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Trump Reignites Attacks on the Late Senator John McCain; Trump Tells FOX News to "Bring Back" Jeanine Pirro; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Officially Announces Presidential Run. Aired 8-9p ET
Aired March 17, 2019 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[20:00:20] ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Ana Cabrera. And on this night as the Midwest is grappling with historic floods and at the same time the Muslim community mourns 50 lives lost in the terror attacks in New Zealand, President Trump is tweeting, not about either of those things but instead he is trashing the late senator he once said wasn't a war hero.
For the last two days now, Mr. Trump has been going after John McCain for, among other things, the late senator's decisive vote against repealing Obamacare. Trump's attacks coming on the anniversary week of McCain's release as a POW 46 years ago.
CNN White House correspondent Boris Sanchez is joining us now.
Boris, Senator McCain's daughter is pushing back.
BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Ana. I'll get to her response in just a second. But I did want to give you some background. The reason President Trump reignited this spat that he's had with late Senator John McCain for several years, Ken Starr, a former prosecutor who investigated President Clinton in the late '90s, was on FOX News saying that one of the stains on John McCain's legacy was his involvement in the dissemination of Steele dossier, that collection of information that was gathered in 2016 that contains salacious allegations about President Trump. Some of those claims verified, some of them not verified.
President Trump obviously saw that interview and tweeted about Ken Starr, going as far as to say that another stain on Senator McCain's legacy was that Obamacare vote. The president still upset about that. Meghan McCain saw the president's tweet and laid out a stinging rebuke, writing this, quote, "No one will ever love you the way they loved my father. I wish I had been given more Saturdays with him. Maybe spend yours with your family instead of on Twitter, obsessing over mine."
The spat between these two prominent Republicans still something that lingers in the president's mind more than seven months after Senator John McCain passed away -- Ana.
CABRERA: All right. Boris Sanchez, at the White House, thank you.
Joining us now is CNN reporter Michael Warren and Wesley Lowery, CNN contributor and national reporter for the "Washington Post."
Wes, why is the president so obsessed with John McCain?
WESLEY LOWERY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think it's twofold. First, this is clearly a McCain specific obsession. This was someone who was one of the president's chief critics from his right, or at least from the right hand of the political spectrum, someone who helped undermine the Obamacare repeal, which was extremely important to the president, and someone who was willing to stand up to President Trump at a time when many Senate Republicans were not.
But the second part of this is that the president is obsessed with basically whatever is on FOX News right now. And so the fact that he tweeted about this earlier today is because someone was on TV talking about it. And I think it speaks sometimes to the temperament of the president even less than it does to the specifics of these fights.
CABRERA: Michael, Lindsey Graham was best friends with John McCain. He's become friends with the president and is one of his biggest defenders these days. Here's what he tweeted today. "As to Senator John McCain and his devotion to his country, he stepped forward to risk his life for his country. He served honorably under difficult circumstances and was one of the most consequential senators in the history of the body. Nothing about his service will ever be changed or diminished."
But nowhere in there is he telling Trump to cut it out. Why not?
MICHAEL WARREN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He doesn't even mention the president. Look, I mean, the fact of the matter is that it's the president's party. President Donald Trump has 90 percent, some of the latest polls, of Republican voters. And this is something that a lot of Republicans in Washington recognize. Look, they're political animals. They think about the next election, they think about who they represent.
And look at how far back into the president's own political career, which is only 3 1/2 years old, back in that summer of 2015, he went after John McCain, as you said at the top, Ana, and didn't suffer any sort of political consequences for it. I think that is something that the president recognizes and these other senators like Lindsey Graham recognize that he's got control of the party.
CABRERA: And it's not just Lindsey Graham. I mean, there aren't other Republicans either coming to John McCain's defense because of course he can't do it himself.
Wes, the president is spending all this time this weekend tweeting about a dead war hero when he could be clarifying his words on white supremacist and trying to bring people together after a horrific attack. Take a listen to Trump's chief of staff this morning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The president is not a white supremacist. I'm not sure how many times we have to say that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: Michael Mulvaney is just the latest member of this administration to have to publicly defend the president and to assure people he is not a white supremacist.
[20:05:07] LOWERY: Certainly. And I do think that if the White House and the surrogates for President Trump mean what they say, they genuinely personally do not believe that he holds racial animus or that he's purposely courting these types of, you know, white supremacists who both at times, you know, supported him but also who often use rhetoric similar to his, I do think it would make sense for the president to give a public address about this specifically, right?
You remember -- it's hard to remember the Obama years now because so much has happened since then but there was this constant uproar about the idea that the president wouldn't use the words Islamist fascist terrorists, right? People want him to specifically name what the problem was. And if he wouldn't do it, it was some sign that he was soft on ISIS or soft on al Qaeda, the president who had had bin Laden killed, right?
Here you have Donald Trump, who has said that there are good people on both sides of Charlottesville. You have President Trump who, in the hours after more than 50 people are massacred in New Zealand by someone who had ranted about invaders, comes and does a press conference about immigrant invasion across our border. And so I think a reasonable -- I think reasonable people, not just his political opponents, I think reasonable people can listen to the things the president says and be concerned about them and think that he is if not actively courting some of the support at least not discouraging it.
And so I do think the president and his surrogates do need to address this question. There's a lot of people out there, be it Muslims, be it black Americans, Hispanic Americans, immigrants, have real concern about whether or not their leader believes that they should be protected and whether or not they're safe in our country.
CABRERA: And, Michael, again, the president isn't facing pressure from his own party to call out white supremacists but they did rebuke him this week in their vote on the emergency declaration, forcing the first presidential veto of his presidency. Was this just a one-off or something more?
WARREN: Well, we'll have to see. There was another vote on the war powers resolution regarding American forces in Yemen that the president also lost fewer Republicans. You look at the total number of Republicans, though, who voted on this national emergency declaration. It adds up to 10 percent of Republicans in Congress. Again, the party is Trump's. I think a lot of these members of Congress recognize that the base of the party is with the president.
And I think that maybe also helps explain a little bit of what he's focusing on. The president that is. I don't think anybody who knows him, people I talk to who know how the president thinks, he doesn't think strategically, sort of long term about his political future. What he does know, however, is his audience and TV parlance or his base and political parlance. And, you know, going back to these tweets about John McCain, this is something that the base of the Republican Party, at least the Trump base of the Republican Party, they agree with the president on.
They don't like what John McCain has done politically over the last several years. He's given voice to that. It may not be a strategically good decision but it's a decision that reflects the president's own thinking of how he should be using his platform.
CABRERA: And Wes, CNN's Manu Raju points out that the president is not just attacking McCain, but to Michael's point about, you know, really looking at all the things that are on his mind, which is putting out there in the Twittersphere, he's talking about FOX News weekend anchors, he's talking about the Mueller report, about GM, about Google, about "Saturday Night Live," this list goes on and on. The president's focus clearly elsewhere, not on the goings-on of the world.
What do you make of this?
LOWERY: Yes, he's -- the president is just tweeting through the headlines like any of the rest of us, right? The president is a reporter who woke up this morning and decided he wanted to get his take off about "SNL" last night. And again I think there is a legitimate question -- I mean, it's almost funny to some extent. It would be very hard to imagine President Barack Obama or President George W. Bush or President Reagan or LBJ waking up and going, I hated that "SNL" skit. Let me send a tweet about it.
But that said, there's a legitimate conversation we had about what this says about the president's temperament and about what the Republicans see when they allow him to behave this way and not push back. And there's -- I think there's been -- you know, when we look back at this moment there are going to -- there's going to be analysis to be done on how different Republican elected officials have chosen to triangulate around that. Those who have tried to speak up against the president, like John McCain or folks perhaps like Paul Ryan, who said look, I'm not going to weigh in on every tweet.
And it's going to be really interesting were still in it, right? It'll be really interesting at the end to see perhaps what strategies worked and which ones didn't. But largely so far, what people are saying is the president has his Twitter fingers, they're going to do and say what he wants to say. And largely his party has found themselves pretty much unable to unwilling to not really interested in trying to keep him in check there.
CABRERA: All right, Wesley Lowery, Michael Warren, thank you both.
Coming up, exclusive reporting about the president's FOX News friend Jeanine Pirro. She's still off the air one week after FOX News denounced her Islamophobic remarks. So what happened?
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [20:14:02] CABRERA: The prime ministers of Great Britain and New Zealand spoke by phone just a short time ago. It was a condolence call from Prime Minister Theresa May in London, expressing her shock and offering Britain's support to the people of New Zealand in the aftermath of Friday's attack in Christchurch. Fifty people were killed as they attended prayer services in two different mosques. We also learned 50 others were wounded.
Today Facebook and other social media companies say they are still fighting to keep the video of the attack from spreading virally. Facebook says they have removed or blocked 1.5 million copies of the viral video from their platforms so far.
FOX News is not making President Trump happy this weekend. It started when he sounded off on the network's decision to replace Jeanine Pirro's show with a documentary last night. And the president is also criticizing some specific FOX anchors and their coverage of him this weekend.
Let's bring in CNN senior media correspondent and anchor of "RELIABLE SOURCES," Brian Stelter.
Brian, what have you learned about why Pirro wasn't hosting her show last night?
[20:15:04] BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Well, she was suspended but only privately. The network won't actually confirm this. But a source familiar with the matter told me that she was suspended after that Islamophobic rant the last weekend on the air. This means she's off the air for the time being. I don't know if she'll be back this time last week, I don't know how long the suspension lasts.
What I do know, according to sources, she hasn't been fired but it is unusual to see a network suspending an anchor or a host like this. She's a host of one of the network's highest rated weekend talk shows. She's also one of the president's biggest defenders on FOX News. And I think that's why he spoke out in her support today, saying bring back Jeanine Pirro. He doesn't want to see a single one of his boosters on TV get the boot even temporarily.
CABRERA: He did have at least a couple of tweets defending Jeanine Pirro as well as other of the opinion hosts that he seems to like who defend him. But he's been critical today in his tweets of a couple of other of the FOX News anchors. What's this all about?
STELTER: That's exactly right. And it shows that this back- scratching relationship between Trump and FOX News, it is unlike anything else in the history of American media, but it does have limitations. The president loves the booster-type shows that he sees in primetime. He doesn't like all the news reporting on FOX, he doesn't like all the daytime anchors on FOX. So he called out three of them today.
It goes to show that he's watching a ton of television, continuing to react in real time to it. And it makes me wonder why he's so active on Twitter this weekend. You were talking about this before the break. Why is he being so active right now? Why is he lashing out even at FOX, which is his favorite television network? It suggests to me some vulnerability. It suggests to me maybe he's worried about something.
Look, it's always risky to indulge in this speculation because we never know for sure when it comes to President Trump. But he seems quite perturbed by what he's hearing and seeing even on FOX News right now.
CABRERA: The other thing we just mentioned at the top of this block is about this video and the fallout that is still happening for Facebook and other social media companies following the attacks in New Zealand. And now we learned 1.5 million of these videos that were pulled from Facebook were out there in the first 24 hours and they are having to pluck them away. And they still are.
I mean, how significant is this in terms of damage control for these companies that are already facing some PR issues?
STELTER: Yes. I think Facebook is trying to take this really seriously by telling us how many videos it's taken down, more than 1.5 million in the first 24 hours since the massacre. The company is trying to signal that it's doing the right thing, that it's on top of its problem. What we don't know is how many of those videos actually got through and how many people were able to see them, and why is there such a desire by so many people to see these horrific videos when they happen? That's a problem that's bigger than Facebook and bigger than Google. But the pressure is on these companies.
CABRERA: And also speaks to just how easy it is for this to get out of control.
CABRERA: For the regulators, for the people who control Facebook.
CABRERA: They're self-controlled obviously right now.
