CNN’s Anderson Cooper joined me to open today’s show to discuss last night’s and Wednesday’s “townhalls” with the GOP candidates:
HH: I begin with Anderson Cooper, host of “AC360” and apparently a man who never sleeps. Anderson, welcome, it’s good to have you on the show.
AC: It’s great to be here, Hugh.
HH: I got to begin with just a homage, that was the triple-axle of interviews last night with Donald Trump, a huge and unpredictable guest and an enormous story in the day involving the pope and breaking news in the middle of the interview from Buzzfeed. Were you even aware of how hard that was to do?
AC: It’s [as] hard as working in a coal mine, working TV, so it’s not the hardest paper route there is, but it was certainly good to a have a conversation on a day where there’s big news with the pope comment and obviously the Buzzfeed in the middle of the interview was interesting, so I like these town hall formats. It’s the second of two nights we’ve done and I was happy with how it turned out.
HH: They were terrific, I only saw four of the six, I did not see Dr. Carson or Governor Bush for a variety of reasons, but I saw four of the six. I want to start with Trump. The WMD story, I was reading on the plane today Michael Hayden’s new book, “Playing It to the Edge,” and on page 49, he writes but we all thought there was a case for weapons of mass destruction. You pushed him, I think, four times, maybe five depending on how you count. He would not repeat the statement of Saturday night, what do you conclude from that, Anderson?
AC: I think it’s very telling, obviously, that he wouldn’t repeat [it].
First of all, I thought it was interesting that to have an audience member who actually pushed him as well and actually kind of initially pushed him. And it’s rare to have an audience member jump in and interrupt the guest and to push for an actual answer. It’s telling, he obviously said that in the debate in the heat of the moment, he’s obviously gotten pushed back. George W. Bush as you know, better than anybody, is extremely popular among Republicans particularly in South Carolina. He was out on the campaign trail this week, and so I think Trump didn’t want to give any more ammunition to anybody who might view his comments about the former president negatively and so I think Trump was trying to walk a line of not apologizing or not saying he was wrong which as you know, he’s loathe to ever do, but also not repeating what he had said.
HH: I think he handled that in classic Trump fashion, he never admits error, but he didn’t double-down on the original statement and after four or five times, some people say we let Trump off easily and me, I don’t push him enough – because I’ve had him a dozen times – but after four or five times, it becomes fruitless and you’re badgering the witness.
AC: At a certain point, the audience knows somebody’s not answering the question and if you had re-asked four or five times which we did last night, the fact that he so clearly is not answering the question, that’s an answer to the question in it of itself and so, I’m sure what viewers expected at a certain point, that you’re going to what, hit the person and say, scream at them?
AC: At a certain point, you ask him four or five times and it’s clear they’re not answering and I think I finally said, “Look, I’m going ot give you one last chance to answer this, do you agree with what you said, do you believe George W. Bush lied?” And Donald Trump, as you know, the way he tries not to answer is by distracting stuff, so he brings in all sorts of other things, he tries to take you down different tangents, goes off on tangents and down on into different avenues and often, if you’re really pressed for time, that’s an effective tool against an interviewer. In a town hall format, we have plenty of time, so we’re able to go back four or five times and just kind of return to the original subject.
HH: I think it will come back again some time in the campaign, I don’t know, but that’s textbook journalism school bit of video. Let me talk to you about the Buzzfeed story because I’m curious about the backstory. I have the best producer in the world, Duane and Adam, and nevertheless, I’m very leery of breaking news in the middle of my show for fear that I haven’t checked it out, so what did you do with that story?
AC: I’m the exact same way. The backstory of any of these interviews for your viewers is it’s a methodical process. I spend two or three days in meetings looking at questions and thinking about how to go about this and what questions to ask and what kind of follow-ups. You know, a lot of stuff happens in the spur of the moment, but ideally, you don’t want a lot of unknown’s in an interview like this because you want to get a sense of, if I ask this question based on, let’s say in this case, Trump has said in the past, he might say this, then I might come back with this. It’s like three-dimensional chess. So I was literally in a commercial break, handed a piece of paper with what was said by Buzzfeed and there was no time for me to actually read the Buzzfeed article, there was no time for me to listen to the audio. I had to go with what was handed to me on this piece of paper and that’s a situation I’m never comfortable in because I don’t who typed this onto the piece of paper. Did they do it word-for-word? I have great faith in my producers, but you want to make sure all the I’s are dotted and all the T’s are crossed, and so I felt it was important to get Trump on the record and ask him about it, but I didn’t want to belabor it because it wasn’t something that I had had time to look at because it was actually happening.
