a deliberate campaign by Hillary and her aides.

That’s how Gerth crafts his narrative about a Hillary conspiracy theory: ignoring several damning statements – one provably false – that Trump made as well as the efforts Trump’s rat-fucker took to pursue stolen emails that preceded the Brennan briefing. He then rewrites a Russian intelligence product to claim Hillary was affirmatively manufacturing an alliance, when all the Russians said is that she was trying to gin up a scandal about clearly scandalous behavior. And he does so – in a piece lecturing other journalists that they need to be more transparent – without describing either that he’s parroting a Russian line or that the IC won’t vouch for the reliability of the Russian line he’s parroting.


CJR’s Error at Word 18

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

“Wink:” Where Jeff Gerth’s “No There, There” in the Russian Investigation Went

My own disclosure statement

An attempted reconstruction of the articles Gerth includes in his inquiry

A list of the questions I sent to CJR

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth began his series on the press’ Russia investigation failures by noting that trust in the traditional media collapsed after the 2016 election (a claim based on a statistical error), with a sharp rise in concern about “fake news” and, according to Rasmussen, half of those surveyed thinking the press was the enemy of the people.

Before the 2016 election, most Americans trusted the traditional media and the trend was positive, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. The phrase “fake news” was limited to a few reporters and a newly organized social media watchdog. The idea that the media were “enemies of the American people” was voiced only once, just before the election on an obscure podcast, and not by Trump, according to a Nexis search.

Today, the US media has the lowest credibility—26 percent—among forty-six nations, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. In 2021, 83 percent of Americans saw “fake news” as a “problem,” and 56 percent—mostly Republicans and independents—agreed that the media were “truly the enemy of the American people,” according to Rasmussen Reports.

Gerth believes part of the problem stems from an erosion of journalistic norms, which he listed at length in an afterward, starting with the press’ unwillingness to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative.

My main conclusion is that journalism’s primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work. This combination adds to people’s distrust about the media and exacerbates frayed political and social differences.

One traditional journalistic standard that wasn’t always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative.

And in spite of his citation of WaPo’s tracking of the vast number of lies Donald Trump told during his term early in the series, Gerth put great stock in what Donald Trump told him in two interviews, adopting Trump’s attribution of the coverage of Russia for the reality TV star’s decision to start labeling the media, “fake news.”

He made clear that in the early weeks of 2017, after initially hoping to “get along” with the press, he found himself inundated by a wave of Russia-related stories. He then realized that surviving, if not combating, the media was an integral part of his job.

“I realized early on I had two jobs,” he said. “The first was to run the country, and the second was survival. I had to survive: the stories were unbelievably fake.”

This is a critical point: Gerth appears to believe Trump that called the media “fake news” not as part of an effort to manipulate the media or to damage one of the institutions of accountability that might check his power, but instead as part of a good faith response to coverage of him.

From that premise, CJR decided the way to understand the collapse in trust of the media was to focus largely on NYT and WaPo’s performance in their coverage of Russia. 

CJR editor Kyle Pope told me,

What we wanted to do with this piece was focus entirely on the media coverage, without the usual notes about Trump’s failings. Specifically, we wanted to focus largely on the New York Times and the Washington Post, as important leaders of the coverage. This was not intended as a 360-degree roundup of everything written about Trump and Russia.

There are obviously enormous problems with the conception of this project, particularly with media polarization in the US that looks like this (a source Gerth relied on to assess the problem).

Others engaged in the “Russiagate” project correctly recognize the import of cable news in the equation (though most, like Glenn Greenwald, ignore the power of the self-contained bubble around Fox, which doesn’t even attempt to hold itself to standards of truth). In 23,000 words, for example, Gerth never considers whether Fox’s scandalous Seth Rich coverage fostered distrust of the media.

In his series, Gerth spent a great deal of time questioning claims about the impact of Russia’s social media operation in 2016 (which, like many “Russiagate” analysts, he treats as the only possible means by which Russia influenced the election). But he didn’t consider the impact of social media, generally, on this decline in trust, not even in the vast reaches of America where there is no more local news, where news consumers increasingly rely on information fed by algorithms that reward the most inflammatory information, from whatever source.

So even on its own terms, it’s a project designed to fail, because it ignores centrally important parts of the equation.

Worse still, Gerth didn’t even carry out what he claimed to set out to do.

That’s actually one of the reasons I’ve spent so much time dissecting his effort: because the ways in which he claimed to limit his scope, and his deviation from that scope, is itself very telling.

Gerth shows how little WaPo and NYT chased the dossier

Start with his focus on the Steele dossier. The dossier is mentioned or discussed in paragraphs making up over 5,000 words out of Gerth’s 23,000-word series. That’s consistent with the “Russiagate” project, which often treats the dossier as stand-in for the entire Russian investigation (or, here, the coverage of it).

Even regarding the Steele dossier, Gerth’s own summary of their coverage  makes it clear that the NYT and WaPo aren’t the villains of the dossier story. The villains in his account are Michael Isikoff, David Corn, CNN, BuzzFeed, McClatchy, and Jane Mayer.

Gerth struggled to implicate NYT and WaPo in his dossier complaint. He noted that NYT mentioned it, including FBI’s efforts to reach out to its sources, in a February 14, 2017 article he spends  almost 1,000 words attacking.

In the article’s discussion of the dossier, it described Steele as having “a credible track record” and noted the FBI had recently contacted “some” of Steele’s “sources.” Actually, the FBI had recently interviewed Steele’s “primary” source, a Russian working at a Washington think tank, who told them Steele’s reporting was “misstated or exaggerated” and the Russian’s own information was based on “rumor and speculation,” according to notes of the interview released later. The day the Times piece appeared in print, Strzok emailed colleagues and reported that Steele “may not be in a position to judge the reliability” of his network of sources, according to Justice Department documents released in 2020.

But as I note below, the dossier is in no way Gerth’s primary complaint with this article and others in a series of similar reports from NYT.

Gerth also included the dossier in a critique of NYT’s reporting on the Nunes Memo.

At the Times, the coverage of the GOP memo was skeptical while a dueling memo, a few weeks later from the ranking Democrat on the committee, was portrayed more favorably.

