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President Obama and Iranian President Speak By Phone; Interview with Mark Levin; Budget Battle Discussed

Aired September 27, 2013 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Jake Tapper, and this is "THE LEAD."

President Obama just finishing remarks there in the White House briefing room talking about the recent conversations he had with Iranian president roughen and also his feelings about this budget standoff.

In the room right here, I have Gloria Borger, Candy Crowley and Jim Sciutto.

Candy, didn't sound like there was a lot of wiggle room there in President Obama's remarks when it came to negotiation.

CROWLEY: It doesn't, and the language, as Gloria and I both noted, this time is so toxic. It's about hostages, and somebody talked about strapping things to their chest and burning the house down.

And in fact, what they've done is they have taken advantage of the rift in the Republican Party because we saw that famous showdown between Corker and Cruz, two senators, one from Tennessee, one from Texas, and basically, Senator Corker took on a member of his own party, so it makes that rift easier to go in and exploit.

TAPPER: Gloria, I don't see that rift as obviously in the House, which is where this bill now goes.

Is there enough of a rift? Will Speaker Boehner introduce legislation at all that would pass depending on Democratic votes --

BORGER: You want to be Speaker Boehner tonight? Honestly? He's got to now figure out a way to navigate -- you know, this is a fight he was dragged into kicking and screaming, let's be clear about this, by the tea party caucus.

He would rather, you know, fund the government, make the fight, in fact, on the debt ceiling.

So he's got to figure out a way to keep this caucus happy to a degree and maybe cut a deal with Democrats to get something passed.

The only way I can see that happening is on something that's less substantive and more procedural, maybe kick the can down the road, which I know never happens in Washington.

TAPPER: Jim, another big announcement in these remarks from President Obama, talking about how he had just gotten off the phone with the president of Iran.

That's something that I haven't heard in quite a long time.

BORGER: 1979.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yeah, and he referenced it, the first time U.S. and Iranian presidents have spoken to each other since 1979.

And it's interesting to me that, actually, Hassan Rouhani scooped the president by tweeting it before he came into the press room to announce it.

BORGER: Jim, I want to play some sound from President Obama talking about this and get reaction from you.

There's the tweet, but let's hear from President Obama right now.


OBAMA: Just now, I spoke on the phone with President Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran's nuclear program.

I reiterated to President Rouhani what I said in New York. While there will surely be important obstacles to moving forward and success is by no means guaranteed, I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution.


TAPPER: "I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution."

It's a remarkable thing for an American president to say about Iran. We have been hearing nothing but rhetoric from the U.S. government that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon.


And he is mimicking President Rouhani's comments from earlier in the week saying, I believe we can reach an agreement within one year. He said he's going to have something for the Americans to look at next month in Geneva, so now both of them on the same page. Both of them have directed their foreign minister and secretary of state to pursue an agreement.

It's also an interesting point. When the handshake didn't happen earlier this week, we were all talking about, well, the hard-liners in Iran must be pulling Rouhani back. Now you have a phone call. So it appears that he has the backing there, he has the muscle to do something.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You mean he had an option not to take that phone call?

SCIUTTO: Well, clearly, someone -- someone alerted the president that the Iranian... (CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: I want to bring in -- I want to bring in Fareed Zakaria in New York.

Fareed, the good money obviously is always on skepticism whenever we hear of two parties that have been at such loggerheads for so many decades, but this was a remarkable announcement by the president. Whether or not it pans out, of course, that is another matter.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: Oh, of course. As you pointed out, this is the first time since 1979 that the leaders of the two countries have talked.

I think part of what was going on here, of course, was President Rouhani, I would guess, was trying to kind of reassure the administration that he has enough control over his government and his policy that he can actually make contact with the president of the United States without having to check back home with Tehran with the hard-liners and such.

So, I think it was progress in that sense as well. Maybe there's some -- some consternation back in Tehran, but it demonstrates that the president of Iran does have the ability to make those kind of decisions, which is important, because, ultimately, neither side is going to get what -- exactly what they want in this deal.

And the question is, on both sides, President Obama, President Rouhani, can they deliver? Can they get their countries to accept a deal that's 80 percent of what you want, but not 100 percent?

TAPPER: And, Fareed, if earlier in the week, as Jim just reminded us, President Obama wanted to meet and have a handshake with President Rouhani, and President Rouhani sent the message back to the White House he can't do that, the politics back home are too difficult, what would change so that this phone call and this conversation about a comprehensive agreement could take place?

ZAKARIA: I would guess that President Rouhani was probably startled by the amount of blowback that came.

I was -- I met with him with a small group of people, small group of journalists, right after that, the next morning, and the question I asked him was, how can you assure us that if you don't have the authority to shake hands with the president of the United States, how do we know you have the authority to negotiate a nuclear deal with him?

And I think they realized that they had a problem, that they had signaled to the world that the president of Iran didn't have this kind of leeway, this freedom of action. So I would guess the movement came on the Iranian side, where they realized they had to demonstrate that the president had more authority than was being assumed.

TAPPER: Candy, right here in the studio with me, this is -- this is certainly not expected. CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is unexpected and it is interesting to me that it comes a couple days before the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, comes to meet with the president. He's coming next week.

We have already seen his response to Rouhani, which is, do not trust this man, this is the same man that has done A, B, C and D. The whole idea...


TAPPER: The Israelis hold him partially responsible for the bombing of that Jewish center in Argentina.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. And I could say another rough meeting at the White House between Netanyahu and this president, who have had a rocky relationship, as you know.

BORGER: And Syria. And what about Syria?

CROWLEY: And Syria.

But I think Iran, because Israel is already convinced that they have passed that point where it's very obvious that they're making nuclear weapons. The U.S. is not as convinced. I just think this is going to be an interesting meeting.

TAPPER: If there is a savviness there, it is very savvy indeed.

On the phone from Tehran, Iran, we have Reza Sayah.

Reza, I don't know if -- if the news of this -- obviously, President Rouhani of Iran tweeted about this conversation before President Obama could announce it. But, tell us, how is this being reported in Iran?

REZA SAYAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, very little reaction to it now.

It's very late in the day. But, obviously, this is a history-making event. Tomorrow, it's going to make headlines here in Iran and also across the world, especially in the U.S. And if you look at this trip by President Rouhani, if his intention was to capture the world's attention, win over the world's media, he certainly accomplished that.

Now this phone conversation, the first time a president of the United States and the Iranian president have talked to one another. That's going to make headlines. But here's a critical point. I think lost in all this publicity is the fact that President Rouhani, even with his new mild-mannerism that's a stark contrast to the former president, even with his conciliatory tone, he's made it clear that his position is not different than the Islamic Republic's position, what's it's been for years.

And that is they're not going to back down from what they describe as a peaceful nuclear program. They are not going to back down -- uranium. So no matter how this is viewed by the world, this nuclear program and these negotiations are going to come down to what kind of agreement these two countries are going to be able to hammer out.

So, certainly, this is going to make headlines, but in the end, are these two countries going to are going to be able to hammer out. So certainly this is going to make headlines but in the end, are these two countries going to be able to strike a deal when it comes to the nuclear program, this obstacles that's in the way of these two countries establishing a relationship?

TAPPER: I want to go to Fareed Zakaria, bring him back now.

Fareed, I don't know -- I don't mean to put you on the spot here, but if you could explain that tweet that we saw from President Rouhani. It said President Rouhani says, "Have a nice day" to President Obama and President Obama says, "Thank you. Khodahafez."


TAPPER: Khodahafez. Khodahafez. Mr Sciutto, who has been in Iran, is translating that for me.

Explain to our viewers what that means, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: It's actually pronounced Khodahafez.


TAPPER: Oh, there you go.

You're wrong, too, Jim.

ZAKARIA: It means God be with you.

TAPPER: God be with you, OK.

ZAKARIA: It means God be with you.

And, in fact, it's a point of contention in the Islamic world. The Persians tend to Khodahafez. And lots of people -- it's the standard slang, but the hard-liner Sunnis now say "Allah hafez" because they don't like the Persian word Khoda, which is God. But that's inside baseball.

TAPPER: All right, thank you, Fareed Zakaria in New York.

I want to now go to the White House and our Brianna Keilar, our White House correspondent.

Brianna, one of the criticisms that we have heard from Republicans about President Obama's posture when it comes to negotiating with John Boehner is, he will negotiate with President Rouhani, but he won't negotiate with House Speaker John Boehner. I don't know that that's necessarily a fair criticism, but he certainly gave them more ammunition with this announcement, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. No, certainly, and I think it's probably fair to say obviously clearly today, President Obama has been on the phone more with the leader of Iran than he has with the speaker of the House, as far as we know. I think here at the White House, and I haven't posed the question exactly to them this way, Jake, but I think they would say that at this point, they may actually see more promise or certainly I think a potential reward to talking to Iran at this point.

I don't think they necessarily see that in dealing with House Republicans. But talking about the government shutdown, it was almost -- I mean, this is what we were expecting, right? There was the vote in the Senate today. We were expecting President Obama to talk a lot about this.

We knew there was a lot going on with foreign policy. He might discuss it. Maybe he would say something about Syria. Iran really stole the headline there. But on the government shutdown, President Obama really trying to highlight this funding bill that has gone through the Senate and trying to put the pressure on House Republicans.

I think what he was really trying to do is -- again, we have seen him do this before, try to be the grownup in the room, the reasonable one, trying to say -- really outline the stakes, if not only Republicans shut down the government, but also if this gets to a point where the debt ceiling could actually be breached.

Part of the issue, though, is that while polls are in his favor and he's really -- in terms of the shutdown, Americans don't want to see a shutdown, polls are not in his favor when it comes to Obamacare. It's still very unpopular. So he's sort of pulled between that. And, also, his approval ratings have dipped recently.

So he's in this position of where he's trying to on the shutdown really not -- not really negotiate and on the debt ceiling not negotiate at all. That's what he's saying, I'm not negotiating. I think he's trying to strike this position of strength, where he is insisting he's not going to blink, but at the same point, by saying Republicans really have all of this power and it's really up to them to do it, it also creates this position where he's a little bit weak as well -- Jake.

TAPPER: And, Brianna, in fact, when we're talking about these showdowns, we know that the showdown over the potential government shutdown which would come at midnight as Monday becomes Tuesday next week is actually nothing compared to the potential showdown coming in a few weeks if the Congress does not raise the debt ceiling, allowing the government to spend more money and continuing with its functions.

In fact, President Obama again showing no wiggle room when he spoke about this just a few minutes ago. Let's play that sound.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Raising the debt ceiling is simply authorizing the Treasury to pay for what Congress has already authorized.

Failure to meet this responsibility would be far more dangerous than a government shutdown. It would effectively be an economic shutdown, with impacts not just here, but around the world.

We don't fully understand what might happen, the dangers involved, because no Congress has ever actually threatened default. But we know it would have a profound destabilizing effect on the entire economy, on the world economy, because America is the bedrock of world investment.


TAPPER: So, Brianna, what I'm hearing -- and you can translate for me as well if you want -- but what I'm hearing is, I'm not going to negotiate on the government shutdown, but I'm really not going to negotiate over raising the debt ceiling. Is that what you're hearing?

KEILAR: That's exactly right, because even though a government shutdown would hurt the economy, in the estimation of the White House and economists as well, a debt ceiling just could be really a disaster.

You did hear President Obama say, we have never even -- we have never really seen it and so we can't even really speculate on how bad the consequences would be. But, you know, one of the things we have heard Republicans talk about on the government shutdown, they obviously have wanted to, some of them have wanted to defund Obamacare. The president just said that's not going to happen today.

So I think that's a line we will hear a lot of. But on the debt ceiling, you now heard House Republicans talk about kind of a list of things that they would like to see, delayed implementation of Obamacare. There are a couple of things, Jake, and this is sort of interesting, that might be more palatable or certainly not as unpalatable as anything having to do with Obamacare.

But that medical device tax that in part pays for Obamacare, repealing that, they're talking about that, and also this one, the Keystone XL pipeline, asking as part of this for it to be approved. I think a lot of people actually think the administration is going to go ahead and approve that, that they would do that even without these negotiations.

But despite that, the White House is just saying, no, they're not taking the bait on any of that. They say they are not negotiating. And we keep trying to check, is there wiggle room? And I will say, it is a few weeks out, but they are insistent there is no wiggle room.

TAPPER: Let's go to Capitol Hill right now to senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash.

Dana, how is -- how are President Obama's remarks being received on Capitol Hill?

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So far, with silence, which is very interesting. I just got an e-mail back from an aide to Speaker Boehner asking if he was going to come out and respond to what the president said, to give a sense of where the House Republicans are, and the answer was no.

And I can tell you that that absolutely must be because he doesn't know where House Republicans are. I was e-mailing with another Republican source in the House, saying they just don't know how they're going to go because they don't know where the consensus is among House Republicans.

And that's critical for two reasons. One is because to find consensus among House Republicans, they are going to have to make changes to this bill funding the government that the Senate just sent over, and any changes that a Democrat said they won't pass, so that spells trouble, but also because, you know, last week when we first saw that this was the strategy emerging on the House side, that they were in fact, even though John Boehner didn't want to do this, going to go ahead and pass a bill defunding Obamacare on the bill funding the government, thought that maybe once they got it out of their system, the conservatives in the House, that -- and the reality smacked them in the face that the Senate led by Democrats wasn't going to pass that, that they would kind of let it go and the speaker would allow a funding bill to pass with the help of Democrats.

I just got word from a Boehner source saying that that's not going to happen, that they very much are still focused on getting consensus among right now the number is 217, 217 Republicans in how to do this funding bill. That means anything they get consensus on is not going to be acceptable in the Senate run by Democrats, and, again, that spells big trouble.

TAPPER: Thank you, Dana Bash.

We have to take a quick break.

When we come back, you would be hard-pressed to find less of a fan of President Obama than the radio host Mark Levin. The conservative host talks to six million pairs of ears a day. What does he think about the president's phone call with Iran, with his posture towards Congress? We will ask him coming up next.



President Obama just spoke by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The first communication between the U.S. and Iranian leader since 1979. President Obama says they've reached a, quote, "comprehensive solution" over Iran's nuclear program. That's the hope, anyway.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, we're mindful of all the challenges ahead. The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history.


TAPPER: I'm joined now by a conservative radio host, Mark Levin. He's the author of "The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic", the author of the "New York Times" bestseller, and the host of the nationally syndicated "Mark Levin Show."

Mark, thanks so much for joining us.

Obviously, we had this interview planned previously to talk about your book and to talk about the budget fight, but President Obama gave us some breaking news to talk about. What's your reaction to news of this phone call?


TAPPER: A yawn. Just for the transcript.


LEVIN: Well, I'm sorry.

But the dictator of North Korea going to call him next and will sit down with them and so forth?

The fact of the matter is, did not this moderate say that they're not changing policy with respect to their production of nuclear weapons? Didn't he say that?

Well, so what are they talking about on the phone? I have no idea. I don't know what progress they're talking about.

It's amazing to me. The irony is unbelievable. The president gets up there, he talks in very nice prose about, you know, this is the first time we're having this discussion.

This is a regime that hangs gay people. This is a regime that kills American soldiers. This is a regime as I speak that's torturing freedom fighters in that country.

Meanwhile, he talks about the Republicans as if they're holding hostages. One of his flunkies was on your show yesterday talking about them having bombs attached to their chest and I'm not going to talk to them.

Now, the Iranians, sure, we're going to talk to them. This is a first. Boehner, no, no way I'm going to talk to them.

Does he even understand how silly he looks? No, he doesn't.

TAPPER: Well, that was one of the things I noted is that Republicans have been very critical of the fact that President Obama putting outstretched hands to talk about -- to talk with dictators, whether it's Bashar al Assad or now Rouhani. Whereas, there's very strong criticism he's not doing enough to negotiate with Congress. His position on the government shutdown is Congress cannot achieve unto itself, it doesn't have enough votes in the Senate, to get rid of Obamacare, and therefore, it's not fair, nor democratic, to try to force defunding of Obamacare through a government -- by threatening a government shutdown or by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling.

Why is he wrong?

LEVIN: Oh, I see. So, the only Congress that was democratic was the one that passed Obamacare. So we're stuck with it forever.

I understand when he was a senator and he voted against increasing the debt ceiling, that was not going to throw the economy into hell. No, no, no, no.

Now, as president of the United States he's talking about a government shutdown, we have to pay our bills. Does he even understand how this works? You're paying existing interest, principal and pensions. Existing. Not prospective. We take in $200 billion a year. That covers all that and more.

He doesn't want to negotiate because he doesn't want to talk about that. That's perfectly fine.

Now, we've shut down the federal government 17 times in 19 years. I've got it right here. It's NBC so it must be true. From 1976 to 1995, people got their checks, the military didn't go home, the border was as secure as it was then as it is now. So, all these scare tactics mean nothing.

I just want to inform some of the folks here at CNN, the Tea Party is not like the reptile house at the zoo, this tiny group of people. It is people who are concerned about $17 trillion in debt, $90 trillion in unfunded liabilities.

This president has added enormously to this. So, it's kind of ironic that he's talking about paying our bills and the debt and so forth when he's accumulated so much of it.

TAPPER: Well, without question, there's a lot of people who are concerned about the debt and the Tea Party caucus and Tea Party patriots, the groups --

LEVIN: So what's he going to do about it?

TAPPER: So, here's my question. Why is President Obama the only one responsible for the deficit if Congress is not able, both the House and the Senate, to pass a budget that starts to bring the United States within its means?

LEVIN: That's an excellent point and you're exactly right, which is the reason I wrote this book. But he talked today about the budget.

The person who is stopping the passage of an annual budget is Harry Reid. Harry Reid's working with the White House. The House as I understand it keeps passing budgets, sending them to the Senate and they die.

So I don't know what he's talking about. We need to have a budgets every year, OK, then tell your friend Harry to get a budget.

You do control the Senate. You do control the White House. There are still some Democrats left in the House. There is some French Republicans left in the House to go along with you.

TAPPER: I wanted to ask, what exactly is a French Republican?

LEVIN: A French Republican is a Republican who beats up on conservatives and is constantly praising the Democrats and contributing to the massive spending in this country while they go home and pretend otherwise.

TAPPER: OK. Why French? Just because of dissing (ph) France or is there --

LEVIN: I could have said worse. Yes, exactly. I could have said worse, but French seemed fine to me.

TAPPER: Let me ask you a question about not so much the government shutdown which might happen come midnight Monday, as Monday becomes Tuesday, but --

LEVIN: Can I ask you something?

TAPPER: Sure. Of course.

LEVIN: What happens when the government shuts down? What happens?

TAPPER: What happens when the government shuts down? Various government agencies tell nonessential personnel, it's a specific label --

LEVIN: Yes, I was in the Reagan administration --

TAPPER: Right.

LEVIN: -- and we shut down the government six times.


LEVIN: And essential personnel make up like 40 percent or 50 percent of the personnel in the bureaucracy.

So, I want people who watch CNN to understand it's not like Saturday and Sunday when the government really shuts down, there's nobody in the offices, or a government-paid holiday when nobody's in the offices. There is actually people in the offices, the military doesn't go home, the border patrol doesn't go home, the ships don't go into dock. I just want them to understand the Social Security checks are still cut. We're talking about the rest of the government.

TAPPER: Point taken, sir. I want to talk about the debt ceiling, though, because as you know, the debt ceiling is whether or not we pay the bills that have already been incurred. This is the spending that has already taken place that the House, the Senate, President Obama have already allowed to happen, and not raising the debt ceiling as you know can cause serious harm to the American economy for a number of reasons.

Why is it fair for the Republicans, the House Republicans, to use the debt ceiling -- I'm going to try to avoid using any of the metaphors that offend people -- but why is it fair to use that as a bargaining chip when it's not their economy, it is all of our economy, it is the United States economy?

LEVIN: Because we live in what's called a constitutional republic. It's interesting under article one, spending, taxing, borrowing has to come from the House of Representatives first. Maybe the president doesn't understand that.

So, if he's really concerned about a government shutdown, he's really concerned about the debt, he would have spent the last five years trying to figure out how to work with Republicans -- but he doesn't. And so, we have, for instance, Obamacare. What does he do? He decides who gets waivers. He decides who benefits. He decides what he's going to extend and not extend. That's not the way our republic works.

So he should pretend I guess that John Boehner's the president of Iran, maybe get a phone call, maybe they could tweet each other and maybe have a discussion about the constitutional responsibilities of both.

But Obama, when it comes to domestic policies, it's his way or the highway. When it comes to foreign policy, he's quite the appeaser.

TAPPER: As you know, President Obama argues -- and this is me relaying his view --

LEVIN: Right.

TAPPER: -- that he wants to negotiate with the Republicans in Congress, but they refuse to talk about tax increases which he wants to be on the table, along with other things such as entitlement reforms and spending cuts, and he says because they're not willing to negotiate, they are the ones who are saying my way or the highway.

Your response to that?

LEVIN: OK, great. My response to this is this whole federal system is completely out of control. The trajectory is one way. When you have a nation that has $90 trillion in unfunded liabilities and not enough money on the planet to pay for that, and you have $17 trillion debt and the executive branch is not serious about talking about it, the Senate is obstructing whatever the House does, and even the House isn't serious about it, both political parties to one extent or another are involved in this.

The problem is we, the American people, have to deal with this. We have the General Accountability Office, part of the federal government that says this is unsustainable. We have the Congressional Budget Office that says this is unsustainable. We have the trustees and actuaries for Social Security and Medicare saying this is unsustainable.

And these guys are fighting over -- well, I'm not going to talk to this one about whether we keep the government open or not.

Let me tell you something. At some point in some day in some way, these people are saying it's unsustainable -- it is unsustainable. And it's going to crash, one day, some way.

TAPPER: You have a book here, "The Liberty Amendments", which obviously you're here to talk about. You propose 11 new amendments to the Constitution which would be done on the state level. We don't have the time obviously to go through each one.


TAPPER: But I do think one of the ones that I wanted to ask you about has to do with term limits. You propose no more than I believe it's 12 years aggregate, is that right? For members of Congress?

LEVIN: Twelve years for members of Congress, aggregate. One House or the other or both. And it's not only that, what I'm proposing is under Article V of the Constitution -- I know when I talk about the Constitution, it's very quaint, but these guys, they swear to uphold it. And so from time to time, we ought to refer them to it.

And Under Article V, there's two ways of amending the Constitution, through Congress or through the state legislatures. And the framers at the time said in 1787, some day, your Congress may become oppressive. Some day, your federal government may become oppressive.

There has to be a way for the American people to react to this, respond to this in a constitutional legitimate and civil way, and that's through the state legislatures, proposing amendments to all the states and just like if the Congress proposes them, three-fourths of the states would ratify.

The problem right now is we have a centralized government, concentration of power, unmoored from the Constitution. That's why they get into these fights.

You know what they're fighting over, Jake? They're fighting over power. Who's going to be imposing their will on the American people?

That's not the way it's supposed to work. The system is broken. The constitutional construct is broken. And what I suggest in "The Liberty Amendments" is we have to restore the republic by breathing life back into the Constitution.

TAPPER: One just quick thing, sir. And that is -- I just want to ask you quickly, the one most cogent argument I've heard against term limits for members of Congress, and you do also propose them for the Supreme Court as well, but for members of Congress, the strongest argumentative I've heard is -- against them -- is all that would do is power anonymous staffers and anonymous who would then truly have even more power in this town.

Are you not concerned about that at all?

LEVIN: I am concerned about that. And I'm not the fount of all knowledge.