Pulitzer board rejects Trump’s challenge to Russia stories by Washington Post, N.Y. Times

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
Former president Donald Trump departs after speaking at a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Oct. 9, 2021, in Des Moines, Iowa.

The board that administers the Pulitzer Prizes rejected former president Donald Trump’s request to rescind the 2018 prizes awarded to The Washington Post and the New York Times for their reporting about his campaign and administration’s connections to Russia election interference.

Trump challenged the awards on three occasions, including last year, arguing that the articles were based on “false reporting of a non-existent link between the Kremlin and the Trump Campaign.” He called the stories “no more than a politically motivated farce which attempted to spin a false narrative that my campaign supposedly colluded with Russia despite a complete lack of evidence underpinning this allegation.”

The Pulitzer board rejected that claim on Monday after undertaking the journalistic equivalent of a state election recount. In an unusual move, it authorized two independent reviews of the articles submitted by the newspapers – and essentially recertified the results.

“The separate reviews converged in their conclusions: that no passages or headlines, contentions or assertions in any of the winning submissions were discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the conferral of the prizes,” it said in a statement.

Trump has long chafed at any suggestion that his electoral victory in 2016 was aided by the Russian government or that his campaign had acted in concert with Russian operatives seeking his election over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He called investigative efforts – including by special counsel Robert Mueller – a “witch hunt” and decried the focus on “Russia, Russia, Russia.”

Teams of reporters at The Post and the Times produced substantial evidence of connections in the 10 prizewinning articles that each submitted for Pulitzer consideration.

The Post, for example, first reported on the Justice Department’s concerns that Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to Vice President-elect Mike Pence about details of his communications with Russia’s ambassador, making him potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. The Times, meanwhile, broke the news that Donald Trump Jr. had agreed to a meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer he believed would offer compromising information about Clinton and that the material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy.

Former Post editor Martin Baron, who supervised The Post’s 2017 reporting, said Monday the Pulitzer board made “the right decision and the only logical one. Anyone who researched this Pulitzer submission knew these stories stood up, were correct and accurate and well reported. There was no reason for a reversal.”

The Times had no comment.

In a letter to the Pulitzer board last fall, Donald Trump pointed to the indictment of an attorney who worked on Clinton’s campaign by special counsel John Durham as evidence for stripping the prizes from the Times and The Post.

Durham has alleged that attorney Michael Sussmann lied to the FBI when he told the agency in September 2016 about a possible link between the Trump campaign and Alfa Bank, a Russian financial institution with ties to the Kremlin. Trump said the Sussmann indictment “serves as a damning repudiation of the media’s obsession with the collusion story.”

Sussmann was acquitted of a single count of lying to the FBI in May.

The former president also complained about the unnamed sources featured in the Times and Post stories, specifically pointing to articles that credited “people with knowledge,” “current and former officials” and others he described as “vaguely defined individuals.”

Trump noted that the Pulitzer board had praised the newspapers for “deeply sourced, relentlessly reported coverage in the public interest that dramatically furthered the nations’ understanding of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and its connections to the Trump campaign, the President-elect’s transition team, and his eventual administration.”​

He wrote to the board in protest: “I would expect that you will take the necessary steps to rectify the situation, including stripping the recipients of their prize and retracting the false statements which remain on the Pulitzer website. Without holding the recipients to such a high standard of accountability, the integrity of the Pulitzer Prize namesake stands to be wholly compromised.”

In a brief interview, Pulitzer administrator Marjorie Miller declined to discuss details of the board’s review, including the identity of the individuals involved in reviewing the articles.

One of Trump’s lawyers, Alina Habba, wrote to the Pulitzer’s interim administrator in November to demand that the board preserve “evidence” involved with the 2018 prize – language that often precedes a lawsuit. Thus far, however, Trump hasn’t sued over the prize decision.