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Crossfire

Should James Traficant Join the Republican Party?

Aired January 4, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Traficant, Hastert.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: He went against his party. Now, his party is against him. Tonight, the outspoken and often outlandish congressman from Ohio, James Traficant.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE, in Cleveland, Ohio Democratic Congressman James Traficant.

NOVAK: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE. For the 16 years he has served in Congress, James Traficant's name may just as well have been James Maverick for all the times he defied his own Democratic Party's leadership. But yesterday, he may have gone too far.

As he had threatened, he voted for Republican J. Dennis Hastert for speaker. That evoked sarcastic applause from his Democratic colleagues and something more. The Democratic caucus stripped him of his seat on the Transportation Committee, where he was top Democrat on the Oversight Subcommittee.

A football quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh, Traficant at age 39 was elected county sheriff in his home town of Youngstown and soon faced bribery and tax evasion charges. A federal jury acquitted him of all charges, making him a populist hero.

In 1984, he defeated the regular Democratic candidate and the Republican incumbent to be elected to Congress. On the Hill, he became famous for his fiery oratory and votes against the party line. Now, James Traficant faces big questions. Will he remain a Democrat? Will Republicans give him a committee assignment? And does he face another federal indictment -- Bill?

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Congressman Traficant, when I got involved in politics, one of first lessons I learned was loyalty, loyalty, loyalty. Yesterday, on a key leadership vote, you voted for a Republican. You betrayed your party. Don't you deserve to be punished?

REP. JAMES TRAFICANT (D), OHIO: No. 1, don't call me names, Bill. No. 2, if it wasn't for Denny Hastert, who was a member of Congress and many other Republicans who supported Jim Traficant in my attempts to reform he Internal Revenue Service, the great chairman of the Ways and Means, Bill Archer, now retired and one of the great Americans, would not have included the Traficant language. They did. The Democrats wouldn't even give me a hearing.

I didn't give Dennis Hastert a vote. I, in fact, owed Dennis Hastert a vote. I gave him what I considered the respect he deserved as a fine speaker and I made a commitment to do that. The Republicans have done some great things. We've gone too far with this Democrat and Republican.

Once the people decide who is their government, we should work together for the betterment of the people, and if I have one thing to say about the Democrats, and let me say this very carefully, they're so concerned about taking back the majority they lost sight of the big picture of taking care of the American people.

Our job is taking care of the American people. I didn't betray the Democratic Party. I think the Democratic Party has swayed away from some of the principles that made the Democratic Party a great party in the past, and they better get their act in order because let me say this right here on CROSSFIRE: There's three things I may do.

No. 1, go to Democratic Caucus and move to vacate their leadership and take them over by force myself. Now, second of all, Bob, if that doesn't work, I'll convene my own little caucus in a phone booth. Now, if that's not effective I'll beg for some assignment from the Republicans.

But I am not going to let this stop me from voting for what I think is best for America, and I think we're too tied up with this party label. I didn't betray anybody. One thing I didn't betray; I didn't betray the American people and that's when I was elected to do.

PRESS: But congressman, you are a member of the Democratic Caucus. You know the caucus rules. There's a clear rules that says no member can vote for a member of another party on a partisan vote like this. You knew the law -- the rules. You broke the rules. I ask you again, don't you deserve to be punished?

TRAFICANT: Bill, hear me out. I wasn't elected to surrender my voting card to Dick Gephardt, David Bonior, or any Democrats. I was elected to vote what I think was right. Quite frankly, I think that Dennis Hastert is an awful like Tip O'Neill.

Maybe Tip was a little bit more of a celebrity, but Dennis is a man of the people just like, and quite frankly, you know what I think should have happened yesterday? I think after the count was totaled, the Democrats should have stood up and asked for an affirmative unanimous vote for Dennis Hastert.

We now have no deficit. They've taken on the welfare system. They reform the IRS system, and just the Traficant language, a Democrat that they allowed to put into that bill, did the following -- and I want to state thing, Bob, because Bob Novak, I want to give you lot of credit along with Rush Limbaugh, Michael Reagan, Blanquita Cullum, Ron Verve (ph) from my area and a lot of people, Ollie North, who pushed from the outside to make it happen.

