If members of the American media are still wondering why US President Donald Trump gets away with shamelessly calling all media critical of his presidency “fake news,” they need look no further than ABC’s misreporting of a crucial story last Friday.
ABC’s Brian Ross reported the latest supposed bombshell in the never-ending saga over as yet unproven claims of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials to tarnish opponent Hillary Clinton’s image and swing the election in his favor.
Ross incorrectly reported that Gen. Michael Flynn, formerly Trump’s national security adviser, would testify that Trump had directed him to contact Russian officials during the presidential campaign. This would indeed have been a big story, had it been true. ABC later reported, however, that its source – a confidant of Flynn’s – had clarified that Flynn would testify that Trump had directed him to contact Russian officials during the transition period after the election, while Trump was president-elect – not during the campaign, as Ross had first erroneously reported.
There is a world of difference between these two claims, so to mix them up or fail to clarify them with absolute certainty was a huge mistake on ABC’s part. What’s more, the specific contact Trump had ordered Flynn to initiate, according to the source, was about finding ways the US and Russia could work together to fight ISIS and solve the Syrian crisis.
But the channel’s initial and far more sinister version of events sent Russiagaters into gleeful frenzy on Friday afternoon. It was their long-awaited “We got him!” moment. On ABC’s daytime liberal talk show The View, co-host Joy Behar threw her hands up in the air shouting, “Yay!” while her audience erupted into wild applause. She then shouted “Lock them up! Lock them up!” to more cheers. ABC’s tweet corresponding to their huge scoop was retweeted more than 25,000 times before it was deleted. The stock market even briefly tanked on the news.
Perhaps even worse than the mistake, though, was ABC’s initial reaction to it. Instead of immediately retracting the story once it had become clear an error had been made, the channel opted to issue a “clarification” as though the error had been minor or inconsequential.
ABC later upgraded the “clarification” to a “serious error” and admitted that the report had “not been fully vetted.” The channel then suspended Ross for four weeks without pay.
But the gravity of the error should have been immediately clear. As Erik Wemple wrote in the Washington Post: “Never have the stakes been higher for utter factual integrity regarding national politics, and in particular Trump’s ties to Russia.” Wemple later called ABC’s initial lackluster attempt to correct the record, “the most cowardly ‘clarification’ in modern journalism.”
New York Magazine journalist Yashar Ali noted later on Twitter that ABC’s correction only came after a CNN journalist Oliver Darcy asked the network why what Ross had said on air never made it into the channel’s online report. That, Ali said, begs the question: Would ABC have even bothered to correct its on-air mistake if Darcy had not asked them to explain the discrepancy?
Mistakes like this, repeated time and again, particularly where Russia is concerned, are why the public faith and trust in media is at rock bottom. They are why Trump gets away with labeling any reporting he doesn’t like as “fake news.”
Nonetheless, Russiagaters are eager to move past ABC’s mistake and are trying to make Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials during the transition period out to be almost treasonous. In the spotlight now is the Logan Act, an 18th century law which prohibits private American citizens from working with a foreign government against the US. The accusation is that Flynn’s request to Russian officials that Moscow hold off on retaliating against Barack Obama’s December 2016 sanctions amounts to a violation of this law. But there are a few problems with this interpretation.
For one, the law deals with private citizens. It’s unclear that it could apply to someone like Flynn who was a member of a presidential transition team with national security clearance. Flynn surely did not count as a private citizen at that point? In fact, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the Russia investigation, told the New York Times that “the presidential transition guide specifically encourages contact with and outreach to foreign dignitaries.”
The second problem with the Democrats’ attempt to nail Trump with this law is that even one of Obama’s State Department spokespeople, Mark Toner, had told the Associated Press that there was nothing necessarily inappropriate about contact between members of the incoming administration and foreign officials, including Russia. Toner even offered the State Department’s help with such contact – but explicitly said there would be no problem with Trump’s team making that contact on its own.
The third problem with the Logan Act accusation is that no one has been convicted under the law in 200 years. If the Democrats need to resort to using such an obscure law in their attempts to prove Trump colluded with Russia, they are grasping at straws.
Particularly since, as we’ve seen, an incoming administration talking to Russians about working together to solve conflicts can hardly be seen as collusion. Indeed, resorting to something like the Logan Act speaks to how desperate Democrats have become, in the absence of real proof, to pin Trump for collusion.
Here’s what we know: Flynn has acknowledged that he lied to the FBI about the details of calls he made to foreign officials. He has taken a plea deal and is cooperating with the investigation into alleged collusion between Trump and Russia. He will reportedly testify that Trump ordered him to contact Russian officials while he was president-elect.
It is perfectly plausible that Flynn might have some true bombshell to share with investigators and that we might hear about it in due course. But as of yet, we still have no proof that there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow – no matter how much the Russiagate true believers, or ABC News, would like there to be.