Part 4—Maddow forgets to ask: Is Andrew McCabe a villain? More specifically:
Back in February, did McCabe, then the deputy FBI head, "become part of the Trump disinformation campaign?"
Last Wednesday night, on the Maddow Show, we were told that he did. Rachel Maddow delivered that claim in a dramatic, twenty-minute rant.
She told us liberals that McCabe's conduct had been "a scandal." To watch that whole segment, click here.
In this way, we liberals got our nightly dollop of high paranoia porridge. In fairness to Maddow, whose salary is likely $10 million per year, these highly dramatic claims are good for ratings and profits.
Having said that, let us ask this: Was Maddow's claim actually true? Or had Our Own Rhodes Scholar managed to do it again?
Spoiler alert: we know of no particular reason to believe what Maddow said. She certainly didn't provide any.
Maddow cited one journalistic source in support of her dramatic claims about McCabe. And uh-oh! That source had simply accepted a claim by Reince Priebus, without making any attempt to show that the claim was true.
On this basis, we liberals were given our nightly porridge and we were sent off to bed. We were sent off to bed with a smile on our faces. We had our latest villain!
On what basis did Maddow make her claim? Below, we'll examine that point. But first, let's construct a basic chronology. Here's how the whole thing went down:
Wednesday morning, February 15: The New York Times published a front-page report about the Trump campaign. (The report had appeared on-line the night before.)
According to this widely-discussed report, "members of [the] campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials."
Sunday, February 19: That Sunday, Reince Priebus appeared on three Sunday morning shows to dispute this report. "I've talked to the top levels of the intelligence community," he said on Meet the Press. "And they have assured me that that New York Times story was grossly overstated and inaccurate and totally wrong."
Saturday morning, February 25: By the end of that week, Priebus' claim had become more specific. On Saturday morning, February 25, the New York Times offered this account of a briefing by Sean Spicer:
DAVIS (2/25/17): Mr. Spicer said that it was top F.B.I. officials—first Andrew G. McCabe, the deputy director, and later James B. Comey, the director—who approached Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, the day after the [original New York Times] article appeared to say that it was false.Spicer was speaking for Priebus. According to Priebus, McCabe had approached him on February 15 and said the original Times report was false.
Mr. Priebus then asked the two F.B.I. officials what they could do to rebut it publicly. They apologized and said they were unable to issue a statement or otherwise comment on the matter, Mr. Spicer said.
''They came to us and said the story is not true. We said, 'Great, could you tell people that?''' Mr. Spicer said, describing the discussions between Mr. Priebus and F.B.I. officials.
(In the February 25 Washington Post, the claim from within the administration was slightly more colorful. The Post quoted "administration officials" saying that McCabe told Priebus, "I want you to know" that the New York Times story "is BS.")
Was McCabe guilty as charged? Last Wednesday night, Maddow spent twenty minutes asserting that he was. (She didn't mention the claim that James B. Comey had been accused of disputing the Times report too.)
Were Priebus' claims really true? Did McCabe (and Comey) really behave as described? For ourselves, we have no way of knowing. On what basis did Maddow support this exciting claim?
In the course of last Wednesday's report, Maddow cited exactly one news source in support of her fiery assertions. She quoted a piece by Time magazine's Massimo Calabresi.
Calabresi's piece appeared on Time's site on February 24. It represents the only news source Maddow cited in support of her claims.
Here's the part where Calabresi described what happened. Can you spot a small problem here?
CALABRESI (2/24/17): The first questionable contact came when McCabe spoke with Priebus for five minutes after a 7:30 a.m. meeting at the White House on Feb. 15 on an unrelated intelligence issue. The day before, the New York Times had reported that Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had multiple contacts with known agents of Russian intelligence in the year before the election.For starters, whoop—there it is! McCabe told Priebus that the New York Times report was BS! Later, Comey called Priebus and said the same darn thing!
At the [February 15] White House meeting, McCabe told Priebus, ‘I want you to know story in NYT is BS," according to senior Administration officials who briefed reporters on Feb. 24.
Priebus asked McCabe what could be done to push back, saying the White House was “getting crushed” on the story. McCabe demurred, and then later called back to say, “We'd love to help but we can't get into the position of making statements on every story.”
FBI Director James Comey later called Priebus himself and repeated McCabe’s statements about the New York Times story. Comey also said he was unwilling to speak publicly about the piece but agreed to let Priebus cite senior intelligence officials in his pushback, the officials said.
Maddow quoted from this report during her May 10 rant. She repeated these claims as if they were established facts.
She employed her million-and-one performance tics to help us marvel at the way McCabe "became part of the Trump disinformation campaign." For whatever reason, she didn't say that Comey had also been charged.
Maddow ranted; we liberals were thrilled. That said, can you spot a minor problem with Calabresi's report, the only source she cited?
That's right! Calabresi sources these claims to "senior Administration officials!" He then simply seems to assume that these claims are true.
He presents no reason for believing these claims. Trump officials made these claims. On that basis, Calabresi seems to regard them as fact.
From reports the next day in the Times and the Post, it seems fairly clear that these "senior officials" were in fact Spicer and Priebus. This leaves us with our basic question:
Were these claims actually true?
Like you, we have no way of answering that question. We do know this: Spicer and Priebus are not the world's most reliable sources. And this excitement started during the week when Donald J. Trump apparently took Comey aside and asked him to pretty please stop investigating Michael Flynn.
Priebus was the direct witness here. Were his claims about McCabe true?
We have no way of knowing! Last Wednesday night, in a typical rant, Our Own Rhodes Scholar seemed to assume they were true.
She never said that she was simply accepting the word of Priebus and Spicer. Instead, she staged one of her patented rants, filling our heads with scary thoughts about our latest villain.
Let's close with a bit of good news. Everyone else isn't as ridiculous as Maddow frequently is.
Back on February 24, William Saletan was a bit less trusting. At Slate, he asked an obvious question, captured in this headline:
"Is Reince Priebus Lying About the FBI?"
In his analysis piece, Saletan ran though Priebus' claims, but he didn't simply assume they were true. Eventually, he asked the obvious question:
SALETAN (2/24/17): Is that true? Did Comey and McCabe authorize Priebus to dismiss the Times story? Or is Priebus misrepresenting what they said?Unless we're simply writing novels, those are obvious questions. Saletan didn't solve that riddle, but he cited the administration's bad track record in matters of this type.
Three months later, Rachel Maddow went on TV and seemed to assume that Preibus was telling the truth. As we noted on Tuesday, she hurried past Calabresi's attribution of these claims to "senior Administration officials."
She read that part, but she read it quite fast. Trust us—nobody noticed.
Why does Maddow do these things? We can't say, but she does this sort of thing with remarkable frequency. She routinely does horrible work on her TV program. Because she's so good at selling the car, we liberals aren't able to see this.
That said, it wasn't just Calabresi. Our major newspapers did some strange work reporting this matter too.
We'll close this series by reviewing the work which appeared in the Post and the Times. As Casey Stengel asked long ago, can't anyone here play this game?
Next: The Post and the Times