NPR thought it had a scoop on Friday, following on the heels of the Manafort plea deal and spurious Guardian report that the former Trump campaign chair met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange just as he was joining the campaign.
NPR’s Philip Ewing reported that Donald “Trump Jr.’s 2017 Testimony Conflicts With Cohen’s Account Of Russian Talks” (original archived here), heavily suggesting that the president’s son lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee about his father’s business negotiations involving Russia. Taking just a small snippet of an exchange between Trump Jr. and Senate Judiciary members, Ewing makes it look like the president’s son would be in as much trouble as President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who just pled guilty to lying about discussions between Trump and Moscow about potentially building a Trump Tower there. Here’s how NPR categorized the exchange:
Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017 that although there had been negotiations surrounding a prospective Trump Tower in Moscow, they concluded without result “at the end” of 2014.
“But not in 2015 or 2016?” Trump Jr. was asked.
“Certainly not ’16,” he said. “There was never a definitive end to it. It just died of deal fatigue.”
Trump’s account contrasts with the new version of events given by Cohen on Thursday in a guilty plea in federal court. In that new version, Cohen says the discussions with at least one Russian government official and others in Moscow continued through June 2016, well into Trump’s presidential campaign.
But the Federalist’s Mollie Hemmingway looked into the testimony and found that if one were to look even just a sentence or two before what NPR shared, one would see Trump Jr. was talking about a different set of negotiations, which also fizzled.
Before we get to that, a little more background. One hundred pages before the exchange highlighted by NPR, Trump Jr. responded to another question about the Trump Organization pursuing a development deal with Moscow.
Q. It’s been reported that in late 2015 or 2016 when now President Trump was running for office the Trump Organization was pursuing a plan to develop a massive Trump Tower in Moscow. Is that accurate?
Back to the exchange NPR highlighted, which as Hemmingway noted was completely contradicted by what Trump Jr. said earlier in his testimony. Trump Jr. was asked if he knew about the deal to work with Cohen on a Trump Tower in Moscow in 2015. Trump Jr. says he knew his father signed a letter of intent, but that he himself didn’t know much about it. The senate investigator then asked him if he knew if “anyone else” was also looking to work with the Trump Organization to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. Here’s the full exchange, which includes two questions asked just before the exchange NPR cited:
Q. In this same time frame, 2015 or 2016, when Mr. Sater and Mr. Cohen were exploring a possible deal, do you know if anyone else was also exploring a deal simultaneously with the Trump Organization to build in Moscow?
A. I don ‘t believe so .
Q. We’ve discussed the Agalarov family, Emin and his father Aras. Do you know if they were also exploring building a Trump Tower in Moscow?
A. We had looked at it earlier than that, but it sort of faded away I believe at the end of ’14.
Q. But not in 2015 or 2016?
A. Certainly not ’16. There was never a definitive end to it. It just died of deal fatigue.
Clearly, Trump Jr. was talking about the Agalarov family, and not the deal with Cohen, as NPR reported.
If you still aren’t convinced, the new question and answer make it clear the discussion is about the Agalarov family.
Q. How did that deal first come about?
MR. FUTERFAS: Which, just for clarification?
MR. PRIVOR: The Agalarovs in 2014.
It took NPR five hours to delete a tweet from its main account stoking the narrative created by the false story and to add an editor’s note, which reads:
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this report mischaracterized an answer Donald Trump Jr. gave to Senate investigators in 2017 about the prospective projects his family was negotiating with people in Moscow.
The story reported that Trump Jr.’s response — that negotiations on one project concluded by the end of 2014 — contrasted with the version of events as laid out in the guilty plea by Michael Cohen on Thursday. In fact, Trump Jr. and investigators were alluding to a different set of negotiations — not to a deal that Cohen was reportedly pursuing. Trump Jr. did acknowledge in his testimony that Cohen and another man were exploring a possible deal in Moscow in 2015 or 2016.
Trump Jr. did not address what Cohen has now admitted — that talks about such a deal continued at least into June 2016, longer than previously known and well into the presidential campaign.
The article was not retracted, even though its entire premise was incorrect. The title was changed to “Cohen’s Account Of Russia Talks Raises Questions About Trump Jr. 2017 Testimony,” even though there are no questions, except for why NPR didn’t do even a little bit of legwork to make sure it was accurately reporting something.
The body of the article no longer includes the clipped exchange, and has to strain to make Trump Jr. look involved:
Trump Jr. told the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2017 that he was only “peripherally aware” of negotiations that Cohen has admitted to carrying on through June 2016.
Cohen said in his guilty plea that he had briefed Trump’s family members about his talks, although the court documents don’t specify who.
Trump Jr. also told Senate investigators that he wasn’t aware that Cohen had reached out to the press secretary for Vladimir Putin as part of his talks with Moscow about a putative new Trump Tower project there.
So, the NPR story went from “Trump Jr. Lied To Congress” to a media outlet trying to save face by reporting on an exchange that happened a year ago.