What Makes Fake News Fake: Another Example From Palmer Report

There continues to be confusion about what makes fake news fake. So I’d like to demonstrate with a new story from Palmer Report.

I’ve been using Palmer Report as an example of a fake news site, even though it isn’t the only one by a long shot. But Palmer has a loyal following on the left who refuse to see why his reports are not trustworthy. So let me explain.

Today’s example is a story headlined “Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit is giving up Donald Trump’s money laundering records.” Now, I personally have long believed Trump’s real estate business could very well be involved in money laundering. It’s also the case that the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit has investigated Trump properties for money laundering. It’s also the case that this financial crimes unit has agreed to share some documents regarding Trump’s finances with the Senate Intelligence Committee. That much of Palmer’s report is true.

So what’s the problem? First — a careful reading of the CNN story Palmer himself uses as a source doesn’t say squat about those Treasury documents containing evidence of money laundering. We don’t know what’s in those documents. It’s not even clear that the crime unit, FinCEN, is sharing everything it has on Trump with the Senate. The story just says they’re handing over some documents with information relating to connections between the Trump campaign and Russian financiers.

Second, while it’s true that FinCEN has investigated Trump properties for money laundering activities, they haven’t publicly accused anyone in the Trump organization of actually doing any money laundering. Palmer, of course, says otherwise. Palmer claims:

As Palmer Report was the first to report back on April 15th (link), the Treasury FinCEN division busted the Trump Taj Mahal casino for money laundering back in the spring of 2015.

Here’s a more reliable source, NPR:

The Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, which opened in 1990 and closed in 2016, was repeatedly cited for having inadequate money-laundering controls, not an unusual charge in the gaming business.

FinCEN fined the casino $10 million in 2015, although Trump had long before declared bankruptcy and had little real involvement in the property.

If NPR is right, Palmer lies when he said the Trump Taj Mahal was “busted for money laundering.” It was cited for having inadequate money laundering controls. That’s quite a bit different. And as NPR said, by 2015 Trump was no longer involved in the Taj Mahal, and even if actual money laundering had been found there, it wouldn’t necessarily have been tied to him.

Back to Palmer:

This was announced in a press release on the FinCEN website (link), but it only became a part of the Senate’s Trump-Russia investigation after our research team dug it up and publicized it.

If you follow the link to the FinCEN website, and actually read the press release, you find that NPR is right and Palmer is wrong. FinCEN fined the Trump Taj Mahal for inadequate money-laundering controls, not for actual money laundering.

Trump Taj Mahal, a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, admitted to several willful BSA violations, including violations of AML program requirements, reporting obligations, and recordkeeping requirements. Trump Taj Mahal has a long history of prior, repeated BSA violations cited by examiners dating back to 2003. Additionally, in 1998, FinCEN assessed a $477,700 civil money penalty against Trump Taj Mahal for currency transaction reporting violations.

FinCEN may have suspected actual money laundering was going on, but apparently they couldn’t prove it. But, again, in 2015 Trump was mostly out of the casino business already. In fact, according to this in-depth report in the New York Times, Trump walked away from his own casino business in 2009, dumping the debt-ridden mess on the shareholders. After that he was no longer even on the board of the company, even though his name was on the buildings.

So what FinCEN found going on in the Trump Taj Mahal in 2015 probably is irrelevant to Donald Trump, no matter how breathlessly Bill Palmer tries to pump it up into a big exclusive scoop. If other news outlets weren’t making a big deal out of the 2015 press release — and Palmer isn’t the only one who found it — it’s probably because the professionals realized it wasn’t that significant.

I’m not bringing this up to make excuses for Trump. I’m bringing this up because I think facts are important. We do not need alternate facts; the standard facts ought to suffice.  Palmer is not reporting facts. He’s reporting speculation, and in some case he’s reporting lies.

If you have done real news reporting for an actual newspaper or other professional news medium — and I have — you learn to be very careful that your facts are, well, factual. People who are sloppy with the factual details get caught, eventually, and that’s the end of their careers. So it doesn’t matter how fervently you believe X to be true; if you cannot corroborate X with a reasonable source, you can’t put it in the story. But owners of clickbait sites answer to no professional standards, and as long as they don’t write anything slanderous or libelous, they can bamboozle away.

More from the Palmer Report:

The Senate Intel Committee is now looking to get to the bottom of the money laundering bust, which came at a time when Donald Trump was still part owner of the Taj Mahal. The punishment came in the form of a $10 million civil fine, and the press release did not state the nationality of the individuals who were laundering money through the casino. There is widespread suspicion, but not yet publicly available proof, that the Russians were the culprits, and that Trump knew about it. In sufficiently large dollar amounts, it would be impossible for a casino not to be aware of money laundering taking place on its floor.

So let’s unpack this. Was Trump still a part owner of the Taj Mahal in 2015? Sort of. According to the Associated Press, Trump “cut most of his ties with Atlantic City in 2009, though he retained a small stake in its parent company, Trump Entertainment Resorts, in return for the right to use his name.” As the New York Times story already cited said, he walked away from his casinos in 2009, giving up his position on the board of directors. It’s well known that after 2009 he no longer had anything to do with the casinos, operationally. But he did retain some shares in the parent company, so technically he was a “part owner.”

But the rest of Palmer’s paragraph is just fiction. FinCEN didn’t claim to have found anyone laundering money through the casinos, so they couldn’t very well state the nationality of the individuals they didn’t catch.

So now that the Senate has managed to twist the Treasury Department’s arm into turning over the money laundering records in question, it should allow the Senate Intel Committee to follow the money and determine the identities and motives of those who were laundering the money at Trump’s casino, as well as Donald Trump’s connection to those individuals.

And that’s it. That’s the whole money laundering scoop. This is not a serious news story.

Again, I’m not saying money laundering wasn’t going on in those casinos, I’m saying that the Treasury Department never cited those casinos for money laundering, just for bad record keeping and reporting compliance. FinCEN may have more evidence it hasn’t made public, but apparently not enough to seek an indictment.

I do think there’s a large possibility that the Trump real estate business has been used for money laundering purposes. I’m not the only one who thinks so; you can find lots of people connecting those dots. For example, Jeremy Venook wrote in the Atlantic,

According to The New York Times, Trump attempted to rekindle his Russian connections during one of his brushes with bankruptcy in 1996, saying he had never been “as impressed with the potential of a city as I have been with Moscow.” Once again, the proposed development, this time an underground shopping mall near the Kremlin, fell through. In the process, though,Trump developed a partnership with a development company called the Bayrock Group, which was founded by a former Soviet official and a Russian-American businessman who has since been implicated in a stock-manipulation and money-laundering scheme involving members of the Russian mob.

See also “Trump and Money Laundering: The Key Questions to Ask” by Cerelia Athanassiou at Newsweek and “Do Trump’s Murky Financial Ties to Russia Connect to Money Laundering?” by Bill Buzenberg at Mother Jones. Lots of dots that might connect; lots of circumstantial evidence. Some of Trump’s business associates appear to be in it up to their necks. I think it’s very likely that Trump was in on it, too.

But we don’t know for sure yet. My believing this is true doesn’t make it true. We don’t know what FinCEN knows. We don’t know what are in the documents that FinCEN will share with the Senate. Bill Palmer doesn’t know, either. And that’s why this story is fake news.

Even if we find out some day that Trump really was directly involved in laundering money through his casinos for Russian mobsters, which is entirely possible, this story will still have been fake news, because it was making assertions without having the facts to back them up at the time.

So please, people, let’s try to keep it real.

Stuff to Read About Trumpcare

Word is that Republicans are going to push for a vote on the Senate version of Trumpcare by Thursday, June 29. This is the mystery bill they’ve been writing in the shadows; there is no substantive debate because the details are being kept under wraps. Will the Republicans succeed? It depends on whom you ask. Here are some links. If you read through these, you will know as much as I know, anyway.

Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone, WTF Is Going on With the Secret Senate Version of Trumpcare?

Ezra Klein, Vox, The real reason Republicans can’t answer simple questions about their health care bill

Dylan Scott, Vox,  3 ways Senate Republicans can pass Obamacare repeal (And four ways they could fail)

Greg Sargent, Washington Post, Sorry, folks. The GOP’s devious strategy for ramming Trumpcare through is working

Tierney Sneed, Talking Points Memo, Dems Gear Up For Make-Or-Break Moment On Obamacare Repeal

Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo, The McConnell Corrupt Bargain And The Fallacy of Policy Literalism

Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo, The Moderates’ Tale (or the Play-Acting Before the Cave)