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Who Benefits In 2020 From All These Investigations?; How Will Impeachment Timeline Play In 2020 Race?; Trump's Best Available Defense: Admit It; Mayor Pete And Black Voters; Maher: Clintons Need To Go Away; Reports Of Rising Anxiety About Dems' Chances Of Beating Trump; Could Someone Jump Into The Dem Field Last Minute?; Buttigieg Focus Group: Some Voters See Sexuality As A Barrier; Scientology Buys Most Of Downtown Clearwater, Florida. Aired 9-10a ET
Aired October 26, 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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BILL WITHERS, MUSICIAN: I know, I know, I know, I know, I know. Hey, I ought to leave the young thing alone, but ain't no sunshine when she's gone.
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MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia. Great song. Bill Withers from 1971. In 2019, the only thing I know for sure is that none of us has any idea what's about to unfold and the range of intangibles, it just continues to grow. Thursday brought the news that Attorney General William Barr has now opened a criminal probe into the origin of his own Justice Department's investigation into the 2016 election.
While the move will give U.S. attorney John Durham the power to subpoena witnesses and call a grand jury, it could also delay that investigation. Durham's inquiry is similar to, but distinct from, the Inspector General of the Justice Department Michael Horowitz's review of the origin of the Russia probe. The release of the IG report, that could be imminent and both could certainly have impact on the presidential election soon to reach the voting stage.
And then of course there is impeachment. Some reports now say it'll be mid-November when the House inquiry moves to the step of public hearings. Assuming the House votes to impeach President Trump, the matter then moves to the Senate for a trial.
In the case of Bill Clinton, it was a month after the House impeachment vote before the Senate took up the matter. If that is precedent here, we're up against the Christmas holiday. Extending the situation into the new year means that the Senate could be engaged in an impeachment trial as people are casting their 2020 ballots. The Iowa caucus is February 3rd. The New Hampshire primary is February 11. So who benefits?
I had a caller yesterday on my Sirius XM radio program. It was Ben from Kansas City and Ben said watching the situation play out thus far, he has seen a number of reasons to vote against President Trump, but none to impeach him. Maybe that suggests that, politically speaking, this process is good for Democrats because it allows for the public airing of grievances against President Trump even if Trump is left in office.
On the other hand, if impeachment by the House ends with Senate acquittal for the president, perhaps it emboldens him and gives him strength, as did the ending of the Mueller probe.
I want to know what you think at home. Go to my website at Smerconish.com. Answer this survey question. Who benefits if impeachment extends into 2020, the President or Democrats?
Here to discuss is David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Obama and of course, host of CNN's "AXE FILES." David, if Americans are voting and impeachment is ongoing, who gains?
DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA, HOST, THE AXE FILES: I want to reserve judgment until your -- until your viewers respond because nobody really knows the answer to that question.
AXELROD: I mean, I think that things have changed materially because of the Ukraine issue on impeachment and, you know, these charges against the president seem much more -- much more germane, much more important. They really relate to the 2020 election and what he was doing to try and influence the 2020 election. So I think that the notion that Democrats are going to be punished for moving forward is less true than might have been the case had they moved forward on the basis only of the Mueller probe but, you know, no one really knows, Michael.
I do think that, you know, the likely scenario here is that there's going to be an impeachment -- articles of impeachment voted by the House and there will be a trial in the Senate and it seems highly unlikely, as we sit here today, with a president who has a 90 percent approval rating among Republicans, that he's going to be convicted by the Senate, something that has never happened in the history of this country. So I think the scenario you lay out is the right one. I think it's likely, as we sit here today, that he'll be impeached, that he'll be acquitted and we'll move into an election campaign.
SMERCONISH: How about from the perspective of a second-tier Democratic presidential candidate? If I'm not Biden, if I'm not Bernie, if I'm not Elizabeth Warren, am I worried about this for the following reason, because there's just not enough oxygen in the room for coverage ...
SMERCONISH: ... that I desperately need to emerge? David, I'm sure you go through this with "AXE FILES." I sit here today with a wealth of material that I could fill five hours, but impeachment is so dominating that there's just not enough time in the day to get to other issues. AXELROD: Yes, which is really interesting because when you talk to actual voters, they have a lot of other concerns that they want to hear discussed, but this is a historic moment and it's going to be covered as such. No, I think you raise a very good point which is that this will be like an eclipse. It will blot out all the other news, certainly political news, and that is bad news. It could freeze the advantages of the people who are at the top, but let me raise one other point.
