CNN has accepted the resignation of three journalists responsible for an article retracted by the network on June 23, announcing the resignations on the evening of June 26.
“An internal investigation by CNN management found that some standard editorial processes were not followed when the article was published,” wrote CNN’s Brian Stelter on June 26, citing “people briefed on the results of the investigation.”
The journalists who resigned are Thomas Frank, author of the story; Eric Lichtblau, Washington investigative editor; and Lex Haris, who headed the investigative unit.
The article, its retraction, and the resignations constitute another hit to the already weak credibility of mainstream U.S. media. The damage is not limited to CNN—the people involved are veterans of the industry. Frank formerly worked at USA Today, Lichtblau came to CNN in April from The New York Times and, prior to that, spent 15 years at The Los Angeles Times. Haris used to be executive editor of CNN Money before he was assigned to lead the the new investigative unit in January.
The article in question was published online on June 22 and made a number of misleading or inaccurate claims:
The article stated that the Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), citing an anonymous “congressional source.” But the committee isn’t investigating the fund, an unnamed “source close to Senate GOP leadership” told Breitbart.
The article said the RDIF is overseen by Russian Vnesheconombank. But the RDIF “became an independent sovereign fund in 2016” and “is not a part of Vnesheconombank,” said an RDIF spokesperson, according to Russian news site Sputnik.
The article claimed that the Treasury Department is “looking into” a Jan. 16 meeting between RDIF CEO Kirill Dmitriev and Anthony Scaramucci, founder of investment firm SkyBridge Capital, who at the time served on Donald Trump’s Presidential Transition Team Executive Committee.
The RDIF is on the list of Russian entities sanctioned by then-President Barack Obama over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in the Ukraine conflict.
The article cited a Jan. 30 letter from Steven Mnuchin, who was at the time waiting to be confirmed as Treasury Secretary, as evidence the department was looking into the meeting. But Mnuchin’s letter only states that if he was confirmed, he would ensure the Treasury department would “assess whether further investigation of this matter is warranted.”
Moreover, Scaramucci told CNN the meeting with Dmitriev wasn’t a meeting at all.
Scaramucci was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and, as the only representative of Trump’s team, was highly sought after by business and political leaders eager to take the pulse of the incoming U.S. administration.
“Scaramucci was the most popular guy in the room,” USA Today reported. “[H]e was frequently stopped by people who wanted to speak with him or shake his hand.”
Scaramucci described the interaction in an email to CNN, saying Dmitriev “came over to say hello in a restaurant.”
In a Jan. 17 Bloomberg interview in Davos, Scaramucci said he told Dmitriev he would “reach out to some people to help him” but that he had to “make sure everything is done appropriately.” He didn’t specify what Dmitriev needed help with.
“I was cordial,” Scaramucci said in the email to CNN. “There is nothing there.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) sent the letter to Mnuchin on Jan. 19 where they portrayed Scaramucci’s comment as a sign he may have been arranging deals with the RDIF that would be illegal under the sanctions—which prohibit American investments into the fund—or promised Dmitriev the sanctions would be lifted.
The RDIF had stated its interest in joint investments—pooling money with American companies to invest in other projects, which is allowed under the sanctions.
When Scaramucci was alerted to the CNN article on Twitter on June 22, he replied, “It’s ok. I did nothing wrong. They like hitting friends of @potus who are loyal advocates on his behalf.”
— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) June 22, 2017
Breitbart published an article criticizing the CNN story on June 23—the network deleted the story from its website the same day.
BuzzFeed then noticed the article’s disappearance and contacted CNN, after which CNN published an editorial note saying the story “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards and has been retracted.” The note also had an apology to Scaramucci.
“CNN did the right thing,” Scaramucci tweeted on June 24. “Classy move. Apology accepted. Everyone makes mistakes. Moving on.”
— Anthony Scaramucci (@Scaramucci) June 24, 2017
But the fallout of the incident inside CNN has just begun. On June 24, the network imposed new rules on publishing any Russia-related content. “No one should publish any content involving Russia without coming to me and Jason first. … No exceptions,” wrote Rich Barbieri, CNN Money executive editor, in an internal email leaked to BuzzFeed. He was referring to Jason Farkas, CNN’s vice president.
In wake of story retraction, CNNMoney exec editor sends memo to staff mandating all “Russia-related content” must be cleared by him or VP pic.twitter.com/2Y6QMZj1h5
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) June 25, 2017
The three employees resigned on June 26.
“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” Trump tweeted on June 27.
Wow, CNN had to retract big story on “Russia,” with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 27, 2017