Robert S. Mueller III on Capitol Hill on March 12, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Media critic

After Attorney General William P. Barr last month released his summary of Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, Fox News host Sean Hannity took out his chest-beating equipment. “We, on this program, have been right all along because, unlike the mainstream media, we have been telling the truth with evidence to back it up,” said the longtime Fox News host.

“No collusion,” Hannity had said innumerable times on his program, echoing President Trump’s refrain. Barr’s summary stated that the Mueller team did not establish conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Anyone supposing that Hannity’s brush with correctness illustrated anything more than the broken-clock principle might consider all the evidence he marshaled on a critical Mueller story. Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times presented a scoop on Jan. 25, 2018, under this headline: “Trump Ordered Mueller Fired, but Backed Off When White House Counsel Threatened to Quit.” The story wasn’t vague: “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,” noted the lead of the piece, which stated that then-White House counsel Donald McGahn had fielded the order.

The reporting added sinew to chatter that had circulated in June 2017, when Trump friend and Newsmax Media chief executive Christopher Ruddy told PBS, “Well, I think he’s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel.”

Reacting to the Schmidt-Haberman story from the international big-wig confab in Davos, Switzerland, Trump said, “Fake news, folks. Fake news. A typical New York Times fake story.”

On his program, Hannity posed as a debunking journalist — initially. “Our sources — and I’ve checked in with many of them — they’re not confirming” the reporting of the Times, said Hannity. Later in the proceedings, Hannity was forced to change course, thanks to the reporting of Fox News’s Ed Henry: “All right, so, we have sources tonight just confirming to Ed Henry that, yeah, maybe Donald Trump wanted to fire the special counsel for conflict. Does he not have the right to raise those questions? You know, we’ll deal with this tomorrow night," said Hannity, who then turned his viewers’ attention to a video of a car crash.

The next morning, it was raining cold water on “Fox & Friends." Co-host Ainsley Earhardt appeared convinced that the reaction of Trump actually bore some relation to the factual considerations: “All right, well, the president says it’s fake news. That happened last June,” said Earhardt. "Do you — you know, it’s something we have to tell you about ’cause it is a headline on the New York Times. What do you think about that? Do you even care? Something you probably do care about is immigration.”

Fox News wasn’t done, however. It turned to White House correspondent John Roberts for some deep reporting on the matter. He delivered the remarks below on the Jan. 26, 2018, edition of the noontime show “Outnumbered.” Appreciate how he tries to diminish the Times story from the start:

This story is not new. This story started on about June 12 or 13, when Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy went on PBS to say that he had heard that President Trump was, quote, ‘Weighing whether or not to fire Robert Mueller.’ I talked with Ruddy this morning; he still stands by those statements. But when we ran some traps on it back then, we were told that, well, the president was kind of talking about it in what-if terms. ‘What if I was to fire Robert Mueller?’ And, ‘I could fire him if I want to. I have the authority to do it,’ but then was told it was a bad idea. Ran some more traps this morning, and what it appears likely happened in that meeting, according to sources, is the president said to Don McGahn, ‘I could fire him if I want to. I have the authority to do that. What do you think? Should you go and talk to Rod -- would you go and talk to Rod Rosenstein’ -- who was the deputy attorney general who’s in charge of the special counsel -- ‘about it, take his temperature on it, see what his feelings are.' … The best that we can ascertain … is that there was never any direct order given by the president to Don McGahn to go ahead and do it. It was more of a what-if situation, more of a thinking-about-it thing, more of a could-we-possibly-do-this. But then, the president, when told, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ sort of gave up the idea and he’s been questioned several times about it since, and says that he has no plans whatsoever to fire Robert Mueller. But certainly Democrats jumped all over this when the report hit. … Listen to Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon: 'It really reflects the fact that the president has been obstructing justice all throughout his first year in office. He took on manipulation of three FBI directors. Now we find out that he ordered His [White House] counsel to fire the special prosecutor."

With that, “Outnumbered” co-host Harris Faulkner tossed the topic across the couch: “Let’s bring it out now and get Bernie McGuirk’s thoughts on all of this!" said Faulkner, referring to a New York radio personality. McGuirk said: “To me, it’s a joke, it’s a non-story, it’s a leak, you know, you have more FBI corruption and bias about to be exposed, you have Trump killing it over in Davos, and then they say, 'Listen, let’s hand the New York Times some talking points. The New York Times and of course CNN and MS[NBC], and the rest of them, dutifully take their cue … a non-story.”

A non-story? Perhaps, until April 2019. The release of the redacted Mueller report included facts not reported by either the Times nor Fox News. From the report:

On Saturday, June 17, 2017, the President called McGahn and directed him to have the Special Counsel removed. McGahn was at home and the President was at Camp David. In interviews with this Office, McGahn recalled that the President called him at home twice and on both occasions directed him to call Rosenstein and say that Mueller had conflicts that precluded him from serving as Special Counsel.

There’s a lot of additional detail in the report, including McGahn’s recollection of how Trump’s insistence hardened in a second call on the matter: “When the President called McGahn a second time to follow up on the order to call the Department of Justice, McGahn recalled that the President was more direct, saying something like, ‘Call Rod, tell Rod that Mueller has conflicts and can’t be the Special Counsel.’ McGahn recalled the President telling him ‘Mueller has to go’ and ‘Call me back when you do it.’ ”

Hardly the brainstorming session suggested by Roberts, in other words.

The matter of Trump’s disposition toward Mueller is among the more enduring threads to emerge from the special counsel’s report. Any impeachment effort launched by House Democrats will center on the attempt to fire Mueller and, in particular, Trump’s subsequent effort to get McGahn to deny the firing story. Never one to deprive an unfavorable story of sustenance, the president is tweeting:

Whatever Trump says, whatever the Times says, whatever Mueller says: Don’t trust Fox News to faithfully convey it. In recent years, much has been made of the so-called wall between opinion hosts and news personnel at Fox News. The idea that newsies are legitimate — as opposed to the loony opinionators — underlies the argument that the Democratic National Committee should partner with Fox News for primary debates. Yet the Trump-McGahn-Mueller episode demonstrates just how flimsy is the partition between these two areas of Fox News. Consider:

Hannity at first posed as a news reporter — talking about his “sources” — when discussing the Times scoop.

When Hannity later received some level of confirmation from Henry, he pooh-poohed the whole thing.

“Fox & Friends” proceeded as if they were quarantined from news reporting.

And when Roberts issued his report on “Outnumbered,” he highlighted comments from a Democratic senator that appeared unreasonable in light of the White House spin that he had showcased. In light of the Mueller report, those comments appear far less unreasonable. Once Roberts finished his report, the “Outnumbered” folks couched it in pro-Trump rhetoric.

Just another day at the No. 1 cable news network.

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