CBS News’ Chief White House Correspondent talks to TheWrap about what to look for in tonight’s debate — and gives details on his dustup with the president
“Business. Just business,” that’s how CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett described last summer’s public scolding at the hands of President Barack Obama. “I did my job as I define my job. He did his job as he defines his job.”
Garrett made news during one of Obama’s press conferences last summer, when he asked if the president was “content” that four Americans were still being held in Iran while Obama was celebrating the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama called it “nonsense” and told the veteran reporter that he should “know better.”
A lot of reporters would be terrified if they were publicly scolded by the president, but not Garrett.
“At the next press conference the president had, I got a question. He called on me and I said, ‘Mr. President good to see you,’ and he said, ‘Good to see you, Major.’ That was my way of letting everyone know there was no lingering hostility, animosity or tension between us,” Garrett told TheWrap. “When I saw the president at the holiday reception, it didn’t come up. It didn’t need to come up.
CBS hosts tonight’s Republican presidential debate at 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET. “Face the Nation” anchor John Dickerson will moderate tonight’s event, with Garrett and the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel joining him as panelists.
“John is the conductor. John leads the orchestra,” Garrett said. “Let’s make no mistake, this is John’s debate. I am there, with Kim Strassel, to facilitate the asking of questions.”
We caught up with Garrett to pick his brain about tonight’s event.
TheWrap: What should viewers expect tonight?
Major Garrett: A lively and interesting debate about policy and, when I say that, I don’t mean to sort of wrap a wet blanket around viewer expectations of fireworks and gotcha questions and things like that. But we are taking the preparations for our questions and the topics we’re covering very seriously. These are serious times.
What possible weaknesses need to be addressed among the remaining candidates?
I think there are a lot of tires to be kicked on the specifics of a new agenda and a new America if any of these Republicans are elected president. They all have said, in very broad strokes, that they would be a very big directional change from Barack Obama. OK, fine. We have a general sense of direction. What we’re going to try to elicit from them is some specific mile markers, if you will. How are you going to move this country in that new direction in terms of actual decisions you would make? How your tax policy deals with economic growth and the wage gap? What would your orientation be toward Wall Street? What do you believe is the way to deal with entitlements? Budget deficits? How do you envision dealing with some of the broad things a lot of these candidates have said about immigration? We’re going to try to hone in on what is behind the rhetoric of these candidates.
With Chris Christie out of the race, do you think the remaining candidates will continue to attack Marco Rubio? If not, who will candidates attack tonight?
The Christie-Rubio moment showed people that debates remain an unpredictable form of political theater. No one would have predicted that Rubio would have stumbled in a debate, because he had not stumbled in any of the previous debates. As a matter of fact, he created genuine momentum early in the campaign by exceeding expectations in the debates. He never really had a wobbly debate performance at all. There was nothing to indicate he would have a wobbly debate performance two days before the New Hampshire primary. But he did. Was it Chris Christie or Rubio’s own strategic decision, as he explains it now, to not get into a knife fight but to repeat his central message about Obama and how he knows what he’s doing and that it should be alarming to Republicans? That was his decision. It wasn’t so much what Christie did, but what Marco Rubio decided to do with that moment. That underscores the fact that debates are unpredictable. We’re going to try to create moments where candidates have to think, explain and engage.
Who do you think is in danger of dropping out next if they don’t have a strong performance in the South Carolina primary?
Well, everyone says they’ll fight on until March 1. In theory that’s true for everyone on the stage. But Ben Carson will have to make some tough decisions if he performs poorly in South Carolina. Jeb Bush may have to make some very tough decisions if he performs poorly in South Carolina. Ted Cruz can carry on. Donald Trump can carry on. Marco Rubio will have the resources to carry on. In all likelihood, John Kasich will have the resources to carry on. It’s not only about your performance in the primary but what your donors are willing to give you to carry on. That’s a decision frequently made after the votes are cast.
Fox News boss Roger Ailes famously stood up to Donald Trump, while defending his employee Megyn Kelly. How would CBS respond to a similar situation if a candidate publicly attacked you following tonight’s debate?
There is no question in my mind CBS would stand behind my work, my journalism, my ethics and my reportage. There is no doubt in my mind that would be true, and for all the right reasons. What I stand for and what CBS stands for are absolutely synonymous. We work really hard to bring the audience the best journalism we can.