When the NY Times Helped Trump by Putting the Brakes on the Russian Hacking Story
Talk about strange bedfellows joining forces to produce an unlikely media alliance.
That’s what happened when The New York Times reported on October 31, 2016, that FBI officials had not been able to uncover any evidence that Russian operatives, through allegedly hacking Democratic emails, were trying to help elect Donald Trump.
“Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” read the October 31 Times headline which relied on unnamed “law enforcement officials.”
Acting as an almost unofficial time-out, and one that came with the Times’ seal of approval, the article helped put the media brakes on the unfolding Russian hacking story; the same Russian hacking story that has now morphed into a full-scale Trump scandal.
The message on October 31 from the Times’ sources was unmistakable: There’s no conclusive connection between Trump and the Russians, and the Russians’ efforts were “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.” (Question: How do you not pick sides in a two-person election if you only undermine one of the candidates, the way Russian hackers only undermined the Democrat?)
In fact, pointing to the newspaper’s alleged Democratic leanings, conservative claimed that if even the liberal New York Times determined there was no Trump-Russia story, then it definitely must be true.
“And as far as liberals are concerned, the Democrats are concerned, when the New York Times clears you, you are cleared,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on November 1. “The New York Times carries as much weight as the FBI, and if the New York Times says there’s nothing to see between Trump and Russia and Putin, then there’s nothing to see.”
All across the conservative media landscape, the Times report was held up as putting the Trump-Russia story to bed.
However, to suggest the Times’ influential October 31 report “hasn’t aged well,” as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes recently put it, may be an understatement, as the unfolding hacking scandal continues to gain momentum and more evidence tumbles out regarding claims that Russians were trying to help Trump. (Hayes also correctly recalled that "At the same time the FBI was leaking like a sieve about Clinton, people around it went out of their way to dampen the Putin talk.")
The problems with the Times article are many. First off, Sen. Harry Reid’s spokesman claimed that Reid had been interviewed for the Times’ article, pushed back against its timid premise about there being no connection, and that Reid’s comments were omitted from the story.
More recently, we’ve seen all kinds of information revealed that contradicts the Times’ often-quoted October 31 report. For instance, FBI Director James Comey testified in December that Russia had “hacked into Republican state political campaigns and old email domains of the Republican National Committee,” but did not release information from those hacks. As Reuters pointed out, that allegation “may buttress the U.S. intelligence view that Moscow tried to help Trump against Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign.”
More recently, the BBC reported that “a joint taskforce, which includes the CIA and the FBI, has been investigating allegations that the Russians may have sent money to Mr Trump's organisation or his election campaign.” Also last week, the Guardian reported that FBI investigators were so concerned with a possible Trump-Russia connection that they asked for a foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) warrant to monitor Trump aides during the campaign. (The warrant request was reportedly denied.)
Meanwhile, Britain’s The Independent reported that the former intelligence officer who wrote the recently revealed Trump dossier was frustrated that the FBI had “for months” ignored the information he passed along to the bureau about a possible Trump-Russian connection.
Note that just four weeks after the election, the Times itself reported, “Both intelligence and law enforcement officials agree that there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the Russian hacking was primarily aimed at helping Mr. Trump and damaging his opponent.” (Emphasis added.)
And from NPR: “FBI, CIA Agree That Russia Was Trying To Help Trump Win The Election.”
Here’s the larger context for the Times report and why it was seen as such a game-changer at the time.
On October 31, the FBI was dealing with two breaking news stories that were spinning out of its control and reflecting poorly on Comey.
The bureau was under withering criticism from legal experts, journalists, Democrats, and even some Republicans after Comey inserted insert himself into the final days of the campaign by informing Congress that the FBI was reigniting its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of private email while secretary of state. That last weekend in October the bureau was also battling damaging news stories that suggested its leadership had been slow to respond to the Russian hacking controversy as it pertained to Donald Trump.
Comey’s letter to Congress about the emails was dispatched October 28. In the days that followed, a steady stream of revelations undercut his actions. On October 30, CNN reported that the FBI had known about the new emails for “weeks” before Comey decided to go public with the information just days before the election.
The following day, news outlets reported that Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) had sent Comey a blistering letter , insisting the FBI director was sitting on “‘explosive’ information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisers, and the Russian government.”
That same day, Mother Jones, foreshadowing the news last week about a dossier collected on Trump, reported that, “a former senior intelligence officer for a Western country” had provided to the FBI with “memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump—and that the FBI requested more information from him.”
And that same day, CNBC reported, “FBI Director James Comey argued privately that it was too close to Election Day for the United States government to name Russia as meddling in the U.S. election.”
The contrast was startling: Comey had publicly reinvigorated the Clinton email investigation based on emails the FBI hadn’t even read (the emails turned out to be irrelevant), yet at the same time Comey allegedly sat on new information regarding claims that Trump had ongoing ties with Russia because Comey thought the optics would look bad.
Given all this, the FBI needed a way to stop the public relations bleeding. And late in the day on October 31, the Times provided the respite.
Specifically, the article helped push back on reports Comey didn’t want to go public with any Russian information close to Election Day.
“The reason Comey didn’t announce the existence of this investigation wasn’t because it was it was ‘explosive’ and could impact the election,” announced the conservative site, Hot Air, pointing to the Times article. “It was because the FBI had already figured out it was a dud.”
In other words, FBI PR problem solved. The problems with the Times report, however, were just beginning.