Flashback: CNN Fixed 1992 Election Eve Town Hall Ambush Question From Clinton Operative Stephanopoulos to Pres. George H.W. Bush
CNN’s history of fixing town halls goes back to 1992 when the cable network arranged for senior Clinton campaign operative George Stephanopoulos to call into a live town hall with President George H. W. Bush that put him ahead of all the other callers and allowed him to ambush Bush about the Iran Contra scandal–just days before the presidential election.
Screen images via YouTube.
CNN claimed Thursday night in response to a tweet by President Donald Trump that CNN never fixes town halls, “There is absolutely no truth to this story — and we can prove that. CNN did not provide or script questions for anyone in last night’s town hall, nor have we ever. Those are the facts. #FactsFirst 🍎”
There is absolutely no truth to this story — and we can prove that. CNN did not provide or script questions for anyone in last night's town hall, nor have we ever. Those are the facts. #FactsFirst 🍎
— CNN Communications (@CNNPR) February 23, 2018
Trump had earlier tweeted, ““School shooting survivor says he quit @CNN Town Hall after refusing scripted question.” @TuckerCarlson. Just like so much of CNN, Fake News. That’s why their ratings are so bad! MSNBC may be worse.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 23, 2018
The controversy is about Colton Haab, a JROTC student at the Parkland, Florida, high school that was the scene of a mass shooting that killed seventeen students and faculty on February 14. Haab used JROTC Kevlar to form a shield to protect students during the attack. Haab refused to participate on CNN’s town hall Wednesday night saying he was not allowed to ask his own question and was instead pressured by CNN to ask a ‘scripted’ question.
Video from October 30, 1992 shows the ambush phone call arranged by CNN that begins with host Larry King falsely claiming the call was not a set up.
Accuracy in Media published a report and transcript at the time.
A King Assist to Clinton
The ineptness of the Bush campaign doesn’t minimize or excuse the role played by the media in defeating Bush. Despite the flaws in the campaign, a week before the election, the polls that had shown Bush trailing badly began to change. The CNN/USA Today tracking poll revived Republican hopes when it showed Clinton leading Bush by only two points on October 29.
That same day Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, obtained a new indictment of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, releasing the texts of 15 notes written by Weinberger. One dated January 7, 1986 was about a meeting of President Reagan and his top aides at which a plan to sell 4,000 TOW missiles to Iran in exchange for five hostages was discussed. Weinberger wrote that he and George Shultz opposed the plan and that Bush was one of four who favored it, but it is not clear from the note that Bush attended the meeting. Bush has long insisted that he didn’t know that this was an exchange of arms for hostages until December 1986, when the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee briefed him.
With this, the attack on Bush’s character that Clinton had launched the previous day escalated. Clinton declared this “diminishes the credibility of the presidency,” and Senator Gore called it the smoking gun that proved Bush had been lying. It was the first subject Larry King brought up when Bush appeared on his show that night, grilling him for two minutes. When the lines were opened to callers, the fourth call was from George Stephanopoulos, Clinton’s communications director. This dialogue followed:
KING: Let me, we have a call from Little Rock from, from George Stephanopoulos, who is, who is– BUSH: Oh no, oh no. Go ahead. KING: He is Governor Clinton’s campaign manager. This is an open phones session. He dialed in directly. It wasn’t a secret number. Go ahead, George. STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, you asked us to find out what the smoking gun was. What this memo clearly shows, this memo by Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, is that on January 7, 1986, let me quote from the memo: “The president decided to go with an Israeli-Iranian offer to release our five hostages in return for the sale of 4,000 TOWs to Iran by Israel.” In other words, it was clearly an explicit deal of arms for hostages. But on January 8, 1988, you said that you sensed that we were sending arms, you sensed that we were trying to get hostages out, but it was clearly not arms for hostages and for the last five years you have consistently said that it was not arms for hostages, and this memo clearly shows that it was arms for hostages, five hostages in return for the sale of 4,000 TOW missiles and that you knew it then. According to Mr. Weinberger. BUSH: May I reply? Let me tell you that Mr. Stephanopoulos, a very able young man, was the floor director or something for Mr. Gephardt, who is the majority leader of the Democrats, of the House of Representatives under the Democrats–that’s his background. It is the Democrats who have been pushing –to the tune of some $40 million–these hearings. I would refer him to this testimony, which pretty much says what he has just said. However, to this very day, President Reagan didn’t feel that that arrangement was arms for Hostages, the president of the United States. I have testified to that, and George, if I might make a little political observation here, because I keep reading you are getting into our stories all the time, I think this is rather desperation, last minute politics when you feel something slipping away from you, and you’re too smart for that. KING: George, want to respond? STEPHANOPOULOS: All I would say in response was– BUSH: I didn’t come here to debate Stephanopoulos. I’m here to debate you, Larry. Come on. KING: Let him respond and then you respond. George?
After a second exchange along the same lines, King pursued the question, asking, “But if 4,000 TOWS had gone in return for five hostages, what else could it be’?” BUSH: Larry, please read the testimony. There was trying to work with moderates. They weren’t dealing with people that had the hostages. There’s a whole history that this poor guy is trying to resurrect four days before the election. It’s wonderful how his call gets in. this random call…. KING: We don’t have a private line. We really don’t. I don’t control the calls. BUSH: He’s a patient fella. [Goes on to commend Stephanopoulos for the good job he had done for Clinton. but suggests that he read all the testimony.]
Larry King had scored a coup–a televised ambush interview of a sitting president running for reelection by his opponent’s spokesman. King’s producer says that he “misspoke” in claiming that Stephanopoulos had not been given a secret number and that there was no private line. On King’s next program a caller charged that Bush had been “set up.” King said, “Mr. Stephanopoulos called. He had a complaint. We told him to call back.” He said nothing about his having “misspoken.”
The closure of the gap in the polls was reversed over the weekend. Bush officials put the blame on the adverse publicity resulting from the new Weinberger indictment. One spokesman said, “We hit a wall,” and the help King gave Clinton by arranging the ambush interview was partly responsible. It helped fuel the negative publicity that resulted from the action of special counsel Lawrence Walsh.
The 2000 book Spin Control by John Anthony Maltese detailed how Stephanopoulos called a private CNN phone number and harangued King’s producer Tammy Haddad to get King to challenge Bush about a detail of the Iran Contra scandal. Haddad refused but urged Stephanopoulos to ask the question to Bush himself. After he cleared it with the Clinton campaign, Haddad put Stephanopoulos on the air with Bush as Larry King falsely claimed it was just random luck.
Complete video of the CNN Bush town hall (with local candidate ads at beginning.)
CNN, fixing town halls since 1992.