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Bob Bennett Reacts to New York Times Story on John McCain

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This is a rush transcript from "Hannity & Colmes," February 20, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

ALAN COLMES, CO-HOST: Joining us now in a "Hannity & Colmes" exclusive, speaking for the first time about this, the attorney retained by John McCain in this case, defense attorney Robert Bennett, also author of the new autobiography "In The Ring, the Trials of a Washington Lawyer." Robert Bennett, you're brother is often with us. We're happy to have you on the show, Mr. Bennett. Thanks for being with us.

What you can tell us about this? The Washington Post reported in December that you got involved in this particular case. Tell us about this. What you can explain?

Video: Watch Part 1 of the interview | Watch Part 2

ROBERT BENNETT, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, Senator McCain did not want a repeat of what occurred years ago in South Carolina, namely a real smear campaign, and asked me to assist them, and I have been assisting him. And this — I'm just — I think what the New York Times did here was shameless, just shameless. As you pointed out in the lead, it's almost entirely unsourced.

You know, I'm in a pretty unique position to talk about John McCain. First, I should tell your listeners, you know, I'm a registered Democrat, so I'm not on his side of a lot of issues. But I investigated John McCain for a year and a half, at least, when I was special counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee in the Keating Five, which, by the way, this New York Times article goes back to and discusses, goes back years and years.

And if there is one thing I am absolutely confident of, it is John McCain is an honest and honest man. I recommended to the Senate Ethics Committee that he be cut out of the case, that there was no evidence against him, and I think for the New York Times to dig this up just shows that Senator McCain's public statement about this is correct. It's a smear job. I'm sorry.

COLMES: It's OK, sir. In your book, you actually talk about the Keating Case and how you suggested they not pursue John McCain. The Washington Post reported back in December that you sent prepared answers to written questions submitted by the New York Times concerning the breaking news we are discussing tonight. Can you elaborate on that?

BENNETT: Yes. All of the matters that they allude to — I mean, they are not even very specific — we answered fully to the New York Times. We showed them that there was just nothing there. And, unfortunately, they have just obviously disregarded all of the hard evidence that we presented. Now, I'm not suggesting that the New York Times has an agenda here. I will let others conclude that.

But they certainly have allowed themselves to be a vehicle for a repeat of what happened in South Carolina. And I suspect it's only because John McCain is winning so much that we are even reading this story.

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST: Bob, it's Sean Hannity. Always good to see you. Although, as you know, I often agree more with Bill than yourself. But thank you for being with us today. It's funny, because, as Alan pointed out, you say in your book specifically, I'm often asked, which case in my career was the most professionally challenging and difficult. You mentioned that it is the Keating Five.

Bob, I have read this New York Times piece now three times. And what I see here is nothing but innuendo, rumor. They want the reader to draw conclusions. As we come on the air here, the McCain campaign has, in fact, responded. Let me tell our audience what they said; "the New York Times has lowered their standards to engage in a hit and run smear job." Do you agree with that, having read this piece?

BENNETT: I absolutely agree with that and, you know, ironically, you guys were kind enough to invite me on to talk about my book. This story broke, you know, an hour ago. And this was not my intention here, you know, to come on and defend John McCain. But I think it's the right thing to do. One thing I concluded, he is an honest man. And this is a real hit job.

HANNITY: Bob, it is fascinating because my preparation tonight was for your book. And you said that — you talked about this, that you recommended no further action be taken against Senators McCain and Glenn, principally because, you know, they learned that, you know, there was a criminal referral. They stopped aggressively doing Keating's bidding. You said this is pure politics as the Democrats on the committee did not want to cut McCain loose.

As I read this piece, I want to know if you come to the same conclusion. Because it was so full of innuendo and so lacking of fact, and so involved in smear, I came to the conclusion that the goal here was to bring up a 20-year-old scandal that you do write about in your book.

BENNETT: Well, you know, maybe I was prophetic. I mean, I wrote that chapter a long time ago. If your listeners want to know about the Keating Five case, I have a whole chapter on it. And what happened was that I had recommended that John McCain be cut out of it and not go forward. And, you know, I call it the way I see it. As I said, I'm a Democrat. And I recommended they go forward against Senators DeConcini, Senator Cranston and Senator Riegle.

But if you cut out John McCain, you would have had 28 days of public hearings with just Democrats in the dock. So, it's probably the first time in the history of the Senate that they rejected the advice of their counsel to exonerate a senator.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HANNITY: And welcome back to HANNITY AND COLMES. I'm Sean Hannity. We are reporting tonight from beautiful Naples, Florida, which is why I don't have a tie, just this one night. We continue now with attorney, author of the brand new book "In The Ring," Robert Bennett is back with us.

Bob, I want to go back to this piece and this explosive news. You have been representing things for Senator John McCain. You were brought in. You gave a series of answers, as the "Washington Post" reports, specifically to those at the Times that were investigating. Senator McCain is calling it a smear and a hit and run job.

When they make these specific allegations going back eight years ago when he was running for office that this lobbyist had been turning up in fund raisers, and the offices, and corporate jets and staff members were instructed to block this woman's access, is there any truth to any of this at all that you know?

BENNETT: Well, what I know is the members of the staff who were there and dealt with this lobbyist and ran Senator McCain's office say no. They say there is nothing to it. They provided that information to the "New York Times." It just apparently didn't have much of an impact on them.

HANNITY: You know what I'm concerned about, Bob, is — and this goes back to Raymond Donovan, former labor secretary under Ronald Reagan, is if this all turns out to be false, this is Senator McCain's good name, his reputation. This would be designed to hurt him in a presidential campaign and hurt his presidential chances, and aspirations here. This is as close as the "New York Times" gets, quote, "convinced the relationship had become romantic, some top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself, instructing the staff members to block her access," et cetera, et cetera.

There is innuendo, for example that Senator McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of lobbyists. When an article is written this way, they want people to draw conclusion. Don't they?

BENNETT: Yes. Let me make one observation. Anybody who knows anything about Washington knows that if there is one senator who will not honor the requests of his friends when it comes to various pieces of legislation, it is John McCain. Some of the people that I know very well who are lobbyists, Republican lobbyists, will tell me, and they will tell anybody who asks, McCain calls it the way he sees it on the merits. You can be his friend for 25 years and if he doesn't agree with it, he'll say no.

The second point, you know, my original title, Sean, for the book, was "Mean Town," but my editor thought, appropriately, it was too negative. A lot of that is in the book. You know, there is a wonderful saying which I put — I found, which I have put in the book, that a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on. And that's kind of what a story like this is.

COLMES: Mr. Bennett, it's Alan, back in New York. Were you at all involved in talks with the "New York Times"? And it's also reported by the "Washington Post" that the Drudge Report also was going to run with this story. Did you have any conversation with Drudge or with the Times to try to get them to back off?

BENNETT: I had no conversations with the Drudge people. I did have several conversations and one meeting with the "New York Times" reporters and repeatedly provided them answers to their questions. And I was satisfied that there was nothing here.

No, I worked very hard at it. I am highly suspicious as to why and how their working on a story was leaked to Drudge. I have my suspicions, but I will be fairer to the "New York Times" than the "New York Times" is to John McCain.

COLMES: How do you think it was leaked?

BENNETT: I'm not going to engage in what the "New York Times" did. I don't have proof, so I'm not going to say it.

COLMES: Was this an effort on the part of the Times to — it seems what Carl Cameron, our reporter at the top of the show indicated was that this was an attempt by the Times to ward off it coming out first by way of the "New Republic," and they wanted to beat them to their own story.

BENNETT: I just don't know about that so I really can't comment on that.

COLMES: We're going to take a quick break with Bob Bennett and more about your book as well. Coming up, more with Bob Bennett on this breaking news story as well, right after this break. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLMES: I'm Alan Colmes. We are talking to Bob Bennett. He originally was here to be talking about his book "In The Ring," in which, Bob, you do talk about the Keating Five and you do talk about your representation of John McCain. You heard talk, of course, of how you represented him even more recently in this case having to do with a "New York Times" story that is breaking in Thursday's edition, making some allegations that we have discussed up until now.

