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SMERCONISH

"You Come At The King, You Best Not Miss"; My Five Questions; With Impeachment Probe Now Underway, What Will Fallout Be?; Maher On Hunter Biden: "Get A Job!"; How Should The Media Cover The Biden Story?; Dems Try To Navigate Impeachment And Biden Story. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired September 28, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OMAR LITTLE, HBO THE WIRE: Ayo, lesson here, Bey (ph). You come at the king, you best not miss.

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MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST, SMERCONISH: You come at the king, you best not miss. Omar Little, "HBO"'s "The Wire." Kind of sums up the week, does it not? I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. Democrats have an impeachment inquiry against the president squarely in their sights after a newly released transcript shows the president asking the Ukraine president to look into the Bidens and even more Democrats called for an impeachment inquiry after the whistleblower complaint about Trump was released showing allegations of a White House cover- up.

Today, I've got five questions. Question number one, how will the whistleblower withstand the scrutiny to come? Now, you would think that anybody cleared to have worked in the White House in an intelligence capacity will be credible and his complaint suggests he relied on multiple sources for the information that he asserted. Then again, there is that OLC opinion solicited by acting DNI MaGuire which had a sentence referring to, quote, "some indicia of an arguable political bias" and favoritism toward a rival political candidate. Nevertheless, the ICIG concluded that the complaints allegations are credible.

Question two, can congressional Democrats resist the temptation to focus on more than Ukraine? Speaker Pelosi has suggested that the House Intel Committee will take the lead, but there are some strong personalities who chair the other five committees working toward impeachment. Figuratively speaking, if Democrats use a shotgun approach instead of a finely focused lens, if this becomes about emoluments, the cost of jet fuel in Scotland or even the Mueller report, it might play right into the president's charge of witch-hunt.

My question number three, what does Senator Richard Burr think? With regard to Senate Republicans, this case won't hinge on Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse or Susan Collins, but if the chair of the Senate Intel Committee regards the president's actions as troublesome, the president will immediately be vulnerable.

Question four, how will the media cover the continued attacks on Hunter Biden? Where President Trump defends himself by pointing a finger in the direction of former Vice President Biden and his activities of his son, well, it raises an interesting question for journalists, how much to delve into those business practices at the risk of being accused of a false equivalency.

And finally, question five, how is this playing in the heartland? The impeachment inquiry is a five alarm fire in the nation's capital and all along the Acela corridor (ph), but it's still too soon to know how impactful this is in middle America. One early indicator, an NPR PBS Marist Poll just released, said 49 percent of Americans approve, 46 percent disapprove of the House formally beginning an impeachment inquiry.

House members, they represent districts drawn largely along partisan lines. Their votes are predictable. The Senate is where this battle will be won or lost and no doubt its members will pay close attention to the will of the people.

I want to know what you think. Go to my website right now at Smerconish.com. Answer this week's survey question. How does this impeachment inquiry end -- Donald Trump will not be impeached by the House, Donald Trump will be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, Mike Pence will become president or Donald Trump will be impeached by the House, but not convicted by the Senate?

With me now is someone who's been pushing for Trump's impeachment for two years, Tom Steyer. He's also a Democratic presidential candidate and will be one of the candidates on stage at the next CNN "New York Times" Democratic Debate on October 15. Mr. Steyer, you got what you want, but are you concerned that if he's not impeached, you will hasten his re-election?

TOM STEYER, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, Michael, I believe at this point that he's going to be impeached. When you see over 220 House members pursuing an impeachment inquiry, I think that there's a strong likelihood that they will vote to impeach and in fact that the movement which I started two years ago to get the American people to understand how corrupt this president is and to try to hold him to account will in fact take that important step of impeaching him and sending him to trial in the Senate.

SMERCONISH: So I should be more precise. What if he's impeached by the House, but he's not convicted by the Senate just on the cusp of the 2020 election. In the same way that arguably Bill Clinton was strengthened after the intern scandal and the impeachment process, might the same happen with Donald Trump?

[09:05:03] STEYER: Well, Michael, I think the important thing to remember in this case is that what matters -- the court that matters is the court of public opinion, that in fact what the American people learn and how they judge what they learn is really what is at stake here, that in fact you're asking about these senators. If the American people get the evidence and see how corrupt this president is and come out with that decision then it is going to be very, very hard for any senator to go against the will of the American people.

