Disputed Memo Tick-Tock: Where’d The ‘Hoax’ Start?

March 19, 2010 3:24 p.m.

Political memos from Congressional Republicans and Democrats get obtained and posted by the press every single day, but a curious PDF file instructing “Democratic health and communications staff” to avoid discussing the details of the cost of health care reform rocked Washington today. Is it a fake? A mistake?

We still don’t know who wrote the memo. But we know that a Republican lobbyist (and maybe more than one) sent it to several political reporters today. Based on numerous interviews with Congressional aides, the 2-page PDF, complete with a handwritten note identifying one bit as “important,” starting hitting email inboxes around noon.


TPMDC dug deeper into the kerfuffle after Democrats accused Republicans of an elaborate plot to try and derail health care reform in the final hours before the expected vote Sunday in the House.A Republican aide on Capitol Hill told me today in an interview they first learned about the memo at about 12:30, getting an email with the PDF attached. The aide’s office decided not to do anything with the memo “without knowing where it came from or its origin,” the aide said.

A Politico story describing and reprinting the memo was published soon after with a 12:46 p.m. time stamp and caught fire on the Internet, at one point being the lead item at the top of the Drudge Report.

Once the Politico story broke, it was a green light for Republican operatives. Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, sent reporters an email just before 1 p.m. quoting from the memo. He also attached a copy of the memo, which appears to be the same PDF document that Politico posted.

A Senate Democratic aide said today their office started getting calls around 12:30 from reporters asking if the memo’s claims were true. The Democratic aide’s office was sent the PDF by reporters, who said they had obtained it from Republican lobbyists on K Street, the aide told me in an interview.

That aide and several Democratic staffers told us that reporters who posted the memo did not call them to check its authenticity. It appears to have been posted in the noon hour at The Washington Times and on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government Website (time stamp is Pacific time), but the Politico item received the most play on the heavily trafficked Drudge site.

Soon after we posted our initial story, in which Democrats cried foul on the memo at 2:39 p.m., Politico removed the item and memo with this disclaimer:

An earlier post in this spot detailed what was purported by Republicans to be an internal Democratic memo regarding the upcoming health reform vote Sunday. Democratic leadership has challenged the authenticity of the memo. POLITICO has removed the memo and the details about it until we can absolutely verify the document’s origin.

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder posted a mea culpa about the memo this afternoon, saying he should have checked its authenticity before publishing. A reporter for The Hill tweeted the publication opted against posting the memo.

But that didn’t stop Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who claimed on Twitter and his Web site that he’d “intercepted” the memo.

By 3:40 p.m. when House Republican leaders held a press conference on the Hill, reporters were ready with questions about the memo. The leaders dismissed its importance and accused the Democrats of attempting to pull a hoax on the American people.

“The appropriate question there really is ask the reporter who wrote the article alleging that it was a hoax. I know nothing more than what I read in Politico,” Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) said. Watch that moment here.

Late Update: Politico addressed the memo in a piece filed tonight, saying that it had been sent to them by “multiple Republican sources” who could not verify that it was written by Democrats.

The piece concludes:

In the end, POLITICO followed an old rule-of-thumb in journalism in taking down the memo: when in doubt, leave it out. By day’s end, it was still impossible to tell exactly what’s the real story behind the memo. But in the next few months, when Democrats try to pass a multi-billion-dollar “doc fix,” maybe that will shed a little light on the Democrats’ real intentions.

Additional reporting by Brian Beutler

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