Has the Washington Post committed libel?
Relating to President Trump's alleged disclosure of classified information to the Russian ambassador, on May 15, Aaron Blake of the Washington Post writes:
We see ... top national security aides saying Monday night that The Washington Post's reporting [that Trump divulged classified info] was wrong, and then Trump tacitly acknowledging it was accurate first thing Tuesday morning.
What is this "tacit acknowledgement"? While the article provided several other links, to this key point it provided no link, nor any quotation. As to what this "tacit acknowledgement" actually was, readers are left to guess.
But, based on other sources, we can deduce that the Post must be speaking of President Trump's May 16 tweet, which reads as follows:
As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety. Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.
This is a general statement of purpose, made in the wake of the allegation of harmful disclosure of classified material. How is this a "tacit acknowledgment" of such a disclosure? To say that it is is a bit comical, for it casts Trump as some subtle, lawyerly type, where he speaks obliquely, and we are to read between the lines.
Trump says: "facts pertaining to terrorism, and air flight safety. Humanitarian reasons[.]" From this carefully constructed series of words, we are to deduce that Trump is subtly referring to classified information, which – we are to read between the lines – he wrongly disclosed. This is a little absurd, if only because it assumes that Donald Trump – Donald Trump! – communicates in such a clever, indirect, and suggestive way. Apparently, the Post thinks he does.
Trump states a generality, and the Post fills in the specifics. It could (if the Post had previously alleged it) have as easily seen such words as a tacit acknowledgment that Trump was planning to invade Saudi Arabia.
It seems far more likely that, in the wake of being charged with something he did not (he says) do, Trump is doing exactly what he seems to be doing, which is explaining what he did in fact do at the meeting. Yet the Post will have none of it – not from him or from anyone else at the meeting with an actual name, such as national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who states:
I was in the room, the secretary of state was in the room, as you know, the deputy adviser for national security, Dina Powell, for strategy was in the room. And none of us felt in any way that that conversation was inappropriate.
So even if there was a "blunder," as the Post's anonymous source contends, it was shared by three top-level officials, including two with extensive experience in such matters – that is, McMaster and Powell. Yet, in a headline, the Post identifies the alleged disclosure not as McMaster's or Powell's error, but "Trump's Russia-classified info blunder." But McMaster and Powell are the advisers on such matters; protection against such error is part of what they are there for. So, assuming that such disclosure was in fact made, and the Post is really concerned about it, why isn't it going after them?
This isn't fake news. Fake news is when something important is happening and, because of a political agenda, the media talks about something else. This is different. Here, using the word "tacitly" (and not including a link or quote to put it in context), the Post is saying Trump said something he did not say, but only something that – through extreme and selective speculation – Trump can be thought of possibly having said ("said," that is, "tacitly," without actually saying it). To put it another way, the Post could have, at best, said (perhaps) that Trump "conceivably tacitly acknowledged" such disclosure, but in no way could it say he in fact did. But, in fact, the Post did falsely assert that Trump did, and used that false assertion to declare the issue of fact on this matter settled – and settled in a way harmful to Trump.
The Post should explain its basis for its "interpretation" of the tweet, with allowance for a point-by-point rebuttal. Or it should retract its claim. If the Post refuses to take such measures to clarify its dubious interpretation and speculation, then there is arguably a proof of malice – of, if nothing else, a reckless disregard for the truth, which is, even for a public figure, sufficient to bring charge of libel against the alleged offender – that is to say, in this case, against the Washington Post.