President Donald Trump’s comments on Russia dominated traditional and social media this week. It’s understandable why — Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a sensitive matter and a national security priority, and Trump’s comments about it were seemingly inconsistent or contradictory. The media could report what was said in an objective way, without added drama, opinion or judgments about it. However, that’s not how a number of news outlets handled it.
This analysis provides a brief but objective timeline of what was said. This way, readers can evaluate the comments and inconsistencies free from the media’s distortions.
Also included at the end is a brief analysis of those distortions, and how they can bias readers. We hope the comparison is educational.
A brief timeline of Trump’s comments on Russia this week
Monday, 11:50 a.m.*: During a joint press conference in Helsinki on Monday, Putin denied that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Trump said, “I think that [Mueller’s] probe is a disaster for our country … There was no collusion at all, everybody knows it.”
Trump also said, “My people came to me — [National Intelligence Director] Dan Coats came to me and some others — they said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin; he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be.” He added, “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Watch the press conference here.
After the press conference Monday, Coats issued a statement saying, “We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”
Monday, 3:40 p.m.: Trump tweeted, “As I said today and many times before, ‘I have GREAT confidence in MY intelligence people.’ However, I also recognize that in order to build a brighter future, we cannot exclusively focus on the past – as the world’s two largest nuclear powers, we must get along!”
Tuesday, 10:22 a.m.: Trump tweeted, “While I had a great meeting with NATO, raising vast amounts of money, I had an even better meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia. Sadly, it is not being reported that way - the Fake News is going Crazy!”
Tuesday, 2:30 p.m.*: At a White House meeting with lawmakers, Trump said he “realized there is some need for clarification” about his remarks on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election. He said he’d reviewed a transcript and video of his remarks, and that “In a key sentence in my remarks I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t … The sentence should have been: ‘I don't see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative.”
He added, “I have, on numerous occasions, noted our intelligence findings that Russians attempted to interfere in our elections ... We’re doing everything in our power to prevent Russian interference in 2018.” Read a transcript of his remarks here.
Wednesday, 5:53 a.m.: Trump tweeted, “So many people at the higher ends of intelligence loved my press conference performance in Helsinki. Putin and I discussed many important subjects at our earlier meeting. We got along well which truly bothered many haters who wanted to see a boxing match. Big results will come!”
Wednesday, 12:30 p.m.*: During a Cabinet meeting at the White House, Trump was asked by a reporter, “Mr. President, is Russia still targeting the U.S.? Is Russia still targeting the U.S., Mr. President?” Trump responded, “Thank you very much. No.” The reporter then asked, “No, you don’t believe that to be the case?” To which Trump replied, “No. Thank you very much everybody.”
The reporter then asked, “But can you just clarify, you don’t believe that to be the case?” Trump responded, “We’re doing very well. Let me tell you, we’re doing very well. And we’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there’s been no President ever as tough as I have been on Russia ... And I think President Putin knows that better than anybody, certainly a lot better than the media ...”
The reporter who asked the question tweeted later Wednesday, “Yes, [Trump] was looking directly at me when he spoke. Yes, I believe he heard me clearly.” Read a transcript of Trump’s remarks here; watch a video of his remarks here.
Wednesday, 2:45 p.m.*: Regarding Trump’s response to the reporter, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I got a chance to speak with the President after his comments, and the President was — said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and was saying ‘no’ to answering questions. The President and his administration are working very hard to make sure that Russia is unable to meddle in our elections as they have done in the past and as we have stated.” Read a transcript of Sanders’ remarks here.
Wednesday, 5 p.m.*: In a televised interview, CBS News anchor Jeff Glor asked Trump, “You say you agree with U.S. intelligence that Russia meddled in the election in 2016.” Trump responded, “Yeah and I've said that before, Jeff. I have said that numerous times before, and I would say that is true, yeah.” Glor then asked, “But you haven't condemned Putin, specifically. Do you hold him personally responsible?” To which Trump replied, “Well I would, because he's in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes.”
