Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski took a lighthearted approach to Buzzfeed’s questionable publication of unsubstantiated intel last night, but Reince Priebus was in no joking mood. He called the memo published last night “total, complete garbage,” and told MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosts that it would have been easy to check out. The Russian links in the memo depend on Michael Cohen being in Prague at the same time he and his son were at USC, a fact that the university confirmed to Priebus after making a call.
“We’re really hot” about the memo, Priebus says:
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) January 11, 2017
Priebus makes a good point about the source of the memo and its provenance:
There’s tens of thousands of retired agents all over the world. You’ve got some agents somewhere, maybe in the UK, that hangs a shingle and says, “Pay me a rate, I’m going to do opposition research.” He does a memo or she does a memo. This thing circulates for months, it’s unsubstantiated, and viola, it shows up.
That is a pretty good description of what happened in this case. That doesn’t make it untrue, but it was initially the product of an oppo-research effort, and the avoidance of any campaign in actually using it brings up questions about its veracity. If it was true, would Hillary Clinton have held off on deploying it? Ted Cruz? Would Jeb Bush have kept quiet about it while Donald Trump reviled his brother? That seems pretty questionable, and it only gets more so when our intelligence agencies can’t verify the allegations either — and apparently missed the fact that Michael Cohen was in Los Angeles at the time cited in the brief.
Later in the same segment, Tom Brokaw tells Scarborough that he and Richard Engel have chased this memo for four months and could never substantiate it. Having it released in this fashion, and presented to Trump and Barack Obama, gives the Trump team a legitimate beef:
BROKAW: All right. Well, this has been around for a while. I first heard about it four months ago.
BROKAW: And it had a fair amount of detail and we’ve been chasing it and a lot of other news agencies have been as well. Never been able to close the book on it.
BROKAW: We did take it, Richard Engel and I have been working on it. We did take it at one point to a very senior American Intel official. He said I have no idea that there’s something like this going on. It’s not even been reportable because we don’t have the verification–
BROKAW: –of the various charges that are there. So it’s been around. And a number of organizations have been looking at it for some time. I was surprised when it showed up in this form. It got to the Intel Agencies and they included it in a report to the president without any kind of conclusion about the veracity of it. So I think from the Trump organization point of view that they’ve got a legitimate claim here.
If it’s not reportable, why did Buzzfeed published it, and should CNN have run the story even without the memo? The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple isn’t happy with that decision at all:
To its credit, BuzzFeed notes prominently that the “allegations are unverified, and the report contains errors.” In fact, that qualification comes in the sub-headline. To its discredit, the BuzzFeed story offers this motive for publishing the allegations: “Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.”
Americans can only “make up their own minds” if they build their own intelligence agencies, with a heavy concentration of operatives in Russia and Eastern Europe. CNN pointedly declined to drop the document’s details on the public: “At this point, CNN is not reporting on details of the memos, as it has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.” …
Then again, it is unverified — meaning that it requires further investigation. BuzzFeed has started that process and pledges to continue pursuing it. So why post the documents now?
Actually, I think Buzzfeed made the right call, but only because CNN ran with the partial story first. By running the memos, readers can see the questionable quality of the “intel,” and allow a fact-check (Cohen) to demonstrate its unreliability. Buzzfeed may have done Trump a big favor, as Allahpundit noted last night; before the memo surfaced, the story seemed to be that US intelligence agencies had solid evidence of Russia-Trump coordination. Now it looks a lot more like old and discarded oppo-research attacks that no one can actually verify at all, and that are false in at least one regard.
That doesn’t mean that elements within this report might not be true. However, intelligence agencies have had months to look into it and apparently have not been able to nail it down. I’d say that an open mind combined with some healthy skepticism at this point would be in order. Here’s the full segment from Morning Joe: