The Times isn't willing to tell you: What happened when Donald Trump read that Times report, if he actually read it?
More specifically, what happened when he read this front-page report from the January 26 New York Times, or when he heard it described?
The report in question appeared online on the evening of January 25, producing widespread reaction on cable news programs. As we noted last Thursday, Rachel Maddow summarized it in this way, as did everyone else:
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.Back in January, that's what everyone thought they'd read in the Times report. Everyone thought they'd read this:
[T]he 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."
What everyone thought they'd read:And there was more! At that point, Trump "backed down," the Times report dramatically seemed to say. That's what everyone thought they'd read in the January 26 news report.
Back in June 2017, Trump ordered McGahn to have Mueller fired. But Mueller told Trump that he wouldn't do it—that he would resign instead.
Everyone thought they'd read that! Indeed, right to this day, the headline on the Times report says this:
"Trump Ordered Mueller Fired, but Backed Off When White House Counsel Threatened to Quit"
Everyone, including the headline writer, thought that's what the report had said! But uh-oh! As we noted at the time, the Times report had never explicitly said that.
As usual, the writing by Haberman and Schmidt had been rather fuzzy, perhaps suspiciously so. As a result of their fuzzy prose, their report had conveyed a widespread impression which was exciting but wrong.
What was wrong with that Times report, or with what everyone thought the report had said? In fact, it's now widely understood that Don McGahn didn't directly challenge Trump when he received the order to fire Mueller, if he really received such an order.
According to the current account, McGahn told other people in the White House that he would resign before he'd comply with Trump's order. But everybody now agrees that he never said that to Trump himself. (On that basis, it still isn't clear why the January 26 Times report said that Trump had "backed down.")
By now, everyone knows that the January 26 Times report was inaccurate, or had at least conveyed several false impressions. But no one understood that back then, and the drama of its apparent account touched off widespread cable excitement.
Don McGahn had made Trump back down! Cable hosts and viewers loved it!
Last Wednesday night, the Times posted another report which created cable excitement. In this new report, the Times described Trump's reaction when he read the initial news report in January, or when he heard it described.
Last week's underwhelming report appeared on page A20 in Thursday's hard-copy Times. According to last week's report, what did Trump do when he read the initial report in January?
What did Trump do when he read that report? Here's how Haberman and Schmidt began their new report:
HABERMAN AND SCHMIDT (3/8/18, pghs 1 and 2): The special counsel in the Russia investigation has learned of two conversations in recent months in which President Trump asked key witnesses about matters they discussed with investigators, according to three people familiar with the encounters.There you see the initial account of what Trump did when he read the report in January. You'll note that Haberman and Schmidt have produced a slightly bowdlerized version of their original effort.
In one episode, the president told an aide that the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, should issue a statement denying a New York Times article in January. The article said Mr. McGahn told investigators that the president once asked him to fire the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. Mr. McGahn never released a statement and later had to remind the president that he had indeed asked Mr. McGahn to see that Mr. Mueller was dismissed, the people said.
In this account of their January report, they've omitted the fact that their fuzzy writing made everyone think that Don McGahn had dramatically refused Trump's order right to his face—and that Trump had then "backed down." Back in January, Trump would have known that account was wrong. Is that why the fiery commander in chief told McGahn to deny the accuracy of the Times report?
Did Trump tell McGahn to deny the report because it seemed to be wrong? Was he reacting to an (apparent) part of the report which he knew to be inaccurate?
We have no way to answer that question—and readers had to wait until paragraph 12 for a fuller account of what the chief exec reportedly did after he read the January report. Here's the fuller account of what went down, as seen in last Thursday's Times:
HABERMAN AND SCHMIDT (3/8/18, pghs 12-17): Mr. Trump’s interactions with Mr. McGahn unfolded in the days after the Jan. 25 Times article, which said that Mr. McGahn threatened to quit last June after the president asked him to fire the special counsel. After the article was published, the White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, told Mr. McGahn that the president wanted him to release a statement saying that the story was not true, the people said.There you see the Times account of what happened in January. Last Wednesday night, this new report appeared online, producing substantial cable excitement.
Mr. McGahn did not publicly deny the article, and the president later confronted him in the Oval Office in front of the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, according to the people.
The president said he had never ordered Mr. McGahn to fire the special counsel. Mr. McGahn replied that the president was wrong and that he had in fact asked Mr. McGahn in June to call the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, to tell him that the special counsel had a series of conflicts that disqualified him for overseeing the investigation and that he had to be dismissed. The president told Mr. McGahn that he did not remember the discussion that way.
