When BuzzFeed reported on January 17 that President Donald Trump ordered his former fixer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about plans for a Trump-branded skyscraper in Moscow, the upstart outlet framed the story as a revelation of historical importance — “the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” — and a vindication for BuzzFeed’s ambitious newsroom.
Unlike other bombshells to emerge from the Russia investigation, this was the first to unambiguously accuse the sitting president of committing such a serious crime — an impeachable offense, many said. And the story’s headline — “President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project” — lacked any caveats or hedges. Moreover, the reporters Anthony Cormier and Jason Leopold said Mueller’s team had documentation showing Trump instructed Cohen to lie.
The story sent Washington into a frenzy. Some Democratic members of Congress started talking about impeachment.
But no other outlet matched the story. A day later, BuzzFeed suddenly found itself on the defensive when the special counsel Robert Mueller publicly challenged the accuracy of the site’s reporting — an extraordinary move from an office that almost always refused to discuss its ongoing investigation.
“BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate,” the statement from Mueller’s office said.
Mueller’s views have not evolved since. In a redacted version of his report about Russian meddling in the 2016 election released on Thursday by the Department of Justice, his team again disputed the claim that Trump directed Cohen to lie on his behalf.
“While there is evidence … that the president knew Cohen provided false testimony to Congress … the evidence to us does not establish the president directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony,” the report said.
The stakes of BuzzFeed’s story were incredibly high — the outlet effectively accused a sitting president of committing a felony while in office. And the story dropped at a pivotal moment in Mueller’s investigation, when accusations of “fake news” against journalists were reaching their highest pitch. (A Pew Research Center survey from 2018 found that only 21% of Americans have a lot of trust in the news media.)
“Whether BuzzFeed’s reporting can stand up to further scrutiny is now at the center of a test of the news media’s credibility,” The New York Times said in January. “President Trump seized on the special counsel’s denial to continue making the case that the press is biased against him. Journalists expressed the worry that a retraction could undermine Americans’ trust in their work.”
Despite Mueller’s report disputing the central thesis of BuzzFeed’s story, Ben Smith, the outlet’s editor in chief, seems reluctant to back down. On Thursday night, just hours after Mueller’s report became public, Smith addressed the obvious contradiction between BuzzFeed’s reporting and Mueller’s conclusion.
“Our sources — federal law enforcement officials — interpreted the evidence Cohen presented as meaning that the president ‘directed’ Cohen to lie,” he wrote in a post for the site. “We now know that Mueller did not.”
But rather than retract the story or issue a correction — as CNN did when it reported in June 2017 that Congress was investigating ties between a Russian investment fund and Trump officials — Smith characterized the post as an “update,” and their original headline still stands.
Smith’s post attempts to reconcile the differences between BuzzFeed’s reporting and Mueller’s report by zeroing in on BuzzFeed’s sources, who remain unnamed, and their apparent failure to correctly interpret Cohen’s evidence. This lends some clarity to how BuzzFeed went about reporting their story, but it also confuses things further.
By all appearances, the original story was, in part, based on Trump Organization documents and testimonies obtained by the special counsel, and Cohen’s subsequent corroboration of their contents with the same office. Cormier and Leopold explicitly told interviewers that at least one of them — Leopold — had seen the documents in the story.
Reporters prize documents because they tend to form the official record within larger entities like the federal government. They’re much less fickle than human sources, who may stop talking or provide inaccurate information. The fact that BuzzFeed employed documents sent a signal that their reporting was legitimate.
In his update, Smith confirmed that Cormier and Leopold relied on certain documents to report their story. However, the documents Smith described are not the same documents described in the January story.
Smith writes, “Our story was based on detailed information from senior law enforcement sources. That reporting included documents — specifically, pages of notes that were taken during an interview of Cohen by the FBI.” The author of the notes, Smith adds, was “one law enforcement source.”
It’s not entirely clear whether the documents Smith referenced in his note were the only documents the reporters used. A BuzzFeed spokesman would say only that the update “speaks for itself” and that it was “not meant to clarify a reporter’s comments to the media,” referring to Leopold’s comments that he had seen documents himself.
But Smith’s note did not refer to any Trump Organization documents supposedly obtained by the special counsel. This is particularly noteworthy because the original story characterized these documents as pivotal: “The special counsel’s office learned about Trump’s directive for Cohen to lie to Congress through interviews with multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization and internal company emails, text messages, and a cache of other documents.”
Cohen eventually told Congress that Trump’s directive to lie came in the form of some sort of informal code that both parties were familiar with. He confirmed Trump did not directly tell him to lie. This also appears to contradict BuzzFeed’s original story, which noted that it was “the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.”
As Margaret Sullivan noted in a February column for The Washington Post, with a bombshell of the magnitude of BuzzFeed’s original story, getting it mostly right isn’t really enough.
“By apparently overstating the case in this story, and by not doing everything possible to get a full response beforehand, BuzzFeed not only inflicted a wound on itself, but it also gave ammunition to those who seek to undermine the journalism that is more important than ever,” she wrote.
In a March interview with The New Yorker, Leopold staunchly defended BuzzFeed’s standards, saying the story was “subject to the highest level of scrutiny.”
“As is all of our high-profile articles,” Leopold said. “It was vetted by multiple editors and lawyers, and we did not publish it until everyone was satisfied that the reporting was rock-solid.”
Cormier and Leopold have been largely silent on the issue since the release of Mueller’s report. And it seems, for now, that their story will remain updated, but not corrected.