One word perfectly sums up the tone of the conversation on Sunday’s edition of Reliable Sources: hyperbolic. Throughout the hour, CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta effectively compared President Trump to Kim Jong-un while host Brian Stelter suggested to a New York Times White House Correspondent that rather than covering a White House beat, she was covering a “criminal beat.”
Stelter devoted an entire segment to complaining about President Trump’s treatment of the press during his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. New York Times White House Correspondent Maggie Haberman complained that the President doesn’t “recognize...the necessity of promoting long-standing U.S. values,” specifically “a constitutionally protected press corps in the United States.”
CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta talked about how “sensitivities” surrounding Kim Jong-un led Sarah Sanders to only allow photographers, not reporters, into a pool spray at a dinner between Trump and the North Korean dictator. He later suggested that “it sounds like those sensitivities were more with the President than with Kim Jong-un” before invoking a backhanded comparison of President Trump to Kim Jong-un: “I just think sometimes here at the White House, they get confused over who the Supreme Leader is.”
When Stelter praised the “historic” occasion of Kim Jong-un actually answering a question from a reporter, Acosta quipped “that was probably more questions taken by Kim Jong-un than Sarah Sanders has taken from the White House press corps in some time” before adding “the juxtaposition, the comparison there I don’t think it serves them very well over here.”
Stelter opened the show by touting “the mounting evidence of unethical and illegal conduct” committed by President Trump before editorializing that “it seems to me that the Trump beat and the law enforcement beat are merging.” Stelter proceeded to engage in a one-on-one conversation with Haberman, asking her “do you feel you are increasingly on a crime beat, a criminal beat?”
Haberman later stressed the importance of “not treating every tweet as if it’s the end of the world and not treating every...mess-up or falsehood or lie as if they’re all equal,” adding that “not everything is a four-alarm fire.” At this point, Stelter asked Haberman “was the security clearance story a three-alarm fire, a four-alarm fire?”
Stelter was referring to the recent New York Times story alleging that President Trump forced the government to “give Jared Kushner a security clearance.” Clearly, Stelter and Acosta did not seem at all interested in taking Haberman’s level-headed advice; instead electing to treat the testimony of Michael Cohen as well as the President and the administration’s treatment of the press as “four-alarm fires.”
A transcript of the relevant portions of Sunday’s edition of Reliable Sources is below. Click “expand” to read more.
BRIAN STELTER: But first, what year is it? President Trump is cursing and complaining about crowd size and calling journalists sick and whipping up his base. Meanwhile, the bigger crowd this weekend was over at the Bernie Sanders kickoff event, where he hit the same themes as 2016, and even used the exact same logo; the same outrages, the same argument. So what is actually new? Where is the news for us to report? Well, this is news. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler saying he believes Trump has obstructed justice, and on Monday, his committee is issuing document requests to over 60 different people and entities. Now, that news coming in just in the past couple of hours. The mounting evidence of unethical and illegal conduct, that is what’s new. And this week, this part is important. This week it was televised in a whole new way, with Michael Cohen’s day-long hearing just the first of many. It seems to me the Trump beat and the law enforcement beat are merging. So, let’s talk with one of the top reporters who’s been covering President Trump for years, who knows him better than anyone. Maggie Haberman is here. She’s the White House Correspondent for The New York Times, and a CNN Political Analyst. Maggie, thanks for joining me.
MAGGIE HABERMAN: Thanks for having me.
STELTER: What a week. We say that every week.
STELTER: But you have commented this may have been the President’s worst week ever. I know that’s become a cliche. But it continues to be true.
HABERMAN: Yeah, this one was, this one was, this one was fundamentally different, whether it, whether it has a different foretelling of the future I think remains to be seen. But certainly in terms of Michael Cohen’s testimony coming the same day as the summit in Vietnam that the President was having with Kim Jong-un of North Korea that did not go well. I mean, it had already been downgraded in expectations multiple times and then the President went and didn’t get what he was hoping to get, didn’t get anything close to it. And he came back and he gave this speech at CPAC, which was, you know, a record-setting speech in length, and which I think was very…you know, it was his defensive posture. And we’ve seen this with him over and over when something goes badly. I think that, you know, we’re going to be spending days seeing how the Michael Cohen testimony is going to impact him. We just don’t know quite yet. But it was extraordinary, even if you take away the fact there was not a ton new said informationally, the setting for this, Congress, a former lawyer and fixer to the President, saying all of this on the record, on, on camera…
HABERMAN: …was jarring.
STELTER: On camera. And we may see more of this as…
STELTER: …Nadler is saying, asking for documents.
STELTER: We’re expecting folks to get caught up to testify.
STELTER: We’ll see who does and who doesn’t.
STELTER: You all broke some news as the President was returning from Vietnam about Jared Kushner and how the President intervened to force the government to give Kushner a security clearance. Now, I assume this is the kind of story that was in the works for, what, days, weeks, months?
HABERMAN: A while.
STELTER: And you all happened to publish it after the Vietnam summit. Was that a coincidence?
HABERMAN: We published it when we had it. And we published it, and it was, it’s, as we know, because NBC had published something related to it a couple of weeks earlier, this is a competitive story. Everybody has been trying to figure out what happened with the clearance for a year. And I had gotten a tip several weeks ago that there was this…that Kelly had kept some contemporaneous notes and a memo about him being ordered or directed to give clearance and when we were able to publish, we published.
STELTER: How do you all try to…you know, at The New York Times, how should we at CNN try to distinguish between the dozens of stories involving the President every week? You know, how do you all make a statement and say, this one matters more than all of the other ones out there?
HABERMAN: This one is…this one is different, I think, for a couple of reasons. It’s important to remember that the President does have the right to do this. This is 100 percent in his purview, which is why when I asked him the question, at which point I already had known that this memo might exist, when I asked him if he intervened to give his son-in-law a security clearance, I had thought that he was going to say, “Yes. I did” because…
STELTER: This was in, what, the end of January?
HABERMAN: This was at the end of January.
STELTER: White House?
HABERMAN: Yeah; in a White House interview in the Oval Office. And I asked him a question, you know, did you intervene…did you, did you, tell anyone? And he said…not only did he say no, he said, “I’m not sure I have the authority to do that.” And he went a little further. And I, I was surprised by that. I think in this case, you have such a glaring disparity between what he said and what we now know took place that I think it stands out more. And I think it will…look, it just raises fresh questions about, I think Chris Christie was on Chris Cuomo’s show the other night when our story broke, and he had this line about how this is, this is why there’s a danger about having family work in the administration is because it just impacts certain judgment issues. I don’t know what was in Jared Kushner’s clearance file. I don’t know what issues the FBI and the CIA had flagged. So, it’s impossible for any of us to really assess independently whether there was a genuine concern. And, again, the President had the right to do it. But then claiming that you didn’t do it, I think, is where it becomes a problem. It just becomes yet another brick, I think, as the Democratic House is trying to look at what happened.
STELTER: So how do you try to get to the truth when you’re covering so many people that are defined by their unwillingness to tell the truth?
HABERMAN: Well, in this case, we had multiple sourcing for the story. We worked pretty hard on making sure that we had that. That is, that is what, what we, we strive to do in any story. But certainly, we developed I think a habit during the campaign. And I’ve talked about this elsewhere of we would…we would hear multiple things and there would sometimes be multiple versions of events. We would say if it really wasn’t clear, we would say XYZ says this, but ABC says that. And then we would use, you know, sort of the pieces of information that overlapped that were all related…
HABERMAN: …and cut aside anything else, because the sources were such unreliable narrators in other contexts.
STELTER: Do you feel like you are increasingly on a crime beat, a criminal beat…
STELTER: …an investigatory beat?
HABERMAN: No, we’re covering the White House. I mean I think that if this ends up having other aspects…there has been an investigative beat for the last two years because of the Mueller investigation and then for the last year because of the SDNY probe, and they do intersect. But I don’t…I don’t think that it fundamentally changes the nature of covering a White House.
STELTER: What do we need to remember as we, we hear about all these investigations and all of these…his legal trouble? The banner on screen always talks about, you know, the legal troubles are piling up. But what do we need to keep in mind?
HABERMAN: Well, you need to keep in mind that there’s actually…I think this is the thing. Look, we don’t know where impeachment is going to go. I think Jerry Nadler said something very different this morning than what we had heard in terms of obstruction of justice. But he did not then say…and, and I think he will be impeached. He clearly knows this is…impeachment is pretty traumatic for a country and I think that they’re not going to race into that lightly. I think that there is a tendency to act as if every new revelation somehow changes what is going on or changes the path or changes the future. There’s a lot of really bad headlines, and Donald Trump has shown a unique ability to ignore them and refuse to get thrown out of the ring. And at the end of the day, the ring he’s in is the Oval Office. And there’s, there’s one method for changing power in this country. And it’s an election. And I think that people need to bear that in mind. I also just think people need to bear in mind, generally, that not everything is a four-alarm fire. Because what has happened is then everything…if everything is, then nothing is. And I think that not treating every tweet as if it’s the end of the world and not treating every, you know, mess-up or lie or falsehood as if they’re all equal, they’re not, is important.
STELTER: Was the security clearance story a three-alarm fire, a four- alarm fire?
HABERMAN: I mean, I don’t know that it was a fire. I think that it was a significant action that the President took related to his family that he did not tell us the truth about, just…directly did not tell us the truth and then went on to explain that he didn’t even think he had the power to do that; that his daughter said on camera, she was…that there was no special treatment. You know, is it, is there a realm of possibility that she didn’t know? Sure. But it’s…you know, the clearance was issued at a time when Jared Kushner really wanted to put to rest the idea that he was under investigation. And the argument that a lot of people around him made was he wouldn’t have gotten his clearance if he was under investigation. And Abbe Lowell, his lawyer, described it to the Times and CNN as coming from a normal process.
STELTER: Now to the fallout from Hanoi and new concerns about how the press corps was treated. This was one of the first events there at the summit, President Trump with Kim Jong-un. There were some questions shouted from the American press. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JONATHAN LEMIRE: Mr. President, do you have any reaction to Michael Cohen and his testimony?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Notice Kim smiling there, kind of enjoying the experience. The President, of course, ignored the question and then a few hours later, actually within an hour, this happened. The White House barring four reporters from the next event, the next photo-op; which was a dinner between Trump and Kim. Let’s talk about it; why it happened, what it means with CNN Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta, who’s just returned from Hanoi, and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times also back with us. Jim, tell us about what happened and why this stood out?
JIM ACOSTA: Well, I think it stood out in part because I mean, the press treatment was already off to a really bad start before that, that moment happened that you just played there. I mean, keep in mind, the White House Press Corps, a big part of the White House Press Corps was staying in the same hotel with Kim Jong-un and then when the North Koreans caught wind of that, we were booted out of that hotel. I mean, the entire press filing center with all of those journalists, all of those cameramen and so on were booted out of that hotel. And then flash forward to this pool spray where you heard Jonathan Lemire from the A.P. ask that question, clearly, the President didn’t like it. What we were all told after that ended was that because of sensitivities, Sarah Sanders said, with the North Korean dictator that they were only going to allow photographers into the next pool spray when in fact she was clearly, and the White House was clearly retaliating against the White House and those individual reporters who were shouting questions during that pool spray you just played. And then what happened in the resulting pool spray, some of the print pool photographers, thank goodness, the still photographers, they went ahead and rebelled and said listen, if you don’t let in some sort of editorial presence we’re not going in there.
STELTER: So a show of solidarity.
ACOSTA: And so thank goodness…yeah, and so thank goodness that we had some solidarity there or else we wouldn’t have got into the next pool spray but then Michael Cohen wasn’t asked in the next pool spray. And so they kind of got what they wanted out of this, which is unfortunate.
STELTER: So, Maggie, is it too much to ask that when an American President is meeting with a dictator that the American White House stands up for the press and advocates for press freedom. Is that too much to ask?
HABERMAN: No. I mean, look, we have time and again seen that this White House conflates the individual with the office and they…what they don’t recognize sort of the necessity of promoting long-standing U.S. values. This is a, a constitutionally protected press corps in the United States and we have seen Democratic and Republican presidents stand up for those values, George Bush among them, overseas. This President and his White House have chosen not to do that. It’s also… look, I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if it was retaliation, I don’t know if it was preemptive on the part of the White House press office to try to keep press out so that the President wouldn’t look like he wasn’t on equal footing with Kim. A U.S. President is not supposed to be on equal footing with a dictator, number one. And number two, this is where the White House aides to Donald Trump repeatedly do not serve him well. There needs to be somebody there who can say to him this is a bad idea because this is how this is going to play out. And time and again, that never happens.