And I can tell you after two years of talking to people around the country about impeachment, when you show them the evidence, they all say the same thing. They say I didn't know that. He's a liar and a crook. If I did that, I'd go to jail. So I think the key thing here is get the evidence in front of the American people, the grassroots. That's what I've been pushing for. That's why 8 million people signed up. Let the people of America decide.

We've been leading this, the people inside D.C., by two years. The reason this has happened is the grassroots. That's where the action's going to be going forward too.

SMERCONISH: Should the impeachment inquiry focus only on Ukraine or on the issues you've been speaking of for two years? Because obviously we only learned of the Ukraine issue recently.

STEYER: Well, Michael, to me, obviously two years ago, I thought it was extremely clear that this is the most corrupt president in an American history and that the evidence was there. I also said if you don't believe me just read tomorrow's paper because it's only going to get worse and that's exactly what the Ukraine scandal says. It only got worse.

So when you ask how much should you include in the inquiry or in the presentation, I agree, the most important thing is to make a presentation to the American people that is clear and that goes right to the heart of his corruption and let us decide. That is going to be the key question ...

SMERCONISH: OK.

STEYER: ... about what to include and I agree with you. It should be focused because too much is going to be too confusing.

SMERCONISH: OK. What, then, is the specific high crime or misdemeanor?

STEYER: Well, I think it's clear that he was implicitly using the money of the American people, the aid to the Ukraine, as a lure to get a foreign policy -- a foreign power to wade into American politics on his behalf. So he was putting himself above the American people. He was using his position for his own personal benefit, which is absolutely wrong.

And let me say this. It is absolutely consistent with what this very corrupt president has done since day one and then he tried to cover it up which is very consistent with the obstruction of justice that Mr. Mueller showed characterized his whole presidency. So I think this is a very clear example of the corruption and the cover-ups that have characterized this most corrupt president and I think the American people need to see it because I trust the American people will do the right thing, will draw the wrong -- the right judgments.

And Michael, if that happens, this is a triumph for democracy. This is the American people's will being recognized. That's really what we're seeing, the American people being what counts, that we go back to of, by and for the people and if we can do this with this corrupt president, there's no telling what we can't do. We can really, in fact, break this corporate stranglehold on our government and really solve the problems that are facing us. This is a great time for America.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Tom Steyer.

STEYER: Michael, thank you for having me.

SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Tweet me @Smerconish or go to my Facebook page. I will read some responses throughout the course of the program. What do we have, Catherine? "No, Smerconish. Come at the king and you best not miss does not describe a situation where the president is betraying his country."

Well, look, the Clinton reference that I just made to Tom Steyer I think is indisputable. The impeachment process that we went through in the mid-90s had the impact of strengthening his hand politically and I think Omar, some would say Shakespeare, got it right when they said when you -- when you aim for the top, you best not miss or there'll be ramifications, in this case perhaps emboldening, perhaps emboldening the president headed into the 2020 election. Just time out when this all will likely resolve.

One more if we have time for it. "If Democrats did not cry wolf since 2016, maybe the Heartland might have cared about this. Just another witch-hunt." Rudy, when everything is an impeachable offense, then it's much harder -- or what I mean to say is cast as an impeachable offense, then no doubt you're right that it's harder to get people's attention focused on one specific set of circumstances.

[09:10:04] I think there's some truth in your assertion that that's -- you know, the Democratic opponents of the president need to convince people, oh, no, wait a minute, this is really serious even in compared to the other things we've been telling you about.

Listen, everybody needs to go vote at my website right now at Smerconish.com. Answer the survey question. How does it all end? How does this impeachment process end -- Donald Trump will not be impeached by the House, Donald Trump will be impeached by the House, convicted by the Senate, Mike Pence becomes president or the president will be impeached by the House, but not convicted by the Senate?

Up ahead, how does legendary executive editor of "The Washington Post" Marty Baron navigate this fraught media climate? I asked him back at our mutual stomping grounds, Lehigh University, where he once was editor of the student newspaper.

And the president's obsession with Hunter and Joe Biden ignited an impeachment inquiry. The Biden campaign has demanded that the media refer to the story as debunked. Is that definitively the case? Here's what Bill Maher said last night.

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BILL MAHER, HOST, REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER: The more I read about this, no, I don't think he was doing something terrible in Ukraine, but it's just so -- why can't politicians tell their f****** (ph) kids get a job ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's too swampy.

