Media run with Republican strategist's "congressional coup" speculation

››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS, TOM ALLISON, CHRISTINE SCHWEN & HANNAH DREIER

In two days, a Republican strategist's baseless suggestion that Nancy Pelosi could fall victim to "a coup in Congress" spread from his Politico.com op-ed to all three cable news channels, TheFoxNation.com, a New York Times blog, and the print edition of The Wall Street Journal.

On May 18, Politico.com published an op-ed by Republican strategist and TheHill.com blogger John Feehery -- headlined "Conditions for a coup in Congress" -- that claimed: "While it is awfully early to be predicting that House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) will face a leadership challenge because of her handling of 'torture-gate,' conditions are starting to gel for the good old-fashioned congressional coup." Feehery did not provide any evidence of a forthcoming "congressional coup" in his op-ed. Indeed, he wrote that "the majority leader's office has explicitly told me that he won't ever run against Pelosi (and I believe it)" and stated in a May 18 appearance on CNN's The Situation Room, "I don't think there is going to be a coup." Nonetheless, numerous media outlets -- including all three cable news channels -- subsequently discussed the possibility of a "congressional coup," in many cases explicitly citing Feehery's op-ed as the impetus for their discussion.

CNN

Wolf Blitzer hosted Feehery to discuss his op-ed during the 4 p.m. ET hour of The Situation Room on May 18. During the interview, Blitzer said Feehery's piece "implies a Democratic coup" and asked him, "[I]s that what you're suggesting?" Feehery first replied by saying, "Well, you never know, Wolf." He later added: "I don't think there is going to be a coup, because I don't think that Steny Hoyer necessarily wants to do that, because I think he knows that, if you do lead a coup against this leader, you tend not to get the job." CNN political contributor Hilary Rosen responded that Pelosi "doesn't have a war with Democrats in the House" and that "[t]his is all just sort of four days of Republican talking points to try and make this be a worse issue."

In the following hour, despite Feehery's statement that even he did not believe a coup was likely, Blitzer again raised the issue, asking senior political correspondent Candy Crowley, "Do you think [Pelosi] has to worry about some Democratic coup against her?" Crowley responded: "I seriously doubt it."

Without specifically referencing Feehery's op-ed, CNN senior political analyst David Gergen also dismissed the idea of a coup on the May 18 edition of Anderson Cooper 360, saying: "I think, Anderson [Cooper, host], the really big issue is if somebody tries to stage a coup -- and I don't see any evidence from the Democratic caucus that they're going to do that. Steny Hoyer, who would be probably the leader of any kind of coup effort is supporting her."

MSNBC

On the 2 p.m. hour of MSNBC Live on May 18, co-anchor Carlos Watson asked: "[A] congressional coup? Republicans have been calling for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to step down from House speakership, but are some Democrats eyeing her seat as well?" Watson did not specifically mention Feehery's op-ed.

Later during that hour, Watson and co-anchor Contessa Brewer interviewed Rep. John Larson (D-CT), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. While neither host mentioned Feehery's op-ed, both repeatedly asked Larson whether a "coup" was in the works, despite his repeated denials:

  • Brewer asserted that "Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to Congress over the Bush administration's use of waterboarding on terror suspects, and now there's speculation a coup in Congress could be next." She then asked Larson if there will "be a change in Democratic leadership because of the brouhaha" over Pelosi's comments. Larson replied, "Oh, none whatsoever. The Democratic Caucus stands firmly behind Nancy Pelosi."
  • Watson then stated that "just in the last decade, we've seen two such coups" against House speakers and asked: "Is there not legitimate concern here that -- over what is a critical issue, certainly for the base -- that Nancy Pelosi could be in some trouble?" Larson replied: "Believe me when I say this: Nancy Pelosi is not in any trouble. If anything, the wagons are circling more around the speaker during this time."
  • Brewer also asserted of Pelosi that "[t]here are already major criticisms that she hasn't been able to deliver on her promises" and that "there are Blue Dog Democrats who won't even let her attend fundraisers in their districts." Larson again reiterated that Democrats "support Nancy Pelosi, who has been our leader in this, all the way through it."