HH: Exactly. I don’t know that I would have trusted that except for the fact I know that hte apparatus that CNN sends to these things, so you knew it had been vetted but you still had to trust your team. It was another remarkable moment of journalism as was your admission against interests regarding McDonald’s which I have to follow up on.
HH: I have known that extremists go to McDonald’s, but the fetching Mrs. Hewitt has told me for 33 years, it is the worse stuff. How often do you go to McDonalds?
AC: It is the greatest food on the planet. I’m sorry, look, I know my dad died pretty young of heart disease–
AC: I take massive doses of Crestor and Vedia and all sorts of statins and stuff, but I allow myself a McDonald’s as big treat like once a month basically, so I had it the night before and then I read through the research that Trump eats McDonald’s which I hadn’t known and I just thought part of what we do in these town halls is, it’s rare for people in the rest of country, to be able to interact with a candidate and see a candidate in the kind of personal setting that folks in Iowa see and New Hampshire and South Carolina to a lesser extent [see]. So the idea of the town hall is that, unlike a debate, which is really confrontational, you want it to be more conversational, and a small part of that is taking a minute or two for lay personal questions that people often end up kind of seeing a different side of a candidate, and it’s easy to make fun of it, and I know people on Twitter will say, “Oh, you wasted time by asking Donald Trump about eating at McDonalds,” but–
HH: Oh no.
AC: . . . 40-45 minutes we talked to Trump, if you spend two minutes getting some personal anecdotes, I think it sort of adds to a well-rounded sense of who these people are.
HH: And the Kentucky-Fried Chicken combo is funny, but the music stuff matters to me. I’ve asked him myself about that, I know he likes Elton John. Anderson Cooper, what was your first concert?
AC: It was either, Elvis Costello from the album “Armed Forces” or “Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.”
HH: (Laughs) That’s awhile.
AC: I can’t remember which came first, but actually the truth is, my real first one was my mom, which shows you that I was raised by wolves, my mom took me to–
AC: . . . Studio 54 when I was 11 years old and–
AC: I saw Grace Jones perform at Studio 54, so I guess that was probably my first.
HH: I’ve been watching this CNN, the “’70s” documentary, because that’s my high school years and it’s such a bad decades and Studio 54 figures heavily on that. I can’t believe she did that. Nevertheless, let me close with this. Jeb Bush is coming up. Politico is trying to write his obituary. They have two stories up right now about how “Marco Slew his Mentor” and “Bush Machine Marching on Fumes.” I’ll ask him about this, but did you see with Barbara Bush in the audience, did you have a palpable sense that the Hindenberg is coming down when it comes to Team Bush?
AC: I don’t pretend to be inside somebody’s head. I thought he appeared confident on the stage last night and I thought he did a good job in expressing himself and it was interesting listening to his policies and clearly, he’s not in the position that he’s wanting to be in and whether there’s a lane beyond South Carolina, I don’t know and that will be something that he’ll have to decide but look, it’s in the hands of the voters as it should be and let’s see where things end up. Everybody in news wants to be first with something, I believe much more in just letting the voters tell us what’s going to happen.
HH: Last question: everybody says Ted Cruz is so disliked in D.C.. I’ve known him for a few years, I like him a lot. Did you personally like him? Did you have a good connection with him?
AC: Honestly, this the first time I’ve actually really been with him for an extended period of time, it’s the first time I’ve actually even met him. We didn’t get a lot of chance to talk in between, but I can talk to anybody and I like anybody who’s thrown their hat in this and is doing what it takes to try to win, and I so I enjoy talking to him. I think he’s obviously a very bright guy, very smart guy, and I don’t know him well enough to judge what folks in Washington think of him, but I think he’s a fascinating character and a very intelligent guy.
HH: You’re good at this thing. Great interviews, great preparation, Anderson Cooper, thanks for joining, good luck on the show tonight.
End of Interview