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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

A Tipping Point for Trump's White House?; Why Leaks are Flooding Out of Trump's White House. Aired 11a-12p ET

Aired May 14, 2017 - 11:00   ET

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


[11:00:17] BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Hey. I'm Brian Stelter. Happy Mother's Day and welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is RELIABLE SOURCES, our weekly look at the story behind the story, of how the media really works and how the news gets made.

Five days now since the firing of James Comey. This is the low point in Donald Trump's young presidency. It also feels to some in the media like a tipping point. We have Carl Bernstein standing by with perspective you need to here.

Plus, Michael Scherer, who interviewed Trump earlier this week at the White House.

Also this hour, we will be examining where the leaks in the Trump White House are coming from, plus conservative media denialism.

And from early morning tweets to late night punch lines, how "SNL" is reacting to all the news.

And right now, there is so much news. There are complaints about the Trump administration's contradictory stories. There are questions about obstruction of justice. There are concerns about Trump's media consumption and his emotional state.

From the left, we are hearing fears in democratic norms. From the right, we are complaints that this is all the media's fault.

So, let's begin with the two very best guests on the subject, Jeffrey Toobin, CNN senior legal analyst and a staff writer for "The New Yorker", and the aforementioned Carl Bernstein, award winning journalist, one half of the Woodward and Bernstein team, and a CNN political analyst.

Jeffrey, first to you, Tuesday, 5:45 p.m., you were here at the New York bureau. You find out Comey has been canned. You immediately speak to Wolf Blitzer on the air, and I think it was a defining moment in the coverage of the past week. You said this was a grotesque abuse of power. Some have criticized you for going over the top.

Do you stand by that now five days later?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I do. But I can't say -- you know, I don't have mixed feelings about the experience, because, you know, I have worked with CNN since 2002. I have been on television a lot. And I try to be more analytical than polemical.

I mean, I -- that's sort of how my demeanor, what I say. But, you know, I also have to be honest. And, you know, I did come of age watching Watergate. I was a teenager during those years. And, you know, my heroes were not the politicians. My heroes were Woodward and Bernstein.

And I -- and I know that story very well. I didn't have to look up the date October 20th, 1973, the day of the Saturday night massacre. And, you know, as I write in "The New Yorker" this week, June 23rd, 1972, the famous smoking gun tape of Richard Nixon in the Oval Office talking to H.R. Haldeman. What they are talking about is getting the FBI to stop investigating Watergate. It's the same thing that Trump was doing by firing Comey, as he more or less admitted to Lester Holt.

So, you know, I stand by everything I say. It's not the way I usually express myself, but, you know, I think I was right.

STELTER: You also said this is not the kind of thing that happens in democracies. We see this in other forms of government. Is it that serious still five days later?

TOOBIN: Well, I do think -- what occurred to me is what's going on in turkey. You have the government purging thousands of people who at least according to the government are unreliable from the police, the press, the teaching professions. Obviously things aren't that bad here. But that's the kind of thing that resonates for me. And, you know, I'm not going to pretend it isn't troubling. It is troubling.

STELTER: Let's go to Carl. He's on -- he's traveling. But he's -- I'm grateful he's able to join us today and talk through this.

Since Watergate was brought up, Carl, how do you assess the situation versus the story that you helped share with the world in the 1970s?

CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think this is a potentially more dangerous situation than Watergate, and we are at a very dangerous moment. And that's because we are looking at the possibility that the president of the United States and those around him during an election campaign colluded with a hostile foreign power to undermine the basis of our democracy -- free elections.

We don't know the facts, but what we do know is the president of the United States seems to be doing everything in his power to keep us from knowing the facts, including firing the director of the FBI because, says the president of the United States, of, quote, this Russia thing.

So, the question of a cover-up seems to me to have been answered a while ago. There is a cover-up going on to keep us from knowing what happened here. Whether that means the president of the United States obstructed justice or not, or those around him did, we don't know. But what we see is that at every turn, this president is impeding the ability of those who were chosen to investigate to do so, including the House and Senate committees.

[11:05:11] So, it is truly a dangerous moment. It's very different than Watergate.

