Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: January 31, 2018 Guest: Jennifer Rodgers, Clint Watts, Ashley Parker, Jonathan Lemire
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: A breaking story from "The New York Times" tonight. Robert Mueller now digging into the cover story about that Trump Tower meeting and the role White House aide Hope Hicks might have played.
Also Washington counting down to the release of that controversial memo even after the FBI warns of grave concerns about its content.
Plus, Donald Trump believes the memo will show the FBI and DOJ are conspiring against him. The reporter on the story here tonight with details. And reports the President asked Rod Rosenstein, the man overseeing the Mueller investigation, if he was on the Trump team. "The 11th Hour" begins now.
And good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. This was day 377 of the Trump administration, and we have breaking news on the Russia case tonight. We learn today Robert Mueller plans to speak to the former spokesman for the Trump Legal Team, Mark Corallo, who resigned earlier this summer.
And the significance is big given this story breaking in the "New York Times" just tonight which reports Mueller plans to ask Corallo about the statement President Trump and his advisers drafted turns out as a cover story to explain the Trump tower meeting that Don Jr. accepted with several Russian nationals.
The "Times" says "Mr. Corallo is planning to tell Mr. Mueller about a previously undisclosed conference call with Mr. Trump and Hope Hicks, White House Communications Director, according to the three people," cited earlier in the article.
"Mr. Corallo planned to tell investigators that Ms. Hicks said during the call that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting in which the younger Mr. Trump said he was eager to receive political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians, `will never get out. That left Mr. Corallo with concerns that Ms. Hicks could be contemplating obstructing justice, the people said."
Hope Hicks` attorney notably denies she ever said this. You remember the cover story about that meeting was that it was mostly about Russian adoptions.
Now we turn to the other big news developing tonight. Senior administration officials are telling NBC News that it is likely that highly controversial secret memo about the Russia inquiry which has pitted the White House against the FBI will indeed be released tomorrow.
That memo is the work of House Republicans and it alleges anti-Trump bias at the FBI and the Department of Justice, and that investigators improperly obtained warrants to surveil a member of the Trump presidential campaign. The House Intelligence Committee led by Republican California Congressman Devin Nunes voted Monday to release that memo to the public. The memo has been at the White House which has final say on its release.
Last night, after delivering his State of the Union address, the President on the way out was overheard all but assuring a House member it would be done.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JEFF DUNCAN (R-SC): Let`s release the memo.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, yeah, don`t worry, one hundred percent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The FBI has argued against the memo`s release and made an unprecedented move with this statement. "The FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it. We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo`s accuracy."
Even though the Bureau Director, Christopher Wray`s name is not on that statement, it will still be seen as a direct challenge to President Trump and the White House. It`s not the first time this week that Wray has weighed in on the memo. Sources tell NBC News that Monday, Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein went to the White House and asked the Chief of Staff, John Kelley, not to make that memo public.
Late this afternoon, Devin Nunes released his own response to the FBI`s objections. "Having stonewalled Congress` demands for information for nearly a year, it is no surprise to see the FBI and DOJ issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies. Regardless, it`s clear the top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign."
The top Democrat on that committee, House Intel, Adam Schiff of California, has new complaints on this memo tonight. We`ll get to those in just a moment.
And there is also reporting from "The New York Times" that points to the latest effort by President Trump to put pressure on an official involved in the Russia investigation. This time, it`s that name again, Rod Rosenstein, Deputy Attorney General.
The paper says, "Mr. Rosenstein was also asked by the President last month whether he was `on my team,` according to an official briefed on the exchange."
You may remember Donald Trump told former FBI Director James Comey, I need loyalty, I expect loyalty. That was according to Comey`s sworn testimony.
"Washington Post" reported that during their first face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office last may, the President asked the FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe who he voted for in the 2016 election.
Earlier tonight, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut had this reaction to the new report that the President wanted to know on if Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein was "on his team."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SENATOR CHRIST MURPHY (D), CONNECTICUT: This feels like a really dangerous day. News of the President once again asking for loyalty from a law enforcement officer whose loyalty is only supposed to be to the country he serves and the rule of law.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: A member of the U.S. Senate having called this a dangerous day. Let`s bring in our lead off panel for what is also a very busy Wednesday night.
Jennifer Rodgers, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York, now the Executive Director for Columbia Law School Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity. Clint Watts, former FBI Special Agent is back with us and Ashley Parker, White House Reporter for the "The Washington Post."
I`m much obliged to all three of you. Thank you for joining us.
