- Show Notes
On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, “Iowa & The State of Disunion,” Preet answers your questions about:
— The future of the Iowa Caucuses
— Whether the House can re-open the impeachment inquiry into President Trump
— How elections should bear on impeachment
— Situations where the guilty are acquitted
The guest this week is John Dickerson. He is a correspondent for 60 Minutes, contributing editor to The Atlantic, and an author. Dickerson is also a co-host of Slate’s Political Gabfest and Whistlestop podcasts.
As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.
To listen to Stay Tuned bonus content, become a member of CAFE Insider.
Sign up to receive the CAFE Brief, a weekly newsletter featuring analysis of politically charged legal news, and updates from Preet.
REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS
- “Lessons Learned From The Iowa Caucuses, And Danger Signs Ahead,” National Public Radio, 2/5/20
- “‘A total mess’: Critics call for an end to Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status
- Iowa caucuses – reporting,” Vox, 2/4/20
- Double Jeopardy, Legal Information Institute
- Jury Nullification, Legal Information Institute
- “Alexander: Trump’s Ukraine actions ‘wrong,’ ‘inappropriate,’ but not impeachable,” Politico, 2/1/20
- “Murkowski says she ‘cannot vote to convict,’ but calls Trump’s actions ‘shameful and wrong,’” CNN, 2/3/20
- “Rep. Jerry Nadler Says House Will Likely Subpoena John Bolton,” National Public Radio, 2/5/20
- Trump’s 2020 State of the Union Address
- State of the Union Address, United States House of Representatives History, Art & Archives
- Trump’s 2019 State of the Union Address, 2/5/19
- “In dissonant State of the Union speech, Trump seeks unity while depicting ruin,” Washington Post, 2/5/19
- Ezra Klein: “Why the media is so polarized — and how it polarizes us,” Vox, 1/28/20
- Dickerson: “The Hardest Job in the World,” The Atlantic, May 2018
- “Obama’s Call for Bipartisanship Failed. Why Do 2020 Dems Think They’ll Do Better?,” NY Mag, 3/1/19
- “Frenemies: A Love Story,” New York Times, 10/5/12
- “Nancy Pelosi, Icon of Female Power, Will Reclaim Role as Speaker and Seal a Place in History,” New York Times, 1/2/19
HOUSE OF TIP O’NEILL
- The Troubles of Tip O’Neill, New York Times, 8/16/91
- “After Two Decades, the ‘Boll Weevils’ Are Back, and Whistling Dixie,” Washington Post, 4/26/81
- Clip: “Speaker O’Neil’s Words Taken Down,” C-SPAN, 5/15/84
- “Newt vs. Tip: Partisanship at Its Apogee?,” RealClearPolitics, 5/15/14
- “The House of Jim Wright,” Politico, 5/7/15
- “Lott Remarks on Thurmond Echoed 1980 Words,” Washington Post, 9/11/02
- Listen: “Harry S. Truman’s Battles With the Bosses,” Whistlestop Podcast, 11/15/17
- “As Election Day nears, Trump borrows from Harry Truman’s playbook,” Washington Post, 11/5/18
- Clip: Joe Lieberman, “3-way tie for 3rd,” C-SPAN, 5/18/17
- Clip: “The Scream that doomed Howard Dean,” 2004
- Clip: “George H.W. Bush checks the time,” 1992
- “Dukakis and the Tank,” Politico, 11/17/13
- Clip: Mario Cuomo 1984 Democratic National Convention Keynote Speech, C-SPAN, 7/16/84
- Clip: Ronald Reagan’s 1976 Presidential Endorsement Speech, C-SPAN, 8/19/76
- Clip: President Obama delivers Eulogy, Youtube, 6/26/15
- Clip: Senator Barack Obama 2004 Democratic National Convention Keynote Speech, 7/27/04
- Clip: Obama Speech in Manassas, Virginia, 11/3/08
- Clip: Rep. Adam Schiff Closing Argument, 2/3/20
Preet Bharara: Hey, Stay Tuned listeners. You may have seen this in the Stay Tuned feed, but I got a couple of friends of mine, Lisa Monaco who’s no stranger to the podcast and Ken Weinstein to tell us about some national security issues that have fallen a little bit under the radar with all of this focus on impeachment, impeachment, impeachment. Lisa and Ken are two of the smartest people I know, and the most well versed in national security in the country. Lisa and Ken both served in the top most positions of national security in the government for presidents of different political parties. It’s good conversation. Check it out.
Preet Bharara: You’ve heard me talk about the CAFE Insider community, a subscription service that helps members make sense of law and politics. Our global community is eager to understand the latest news from a legal perspective and always asks thoughtful questions. In order to make sure that everyone is able to join and participate, we are excited to now offer special student pricing. Student members have full access to CAFE Insider which include The Weekly Insider Podcast, the Insider Newsletter, quarterly town calls and more. If you have a valid .edu email address, you can head to café.com/student and sign up at a special rate. Again, that’s café.com/student. We look forward to having you join the Insider community.
Preet Bharara: From CAFE welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.
John Dickerson: The difference between being a hero and the knave is whether you put your ambition towards larger American goals. And so, if you are doing things in the dirtiness of politics for the larger goal, that’s basically what politics is. The problem is that you can do things that are so dirty that you undermine the ultimate goal.
Preet Bharara: That’s John Dickerson. He’s a 60 Minutes correspondent, a senior political analyst at CBS News, an author, and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. Dickerson’s career in journalism began in the 1990s at Time Magazine, where he became White House correspondent. He went on to be Slate Magazine’s chief political correspondent, and also served as anchor of Face the Nation and a co-anchor of CBS This Morning. A thorough and thoughtful reporter, Dickerson is also an avid historian who spends a lot of time looking at the past to contextualize our political presence. We talk about the future of the Iowa caucuses, why politicians are writing out controversies instead of resigning, how to balance idealism with cynical politics, and the most interesting member of the House of Representatives. But first, let’s get to your questions, Stay Tuned.
Don Wiggins: Hi, Preet. This is Don Wiggins from Spotswood, New Jersey. I’m calling you Tuesday morning, the morning after the debacle in Iowa. I think like a lot of people when we heard that they were having great problems reporting the results, the idea was perhaps they’ve been hacked. Of course that turns out to have been wrong and that the [inaudible] have been much more mundane, such as Wi-Fi access and people not knowing how to use the app and other technical issues. My question to you is, does this finally put to bed the fairly ridiculous notion that Iowa gets to go first all the time? Thanks a lot, Preet, love the show. Bye.
Preet Bharara: Don, thanks for your question. And I think it’s something that’s on a lot of people’s minds. The subject matter is a little bit out of my normal wheelhouse. But luckily for us, my guest today as you know is journalist, John Dickerson, and he and I spent some time talking about the fate of the Iowa caucuses. Look, as I record this, it’s a little bit before noon on Wednesday, February 5th, and we still don’t have the final results or the total results from the Iowa caucuses. I think we have something like 71% and it’s been a day and a half. And a lot of other things have happened. The candidates are back in New Hampshire focusing on that primary that occurs next Tuesday. So, I agree it’s a debacle. It’s an embarrassment. It provides Republicans with a talking point.
Preet Bharara: It goes to a perception of competence on the part of Democrats and their ability to conduct elections. And at a time where we have a general worry about election security for a whole bunch of other reasons, and maybe more fraught reasons, including interference from outside the United States, not much reason to be confident based on the performance in Iowa on Tuesday. So, John Dickerson and other people who I admire and respect on these kinds of questions do you think, yeah, this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and that whether or not Iowa goes first next year, that there will be a substantial change. And lots of people have been angling for it for a while. And this is the thing that will finally put those people in the driver’s seat.
Joe: Hey, this is Joe from Arizona. In the condition that Senate’s going to be a no. So, with senators like Susan Collins claiming that her no votes is due to a rush procedure in the House, could the House use that as a pretext to return to their impeachment inquiry, and maybe I don’t know, I guess, subpoena John Bolton after all? I don’t recall the House ever formally closing an impeachment inquiry, so might this be possible? Thanks Preet.
Preet Bharara: So thanks, Joe. That’s a great question. As I record this, we’re on the verge of having a Senate vote, the result of which will be the acquittal of the President of the United States. So, by the time you hear this president will have been acquitted in connection with his Senate impeachment trial. Now, the technical question, I’m not sure the answer, which is can the House return to its formally opened impeachment inquiry? People keep using the analogy of the grand jury.
Preet Bharara: Generally speaking, if you have a grand jury, that returns an indictment against a person, and then you proceed against that person, you can’t go back to that grand jury and bring in other witnesses for purposes of adding support and evidence for that same charge against that person. Unless you’re planning to return what we call a superseding indictment that adds defendants or adds charges. You can’t just keep going back after you’ve returned an indictment and certainly not after there’s been a trial and acquittal. Obviously, in normal cases, you have double jeopardy that applies, and the defendant is done unless you have a different charge.