TOOBIN: If I could just elaborate on one point Carl is making, one difference from Watergate is that, you know, Nixon was obstructing the FBI in private, in secret, in meetings in the Oval Office, that it took a Supreme Court fight to get access to the tapes. Trump is obstructing the FBI in plain view by firing -- by firing the director. It changes the story somehow in perception. But the intent seems to be exactly the same.

STELTER: But Andrew McCabe said this week, Carl, Andrew McCabe said there hasn't been --

(CROSSTALK)

BERNSTEIN: There is another much more dangerous -- Andrew McCabe might say that, but in practical terms I'm not talking about obstruction of justice. And people around and in the FBI that I have talked to would say there has been every effort made to impede the investigation.

But more important than this is also, we are hearing from conservative and Republican commentators in the press, Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer and others, questioning the stability of the president of the United States. This is unheard of.

And that is an element of this, because Republicans on Capitol Hill, the Republicans during Watergate were heroic. They are the ones who said, what did the president know and when did he know it? They investigated and investigated and voted for his impeachment because they were willing to see the truth served.

We have not seen something similar from the Republicans thus far. Maybe we will. But what we are hearing in private from many people on Capitol Hill, congressmen, senators -- they doubt the stability, honesty and fitness for office of this president of the United States. That has become part of the story for the press.

I think, Brian, you can see this from where you sit, that we'd have a different kind of dynamic. Richard Nixon was a criminal president. Donald Trump is a president with whom there is grave question about his fitness and ability to conduct the office of the presidency. That's going hand in hand with the possible cover-up into collusion with a foreign power.

STELTER: But fitness for office --

BERNSTEIN: Hopefully, there will be no evidence of collusion --

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: -- his emotional state, very difficult to journalists to address, isn't it? Your old paper, "The Washington Post", in today's paper, quotes a Trump ally saying, is he in the grip of some kind of paranoid delusion? Now, it's an anonymous quote on the front page of "The Washington Post". Is that appropriate, Carl? BERNSTEIN: It's not only appropriate. I think look at the

conservative ideologue commentators, whether you talk about Jonah Goldberg, others, Krauthammer, who are questioning the very stability of the president of the United States.

We have many reporters, myself included, who have talked to numerous people, Republicans on Capitol Hill, who in private will tell you they doubt the stability of this president. And in the last week, it has really been demonstrated. It's part of the story and it's very hard to cover. It's a different dynamic than we have ever had to deal with before.

But the tweets that the president of the United States have been making are really a roadmap of his mind. And that roadmap takes some very crooked corners.

STELTER: Now, you are talking about what Republicans might be saying in private. In public, we haven't heard so much of this.

Jeffrey, let me put on screen part of your column in "The New Yorker", just posted on TheNewYorker.com. You wrote that it's a certainty, history will look unkindly upon the moral blindness of contemporary Republicans.

That's you say because there's been relative silence from GOP leaders.

TOOBIN: That's right. I mean, you know, Carl is correctly pointing out that a few conservative columnists have been skeptical. But what is striking is that notwithstanding how obviously inappropriate this firing was, you have close to complete silence or support from Mitch McConnell, from Chuck Grassley, from Paul Ryan, you know, people who are very smart and very savvy but I think they are so ideologically blinded they can't be candid about how wrong and dangerous this is.

And as Carl pointed out, you know, whether it was, you know, Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott and John Rhodes on August 7th, 1974, going to the White House and saying, you have to go, that kind of patriotism as opposed to partisanship has just not been evident at all in contemporary Republicans.

STELTER: Are you saying that's necessary today?

TOOBIN: Absolutely it's necessary.

STELTER: That Republicans should go to Trump and say, you have to --

TOOBIN: Oh, to say, yes, resign, absolutely no.

(CROSSTALK)

[11:10:03] TOOBIN: I'm just saying, but just to say this is wrong and you have to respect the law. I'm not saying he has to resign or he has to be impeached. I'm just saying that the propriety of firing Comey was so obviously wrong that it seems like it's more than incumbent upon some Republicans just to recognize the obvious.

STELTER: And we should notice what's missing. These GOP leaders are mostly not on television this weekend. They are avoiding interviews.

Carl, one last question for you. I was re-watching "All The President's Men" last night with my wife. And there's a scene at the end of the film where your editor --

TOOBIN: What a great movie. Can we discuss what a great movie that is? I'm sorry.

