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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
How Partisan Media Covered the Comey Hearings; The Start of a Trump Crackdown on Leakers? Aired 11a-Noon ET
Aired June 11, 2017 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[11:00:02] BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter. Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. It's time for RELIABLE SOURCES. This is our weekly look at the story behind the story, of how the media really works and how the news gets made.
Ahead this hour, President Trump spinning up a story, hurling insults at James Comey, calling him a liar, a leaker, a coward. Will those words come back to hurt him? I'll ask reporter and Trump biographer who faced his own legal battle with the now president.
And speaking of leaks, the Justice Department filing charges against alleged leaker Reality Winner. Is this the first of many cases to come?
And later this hour, a funny interview with "The New Yorker's" humorist Andy Borowitz. He says the president defies satire.
But, first, depending on what channel you were watching this week, it's like you were hearing about a different hearing.
Now, President Trump is telling a simple story over and over again. He's saying James Comey is a leaker, but Comey has vindicated him.
So, at the end of the week, a defiant president briefly faced the press.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Should I take one of the killer networks that treat me so badly as fake news? Should I do that?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: He did. He took questions from ABC's Jon Carl. We'll get into that in a moment.
Back to the hearing, though. Last Thursday, 19.5 million people tuned in at home, on television, to watch the fired FBI director speak in public for the first time about his interactions with the president. So, about 20 million via TV. We don't know how many streamed it on the web or watched at the office or at bars and things like that.
Bottom line, a big audience for Comey's testimony. Now, the president wants to turn the page and his backers on television and on the web are saying this is all over, but many experts are saying it's just beginning.
Joining me now to break it down is an all-star panel. Jeff Greenfield, award-winning journalist and political analyst, Clara Jeffrey, editor-in-chief at "Mother Jones Magazine", and Matt Lewis, a senior columnist at 'The Daily Beast" and CNN political commentator.
Welcome to all of you. Thanks for being here.
JEFF GREENFIELD, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALIST AND POLITICAL ANALYST: Thank you.
CLARA JEFFREY, MOTHER JONES MAGAZINE: Thank you.
STELTER: Let's take a look, Jeff, at a montage of the cable news channels this week. Our producers put together FOX on one side, MSNBC on the other. Let's analyze this. Let's first watch it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: A huge victory for Donald Trump today. And a massive defeat for the Democrats, and, of course, the propaganda media.
LAWRENCE O'DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: Well, today was, really was, as it was predicted to be, the worst day of the Trump presidency.
DONALD TRUMP, JR., SON OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: Now that this is all passed, he can go back to doing what he promised he was going to do. There's no clouds.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the president is in serious legal jeopardy.
TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS HOST: A month of shrieking hype, millions of words of ink, hundreds of hours of the shrillest television produced add up to pretty much nothing.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I mean, people have been saying today that Donald Trump may be in danger of getting impeached. I think that's not an -- that's not an overstatement.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Jeff Greenfield, who is right?
GREENFIELD: You know, 19.5 million people watched this event. And I think 19.4 million watched it the way they would watch an NBA championship game.
And I think if there were any minds that were changed about this, I'd be surprised. I mean, what you're seeing there is a reflection of a broader polarization that is now so great that the idea that somebody might come and watch this hearing subject to, you know, possible change, is almost -- it's almost impossible. And so I think, you know, what we saw here in the coverage of it is the reflection of a much broader notion that -- and we have heard this before. And you have talked about it before. The notion of coming into this and sort of agreeing on a common set of facts about what happened, at least in terms of the media we saw, is almost unthinkable.
STELTER: It sure is. And it's a damn shame.
I mean, Matt Lewis, we heard one of Trump's sons say in one of those sound bites, the clouds are gone. He's implying the clouds have parted. This is all over. This is all behind his father now.
I understand a son wanting the best for his father, but come on. Isn't it misleading? Isn't it damaging to Hannity's viewers to have Trump's son telling his viewers that kind of untrue thing that this is all over, this has passed now?
MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. Well, look, we've always had -- we've always had apologists and spokespeople and spinmeisters who would do that. They would say, oh, you know, he's exonerated now, or oh, he's guilty now.
But the difference now is we have entire cable networks that present these really very different world views. Same event, we all watched the same hearing, and the interpretation is a stark contrast. And so, it's not just surrogates who are spinning. It's entire networks that are doing it.