STELTER: Right. And afterwards, the President did hold a press conference at this kind of premature end to the summit so there was access later.
HABERMAN: No, it’s good that he did…
HABERMAN: …but that having been said, said the whole point of a free press is you don’t…you don’t control it this way. You were able to ask the question. I understand it was an uncomfortable question for President Trump. And some of his supporters said to me look, this is, this is threatening to him at a moment when he’s trying to secure some kind of a deal with North Korea, but the expectations for what was going to come out of this summit have been so downgraded by the time they even got there that I don’t know what this was threatening.
STELTER: Yeah. Hey, Jim, everyone remembers you were banned briefly from the White House back in November. CNN went to court to get you back and your credential restored. The President has called on you since then. So I was just curious what that relationship has been like. What’s happened since November?
ACOSTA: You know, it has been tense obviously. You know, things still flare up from time to time. There was that press conference in the Rose Garden where I asked the President about his so-called national emergency to justify using funds to build the wall on the border with Mexico and he, you know, constantly interrupted and came after us and called us fake news and accused us of having an agenda. But you know, we go back to work and we do what we have to do. It doesn’t matter what kind of names they call us. We’re still going to do our jobs. But getting back to you know, what you were just saying a few moments ago about having that news conference in Hanoi, I mean, keep in mind the President during that news conference was calling on…instead of members of the White House Press Corps…he called on some members of the White House Press Corps, but he spent half of that news conference randomly calling on individual reporters who he didn’t even know including five or six members of Chinese state media, Russia state media and so on. And so, the whole thing…I mean, I think from being kicked out of the press hotel in the press filing center to that pool spray episode, to the press conference, I think this was a big debacle for this White House press shop from start to finish. And getting back to what Maggie was talking about a few moments ago in terms of these sensitivities, it sounds like the sensitivities were more with the President than with Kim Jong-un. And I just think sometimes here at the White House, they get confused over who the Supreme Leader is. And I do think Maggie is right and that they do him a disservice. If the President had just asked or been asked some questions about Michael Cohen and gotten that out of the way, I think a lot of this would have been short-circuited before that news conference even started. But because they dig in their heels and try to rebel against what they obviously know something, something we’re going to ask, I think they create more negative press attention than they probably would rather see.
STELTER: And lest we forget, there’s no more daily briefings. I don’t want to let those go without remembering that used to be common for you and others to be in the…in the press briefing on an almost daily basis.
ACOSTA: That’s right, Brian, we used to have those all the time. I mean, you know on these foreign trips, you would have a press briefing with the Press Secretary or the Secretary of State. That also didn’t happen this time.
STELTER: With Sarah Sanders, there have been reports, you know, nine months ago that she’d be out of a job by now, that she’d be leaving the White House after the Midterm but she’s still there. Is there…is there a helpful communication on a daily basis with the White House press shop?
ACOSTA: I don’t think there is. And you know, you can ask questions from time to time and you’ll get an answer, but for the most part, you know, they’re, they’re playing favorites over here. Instead of the daily briefing, Brian, what our viewers need to understand is that almost on a daily basis somebody from the White House press shop, a high-level official like Sarah Sanders or Kellyanne Conway is doing an exclusive interview with Fox News. And instead of a press briefing in the White House Briefing Room, what we’re doing in the White House Press Corps is we’re assembling in the driveway of the White House in the hopes of catching them before they go inside the West Wing so we can ask them a few questions out in the freezing cold. Now, of course, you know, White House reporters, other reporters, we’re used to standing out in the cold but we’re really being left out in the cold in terms of press access and it’s, it’s rather unbelievable. Somebody was estimating the other day that Kim Jong-un had taken more questions in that pool spray. Remember the…some of those White House reporters got questions to Kim Jong-un during one of the pool sprays the other day…
STELTER: And that was great. That was historic.
ACOSTA: Yes. But that was probably more questions taken by Kim Jong- un than Sarah Sanders has taken from the White House Press Corps in some time. And so…the juxtaposition, the comparison there I don’t think it serves them very well over here.
STELTER: Is favorable. Jim, Maggie, thank you both.