STELTER: Exactly. And you've got Ben Bradley, the Ben Bradley character at the end of the film says to you and Bob out on the lawn, half the country has never heard of Watergate. Nobody cares about this. And then, of course, for another year or two, you keep working on the story.

Is there something similar happening right now? Many Americans are tuned out of this. They may not care about these alleged improprieties? They are tuning it out?

BERNSTEIN: No. I think it's different. We have a very divided country now in a way that breaks down along ideological lines. And fewer and fewer people are interested in the best obtainable version of the truth, but rather look for information on both sides to buttress what they already believe.

But I think the most important thing to recognize here is the need for a real investigation that goes to the bottom of what occurred with the Russians, with our elections, whether or not people around President Trump or President Trump himself colluded with a hostile foreign power. And we need a real investigation with more resources than are available to either the House or Senate committees. Comey was looking for more resources for the FBI.

And what especially we need to think about is the president of the United States publically threatened the outgoing director of the FBI the other day, saying he might have tapes that he secretly recorded of their conversations. It is absolutely incumbent on the House, the Senate, the FBI, the U.S. attorney to subpoena any tapes that the president of the United States has with Comey, with those in his campaign who may or may not have colluded with a foreign power, including his campaign manager Paul Manafort, including Roger Stone, including General Flynn.

Those tapes, if they exist, need to be subpoenaed immediately. And that is part of what we are going to see whether or not there is a really serious investigation, because that will be one of the first things we see in the next few days.

But what the president has tried to do -- make no mistake -- is to impede these legitimate investigations and as he said, I fired Comey because of this Russia thing. It is a dangerous, dangerous moment.

STELTER: Carl Bernstein, Jeffrey Toobin --

TOOBIN: Can I make one correction?

STELTER: Yes, sure. TOOBIN: Or addition? "All The President's Men" isn't just a great movie. It's a great book by Carl and Bob. And everyone should read it, especially now.

STELTER: Cinemax, by the way, where it's on demand, or Amazon, or iTunes, lots of ways to watch it if you haven't seen the movie.

Jeffrey, Carl, thank you very much.

Just getting started here. Two Washington correspondents standing by talking about the leaks out of the White House and why you should consider believing them.

We'll have that right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:17:22] STELTER: The one constant of the Trump administration -- leaks. Leaks, leaks, leaks. The president's sudden decision to fire FBI Director James Comey left the White House leaking like a sieve. You see just a few of the examples here. It's starting to seem like it's every staffer for him or herself.

This is in addition to the president doubling down on his suggestion to maybe just do away with a White House tradition for the past hundred years -- that is, press briefings.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEANINE PIRRO, FOX NEWS: Are you using so quickly that your communications department cannot keep up with you?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes. That's true.

PIRRO: So what do we do about that? Because --

TRUMP: We don't have press conferences and we do --

PIRRO: You don't mean that.

TRUMP: Well, just don't have them. Unless I have them every two weeks and I do it myself. We don't have them. I think it's a good idea.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: Let's bring in two well-sourced reporters to talk about this. Olivia Nuzzi is as Washington correspondent for "New York Magazine" and Michael Scherer is Washington bureau chief for "TIME."

Michael, how seriously should we take this suggestion that there will be no more White House press briefings?

MICHAEL SCHERER, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, TIME: I think we should take it seriously. You know, the president has a long pattern of raising ideas like this that seem outlandish and then a couple weeks carrying through with them. Remember, there is a thing he threatened during the campaign of not going to a debate unless CNN or some of the other networks paid money to a charity of his choosing. And then he actually went forward and carried through with it. I don't think this is something his own staff would recommend he'd do. I don't think this is something the press operation wants.

But if the president continues to feel the sense of grievance he clearly feels now that motivated a lot of decisions he made this week and last week I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen at least on a temporary basis.

STELTER: On Friday, when he first tweeted this, I figured he was just trolling the press.

Olivia, what was your reaction?

OLIVIA NUZZI, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK MAGAZINE: I thought it was very frightening. Look, we get lied to a lot at these press briefings, as being acknowledged this week. They say a lot of inaccurate things.

But we don't have that many opportunities to press this administration on the record and I think that's very important. It is frankly a story if the administration cannot get their story straight or if they are lying.

STELTER: Right.

