Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter opened the show Sunday by talking about how the Mueller report revealed “a White House of lies, lies like nothing this nation has ever seen before.” Stelter proceeded to give a lecture about “morality,” as he and his guests tried to make the argument that the immoral behavior outlined in the Mueller report makes President Trump unfit to hold office.
Throughout his opening monologue, Stelter continued to portray the Trump presidency as unprecedented, arguing that “past administrations have bent the truth, of course, but Trump’s White House breaks the truth in half, then lies about breaking it.” According to Stelter, “If you backed Trump, you have either made peace with the lying, you’ve decided it’s in service of the greater good, or you’ve convinced yourself that people like me are lying about him.” In other words, people who support President Trump are immoral.
Stelter also declared that the Mueller report “reaffirms so much of the reporting from the past two to three years,” although he later admitted there was “too much speculation” regarding Cohen’s nonexistent trip to Prague and the BuzzFeed story alleging President Trump ordered Michael Cohen to suborn perjury.
Just before he introduced his guests, Stelter begrudgingly admitted “there’s no conspiracy found in the Mueller report.” He proceeded to move the goal posts by declaring “there’s no integrity either.” At this point, Stelter began making his “morality” argument, claiming that journalists have a “role to stand up for decency and morality, especially if others won’t.”
Stelter picked up on the morality argument with his guests, asking CNN presidential historian Tim Naftali “how do we make morality more of the conversation now that we’ve seen this 448-page report with so much immoral behavior?”
Naftali completely bought into Stelter’s morality argument, asking the rhetorical question “what kind of standard of character do you want in someone who represents the flag and the country?” When answering Stelter’s question, Naftali argued that the “immoral behavior” committed by President Trump, including the creation of “false historical records,” “makes the President unfit” for his position.
CNN seems like the last network that ought to lecture people about “morality.” Let’s not forget that the “facts first” network fed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton town hall questions in advance of a debate in addition to publishing many other fake news stories over the years.
The conversation came to a close with Stelter asking April Ryan to weigh in on the morality debate. According to Ryan, “it behooves us as reporters and journalists not to take a slant.” Ironically, Ryan herself has not shied away from her “slant,” declaring that “this border wall thing is about controlling the browning of America” as well as acting as a cheerleader for Democratic Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and a potential White House bid by Oprah Winfrey.
A transcript of the relevant portion of Sunday’s edition of Reliable Sources is below. Click “expand” to read more.
BRIAN STELTER: But where to begin? You know where we’re beginning, right here with the number one book in America, the Mueller report. It revealed a house of lies, a White House of lies. Lies like nothing this nation’s ever seen before. I take no joy in saying this but deceit is the story of the Trump age. It is the story. Past administrations have bent the truth, of course, but Trump’s White House breaks the truth in half, then lies about breaking it. And it’s broken us in half or maybe into thirds. Some Americans are sick of all the deceptions. Others have become immune to it and others have accepted it. If you backed Trump, you have either made peace with the lying, you have decided it’s in service of a greater good, or you have convinced yourself that people like me are lying about him. You have convinced yourself that the media is the real enemy. That’s one of the reasons why this report is so important. It is a detailed, dispassionate description of who, what, when, where, why and how. The lies are listed in here in clinical detail. Will it change minds? Maybe not. But it’s important nonetheless. It’s important to have the historical record. It reaffirms so much of the reporting from the past two to three years, reporting about Trump and Russia; about all those ties. I mean, just look at the footnotes in the report. Mueller mentions CNN, NBC, The New York Times, Washington Post, more than 3, more than 200 times. That’s a whole lot of real news. But of course, Trump’s fans have been conditioned not to trust well, anyone but Trump, and the outlets that he approves of. We’ll get into that a little later. But my two cents first is to pay attention to the big lies. I know some folks are exhausted by the daily deceptions, the, the small lies from Trump world. But Trump and his allies are telling big lies. Right now, the most popular one is no obstruction. No obstruction at all. The attempts to obstruct are stream…screaming off the page. I guess my point is, there’s no conspiracy found in the Mueller report, but there’s no integrity either. So what’s the role of the press in this broken environment? In part, our role is to keep collecting facts; all of the facts so that citizens can make up their own minds. But I think it’s also our role to stand up for decency and morality, especially if others won’t. Journalists, after all, work with a code of ethics. We have and we try to enforce standards. And when we fall down on those standards, we try to learn from those mistakes. But just listen to what one of the President’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said to Chris Cuomo the other day about morality. Here is what Rudy said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI: If we’re going to start making moral judgments about everybody in public office, we’ll have nobody in public office.