The Times, at the start of the piece about the Republican memo, called it “politically charged”; noted, in the next sentence, how it “outraged Democrats”; and did not quote the memo’s allegation of the dossier’s “essential” role in the surveillance. The same day, in a separate piece, the Times again called the GOP memo “politically charged” and quoted the “scathing” criticism by Democrats.

Later that month, the Democrats released their own memo. It said the surveillance warrant “made only narrow use of information from Steele’s sources.” The Times story called it a “forceful rebuttal” to Trump’s complaints about the FBI’s inquiry. In the end, the allegations of abuse by Nunes were confirmed in 2019 when the Inspector General released a report that was a “scathing critique” of the FBI, as the Times told readers at the time.

In a statement to CJR, the Times said: “We stand behind the publication of this story,” referring to its reporting on the Nunes memo.

In doing so, he overstates the extent to which the DOJ IG Report on Carter Page, “confirmed” Nunes’ claims. As I noted in a claim-by-claim assessment after the release of the report, both memos got things wrong and both got things right, and Democrats were right that the dossier was not part of the predication of the Russian investigation. Mostly, though, they were just talking past each other, a problem exacerbated by the secrecy behind which both sides could hide their arguments.

Gerth found a little more to work with in the WaPo.

He made much of the fact that one journalist on a long (and accurate) piece about Trump’s ties to Russia was friends with Glenn Simpson, one of the founders of Fusion GPS, via which the Democrats paid for the Steele dossier.

The lead author of the story, Tom Hamburger, was a former Wall Street Journal reporter who had worked with Simpson; the two were friends, according to Simpson’s book. By 2022, emails between the two from the summer of 2016 surfaced in court records, showing their frequent interactions on Trump-related matters. Hamburger, who recently retired from the Post, declined to comment. The Post also declined to comment on Hamburger’s ties to Fusion.

Here was a tie, Gerth insinuated, that proved journalism collapsed in the face of Hillary’s attempts to push oppo research.

But 1,500 words later in Gerth’s series, he showed that Hamburger pushed back on Fusion tips like the Carter Page one when he couldn’t substantiate them.

[S]ome reporters, aware of the dossier’s Page allegations, had pursued them, but no one had published the details. Hamburger, of the Washington Post, told Simpson the Page allegations were found to be “bullshit” and “impossible” by the paper’s Moscow correspondent, according to court records.

That’s important background to Gerth’s coverage of WaPo’s 2017 story on Sergei Millian

The Post landed a long story about Sergei Millian, a Belarusian-American businessman, on March 29. The top of the piece identified Millian as the source behind the dossier’s most serious allegation, a “well-developed conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, the same ground covered by the Wall Street Journal and ABC in January. The claim that Millian was a key informant whose information was “central to the dossier” was stated without any attribution or sourcing. In 2021 the Post retracted the parts of the story describing Millian as a dossier source after John Durham, a special counsel looking into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigations, indicted Steele’s main source for lying to the FBI. Durham alleged the fact of Millian being a source had been “fabricated.” The Post editor’s note explained that Durham’s indictment “contradicted” information in the March story, and additional reporting in 2021 further “undermined” the account. The Post also deleted parts of a few other stories that repeated the allegation that Millian was a dossier source.

WaPo retracted much of the story after the Danchenko indictment, with this editor’s note:

The original version of this article published on March 29, 2017, said that Sergei Millian was a source for parts of a dossier of unverified allegations against Donald Trump. That account has been contradicted by allegations contained in a federal indictment filed in November 2021 and undermined by further reporting by The Washington Post. As a result, portions of the story and an accompanying video have been removed and the headline has been changed.

The original account was based on two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide sensitive information. One of those people now says the new information “puts in grave doubt that Millian” was a source for parts of the dossier. The other declined to comment.

WaPo’s retraction (like the CNN “reckoning” which Gerth cites approvingly) were themselves problematic, because (as I noted about the CNN piece) they took John Durham’s false statements indictment against Steele’s primary subsource, Igor Danchenko, insinuating — but falling far short of charging — a conspiracy as a source of fact. Worse still, the indictment was obviously problematic. In it, Durham relied on Millian’s claims, made on social media but not to a grand jury, for a key part of his case. After Millian refused to testify at trial, Durham admitted he had little but hearsay to prove his case. 

And as Danchenko attorney Stuart Sears noted at trial, several of Millian’s communications, in which Millian boasted about his ties to Trump, were consistent with Danchenko’s claims about the call he attributed to Millian.

It’s entirely possible it wasn’t Sergei Millian, but even if it was, the caller only said there was coordination between the campaign and Russia and that there was nothing bad about it. Agent Helson told you that. That’s not anti-Trump, and we do know from the government’s own evidence that Millian was at least telling people he was going to meet with Trump campaign people the week before the phone call, the anonymous phone call. 

Gerth cheered retractions based off an indictment alone over three months after a jury acquitted Danchenko of lying about this call, which he told the FBI he believed, but was not certain, came from Millian. 

And Gerth, who complains about transparency, buried that fact: while Gerth emphasized the WaPo and CNN retractions in Part Two of his series, he didn’t get around to informing readers that Igor Danchenko had been acquitted until Part Four, over 9,000 words and two clicks later.

Gerth elsewhere noted that Mueller’s indictments against Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the GRU hackers haven’t been tried, yet when it served his narrative, he applauded these retractions based on an indictment alone.

Meanwhile, Gerth credited WaPo with breaking the news that the Democrats had funded the dossier, which is ample proof that the WaPo wasn’t shielding the project.

Amazingly, Gerth complained that the NYT didn’t retract anything in the wake of the Danchenko indictment, even though he found so little to complain about in the NYT coverage of the dossier and even though, as he describes, WaPo’s Erik Wemple (who might consider whether his own campaign for dossier accountability went too far, in light of the Danchenko acquittal) called out NYT’s Adam Goldman as one of those who approached the dossier responsibly. Gerth even noted that the NYT acknowledged the flimsiness of the dossier’s allegations in real time.