MAHER: ... get a goddamn job.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's too swampy.

MAHER: I mean, this kid -- this kid was paid $600,000 because his name is Biden by a gas company in Ukraine, this super corrupt country that just had a revolution to get rid of corruption.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't ...

MAHER: It just looks bad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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[09:15:00]

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SMERCONISH: Where President Trump defends himself by pointing a finger in the direction of former Vice President Biden and the business activities of the VP's son Hunter, it raises an interesting question for journalists, how much, if at all, to delve into those business practices. This was former Vice President Joe Biden's reaction when he was asked about it last week.

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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Vice President, how many times have you ever spoken to your son about his overseas business dealings?

JOE BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And so how do you know -- how do you know ...

BIDEN: Here's what I know. I know Trump deserves to be investigated. He is violating every basic norm of a president. You should be asking him the question why is he on the phone with a foreign leader trying to intimidate a foreign leader? Everybody looked at this and everybody's looked at it and said there's nothing there. Ask the right question.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: Just hours after that, the campaign released a memo dictating how the media should frame the story saying any coverage would be misleading if it didn't point out that Trump's claims of Biden's influence were unsubstantiated. And you've heard it reported here that CNN's reporting shows absolutely no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe Biden or his son. On Sunday, the Biden campaign released a fundraising appeal on Twitter asking, quote, "Will media see through Trump's sleazy playbook or fall for it again?"

I recently spoke to Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, the author of, "Ask More".

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SMERCONISH: Hey, Frank. Let's remind folks. You were the CNN bureau chief during the intern scandal so you've had some dealing with this type of an issue.

FRANK SESNO, DIRECTOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Sure. We heard from the Clinton White House all the time they had a special adviser in to dump documents on Fridays when they were trying to ride the news cycle. We got -- I got calls from people at the White House screaming that we were covering something in the wrong way or unfairly.

Look, candidates and politicians want to spin their message and it's gotten harsher and it's gotten more public, but you have to go where the story goes and sometimes that means asking or re-asking questions that the politicians and others would like you to leave alone otherwise. You can't do that.

SMERCONISH: So how specifically should members of the media respond to the allegations about Hunter Biden?

SESNO: Look, the president of the United States is going to keep that out there. Rudy Giuliani is going to keep that out there. It appears that these are talking points for Republicans and conservative media. So all media have a responsibility to look at it, to look at the record, to look at what is known. There are legitimate questions that this raises.

The Biden campaign's comment about, you know, insisting that coverage should show that there was no connection or no connection that's been revealed between what the then Vice President did when he went to Ukraine with respect to the aide and the role of his son. That's fair. I mean, there needs to be accurate coverage and the coverage should be proportionate in its nature. You know, you don't harp on this hour after hour after hour.

The story is Trump and his call to the Ukrainian president. The story is not fundamentally Biden, but those elements are there and ignoring them would not be responsible either.

SMERCONISH: I can already hear the tip tapping on computer keys right now of people tweeting at me, tweeting at you perhaps and saying, ah, it's a false equivalency.

SESNO: Yes. Well, it could be a false equivalency if it's done wrong, but look, ask John Kerry about Swift Boat, ask Hillary Clinton about Benghazi or the -- or the computer. Trying to ignore something and make it go away doesn't make it go away. If there's an issue out there, candidates and the media need to confront it. They need to be able to answer the questions and answer them well. That doesn't let the media off the hook though, Michael, and here's where I agree about those who would scream about false equivalency.

If you're going to harp on this and if you're going to fall into somebody else's narrative because they want to distract you from where the real story and the real scandal is, that's another issue. You know, it is -- these are impeachment investigations are about Donald Trump, not about Joe Biden. So the story is there and no one should lose sight of that, but this is an element of the story and we shouldn't lose sight of that either.

SMERCONISH: Have the questions about Joe Biden and his son Hunter on this issue been asked and answered?

SESNO: They appear to have been asked and answered. They appear to -- the main connection about whether this was sort of a quid pro quo when Biden goes to Ukraine and is leaning on the -- on the government there to fire the attorney general because the attorney general is investigating his son and the gas company, you know, where he sits on the board.

[09:20:07] There has been no indication in any of the reporting or any of the public comments or documentation except for the former attorney general who is largely discredited, although, OK, that still raises questions, but that there's --they're there (ph), OK? That doesn't mean, though, that there aren't additional places to look and to probe. What good responsible reporters will do, though, is they'll look and they'll probe, they'll investigate, they'll dig if there's something they added. If there's not, you don't report the story to prompt the denial, right? Just getting deniability is not -- is not justification for putting a story out there.

