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Remembering George H.W. Bush and His Era. Aired 11a-12pa ET

Aired December 2, 2018 - 11:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[11:00:16] BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, I'm Brian Stelter. And this is RELIABLE SOURCES, our weekly look at the story behind the story, of how the media really works, how the news gets made and all of us can help make it better.

Ahead this hour, how reporters are keeping track of all of the lying involving Trump and Russia.

Plus, inside the media world, new documents showing how "Fox & Friends" fed questions to a Trump cabinet official ahead of time.

And later, the inside story of the "Miami Herald's" shocking investigation into Jeffrey Epstein. We're going to talk with a reporter who broke that story.

There's a lot of news this weekend. But Sunday's front pages are rightly honoring former President George H.W. Bush. News of Bush's death broke so late on Friday that many newspapers had already gone to press, so Sunday's editions are full of beautiful tributes from the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post," both using the same photo, to the "Los Angeles Times" calling Bush a patriot and servant.

And let's look to Texas, as well, his final resting place. The front pages there are saluting a statesman, calling him a point of light and saying he earned his place in history.

All of this ahead of Wednesday's and Thursday's memorials. The flag this morning flying at half-staff at the White House. President Trump announcing a national day of mourning coming up on Wednesday.

How should Bush 41's presidency be remembered? And what can he we learn from his life and legacy?

Let's begin today by asking three long-time White House reporters what they learned from Bush 41. Joining me now, legendary ABC White House correspondent and news anchor, Sam Donaldson, former CNN Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, and Charles Bierbauer, who served as CNN's senior Washington correspondent during the Bush years.

Charles, first to you. What was George H.W. Bush like to cover as a reporter every day at the White House? And what can we learn about the man from the way he treated the press?

CHARLES BIERBAUER, FORMER CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Brian. And hi, Sam and Frank. Well, I think all three of us recognize that when you were dealing

with George H.W. Bush, he was available, he was accessible. He was informed and, gosh, that's what journalists like. Access is the most important thing.

Can you get to him? Can you ask him questions? Can you have some kind of conversation?

I'm thinking back over the four years that he was president and many years I covered him. And that was one of the things that I valued, was the variety of circumstances in which we were able to really assess what was on his mind and what his intentions were and the challenging times in which he was president.

STELTER: And, Frank, describing Bush 41 as personable, as accessible, that is something that reporters care about a lot. Of course, we also care about whether we're getting accurate information. And what about that element of the Bush 41 White House?

FRANK SESNO, FORMER CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, look, George Herbert Walker Bush, like no president, especially loves dealing with the press. They're there to kind of annoy you and press and we did that. But he respected the institution, I think.

He didn't love sitting down for interviews. He didn't love submitting himself to that. He was kind of felt in some ways that that process in some ways was just a nuisance.

But I think Charles is exactly right. He was accessible. He did do interviews. We interviewed him, Charles and I together, and I know Sam and others many times. He did news conferences.

Of course, this was a different environment. A media ecosystem when George Herbert Walker Bush was president. There were formal news conferences. There were formal networks. This was before the age of the Internet and before cable exploded into what it is now.

So, he had -- he may have lacked the vision thing, but he had a lot of issues he cared about, and he was quite comfortable expressing them -- sometimes awkwardly. But trying to express them through the journalists and media who attended.

STELTER: And really an interesting point, Frank, about the media environment back then. In some ways, George H.W. Bush was the last president before the World Wide Web. He was the last president before Fox News which started in the Clinton years. It was a very different ecosystem.

Sam, describe that system to us. You were, of course, White House correspondent and then the host of "Prime Time Live" in the late '80s, early '90s. What was that media environment like, and what was it like for a president?

SAM DONALDSON:, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT Well, for presidents, of course, they had to deal with the three networks. They had to deal with the newspapers, the wire services. But that was it. There wasn't anybody else there.

STELTER: Yes.