Here's what the Traficant language did: Wage attachments dropped from 3.1 million to 540,000; property liens dropped from 680,000 to 161,000 and property seizures, Bob, dropped from 10,037 to 151. And Dan Rostenkowski and the Democratic leaders wouldn't even hold a hearing on the Traficant bill. The Republicans did what was right for the country, and I reciprocated by giving my vote to a fine speaker.

NOVAK: Congressman, I want to put on the screen what the spokeswoman for the Ohio Democratic Party, Kena Hudson, had to say about you after the vote. She said: "He campaigns for Republicans. He votes for Republicans. he says he's a Democrat, but he sure doesn't sound like one," end-quote.

Congressman, why don't you just cross the aisle?

TRAFICANT: Bob, there is no Democratic Party in Ohio. Al Gore abandoned the state 14 days before the election was over, and quite frankly, for the first time I'll admit this. They called, and wanted to talk to me personally with the vice president to endorse him. And for the first time I'm saying it, they had granted out empowerment zones all over America and I represent one of the most impoverished districts. And I said you want my endorsement, Mr. Vice President? You come with that empowerment zone before the election and if you can't do that, don't come into the area.

Look, I represent a Democratic area that rubber stamped Democrats for years, and we've been taken for granted. No more of those days. As far the Democratic Party is concerned, there is none in Ohio. They should remove their leadership. They're inactive, and I won't take any insults from them certainly.

NOVAK: Congressman, I think you're right on, there. But why don't you just go over and become a Republican?

TRAFICANT: I think on many issues I am, but you know, we heard earlier and CNN may be the greatest news source in the history of mankind, and we talked about a man who deserves some applause, here Mr. Greenspan. Let me say this, nobody is looking at a massive trade deficit that will hit a half a trillion dollars this year. I'm hoping that President Bush addresses himself to that because the Democrats with all their rhetoric have allowed these jobs going overseas left and right, and I honest to God believe that I can't see the difference between Democrats and Republicans on some of these issues.

NOVAK: So, you're not even considering crossing the aisle and becoming Republican?

TRAFICANT: I don't know. What's the difference if you're a Democrat or a Republican as long as you're doing the right thing for the country.

NOVAK: What if the Republicans give you a committee assignment, won't you owe them something? TRAFICANT: Let me say this: If I do not get a committee assignment from the Democrats, I will go to the Republicans for an assignment. But I will tell you this: There's one phenomenon in the Congress, if you understand the parliamentary machinations of Congress.

There's always the committee of the whole House, and Jim Traficant is in the committee of the whole House, and I will have my say on the House floor, and I'll immediately start looking at these illegal steel imports moving a resolution through Congress with asking the speaker to bring the Traficant resolution up for a vote immediately to stop this illegal dumping of steel, forcing LTV and other steel manufacturers into bankruptcy.

I'll be immediately moving to pass the Tauzin-Traficant national retail sales taxes of 15 percent and throwing the IRS and income taxes out, inheritance taxes out, with these estate taxes out, capital gains taxes out and empowering the American people to move forward.

The Republicans have had better ideas. I've supported then, and if the Democrats come up with good ideas, Bill, I'll support them.

PRESS: Congressman, you've already got Bob Novak's vote. You can slow it down a little bit here. But I want to ask you -- I want to come back to this committee thing because, you know, you were next in line to become the ranking head, I think, of the Transportation Subcommittee.

Now you've got nothing because of voting for Hastert, and Dick Gephardt's press spokeswoman Laura Nichols said yesterday, quote: "If he wants a committee assignment, he's going to have to go to the Republicans. He is no longer a member in good standing.

So, tell us -- tell, have you talked to Republicans and what are they offering you?

TRAFICANT: Let me tell you what -- no hear me. Let's not talk about Republicans are offering, because this was no quid pro quo. I didn't owe a vote to Dennis Hastert, I, in fact, rewarded Dennis Hastert with a vote for doing a good job for America and for including my language, my IRS language with Chairman Archer.