So long way of saying, Michael, yes, I think they've been asked. I think most of them appear to have been answered, but that doesn't mean that we don't continue to see if there's anything more.

SMERCONISH: Thank you, Frank. That was excellent.

SESNO: Thank you. I really appreciate it, Michael. Hood luck.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: All right. Let's see what you're saying on my Smerconish Twitter and Facebook pages. This comes from Facebook. What do we have, Catherine? "Hunter broke no laws. Why destroy him? Very sad and unfortunate." Sonja, I think Frank Sesno just said it right which is to say be accurate and be proportionate, but you can't ignore it. Me personally, I think the personal issues that have been raised about Hunter Biden fall in the cheap-shot category. And by the way, we're all one degree of separation away from those same issues, are we not? Be accurate, be proportionate.

Up ahead, there's an elephant in the room for 2020 Democrats and it isn't a Republican one. The president's actions concerning one of their leading candidates, Joe Biden, spurred the impeachment inquiry scandal. So how now are they to address this whole issue, especially with the debate upcoming?

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[09:25:00]

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SMERCONISH: President Trump facing an impeachment inquiry for allegedly trying to get Ukraine to investigate a political opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, facing questions about his son's business dealings and the rest of the 2020 field caught in the middle. Senator Elizabeth Warren already stumbled when she was asked about it on Tuesday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You offered two other plans (ph). Could you say whether or not, under a Warren administration, would your vice president's child be allowed to serve on a board of a foreign company?

ELIZABETH WARREN, (D) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why not?

WARREN: I don't -- I don't -- I don't know. I mean, I'd have to go back and look at the details on the plan.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think there could be a problem with that?

WARREN: I have to go back and look.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SMERCONISH: And of course there's a debate upcoming, the CNN "New York Times" debate October 15 where 12 Democratic candidates will share the stage. So how exactly should the 2020 candidates handle what will become an unprecedented situation?

With me now is national political reporter with "The New York Times" Lisa Lerer. Lisa, MJ Lee, our colleague at CNN, caught up with Elizabeth Warren on this subject again just yesterday. Here's what Senator Warren said to her in response to a question.

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MJ LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And just very quickly, obviously the president has gone after Jill Biden and his son. Do you think his conduct, his business dealings, Hunter Biden's, should be off-limits in this campaign?

WARREN: I believe that this issue is about Donald Trump and that's where we need to keep our focus.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SMERCONISH: A more polished answer than she gave earlier in the week. My hunch is that's probably what we'll hear from all the Democratic candidates. What does your reporting reveal?

LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes. That's the sense I have from talking to folks in the various campaigns that no one sees a particular upside to directly going after Joe Biden. I mean, look, whether Democratic voters want to pick Joe Biden as their nominee or not, there's certainly a lot of goodwill and I think Democrats feel very warmly towards the former vice president.

So, you know, the chances that such an attack could backfire, feel pretty high to a lot of these campaigns and they're looking at what Julian Castro did in the last debate when he went after Joe Biden's age and it sort of backfired. He took a lot of flack for that. So I don't think we'll see a lot of candidates directly going after the former vice president. But in a way, they don't have to, right? The charges are out there and it's not -- they don't -- they don't need to make the case.

SMERCONISH: My hunch is, and your reporting discussed some of this, that the impact will be greatest on the second and third tier candidates on that stage because this whole impeachment inquiry has really taken all the oxygen out of the room. It will be very hard for anybody to emerge against this backdrop.

LERER: Right. I mean we've already seen the race settling into a certain kind of form where you have a top tier of candidates Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, maybe Bernie Sanders and then you have sort of a second tier and then you have a third here that's not even making the debate stage. It's been really hard for candidates to jump and stay from that second tier to the first tier, in part because it's just really hard to get airtime.

You know, Donald Trump eats up every story that comes in front of him and just swallows news cycles whole and that's only going to be worse now with impeachment just dominating the news. In a way, Joe Biden is the only -- the only candidate who really gets out there on this because his family is, you know, so involved in these charges, but I think if you're a Cory Booker or if you're even a Kamala Harris, it's just going to be really hard to get the kind of attention you need to, you know, get your numbers to rise in those polls.

