In a sentencing memorandum released on Friday, federal prosecutors accused President Trump of committing two felonies when he directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to silence two women who possessed damaging information that could have influenced the 2016 presidential election.
The efforts to silence the women included a $130,000 payment to adult actress Stormy Daniels and a $150,000 payment to former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
The document states that “Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election,” and that “he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1,” who is identified as the owner of a real estate company who “[became] President of the United States.”
The 38-page memorandum, which suggests that Cohen be sentenced to anywhere between 51 and 63 months imprisonment as punishment for his “extensive, deliberate and serious criminal conduct,” marks the first time that Trump’s alleged campaign finance violations have been reaffirmed by federal prosecutors.
Several legal scholars concurred, including former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal and former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti, who noted that prosecutors must have evidence “consistent” with the allegation that Trump committed felonies.
Even conservative columnist and Fox News contributor Andrew C. McCarthy opined that “the president is very likely to be indicted on a charge of violating federal campaign finance laws.” McCarthy, a former Assistant United States Attorney, argued that prosecutors’ decision earlier this year to grant immunity to two media executives involved in the illegal payments signalled that Cohen was not the ceiling of their prosecution.
Another major figure who was granted immunity at the time was Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization.
Nonetheless, a few hours after the memorandum was released by the Southern District of New York, Trump erroneously claimed that the court filing “Totally clears the President.”
Astonishingly, a number of major media outlets reported Trump’s falsehood without fact-checking and flagging it as incorrect.
Both NBC News’ and Reuters’ tweets, shown below, covered Trump’s statement but failed to clarify that the memorandum directly contradicted his claim that he had been exonerated.
NEW: "Totally clears the President. Thank you!" President Trump asserts in a tweet after new Cohen and Manafort case filings. https://t.co/xoKXNkvTiN
— NBC News (@NBCNews) December 7, 2018
Trump says prosecutors have found no evidence of Russia collusion https://t.co/uJv3rewDdi pic.twitter.com/oI4d7mRuPx
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) December 8, 2018
NBC News did not respond to a request for comment.
The Associated Press also failed to fact-check Trump and after significant backlash to their irresponsible reporting, deleted their tweet. Later, AP spokeswoman Lauren Easton told Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple that “It is AP policy even in short headlines and tweets to be accurate and balanced and provide context when needed.”
(Courtesy of Washington Post)
AP also explained the deleted tweet on Twitter.
.@AP deleted a tweet that lacked context on court filings from prosecutors in New York and special counsel Robert Mueller's office.
— The Associated Press (@AP) December 8, 2018
“If this isn’t true (it’s not), a news organization should not be repeating it uncritically,” said James Poniewozik, chief television critic at the New York Times. In his criticism of NBC News’ coverage, Poniewozik added that even if Trump’s claim was true, “[retyping] the whole tweet verbatim” did not add much value.
Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) also lambasted NBC News for its lacking reporting, calling the network “a vector for an obvious lie.”
A separate article published by NBC News national political reporter Carol Lee shortly thereafter provided a more accurate headline: “Court filings present Trump as key figure in multiple federal investigations.”
Nevertheless, the original tweet was never replaced and is still posted without correction.