PRESS: But what's he going to...

(CROSSTALK)

TRAFICANT: But let me say this...

PRESS: What's he going to give you?

TRAFICANT: Dick Gephardt didn't have the anatomy to come to me personally and tell me that. He sent a couple of envoys, and I'm going to tell you what, the Democratic Party better get some leadership that will stand up do what's right for America or they will continue to fall into minority trap that they're in. There's no reason they should have been the minority party to start with. The reason they're a minority party is for 48 years they didn't tackle the tough issues. They were too controversial. They didn't want to lose the majority.

I must give the Republicans credit because they've taken some tough stands and they even whittled down their majority, but they tackled the issues that faced the American people, and I'm going to help them, and I'm going to help anybody in the Congress who's doing the right thing. Period.

PRESS: Well, let me turn that around. Why should the Republicans give you a committee chairmanship if you won't become a Republican? They would be fools to do that.

TRAFICANT: I haven't asked the Republicans to give me anything. There was no quid pro quo. I did what I thought was best for the country, and right now, Speaker Hastert is best for the country. And listen to this -- only the Democrats listen to it. I'm going to invite Speaker Hastert into my district. I am going to ask Speaker Hastert to help me get an empowerment going, to re-energize my district, that was a one horse town with steel mills, that are now all overseas, and I am going to try to rebuild, carefully, and diversify our economy.

And the Democrats haven't done a damn thing. And I think it's time they look at their roots, look at their people; our people made the steel in the helmets, the tanks, the bombs, when we were in World War II. But they seem to have forgotten about us. I represent my people. I represent America in general, And look, once the American people decided on who was to be the majority party, I will support the initiatives of that party. I will not be an obstructionist. As far as Gephardt is concerned, Gephardt may have a problem with me. He may have a big problem with me, because I'm not going to be pushed around by Gephardt or anybody.

PRESS: All right, on that challenge to Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, we're going to take a break. Congressman Traficant is going to stick around to take your questions in the CROSSFIRE chat-room right after the show. You know how to get there. Log on to cnn.com/crossfire.

And when we come back: losing committee assignments may not be the worst part of Jim Traficant's problems. Is he also facing Federal indictment?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Beam me up, and welcome back to CROSSFIRE. By voting for Dennis Hastert for speaker, Congressman James Traficant got himself into trouble with fellow Democrats in Congress, but that's not his only headache. He admits he expects to be indicted as part of a Federal investigation in the political corruption back home in Youngstown, Ohio, where he once served as county sheriff. So, is the end in sight for the colorful Traficant, or will he in his own unique style beat the odds and overcome this double dose of bad news? Let's ask him.

Our guest, partially de-frocked, Democratic Congressman James Traficant of Ohio -- Bob.

NOVAK: Congressman, do you still...

TRAFICANT: Don't call me names, Bob.

NOVAK: No, that was Bill. I didn't call you any names.

TRAFICANT: You called me congressman; that's not like you, Novak.

NOVAK: All right, Mr. Traficant, do you still expect to get indicted, and if so, why and when?

TRAFICANT: Bob, I'm the only American in the history of the United States to have defeated the Justice Department in a ricco case proce (ph), meaning never being an attorney. They have been after me for 17 years and I'm going to tell you something. After the IRS reform bill, the Traficant bill that's starting to get some attention is the Fair Justice Act.

If you believe what they told that jury in Waco, Texas, I have some swampland for you in Florida. If you believe what they told the public about Ruby Ridge and the Weaver family -- forget his politics, I didn't like him, but why did they give him $5 million to settle it, and why were no indictments?

The Traficant bill would provide a whole new agency; they would have the sole power to investigate and prosecute wrongdoing in the Justice Department, who investigates themselves. Now just listen to what Jim Traficant is saying:

They will indict me, because I am a symbol, I am a rebel who believes that too many people in America fear their government. They fear the IRS, they fear the FBI -- the FBI in Cleveland, Ohio and Pittsburgh has, in fact, operated Youngstown and their agents have been on the payroll with the mob. They can sue me, and I'm going to give you their names: Stanley Peterson, former agent in charge of the Youngstown office, later appointed chief of police in Youngstown, Ohio the direction of the mob; special agent Croner still on their payroll; special agent Lynch, who was their bag man; and they want to jack me around?

