Part 2—Not unlike a Hostess Twinkie: College bookstores sell beer mugs and t-shirts. Health Valley sells Blue Corn Flakes.
Nova is currently selling the notion that Professor Levin can "explain" black holes in a way we rubes will be able to grasp. Meanwhile, cable news channels sell BREAKING NEWS—and occasionally, "bombshell reports."
Under current arrangements, the "bombshell report" is a highly important news product. Last Thursday night, a bombshell report was identified and christened on CNN, then on MSNBC. By Friday evening, almost everyone agreed that such a report had been delivered on target.
This particular bombshell report topped the front page of Friday morning's New York Times. Hard-copy headlines included, the bombshell had started like this:
TRUMP ORDERED MUELLER'S FIRING BUT WAS REFUSED/By Friday evening, Schmidt and Haberman's latest report had moved from the realm of BREAKING NEWS into the realm of the bombshell.
President Relented After the White House Counsel Threatened to Resign
President Trump ordered the firing last June of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, according to four people told of the matter, but ultimately backed down after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the directive.
The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel. Mr. Mueller learned about the episode in recent months as his investigators interviewed current and former senior White House officials in his inquiry into whether the president obstructed justice.
Almost everyone called it a bombshell, but was it even a sound report? On our own award-winning campus, inquiring minds wanted to know—and they felt vastly unsure.
In what way was that bombshell report perhaps not fully sound? This morning, we'll try to count the ways. Let's start with those four sources.
In fairness, this was an exciting report. It told a dramatic tale.
According to the Times report, Donald J. Trump had issued an "order." But then, after an underling "threatened to resign," the commander in chief had been forced to "back down."
This report was highly dramatic. Also, as bombshell reports typically do, it fit preferred story lines.
That said, how do we know that these events really occurred? How do we know that they occurred in the way implied and described?
Again, let's look at those four sources. Schmidt and Haberman sourced their report this way:
"according to four people told of the matter"
According to four people told of the matter! That's a rather murky description, but it seems to say that none of the sources had direct knowledge of what occurred.
They'd been told about what had occurred. Apparently, they hadn't seen what occurred with their own eyes. This seems to mean that Don McGahn, the White House counsel in question, actually wasn't a source.
That said, by whom whom had the four sources been told? Had they been told by people who did have direct knowledge? Had they been told by Don McGahn? Or was the sourcing even more attenuated than that?
The reporters didn't say. At best, Schmidt and Haberman were getting second-hand reports—someone's account of someone's account. As readers, that means that we're getting Schmidt and Haberman's account of someone's account of someone's account—and the The information chain could be even more strung out than that.
To what extent did Schmidt and Haberman feel that they actually knew what had happened? We don't know how to answer that, but their story seems like a Hostess Twinkie to us once we get over all the excitement—excitement which is pimped along by the fact that they're telling a story we like.
We've shown you the first two paragraphs of this bombshell report. Below, you see paragraphs 5 and 6, where the scribes' report, such as it is, is a bit more fully fleshed out:
SCHMIDT AND HABERMAN: After receiving the president’s order to fire Mr. Mueller, the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel, saying he would quit instead, the people said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing a continuing investigation.We can now tell this story in a bit more detail. Here's how the basic story goes:
Mr. McGahn disagreed with the president’s case and told senior White House officials that firing Mr. Mueller would have a catastrophic effect on Mr. Trump’s presidency. Mr. McGahn also told White House officials that Mr. Trump would not follow through on the dismissal on his own. The president then backed off.
President Trump "ordered" Don McGahn, the White House counsel, to fire Robert Mueller. But uh-oh!Already, we note a bit of confusion. Did Donald J. Trump order McGahn to fire Mueller? Or did he order McGahn to tell the Justice Department to fire Mueller?
In spite of this order, McGahn "refused to ask the Justice Department to dismiss the special counsel, saying he would quit instead."
The reporters have stated it two different ways. Which of the two is accurate?
(Based on a roughly a million past reports, we're fairly sure that McGahn couldn't have fired Mueller himself. But so what! Weirdly, the bombshell report doesn't discuss this technical point. This helps the confusion mount.)
