Brokaw Warns Press Not to Assume Trump Guilt, Notes Lack of Evidence

Following a report on Friday’s Today show designed to draw “parallels” between the current Russian investigation of the Trump administration and the Watergate scandal under President Nixon, NBC Senior Correspondent Tom Brokaw actually seemed to caution his media colleagues against making too many comparisons. The veteran journalist noted the lack of evidence against President Trump and warned reporters not to assume guilt.

“This morning, a president navigating one crisis after another while a controversial investigation looms over his administration,” announced co-host Hoda Kotb as she introduced the segment. Fellow co-host Craig Melvin chimed in: “If you think we’re talking about recent headlines, think again. Forty-five years ago tomorrow, President Richard Nixon took the unprecedented step of firing the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate cover-up.”

 

 

In the report that followed, Brokaw marked the 45th anniversary of Nixon’s so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” and fondly looked back at NBC’s coverage of the scandal, which included some of his own reporting as a young White House correspondent:

In October 1973, President Nixon was under siege, Watergate and more....The White House tapes, potential evidence of a Watergate cover-up. Nixon had been fighting to keep them secret. Now, a federal court ordered him to turn them over, but Nixon had other plans....Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox responded in an extraordinary nationally televised news conference....Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused, and also resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork was made acting attorney general and he fired Cox....The Saturday Night Massacre triggered a firestorm of protest.

Brokaw added: “The President was forced to back down....But Nixon did not turn over the most incriminating tapes, and he went after the press.” A soundbite ran of Nixon condemning the media: “I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life.”

Archival commentary from late NBC anchor David Brinkley was featured:

Our history shows the American people will put up with a great deal, even when the demands on them are outrageous, but they will not put up with anyone who claims to be or tries to be above the law, immune to the rules applying to everybody else. If anyone acquires that privilege, it’ll be the end of this country.

As the taped report ended, co-host Savannah Guthrie proclaimed: “It’s incredible to watch the history, and then, of course, you see some parallels.”

Moments later, Kotb asked Brokaw: “What do you think, Tom, just quickly, about the differences between then and now?” He replied:

Well, I think there are big differences. One is that we knew that there were parts of that tape that were very likely incriminating and they were on the tape, the President’s words. We don’t know that about Donald Trump at this point. Does he have – do we have the evidence that is there in some form?

Brokaw went on to defend his reporting in the Nixon era and suggested that media coverage of Trump has been slanted:

So we would be on the air, we would tell everybody what we knew, but we didn’t make judgments about guilt or innocence. I didn’t say at the end of my report, “Yeah, I think he’s guilty.” You know, we would deal with what we had. And we all kind of were a check on one another in the White House Press Corps. You know, “Going too far here, gotta be careful. Check with what I’ve got, hope that it’s true.” And that’s a huge difference, because now the whole country is involved and it’s so terribly polarized, left and right, and it goes on 24/7. So you have very little opportunity to stand back and reflect and say, “Let the rule of law take its place and play it out.”

When even Tom Brokaw is worried that reporters are going too far against Trump, perhaps the media should reassess their coverage.

Here is a full transcript of the October 19 report:

7:41 AM ET

HODA KOTB: We are back with In-Depth Today and NBC Senior Correspondent Tom Brokaw. This morning, a president navigating one crisis after another while a controversial investigation looms over his administration.

CRAIG MELVIN: If you think we’re talking about recent headlines, think again. Forty-five years ago tomorrow, President Richard Nixon took the unprecedented step of firing the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate cover-up. We’ll talk about it with Tom in just a moment, but first, he takes a look back at what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.     

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: A Night to Remember; Tom Brokaw on 45th Anniversary of “Saturday Night Massacre”]

TOM BROKAW: In October 1973, President Nixon was under siege, Watergate and more.

BROKAW [OCTOBER 6, 1973]: Good evening, it is an all-out war.

BROKAW [2018]: The Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, with the risk of a U.S.-Soviet confrontation. The resignation of Vice President Sipro Agnew.

SPIRO AGNEW: I will have nothing more to say.

BROKAW: The naming of a new vice president.

RICHARD NIXON [OCTOBER 12, 1973]: Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan.  

BROKAW: And that same day, a fateful court ruling.

JOHN CHANCELLOR [NBC NIGHTLY NEWS]: The U.S. Court of appeals has ruled decisively against Mr. Nixon’s position on his secret White House tapes.

BROKAW: The White House tapes, potential evidence of a Watergate cover-up. Nixon had been fighting to keep them secret. Now, a federal court ordered him to turn them over, but Nixon had other plans.

DOUGLAS KIKER [NBC NEWS, OCTOBER 19, 1973]: President Nixon announced that he will neither appeal nor comply with a federal court order to turn over the Watergate tapes. The President said he will provide a summary of the tapes to both Judge Sirica and the Senate Watergate Committee.