Listen, I am going to go to court against a bunch of undefeated U.S. attorneys -- they may put me in jail, but they better get ready for a fight, because I'm one American that believes that we have got to take our government back. I'm not making a political statement here, waving a flag. I don't believe that Congress any more makes any difference, they're background music in a doctor's office.

Dennis Hastert is starting to bring back the people in the government and I think it's time for the people to take back control of their own government.

(CROSSTALK)

Yes, I'll be indicted. They have to indict me, and listen to this: they better beat me, or you're interviewing the richest guy you've ever interviewed in American history.

NOVAK: Jim, tell -- what did you do wrong?

TRAFICANT: I don't know what I did wrong, but...

NOVAK: What do you think you did wrong?

TRAFICANT: They are making molehills into mountains, and there is a big word in all of this, Robert, and that's called "intent." And I never had any intentions of breaking any laws and when they bring their case into court, I'm going to stand there with their undefeated attorneys -- I'm going to look 12 jurors in the eye, and while they're pointing fingers at me, I'm going to be pointing fingers at them and representing myself.

And quite frankly, I'll tell you what: I'm getting ready for the fight. I've had it. I've had it with them following me around for years, offering people deals, letting them out of jail, if they can give them anything on Jim Traficant. And I want to make sure that there's nobody in Washington -- any Democrat, who is not successful in getting me beaten in an election, that's behind this. Because I will literally kick their assets. That's a promise. I've had it.

PRESS: Mr. Traficant?

TRAFICANT: You're talking to an American that's had it. Forget Congress. Forget the fact that I'm a Representative. I'm the son of a truck driver that believes America has gone so far to the point where we are afraid of our government, we don't even have a say, and most Americans are afraid to register to vote; they don't want to be called for jury duty. We've got a problem. Let's start taking the government back to our people and while I'm in Congress that's all I'm going to do and the only think I'll say to you is this: I'm not acting macho. I'm scared to death of these prosecutors.

PRESS: Mr. Traficant, according to the "Cleveland Plain Dealer", the reason they're after you, is part of a Federal investigation where, so far, 58 people around Youngstown have been convicted, including the former director of your district office, one of your former advisers, and among the things they say they are after you for, is accepting free cars from local businessmen, and getting a sweetheart deal on a horse barn on your farm; guilty or not guilty?

TRAFICANT: Well, one thing's for sure, is they're certainly leaking a lot of things out, and if I catch them leaking, that's a Federal crime and they'll end up going to jail. Let me just say this to you: they gave me a whole list of all of the people that they have successfully prosecuted and they're undefeated and they reminded me, and that's very impressive, and here's what I'm telling you:

As my attorney advised me not to comment on the specifics on the case -- and I'm my own attorney by the way -- I'm going to go to court and see the salient points where investigation and, one at time, I'm going to challenge their counts.

PRESS: And do you really want us to believe that Janet Reno and the mighty Justice Department is out to get you just because you beat them in court once?

TRAFICANT: No. What I'm saying to you is Janet Reno is a traitor. She betrayed us by not appointing an independent counsel on China, our nation is at risk, China is now taking $10 billion a month out of our economy in trade surpluses; the CIA said they are buying missiles and nuclear attack submarines, they're pointing those missiles at America.

Come on; what happened to us? What happened to this country? What about your grandchildren? Will they see a Chinese missile someday? Janet Reno should be investigated for not having appointed independent counsel.

My God, Monica Lewinsky has been taken through the mud over a love triangle, but a communist, Red Army general gave money to the chairman of the Democratic National Committee and to Bill Clinton and there's no investigation, Bill? And you say you're proud to be a Democrat?

PRESS: There were Senate and House...

TRAFICANT: I want an investigation.

