U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein attends the Los Angeles Crimefighters Leadership Conference on Feb. 7. (Mike Blake)
Media critic

The New York Times reported in September 2018 that in the crazy days following President Trump’s firing of then-FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein talked about some bold measures with Justice Department colleagues, including invoking the 25th Amendment to oust Trump from office. Consistent with stories about the government’s most secretive proceedings, the scoop by Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt rested on anonymous sources.

Critics are trained to seize on that vulnerability. “Unverified gossip does not equal probable cause — except, it would seem, in the case of FISA warrants against then-candidate Trump — and it is worth noting that Mr. Rosenstein quickly and categorically denied these claims,” noted Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in a news release.

Other conservatives, too, questioned the story. Have a look at what Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted about the matter:

The senator from South Carolina these days has ditched the media criticism in favor of other forms of criticism. Now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham on Sunday vowed to investigate an “attempted bureaucratic coup” by the country’s top law enforcement officials. “I think everybody in the country needs to know if it happened,” he said on CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” “I’m going to do everything I can to get to the bottom of Department of Justice, F.B.I. behavior toward President Trump and his campaign.”

So what happened here? On-the-record confirmation is what. Whereas the New York Times exclusive about Rosenstein came into this world relying on anonymity, it has gathered rebar and concrete as time has progressed. In October, the New York Times reported that James A. Baker, the former FBI general counsel, had given private testimony supporting the newspaper’s scoop about Rosenstein.

And then came last week, when former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe kicked off interviews for his soon-to-be-released book, "The Threat: How the F.B.I. Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump.” The first stop was “60 Minutes,” which previewed its Sunday night sit-down with McCabe on Thursday.

Appearing on “CBS This Morning,” correspondent Scott Pelley described what McCabe had revealed in the session. “There were meetings at the Justice Department in which it was discussed whether the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet could be brought together to remove the president of the United States under the 25th Amendment,” Pelley said. "These were the eight days from Comey’s firing to the point that Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel. And the highest levels of American law enforcement were trying to figure out what to do with the president.” Pelley also spoke of another strand from that September New York Times article, which alleged that Rosenstein had mentioned the possibility of wearing a wire to record the president’s candid on-the-job remarks.

Here’s how Pelley characterized McCabe’s words regarding the 25th Amendment: “They were counting noses. Not asking Cabinet members whether they would vote for or against removing the president, but they were speculating, ‘This person would be with us, this person would not be.’ They were counting noses in that effort."

Now that got people talking. “If that’s true, it is clearly an attempted coup d’etat,” said Alan Dershowitz on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” in reaction to the news. Host Tucker Carlson agreed, saying, “This is an attack on our system, I would, say — not just on our president.”

Coup chatter roared on Fox News, where Brian Kilmeade asked, “Was this a coup?”; Sean Hannity said, “attempted coup”; Gregg Jarrett said, "coup d’etat; Dan Bongino said, “a soft coup”; Charles Payne said, “For lack of a better word, coup”; Geraldo Rivera said, “a low-energy coup”; Greg Gutfeld said, “an open coup”; and Jason Chaffetz said, “essentially a coup.” Credit for that list comes from CNN’s Brian and the “Reliable Sources” team.

And what’s bouncing around on Fox News, of course, is also bouncing around in Trump’s head:

Here’s a headline from the Federalist: “Andrew McCabe Admits Top NatSec Officials Plotted Coup Against Trump.”

Meanwhile, what was it that the New York Times first reported? Merely that Rosenstein had brought up the matter in discussions. From the original report:

None of Mr. Rosenstein’s proposals apparently came to fruition. It is not clear how determined he was about seeing them through, though he did tell Mr. McCabe that he might be able to persuade Attorney General Jeff Sessions and John F. Kelly, then the secretary of homeland security and now the White House chief of staff, to mount an effort to invoke the 25th Amendment.

The comments from Pelley about “counting noses” appeared to set the American polity afire with talk of coups — so much so that Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for McCabe, put out a statement:

In other words, in May 2017 Rosenstein and his colleagues were doing what a lot of sane and concerned citizens were doing at the time: riffing about countermeasures against a man patently unfit to run the country. A transcript of McCabe’s remarks about the 25th Amendment in his chat with Pelley reflects the tenor of the discussions:

SCOTT PELLEY: How did he bring up the idea of the 25th amendment to you? 

ANDREW MCCABE: Honestly, I don't remember. He, it was just another kinda topic that he jumped to in the midst of a wide-ranging conversation. 

SCOTT PELLEY: Seriously? (LAUGH) Just —


SCOTT PELLEY: Another topic


SCOTT PELLEY: Did you counsel him on that? 

ANDREW MCCABE:  I didn’t. I mean, he was discussing other Cabinet members and whether or not people would support such an idea, whether or not other Cabinet members would, shared, his belief that the president was — was really concerning, was concerning Rod at that time.

Pondering the use of a duly approved amendment to the Constitution to accomplish a critical objective — sounds downright patriotic.

Whatever you think of the deliberations, however, it’s now clear that they happened just as the New York Times reported that they did. In other words, this is not fodder for the “fake news” brigade. Even so, the Justice Department has remained in denial mode, calling McCabe’s story “inaccurate and factually incorrect" — a formulation that echoes Rosenstein’s denial last September.

When the Justice Department was fighting the Times story, Goldman said in an interview last week with MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace, the agency’s message was that McCabe was a liar — a clear reference to findings in a Justice Department inspector general’s report from April 2018 concluding that McCabe “'lacked candor’ on four occasions when discussing the disclosure of information for a Wall Street Journal article about the FBI’s Clinton Foundation investigation,” as CNN reported at the time.

“What DOJ wanted me to believe then and, I guess they’re asking people to believe now, is that not only has Andy made some mistakes and has been accused of lying to the IG, or a lack of candor, [but that] a guy who worked in the bureau for almost 20 years is a fabulist,” Goldman said in the MSNBC interview, capturing our times.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Andrew McCabe’s latest revelations show how Trump is his own worst enemy

Andrew McCabe: Not in my worst nightmares did I dream my FBI career would end this way

Jennifer Rubin: What everyone thinks is the big McCabe story isn’t