DONALDSON: So the press corps was undoubtedly smaller.

And, you know, the Washington press corps has not swooned over a president since John F. Kennedy.

[11:05:03] But in the case of George Herbert Walker Bush, I think it was well above the line. He was accessible, as you said, and he also understood our job. I never heard of him calling a reporter to chew him out, never being angry at a reporter. As Charles said, of course, the presidents don't like everything they read or see, but he understood what we were about.

Although one time, he said to me, you know, some of you can be whiners. That was during the First Gulf War or talking about it. And I said, well, what do you mean? And he said, well, you know, you're whining about why couldn't you go there? Why couldn't you go here? And I said, well, we wanted to see what was there. And he understood that.

I think he also had a press secretary in Marlin Fitzwater, who did a great job for him. Marlin would come out to the pressroom knowing he had to shuck and jive and slide around. But he didn't try to insult reporters.

He knew that we knew that he was going to shuck and jive. That was his job. And we weren't going to be taken seriously and said, well, why don't you believe it?

And I wonder if that would work today with Sarah Sanders, if she could come out and say, you know, I'm going to lie to you, but I have to do that. Don't you understand? It's nothing personal.

SESNO: There is something I would love to jump in on -- Sam, I'm sorry so interrupt. But something you said I think is so important and completely missing today.

There was actually a reservoir of goodwill between Marlin Fitzwater and the president and the press corps around this idea of information. So if the president misspoke, and, Charles, I'm sure you remember because we sit down in our booth in the basement.

And if the president misspoke, Marlin Fitzwater, the press secretary might walk around and say what the president meant to say was this or that. And there was no attack, there was no suggestion it was fake news. And the people in the press corps had enough respect for Marlin and the president they would adjust their copy or whatever it took.

It didn't happen all of the time, but on occasion. And it really I think was a mark of that sense of respect, as I say, that was very, very noticeable then and is all -- well, is virtually absent now.

DONALDSON: Frank, I agree with you completely about Marlin. I said that George Herbert Walker Bush, I never heard him chew out a reporter. But Marlin one time got angry at reporters and I agreed with him. I wasn't there.

But the president was abroad and he was giving a speech out on a hot day, and there was a press tent about 150 yards away. And many reporters sat in the press tent and watched television of the speech taking place. And Marlin said, you lazy SOBs, why aren't you out there covering the president? And I agreed with him completely.

STELTER: You're saying the reporters should have to sweat too, along with the president.

DONALDSON: Rather than watching on television, yes, right.

STELTER: Charles, what was H.W. Bush like --

BIERBAUER: I remember that, yes.

STELTER: Oh, go ahead. Yes, tell us.

BIERBAUER: I remember that in particular, because Marlin was upset. There was room for disagreement. And there were disagreements.

And Fitzwater, as press secretary, said we were barely scratching the visible tip of the iceberg in terms of how little we knew compared to what we might know, to which our response was, well, then tell us more. But in President Bush's terms, we didn't always agree with him. He

didn't always agree with us.

Frank, you will remember that late in the 1992 campaign, we were out on the road and did an interview with him, and he complained that the press wasn't giving him fair treatment. George Herbert Walker Bush. And he said, you're giving Bill Clinton a pass compared to how you're treating me.

This was very late in the campaign. And we had to remind President Bush how harshly or how -- what scrutiny then candidate Clinton had been under months before President Bush had to really gear up for his re-election campaign. But the give and take was there and the give and take was viable and valuable.

SESNO: You know --

STELTER: Frank, you had the last interview with George H.W. Bush during the '91 campaign, right?

SESNO: Yes. And it's exactly what Charles said. So, Charles and I were at the White House together, we interviewed him together. But then I was also doing the Sunday show, CNN's Sunday show at the time.

And I went to Lacrosse, Wisconsin -- boy, there is a young me. That's kind of scary, isn't it? But I went to Lacrosse, Wisconsin. It was the Sunday before the election Tuesday. The president had -- I think it was the Wall Street Journal poll, ticked up just a little bit going into that weekend but he was behind.

Just as we were about to sit down, our poll came out and I got that in my ear and it showed him ticking back down again. The other thing that had happened is the then special counsel looking into the Iran Contra affair, for those of you who remember that, had returned an indictment of the former defense secretary, Casper Weinberger, and George H.W. Bush never engaged with what his role was or what was going on with Iran Contra.

So I asked about both those things and he was furious. And at one point said, are we going to talk about anything else? And when he was done with that interview, it was, you know, respectful and all of that.

DONALDSON: Yes.

SESNO: But he did no more interviews. He cancelled the other interviews after that. So it was not all sweetness and nice.

[11:10:02] DONALDSON: Frank, you and Dan Rather, right, on that same subject. But let me say, George Herbert Walker Bush, like all presidents, things happen to them and it's not their fault and it gets bad press.

For instance, he met Gorbachev in the Mediterranean during what was like a hurricane. The boats were jumping around. And then he went to Japan at point, sat next to the prime minister, he had the flu and he threw up over the prime minister.

And who can forget right after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait? He was in Denver with other leaders of the world, and Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of Britain, publicly said, now, George, don't go wobbly. He didn't go wobbly. And a few weeks later, it wasn't because of that, she was no longer prime minister of England.

So at the time that the Gulf War was actually prosecuted, it was John Major.

STELTER: You know, that's an interesting thing you're bringing up, Sam. I've been seeing this, whenever a prominent politician passes away, we saw this a few months ago with Senator John McCain. Some people say, do not ever speak ill of the dead. Others say you can't just speak about the positive, you have to show the person's life in full. You have to talk about their accomplishments as well as their failures.

What do you think about that, Sam? Where do you come down?

DONALDSON: I think that's true. I mean, look, President Trump has been gracious from the standpoint of talking about the loss of this man and what have you and said he's a great family man. That's quite true. But president Trump hasn't managed to say and a great president too, because that would violate Mr. Trump's feeling about where presidents should be on Mt. Rushmore, I guess.

I think what we do is what we're doing here, or at least trying to do it, all four of us. And that is we liked him. We thought he was a good president. We thought handling the press was one of his high points from the standpoint of all of us getting along with different jobs.

At the same time, I don't know how history is going to rate him. I think it's going to be above the line. And it's going to be maybe a mixed bag.

But I'll tell you this -- as a man, as someone you liked because he liked people, I think he was first-class. First-class.

STELTER: And a real loss for the nation this weekend. If the three of you can stick around, I'd love to keep talking. Let's take a quick commercial break and come back with more of the three of you, talk more about George H.W. Bush's life and legacy, and what it means for the country when a president passes away.

Much more here in just a moment on RELIABLE SOURCES.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:16:11] STELTER: Remembering former President George H.W. Bush today. Keep in mind, this week is the first week we've had a presidential funeral in the United States in 12 years, since the death of Gerald Ford.

You think about the pageantry and the importance of a moment like this, where the nation comes together to remember a former president, to pay tribute to a former president. It is a sad but important and unique ritual in this country.

And so I want to bring back our panel now, Sam Donaldson, Charles Bierbauer and Frank Sesno.

You know, we were talking earlier about the media environment that Bush 41 operated in, very different from today. We now live in this Twittery age, this age of cable news warfare, et cetera.

But yet, Frank Sesno, isn't there something to be said about the power of television at a moment like this? Bringing the country together later this week, showing the memorial services in Washington and Texas. It is something that television is uniquely able to do to try to help the country all reflect on the same person in the same period together.

SESNO: The power of television, the power of a network like this and others that all people literally and in some cases around the world can see.

You know, we're not a very historical society at a somewhat ahistorical time, because of technology, flies in real-time, instantaneously and then it's gone. John and Abigail Adams aren't writing long letters to one another any more.