Mr. Trump moved on, pointing out that Mr. McGahn had never told him that he was going to resign over the order to fire the special counsel. Mr. McGahn acknowledged that that was true but said that he had told senior White House officials at the time that he was going to quit.
It is not clear how the confrontation was resolved. Mr. McGahn has stayed on as White House counsel, one of the few senior administration officials who has been with the president since the campaign.
Trump has been talking to witnesses, cable hosts said, showcasing real excitement. The claim that Trump has perhaps been breaking the rules in this way fueled the evening's excitement.
Should Donald J. Trump be speaking to people who have testified to Mueller? The Times report cited two examples, one of which—an interaction with Reince Priebus—was so spectacularly trivial as to be completely risible, even for a report in the Times.
The other example was this interaction with McGahn. So how about it? Should Trump have spoken to Don McGahn after reading the January report?
On cable, everyone screeched and wailed about the troubling fact that Trump had spoken to McGahn. Here's what they didn't tell you:
Let's return to January. When Trump read the Times report, he would have known that part of what it seemed to say was just plain untrue.
The Times report seemed to say that McGahn had refused his order to his face, and that he had then "backed down." Trump would have known that wasn't true. Would it really be wrong for him to ask McGahn to correct the record?
We're not sure why that would be wrong. Is that what actually happened?
Frankly, there's no way to know. The Times report is sourced to "three people." (No parrots or talking mules were interviewed for the report.) We're relying on what those unnamed people allegedly said about the interaction with McGahn. There's no way to fact-check their statements.
At any rate, based on what Haberman and Schmidt reported, three unnamed people say this is what occurred:
1) Trump told McGahn he gave no such order. McGahn told Trump he was wrong about that. They agreed to disagree. Trump didn't start World War III.According to Haberman and Schmidt, that's what "three people" have told the Times. It's possible that this account is right. It's possible that it's wrong.
2) Trump told McGahn that he never defied any such order to his face. McGahn said Trump was right about that, but that he'd made resignation threats to others.
According to the Times report, Trump seems to have told McGahn that he doesn't think he ordered him to fire Mueller. We'll guess that Trump is wrong about that, but there's no obvious way to be sure.
Meanwhile, it seems that Trump was plainly right about the second point. In fact, Don McGahn didn't threaten to resign when Trump told him to fire Mueller, assuming Trump actually did that.
You'll note that, in their new report, Haberman and Schmidt don't explain how that issue arose in the first place—namely, because they wrote a fuzzy, possibly slippery report in January, a fuzzy report which gave everyone a misleading, bogus impression.
Did Trump order McGahn to have Mueller fired? We'll guess he probably did.
Did the Times write a fuzzy front-page report in January from which everyone drew a false impression? We don't have to guess about that! On that point, we can offer you a flat yes!
Apparently, Trump understood the January report the same way Maddow did. Thanks to some fuzzy prose from the Times, they both misunderstood what the Times had said—but by the eternal rules of the game, you aren't allowed to hear that.
McGahn wants to get favorable stories out. The Times wants to post "breaking news."
Cable hosts want nightly thrills. These are the ways our discourse works as we slowly go down.
Also this weird construction: Back in January, Haberman and Schmidt tossed off another misleading construction. Their second paragraph started like this:
HABERMAN AND SCHMIDT (1/26/18): The West Wing confrontation marks the first time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel.In fact, this is the only time Trump is known to have tried to fire Mueller. When the reporters said "first" instead of "only," they triggered reactions like this:
MADDOW (1/25/18): Michael, one last question for you. I'm struck by the wording in the second paragraph in your piece. It says this West Wing confrontation marks the "first" time Mr. Trump is known to have tried to fire the special counsel.That mumble-mouthed answer left Maddow dejected. That said, such jumbled constructions are official New York Times style. The Times has been offering front-page prose like that all the way back to the Watergate days, when their jumbled front-page reporting helped create an era of pseudo-scandal.
Does that— Are you deliberately implying there might be other times?
SCHMIDT: No, it's just the first time.
SCHMIDT: As journalists in this story, especially when we learn about something for the first time, we like to note it and say, you know, "this is the first time" about this or whatever. This is the first time we know about that. If the president was willing to do that in June, was he willing to do it other times? I don't know.
But this was the first time for that and, you know, as we go along, we try to note whether this is the second or third or fourth or whatever, but for this one, this was the first.
The Times just isn't especially sharp. It's hard for many people to grasp this basic fact of failing American life.