In retrospect, it sounds preposterous: A nationally recognized journalist publishes an article alleging a conspiracy between the Republican candidate for President of the United States and Russia, and, when his hyperbole is exposed in an email from a young journalist, allegedly attempts to intimidate and bribe that journalist in exchange for his silence. Nevertheless, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Our story begins with the leak of thousands of pages of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta. Those documents, though available in their original source format, are posted as plain text and searchable via keywords.
One of them, sent by longtime Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal on November 21, 2015, and titled, “The Truth,” contained the text of an article written in Oct. 2015 by Kurt Eichenwald—our nationally recognized journalist—about Benghazi.
In the body was the following paragraph, quoting Eichenwald’s article:
One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.
Given the subject matter and author of the email, it was inevitable that the words would catch the eye of a 29-year-old journalist and Georgetown graduate named Bill Moran, who worked as the D.C. weekend bureau editor for Sputnik—the controversial news outlet owned by the Russian government-funded Rossiya Segodnya. Seeing that no other outlet had yet reported on the email, Moran acted fast. He didn’t realize it, but he was about to make a critical error that would end up costing him his job.
It began when he saw this tweet:
Update, 10/20: The Daily Beast, among others, reports that the TEN_GOP account, which was later banned by Twitter, was run by a “Kremlin-backed ‘Russian troll farm.’”
“I saw the Tennessee GOP twitter post (I think it is pretty safe to say that it isn’t an official Tennessee Republican Party account),” he told Paste, via email, “then searched ‘Blumenthal Benghazi’ on Twitter.” He found three other tweets pointing to the same block of text, searched the WikiLeaks email archive to verify that the text actually existed, and, in his own words, “botched it.” In his rush to put up the first story on the topic, he failed to realize that Blumenthal was quoting Eichenwald. His story painted the words as a revelation—evidence that Clinton staffers were admitting their culpability in Benghazi—when in actuality it was a small section of a Newsweek article that largely defended Clinton. Moran wrote about the mistake in his farewell post on Sputnik:
I was the sole staffer at the DC bureau due to the holiday. I wrote 12 stories in a 12-hour shift, assigned and edited five other stories from two writers submitting remotely, managed the front page graphics, monitored breaking news, and posted to Twitter every 10 minutes and Facebook every 20 minutes.
I was moving too fast and I made a mistake – a mistake that I remain embarrassed about making. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette after scheduling our social media accounts, stopped halfway through, thought “why hasn’t anybody else picked this up?” gave the document a second review, realized my error, and proceeded to delete the story.
Sometime after the article had been taken down—it was up for just shy of 20 minutes—Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign caught wind of the “bombshell,” and Trump—never an assiduous fact-checker—repeated it almost verbatim at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA that night. Before long, the news made its way to Kurt Eichenwald.
Realizing that Russia’s government-owned media outlet had tweeted a factually incorrect article—or “propaganda,” as he called it—and seeing that Donald Trump had shared said article, the Newsweek writer’s gears began to turn. Without bothering to find out what had happened at Sputnik, Eichenwald wrote a piece in which he alleged a nefarious conspiracy between Russia and Trump to get the latter elected President of the United States.
Further, he heavily implied that the Sputnik story was not a mere accident, but a coordinated effort between Donald Trump and Russian agents to discredit Hillary Clinton. He called the “theory” that it was simply a mistake “absurd,”—citing unnamed U.S. intelligence sources to back him up, no less—and apparently never even considered the idea that Trump’s camp may have simply received the story the same way everyone else did—through a simple link. He went on to argue, falsely, that Sputnik or some Russian agent had manipulated one of the emails (rather than simply misreading it), and also misrepresented when and how the article was taken down.
The article, titled, “Dear Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, I Am Not Sidney Blumenthal,” went viral, and earned Eichenwald several appearances on national TV. His story was immediately picked up by the pro-Clinton crowd, who read it as evidence not only that Putin wanted Trump elected, but that Wikileaks had released “phony” documents. As we noted on Paste at the time—and we were not alone—there was no merit to this argument even before Moran came forward with the real story, and Eichenwald’s descent into pure red-scare hyperbole stands as one of the strangest and most irresponsible examples of mainstream journalism in a very strange and irresponsible year.