So, to take a moment and reflect on a life and to think what service to country actually looks like, to have a sense, to have what the breadth of a life, the span of a life, from World War II through the Cold War, to serving country like this really means, warts and all. You talked earlier about putting this in some perspective. Getting a sense of perspective is a very important thing. We're not good at it.

And these are moments where we can stop and pause and reflect in ways that really helps all of us and also helps us compare then to now and perhaps take some lessons from that.

STELTER: Yes, I think beyond bias and sensationalism and other issues with the media, the media plays a role in bringing folks together at a moment like this. And also to think about our institutions, not just the presidency, but other institutions. Our military, our CIA, all, of course, close to the Bush family's heart.

Let me share something he said in 1976 that resonated with me. This is from Bush's book, his letters that came out a few years ago. He gave this speech in 1976 while running the CIA.

He said: It is not fashionable in these days, remember he's talking about the '70s. In these days of tearing down our institutions to say, "Trust me". Yet Americans have to have faith and trust to some degree or none of our governmental systems will work.

He's saying that in 1976, but it can be said today about the era we're living through right now today, Charles. And also we should reflect on what a consequential time period this was, the Bush years, and all of the changes happening all around the world that you and your colleagues were covering.

BIERBAUER: Oh, indeed. The three of us logged hundreds of thousands of miles with President Bush. And, in fact, all of us were there during the Reagan years, as well. And when you bring up the question of trust, we can recall Ronald Reagan when he would see Mikhail Gorbachev and recite the words he knew, trust but verify.

And Bush took the same approach on trust, that it was an important part of his calculus through all positions that he held. And we're now in a period where trust has kind of been thrown out the window.

But looking back at that time, and it started with Reagan and there's really a continuum through the Reagan years and the four Bush years, in which Ronald Reagan went to Berlin and said, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

[11:20:08] And during the Bush administration that wall, the Berlin wall, did indeed come down. And the Soviet Union dissolved.

And all of those countries in Eastern Europe intellectually, at least, migrated westward. Some of them are troubled now with regression towards old Soviet ways, none more so than Russia. But if you reflect on that period of time, the end of the Cold War, putting together as bush did this massive international coalition, including the Soviet Union, to repel Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis from Kuwait, those are extremely significant times.

Bush called it a new world order. I'm not sure that we've been able to retain that. But it was a transitional period, much more cataclysmic than transitional. It was an earthquake. STELTER: Sam, was it really a kindler, gentler time, the way

sometimes are called? Think about 1988, the Bush campaign, Lee Atwater was the campaign manager, Roger Ailes was the media consultant, this Willie Horton ad that supported the Bush campaign, tore down Dukakis, pretty ugly kind of campaign, and yet, it seemed George H.W. Bush really separated campaigning from governing and saw the big difference between the two.

But was it really a kindler, gentler time?

DONALDSON: That's an interesting point. I think the Ailes/Atwater combination in 1988 took politics to a terrible level that it had not been before -- politics has always been a terrible level in many respects, but they took it father. Willie Horton, I've interviewed Willie Horton after the election in a prison where he resides in Baltimore in the state penitentiary in Maryland.

Lee Atwater said to reporters, I'm going to make Willie Horton the most famous black man in America, because he had been released -- he had raped a woman in Maryland and savaged her boyfriend. And they blamed Governor Dukakis' program. Of course, it was a program brought to Massachusetts by a Republican governor who took it from another Republican governor, who was the first in the nation to have a weekend release program. That man's name was Ronald Reagan.

And Bush did -- I think what he did was, he didn't like it. If he didn't like it, he's the boss, cut it off. I hate to say it, but I think he wanted to be president and put it in their hands and sort of turned aside.

STELTER: And that ego, that desire to be president, there were dark stains, but then there were these core values that we look at that I think we all take pride in. So there's a kind of complicated nature there.

DONALDSON: Well, we're talking about the whole man now here.

