Trump is exploiting a journalist's mistake to whitewash his potentially criminal conduct
Former President Donald Trump and his allies tried to use a new correction in the Washington Post on Monday to paper over some of his most egregious conduct after the 2020 election.
Here's what happened. Back in January, the Post reported on a call Trump had with elections investigator Frances Watson in Georgia. Trump had been openly trying to discredit the results of the election and enlist other officials to help him overturn his loss to Joe Biden in key states, including Georgia. The Post reported that when he spoke to the investigator, he told her to "find the fraud" in the Georgia ballots and that it would make her "a national hero."
We now know that's not precisely true — Trump didn't use the words in that quotation, based on a new recording of the call published by the Wall Street Journal. The Post updated the original story with a lengthy correction on Monday, noting that instead Trump told Watson she'd find "dishonesty" in her investigation and that she had "the most important job in the country right now." He also said: "When the right answer comes out, you'll be praised."
It's a good thing the Post and reporter Amy Gardner issued a correction. The recording indicates that Trump did not use the exact quotes the outlet attributed to him. As far as I can tell, no one was demanding the Post issue this correction, and doing it has drawn fire to the outlet, so it wasn't an easy decision to make — but clearly the ethical and responsible one.
In the end, though, the errors don't affect the substance of the original story. Trump's overall message to Watson was the same, even if the precise wording differed from what was reported. He told the investigator what he wants her to find (something he'd already made clear publicly) and suggested she'll be rewarded, at least by the public, if she does so, as a part of his effort to undo a legitimate election. This is corruption, plain and simple. The mistake the Post and Gardner made was taking the source — described as "an individual briefed on the call" — too literally when describing Trump's words, and using the source to put words directly in Trump's mouth. This is incredibly common in journalism but should probably be avoided in most instances. Recalling exact wording of conversations is surprisingly difficult, as anyone who transcribes recordings knows, and reporters shouldn't rely on sources for verbatim recounts of others' words unless there's corroborating evidence or the uncertainty is made clear.
Trump and his allies have seized on this mistake by the Post and blown it entirely out of proportion, using it to rewrite the history of a saga that is undeniably damning for the president. In a statement, the former president said:
The Washington Post just issued a correction as to the contents of the incorrectly reported phone call I had with respect to voter fraud in the Great State of Georgia. While I appreciate the Washington Post's correction, which immediately makes the Georgia Witch Hunt a nonstory, the original story was a Hoax, right from the very beginning. I would further appreciate a strong investigation into Fulton County, Georgia, and the Stacey Abrams political machine which, I believe, would totally change the course of the presidential election in Georgia.
North Carolina Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a freshman member of Congress and staunch supporter of the former president, pushed a similar line on Twitter:
BREAKING: The Washington Post just RETRACTED their story on Trump’s phone call with Georgia’s Secretary of State.… https://t.co/FDhdO2Jbxu— Madison Cawthorn (@Madison Cawthorn) 1615833417.0
Both of these statements are wrong — Cawthorn's even more so than Trump's. With somewhat more subtlety, Trump elided the difference between two record phone calls he had with Georgia officials. By referring to a "reported phone call I had with respect to voter fraud in the Great State of Georgia," he conflates the call with Watson with a separate call he with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. That call was reported prior to the Watson call, on Jan. 3, by the Post. And the Post had the full recording when it published that call, so it didn't suffer from any of the inaccuracies described in the report on the second call (which were, nevertheless, not sufficient to alter the substance or meaning of the call).
Trump's claim, therefore, that the Georgia investigations into his efforts to influence elections officials are a "Witch Hunt" and a "Hoax" is false. Many legal commentators have said there is more than enough evidence for investigators to justify launching a criminal investigation into his conduct.
The former president is almost certainly creating this confusion on purpose to discredit any potential charges or allegations that may arise out of the Georgia case. Cawthorn, on the other hand, just seemed uninformed and confused as he incorrectly identified the person who Trump was talking to on the call in question. He also falsely claimed that the Post "admits that they LIED" — which is not trued, since a mistaken claim is not the same as a lie. Trump, at least, acknowledged that the Post did the right thing in issuing the correction. Cawthorn, on the other hand, didn't seem to realize that the fact of the correction undercuts the idea that the press is working with Democrats to lie. Instead, the most reasonable interpretation is that reporters like Gardner are doing a complicated job, and sometimes they make mistakes. But they're trying to get the facts right — unlike the congressman from Norht Carolina.
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