President Trump attacked CNN on Wednesday, writing on Twitter that the network had been “caught in a major lie” in connection to an article it published in July about claims made by the president’s former personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen.
The article, which was written by Jim Sciutto, Marshall Cohen and Carl Bernstein, the high-profile Watergate reporter, said Mr. Cohen was claiming that Mr. Trump knew in advance about a now infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in which Russians were expected to offer damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, is investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election interference.
In the meantime, a flurry of statements in recent days from Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny J. Davis, has, for some, muddied the water around the sourcing and validity of CNN’s report. In essence, Mr. Davis has admitted he was an unnamed source for the article, and has backed away from the claims he made about Mr. Cohen. (More on this later.)
Mr. Trump, who has long been a vocal critic of the network, seemed on Wednesday to seize the opportunity to renew his disapproval.
“CNN is being torn apart from within based on their being caught in a major lie and refusing to admit the mistake,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “Sloppy @carlbernstein, a man who lives in the past and thinks like a degenerate fool, making up story after story, is being laughed at all over the country! Fake News.”
In a tweet replying to Mr. Trump, CNN wrote: “Make no mistake, Mr. President, CNN does not lie. We report the news. And we report when people in power tell lies. CNN stands by our reporting and our reporters. There may be many fools in this story but @carlbernstein is not one of them.”
Late Wednesday, Mr. Bernstein himself responded to the president, tweeting: “I have spent my life as a journalist bringing truth to light, through administrations of both parties. No taunt will diminish my commitment to that mission, which is the essential role of a free press. @CNN stands by its story, and I stand by my reporting.”
If this seems confusing, it is. Let us give you some more context.
What CNN published
In addition to reporting that Mr. Cohen was claiming that Mr. Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting beforehand, the CNN article in July also reported that Mr. Cohen was willing to “make that assertion” to Mr. Mueller.
CNN’s reporters attributed both pieces of information to “sources with knowledge” — meaning more than one person.
Citing sources once more, the CNN reporters, in the July article, also said that Mr. Cohen claimed he was present when Donald Trump Jr. told his father about the Russians’ offer to share dirt on Mrs. Clinton, and that Mr. Trump gave approval for the meeting to take place.
Multiple news outlets — like CBS News and The Washington Post — wrote their own version of the story after trying to verify the information on their own. Both CBS News and The Post now say that Mr. Davis, as an unnamed source, provided information that essentially confirmed the contents of the CNN report.
So what’s the problem?
Over the weekend, Mr. Davis told The Post that he could not confirm the claims made by the CNN report.
And then, on Monday, BuzzFeed News published an article in which Mr. Davis said he was one of the anonymous sources in CNN’s article, which reported the very information he had just told The Post he could not confirm.
He has since told various media outlets — like The Post and CBS — that he is no longer confident that the information presented as true in July is actually true.
For instance, The New York Post published an article last week in which it acknowledged having called Mr. Davis in July to confirm the contents of the CNN report, and said Mr. Davis had confirmed, as an anonymous source, that it was accurate.
“I regret that I wasn’t clear enough,” Mr. Davis told The New York Post last week. “I should have been more clear. I could not independently confirm the information in the CNN story.”
He told CNN on Tuesday: “I should have done a much better job of speaking with more suspicion than certainty, and I regret my mistake.”
Mr. Davis’s retreat from his statements as an anonymous source have caused some to wonder whether CNN should retract the entire July article. It also apparently prompted the Twitter attack by Mr. Trump.
In a statement on Wednesday, a CNN spokeswoman reiterated that the network stands by the story, and highlighted that the July article “had more than one source.” The network, she said, was “confident in our reporting of it.”
In the meantime, Mr. Trump continued to attack the network on Twitter.
“No wonder their ratings are so low,” he said in a second tweet, “it’s FAKE NEWS!”