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: We can do better than that. And journalists can help lead the way by talking about morality and ethics, if the people in charge aren’t. Here to break it all down now, New York Times White House Correspondent Katie Rogers, CNN presidential historian Tim Naftali, Vox co-founder and editor-at-large Ezra Klein, and CNN Political Analyst April Ryan. She’s the White House Correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief for American Urban Radio Networks. Tim, let me start with you. It is, of course, Easter morning. And I think sometimes the media has a hard time talking about morality, talking about issues of ethics. You know, it’s not really in our language the way that law, you know, basic things like law are. How do we make morality more of the conversation now that we’ve seen this 448-page report with so much immoral behavior?
TIM NAFTALI: I think you first start by saying we’re all flawed, right? We’re human beings and by definition we’re flawed. But then you ask yourself what kind of character, what kind of standard of character do you want in someone who represents the flag and the country? And, as someone who ran a presidential library, what struck me most painfully in volume two, in the obstruction of justice volume, was the number of times President Trump either himself or other…instructed others to create false records.
NAFTALI: False historical records, which would mean that in the future, people wanting to understand our government would not be able to.
NAFTALI: To my view, that is one of the most egregious and dishonorable acts a President can do, to try to create a false record. There are four instances, at least, in the Mueller report, where they were able to determine the President either ordered someone to do it or did it himself. To my mind, that makes the President unfit because if he’s not willing to let us understand how he uses the power that we granted him…
NAFTALI: …then, why is he our representative?
STELTER: I think this thing is just starting to sink in, you know, 72 hours later. There’s a reason why it’s number one and number two and number three on Amazon. There’s, there’s a reason why people really want to consume this and digest it, it’s because the details you’re describing, they weren’t the first surface headline.
STELTER: You’ve got to really digest it to understand. So, Katie Rogers, with that in mind, I was arguing earlier that lying is the through line of the Trump presidency and that the Mueller report has new examples of this. Do you think journalists there at The New York Times and elsewhere have fully figured out how to cover the deceptions and the dishonesty?
KATIE ROGERS: I mean, I think that journalists have been covering the deceptions and dishonesty since the, since the beginning of the Trump presidency. I think that the report, as you have said so well, confirms a lot of that reporting either through witnesses, through government officials and there’s like kind of an exhaustive paper trail there. I think that the opportunities going forward is to stress the nuances of this report in, in terms of the 140 or some communications the Trump campaign had with either Russian officials or WikiLeaks. That’s maybe not collusion, that’s not a legal term anyway, but that is certainly excitement as, as detailed in the report, excitement, enthusiasm, a willingness to accept information from what is an adversarial government to the United States. And, you know, you’re right, as the pendulum kind of swings back from the initial headlines to…
ROGERS: …these, these more detailed summaries in the report, the public is going to have more opportunity to see exactly what 140, you know, odd communications added up to.
STELTER: Right. Let’s take a look at the last two years of reporting because the press has been leading the way, revealing a lot of these communications. In the first place, the Mueller report has confirmed a lot of what’s been reported in the last two years. This headline from Slate says “Journalists Were Right.” At the same time, there was way too much speculation and liberal wishful thinking in attempts to connect dots that did not connect. So, both things I think are true at the same time. There was stellar reporting, there was also too much speculation. Here’s a couple examples of reporting that was off base. Stories by McClatchy indicated that Michael Cohen went to Prague, which wasn’t proven to be true. BuzzFeed story saying Trump told Cohen to lie was not confirmed by Mueller’s report. BuzzFeed had two sources, two law enforcement sources; they stand by their interpretation of what happened between Trump and Cohen but Mueller’s report says well while there was evidence the President knew Cohen provided false testimony, the evidence does not establish the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony. So, different law enforcement officials came up with different interpretations of what happened between Trump and Cohen. Ezra, all of this is a long way of saying, was the media vindicated by Mueller report with some exceptions?