If there is a trial in the Senate, you've got six members of the United States Senate who are running for president including, you know, one of the frontrunners, Elizabeth Warren. They will be required to sit silently in the Senate and hear evidence throughout this process before the Senate votes yea or nay on conviction and that could happen in the month of January leading up to the Iowa caucuses.
One of the reasons Elizabeth Warren is doing so well is because she's run such an energetic campaign in places like Iowa with her selfies and her face-to-face contact with voters. You could have six people who were tied down and that might be an advantage for a Joe Biden, for a Pete Buttigieg and others who are not members of the United States Senate. So there are all kinds of permutations here, the impact of which we just don't know.
SMERCONISH: Final point. I wonder how is this playing in the rest of the country. The national surveys, to me, look like the same as the president's voter approval. New data in from Wisconsin, if we can put that up on the screen for David and everybody else. This comes from Marquette, Marquette's Law School. Should not be impeached, say Wisconsin voters according to Marquette University. Fifty-one percent should be, 44 percent. I'm still not sure this is a winning issue for Democrats.
AXELROD: Yes. It may not be but, you know, at some point, Michael, the cynical political move is to not do anything in the face of obvious or at least apparent transgressions of the -- of the sort we've seen. I think that once the president's call, transcript or summary of his call with the Ukrainian leader was released, it was almost inevitable that the House would have to take this up because after all, if that -- if these things aren't worthy of examination then you just should strip impeachment out of the Constitution because there's probably nothing that one can do that would warrant it.
So I don't know what the political calculus is, but I think that they probably had to move forward at this point.
SMERCONISH: Hey, David, thank you for your contribution. We all watch "THE AXE FILES."
AXELROD: Thanks. Thanks, Michael. Great to be with you.
SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? tweet me @Smerconish. David wants to know, I want to know the result of this survey question. so make sure that you're going to Smerconish.com and answering the survey question as to who benefits if impeachment extends into 2020? From Facebook, "How about this safety valve. House postpones impeachment until after election as a safety valve if Trump wins re-election?"
Yes, Gary. I don't think that's an option but, you know, that caller Ben -- so often callers resonate in my head. I think he laid it out well. You know, on one hand, he has seen a whole host of reasons why, in his case, he doesn't want to vote for the president's re-election, but he's not sure whether it rises to the level of impeachment. So keep the social media reactions coming. Make sure you're going to Smerconish.com this hour and answer the survey question. Who benefits if impeachment extends into 2020, the president or Democrats?
Up ahead, when Mick Mulvaney seemed to embrace the existence of a quid pro quo and said people should get over it, he soon had to walk it back. Was he actually offering up the best legal defense for the president?
And mayor Pete Buttigieg's candidacy has exceeded polling and fundraising expectations, but not among African American voters. Why? A new focus group suggests it's discomfort with his sexual orientation.
Plus, most of downtown Clearwater, Florida has been quietly bought up by the Church of Scientology. Many didn't realize it until a recent newspaper publication. What's their plan? We'll get into it.
SMERCONISH: I've been saying for a while the underlying facts in this impeachment debate don't seem to be in doubt. The whistleblower complaint was confirmed by the transcript of that July 25 phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky and leaks of the depositions from the Diplomatic Corps, plus that released 15 page statement from Ambassador William Taylor, they all seem to tell the same story, namely that Zelensky's access to President Trump and to earmark Ukraine aid were both withheld while President Trump sought to have Ukraine investigate both a political rival and the 2016 election.
Thus far, the White House defense has been to focus on process, not substance, but is that a mistake? Two weeks ago I hosted Edward Foley. He's a constitutional scholar and professor at Ohio State's University's Law School where he directs the election law program. He also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. He had just penned this essay for "Politico," "Is It Ever OK for a President to Ask a Foreign Country to Investigate a Political Rival?"
Professor Foley argued that perhaps the best legal course for the White House was to own the quid pro quo and when acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney recently spoke to the media, he seemed to embrace that strategy, but then he reversed course. So where does that leave President Trump's legal defense? I wanted to check back in with Professor Foley. Professor, was Mick Mulvaney on to something when he faced the media and said what he said about a week ago?