Moran published his original story on Columbus Day, a Monday, and by Wednesday the furor sparked by Eichenwald’s response had become so widespread that Moran was fired. (Sputnik would later offer him his job back, per Moran—an offer he refused.) In response, Moran reached out to Eichenwald via Twitter, where he was quickly blocked. But with the aid of his former co-worker Cassandra Fairbanks, he was able to touch base with Eichenwald through email.
In the email exchange that followed—sent to us by Moran, and confirmed as legitimate by Eichenwald—a story that was already odd became truly bizarre. What started as an argument of the facts ended, in our reading, with a combination of veiled threats and an offer for help getting a job at The New Republic that looked very much like a bribe. In the midst of this back-and-forth, the two spoke on the phone, and Moran’s characterization of that talk, written in a subsequent email, also describes the dynamic that emerged in the emails themselves:
Mr. Eichenwald, I considered much of what you said — some of which when I replayed in my head (the visa story, the “file”, and the question about me making foreign phone calls could be perceived as a threat of sorts mixed into a broader tapestry of a conversation with a variety of mixed motivations that I am not sure you have even come to grips with — wanting to help, but wanting the story to go away, wanting to warn but also wanting to intimidate.
What follows is a point-by-point summary of the email exchange, made available to Paste, beginning with Eichenwald’s initial email.
—Eichenwald (fairly) questions how Moran found the story, while also informing him that “DNI” (Director of National Intelligence) has identified Sputnik as a “source of Russian disinformation for campaigns against other countries, and was specifically identified as being part of the current hacking/rumor spreading campaign targeting the United States.”
—Moran responds by rehashing the story of the publication, admitting it was “sloppy,” and reasserting that Eichenwald’s hyperbolic accusations of Russian interference are no less wrong.
—Eichenwald again claims that Moran “took an altered document” and printed it as fact. “You need to ask yourself,” he writes, “how does someone some like me who is deeply wired into the intelligence community know so fast that you had posted this?” He says that Moran’s firing is a good thing, “if you are who you claim to be,” and guarantees him that the FBI already has a file on him. “You have been playing in a sandbox surrounded by very large, and mostly unseen, players, engaged in games you don’t recognize.”
—This kind of vaguely ominous language continues, and is a theme of Eichenwald’s correspondence: “There are some things I know but I can’t tell you, but what I will say is that, as far as American intelligence agencies are concerned, the event involving this manipulated document is far from over.”
—After showing Moran, the stick, Eichenwald offers the carrot: “What I was going to discuss with you was places you should consider working in Washington — ones that won’t serve to taint your reputation for the rest of your career…if you want to move forward in a way that will actually provide you with future opportunities in journalism, I will talk to you about them.”
—Moran, seemingly unintimidated by Eichenwald’s shadowy implications, again argues his position that despite his mistake, they never received any contact from Eichenwald about the story, and that his editor only fired him because of the fallout from the Newsweek story—not the original gaffe. He lists the objectionable parts of Eichenwald’s story: “the claim of calling us, the claim that the story only came down after you reached out to us, the claim that we were the only possible source for the error, the claim that it was some broad conspiracy citing an intelligence source even though you know know otherwise…and everything else I laid out in the previous email.”
—Moran reiterates that he has no plans to back down, and threatens to go public and pursue legal action, despite his embarrassment at messing up the story. “Something should be done to make this whole thing right or at least better than it is now because where were real people impacted by what you did,” he wrote.
—”Okay William,” Eichenwald responds. “I guess the idea of helping you find other work through folks I know in Washington is pointless.” After a point-by-point rebuttal, he concludes with another vague threat: “I’m sorry you have shut down my ability to help you out. Finally, I would strongly advise you not to make false accusations against me based on what you think happened.”