The Times has offered no such retraction, though the paper and other news organizations were quick to highlight the lack of firsthand evidence for many of the dossier’s substantive allegations;

It’s genuinely not clear what Gerth thinks the NYT should retract, a question I posed to Pope that he declined to answer.

And Gerth makes this complaint even though his series was published four days after NYT’s bombshell report of how corrupt the Durham investigation was. Somehow CJR didn’t find time to remove or amend Gerth’s complaints about NYT’s critical reporting on the Durham investigation, including his complaint that Goldman suggested a junket Barr and Durham took to Italy might be chasing a “conspiracy theory,” when the recent NYT report has revealed it was far worse. 

There are other grave problems with Gerth’s treatment of the dossier, all consistent with the ”Russiagate” project more generally. The DOJ IG Report Gerth relies on so heavily laid out abundant reason to suspect that Russia larded the dossier with disinformation, probably with the participation of Manafort associate Oleg Deripaska.

That’s important given the fragments of truth that appear in the dossier. As Durham briefly acknowledged at trial and as I noted in an interview hosted by CJR, the reason Danchenko’s ties to Clinton ally Chuck Dolan were so significant, and led Durham to charge Danchenko for making a “literally true” statement about Dolan to the FBI, was that Dolan established ties between Olga Galkina — the source of the most problematic claims in the dossier, alleging Michael Cohen spoke directly with the Kremlin about election interference — and Dmitri Peskov. The link raises the possibility that someone who knew about Michael Cohen’s January 2016 call to the Kremlin, to Peskov’s office, a call both Cohen and Trump lied to conceal, was behind the dossier allegation that falsely claimed Cohen had other contacts with the Kremlin. Peskov knew that Cohen and Trump were lying to hide that earlier contact, which made the later false allegation more powerful.

Other records show that Russia likely used Steele for a functional role in their operation. In spring 2016, Deripaska is believed to have been the client who hired Steele for intelligence collection targeting Paul Manafort. Then Deripaska used Steele as part of a brutal double game with Manafort. Essentially, Deripaska used the former British spy’s association with the FBI to increase Manafort’s legal vulnerability while he had Kilimnik exploit Manafort’s financial vulnerability, all of which made it easier to obtain inside information on the Trump campaign at the August 2 meeting. 

And, in a story about the dossier that Gerth doesn’t mention, Manafort came back from what we now know to be a meeting with a Deripaska associate and told Reince Priebus to focus on the dossier’s inaccuracies as pushback on the Russian investigation. That is, the focus on the dossier as a substitute for Trump’s real Russian ties seems to have become part of Russia’s plan, if it wasn’t from the start. If the dossier was deliberate disinformation — and the Republican members of Congress who investigated that document insist it was — then it must be considered part of Russia’s attack on US democracy –  in which Gerth and other “Russiagate” participants are enthusiastic participants.

Polarization and trust in the media lie at the center of Gerth’s project. Yet he failed to consider how the dossier, not the coverage of it, might be a key driving factor in polarization. That makes his project part of the problem.

Gerth’s selective coverage of NYT and WaPo’s Pulitzer-winning journalism

Even while Gerth failed to significantly implicate NYT and WaPo in what he portrays as the gravest journalistic crime in Russian coverage, hyping the Steele dossier, he also ignored key parts of their coverage.

For example, he didn’t acknowledge that WaPo reported on Carter Page’s inflammatory comments in Moscow weeks before Steele did. Much of the focus on Page subsequent to WaPo’s report was based on this public source, not the dossier. It’s one of many events that the press covered for its real news value that Gerth, in his own narrative, suggests could only have happened with Hillary’s intervention.

Gerth also ignored large swaths of NYT and WaPo’s award-winning journalism on Russia, although he covered Trump’s attack on that reporting in the third installment of his series. 

NYT won a Pulitzer in 2017 for ten Russia-related articles and NYT and WaPo shared a prize for a combined 20 stories on the Russian investigation in 2018. Trump has sued the Pulitzer Board for defamation relating to the 2018 award. In his coverage, Gerth suggests that Trump’s lawsuit against the Pulitzer Board  for those awards has merit.

Best as I’ve been able to reconstruct, this page lists the newspaper coverage mentioned in Gerth’s series (in numerous ways, CJR’s decision not to link the media Gerth claimed to discuss made it very difficult to assess his claims, and I made one error in my questions to CJR as a result). The page also lists, at the end, some key stories that Gerth did not address. Those with asterisks — both in the stuff he covered and the stuff he did not — were part of the Pulitzer packages for which NYT and WaPo won prizes.

Gerth included just one of the stories for which NYT won a Pulitzer in 2017, the Manafort secret ledger story (the same story,  as Fusion GPS revealed after Barry Meier attacked them in a book, for which Fusion provided research).

But he ignored the rest. 

That had the effect of hiding the general background on Russia’s international assault on its opponents that NYT, as an institution, would have brought into its coverage of Trump’s suspected ties to the Kremlin in 2017: stories about Russia hunting down its enemies in other countries, Russia’s use of disinformation, the elite hackers Russia was recruiting, and Russia’s cultivation of the far right.

Gerth also ignored two stories that were specifically on point to his project: A September 2016 story revealing how often Julian Assange’s Wikileaks releases served Russia’s political  interests (I raised some concerns about the piece here), and a December 2016 epic that described the Russian hack-and-leak from the DNC perspective (I pointed out the DNC’s changing story about being warned by the FBI here). The DNC story should be particularly important to Gerth’s project because it explicitly made the comparison with the Watergate burglary in 1972 that Gerth complains about in his series. It also provided a great deal of information, much publicly available, backing the hack-and-leak attribution to Russia – an attribution that Gerth claims remains “far from definitive.”

I asked Pope why the Assange and the DNC hack stories weren’t included in the series. He pointed to coverage of other NYT stories as proof CJR wasn’t ignoring the (2017, not 2018) Pulitzer stories.

Do you think it fair to ignore all the stories for which WaPo and NYT did get Pulitzers, including the 2017 ones on WikiLeaks and the DNC hack?

We didn’t ignore them. From the piece: “For the Times, Trump’s mess was a pot of gold: two of the Times stories about the meeting and the emails were part of its winning Pulitzer Prize package.