STELTER: Yes.

DONALDSON: I won't take back anything I've said earlier about the great guy, and we all liked him and I -- but let's talk about another thing he did. He had to clean up the savings and loan mess. We deregulated savings and loan in the '80s and the crooks took us for $286 billion, the taxpayers.

He had to take his read my lips, no new taxes theme, and change it. He knew better. He had called it voodoo economics before he joined Ronald Reagan as vice president.

But he knew it was that, the so-called supply side. We pit out our taxes down to zero and we'll all do fine. So, he made a deal with the Democrats in 1970 -- rather 1990, and he raised taxes, helped raise taxes.

Well, the hard right Republicans never forgave him. They didn't work hard for his re-election. Plus, the fact, guys, let's face it, he was not a press the flesh, feel your pain politician.

He was a patrician. He was raised by his father, Prescott, and he didn't connect with people like Bill Clinton did. I mean, Bill Clinton, that hound dog, would connect with anyone. George H.W. Bush was a little bit reserved. And that reserve hurt him in 1992.

SESNO: He was a conservative, but he was a sort of New England blue blood conservative. He actually believed in government. He believed in the institutions of government, and in the rules by which everybody is supposed to play.

And so, that's why he went to clean up the savings and loan mess. That's why he ended up raising taxes. He looked at what the huge deficits were and said, gee, we should really do a budget deal.

He knew he had a bunch of Democrats on Capitol Hill he had to work with, so he sat down and went to work with them. And I think it was a consequential time. This was a consequential presidency to cover.

And people kind of lose sight of that fact a little bit or they may have even lost sight of the fact, you're coming out of eight years of Ronald Reagan, a huge personality. Looking back on it, after that, eight years of Bill Clinton, another huge personality. But there was a lot that was happening. Huge amount that was happening -- not the least of which is Charles mentioned, the fall of the wall and the Soviet Union.

[11:25:06] George Bush believed in the institutions of government, which I think, too, is another reason why this moment to remember and to compare and contrast is so important, because our institutions are so under siege right now by the government itself.

STELTER: And let me show a picture -- yes, go ahead, Sam.

DONALDSON: I wanted to make the point, if I could. He also understood leadership in that he found good people and put them in charge of places and let them do the job.

He had a secretary of state, he was wonderful, James A. Baker III. Brent Scowcroft was his national security adviser. Dick Cheney was the defense secretary and Colin Powell chairman of the joint chiefs. That team prosecuted that First World War perfectly, the Gulf War.

And on Schwarzkopf, General Schwarzkopf's phone in his bunker during that period, there was a White House line. I said, has it ever rung? He said no. He said the president lets us do our job. He doesn't try to micromanage the war.

Bush was just a very fine leader from the standpoint of understanding that principle.

STELTER: Charles, last word to you. Yes.

BIERBAUER: If I may -- let me pick up on that point that Sam is making, because that was the internationalist George Bush. And that was his strength. He put together that global coalition. He had the experience of the United Nations and being the U.S. representative in China.

He was not as strong on the domestic economy. And after winning the Gulf War in 1991 and having these 90-plus-percent approval ratings, things tapered off. And it was the economy. What the Clinton campaign called the economy, stupid, that changed the sway of the '92 campaign.

And late in that campaign, it was here in the Carolinas, he did a two- state whistle stop tour. And I was with him on the train that day. We went out on the back platform in the back of the train where he could wave to people and did an interview there.

And one of the things that sticks with me, and it goes back to something that Sam and Frank had both touched on, is this question of trust. Late in the campaign, he's trailing, and I said, has anyone asked -- told you -- has anyone told you, you cannot win this campaign? And President Bush's response was, no one I trust. And it struck me as in some ways prophetic and approximate in some ways a very sad moment that he either was not getting good information from people he trusted or he did not have the right people around him.

