On January 17, BuzzFeed News dropped a bombshell of a report on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation. Titled “President Trump Directed his Attorney Michael Cohen to Lie to Congress About the Moscow Tower Project,” the story, co-written by Jason Leopold and Anthony Cormier, spread like wildfire through various cable news channels. Citing witnesses, emails, texts, and other documents, the story claimed that Trump’s effort to guide Cohen’s congressional testimony “is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia.”
But within 24 hours, the story apparently began to crumble. Mueller’s notoriously press-averse team released an unprecedented statement calling into question BuzzFeed’s reporting, stating that it mischaracterized the evidence currently in the hands of the special counsel. Immediately, cable news networks such as CNN and newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post began to back off BuzzFeed’s scoop, calling into question the media outlet’s journalistic bonafides.
Quickly, attention began to focus on one of the two reporters who produced the story: Leopold, a former Vice News reporter dubbed by the FBI as a “FOIA Terrorist” because of his relentless use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to demand public records from U.S. government agencies. That’s because Leopold, as it turns out, has a rather unique background as an investigative reporter.
“Rather unique” is a bit of an understatement.
As Leopold himself describes in his highly entertaining autobiography News Junkie, he used to be a record company executive in New York until he got caught illegally selling CDs to support his coke habit. Later, he briefly worked as a news editor for Newport Beach’s The Daily Pilot, before being fired for blasting heavy metal music in his office and jokingly threatening to kill anyone who complained about the noise. He went on to become a reporter for the online news website Salon and Truthout.org but lost those gigs when questions arose over his reporting methods. But Leopold managed to rebound from his earlier mistakes, and as a reporter for Vice News, he earned a well-deserved reputation as a dogged reporter who relied heavily on FOIA requests to generate scoops. (I interviewed Leopold about his series of investigative reports for Vice about Guantanamo Bay detainees for my 2016 book, Spooking the News: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood).
While a reporter at BuzzFeed, Leopold teamed up with Cormier to produce a series of exclusive scoops on Mueller’s Russia investigation. But after Mueller took issue with his Jan. 17 story alleging that Trump directed Cohen to lie to Congress, it seemed that his winning streak had ended in spectacular fashion. Although BuzzFeed stood behind his reporting and asked Mueller to clarify what was inaccurate, the elite news media shifted its focus from Leopold’s story to the reporter himself, a time-honored media tactic of killing the messenger. The day after the story broke, CNN published a piece calling Leopold a “reporter with a checkered past.”
Flash forward several weeks to Michael Cohen’s live testimony to the U.S. Congress in which he stated that in fact, Trump and his team of lawyers had edited his prepared statement to Congress regarding meetings about the Trump Tower project and had made significant changes to his testimony. When pressed for specifics during the hearing, Cohen demurred, saying that the topic was the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation. Suddenly, the scandal surrounding Leopold’s scoop seemed to evaporate into a question of whether Trump explicitly told Cohen to lie, or rather implicitly did so, as Cohen ultimately elaborated to Congress, much in the style of mafia dons who typically discuss criminal matters in coded language.
On March 3, just a few days after Cohen’s explosive testimony, I caught up with Leopold by telephone and asked him about the events of the past month.
“What was really crazy is that after this story took off, I got endless death threats on my phone, through Facebook, Instagram, my email was spammed,” he said. “The way in which social media is weaponized nowadays, I had never experienced that before. ” Meanwhile, Leopold said, his biggest frustration was that because unabashedly anti-Trump news outlets like CNN and the Washington Post were unable to immediately verify his scoop, they either went after his reputation or simply did nothing. “It was crazy,” he recalls. ” I’m dealing with all these other reporters who essentially didn’t bother doing anything. What can you do?”
In Leopold’s opinion most of the reaction to his Russia scoop was based on the fact it appeared in BuzzFeed, which had already earned the ire of the elite press for being first to publish the entirety of the so-called Trump “Dossier” which detailed, among other things, rumors regarding a pee tape involving Trump, Russian prostitutes, and a bed that President Obama had supposedly slept in. “My colleague [Cormier] and I have been working on this for two years and it pissed off our colleagues,” he explained. “And 24 hours after our story was published, the Washington Post put out the inside story of how Mueller issued his statement. You know how they got that story, and in that story, they quoted someone anonymously saying Mueller’s statement was intended to be a complete evisceration of our story. But after Cohen’s testimony, it would seem that is entirely incorrect. What he said–if you believe Michael Cohen–is that he understood that Trump wanted him to lie.”
We’ll have to wait for Mueller’s report to come out or see what else federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York to find out more about exactly what Cohen has told investigators about his conversations with Trump. But meanwhile, Leopold isn’t backing off. After his latest story broke, he spent a month off social media, in part to avoid the online trolls, but also, he says, because he’s been busy investigating. Fortunately for Orange County residents, Leopold will take a break from his busy schedule to appear this Saturday for the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) convention at the Newport Beach Marriott, which takes place from March 7-10. He’ll be there to discuss how reporters can use the FOIA to advance their reporting. Click here for more details.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).