We've already noted one point of confusion. Now we'll note a point of uncertainty in this bombshell report:
To whom was Don McGahn actually speaking when he threatened to resign? Was he speaking to Donald J. Trump, or was he speaking to someone else?
To whom did McGahn issue his threat? Can you answer that basic question based on this murky report? It seems to us that you can't!
Already, there's lack of clarity and a bit of confusion, but whatever! Let's continue with the story as the story's been told:
After receiving his order from Trump, McGahn told unnamed "senior White House officials" that firing Mueller would be a lousy idea.McGahn made that first statement to White House officials. Did he ever say it to Trump?
He also told unnamed "White House officials" that Trump "would not follow through on the dismissal on his own."
Meanwhile, what did McGahn mean by that second statement? Could he possibly have meant that Trump would forget all about his moment of pique?
Did he possibly mean instead that Trump would change his mind about firing Mueller upon reflection? Could that be what McGahn meant? The reporters don't seem real sure.
The reporters don't explain these points. Instead, they make this dramatic statement:
The president then backed off.The president "backed off?" That doesn't sound like he changed his mind or simply forgot. But why do the reporters say that Trump "backed off?" That makes it sound like someone directly confronted him about his order.
Is that what actually happened? The reporters never say. Did Trump back down or back off in somebody's presence? In the face of McGahn's alleged threat? There's no sign that the scribes know!
We're sorry, but this is a very fuzzy, extremely air-filled report. Let's consider the possibilities:
Did Donald J. Trump lose his nerve concerning the firing of Mueller? Did he explicitly back down, or relent, in the face of direct opposition?
Or did he simply change his mind as the hours or days went by? Beyond that, is it possible that this highly erratic man simply forgot that he'd given McGahn this "order?"
The reporter show no sign of knowing the answers to these questions. In truth, there's little sign that Schmidt and Haberman know what happened at all.
In fairness, they do know how to tell a pleasing story. Let's return to this part of their bombshell report:
"The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel."
Starting on Thursday night, many pundits were confused by that reference to "the first time." Did that mean what it seemed to mean? Did it mean that Trump is known to have tried to fire Mueller on other occasions?
No, it didn't mean that, Schmidt and Haberman told several cable pundits. That said, their construction encouraged this exciting sense. Below, you see what they apparent meant to say:
"The West Wing confrontation marks the only time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel."
Based on what the reporters said on the air, that looks like what they actually meant. Why didn't they simply state their point in that unambiguous way? Readers, please! Such specificity would have served as a big giant major buzzkill!
Let's assume that Donald J. Trump really did order McGahn to fire Mueller. From that point on, this bombshell report is almost completely murky.
To whom did the reporters speak? The point is unclear. Did their sources have any first-hand knowledge at all? The reporters never say.
Meanwhile, is it possible that something like this might have happened:
In a fit of rage, Donald J. Trump told McGahn to tell the Justice Department to fire Mueller. McGahn went to chief of staff Priebus and said, "I'm sorry, but for legal reasons I could never do that. Let's just ignore what this idiot said and he'll just forget all about it."
Assuming this story isn't completely bogus, what actually happened last June? We're sorry, but there's no clear sign that Schmidt and Haberman know.
Tomorrow, we'll show you what Michael Wolff said about this bombshell report. Meanwhile, the fuzzy prose of Schmnidt and Haberman is typical of their several years of crappy work for the Times.
Why does no one challenge their murky writing when these Timespersons appear on cable? Tomorrow, we'll start with that question. After that, we'll show you what Michael Wolff told Lawrence.
Meanwhile, one last sad story:
Josh Marshall read that bombshell report and didn't see that it was full of air. Twenty years later, our brightest stars still haven't learned that, in the realm of the New York Times, "no one will be true."
When the flip will Marshall wise up? By now, the answer seems clear.
Tomorrow: Michael Wolff rolls his eyes at the air-filled bombshell report
What manner of confrontation: Did someone directly tell Trump that his order wouldn't be followed? If so, who did that?
Early on in the bombshell report, the word "confrontation" gives the impression that someone actually did that. But who "confronted" Donald J. Trump? The reporters never directly say!
People, did any such thing occur? After reading a bombshell report, shouldn't you know the answer?