By Ashe Schow
Way back in March of 2018, McClatchy ran a story with the headline “NRA lawyer said to have had concerns about group’s ties to Russia.” The premise of the story was that Cleta Mitchell allegedly told someone, at some point, that she had concerns about the National Rifle Association’s potential involvement in helping Russia steal the election for President Donald Trump in 2016.
The original article, published March 15, 2018, claimed “two sources familiar with the matter” had said this, but the sources were anonymous and not listed as anyone from the NRA or in Mitchell’s current circles. In the fourth paragraph, McClatchy quotes Mitchell saying the entire story was a “complete fabrication.” The article goes on to continue claiming Mitchell said this and what the consequences for the NRA might be if it was actually tied to Russia and if Trump actually colluded with the country to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. The article mentioned Mitchell was on a list of people House Democrats wanted to talk to regarding alleged Russian collusion.
The whole story appeared to be a Fusion GPS smear. Fusion GPS is an opposition research firm associated with the Russia-collusion theory. The McClatchy story follows a basic pattern that indicates involvement from Fusion GPS:
1. The story is reported from the angle that someone is investigating an alleged claim as a way to report the story without the media outlet engaging in libel by making the claim themselves.
2. The sources for the story are incredibly vague, such as people “familiar with the matter” or unnamed people with no direct connection to the claims being made.
3. The story appears to confirm a claim made by the dossier compiled by ex-British Spy Christopher Steele that included numerous salacious claims about Trump and alleged Russian collusion.
4. Few, if any, details are given to prove the story other than what’s stated in the headline.
For the Mitchell story, the claim is made that “Congressional investigators” are looking to talk to Mitchell about the NRA’s alleged involvement with Russia and Trump’s campaign. “[T]wo sources familiar with the matter” are the only sources listed in the story. The article appears to confirm one of the Steele dossier claims – that the Trump campaign received money from Russia to win the election. Finally, the headline gives almost all the information in the story except that congressional investigators are looking into the matter.
Mitchell vehemently denied the claims, and no one knew where they originated.
Fast forward to August 13, 2018, and you see how the story came about. In an article for The Daily Caller, Chuck Ross reported on handwritten notes by Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official heavily involved with Fusion GPS and the Russia investigation. In the notes, Ohr wrote that Glenn Simpson, founder of Fusion GPS, was the one who made the claim about Mitchell.
“An NRA lawyer named Cleta Mitchell found out about the money pipeline and was very upset, but the election was over,” Simpson said, according to Ohr.
This is the only on-the-record documentation of anyone making this claim, so it appears this is McClatchy’s “sources familiar with the matter.” It also looks like Fusion GPS researchers made a mistake, as both Simpson and McClatchy misstate Mitchell as a current NRA lawyer. She had not represented the NRA for a decade.
McClatchy eventually corrected its article, changing the headline to “Lawyer who worked for NRA said to have had concerns about group’s Russia ties” and moving her limited denial from the fourth paragraph to the third paragraph.
Also in August 2018, The Wall Street Journal published an article about the smear of the NRA and Mitchell in an article titled “Anatomy of a Fusion Smear.” Five days later, on September 5, Scott Johnson of Powerline Blog published the actual email exchange between Mitchell and McClatchy reporters Greg Gordon and Peter Stone. This appears to be the only article about the actual emails written and part of the reason I’m writing about them now.
The emails show just how committed McClatchy was to pushing a narrative no matter what Mitchell said. I’ve never gotten such a vehement denial from someone I was reporting on. The McClatchy article includes one section – 13 paragraphs into the story – of her full denial.
“I have no knowledge of anything like this and zero concerns whatsoever about anyone — Russians or otherwise — who ‘funneled’ funds to / through NRA,” she said. The NRA ” [sic]is meticulous about following all the rules. This is all a complete fabrication.”
The full exchange, beginning on March 14, 2018, shows reporter Peter Stone gave Mitchell limited details about his information on her while asking for her to comment. In his first email, he wrote, “Hi Cleta–I’m working on a short piece today that deals with the Congressional probes into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections and saw your name on the House Intel document that was released yesterday and have heard other details from sources about your concerns. Can you talk briefly on background today pre or post lunch? thanks Peter.”
Mitchell asked for more information, and Stone told her it was a follow-up post about “Russian banker and life time NRA member Alexander Torshin and whether he may have funneled funds improperly through the NRA or an allied conduit to influence the elections and help Trump win.” He noted Mitchell’s name was on the list sent out by House Democrats and that a source he trusts claims she expressed concern about the group’s alleged links to Russia. The first of Mitchell’s denials followed:
No. I have no knowledge of anything like this and zero concerns whatsoever about anyone – Russians or otherwise — who “funneled” funds to / through NRA. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. NRA is meticulous about following all the rules. This is all a complete fabrication. And it is absolutely outrageous that the Democrats are leaking documents to you and other reporters. If they want to talk to me, they are wasting everyone’s time and money but I would be happy to talk to them in order to tell them how offensive and horrible I think they are. You are welcome to quote me that this is all totally ridiculous. You guys are all outrageous. Wish all of you would get over your fantasies, get a life and do something productive and useful. This certainly isn’t.