Yes, he had James Baker as his campaign manager, but it was a reluctant James baker who liked being secretary of state. And only reluctantly came back to the White House and the campaign. So, it was petering out and it wasn't going well.

And that moment lingers with me. I've been talking about it with a lot of people these last two days of how trust failed him at some point.

STELTER: Interesting. Charles and Sam and Frank, thank you all for joining this morning, sharing these reflections about the Bush presidency.

SESNO: Thank you.

DONALDSON: You bet.

STELTER: Up next here on RELIABLE SOURCES, returning to this week's Robert Mueller moves. Mueller revealing even more lies from Trump's inner circle. So how do journalists connect the dots for viewers on this ever-more complicated story?

Michael Isikoff and Garrett Graff are next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:30:00] BRIAN STELTER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES I'm Brian Stelter. So Robert Mueller surprises the media again. This time of Michael Cohen's admission that he lied to Congress. Perhaps most importantly these new court documents confirm the Cohen has had seven voluntary interviews with the special counsel and he's still available to talk some more. He's potentially revealing not just his own lies but others dishonesty too.

Time and time again the story of Trump world is a story about lying and the Special Counsel keeps exposing those lies both through public filing and through court proceedings. Mueller is basically writing a report in real time.

So how is Trump reacting? by fibbing some more on Twitter all week long sounding like a scared Fox News talking head calling this crucial counterintelligence probe a disgrace and an illegal hoax that should be ended. Is this really the behavior of an innocent man? And how should journalist be connecting the dots for their audience?

Joining me now Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent with Yahoo! News and the Co-Author of Russian roulette: The Inside Story of Putin's War on America and the Election of Donald Trump which really explains a lot of what's going on. I'm also joined by Garrett Graff. He's a Contributor at Wired and the Author of The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller's FBI and the War on Global Terror. Thank you both for being here.

Garrett, you've been saying it's hard to keep up with all the lies. How can we as journalists help the audience keep up?

GARRETT GRAFF, CONTRIBUTOR, THE WIRED: It's a great question, Brian, because the lies sort of fold in on themselves in this story, lies on top of lies where you have the President you know after Michael Cohen's plea deal last week saying that Michael Cohen is lying about the truth of the Trump Tower Moscow project but then simultaneously saying that the answers that he gave the special counsel absolutely aligned with the story that Michael Cohen is saying because that's the absolute truth and he wouldn't lie. And so you don't even know which set of lies to believe when you're talking about which sort of where the truth in this story lies.

And I think the biggest challenge in this story is trying to connect all of these different dots because we are really staring at the Bob Mueller investigation in -- you know, through little soda straws or individual puzzle pieces, not really sure how everything connects. And so I think the clearest way to do it is to figure out what Mueller is actually interested in because one of the things that does matter is that Bob Mueller has made clear that he's handing off unrelated criminality to other prosecutors as he did with Michael Cohen's campaign finance violations giving them to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. So when Bob Mueller is holding on to something that means it has a Russian nexus and is something that fits into this larger puzzle.

[11:.35:54] STELTER: And Michael, do you believe Mueller is writing the report through these actions? Is that how he's revealing what he's learned as opposed to coming out with some big document later?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT WITH YAHOO! NEWS: Yes, look, I mean, there was you know, pretty stunning new information in that Cohen plea deal that we hadn't seen before in my view that was as significant as anything we've seen in Mueller's case until now. So yes, given the questions about the Mueller report, remember the Mueller report -- all Mueller is obligated to do is to submit a confidential report to the Acting Attorney General now Matt Whitaker. What Whitaker does with that we have no idea. Congress will certainly

try to get it. The Democrats will in the House but there could be executive privilege claims by the White House on much of that. That was the grounds upon which Don McGann and other White House officials spoke to Mueller. So Muller knows all that and he is clearly trying to put as much information as he can in these criminal proceedings he's bringing.