Jennifer, let`s go back up to the top of our reporting which is "The New York Times" reporting tonight and Hope Hicks, the White House Communications Director. She again is denying those comments through an attorney. But what if it turns out she said something like, no one will ever see those emails, as a matter of law?
JENNIFER RODGERS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL CENTER FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF PUBLIC INTEGRITY: Well, it depends, right? It depends what she meant. If she said it in a way that`s kind of speculative, like I don`t think they`ll ever get out because so few people know about them, then that`s not necessarily signaling that she plans to actually engage in obstruction of justice. But what`s key to me and, you know, we`ll of course see what the Mueller team makes of it. But Corallo, that kind of his take. His take was that she may be actually talking about obstructing justice, and that`s so important to him and troubling to him that he ends up quitting.
So clearly that`s kind of going to be his take on it to the Mueller team. And he was there. I mean, something that`s really important, of course, when you`re evaluating what somebody says, is how it sounds, what is the tone? And that is something that Corallo can give that none of the rest of us are going to be able to weigh in on. So that to me is very important.
WILLIAMS: And Clint, as an FBI man, how easy is it to put your hands on the very email she is talking about? Isn`t that kind of step one of a modern investigation?
CLINT WATTS, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: For sure, step one is always go to the search warrants, go to the subpoenas, go to the investigative materials. You`re going to look at financial records, any sort of communication between any of these people, that`s the baseline. That`s all going to be pulled in right away before you ever go to interviews.
And what`s fascinating about this is you`re really just seeing, you know, Hope Hicks, you`re looking at three people in this conversation. One of them has no experience. And so any of these statements that are not made are only ridiculous but very damning for this team later on down the road.
WILLIAMS: And Ashley, yet again, the story we`re talking about tonight has at its core, really, chaos on the inside and infighting on the inside since the birth of this administration.
ASHLEY PARKER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I mean, that`s certainly true. And if you even look at some of the clips you`ve played earlier, one of the things that has gotten this President in such trouble is that amid all of this chaos, and infighting, and backstabbing, the one thing he cares deeply about is loyalty. And it`s also the one thing he fundamentally misunderstands. To the President, loyalty is loyalty personally, to him. And he`s always asking these people who serve in his administration, from McCabe to Rosenstein to Comey, to basically pledge their loyalty to him personally. And not understanding that their loyalty is to the constitution or to the agencies they have served. And that has again become one of the key buckets that Mueller is now looking at in his probe.
WILLIAMS: Ashley, let`s turn the corner into this memo which is likely to be the lead story tomorrow, though, predicting that kind of thing these days is fraught. Especially with the FBI director now kind of on the record saying, please don`t do this. Using words like, grave, which gets your attention, why the zeal, why the urgency to put this memo out, knowing the damage it could cause to our institutions as a precedent?
PARKER: The urgency is that President Trump had been telling his team as early as last week, before he had even read the memo, that he believed that it would vindicate him in the Mueller probe. And he was -- and also last week been complaining about Rod Rosenstein again, saying maybe he should fire him, and he believes that this memo, if it becomes public, would give him the pretext or the grounds to potentially fire Rosenstein, to make changes in the Department of Justice generally that he thinks could help him with the Mueller probe.
And at the very least, even if he`s not able to sort of ward it off, he is laying the groundwork for whatever these conclusions are reached, whatever they are, that trust is now so eroded by the President attacking his own Department of Justice, his own FBI in moves that are quite unprecedented, that it will likely land with a lot less of a punch because the public has sort of been conditioned not to trust these institutions.
WILLIAMS: Jennifer, Mr. Schiff of California said on Twitter tonight, kind of adding to the argument over this memo. "Discovered late tonight that Chairman Nunes made material changes to the memo that he sent over to the White House changes not approved by the committee, White House therefore is reviewing a document the committee has not approved for release."
I guess it`s all relative. The Democrats are arguing this document has been highly edited and compiled by the Republicans. But now Schiff is saying, don`t you dare put that out because this is not what we agreed to at all.
RODGERS: Well, that`s right. I mean there is a process for the release of this information. Even if it`s misleading information, you`re still supposed to go through some steps in order to put it in on to the public domain. So what he`s saying is, you know, it`s no good anyway, the information in it is misleading. But by the way they haven`t even approved this release. So you have to go through the steps to do this. And I think strategically, you know, what he`s really getting out of course is that the Democrats, we know, have written a rebuttal document that the Republicans are saying doesn`t have time to go through the process to be released at the same time. So if the first memo has to go back and start from square one, the second memo will likely catch up so then they could be released at the same time, which I think Schiff thinks would benefit everyone because it would be a more full some review of the facts.
WILLIAMS: And Clint, when an FBI director uses the word "grave," especially after what the FBI has been through, what do you take from that?
WATTS: This will literally slow down so many investigations. It will create a FISA application is the most reviewed packet that you would have done at the FBI. It goes through rigorous reviews before it even gets to the court.
Can you imagine being an FBI agent who`s going forward with evidence, maybe multiple sources, particularly in a public corruption case and knowing that maybe three, four years down the road, some politician is going to look into that application, pick out something they want for political purposes, and throw it out into the open public without any sort of context around it. It will really harm investigations around this country. People won`t trust FISA as a tool. We`ve already been going through this debate with the 702 provisions of FISA and all these additional clauses. It will do great damage both to the FBI as an institution and to the tools that they use.
WILLIAMS: What happens to Christopher Wray, what does he do if the President disregards his advice, his plea?
WATTS: It will be fascinating to watch this play out between, you know, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and Christopher Wray. They may have to make a decision that they will defy their leadership in order to defend their institutions. They`re going to be caught in a hard place that really become am I loyal to Trump or am I loyal to my country? And if they want to protect the American people, I would think they would have to devise some way to justify why that FISA renewal application, by the way not the actual FISA application from the beginning, was signed off again by Rosenstein who is the Republican that came in to replace Sally Yates.
I think they will have to defend themselves, their institution, and for the people that work for them. They want to know, does my leadership have my back? Because otherwise this will have just a corrosive effect on our law enforcement operations around the entire country.
WILLIAMS: Ashley, your last point bears repeating. We talked about it here last night. What if they really need the FBI and the Department of Justice? What if God forbid the President`s job changes on a dime and we`re chasing down a domestic terrorist threat where the work of the FBI, no more important than it is right now tonight, but has to seem important to justify an action, perhaps, the President wants to take?
PARKER: That`s exactly right. And one of the risks with all of this is that the President is sort of thinking in a very short term and doing what he has always done, which is eroded trust in the media when he doesn`t like stories, he has eroded trust in the judicial system when he doesn`t like verdicts, he has now eroded trust in the FBI and his Justice Department to serve his short-term political interests.
But this is his FBI. This is his Justice Department. And you are right, these are the agencies that in another moment, if the President, you know, needs to focus on a law enforcement issue or even potentially credibility on reforms he`s making to the immigration system, these will be the people he is turning to and citing to carry out those orders but he may have a lot of trouble with that because he personally is responsible for helping eroding the public`s trust in them.
WILLIAMS: Jennifer, let`s say you`re number two at justice. Let`s say that in that job, Robert Mueller reports to you and you`re visiting the White House and the president asks you if you`re on his team. How do you answer? And what does that mean to you?
RODGERS: Well, it`s highly inappropriate, right? This has been the pattern for Trump, you know. Of course Rod Rosenstein, like any dad, his responsibility is to the constitution and the country. So you know, you can do one of two things. You could do what Jim Comey apparently did and kind of pushback and say, well Mr. President, my loyalty is to the country and the constitution or you could just kind of pretend not to really understand him to be meaning personal loyalty and you can say, you know, of course, sir, you know, we`re all on the same team, or something like that. You know, what would I do? I don`t know, I like to think I would do the former, but you know, maybe if you`re in the job for the right reasons, you want to do the right thing, maybe you just do kind of try to smooth it over and get out of there knowing that he says this to everyone. And you know, hopefully you can kind of get out without pledging him personal loyalty, but also not ruffling his feathers.
WILLIAMS: Clint, if you`re Mueller you hear that Rosenstein was asked if he`s on team Trump, is it an anecdote that you brush off and find amusing or is it furtherance of an evidence point?
WATTS: You know, it happens once, no big deal. Happens twice, you start to think about it. Three times, you got a pattern. And this is more than three. This is consistent for everybody who he`s not comfortable with. When he`s not comfortable with something or someone, he will push that loyalty test, the loyalty pledge, to see what side they`re on. And it`s always about sides. And so it`s fascinating. I think for Mueller he must be going through these interviews or he must be getting evidence every day and he sees this pattern keep coming up over and over again. And that loyalty to him rather than country, job or constitution, that`s really at the heart of an obstruction case when you get down to it.
WILLIAMS: Ashley, from at least from this distance, Washington looks like a place where two races are under way. Down one track there is the Mueller investigation and down another is an effort to block it wherever it can. It`s kind of a race to either fog up the field or see where this is headed. What is the mood? What do you sense among West Wing employees? What do you sense among Republicans there?