EDWARD FOLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL SCHOLAR & PROFESSOR, OHIO STATE LAW SCHOOL: Yes. Good morning. I think that's right. I think the correct legal argument is to say that if the reason for investigating the Bidens was a legitimate policy reason, then there's nothing wrong with the quid pro quo because it's pursuant to that legitimate policy. So the whole question is did the president have a valid justification for seeking the investigation?
SMERCONISH: In other words, it all goes to the president's motive, what was in his head and as you articulated here and in "Politico," if he can convince that he was acting to protect American taxpayers, American tax dollars, that his purpose was corruption in Ukraine, not getting himself reelected.
And some would say that's a tall order, but if he could convince, that would be a legal avenue.
FOLEY: That's exactly right. He's entitled, as president, to ask foreign countries for investigation if it's in the national interest. So the whole question is was it in the national interest to ask Ukraine to investigate the Bidens? If it was, then a quid pro quo is OK, but if the president had a corrupt reason for seeking the investigation, then the quid pro quo is really irrelevant because the motive itself is corrupt. Even asking for the investigation would be wrongful.
SMERCONISH: I wonder if the White House, if the president feel that they can't pursue that strategy because so often he has said no quid pro quo. Maybe he needs to come up with alternative verbiage to describe the same thing.
FOLEY: Well, I think that's a good point. I think, you know, when the White House sort of changes courses and offers a bunch of different defenses that are inconsistent with each other, that suggests that they're afraid of their own motive. I think if they had come out from the beginning and said we had a valid reason to investigate, even if you could disagree with it, I think the issue, again, is was it in good faith?
I don't think a Senate should remove a president from office if they're trying to pursue public policy in their good faith sincere attempt to help the nation, but of course if it's bad faith, if it's just for personal electoral advantage, well then that goes to the wrongfulness of it. So it's all about why it was done.
SMERCONISH: I thought that Mick Mulvaney, legally speaking, was on the right path, but he did, in that presser, say something that I thought was incorrect from a legal strategy. Let me roll that and ask professor Ned Foley to respond to this. Roll it.
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MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I have news for everybody. Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy. Elections have consequences.
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SMERCONISH: I mean, political influence in foreign policy I thought was a mistake. Ridding another country of corruption before we give them money, that's what he should have been saying.
FOLEY: Yes. I think that's right. I guess it depends a little bit on what you mean by political. I mean, general politics may affect foreign policy calculations, but what would be wrongful obviously is to use foreign policy by the president to seek an electoral advantage in the -- in the reelection in 2020. That's the real concern. You don't want an incumbent in the White House manipulating the powers of the presidency to secure an unfair advantage against an opponent.
So again, that goes back to motive. If that's why the president was doing it, it was bad, but if the president was doing it to protect the country, then it would be OK.
SMERCONISH: OK. Final question for Ned Foley, the constitutional law scholar from Ohio State University. If the president doesn't pursue the path of owning the quid pro quo, does he have any other legal defense to the underlying charges that you see?
FOLEY: Well, yes, in the sense think the -- and this may be more for the Senate Republicans than the president. I think there would be a principle position to take that even if President Trump acted improperly, the question is what's the remedy? And you can make the argument that removal from office is an excessive remedy for the wrongdoing even assuming it was done for an electoral advantage.
That would be wrongful and maybe censuring the president would be appropriate as Andrew Jackson was censured back in the 19th century, but if you remove him from office and then take the next step of not letting him run for office again, that's affecting the election as well and so is the right remedy to deprive one party of the candidate that they would like in the 2020 election?
SMERCONISH: Professor Foley, thanks so much for coming back.
FOLEY: Thank you.
SMERCONISH: Let's see what you're saying on my Smerconish Twitter and Facebook pages. What do we have, Catherine? "Stop trying to sell this impeachment hoax. We have the transcript. It's all a show. Let's hear about Horowitz and Durham instead.
They are about to expose some real government corruption you can't ignore." Hey, Nancie, I'm not looking to ignore it. I'm the one who did an opening commentary here and said we have no idea what's about to unfold and among the intangibles will be the IG, the Horowitz report, as well as whatever it is that Attorney General Barr might reveal in what Durham is up to.