—The two work out a time to speak on the phone, a conversation which eventually takes place, lasting just over an hour. In Moran’s notes on the call, he quotes Eichenwald as repeating that the “intelligence community” was monitoring both Sputnik and a separate Twitter account, which he holds responsible for the blowback (as opposed to his own story). He went on to say that everyone at Sputnik had an intelligence file on them, and asked if Moran had made any foreign phone calls that might have raised eyebrows. He went on to imply that Moran might have issues getting a re-entry visa into America if he ever traveled abroad, and then offered to help Moran “find a real job” to extricate him from the situation. He went on to say that both Sputnik and Russia Today have been targeted by the intelligence community, and will soon be subject to sanctions that aim at shutting them down for good.
—Moran’s next email, the following Monday, includes Rose McKimmie, Newsweek’s general counsel. He makes his intention to release a public statement on the affair known. He tells Eichenwald that he likely won’t go into the threats made against him, and will probably make it clear that he’s not accusing him of “malpractice in his initial reporting.” He writes: “You may ask why I would do this for an outlet — I am, frankly, not doing I for the outlet at all. My colleagues have been blistered with claims of treason, physical threats, and pictures of dead children sent to them. These are just ordinary reporters living in fear.” He offers Eichenwald a chance to issue a correction.
—Amazingly, with McKimmie still copied, Eichenwald brings up the potential of helping Moran get another job—yet making it clear that the way things are going, that offer is about to be retracted. “I will start off by saying that as I promised, I took you at your word that the events were as you described and reached out to The New Republic on your behalf. They have a political reporter’s job open. But at this point, I can’t attest to your wisdom anymore nor do I completely trust you…until now, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and try to protect you from your determination to commit an act of permanent career suicide.”
—Despite “washing my hands of being a go-between with The New Republic,” Eichenwald still urges him to apply for the job, as it would make him “more credible.” He argues that going public will “accomplish nothing other than insure you never work in journalism again.” He says that his only motivation is “trying to protect you from yourself.” He then re-litigates the original argument, at great length.
—Next, he reverts to the threatening language—the “bad cop” persona—telling Moran that he could tie him to the Russians themselves: “Now, there is one alternative here,” Eichenwald writes. “I can write: ‘William Moran, the writer for Sputnik, said he based his article not on directives from the Russian government but on an anonymous tweet that used a clip of the image of the document. He said he accepted the anonymous tweeters’ description that this was from Blumenthal, and did so because he was rushed. However, as the government official with knowledge of the intelligence inquiry said, the original altered document that was tweeted onto the internet came from a location that has been identified as being connected to the Russian disinformation campaigns, and only the news outlet owned by the Russian government published an article based on it.”
—Eichenwald: “So tell me what to do: I will write the above statement into the article if that is what you want.” Here, the implication is clear—go public, and you’ll regret it.
—In a comic twist, he urges Rose McKimmie to tell “her client” not to force him to print that paragraph, as it will “destroy his reputation forever.” He doesn’t seem to realize that McKimmie is actually his lawyer, not Moran’s.
—Moran says he needs to think about his decision, at which point Eichenwald sends two more emails:
“One last friendly piece of advice: I wouldn’t waste time on the New Republic job. You’re qualified for it and these jobs disappear fast.”
“Wait…I dropped a word in my last email. When I say ‘I wouldn’t waste time on New Republic,’ it was supposed to say, ‘I wouldn’t waste time on applying for’ — I mean do apply soon, because the job is great and it will disappear fast.
Even as he appears to back out, he dangles the possibility of career advancement, and all Moran has to do, seemingly, is remain silent.
