As if Washington wasn’t already in a tizzy over allegations of sexual misconduct by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, this morning’s explosion of news reports about the impending exit of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Trump-Russia investigation for the Justice Department, seemed to set the stage for an unprecedented political theater power play as the week unfolded.
Except this: The reports relayed by countless news organizations about Rosenstein were not true.
A late morning blast of tweets, based on anonymous sources, reported that Rosenstein had offered a verbal resignation to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly over the weekend, or that Rosenstein was heading to the White House ready to resign, or that he was expecting to be fired by the president before the morning was over.
All this speculation was based on controversial reports on Friday that a frustrated Rosenstein (whether making remarks in all sincerity or not) had suggested that he could wear a recording device – a “wire” — to document irrational comments by President Trump, which could lead to a 25th Amendment removal from office for mental instability.
This morning, news of the deputy attorney general’s supposed ouster instantly sparked a celebration from conservative commentators and fretting from those on the liberal side. Most of the media had jumped on the bandwagon, and jumped so fast that some news outlets produced analysis stories that predicted what comes next for special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump team.
Comparisons to the infamous “Saturday Night Massacre” at the Nixon White House during Watergate, when key law enforcement figures resigned or were fired, emerged online. A constitutional crisis, we were told, was in the making.
Replacement quickly chosen by the press
In the mainstream media and among partisan websites, stories about the presumed Rosenstein replacement, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, began circulating, even though his standing to assume the deputy attorney general position was in some doubt. Those instant, pop-up stories included conjecture about previous legal arguments Francisco had made that favor strong executive branch powers, which would benefit the beleaguered Trump presidency.
Based on the inaccurate reports of Rosenstein’s imminent demise, the stock market took a dive earlier today, dropping by nearly 200 points. Some media outlets rushing to post the latest news, admitted that they didn’t know if this was a Rosenstein resignation or a firing.
But the ever-steady Pete Williams of NBC News came forward within a couple of hours to report that he had found no evidence that Rosenstein had quit or been canned. That was quickly followed up by news that Rosenstein had indeed traveled to the White House — but for a routine meeting with the “principles” who make up the National Security Council.
The White House followed up with a written message that Trump, while he is overseeing the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York, will meet with Rosenstein on Thursday to discuss the overall controversy.
At that point, the newly revised “we’re not sure what’s going on” Twitter messages from some of the overly eager press seemed rather lame. After many months of speculation about Rosenstein’s fate, you would think numerous Washington reporters would have an understanding with their sources about keeping tabs on the situation and not pulling the trigger too soon.
No admission of incorrect information
Here’s the most important aspect of this story in the 24/7 online news cycle that can’t seem to avoid a hyper-speed approach to news tips that filter their way:
After Williams’ reports began to dominate Twitter, all those other media outlets quickly walked back their reports on Rosenstein’s downfall that they had posted online for hours. This was a 180-degree reversal, yet, none of these news organizations framed their updates as a “Correction” to what they had previously reported.
This was “pack journalism” at its worst. An embarrassing moment for the Fourth Estate when so much is at stake for American democracy and the efficacy of the three branches of government.
Still, to suggest that this unsavory story is over, at least for now, ignores the prospect that the White House, particularly Chief of Staff Kelly, enraged by countless reports on Twitter based on anonymous sources, may have simply engaged in gamesmanship by leaking false information.
Unfortunately, if the press uncorks that revelation, I’m not sure if the public will drink it in.