And, look, I would say this. I think that anybody who watched the testimony -- you know, I think it's fair to say that there are a couple different storylines we should be talking about, right?
[11:05:00] I think we should obviously be talking about James Comey's sense that he was being pressured, whether or not that ends up being obstruction of justice, but that's still a big deal.
But there's also the subplots. There's the -- you know, the Attorney General Lynch subplot. There's the subplot about James Comey leaking. I think that all of those things deserve coverage.
The problem is that FOX News will focus on solely on the subplots, and I think the other cable news networks focus solely on the main plot and never get around to talking about the subplots.
STELTER: About James Comey leaking, Clara, we learned in his testimony, remarkably candid from Comey, that he told his friend at Columbia Law School, he shared one of the memos with his friend, and this friend apparently called up "The New York Times" to share the details.
What did you make, Clara, of that revelation? We almost never hear about public officials admitting to how they share information with the media.
CLARA JEFFREY, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, MOTHER JONES: Well, he was asked a direct question under oath and he understands it directly. I don't think it came really as any surprise that we had heard much of what was in those memos and that in all likelihood, the things we had been hearing had come from Comey. So, I didn't find that that leak was so much of a surprise.
What I think was remarkable about that moment was he said he did it because he wanted to trigger a special counsel. He was that worried, not just about his firing but of everything that it applied. He figured that this might trigger them to appoint a special counsel, and indeed, it did.
STELTER: Jeff Greenfield, I have been noticing the coverage, especially since Thursday, but even before Thursday, this tone of a White House in crisis. There was a CNN program late night for a few days called "WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS." It's been a banner on the bottom of the screen. You can hear it in the tone and tenor of some journalists' articles and stories.
Is it accurate and is that overplayed or underplayed that this is actually a White House in crisis?
GREENFIELD: Well, first of all, the overplaying of stories has long since been the default response -- forgive me -- of cable news networks. I mean, there's no event that can't be overcovered. The countdown clocks, the graphics.
But in this case, you're combining that instinct with the fact that this is real news. And as I think -- I think if we can take a step back, the whole history of television is embedded in hearings like this. Going all the way back to 1950 and '51, when organized crime hearings made a national political figure out of Estes Kefauver, the Army McCarthy hearings, the Watergate hearings, Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas, there's a riveting courtroom drama kind of aspect about it.
And in this case, to be fair to networks like CNN, this is potentially really big news. So, you know, I think in this case, the hype was accompanied by reality, which isn't always the case.
STELTER: So, is it a White House in crisis, in your mind?
GREENFIELD: Yes, and the funny thing -- funny is not the right word, Brian. The odd thing about it is what has put the White House in crisis is not so much what Comey said but Donald Trump's response to it. When the president said, I'm willing to testify under oath, I think there were a lot of folks in the White House who just suddenly reached for the Metamucil or whatever, because that's the circumstance under which any statement under oath, if it's false, can be prosecutable or impeachment, even if the underlying event that he's talking about didn't give rise to it.
So, I think it's not an irony, but what happened after the hearings with the president's statement is the big news and just if I may say this, I think we're going to see Trump testify under oath about a minute after we see his tax returns. He'd be -- he'd be -- he'd be just so wrong to put himself under that kind of potential problem.
STELTER: Matt, do you agree?
LEWIS: Yes, I agree with everything Jeff said. I think, number one, the media does hype stuff, obviously. You know, hen you have 24 hours to fill, and you're competing, you know, vigorously for ratings against other networks, you end up hyping things. That's pretty bad for democracy overall, but it is -- it's the world we live in.
Having said that, I think this administration is in crisis, OK? And it's not just the fact that the James Comey hearing was, you know, worthy of hype, but it's the fact that every day it seems like there's another major story or scandal or revelation that drops. Sometimes it's from leaks.
Sometimes in the case of James Comey's memo, that was a big one that dropped around 5:00 one evening that the FBI director had in fact been taking copious notes after meeting with the president. This is real, and then you have on top of that the fact that Republicans very much in peril that they may not pass any major legislation. That is -- that is a crisis.
STELTER: To borrow a Trumpism, we need to tell it like it is and make sure our language reflects the dysfunctional reality of the administration.
[11:10:01] If we -- if we shirk away from just kind of stating what we see in front of us, I think we're doing a disservice to our audience.