Reaching Out to Eichenwald
We know how this ends: Despite the threats and the dangling offer of a better job, Moran ultimately decided to tell his story in Sputnik. Paste reached out to Eichenwald, and in a long and frustrating conversation, he repeated the claim that even if Moran wasn’t himself a Russian agent, he was the unwitting pawn of Russian agents. At one point, he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, I never said I’d help him out with a job,” before enumerating how he did exactly that. The call also included rambling exchanges like this one:
Paste: If it was just an overworked kid working at the D.C. bureau of Sputnik who found something on Twitter related to wikileaks…if it is just that—
Eichenwald: He wants to say it was accident. He wants to say he printed Russian propaganda—which is what it is. He wants to say he printed Russian propaganda. In a Russian publication. He wants to say he did it by accident. Okay. I was perfectly willing to print [the threatened paragraph] knowing full well if I did so, he was admitting ‘I am a journalistically incompetent hack, and I want to put my name to it.’ If what he was saying was, “I had a source who called me and said this and I did a search of the article with a search device, like a ‘find’ thing, and it came up in PDF, and I didn’t do it by reading through the article.” Then it would have been no problem. You’re not confessing, it was not a career-ending act. I would have printed it no problem. But I was giving him a choice. If he had come back to me on Monday and said that’s what I want printed, okay. He has chosen to end his journalism career at any place but Sputnik. He printed online gossip as fact and called it an October surprise.
Eichenwald acknowledged that he did reach out to The New Republic on Moran’s behalf, but said did not have a contact there, and did not mention Moran by name. At no point did he admit what Moran had accused him of, which is the odd carrot-and-stick combination of threat and bribery.
“Bribe him for what?” Eichenwald asked. “I have written thousands of articles over many, many years. Why the hell would I care about adding in what he has to say [a reference to Moran’s entire article about how the mistake really happened]—Do you believe someone who says ‘I’m a journalist who fished anonymous stuff off the internet, published it as fact, called it the October surprise?”
Even when admitting he approached The New Republic, Eichenwald spun it as a favor, rather than an attempt at self-preservation. “I just feel bad for him,” he said. “He really doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s talking about his mortgage and he’s talking about his wife…”
When pressed as to why he opted to inject himself into a situation that he said was being handled by “lawyers,” Eichenwald took a minute before replying that he had reached out to Moran because “he was doing this tweeting that I had blocked him.”
And when asked whether the exchange where he floated the threat of publishing the paragraph tying Moran in with Russian agents (“career suicide,” per Eichenwald) was an outright threat should Moran go public, Eichenwald would only say that, “you are putting his conspiracy theories into that.”
“What everybody is saying is I should have been a sonofabitch, and destroyed the kid,” Eichenwald added. “If he had told me that’s what he wanted me to do…I guess I could be a cynical sonofabitch.”
The central question of this strange odyssey is this: Was Eichenwald guilty of using threats and bribery to coerce Moran into staying silent, fearing that the true story of plain human incompetence at Sputnik would undermine his own conspiracy theories?
Moran certainly thinks so. It will be up to each reader to judge whether Eichenwald’s exchange rises to that level—having read through the emails, it is Paste’s opinion that his language clearly meets, and exceeds, the standard of intimidation and coercion, from the sinister talk of an FBI intelligence file on Moran, to the redemptive possibility of a job at The New Republic. In fact, it reads very much like a classic interrogation tactic—scare the subject by painting a dark picture of the future, and then, when the outlook is sufficiently bleak, offer salvation. It goes without saying that this salvation is only possible if the subject cooperates with the interrogator.
The fact that Moran didn’t succumb to this tactic, despite his low status in comparison to Eichenwald, is almost astonishing. For him, a single (admittedly egregious) error came with an expensive price, and within this context it’s remarkable that he chose to go public rather than using Eichenwald’s influence to pursue a job at The New Republic or elsewhere. Seen in a broader light, it’s an act of courage, the consequences of which were already quite apparent to Moran. He said it best himself, in response to the threats of a man who had already gotten him fired, and was promising far worse:
“I am sure that I will be attacked and vilified — if not by you certainly by somebody else — by taking this harder road. This situation may very well — in fact, I bet it will — ruin my life. I have considered that reality and your words, Mr. Eichenwald, but a harsh reality does not make fact out of fiction. People deserve to know the truth — which is neither good nor bad, just not hysterical.”
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Update: For our follow-up piece on the aftermath of this affair, click here.