Anatomy of Fake News: Downplaying Bruce Ohr

Last week, Michael D. Shear, Katie Benner and Nicholas Fandos wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “Embracing Conspiracy Theory, Trump Escalates Attack on Bruce Ohr.” It is presented as a stone cold, sober news story, yet even before the byline, the article has engaged in editorializing. This has become a go-to tactic of our “objective” news media of late, which cannot seem to report on anything without first framing it in a way that meshes with a preconceived narrative.

In this case, the narrative is that President Trump is using his power to silence political critics in government, as well as those who are or were involved in the investigation surrounding the 2016 election.

The New York Times piece starts as follows:

WASHINGTON — President Trump threatened on Friday to quickly revoke the security clearance of Bruce Ohr, a little-known Justice Department official, for the first time seeking to apply his power to cut access to sensitive information to a midlevel government worker rather than a prominent former national security official.

In mentioning the fact that Ohr is a “little-known Justice Department official” and even more crudely, describing him as “a midlevel government worker,” the authors of the piece are attempting to paint an image of an average stiff. We are to believe that Ohr was a hapless cog in a machine, thus framing the subsequent scrutiny levied against him by Trump as that of an out of control bully.

The reality is that as of his demotion in December 2017, Ohr was an Associate Deputy Attorney General – a position which is just subordinate to the Associate Attorney General, who is the third ranked official at the DOJ. (Later in the piece, it is noted that the DOJ is a body with 113,000 employees). Nowhere in the article is Ohr’s former lofty rank at the DOJ mentioned.

In addition, he held (and still holds) the role of director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces. Indeed, Ohr would probably take exception at being described as “midlevel” and a mere “worker” by Shear, Benner and Fandos because he was nothing of the sort.

But, for the sake of the narrative, Ohr’s pedigree was severely downplayed. A few paragraphs later, Shear, Benner and Fandos write:

Mr. Trump began this week to use his power to void security clearances to punish perceived adversaries in the Russia investigation. His revocation of the clearance of John O. Brennan, a former C.I.A. director who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, drew condemnation from former national security officials.

But by targeting Mr. Ohr, the president moved beyond his bitter clash with high-profile antagonists like Mr. Brennan and reached deep into the bureaucracy. Mr. Trump also forced a difficult choice on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general: accept the actions of the president or defend a public employee’s right to the normal process of appeals.

Again, the narrative the Newspaper of Record is trying to promulgate is one of an Authoritarian President Trump wielding his power in facilitating the destruction of all of his political enemies, big and small. In Brennan, a former CIA director, we are given an example of a big enemy. In Ohr, the “little known,” “midlevel government worker,” we must take as a small enemy. The description of Trump having to reach “deep into the bureaucracy” to get to Ohr adds further color to the narrative being spun.

So too does the minimization of Brennan’s actions play into the narrative. The Times authors encapsulate the totality of Brennan’s behavior in this saga in the benign label “outspoken critic.” To describe Trump’s actions, they note his “power” and willingness to “punish perceived adversaries,” thereby creating a sense that the President is at the very least abusing his power.

However, as Andrew McCarthy wrote over the weekend, the President’s revocation of Brennan’s security clearance was indeed justified. This is because Brennan, in his new role as a media pundit, frequently went beyond mere political criticism and spoke with the insinuation that law enforcement has President Trump dead to rights, and his impeachment is imminent. He merely cannot be explicit because, you know, the pertinent information is classified.

Furthermore, Brennan does this with the gravitas of an ex-CIA director, specifically the one who was in charge during the time covered by the multiple, ongoing investigations into the events of the 2016 election and beyond. At the very least his comments are irresponsible.

Beyond this, there is the issue of Brennan’s history of lying to Congress about spying on US Senate staffers in 2014. On that basis alone, Brennan would not be granted clearance if he were to apply for it today from scratch. That he even remained in the job beyond 2014 was absurd. Indeed, many of the same left leaning outlets now championing this poor little “outspoken critic” had called for his resignation or firing back then (here, here, and here). However, in service of The Narrative, a little hypocrisy is no bother.