Why would — I happen to agree. He is probably one of the most ethical members of the Senate — of the House — in Congress. Why would he do anything to give the appearance of impropriety if that even was the case, where his aids, if the "New York Times" story was true, would have to say to him, hey, you better take this down a notch and back off this.

BENNETT: Yes, let me make one correction because I think it's important. I only began representing Senator McCain a couple of months ago in connection with some dirty tricks, which has now resulted in this article, I believe. I investigated John McCain. I was investigating him as counsel to the Senate Ethics Committee.

It was after a year and a half year of investigating him, I decided that he was a very honest man and recommended to the Senate that they not go after him. So, you know, I didn't ever represent him before. I don't know, you know, John McCain is winning an awful lot. And just a repeat of South Carolina, if you ask me.

COLMES: The issue of the appearance of impropriety, just to be very careful that nothing can be misinterpreted, and that's why you have aides around you, to tell you, hey, don't do this. People can misunderstand what you might be doing, or misinterpret a relationship.

BENNETT: It's very easy to misinterpret what people are doing, but, you know, the fundamental question that has to be focused on, and this article totally ignores, is that John McCain made the decisions he made in these matters on the basis of merit. Nothing in that article suggests the real — which is really the important issue, did John McCain decide something contrary to his beliefs because of a personal relationship.

And after representing him the last few months, answering all the questions of the "New York Times," looking into the allegations they wanted us to respond to, I cannot find, nor can they, a single instance where John McCain did something contrary to his beliefs. That is the issue.

HANNITY: Bob, we talk about some of the things that you have written in this book here. I have spent a lot of time preparing for the book interview here. Let me tie this together.

BENNETT: Are you going to have me back? I hope you have me back so I can talk about my book.

HANNITY: No, no, no. I'm going to talk about your book right now. We'll have you back for the book. I will put you on my radio show as well. You say, quote — but think about this in light of what we are discussing here tonight, because I think it's profound. You said, "there is something about seeing the mighty fall that wets the appetite of the news media." You said, "media coverage in almost all high profile cases is almost negative."

But you said, there's a pack mentality. They pile on like wolves chasing a wounded deer. Bringing down a big name is a blood sport in Washington. You spent time answering very specific questions to the "New York Times." Senator McCain has denied this story. He called the editor, according to their own article on this. The woman has denied the story. They offered no substantiation whatsoever. Is this what you are talking about in your book?

BENNETT: Yes, I think this is what I'm talking about in my book. I didn't know about this when I wrote that chapter. But this is precisely — that's why I said — I guess I was not only talking about the past, I guess I was anticipating the future.

HANNITY: I will tell you this — and maybe when we have a little bit more time, we will get into this, because we have devoted a lot of time. We will bring you back specifically about the book. You did say one thing in the book. You were talking about a high profile case. You said about Paula Jones, she wanted money. She enjoyed the celebrity the lawsuit brought her. The right wing haters and their supporters who backed her saw the case as a vehicle to engage in partisan politics.

You believe she became — you know, you thought it was a frivolous lawsuit. She became a pawn of the right wing. I will take disagreement. I don't hate Bill Clinton and I believe Paula Jones' story and I spent a lot of time interviewing her, Bob. It's just substantive. It's not about hating somebody.

BENNETT: With all due respect to you, the federal judge who looked at the evidence — remember all the discovery was done — the federal judge.

HANNITY: Is that why he lost his law license? Is that why he paid 850,000 dollars? Is that why all these other women claim that he serially abused them as well? It wasn't just one woman.

BENNETT: Now, don't you do what the "New York Times" did and give me a chance to answer.

HANNITY: All right.

BENNETT: The judge who saw all the evidence threw the case out as being frivolous, that it didn't even meet a threshold of going forward. The reason 850,000 dollars was paid was after we won the case —

HANNITY: We'll have you back. We'll come back.

BENNETT: All right.

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