At least two audio recordings have surfaced that directly refute claims by President Donald Trump that the New York Times used a “phony” source when it reported details of an on-background press meeting last week. But those same recordings call into question how the Times interpreted a statement made by a senior White House official during that meeting.
On Friday, the Times reported that a senior White House official cast doubt over the timing of a potential meeting between Trump and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The two had been scheduled to meet on June 12, but Trump scrapped the meeting earlier in the day over concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program.
One day earlier, the White House circulated an off-the-record announcement about a background press briefing that would be held with a “senior White House official.” That official, identified as Deputy Press Secretary and Deputy Assistant to the President Raj Shah, said during the meeting that briefing was on-background instead of on-the-record because administration officials did not want information released in that meeting to get more attention than the words of the president.
“On the one hand, you have the president speaking today,” Shah said. “We’re trying to give you a little bit of context on (a) background basis.”
Shah was later asked by a reporter if Trump felt it was at all possible that the two sides could meet as scheduled on June 12. Shah said it was unlikely.
“The main point, I suppose, is that the ball’s in North Korea’s court right now,” Shah said. “We lost quite a bit of time that we would need in order to — I mean, there’s been an enormous amount of preparation that’s gone on over the past few months.”
“June 12 is in 10 minutes,” Shah said, metaphorically referring to the close proximity of the current date to the future summit.
Audio recording refutes @RealDonaldTrump’s tweet that @NYTimes used “phony” sources when paper reported official said “not a lot of time” to keep June 12th date for North Korean summit. Official Trump claimed “doesn’t exist" is Raj Shah, one of his own aides. pic.twitter.com/pVlL0hXxBJ
— Matthew Keys (@MatthewKeysLive) May 28, 2018
The following day, the Times printed a summary of Shah’s comment, claiming it conflicted with statements Trump made earlier with respect to the original date of the summit.
“As with so many issues involving this president, the views of his aides often have little effect on what he actually says,” the Times said. “On Thursday, for example, a senior White House official told reporters that even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.”
Saturday morning, Trump claimed in a tweet that the New York Times had used a “phony” source that “doesn’t exist” when it wrote the paragraph. It was not clear if Trump was aware of the background briefing held by Shah two days earlier.
Trump is a frequent critic of news organizations and reports that he finds to be critical of his actions and his administration. During his campaign for presidency, he repeatedly complained about “dishonest” press coverage and charged reporters and news outlets with spreading “fake news.” As president, he has vocally expressed his dislike for reporters, and members of his administration have moved to ban some news outlets from official press meetings and other events. According to one journalist, Trump deliberately creates an atmosphere of contempt for the news media in an attempt to thwart negative press coverage by sowing discord and distrust in the media.
For two years, reporters have tried to combat Trump’s smear campaigns by publishing fact-checks and, in some cases, directly calling out the president. Generally, a reporter’s arsenal is little more than past published news stories by peers that most commonly accept as factual and accurate; other times, they rely on unidentified sources who are granted anonymity in exchange for facts that can be hard to confirm because of the nature in which the information is obtained.
This time, there are at least two recordings of what was said at the press briefing and who said it. The first recording, which was published via Twitter on Saturday, contains audio of a White House official laying out the ground rules for the briefing: Although the meeting was held by a member of the White House press department and took place in the press briefing room, it wasn’t for broadcast and information learned couldn’t be directly attributed to anyone. The second recording, published by The Desk on Twitter, contains Shah’s answer to a question by a reporter who asked why it was necessary to have a background press briefing in the first place given Trump’s comments earlier in the day.
4. I've obtained audio of the WH press briefing. You can hear Raj Shah, Deputy Press Secretary, introduce Pottinger (along with the terms – which are standard) and then Pottinger makes the statement that POTUS says was never made. Lots of reporters in briefing room and on phone. pic.twitter.com/2gEYkRSyTv
— Yashar Ali ? (@yashar) May 26, 2018
Both recordings vindicate most of the report published by the Times in that it undisputedly shows a senior White House official questioning whether or not the U.S.-North Korea summit could take place as scheduled. But critics have hinged on a single word the Times used to summarize Shah’s remarks with respect to the original June 12 date: impossible. Shah never said that word.
“There may have been a real White House briefing with real White House officials, but the New York Times couldn’t be trusted to accurately summarize what the White House official said,” Mollie Hemingway wrote for The Federalist. “Rather than admit that the New York Times was incorrect, and their reporters aren’t good at listening to Trump advisors or accurately conveying their remarks, the media claimed that Trump was the one lying, since, well, White House advisors who give briefings exist.”
Some of that media fervor may have been prompted by a follow up Times story where the paper sourced Trump’s tweet and doubled down on its assertion that it was in the right with respect to Shah’s statement. In that article, the Times said it would not disclose Shah’s identity because ground rules at the beginning of the conference prevented them from doing so, but the paper did publish several quotes taken directly from conversations at that briefing between reporters and the official.
Other news organizations have also pounced on the president’s remark, hinging mostly on the “phony” source aspect and ignoring how the Times summarized Shah’s statement.
“A media that desires to hold this president accountable simply must be accurate in its news writing,” Hemingway wrote. “It failed dramatically here, and failed to hold itself accountable when caught.”