During the 4 p.m. ET hour of the program, notwithstanding Larson's statements to the contrary earlier that day, anchor Tamron Hall repeatedly raised the question of whether there would be a coup, in some cases referencing Feheery's op-ed. Teasing a segment, she said: "Republicans still hitting the speaker very hard even today, new comments from Newt Gingrich. Is a congressional coup out of the question?"

In a subsequent report, correspondent Mike Viqueira, citing the "buzz here, even asked on MSNBC" as to whether a coup was possible, said that it was "highly unlikely":

A lot of question -- buzz here, even asked on MSNBC. Is there a coup possible against Nancy Pelosi among Democrats in the House? And I've got to tell you, while no one is indispensable, especially in Washington, and nothing is impossible, that seems highly unlikely at this point. Right at this camera today, we've seen a couple of Democrats come before us on MSNBC and tell us they were full -- foursquare behind Nancy Pelosi, two Democrats in leadership.

Despite Viqueira's pronouncement, Hall subsequently teased a segment by asking, "Are the conditions right for a coup on Capitol Hill?"

Later in the hour, during a discussion with Democratic strategist Alicia Menendez and Republican strategist Doug Heye, Hall said, "Interesting article on Politico. They're saying obviously it's too early to start saying there's a coup in the works, a congressional coup, but they're saying that there are five things to look out for if the conditions are right for there to be political jeopardy for Nancy Pelosi."

Hall then asked Menendez: "Where does she stand after being hit, even very hard on the Sunday morning programs?" Menendez replied, "You know, in some ways I think she's stronger than ever. I've been watching your network all day, have different Congress people voicing their support for their leader." Nonetheless, Hall later asserted:

Alicia, let's talk about -- in this Politico article, they talk about again the conditions that make it right for a coup, if you will. And they say a leadership rival -- Gingrich had Tom DeLay, [Trent] Lott had Don Nickles, and now you have Steny Hoyer. And some were critical of his initial response, seemed to be tough and more on the side of the CIA, and then as the weekend progressed, it kind of appeared to change with him, and more support for Pelosi.

Despite denials from Viqueira, Larson, and Menendez on MSNBC that a coup was pending, and Feehery's similar admission the previous day, Brewer discussed the possibility of a coup in Congress again on May 19, teasing a segment by asking: "Nancy Pelosi's political rivals are taking aim at the House speaker after she accused the CIA of lying. But could there be a coup in Congress? Who is calling for the speaker's resignation?" Later, Brewer asserted that Pelosi's approval ratings are "roughly the same that [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich had in his first year as speaker. We're looking at Blue Dog Democrats who won't invite her to fundraisers in their districts, and some real dissatisfaction because she has not been able to deliver on the promises she said she would." She then asked Democratic strategist Chris Kofinis, "Is there going to be a coup in Congress? Do you expect to see Democrats taking her out of authority role?" Kofinis then became at least the fourth person on MSNBC to deny that a coup is likely, stating: "There's not a chance that's going to happen."

Fox News

During the May 18 edition of Happening Now, co-anchor Jon Scott compared Gingrich to Pelosi, asserting that Gingrich "lost his position -- his speakership -- because so many people in his own party were dissatisfied with what was happening to him. There were a lot of little controversies that seemed to pile up." Scott then asked former Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler: "Do you see that happening to this speaker?" Scott went on to tell Penny Lee, a former spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) that "[i]t does seem that the daggers are out" for Pelosi. Later in the segment, Scott asked Lee whether "this flap rises to the level that other Democrats would consider a coup against their speaker."

Other media

On May 18, National Journal's House Race Hotline (subscription only) summarized Feehery's piece under the headline "A Brand Newt Coup?" and TheFoxNation.com linked to it under the headline "Getting Ready for a Coup?" Also on May 18, Martin Kady II linked to the op-ed in a post on Glenn Thrush's Politico.com blog and wrote of it: "Even if [a coup is a] far fetched idea at this point, it's good reading and provides cautionary guidance for a speaker caught in a maelstrom."

The following day, May 19, the New York Times blog Idea of the Day, which includes "Must Reads from the Week in Review Staff," selected Feehery's op-ed as "Recommended Reading," and The Wall Street Journal published an excerpt of it on Page A17 of its print edition.