Preet Bharara: This, of course, is not that. And as recently as I think this morning, Jerry Nadler, the chair of the Judiciary Committee has suggested that the House will think very seriously about as soon as tomorrow, I guess, issuing a subpoena to John Bolton, so it doesn’t have to be in connection with the formally open impeachment inquiry, although I think technically they probably can do that. I don’t know what the optics are of saying aloud that you’re continuing with impeachment after impeachment has failed by virtue of an acquittal in the Senate. But the House committees including the Judiciary Committee, the Intelligence Committee, can continue to investigate the president. Can continue to investigate all manner of things, and can engage in their constitutional duty and obligation of oversight.
Preet Bharara: I’ve been saying for a long time that the House should be able to subpoena John Bolton. I think that they will, and we’ll see how John Bolton gets out of that having said that he’s prepared to testify in the Senate if subpoena. I don’t know what distinction he can draw between the Senate and the House. I suppose you could say, “Well, I was prepared to testify because the stakes were so high relating to impeachment, and now that this is just sort of an ordinary garden variety, house investigation, that doesn’t apply.” I think that’s a bogus and silly response.
Preet Bharara: And I still do think there’s an argument that John Bolton feels he should get the nuts and bolts of his testimony about the president’s conversations. He should get it out before his book drops, if and when his book will drop. There’s this fight going on between the White House and Bolton, and he would want to do that so he doesn’t look quite as craven and greedy as he will if the first time we hear of all this information about the president and Ukraine out of John Bolton’s mouth is on the pages of his book.
Preet Bharara: I suppose you can ask the question to what end? And I think the optics of some other impeachment proceeding before this President leaves office is bad and it won’t happen. There’s no constitutional prohibition against it, but it’s just it will never happen. But I am still a proponent of a truth. I am still a proponent of evidence coming out. I am still a proponent of making sure that the senators who voted against witnesses like John Bolton feel the weight of that vote once we know what John Bolton has to say, and just because there’s been an acquittal in the Senate doesn’t mean that the American public doesn’t deserve to know what happened. To understand who they’re voting for in November, to understand how their democracy has worked and is supposed to work. And for there to be a judgment for posterity on the president of the United States. So, John Bolton should still testify, even though impeachment is over.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in a tweet from Pierre Delicto, not to be confused with Pierre Delecto, which is the aka for Senator Mitt Romney. So Pierre Delicto asks, “Comment on the constitutional argument against removal in a president’s first term because voters can remove at the ballot box. There were no term limits in the Constitution, so any president facing impeachment was also facing an election or retirement?” I think you make the point perfectly well. There’s nothing to distinguish an impeachment from the first term or the fourth term, that argument doesn’t make any sense. It has no constitutional basis, can’t be called a constitutional argument. I think it’s an argument of convenience that people use to try to come up with some excuse for why they don’t think a president should be impeached.
Preet Bharara: This question comes in a tweet from Twitter user trumpwatcher8. I wonder why we have not heard from Trump watchers one through seven. But in any event, trumpwatcher8 asks, “Hey, Preet Bharara. Have you ever been involved in a prosecution where the jurors found the defendant guilty, but refused to convict, #AskPreet. As I first look at your question, it’s a little bit of a paradox because the finding of someone to be guilty is synonymous with, and the same thing as convicting. Because I thought about your question for another 10 seconds, which is all my producers allow me to have, I realized that I guess there is a scenario that something like that, and maybe that’s an interesting analogy we can use to apply the situation in the Senate.
Preet Bharara: There’s something called jury nullification where jurors decide as is their right. But it is not advocated for by the parties. Although sometimes defense lawyers figure out a clever way to sort of advocate for it, and that is the person is rightly charged. There is sufficient evidence beyond reasonable doubt and every element of the crime. But in the jurors own wisdom and in their power and authority, they decide they don’t want to convict. That they find in their hearts and minds that technically the crimes have been made out. That the person is guilty as charged by the prosecution. But they will not render a guilty verdict, which we call jury nullification, and they can do it for a variety of reasons because they think the law is stupid. Because they think that the government overreached in a way that the judge didn’t sanction in some way.
Preet Bharara: And so, I’ve had trials that I’ve overseen and one that I was in also where I did not interview the jury. So, I don’t know where I think there was no question that the defendant was guilty, but the jurors decide, in this particular case, given what happened to other people in connection with the case given the lack of severity of the crime, we’re just not going to go along. And they hand the government a black eye, and they decide to set the defendant free. I suppose that’s a little bit of the argument that some of these senators are kind of making. I suppose maybe this is an overly generous suggestion that people like Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski who have at least articulated their contempt for the process. But also they’re feeling that the president, in Lisa Murkowski’s case engaged in shameful and wrong conduct. It’s a form of nullification. So, it doesn’t happen often. I’m not a proponent of it, but it does. Stay Tuned, there’s more coming up right after this.
Preet Bharara: My guest this week is John Dickerson. He’s a correspondent for 60 minutes and a political analyst for CBS News. He’s also the co-host of Slate’s Political Gabfest, and Whistlestop podcast. He joins me to talk about the pressure we’ve placed on the office of the presidency, whether we’re a president obsessed nation, and why he compares Trump to Truman. We also talk about what happens next in the 2020 primary season, and why campaigns can become movements. That’s coming up. Stay Tuned.
Preet Bharara: John Dickerson, thanks for being on the show.
John Dickerson: Great. Thank you for having me.
Preet Bharara: I’ve waited a long time to have you here, sir.
John Dickerson: I know.
Preet Bharara: So, let me just note a couple of things for the audience. We are taping at about 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 4th. I walked into the studio and you are crisply dressed in a white shirt, quite starched. It’s very becoming and a lovely tie and a suit. I reminded you that this is audio, but then you reminded me that there’s a thing tonight that you got to go to.
John Dickerson: That’s right. I’m about to get on the train go down to DC to watch the State of the Union.
Preet Bharara: We still do that?
John Dickerson: We still do it, and it’s funny in this time of norm shifting and norm shredding, you have the president who prides himself on chaos in the most formal setting president other than meeting bodies returning from Dover, which he does, in complete accordance with the normal traditions of the presidency. But this is the other one in which presidents have so much trouble wriggling out of the formality at the moment. And yet, we have a president who does that. So, it actually makes it, say at the end, potentially more interesting than its normal route, boring process.
Preet Bharara: And in honor of this tradition that we have continued, could you complete the following sentence, the State of our Union is?
John Dickerson: Tense.
Preet Bharara: Tense.
John Dickerson: Tense, the State of our Union is tense. For this reason, while a number of the indicators economic indicators which often drive people’s feelings are warm. Not all of them are great, but some are good. People are on the left are highly agitated. And on the right, they’re agitated, in part because the president has decided that his successful presidential campaign will be founded on keeping them agitated.
Preet Bharara: Is there an argument for the president, given how you depict his strength at the moment, and on the cusp of being acquitted by the Senate, in a position of consolidated power to be conciliatory? Is the argument that maybe he should be that way, but it’s not in his nature as opposed to gloating at a moment like this?
John Dickerson: Well, there have been a number of instances in the presidency where people have imagined that might be the case. One was when he first came into office. You can imagine… So much water is under the bridge now, but you can imagine that a president who likes to disrupt things and who has no fixed ideology could have come to Washington and put together all kinds of deals or tried to reach across the aisle. It would have been chaotic. He would have gotten screamed at by his side by the other side, but he doesn’t mind a little disruption in the world, he chose not to go that route.
John Dickerson: He has consistently decided basically not to engage in a lot of the ceremonial acts of bipartisanship. And that’s basically being the way he’s run the presidency. So, your point is exactly the right one. The president should say, “Put this behind us. Let’s move forward on the following issues together.” Use this big national moment to make the case for bipartisanship, but-
Preet Bharara: That’s sort of what Clinton did.
John Dickerson: Sure. Oh, yeah. It’s what they’ve all done because [crosstalk 00:15:22]-
Preet Bharara: Clinton was in almost a parallel circumstance. An impeachment towards the end of the year, he was acquitted. There was a lot of tension and a lot of discord in the country over it, and he didn’t gloat, and he did pretty well in the polls after that.
John Dickerson: And he moved on and said I’m going to get some work done. What this president has decided, and and there are a lot of people who argue this is what Barack Obama should have done with his second term, which is Barack Obama should have said, “Look, the Republicans are never going to work with me. And I’m going to use the power of my office to drive right at the cracks in their party, and I’m going to get as much done as I can through executive action. And in the meantime, I’m going to leave a political legacy that cracks the Republican Party apart by going at them on immigration, on the second amendment, on gun control, on taxes, on a variety of issues where they have fishers and use that to split them apart.” He didn’t do that.