And just to underscore just how important that Coen plea is what we learned is during the campaign the Trump Organization was in communication with Vladimir Putin's office about securing a land for a Trump Tower, securing financing for a Trump Tower all that is spelled out. Those are direct communications between the candidate Donald Trump's business organization, his personal lawyer and Vladimir Putin's office itself. You know, that as I said is as significant as anything we've seen until now.

STELTER: I noticed Judge Andrew Napolitano on Fox News saying this is just the tip of the iceberg, this Cohen plea deal just the tip of the iceberg and the rest of the iceberg is in Bob Mueller's office. Do you believe that to be true, Michael, that there's still a lot more we have not learned?

ISIKOFF: Look, you know, we can speculate on this you know, for hours and days. A lot of -- there's not a lot of speculation.

STELTER: Well, that's not --

ISIKOFF: Yes, and unfortunately, you know, look, there's a paradox to this. Mueller has -- well knows has been absolutely ironclad in not leaking to the press. And as a result there's been a lot of stories in the press that have speculated, that have relied on you know problematic sourcing and --

STELTER: What about the Guardian story? The Guardian said that Manafort secretly met with Assange. Were they wrong?

ISIKOFF: No, listen. No, there is no corroboration for that. Manafort's denial was pretty strong. But that's not the only one. Look, I mean, you know, it is as I said, I thought the Cohen plea deal was incredibly significant but also it's worth noting what was not in there. Michael Cohen had testified as well that he had no knowledge of the Trump Tower deal and could not and had no knowledge that Trump had no knowledge -- any knowledge of the Trump Tower deal.

A number of news organizations including CNN said Cohen was going to implicate Donald Trump in knowledge of the Trump Tower deal. There's nothing in the plea deal about that which suggests that --

STELTER: But it doesn't mean it may not happen in the future.

ISIKOFF: Well, it may not, but I'm just saying based on what we have now, that story doesn't hold up. Similarly, there's the rather significant and sensational allegation in the steel dossier that Cowan flew to Prague to meet with Russian officials. He flatly denied that to Congress, nothing in the plea deal about. That suggests that Mueller may not have evidence to back up either of those significant allegations that have been prominently reported in the press.

STELTER: Big picture, Garrett, 30 seconds left, seems like there was a criminal conspiracy, that there was a cover-up, but we don't know all of the details. There's a lot we don't know. So as journalists we I guess we have to keep repeating what we don't know in this case as well.

[11:40:07] GRAFF: Absolutely. And that's where I think you need to not fall into this trap of saying because Mueller has not proved collusion so far that he's not going to prove collusion. He may, he may not, but it's very clear that Bob Mueller knows where he is going and is building a case sort of methodically indictment by indictment, plea agreement by plea agreement, and that Bob Mueller and Rod Rosenstein know what they're doing and where this is all going.

STELTER: Michael, Garrett, thank you both for being here. Great talking with you. A timely documentary coming up tonight on CNN. You may think it's timely, you may not, but you should watch it either way. It's titled Presidents Under Fire: The History of Impeachment. It's a Fareed Zakaria documentary, tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time here on CNN. We'll be back with more RELIABLE SOURCES in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:45:00] STELTER: It's an explosive investigative series by the Miami Herald. The title is perversion of justice. Connecting the dots between President Trump's Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta who was a prosecutor way back in the day and what the Miami Herald calls the deal of a lifetime that was given to accused pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

Epstein of course, a politically connected multi-millionaire, once a friend of both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, he committed these alleged crimes many years ago. But Herald reporter Julie K. Brown brought this back, brought this back to the forefront by interviewing many of the alleged victims and by obtaining new court documents. Let me bring in Julie now for a look behind the scenes, the story behind this incredible story. Julie is joining me now from Miami.

Julie, I would love to know why you decided to revisit this particularly horrendous crime. You know, there was a lot of speculation when your story came out the other day that this was yet another #MeToo investigation, but you actually started looking into this months before Harvey Weinstein was in the news.

