On January 3, the Washington Post's Amy Gardner broke news that in an hour-long phone call, President Donald Trump had repeatedly pressured Georgian Foreign Secretary Brad Raffensperger to somehow change the state's results in order to bring him a victory. The Post released the full audio and transcript of this call and received tremendous media attention.
Six days later, after the storm on the Capitol, Gardner posted a follow-up story showing that Trump had a similar call with another Georgian official, Raffensperger's lead investigator, Frances Watson. No audio or transcript of this call was available this time, so Gardner's story has been attributed to an anonymous civil servant. The official claimed that on the call, Trump said Watson should "find the scam" and thereby become a "national hero".
However, according to a newly surfaced recording of the call with Watson, Trump did not use those exact words. He said she could find "dishonesty" in Fulton County and "if the answer comes out correctly, you will be praised." But the language of the quotations the Post attributed to Trump was incorrect. As a result, the Post had to make a significant correction. Trump and Conservatives now despise the paper, and even some mainstream reporters look askance and wonder how it happened.
The correction was deserved – it's important that reporters (and their sources) be careful when quoting the exact language in quotation marks. And it's unfortunate that these false quotations have gotten so widespread. (Vox also wrote about the Post story in an article that has now been corrected.)
However, Trump has used the correction to make a statement claiming that "the original story was a hoax from the start," which is not true. The original story that got so much attention was Trump's call to Raffensperger, for which we had the full and accurate record all along. It has not been corrected. Furthermore, it remains that Trump actually called Watson to insist that he won the state and that she should uncover evidence of fraud. "The country is counting on it," he said.
Overall, the Post's correction changes what we know about the exact words Trump said to Watson, but it doesn't change our understanding of what Trump was saying to Georgia state officials at the time.
For a reporter trying to reconstruct a call that went behind closed doors, there is nothing more valuable than a recording. And for Trump's call to Brad Raffensperger, such a recording was made and made available to the Washington Post. We could listen to Trump's exact words and understand their full context. It was the gold standard for evidence.
"I only want to find 11,780 votes, one more than we do because we won the state," Trump told Raffensperger. Trump claimed that "totally illegal" fraud had taken place and said to Raffensperger, "You cannot allow that, it is a great risk for you and your lawyer, Ryan."
However, if no call was recorded, the reporter must either rely on notes from a source or on the memories of a source to reconstruct what happened. And given the vagaries of human memory, things can get a little blurry here.
According to the Post, this is the chain of events that led to a now-corrected story about the Trump call with Georgian official Frances Watson:
Trump actually had the call to Frances Watson.
Watson briefed Georgian Deputy Foreign Secretary Jordan Fuchs of the call.
Fuchs told the Washington Post what happened on the call. (He or someone close to him likely told other media outlets that corroborated this story, such as the New York Times and CNN).
State officials said at the time they believed there was no record of the call.
Only recently, officials responding to a request for public records found a record in the trash on Watson's phone.
What is important is that it is not likely that the wrong quotations were malicious. The new recording (first published by the Wall Street Journal) doesn't get Trump off the hook. Trump is still inappropriately pressuring state officials to find outcomes that will affect Georgia's outcome in his favor. And the exact quotations have no significantly different result. (If they were just quoted and not quoted, there would probably be no objection to them.)
What seems to have happened is that either Watson or Fuchs were a little sloppy in an exact quotation against a paraphrase because they had neither the audio on hand nor strong notes.
The two differences that deserved correction were as follows. First, the Post originally claimed that Trump asked Watson to "find the scam". What he actually said was:
"When you get to Fulton you will find things that are going to be incredible, the dishonesty that we have heard is only good sources, really good sources. But Fulton is the motherlode you know, Fulton County .. .
…. You dropped ballot papers. They dropped all of those ballots. Stacey Abrams, really awful. just a terrible thing. "
Apparently, Trump told Watson that the fraud had occurred and that she could "find" alleged evidence of it in Fulton County, but he did not use the exact phrase "find the fraud".
Second, the Post originally claimed that Trump said Watson was "a national hero". He did not say those words, but said (amid incoherent and difficult-to-follow forays) that your job was "the most important" in the country and that if the "correct answer" comes out, "you will be commended":
"What you do is so important …"
… it's just that you have the most important job in the country right now …
… If the correct answer comes out, you will be praised! I don't know why – they made it so difficult – they get praise, people will say "great"!
… whatever you can do, Frances. It's a great thing. It's an important thing for the country. So important. You have no idea it's so important. "
When quotation marks are used in a journalism outlet, it is important that those quotation marks are spot on. However, fallacies in human memory make assigning exact quotations without solid evidence an inherently tricky business. One wonders how many quotes in other major media reports or books would have to be corrected if audio recordings of their exact language were to be made.
What the new inclusion doesn't do is provide a much different picture of what Trump was up to on that appeal than the Post's original story. However, Trump is well aware of the fact that most people will only vaguely recall the details, mixing calls from Raffensperger and Watson, and seeing reports of a correction regarding Trump's Georgia phone call. Those who sympathize with Trump or are skeptical of the media will wonder if he's gotten a bad rap for this bigger story. He did not.