STELTER: I think --
CABRERA: But they can't keep a handle on it.
STELTER: And then the challenge for the governments that regulate Facebook and for the companies that run these Web sites, this is deeper than the moment when the shooting starts. It's about what this person was reading and consuming and talking about online. For the years before he decided to enter this mosque and attack people, what I worry about more is why was he able to get to the point where he's reading so many crazy things online that he felt compelled to act? That's going to be a harder challenge for the Facebooks and the YouTubes to address.
CABRERA: All right. Brian Stelter, thank you very much. STELTER: Thanks.
CABRERA: Coming up, the field keeps getting bigger. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York makes her presidential bid official, as former Vice President Joe Biden accidently, or maybe intentionally, drops a big hint about his future plans.
[20:23:13] CABRERA: Another Democrat officially jumping into the 2020 race this weekend. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand formed an exploratory committee a couple of months ago. Here's Gillibrand today declaring her formal candidacy. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We need a leader who makes --
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Big, bold --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Brave.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Choices.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Someone who isn't afraid of progress. That's why I'm running for president.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: Gillibrand's announcement ends with an invitation to join her at the Trump International Hotel in New York City next Sunday, where she plans to deliver her vision for restoring America's moral integrity, straight to the president's doorstep, she says.
Joining me now is CNN political reporter Arlette Saenz.
Gillibrand is now one of six women seeking the Democratic nomination, Arlette, with a record number of women candidates, how is Gillibrand trying to distinguish herself from the pack on gender issues?
ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has really made gender issues a main focus, centerpiece of her campaign. When she's out on the campaign trail she talks frequently about equal pay, and also paid family leave. She also promotes herself as a young mom, who is out there, willing to fight for other people's kids the way that she fights for her own.
And Kirsten Gillibrand also came really into the national spotlight as she became kind of the "Me Too senator," becoming a champion of women trying to combat sexual harassment in the office place, sexual assault on college campuses as well as in the military. In that video, she actually talks about how she took on the Pentagon to try to end sexual assault in the military, but her reputation is kind of the "Me Too senator" took a little bit of a hit this past week after there were claims that she mishandled sexual harassment allegations in her own office. [20:25:06] Now the senator and her office contend that the claims were
-- the charges and accusations were handled appropriately, that they followed the appropriate measures, but perhaps this video and campaign official announcement can act as a kind of reset for her as she runs for president in 2020.
CABRERA: Let's talk former Vice President Joe Biden coming very close to announcing his candidacy in the 2020 presidential race. But then he stopped short. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Been told I was criticized by the new left. I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the -- of anybody who would run.
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
BIDEN: I didn't mean --
(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
BIDEN: Of anybody who would run.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: He caught himself but it was already too late. And usually a flub like this, Arlette, means the potential candidate is going to run. When is he going to make up his mind? Is there a timetable?
SAENZ: Well, Ana, the current thinking is that Joe Biden will make some type of announcement as soon as April. So we're still a few weeks away from knowing for certain whether he's going to run for president in 2020 but Joe Biden has certainly been dropping a lot of hints and clues along the way and all signs at this point seem to point to him going ahead and launching that presidential bid.
And you heard him last night in that speech back on his home turf in Delaware offer a little bit of a preview of what a campaign could sound and look like. And he talked about the need for Americans to rise above the pettiness of politics and to focus on consensus building.
Now I also want you to take a listen to how he kind of framed his message as a contrast to President Trump.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: We must be clear. Everybody knows who he is. We've got to be clear who we are, who we are.
BIDEN: We've got to understand, we Democrats, we choose hope over fear. We choose unity over division and we choose truth overlies.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SAENZ: So Joe Biden there making it clear that he's ready to directly take on President Trump as he gets closer and closer to that 2020 announcement -- Ana.
CABRERA: All right. Arlette Saenz, thanks for the reporting.
Tomorrow night, CNN hosts a presidential town hall with another 2020 contender, Senator Elizabeth Warren. Jake Tapper hosts that event live from Jackson, Mississippi. Again that's tomorrow night at 9:00 right here on CNN.