EZRA KLEIN: The media’s reporting is vindicated by the Mueller report. I think there are two questions that raises for me. One is…
KLEIN: …easier and one is harder. The, the, the media’s reporting was vindicated. I agree with you that the level of media speculation, particularly breathless speculation was often not. But there are two things the Mueller report asks of us. One is how do we think about reporting on the Trump administration going forward? The Mueller report is thick with examples of the Trump administration purposefully, repeatedly lying to reporters. So, going to them and listening to Sarah Huckabee Sanders or going to their, their folks and adding them in for comment when you know they may just straightforwardly be lying to you is tough, right? It’s a challenge to our deepest protocols. But the other thing that I think is something we have not quite reckoned with. A lot of this report, you know, the, the first, the first half is about whether Trump coordinated with Russia. And there is not evidence of that directly but it also should raise a question for us. We knew those e-mails were hacked. What happened here, the core story is that there was a crime committed to steal information from the Democratic National Committee and then launder it through the press and we cooperated with that, often knowing exactly what it was. And it’s hard because we often get information that we need to report from all kinds of people with self- interested motives. But I don’t think that the media is doing all that much self-reflection about the role that we played in making Russia’s operation successful. We’re looking outward quite a bit but not inward nearly enough.
STELTER: And look, I’m talking about the Trump administration being unethical. There are ethical questions for the press to think about was exactly what you’re saying, about the reporting involving hacked, stolen documents. What do you think should happen next time, Ezra? Let’s play this out in 2020, what’s the, what’s the, what’s the right answer?
KLEIN: I don’t think I have a right answer yet. I think this is actually a genuinely hard question. Anybody who does a lot of reporting knows you don’t always get good information from sources that are pure in intention. On the other hand, the thing that scares me most about this report beyond Donald Trump, right, not just that we have a lawless and dishonest administration now, as if that weren’t bad enough, but is that you’re seeing a playbook, and you’re seeing a playbook other countries will look at, that Russia itself has been rewarded for. It was very successful for them. I mean, the, the payoff of turning American governance in your direction if you’re another country is very big. It’s worth doing a lot to try to make that happen. And to the extent the press has been a, an actor in that, we need to think about what that means. We need to think about what our role in that is, particularly when we know that with, or at least with a relatively high degree of confidence that what we’re getting is part of a crime, and particularly part of a, a foreign country’s effort to influence the election. On the other hand, in what ways is that actually all that different from opposition research, which we use all the time? I don’t want to sit here and pretend this is an easy question. I don’t think it is. But I do think it’s one that we need to do some real thinking about because this won’t be the last time. We know it won’t be the last time.
STELTER: Yeah, that’s true.
KLEIN: We know people are working to do this kind of thing right now. So, we need to think a bit about what our rubric is for thinking about this the next time it happens.
STELTER: And again, that’s about ethics. It’s about right practices. So, April, let’s finish this first segment with you. How do you think journalists should be standing up for morality and decency when covering a White House that breaks all the norms?
APRIL RYAN: We have to cover the story, we have to see the fact for where it is and call the lie for where it is as well. In this White House, we hear what the spokesperson or the principal has to say and we go and get all sides of the story and dig for the truth. The credibility is lacking in this White House as we have seen from the Mueller report and over the past two years and let’s even go into the campaign. It, it, it behooves us as reporters and journalists not to take a slant and just accept what is said at this point. We have to dig deeper and we have to look for the fact. It’s about all sides of the story. It’s not just about he said/she said.