It appears the Daily Beast didn’t get the memo that we’re on to the signs of a Fusion GPS-linked story.
In an article published last week, four Daily Beast reporters ran with the headline “Mueller Probes an Event With Nunes, Flynn, and Foreign Officials at Trump’s D.C. Hotel.” The dek for the story reads: “Devin Nunes has been a pitbull for the president, growling at the prosecutors investigating Trumpworld. Now an event that Nunes himself attended is under Mueller’s microscope.” The photo accompanying the article includes not one, not two, but three images of Nunes with a red tinge.
The first paragraph also puts Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) front-and-center of the affair:
The Special Counsel’s Office and federal prosecutors in Manhattan are scrutinizing a meeting involving former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, one-time National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and dozens of foreign officials, according to three sources familiar with the investigations.
The aim of the article is clear: Nunes is somehow involved in whatever nefarious plots of which Flynn was a part. Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, previously pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
Nothing in the story suggests Nunes has actually done anything wrong or is being investigated. In fact, despite the headline, dek, photo, the listing of Nunes ahead of Flynn, and the entire crux of the story (that this event was shady), the Beast notes in the fourth paragraph that Nunes “has not been accused of any wrongdoing.” The second half of the story is still all about Nunes' close relationship with Trump and Flynn.
The story has nearly all the hallmarks of a Fusion GPS smear campaign: (1) the story is reported from the angle that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office and Manhattan, NY, prosecutors are investigating something about the event; (2) the sources for the story are incredibly vague, initially “three sources familiar with the investigations,” and, later, “two sources familiar with the Special Counsel’s Office questioning”; and (3) few, if any, details are given to prove or explain the story beyond the headline. The only one of the four hallmarks missing is that this story doesn’t appear to confirm a specific claim in the dossier compiled by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, although it does seem to connect to the whole Russian collusion theory propagated by Fusion GPS.
The article claims Mueller and federal prosecutors are looking into this breakfast meeting from January 18, 2017 as part of two separate investigations. Manhattan federal prosecutors are trying to determine if the Trump inaugural committee misspent funds and allowed donors to potentially buy influence with the administration. Mueller is looking into the event to see if foreign money was illegally funneled into the Trump inaugural fund and PAC using American intermediaries, according to the Beast.
This is actually the second time this rather unremarkable event has gained national attention. As the Beast noted, the event was originally reported on by the Turkish newspaper the Daily Sabah, which puffed up Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s attendance at the event by reporting he was “the only foreign leader at the breakfast and the topics on the U.S.-Turkish agenda were discussed by the attendees.” Just after this statement was a report of the event’s invitation letter, which suggested there would be 50 to 60 guests.
This mention of the number of guests ended up being completely ignored in favor of a conspiracy theory pushed by Bill Palmer of the Palmer Report, who insinuated that this breakfast event included Flynn, Nunes, and Turkish officials.
Other left-wing media outlets ran with the conspiracy, including the Daily Kos and Raw Story. Business Insider also ran with the theory, but included comments that Nunes’ spokesman Jack Langer gave to the left-wing fact-checker Snopes:
Chairman Nunes was a speaker at that event, but it was a large breakfast event, not a small, private meeting as described in that article. Mr. Cavusoglu was one of about 40 attendees at the event, which included 20-30 ambassadors to the U.S. and about 10 other foreign dignitaries and officials. The attendees heard some remarks from Flynn, Chairman Nunes, and other representatives on national security issues — the discussion topic was not Turkey or any other single country … if [Nunes did speak to Cavusoglu], it would’ve been among all the other ambassadors and officials at the event. There was no separate, private meeting.
Left out of the Business Insider report, however, was Snopes' determination that “substantive proof that Nunes took part in a secret and private meeting with [Cavusoglu] is so far lacking.”
