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How Liberal Websites Pushed A Dubious Claim That Trump "Turned Off" A Recorder For His Call With Putin

A baseless claim made during a panel discussion spawned a series of stories and one hugely viral tweet.

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Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

A recent story featuring a dubious claim about President Trump shows how left-leaning misinformation is beginning to pick up now that Trump has taken control of the White House.

Last week, Ilan Berman, the vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, was on a panel discussion about Russia and Turkey's interests in Syria. At one point Berman said the Kremlin had issued a detailed readout of President Putin's call with President Trump, but the White House had not. Then he speculated about why that might have been the case.

“You always look for the readout of the phone call, whatever it is,” he said. “Did you guys notice there was no American readout of the phone call? There was none. They turned the tape recorder off. There was a Russian readout of the phone call."

.@ilanberman: "there was no readout of the Trump-Putin call bc WH turned off recording" - Kremlin readout is very p… https://t.co/xgSkD9BTv4

First, the White House did issue a readout of the call, though it was very brief. Second, the explosive claim about the tape recorder being turned off by the US side is not based on any specific knowledge on Berman's part. He's completely guessing. As he later said on Twitter, it was "conjecture." He also said he doesn't "know for a fact that they turned it off."

On top of that, no one seems to be sure whether these calls are recorded or not. In response to a question about taping procedures, a White House spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, "How these meetings are conducted is classified."

But given Berman's expertise in foreign affairs, and the fact that he works for a conservative-leaning think tank, his baseless claim quickly rocketed around liberal websites as evidence that Trump did something suspicious on his call with Putin.

Left-leaning website Raw Story was the first to write up Berman's comment. Its story was headlined "Foreign Policy Insider: 'No Readout of Trump-Putin Call Because White House Turned Off Recording.'" It quickly spread on Facebook and Twitter.

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That story was soon picked up by liberal sites like DailyKos, Addicting Info, GQ, and Truth Examiner. Almost every one of those stories cited the claim from Berman as a fact.

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Inquisitr went a step further by suggesting that the phone call had something to do with a recent increase in Russian military activity in Ukraine. "Trump, Putin Call Recording Switched Off: Russian Attack Follows," read its headline.

That same day, Feb. 3, Raw Story changed its headline to read "Foreign Policy Insider: ‘Curious’ That White House Didn’t Publish Detailed Readout of Trump-Putin Call."

Twitter / Via rawstory.com

The site also appended a note to the story: "Note: This article has been updated to clarify that Ilan Berman has no evidence that the White House turned off recording equipment."

Eric Dolan, the managing editor of Raw Story, told BuzzFeed News they made the changes after seeing Berman's tweet about his comments on the panel.

"The story was updated after we became aware that the source of the claim, Ilan Berman, had written on Twitter that his comments were an 'aside' and not intended to be a factual statement," Dolan said. "A video recording of the event clearly shows him making the statement, but we felt it was necessary to update the story to point out that Berman apparently has no proof the White House did not record the Putin-Trump call."

But by then the story was already going viral on Twitter. Geraldine DeRuiter, a travel writer, quoted a Raw Story tweet with the original headline and made a comparison to Obama. It's generated over 70,000 retweets.

@everywhereist / Twitter / Via Twitter: @everywhereist

DeRuiter said she has seen the updated headline and realizes that Berman's comment was just speculation, but said she remains concerned.

"Their failure to release more than a vague paragraph summary of an hour-long call, in light of these accusations, is alarming at best," she told BuzzFeed News. "But my argument remains the same: if Obama had done anything remotely like this — an hour-long call with a Russian leader whom the FBI and CIA determined was trying to influence the election in his favor, and then not released a complete transcript — the GOP would be livid."

Craig Silverman is Media Editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Toronto.

Contact Craig Silverman at craig.silverman@buzzfeed.com.

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