NUZZI: And we need to see that every day. And we don't want to be in position where we are relying on them to respond to our e-mails for comment. We're going to be able to do it in person, on camera where they are being held accountable.

I mean, they are public servants. They have a public service to carry out and this is part of it.

STELTER: I've heard a lot of talk on television this week about a crisis of credibility with this White House.

Olivia, what is the state of the White House's credibility?

NUZZI: Not great. The State of the Union is not great in that respect. I think that they have a lot of problems and I think part of the problem is because they say so many inaccurate things on the record to us at these briefings, it's much more easy for all of us to believe the leaks that are coming out on background because the White House really doesn't have a leg to stand on when they deny these leaks on the record.

[11:20:10] STELTER: That's really interesting. I want to ask more about the leaks, because one of the themes I have heard from conservative media outlets this week is all of the leaks are being contradicted by people on the record denying them.

Michael, why should people watching this program believe anonymous sources that are saying Trump's furious, he did this because of the Russia investigation, et cetera?

SCHERER: You know, Trump has not created a coherent White House structure. And so, what you have is several different teams operating around him and him often choosing to reach outside the White House or to a small circle of advisers to make big decisions. The result is, there isn't a coherent master strategy.

The rollout this week of the Comey news is the latest example of that. I would say you should always be skeptical of anonymous sources, but when there are lots of anonymous sources and multiple outlets saying similar things.

And, you know, I can attest to having been in the Oval Office with him for much of Monday night. This emotional grievance, this feeling that he's been wronged by the press, by the way his White House has been covered, by his own communication, inability to get out information. These are not things he demonstrated for us -- in front of us. So, they're not -- they're not things I would doubt.

STELTER: So, let me ask you, Olivia, is it a situation where sometimes sources tell the truth privately when they are not being quoted and then mislead you on the record? Is some of what's going on here that journalists are actually trusting anonymous sources more than the public denials?

NUZZI: It's possible. I mean, I think the problem is this White House has been so dishonest. I mean, from day one, we remember what Sean Spicer coming out and saying that it was the biggest inauguration day crowd ever.

So, from day one, they started out misleading us and blatantly lying to us. And now, I think that they are paying for it. In the fact that, you know, we are inclined to believe -- to not believe them when they say a story is wrong or they give us their version of events, because why would we?

(CROSSTALK)

STELTER: Yes, Michael, go ahead.

SCHERER: Many of these inaccuracies are because the president tells people to say these things. They are not inaccuracies on the part of Sean Spicer. He was instructed to go out and say false things about the inaugural crowds.

You know, they were told -- the communication shop was told the reason for the Comey firing only a day and a half later to have the president come out and said the things he told them to say, that they had letters that they released to the press were not true and the president had a different motivation in firing Jim Comey.

So, there is a huge credibility problem. But it's often the case that this is because the people around the president are trying to respond to the president are actually literally carrying his message and his message keeps changing day to day.

STELTER: This brings us to the idea he may replace Spicer, bring in a new press secretary. But how much does it matter?

NUZZI: It doesn't. It really doesn't.

STELTER: If the deputies are also in the dark?

NUZZI: We are going to have the same problem. I mean, it's not a question of Sean Spicer himself as a human being lacking credibility, or anybody else in the White House lacking credibility as a human being. It's that they are working on behalf of someone whose story changes minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day. And there's just -- there is not going to be any change of that no matter who they have up there at the lectern.

STELTER: You mentioned interviewing President Trump on Monday. Let's flash the cover on screen. You have the cover of the issue talking about what it's like with the president late at night, watching television. How does the television fixation factor in to what's happened in the past week?

SCHERER: The president has been an enormously sophisticated consumer of media. If you go back to the campaign when he called Jeb Bush low energy or Marco Rubio Little Marco, those were -- those were punditry moves. He was commenting on television, not on them as politicians, but on how they came across on television.

And he still consumes his own presidency very much as a television show. And it is the television -- in the last couple of weeks, the testimony last week or two weeks ago with James Comey on the Hill, this week with Sally Yates and Jim Clapper.

STELTER: He DVR'd and he was re-watching it with you, right?

SCHERER: Not just he was re-watching with us, we walked into the Oval Office, he said, come on, I want to show you something. He cued it up for us and he wanted to show it to us and he wanted to do color commentary on it, which was actually rather vicious. I mean, he was saying they were choking like dogs in the hearing and sort of exaggerating the reactions of the crowds.

