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Trump's lawyers are hunting for the identities of secret consultants who approved Russiagate Pulitzer Prizes

donald trump mar a lago super tuesday
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump greets supporters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwel
  • Donald Trump is suing the Pulitzer Prize Board for awarding coverage of his ties to Russia.

  • The board said two independent reviews concluded the prizes should stand.

  • In depositions, his lawyers are seen hunting for the identities of those anonymous reviewers.

In an overlooked lawsuit, Donald Trump's lawyers are exhibiting a habit from his White House days: Hunting for anonymous sources.

In transcripts of four depositions obtained by Business Insider, Trump's attorneys had the opportunity to question journalists about a mystery that has vexed them for years: Who are the anonymous consultants who reviewed the Pulitzer Prizes awarded to The New York Times and The Washington Post for their coverage of Trump's connections to Russia?

The depositions were taken last year for a lawsuit Trump brought in December 2022, suing the Pulitzer Prize Board, which administers American journalism's highest honors. He accused the board and its 18 members of defaming him by awarding the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting to The Washington Post and The New York Times for their coverage of Russia's interference in the 2016 election and the country's connections to Trump's presidential campaign and administration.

In his lawsuit, Trump complained that journalists and the Pulitzer board conspired together as part of a larger "Russia Collusion Hoax," which the former president claimed was "fully debunked."

In reality, investigations from Robert Mueller and a US Senate intelligence committee found numerous connections between Russian efforts and the Trump campaign, even as they did not conclude that Trump personally fostered them.

Much of Trump's lawsuit focuses on a July 2022 statement from the Pulitzer board, where it announced the prizes would stand after Trump called on it to rescind the awards.

The board announced that it commissioned "two independent reviews" of the work submitted by the Times and the Post that won the 2018 prize, which "were conducted by individuals with no connection to the institutions whose work was under examination, nor any connection to each other."

Each review independently concluded the prize-winning stories were not "discredited by facts that emerged subsequent to the conferral of the prizes," the board said.

To this day, the Pulitzer board has not disclosed who did the reviews and what they consisted of. Nor have its members explained why they are keeping the information a secret.

Trump's lawyers are trying to get to the bottom of it. In the depositions Business Insider obtained, Trump's lawyers question the defendants — all journalists — about what they describe as their "use of anonymous sources" with the Pulitzer statement.

"Without identifying those individuals, I guess we have no way to verify the truth of the statement," Trump's lawyer R. Quincy Bird asked investigative journalist Katherine Boo in her deposition, taken in August 2023. "So Ms. Boo, I'll ask it directly, who conducted the external review?"

At each turn, a lawyer for the Pulitzer Board members stopped their clients from answering.

The hunt for the identity of the Pulitzer board's reviewers demonstrates how some of Trump's attitudes toward media — an obsession with anonymous sources and paranoia of supposed shadowy figures he claims to believe are conspiring against him — have leaked beyond the political arena and into his lawsuits.

Chad R. Bowman, an attorney at the law firm Ballard Spahr, said in a deposition transcript that the identities of the people who conducted the reviews for the Pulitzer board were subject to "First Amendment privilege to protect sources."

"I'm going to instruct the witness not to answer on the basis of First Amendment privilege," Bowman said in the deposition.

Trump's lawyers indicated they disagreed with Bowman's assertion, but haven't yet filed any court motions asking the judge to force the defendants to identify the reviewers — a step normally taken when lawyers don't get the answers they want during a deposition.

Marjorie Miller, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

"We are not at liberty to discuss this case," she told Business Insider.

The journalists whom Trump's lawyers deposed did, however, offer some characterization of the "consultants" who conducted the reviews. Miller, who sat for a deposition on May 23 last year, testified the people were "widely recognized as leaders" in American journalism.

Boo told Trump's lawyers that she was not involved in the first review, which took place in 2019. She said she had confidence in the results of the second review, which took place in 2021, and took additional information into account.

"It was a person who had no relationship and person who had the stature and, I believe, ethical clarity and the moral rigor to be frank with the board should problems with those submissions be submitted," Boo said.

The depositions shed light on the Pulitzer's secretive reviews

Trump's attacks on journalism remain a pillar of his political message. And he has extended his language railing against a "witch hunt" against him to include his many legal problems — including four separate grand jury criminal cases — as he runs in the 2024 presidential election. In 2023, a PAC Trump controls gave over $260,000 in donor money to Weber, Crabb, & Wein, the law firm representing him in the Pulitzer case, according to a Business Insider analysis of disbursement records.

The Pulitzer Prize Board is hosted by Columbia University, in Manhattan, which manages the small organization's payroll and offers institutional support. But Trump brought his lawsuit in Florida, arguing the state has jurisdiction in the defamation lawsuit because he lives at Mar-a-Lago.

His lawsuit also points out that the Pulitzer board includes Neil Brown, a Florida resident who serves as the president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and worked as the top editor at the Tampa Bay Times.

A judge overseeing the case blocked Trump's lawyers from issuing subpoenas for depositions and records for the merits of the case, allowing only jurisdictional discovery.

