Fact-checking is tricky business. In many cases, there is no mathematical certainty, especially when it comes to politics. Either side doesn’t necessarily want “the facts”, they want facts that cast their opinions and perspectives in the best possible light. In President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, both the congressional prosecutors and Trump’s defense team seek to twist facts to their advantage.
Enter CNN, an objective news source eager to parse their arguments so you can cut through the spin, or so it would have you believe. But the writers at CNN, of course, have their own perspective. And they can’t help themselves when it comes to trying to influence their readers with their own interpretation of events.
Yesterday, CNN put five writers on fact-checking Deputy White House Counsel Mike Purpura’s opening statement, and overall they did a decent job, actually admitting that many of Purpura’s claims were true (or mostly true). But there was one claim CNN’s fact checkers got wrong.
In his opening statement, Purpura claimed “not a single witness testified that the President himself said that there was any connection between any investigations and security assistance, a presidential meeting or anything else.”
CNN’s factual five replied: “It’s true witnesses did not testify the President said anything about a quid pro quo, but other administration officials have testified to the existence of one.”
Who were these other administration officials? One was White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who did say there was a quid pro quo before walking it back. I’ll give them that one. But they really stepped in it when it came to US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Sondland, they said, “made things even more explicit during his public testimony in November before the House Intelligence Committee.” Sondland testified: “I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question,” Sondland said. “Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
Slam dunk, right? But as CNN’s writers must have known, Sondland initially said Trump told him there would be “no quid pro quo” when it came to Ukraine, but later revised his statement to say he thought there “likely” was one. This was entirely based on an assumption.
“Ambassador Sondland used variations of the words assume, presume, guess, speculate and belief over 30 times,” Purpura said, then played a tape of Sondland testifying: “It was a presumption. I’ve been very clear as to when I was presuming and I was presuming on the aid. It would be pure, you know, guesswork on my part. Speculation. I don’t know. That was the problem, Mr. Goldman. No one told me directly that the aid was tied to anything. I was presuming it was.”
Yes, Sondland did “testify to the existence” of a quid pro quo, but the “quid pro quo” was entirely in his own mind. He presumed there was one, contrary to what Trump had personally told him.
Imagine a trial in which the prosecution’s witness says, “I didn’t see Joe steal the candy bar, and he told me he didn’t, but I presumed he did. No one told me he did. It was pure guesswork.” Would that be very convincing evidence that Joe stole the candy bar?
Surely these CNN writers know the difference between an presumption and a fact, right?