On Monday morning, Axios set the political world on fire with a scoop that tipped the resignation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Originally, the article stated that Rosenstein had “verbally resigned” to Chief of Staff John Kelly. Axios’s Jonathan Swan has since apologized for that wording, although he needn’t have been sorry for anything.
“I regret the way I wrote this morning’s version of the story”, Swan said on Monday afternoon, adding that “by saying Rosenstein had ‘verbally resigned’ to Kelly rather than ‘offered his resignation,’ I conveyed a certainty that this fluid situation didn’t deserve.”
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Swan’s candor and effort to assuage critics is appreciated, but what readers should note here is that despite the best efforts of every major news outlet in the United States, nobody was able to substantively refute Swan’s reporting. Rosenstein apparently did offer to resign and assuming the words came out of his actual mouth, that’s a “verbal” resignation.
Swan, it would appear, is now swept up in the ongoing and increasingly contentious debate among journalists, who are at odds over Friday’s New York Times story that detailed a plot, allegedly spearheaded by Rosenstein, to record the President and marshal support within his cabinet for invoking the 25th Amendment.
As soon as that article was published, some journalists suggested that it was essentially planted by the White House as a pretext for getting rid of Rosenstein.
In the three days since, reporters have exchanged (un)pleasantries on Twitter (and, I imagine, in person) with regard to the appropriateness of publishing something which very clearly could serve as ammo for a President who has made no secret of his disdain for Rosenstein and the special counsel probe the Deputy AG oversees.
Late Monday, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman, apparently incredulous at the number of White House scoops that aren’t emanating from his pen these days, attempted to discredit Axios by suggesting that Swan had fallen victim to a similar ruse that some allege the New York Times fell for last week. Here’s Sherman:
At the beginning of one of the most consequential weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, an enormous smoke bomb was detonated in the news cycle when Axios, deeply wired in Trump’s West Wing, reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned. Quickly, a head-spinning array of conflicting accounts were put forth: had he been fired? Was he heading to the White House to be fired—or was he going to a regularly scheduled meeting? Finally, Sarah Huckabee Sanders brought a measure of clarity by tweeting that whatever was going to happen to Rosenstein would happen on Thursday, when the president returned from New York.
For all the morning’s madness, there may have been an underlying logic. Over the weekend, as Brett Kavanaugh’s prospects appeared increasingly imperiled, Trump faced two tactical options, both of them fraught. One was to cut Kavanaugh loose. But he was also looking for ways to dramatically shift the news cycle away from his embattled Supreme Court nominee. According to a source briefed on Trump’s thinking, Trump decided that firing Rosenstein would knock Kavanaugh out of the news, potentially saving his nomination and Republicans’ chances for keeping the Senate. “The strategy was to try and do something really big,” the source said. The leak about Rosenstein’s resignation could have been the result, and it certainly had the desired effect of driving Kavanaugh out of the news for a few hours.
Swan fired back, calling the Vanity Fair piece “disgraceful bullsh*t”, before advising Sherman to “stop doing stenography for Steve Bannon”.
Just hours later, Swan was back with yet another scoop. This time, Jonathan had the goods, where that means the actual text of a draft statement penned by Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores on behalf of Attorney General (and man who will be the subject of next month’s resignation rumors) Jeff Sessions. Here’s that brief statement:
Rod Rosenstein has served the Department of Justice with dedication and skill for 28 years. His contributions are many and significant. We all appreciate his service and wish him well.
According to Swan, “the White House received the statement within an hour of the Axios story being published online.”
The bottom line on Rosenstein is that everyone will have to wait until Thursday for the verdict.
What is perhaps more interesting on Monday, is the extent to which the Rosenstein story has divided the journo community. Obviously, journalists compete for scoops; that’s just the business. But a palpable sense of frustration permeates the discussion. Journalists who are ostensibly on the “same side” (where that just means the side opposite Fox and Breitbart, whose sole purpose is to produce unadulterated agitprop) are now at each other’s throats.
“Just a thought – perhaps everyone, including other journalists, should stop assuming in print that they know who people’s sources are”, the Times’ Maggi Haberman tweeted on Monday afternoon, in response to NBC’s Mike Memoli, who was himself retweeting the Vanity Fair piece excerpted above.
Meanwhile, the New York Times published a letter to the editor regarding the Rosenstein story that betrayed the same distrust of the process as that espoused by some in the journo community.
“[The story] amounts to glorified gossip that will accomplish nothing beyond fueling the right’s paranoia [and] it may well lead to the firing or resignation of Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, something that I believe will damage our democracy”, Washington resident Kelly Hughes wrote, before presuming to tell the paper how to do its job as follows:
I suppose you would argue that your job is to print the news, whatever it is. However, thinking so narrowly is an abdication of your responsibility, and I’m not sure this was really news anyway. To ignore the consequences of your stories is not ethical and is no service to democracy. You have a profound duty to consider whether the news value is worth the damage the reporting will do. In this case, I do not believe it was.
To be absolutely clear, the idea that there was no “news value” in a story documenting an alleged plot orchestrated by the Deputy Attorney General in charge of the special counsel probe to surreptitiously tape the President’s conversations and have him removed from office, is absurd. Of course it’s newsworthy.
While it seems pretty clear that the Trump administration is, as Sherman suggests, planting some of these stories in an effort to control the narrative, that’s surely nothing new for seasoned reporters.
Also consider that when it comes to guile, this administration is whatever the opposite of “cunning” is, so you can be absolutely sure you won’t need to run a black light over your screen to see Trump’s ham-handed fingerprints on a given story.
Sure, it’s incumbent on reporters to make sure they aren’t inadvertently subverting democracy by accidentally giving a would-be autocrat the excuse he needs to obstruct justice. But again, it’s safe to assume that competent reporters are capable of smelling a rat when it’s in the room and then making an informed decision about whether to proceed with a story despite the presence of (orange) vermin.
What needs to stop, though, is the Twitter infighting between the people who sane Americans trust to deliver the stories that matter. Thanks to Trump, large swaths of the American electorate already equate anonymous sources with “fake news”. Given that, just about the last thing we need is for reputable reporters to start leveling the same accusations against each other that Trump is leveling against the media in general.