Part 4—The best-selling author's tale: Long ago and far away—in June of last year, to be exact—did Donald J. Trump, the American president, try to fire Bob Mueller?
We're not sure how to answer your question. For the record, the New York Times explicitly made that claim in a recent front-page report.
Despite its fuzzy, air-filled prose, the report was deemed a bombshell. With respect to Trump's alleged attempt, here's what the Times report said:
SCHMIDT AND HABERMAN (1/26/18): 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 bombshell report explicitly says that Trump tried to fire Mueller. Indeed, on two ccasions, it explicitly says that Donald J. Trump "ordered" the firing.
The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel.
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.
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.
It also says that McGahn refused to act on Trump's request. It seems to say that Trump "backed down" and "backed off" in the face of this refusal, though that claim is somewhat less explicit. (It's explicit about the chronology, less so about the cause.)
That's what the bombshell report explicitly says. Here are some the things the bombshell doesn't report or explain:
Did McGahn ever state his refusal directly to Donald J. Trump? Did anyone ever tell Donald J. Trump that McGahn was refusing to act?
Did Donald J. Trump come to know at some time that McGahn was refusing to act? Also, in what sense can Trump be said to have "backed down?" Did someone tell him his order was a bad idea, in the face of which he "backed off?"
In truth, Schmidt and Haberman authored the latest of their patented air-filled reports. The report seems to tell an exciting tale, unless you read it with care.
Two days later, the Washington Post explicitly reported that McGahn didn't directly state his refusal to Donald J. Trump. Did anyone ever confront Donald J. Trump? The Post report didn't say.
The Times report was full of air, but it was deemed a bombshell. It seemed to tell an exciting tale—a dramatic tale which aligned with preferred narratives on CNN and MSNBC, the two cable channels on which its brilliance was instantly hailed.
In part for that reason, excitable pundits on those channels were soon describing the piece as a bombshell. Instead of questioning Schmidt and Haberman about the fuzzy parts of their report, colleagues at the two cable channels praised them for their brilliance.
(Haberman is an employee of CNN, Schmidt of NBC/MSNBC. This may help explain the lazy analytical work of their corporate colleagues, though such work is admittedly typical.)
Let's return to our original question: Did Donald J. Trump "try to fire Bob Mueller?"
We're not sure how to answer that question. We do feel inclined to venture this thought: If he tried to fire Mueller, he may not have tried very hard.
Did someone tell Donald J. Trump that McGahn was unwilling to proceed? If so, Trump could have proceeded on his own. He could have made the requisite phone calls to the Justice Department.
The bombshell report seems to say that Trump took no such action. Schmidt and Haberman describe this as "backing down." But last Friday night, a best-selling author offered a different idea.
The man in question is Michael Wolff, author of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, the somewhat slippery bombshell best-selling of just a few weeks ago. Here's how the action went down:
All over cable, everyone was saying that Schmidt and Haberman had delivered a bombshell report. But uh-oh! Last Friday night, Wolff appeared with Lawrence on The Last Word. He suggested a possible alternate account of what may have occurred.
Uh-oh! Without exactly saying as much, Schmidt and Haberman suggested that a dramatic "confrontation" had occurred. And how cool! In the face of this confrontation, Donald J. Trump had "backed down!"
Not long before, Wolff had been hailed as the undisputed oracle of All Things Inside the Trump White House. Now, Lawrence wanted him to share oracular musings about the alleged attempt to fire Mueller. To watch the whole segment, click here.
Lawrence read a passage from Wolff's bombshell book. This was the cable star's reading:
O'DONNELL (1/26/18): I want to go to a passage about Don McGahn that's in your book because, I have to the say, for readers of this book, the detail that the president specifically ordered the firing is just one more little piece that fits into this story completely. And the characters behave in the way we understand them from your book.Lawrence assumed that there had actually been an "attempt to fire Mueller." He pictured a furious, vein-popping confronted with McGahn.
Here is a reference to Don McGahn at page 212 of your book:
"McGahn tried to explain that, in fact, Comey himself was not running the Russia investigation, that without Comey the investigation would proceed anyway. McGahn, the lawyer whose job was necessarily to issue cautions, was a frequent target of Trump rages.
"Typically, these would begin as a kind of exaggeration or acting and then devolve into the real thing: uncontrollable, vein-popping, ugly face tantrum stuff. It got primal. Now, the president's denunciations focused in a vicious fury on McGahn and his cautions about Comey."
And that's just Comey. So we can presume that something similar to that went on with Mueller, with the attempt to fire Mueller.
That's where Lawrence wsnted to go. Cuffing the bombshell report to the curb, Wolff had a better idea:
WOLFF (continuing directly): Let me give a slightly different context than the New York Times gives. The New York Times makes it sound like Trump thought about this, sat down, determined that this was—that he should fire—that he should fire Mueller, that he should act on this, and then told McGahn to carry this out.Oof! According to Wolff, Trump angrily orders somebody fired every day of the week! It gets to be like wallpaper! Everyone knows that they should ignore this "crazy person's" rantings.
And that's not untrue, but the difference is he does this constantly. Every day, the president is saying he's going to fire somebody. Anybody who he feels is—has annoyed him, irritated him, gotten in his way, disagreed with him is going to be fired.
The firing of Mueller was talked about by Trump, especially in this June, July period, before his legal team really got in and took over. This became an obsession with the president. He had to get rid of Mueller.
Now, but an obsession with this president becomes—instead of an order, it becomes kind of like wallpaper. It just goes on and on and on. He repeats and repeats and repeats.
And is it serious? Is it just him spouting off? Ultimately, that's what the special prosecutor will have to decide. And it's a key, key thing because the special prosecutor has to prove intent.
If he's just a crazy person—which, in part, he is—it's going to be very hard to prove intent. So was there a moment in which he directed this to happen? Well, actually, yes, but there were hundreds of moments in which he does that and in which everybody sort of deflects.
And, equally, you know, the Times has McGahn threatening to quit. McGahn has probably threatened to quit a hundred times.
I mean, actually, what they say in—even now, McGahn would like to get out of there. They just can't find somebody else to replace him, so they have to come and essentially, each time, beg him to stay.
That was a very different picture compared to the one the Times drew. When Lawrence ventured a follow-up, Wolff continued along in that vein:
O'DONNELL (continuing directly): You have Bannon in here saying—quoting him now and attributing it to him. It is not one of the unacknowledged quotes here. It says—Bannon is saying to you, if he fires Mueller, it just brings the impeachment quicker.The bombspeople at the New York Times had told an air-filled but pleasing story. They pictured Trump as a girly-man, wimpily backing down from a confrontation with a principled aide. Two days later, the Post reported that the principled aide never confronted Trump.
Was that the widespread view in the White House?
WOLFF: Completely. I mean, everybody believed firing Mueller would be suicidal. And everybody had to deal with this every day because it was always "Fire Mueller, we got to fire Mueller, how can we fire Mueller, get rid of this guy."
And again, this was kind of regarded as something less than real. It was just the stuff that comes out of the president's mouth uncontrollably and often meaninglessly.
Wolff pictured something different. He said Trump is, in part, a "crazy person" who orders such firings every day. He said that people like McGahn all agree to disregard the crazy man's crazy orders.
Pathetic wimp or crazy person? Is there any reason to put our faith in one picture versus the other? By Sunday, Josh Marshall was expressing doubt about what he thought he had read in the Times. He also posed a question that others had asked:
Is it possible that Don McGahn's lawyers had toyed with Haberman/Schmidt?
Tomorrow: Is the Times getting played?