“Fake news, folks,” said the president in Davos this morning when asked about the Times’s bombshell last night. “Fake news. A typical New York Times fake story.” But it’s not just the Failing New York Times that’s reporting it. The Washington Post also has it.
As does, uh, Fox News:
There’s a key distinction between Fox’s report and the NYT/WaPo stories. Fox claims that Trump wanted to fire Mueller but never actually gave the order. He was persuaded to change his mind before he did. The Times and the Post claim that, no, he told White House counsel Don McGahn to pull the trapdoor on Mueller, at which point McGahn, recognizing that Trump was about to nuke his own presidency, refused and said he’d resign rather than do it. So Trump backed off. It may be that that’s a to-may-to/to-mah-to distinction. If Trump said to McGahn, “I hereby instruct you to fire the special counsel,” and was then convinced that it’d be best to withdraw the order before it’s carried out, the Fox *and* NYT version of events are both arguably accurate. Maybe Fox’s source, knowing the political sh*tstorm that the Times story would generate, took advantage of the ambiguity of the exchange between Trump and McGahn to cast it in the mildest possible light.
It’s worth noting, though, that Fox’s source doesn’t deny that Trump gave the order. He could neither confirm nor deny it, according to Ed Henry. From the Times:
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…
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.
Trump reportedly planned to justify the firing on grounds that Mueller had three separate conflicts of interest, one of which was, uhhhhhh, a dispute over golf fees when he used to play at Trump’s course in Virginia. I like to imagine McGahn literally curling up into the fetal position on his office floor when he heard Trump float that idea. Bannon, according to WaPo, fretted to other advisors that firing Mueller would be so inflammatory that it could trigger a 25th Amendment challenge to Trump within the cabinet. With everyone in the West Wing apparently against it — populists, “globalists,” etc — Trump bent towards the consensus view. Whew.
Is there any evidence to corroborate this spectacular claim? The best argument that it really is FAKE NEWS! is that it’s hard to believe TrumpWorld, which leaks like a sieve, could have kept a secret this sensational for six months. As it turns out, though, there *is* a bit of corroboration, right here in our own archives. On successive days, June 13 and 14, I wrote about new rumblings that Trump was preparing to can Mueller. His friend Chris Ruddy, the head of Newsmax, went on PBS and confirmed that Trump was thinking of firing him. (The White House denied it.) The next day, the Times reported that the president lately had begun “entertaining the idea of firing Mr. Mueller even as his staff tried to discourage him from something they believed would turn a bad situation into a catastrophe, according to several people with direct knowledge of Mr. Trump’s interactions.” Something obviously leaked to the paper at the time, but not solidly enough to justify the story they finally were able to publish last night.
Now Trump supporters have to figure out a way to spin it. There are various possibilities:
1. FAKE NEWS! Who would be so foolish as to trust the Failing New York Times?
2. The Ed Henry limited hangout: Okay, he considered firing Mueller but never actually gave the order. He didn’t cross the line.
3. The “no harm, no foul” take: Even if he crossed the line and gave the order, who cares? He was talked out of it, wasn’t he? By definition, if he’s capable of listening to reason and changing his mind he’s not (quite) the loose cannon his critics claim.
4. Full MAGA: Mueller’s a cuck who deserved to get fired.
The poor folks at Fox News have been struggling with how to spin it since last night. John Roberts took the second approach in a segment this morning:
Fox last night: Ed Henry says "a source close to the WH telling Fox the NYT is accurate." Fox this morning: John Roberts says "I'm told the president never told McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn never threatened to quit over it." pic.twitter.com/SfCgShXMzJ
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 26, 2018
The Fox & Friends crew went with doors number one and three. You can’t trust the Times — and even if they’re right, big whoop:
Here’s the best one. Hannity started out last night declaring “fake news,” of course … and then got shoved by Fox’s own reporters into the “who cares?” position during the course of his show:
Sean Hannity: The New York Times is trying to distract you. They say Trump tried to fire Mueller, but our sources aren’t confirming that!
Sean Hannity, minutes later: Alright, yeah, maybe our sources confirm Trump wanted to fire Mueller. But so what? That’s his right. Anywho… pic.twitter.com/yUIt7Un56d
— Matt Fuller (@MEPFuller) January 26, 2018
Watch to the end or you’ll miss the subject-changing car crash. Two obvious points about all of this. One: If Mueller’s building an obstruction case against Trump, evidence that the president was prepared to liquidate the special counsel’s office will be used to show his designs on derailing the Russiagate probe. Two: McGahn has already been interviewed by Mueller and may himself face some legal jeopardy in the investigation. Maybe the leak to the Times was his way of pre-spinning any adverse findings by the special counsel about his role in all of this. “How could I be guilty of obstruction?” McGahn might be saying. “I’m the one who yanked the legal nuclear button out of Trump’s hands!”