He was trying to get some emotional satisfaction from what he felt was the story of those hearings, which is a view that, simply put, most people don't agree with. I mean, the press doesn't agree with it. A lot of the staff do not agree with it.

But he feels he's been deeply wronged. And he's been wronged on television. And he's responding to television.

STELTER: He also called your magazine dishonest right in front of you, right? He said it to you. How did that feel?

SCHERER: He often does that, and there is a weird dichotomy here. The president is incredibly gracious and charming host when you speak with him, when you're in his company. And very often he'll flip and, I think the last three times I've talked to him, or four times I talked to him, he's put in a dig at some point about me as a reporter and the quality of my reporting, the quality of "TIME" magazine.

[11:25:05] But there's a sort of irony into the way he delivers it, because he's talking to me at the moment. I'm invited back. I think he thinks, for the most part, what I report is exactly what he's saying and is accurate.

But it all comes back to the idea that he can't get a fair shake, which I think is really fundamental to the president right now and is a motivating force that helps explain a lot of decisions he's making.

STELTER: Two very honest reporters, Michael and Olivia, thank you very much.

NUZZI: Thank you.

SCHERER: Thank you.

STELTER: Up next here, Melissa McCarthy and Alec Baldwin returning to "SNL".

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MELISSA MCCARTHY AS SEAN SPICER: Mr. Trump, I need to talk to you. Have you ever told me to say things that aren't true?

ALEC BALDWIN AS PRESIDENT TRUMP: Only since you started working here.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BRIAN STELTER, RELIABLE SOURCES HOST: Welcome back to Reliable Sources. I am Brian Stelter. Lester Holt of NBC had the interview of the week with President Trump. In it Trump essentially admitted that the Russia investigation played a role in his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. A blockbuster admission. So SNL was at it again last night paying particular attention to just how much that revelation did or didn't matter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL CHE, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE COMEDIAN: Your staff has been insisting all week that you didn't fire him because of his Russian investigation.

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: No, I did.

CHE: Wait. What?

BALDWIN: I fired him because of Russia. I thought he is investigating Russia, I don't like that, I should fire him.

CHE: And you're just admitting that?

BALDWIN: Uh-huh.

CHE: But that's obstruction of justice.

BALDWIN: Sure. OK.

CHE: Wait. So -- did I get him? Is this all over? Oh, no, I didn't? Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: Laughing might be the best way to deal with this whirlwind of a week. Joining me now to discuss is David Zurawik. The media critic for the Baltimore sun. Did SNL get it right last night?

DAVID ZURAWIK, MEDIA CRITIC, THE BALTIMORE SUN: Oh, they did. They got it right in a bunch of places, they got it right in that opening, they got it right in the Sean Spicer segment and best of all, Brian, and I think this has been under estimated, weekend update has been brilliant. I mean, I thought they were great in 2008 when they took apart Sarah Palin, but now we -- we're not talking about a candidate, we're talking about someone in the White House who is erratic and probably in a lot of ways dangerous and they're taking that on.

I'll tell you something brilliant they did last night. They took apart his language. They had, for example, the case where his lawyers said there was no problem with his tax returns for the last 10 years except for a few exceptions. And then Colin Jost came back and said, "That's like saying all the children came back safely from the field trip with a few exceptions." I mean, they did that and that's the key to this. The key to everything I think you've been talking about today in the -- in the really great segments with the earlier guests is that this is an administration that pumps disinformation into the ecosystem, into the information ecosystem.

I don't think we've ever been faced with anything like that. If they were just making fun of Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee I'd say, "OK. Come on, they are press reps," but it isn't. They are brilliantly satirizing the way the information -- that's the source of information from the White House. It's the information a democracy needs to function. We know we cannot function as a democracy without some reliable information. We expect some of that from our leaders. We are getting none of it.

Instead we're getting confusion, we're getting lies, we're getting contradictions. And so to satirize that you almost -- you have to go to the level of the surreal. You have to go to Melissa McCarthy on the podium which, seeing the -- seeing the video of it Friday afternoon when it leaked out saved my week. It was a killer week. And seeing her out to Anti-CNN made me smile. Made me love doing this, Brian. Made me love this job again.

