The talking point, once again, filtered its way through Fox News before landing on President Donald Trump’s desk.
In what has become a familiar pattern, Trump tweeted something on Monday that was clearly influenced by his preferred morning television program, “Fox & Friends.”
“James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media,” Trump tweeted at 6:40 A.M. ET. “That is so illegal!”
But the claim — and the on-air report on which it was based — was false.
Eight minutes before Trump’s tweet, “Fox & Friends” tweeted this from its official account:
The tweet contained a clip from that morning’s broadcast of the show. In the clip, an anchor explained that “a brand new bombshell report” suggests former FBI Director James Comey “may have actually broken the rules” and put “our national security at risk” when he shared with a friend a memo he’d written detailing one of his conversations with Trump.
The tweet itself, which was also shared by Trump, said the report “accuses” Comey of leaking “top secret information” to a friend.
But on-air and on Twitter, “Fox & Friends” had mischaracterized the report it cited, which was published Sunday night by The Hill.
The report, citing “officials familiar with the documents,” indicated that more than half of the seven memos Comey wrote to memorialize his conversations with the president were determined “to contain classified information.”
“Four of the memos had markings making clear they contained information classified at the ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ level, according to officials directly familiar with the matter,” the report said.
The Hill’s article does not say, as “Fox & Friends” suggested, that the particular memo Comey shared with a friend with the intent of having it reported on in the news media contained “top secret information.”
A Fox News spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, Comey testified last month that the particular memo eventually reported on by the New York Times — which memorialized a February conversation Comey had with Trump regarding the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — was unclassified.
Columbia Law School Professor Daniel Richman, Comey’s friend who received the memo and shared it with the Times, told CNN that the document “was not classified at the time and to my knowledge is not classified now.”
“Jim Comey never gave me a memo that was classified; and the memo whose substance I passed on the Times has never to my knowledge been classified,” Richman said. “Memos that went to Congress, and not me, may well have been classified. The Director of the FBI does indeed write classified memos.”
Even The Hill’s own report quotes from Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, during which he recalled preparing “an unclassified memo of the conversation about Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership.”
But while Trump’s cable news obsession might make it easier to identify the source of misleading reports he shares, fact-checking will likely do nothing to stop his supporters on social media from repeating the falsehood.
Later on Monday morning, senior White House adviser Kellyanne Conway hyped the report as she made the morning television rounds.
The feedback loop was complete shortly after 8 a.m., when Fox News reported that Trump had “accused former FBI Director James Comey of having illegally leaked classified material.”
— CNN’s Manu Raju contributed reporting.