CNBC's Steve Liesman has always gone after tea party inspiration and network floor reporter Rick Santelli for his views, but this time it was Santelli playing offense.
The CNBC "Power Lunch" crew was discussing Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) CEO Ken Lewis and disclosure of details surrounding his bank's acquisition of Merrill Lynch May 5. Santelli accused Liesman, CNBC's senior economics reporter of saying "dumb things" and acting like Nixon, when he suggested there could be a compelling reason for Lewis was not forthcoming about the acquisition.
"Ask the question in a more compelling way which is - I want you to save the world and not disclose," Liesman said.
Lewis says he was pressured by then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to agree to an acquisition of Merrill Lynch to prevent systematic failure of the banking system and to keep it quiet, a potential violation of SEC sunshine regulations. Santelli dismissed Liesman's premise.
"Come on Steve - are you going to come up with excuses to break rules and break the law?" Santelli said. "You sound like Richard Nixon. Who did you vote for, Steve?"
Liesman was defensive over the reaction from Santelli, however Liesman has had a history of defending the TARP bailout that Santelli and others have criticized.
"Hold on, hold on Rick, all I was posing was the ethical issue here - that if it helps out and to stabilize the system, is there a compelling reason to not disclose?" Liesman said. "I am not advocating that in anyway shape or form. If you want to blow a gasket on that Rick, just blow it on somebody else, not me."
Santelli told Liesman not to say "dumb things" if he really didn't think there was a possibility breaking rules could be justified.
"You don't break rules because of crisis conditions. End of story, end of story," Santelli said. "Well, then don't open your mouth and say dumb things."
Santelli asked the other guests on "Power Lunch" to vote on what they would have done. He said he would have called Paulson and the Bush administration on its bluff and taken it to the Supreme Court had he been a CEO in the same position as Lewis.
"If the government would have set you around that table as a CEO of a bank and said sign it, I know what I would have done," Santelli said. "I would have torn it up and said, ‘See you in the Supreme Court.'"
Santelli explained rules shouldn't be compromised - even if the finance system is facing a crisis."I think what really hit my button was the whole notion that should somebody of high authority tell you to go against something clearly borderline illegal, if not totally illegal - to go along with it because there's a crisis, I don't think that's an excuse," Santelli said. "It shouldn't be an excuse and I hope that we all learn something from ‘Frost and Nixon.'"