'A little disinformation goes a long way': Inside the whistleblower lawyer's fight against attempts to smear him and his client
Posted October 18, 2019 8:38 a.m. EDT
CNN — Mark Zaid, the lawyer representing the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint has touched off an impeachment inquiry into President Trump, was sitting in the office of his Maryland home earlier this month when a Google alert popped up on his phone.
The alert directed him to a video of a segment from Fox News host Laura Ingraham, one of the channel's pro-Trump personalities. On her show the night before, Ingraham had suggested Zaid was a left-wing activist, saying he had previously "represented" Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer.
But there was a glaring problem with her assertion, as Zaid soon pointed out. Zaid, a registered independent, never represented Clinton or Schumer. Speaking to CNN Business, Zaid said he sighed and shook his head when he saw the segment. Then, he got to work on a 13-part Twitter thread correcting the record. About 30 minutes later, he posted it.
"To be clear, at no time have I ever represented Senator Schumer or Secretary Clinton. Ever. Never," Zaid tweeted on October 3, adding that Ingraham was likely referring to his co-counsel, Andrew Bakaj, who had interned for Schumer and Clinton when he attended college almost 20 years ago.
Later that evening, Ingraham issued a half-hearted correction. She said she had in fact mistaken Zaid for Bakaj. But Ingraham characterized Bakaj as having worked for Clinton and Schumer without telling her audience that the work she was referring to was his college internships nearly two decades ago.
"It's a distorted, incomplete correction by omission," Zaid told CNN Business. "What they never do is actually put things in context and context matters. OK, Andrew did intern for Clinton and Schumer. As a college intern. When he was 19 and 20 years old. Almost 20 years ago. When you add that information into the equation, anyone who understands how internships in college works knows that it is inconsequential and irrelevant."
The entire episode is representative of what Zaid said is his fight to correct the record as misinformation about his client, his firm, and him sprout up. It also mirrored the willingness by some to brush aside the facts that run counter to their preferred narrative.
Over the last several weeks, Trump's defenders have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Zaid and the whistleblower. They've attempted to paint both of them as partisans, incorrectly argued the whistleblower complaint didn't align with the rough transcript of Trump's phone call with the Ukrainian president, and even suggested the whistleblower worked with Democratic leadership on the complaint as part of a deep-state "coup" to overthrow the President.
Zaid, a prominent national security attorney who has sued both Democratic and Republican administrations, believes it is best to take an aggressive posture and directly confront misinformation. Even small doses of misinformation -- such as the suggestion he or his partner did legal work for Clinton or Schumer -- can have significant impact on the public perception.
"What's the saying?" Zaid asked rhetorically when speaking to CNN Business.. "That a little knowledge goes a long way? That can easily be applied in reverse. A little disinformation goes a long way."
As part of his strategy, Zaid has taken to Twitter to zing publications and individuals when they push misleading narratives. In an October 7 tweet, for instance, he tweeted to one of the colleagues at his firm and asked, "Do you find it interesting when @DailyCaller runs neg article on #whistleblower case & someone asserts I am 'liberal' activist lawyer, they never reveal we were THEIR lawyer in 2015 #FOIA case involving #HillaryClinton training on classified info?"
Zaid's tweet was prompted by a story from The Daily Caller which quoted conservative talk radio host Mark Levin calling his client a "so-called whistleblower" and accusing Zaid of running a "leftwing law firm." After his tweet, Zaid told CNN Business a member of The Daily Caller reached out to him.
Geoffrey Ingersoll, editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, told CNN Business the story was updated "once people with more institutional history" at the publication realized it quoted Levin criticizing Zaid's firm. Ingersoll said the website's media reporters "had no idea" Zaid had done work with its investigative team and said the omission was "far from some insidious effort to smear" Zaid. The updated version of the story noted Zaid "has represented conservatives and conservative groups in the past, including the Republican National Committee."
Zaid said he has been using the internet to defuse falsehoods about himself and his clients for well over a decade. The practice, Zaid said, is "not generally for the purposes of changing the mindset" of the person or outlet he is correcting. Zaid knows that the people who push conspiracy theories usually can't be reasoned with or are either bad faith actors with no regard for the truth. But he thinks it is worth pushing back for another reason.
"It is so a written record exists out there so if someone who isn't a diehard comes across it, they can see the other side," he explained.
That said, Zaid said he doesn't think he is employing an entirely "different messaging strategy" from the pre-internet days. He acknowledged posting a tweet makes it easier to get his word out, but also stressed he's been fighting against misinformation campaigns, from both the left and right, for a good portion of his life.
"The truth always matters," Zaid said about his strategy. "And I am known for frankly telling people the hard facts when they want to believe a certain narrative. That is what has always guided me."
Zaid has a portfolio of experience working on high-profile cases. In 1993, Zaid filed a lawsuit against Libya for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, which resulted in a $2.7 billion settlement. In 2003 he filed a lawsuit against then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld which led to an injunction against the Anthrax Vaccination Immunization Program. And in 2010 he filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the CIA on behalf of journalist Garrett Graff to get documents related to the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Those are just a few of the memorable cases he's taken on in his career. Which is to say that Zaid is used to taking heat. But, he said, this case has provoked an unprecedented amount of misinformation.
"When you have someone like Sean Hannity putting out false information and the President tweeting it, it makes a difference," Zaid told CNN Business.
"It's a little strange to have the President tweeting at you," Zaid added, noting that he is used to being attacked but that in this case "the intensity seems to be growing and strengthening."
Trump attacked the "whistleblower lawyer" from his Twitter account in October, incorrectly referring to him as a "big Democrat" and a "Democrat lawyer."
Zaid places a lot of blame on the current media environment. He noted that "it used to be that you would only get your news from the three major networks, whatever local newspaper was in your area, and whatever larger newspaper might be in your region." While he acknowledged that that system had its own faults, he contended it has been replaced by one with even more problems.
"It is solely from an ideological corner painted world these people, left or right, will live in and only believe from," Zaid said.
Zaid added, "Anyone can be a journalist by the claim that they blog. No standards are applied. There is no oversight for accountability for what they write. It has created a much more volatile and dangerous society than we have seen for decades."
Zaid pointed to a Federalist story that took foothold in the right-wing media universe a few weeks ago. The story claimed that "between May 2018 and August 2019, the intelligence community secretly eliminated a requirement that whistleblowers provide direct, first-hand knowledge of alleged wrongdoings."
In a rare statement, the inspector general debunked that theory, saying that the form submitted by the whistleblower on August 12, 2019, was the same one the inspector general has had in place since May 24, 2018. The inspector general reiterated that having firsthand knowledge of an event was never required to submit a whistleblower complaint.
"It was a distortion," Zaid said. "But even once it's corrected by those of us in the know on both sides, including the government, saying it's not true, nothing happens. They don't care about the facts."
Despite all this, Zaid told CNN Business that nothing has caught him off guard. He's been getting "nasty voicemails and lots of nasty emails," since he started representing the whistleblower, but said it's "the same type of crap we've been receiving for years, but in greater number."
"I would say nothing has surprised me," Zaid said. "I would say that I have instead been continually disappointed that reason and intellect doesn't reign."