Coming up, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and a deal that still goes down like a bitter cup of coffee for basketball fans. Will it affect a potential presidential run for him?
[20:32:15] ANA CABRERA, CNN HOST: Since former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced he is considering a run for President as an Independent, he has faced his fair share of backlash. But Schultz has said his biggest backlash he faced was 12 years ago, and has nothing to do with the presidency, or coffee, but with basketball. Schultz owned the NBA's Seattle Supersonics, and after just five short years, he sold the team. CNN's Vanessa Yurkevich has more on the backlash from fans, and what his time as an NBA owner says about his ability to govern as commander-in-chief.
JASON REID, DIRECTOR, SONICSGATE: There's a lot of villains in the Sonicsgate sage, but the main number one villain for us is Howard Schultz.
VANESSA YURKEVICH, CNN DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT: The story starts in 2001, when then-Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz leads other local investors in buying the NBA's Seattle Supersonics. But soon, Schultz wants a new or imroved arena, like Seattle's other professional sports teams. He offers $18 million and asked local government for $200 million.
JIM BRUNNER, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE SEATTLE TIMES: He was very quickly making demands, you know, I want public money, I want a deal like the Mariners got and the Seahawks got. So, from his point of view, he thought he was next in line and it was his turn, and all he had to do was ask.
YURKEVICH: Lawmakers refused to foot the bill, and Schultz never got the money.
HOWARD SCHULTZ, FORMER CEO, STARBUCKS: The back and forth conversations I had with the mayor, the city council, and the state legislature could fill another book. YURKEVICH: In 2006, citing the aging the KeyArena and millions of
dollars in mounting loses, a frustrated Schultz sold the Sonics for a profit to a group from Oklahoma. They moved the team there two years later.
SCHULTZ: The country has lost a sense of leadership.
YURKEVICH: With Schultz considering a run for President, he's now apologizing to fans.
SCHULTZ: It's a very hard lesson. I have to live with that lesson. And it's a mistake that I made, and I apologize.
YURKEVICH: With no political record, his time lobbying state lawmakers for a new arena has voters questioning how he would govern.
ROD GUEVARA, SUPERSONICS FAN: He can't even deal with legislatures who are making $5,000 a year. How are you going to deal with Congress?
YURKEVICH: Former Seattle City councilman Nick Licata who opposed Schultz' arena plans says the real misstep Schultz made was not understanding how to play politics.
NICK LICATA, FORMER SEATTLE CITY COUNCILMAN: Successful business leaders have a difficult time maneuvering, because they have been successful, and they think they know how complicated business deals works. And as a result, I think he would make the same mistakes as Donald Trump has made.
YURKEVICH: Schultz, in his new book, says he has learned some valuable lessons.
SCHULTZ: The experience also imprinted upon me the searing knowledge of how a single decision can adversely affect thousands of lives.
[20:35:07] YURKEVICH: But for Supersonics fans, there's little he can could do to make up for the team leaving town.
GUEVARA: If Howard Schultz is able to buy the Oklahoma City Thunder, build an arena, relocate the team, his -- and get the name back to Seattle Sonics, he's got my vote.
CABRERA: Thank you to Vanessa Yurkevich. It is the case that brought back memories of mobsters and old-school mob hits, but an arrest in the gruesome murder of a reputed crime boss has taken a surprising twist. We'll explain.
[20:40:07] CABRERA: This just in to CNN, the highest U.S. military official in the country is now saying a Wall Street Journal report on U.S. troops in Syria is wrong. The newspaper earlier today quoted U.S. officials as saying as many as 1,000 American services members could remain in Syria long after the full withdraw ordered from President Trump in December. Now, General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, released a statement a short time ago, saying The Wall Street Journal report is, "factually incorrect." U.S. officials tell CNN that no final decision on troop numbers in Syria has been made yet.