Preet Bharara: Should he have?
John Dickerson: There’s an argument that people made that he should have done that. What he would have had to give up, though, is the whole now let us reason together hope and change of his entire presidency. There’s something morally arid about that approach. Because you are using the power of the office in its fullest extent, and you’re recognizing that you’re creating breakage in the system.
Preet Bharara: On the other hand you could say that you’re morally and pragmatically naïve, otherwise. I mean, is unity in this day and age a fool’s errand?
John Dickerson: Exactly. Yeah. It’s a great question. And so, here’s the interesting question for Donald Trump. He comes in and he decides to operate in the world as it is and not the world as it maybe should be. So, why should he be on the hook for working with Democrats if he knows pretty much they’re never going to work with him? If that’s going to be the case, he’ll just do as much as he can through executive orders. Do as much as he can through the reconciliation process. And there’s no upside politically benefit for him to try to work with Republicans. Democrats would say Barack Obama wasted a lot of time trying to get a bipartisan deal on the Affordable Care Act. That he basically, it sat in the Finance Committee for a long time, and he never really got anything for it, and wasted time. And again, since he never got anything for it, it was naive. And so, you can imagine basically following your theory that Donald Trump has decided to govern in the world as it is not as it should be.
Preet Bharara: But is that a conscious governance strategy? Is he a brilliant Machiavelli? In other words, does the president actually care about achievement and accomplishment? He likes to tout them, he says, “I’ve accomplished a lot.” And mostly it’s things that we wouldn’t put on a list of greatest accomplishments ever by a president, including the non-building of the wall. Does he care about achievement or does he… Because you could get some, as you say, given his flexibility, or does he care about attention and the fight.
John Dickerson: I think he can get achievement, attention, and the fight, all three in the following way. It’s not in the traditional form. The traditional form as we used to think about it, and remember how often President Obama used to get grief for not schmoozing with the other side. And that was a model of Washington based on the LBJ model, and then the [crosstalk 00:18:14]-
Preet Bharara: Tip O’Neill.
John Dickerson: … Regan and Tip O’Neill thing, both of which are highly anachronistic could not happen today, and we can talk about why later. But could not happen today, and yet they lived on in these political myths that a president could through the power of their will bring the other side over and get big deals done. Now, that’s what we want as a kind of good government idea because the reason you want big deals, as you know, is that they’re more durable. Everybody gets a say, nobody feels shut out. The Congress gets a role in the process. And that’s good, because Congress represents the diversity of the country. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, and it makes better and more durable laws and allows you to really attack the big problems that can only be attacked through collective action.
John Dickerson: But that’s very hard to do these days because we’re so much more polarized, you have a lot of people on your own side who see bipartisan deals as a capitulation to the other side. And therefore, something that wouldn’t… That again, might in the president’s mind, hurt him with his base. So, what did he do? Instead he got more defense spending, which is base laws. He got judges, which is base laws. He changed and is constantly changing regulations in a way that is base legs. Those are all things that have been a longtime part of the Republican songbook. And so, he’s delivering for them, and it gets him good applause and he’s doing on immigration, what his base wants.
John Dickerson: So, he’s basically getting both the personal feedback loop of those rallies, and he’s doing things, which is why there’s so much adhesion in his party that had been a long time part of the Republican checklist. A lot of things that weren’t like deficit, the size of the deficit, and things like that, but I think he’s doing enough in his own party to keep those applause rolling. And so, it’s not just things like the wall. It’s actually achievements that Republicans like.
Preet Bharara: So going back to the State of the Union tonight, and given how tense. I think that’s a great way to describe the State of the Union. This is not a substantive question, but a question about what the temperature in the room will be. Will the democrats behave themselves? Will there be raucous? We will know if you’re right or not by Thursday when this drops.
John Dickerson: You never know because now the incentives in politics and this is a part of the reason that the LBJ world and even the Reagan O’Neill world, which starts to break apart because of people like Newt Gingrich, the incentives now in politics and media are for individual people to act out. Remember Joe Wilson yelling out when President Obama was giving his healthcare speech and said, “You’re a liar?” Well, as Ezra Klein writes about in his book, Wilson’s fundraising numbers go up.
John Dickerson: Now there is an absolutely clear path to both fame in right or left media and fundraising if you act out. And you are doubly blessed if you act out and the gatekeepers or hall monitors or whatever you want to call it say, “Wait a minute, that’s out of line.” Suddenly you get even more donations because now this is a little bit more of a feedback loop on the right. But now the left is having a conversation about, “Hey, why don’t we do a little acting out ourselves? We stay within these norms and we keep losing. So maybe we should do…” So, I think you anything could happen during the State of the Union.
Preet Bharara: Can I ask you a question that just occurred to me, and you may not answer it, but who is the most interesting member of the House of Representatives? And the other way I could ask it is any member of the House of Representatives interesting?
John Dickerson: Well, Nancy Pelosi is the most interesting member because she has control, how to use it. She is the leader of the Democratic Party against the president because she has levers to do things that Chuck Schumer in the Senate doesn’t have. She has this roiling part of her caucus that is powerful and important and represents a lot of the energy of the party, but obviously she doesn’t want them driving the bus, the so called squad. So, she is the most interesting also because she was born into this in her bones, and so she has old timey political instincts.
Preet Bharara: Baltimore, Maryland.
John Dickerson: Right. And the kinds of instincts that the president has from his own improvisational life where you were asking earlier whether it’s strategy or impulse. With the president, it’s all impulse, but its impulse to survival and use of power. I think with Pelosi case it’s learned behavior, and that makes her quite interesting. There are lots of members of the House who are interesting, but never… They quietly do their work, and we never hear from them.
Preet Bharara: Because they don’t behave a certain way on social media or on television.
John Dickerson: Right.
Preet Bharara: Do you agree with the people who say that the United States respects Nancy Pelosi?
John Dickerson: Well, he called her third a grade politician [crosstalk] to her face.
Preet Bharara: Sometimes the boy has a crush on the [inaudible 00:22:37].
John Dickerson: That’s a good point.
Preet Bharara: People say that.
John Dickerson: It’s a good point. I think he does because he recognizes she has power and has some theory about how to use it. And uses it in a way that takes a little paint off the door. It’s not just ceremonial and Washington, the foam of Washington [inaudible 00:22:56]. She uses it in the way power has to be used. The president’s basic theory of the case is all of this stuff you guys have created over the course of American government to hide and bubble wrap power, it’s all foolishness.
Preet Bharara: What if Tip O’Neill would be the Speaker of the House right now? I know that’s hard to imagine, it’s anachronistic. And he was a creature of his time and acted the way as all smart politicians do. He rose to the moment, and rose to that power because he acted a certain way. Maybe that’s why he got into power, but do the thought experiment for a moment. What does that look like?
John Dickerson: Well, I think he said some pretty extraordinarily rough things about Ronald Reagan. And Reagan said some relatively rough things back but not as tough as O’Neill. O’Neill was in the same kind of position. He was the leading Democrat, and he was the leader of basically the New Deal Coalition, the old timey Democratic Party. And so, he fought when he had to. What O’Neill would not be constrained by today that he was constrained by when Ronald Reagan was president is that he had a bunch of boll weevil Democrats. Democrats from the south, who were elected in districts that had all voted for Ronald Reagan. And there were anywhere from 40 to 80 of these boll weevil Democrats, and they voted with Reagan on his budget and on his tax cut. And what O’Neill knew is leaving aside that O’Neill believed in government, and leaving aside the fact he believed that you tried to compromise on things, forget about those for a moment.
John Dickerson: There were structural incentives that made it necessary for Neil to let his conservative Democrats work with the President, so they’d get reelected in district Democratic voters and then reelect him as Speaker. So, he needed to stay in power by… Well, those boll weevil Democrats don’t exist anymore. There were only 12 Democrats elected in districts that voted for Donald Trump. There were more than 100 with Ronald Reagan. So, O’Neill without that structural need to keep the boll weevils on the team would probably be fighting more and more constantly than even Nancy Pelosi does.
Preet Bharara: And there would be Twitter.
John Dickerson: Yes, there would be Twitter, and I’m trying to think… O’Neill was not always… There’s a famous moment where Newt Gingrich basically ambushed him. Gingrich went to the floor when nobody was around and attacked Democrats for being weak on the Cold War and O’Neill came to the floor, and basically Gingrich baited him into a fight and O’Neill said, that’s the most underhanded thing I think he said. And Trent Lott stood up and said that should be stricken from the record. I think it was a Lott who stood up and said, and it was stricken from the record. Basically, they baited him into a fight and he got flustered, and he disparaged a member of the House on the floor of the House, which means it gets stricken from the record. The funny thing then is the person who comes in to appeal to comedy and fellow feeling is Jim Wright, who would then of course later go on to be a speaker, and be driven from that post by Newt Gingrich. But O’Neill wasn’t so fast. So, I don’t know how he would be in the Twitter universe.
