Everyone who was actually in the room says WaPo story about Trump revealing classified info to Russians is false

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Published by: Dan Calabrese on Tuesday May 16th, 2017

And WaPo didn't reach out to any of them, relying exclusively on anonymous secondhand sources, in reporting the story.

Something really extraordinary has happened in the past 15 hours, and the Washington Post is at the center of it. But contrary to what you're being led to believe, the real scandal here is not President Trump supposedly revealing classified information to the Russians. That may or may not have happened, although I tend to doubt it, and I'm all but certain it didn't happen in the way the Post claims.

The real story here is the Post broke new ground in irresponsible reporting with the way it put together this story. To understand this, you need to know some of the basics of what journalists are taught to do. That will give you context for just how badly the Post strayed from these essential standards of the profession.

First, let's deal with the matter of anonymous sources. What you're taught in journalism school is that sources should be allowed to remain anonymous only under extraordinary circumstances, and if a source is going to be anonymous, he or she must be able to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that the informaion he or she is presenting is true. In this case, the anomymous sources the Post relied upon were - without exception - not in the room when Trump supposedly said what he said. What that leaves us with is the Post's say-so that these people can be trusted, even though they were not eyewitnesses to the event they claimed to describe, and we're not able to assess whether they have axes to grind. For instance, some of them are identified as former national security officials. Oh? Would that mean they were Obama Administration officials? The Post won't tell us, but in order to assess the truthworthiness of the unnamed source, that would be a crucial piece of information.

But what about people who were actually in the room? When an anonymous source gives you information, standard operating procedure for a professional journalist is to try to confirm it with people who actually have direct knowledge, and will speak for attribution - meaning you can use their names in your story.

The Post didn't even try to do that here. They ran with a story using nothing but anonymous sources who were not present in the meeting. That left every single White House official who was present to come forward independently to correct the Post's reporting. There were three of them - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Deputy National Security Advisor Dina Powell. All three say the Post's story is false:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell have all issued statements saying the report is wrong.

“During President Trump’s meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism,” Tillerson said. “During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations.”

Powell said in a statement, “This story is false. The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.”

McMaster told the Washington Post in a statement, “The president and the foreign minister reviewed common threats from terrorist organizations to include threats to aviation,” said H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, who participated in the meeting. “At no time were any intelligence sources or methods discussed, and no military operations were disclosed that were not already known publicly.”

He also addressed the report in a statement to the press outside the White House:

“There is nothing the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight as reported is false,” McMaster told reporters. “The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time, at no time, were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.”

McMaster continued, “Two other senior officials who were present, including the Secretary of State, remember the meeting the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh anonymous sources. And I was in the room, it didn’t happen.”

Now, if you want to disbelieve Tillerson, McMaster and Powell, you're free to do so. Maybe you think they have to lie for the boss and because of that you'll dismiss their account. I can't stop you from believing that. But you need to understand this: It bordered on criminal negligence for the Post not to even ask any of them if what their anonymous sources were telling them was true, and to write a headline as if it was a statement of fact that Trump revealed this information without a single person who was in the room confirming that it was true.

Look how extensively the Post relied on people who weren't in a position to know, just in this one passage of the story:

President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said.

The partner had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia, and officials said Trump’s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. After Trump’s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, placing calls to the CIA and the National Security Agency.

“This is code-word information,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. Trump “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.”

Now let's break this down. Once we know that they're relying on both current and former officials, we have no idea whether a given quote comes from a current or former official, so we don't know the bias of the person speaking. We also don't know if they're really being honest or accurate in describing just how sensitive this information is, or whether they're in a position to know the things they're claiming about its effect on sources and methods.

The same is true for the details throughout the piece. We don't know who is claiming that Trump ignores the bullet points he's given, or if it's really true that he doesn't understand the nature of classified information. We don't know if the Senate Intelligence Committee has really been briefed (there are conflicting reports on that), and we don't know if it's really a big deal that the NSA and the CIA were contacted after the fact. The Post wants us to think that's extraordinary, and anti-Trump partisans are surely ready to believe it was. But since we're not told what was said in those calls or how the participants viewed the nature of the calls, we really don't know if the way this is being portrayed is the way it actually is.

GDP growth for Obama's final year? A measly 1.6 percent

I don't want to totally dismiss the possibility that Trump made a serious mistake here. But it's impossible to trust that it happened as described by people who were not in the room, not in a position to know and not authorized to talk about it (and in some cases don't even work for the government anymore), when everyone who was in the room says it didn't happen the way the Post claims it did.

And since the Post won't tell us the biases of its own anonymous sources, we can't use that filter to judge the veracity of what they're trying to sell us. We're just supposed to believe that a newspaper that's been looking for any way to damage Donald Trump for more than a year is now totally trustworthy in choosing its sources and fairly representing what they want to sell us.

I do not think so.

Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!