It has been more than 30 years since a mob boss was assassinated in New York City. That streak came to an end this week when Frank Cali was found dead Wednesday, shot 10 times outside his Staten Island home. Cali known as Franky boy was believed to be the acting boss of the Gambino organized crime family. And while police now have someone in custody in connection with this killing, sources telling CNN the crime does not appear to be mob related. Joining us now is CNN's Polo Sandoval. Polo, so a mob boss gets gunned down in front of his home, and this has nothing to do with the mob?
POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let me take you back to Wednesday, Ana, when Frank Cali was gunned down outside of his Staten Island home. As you could imagine, police were initially concerned that we could potentially see a repeat of the brazen mafia violence that we saw decades ago. But now, according to information that my colleague Brynn Gingras is hearing from a police source, well, this investigation could be taking a very different turn.
DERMOT SHEA, CHIEF OF DETECTIVES, NYPD: Oftentimes the first story is not the final story.
SANDOVAL: It's looking less likely that the Wednesday murder of Gambino crime boss Francisco "Franky Boy" Cali was a mob hit. A source close to the investigation tells CNN Cali's killing may instead be the result of a personal feud. According to the source, the suspect, Anthony Comello had some kind of relationship with one of Cali's family members that the mob boss disagreed with. Comello allegedly took offense to that. On Saturday, detectives arrested Comello. Police say the 24-year-old is captured on video outside of Cali's Staten Island home the night of the murder. They say Cali was face-to-face with his alleged killer moments before the shots rang out.
SHEA: He has a conversation with an individual in front of that residence. And that individual, at some point in time -- it's only about a minute into it -- pulls out a firearm and shots are fired.
SANDOVAL: Cali was a reputed member of the Gambino family, he served a 16-month prison sentence for his role in an extortion conspiracy, and was later released in 2009.
SHEA: We are well aware of Mr. Cali's past. That will be a part of this investigation as we determine what was the motive for the incident on Wednesday evening. There are multiple, multiple angles that we are still exploring.
SANDOVAL: Detectives have yet to find the murder weapon and are looking at Comello's past. SHEA: Was he acting alone? Was he acting for other people? Are
there others involved? What is the motive? I simply, standing here, do not have all those answers for you.
SANDOVAL: Officially, police are still leaving all options on the table until they can definitively determine why Frank Cali was killed.
SANDOVAL: And Robert Gottlieb, the attorney for Comello, releasing a statement to CNN today. I'll summarize it for you here (INAUDIBLE) Gottlieb, that he believes at this point that the people who know his client best, including his friends and family, simply cannot believe what they are hearing. And this attorney is saying that there is something very wrong here, and he promises to get to the bottom of it. As for his client, he is expected to face a murder charge tomorrow in Staten Island.
CABRERA: What a story. Palo Sandoval, thank you.
SANDOVAL: Thanks, Ana.
CABRERA: It was the scandal that took down an American President. Coming up, three legends of Watergate talk to me about those consequential days under Richard Nixon.
[20:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
CABRERA: Virtually no politician, American history experienced the same kind of rise, fall, comeback, and political destruction as Richard Nixon. Now, an all-new, four-part CNN Original Series, "TRICKY DICK," explores the life and career of the 37th President. Here's a preview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't give a goddamn what the story is.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Richard M. Nixon has lied repeatedly.
NIXON: No reporter in The Washington Post is ever be in the White House again. Do you understand?
The tougher it gets, the cooler I get. I have what it takes.
PROTESTER: Impeach Nixon now. Impeach Nixon now.
NIXON: I want to say this to the television audience, because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.
This crap about Watergate.
Let others wallow in Watergate. We're going to do our job.
I'm going to kick their ass.
Nobody is going to package me. Nobody is going to make me put on an act for television. I'm not going to engage in any gimmicks or any stunts, wear any silly hats. If people look at me say that's a new Nixon, then all I can say is, well, maybe you didn't know the old Nixon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CABRERA: I recently sat down with three legends of the Watergate era: Carl Bernstein, whose dogged reporting for The Washington Post helped uncovered the scandal; David Gergen, adviser to President Nixon when he was facing impeachment; and John Dean, the former White House counsel and star witness whose testimony ultimately brought down Nixon's presidency. Here's our conversation.