By the way, these things are not mutually exclusive. It could be, theoretically could be, that there was some, quote, "deep state involvement" in trying to spur the Russian investigation. That does not take away from the fact that the Russians attacked our election process. Just keep that possibility in mind, but here's the thing about me and these airwaves when I'm here. I want to know everything and bring it all to you.
Up ahead, though Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg is rising in the polls, he's finding it difficult to gain traction with African American voters. Might it be because he's gay?
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PETE BUTTIGIEG, (D) 2020 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Why am I not winning this? You know, I'm a veteran, I'm under the legal retirement age and when I talk, it makes sense. Is something wrong with me?
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BILL MAHER, HOST, REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER: But the Clintons, they've got to go away. They just -- I'm saying this now a year out or less. They can't be at the convention. Maybe on the video waving or something.
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SMERCONISH: So we're just 100 days away from the Iowa caucuses and there are still a record 18 Democratic candidates in the race, but are they the best candidates to take on President Trump? This week, "The Washington Post," "The New York Times," "The Hill" and other outlets pointed out that sentiment is rising among some voters and strategists that even the most ideologically diverse field in history may not include, the one candidate that can overcome the deep pockets of enthusiasm of the Trump base.
As "The Washington Post" pointed out, quote, "Party leaders and activists are citing weaknesses in all of the leading contenders, including former Vice President Joe Biden who's been forced on the defensive about his family's ethics, performed haltingly in debates and set off alarms with his poor fundraising.
They also fret that the other top ranking Democrats, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, are too liberal to win a general election. Other candidates have had moments to shine, but none have yet fully transformed into anything approaching momentum."
With me now is someone who has noticed the anxiety within the Democratic Party. That's former mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu who was contemplating his own presidential run earlier this year. Mayor, in that "New York Times" story, you were quoted as saying, "I can see it, I can feel it, I can hear it." What are you seeing, feeling and hearing?
MITCH LANDRIEU (D), FORMER NEW ORLEANS MAYOR: Well, I hear the gnashing of the teeth of the folks that are up in Washington D.C. who are worrying about whether any of these candidates is good enough. I mean, it's -- but this is the kind of stuff that happens, Michael, as you follow this. Every election cycle we have this kind of meltdown in the middle about, oh, wow, are we really good enough to get it done?
My personal opinion is we have a great field of candidates, 21 when we started. You know, they span the entire electoral spectrum. They're debating all of the time. There are going to be ups, there are going to be downs. My strong sense is the next president is in this field or he's in the White House right now. I don't think you're going to see a late entry unless something extraordinary happens.
As you were saying in your -- in your earlier section, this entire impeachment process is really very volatile. Things could change very dramatically, but absent something really extraordinary that we've never seen in the history of the country, it seems to me that the field is set.
SMERCONISH: IS the concern, as was articulated in that "Washington Post" piece that I quoted from, that if Joe should falter, there's a perception among some that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are just too far left to be elected in a general election?
LANDRIEU: Well, I mean with a great caveat that of course anything can happen in politics which is why none of us ever say never because who the heck knows what's going to happen?
LANDRIEU: All things being equal, if the world, you know, occurs the way it's always occurred, you know, everybody's been waiting for Joe Biden to fall since he's gotten into office. The guy has gotten the kitchen sink thrown at him and he's still standing which, in my opinion, is pretty remarkable. Elizabeth Warren, as you have noted, has had a steady surge upwards. It looks like that's slowed a little bit. Bernie's still in the race and those guys are eating off of each other's plate.
And then of course what I would call the other tier candidates are having a hard time breaking through because of so much time being spent on impeachment and just the time clock. So I think it's a jump ball. We don't know what's going to happen. It seems to be very competitive. All of these candidates seem to be making their cases. Money is always an important option. So, you know, we'll see how it works out. That's what elections are about.
SMERCONISH: What I seem to be hearing from you, Mayor Mitch, is that every four years, Democrats in particular go through this hand- wringing process not because the facts warrant it, but it's the nature of the beast. Here's what I want to ask. Are there any tangible signs that you have seen where any of the individuals whose names have been mentioned in these pieces, whether it's Hillary, whether it's Michael Bloomberg, whether it's John Kerry, et cetera, that they're actually doing something tangible to try and get themselves into this?