LEWIS: Right, and it doesn't mean they can't make a comeback. It's possible that this is survivable and he could have a successful presidency, but it is under a crisis right now, certainly.
STELTER: Clara, last word to you, what was overlooked on Thursday? Was it Comey's very stark warning about Russia attacking this country last year and coming back in the future?
JEFFREY: Yes, I think that that is something that's been kind of lost in this liar versus leaker debates. And, you know, Comey really laid it out. He told us there have been over 1,000 governmental and private corporate things hacked by the Russians in the last two years. That they had probed into our, as we know now, a little bit clearer, that they probed into our electoral agencies. That they have probed into electrical grids.
And I think he really laid it out that this is a crisis and that it should not be seen through a partisan lens. I mean, this is a -- this is a hostile foreign state trying to disrupt our democratic institutions, trying to get us to turn on ourselves and, you know, they have been fairly successful at that. And that's the goal -- to sort of hollow us out from within.
And I think Comey did actually a really great job laying that out and making the case for working together to really get to the bottom of this because it's not going away. It's not going to always favor one party, and it's really in our best interest to fortify our security be that our actual electoral institutions or our media and the way that we kind of interact and deal with leaks and revelations. STELTER: Well, Clara, you're an editor. You could be assigning more
stories about the Russia angle. Are you doing that?
JEFFREY: We sure are. I mean, we just published a big issue that we put online early that gives sort of all the background and context for this. I mean, as you know, David Corn was the first reporter back before the election to report on Christopher Steele dossier. So, it's something that we have been covering for months and months, far before the election, and we're sure going to stick on it.
STELTER: Clara, Matt, thank you for being here.
Jeff, please stick around. We're going to bring you back later this hour.
But coming up after the break, important new reporting about leaks and about leak investigations, as the Trump Justice Department turns up the heat. I have a reporter standing by with talks about spy-like tactics to help protect himself and his sources. Operational security after the break.
[11:16:10] STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Brian Stelter.
This week, a woman named Reality Winner became the first person to be arrested and charged with leaking since President Trump took office. The controversial Espionage Act isn't news here. Winner has pleaded not guilty. Today, she remains in jail and could face up to ten years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.
But this goes much deeper than one case, as sources tell me that U.S. intelligence agencies have referred several recent leaks to the Justice Department for possible criminal investigation, possibly as many as six referrals. The DOJ declined to comment when I asked, but intelligence reporters like my next guest say they can tell the leak investigations are under way. They say they know it because their sources are feeling the heat.
Joining me now, a reporter who is no stranger to being under government surveillance -- Adam Goldman is a reporter with "The New York Times" covering the FBI national security. He had his phone records seized by the DOJ under the Obama administration. That was back in 2012 when he was at "The Associated Press".
Adam, good to see you.
ADAM GOLDMAN, REPORTER COVERING FBI AND NATIONAL SECURITY, NEW YORK TIMES: Hey, thanks for having me.
STELTER: There's been a lot of attention up until now about the Obama administration's record about investigating leaks. They prosecuted more leakers, alleged leakers, that all over prior presidents combined. Now, we have the first case of the Trump era.
What do you make of the Reality Winner case? What does it say about the Justice Department's apparent crackdown?
GOLDMAN: Well, I think it says a couple of things. One, that this administration under Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein are going to take these leaks seriously, and they're going to prosecute them if they can. The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has already shown an inclination to go after leakers. He prosecuted --
STELTER: And the president has told them to.
GOLDMAN: And the president has told them to. And the president is very vocal -- has been very vocal about that, and the Justice Department and the FBI have heard that.
Is this the opening salvo of a number of leak prosecutions? It could be. We just have to see how far this administration and this Justice Department wants to know.
STELTER: Reality Winner is charged with sending a top secret NSA document to "The Intercept" website. Both she and "The Intercept" were criticized for sloppy behavior that made it easier for the government to figure out that she might have done that.
Do you think "The Intercept" made some mistakes here by, for example, showing the top secret document to the NSA, trying to verify it ahead of time?
GOLDMAN: I'm not going to sit here and criticize "The Intercept" for trying to provide the American people important information about Russian meddling.
What I will say is what happened was a cautionary tale, and all journalists, and especially editors running newspapers that deal with leaks, especially involved in classified information, have to think very carefully about what they want to publish, what documents they want to publish, how they want to describe these documents, if they want to share these documents with the government, and think -- they need to be thinking about ways to protect the people providing them information. They have to be extremely careful.
