Even by the dramatic standards of the Mueller investigation, it was a bombshell moment when, on Tuesday, The Guardian’s Luke Harding and Dan Collyns reported that Paul Manafort met repeatedly with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy, including around the time Manafort became chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. With the special counsel’s recent focus around the Trump campaign’s ties to WikiLeaks—looking, specifically, at the latter’s dump of internal Democratic Party emails procured from Russian hackers—The Guardian’s story introduced a huge new lead (and one that other reporters believe was not previously on Mueller’s radar).
Both Manafort and WikiLeaks strongly denied that the meetings took place. Manafort called The Guardian’s story “deliberately libelous” and said he was weighing his legal options. WikiLeaks, meanwhile, tweeted that it was willing to bet The Guardian a million dollars and “its editors head” that the paper was wrong, then started to crowdfund a lawsuit (as of this morning, it posted $33,000 in donations). No other news outlet has yet been able to confirm The Guardian’s reporting.
It’s not unusual for aggrieved subjects to push back—and while the denials had a noteworthy vehemence, that sentiment was arguably proportionate to the severity of The Guardian’s charges. Credible observers with no skin in the game—for example, the national security blogger Marcy Wheeler—however, also expressed skepticism. In a statement yesterday, The Guardian sought to shore up its story, stressing that it relied on a number of sources and that neither Manafort nor Assange had issued denials prior to publication. The statement could have been stronger, however: “Noticeably missing [was] a line stating that The Guardian is confident in the accuracy of its story,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted on Twitter.
The controversy took another weird turn yesterday as Politico published an article by “Alex Finley,” who was identified, at the bottom of the post, as a former CIA officer writing under a pseudonym. “Finley” suggests, without citing any real evidence, that malicious actors—Russia, perhaps—may have fabricated the Manafort–Assange story, then planted it to discredit The Guardian in general and Harding, who has written widely on potential Russian collusion in the 2016 election, in particular.
“Finley’s” article should be taken with a mountain of salt (if taken at all). Nonetheless, in a roundabout way it gets to the heart of a knotty problem for reporters. The Mueller beat has always been characterized by uncertainty: even excellent reporting has relied on a very incomplete picture. And what we do know sits within a vipers’ nest of double-crossing and deception. Just before The Guardian story broke this week, Mueller’s team alleged that Manafort lied to them after striking a deal to help them; then it emerged that Manafort’s lawyer had repeatedly contacted Trump’s legal team during that period of cooperation. Manafort is angling for a presidential pardon, some speculated. Yesterday, in an interview with the New York Post, Trump refused to rule that out.
Only time will tell if The Guardian successfully navigated this thicket of lies. For the time being, its story should at least be taken seriously, despite legitimate doubt. Just because other outlets can’t verify it does not make it untrue, as New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt noted eloquently on his paper’s podcast, The Daily, yesterday. “We’re at a stage in the Mueller–Trump story where we’re sort of looking to see whether there is another shoe to drop,” Schmidt says. “Whether there is another big story here that moves the narrative forward, or if we simply know as much as we’re going to know.”
Below, more on Mueller’s deepening probe:
- “The biggest get this year”? On Tuesday, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo had a useful write-through of The Guardian’s scoop and the mixed reaction it provoked.
- Receipts, part I: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald emerged as a leading skeptic of the story, writing on Tuesday that evidence of the alleged Manafort–Assange meetings should be easy to come by—if they actually happened. “London itself is one of the world’s most surveilled, if not the most surveilled, cities,” Greenwald writes. “And the Ecuadorian Embassy in that city—for obvious reasons—is one of the most scrutinized, surveilled, monitored and filmed locations on the planet.” Yesterday, meanwhile, Greenwald ripped Politico’s piece on Twitter, calling it a “fraud.”
