The story published Thursday, titled "President Trump directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow Tower project," claims to offer indisputable proof that Trump not only tried to coordinate a deal on the project with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that he did so well after the time he began claiming on the campaign trail not to have business interests in Russia, and then directed Cohen to cover all of that up in his statements to Congress last year.
However, the evidence provided for these claims depends on a shoestring-thin line of sources, and the more questions people ask, the more authors Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier seem at risk of getting egg on their faces.
The centerpiece claim of the article is made "according to two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter." However, when Cormier went on CNN Friday to talk about the story, he was forced to admit, "I've not seen it personally." He then clarified that "the folks we have talked to, two officials we have spoken to, are fully, 100 percent read into that aspect of the special counsel's investigation."
It seems a flimsy basis to make such a damning claim as this, but bigger statements have been made on less. The real problem, though, came when Leopold told MSNBC the same day that "we have seen documents."
Q for @a_cormier_ & @JasonLeopold: I see a (possible) discrepancy. Asked about evidence for your story, Anthony told CNN "I’ve not seen it personally." Jason told MSNBC: "We have seen documents." Did Jason misspeak, or is he referring to documents separate from this story? pic.twitter.com/ZtMlMoSgaI— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) January 18, 2019
Now again, perhaps there is a certain benefit of the doubt to be given, a certain leniency with how statements were worded — except that this isn't the first time Leopold has had his sources questioned. His journalistic career is littered with retractions and false reporting.
In June 2006, Leopold falsely reported that senior George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove had been indicted, and in 2002 Salon was forced to retract a piece by Leopold, saying it couldn't authenticate the article. Columbia Journalism Review called him a "serial fabulist."
CNN's Alisyn Camerota pressed the case about Cormier's partner. Cormier retorted, saying, "My sourcing is rock solid. My sourcing on this goes beyond the two on the record. It's 100 percent. I am the individual who confirmed and verified that I am telling you, our sourcing goes beyond the two I was able to put on the record. We were able to gather information from individuals who know this happened. "
But it would be difficult to imagine an attribution less vague than the ones they have already given that would still identify their sources in some capacity, which again raises the question, as noted by Aaron Maté, a reporter at The Nation.
I'm not questioning their integrity. But I am wondering if you have a response to the apparent discrepancy between @a_cormier_ saying he hasn't seen any of the evidence & @JasonLeopold saying "We have seen documents." Which is right? https://t.co/INKLtCNS0V— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) January 18, 2019
Moreover, Mate points out that the vague source of unspecified "federal law enforcement officers" could refer to a wide range of people, up to and including those involved in the FBI probe headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into alleged collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government. But Mueller hasn't published his findings yet, so do BuzzFeed's sources constitute a leak?
6/ Also, source is "two federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter" — what investigation, the Mueller one? If so, it’s strange that the Mueller team now leaks after being so tight-lipped for 2 years. If not the Mueller team, then who else? pic.twitter.com/3YLcsZnsfI— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) January 18, 2019
"It's a long vein of sources," journalist and author Daniel Lazare told Radio Sputnik's Loud and Clear Friday. "If any of them are weak, the whole story fails." Lazare is also author of three books: "The Frozen Republic," "The Velvet Coup" and "America's Undeclared War."
"We have a reporter who is… factually challenged, we have two anonymous law enforcement officials — we don't know whether they're from the Trump team or someone else — and we have Cohen, and Cohen is extremely unreliable as well. And some of the other parts of his latest story don't make much sense… Cohen says Trump told him to ‘make it happen.' The idea of Trump travelling to Moscow in the middle of the presidential campaign in order to do a real estate deal with Putin strikes me as extremely far-fetched."
"This real estate project, this Trump Tower, seems to have been much ado about nothing. It was a 100-story tower, supposedly, with an Ivanka Trump fitness centre and a $50 million penthouse set aside for Putin himself. But there's zero indication of any reciprocity on the Russian side: Putin's office refused to take Trump's calls. Their only contact with Trump was when [Dmitry] Peskov, Putin's spokesman, delegated an underling to call Cohen to tell them that the president does not get involved in these kinds of deals."
During the 2016 election campaign, Trump denied having any business interests in Russia, meaning Cohen's statements to Congress in October would have obscured the fact that Trump had continued to pursue them for several months after the presidential campaign began. If Trump did, indeed, direct Cohen to lie to Congress, he could be guilty of obstruction of justice — a felony offence.
"So the project went nowhere, it seems to have been a figment of Felix Sater's imagination, and now we have a report that Trump told Cohen to lie to Congress. So there's a whole long chain here; it's not terribly plausible. There's a possibility it could be proved, of course. There's always that possibility," Lazare told host Brian Becker.
"There's a ‘bombshell' announcement every week, it seems," Lazare noted.
"Every week brings a new bombshell; every week the press announce that Mueller has finally gotten Trump, that he's gonna finally step down. Week after week after week, we are bludgeoned by these headlines, and nothing ever happens… We have a chain of unsubstantiated allegations that Trump actually said" that Cohen shouldn't tell Congress about the length of the Trump Tower Moscow negotiations. "We've been down this road before, and they have never panned out. Trump would have been extremely stupid to have told Cohen anything like that, so again, it's possible, but it seems we must be extremely skeptical at this point."
Lazare also emphasized that "Mueller himself has a less-than-sterling record when it comes to veracity," noting that Mueller, as FBI director, helped then-US President George W. Bush "pin 9/11 on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He went before Congress and delivered some of the most outrageously dishonest testimony that any Bush administration official delivered during the entire runup to the 2003 invasion." Lazare noted Mueller's part in covering up "the Saudi role" in the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"Therefore we have a whole string of unreliable sources behind this latest bombshell."