Late Thursday night, seemingly unprompted, deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – he of the James Comey firing memo and the appointment of Bob Mueller as special counsel in the Russia investigation – put out a very odd statement on just how terrible anonymously-sourced stories are.
Here it is in its entirety:
“Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country - let alone the branch or agency of government - with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated. Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long-standing policy to neither confirm or deny such allegations.”
This statement is 62 words long but it really could have been just two: “Fake news.”
Rosenstein, according to CNN’s Evan Perez, was not asked by the White House to release the statement. But it comes directly from President Trump’s playbook: An attempt to discredit any negative stories that rely on anonymous sourcing.
A quick word on that: Anonymous sourcing is not ideal. As a reporter, you always try to get people to attach their names to pieces of information or quotes they are providing you. But that isn’t always possible – particularly when you are dealing with negative information about the President of the United States, like, say, that he is under investigation for obstruction of justice. Anonymous sourcing is an imperfect tool but one that has helped expose all sorts of important stories over the decades.
Trump seemed to take a swipe at Rosenstein — anonymous leak statement notwithstanding — in a Friday morning tweet. “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” Trump tweeted.
The Rosenstein statement isn’t just strange because it seemingly came out of nowhere. (My guess is what prompted it was back-to-back Washington Post stories on Wednesday and Thursday about the obstruction of justice investigation and the fact that Jared Kushner’s finances are now part of the special counsel investigation.)
The oddest part of it is when Rosenstein warns people to be skeptical of anonymous sources “particularly when they do not identify the country … with which these alleged sources supposedly are affiliated.”
Unless I am misunderstanding Rosenstein, what he is suggesting is that some of the stories that have been written of late using anonymous sources rely on officials from foreign countries who might have ulterior motives – like undermining Trump – when they decide to share information. I suppose that’s technically possible but seems very, very far-fetched to me. (Following Rosenstein’s statement, the Post noted “US officials” had told them about the investigation into Kushner’s finances.)
If Rosenstein suspects that sort of disinformation campaign from a foreign government, I think he should tell us more about it as soon as possible. As in, if a foreign government is actively leaking information about the Russia investigation to US reporters for the express purpose of disrupting Trump’s presidency, that’s a pretty big damn deal. Right?
The rest of his statement is the standard sort of stuff that comes out of the Trump White House regarding anonymous leaking. “Caution” is necessary. “Skeptical” is the right view Americans should take. And so on and so forth.
The message from Rosenstein – while oddly timed – is clear: A lot of the stuff you see on TV or read in the papers attributed to anonymous sources is wrong. And the leakers likely have nefarious motives – and might even be from foreign countries!
That Rosenstein put out a statement at all is weird. That it was this statement is even weirder.