And … “But before that omission, the Times exposed another piece of the FBI’s Russia puzzle. The paper landed a major story at the end of the year, in time to be included in its Pulitzer package that ultimately shared the prize for national reporting.”

But there were a bunch of Pulitzer winners Gerth left out whose omission is still more problematic, particularly given his suggestion that the entirety of the press’ early 2017 focus on Russia in Trump’s administration stemmed from the publication of the dossier.

For example, Gerth barely mentions the coverage of Mike Flynn’s lies and resignation and its central role, starting even before the publication of the dossier, in press coverage in early 2017. He slips discussion of a key David Ignatius column, the first to report on Mike Flynn’s calls with Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak, in between his references to the dossier.

The WSJ and the Times stories were not well received by Fusion. At first, they feared for Steele’s safety. Then they felt the Times’ behavior was “improper,” because it had “unilaterally” published material “it had learned off the record,” the founders wrote in their book.

Hours after the Times story ran, the Post upped the temperature on Russia even more. Columnist David Ignatius disclosed that incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn had phoned Russia’s US ambassador “several times” at the end of the year, according to “a senior US government official.” Ignatius noted the talks had come on the day the Obama administration had expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation for the country’s hacking activities, so he questioned whether Flynn had “violated” the spirit of an “unenforced” law barring US citizens from trying to resolve “disputes.”

Ignatius went on to write that it might be a “good thing” if Trump’s team was trying to de-escalate the situation. But Ignatius didn’t know the substance of the conversations. Hours before his story went online, Ignatius appeared on MSNBC and, while not disclosing his upcoming Flynn exclusive, said “it was hard to argue” against the need to “improve relations with Russia.”

The existence of Flynn’s talks with the ambassador was known by Adam Entous, a reporter then at the Post, but he held off writing anything because the mere fact of a contact wasn’t enough to justify a story. “It could have been something innocent,” Entous, now with the Times, said in an interview, “something he would be praised for.”

On the heels of the Ignatius column, the FBI’s “investigative tempo increased,” according to FBI records, and the Senate intelligence panel announced an inquiry into Russia’s election activities. (The House Intelligence Committee announced a similar effort later that month.)

Two days after the Senate announcement, Bob Woodward, appearing on Fox News, called the dossier a “garbage document” that “never should have” been part of an intelligence briefing.

But he doesn’t reveal why the FBI’s investigative tempo increased in the wake of Ignatius’ column. 

Stories that the WaPo published that he ignored did. A Pulitzer-winning WaPo report published the same day revealed that Flynn was denying he had discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador, the first of many compromising lies Trump’s associates told in the early days of his Administration. Flynn’s lies (as Mueller confirmed in his congressional testimony) created the risk that he could be blackmailed, which led the FBI and DOJ to respond more aggressively than they otherwise might have. Another Pulitzer-winning WaPo story explained all that on the day Flynn resigned. 

Later in the spring, a Pulitzer-winning NYT report revealed that Trump knew Flynn was under investigation for his secret relationship with Türkiye even before the president appointed him to be National Security Adviser. Gerth’s silence about all these stories is particularly damning, given that he later gets a key detail about Flynn’s prosecution wrong, which I’ll return to.

Other award-winning stories revealed still more Russian ties that Trump and his associates were trying to hide. A March story from WaPo — yet another Pulitzer winner — revealed that Jeff Sessions had failed to disclose some interactions with Sergey Kislyak, the same ambassador  with whom Flynn was undermining Obama foreign policy during the transition. An April Pulitzer-winning story from the NYT revealed that Jared Kushner had omitted transition period meetings with Russians — not just Kislyak, but also the head of a sanctioned bank — in his security clearance paperwork.

While Gerth may have mentioned a May article for which NYT won a Pulitzer, if he did, he did so only as part of his complaint that the NYT repeatedly referred to the line from Trump’s interview with Lester Holt in which he referred to “the Russian thing” in his explanation for firing Comey.

A tweet from the show on May 11 set the narrative for the Holt interview: “Trump on firing Comey: ‘I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’” Those few words, by suggesting Comey’s firing was aimed at getting the FBI inquiry off his back, provided fresh ammunition to anti-Trumpers.

The full interview, which was available online, presented a more nuanced story, and appeared to reflect what his advisers told him: firing Comey could prolong, not end, the investigation. Trump told Holt, soon after the controversial words, that the firing “might even lengthen out the investigation” and he expected the FBI “to continue the investigation,” to do it “properly,” and “to get to the bottom.”

The media focused on the “Russia thing” quote; the New York Times did five stories over the next week citing the “Russia thing” remarks but leaving out the fuller context.

But Gerth’s account elided the entire reason Trump’s NBC quote was used in that particular NYT article: because Trump told Kislyak and Sergey Lavrov roughly the same thing, privately, on the same day.

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Mr. Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”

Gerth doesn’t address the real concerns presented by Trump privately bragging about firing the FBI director – in charge of counterintelligence – to his Russian visitors.

Indeed, given Gerth’s focus on Trump’s use of “fake news,” he might have at least mentioned the last lines of the NYT story:

At one point, Mr. Trump jokingly asked whether there were reporters in the room.

“No,” Mr. Lavrov said. “No fake media.”

Whether you think that Trump’s adoption of the term “fake news” was merited or not, the answer to Trump’s question, “Russia, if you’re listening,” was yes, they were.

Gerth also appears to have paid no attention to a Pulitzer-winner from WaPo written in the same time frame, revealing that Trump shared highly classified Israeli intelligence with his Russian visitors in the same meeting, another cause for concern that Gerth simply makes disappear. 

Those aren’t the only damning stories Gerth ignored. As Pope emphasized to me, Gerth credited NYT for two of three Pulitzer-winning stories on the June 9 meeting that Don Jr took with a Russian lawyer in hopes of acquiring dirt on Hillary– the July 10 one revealing that Don Jr took a meeting with Russians offering dirt, and the July 11 one revealing Don Jr’s enthusiastic response. But I don’t believe he credited the WaPo for their July 31 Pulitzer-winning story revealing that Trump drafted Don Jr’s misleading statement, claiming a meeting about dirt on Hillary and sanctions relief was about adoption.