From the 9 a.m. ET hour of MSNBC Live on May 19:

BREWER: Nancy Pelosi's political rivals are taking aim at the House speaker after she accused the CIA of lying. But could there be a coup in Congress? Who is calling for the speaker's resignation?

[...]

BREWER: Let's move on to the politics surrounding this, then, Chris. Because when we look at the approval ratings, recent polls show her approval rating's 48 percent -- her disapproval rating's 48 percent. Her approval rating's 39 percent, roughly the same that Gingrich had in his first year as speaker. We're looking at Blue Dog Democrats who won't invite her to fundraisers in their districts, and some real dissatisfaction because she has not been able to deliver on the promises she said she would. Is there going to be a coup in Congress? Do you expect to see Democrats taking her out of authority role?

KOFINIS: There's not a chance that's going to happen. I mean, here's the reality of what's happening. You know, I love to hear Andrea [Tantaros, Republican strategist] and other Republicans wax poetically about their outrage. Apparently, that outrage didn't exist for the eight years of the Bush administration. This is the Republican strategy of attack and distract.

From the 1 p.m., 2 p.m., and 4 p.m. ET hours of MSNBC Live on May 18:

WATSON: Plus, a congressional coup? Republicans have been calling for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to step down from House speakership, but are some Democrats eyeing her seat as well?

[...]

BREWER: Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to Congress over the Bush administration's use of waterboarding on terror suspects, and now there's speculation a coup in Congress could be next. Democratic Congressman John Larson from Connecticut joins us live from Capitol Hill. Congressman Larson is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus. You know, after Nancy Pelosi made those startling accusations against the CIA, Congressman, we heard Steny Hoyer come up and sort of hem and haw. He didn't come forward with a real vote of support for Nancy Pelosi. Is there going to be a change in Democratic leadership because of the brouhaha?

LARSON: Oh, none whatsoever. The Democratic Caucus stands firmly behind Nancy Pelosi, as does Steny Hoyer stand with her. I mean, she has done an outstanding job moving this nation forward, working directly with Barack Obama. That's the important thing. Only inside the Beltway is this a distraction. I think our focus continues to be on making sure that we have health care for American citizens and that we make sure as well that we have an economy that's moving forward, propelled by the advances we're going to make in energy independence and putting people back to work. That's the real agenda that's in front of us.

WATSON: But Congressman Larson, we've seen -- just in the last decade, we've seen two such coups. Speaker Gingrich went down following the '98 election, and Trent Lott went down in 2002. And in both cases, I remember supporters like yourself coming on and saying, "It's not an issue. It's going to blow over. It's going to move on." Is there not legitimate concern here that -- over what is a critical issue, certainly for the base -- that Nancy Pelosi could be in some trouble?

LARSON: Believe me when I say this: Nancy Pelosi is not in any trouble. If anything, the wagons are circling more around the speaker during this time. When you're attacked in the Beltway by Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, and Karl Rove, I mean, that says it all.

BREWER: But Congressman --

LARSON: And I think the American people understand that --

BREWER: There are --

LARSON: -- and I think they get that.

BREWER: There are already major criticisms that she hasn't been able to deliver on her promises that she told people that we would be out of Iraq, and we're still there, that she promised --

LARSON: She's moved on her major promises to make sure that children got health care. She's moved on the major promises to put America back to work. She's moving at the speed of light legislatively --

BREWER: But the -- there are Blue Dog Democrats --

LARSON: -- and that's what the Republicans object to.

BREWER: -- who won't even let her attend fundraisers in their districts.

LARSON: Listen, I'll tell you right now, what America's focus is not on what's happening in the Beltway, but by the accomplishments of this Congress and this president. There's a lot more to come. We've got our sleeves rolled up. We understand, when you're out of power, all you're gonna -- all you have room to do is just say no. You have no plans, and you continue to try to obstruct.

This is a diversion. What's at stake here for America is health care for all of our citizens, making sure that we're putting people back to work, and also making sure that we're energy independent, have a cleaner environment, and with that, the jobs that we need to move us into the next century. That's where Democrats remain focused, and they support Nancy Pelosi, who has been our leader in this, all the way through it.

[...]

HALL: Republicans still hitting the speaker very hard even today, new comments from Newt Gingrich. Is a congressional coup out of the question?

[...]