JULIE BROWN, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, MIAMI HERALD: Yes, I had been just curious about sex trafficking in Florida, I had done a series about the women's prison so I had -- was aware of the problem of sex trafficking. And I just came across the story periodically and every time I read something about it, it just stunned me how this could have happened and I thought to myself you know, if there's so many of these victims that it was alleged that he had molested all these girls, you know, dozens if not hundreds of girls, and I thought where are these girls now and what do they think about this deal? I mean, and how did this affect their lives? And I started from that vantage point. And you know, there's but there was a lot of really, really good reporting done on this. People knew about that that he had this sweetheart deal but I don't think people really knew how it affected certain people who were involved including quite frankly the police chief and the lead detective in the case who were you know, whose case was awarded, who really tried and risked their careers to some degree to try to prosecute this or to at least get justice for these women.

STELTER: And explain the Labor Secretary connection the story. What is the angle there?

BROWN: Well, Alex Acosta was the U.S. attorney here in Miami and it was under his watch so to speak that this case was handled. I mean, it was initially a case handled by the state prosecutor in Palm Beach County who decided that he basically was going to let Mr. Epstein off with a very, very light misdemeanor. He really did not want the police to pursue it. So the police chief went over his head essentially and asked the FBI to investigate and that's when it fell into Mr. Acosta, eventually fell in under his purview.

STELTER: And your headline says this is a sweetheart deal of a lifetime to not be much more aggressively prosecuting Epstein. What was it like for you to be digging into this case? We all hear about cutbacks at local papers. The Herald's not been immune to that. So how do you get the resources for work like this?

BROWN: Well, you know, any project like this is pretty daunting. I didn't realize at the time that I started it that it was going to be this daunting, this big, and this grueling. Actually, I sort of approached it well, I'll be able to get a couple of these victims. And then after getting -- remember all these girls names were redacted from all these reports so I couldn't get their names --

STELTER: Right.

BROWN: And the you know, and it was a decade later. And so even the lawyers that represented them really weren't returning my phone calls quite frankly. So I had to start digging into all these. There was ten years' worth of court records and public documents so I had to start digging through them to try to figure out who these girls were. And so it took me several months just to get the list together of the -- of the women and then to find out where they were and to try to track them down. And I think that you know, part of the story also was that The Herald went to court in one case to try to -- and they're still fighting in court in New York to try to unseal some of these cases. A lot of them were sealed so you wouldn't know not only the names of the victims but also exactly what Mr. Epstein and his accomplices actually did.

So it was a challenge and in some ways it was also -- I was -- I was I had to try to get people to trust me, to talk to me, and many of those people hadn't talked before because they were afraid, that quite frankly newspaper wouldn't print the story. They felt that after all these years that Mr. Epstein and others had quieted this story, you know, it had successfully kept it secret. So I had -- I had to convince them that The Herald was going to print the story and the McClatchy our parent company wasn't going to even shut it down because quite frankly they thought that it might even be shut down at a higher level by someone in power.

[11:50:46] STELTER: I can think of no greater testament to the power of journalism than your story. I hope everybody reads it on MiamiHerald.com. Julie, thank you so much for being here.

BROWN: Thank you.

STELTER: And after the break, one more story about people in power being held accountable by a big newspaper. We'll be right back.

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[11:55:00] STELTER: And finally this morning, CBS still has two law firms looking into allegations of sexual misconduct by former CEO Les Moonves and others. And this new New York Times story in today's print edition reveals that Moonves tried to buy the silence of one of his alleged victims.

I sat down with all three reporters behind this incredible story for this week's RELIABLE SOURCES podcasts, that we actually taped it upstairs on Don Lemon set. We all got together and talked about the story behind the story of their incredible reporting. Check it out via Apple podcast, Stitcher or TuneIn on our podcasting platform. And we'll see you right back here for more RELIABLE SOURCES this time next week.

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