STELTER: So, what are you doing differently? We spoke earlier this week and you used terms like source protection, operational security. This sounds like spy craft.
GOLDMAN: Well, I'll take -- I'll take a page out of the government's playbook. You know, I don't talk about sources or methods.
But I will say this -- you know, I had my records seized, phone records seized in an investigation that the government conducted against someone they believed had leaked me information. So, I have been very careful for years now since that happened, how I handle information and how I contact people.
You know, there are ways to protect sources. I would raise one point about the tip lines that, you know, all these newspapers and other media outlets have set up. You know --
STELTER: Yes, they set up and say you can contact us secretly and provide us information. Is there a problem with that?
GOLDMAN: You know, there's one glitch in that.
[11:20:01] You know, if it's anonymous, then and you can't speak to the other person on the line, it's difficult to take steps to protect them.
STELTER: That's what "The Intercept" says happened. They didn't know who this person was that slipped them a document.
GOLDMAN: Right, right. So, it's difficult to protect them. They didn't -- they didn't know. But like I said before, you know, you have to think seriously.
Look, if you're going to publish a top secret document, that's the clearest evidence yet to the government that classified information has been made public, and that is a road map to who might have handled it. So, you have to think seriously about what you're going to publish, and do you want to give the government that road map?
STELTER: So --
GOLDMAN: Hold on, reporters are enamored with these top secret documents. But we don't always need top -- we don't need to publish the top secret documents to tell the stories. And, typically, before the age of these massive leaks, we're talking to people and they're telling us things and we're not providing documents. And it's very difficult for the government to figure out who might have told us what.
STELTER: Help me square a circle. On the one hand, I have been hearing from intelligence reporters that sources are feeling the chill. That they're -- they can sense that leak investigations are happening. They're wary of talking.
On the other hand, there's an extraordinary number of stories being attributed to anonymous sources about administration incompetence and about classified information. Are both of those things true at the same time, these sources that are afraid to talk but also a lot of them?
GOLDMAN: Yes, I think both of those things can be true at the same time. You know, the government is clearly taking efforts to find leakers. I mean, the FBI itself is looking for people within and they're looking for people outside the FBI. You know, we know that. That's no -- that's really no secret to the reporters doing this type of reporting.
But both of those things can be true at the same time.
STELTER: And what about the series of stories from anonymous sources that proved to be wrong? James Comey this week under oath said "The New York Times" had a story from February 14th that was wrong in the main. He didn't go into detail and "The Times" says it stands by the story, but he said the story is wrong.
How do you all react to that when you got, you know, a big government official saying the story was false?
GOLDMAN: Well, I like --
STELTER: And to be clear, it wasn't your story. It wasn't one of your bylines, but still.
GOLDMAN: No, I had a contributing line on it. You know, I like the way "The New York Times" responded to it. I wish the government would do more of this. We responded with transparency.
And the three reporters who were involved in that story wrote a story laying out what we knew to date backing up that reporting. You know, Comey also called a "Washington Post" story nonsense.
So, you know, we feel, "The Times" feels very comfortable in what we reported and we laid out to readers what it is we knew and we let -- we let the readers decide.
STELTER: Other cases of anonymous source credibility issues. Earlier in the week, CNN had a story saying Comey is going to get up there and is going to testify that Trump, you know, did -- what was it, Comey said that Trump was not under investigation -- I'm messing it up, Adam. Sorry.
I think the CNN story essentially said Comey is going to get up there and say Trump, I never told him he wasn't under investigation, and then Comey got up there and said, yes, I did tell him he wasn't under investigation personally. So, CNN had to correct that. MSNBC had Brian Williams on the air saying I've got a source who told me I'm not sure Trump knew where Qatar was and whether we had troops in Qatar. Now, Brian Williams stands by that story, but there's questions the White House has about it.
My point is, on both of these cases, anonymous source credible coming under fire. Is this a problem for journalists as we try to convince our audience to believe us?
GOLDMAN: No, I think when we make mistakes, we need to correct them. But I will say, look, we are operating -- we are operating with speed that I haven't seen before as a reporter. I mean, there's such urgency to get these stories out. And, you know, in a normal atmosphere, it could take a long, long time to do one of these stories.