Preet Bharara: You say Trent Lott. I could talk you for 17 hours. We’ll try to keep it at five because everything you say causes me to think of five more things to ask you. I mean, think about Trent Lott for a second. We’re talking about thought experiments and different generations. What happened to Trent Lott? He said a thing and he had to go. Remind us the thing he said.
John Dickerson: What he said was if I recall right, Strom Thurmond was retiring.
Preet Bharara: Didn’t he say something like, in honor of Strom Thurmond, or had he been elected maybe America would be better?
John Dickerson: Yes, yes. I think he said we wouldn’t have some of the problems we have today, I think.
Preet Bharara: And boy, was there reaction.
John Dickerson: Right. Because what he’s talking about is Strom Thurmond’s segregationist past. Thurmond of course, had changed and there were also at this point, Republicans would say, “Wait a minute now. Robert Byrd was considered a line of the Democratic cause, but he had once been a member of the KKK. [crosstalk 00:26:27].
Preet Bharara: So the question is, if a person like Trent Lott today, Senate majority leader of a party said that thing, would there be the same reaction or no, you can say whatever.
John Dickerson: Well, it’s a fascinating question. It also echoes with people have made the larger case about Richard Nixon. Would there have been an instance in which Republican senators went to Richard Nixon? I mean, nobody went to Donald Trump and would the enforcing mechanisms of media the way it works today and partisanship the way it works today and Richard Nixon was elected with… In half the states he won had Democratic senator, so there was much more split ticket voting. It’s just a different kind of structural country politically. If Richard Nixon lived in the world today, I think you can make a pretty strong case that he would not have felt the pressure to resign. So that’s the big version of what you’re asking would… I mean, look at the governor of Virginia. He was able to ride out a Blackface controversy in a way other politicians were not. I think it’s certainly possible Trent Lott could have stayed in today’s environment.
Preet Bharara: Is that good or bad?
John Dickerson: Well, it’s an excellent… This is in fact a version of the debate that we had in the Democratic Party when Joe Biden, one of his arguments is I can make deals with these people in a way that a lot of people argued that, that Washington doesn’t exist anymore. But he said, “I made deals with people in the past that we got things done.” Well, some of those people were segregationist. So a lot of people were horrified by what Biden had said. But we are in a redefining moment about what compromises are required to make progress. And by the way, what is progress in an institution that only 18% of the country believes in? So they’re saying, “Wait a minute-
Preet Bharara: Is it that high?
John Dickerson: Yeah. You’re putting on-
Preet Bharara: When did they get that high?
John Dickerson: You’re putting on pause these universal truths for the purposes of making an institution that we all think is horrible work more efficiently. It doesn’t make sense. On the other hand, the balance of power system has served us pretty well. And in the balance of power system, you are going to end up making some compromises with people about things that are not perfect.
Preet Bharara: The weird thing about that is, maybe I’m just naïve in thinking about it not right. But you have people who consider themselves within the left or the right, the things that they want, some of them would probably brand themselves to be idealistic. They want to do these things, change the world, fight climate change, have less income inequality, but yet the way they want to go about doing it is through rhetoric of not working with the other side, and not talking about unity, because that’s futile and naive. And so, you slip into cynicism a little bit and how do you think about that balance between wanting to make the world better and have your ideals be realized. We call that idealism in a sense, through cynical politics.
John Dickerson: Well, it’s always been the trick of governing is that you have to appeal and believe in the high minded ideals, while all the while recognizing and working in a system that’s flawed. And you hopefully, and this is true with personal ambition, too, because a lot of these people are doing this all for their own personal glory and fame. And so, the difference between being a hero and a knave is whether you put your ambition towards larger American goals. And so, if you are doing things in the dirtiness of politics for the larger goal, that’s basically what politics is. The problem is that you can do things that are so dirty that you undermine the ultimate goal.
John Dickerson: The challenge right now is that we basically run presidencies as executive order and executive action offices. And so, now you have Democrats doing what the Republicans did, which is saying here my list of executive actions I’m going to come in and do. The minute you come in and enact all of those you’ve basically killed compromise with Congress because all the Republicans will say a version of what the Democrats are saying now. In order to deliver on your promises, you’re basically cutting off the system of cooperation between Congress and the presidency.
Preet Bharara: You could do a little bit on the clock. You can come in and you can push stuff through. I mean, some people think that Obama did that with the Affordable Care Act. He got an important signature achievement through, but that [inaudible] all sorts of other things that he wanted to do later. Do you buy that?
John Dickerson: I think so. But I think people would also say he could have foreseen that it was going to end up the way it did. And so, why waste the time going through the bipartisan charade? They would say. He should have just rammed it through in the first instance, and not wasted all that time. I think we have to think about opportunity costs in the presidency in a different way than we do, which is if you achieve something it’s going to cost. It’s either going to cost in time or partisanship. And this again might be a way in which Donald Trump is operating in the world as it is not as it should be. And he decided, okay, they’re not going to like me no matter what I do, so I’m just going to go this way. They may be even more angry at me than they would have been otherwise, but they’re always going to be angry and never vote with me anyway. So, I’m just going to operate in this lane.
Preet Bharara: So, he really is playing 3D chess.
John Dickerson: I don’t know that he’s playing 3D chess or he’s… It’s not the fox, it’s the hedgehog. He’s just saying use everything… I mean, we know the reporting on this of course, from so many different sources, but Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker’s book has this which is I want it done, and I don’t mind if laws are broken. We hear this from Kirsten Nielson, from Rex Tillerson, I don’t mind if laws are broken in the process sorted out later. This is very… When Truman was going to basically take the armed forces and have them operate the steel mills. He was like do it now, and we can sort it out in the courts later. That’s the approach he’s taken to the presidency and just basically bypassed all of those… When George W. Bush came into office after Bush v. Gore. He thought the first thing I have to do is work on something with Democrats to build a kind of little sense of bipartisanship so that we can operate in Washington. He wanted to… And that’s just not the approach that Trump is taking.
Preet Bharara: We’re going to get emails about your Trump Truman comparison. So, do you want to address that?
John Dickerson: Sure. Well, no, what I’m saying is if you look at the things that Truman did, and the way in which he used the Oval, used the presidency, it was, I’m going to do these things, and we’ll sort it out later. It was a very muscular use of the presidency. President Trump sees the presidency in the same way. And I think if you look at the things that Truman said out loud, that would be difficult to imagine politicians saying today, including but his own Democrats, and how he interfered in the Democratic primary 1960. Truman was a power and a force and it’s one of the reasons he has come to some historical claim, but he was not a person who didn’t test the boundaries of his presidency.
Preet Bharara: Right. And maybe people thought that more than they would have otherwise because he was underestimated.
John Dickerson: Yes, he was underestimated and stakes were high. I mean, the country was coming out of the war. I mean goodness, he almost gave a speech in which he said basically the railroad Labour leader should be hung, and Clark Clifford jumps in and takes the speech. This is why it was good for Truman there was no Twitter. They take the speech and say you cannot say this out loud. You can’t say that there should… In the speech, Truman says, hang a few traitors. He’s talking about labor leaders of the railroad system. So he had a very kind of get it done, get it done now approach that you’d have endless cable coverage of his behavior if he did it in today’s environment.
Preet Bharara: Talking about the president some more or I guess the presidency, you recently wrote the following. We are a president obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. And I take it you don’t mean we’re obsessed with this particular president. You mean the president, generally.
John Dickerson: Right. And there’s obviously an obsession with this particular president. But in general, we’re obsessed with the presidency. All answers kind of flow from the presidency. They should flow from Congress in a system where… or flow at least in a conflict between the two as it was originally designed, and or local government as well.
Preet Bharara: Isn’t that pie in the sky stuff we talk about? I’m a trained lawyer. We have three branches of government. The other two branches like to say from time to time that they are co-equal. But they’re not really, are they?
John Dickerson: Sure. I mean, Congress has ceded power to the presidency, you can say it either was in 1938 in the Reorganization Act, or you can say it’s in World War Two or the Cold War or after 9/11. There have been a series of instances in which Congress, which by the way, almost by design cedes power because it makes laws and then says, “You go execute these laws,” which means you go have the power to do all these things. So, almost in its very nature, it hands power over the executive. But there’s a system of tension, and then there’s a system where basically Congress doesn’t do anything until the president speaks. And that’s closer to what we’re in now.