BROKAW: Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox responded in an extraordinary nationally televised news conference.

ARCHIBALD COX: In the end, I decided that I had to try to stick by what I thought was right.

BROKAW: Cox rejected Nixon’s plan, saying it violated the independence promised him by Attorney General Elliott Richardson. The prosecutor and the president were on a collision course.

CHANCELLOR: The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history.

BROKAW: Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refused, and resigned. His deputy, William Ruckelshaus, also refused, and also resigned. Solicitor General Robert Bork was made acting attorney general and he fired Cox.

BROKAW [1973]: One White House source said the President’s motive was solely to remove the possibility of a constitutional confrontation as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

BROKAW [2018]: Stanley Pottinger, the Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights, was with Elliot Richardson that night.

STANLEY POTTINGER: The FBI had been ordered to secure the office of the Attorney General. So two FBI agents appeared in the hall. One took his coat off and threw it over his shoulder, so you saw his chest holster, and then they marched in to the Attorney General’s office and Elliott Richardson was extremely gracious and said, “Welcome, gentlemen, the office is yours.”

BROKAW: The Saturday Night Massacre triggered a firestorm of protest.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER [NBC NEWS, OCTOBER 22,1973]: More than 50,000 telegrams poured in on Capitol Hill today, most of them demanded impeaching Mr. Nixon.

BROKAW: The President was forced to back down.

CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT [NIXON LAWYER]: This president does not defy the law.

BROKAW: But Nixon did not turn over the most incriminating tapes, and he went after the press.

NIXON [OCTOBER 16, 1973]: I have never heard or seen such outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting in 27 years of public life.

BROKAW: In the end, of course, Richard Nixon had only himself to blame.

DAVID BRINKLEY: Our history shows the American people will put up with a great deal, even when the demands on them are outrageous, but they will not put up with anyone who claims to be or tries to be above the law, immune to the rules applying to everybody else. If anyone acquires that privilege, it’ll be the end of this country.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: It’s incredible to watch the history, and then, of course, you see some parallels. You were there, you were the White House correspondent. Was it a immediately clear just how grave this moment was?

BROKAW: I think it was. We knew from moment to moment that this could not have a good ending as we kept moving forward, because the President would not give up those tapes. And we were hearing what was likely on the tapes, that he was actually protecting his own words in which he was saying we can get the money to pay the burglars for the payoff and everything.

The interesting thing about that was that it had been building for about four months at that point. So there was this enormous kind of sense of possibility at any moment that the place was going to come apart, but it didn’t. It didn’t, in part, because Congress kind of held the line in terms of being fair and in touch with each other.

My favorite part of the story is that on Friday, before the Saturday night massacre, I got a tip that Elliott Richardson had been at the White House and General Haig told me that he thought they had him in line, but that wasn’t true. Saturday morning, I got up and went up to New York to do the Nightly News, and Dan Rather did the same thing for CBS. On the plane on the way back, we’re rushing back, sat Eric Sevareid, who was the great sage of CBS News, sitting on the aisle. Everybody was coming up to him and saying, “Mr. Sevareid, what’s going on? What’s going on?” He said, “Well, I can’t talk about it.” He came back to Dan and me and he said, “What the hell is going on? [Laughter] I was making a speech in New England, I have no idea what’s happened.” So I got to the White House and went to the lawn and Ron Ziegler talked to me. And I remember at the end of the evening he was waiting for his car, smoking his pipe, because they thought it was going to turn out okay.

KOTB: What do you think, Tom, just quickly, about the differences between then and now?

BROKAW: Well, I think there are big differences. One is that we knew that there were parts of that tape that were very likely incriminating and they were on the tape, the President’s words. We don’t know that about Donald Trump at this point. Does he have – do we have the evidence that is there in some form?

And the difference then and now is that Congress found ways to work together behind the scenes. They weren’t as divided as they are now. The country is so deeply polarized, and we didn’t have social media. So we would be on the air, we would tell everybody what we knew, but we didn’t make judgments about guilt or innocence. I didn’t say at the end of my report, “Yeah, I think he’s guilty.”

KOTB: Right.

BROKAW: You know, we would deal with what we had. And we all kind of were a check on one another in the White House Press Corps. You know, “Going too far here, gotta be careful. Check with what I’ve got, hope that it’s true.” And that’s a huge difference, because now the whole country is involved and it’s so terribly polarized, left and right, and it goes on 24/7. So you have very little opportunity to stand back and reflect and say, “Let the rule of law take its place and play it out.”

GUTHRIE: Yeah.

MELVIN: Thank you, Tom.

KOTB: Thanks, Tom.

MELVIN: Always good to have you.

GUTHRIE: It is. Thank you, Tom.

NB Daily Media Bias Debate Conservatives & Republicans NBC Today Video Tom Brokaw Donald Trump

Sponsored Links