The defendants — which include New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick, USA Today editor in chief Nicole Carroll, former Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, former Los Angeles Times executive editor Kevin Merida, and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, among others — all submitted paperwork describing their lack of connections to the state of Florida.

marjorie miller

Trump's lawyers deposed Miller, along with three board members who served as cochairs when the 2022 statement was issued: Katherine Boo, New York Times opinion columnist Gail Collins, and Associated Press standards editor John Daniszewski.

Those depositions were supposed to focus on obtaining information to bolster Trump's jurisdictional arguments. But his lawyer's questions frequently went outside those lines, Bowman complained during them.

During Miller's deposition, for instance, Bird attempted to ask questions about how the Pulitzer board came to hire her in the administrator role.

"Counsel, I don't want to engage in argument with you," Bowman snapped. "I disagree that you can ask any question whether or not it's relating to jurisdiction because it has some tie to a document."

Though the Pulitzer board members declined to identify who conducted the reviews, their depositions shed some light on the process.

Daniszewski said the Pulitzer board had "engaged two outside consultants" toward the end of the tenure of the administrator who preceded Miller, the publisher Dana Canady, to consider "five or six complaints" about the prizes. Some of those complaints were about historical issues, and one was about Trump's complaint about the prizes to the Times and the Post.

"They recommended to the board that no action be taken and that the basis for the complaint was unfounded," Daniszewski said in his deposition.

As more complaints from Trump rolled in, the Pulitzer board debated whether to conduct another review. Boo, Miller, and Daniszewski all said the board gets occasional complaints and doesn't always find them worth addressing, but the Pulitzer board took Trump's criticism seriously.

"Not everyone on the board agreed that the facts in the case warranted external review, and there was a debate, and the majority decided that it did warrant external review," Boo said.

2018 pulitzer prize winners
2018 Pulitzer Prize winners pose for pictures during the awards luncheon and ceremony at Columbia University in New York.AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Because Trump and his lawyers had explicitly demanded that the Pulitzers rescind the prize — and made a series of specific complaints in a series of letters — the board decided to commission a reexamination of the articles.

"Even though we believed that we had already looked at it, we thought we should do our diligence and reexamine the question because it was coming from him," Daniszewski said.

The board members said that the people who conducted the two independent reviews of the Times' and Posts' Pulitzer submissions did not live in Florida, nor did they have an affiliation with the Times or Post. Collins said she recused herself from the 2018 deliberations for the national reporting prize because the Times was in contention, and had been recused from the subsequent discussions about independent investigations.

"You get up, you sit in the hallway for a very long time, but that's what I did basically," Collins recalled in her deposition, recounting the 2018 board meeting where they deliberated the awards.

"At some point, somebody opens the door and says come on back in, we've awarded the prize to 'X,' and then you come back and the next series comes up," she later added.

Trump's other lawsuits over 'Russiagate' have failed

Trump filed an updated version of the suit in December 2023, further arguing he was subsequently vindicated by Justice Department Special Counsel John Durham, who investigated the roots of the FBI's investigations into the 2016 Trump campaign's links to Russia.

Lawyers for the Pulitzer board members asked the judge to dismiss the case, noting that a different judge dismissed a separate "Russian collusion hoax" suit Trump filed against Hillary Clinton and James Comey and issued nearly $1 million in sanctions against the former president's lawyers in that case.

"It is a petty effort by one of the most powerful men in the world to silence speech he dislikes, filed in a county where neither he nor any of the defendants lives or works or has any meaningful connections whatsoever," they wrote.

The lawyers filed a separate motion for Brown, arguing the judge should dismiss the suit because the awards were simply not defamatory.

Bird didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. Chad Bowman, a Ballard Spahr attorney representing the Pulitzer board members, directed Business Insider to court filings.

donald trump at mar a lago florida
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump arrives at a Super Tuesday election night party at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida.AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Trump has also previously filed separate lawsuits against the Times and Post in the United States over opinion articles about his 2016 campaign's ties to Russia, as well as a UK lawsuit against Christopher Steele, who wrote a dossier he falsely claimed formed the basis of Mueller's inquiry. All of those lawsuits have been dismissed by judges as meritless.

Bird also demonstrated familiarity with the vast universe of media criticism about press coverage of the so-called "Russiagate" scandal. He asked about former Times journalist Jeff Gerth's four-part examination in the Columbia Journalism Review of the coverage, which argued that the media organizations misused anonymous sources and withheld information in ways that misled readers. Daniszewski said he was familiar with the critique, and that Gerth was not one of the prize reviewers.

The depositions sometimes touched on other subjects, such as the perennial debate of whether aspiring journalists should go to graduate school. While some of the four journalists obtained master's degrees, none went to graduate school for journalism.

"I will say as an aside, it is remarkable the — I guess the achievement of several people that we've deposed that have not gone to J-school have found themselves on the board is interesting to me," Bird mused in one deposition.

The journalists also had a chance to reflect on the experience of being deposed.

"I appreciate your time," Bird told Boo at the end of her deposition. "You've now had your first deposition, I hope you look upon it fondly."

"Hopefully it's my last," Boo said.

Disclosure: Ballard Spahr represents a coalition of over 30 media organizations, which includes Business Insider, in media access litigation in Donald Trump's criminal cases in Florida and Washington, DC.

Read the original article on Business Insider