LANDRIEU: No. I don't see any evidence of that at all. I do -- what I said about what I see, what I feel, what I hear is I hear other people saying to them and other people, oh, my gosh, you know, would you think about it if something bad happens? That's absolutely happening, but I don't think any of those candidates, any of those individuals who were named, are actively engaging in trying to get themselves positioned so that if something bad happens they're ready to jump in the race.
If something catastrophic happens, you know you could have a whole new ball game. There have been points in our history where they've had open conventions, you know, very rarely, but you that that's occurred. All things being equal though, I think we need to settle in. These candidates are all running very strong races. They're all having ups and downs. My best, you know, sense at the moment is that we're kind of set and it's going to be one of the people that's already in the race.
SMERCONISH: Final question. My survey question of the day today asks people to imagine impeachment playing itself out against the backdrop of Americans actually voting. What do you think of that? Does that help or hurt Democrats? Does that help or hurt the president?
LANDRIEU: I saw your interview with David Axelrod earlier and I think he's got it right. This is uncharted water for us. We don't know. I do think that impeachment is bad for the country as a general rule. We never really want to do this unless it's a last resort. It seems to be a last resort based on the information that we've learned. The Taylor information is very, very sobering and I think that the House and the Senate ought to do their duty in a very, very thoughtful way.
I also think we should trust the American people. I think the American people can figure this out. They can make their own decision about whether or not this is actually an offense that warrants some kind of conviction or not.
And even if there's not a conviction, they can make a decision about whether the information they learn about the president makes them more likely to vote for him or not. Based on what I've heard, it seems pretty clear that the president and his team have used the power of the presidency to try to affect the domestic election.
I think the founding fathers thought that that's out of bounds and the flag and the very serious flag has got to be thrown on that. And of course what Congress is doing right now is going through the legal process, the House being the ones that indict, the Senate will have to then try the case with a Supreme Court justice presiding over it.
That's the process of that the founding fathers set up. But this is clearly in the wheelhouse of what the founding fathers thought was the kind of conduct that we ought to call a question on.
SMERCONISH: Mayor, thanks for being here. LANDRIEU: Thank you, Michael. Thanks for having me.
SMERCONISH: More now from social media. Tweets and Facebook comments.
This comes from Facebook, I think -- there it is. "There's a terrific group of D candidates, Michael, you're being picky."
Donna, I'm not being picky. The media outlets that identified earlier this week all reported on angst they were hearing from Democratic fund-raisers and -- quote -- unquote -- "Democratic leaders" that they were worried they didn't have a winner on the stage. I'm just getting good reaction to it.
I want to remind you to answer the survey question that I just put to Mitch Landrieu. Go to Smerconish.com
"Who benefits if impeachment extends into 2020?" Is that good for the president or the Democrats?
Up ahead, though Democratic hopeful Pete Buttigieg is rising in the polls, he's find it difficult to gain traction with African American voters. Might it be because he's gay?
And Clearwater, Florida, is the home to the spiritual headquarters of the Church of Scientology. For the past few years the church and its members have been scooping up the downtown properties, paying way above markets in some circumstances, so what's their plan?
SMERCONISH: Ever since launching his presidential run Mayor Pete Buttigieg has struggled to gain support among African American voters. In the latest Quinnipiac poll Buttigieg is polling at about 10 percent. Among black voters his support drops to four. The reason might be his sexuality, according to focus groups conducted by his campaign over the summer among black Democratic voters in South Carolina, the focus groups found that -- quote -- "Being gay was a barrier for these voters, particularly for the men who seemed deeply uncomfortable even discussing it."
It was not necessarily a red line that they would cross, but their preference is for his sexuality to not be front and center. And among the larger African American community 51 percent support same-sex marriage, that's actually the lowest support of any demographic group.
Another point many in the focus groups made was that Buttigieg's sexuality could impact his electability. As the report from the focus group states, even though many made it clear that they personally didn't have a problem with the mayor's sexuality, they felt like others would have a problem with it and weaponize it.
Only one voter from the focus group said he was considering voting for Buttigieg, while all but one said they were considering voting for former Vice President Joe Biden. And this hesitation of black voters in the focus group to support Buttigieg is reflected in his poll numbers in South Carolina. In that early primary state Buttigieg has 1 percent support among black voters, a key voting bloc he surely needs if he hopes to win his party's nomination.
Joining me now is the chair of the Democratic Black Caucus of South Carolina Johnnie Cordero who spoke one on one with Buttigieg about running as a gay candidate. Tell us a little bit about that conversation that you had with Mayor Pete.