The omission is really telling given Gerth’s take on a July 19 story from the NYT (which did not win a prize). In an interview with three NYT reporters, Trump successfully got the NYT to participate in his efforts to obstruct the investigation by airing his threats to fire Jeff Sessions (he had asked Corey Lewandowski to fire Jeff Sessions on the same day). In the interview, Trump also confirmed that he and Putin spoke about the topic of his misleading statement before drafting it, meaning adoptions. But Gerth deemed that interview important primarily because Mike Schmidt asked Trump about the dossier.

A week after the Trump Tower story, the president conducted a serendipitous interview with three Times reporters, including Schmidt, who asked if Comey’s sharing of the dossier with Trump before his inauguration was “leverage.” Trump replied, “Yeah, I think so, in retrospect.”

After the Oval Office sit-down, an aide, worried about the possibility of repercussions from an impromptu interview, sought Trump’s reaction.

“I loved that,” the aide, who requested anonymity, recalled him saying. “It was better than therapy. I’ve never done therapy, but this was better.”

This is a fairly astounding view on the relative newsworthiness of the interview — I’ve pointed out the importance, to Trump’s obstructive purpose, of NYT’s decision to bury the Putin tie rather than dedicate an entire story to it. It’s also a prime example of how the unrelenting focus on the dossier by “Russiagate” adherents diverts attention from far more damning events, both creating in that unrelenting focus the narrative they claim to combat, and in the process burying the real events that “Russiagate” adherents claim could only come as part of a manufactured narrative.

I asked CJR, “Why do you believe a comment on the dossier was more important than a scoop substantiating Trump’s problematic ties to Putin?” but it was another of the questions the magazine’s editor declined to answer.

There are more Pulitzer winners that Gerth left out, including a WaPo story describing both Trump’s refusal to take steps to protect American democracy from Russian interference…

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

Rather than search for ways to deter Kremlin attacks or safeguard U.S. elections, Trump has waged his own campaign to discredit the case that Russia poses any threat and he has resisted or attempted to roll back efforts to hold Moscow to account.

… As well as Russia’s assessment of the “staggering return”  achieved by their interference operation.

U.S. officials said that a stream of intelligence from sources inside the Russian government indicates that Putin and his lieutenants regard the 2016 “active measures” campaign — as the Russians describe such covert propaganda operations — as a resounding, if incomplete, success.

Moscow has not achieved some its most narrow and immediate goals. The annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has not been recognized. Sanctions imposed for Russian intervention in Ukraine remain in place. Additional penalties have been mandated by Congress. And a wave of diplomatic retaliation has cost Russia access to additional diplomatic facilities, including its San Francisco consulate.

But overall, U.S. officials said, the Kremlin believes it got a staggering return on an operation that by some estimates cost less than $500,000 to execute and was organized around two main objectives — destabilizing U.S. democracy and preventing Hillary Clinton, who is despised by Putin, from reaching the White House.

The bottom line for Putin, said one U.S. official briefed on the stream of post-election intelligence, is that the operation was “more than worth the effort.”

But the stories from the first half of 2017 that Gerth left out are key. They not only reveal the real reason that the FBI investigation picked up in early 2017, they also show that a great deal of important journalism provided abundant reason to be concerned about all the secrets about Russia that Trump and his aides were keeping, independent of the dossier.

The contacts with Russian spies that were later confirmed

That focus – the ties with Russia that Trump, his National Security Adviser, his Attorney General, and his son-in-law failed to disclose – makes Gerth’s chief complaint about the NYT coverage look very different.

He appears especially peeved over a series of NYT stories in this same time period that described the sheer number of contacts that investigators were discovering with various Russians described by the paper as intelligence officers.

Gerth’s critique relies heavily on a Peter Strzok annotation of the February 14 story that Strzok shared with top FBI officials (parts of which, detailing how few call records the investigation had yet obtained, explain why early reports Gerth points to to make claims about the investigation, including one from James Clapper, are meaningless). It is absolutely true that Strzok found no basis for the NYT to claim that the Russians with whom Trump and his aides were in contact were Russian spies. 

Gerth also reviews how Comey disavowed such reports in his public testimony to Congress, with support from Devin Nunes.

That section of the series, covering all four stories, is over 2,500 words long.

As Gerth described it, when NYT has been challenged on these stories, they’ve stood by them. I share Gerth’s curiosity regarding NYT’s sources for the stories, but like Gerth himself, the NYT is not about to share their sources. 

It’s worth noting, though, that Gerth seems to believe that the US-based three letter agencies (or the Congressional personnel who’ve been briefed by those agencies) referenced in Strzok’s memo are the only possible sources for these stories. We know that at least five other intelligence services — the UK, the Dutch (from whom the US got a great deal of intelligence on the operation), the Spanish, the Ukrainians, and the Israelis — would have had their own views about which foreign interlocutors with Trump aides were spies. We know of a number of witnesses, not in government at all, who told Mueller they believed one or another interlocutor was a spy. We also know of a number of overt spies (such as Emirati ones) who had a role in the international effort to influence Trump. And we know of contacts – like that between Stone and Guccifer 2.0 – that were legitimately viewed as a spy contact when they started to become known around this time.

The clearest error in the NYT series pertains to the claim that an investigation into Stone had already been opened, but that’s an error SSCI seems to have shared, because on March 16,  Senator Richard Burr told Don McGahn the FBI was investigating Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page, and “Greek Guy.”

In the years since, however, the US government has come to believe more of the people known to have been interacting directly with Trump’s aides were Russian spies.

Konstantin Kilimnik — who along with at least two other Deripaska allies have been described as Russian agents in official US documents — is a particularly important one, given Gerth’s complaints that the NYT didn’t call Kilimnik for comment when the record shows they did (including in the March 3 one).

Gerth’s claims about the evidence that Kilimnik was a spy were nothing short of fanciful, including a perennial “Russiagate” favorite — which he credits to John Solomon’s scoop, from a period when Solomon was part of Rudy Giuliani’s outreach to people like Dmitry Firtash – that Kilimnik had been a source for the State Department.