- Receipts, part II: CNN’s Dana Bash, Kara Scannell, and Evan Perez scooped yesterday that Trump told Mueller, in written responses, that he did not have prior knowledge of WikiLeaks’s email dump, nor of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving his son, Donald Trump Jr.; campaign officials; and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
- A complicated case: Earlier this month, prosecutors in the US accidentally revealed that they had prepared to indict Assange. Although details remained hazy, press freedom advocates expressed concern. For CJR, Mathew Ingram explored the threat an indictment might pose to journalism.
Other notable stories:
- Breaking this morning: German police have raided Deutsche Bank’s offices in Frankfurt in connection with revelations laid out in ICIJ’s Panama Papers investigation, The Guardian reports. ICYMI, I embedded in ICIJ’s new investigation, a look at the global medical devices industry, for CJR.
- The Times’s James B. Stewart, Rachel Abrams, and Ellen Gabler have this extraordinary deep dive on former CBS boss Les Moonves, who was pushed out of the network in September after The New Yorker reported that multiple women accused him of sexual misconduct. After the revelations about Harvey Weinstein kickstarted the #MeToo movement in late 2017, Moonves worked to buy the silence of a woman he allegedly assaulted in 1995, the Times reveals. The new reporting could give CBS cause to deny Moonves a $120 million severance package.
- Stellar reporting from the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown, who plowed through a decade of public records to show how Alexander Acosta—then Miami’s top federal prosecutor, now Trump’s labor secretary—cut a deal to staunch an investigation into serial underage sexual abuse by the millionaire Jeffrey Epstein, minimizing Epstein’s punishment in the process. Brown lays out how she broke the story here.
- Kudos, too, to the Idaho Statesman, which was given such worthlessly limited access to a local school visit by Ivanka Trump and Apple CEO Tim Cook that it reported out the media restrictions rather than the event itself. “The Statesman could not ask questions of or talk to Trump and Cook. It could only observe,” the paper’s Cynthia Sewell writes. “Though the Statesman encouraged the White House to allow more [local] media in… None were allowed on school property.”
- It was a similar story thousands of miles away in Scotland, where local daily The National led with a blank front page after being shut out of a press conference with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who is touring the country to sell her Brexit deal.
- China, Turkey, North Korea, and Russia may have tense relations with the US, but you won’t likely hear criticism of Trump in their state media, Politico’s Ben Schreckinger reports. Instead, these outlets “find scapegoats other than Trump himself, including his advisers, the ‘Deep State’ and former President Barack Obama. Or they simply avoid mentioning the president at all, instead complaining about US policy in the abstract.”
- Also for Politico, Jason Schwartz reports on Fox’s continued Twitter boycott. “Tuesday was a red-letter day for Fox News: The launch of Fox Nation, its new subscription streaming service designed to appeal to the most obsessed Fox News fans. And yet, armed with a Twitter feed capable of reaching 18.3 million followers, the network did not tweet a single thing about the launch,” Schwartz writes. “In fact, Fox News hasn’t tweeted since November 8, when it began a silent protest against Twitter after a group of demonstrators posted star host Tucker Carlson’s home address on the social network.”
- Last week, I featured a confessional story by Thrillist’s Kevin Alexander, who wrote that his rave review helped kill a small Oregon burger joint. Yesterday, Willamette Week’s Matthew Singer showed that was not the whole story. The restaurant’s owner, Singer reports, faced mounting legal troubles, including charges for choking his then-wife.
- Grim news out of Mic, where the cancellation of a video deal with Facebook could lead to mass editorial layoffs as soon as today, AdWeek’s Sara Jerde reports. Recode’s Peter Kafka writes that Mic is in talks to sell to Bustle, which would reportedly retain less than half of Mic’s current staff.
- And for CJR, Matthew Kassel explores the striking cover art of Emerging Infectious Diseases, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Since 2001, the journal has published art on the cover of every issue,” Kassel writes. Its aim “was to bear out the connection between art and public health—a connection with a rich history, going back to da Vinci’s famed anatomical studies.”