PRESS: There was Senate and House investigations up the kazoo, and they found nothing, Mr. Traficant, and you know it.

TRAFICANT: They kept every bit of information from those two groups; they tried to defame Dan Burton, a fine member of Congress. And let me tell you what, Jim Traficant -- I expect to go to trial, but I'm going to tell you this: Janet Reno is going to have to answer for this, and before I'm done, she will. And I think Bill Clinton has to answer for this.

The chairman of Judiciary Committee, Henry Hyde, one the great Americans, I believe should have gone after the Chinese connection because I believe our national security has been breached. And I'm saying, sue me Janet Reno, Jim Traficant says you're a traitor.

And I'm telling you this, when you say consider the source, I say the American people should consider the source on what Janet Reno has done to this country.

NOVAK: Jim Traficant, I'm going to ask you a question you don't have to answer, but I hope you will: On November 7, last year, 2000, who did you vote for, for president?

TRAFICANT: I will never tell you that; that's my business. But I will tell you this: I did tell Al Gore's people, when he wanted to hook up with that phone conversation, don't call me back; and if he came to my district I'd endorse George Bush because they've overlooked my area sorely in need of an empowerment zone. And I expect the Republicans, I really do -- I'm going to ask Speaker Hastert to come in here and help me get an empowerment zone for my people and help me to diversify my economy so we could fit in. But I want to give the best of luck to President Bush. And I want to tell you something: I think he's going to be extremely qualified.

I think his appointments have not only shown the diversity and an honest approach. I think Colin Powell is a great pick. I'm hoping that Marty Martinez, a former congressman from California, gets picked somewhere in this mix; he was so good for people and for labor and for working people.

And I'm just going to work with the speaker and work with both Democrat and Republican leaders. And if Democrats have a good idea, Bill, I'm going to support it; and if they don't, I'm going to tell them it sucks. That's the way it is.

NOVAK: Well, I'll have to beat myself up over that. Thank you very much...

TRAFICANT: Beat me up...

NOVAK: James Traficant.

TRAFICANT: ... but I did favor George Bush. I don't like the fact that Al Gore happened to say everything that everybody wanted to hear, Bill.

NOVAK: Thank a lot, congressman.

Bill Press and I will be back -- it's going to be hard to top that -- with closing comments.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Now you can find out what's coming up in the CROSSFIRE. Sign up for a daily e-mail sent free of charge telling you what we are planning for that night. Log on to cnn.com/CROSSFIRE to sign up for your daily CROSSFIRE e-mail.

OK, now Bob and I had our shot; it's your turn. You can take on Congressman James Traficant, ask him your tough questions in our chat room right after the show at cnn.com/CROSSFIRE.

Well, Bob, I don't think there's one Democrat tonight that Jim Traficant didn't insult. But you know, that's fine...

NOVAK: Including you.

PRESS: ... because the fact is -- including me, right.

But the fact is, he doesn't look like a Republican, but he walks like a Republican, he talks like a Republican, he votes like a Republican. He ought to just do the honest thing and join the Republican Party. He'd be better off.

NOVAK: Well, I tend to agree with you on that point.

But I'll tell you this: You know, one of these weenie little professors from Youngstown State said he's losing -- this is in Youngstown -- he's losing support, he's going to be gone in another term or two. Let me tell you something: As long as he is playing the populist game -- against taxes, against the IRS, against the government, for the people -- he's going to be there, in a blue- collar, working-class neighborhood a long time. And he's right: That is a problem for the Democratic Party.

PRESS: I think he is an embarrassment to his district, to the Congress; but I think you're right: He will be re-elected as long as he plays the populist game.

Now who do you think he voted for?

NOVAK: I think he voted for Bush.

But there's some people in Youngstown who would think you're an embarrassment, Bill.

PRESS: Well, that may be true.

From the left, I'm Bill Press; good night for CROSSFIRE. And don't -- tomorrow night we have a very, very special guest in the CROSSFIRE; you're going to be surprised who's sitting right here.

NOVAK: Yes, Join us for another special edition of CROSSFIRE.

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