PARKER: Well, west wing employees are of two minds. On the one hand, they understand that the Mueller probe is problematic for them. And they sort of hope naturally that it will just go away. On the other hand, they also recognize that the President`s actions to try to make it go away, you know, ironically have the exact opposite effect and exacerbate it. So, you know, there`s a general sort of frustration and, frankly, a -- if they are not directly involved in it, if they are not one of the staffers who has had to hire a personal lawyer, they want nothing to do with it. You know, anything where you even mention Russia, they will just say "not my portfolio" and kick it to the lawyer. So they`re trying to steer clear while feeling sort of a constant state of being under siege.
WILLIAMS: We are much obliged to our leadoff guests on this night after the State of the Union for joining us and helping us understand the lead stories at this hour. Jennifer Rodgers, Clint Watts, Ashley Parker, thank you all three of you very much.
Coming up as we head to our first break tonight, more on the Trump administration`s attacks on FBI and on the Justice Department, including these suggestions that there`s kind of an institutional plot against the President.
Plus, a key Republican in Congress says he`s done and heading home. Why it`s raising new questions about Republican prospects to hold the House in the midterms. We`re just getting under way on a Wednesday night, please stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Look, He is a showboat. He is a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that, I know that everybody knows that. You take a look at the FBI a year ago, it was in virtual turmoil. Less than a year ago, it hasn`t recovered from that.
It`s a shame what`s happened with the FBI. But we`re going to rebuild the FBI. It will be bigger and better than ever. Everybody, not me, when everybody, the level of anger at what they`ve been witnessing with respect to the FBI is certainly very sad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Part of the President`s campaign of criticism against the FBI and the broader Department of Justice. This is something we have not seen in generations, a President at war with elements of his own government. Today concerns over the release of that House Intel memo come as reports suggest Republicans are in search of more ways to discredit the special counsel`s Russia investigation.
The Associated Press reporting it this way tonight, "Trump has been telling confidants in recent days that he believes the memo will validate his concerns that the FBI and Justice Department had conspired against him."
A piece in "Politico" magazine puts it this way, "Let`s be clear about what`s happening here this memo is the latest escalation in an eight-month effort to tarnish the Russia investigation that might be the most significant smear campaign against the executive branch since Joe McCarthy. Only here the effort is being led by the head of that branch himself."
Here to talk about it with us tonight, two of our favorites, Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for The Associated Press and MSNBC Political Analyst who coauthored that A.P. report and Eli Stokols who is an MSNBC Political Analyst as well.
Gentlemen, good evening to you. And Jonathan, I looked up at the T.V. and saw you on the White House lawn today, that means you were inside. What is the mood and what do you hearing about the mood of the commander in chief these days?
JONATHAN LEMIRE, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: The President -- well, first of all, he feels very happy about the State of the Union last night. Even though we`ve all forgotten that even happened. There`s been so much news today. The State of the Union, the bump has been gone. He also has decided not to pursue the usual caravan, the publicity tour that usually follows State of the Union where he goes across the country and promotes those ideas. He didn`t do any sort of major White House events today to promote them.
In terms of this, they feel like the President has told people around him that he feels like this memo is the latest sign that the FBI and the Justice Department, agents there, had been working against him. That he feels like it`s another reason, as was mentioned last segment, that Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General, could be someone who, you know, he could use this to discredit him.
The memo is something the White House has. They`ve had it a couple of days now. It`s in the care of the Special Counsel`s office. They`re weighing what to do with it. We heard Chief of Staff John Kelly say to the interview that he has read it and that the National Security Council legal team is now reviewing it to figure out what the next step would be.
The President has told people around him that he wants this out. We heard him say last night after the State of the Union that he wanted it out. The White House has not confirmed, however, whether the President has actually read the memo or whether he is just picking up on it from what he has heard in the media and those around him. Until tonight, the plan was to release the memo soon, potentially as early as tomorrow. The news from Congressman Schiff, however, and the accusations he`s made that the memo may have been altered, could delay those plans. We`ve asked the White House, they have not yet responded.
WILLIAMS: We just got a statement from the spokesman for Nunes. Apparently saying these material changes that Schiff has accused are minor edits to the memo, including grammatical fixes, two edits requested by the FBI, and the Democrats themselves. So he`s saying to suggest otherwise is a bizarre distraction.
There`s also a middle ground and that is the White House redacts things they want to take out. This is already an edited document so it`s not like they`re taking on anything foundational.
Eli, you have a theory of reverse engineering. Tell the good folks what you mean by that.
ELI STOKOLS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, let`s just set the whole Nunes/Schiff thing aside, because just -- let`s say they release the same memo that they presented to the committee, that is still a stunning thing given what the Department of Justice and FBI director are saying here.
In terms of reverse engineering, I mean, that is something we`ve seen throughout this presidency, where the president decides on a version of reality that works for him, something that may not be true but he`s going to repeat it, he`s going to say it, he`s going to make it true. And the entire staff has to stand that up. Discrediting the Mueller probe, that is the end goal.
And this so the end justifies any means here by which Nunes, allies of the President and Congress, and the White House, are now trying to put forward any sort of semblance of evidence, anything that they can do to confuse the public, to muddy the situation, and to basically say, look, there might be people at the FBI who acted improperly about something, they`re out to get me.
I mean, the cognitive dissonants required by some of this when he -- you played the clip with Lester Holt where he is saying that --
STOKOLS: -- you know, this FBI, I mean, bashing the FBI, you know, and the email investigation. I mean, that -- what Comey did arguably helped Donald Trump as much as anything that Putin and the Russians did, the way that played out at the end of the campaign, it really hurt Hillary Clinton. And yet that is forgotten and it`s all about the deep state and the sort of conspiracy theories and these loyalty tests that we now see where, you know, it`s right out of the 1950s. If you`re not 100 percent loyal to the President, maybe you`re suspect. Maybe you don`t like him.
This very sinister sort of smoke and mirrors of accusations even though there`s not much concrete and it`s stunning to see and to watch play out, given the stakes, right. This is different than just the President saying something about his crowd size and somebody coming out and saying it was the biggest crowd. This is a matter of national security and really fundamental to the moorings of this democracy.
WILLIAMS: Jonathan, in the intro I wrote for this segment, I said, it`s been generations since we`ve seen an American president at war with elements of his own government. I guess I was going back to Nixon. But he wasn`t this overt. He wasn`t this public.
LEMIRE: Right. President Trump is not hiding this war. This is not a covert action. This is right up front. He has done it time and time again. Whether it`d be on Twitter, whether it`d be in comments to reporters and certainly privately behind the scenes to aides, and sort of getting them to carry the fight against the FBI.
We have seen -- we know that the Chief of Staff John Kelly in recent days has made a number of phone calls to Justice Department officials to say to them, you know, you need to perform better, you need to, you know, he was very critical of their decision to object to the release of this memo. Saying, this is what the White House wants, you need to do this.
And then it was reported he would end those conversations by with the disclaimer, but hey, don`t break any laws while you`re at it. We`re seeing this President set a tone that -- and Eli`s right, set a tone that is unprecedented, that is something that demands a personal loyalty. He tells people around him, he refers the Justice Department as "his" Justice Department. He has referred to it as "The Trump Department of Justice." And that is what he sees. He`s asking for loyalty to him, the president, as opposed to the county or the constitution.
WILLIAMS: Eli, among republicans, does anyone have any limits? Is there a tipping point out there, do you think?
ELI STOKOLS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: The only people with limits so far are those not running for re-election. I mean, that is what we have seen. We have seen the politics of personal survival inside a Republican Party that is fluid and right now controlled by Donald Trump and his assumed base of voters. That is what is above perhaps speaking out, talking about the separation of powers, the basic tenets of American democracy. There is no concern for history. The fact that this is all playing out in public, in plain view, and that this will be written and people will be judged and their legacies may be tarnished by this, there`s no concern for that. It`s short-term political gain, go into 2018 and sell tax cuts.
And the ability of republicans on the hill to sort of not see some of these things, to look the other way or squint and see things in a way where they don`t really see a problem with these things. I mean for Paul Ryan yesterday to say the Mueller probe shouldn`t be messed with and yet to green light Devin Nunes sending this memo to the White House for release, knowing like any logical observer of this knows that this is all pretext to mess with that investigation. It`s stunning. It`s stunning to see playing out in plain sight. A lot of people never thought they`d see this from a lot of republicans, including Paul Ryan.
WILLIAMS: Hardly a pleasurable conversation. Always a pleasure to have you gentlemen on. We appreciate you very much. Much obliged to Jonathan Lemire and Eli Stokols.