As for Kilimnik possibly being a Russian spy, the only known official inquiry, by Ukraine in 2016, didn’t result in charges. More recent claims that he worked for the Russians, by the Senate intelligence panel in 2020 and the Treasury Department in 2021, offered no evidence. Conversely, there are FBI and State Department documents showing Kilimnik was a “sensitive source” for the latter. (The documents were disclosed a few years ago by John Solomon, founder of the Just the News website. Kilimnik, in an email to me, confirmed his ties with State.)

One primary objective of most spies, of course, is to infiltrate the agencies of other governments.

I asked CJR why Gerth claimed SSCI had no evidence against Kilimnik when their section substantiating their assessment about Kilimnik includes 16 bullet points, over half redacted, and they also included a separate 5-page, largely redacted section showing more fragmentary evidence that Kilimnik had a role in the hack-and-leak. I also asked why Gerth thought the FBI, under Trump, would have issued a $250,000 reward for Kilimnik’s arrest.

Those questions also went unanswered.

So the NYT may well have been ahead of the FBI’s assessment in spring 2017 (and their report that Stone was already part of the investigation has been shown to be wrong). But those reports really aren’t ahead of what the US intelligence community says they have since corroborated. Moreover, many of the Pulitzer stories that Gerth doesn’t mention show that Trump and his associates were aggressively lying to hide their ties to Russians or their interlocutors, and criminally so, in the case of Flynn and George Papadopoulos (and, ultimately, Michael Cohen and Roger Stone, too). That background — the lies that Flynn and Sessions and Kushner were telling about their Russian ties — is important background to these stories Gerth hates, yet he makes no mention of them.

Gerth’s main remaining gripe about the WaPo is even more remarkable. He spent six paragraphs on the WaPo’s scoop reporting the FISA order targeting Carter Page.

In early April, the Post story on Page landed, calling the surveillance “the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents. Such contacts are now at the center of an investigation into whether the campaign coordinated with the Russian government to swing the election in Trump’s favor.” It noted Page’s “effusive praise” for Putin and mentioned Schiff’s congressional recitation of the Page allegations in the dossier. Relying on anonymous sources, it gave a vague update on the dossier’s credibility: “some of the information in the dossier had been verified by US intelligence agencies, and some of it hasn’t.”

At the Times, the newsroom was irked about getting beaten by the Post. “Times is angry with us about the WP scoop,” Strzok texted to an FBI colleague, a few days later.

But the Post scoop was incomplete. Its anonymous sources mirrored the FBI’s suspicions but left out the bureau’s missteps and exculpatory evidence, as subsequent investigations revealed. It turns out that the secret surveillance of Page was an effort to bring in heavier artillery to an FBI inquiry that, in the fall of 2016, wasn’t finding any nefarious links, as the Times reported back then. Agents were able to review “emails between Page and members of the Donald J. Trump for President Campaign concerning campaign related matters,” according to an inquiry in 2019 by the Justice Department Inspector General. FBI documents show the surveillance of Page targeted four facilities, two email, one cell, and one Skype.

Still, even with the added surveillance capability, the investigation had not turned up evidence for any possible charges by the date of the Post piece, which came four days after the secret surveillance, called FISA, for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, was renewed for the second time. (Page was never charged.)

The IG review also found that the FISA warrant process was deeply flawed. It relied heavily on the dossier, including the fabricated Millian allegation of a conspiracy, the IG found. Furthermore, the report said the warrants contained seventeen “significant errors and omissions,” such as leaving out exculpatory information about Page, including his previous work for the CIA and comments he made to an undercover FBI informant. And by the time of the Post piece, the dossier’s credibility was collapsing; the FBI knew the CIA called it “internet rumor,” and on its own the FBI “did not find corroboration for Steele’s election reporting,” according to the IG report.

The Post spokesperson, who would only speak on background, said the article on Page was “fair and accurate” and meant to reflect “how deeply the FBI’s suspicions were about Page.” They acknowledged the story was incomplete, noting that “at that time there was a lot that was not publicly known.” [my emphasis]

This passage commits several errors. The FBI targeted Page not because they were looking for heavier artillery. They did so because Page was about to travel internationally and they wanted coverage of that trip. (The FBI consistently described the FISA targeting of Page as “productive” or “fruitful.”) And Bill Barr’s DOJ didn’t withdraw the probable cause claim for Page’s first two FISA orders. The applications against him, which were based in part on his voluntary sharing of non-public information with known Russian intelligence officers, alleged he knowingly aided and abetted foreign spies.

Over time, there would be more than those four facilities, and in fact one main reason FBI submitted the especially problematic June 2017 application was because the FBI wanted to access financial information and two encrypted messaging apps, the latter out of suspicion that Page had destroyed a phone once he discovered he was under investigation.

The FBI also had concerns about Page’s initial denial in a March 16, 2017 interview that he had sought out some Russian official to identify himself as the Male-1 in court filings for one of the Russians trying to recruit him some years earlier.

There was evidence for possible charges; there was evidence when the FBI first opened an investigation into him in April 2016. Just not enough to charge him.

Errors aside, though, Gerth here adopts a fairly remarkable stance. He complains that the WaPo story confirming the FISA targeting did not include all the problems with the FISA applications that wouldn’t be discovered until much later. I spoke with a Congressional Republican who was privy to the applications targeting Page in summer 2018, for example, and even at that point, the person believed there was abundant other evidence against Page, even without any information from Steele. Crazier still, in April 2017 when the WaPo published that scoop, the worst abuse of all identified in the Page applications – the alteration of an email – hadn’t happened yet.

The WaPo would have needed a time machine to meet Gerth’s strictures.

Gerth’s claims that the NYT and WaPo’s reporting was particularly problematic are, with a few exceptions, extraordinarily weak, and that’s before you consider all the Pulitzer articles he simply ignored. But he also ignores some of the more problematic NYT stories, like the NYT decision to bury Trump’s discussion of adoptions with Putin immediately before he wrote a misleading note claiming the June 9 meeting addressed adoptions. Similarly, Gerth had no problem that the NYT not only parroted Bill Barr’s misleading March 24, 2019 letter about the Mueller Report, but ran entire blocks of his letter on the front page. I asked CJR if they had any problem with this article, which misrepresented court filings in the Manafort case to suggest that his sharing of polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik happened in the spring, not during the general election, and involved only Ukrainian oligarchs, not Deripaska; to this day, the article feeds misunderstanding about that allegation. 