JOHNNIE CORDERO, CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC BLACK CAUCUS OF SOUTH CAROLINA: Good morning, Michael. Thank you so much for having me.
CORDERO: Mayor Pete has -- we've had -- we've had several conversations, and one on one conversations. We've had them in South Carolina to meet some -- with black voters and what has actually happened is he called me for advice, and I mean advice about how he was doing in South Carolina, and how he could improve his situation. And I said to him very clearly that, I don't think that people generally and I certainly do not have anything against him one way or the other with regard to his sexuality.
I think that's frankly a non-issue. And let me explain what I mean by that. It's not a secret. Everybody knows that the mayor's sexual preference. And more importantly, it is clear that he is not ashamed of it in any way, nor should anyone be. We love who we love. That's a simple fact.
The problem is that he -- the significant problem I think is more so that he does not have -- does not known in the community. That's really what his problem is. What he needs to do is get in and talk to people, get behind closed doors and talk to people, and answer questions, and get -- and for them to get to know him.
He appears to me to be a man, an honest man, a man of integrity. He's certainly qualified to be president of the United States, and I think he should be given every opportunity to do so, but those who complain that --
SMERCONISH: Well, of course --
CORDERO: Go ahead. Yes, sir.
SMERCONISH: Yes. I was going to say, of course he should. Of course he should
SMERCONISH: That goes without saying. I'm just trying to read the political tea leaves.
SMERCONISH: I mean, when his own focus group says being gay was a barrier for these voters, especially the men, do you think that's inaccurate?
CORDERO: I'm going to say, yes, that's inaccurate but let me understand -- let me explain this. It's inaccurate in the sense that what people would do when they get in the voting booth is something else. And I'm saying that African Americans in South Carolina and I believe nationally will stand up for candidate who is honest and straight forward and authentic. And I think that that will dissipate, that will melt, that issue will not become as important.
He has other issue that may be -- may be -- present more difficulty for him, but in terms of the -- of whether or not African Americans will vote for him, will not vote for him simply because he's gay, I think that's overblown.
SMERCONISH: Johnnie Cordero, thank you so much for being here, sir.
CORDERO: You are quite welcome. It's my pleasure indeed.
SMERCONISH: More from social media. What do we have, Catherine (ph)?
"Smerconish, for decades, black gay men have been spurned by their own black communities." "Black people are not gay" -- quote -- unquote. "We/they can't accept gay people, black or white."
Well, Neil, I mean, that's the issue that the data presents, right? Both the focus group data and his standing at 1 percent among African American in South Carolina as compared to where he is in other states.
And I realize it's a game of inches, because the margin of errors on these polls is such, but it's the elephant in the room. It is the elephant in the room brought forth by data from his own focus group.
Let me just say, let's hope that people are not voting based on that issue as a preclusion. That wouldn't be right.
Still to come, for the past few years the Church of Scientology has been secretly buying up most of Clearwater, Florida, where its spiritual headquarters is located sometimes paying up to four times the appraised value. So what is their plan?
SMERCONISH: Under the radar, the town of Clearwater, Florida, where the Church of Scientology's spiritual headquarters is located has been transforming into something akin to scientology's own Vatican City.
An investigation by "The Tampa Bay Times" reveal that in the past three years the church and its members have spent a combined $103 million. They now control 185 properties over 101 acres downtown where the church's spiritual headquarters has been located.
As the newspaper puts it, they now own most commercial properties on every block within walking distance of the waterfront, putting the secretive church firmly in control of the area's future. In fact here is all that's left that the church doesn't own. This all happened after the church and city council had a standoff about warring redevelopment projects. Many of the properties weren't on the market, and the paper found that half the sales were for more than double the property's appraised value.
In six cases buyers paid quadruple the property's value. All of this took place mostly without city leaders realizing it until the newspaper's reporting. So what does it mean for the city and its residents?
Joining me now is Mike Rinder. H was raised a scientologist, served as the international spokesperson for the church for 25 years until he left in 2007. He still lives near Clearwater, Florida.
Mr. Rinder, do you think that there is a plan or do you think this is all about control, that scientology simply wants control without knowing what they'll eventually do with the properties?
MIKE RINDER, FORMER EXECUTIVE, CHURCH OF SCIENTOLOGY: Good morning, Michael.
