Touch off new cable excitement: As you will likely recall, Round One occurred on Thursday evening, January 25.
At the New York Times, Haberman and Schmidt posted the exciting report shown below. On that evening's cable news, a massive stampede resulted.
The report appeared on the Times' front page the next day. Misleading headline included:
HABERMAN AND SCHMIDT (1/26/18): Trump Ordered Mueller Fired, but Backed Off When White House Counsel Threatened to QuitOn cable, the excitement was general, along with the sense of high drama. As a result of Schmidt and Haberman's slippery prose, here's part of what people thought they had read, as stated by Rachel Maddow:
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.
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.
MADDOW (1/25/18): Again, we're absorbing this breaking news that has just come out from the New York Times. The president ordered his White House counsel to fire Robert Mueller. It didn't happen tonight, it happened last June, the month after Robert Mueller was hired as special counsel.According to Maddow (and everyone else), that was the drama there!
The president appears to have come up, reportedly came up with a list of three reasons, three conflicts of interest that disqualified Mueller from serving in that job. As Barb McQuade said there, they don't seem particularly strong, these reasons, these alleged conflicts of interest. They may even appear to be pretextual, meaning this is just the excuse we're going to use.
But in any case, the drama here is that his White House counsel, who still serves as his White House counsel, Don McGahn, reportedly told the president, "No, I won't make that call. And if you make me, I will quit in protest."
Reportedly, McGahn had refused Trump's order right to his face, then had threatened to quit if Trump persisted in his demand. In the face of this dramatic opposition, Donald J. Trump had "backed down!"
(Maddow: "According to this new reporting tonight, the reason that [firing] didn't happen is because his White House counsel, Don McGahn, threatened to quit if the president insisted that he do that and then the president backed off.")
That's what cable stars thought they'd read in that Times report. In fact, that dramatic scene had not occurred, nor had Haberman and Schmidt actually made any such assertion.
The newspaper's famously slippery prose had merely conveyed a certain impression. The impression conveyed was highly dramatic, but it seems fairly clear it was wrong.
No, Virginia! Don McGahn didn't refuse Trump's order to his face. Nor did he threaten to resign when he was speaking to Trump.
It never became clear if Trump "backed down" from his (alleged) order to fire Mueller, or if he simply forgot about it as the days went by. But who cares? Cable news spilled with drama on that exciting night!
Last night, you could see Haberman and Schmidt discussing this topic all over cable again. That's because they've now published another rather slippery report about this alleged order to fire Mueller.
Their new report appeared in today's New York Times, but it didn't make the front page. Indeed, in our own hard-copy Times, it appears on page A20—the eighth page of the National section!—and it doesn't even appear at the top of the page.
Still and all, the new report produced a new wave of cable excitement last night. It seems to us that it's almost as slippery as the widely misunderstood original report.
Can we talk? The Times is slippery and, like cable, they're very much selling The Chase. On cable, everybody misunderstood the original, January 25 report. Tomorrow, we'll try to parse the uncertainties and complications which remain in the new iteration.
A good job delivered quickly: At New York magazine, Margaret Hartman did a good job identifying one of the basic uncertainties in the new report.
Showing that such things can be done on the fly, she produced her good job quite quickly.