President Donald Trump has attacked reporting on the Russia investigation by the New York Times and the Washington Post as “fake news,” asserting — along with his press secretary — that the news organizations should return the Pulitzer Prizes they received in 2018 for their work.
But Trump and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany have pointed to no errors in the reporting, and a rereading of the articles shows that the work is quite solid. The reporting is heavily supported by special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and by other publicly available documents and sources.
We asked the White House what exactly was wrong with the papers’ reporting. We received no specifics, and were steered instead to McEnany’s unrelated comments criticizing the Times’ reporting on intelligence indicating Russia had offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Eileen Murphy, the Times’ senior vice president for communications, said the news outlet was aware of no problems with the articles and would have no comment on Trump’s and McEnany’s remarks. The Post did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s criticism of the reporting is part of a larger pattern: his relentless campaign to demonize the press, dismissing its work as “fake news” and seeking to weaken its credibility, as documented in an April report by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Times and the Post shared the 2018 Pulitzer for national reporting. Here’s what the Pulitzer board said of why the work was honored:
Pulitzer board, April 16, 2018: For deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nation’s understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team and his eventual administration.
At the end of her briefing on June 29, McEnany criticized the Times’ article on the bounties and a number of other Times articles. She then turned her attention to the 2018 Pulitzers.
McEnany, June 29: It is inexcusable, the failed Russia reporting of the New York Times. And I think it’s time that the New York Times, and also the Washington Post, hand back their Pulitzers.
Trump assailed the Pulitzer-winning articles on June 25 during an interview with Sean Hannity at a Fox News town hall in Green Bay, Wisconsin, describing both the Times and Post as “so dishonest.”
Trump, June 25: The Pulitzer Prize is very embarrassed; it’s lost a lot of its credibility because all these writers got Pulitzer Prizes on the “Russia, Russia, Russia,” and they were all wrong.
And he demanded that the Pulitzers be returned at a meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in May.
Trump, May 7: [A]ll of those journalists that received a Pulitzer Prize should be forced to give those Pulitzer Prizes back because they were all wrong. There was no — because if you saw today, more documents came out, saying there was absolutely no collusion with Russia. It came out very loud and clear.
And they wrote for years because they tried to do a number on the presidency and this president. It happened to be me. Pulitzer Prizes should all be returned. Because you know what? They were given out falsely. It was fake news. They’re all fake news. Those Pulitzer Prizes should be given back immediately.
And the Pulitzer committee, or whoever gives the prizes, they’re a disgrace, unless they take those prizes back. Because they got Pulitzer Prizes for what turned out to be false stories.
At a coronavirus task force briefing, Trump singled out Times reporter Maggie Haberman, who contributed to a number of the Russia investigation stories, for criticism.
Trump, April 18: Maggie Haberman. You know, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of Russia, but she was wrong on Russia. So was everyone else. They should all give back their Pulitzer Prizes. … So Maggie Haberman gets a Pulitzer Prize? She’s a third-rate reporter. New York Times.
Trump first demanded that the prizes be returned in a tweet on March 29, 2019 — even before the Mueller report was released. Trump based his call for action on a summary of the report by his attorney general, William Barr. Barr’s four-page synopsis, submitted to Congress, was criticized by Mueller, who said in a letter to Barr that it “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of his work.
So funny that The New York Times & The Washington Post got a Pulitzer Prize for their coverage (100% NEGATIVE and FAKE!) of Collusion with Russia – And there was No Collusion! So, they were either duped or corrupt? In any event, their prizes should be taken away by the Committee!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 29, 2019
The Trump administration’s approach to the Pulitzer-winning articles reflects its stance on the Mueller report.
Since the report “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” and did not contain “a traditional prosecution decision” on obstruction of justice, Trump has taken the position that he was exonerated and that there was no obstruction of justice on his part. But that is not what the report said, as we have reported.
No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION. KEEP AMERICA GREAT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 24, 2019
Here is what the report said about collusion:
The Mueller report: In sum, the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russia offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away. Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.
Here is what the report said about obstruction:
The Mueller report: Our investigation found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russian-interference and obstruction investigations. The incidents were often carried out through one-on-one meetings in which the President sought to use his official power outside of usual channels. These actions ranged from efforts to remove the Special Counsel and to reverse the effect of the Attorney General’s recusal; to the attempted use of official power to limit the scope of the investigation; to direct and indirect contacts with witnesses with the potential to influence their testimony.
As for exoneration, the report says explicitly, “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Mueller wrote: “[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.”
A Review of the Pulitzer-Winning Stories
The joint Pulitzer for the Times and Post was for 20 articles, 10 from each of the papers.
Reading them several years after they were published, it is clear that they hold up well.
For example, early in 2017, the Post ran an article that began:
Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2017: National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.
Transcripts released in May confirmed the story. The fact that Flynn publicly lied about his contacts with Kislyak put him at risk of being blackmailed. That’s what led to his firing and his legal problems.
On May 23, 2017, the Post reported that Trump in March of that year had asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials, Daniel Coats, then-director of national intelligence, and Michael S. Rogers, then-director of the National Security Agency, to deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election. Both declined to do so.
The story was confirmed in the Mueller report.
On June 15, 2017, the Post reported that Mueller’s investigation was focusing on whether Trump tried to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation. That certainly turned out to be the case.
On May 16, 2017, the Times ran a story that began:
New York Times, May 16: President Trump asked the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to shut down the federal investigation into Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, in an Oval Office meeting in February, according to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting.
“I hope you can let this go,” the president told Mr. Comey, according to the memo.
The Mueller report said “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account.”
On May 20, 2017, the Times reported that Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office that firing Comey had relieved “great pressure” on him. “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” the Times quoted Trump as saying, quoting from a memo that it said was the official account of the meeting. The Mueller report also included evidence to corroborate that account, noting that the White House did not dispute that description of the meeting.
On Sept. 7, 2017, the Times ran a piece headlined “The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election.” The article began by focusing on DCLeaks, a website that had recently gone live, posting material stolen from prominent Americans by Russian hackers. The article revealed Russian efforts on social media to hurt the chances of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
This Russian meddling was extensively chronicled in the Mueller report, which we covered in our story “Kushner Distorts Scope of Russia Interference.”
As we mentioned above, Trump singled out Times reporter Maggie Haberman for criticism. Haberman was a coauthor of two of the Times’ pieces in the Pulitzer package and a contributor to two others. All of the stories have been confirmed or substantially corroborated.
For example, Haberman was a coauthor of the article cited above about Trump telling Russian officials that removing Comey had relieved “great pressure” on him. She also was a coauthor of an article that began, “Before arranging a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer he believed would offer him compromising information about Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump Jr. was informed in an email that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy, according to three people with knowledge of the email.”
Trump Jr. posted the emails on Twitter. They said exactly what Haberman had reported.
We encourage readers to review all of the award-winning stories on the Pulitzer website. The White House has made no specific challenges to the stories, and a review of them shows that they hold up well.
Editor’s note: Rieder is a former media columnist for USA Today and, previously, the longtime editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review.
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