Another leak about President Trump, supposedly from federal prosecutors, and another media freakout.
This one was different from the earlier ones in its seriousness. Two reporters from BuzzFeed, citing two anonymous law enforcement officials, reported that Trump had instructed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, or at least that this accusation had been passed on to special counsel Robert Mueller.
In a late Friday night news dump 24 hours after this “scoop,” Mueller released a statement that the whole thing was a big hoax — “not accurate.”
We had drafted an editorial warning people to exercise caution about this big story. Given the media track record under Trump, we didn’t need to be fortune tellers to issue this warning. But for so many journalists, whose loathing of Trump has become an obstacle to their professional credibility, this story was just too good to check. People kept believing in it, wanting to believe it, even after the two reporters behind the story gave conflicting accounts of whether they’d seen the documents in question.
On Thursday evening, cable news talking heads were already discussing Trump’s impending impeachment. DNC Chairman Tom Perez sent a fundraising email accusing Trump of “PERJURY” in all caps in the subject line.
Their certainty, and their barely contained glee, should be deeply embarrassing to them all now. And the deflation of this bogus scoop leaves the conspiracy theorists back at square one.
Their December narrative centered on hush-money payments Trump made to a porn star and a nude model with whom he had allegedly cheated on his wife. The supposedly impeachable offense in this tawdry episode was that he paid out the money from private funds rather than his campaign coffers. This charge was always too clever by half. Another presidential candidate, John Edwards, once defended a similar payout, arguing that he had made it to protect his family and his personal reputation.
Another, earlier line of attack had to do with the firing of FBI Director James Comey. As dumb as Trump’s behavior in this regard may have been, it is highly doubtful that this could constitute obstruction of justice in any context we can imagine.
The longest-running line leading to Trump’s impeachment has involved the ominous and undefined idea of “collusion” with Russia. On its own, “collusion” isn’t even an actual crime, but there was always at least an outside chance that it involved some kind of real, prosecutable offense, especially if finances were involved.
In this case, however, Trump was finally being accused of something unambiguously illegal. Lying to Congress is a crime, and telling someone to lie to Congress can be obstruction of justice. Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, had written as much in a memo. Finally, Trump wasn’t going to get out of this one.
Or was he?
Reporters and commentators should have suspected this could blow up. Recall the dossier BuzzFeed fed us, which is still uncorroborated. Recall ABC’s report about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, which sent markets tanking — and which also turned out to be false. One of the BuzzFeed reporters involved in this story has a history of fabulism.
This should be a lesson about jumping the gun on Mueller’s work. At some point soon, the special counsel and other federal prosecutors will wrap up their investigations. We’ll get to see the documents that the reporters either saw or didn’t see. We’ll get sworn statements from agents instead of selective leaks from anonymous sources.
Until then, we’ll be holding our fire.