John Dickerson: Even let’s talk a little about the war making power, for example. It’s basically been completely handed over to the President. But you have a situation now where all the structural impulses on a president are to act quickly, act in emergency fashion, all the reasons that the office was designed to take care of urgent national moments of national security. And that’s the pressure on the president. Everybody’s looking to the president to be those superhero, action hero president. But what you’ve got in Congress is people who have in some cases represents states and districts where their constituents have been at war for 18 years. They know what it’s like to go into war and have lives changed irrevocably.
John Dickerson: They are on a different timeline and representative of a different group of people, and have different pressures than this president. And both of the people with those different sets of pressure should be in an argument about how to participate in national security, and maybe not in the moment that there’s an urgent need. That has to be basically one person but overall in the war making process, you should have this other voice that represents this diversity and represents all the people who go do the fighting. And that would be a rebalancing from our current system that would be more in line and I don’t think is pie in the sky.
Preet Bharara: I take it that when you say we are president obsessed you’re not just talking about congressional difference. You’re talking about people in the country who just have a focus on the presidency. I guess my question is, is that just the natural state of affairs because it’s easier to focus your attention on one figure who has a huge platform rather than 535 disperse members in the same way that people in the UK are obsessed, some of them with the queen, right?
John Dickerson: Yes, absolutely. And a lot of this is driven by the way we consume media, but also by being presidency obsessed. We are presidency obsessed, or president obsessed and not… We should even pay a little more attention to the executive branch. I mean, what’s going on at any of the agencies or what’s going on in the Department of Justice?
Preet Bharara: We try to.
John Dickerson: Yeah. Well-
Preet Bharara: From time to time.
John Dickerson: When you think about the… And again, this particular president really binds the president and the presidency together, but that has been a… I mean, when James K. Polk was president, his wife had them play Hail to the Chief so people wouldn’t recognize who he was when he walked in the room. I mean, so we-
Preet Bharara: I do that too.
John Dickerson: So, you have a situation which the president, and the presidency are the same thing and political life in America can’t see around that to even what’s happening in the executive branch, let alone what should be happening in Congress. And what that does, it seems to me is obscure all the other kinds of things that if the president ain’t talking about it, it doesn’t get discussed. And that means our ability to take collective action against our biggest problems is weakened.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. So, I mean, the president has the greatest agenda setting power of any figure in government. I mean, in fact, one of the branches of government, the courts are supposed to be without agenda, which is interesting when you think about the problems we have in the country. They’re supposed to be passive call balls and strikes. We’ll get to Justice Roberts in a moment. Let’s talk about some of the people who want to replace the president. So before we were taping, we were chit chatting, and you look very well rested, but you claim to have been up late like I was because just to remind folks, we are now in the one o’clock hour on Tuesday, February 4th, and you and I cannot discuss what I thought was going to be the first thing we would discuss what the official results from Iowa are, and we can’t. Are you irritated by that?
John Dickerson: Well, it’s a great question. I’m irritated by… The worst thing any human can do is spend too much time on Twitter. Well, that’s the second worst thing. The first worst thing they could do is spend it right before you go to sleep. Because it was last night while everybody was irritated by the lack of results. It was the worst. One third of the people were repeating the same anecdote about the person who was on hold with-
Preet Bharara: With Blitzer.
John Dickerson: … with Blitzer. The second group were giving tiny little precinct results from one of the precincts, and then the third were just running around with barrels of gasoline pouring it on the on the fire. It was not a healthy place.
Preet Bharara: What were you doing?
John Dickerson: I was reading all of that and getting irritated, and unfortunately deleting all of the tweets that I was thinking about sending.
Preet Bharara: I did the same. I drafted some and then I don’t think that’s maybe right to say.
John Dickerson: We’ve been talking about trying to rebalance the system and how to keep realism and idealism in the correct balance. And the American system needs to be reformed, and you can pick wherever you want to do it, whether it’s campaign finance or the way we do elections. Or obsessive focus on the presidency or wherever you decide to put your finger down. One of the troubles with reform in American life is that people always imagine the worst implementation of reform when you have a conversation about it. And so, even if it’s a bad idea, you never get the fruits of the discussion about the idea. Well, we have seen the worst implementation of what was supposed to be a good reform, which is make this more transparent, make it give a truer signal [crosstalk 00:39:21]-
Preet Bharara: You’re talking about the changes in the Iowa caucus [crosstalk 00:39:23].
John Dickerson: Yes, I’m sorry. I skipped over that part. Exactly. The changes in the Iowa caucus that were supposed to make it more transparent, more durable, couldn’t hack it, and it ended up the study of complex systems is a favorite thing of mine. But they added complexity to the system and the system couldn’t handle it. Now, what happens, let’s imagine a pleasant future in which they finally get their act together in Iowa and they return results that have have a sense of durability. So, we will have in the end gotten cleaner. This is in a fantasy. I’m not saying this is going to happen, but imagine it did. You look at a clear signal about what people who paid a lot of attention to the race thought, and that’s not unhelpful.
Preet Bharara: Yeah. Except that the counter argument is that what Iowa really provides is a real time snapshot of what those people thought, correct, that’s what your point is, combined with the opportunity in prime time that day when everyone’s paying attention to make use of it.
John Dickerson: Right. The second part you could argue is the obsession with the immediate is what’s killing our politics. And therefore, if everybody’s got a wait a minute or two and doesn’t get the sugar high from the results, that’s okay. Because what you got is the thing that’s more nourishing, which is the durable. This is again, in the fantasy scenario-
Preet Bharara: Welcome to the food channel.
John Dickerson: The durable signal from the voters of Iowa… Now, we can argue about whether it’s actually a durable signal. People would say in the Democratic Party, Iowa was not really sending you a durable signal about the full party in its full range because in looking at the entrance polls last night if you look for any people of color, in the polling it says not enough data. So let the sugar high wait if you’re going to get a clean signal. Now we don’t know whether even what they find they’re going to report. They say it’s going to be five o’clock on Tuesday. Even if that signal will appear clean. And then you will have had a reform that was intended to winnow the number of conspiracy theories is now going to be the fertilizer for it, which means I think Iowa, which traditionally has a winnowing role with respect to candidates may have winnowed itself out of the process.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, so that’s interesting, right? So their reward for doing something that you say in an ideal world provides a clearer signal and a truer signal may cause its eradication.
John Dickerson: Yeah, I think so.
Preet Bharara: Do you think we’ll have an Iowa caucuses next year?
John Dickerson: I don’t think so. I think because there was everybody-
Preet Bharara: Just one screw up, and that’s it.
John Dickerson: Well, I think people were itching for a reform, and for some of the reasons we skated by, and then now I think that making the case for Iowa, the old case was they’re patient, durable, this signal is very strong. It’s the result of this careful process. Well, the process wasn’t careful enough to take care of this problem, then it loses one of its strongest arguments.
Preet Bharara: In your mind which member of the Democratic field should be most annoyed at the mess?
John Dickerson: It’s a great question. Well, obviously it depends on the actual numbers. And so, you can make the case for annoyance in a couple of ways. One, Sanders because it looks like Sanders was going to do well, and it would… If they’re going to be two lanes, it would have kind of locked him in as the lead of his lane, put Warren even further into the rear view, and set him up as-
Preet Bharara: Something definitive about it.
John Dickerson: Definitive about it, thank you.
Preet Bharara: Right?
John Dickerson: Now, you could argue for Buttigieg.
Preet Bharara: Well, Buttigieg emerged victorious.
John Dickerson: Well, so he said, and I think people are giving him a hard time for saying he won, or whatever construction he… I think people are being slightly too fastidious. People always come out of these things saying they’ve won. Lamar Alexander came in third in 1996 and declared it a victory.
Preet Bharara: Joe Lieberman, I think said who came in sixth.
Joe Lieberman: thanks to the people of New Hampshire. We are in a three way split decision for third place.
John Dickerson: Yes. Even as he was saying it to the cameras, you could see him losing steam behind the [crosstalk 00:43:06].
Preet Bharara: That was one of those nights I remember where I miss Jon Stewart, and Jon Stewart had a nice time with a three way tie for third place.
John Dickerson: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: So, Mayor Pete, if you believe what some of the speculation is that he did quite well, maybe as well as second or first depending on which metric you’re counting. Was it smart for him to seize the mantle?
John Dickerson: Oh, I think so. Yeah. These nights are, and again, this is a part of that weird sugar high, but it’s been a part of American politics for a long time. Muskie in 1972 loses New Hampshire even though he won it because he just didn’t do as well as people thought. Clinton in ’92 [crosstalk] wins New Hampshire even though he comes in second. Same with Dean coming in third in 2004 in Iowa. He didn’t do as well as people thought. So I think Buttigieg did better than… There was a lot of kind of he’s fading talk in Iowa in the last week. So, if he does well then he exceeds expectations and I think one argument you can make that feels relatively sustainable, even though we don’t know results is that Biden seems to have… This might be good news for him in the sense that if he wasn’t doing terribly well, then this kind of muddies that up and doesn’t make that the storyline for some number of days. But I guess we’ll all have a different theory once we get actual numbers.