I think the question is pretty easy to answer. Scientology announced in a magazine in 2000, that they wanted to scientology -- make Clearwater the first scientology city. And there is a lot of writings by the founder of scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, about the intent of scientology to basically take over society.
He said in a very clear statement in 1960 -- and I'm going to read it to you -- the goal of the department, referring to what's called the office of special affairs, is to bring the government and hostile philosophies or societies into a state of complete compliance with the goals of scientology. And that is what's going on in Clearwater.
Scientology is shrinking around the world. They are trying to build a -- like a final bastion of scientology and taking and using the funds that they have tax free in many cases, to purchase property and create an environment in Clearwater where they have a moat around their activities. They don't need this property for delivering services to their parishioners.
SMERCONISH: If I'm a Clearwater resident, should I be nervous about this because of all of this control in the hand of one group, one church? Or frankly having seen that Fort Harrison Hotel as I have maybe I say they're pretty good neighbors because they -- they maintain their properties, and some of those areas in Clearwater could use some revitalization.
RINDER: Well, the later point is certainly true if those properties were accessible to the citizens of the Clearwater and they are not. A regular citizen of Clearwater cannot walk into a Church of Scientology facility. They have a few little spots that they like to promote very heavily that you can come in and find out about scientology, but for the most part they are closed off. And if a regular citizen of Clearwater tries to enter, they will be told to leave. And if they won't leave, they will call the police. But the real issue for the citizens of Clearwater, Michael, is that this is sucking huge amounts of revenue from the city.
Scientology has tax-exempt status. The biggest loser in the world on scientology's tax exemption is the city of Clearwater. Scientology likes to say that they generate the greatest revenues -- tax revenues and hotel tax revenues in downtown Clearwater. And that's true.
They own everything there so they are the only revenue generator. What really is missing is if they are paying $3.9 million a year in tax revenues to the city of Clearwater, how much would it be if they weren't tax exempt? It would be five -- 10 times that.
SMERCONISH: Yes. I get your point and I think it's an important one.
Let me just say for clarity, based on my reading of "The Tampa Bay Times" those properties that have -- are a part of this assemblage and still held by LLCs are still paying taxes, because they're not yet titled, if they ever get to that point by the church.
Hey, this is a complicated and important subject. I hope I get to revisit it with you on a different day. So, thank you, Mr. Rinder.
RINDER: You're very welcome, Michael.
SMERCONISH: Still to come your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments like this. What do we got?
Smerconish, the Church of Scientology has ruined Clearwater. Every legal option must be considered including stripping this cult of their religious exemption. They are not a religion. Clearwater Scientologist resembles zombies walking around as daywalkers. We need to remove them.
Well, listen, they have got a right to acquire property through members of their -- quote -- unquote -- "congregation." That's what went on. Presumably wealthy followers of this church bought these properties through LLCs that found. I don't know how you could say you don't have the right to acquire property like that.
Interesting that before investigative journalist by the -- journalism by the "Tampa Bay Times" probably people with none the wiser about this. I look at this story and I say this is all the more reason why there needs to be a continuation of investigative journalism.
Coming up, the final results of the survey question at Smerconish.com. Go vote now.
Who benefits if impeachment extends into 2020 the Democrats or the president?
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SMERCONISH: Time to see how you responded to the survey question at Smerconish.com.
Who benefits if impeachment extends into 2020 Democrats or the president?
Here's the result. Fifty-nine percent -- whoa -- of 6,645 votes cast say it will be the Democrats.
Forty-one -- so we've got a 60/40 split in terms of who benefits politically speaking. Here's what I think, I think it does extend into 2020 for sure if they don't get to the public portion of the hearings until mid November.
What else came in from social media, Catherine (ph)? What do we have?
Smerconish, a December Senate impeachment trial is the perfect time of the year for the airing of grievances. Festivus for the rest of us.
Yes. A Seinfeld reference is always welcome here on program and that's what it will be. And perhaps the Democrats will benefit from it because it will be a whole laundry list of things they're unhappy about.
Gang, thanks for watching. Join me for my "American Life in Columns" tour a week from tomorrow Norman, Oklahoma and then Erie, Pennsylvania on Tuesday November 12 and then St. Louis, Missouri on Presidents' Day February 17.
I will see you next week.