We continue:

Mr. Ohr, a career law enforcement official who has worked on antidrug and antigang initiatives at the Justice Department, has been targeted by conservative allies of Mr. Trump who have seized on the fact that Mr. Ohr was at the department at the same time that his wife, Nellie, was a contractor for Fusion GPS, a research firm that participated in compiling a dossier of damaging information about Mr. Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Ohr is portrayed again as some sort of stiff just working on drug and gang cases, who just happened to be married to a contractor for the firm which helped to produce the infamous Trump Dossier. That this ‘coincidence’ has been “seized on” by “conservative allies” is supposed to inform the reader that Ohr is a victim of a right wing conspiracy theory. Furthering that idea, Shear, Benner and Fandos write:

Conservatives have pointed out that emails show that in 2016, Mr. Ohr was in contact with Christopher Steele, the British former spy who compiled the dossier, in part by relying on Russian sources, and with Glenn R. Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS. Democrats have called the accusations ridiculous and overblown.

The phrase “conservatives have pointed out” deliberately muddies the waters, drenching plain fact in insinuations of politically motivated spin.

Mr. Ohr was in touch with Mr. Steele, a professional acquaintance whom he had known before Mr. Steele began working for Fusion GPS, through summer and fall 2016, including one conversation in which Mr. Steele said that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”

Mr. Ohr eventually told the F.B.I. about his wife’s work and about his conversations with Mr. Steele, passing along information given to him by Mr. Steele that the F.B.I. had already received directly from the former spy. Mr. Steele had worked with the bureau on past cases.

Shear, Benner and Fandos paint an innocuous picture here, but leave out a crucial detail. Steele had indeed worked with the FBI, but had those ties severed for leaking information to the media. Therefore, the FBI could no longer credibly use Steele’s information in its investigation. Given that Steele was essentially the only source of information, it would have left the investigation at a dead end.

Enter Bruce Ohr, whose wife Nellie worked with the same firm that Steele had been working with, Fusion GPS. Steele’s information passed through Nellie and Bruce Ohr to the FBI. The FBI was thus getting laundered information from Ohr, a “source” untainted by a leaking offense.

It was for this that Ohr was demoted back in December. This laundering aspect of the investigation was confirmed by Peter Stzrok, who testified last month to receiving Steele’s information from Ohr.

Now comes the obfuscation, lest the reader begins to veer towards the truth:

And no evidence has emerged showing that Mr. Ohr or his wife played a role in starting the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation. Rather, it was contacts between a former Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, and Russian intermediaries that prompted the bureau to open the inquiry in late July 2016.

But Mr. Trump has embraced the theory, casting Mr. Ohr and his wife as central players in what he calls the “rigged witch hunt” and accusing the couple of having what he claims are indirect contacts with Russians — apparently a reference to Mr. Steele’s research.

And a few paragraphs later:

Republican lawmakers who strongly support Mr. Trump, mostly in the House, have circled Mr. Ohr and his wife for months, alleging connections to Mr. Steele and the Democrat-funded dossier they argue formed the basis for a politically motivated investigation into the Trump campaign.

No one is alleging that the Ohr’s were the reason the FBI started the Russia investigation, as the Times writes. What is suggested is that the Ohr’s played a role in ‘cleansing’ the Steele dossier for the purposes of presenting it to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, in pursuit of a FISA warrant which allowed for the monitoring of one-time Trump campaign participant Carter Page.

The scandal stems from the fact that Steele’s information was unverified, and furthermore his credibility as a source was damaged by his leaking to the press. The Ohrs facilitated the rehabilitation of the Steele information by presenting it to the FBI as though it was coming from the DOJ, thus providing a more credible source.

This is not “theory.” This comes from sworn testimony, as well as newly released evidence of contacts between Steele and Bruce Ohr. Yet the Times wants us to believe that it is Trump who is waging a politically motivated assault on dutiful government workers over political differences. Towards the end, Shear, Benner and Fados write:

Republicans who control Congress have shown little interest in directly challenging Mr. Trump on security clearances or his broadsides against investigators.

