These are highly charged times for politics reporters. Just ask Greg Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist who has broken a number of stories related to the Trump administration’s ties to Russia.
Miller says that he’s been “trolled a lot” because of his work. But after revealing that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with Russian officials prior to Trump’s inauguration, Miller experienced something new: notes from grateful readers.
“Weird things happen that had never happened to me as a reporter,” Miller says. “Several of us started getting cards, actual letters in the mail, thanks from readers from faraway places, notes even on my doorstep at home.”
Ultimately, Miller’s story about Flynn contributed to Flynn’s ouster from the administration — a fact Miller says brought him “no pleasure.” But, Miller adds, “at the same time, as a reporter, there is nothing better than to be able to get to the bottom of a complex story that there are so many people who are trying to prevent you from getting at.”
Miller further investigates the links between Russia and the Trump administration in his new book, The Apprentice.
On deciding to publish the story that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn lied about his conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak
That was, sort of, one of the more fascinating and interesting episodes I’ve ever lived through as a reporter. When we write stories like this, you know, basically accusing a very senior government official of not being honest with the public — and there’s a very high bar there before you can publish something like that — you want to have everything locked down.
And, in fact, in this case, we had a colleague, Karen DeYoung, who had a previously scheduled interview with Flynn in his office in the West Wing of the White House, and so we huddled with her before she went over. She was going to talk to him about the foreign policy objectives of the new administration and so forth and [we] asked her to — at the very end of her interview with him — raise this question with him one last time, to tell him, ‘Look, the Post is close to publishing a story saying that you did discuss sanctions with Kislyak. How do you respond?’ In that moment, he doubles down, and tells her ‘No, no.’ And he repeats it several times. ‘No, no, no.’ Basically did not happen. …
We were ready to publish that story that night. But the strenuous denial, the nature of the denial from him, made us think, OK we we need to double check. We need to we need to hold off and make double sure that we’re right on this.
That night we talked about it in The Post newsroom the next morning I went into a meeting with [executive editor] Marty Baron, [managing editor] Cameron Barr, other senior editors at The Washington Post and laid out our sourcing. … I said, ‘We have nine different sources telling us this is true.’ And [I] described that sourcing to those editors and came out of that meeting with a green light. …
So we called the White House, we say, ‘We have the denial. We’re going to use that on the record. We’re going forward with the story anyway. We’re confident in our sources.’ And then the White House blinks. Flynn blinks, comes back to us, calls me through a spokesman, calls me and says for the first time, ‘Mr. Flynn is no longer certain that those sanctions were not discussed in that call. He can’t be sure that the subject didn’t come up,’ and that was just so different from the categorical denial we had gotten, I don’t know, 16 [hours] earlier that we knew that we were right. And that’s when we published.
On his use of anonymous sources
These sources are not anonymous to us. These are sources that we know who they are. In many instances, they’re sources we have known for many years and have developed trust in because of how reliably they have given us information. …
There’s no magic number. Nine was not the magic number we had to get to to be able to go forward with the publication of [the Michael Flynn] story. It could have been two or three. It’s more about the caliber of the sources, their positions, whether they have access to the information that they are providing, how trustworthy are they? How much do we know about them? …
The stories that we’ve written over the past two years attributed mainly to anonymous sources have almost all proven over time to be accurate. There might be mistakes at the margins here, news organizations aren’t perfect and we do make mistakes, but boy, we’ve gotten a lot right. … The Post and other news organizations are always trying to get it right, but at this moment in our history where we are under such attack all the time, and accusations of fake news, there is extraordinary care given to getting the facts and even the nuance exactly right.
On the usage of “lie” or “lying” in reporting
We don’t throw that word around lightly. We often get criticized at The Post for being too reluctant to use that word, and I think that’s true in other news organizations as well. But at the same time, I mean, we’re here at this moment we have a fact checker at the Washington Post who has documented 5,000 or more falsehoods from this president since he’s taken office. Many of them are falsehoods that he repeats despite repeated corrections, public corrections, repeated efforts — even by his own staff — to correct his misstatements.
There is an intent. I don’t think there’s any doubt that there is an intent, that it is part of Trump’s very complex personality. It traces back to his origin as a public person. We have run fascinating stories here at The Post about times earlier in his career when he would adopt phony personas and call reporters for Forbes on the phone and try to lobby them into inflating his net worth for the magazine’s annual rankings.
On Trump officials signing non-disclosure agreements
I can’t say I’ve ever encountered somebody who has signed such an agreement. I know that they exist in this White House. I know that they’ve tried to offer financial inducements to those who would be willing to sign them, as they leave the administration and move on. …
I just think that’s such a bizarre approach. These are these are supposedly public officials. They are our public servants they are not President Trump’s public servants. The idea that anybody would be required to sign any kind of loyalty oath to him personally just goes against the grain of so many principles that it’s hard to fathom.
As I read this memo, I realize [Trump’s] talking about me. He’s talking about the stories that I had written for The Post. Comey is talking about, ‘Yes, I agree with you. Sometimes it’s great to put somebody’s head on a pike,’ as an example. Trump goes on to joke to say he believes a reporter should be put in jail, and jokes about how once a reporter spends a little time in jail they make a new friend suddenly they’re willing to talk.
It’s a really disconcerting moment for anybody in journalism — or anybody who cares about journalism — but for me it was just eerie to think that he’s talking specifically about stories I had written for The Washington Post. They’re talking about heads on pikes, reporters in jail chasing down sources. It was unnerving.
Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.