President Trump on Saturday falsely accused the New York Times of using a phony source in a story about the North Korea summit, when in fact the source was a senior administration official who was sanctioned by the White House to give reporters a background briefing.
The president was referring to a Times story published on Friday about the canceled summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12. Trump told reporters on Friday that the summit may be back on, just one day after he called off the meeting in a dramatic letter to the North Korean leader.
"We’ll see what happens. We are talking to them now,” Trump said. “They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it.”
He also referred to Kim's “very nice statement” on Friday, saying “we'll see what happens" and suggested that meeting "could even be the 12th.”
Trump also tweeted Friday that the summit, if it does go ahead, will "likely remain in Singapore on the same date, June 12th."
This was the part from the Times' story that Trump took issue with on Saturday:
As with so many issues involving this president, the views of his aides often have little effect on what he actually says. On Thursday, for example, a senior White House official told reporters that even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.
In his tweet on Saturday, the president claimed that the "senior White House official" quoted by the Times "doesn't exist."
Immediately, several reporters on Twitter began pointing out that the comments from the source who Trump claimed did not exist were actually made by an administration official during a background briefing on North Korea held by the White House for reporters on Thursday.
Here's the email the White House sent reporters on Thursday advertising the briefing.
So basically, the senior White House official was very much a real person who spoke to reporters during a White House–sanctioned media briefing on Thursday.
The only reason that the Times chose not to name the White House official in its story is because the White House press office "insisted" that the briefing was on background, as one of the story's reporters, David Sanger, pointed out.
Several other reporters who participated in the briefing, either in person or via conference call, confirmed that the official was real, but chose not to identify him to honor the agreement with the White House that the briefing was to be conducted on background.
However, Yashar Ali, a New York Magazine and HuffPost writer, identified the official as Matthew Pottinger, the National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs.
Ali also tweeted audio of the briefing in question in which deputy press secretary Raj Shah can be heard instructing reporters to refer to Pottinger as a "senior White House official."
In the audio, Shah is heard saying, "This briefing's going to be on background. It's off-camera, not for broadcast. Pottinger here can be referred to as a senior White House official. He's deputy assistant to the president for Asia. And he can take it from here."
Pottinger can then be heard saying:
There's really not a lot of time. We've lost quite a bit of time that we would need in order to — I mean there's an enormous amount of preparation that's gone on over the past few months in the White House, at State, and with other agencies and so forth, but there's a certain amount of actual dialogue that needs to take place at the working level with your counterparts to ensure that the agenda is clear in the minds of those two leaders when they sit down to meet and talk and negotiate and hopefully make a deal. And June 12 is in 10 minutes and it's gonna be — but the president has said that he some day looks forward to meeting with Kim.
So, technically he never said having the summit on June 12 was impossible, as the New York Times Friday piece said, but he did strongly imply that. (A Thursday report from the Times used the same official's quote to suggest that the June 12 meeting was "all but impossible.")
According to CBS News, reporters asked for the briefing to be on the record, but were rebuffed.
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Reporters pointed how just how messed up the whole situation was.
Others urged the president to ask for a transcript of the press briefing that was conducted in his own White House with the press office's approval.
Some pointed out that reporters always question the White House on why a meeting is being held on background and not on the record.
A former Obama official suggested that Trump had "smeared" the reporters who participated in the White House briefing, and wondered if the White House Correspondents' Association would take action.
Emailed by BuzzFeed News for comment about the situation, WHCA President Margaret Talev replied only, "Surreal."
Earlier this week, 60 Minutes reporter Lesley Stahl said that Trump once told her that he demeaned and discredited the press, "so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you."