That was another question to which I got no answer.

Gerth has plenty of complaints about the NYT — just not about the stories where they erred on the side of downplaying the discoveries of the Russian investigation.

But as I’ll show in my next post, Gerth’s poor framing of his complaints about the NYT coverage doesn’t end there.


CJR’s Error at Word 18

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

“Wink:” Where Jeff Gerth’s “No There, There” in the Russian Investigation Went

My own disclosure statement

An attempted reconstruction of the articles Gerth includes in his inquiry

A list of the questions I sent to CJR

CJR’s Error at Word 18

It took just 18 words into a 23,000-word series complaining about journalistic mistakes in the coverage of the investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia before Jeff Gerth made his first error.

And I’m spotting him the use of “collusion” at word 12.

Columbia Journalism Review published the series, in four parts, last week.

Gerth claimed that, “The end of the long inquiry into whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russia came in July 2019,” when Mueller testified to Congress.

There are multiple ways you might measure the end of the inquiry — on March 22, 2019 when Mueller delivered his report to Bill Barr; on May 29, 2019 when Mueller closed up shop the moment his team secured Andrew Miller’s grand jury testimony; on November 15, 2019, when a jury convicted Roger Stone; or the still undisclosed date when an ongoing investigation into whether Stone conspired to hack with Russia ended (a September 2018 warrant to Twitter seeking evidence of conspiracy, hacking, and Foreign Agent crimes, which was originally sealed in its entirety to hide from Stone the full scope of the investigation into him, was still largely sealed in April 2020).

None of those events happened in July 2019.

Gerth appears not to know about the ongoing investigation into Stone. He doesn’t mention it. He barely mentions Stone at all, just 205 words out of 23,000, or less than 1% of the entire series.

Trump also commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, a Trump associate, who was convicted on false-statement and obstruction charges related to his efforts in 2016 to serve as an intermediary between the campaign and WikiLeaks. Mueller “failed to resolve” the question of whether Stone had “directly communicated” with Julian Assange, the site’s founder, before the election, according to the Times.

In 2020, the 966-page report by the Senate intelligence panel went a little further. It said that WikiLeaks “very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort” when it acquired and made public in 2016 emails from the DNC. A few months after the report was released, new information surfaced showing why the special counsel, with greater investigative powers than the Senate panel, couldn’t bring a case. The newly unredacted documents were obtained by BuzzFeed, via a Freedom of Information Act request. The Mueller team, the documents show, determined that while Russian hacking efforts were underway at the time of the releases by WikiLeaks in July 2016, “the Office did not develop sufficient admissible evidence that WikiLeaks knew of—or even was willfully blind to—that fact.” The Senate report also suggests Stone had greater involvement with the dissemination of hacked material released by WikiLeaks.

And those 205 words include mention of the WikiLeaks disclosure that came out in the same FOIA release that disclosed the referral of a conspiracy investigation involving Stone, so unlike other journalists who don’t know about the once-ongoing investigation into Stone (which is virtually all of them), Gerth should know about the Stone detail. He explicitly cites the FOIA release that first confirmed it.

On the one hand, this is an obscure detail, one few besides me have reported. On the other hand, the fact that DOJ was continuing to investigate Roger Stone for conspiring with Russia at such time as Barr was loudly and inaccurately making claims about the Mueller investigation is not only a critical detail for someone assessing the press coverage of the investigation, but it also undermines the entire premise of Gerth’s series.

Gerth seems to think that the fact that Mueller didn’t charge conspiracy has some bearing on the merit of reporting on Trump’s ties to Russia. Mueller did prove, via three guilty pleas, a judge’s order, and a jury verdict, that Trump’s foreign policy advisor, his National Security Adviser, his personal lawyer, his campaign manager, and his rat-fucker were lying to hide their ties to the Russian operation, which Gerth only mentions serially over the course of the piece. But because Mueller developed evidence of, but did not charge, a conspiracy, Gerth treats the abundant inappropriate ties between Trump’s team and the Russian operation as a conspiracy theory invented by Hillary Clinton.

And for that reason, along with the suffocating number of other errors and misrepresentations, this series is more a symptom of what Gerth claims to combat, the degree to which coverage of the Russian investigation has been swamped by tribalist takes that only serve to increase polarization, rather than the cure he fancifully imagines he is offering. Indeed, I made the effort to wade through Gerth’s interminable series in significant part because it is such a delightful exemplar of everything “Russiagate,” that frenzy of screen-cap driven claims about a complex investigation chased by self-imagined contrarians who weren’t actually engaged in journalism. It replicates so many of the claims, and in some cases, the legal and factual errors that “Russiagate” propagandists have, that my list of questions for CJR might serve as a source document for others to understand what’s in the actual record.

CJR, when asked about the error at word 18, claimed it is not one. “On what basis did you say the inquiry into Trump and Russia ended in July 2019?” I asked.

CJR editor Kyle Pope responded with word games, then a claim that the piece had fairly represented Mueller’s testimony.

The story did not say that. It reads, “The end of the long inquiry into whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russia came in July 2019, when Robert Mueller III, the special counsel, took seven, sometimes painful, hours to essentially say no.”

It didn’t say the inquiry into “Trump and Russia ended,” it said the inquiry “into whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russia.” It also said Mueller “essentially” said “no” to that line of inquiry. That’s a fair characterization of his testimony.

Never mind that’s not a “fair characterization of his testimony.” Mueller did agree with Ken Buck that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump with conspiracy.

BUCK: OK. You recommended declining prosecution of President Trump and anyone associated with his campaign because there was insufficient evidence to convict for a charge of conspiracy with Russian interference in the 2016 election. Is that fair?

MUELLER:That’s fair.

He also stated that not charging a conspiracy doesn’t mean the investigation didn’t find evidence of one (elsewhere, Gerth conflates not charging someone, like Carter Page, with not “turn[ing] up evidence for any possible charges”).