I mean, my colleagues and I broke a story about how the CIA's informant network had been decimated in China. You know, we did it under the radar and it wasn't in the media and it took a long time to nail that story down.
Look, there are certainly perils with using anonymous sources. It's up to editors and reporters to be humble and say, you know what? We don't know everything about this. We have to -- we have to approach this with humility. We have to be under the assumption that we don't know, we don't have a holistic view of what's going on.
I mean, that's what's really important here. And reporters need to tread cautiously and carefully.
STELTER: And readers need to be skeptical. They need to understand we're seeing pieces of a puzzle, not the entire puzzle all at once.
GOLDMAN: Yes, that's true. You know, I like to say, and I've said this repeatedly, and I've said this in public, you know, newspapers need -- newspapers need to be careful. And, you know, there's no gun to our head. Nobody says you have to publish this story.
We find this repeatedly in breaking news, right? News outlets get it wrong because it's the fog of war.
[11:25:00] We shouldn't, you know -- of course, we shouldn't treat these longer term investigations any differently.
STELTER: Adam, thanks for being here.
GOLDMAN: Thank you.
Up next, an interview you've got to see, as President Trump saying he's been willing to testify under oath. He has done it before, and it didn't go so well for him. The Trump biographer who was sued by Trump joins me next to talk about his experience.
STELTER: During Friday's press conference, President Trump said that defiance he is 100 percent willing to testify under oath. The magnitude of that statement was not lost on the media.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
ERIN BURNETT, CNN ANCHOR: He is 100 percent willing to speak under oath.
SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: Well, you can really take that to the bank.
DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: One hundred percent. Under oath.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Under oath.
SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Under oath.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: If you were his attorney, would you advise him to do this?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely not.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
STELTER: Under oath.
Let's talk about it.
I have a guest who knows how the mind of Trump works because he wrote a book about Trump. He's also seen how the now president behaves under oath because Trump sued him for defamation back in 2007.
That testimony that Trump gave back then, it was really notable, because the lawyers in the case counted 30 times when the president, now president, either misspoke or exaggerated things.
Here's how "The Washington Post" described it recently -- quote -- "For two straight days, they asked Trump question after question that touched on some of the same theme, Trump's honesty. Thirty times, they caught him."
Tim O'Brien is the executive editor at Bloomberg View. And the book he authored is called "Trump Nation: The Art of Being Donald."
And he joins me now here in New York.
Tim, you were a long time ago my editor at "The New York Times" on a few stories. At that time, you were dealing with this lawsuit...
TIMOTHY O'BRIEN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLOOMBERG VIEW: I was.
STELTER: ... this defamation case.
O'BRIEN: I was.
STELTER: You prevailed in the case. But what did you learn when the now president was under oath?
O'BRIEN: Well, that his loose association or relationship with the truth becomes problematic for him when he's confronted with documents that are contrary to things that he has said over the years publicly on a wide range of issues.
In our deposition, it turned out he had misrepresented how much money he got for speaking fees. He got -- it turned out he had misrepresented how briskly his condos were selling, how much money he had borrowed from the family estate when he almost went personally bankrupt, and on and on and on, issue after issue.
And I was fortunate to have a great legal team that simply let him walk into that trap. He had said X publicly, and then we presented him with documents that were contrary to that.
STELTER: Let's look at an example, something from these depositions. This is going to be put on screen.
It starts with saying, "Have you ever not been truthful?"
Trump says: "My net worth fluctuates. And it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and feelings, even my own feelings. But I try to be truthful." And then it goes to say. The lawyer says: "Let me just understand that a little bit. Let's talk about net worth for a second. You said that the net worth goes up and down based on your own feelings?"
Trump says: "Yes, even my own feelings as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day."
Tim, this was considered to be one of the most revealing parts of the deposition, because the president is saying it's his feelings that are guiding what he's saying.
O'BRIEN: As opposed to reality, the numbers...
O'BRIEN: ... the facts, accounting.
In another part of the deposition, we asked him how he figured out how much his golf courses were worth. And he said he had no written documents that supported the valuations he placed on them.
And my lawyers said, well, then how did you get to the numbers you got to? And he said mental projections, mental projections, which is another one of these phrases he uses. Back, famously, when "The Art of the Deal" first came out, he spoke about truthful hyperbole, his willingness to exaggerate about almost anything that came into his realm, people he had met, how much money he had, how successful he was.
