Washington Post Fact Checker wrongly dings Gabbard on Russian ‘grooming’

When numerous media outlets produced conflicting reports, op-eds and fact checks on whether Hillary Clinton said the Russians were grooming Democratic Party presidential candidate Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Zebra Fact Check weighed in on the issue. After looking at the whole context of the Clinton interview on David Plouffe’s podcast, we said Clinton had tended to mix statements about Trump campaign activity with those about Russian activity. Moreover, Clinton said the Trump campaign was maintaining contacts with the Russians.

We focused our article on claims from the fact-checking organization Lead Stories that the Russian grooming was a hoax and fake news. In fact, the fact checkers do not know to whom Clinton referred, though we find it likely she was saying the Russians were grooming Gabbard for a third-party run.

It turns out the Washington Post Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, also wrote on the issue, giving an op-ed by Gabbard three “Pinocchios” for claiming Clinton said the Russians were grooming Gabbard.

Kessler flubbed his analysis.

He absurdly charged that Gabbard “misquoted” Clinton and produced the same type of superficial and flawed fact-checking that Lead Stories produced.

Misusing “Misquoted”

Kessler opened fire on Gabbard using blanks, running with the headline “Tulsi Gabbard misquotes Hillary Clinton’s jab at her.”

Kessler offered no evidence Gabbard misquoted Clinton. The word “misquote” doesn’t even appear in Kessler’s analysis other than in the title.

We charitably assume Kessler intended to claim Gabbard misrepresented what Clinton said. Inaccurately summarizing somebody’s words is misrepresentation, not misquotation. A fact checker should know the difference and make the difference clear to readers.

Skimping on Context

Kessler introduced material from the Clinton interview by saying “the relevant discussion begins at the 35:00 mark.”

But during the interview Clinton had already associated the Trump campaign with Russian election interference a number of times. Russian election interference was the glue holding the threads of Clinton’s election analysis together. Clinton used her time on Plouffe’s program to emphasize that Russia helped Trump beat her in 2016 and we should expect the same in 2020. Clinton’s repeated references to Russia throughout the interview provide the interpretive key to her comments during the part Kessler identifies as “the relevant discussion.”


Clinton told Plouffe that the GOP strategy will have “two parts.” First, she said, Republicans would demonize the Democratic candidate so that even if voters find Trump’s behavior distasteful, they might be reluctant to cast a ballot for a Democrat. “I think it’s going to be the same as 2016: ‘Don’t vote for the other guy. You don’t like me? Don’t vote for the other guy because the other guy is going to do X, Y and Z,’ ” Clinton said.

By cutting off the relevant context before the 35 minute mark, Kessler left his readers unaware that Clinton earlier identified a four-part strategy in 2016 with two of those parts specifically featuring Russian activity.

When Plouffe later asked about the 2020 campaign, Clinton avowed the 2020 game plan will follow the same pattern as in 2016, saying the opposition will do “all this stuff they did this last time, which was very effective. And the Russians played a big role in” (34:00).

Clinton was saying the Trump Campaign and Russian election interference work together. Kessler ignored the essential context of the interview. When Kessler got to the second part of Clinton’s answer, he assumed Clinton was talking about the Trump campaign and not Russia:

Second, she said, Republicans would encourage a third-party bid so that those voters disenchanted with Trump and the Democratic nominee would have another option.

If Kessler had alerted his readers that “Republicans” meant the Republicans and the Russians then his description would adequately convey the meaning of the discussion between Plouffe and Clinton. Instead, Kessler led his readers to believe the context of the interview showed when Clinton said “Republicans” she meant just Republicans and not the Russians.

The evidence supporting Kessler’s judgment comes from truncated context, Clinton’s spokesperson, Nick Merrill, and the papering over of contrary evidence.

“It was a question about Republicans”

Kessler bought Merrill’s argument that Clinton was answering a question about Republicans, therefore Clinton’s answer concerned Republicans and not Russians.

But the context fails to make that clear. In fact, before Plouffe’s question in the infamous segment (it was more a statement than a question), Clinton had just finished her review of Trump’s 2016 campaign strategy, the one “the Russians played a big role in.”

In short, Kessler did not have enough evidence to support his claim of fact.

The Stein Factor “confusing”?

Merrill’s view on Clinton’s intent carries relevance to the degree he supported it with evidence. Merrill gave no evidence. And lacking such evidence we proceed to a passage Kessler failed to explain:

Here’s where it starts to get confusing, especially because a lot of the early reporting on Clinton’s remarks did not provide the right context — that she was talking about what Republicans were planning.

Clinton then started to talk about Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the 2020 presidential race.

“She is a favorite of the Russians,” Clinton added, still not saying who she was talking about. “They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far. And, that’s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she’s also a Russian asset. Yeah, she’s a Russian asset. Totally. And so they know they can’t win without a third-party candidate. I don’t know who it’s going to be, but I will guarantee they’ll have a vigorous third-party challenge in the key states that they most need it.”

The passage counts as confusing if we ignore Clinton’s ongoing theme of Russian election interference on Trump’s behalf. But if we understand Clinton’s point that the Trump campaign and Russia go together like peanut butter and jelly, it makes perfect sense for Clinton to segue straight to Russia talk.

She did it throughout the interview.

And Clinton’s comment about Jill Stein undercuts the efforts of Kessler and others to argue Clinton was not talking about the Russians grooming Gabbard. Why would Stein need to “give it up” to allow Gabbard to take up the mantle as a Russian or Republican-supported third-party darling?

Kessler found it confusing because he apparently ignored the broader context of the Clinton interview.

The Stein comment makes sense if we note that Clinton is saying the Russians already have a bunch of sites and ‘bots supporting Gabbard. But the Republicans and Russians together will support the third-party candidate the Russians prefer.

Stein, then, gives it up by failing to remain the Russian favorite, leading the Trump campaign to support an alternative Russian favorite such as Gabbard.

It only makes sense with the understanding that Trump campaign and Russian interests match, in keeping with Clinton’s theme during the interview.

Passing off opinion as fact

When Kessler and fact checkers such as Lead Stories judge ambiguous statements as true or false and present those judgments as fact, they’re mistaken.

Both fact checkers suggested it was flatly true Clinton said Republicans and not Russians were grooming Gabbard as a third party candidate.

Neither produced evidence sufficient to support its case. The context, contrary to what the fact checkers claimed, makes it more likely Clinton was crediting the Russians with activity aimed at “grooming” Gabbard.

Both fact checkers passed off opinion as fact.

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