Washington Post: Hey, sorry these headline-grabbing quotes by President Trump were made up

Back in December President Trump made a call to Georgia’s chief elections investigator urging her to look into fraud in Fulton County. The Washington Post and other outlets reported on the call in early January, highlight two specific quotes from the call. One quote that appeared in several headlines claimed that President Trump had asked the investigator to “find the fraud.” In addition, some headline quoted Trump as saying the investigator would be a “national hero” if they did find it. For instance, a Jan 10 story at the Guardian headlined “‘Find the fraud’: details emerge of another Trump call to Georgia officials” opened with both claims:

While election officials in Georgia were verifying signatures on absentee ballot envelopes in one metro Atlanta county, Donald Trump pressed a lead investigator to “find the fraud” and said it would make the investigator a national hero.

NBC’s story on Jan. 9 was headlined “In earlier call, Trump pressured Georgia elections investigator to find evidence of fraud.” It opened:

President Donald Trump pushed Georgia’s lead elections investigator in a phone call in December to produce evidence of fraud in the presidential race, telling the person to “find the fraud” and promising that they would be a “national hero” for doing so, according to a person familiar with the call.

ABC’s story was similar: “On December call, Trump urged Georgia elections investigator to ‘find the fraud’: Source” It opened:

In December, while a signature match audit was ongoing in one Georgia county, President Donald Trump phoned a chief investigator in Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office asking the official to “find the fraud” and telling this person they would be a “national hero” for it, an individual familiar with the matter confirmed to ABC News.

There are many more like this, all of them nearly identical and all of them citing the Washington Post as the first to report this. Using the Wayback Machine, here’s the Post story from January 9. It’s headlined “‘Find the fraud’: Trump pressured a Georgia elections investigator in a separate call legal experts say could amount to obstruction.” It opened:

President Trump urged Georgia’s lead elections investigator to “find the fraud” in a lengthy December phone call, saying the official would be a “national hero,” according to an individual familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the conversation.

There was just one problem. A recording of the call released last week shows that President Trump never used those words. Last Thursday the Washington Post completely rewrote its story about the call, even changing the publication date, and added this lengthy correction at the top:

Correction: Two months after publication of this story, the Georgia secretary of state released an audio recording of President Donald Trump’s December phone call with the state’s top elections investigator. The recording revealed that The Post misquoted Trump’s comments on the call, based on information provided by a source. Trump did not tell the investigator to “find the fraud” or say she would be “a national hero” if she did so. Instead, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize ballots in Fulton County, Ga., asserting she would find “dishonesty” there. He also told her that she had “the most important job in the country right now.” A story about the recording can be found here. The headline and text of this story have been corrected to remove quotes misattributed to Trump.

The Post’s new story on the topic, linked in the correction, also explains that the previous story had been in error:

The Washington Post reported on the substance of Trump’s Dec. 23 call in January, describing him saying that [investigator Frances] Watson should “find the fraud” and that she would be a “national hero,” based on an account from Jordan Fuchs, the deputy secretary of state, whom Watson briefed on his comments.

In fact, he did not use those precise words.

Rather, Trump urged the investigator to scrutinize Fulton County, where she would find “dishonesty,” he said.

First of all, if you used quotes around the phrases “find the fraud” and “national hero” in your previous story as the Post did, then it’s a big mistake that Trump never said those things. You can’t shrug that off as “he did not use those precise words.” Without quite saying it, it almost sounds as if the Post is suggesting their story was fake but accurate, i.e. he didn’t use those precise words but it is what he meant.

But here again I think we have another example of resistance journalism run amok. What Trump did actually say was somewhat similar, enough that you can see how the Post’s source came up with those fake quotes, but Trump’s actual quotes were a lot less headline-grabbing.

“If you go back two years, and if you can get to Fulton, you’re going to find things that are going to be unbelievable, the dishonesty that we’ve heard from, just good sources, really good sources,” Trump said on the call. “Fulton is the mother lode, you know, as the expression goes. Fulton County,” he added.

Notice he’s not saying something like find the fraud, with the implication that he wants her to find it whether it’s there or not. He’s saying if you look in Fulton County “you’re going to find things.” That’s not a command to whip up bogus fraud claims. It’s a request to substantiate the fraud Trump’s sources are telling him was there.

Now it turns out Trump was wrong about that. The investigator did go back and didn’t find the kind of voter fraud in Georgia that Trump seemed to believe was rampant. But being wrong isn’t the same as trying to convince someone to fake evidence.

As for the other quote about being a national hero, Trump didn’t say that either. He did say Watson would be “praised.” Again, it’s similar enough that you can see how someone could get to “national hero” but it’s also less exuberant and less extreme. It wouldn’t have made as good a headline and that matters because a lot of resistance journalism is about proving to the already convinced that Trump is just as bad as they imagine. The original story with the fake quotes really fit that pattern. The revised story with the toned down quotes that aren’t quite the same thing don’t.

As for Frances Watson, she was interviewed by WSB-TV, the station that first uncovered the audio of the call. She said she didn’t feel there was any pressure placed on her by the President’s call:

Watson was surprised a president called her, but pressed on with her job investigating the 2020 election. She said she found nothing to change the fact that Trump lost Georgia.

Watson told Winne that she did not perceive any pressure from the president’s call and the phone call has not been requested from any investigative agency.

As much as I don’t like the approach the Washington Post took here, i.e. rewriting the story and changing the date, it’s arguably better than what other news outlets have done. They haven’t added corrections to the original stories with the bogus quotes. If you go stumble across those original stories you wouldn’t know the quotes in them were invented.

Finally, here’s the complete call Trump made to Frances Watson: