On MSNBC last night, Ari Melber suggested in a segment in which I was a guest that there was a “negativity vibe” surrounding the transition. I am exploring that proposition with three media reporters this AM, the fourth being Face The Nation host John Dickerson:
HH: Joined now by CBS News’ John Dickerson, host of Face the Nation. Merry Christmas, John, thanks for joining me this morning. I appreciate it.
JD: Merry Christmas, Hugh, I’m very glad to be with you.
HH: Now last night, John, Ari Melber on MSNBC used the term, I want to credit him with it, about there being a negativity vibe around the President-Elect on the part of the mainstream media. Do you see that? Do you see what he’s referring to?
JD: You’re making me answer for the mainstream media again, Hugh?
HH: I am. I am.
JD: Negativity vibe? Well, yeah, I mean, I guess. Yes. You know, I think you would, the question is what are the sources of it? I mean, certainly one source might be that if you’ve been to his rallies and been in the press pen when he turns the crowd on you, that creates a certain sense of negativity.
HH: True, true.
JD: But that, and so I think, you know, and then some of the norms are changing. I mean, no press conference, some open hostility towards the press. So you know, our job is to shrug all that stuff off and cover it straight. So hopefully, if there’s a negativity vibe, it’s, you know, it doesn’t creep into the work we do.
HH: Yeah, I want to run through three examples. One is yesterday, big news making, Keith Kellogg going to be chief of staff of the NSC, and Monica Crowley going to be the spokesperson, Larry Kudlow tipped to come back to the CEA. I dug that out, but I didn’t see it widely reported. Did you? And are we missing the big stuff, like what is Mattis doing, how he’s planting, who’s coming with him, what is Kelly going to do, to obsess on Vanity Fair tweets?
JD: Well, anybody who’s obsessing on Vanity Fair tweets is not doing their job. I think those are interesting developments. I mean, I think the big object in front of our eyes should be, it’s a big week in foreign policy. I mean, we’ve got the ongoing question of what did and didn’t happen with the Russians in the election, we’ve got the naming of the Secretary of State, we’ve got the Chinese with weapons in the South China Sea, we know that Donald Trump is newly-alive to the threat from North Korea. We’ve got, we’ve got a lot going on. So yeah…
HH: And we have stillness. We have the absolute stillness of the grave in Aleppo, and I would point out…
JD: Yeah, that’s it exactly.
HH: And I would point out, I think as Sir Robert Peel is going to be joined to the corn laws and the great hunger forever, so President Obama is going to be joined at the hip to Aleppo, whether or not it was the red line not being enforced. But this is a catastrophe, a genocide.
HH: And it’s happening at the same time. Now on the Russia story, here’s my second objection. It’s a big story. I always said it was the Russians. I believed it from the start, and so I wouldn’t call it Wikileaks, I called it Russialeaks. However, the CIA was requested to appear before Devin Nunes in the House Intelligence Committee, and they refused. And I begin to think this is Ben Rhodes’ farewell tour, just like he did on the Iranian deal, that I don’t have a lot of confidence in these reports about the agencies when the agencies won’t show up to elaborate on them, John Dickerson. Am I paranoid, or am I right to be suspicious?
JD: Well, of course you’re right to be suspicious. I guess my, I guess the question would be whether McCain and Graham and Rubio and others, and you know, McConnell and the others I’ve talked to who think there’s absolutely something there. Now is it the full, you know, the big question is what does there there mean? We know, and we’ve known since October, that the intelligence agencies have unanimity on the idea that the Russians are trying to meddle in the election.
JD: The big question up for grabs is whether they had a specific intent.
JD: And that’s what’s being debated. But I think, you know, in terms of the legitimacy of that underlying claim, and the fact that it still needs to be kind of figured out and talked through, and I think, you know, I think there are plenty of Republicans who believe that’s all a real and worthy thing, and not just some kind of piece of distraction from the outgoing administration.
HH: I do think it’s a real and worthy thing, said so all along. But if you set the house on fire, like the agency did and leak it, and then don’t show up when Devin Nunes, who’s chair of the senior committee tells you to come…
HH: That is just weird.
JD: Yeah, no, agree.
HH: Second, the last one where context is missing, you’ve been covering presidents a long time. You’ve written about this. Milton Eisenhower advised his brother, Ike. Bobby was joined at the hip with JFK, and they were over a vast fortune. Hillary was a policy person for Bill, not in the way that first ladies adopt causes, but she ran Hillarycare. And of course, George W. Bush fired John Sununu for George H.W. Bush when no one else would do it. He was his father’s enforcer. So family and kids being involved in the president’s operation is not new. I don’t know that this isn’t a brand new matter of scale, though Bobby and JFK was huge, but I don’t see any context in the Trump children stories that I think is necessary. Do you see the context, John Dickerson?
JD: Well, I must admit, I haven’t read every Trump family story. I think the distinction is, though, one that you’re, I think it’s, you know, the thing to ferret out here is it’s not just that it’s family. It’s that it’s the family who also then still has associations with the business. So if you could find a way to put up a wall or create transparency where just having a family member there seems fine. The nepotism rules that Johnson put in, or not Johnson, but that we’ve had before, are a little antiquated. I don’t think there’s, I don’t think the great worry is that there are members of the family. I think the worry is that the connection to the family then connects to the business. And we just had this whole campaign where you know, charitable donations to the Clinton Foundation were sloshing over into the State Department, and there was a lot of upset and concern about that. So if it was valid during the campaign, that the private enrichment of people were claiming the Clintons got was messing up the State Department activity, then it seems to me worthy of inquiry that family members of the Trump family would be working in an administration and still having a hand in the private business. I think that’s the thing to try and figure out.
HH: That’s exactly the way to frame it. Is personal enrichment going on? How do you prevent it? And I think the context is that was not asked about Bobby and Jack vis-à-vis their family’s vast holdings.
HH: And when Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton faced that issue in 2009, they entered into a memorandum of agreement that Valerie Jarrett signed on behalf of the presidential transition in January, because it was complicated.
HH: I just think the reason he postponed it is that Don McGahn, who is his counsel, this is a hard thing to figure out, because you can’t just have a private sale by Goldman Sachs of everything with Trump on it, because there are partners and corporations. I mean, it’s just, we elected a guy for whom the unwinding or the wall is very difficult to build on the financial side. And I just wish people would admit that it’s complicated. Last question, John, I had Reince Priebus on this week, and we made a lot of news on a lot of subjects – the Supreme Court, the tax bill, the Obamacare repeal and replace. But in the end, I talked to him about the White House press, and he mentioned maybe we get rid of the daily brief, and by the way, you know, no one should have assigned seats. Maybe we’ll rethink it. The White House Press Correspondents Association went nuts, and you know, trying to correct Reince on a detail, blowing a detail out of proportion. My question, though, comes to the guild. I didn’t really know that the guild ran the press room. And I’m wondering in an era where you’ve got a BuzzFeed and a Breitbart, a Politico and now you’ve got Axios coming up, you’ve got The Hill, you’ve got all sorts of places that are not the old dinosaurs, which you’re part of an old dinosaur. So I’m the oldest dinosaur. Radio’s the oldest dinosaur. Should they be running the press room, the White House Press Corps?
JD: I mean, usually what happens is they work in concert. You know, there is a good tension-filled relationship between the press office and then the White House Correspondents Association. So they work out with both of their interests. Because they do so much common business together, they usually work out an accommodation together. So when I worked at Time Magazine and George W. Bush came in, Ari Fleischer kicked us out of the second row. But it wasn’t just Ari. It was with agreement of the person who was leading the White House Press Association at the time. So they kicked us out, saying basically, you don’t come to the briefings anymore, you’re a weekly news magazine, and there are other people who are more important than you. So this has happened before, but it’s done, usually, in concert. It’s not a fiat from the administration. It’s done hand in hand, and the reason you do that, there are lots of journalistic reasons to do it, of course, but the other reason is you’ve got a long four to eight years of working together. And you have to behave like adults, and you don’t, neither, you know, you work things out. And that’s, so this does happen. Now the question is whether the daily briefing is really a useful thing anymore. It kind of got ruined once they started putting it on TV, because it became a show and not a useful way to convey information.
HH: It is a horrible show, too, and it’s boring, sometimes. But I want to, my last minute with you, the White House Correspondents Association, I’m never going to get invited to their dinner now, but it’s a guild. Should we let a club decide this? I know that that’s been going on for years when media was small. But when you’ve got Axios and BuzzFeed and Breitbart, is the WHCA the people to do it?
JD: Yeah, I mean, those organizations can all become members of the WHCA. I mean, the idea of the WHCA is to, is instead of having the White House deal with 250 separate inquiries is to have one kind of point of contact with all the people who have shared interests in trying to cover the president. So you know, and because there’s a whole lot of just pure boring logistics that would be chaotic if you didn’t have kind of a central person in the press to talk to.
JD: Believe me, the Trump administration’s going to want to have one person to talk to rather than 250, surely from a paperwork reduction standpoint.
HH: More to follow. Who’s on Face the Nation this weekend? I want to plug before you run?
JD: Thank you, Hugh. Secretary Kissinger, we’ll talk to him at length about the world.
HH: Oh, my gosh.
JD: And yeah, yeah, and then we’re also going to have a panel at the top of the show on the world and the challenges facing President-Elect Trump. And then I’m also going to talk to Ta-Nehisi Coates about his interview with President Obama on race and the White House.
HH: Wow, what a show.
JD: And Graeme Wood also about ISIS. So yeah, lots going on in the show.
HH: Super K, his book on China must reading for the new era. John Dickerson of CBS, host of Face the Nation, we’ll be watching you with Dr. Kissinger this weekend.
End of interview.