The New York Times’ latest dive into the FBI’s Russia investigation introduces us to “Crossfire Hurricane,” the inquiry’s early code name, which makes all kinds of sense from the story’s findings. Fearful of contributing to political upheaval, former FBI Director James Comey and his subordinates were far more cautious in their pursuit of Trump-related leads than they were with a corresponding investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. As the Times reports, “underpinning both cases was one political calculation: that Mrs. Clinton would win and Mr. Trump would lose.”
Yet the FBI’s internal confusion and circumspection appears to have caught the Times in the crossfire as well. In a rare nod to external criticism in its own pages, Wednesday’s story acknowledges that a now-infamous report implying that the Trump campaign was clean—published just days before the election—was misleading (emphasis mine):
In the Clinton case, [former FBI Director James] Comey has said he erred on the side of transparency. But in the face of questions from Congress about the Trump campaign, the F.B.I. declined to tip its hand. And when The New York Times tried to assess the state of the investigation in October 2016, law enforcement officials cautioned against drawing any conclusions, resulting in a story that significantly played down the case.
That story was published on Oct. 31, 2016, days after Comey told Congress that the FBI would examine additional Clinton emails found on a computer seized from disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner. The Times reported that “none of the [law enforcement] investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between” between Trump and Russia. The story’s framing and headline appeared to give the then-candidate a clean record:
The story has continued to haunt the Times. Yet executive editor Dean Baquet and other top staffers have stood by the paper’s reporting despite each subsequent Russia-related revelation—some of which have been reported by the Times—that casts new doubt upon it.
After the Times ran a story in late December suggesting former Trump aide George Papadopolous may have been in contact with Moscow in May 2016, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple asked Times brass if the piece called their previous reporting into question. Deputy Managing Editor Matt Purdy told Wemple that “the heart of the story...pretty much stands up.” Baquet’s response nodded only to a potential need to reframe it:
It is fair to say we know a lot more now about what the government knew about Russian meddling than we did before the election. We would have cast that story differently but it was never meant to give the Trump campaign a clean bill of health. It reflected the FBI’s skepticism, which was made public after the campaign. And which was all we could report at that moment. By the way, the question of whether there was collusion remains the subject of the investigation.
Then, in April, when Comey was on his whirlwind book tour, the former FBI director said outright that the Times’ sources in the FBI had misinformed them. Wemple dutifully polled Baquet again about the Oct. 2016 piece:
I think the headline was off but if you read the story I think it was NOT inaccurate based on what we knew at the time. Sort of like the Hillary Clinton story that turned out to be right.
The reporting done between then and now by Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman, and Nicholas Fandos seems to have changed things. And in a longer nod to criticism of the Times toward the end of Wednesday’s story, they provide a short explanation of what went wrong:
In late October, in response to questions from The Times, law enforcement officials acknowledged the investigation but urged restraint. They said they had scrutinized some of Mr. Trump’s advisers but had found no proof of any involvement with Russian hacking. The resulting article, on Oct. 31, reflected that caution and said that agents had uncovered no “conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”
The key fact of the article — that the F.B.I. had opened a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign — was published in the 10th paragraph.
A year and a half later, no public evidence has surfaced connecting Mr. Trump’s advisers to the hacking or linking Mr. Trump himself to the Russian government’s disruptive efforts. But the article’s tone and headline — “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia” — gave an air of finality to an investigation that was just beginning.
It wasn’t just that the Times’ sources were wrong or overly cagey—as Comey suggested—but that the story’s overarching narrative was inaccurate. I emailed Baquet this afternoon, asking what came up in the new reporting that compelled the paper to include this half-mea culpa, and I’ll update this post if I hear back. As for now, there is no clarification or editor’s note amended to the original Oct. 31, 2016 story that seemed to clear Trump’s name.