SMERCONISH: Might this actually provide Joe Biden with a great opportunity because he's been showing great vim and vigor on the campaign trail? We showed a clip of something that he said to a "Fox" reporter. I mean, it shows him to be feisty and focused and on his game and under attack from an unwarranted challenge.

LERER: Sure. Or it might not. I mean, the truth is we're in unprecedented political terrain here. We've never had impeachment proceedings with a primary going on, a Democrat -- you know, an opposing party primary. So no one really knows and that question is really a source of great debate in Democratic circles. There's an argument being made, particularly by folks who are allies and aides of Joe Biden, that this is great for the former vice president. It shows him in the kind of one-on-one match-up, he's tough, he can take on ...

SMERCONISH: Right.

LERER: ... President Trump that his supporters want to see and that his campaign has been trying to set up for months. The flip side of that is people sort of talk about Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton was dodged by these charges about her family foundation and, you know, about the emails. And Bernie Sanders didn't really have to explicitly make that case to have those be damaging for her in the primary. And there is, you know, a concern that could end up playing to Elizabeth Warren's hands.

SMERCONISH: The only thing we know for sure as I've said here before is that we really don't know what's to come. And I think that was --

LERER: Right.

SMERCONISH: -- proven again by the events of this week, that none of us could have anticipated. Lisa Lerer, thank you very much for your expertise.

LERER: Thanks.

SMERCONISH: Let's check in on your social media tweets, Facebook comments. These two comes from Facebook.

"The Dems need to focus on the next election and what their platforms are for the American people. The impeachment investigation is going to be their downfall. It's turning Independents off that might go Dem."

Kelly Ann -- that's not Kellyanne Conway, is it, Catherine (ph)? Joking. Too early -- too early to tell. I mean, we just -- we just don't know.

As I say, I'm trying to get out of my bubble on the Acela corridor here and figure out how is this playing in the rest of the country and also, it is a fire hose of information. This story has changed so much day by day, and I'm sure it will change again by tomorrow. We just don't know.

I hope that you're voting on today's survey question at my Web site at Smerconish.com.

How does the Impeachment "inquiry" end?

Three choices. Donald Trump will not be impeached by the House. He will be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, Mike Pence will be the president. Or Donald Trump will be impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate. Cannot wait to see the results.

Still to come, does President Trump constantly attack the media as fake news, enemy of the people, totally crazy because he actually believes it or because it's politically advantageous? I ask the executive editor one of the -- his biggest nemesis, the "Washington Post," Marty Baron. We spoke in the library of our mutual alma mater Lehigh University.

And as presidential scandals go, will the whistleblower scandal end up being President Trump's Watergate or his Whitewater? I'll explain. Here's what one of the president's most ardent supporters actor Jon Voight said of the situation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JON VOIGHT, ACTOR: War. This is war against truths. Let us all stand with our President Trump in a time of such evil words trying for impeachment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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[09:36:02]

SMERCONISH: The impeachment inquiry now under way represents only the fourth time the nation has faced such a challenge. With regard to presidential scandal, I employ a Watergate versus Whitewater test.

Watergate was a burglary. We all get that. We don't want anybody breaking into our home. Whitewater was a complicated land transaction that never gained traction as a political issue because it couldn't be explained. Of course, what began as Whitewater morphed into the intern scandal and those underlying facts plus the lying, everybody was able to follow.

So where viewed through my prism does the Ukraine controversy fit? Simply stated, like Watergate or too complex to resonate like Whitewater?

Well, it depends. You can certainly condense the underlying allegation into a sound bite, something like this -- the president leveraged our tax dollars to prod a foreign leader to advance his own personal political agenda. But it runs the risk of quickly getting complex.

What exactly is the treason, bribery, or other high crime or misdemeanor required by Article 4 of the Constitution for impeachment? Some will say that a violation of the public trust alone is sufficient. Unlike burglary or perjury regarding a sex act, this could very well get lost in the weeds over the defining of thing of value or understanding the Hobbs Act.

Whether this is all understood at home is critically important because in the end, though the Senate will act as the jury, it's the court of public opinion that will matter most.

Still to come, back in the day, "The Washington Post" exposed Watergate and led to a president's resignation. And it remains one of our leading news organizations with the whistleblower coverage only the most recent example.