The continuing insistence by the White House that Americans don`t care about the Russia investigation, we heard it again today. But is that the truth? That and more when we come right back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think we`ve addressed it every single day we`ve been here. It`s one of the questions you guys ask over and over and over again. In fact, we spent more time on that than we do any other topic despite the fact that time and time again, poll after poll, says that frankly no one cares about this issue and it`s certainly not the thing that keeps people up at night.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders there on Monday responding to questions on this Russia investigation suggesting the investigation just doesn`t matter to most people, but according to a recent "Washington Post"/ABC news poll, nearly half of Americans believe Trump did in fact try to interfere with the Russia investigation in a way that amounts to obstruction of justice, 49% there to be exact.
Here with us to talk about the reach of this investigation, Cornell Belcher, Democratic Pollster who worked on both President Obama`s campaigns and with a number of house and senate democrats. Also back with us Colleen McCain Nelson, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Editorial Page Editor for "The Kansas City Star" formerly White House Corresponder for "The Wall Street Journal." And Charlie Sykes is back with us, long-time conservative radio host, author of the appropriately titled "How the Right Lost Its Mind" and an MSNBC`s contributor.
Well, welcome to all of you. Colleen, I`d like to start with you. Proud as I am at having lived in Missouri and worked in Kansas for a good deal of time, there you are in America, our link for the terms, for the purposes of this conversation to America. What is the level of interest and the level of granularity, detail, in a place like Kansas city?
COLLEEN MCCAIN NELSON, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, KANSAS CITY STAR: Well, thank you for letting me speak for all of America. No pressure. But Sarah Huckabee Sanders is not exactly correct when she says no one cares about this, that people just aren`t interested in the Russia investigation.
I mean people are interested in the Russia investigation in America. But a year into that investigation, a lot of minds have been made up. And so some people here are viewing the investigation through the lens of crimes may have been committed, perhaps the Trump campaign work with a foreign power and we should get to the bottom of that. But others are viewing this through the lens of this is a partisan witch hunt. And the memo only serves to reinforce the idea that everything in Washington is partisan, everything has been politicized, even intelligence at this point, and we can`t even agree on the same set of facts and we can`t even work off the same set of memos.
WILLIAMS: Charlie Sykes, you are also proud to live in America and the great state of Wisconsin, home of, I note, the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. So whether I`m asking about Ryan or anyone else in the party, the question I posed in the previous segment, is there a limit for republicans in congress? Is there a tipping point for anybody in this thing?
CHARLIE SYKES, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Not so far. I mean I think you saw that. Shift the focus from the State of the Union from the podium to the audience, that you saw Republican Party that has completely basically pledged its loyalty to Donald Trump, including going so far as to joining his attacks on this investigation.
But to your other question if do people care about this, look, there are actually two Americas out there, there are two realities. And if you are - - listen to the conservative media and are part of the pro-Trump grassroots, you don`t think that this is a very big deal.
In fact, this memo which has been this elaborate charade, building up as the great reveal, I mean there are a lot of Americans right now who think that the reveal of this memo is going to be the greatest thing since Geraldo Rivera opened up Al Capone`s safe.
But in general, though, I think that what you`ve seen has been the success in confusing people. And I talked to a very, very well-informed political activist from Wisconsin over the last couple of days and he said something very interesting. He said, you know what, this is not somebody who`s pro- Trump. He said, I just don`t know who to believe anymore. And if the strategy has been misdirection, if it has been distraction, it has been successful to a certain degree, which doesn`t mean it will succeed in the end, but it has been somewhat successful in muddying the waters.
WILLIAMS: Cornell, that old phrase, elections have consequences, has reared its head again. Look at the struggles of Mr. Schiff and his democrats on that committee. They can argue and fuss and fight and at the end of the day the republicans ship that memo across town to the republican White House and they get to decide if we all start reading it tomorrow afternoon.
CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: No, that`s right. And Brian, look, you`ve been around long enough to cover Washington and congress. And look, what you`re seeing is unprecedented. And we play partisan games at a lot of the committees. But when the ethics committee and the intelligence committee, there`s been a long-running idea that these are where you leave partisanship at the door because the integrity of the country and our democracy was too important, you know, it was governor Kasich I think on this network yesterday, republican from Ohio, who said, that Speaker Ryan should tell Nunes to cut it out. Right?
I think we got to go further now. I think it`s time for Speaker Ryan to tell Nunes, he`s got to stop this and cut it out, because this is fundamentally dangerous and we`re going into territory that is really not normal or safe or safe for the country.
And the other thing I want to undermine, Brian, is that you have 49%. You have near a majority of Americans who think the president has, in fact, interfered here. And that is just staggering. And it does have consequences because when you look at sort of the built-in number of people who are strongly disapproving of Trump, he leaves off his first year with the highest disapproval in history, that is built-in and it`s problematic. The question is will republicans in Congress now carry some of that weight with the actions that you see coming out of the intelligence committee?