And he's never -- I mean, we had decades now of Trump frequently lying or exaggerating about a wide range of things.
STELTER: Now, I might say it's just bluster. Why does bluster matter, especially now that he's president, the idea of being under oath as president?
O'BRIEN: Well, I think there's a difference with bluster and exaggeration than flat-out lying.
He said during the campaign that he had opposed the Iraq invasion. That wasn't true. He had said during the campaign he had only borrowed a million dollars from his father. That wasn't true.
But you now have him in the White House. He's overseeing national security. He's overseeing serious policy issues like health care and the tax structure.
And if he can't be straight with the American people about just bare- bone, verifiable facts, we're in a very difficult place. And he's unusual in that regard.
STELTER: Considering what happened when you had him under oath, do you think he actually will speak under oath to Robert Mueller?
O'BRIEN: I have to imagine every lawyer in the White House's eyes rolled back in their skull the minute he said, I will be willing to testify under oath to Mueller, because I think they don't understand the parameters of what they're up against here.
Mueller could be at this for years. I think what you saw in the last week with Mike Rogers and Dan Coats and then Jim Comey testifying is, they're clearing the decks. They're now getting out of the way for Mueller to have this investigation in a full-bore way. And he's going to subpoena people. He has access to global financial records.
And he has an intelligence and a law enforcement community that is deeply disturbed, I think, by the president's behavior. And that's all going to come to bear on the president.
STELTER: Last hour, Fareed Zakaria was expressing concern about what happens down the road if Mueller reaches some conclusions and the president rejects those conclusions.
Could we see a repeat of what we saw before Election Day, with the now president, then campaigner, saying, essentially, he wasn't sure if he would accept the election results? Could we be in a similar position now with this investigation?
O'BRIEN: If there are criminal charges, those aren't voluntary issues. You can't simply ignore a criminal charge because he doesn't agree with it.
So, that's -- he's in a very different realm right now. He -- I think he's played ping-pong over the years, but this is the Super Bowl.
STELTER: Last question for you.
You mentioned that, at one point, Trump, when he was suing you, suggested he had tapes of your conversations.
STELTER: What was that about, and did he have tapes?
O'BRIEN: Yes, he said throughout -- and he said this to reporters over the years when they have gone into the Trump Organization -- is, look, I just want to let you know I'm taping you right now.
And he said it multiple times during my interviews with him. He said that into my own tape recorder when I recorded our interviews. But when he sat down for the deposition, my attorney said, "Mr. Trump, do you have a taping system?"
And he said no.
And he said, "Well then, why did you say this to Mr. O'Brien?"
And he essentially said, "I wanted to intimidate him."
STELTER: That's the perfect segue for my next segment.
Tim, great to see you. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Brian.
STELTER: Thank you for being here.
O'BRIEN: Good to be here.
STELTER: Up next: Why does secrecy seem to be the mantra of the Trump White House?
STELTER: Simple question: Why is the president keeping so many secrets? He's acting like a man with a lot to hide.
And that's the subject of my essay today.
Let's add it all up, from his tax returns to his golf habit to his Afghan war strategy. President Trump and his aides resist answering basic questions, which contributes to this sense that he's hiding something.
The latest example is this hint that maybe Trump might have tapes of his conversations with James Comey. Surreptitious tapes would be one heck of a secret.
And when Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about it, here is what she said:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: You said that you had no idea whether or not there was a taping system in the Oval Office. Could you try to find out?
And a lot of people are interested, as you might imagine.
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Sure. I will try to look under the couches.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
I will come back to that one.
But consider all the other examples, first, something relatively small, like the president's love of golf. According to CNN's stats, Trump has spent about 29 days at Trump-branded golf properties since becoming president.
That's about one out of every five days.
Reporters care about this because, A, Trump constantly blasted President Obama's golfing habit, and, B, Trump's aides now try to keep his golfing a secret. Sometimes, we can confirm Trump is hitting the links this way by peering through the bushes. This was a CNN photojournalist down in West Palm Beach back in April.
Other times, we can confirm it when club-goers post Instagrams at the clubs.
But the point is, more often, we ask and press aides refuse to answer. On Saturday, for example, CBS' Mark Knoller tweeted: "Trump spent the day at his New Jersey golf club. The White House says he was briefed on the attack against American soldiers in Afghanistan. They won't say if he played golf."