[Peter] WELCH: But making that decision does not mean your investigation failed to turn up evidence of conspiracy.

MUELLER: Absolutely correct.

But Mueller spent a great deal of time explaining that “collusion” is not a crime, that conspiracy and “collusion” weren’t even the same in a colloquial sense.

[Doug] COLLINS:In the colloquial context, known public context, collusion — collusion and conspiracy are essentially synonymous terms, correct?


See? I was being generous for spotting Gerth with his error at word 12!

Mueller specifically stated Trump could be charged with obstruction after he left office.

BUCK: You believe that he committed — you could charge the president of the United States with obstruction of justice after he left office.


BUCK:Ethically, under the ethical standards.

MUELLER: Well I am — I’m not certain because I haven’t looked at the ethical standards, but the OLC opinion says that the prosecutor while he cannot bring a charge against a sitting president, nonetheless continue the investigation to see if there are any other person to might be drawn into the conspiracy. [Note, other outlets transcribed this response differently, cleaning it up somewhat.]

Mueller likewise made clear that Christopher Steele was beyond his purview (unbeknownst to the public, Barr had already appointed John Durham to conduct the investigation that resulted in the embarrassing acquittal of Igor Danchenko forty months later).

MUELLER: Let me back up a second if I could and say as I’ve said earlier, with regard to Steele, that’s beyond my purview.

In one of his few deviations from short answers, Mueller affirmatively offered up that the counterintelligence investigation necessitated by Mike Flynn’s lies was continuing.

[Raja] KRISHNAMOORTHI: For example, you successfully charged former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn of lying to federal agents about this conversations with Russian officials, correct?

MUELLER: Correct.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Since it was outside the purview of your investigation your report did not address how Flynn’s false statements could pose a national security risk because the Russians knew the falsity of those statements, right?

MUELLER: I cannot get in to that, mainly because there are many elements of the FBI that are looking at different aspects of that issue.


MUELLER: Currently.

Mueller also agreed that his report did not address whether Trump’s lies about the Trump Tower deal (something Gerth downplays in his own series) created a counterintelligence risk.

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you. As you noted in Volume Two of your report, Donald Trump repeated five times in one press conference, Mr. Mueller in 2016 “I have nothing to do with Russia.”

Of course Michael Cohen said Donald Trump was not being truthful, because at this time Trump was attempting to build Trump Tower Moscow. Your report does not address whether Donald Trump was compromised in any way because of any potential false statements that he made about Trump Tower Moscow, correct?

MUELLER: I think that’s right — I think that’s right.

Not only was Gerth’s claim about “collusion” a totally inaccurate representation of Mueller’s testimony, but the date of the testimony did not mark, in any way, one of several known milestones of the legal investigation. Mueller’s testimony only marks the end if you’re treating a legal investigation, with those obvious legal milestones, as instead some kind of figure of speech. A narrative.

When I pointed all this out, Pope still stood by his word games about the claim.

I’ll let my earlier note stand.

This is more than just a quibble about word choice. Gerth and Pope have adopted a key rhetorical move of the “Russiagate” project they claim to be assessing.

In an editor’s note explaining CJR’s unapologetic adoption of the term,“Russiagate,” Kyle Pope described it as if it is a specific, well-recognized narrative.

No narrative did more to shape Trump’s relations with the press than Russiagate. The story, which included the Steele dossier and the Mueller report among other totemic moments, resulted in Pulitzer Prizes as well as embarrassing retractions and damaged careers. [my emphasis]

Somehow, a great number of “totemic moments,” such as the Seth Rich fiasco or the VIPs claims about the exfiltration of DNC documents, never get included in the “Russiagate” project. And that’s important, because by defining “Russiagate” as a narrative, Gerth and Pope walk into the project assuming not that reporting arose from actual facts, but instead was manufactured. In fact, Gerth even blames Hillary for unrelated reporting about things Donald Trump did. This is an attempt to prove Hillary wrong, not an attempt to assess the reporting on a serious criminal investigation.

Perhaps because of that, Gerth suggests – like many “Russiagate” proponents – that the press may only assert a role in political accountability with regards to Trump’s actions on Russia if the inquiry in question first meets a narrow legal measure, the charging of one crime, conspiracy. 

That totally upends the way accountability must work in a democracy, in which a lot of behavior must be subject to critique by the media but may not be a prosecutable crime. 

This series made me think seriously about a more generalized collapse, as the pace of politicized criminal investigations has accelerated since the days Gerth was hyping Whitewater, of those distinctions: an awareness on the part of the press which stories were about political accountability and which were legally accurate journalism covering a criminal investigation. The coverage of the three separate investigations of classified documents at Trump, Biden, and Mike Pence’s homes are being covered by journalists from different beats, which drives at least some of the uneven and at times inaccurate coverage.

But the linguistic games adopted by “Russiagate” advocates – and by Trump, as a defense plan – which treated “collusion” as “conspiracy” and dismissed everything Trump did that was not charged as conspiracy, disserved the public. Those word games conflate political accountability with legal accountability. Indeed, it flipped those things, suggesting that short of a crime, the public and the press had no business to demand political accountability for really scandalous behavior from Trump.  

These word games are a perfectly fine hobby for angry men posting screen caps on Twitter and they worked spectacularly well to distract from Trump’s own actions. But they deliberately serve to obfuscate, an approach that should have no place in journalism and media criticism. As we’ll see, that sloppiness carried over, on Gerth’s part, to virtually all aspects of his project.

That’s why I’ve spent far too long unpacking it: the failures of his project show the failures of “Russiagate” – the blind spots it adopts, the ethical lapses, and even the factual mistakes. In addition to a post on each of these topics, I’ve included three related documents as well:


CJR’s Error at Word 18

The Blind Spots of CJR’s “Russiagate” [sic] Narrative

Jeff Gerth’s Undisclosed Dissemination of Russian Intelligence Product

Jeff Gerth Declares No There, Where He Never Checked

“Wink:” Where Jeff Gerth’s “No There, There” in the Russian Investigation Went

My own disclosure statement

An attempted reconstruction of the articles Gerth includes in his inquiry

A list of the questions I sent to CJR