Preet Bharara: We have to proceed by hypothetical a little bit longer. So I’m irritated for that reason. So, let’s say you have Sanders and Buttigieg close to the top one, two, and you have Biden further back. And in the middle you have Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren, what has to happen in New Hampshire to cause the race to look more clear, and for whom?
John Dickerson: Well, you have to have… If you have Buttigieg coming to the fore in the non-Sanders lane. I don’t even want to give it a name, but just because the names are so blunt and unhelpful, but if he wins or does well and in New Hampshire, then he’s got two wins under his belt. The problem is he then runs into South Carolina. And his challenge with African American voters, he has not been able to surmount.
Preet Bharara: You think Nevada matters?
John Dickerson: Yeah, Nevada matters. Buttigieg his problem is South Carolina because of its… You can’t win in the Democratic Party if you don’t have African American voters, and he hasn’t found a way to win them. Then the question is what happens to Biden, if Buttigieg is ascending then Biden is going to be obviously falling. And so, then where did his voters go? I think this maybe goes on for a little while. We are so into the thin air of hypothetical, but you could imagine if Buttigieg becomes the moderate lane person, the kind of forces behind Biden could fight back in a more robust way, which then ties Buttigieg and Biden down, which allows Sanders to run unopposed assuming that Elizabeth Warren doesn’t take the signal and get more tough with respective to Sanders.
Preet Bharara: How do you think Sanders gets treated if he’s the nominee in the general? If you take as your… Some people are saying this, if you take as a standard the way that John Kerry was swift voted when he ran for president. What do you think people will do with respect to someone who uses the term socialist to describe himself?
John Dickerson: There will be endless pieces about socialism, what it means, his history because as John [inaudible] has argued, there’s footage, and since so much of our conversation, and as I was arguing earlier, this isn’t a good thing is driven by image and by what can get passed around in social media. I think that becomes the shiny object that consumes a lot of the conversation in the race. And so then Sanders’ challenge is… I mean, his challenge always will be the second step. Once you win in your party, your larger broader argument. And we’re having one of the things, the arguments that’s taking place in politics right now is does that second half of the argument look more like For the Biden case, which is I’m trying to speak to the entire country, or does it look more like a Sanders argument, which is I’m speaking to this group out there that’s bigger than you think. And it’s so big, my passion and authenticity with that group is what takes me to the White House, not trying to be all things to all people.
Preet Bharara: Here’s another generational question that occurred to me as you were speaking, and I wonder if in the modern era, I guess it’s probably true, but I’m trying to think of examples. Does a single moment, a single passing GIF or image, is it is harmful given an environment in which there are millions and millions of images and a lot more tweets and a lot more interactions you have with candidates, but a single bad image or GIF? Is it less consequential than it used to be? Because I think going back you had that moment when Howard Dean had the scream which seems so mild. And a lot of people would say it tanked him. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Speaking of tank, Michael Dukakis looking a little silly with the helmet and the tank. You had the moment where President Bush looked at his watch in a debate. Those were huge deals. Could those kinds of things be a huge deal now or we too inundated?
John Dickerson: Well, and you also add Muskie supposedly crying in 1972 in New Hampshire, which led to that race I talked about earlier in terms of expectations. So a couple of things, the caravan moves on faster now than it used to. The problem with all these little moments is that if they enliven an existing narrative, so that was certainly the case with George Herbert Walker Bush people thought he was disconnected from the economy… Okay, that’s what… Dean’s problem with the scream was not the scream, but it was that he came third in Iowa. He’d been on the cover of Time in Newsweek. He was headed to the end zone, and then he came in third. So that was a little-
Preet Bharara: Are you going to reenact the scream for us?
John Dickerson: No.
Preet Bharara: I thought you were about to to do it.
John Dickerson: I know, I felt moved.
John Dickerson: One of the questions with these moments is does a candidate have a pain threshold to get through them, and basically ignore them. This goes back to the beginning of our country. Alexander Hamilton gets faced with his affair with Mariah Reynolds, and decides to write the Reynolds pamphlet. Takes it head on. Jefferson has his affair with Sally Hemings written by the same scandal monger James Callender and blows it off. Doesn’t address it at all. Works well for Jefferson, doesn’t work well for Hamilton. So, what if you just power through, and don’t worry about this moment and just stay on who you are? Does that allow you to get through, which is your argument? Is it an anvil that gets [crosstalk 00:49:32]-
Preet Bharara: I guess it depends. If you’re Donald Trump, you can power through anything apparently.
John Dickerson: Yes. If the structure of your party is and you make a bet on the structure of your party, and the bet pays off, which it did for him that the party will stay with you and that you through the success in your own party and the disarray in the other party can ride that to victory.
Preet Bharara: It doesn’t work for Al Franken.
John Dickerson: It doesn’t work for Al Franken. And what you’d have to figure, think through is if it can work in the Democratic Party in the way that it worked in the Republican Party, and then also it’s going to operate differently in the Republican Party if we look at, say those suburban college educated Republican women who voted for Trump last time. What are they going to do now? So it may not work again for Trump. But you have to be willing to make that kind of bet and have that kind of pain threshold, which is not a lot of politicians have.
Preet Bharara: I don’t want to talk about campaigns. But in leading into a discussion of campaigns, I want to ask you a question, but first flatter you in a sense, but I mean this. So you’re a consequential journalist, you’re a thoughtful person. You think about issues. I think anybody listening to this discussion would believe that you and hopefully I also care about real problems, care about democracy, care about big picture problems, and substantive issues. And yet have also engaged in a conversation with you about the “horse race.” And this is, I think, a pretty substantive podcast week after week. Every once in a while, we’ll have a discussion about who’s up who’s down. I in my home have this discussion all the time, and you get people say, “Well, that’s nonsense. Stop focusing on the horse race.” Somehow that’s less important. How do you think about the balance both in journalism and for citizens, focusing on the horse race versus focusing on the big ticket issues of our day that need to be solved?
John Dickerson: I’m obsessed with this issue because you’re exactly right about the horse race. It’s a part… [inaudible] like that conversation we were having earlier, which is about the kind of messiness and muddiness of politics, and then the virtue that has to be behind it or else we’re all doomed. So, the horse race is a part of the messiness. It’s a part of the power acquisition. You got to have power first to use it. And so, that conversation is not crazy. And there are some of the skills that a presidential candidate… If a presidential candidate has what it takes in a campaign that does tell us something about their ability in the job, and it tells us something about whether they’re going to be successful in the job. But what our problem is, in the press is we spend all our time on that, and we’ve forgotten two other important things.
John Dickerson: One, what are the issues that are the most important, and that deserve presidential time and attention. And then to your question earlier, one of our challenges in politics right now is the death of bipartisanship and the rise of partisanship. Is that something a president who’s supposed to in the Lyndon Johnson formulation see an urgent need, and then take it on? Should a president do that? Should he take on this thing that he may very well fail at? Or even if he’s successful, it’ll be a small little success? Or should he do stuff for the guys and girls who brung him, and maybe make that partisan problem worse, but achieve more on the balance sheet of of partisanship. So, that’s one set of issues.
John Dickerson: Then there’s the other thing, which is when they come into the job, the jobs a lot different than the thing we talked about in campaigns, and they show up and as Elaine K. Mark says, they realize all the stuff they talked about in the campaign isn’t what the job is. The job is basically national security, and then a bunch of secret stuff you learn about once you get the job. It terrifies you. It happened both with Bush and with Obama, and certainly with Johnson. They come in this age of, all of those presidents fought wars that first they thought, “I don’t want to be micromanaging everything.” And then they realize after a few years of wars, they have to micromanage, and it takes over their presidencies.
John Dickerson: So, we don’t focus enough on what the job’s really like when we’ve talked it through, which is both one which causes us to pick candidates who may or may not have the skills necessary for the job, but it also deprives us of an opportunity to have the kind of conversation you and I have been having, which is, what’s the best way to deploy presidential time and attention to their task? And what is the task before them, and to have those kind of conversations which are substantive about our expectations, about what can get done? And all the ways we set those things up in a campaign govern the way we evaluate presidents when they get in the job.
Preet Bharara: Will you bless my having discussions about the horse race from time to time, is that okay?