Glor then asked, “But he denies it, so if you believe US intelligence agencies, is Putin lying to you?” And Trump replied, “I don’t want to get into whether or not he’s lying. I can only say that I do have confidence in our intelligence agencies as currently constituted … And when they tell me something it means a lot.”
Glor asked, “Coats says the threat is ongoing. Do you agree with that?” To which the president replied, “If he says that, I would accept that. I will tell you, though, it better not be. It better not be.” Read a transcript of the interview here.
Thursday, 7:13 a.m.: Trump tweeted, “‘Trump recognized Russian Meddling MANY TIMES.’ Thank you to @foxandfriends and @FoxNews for actually showing the clips. The Fake News wants no part of that narrative! …”
Thursday, 9:24 – 9:30 a.m.: Trump sent two tweets, which said, “The Summit with Russia was a great success, except with the real enemy of the people, the Fake News Media. I look forward to our second meeting so that we can start implementing some of the many things discussed, including stopping terrorism, security for Israel, nuclear........ proliferation, cyber attacks, trade, Ukraine, Middle East peace, North Korea and more. There are many answers, some easy and some hard, to these problems...but they can ALL be solved!”
Thursday, 3:51 p.m.: Sanders tweeted, “In Helsinki, @POTUS agreed to ongoing working-level dialogue between the two security council staffs. President Trump asked @Ambjohnbolton to invite President Putin to Washington in the fall and those discussions are already underway.”
Note: All times are shown in EDT; date and times marked by an asterisk were taken from a CNN timeline.
The media’s distortions
The four outlets The Knife analyzed reported most of Trump’s and Sanders’ comments. But unlike the above timeline, which allows a data-to-data comparison, the media emphasized the inconsistencies with dramatic language and certain assumptions about Trump’s intent. It was similar to how outlets reported on Monday’s press conference, which The Knife analyzed earlier this week.
The Associated Press’ and Politico’s articles were the most spun of the four, with spin ratings of 77 and 76 percent respectively (where 100 is completely spun). AP wrote that Trump “backtracked,” “zigzagged” and “waffled,” and that he “spent a second day … shifting stances and mopping up what the White House said were misstatements.” Politico had some of the most dramatic statements, among them:
The president appeared Wednesday to walk back his walk-backs on Kremlin interference in the 2016 election.
Trump’s position on Russian interference in America’s elections has devolved into a game of semantics, with Trump loudly casting doubt on the assessment of his own intelligence agencies only to half-heartedly backtrack when his comments draw forceful condemnation, including from members of his own party.
Trump’s defense follows a whirlwind few days in which he found himself perplexed by the severe blowback to his remarks in Helsinki.
It played out the same way on Tuesday during Trump’s tightly choreographed mea culpa.
Aside from being sensational, descriptions such as a “tightly choreographed mea culpa” and a “game of semantics” read into Trump’s supposed intent. While it’s possible these were his intentions, these assessments aren’t coming from him — they’re the outlets’ interpretations of his actions and reasoning.
The New York Times’ and The Guardian’s articles were similarly distorted, the first calling Trump’s “shifting” statements “semantic hairsplitting,” and the second writing that they were “tortured effort[s]” and “backflips.” The outlets also emphasized the sense of time in their reporting, such as Politico writing that “for the third day in a row” Trump and his aides clarified his previous statements, or AP and The Guardian writing in their headlines that Trump “now” says or claims he was “very strong” with President Vladimir Putin.
Between the lines may be a disapproving, perhaps sarcastic tone. Enter the media’s judgment: it’s not just that Trump seemingly contradicted himself — these reports seem to rub it in. Is that part of the media’s responsibility? Quite possibly not.
Trump’s statements speak for themselves, and again, the media could simply report what he said so readers can evaluate his statements without the media’s opinions in the mix.
Written by Ivy Nevares
Originally published on The Knife Media