Q&A: Journalist, CNN Analyst Toobin Talks About the Current News Engagement
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The last 10 months have been exhausting and invigorating for political and legal journalists, says CNN political analyst and legal writer Jeffrey Toobin.
Toobin was the speaker at last week's annual Michael S. and Kitty Dukakis Public Policy Lecture series at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
Toobin is a Harvard-trained attorney and classmate of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. He spent time in the office of the independent counsel prosecuting the Iran Contra Affair and later was an assistant U.S. attorney in New York City. He wrote a book about Iran Contra and left the law in the 1990s to continue his writing career, including authoring a number of books on the Supreme Court, criminal cases including the O.J. Simpson trial, and Washington politics.
His talk was titled "Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court." Before speaking at the Church Street Center's Eleanor Furst Roberts Auditorium on Thursday night, he met with reporters from iBerkshires.com and The Berkshire Eagle.
Below are his responses to a series of questions posed to him that are lightly edited for brevity.
Question: You have been to a few college campuses this fall talking especially about the Supreme Court, so why was that something that you wanted to focus on?
Answer: What I have seen traveling around is an amazing interest and engagement with the news and, let's be honest, it's mostly about Trump but that extends to really all of government.
Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has been very good for the news business, notwithstanding his criticism of it. People are fascinated, appalled and delighted by Trump in a way that they haven't been by any politician in my lifetime. His presidency is a news spectacle in a way no news event of any kind has been in my lifetime.
It seems like his presidency is in dog years. He has not even been in there for 10 months and it feels like three years just because he produces so much news on a daily basis. It is exhausting but at the same time it has been invigorating
Q: How do you become judicious about figuring out if a tweet is actually news or if you are just analyzing too much?
A: That's a question that I struggle with and it is one my bosses struggle with and I will give you a very specific example. Trump tweeted that he was mad at NBC and he said it's time to challenge their license. Now putting aside that networks don't have licenses, the idea that the president of the United States would invoke the power of government to censor a news organization because of his disapproval of their content is so deeply shocking and it goes to the absolute core of what the 1st Amendment means that the government should not interfere with the freedom of the press.
It is an enormous news event for him to say that. On the other hand, I think we have seen enough tweets from Trump at this point that it was probably something that just popped into his head and there is not going to be any follow up ... so on the one hand, it is enormously important but on the other hand, it is not important at all, so I don't know what the proper way to address that is.
Q: Do you think the media has changed at all in the way they cover Trump?
A: I think one of the real grounds for criticism was the covering of the campaign. He was treated more as spectacle rather than a candidate and we viewed him as an entertainment product that could absorb our viewers ... It contributed to too much of a free ride for him because not enough attention was given to his opponents and I think that is a lesson we have to learn from his campaign.
Once he became president, I think we have done an extraordinary job if you look at the news media overall. I think it has been extraordinary and I am very proud to be associated with CNN and The New Yorker and we are continuing to do that good work.
He has been so different than any other president making all these false statements he just says stuff that's not true with considerable regularity and I think we are doing a good job of calling him out on it.
Q: How are you looking at the Robert Mueller investigation right now? Do you think Trump will oust him?
At the moment I don't think Trump will oust him. There is almost nothing Trump could do that would jeopardize his standing with the Republicans in the House of Representatives. I think firing Mueller might be the only thing and I don't think he has any political support to do that.
As for Mueller, what is a little mysterious about his role is, is he there exclusively to prosecute or is he there to do an investigation and tell a story? Because in regards to the Trump campaign and Russia, a lot of it may not be actually illegal in terms of criminal law but it may be something the American public may really want to know.
Q: Do you think Mueller's context in this case and investigation has changed because of what the American public is seeking and what the rhetoric is around the case?
A: Mueller is not running for anything he has no political constituents or need. Trump is theoretically running for reelection and politicians are always running ... but Mueller does not have constituents he is just charged with enforcing the law and I think the fact he is so silent is unnerving to a lot of people especially in the White House because they are used to having opponents that sort of shout back at them, so no one really knows what he's doing.
Q: How do you think the Supreme Court's role in decision making these days has changed under this current administration and its current makeup?
A: I don't know that it has changed. The only thing that has really changed is that Neil Gorsuch is on the court and Merrick Garland isn't and that is very significant. I have always seen the Supreme Court as a political body as much as it is a legal body, and everyone knows that one of the most important parts of a president's legacy is his appointments to the Supreme Court. Donald Trump has a very conservative administration and appointed a very conservative justice and if he has more vacancies to fill that is what he will do
In terms of what the supreme court does I don't think it is much different than it was 10 months ago ... I think the makeup of the court, by and large, is the same as it has been for over a decade.
Q: How do you think our system of government is holding up through all of this? It has been stretched and tested but it seems like we are still pulling through.
A: It has only been 10 months but the fact that the Republican chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee felt compelled to hold a hearing about whether the president was too crazy to hold his finger on the nuclear button — that is an extraordinary statement right there. But the president has yet to get fundamentally anything through Congress of any great importance. So there has been a lot of noise and he is poised to do a lot but in terms of anything actually substantive, there hasn't been too much.
Q: In regard to who is having what roll in decision making right now obviously tax code reform is a huge thing what do you think about all of this happening without any kind of public hearing or any other input on the matter?
A: They have a narrow majority and they think they can just push through as much as they can without building a public consensus around it. Now that didn't work when it came to health care, but that story isn't over. One reason to hold a hearing is that the Senate and Congress can learn from experts and assemble information, but the other part is to prepare the public and persuade the public that it is something they want. You can't just hold these bills secret until the last minute.
Q: So we are almost a year through this administration how do you think America changed?
A: In many respect, it is the most important question you can ask but I don't know. I do think there has been a coarsening of political dialogue just from the way the president expresses himself that is so different than any other president from either party. That's one effect but other than that I think so much is clearer in retrospect.
What we think are the implications of contemporary events could be really wrong and as journalists, I think all of us we were horrendously wrong about who was going to win the 2016 election. All the people like me who are supposed to analyze what events mean and what their political implications were were wrong and what that has left me with is considerable humility about my ability to understand what is really going on in the voters' minds and in public sentiment. I am very careful now about predictions and broad statements because I at least have enough humility to know I was wrong and I want to learn from that.
Q: Has it changed who you have talked to or how you analyze a situation?
A: I did a profile in The New Yorker on Tom Cotton, the senator of Arkansas, and one reason I did it was I wanted to write about him but the other reason is I wanted to go to Arkansas. You don't learn about America by sitting on West 58th Street in Manhattan
Mostly it has left me with a lot more cautious about predicting anything. We are in a situation where there are honest to god 20 Democrats who are plausible candidates in 2020 but I don't know ... you can make an argument for any of them. If Hillary Clinton had won the election I think I would be more categorical in my opinions of things and I am very much not.
Q: Is there anything that can stand at all for a still tried and true litmus test?
A: I don't know, and I don't really have an answer to that.
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