|JON ALLSOP, CJR|AIWA! NO!|Even by the dramatic standards of the Mueller investigation, it was a bombshell moment when, on Tuesday, The Guardian’s Luke Harding and Dan Collyns reported that Paul Manafort met repeatedly with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in Ecuador’s London embassy, including around the time Manafort became chairman of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.
With the special counsel’s recent focus around the Trump campaign’s ties to WikiLeaks—looking, specifically, at the latter’s dump of internal Democratic Party emails procured from Russian hackers—The Guardian’s story introduced a huge new lead (and one that other reporters believe was not previously on Mueller’s radar).
Both Manafort and WikiLeaks strongly denied that the meetings took place. Manafort called The Guardian’s story “deliberately libelous” and said he was weighing his legal options. WikiLeaks, meanwhile, tweeted that it was willing to bet The Guardian a million dollars and “its editors head” that the paper was wrong, then started to crowdfund a lawsuit (as of this morning, it posted$33,000 in donations). No other news outlet has yet been able to confirm The Guardian’s reporting.
It’s not unusual for aggrieved subjects to push back—and while the denials had a noteworthy vehemence, that sentiment was arguably proportionate to the severity of The Guardian’s charges. Credible observers with no skin in the game—for example, the national security blogger Marcy Wheeler—however, also expressed skepticism. In a statement yesterday, The Guardian sought to shore up its story, stressing that it relied on a number of sources and that neither Manafort nor Assange had issued denials prior to publication. The statement could have been stronger, however: “Noticeably missing [was] a line stating that The Guardian is confident in the accuracy of its story,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy noted on Twitter.
The controversy took another weird turn yesterday as Politico published an article by “Alex Finley,” who was identified, at the bottom of the post, as a former CIA officer writing under a pseudonym. “Finley” suggests, without citing any real evidence, that malicious actors—Russia, perhaps—may have fabricated the Manafort–Assange story, then planted it to discredit The Guardian in general and Harding, who has written widely on potential Russian collusion in the 2016 election, in particular.
“Finley’s” article should be taken with a mountain of salt (if taken at all). Nonetheless, in a roundabout way it gets to the heart of a knotty problem for reporters. The Mueller beat has always been characterized by uncertainty: even excellent reporting has relied on a very incomplete picture. And what we do know sits within a vipers’ nest of double-crossing and deception. Just before The Guardian story broke this week, Mueller’s team alleged that Manafort lied to them after striking a deal to help them; then it emerged that Manafort’s lawyer had repeatedly contacted Trump’s legal team during that period of cooperation. Manafort is angling for a presidential pardon, some speculated. Yesterday, in an interview with the New York Post, Trump refused to rule that out.
Only time will tell if The Guardian successfully navigated this thicket of lies. For the time being, its story should at least be taken seriously, despite legitimate doubt. Just because other outlets can’t verify it does not make it untrue, as New York Times reporter Michael S. Schmidt noted eloquently on his paper’s podcast, The Daily, yesterday. “We’re at a stage in the Mueller–Trump story where we’re sort of looking to see whether there is another shoe to drop,” Schmidt says. “Whether there is another big story here that moves the narrative forward, or if we simply know as much as we’re going to know.”
Below, more on Mueller’s deepening probe:
- “The biggest get this year”? On Tuesday, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo had a useful write-through of The Guardian’s scoop and the mixed reaction it provoked.
- Receipts, part I: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald emerged as a leading skeptic of the story, writing on Tuesday that evidence of the alleged Manafort–Assange meetings should be easy to come by—if they actually happened. “London itself is one of the world’s most surveilled, if not the most surveilled, cities,” Greenwald writes. “And the Ecuadorian Embassy in that city—for obvious reasons—is one of the most scrutinized, surveilled, monitored and filmed locations on the planet.” Yesterday, meanwhile, Greenwald ripped Politico’s piece on Twitter, calling it a “fraud.”
- Receipts, part II: CNN’s Dana Bash, Kara Scannell, and Evan Perez scooped yesterday that Trump told Mueller, in written responses, that he did not have prior knowledge of WikiLeaks’s email dump, nor of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving his son, Donald Trump Jr.; campaign officials; and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.
- A complicated case: Earlier this month, prosecutors in the US accidentally revealed that they had prepared to indict Assange. Although details remained hazy, press freedom advocates expressed concern. For CJR, Mathew Ingram explored the threat an indictment might pose to journalism.