MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell on Wednesday retracted his story about supposed Russian ties to President Trump’s finances and apologized for reporting it — just as Trump’s lawyer had demanded.
O’Donnell said, however, he still doesn’t know whether or not the story is true.
His public pull-back unfolded quickly in the opening minute of “The Last Word,” where 24 hours earlier the cable news host had said that a source had told him that Deutsche Bank documents showed that Russian oligarchs had co-signed a loan application for Trump.
O’Donnell reported the story, based on a single source he did not identify, even as he couched it with the qualifier “if true” and admitted it had not been verified by NBC News.
Trump’s lawyer, Charles Harder, had written to NBC on Wednesday afternoon, saying the story was false and defamatory and threatening legal action if it wasn’t disowned. Harder said the story could have been disproved with an internet search.
O’Donnell quickly tweeted that he had made an “error in judgment” reporting the story.
“We don’t know whether the information is inaccurate,” he said later on the air. “But the fact is we do know it wasn’t ready for broadcast and for that I apologize.”
NBC News has not said whether O’Donnell faces disciplinary action.
In court on Tuesday, Deutsche Bank had revealed that it possessed some of Trump’s tax returns that had never been released to the public, leading to speculation about what information those documents contained.
When he initially reported Tuesday on the supposed co-signing of the loans, O’Donnell said “that would explain, it seems to me, every kind word that Donald Trump has ever said about Russia and Vladimir Putin, if true, and I stress the ‘if true’ part of this.”
The episode exhibited a stunning lack of rigor for a news organization. In a letter to Susan Weiner, NBC Universal’s general counsel, and Daniel Kummer, the company’s senior vice president for litigation, Harder called O’Donnell’s statements “false and defamatory, and extremely damaging.”
Harder said that Trump was the only guarantor of the loans in question.
Although it provided ammunition for Trump’s frequent attacks on the media, the story had not been addressed on the president’s Twitter account Wednesday evening.
The episode is a blow to MSNBC, which has built powerful ratings with a prime-time lineup of liberal commentators Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and O’Donnell and is a comfortable home to Trump opponents. Many nights, it is the second most-watched cable network, behind only Fox News Channel, whose lineup of conservative hosts appeals to the president’s supporters.
But it also shows the inherent tension in the business model of building programming on news networks that are not necessarily run by journalists.
O’Donnell has been hosting “The Last Word” since 2010 and has been an MSNBC analyst since 1996. The Harvard graduate was an aide to the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and an executive producer on the NBC entertainment series “The West Wing.”