STELTER: And, you know, there's the -- there's the serious and then there's the funny. On the -- on the serious side earlier today here on CNN, James Clapper told Jake Tapper that U.S. institutions are under assault and then a few minutes later Fareed Zakaria said that the task of the media and the courts is to, quote, quite simply keep alive the spirit of American democracy. From everything you have seen and read this week are journalists exceeding and doing that?

ZURAWIK: Journalists are trying. This is a mighty challenge. I think journalists are doing it because they're attacking it at several points. You know, Lester Holt did it. You know, on the right they wanted to say, "Oh, Lester Holt was interrupting the president. He was badgering him." No, he wasn't. Again, he was pushing for clarification, for exact language. Did Comey tell you you are not under investigation? And every time you push Trump that way he starts fudging. He starts obfuscating. That's the problem.

We're living in this environment and the -- with the White House doing this, journalists are trying. I think Lester Holt did great work. Just look at the headlines that came out of that. I mean, we got the reason for the firing contradicted. I don't -- you know, some said, "Oh, he didn't fact check enough." Look, you could have 57 people sitting across from Trump and you couldn't fact check him in real time in the case base of that interview. We're trying. We are really trying.

The discussions that we had today, the two Washington correspondents you just had on in a previous segment, both doing fantastic work. But this is a big challenge. And you know what, I'm so glad I got to hear Carl Bernstein put it in perspective about what a tremendous danger we are in as a republic. I really think we are. You -- so you say, "Oh, well, Saturday Night Live trivializes that," no, it doesn't. It's another layer that you come in at with it. You get people to laugh about it.

You laugh about the joke, about children not coming back from a field trip but you then understand how crooked Trump is in these kinds of announcements. Why would you release -- you didn't release anything. Just have you -- why would I believe his lawyers? Remember during -- remember during the debates when he was insisting that he had said we should never go into Iraq and people said, "Hey, there is no record of it," and he said, "Hey, I told Sean Hannity. Just ask Sean Hannity. Sean Hannity will tell you," and he kept saying it over in the debate --

STELTER: I remember.

ZURAWIK: -- and I thought, who would believe Sean Hannity? What good is that? He's on another universe of information, disinformation. And I'll tell you --

STELTER: Well, I'm --

ZURAWIK: Yes.

STELTER: Well, I'm glad you said that because I'm short on time, so I got to -- I got to say thanks to you, David. But after the break, I have got two others standing by to talk exactly about this. About conservative media, about the Sean Hannity's of the world. I'm in a hard time coming to grips with Trump's shifting story lines. What are behind the denials? We'll tackle that right after the break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STELTER: Welcome back to Reliable Sources. When President Trump watches Fox News or scrolls through his own Twitter feed he is being told that the Comey firing is not a crisis, but merely a media creation, a total pile-on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, THE SEAN HANNITY SHOW HOST: The level of ignorance here is breathtaking.

JEANINE PIRRO, JUSTICE WITH JUDGE JEANINE HOST: These people are schizophrenic.

TUCKER CARLSON, TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT HOST: The spread of dumbness.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Dishonest opponents pretending to be reporters.

HANNITY: The liberal crack pots in the media, they're now unhinged.

CARLSON: The press absolutely melted down the media.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: Other conservative publications took or have been taking so- called mainstream media to task overall the coverage. Here's the headline. "Liberal media went into 'full panic mode.' Here's another one saying that the firing was only capturing the attention of journalists, not the American people. Do these headlines have a point? So joining me now, two conservative critics of President Trump. Bruce Bartlett, a former aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. And David Frum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic. David, what are we to make of this conservative media denialism saying that there isn't really a scandal or crisis here?

DAVID FRUM, SENIOR EDITOR, THE ATLANTIC: A lot of this is business as usual. Deflection and denial. But there is something important happening that is truly new and truly dangerous. In order to defend president Trump, conservatives are called upon to ascent to things they would never have ascended to before, and this week the idea that they're being called on to ascent to is the director of the FBI is a member of the president's team and that the president has an absolute right to fire the director of the FBI really for any reason.

This is a breathtakingly new idea in American history. It's incredibly dangerous. It is not true in democracies that the head of the national police force answers the head of government. It's not true in any other democracies. It's never been true here. Conservatives have been -- in order to come up with some semblance of logic, they are being backed into a position that had they been asked about it in advance they would have said, no, that's the way to a police state.

