NEW YORK — For a president seemingly at perpetual war with “fake news,” the resignation of three CNN journalists over a retracted story about a Donald Trump Russian connection is a gift from the political gods when the struggling effort to pass a health bill dominates the headlines.
The White House quickly took advantage Tuesday with blistering presidential tweets and a media scolding at the afternoon press briefing. Conservative provocateur James O’Keefe piled on by releasing a video with a CNN producer caught on camera talking about the network’s Russia coverage being ratings-driven.
CNN late Monday accepted the resignations of journalists Thomas Frank, Eric Lichtblau and Lex Haris over last week’s web story about Trump aide Anthony Scaramucci’s pre-inaugural meeting with the head of a Russian investment fund. The network retracted the story on Friday and apologized to Scaramucci.
Trump has been unhappy with CNN since he was a candidate, and has been particularly annoyed by its reporting on connections with Russia. The misstep on a relatively minor story — it was never mentioned on any of CNN’s television networks — left some White House staff members jubilant, believing it handed them a new talking point to use as a cudgel against mainstream media organizations they feel are largely biased against them.
That happened quickly Tuesday when Sarah Huckabee Sanders called on a Breitbart News reporter for the first question of the White House briefing. It was about CNN.
She said the “constant barrage of fake news” at the president has frustrated Trump. She called stories about Russia and Trump “a hoax” that is distracting from other news. Sanders urged all Americans to watch a video posted by O’Keefe’s Project Veritas featuring CNN producer John Bonifield — even though she couldn’t vouch for its accuracy.
“If it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism,” Sanders said. “I think that if we have gone to a place where the media can’t be trusted to report the news, then that’s a dangerous place for America. And I think if that is that place that certain outlets are going — particularly for the purpose of spiking ratings, and if that’s coming directly from the top, I think that’s even more scary.”
She was interrupted by reporter Brian Karem of the Sentinel newspapers, who accused Sanders of inflaming anti-media sentiment. “Everyone in this room is only trying to do their job,” he said.
Sanders ignored CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny’s attempt to ask a question before ending her briefing.
After Sanders left the stage, she was criticized on Fox News Channel, where Trump-friendly views usually dominate. Wall Street Journal editor John Bussey told Fox’s Shepard Smith that “the White House could actually learn from CNN’s example” about being forthright when caught saying something untrue.
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that “they caught Fake News CNN cold.” He lumped ABC, CBS, NBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post together in the same “fake news” category. He said that “CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phoney Russian stories. Ratings way down!”
A spokeswoman for CNN chief Jeff Zucker didn’t respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. CNN’s public relations staff refuted Trump’s notion that the network is hurting, saying it is completing the most-watched second quarter in its history.
The president was livid at CNN’s story but also felt vindicated because it seemed to confirm his belief that the cable network was trying to undermine his presidency, according to one staffer who demanded anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The CNN issue enables the White House to change the subject for what has been a rough stretch for the presidency, with constant questions about the Russia probe and a vote on the Republican health care bill delayed. Aides also believe that highlighting media mistakes could be a useful way of questioning reporters’ credibility and convincing supporters that Trump was the victim of a witch hunt.
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted a link to the Bonifield video. Besides talking about ratings, the Atlanta-based producer in CNN’s medical unit said the network has no “smoking gun” showing wrongdoing by Trump and that “the president is probably right to say, look, you are witch-hunting me.”
CNN said in a statement that it is standing by Bonifield. “Diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong,” CNN said. “We welcome it and embrace it.”
O’Keefe told The Associated Press that Project Veritas got the video on Friday and that a portion, in an elevator, was recorded at CNN’s headquarters. He said that Project Veritas plans to release another video involving another CNN employee, with the timing dependent on how CNN reacts to the Bonifield material.
O’Keefe and Project Veritas have a track record of aiding Republican causes, often by using hidden cameras and hiding identities, and Trump’s non-profit foundation has made two $10,000 donations to the organization. His sting operation led to the downfall of ACORN, a community organizing group that O’Keefe portrayed as engaging in criminal activity via hidden camera.
Before last November’s election, Project Veritas released a series of heavily edited videos that included a Democratic activist appearing to brag about deploying troublemakers at Trump rallies. The fallout included the two people most prominently featured, Scott Foval and Robert Creamer, cutting ties with the Democratic National Committee. Creamer’s firm recently sued Project Veritas alleging the sting violated federal wiretap law.
O’Keefe declined to discuss how the Bonifield video came about. O’Keefe said his efforts are journalistic and, since they include video, he contends that it is more believable than media stories based on anonymous sources. The retracted CNN story was heavily dependent upon one anonymous source.
One social media exchange about the CNN story indicated how feelings about the network were running strong among Trump supporters.
John Podhoretz, a conservative columnist for The New York Post and editor of Commentary magazine tweeted that “CNN published a bad story, pulled it, apologized. 3 journalists quit. That’s impressive and decisive action. Yelling ‘fake news’ is unfair.”
That drew a quick retort from Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, an ardent Trump backer. “John wtf has happened to you?” Hannity wondered online.
Podhoretz declined to respond to Hannity online and denied an interview request.
Associated Press correspondents Julie Bykowicz, Jill Colvin and Jonathan Lemire in Washington contributed to this report.
David Bauder, The Associated Press