Stone told her the list wasn’t leaked, to which Mitchell responded they were just “grasping at straws” and that the Democrats “have nothing.”
Stone didn’t give up the story and ended up publishing the next day. Mitchell sent an email on March 16, 2018 demanding Stone and McClatchy change the headline and calling the story “fake news.”
Peter. Either you get this headline changed or don’t ever ever ever call me again. This is a COMPLETE lie and don’t tell me the old “I don’t write the headlines”. You go tell your editor that this is a lie and you obviously didn’t write your lead paragraph correctly. This is FAKE NEWS and you need to fix it. You better do that. Such lies. Such liars. All of you. It is disgraceful.
She then sent another email saying the first paragraph was a lie, from an unnamed source and posted her denial paragraphs later. Stone responded that the outlet would be “changing the headline at the top of the home page, tweaking the first sentence, and moving up your denial from the 4th graf to the 3rd.”
Mitchell responded by asking why the denial wasn’t the crux of the story, or why the story wasn’t about how the Democrats “are full of crap to even list me?” She continued to say she wasn’t simply “denying” the story, she’s telling them there is no story. She also informed them she hadn’t done legal work for the NRA for a decade and certainly wasn’t a lawyer for them in 2016. She continued calling McClatchy “fake news.” Mitchell also notes that several other outlets approached her with this story (meaning it was shopped around) but didn’t write about it after speaking with her. McClatchy was the only story to bite, and allowed other outlets to then write up the story from the angle that “McClatchy reported.” See how this circular reporting works?
The McClatchy story is still reported from the view that Mitchell said these things, but that she denies doing so.
The reason I report these emails even though they’re months old is that Stone and Gordon are also behind the recent McClatchy article claiming former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s cell phone “pinged” from somewhere near Prague, where he allegedly paid Russia-linked hackers for stealing emails from Democrats. Cohen, like Mitchell, has vehemently denied doing any such thing and says he hasn’t even been to Prague.
In April, McClatchy wrote an article titled “Sources: Mueller has evidence Cohen was in Prague in 2016, confirming part of dossier.” The authors were none other than Stone and Gordon. This story also followed the Fusion GPS formula: Someone, in this case, the “Justice Department special counsel,” who is investigating alleged Russia collusion with the Trump campaign; again, there are “two sources familiar with the matter”; the story appears to confirm part of the Steele dossier; and no real details are given beyond the headline.
The Cohen-in-Prague story should have been one of the easiest to verify. You can’t travel to another country undetected. Cohen has shown his passport has not been stamped by the Czech Republic and no media outlet has been able to find one shred of evidence that he ever visited the country. A Washington Post reporter said during his recent book tour that the media outlet “sent reporters through every hotel in Prague, through all over the place, just to try to figure out if he was ever there, and came away empty.” Naturally, the Post hasn’t reported this and continues to publish Fusion GPS-planted stories about Russian collusion.
McClatchy then wrote a follow-up article on December 27 claiming a cell signal from Cohen’s phone “briefly sent signals ricocheting off cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign, leaving an electronic record to support claims that Cohen met secretly there with Russian officials, four people with knowledge of the matter say.”
First, “in the Prague area” doesn’t mean Prague. Second, this story again follows the Fusion GPS model, with the alleged cell-phone data supposedly in the possession of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who’s leading the investigation into alleged Russian involvement. The obvious question is that if Mueller really had evidence Cohen was in Prague, why wasn’t this reported by outlets other than McClatchy (instead of just linking to McClatchy) as the smoking gun in the whole Russia theory, and why was Cohen allowed to plea down instead of being charged with treason?
Other outlets, including the left-leaning Daily Beast, pointed out how questionable the McClatchy reporting was on the cell data.
“A number of major media outlets have attempted to stand up the allegation that Cohen visited Prague in 2016, but McClatchy remains the only outlet that has published evidence suggesting a meeting may have taken place. Multiple prominent national security reporters told The Daily Beast they were unconvinced by the story, noting its lack of detail and both reporters’ interviews, at times tortured, about their report on MSNBC,” the Beast wrote.
During one of these interviews, Gordon acknowledged that he had no direct evidence or sources to confirm his reporting, just that he had sources who had sources (that’s not a typo).
“The sources have—some of the sources have government sources, and some of the sources are—are people who have told us that they have trusted intelligence-type sources that they get information from,” Gordon told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. He also told Reid he “wish we had” corroborating evidence for the story.
If nothing else, this demonstrates clear bias on the part of Gordon and Stone, who rushed to report something they could not verify.
Other outlets then link to the McClatchy reports to insulate themselves from making the unverified, improbably claims themselves. This is how America knows about the Steele dossier in the first place. Multiple media outlets who wouldn’t report on the salacious and unverifiable claims about then-president elect Donald Trump. It wasn’t until CNN reported that Trump had been briefed on this alleged dossier and Buzzfeed broke journalistic ethics to publish the dossier that the media began reporting about it. No one could verify the dossier (no matter how badly they wanted to) so they had to couch their reporting behind something official. In this case, that Trump was briefed on the dossier, therefore that’s what the outlets reported on and somehow that makes the dossier legitimate.