CABRERA: John, I want to start with you. You worked with President Nixon. In this series, we hear a lot of Nixon in his own words, in candid moments, without a filter. Does it paint an accurate picture of him as a person and as a politician?
JOHN DEAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: I think it's a very accurate picture. The -- I like the fact that it was original footage. It doesn't look like it's been any way enhanced, and you feel like you're there. It's what we actually looked at, at the time.
[20:50:09] And given the four hours, you really get a good picture of Richard Nixon. You see the good points and the bad points.
CABRERA: Carl, you and your partner, Bob Woodward, of course, broke the Watergate story that ultimately led to the end of Richard Nixon's presidency. When did you realize the story was connected to the White House?
CARL BERNSTEIN, PULITZER PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST ON WATERGATE STORY: Very early. There was a secret fund -- a secret fund that was maintained by Nixon's top campaign advisers that we found out about eight weeks after the break in had been controlled by people very close to Nixon and in his campaign. And once we knew that, even though there were denials all around, it was evident that there were connections to the White House. It was impossible that this came out of some kind of self-starting effort that was disconnected from the people around --
CABRERA: Did you confront the White House right away?
BERNSTEIN: It wasn't about confronting, it was really about doing the reporting step by step by step over a course of a couple years.
BERSTEIN: And just building on what information we were able to obtain. We eventually found out after about 10-12 weeks that that fund was controlled by, among others, John Mitchell, the campaign manager and Nixon's former law partner, and also by H.R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff. So, that gave us a pretty good idea of where this was going. But it also, it took a while to understand what Watergate -- what the break in was about. And what we discovered and what indeed we now know was it was a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage engineered from White House, from the President's reelection advisers, to ensure that the Democrats picked the weakest candidate through this political espionage, sabotage, and dirty tricks.
CABRERA: And that's such an important information. David, you were a special assistant to President Nixon during the Watergate era, focusing on speechwriting and communications. What was that like, trying to provide support to Nixon during this incredibly tense and obviously challenging time?
DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It was an extremely awkward period. I think those of us who went through that in the White House all felt we've been through the Marine Corps experience together. I mean, because we took a lot of bullets coming in. But I must say that the cover-up worked better in the White House than anywhere else. You came into work every day and you'd rid to ever be having -- I would occasionally talk to Bob Woodward, not Carl so much, more Bob. And the -- you know, you hear stories from them where you just curl your hair about that they were working on. And then inside, you'd be told, oh, no, no, this is (INAUDIBLE) Ben Bradlee, they just taped it. They hate us. They're trying to bring us down. It's in effect. What I would -- today we'd call fake news.
And you tended -- when you -- I didn't know many people had been to jail personally, so I tended to believe the people inside the White House until it became obvious that they were the ones lying.
CABRERA: John, you became White House counsel almost a year after the Watergate break. And as Carl describes, this was a story that took years to really drag out all of the details after the scandal was well under way is when you sort of stepped up into this difficult role. When you tried to convince Nixon this was a problem, telling him it was a cancer on the presidency, you were blamed for the cover-up, you were fired, you ended up testifying against Nixon in the famous Watergate hearings. This was all your word against the President of the United States. What was going through your mind, and what was your strategy as you spoke at those hearings?
DEAN: The Watergate cover-up from the White House's standpoint was covering up the fact that the same people who have been involved in the break in at the Watergate had been involved in a break in for the White -- for the White House. That Daniel Ellsberg Psychiatrist's Office when he leaked the Pentagon papers. Anyway, to get to your point about my confronting the President, I didn't have any dealings with Nixon until actually 255 days after the arrest. I meet with him once when the indictments come down, but then he starts calling on me some eight months after the arrest at the Watergate because he wants his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman and his top domestic adviser John Ehrlichman to be working on his second term. He's won an overwhelming reelection victory, and he wants to keep them busy on reorganization of the executive branch, repopulating and put -- bringing in new people. So, he starts dealing directly with his White House counsel. And after about -- I didn't know how much he knew or did not know. To this day, I don't believe he knew about the break in in advance. But he certainly did know about the cover up.
