How a Former Florida Political Operative Broke the Mar-a-Lago FBI story

From a Washington Post story by Elahe Izadi headlined “How a former Florida political operative broke the Mar-a-Lago FBI story”:

The text came from someone Peter Schorsch knew from his many years in Florida political circles.

“Yyyyyuuuuugggggeeeee scoop,” his source wrote on Monday afternoon.

Intrigued, Schorsch, a former political operative who is now the publisher of the website, picked up the phone, expecting to hear a tip about Sunshine State resident Donald Trump. Perhaps the former president had dropped by a local business or something? He and the tipster traded gossip and chitchat for about 20 minutes before turning to the topic at hand. “Oh, by the way,” the person said, “did you know Mar-a-Lago is being raided right now?”

“Excuse me?!” replied Schorsch. He scrambled to get off the phone call and start making some others.

Within five minutes, Schorsch had gathered enough intel to validate the tip. Instead of publishing a story, though, he unloaded knowledge directly to social media — with a few modest caveats that belied the explosive nature of the news.

“Scoop — The Federal Bureau of Investigation @FBI today executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago,” he tweeted, adding that two people had confirmed it for him. “Not sure what the search warrant was about. TBH, Im not a strong enough reporter to hunt this down, but its real.”

The way Schorsch delivered the news stands in stark contrast to the norms of a hyperventilating digital political news environment, where scoops are treated like currency and clout that can lure valuable traffic to one’s website and each micro-development is labeled with an emergency siren emoji and all-caps “BREAKING” or “SCOOP” labels. (“I feel like all-caps is loud,” Schorsch told The Washington Post.)

Schorsch essentially gave the news away, asking bigger national publications to seize his headline and build out their own stories about one of the biggest developments of the Trump post-presidency.

His only reward: several thousand new Twitter followers, the admiration of some media insiders — and the satisfaction of getting the news out to the world. “The story,” he said, “is much bigger than the person who is breaking it.”

A registered Republican, Schorsch started blogging in 2009 and bought the domain around 2013. It was a comeback of sorts for a once-rising political star who had pleaded no contest to grand theft. With a cleared record, he reinvented himself as a publisher. The site employs 17 journalists and prints a quarterly magazine, with revenue coming from advertising and sponsorships.

Even while the site has become a must-follow source for Florida political obsessives, some have raised questions about whether Schorsch’s approach qualifies as journalism; he has been accused of giving favorable coverage to ad buyers. (The local sheriff’s office investigated him for pay-to-play allegations but dropped the matter without filing charges.)

“I don’t think I’m a journalist. I’ve been very adamant about that,” Schorsch said. “You can swing a sword but that doesn’t make you a samurai.”

On Monday, after Schorsch received his initial tip, he called a second person with ties to Trump world. “I know you’re not going to like this,” Schorsch recalled telling this person, “but I kind of, sort of, think the FBI is raiding Mar-a-Lago.”

His source replied with, “Oh, f—.” Schorsch then heard something that sounded like a shuffling of papers. The person eventually confirmed that what Schorsch had been told was true, and that agents had just left the property, but asked him to wait five minutes before acting on the news.

Schorsch quickly called a third person, higher up in Trump world, just to make sure the story was solid. He had been burned before by reporting news he had to later retract: In 2013, a source told him Florida Rep. Bill Young (R) had died when, in fact, he hadn’t. And since then, “I’ve always been a little scared to get to the top of the diving board.”

Still, he worried that once he had alerted Trump allies, they would leak the story themselves. “I’ve seen it: You go to another reporter and say, ‘Hey, Peter has got it.’ ” But the second person called him back and said there would soon be an official statement.

He opted against trying to publish a story on his own website. His team of reporters were tapped out — “they had already worked on four Florida politics stories each that day” — and as far as he was concerned, had already done just fine in terms of readership Monday, with two juicy stories about new state election polls driving up the click count.

As a courtesy, he decided instead to tip off three other reporters he knew and trusted, to see whether they could find out more about what was going on with the search.

But in the meantime, Schorsch knew the search had happened — of this, he was confident. And he did not want the Trump camp to scoop him on the story.

So he turned to Twitter to get the news out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible.

“I’ve got a decent Twitter following but I’m not Katy Perry,” he recalled thinking, “so let me put out this big matzo ball, and it could sink, or I am going to get bigfooted.”

He posted his tweet at 6:36 p.m. It didn’t take long for it to get noticed.

Rick Wilson, the Tallahassee-based former Republican political consultant and anti-Trump activist, saw it. Schorsch’s understated delivery triggered no hesitations for him about the story’s validity. “I’ve known Peter for almost 20 years now, and he’s a guy deeply wired into Florida politics at a level that is nearly unrivaled,” Wilson told The Post. At 6:37 p.m., he retweeted it to his 1.4 million followers with a single-word observation: “WHOA.” It went viral.

Just 15 minutes later, Trump posted a lengthy statement on his social media site confirming the FBI had searched Mar-a-Lago. Political reporters such as Maggie Haberman of the New York Times and CNN’s Kaitlan Collins tweeted about Trump’s statement — and followed up by crediting Schorsch as the first to break the news. “Credit where due,” Haberman wrote.

“Credit to @PeterSchorschFL who had this enormous scoop tonight,” CNN national security correspondent Zachary Cohen tweeted. “Local news matters.”

Other reporters soon followed up by confirming and delivering details about the unprecedented search; The Post reported that the court-authorized action was part of a long-running investigation into whether top-secret documents were taken to Mar-a-Lago after Trump left office, instead of the National Archives, which could be a violation of law.

For Schorsch, this story was too consequential to not ask others for help with unraveling it.

“This is not about false humility,” he said. “I knew what I was carrying in my hands … It needed to be put into the public domain. That was more important than [getting] clicks out of it.”

Elahe Izadi covers media for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2014 as a general assignment reporter, and has covered pop culture, Congress, demographics and breaking news.

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