President Donald Trump accused the media Friday of making up sources in stories critical of his administration, and said the practice of granting anonymity, used by virtually all reputable news organizations, should end.
“I’m against the people that make up stories and make up sources,” Trump told a cheering crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name. Let their name be put out there.”
It’s one thing for a White House to push back on a story by suggesting a reporter’s sources are misinformed or lying, as past administrations might have done. It’s much more serious, and reckless, to claim that a reporter is fabricating sources to intentionally mislead the public ― a grave offense in journalism that usually marks the end of a reporter’s career.
Trump’s remarks, coming a week after he declared the media the “enemy of the American people,” are a continuation of the White House’s efforts to delegitimize the press. The remarks are also hypocritical, given Trump’s own tendency to attribute wild claims to unnamed sources.
During the presidential campaign, Trump claimed on Fox News to have “very credible” sources backing up bogus crime statistics he’d tweeted out to millions of followers. He once said on MSNBC that “five different sources” supported his claim that the Mexican government was sending “rapists” to the U.S. He said on ABC News that a “very good source” told him then-President Barack Obama wanted to accept 200,000 Syrian refugees.
And before he entered the 2016 presidential race, Trump cited anonymous sources to fuel the bogus claim that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and to attack New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman as his office sued Trump University for fraud.
Meanwhile, Trump’s White House has tried to use anonymity to push back against critical coverage, even as the president condemns the use of anonymity in critical coverage.
CNN reported Thursday night that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus had asked FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe to rebut an explosive New York Times report about how Trump campaign officials repeatedly communicated with Russian intelligence during the 2016 campaign.
The White House responded to the CNN report Friday in a background briefing, meaning that reporters could only attribute information to “senior intelligence officials.”
The officials claimed that McCabe had told Priebus the Times story was “bullshit,” and the chief of staff asked about how the agency could push back. McCabe told Priebus the FBI couldn’t comment on the ongoing investigation, and Priebus asked if the agency could cite “‘senior intelligence officials’ as saying there’s nothing to the NYT story,” according to officials who spoke at the briefing Friday. FBI director James Comey told Priebus they couldn’t do that.
Four days after Priebus suggested the FBI push back on the Times story using anonymous sources ― that is, “senior intelligence officials” ― he criticized the news media for relying on anonymous sources.
“I think that the media should stop with this unnamed source stuff, put names on a piece of paper and print it,” Priebus said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “If people aren’t willing to put their name next to a quote, then the quote shouldn’t be listed, period.”
In an appearance on “Fox News Sunday,” Priebus griped that mainstream news outlets were acting like “Washington daily gossip magazines” because of their reliance on anonymous sources.
Priebus said a Wall Street Journal story about how intelligence officials have kept some sensitive materials from Trump was “untrue.” He said officials in the “top levels of the intelligence community” had told him the Times’ story on Russia and the Trump campaign was “complete garbage.”
When asked who his sources were, Priebus demurred. “I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “I can’t tell you that.”
“Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Reince,” host Chris Wallace responded. “You just complained about unnamed sources ― you are using an unnamed source.”
“Well, because I didn’t ask for approval to use their name,” Priebus said. “But I will tell you this ― when I say top-level people, I mean top-level people, OK?”
Although Priebus and Trump claim the media should only publish stories using named sources, the kinds of pieces they’ve been particularly bothered by ― stories about intelligence or ongoing investigations ― are generally the type where reporters can only get important information by granting their sources anonymity.
On Friday, Trump attacked a story that he said featured nine sources, telling the CPAC crowd that he doesn’t “believe there were one or two people.”
“There were no nine people,” he said. “But they say nine people and somebody reads it and they think, ‘Oh, nine people, they have nine sources.’ They make up sources.”
Trump didn’t specifically mention The Washington Post, but the paper recently ran a scoop about now-former national security adviser Michael Flynn communicating with Russia about sanctions before Trump’s inauguration. That story, the Post noted, was based on information from “nine current and former officials.”
Washington Post editor Marty Baron evidently interpreted Trump’s remarks as a swipe at the paper. “Everything we published regarding Gen. Flynn was true, as confirmed by subsequent events and on-the-record statements from administration officials themselves,” he said in a statement Friday. “Calling press reports fake doesn’t make them so.”
The Post relied on anonymous sources to set the record straight after Vice President Mike Pence said Flynn hadn’t discussed sanctions with Russia ― a claim that Pence made on television after being misled by the national security adviser.
While the Trump White House learned in late January that Flynn may have misled Pence, the vice president himself only found out a couple weeks later by reading about it in The Washington Post.