The Palmer Report used the new Beast article — which notes that more than just Flynn, Nunes, and Turkish officials attended the event — to oddly claim that it confirmed the previous theory that this event just involved Flynn, Nunes, and Turkish officials. The Beast authors make no mention of this previous conspiracy theory in their article.
In reality, based on all the information available, this breakfast meeting looks no different than any number of meetings between incoming administration officials and foreign officials. While Cavusoglu may have been the only cabinet-level attendee (what he was referring to when he said he was the “only foreign leader”), a number of ambassadors from other countries friendly or somewhat friendly with the United Stated attended, including officials from Angola, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Lithuania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates, according to the Beast.
Past presidents have also held meetings between transition team members and foreign officials. In August 2008, John Podesta, who would lead President-Elect Barack Obama’s transition team, sent a memo to campaign officials regarding foreign policy, writing in one section, “President elect and senior officials [should] begin confidential policy consultations with key actors in U.S. and abroad” between Thanksgiving and Inauguration Day. Obama’s representatives also met with foreign leaders ahead of his inauguration as part of a global financial summit hosted by outgoing President George W. Bush. Obama himself also met with foreign leaders while campaigning in 2008.
One of the only two on-the-record comments in the Beast article confirms this meeting isn’t out of the ordinary, but suggests, without any actual knowledge of the specific investigation, that the event wouldn’t be investigated if there wasn’t some “there” there.
“In a lot of ways breakfasts like this are totally normal. It happens all the time in Washington. So, they wouldn’t be investigating it if they weren’t following the money. The big question would be who is paying for it? It’s got to be part of the broader scheme of who is trying to use money to influence the White House,” former federal prosecutor Paul Pelletier told the Beast.
Nunes, despite being the focus of the article, was not the one who paid for or organized the event.
The other quoted source comes from “a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington,” who also speculates, without evidence, about how nefarious this event might have been.
So, what did we really learn from the Beast article? Nunes is the primary focus of the article, but he merely spoke at the event, he didn’t set it up or pay for it. The article says this is part of an investigation into potentially misspent funds by the inaugural committee, but never actually explains what wrongdoing is alleged to have happened at this event at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Were funds misspent on the event? If so, how? Does the wrongdoing have to do with someone buying influence? If so, who at this event is alleged to have done so?
Still, the Beast’s insinuations that Nunes is somehow involved in potential crimes led MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell to wildly speculate on air:
Is Devin Nunes now contemplating seeking immunity from the special prosecutor in exchange for telling everything he knows about possible Russian influence in the Trump campaign or the Trump transition or the Trump White House or Russian influence over Donald Trump himself?
After the article was published, Nunes disputed the Beast’s reporting on Fox News.
"These guys — it's always another day, they do another fake news story,” Nunes said, before explaining that it was part of his job as a member of Trump’s transition team to meet with foreign officials.
"I don't even know what they're talking about," he said, referring to the article. "As chairman of the Intelligence Committee at the time — I'm now still Republican leader of the Intelligence Committee — my job is to meet with foreign dignitaries. So, I do that on a daily basis, multiple times per day. During inauguration week there were numerous events that I attended — I continued to attend. I continue to meet foreigners all the time, especially working with the ambassadors here in Washington."
It does not appear as though the Beast saw any actual evidence or documentation that the event is being looked into, but merely spoke to people “familiar” with the investigation. That kind of thin evidence led to serious problems with a recent Buzzfeed article claiming Trump directed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to FBI investigators. Mueller took the rare step of releasing a statement from his office disputing the report. In April 2018, Mueller’s spokesperson warned that “many” stories about the investigation were “inaccurate,” according to a statement provided to The Washington Times.
Neither Nunes nor his office responded to any Beast inquiries for their story, but Nunes’ spokesman Jack Langer did provide one to The Daily Wire:
The article is based on sheer innuendo, relies on totally anonymous sources, undermines its own thesis, and lacks any indication that the story is actually true – but the grammar is pretty good, so it’s got that going for it.