WILLIAMS: Well, Cornell, I got another one for you, and that is the word today from Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. He is not going to seek re- election as we all know. He kind of came to fame. First of all, he came in with the Tea Party wave of 2010, came to fame chairing the Benghazi Committee where he led the now-famous marathon questioning of his nemesis, Hillary Clinton. He said today he`s leaving Congress to return to the justice system. But importantly, remember the number 34. His departure brings the total number of republican house retirements to 34.
Cornell, no one needs to remind you, that doesn`t equal permission to flip the house. That`s just republicans leaving Congress. The latter is a big challenge.
BELCHER: Well, here`s the thing. Look, in 2006, I worked for government at the DNC. And I think when we had a wave election, you had I think 18 or 19 republican incumbents stepping down. This is a big deal in campaign terms, Brian, because knocking off incumbents is really, really hard, right? It`s darn near impossible to knock off an incumbent, that you`re seeing more incumbents knocked off in primaries.
But in open seats are real opportunities, they`re really toss-ups. Now, I`m not saying South Carolina`s seat is something that`s going to be put automatically in play. But there`s the sheer number of open opportunities for democrats along with a president with historical disapproval, a congress with historical disapproval, and the majority of Americans thinking the country`s heading the wrong direction, that is getting right in line with what we saw in 2006 before we had the wave election. And then in 2006, Brian, what we didn`t have, as what we see today, is you have college-educated white women breaking democrat in a way that we hadn`t seen in 2006.
WILLIAMS: Charlie, when I said the number 34, 34 vacancies, you are shaking your head.
SYKES: Yes, and that`s an extraordinary number. And it`s not just the fact that it`s 34. It`s who is retiring, that these are chairmen of major committees who --
WILLIAMS: Yes. One from New Jersey.
SYKES: Exactly. The chairman of the appropriations committee. This is one of the most important members of the House of Representatives. So it would certainly signal that some of them might think that they will not be in the majority next year. But I would caution people, there`s been a lot of talk about a wave. There have been polls lately, most notably Monmouth Poll, which may be an outlier, showing the republicans have closed this gap. And I do think that sometimes democrats I think are perhaps underestimating the way in which the republicans are winning, at least for the timing, the messaging war on the tax cuts. That as people begin to get some relief. Plus the economy looks strong on paper. The stock market has continued to be strong.
So I think that before we invest too much money in the wave, although we are seeing all of these retirements, I do think that the democrats need to become more serious about providing a more coherent response to what you heard last night from the president.
WILLIAMS: All right.
SYKES: I agree with that.
WILLIAMS: Colleen of America, you know I`m coming back to you, because the question for you becomes, in the kind of ADI, the Area of Dominant Influence, that is the Kansas City, Missouri Metro Area, republican members of Congress, do you see voters taking out their anti-Trump frustrations against a republican incumbent?
NELSON: Well, that`s a distinct possibility. And a person to -- a race to look at is Kevin Yoder. He represents the Third District in Kansas, the suburbs of Kansas City. Hillary Clinton won his district by 1 point. And so he`s certainly someone who could be in peril. And he`s told people privately that he`s seen concerning signs in his internal polling and has kind of raised the question of whether Donald Trump could drag him down. And there`s a line of democrats waiting to take him on.
And so even though both Kansas and Missouri are very red states, it`s possible you could see a republican or two fall in the house. But you still have a really tough senate race in Missouri where Claire McCaskill, a democrat, is going to be fighting for her life. So it`s important to remember where democrats have some opportunities in the house. It`s still a really tough slog for them on the senate side.
WILLIAMS: Our thanks to Charlie Sykes, Colleen McCain nelson, to Cornell Belcher, for the record, all proud Americans. Thank you all very much.
And coming up for us, how a push for regime change could be a new U.S. weapon in these efforts to stop the North Korean nuclear program? There has been a development, as they say. We`ll have that coming up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: But no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea. North Korea`s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland. We are waging a campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from ever happening.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: In his first State of the Union last night, President Trump spoke at length about two people who suffered at the hands of the North Korean government. Gordon Chang writes in "The Daily Beast" that rather than focus on North Korea`s quest for nuclear weapons, the president, "Undermined the Kim family by launching an assault on its abuse of human rights and indirectly made the case for regime change."
"Washington Post" also reported Tuesday that the administration`s first choice for ambassador to South. Victor Cha is now out of contention for the job. The post reports that Mr. Cha, veteran of the Bush administration, quote, "Raised his concerns with National Security Council officials over their consideration of a limited strike on the north aimed at sending a message without sparking a wider war, a risky concept known as a bloody nose strategy."
