The story behind a retracted CNN report on the Trump campaign and Russia

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From the beginning, CNN was reluctant to say what went wrong.

On Thursday, June 22, it published an article on its website, reporting that a Senate committee was investigating alleged ties between a Russian-government investment fund and people associated with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

The article said that federal investigators were looking into a January meeting between then-White House adviser Anthony Scaramucci and the fund’s director, a Russian national named Kirill Dmitriev. The story was based on information from an anonymous source.

By late the next day, its reporting under fire, CNN took some extraordinary steps: It retracted the story and apologized to Scaramucci. In the article’s place, a brief editor’s note said that the story “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards” and had been removed. It didn’t say that the story was wrong.

On June 26, a Monday, the news organization did something even more remarkable: It asked for and accepted the resignations of the three journalists - one a Pulitzer Prize winner, another a Pulitzer finalist - who were principally responsible for reporting and editing the article.

And then it said little else, declining to explain what had happened.

This article, based on extensive interviews, is an attempt to reconstruct the debacle, elements of which remain in dispute.

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Although brief, the episode ranks as one of the biggest journalistic embarrassments in CNN’s 37-year history. It delighted CNN’s critics, particularly President Trump. “Wow,” he tweeted the day after the resignations were announced, “CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!”

CNN had retracted a high-profile story once before, in 1998, when it acknowledged that its reporting on Operation Tailwind - a Vietnam-era military initiative in which U.S. forces allegedly employed sarin gas - could not be substantiated. It fired two producers responsible for that story. CNN spent almost a month investigating the Tailwind story before releasing a 54-page account of its actions.

The network’s response to the Scaramucci story, however, was quick, decisive and largely private. CNN’s managers investigated, retracted the report and accepted the journalists’ resignations over a span of roughly 72 hours.

The network’s general silence left a number of unanswered questions. CNN has never said why the story did not meet its “editorial standards,” who at CNN reviewed it or how extensively the article had been vetted before publication. It also has not explained what prompted it to seek the resignations of the three journalists, an unusual action given that CNN has never declared the published story fraudulent or even false.

CNN does not appear to have acted as the result of a legal threat, although Scaramucci, in a conversation with CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist, did object to the report after it was published.

Rather, people at the network say management acted so swiftly because the handling of the story violated a number of internal procedures. It was published, they say, before the completion of a review by the organization’s “triad” - a three-tiered bureaucracy of fact-checkers, legal advisers and standards executives who vet sensitive stories. Its reliance on a single source appears to have also been problematic, especially since the source - when contacted by a CNN reporter after the story was published - gave a different account of what had been reported.

But some elements of this are murky. Members of the triad - who supposedly had not approved the story’s publication - did not object when it was posted on June 22, nor on June 23, when editors updated it slightly. (People at CNN say, however, that the story was so low-profile, senior managers didn’t even notice it had been published until Scaramucci called to object.) Also, CNN has published other stories based on a single source; in early June, it disclosed that former FBI director James B. Comey would testify before Congress about his encounters with President Trump, relying on “a source close to the issue.”

In any event, CNN’s management moved so quickly against the three journalists that the details of their severance agreements weren’t fully set when their departure was announced, according to several people familiar with the matter. They, like others involved in the story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because CNN considers the matter closed.

Asked for comment, CNN stood by a brief statement from June saying that it had accepted its employees’ resignations. It declined to comment further.

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The fiasco over the Scaramucci story was preceded by the publication of another flawed story two weeks earlier. In hindsight, the earlier story seems to have set in motion the fallout from the second one.

On June 7, CNN published an article on its website asserting that in his forthcoming Senate testimony, Comey would dispute Trump’s assertion that he had assured the president he wasn’t under investigation in the Russia matter. In fact, that story was wrong; after its publication, Comey released his Senate testimony, which indicated that he did not plan to contest Trump’s characterization of his assurances.

CNN issued a correction, but the reversal left some bitterness. The mistake angered two CNN stars, analyst Gloria Borger and anchor Jake Tapper, whose bylines had appeared on the story. Borger had touted the would-be scoop on the air, reporting that “our sources say that Comey is expected to tell senators that he never gave Trump such assurances.” It also upset CNN President Jeff Zucker, who told his journalists about the need to “play error-free ball” given the scrutiny the network was under.

Some pinned the blame for the Comey foul-up on Eric Lichtblau, an editor and reporter whose byline had also appeared on the story. Lichtblau had joined CNN only a few weeks earlier as part of a newly formed investigative unit. He was a prized recruit; he and a colleague at The New York Times shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for stories documenting the government’s domestic spying operations. (Tapper, Borger and Lichtblau all declined to comment for this article.)

In the wake of the story, CNN’s top managers “doubled down,” as one person at the network termed it, reiterating rules meant to prevent a recurrence. The main edict: No investigative reports could publish until the triad signed off. Also, with rare exceptions, reports couldn’t hinge on the word of a single source. There’s some question, however, about how widely those policies were communicated and when.

Two weeks later, CNN’s investigative unit began preparing the Scaramucci story.

The story was edited by Lichtblau and reported by Tom Frank, another esteemed journalist CNN had hired to beef up its investigative team. While at USA Today, Frank had been a 2012 Pulitzer finalist for articles about inflated state and local government pension benefits. (Frank also declined to comment for this report.)

Few noticed the Scaramucci story when it was published. CNN didn’t discuss it on the air, as it often does with stories that break on its website. But others began to notice. Breitbart - the pro-Trump news site - challenged the story the next morning. “Both Trump administration officials and those close to Senate GOP leadership say [the report is] simply untrue,” Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle wrote. Breitbart’s headline was typically blunt: “Very fake news: CNN pushes refurbished Russia conspiracy, inaccurately claims investment fund under investigation.”

The criticism initially caught CNN off guard, in part because its top two investigative editors, Lex Haris and Matt Lait, were away from the office attending a journalism conference in Phoenix. Haris had been involved in the report’s preparation but had delegated final editing to Lichtblau.

As criticism of CNN began to swirl on social media, a CNN reporter tracked down Frank’s source. The person said he had “concerns” about the article’s central assertion and the way the information had been couched, a person familiar with this sequence of events said.

The doubts about the story’s accuracy raised by Scaramucci and Frank’s source left CNN with little to stand by. It pulled the article from the website and replaced it with the editor’s note.

That weekend, an internal investigation turned up indications that questions raised by the triad had not been fully answered before the report was published, people at CNN say. It’s not clear who gave the order to publish.

By that Monday, Zucker - who by all accounts had not been consulted about the report beforehand - asked for the resignations of Haris, Lichtblau and Frank.

CNN maintained a low profile in the days that followed, saying little about what had happened. And at that point the story seemed to die. Trump moved on to criticizing CNN with a tweet featuring a satirical video in which he body-slams and pummels a figure with the network’s logo superimposed on his head.

A few days after his resignation, Lichtblau, the editor, described the events leading to his departure as “surreal” on Facebook. He wrote: “I can’t discuss the details of the situation, unfortunately, but just know that I’m as baffled as anyone by this strange turn of events. Oh, and don’t believe everything you read in the media (yes, ironic coming from me, I realize).”

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