John Dickerson: Well, certainly, it’s not in my position. I’m not in possession of any divine quality to bless it, but I’ve thought a lot about this because one of the other things I think a lot about and I want to mention it before I lose it is a lot of the things we used to do in journalism, and still should do, fact checking is one of them is a more complicated thing than we used to think.
John Dickerson: One of the things I learned early on when I was host of Face the Nation is that there are certain politicians and the president is one of them who are happy to be fact checked because it keeps them on the turf of the issue they want to talk about. And your fact check conveys the underlying information. And we know from political scientists and psychologists the way that this works on the brain, that the fact check basically conveys the underlying untruth to a whole new audience. And that many people in that audience hearing it for the first time think, “Oh, well, the politician I like said it.” So they just strip away the fact check, and they’d say, “Well, this must be so.”
John Dickerson: We have to think in a new and complex way. Not so new anymore. We’ve been doing it for years, but about just that simple part of our job. So that’s another thing that’s over here separate apart from your point about the horse race, but the acquisition of power and knowing how and when to get power is a crucial part of the job. It’s just not the whole bundle.
Preet Bharara: You’re kind of a student of campaigns, fair to say?
John Dickerson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Preet Bharara: What is your interest in campaigns? Why does it fascinating you?
John Dickerson: Yeah, it’s a great question. Well, the superficial answer is they used to be, and then they’re not what they used to be. They used to be a great drama for people’s hopes and fears. And this is what the Iowa caucus, which I have spent many years going back to my first campaign in 1996 covering Lamar Alexander. I mean, the number of towns I’ve been in Iowa and the people I’ve talked to you, really your faith in democracy is restored and people’s basic decency. And the fact that people are just good and want their country to do well, and are not the kinds of people we see reflected back to us in Twitter.
John Dickerson: So, there was both the drama of a campaign then the connection with the virtue of the American people. It’s not just an Iowa, it’s in Ohio and New Hampshire and San Francisco and all the places that I’ve covered presidential campaigns and Senate and House races. But then also huge massive problems, which can only be solved through collective actions. So how do we get that done, and people who have risen up to their moment, sometimes rhetorically, sometimes through quiet ways we never see, sometimes in reform efforts that have changed the country. There are amazing stories there. And there’s also when it’s done right, you change people’s lives forever. Either in a speech, or by delivering safety and comfort in their old age, or in freeing them up to follow their bliss and become great entrepreneurs or whatever. It can be the spark of amazing adventures in people’s lives when done right. And so, when it’s done poorly, or we get stuck in a rut, you want to be trying to light a candle rather than just curse the darkness.
Preet Bharara: And so, do you think people should feel that sense of idealism about campaigns even when they’re rough and tumble and when dirty tricks are employed?
John Dickerson: Yes, because to give in to despair is [crosstalk 00:56:50]-
Preet Bharara: We don’t do that around here. No despair.
John Dickerson: You can’t do that. I think what’s been a trick for me, and that’s what’s hard is finding the useful way to be idealistic and believe in all that stuff and yet not be totally naive. And also, by the way, not to go following some plan that just wastes everybody’s time, and also not to be so technocratic that it would never work in the real world. So, I don’t know, except that I know what the alternative would be, which is to give in to despair. And that would be awful.
Preet Bharara: We are still in the midst of on this February 4th, the Senate impeachment trial. And one of the things that we have witnessed in the last few days are the closing arguments, and in particular by Adam Schiff. And there have been a couple that have gotten a lot of attention including yesterday where some people have said it was a tour de force and he calls to mind high principles and is encouraging people to vote their conscience rather than being afraid of the president. What do you make of… Before we get to the substance of it quickly, what do you make of the performances on the floor of the various stakeholders and participants in impeachment?
John Dickerson: There were some very strong moments on… This is a phrase you can’t say anymore, but on both sides, I think. And the grading is, we don’t have enough time to talk about it. But I mean, there were some times when you knew the argument they were making was highly lawyerly. And you probably saw this a lot where you thought if we were giving you sodium pentothal, I know that’s not the argument you would make. But for your client in the moment, you are making a very persuasive case to this jury. And so, on that scale, I think both sides did well.
Preet Bharara: We have put sodium pentothal by the way in your water. I don’t know if you know.
John Dickerson: That accounts for all the stumbles. I’m unfamiliar with the truth. I was struck at times that the house managers didn’t always drive to a central narrative all the time. And that one of the smart things the president’s lawyers did was whenever they talked about process, it A, created a sort of like, what are they, you can imagine the audience losing in the details both at home and in the Senate, but it also created a situation where senators if they wanted to, could say, “Well, it’s just a big debate over.” And it seems pretty clear that Republicans were likely from the start to defend the president.
John Dickerson: So, maybe evaluating it is difficult if you knew that was always going to be the outcome. I think the benefit of doing this since I believe in systems is you do this regardless of what the outcome is going to be because it’s the right thing to do to adjudicate these issues. Both to exonerate the president, if that’s what the facts bring you or not. But I think where this does matter is for history. I mean, I think there’s the things that are said there will either live or die based on what happens through the rest of the Trump administration and perhaps his second term.
Preet Bharara: Will it be quoted back in 22 years when we have the next impeachment? I mean, I’ve learned a lot. I lived through and I was an adult during the Clinton impeachment, but I’ve been reminded of a lot of stuff the last few weeks about that process.
John Dickerson: That’s right. I don’t know what my final feeling is about this process. But the reason everybody’s talking about the founders is that these are the basic build building blocks of the government, and also of human behavior. I mean, if there’s one thing the founders were obsessed with it was that ambition and power given to one person would lead them to abuse it. So, we have to build this complicated system to make sure they don’t. So the idea that this is some side issue is crazy. It’s the central issue. Now, whether the president is guilty of what was charged is up to other people to figure out, but the notion that they were off on some sort of side question is… And in our current moment where the questions of the rules and the truth and the norms and the laws in our office to have a big public debate about that where there are some formal rules is a good thing.
Preet Bharara: Do you think Republican senators will pay some price for voting against having witnesses? Political price.
John Dickerson: No, because one thing I think we saw is that the price that they would pay for having done so which was abuse of the president and the derision from his supporters was a far more painful price even to those in tough races. They feared more and this is where the president’s power, and his ability to wield it is an extraordinary political achievement. It would hurt them much more to take the pain from his supporters than the pain they will take from, whatever supporters… or not supporters, but whatever middle of the road voters would penalize them someday about not having voted for witnesses. What I find interesting are those who take the wrong, but not impeachable position, because if you say what the president did was wrong, but not impeachable, how then do you square the fact that the president has said he did nothing wrong?
John Dickerson: So, you’re also saying that the lying he did about what he did, and it would be alive for you if you say wrong, but not impeachable. Because once you’ve declared wrong is the thing he said was totally right. So he’s now lied about the thing you said is wrong. So, now you’re saying it was okay for him to lie about that. And there were a number of people who said, “Hey, this looks wrong,” and who came forward and were vilified and smeared for saying what you now are saying. Your members party, you’re saying it’s wrong. You’re saying exactly what Veneman, and all those other people said but they were smeared for it. So now you’re giving that a pass too. So, the wrong but not impeachable, which lot of people said was where everybody should have gone from the-
Preet Bharara: From the beginning.
John Dickerson: From the beginning and the Republican side always felt to me like it carried with it extra baggage because you’re signing up not just for wrong but not impeachable, but for the lying and the smearing, which you can’t wriggle out of based on your initial position
Preet Bharara: The way it can work, it sounds like you’re saying is the way it worked in 1998, where President Clinton did apologize [crosstalk 01:02:18]. Finally, no, of course, but he did at least express in words what is commonly understood to be contrition, which allowed other people to say, “This is a terrible thin, you shouldn’t have done it, but he shouldn’t be impeached or removed for it.” But here you have a huge disconnect between the perfect call, the perfect conduct, and what Lisa Murkowski called shameful.
John Dickerson: Yeah, right. And Lamar Alexander used-
Preet Bharara: Inappropriate.
John Dickerson: Somewhat, yes. Because what would you have that’s different and you would put your finger on it here and needs to be wrestled with is that President Clinton kind of said, “Okay, I did all that,” and he stopped doing the thing that was at issue. In this case, the president continues to say it was a perfect phone call.
Preet Bharara: And may yet do those things that are an issue, and as Adam Schiff and other managers have argued, and I think is perfectly plausible, will be emboldened to do them more as we go up to the election day.
John Dickerson: If the reporting in recent days is correct, the president targeting John Bolton and saying that he should be looked into and all of that is using the power of his office or at least instructing the Department of Justice, which is not really supposed to do… Which is in the same neighborhood as the claims that are an issue in the impeachment. So these are central issues to the office. And I was about to say, and they’ll be discussed in the course of the campaign. But one thing we know is that campaigns are a tough place to have reasoned debate.
