Vanity Fair's Gabriel Sherman shared with MSNBC viewers on Tuesday an alarming conversation that he had earlier in the day with a person he described as “a very prominent Republican.”
This Republican, according to Sherman, “literally was saying that they imagine General Kelly and Secretary Mattis had conversations about if Trump lunged for the nuclear football, what would they do? Would they tackle him? I mean literally, physically restrain him from putting the country at, sort of, perilous risk. And that's the kind of situation we're in.”
If you've been listening to Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) lately, you can probably imagine such a conversation between White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, too.
Last week, Corker told a group of reporters that Kelly, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are the “people that help separate our country from chaos.” On Sunday, Corker tweeted that “the White House has become an adult day-care center,” then told the New York Times that Trump could be setting the United States “on the path to World War III.”
But, to be clear, Sherman was talking about a conversation that his GOP source imagines Kelly and Mattis have had. Sherman was not reporting definitively that the tackle-Trump discussion had occurred — only that the educated guess of a “prominent Republican” is that Kelly and Mattis have considered the possibility of a physical intervention.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes seemed to understand the distinction.
“Wait,” Hayes said, pausing Sherman for clarification. “That's a conversation you had with a very senior Republican musing about what they would do.” (Emphasis added.)
The official social media accounts of Hayes's show, however, initially exaggerated the certainty of Sherman's report.
A post on the program's Facebook page said that “Gabe Sherman's GOP source says General Kelly and Secretary Mattis have had conversations about physically restraining Trump” — as if the conversations were not imagined but rather known to have occurred.
The @allinwithchris Twitter account tweeted that a “GOP source says Kelly & Mattis discuss what to do if Trump lunges for the nuclear football.” Again, that's not what Sherman said his source told him.
By mid-morning on Wednesday, the misleading tweet had been liked or retweeted more than 4,000 times. The Facebook post, with an embedded video, had been viewed more than 27,000 times.
After The Fix inquired about the language of the show's social media posts, an MSNBC spokeswoman said “the tweet and Facebook language are both being revised.”
By the time this article was published, both posts had been deleted.
When questions about Trump's fitness are coming from the Republican chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee — a former foreign policy adviser to Trump and onetime vice-presidential contender — similar questions are clearly in bounds for news outlets.
But a president's mental state is an inherently delicate subject, one that must be covered prudently and precisely, especially when supporters of the president are inclined to dismiss even the most airtight reports as “fake news.”
The White House actively encourages voters to discount what they see or read in the press.
“A lot of times false narratives create a bad environment,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during a briefing last week, in one of her regular lectures to reporters.
In this case, the narrative is not false. Republicans are concerned about Trump's impulse control. But overreaching on the details, as MSNBC did on Facebook and Twitter, doesn't help the media's image. And although the network showed integrity by swiftly acknowledging the misleading language of its social media posts, it may not get much credit from Trump's base.