STELTER: And David, you've warned about creeping authoritarianism. You had a cover story in the Atlantic about it a few months ago. Are we closer do you think this week than we were last week or are those liberals being hysterical?

FRUM: Until this week. One of the most powerful criticisms in my article came from friends who would say, "The president is not -- is not dangerous. He's a doofus. He's not achieving anything." I think that argument can't be sustained after this week. If Donald Trump succeeds in inscribing into the American system the idea that the head of the national police force answers to the president, is a political creature of the presidency, something that's never been accepted before, yes, that is a big step toward on more authoritarian American system.

STELTER: Bruce Bartlett, I have a poll to show you. This is a brand new poll from NBC and The Wall Street Journal asking Americans if they approve or disapprove of Trump's decision. The headlines immediate -- the 32 percent who say that they don't yet know enough yet to have an opinion. A 29 percent -- only 29 percent approve of the decision. Versus that 32 percent a reflection of, you know, the conservative media reaction to this story in the past week trying to muddy it up and say it's not that big a deal?

BRUCE BARTLETT, FORMER AIDE TO PRESIDENTS RONALD REAGAN & GEORGE HW BUSH: Perhaps. It may also include people who are reluctant to express an opinion, even to a reporter or a pollster, rather.

STELTER: Right.

BARTLETT: And I think there are a lot of republicans out there who are having -- who have serious misgivings about Trump but are loathe to appear to be disloyal to the party and they -- a lot of those people may be in that 32 percent.

STELTER: Is there -- is this divide right now that you've written about before between the conservative entertainment media complex, folks that are really entertainers above all else versus conservative intellectuals in the press? Because I have seen a lot of conservative intellectuals raising alarms but they are drowned out by entertainers.

BARTLETT: I don't think there's any question about that. You've got a -- one of the smarter conservative commentators I've seen is David French in the -- in National Review. But you have to understand virtually all republicans are reactionaries. They react to whatever liberals are doing. That's what sets their agenda. And when they see an institution that they believe is overwhelmingly liberal which they believe the major media is despite the existence of Sinclair and Fox and other conservative outlets.

They -- their initial reaction is to -- is negative, to do the opposite, to believe the opposite. And every time the media draw a parallel between Trump and Nixon and Watergate, I think it just stokes their fears or hatred that this is just a Trumped up -- no pun intended -- Trumped up charges and I think they believe that Nixon was unfairly driven out of office by the liberal media.

STELTER: And some of distrust of the media is rooted in the 1970s. David, go ahead.

FRUM: Well, it's not a fair contest between the conservative entertainment complex and conservative intellectual lives. I mean, if you're a young conservative rising in the world and trying to make your way, it's very clear. If you agree to defend whatever the president says, even if it's different from what he said yesterday, even if it's obviously not adhering to the facts there is -- there is glamour and fame and money and success, enormous amounts of money potentially.

The big -- biggest winners are making, you know, multiple millions of dollars a year. If however, you want to fight the lonely battle at the calms of national, you know, online you get $25 a freelance column. And people respond to incentives. And the conservative world which already is governed by a high degree of conformity. That sort of natural, sort of, inherent in the system of ideas now confronts media incent -- material incentives that pull people very strongly to becoming mouthpieces for this vacillating, unpredictable, prevaricating presidency.

STELTER: David, how does it end?

FRUM: How does this end? I don't know. I would like -- I would like to tell you optimistically. I mean, a couple of days after the inauguration, a friend of mine approached me in a coffee shop and put her hand on my arm and said, "Tell me we're going to be OK," and of course you want to say that. And tell her, "I can't assure you of that. I don't -- we are going to test the endurance and strength of American institutions," and by the way, thus far the institutions are failing the test.

STELTER: The others including the press, including the media?

FRUM: No, the media is doing great but most of it or much of it. But, look, the president -- the president just fired the head of the FBI for -- in order to cover allegations of his own wrongdoing. Thus now -- he, the president has acknowledged that and his party in congress is completely backing him and is willing to take at face value his nominee to replace the fired FBI director. If this works the system, when it's done, will be a permanently different political system, not just because of the president but because of his support in congress and one of the most important institutions in the country will be broken.