I got to speak with its legendary executive editor, Marty Baron, at our shared alma mater, Lehigh University, where he learned his trade as editor of the student newspaper, "The Brown and White." I asked him about dealing with criticism like this from the president caught on tape by "Bloomberg" this past Thursday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These animals in the press, they're animals. They're scum. Many of them are scum.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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[09:42:09]

SMERCONISH: As the tumultuous events of this week showed journalism remains a crucial pillar of our democracy but it's being squeezed by (INAUDIBLE) and other world leaders. So, what does the future hold? I posed the question and others to Marty Baron, executive editor of "The Washington Post," which has been on the forefront of so many important stories.

You may remember that Liev Schreiber played him in the Oscar-winning "Spotlight" about Baron's time leading the "Boston Globe" expose of abuse in the Catholic Church. We met this week at our mutual alma mater, Lehigh University, where Baron has been editor of the student newspaper, "The Brown and White," which is celebrating its 125th anniversary and Lehigh welcomed him back for an event called "The Future of Journalism."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SMERCONISH: "Brown and White" is turning 125. You're back on campus to be honored. You were the editor in chief of "The Brown and White" in your era. Give me one recollection from your stewardship of the newspaper. What comes to mind?

MARTY BARON, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, "WASHINGTON POST": The investigative work that we did at time.

SMERCONISH: Really?

BARON: I mean, I think the university wasn't accustomed to that. We had a number of people on our staff, on in particular a good friend of mine, Jeff Bloom, who was terrific at it and we shook up the administration in a lot of ways, obtained information that they did not want us to obtain.

(CROSSTALK)

SMERCONISH: It sounds familiar, by the way. Shaking up administrations, getting information they don't want you to get.

BARON: It was very good preparation for the rest of my career and my life.

(LAUGHTER)

SMERCONISH: What parallels do you see between the role that your newspaper is playing today amidst this current impeachment inquiry and the historic role that "The Post" played during Watergate?

BARON: Well, I don't think back to Watergate. I think of what we have to do today. And I recognize that our job is to provide the public with the information that it needs and deserves to know in a democracy.

And so I think that that's what our mission is. I think that's the -- what we have to do is make sure that we fulfill that mission, that we focus on it, that we don't get distracted by the attacks on us, by the polarization in American society, but recognize that the reason that we have a First Amendment in this country, the reason the founders wrote that amendment was so that there would be a check on government.

SMERCONISH: You referenced the criticism. The president I think just today referred to the media as scum. He calls fake news, he refers to the media as being corrupt. Do you think he does that for political advantage or because that's how upset he is with the coverage?

BARON: I think he does it largely for political advantage, frankly. I think he does it because he knows that it's helpful to have an enemy. He knows that the press is not beloved in the country, and so they make a very convenient enemy. And he wants to position the press as being the opposition party so that the press will not be believed, so that he can undermine the credibility of the press.

[09:45:04]

And that's what he's trying to do. He's trying to disqualify the press as an arbiter of fact so that there's only one person, one institution that is believed, the White House and himself. So that his -- so that the public will only believe him and believe no one else.

And it's not just disqualifying the press as an arbiter of fact, it's disqualifying the courts as an arbiter of fact, the intelligence agencies as an arbiter of fact, the scientists as an arbiter of fact, historians as an arbiter of fact. Any independent source of information is being disqualified as an arbiter of fact or would be if he had his way.

SMERCONISH: You defended two "Washington Post" reporters recently, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker by saying in part, "The president's statement fits into a pattern of seeking to denigrate and intimidate the press. It's unwarranted and dangerous, and it represents a threat to a free press in this country."

What kind of a threat? A physical threat, a censorship threat, a combination of both?

BARON: Well, it's a combination certainly. Certainly there have been physical threats as a result of the language that he has used. He has used very threatening language toward the press. He stirred up his followers as a result.

Major news organizations had to take special precautions to protect the security of the people on their staff. And it's a very -- it's a very serious matter. It creates the conditions for potential more forceful action against the press should he choose at some point to take it.

SMERCONISH: I saw that via Twitter you embraced a speech that was given at Brown by A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of "The Times." It has to do with the security of reporters overseas. Will you speak to that?

BARON: Yes. I'm very concerned about that. I think that we see the rise of autocratic governments, dictatorships, authoritarian regimes in other countries. They have moved against journalists within their own countries. But ours journalists who are working in those other countries also face risk from those autocratic regimes and you always count on the U.S. government to stand up for those journalists, to make sure that they are safe, that they will intervene with these other countries on behalf of journalists should they face threats.