Afghanistan is an area where official secrecy matters a lot.
One month ago, there was a flurry of stories about a possible increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. "The Times" said Trump was expected to make a decision before his NATO meeting on May 25. Now it's June. And the White House has not said a new word about it.
And reporters haven't had many chances to ask. The president has not given any TV interviews in a month. All of his press conferences since February have been short ones with foreign heads of state.
At his most recent presser, Trump condemned the leaking again, which is another way of sort of encouraging secrecy.
And let's not forget this administration's other attempts to limit access to information, like the decision to withhold White House visitors logs.
More and more reporters are noticing this bent toward secrecy. When "The Washington Post" broke the news that Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, talked with the Russian ambassador about setting up a secret back channel with the Kremlin, reporter Adam Entous diagnosed the White House's obsession with secrecy.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ADAM ENTOUS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": It clearly was in his wheelhouse to be having these contacts. There's absolutely nothing wrong with him engaging with people like this, foreign -- foreign ambassadors. The issue is, is, why the secrecy?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Why the secrecy? That's the question I keep coming back to.
Even on silly stuff like covfefe, or however it's said, Sean Spicer claimed to a small group of people -- a small group of people knew exactly what the president meant. In other words, it was a secret.
Again, this stuff matters when it comes to serious issues like the health of the planet.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: I know the president hasn't make a public decision on the Paris agreement, and I know you don't want to get out ahead of him, but on the more broad issue of climate change, can you say whether or not the president believes that human activity is contributing to the warming of the climate?
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Honestly, I haven't asked him.
SPICER: I can get back to you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: "I can get back to you."
His deputy, Sarah Sanders, said pretty much the same thing.
But, one week later, Yahoo!'s Hunter Walker followed up and got nowhere -- quote -- "We still have not received any answer from Sanders or anyone else in the White House about the president's views on manmade climate change."
Trump used to say it was a hoax. Has his position changed? Well, that's a secret.
He often promises to have an answer later, sometime later. In fact, right now, that's his position on the prospect of secret White House tapes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: And you seem to hinting that there are recordings of those conversations.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not hinting anything. I will tell you about it over a very short period of time. OK?
OK. Do you have a question here?
QUESTION: When will you tell us about the recordings?
TRUMP: Over a fairly short period of time.
QUESTION: Are there tapes, sir?
TRUMP: Oh, you're going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer. Don't worry.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Trump's showman-like tactics, his ability to always kick that can down the road, masks what's really going on, which is withholding information, keeping secrets, and devaluing his own words.
Before becoming president, Trump suggested he would be transparent.
For example, here's a 2014 interview with an Irish TV channel where Trump said he would absolutely release his tax returns if he ran for office.
Really, he said that. Here's the clip we dug up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 2014)
TRUMP: If I decide to run for office, I will produce my tax returns, absolutely. And I would love to do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Now, of course, his tax returns are a secret, just like all those other examples.
So, what do you think? Why is the president acting like a man with so much to hide?
Send me a tweet. Let me know. I'm @BrianStelter on Twitter and on Facebook.
When we come back here: new polling that helps answer one of the biggest questions about media and politics. Just how corrosive has the GOP's anti-media campaign been?
See the data right after this.
STELTER: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
If you don't believe the media, then you probably don't believe that the Trump administration has had a dysfunctional few months. If you don't believe the media, you might not believe that Russia's meddling in last year's election is a very big deal.
Trust in the media has been low for years, and getting lower. And the president feeds that -- that inherent distrust with tweets like this.
Here he is this morning saying: "The fake news MSM doesn't report the great economic news since Election Day."
Obviously, the press does report on job creation, stock market records, et cetera. There are entire business channels.
But I think what he means is, he wants the press to report it more often, more positively.
In any case, we can see how this anti-media rhetoric is having a real effect. A new Quinnipiac poll shows that more than half the country, 52 percent, believes Trump has changed American attitudes toward the news media for the worse; 22 percent said he's changed attitudes for the better. And 20 percent say he hasn't had an impact.
Back with me now for some final thoughts, Jeff Greenfield, award- winning journalist and political analyst.
Jeff, in six months, or almost six months, into this president, how corrosive has this ant anti-media campaign been, do you think?
JEFF GREENFIELD, POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the singular political success of President Trump, going all the way back to his campaign, is that he has convinced the core of his supporters that anything you hear critical of the president is, by definition, fake.
