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Mueller Team Breaks Usual Silence To Dispute Buzzfeed's Cohen Perjury Report


Parts of the U.S. government remain shut down, but the political bombshells - they keep falling. Yesterday, the BuzzFeed News site alleged Donald Trump directed his lawyer to lie to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The story dominated cable news and talk shows.

Then last night, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller said the report is not accurate. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us. David, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What's the latest? What was said? What was debunked?

FOLKENFLIK: Well - so it's very unusual. The special counsel put out a statement last night saying that BuzzFeed's description of specific statements to the special counsel's office and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office regarding Michael Cohen's congressional testimony are not accurate.

BuzzFeed's editor-in-chief Ben Smith said they stand by their reporting. He spoke last night to our own Mary Louise Kelly on All Things Considered.


BEN SMITH: You know, it's really hard to respond to that statement because it's not - it just doesn't at all make clear what they're objecting to in the story. It's certainly not a full-throated denial. But they also, obviously, have some characterization that they're objecting to. But it's - and we would really urge them to reveal which characterization because it's very hard to respond to.

FOLKENFLIK: So I think you're going to, you know, have to see BuzzFeed go and do more reporting. I certainly don't expect anything more from Mueller's office.

SIMON: A lot of news organizations reported that - reported this story without being able to confirm it. There were long discussions that began, now, if this story is true. Was that a mistake? Was that responsible?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it becomes very difficult not to take it into account. You saw a lot of news organizations holding off - The New York Times for quite a while. NPR, for quite a while, held off. Finally, it, you know, interviewed, in our case, one of the reporters about it and asked questions about it. I think you saw CNN doing much the same.

At the same time, it sparked a lot of speculation. And yet it's hard not to. I mean, you've seen, basically, so much - so many revelations, so much investigative reporting in which people are building on the reporting of others because it's propulsive. And usually, there's confirmation in part and whole. And that is, of course, what journalism is built on.

SIMON: Yeah. Let's recall that BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier when other news organizations declined because it was unverifiable. And now we've gotten in the habit of citing that dossier, haven't we?

FOLKENFLIK: A lot of news organizations have. And here's the rub. You know, it was - it's essentially raw intelligence gathered by Christopher Steele, the former British intelligence officer.

It was published by Buzzfeed after the election. And their justification was that this was something that the president-elect had been briefed on and that people at the highest levels of government were taking seriously and that, in their words, they wanted the public to be able to take it - you know, figure out for themselves how seriously to take it.

Not all of the allegations contained in there have been verified. Some of them have. And some of them have been basically found to be fundamentally true by sort of parallel facts and disclosures from the special prosecutor's office and other documents that have come to light. But you're right. This is raw stuff, and it gets into delicate territory.

I do think, ultimately, it's kind of a service to know what was in there. But a lot of news organizations were very wary about it, and with good reason.

SIMON: David, I got to ask. The next time a responsible news organization has a sound, verifiable story that questions President Trump, does this mistake give him the license to denounce all hard reporting as fake news?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that - yes. I think that, you know, BuzzFeed needs to go back and be transparent about what it has down cold and what it does not. And if something went awry, what went awry?

But that said, this president has proven able to denounce things of fake news that prove to be completely verifiable, completely - prove to be true. And ultimately, he's not concerned with whether or not what he's denying is accurate or not. He's concerned with the forcefulness of his denial. So he can make that charge no matter what we report.

The key thing is that journalists have to be able to be not largely right, which may be still the case in this BuzzFeed story, but verifiably the case.

SIMON: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much for being with us.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.