And in a letter released Friday, 60 former C.I.A. officials said they objected to Mr. Trump’s threats to remove clearances of former security officials, adding their names to the chorus of senior intelligence officers condemning the revocation of Mr. Brennan’s clearance. The letter argued that “the country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their view.”

Trump’s critical views of the actions of Bruce Ohr, and indeed John Brennan, are couched as “broadsides against investigators,” continuing the theme of ascribing to Trump’s actions a negative connotation and the implication that these actions are that of an authoritarian. It implicates Republicans as well, describing them as unwilling to challenge Trump, before quoting former officials lamenting the supposed weakening of the country thanks to Trump’s ‘tyranny.’

The reality is that Trump’s “broadsides” have been levied against people who have, at the very least acted unethically, if not criminally. They have not been mere political critics as has been implied.

Peter Stzrok was not fired for anti-Trump text messages but for likely manipulating and/or withholding information in the 302s (written memos of FBI interviews with subjects) of Hillary Clinton and Michael Flynn. Bruce Ohr was not fired for his political views. Indeed, the Times goes to great lengths to state how “little known” Ohr was, which suggests that logically the only way he could have made a name for himself was by doing something very severe. The Times own reporting mentions those severe actions actions, Ohr’s role in the information laundering effort, but tries to gloss over it. The Times then tries to reframe any criticism of Ohr on these very legitimate grounds as politically motived conspiracy theories, even using the title of the piece to hammer the idea home.

However one can hardly be accused of peddling conspiracy theories given that all of the criticism stems from on the record evidence disseminated in reporting on investigations by Congress and other internal government bodies, as well as sworn testimony by principle witnesses.

And with that, Michael D. Shear, Katie Benner and Nicholas Fandos completed an exercise in obfuscation, lying by omission and plain dishonesty in the service of the narrative that President Trump is a dictator using his power to silence his political enemies. The charge is patently false; Trump has not placed any restriction upon any individual or organization critical of him. That is an important thing to note in light of his battles with the Press, culminating in a coordinated, simultaneous attack by some 300+ news organizations against the President last week.

What Trump has done, in spades, is to be critical of his critics, in a particularly sharp and stinging manner to boot. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly when his critics engage in the tactics on display in the Shear, Benner and Fandos piece. Very little of what is written in the piece is an outright lie, which is to say factually incorrect.

What the piece does do is augment factual information with clever qualifiers and negative connotations to nudge the reader towrard the worst possible interpretation of events.

As mentioned, this process begins straight from the headline, leading by accusing President Trump of “embracing conspiracy theory,” yet burying the factual evidence which contradicts that accusation in the 8th and 9th paragraphs.

Its mischaracterization of Ohr and the omission of pertinent information regarding his situation lead the reader to believe the drastic moves the President makes are that of a petty tyrant, or alternatively, an act of desperation in saving his own skin.

The omission of Brennan’s catalog of bad behavior and portrayal as a mere political observer similarly leads one to the conclusion that Trump is being heavy handed in his response. So too does the mention of a letter released by dozens of ex-CIA officials, the purpose of which is to add a perceived layer of sober authority.

And with all of this done under the masthead of the New York Times, what is naked political propaganda is recast as objective news. It is this sort of thing that President Trump has raged against, and rightly so. The pushing of bias and opinion as down the middle factual reporting is the essence of “fake news” in the Trump era. The public at large still sees the NYT masthead and assumes objectivity, even if they are increasingly wary. In a bygone age, organizations like the Times had a monopoly on such objectivity.

In the age of the internet, and more specifically social media, this monopoly is gone. Articles such as the Shear, Bonner and Fandos piece which are supposed to form the public’s understanding can be taken apart and ridiculed for what they are. The president regularly does this from his Twitter bully pulpit, and on a smaller scale, conservatives on Twitter, YouTube, blogs and discussion forums are doing the same.

The press doesn’t like this, and true to form, label critiques of their offerings as “attacks on the Free Press.” They are nothing of the sort, merely necessary corrections to the record. It is my aim that the techniques dissected here will jump off the page the next time the reader should encounter such “reporting,” and armed with such knowledge, the reader will better understand it for what it is.

Unfortunately, the more frequently the reader consumes legacy media, the more frequently such skills will be required.