[20:55:06] CABRERA: Carl, I know you've spoken a lot about some of the parallels between this administration and the Nixon administration, particularly when we talk about the disdain that the Trump administration seems to have for the media. And we've heard Nixon on the tapes saying, not a Washington Post reporter comes in this White House. Just pushing forward here, what do you see as the impact of sort of a narrative and the adversarial approach that the current administration has had with the media? What do you see as the impact long-term?
BERNSTEIN: Nixon tried to make the conduct of the press the issue in Watergate from the first days after the break in and the arrest of the burglars. It didn't succeed. It was a different country, but still, an awful lot of the country did not believe what we were writing in The Washington Post, criticized us, there was a campaign by Nixon's surrogates to kind of tar and feather us verbally and our reputations. But you couldn't deny the facts. The facts started to, you know, make real sense and fit together.
And of course, what we know now is that Nixon was a criminal President of the United States from the day he took office until the day he left. That's what the tapes made clear. That the criminality began at the beginning, and it was a huge misuse of institutions of government for personal purposes. This is a little different. What we're seeing now, maybe it's more egregious, maybe what we're seeing now is worse than Watergate because the system worked in Watergate. I mean, we don't have much evidence yet that the system is working in the Trump presidency because we don't have a bipartisan consensus as developed in Watergate.
And, you know, it was Republican, it was Barry Goldwater, the great conservative, nominee for his party in 1964 for the presidency, who marched to the White House after the discovery of some of the last tapes, and what was on them, and said to Richard Nixon, you have to leave, Mr. President, you have to resign. Because Nixon asked them whether he could survive a Senate vote on impeachment, he expected he could, Nixon did, and Goldwater said, no, Mr. President, you may have four votes and you don't have mine. And the next day, Nixon resigned.
CABRERA: So, David, what is the legacy of Watergate and how do you think that applies to the Trump administration and investigations today?
GERGEN: Well, I think one way of looking at this is we seem to have a major national scandal in our politics about every 50 or 60 years. You go back to the 1920s, we had a scandal then and then we had Watergate, now we're going through another scandal period. And I do think that it's a recurrent theme in our -- in our democracy. And one that does require a lot of support for the rule of law, for traditions, and for guardrails in our democracy. Nixon overran those, and had the system not snuck back, and I agree with Carl that the system of checks and balances ultimately did work in the Watergate case. We haven't yet seen where they're going to work in the Trump case.
I also think that Nixon provides something which Trump does not, Nixon had -- was a very -- had a very bright side in his life. He had -- he had an aspirational side. He inspired to be a man of peace, a man who can -- who built a lasting foundation of peace. You know, he followed -- wanted to follow in the footsteps of Dougal (ph) and Churchill (ph) were some of his great heroes. And he had this child-like feeling that he could be a good -- great things for the country. And yet -- and this was what brought him down. He perilously had these demons inside him that he had never learned to control, and they got the best of him. They just -- you know, he -- if you were not for me, you know, he thought you must be against him.
He believed in the law of the jungle, you either eat or you're eaten. And he had this dark side that just came spilling out, I think -- and I think ultimately knocked him out. As he told David Frost later on when he was asked by Frost, what really happened? He said, I gave my enemies a sword, and then they ran me through. And that's what he did, he did give them a sword. And I think John and Carl and I would probably all agree on that.
CABRERA: Well, gentlemen, thank you so much for this interesting conversation. The series is going to be fascinating. I appreciate it all. Carl, David, and John, good to have you with us.
BERNSTEIN: Good to be with you.
GERGEN: Thank you.
CABRERA: Who is Tricky Dick? Tune in to the premiere of our CNN Original Series. It airs next right here on CNN. That's going to do it for me tonight. Thank you so much for being with me. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Have a great night.