STELTER: I'm out of time. I'll leave it there. Bruce, David, thank you very much. We just heard some references to Watergate. We have a Nixon biographer standing by to react. Don't go away.

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STELTER: This week, Watergate and former President Nixon have been on the tip of many media tongues.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN RATHER, AXS TV: First of all, there's something very Nixonian about all of this.

CARLSON: It does ring our Watergate bell.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Nixonian abuse of power. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have not seen anything like this since October 20th, 1973, when President Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To people my age, it conjures up images of Richard Nixon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STELTER: There were also Nixonian echoes in this tweet from President Trump, saying that he might be somehow taping his conversations inside the White House, but are these analogies appropriate or are they perhaps turning off some viewers as our prior guest said? I have the perfect guest now to ask, he is the author of a brand new biography of Nixon, John Farrell. The new book is titled Richard Nixon: A life. John, thanks for being here.

JOHN FARRELL, AUTHOR, "RICHARD NIXON: THE LIFE": Thank you, Brian. Thanks for having me on.

STELTER: Just now, a couple of minutes ago we were hearing about these Watergate analogies and how perhaps they turn off Trump supporters. Trump loyalists here and say that's bogus and they don't listen to any of the media coverage about this current crisis. What do you say to that?

FARRELL: I think that in this 24/7 news climate that we're in, there's an impatience. We want to get to the end of the story really fast, and I think that we need to understand that there is going to be a core of Trump supporters that's going to stay with him for a very long time and that the republicans, both the house and the senate, if history proves true, are going to back up their guy for a very long time as well. So, I think that's -- we have not reached the point as we did in Watergate where you're going to see republican congressional leaders go down to the White House and ask the president to step down. We are far, far away from that kind of happening.

STELTER: How do you assess the news media's approach to the Comey firing and the five days since?

FARRELL: I think it's absolutely a fair comparison. Any time you have the President of the United States firing the chief law -- a chief law enforcement officer who happens to be investigating the president's associates, that's a big, big story. Now, Richard Nixon always used to say, events matter, meaning that the kind of chatter that happens in Washington is not digested out in the countryside. This is an event, the firing of the FBI director. People know about the G-Men, about the FBI. His departure is a big event.

And those who are a little bit more sophisticated in following politics know that this was a guy who helped Donald Trump get elected by his decisions on what to do with Hillary Clinton and the email story. So the firing raises a lot of questions. On the other hand, sometimes I think the subtitle of my whole book about Nixon should be and yet. In the Watergate case, in the Saturday Night Massacre case, you would had six months of steady drip, drip, drip. You would had the White House staff shake-up.

You would had Haldeman and Ehrlichman being fired. You had senate Watergate hearings all summer and John Dean testifying. We knew what the crime was. We knew there were tapes that would prove whether Nixon was guilty or not. And so, when he fired the guy who was trying to get the tapes, it was -- it was a -- it was a big deal. In this case, we don't know what the crime is, we don't know what exactly Comey is looking for, we don't know if there's any presidential involvement at all. Trump seems to be getting himself in more and more trouble by himself. And the whole thing could just be Trump being Trump.

STELTER: So many whistleblowers then, also whistleblowers now. So many media attacks then, also media attacks now. Poking through your book at the book store the other day, Nixon's hatred of the press was notable, but he didn't share it as publicly as Trump does.

FARRELL: No, and he made a crucial distinction. Even in the middle of the bombing campaigns against North Vietnam, Nixon would be stopping and he would be telling his aides, Henry Kissinger and others, "The press is the enemy, the press is the enemy. Remember that Henry, the press is the enemy," but it was the enemy of Nixon. He never went as far as Trump has, which is to say the press is the enemy of the American people.

STELTER: John, thank you for being here.

FARRELL: My pleasure. Thank you, Brian.

STELTER: We're out of time here on TV, but sign up for our nightly newsletter, reliablesources.com. All the latest on that reporter in West Virginia who was arrested earlier this week. We'll be following that case. Also, more on the Sinclair/tribune deal, mega merger announced earlier this week. Happy mother's day to my mom and mother- in-law, surrogate moms, and my wife, about to be a mother or waiting on our baby any day now. So I'm going to head home to her now but I'll see you next week.

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