And what we're finding now is that the U.S. government has not -- is not the advocate for a free press around the world as it was in the past. And what we've seen in the instance of "The New York Times" is that when the government was counted on to intervene on behalf of their journalists who are working overseas, who are at risk, it couldn't necessarily count on this administration to come to their aid.

SMERCONISH: It sounds to me like you worry the president doesn't have your back.

BARON: He does not have our back.

SMERCONISH: Philip Bump, one of your reporters, wrote a piece at the end of the Mueller probe where he noted that he thinks it landed with less of an impact than it would have had had there not been so much solid investigative journalism, because by the time the Mueller report came out, we kind of knew all that.

Might we be headed in the same direction in the impeachment inquiry, that whatever shape it takes, when it ends, by the time we get there, hey, we read it in "The Washington Post" or "The Times" or CNN?

BARON: Well, possibly. I'm not sure that we can have the luxury of thinking about that. I think we still have our jobs to do.

I think one reason the press was cited so often in the Mueller report is because we had done such a good job of investigative reporting. The Mueller report actually, contrary to what the president said, validated so much of the reporting that was done. Sure, there were some errors along the way.

I can't predict. I can't be a pundit. All I can do -- all we can do as an institution is do our jobs.

SMERCONISH: Democracy dies in darkness. That's your mantra. What's the condition of our light?

BARON: Well, there are some -- we still have a democracy, I'm happy to say. There are some threats to that democracy. I think the institutions to the country are being tested in a way that they have not been before. The press is one of those institutions. The courts are another institution.

Congress is certainly being tested as to whether it's willing to assert its rights. We have a situation where more power has been aggregated within the executive branch. That has been -- that's not unique to the Trump administration. That's happened over a longer period of time and every president has tried to accumulate more and more power.

And so I think the institutions of the country that are designed to sort of -- there's supposed to be a tension between those institutions. That's how this democracy is built. But I think those institutions are being tested in a major way.

SMERCONISH: Thank you. And congratulations on being honored at your alma mater.

BARON: Thank you very much. Good to see you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SMERCONISH: Marty Baron, Lehigh class of '76.

Still to come, your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments. And we'll give you the final results of the survey question. Have you voted yet?

"How does this Impeachment inquiry end?

[09:50:01]

Choice one, Donald Trump will not be impeached by the House. Two, Trump will be impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate, Mike Pence becomes president. Choice three, Donald Trump will be impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate.

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SMERCONISH: Well, this will be interesting. Time to see how you responded to the survey question at Smerconish.com.

How does the Impeachment "inquiry" end?

Choice one, Donald Trump will not be impeached by the House. Choice two, he'll be impeached by the House, convicted by the Senate, Pence becomes president. Choice three, he'll be impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate.

Survey says 15 -- wow! 15,599 -- impeached not convicted, 72 percent. Impeached convicted, Pence the president, 23 percent. House doesn't -- right. It seems -- I mean, the 5 percent that there won't even be a House impeachment grows increasingly unlikely, but most people are saying 72 percent.

I tell you, we'll repeat this survey question just to see whether there's a change in attitude. But people are saying it will fall short in the Senate. Who knows?

Here's some of what came out during the course of the program, social media. What do we have?

"Smerconish, the Senate obviously won't convict Trump.

[09:55:00]

Not a single Republican has enough of a spine to go against him."

What did I say, Ronald, earlier? Richard Burr -- keep your eyes on Senator Burr. It's not going to be Sasse and it's not going to be Romney. It's not going to be Collins. If Burr sees something, that will be a real tell.

What else?

"Smerconish, I hope the democrats and media stay overwhelmed by the ridiculous impeachment questions! This will surely bring down Biden and re-elect Donald Trump!"

Joe, I had as my guest at the outset of the program Tom Steyer who for two years has been calling for President Trump's impeachment. Well, the impeachment inquiry not the impeachment per se but the inquiry is now under way and that was one of the questions that I asked him.

That's why I played the cut from Omar on the wire at the outset of the program. You come for the king, you best not miss. Yes, I know. It's Shakespearean, but if it falls short it may embolden the president is the point going into a re-election.

Hey, my "American Life in Columns" tour Monday night, in Sunnyvale. Tuesday night, in Sunnyvale, then St. Louis on Presidents' Day. Imagine where we'll be on Presidents' Day.

Thanks so much for watching. See you next week.

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