Preet Bharara: Final question about impeachment, was this process that is about to end good for the country, bad for the country, and I’ll give you a third category, difficult but necessary?
John Dickerson: I think difficult but-
Preet Bharara: I gave you that. [crosstalk 01:03:46].
John Dickerson: Also, the more time I spend on thinking about both elections, and the way we do what we do, I used to think if the process is followed, that’s good. The process is durable. It has… And so, I generally feel that way here. But I do see the way in which when the process is followed it gets sorted through all the bad structural ways our politics exists now, and therefore, it’s just new fuel for an existing sorting system. And so, therefore, you think, my hope, which was that the structure of things would break apart the way we normally sort political events. If it hasn’t done that, how useful is it? But I think at bottom, I think considered thinking about the basic issues of power and how it’s used, and getting people to stand up.
John Dickerson: The statements from the senators, either wrong but not impeachable or totally perfect. It does put them on the record in ways that the current Senate in particular is designed not to put people on the record. And this is about something Harry Reid did, something Mitch Mcconnell does, they all complain about it that they don’t get to take votes. They only take votes in a padded kind of safe way. So it does at least get people on the record. And then I’m all for that.
Preet Bharara: Is there a particular kind of interview subject for whom you prepare a lot more than for other kinds of interview subjects?
John Dickerson: The ones who are not inclined to-
Preet Bharara: Tell the truth.
John Dickerson: … participate in a good faith argument. And the problem with telling the truth too is, most of the viewers don’t know what the lie is. Particularly viewers who are not following this every nanosecond the way we all are. So, you have to take the statement, explain why it’s a lie, and do it in a way that doesn’t turn off the viewer, so they’re not in a position to understand why it’s a lie. And then manage the fallout, which again, the viewers… If it’s something technical, you’ve got an explanatory function on the fly, which can be a little complicated for your viewers, who again, haven’t been following this every… So, if there’s an implicit life, for example, you have to pull out the implicit lie, but the viewer is still seeing what was said explicitly. So you got to explain why it’s implicit. And so, it’s a little… It can be a tiny bit tricky. So you have to prepare like crazy.
Preet Bharara: But sometimes you don’t have the opportunity. I’ll give you an example. You don’t have to [inaudible 01:05:58]. But someone who used to have the position that I had, Rudy Giuliani. I’ve seen him tussle with your peers. Did you interview him in recent times?
John Dickerson: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Preet Bharara: I’ve missed that. And no matter how much preparation you do, somehow he throws out new facts about things that he’s done that you can’t know about, because they’re only known to him, but they’re dates and names and figures. I’ve done the thought experiment, how would I interview Rudy Giuliani when he’s in that mode? I actually don’t have an answer to that.
John Dickerson: Well, some of the things you have to think through in that moment is what is the viewer seeing? The viewer is seeing somebody to whom if they’re not sympathetic to him, they’re going to want you to jump down his throat. But let’s say they’re either sympathetic to him or they’re neutral. He’s just said a bunch of things. That’s interesting. I didn’t know that. Fresh revelation of a new fact is attractive to people who are not already thinking the person who’s saying is awful. So then your job as host is to figure out how to take the person who’s thinking, “Hey, that’s interesting,” and somehow move that away. Move away the thing they think is interesting, and go back to the thing you were talking about, which you know now from the distracting answer, the subject is not going to try… Is not going to want to answer.
John Dickerson: So, you know you’re taking a high risk, low reward shot here to get information that’s really important. And they’ve just told you, they’re really not going to tell you. So you have to figure out is it worth the cost? And sometimes is, 100%. To use a phrase I hate, I have the scars to prove it. But it’s exactly what you’re saying, and that’s one of the challenges with any interview that’s live. And also on a show where your argument to your viewers is we’re not the food fight. We’re trying to illuminate and contextualize things here. And you just hope that the people who come on operate in that same spirit because by the way, if we don’t, it’s the descent into madness.
Preet Bharara: I got five more hours of questions, but you got to go to the State of the Union. John Dickerson, thank you so much for being on the show. Really appreciate it.
John Dickerson: Thank you, Preet. Can’t wait to come back.
Preet Bharara: The conversation continues for members of CAFE Insider. To hear the Stay Tuned bonus with John Dickerson, and get the exclusive weekly CAFE Insider Podcast and other exclusive content head to café.com/insider. Right now you can try a CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks at café.com/insider.
Preet Bharara: So, to end the show this week, I thought I’d address something that a lot of people have been talking about. It’s the event from last evening known as the State of the Union address delivered by Donald Trump, and delivered live before Congress for a number of years. It didn’t begin that way. It began in writing a message to the Congress from the president of the United States about the State of the Union. But the thing I want to address is actually not the substance or style of the president’s State of the Union, but something different and that is the response. As you know, the president gets all the pomp and circumstance of standing in the Congress, and members of both parties are there and they sometimes hoot, they sometimes holler, they sometimes get out of line from time to time. Apparently, Speaker of the House rips up the speech afterwards. Sometimes there’s a handshake, sometimes there’s not a handshake. Some people like what it said, some people don’t like what it said, some people complain that the State of the Union ends up being too partisan or just a laundry list.
Preet Bharara: It’s a difficult and odd and weird tradition we have in this country. But that’s not the thing that I want to address. Instead, what I find deeply disappointing, and this is no disparagement of any particular person who gives the response is that the response is kind of silly. So you have a president of either party who gets up there and makes a political case and a policy case. And then almost always, someone is picked from the other party, obviously, and by definition of lesser stature doesn’t really meet the arguments and the points made by the president. It’s a pre-prepared speech in anticipation of what the president may or may not have said. But it doesn’t do much to respond. I mean, if you call something a response, it should sound and feel like a response. A lawyer might say it should sound and feel like a rebuttal.
Preet Bharara: Overtime by the way, there’s not much that’s memorable about responses. And sometimes the thing that is remembered is something that’s kind of negative and has to do with the optics. Bobby Jindal, for example, gave the Republican response one year, and all people could talk about was how much he sounded like Kenneth from 30 Rock. And who can forget Marco Rubio, who wasn’t properly hydrated before he decided to begin his State of the Union response. And of course, there have been better and worse responses. But as I was watching last night, particularly after we’ve been through weeks and weeks of impeachment inquiry, and the Senate impeachment trial, the way for people to understand I think an issue or a point, or to make a decision between one side or the other side is for arguments to be met and for a debate to be had.
Preet Bharara: I would prefer going forward. And by the way, I think the Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, she did a fine job. She’s a fine speaker. She did it before an audience. Sometimes they have someone talk directly to the camera, that can be kind of awkward and creepy after the president has had a huge audience of elected officials. So, I don’t mean any disparagement against folks, like the person who spoke last night. But as I heard the present lie, as I heard the president overstate, as I heard the president pretend to be something he’s not, as I heard the president talk about an economy that he inherited and claims that he turned around. As I heard him talk about caring about certain communities while harming them in other contexts. As I heard the president say, thing after thing after thing that I in my own mind develop some response to in anticipation of the actual democratic response, I wanted to see some of those points made. I wanted to see some of that stuff that the president said thrown back in his face in real time, in rebuttal fashion.
Preet Bharara: Now, that may take a certain kind of talent and quality and skill in selecting such a speaker. But there are plenty of those people around. You know the kinds of things the president is going to say. You can make note of them in advance, and you do some real time fact checking, especially when you have a president like this who sounded empathetic and struck a lot of chords with a lot of people who don’t know, and who might not stick around to watch the late night cable commentary, where that mundane fact checking has now become a part of life, but might watch the response. Let’s have some of it in the response. I don’t mean to sound crappy about it. But I was disappointed that it seemed that the president was saying his things. And the response was saying other things, and they seemed to be talking past each other.
Preet Bharara: So, going forward, while we’re all talking about reforming or moving or changing or eliminating the Iowa caucuses, let’s also thinking about doing something about the State of the Union response. I guess I understand why there are other political considerations. And sometimes, the reason that a party will pick someone to give the response is because they want to elevate that person on a national stage, or they think that person is a particularly good order, or they want to show some kind of diversity in their party, and I get all that. And maybe this is my lawyerly self revealing itself. But I think an engaged response to the actual things said by the president, which you can’t fully prepare in advance, and you are but in front of everyone, I think that would actually be much more productive, much more helpful, much more informative, much more educational. I guess that’s another way of saying the State of the Union response is weak.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, John Dickerson. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. Tweet them to me at Preet Bharara with the hashtag AskPreet or you can call and leave me a message at 669-247-7338, that’s 669-24-Preet or you can send an email to Stay Tuned at café.com.
Preet Bharara: Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore and the CAFE team is Julia Doyle, Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Calvin Lord, Sam Ozer-Staton, and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara, Stay Tuned.