VIQUERIA: A lot of question -- buzz here, even asked on MSNBC. Is there a coup possible against Nancy Pelosi among Democrats in the House? And I've got to tell you, while no one is indispensable, especially in Washington, and nothing is impossible, that seems highly unlikely at this point. Right at this camera today, we've seen a couple of Democrats come before us on MSNBC and tell us they were full -- foursquare behind Nancy Pelosi, two Democrats in leadership.

It's one of those deals where if there's going to be a coup, if you jump off that fence -- and, you know, it's "strike a king, kill a king." You don't do that just blindly. And at this point, certainly just three days after this scandal -- or her comments Thursday that led to this big brouhaha, there's no such movement that I can detect at this moment in the House, unlikely to be, barring some sort of signal from the White House or barring some sort of resentment or unsettling nature within the caucus of Democrats during the course of this week. They go on vacation or recess for Memorial Day next week. Nancy Pelosi likely to survive till then. I'd say that's pretty much a dead-cinch lock, Tamron.

[...]

HALL: Plus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is at the center of a firestorm after she accused the CIA of misleading Congress on torture briefings. And no doubt, you might have some who say, "Could her job be in jeopardy?" Are the conditions right for a coup on Capitol Hill?

[...]

HALL: And joining me live from Washington, D.C., is Democratic strategist Alicia Menendez and Republican Strategist Doug Heye. Doug also served as communications director for Michael Steele's 2006 Senate campaign. Thank you both for joining us.

HEYE: Thank you.

MENENDEZ: Hey.

HALL: Alicia, I'll start off with you. Interesting article on Politico. They're saying obviously it's too early to start saying there's a coup in the works, a congressional coup, but they're saying that there are five things to look out for if the conditions are right for there to be political jeopardy for Nancy Pelosi. Where does she stand after being hit, even very hard on the Sunday morning programs?

MENENDEZ: You know, in some ways I think she's stronger than ever. I've been watching your network all day, have different Congress people voicing their support for their leader.

[...]

HALL: Alicia, let's talk about -- in this Politico article, they talk about again the conditions that make it right for a coup, if you will. And they say a leadership rival -- Gingrich had Tom DeLay, Lott had Don Nickles, and now you have Steny Hoyer. And some were critical of his initial response, seemed to be tough and more on the side of the CIA, and then as the weekend progressed, it kind of appeared to change with him, and more support for Pelosi.

From the May 18 edition of Fox News' Happening Now:

SCOTT: Take a look at this latest Rasmussen Reports poll: It shows America is pretty evenly split on who is really telling the truth, with the slight edge going to the House speaker. Joining us now: Penny Lee, a former senior adviser for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; Rick Tyler also with us, a spokesman for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Welcome to both of you.

TYLER: Good to be here.

SCOTT: Rick, you know, House Speaker Gingrich eventually lost his position -- his speakership -- because so many people in his own party were dissatisfied with what was happening to him. There were a lot of little controversies that seemed to pile up. Do you see that happening to this speaker?

TYLER: Well, look, in Newt Gingrich's speakership, he had active enemies who were constantly on TV. You had hundreds of thousands of union ads run against him, and it certainly did cause a lot of damage. Ultimately, now, in retrospect, I think people wish they had not opposed Speaker Gingrich, because he was the last Republican who was actually very successful at running the House of Representatives. I don't know if Nancy Pelosi's in the same situation, but she clearly -- I suppose she could be telling the truth, and these eight other people that were in all these meetings were all lying, but I highly doubt it.

SCOTT: It does seem that the daggers are out, Penny.

LEE: Yeah, I mean, what you're seeing is, you know, sometimes in Washington, unfortunately, we have a little bit of a circular firing squad. Everybody wants to make sure who's up and who's down, and, unfortunately, that's what you're seeing right now. They see a little bit of her going through a little bit of a controversy, and they're trying to make this a little bit more, you know, for their own personal gain. So you're going to see this for a little bit, it's going to continue to be, but hopefully we can get to the truth and to the bottom of this. And that's exactly what the speaker has asked for: an independent truth commission to get to the bottom of this effect that we're having right now.

[...]

SCOTT: Penny, you don't think that this -- you don't think, Penny, that this flap rises to the level that other Democrats would consider a coup against their speaker?

LEE: No, I don't. I mean, again, we don't know all the facts.

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