Well, with us tonight is the aforementioned Gordon Chang, an expert on the Korean Peninsula, Columnist for "The Daily Beast" and author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World".
Gordon, let`s take on these subjects in order. Why do you think it was better that the president went in the direction of human rights and not in the direction of nuclear weapons last night?
GORDON CHANG, COLUMNIST, THE DAILY BEAST: Because the Kim regime is so much more concerned about its human rights record. You got two Koreas. They sit side by side. One`s free and the other is slaved. And the people in enslaved Korea, North Korea, are not going to accept that condition indefinitely. So really what Trump did was he went to the heart of the regime, hit their weakness, that`s what they are worried about most. And there`s one other thing people don`t talk about, and that is by Trump talking about human rights in North Korea, he also is constraining President Moon Jae-in in South Korea who wants this reconciliation with Pyongyang probably going to go too far in trying to get it.
What Trump did by talking about human rights was actually boxed in the South Korean leader.
WILLIAMS: Wasn`t there an ugly peace-seeking committee (ph) the other night from the North about getting together one day as one Korea? And as a subset of that question, won`t it be good by definition when the Olympic Games get under way?
CHANG: Yes. This was North Korea talking about unification of the two Koreas. Now it`s been consistent policy from the beginning of North Korea in 1948 to unify the Koreas. And that was what the Korean war was all about.
WILLIAMS: I recall.
CHANG: But they`ve never given up that goal. In fact, that is really core to maintaining Kim family legitimacy. So they need to continue to do that. Now, the thing about the Olympics is that it`s good, because when you`ve got the two Koreas competing as one, you don`t have them fighting each other.
And so at least temporarily that`s fine, but after the end of the Olympics, Brian, then the North Koreans are going to be demanding things of South Korea that South Korea can`t give and that`s when things get really testy between the two Koreas.
WILLIAMS: As I said, South Korea is about to be in the news because of the games, we`re about to send our very best athletes to South Korea, a country where we don`t have an ambassador. Is that an embarrassment?
CHANG: Well, it certainly is, because this is at the top of the administration foreign policy agenda. No issue is more important to the president and we haven`t had an ambassador in Seoul for more than a year.
CHANG: This is a very simple thing for the Trump administration to do is get an ambassador through the senate. And they`re executing poorly on simple things. At the same time, on the main policy towards North Korea, the hard stuff. I think they`re doing pretty well. So you have this sort of paradox, easy things done poorly, hard things done well.
WILLIAMS: In our closing seconds, is it tough to find a candidate for these jobs?
CHANG: Well, now it is, considering what happened to Victor Cha who`s well-respected in the Washington policy community. Not everyone may agree with victor but he certainly is very, very well thought of. And so right now, considering what happened to him, I think a lot of people are going to have second thoughts about even putting their name in the ring.
WILLIAMS: Gordon, it`s always a pleasure having you on our broadcast. Thank you very much.
CHANG: Thank you, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Gordon Chang. Coming up, something that just didn`t sound right during last night`s speech, we`ll take it apart and look at it when we continue.
WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go here tonight, something the president said during the State of the Union last night while paying tribute to one of those honorees in the gallery, something just didn`t sound right.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Here tonight is one leader in the effort to defend our country, Homeland Security Investigation Special Agent Celestino Martinez, he goes by D.J. and C.J. He said call me either one. So we`ll call you CJ.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: It just seems highly unlikely that someone would go by C.J. and/or D.J., especially when a glance at the president`s prepared tax clearly shows he goes by C.J.
I have a friend named C.J. I talked to him just about every day. He has never said, "Or you can call me D.J."
It is much more likely that what the president did there was what he does often when he`s making a teleprompter speech and he makes a mistake. He then employs the word and followed by the correction in order to make the misstatement sound like it was a perfectly plausible oral option.
Our friends at the 8 p.m. broadcast of "All In" took the liberty of stringing together some other examples that come to mind.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Authority and authoritarian powers.
Through their lives and though their lives were cut short.
Our hope is a word and world of proud independent nations.
And has instead given unelected regulators and regulators.
We will arrive at a piece (ph) and a place far greater in understanding and cooperation.
They sacrifice every day for the furniture and future of their children.
He goes by D.J. and C.J. He said call me either one.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Without further comment, that is our broadcast for tonight. Thank you very much for being here with us. Good night for all of here at NBC News headquarters in New York.
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