And so I think that has served -- that relentless campaign on Twitter and in his comments, fake news, fake news, fake news, has been to convince that group of people that there is no such thing as a set of facts independent of your politics.
If you are criticizing Donald Trump, if you're pointing out inconsistencies or outright falsehoods, by definition, you are lying. And that has certainly served to continue and accelerate what you have talked about as a long process of declining trust in news.
And, by the way, it's not confined to the political right. A lot of people on the left think that the press is the -- you know, the handmaiden of corporate America, it was unfair to Bernie Sanders.
But in terms of the president, that is a key to the fact that, even though he's unpopular on a national level, very low approval numbers, something like 96 percent of his voters told a survey they would still vote for him again. And that, I think, is not an accident. This is not independent of a very shrewdly calculated political judgment.
If I can convince my supporters not to believe anything they hear about me that's critical, I'm in relatively good shape.
STELTER: To me, this is the story of the year. It might be the story of the decade in media, the issue of distrust and the venom that's encouraging folks to trust even less and less and less.
And I always come back to the same question, what do we do about it?
GREENFIELD: There's nothing to be done about it, other than to report the news as fairly as you can.
Here is one of the problems, though. So, let's say that you're a journalist with no particular political bias -- they do exist -- and you go out and you discover that the president has been dissembling -- let's use the polite word -- on any number of issues.
And now your judgment is, the president cannot -- is not trustworthy. That judgment, if that judgment doesn't come from your political ideology, but from your experience covering Trump, and the people you're reporting to, at least the Trump supporters, say, no, no, no, we don't believe that, you're just another left-winger, it's kind of like Sisyphus.
You have got to roll that stone up the hill. And I think, eventually, if this pattern continues, you may well see people -- and you have seen a lot of people who are conservatives who have broken sharply with Trump on the grounds of trustworthiness.
But among that core, you know, there's nothing you can do. All you can do is say, here are the facts, here's what I have found. And if people want to dismiss it as saying, ah, fake news, elite, brie- eating, Chablis-swilling Easterners, you don't -- you have no choice but to keep at it.
That's the fate of a journalist.
STELTER: Appreciate you being here and wrapping it up for us. Thanks very much.
STELTER: Coming up: From small hands to big walls, comedians have made no shortage of jokes about our president. But is political comedy actually harder in a world of strange tweets and Trump memes?
My next guest has the answer.
STELTER: One-upping President Trump is a tough assignment for comedy writers, really.
That's what "The New Yorker"'s Andy Borowitz told me for our latest RELIABLE podcast. He writes the satirical blog "The Borowitz Report."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDY BOROWITZ, "THE NEW YORKER": I think we're living in an age that defies satire.
The whole notion of satire is that you take something and kind of exaggerate it in order to shine a light on it. But this whole age defies exaggeration.
You have a president of the United States who is a former game show host. That sounds like something that would happen on a "Sharknado" sequel. Once you have crossed that line, it's really difficult to satirize any of this stuff.
It's very hard to take stuff that's already really ridiculous -- I mean, covfefe is a great example. Everybody has had a lot of fun with covfefe.
I even waded a little bit in that direction. But it's really tough to make a daily diet of comedy out of something that's already ridiculous.
STELTER: This is from mid-May.
You wrote: "Trump boasted his impeachment will get higher TV ratings than all other impeachments."
STELTER: Tell me what you're going for there.
BOROWITZ: Well, I mean, that's actually probably very close to what he thinks.
Trump is very obsessed, as you know, with crowd size, size in general, but crowd size and audience size. He's one of the few sitting presidents who would ever interrupt a press conference to trash the ratings of a reality show hosted by his replacement, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
STELTER: Yes, that did happen.
BOROWITZ: That gives you an idea of, again, the difficulty of my job in trying to one-up what Donald Trump does. But...
STELTER: I don't think anyone is going to shed any tears for you, Andy. Your job is so hard now.
BOROWITZ: It's a good job. It is a good job.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: For the rest of my chat with Andy, log on to iTunes or RELIABLESOURCES.com to listen to our latest podcast.
And while you're there, make sure to sign up for our nightly newsletter as well, all the day's media news recapped for you in your inbox. You can sign up at RELIABLESOURCES.com.
We will see you back here on television this time next week.