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Controversies engulf Trump WH amid probe. TRANSCRIPT: 2/19/2018. The 11th Hour with Brian Williams

Guests: Shannon Pettypiece, Michael Schmidt, Jack Sharman, Brian Bennett

Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: February 19, 2018 Guest: Shannon Pettypiece, Michael Schmidt, Jack Sharman, Brian Bennett

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, THE LAST WORD, HOST: Martin, I`m sorry. We`re going to have to leave it for the viewers right there tonight. I`m sure we`re going to come back to this. I think you`re onto something really important about the question for Michael Cohen, next time someone just asking him a question is, did you fill out a 1099 on that $130,000, whose name is on it, whose social security number?

Martin Shields, thank you very much. Very appreciated. Martin Shields guests tonight`s "Last Word." "The 11th Hour With Brian Williams" starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, THE 11TH HOUR, HOST: Tonight, Donald Trump back at the White House after a Florida weekend tirade in the wake of the Mueller indictments during which he managed to link the Florida school shooting to his own legal trouble. Then he went after Obama.

Meanwhile, this was not a holiday weekend for the Mueller investigation, and we`ve got new details tonight on the former Trump campaign staffer reportedly ready to plead guilty.

And do the surviving students in Parkland, Florida and their anger, in their grief represent the best chance to do something about the mass shootings that have become a predictable part of our American life? "The 11th Hour" on a Monday night begins now.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News studio here in New York as, we, on this holiday Monday begin this holiday shortened week for most folks. This was day 396 of the Trump administration.

The President has, tonight, returned from Florida to what is very much a White House on crisis footing. Multiple controversies now engulf this administration as the Russia investigation itself intensifies.

Last week ended with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, of course, indicting 13 Russians on charges they interfered in our election but didn`t accuse the President or anyone in his circle of actual or active wrongdoing. The President latched onto that part of it, and was initially pleased with the news. But then he spent the weekend at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. And he watched the news coverage before unleashing his anger in response to that indictment, 14 tweets just about Russia in just over 48 hours.

Here`s some of what the President wrote in this fuselage, "If it was the goal of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S., then with all the committee hearings, investigations, and party hatred they have succeed beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America."

"Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign. There is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud."

Then there was this. "Obama was President up to and beyond the 2016 election, so why didn`t he do something about Russian meddling?" The President even criticized his own national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster for calling evidence of Russian election interference, quote, incontrovertible.

As Bloomberg`s own Shannon Pettypiece, who joins us in a moment, noted Trump criticized everyone but Russia for election meddling. As we mentioned, Russia is not the only issue confronting this White House. There are lingering questions about allegations of abuse against the top level aide, reports of Cabinet aides billing taxpayers for luxury travel, allegations of extra marital affairs with the President, for starters.

Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report in The Washington Post, Trump officials have felt under siege. They write that one official described the nation`s focus on the issues raised by the school shooting in Florida as, "a distraction or a reprieve. A lot of people here felt like it was a reprieve from seven or eight days of just getting pummeled.

The Washington Post`s Philip Rucker described it this way on this network earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PHILIP RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: They had been under the bright lights of the media spotlight for these numerous scandals, which were growing in the days leading up to the shooting. And all of a sudden the media attention turned to Florida, people stopped asking questions. They`ve got a few days to sort of collect their thoughts, figure out what they`re going to do, reset, if you will. But I don`t think these scandals are gone. I think Tuesday they`re going to be faced with a lot of questions about all of it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Let`s bring in our lead off panel on this holiday Monday night, New York Times Washington Correspondent, Michael Schmidt, the aforementioned Shannon Pettypiece, White House Correspondent for Bloomberg and MSNBC Political Analyst, Eli Stokols. Good evening and welcome to you all.

Shannon, first of all, the perils of positive spin telling the boss, no, this is a good news story for you. He goes down to Florida where he sees the contrary flipping around on the cable channels. He comes back to Washington tonight. Back on Twitter he promoted the U.S. economy, he promoted a book, and he promoted the Senate candidacy of one Mitt Romney.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG: Yes. And we haven`t even started the week yet, really. I mean, today was technically a holiday. So, Tuesday, when the gates to that White House open, we have a lot of pent-up questions because we have heard very little, very few opportunities to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders any questions. No opportunities that the President had any questions. He did not have any media availability really over the weekend.

Of course, they were trying to have him keep a low profile over the weekend out of respect for the shooting victims who were just 40 minutes away, who he went and visited with on Friday night trying to keep the somber tone by keeping him off the golf course. But I don`t know from a public relations standpoint, which would have been better having him golfing or having him tweet, as you pointed out, repeatedly over and over again throughout Saturday and Sunday and in one case blaming the FBI`s Russia investigation for the shooting falling through the cracks.

So it was just another weekend that could have been low profile, could have taken the temperature down but it didn`t because of the constant barrage of tweets we`ve seen and that continue going late into the night tonight.

WILLIAMS: Michael, if memory serves, you were a guest of -- you were a guest of a member of Mar-a-Lago when the President, you`ve kind of ran into him after he had come off the golf course, received an impromptu interview with the President during which he mentioned no collusion a number of times. You can fill in the number. Have you found his usage remaining static or was this weekend frenetic even by his standards?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, the interesting thing about when I spoke with the President back in December was that I hadn`t actually asked about collusion, but he had jumped to it on his own. This was something that he really wanted to say. The President sees himself as his best spokesman, and you sort of saw that again this weekend where he took to Twitter to try and turn the narrative in terms of Russia back towards his favor.

It`s our understanding that the President initially saw the indictments that came out on Friday as a good thing for him. There was no evidence of any collusion in there. There was nothing that referenced his campaign. It was all, you know, Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy Attorney General went as far to point out this at his press conference.

But as the weekend wore on, the President saw the narrative wasn`t heading that way, that the narrative was that there was Russian meddling in the election. This was something that had helped the President get elected, and he went full force to do everything he could through his favorite medium, Twitter, to make that argument. And I think that`s why we saw what we did.

WILLIAMS: Eli, is there any magic for him to be back in the White House, or does it just mean when we see a calming in his Twitter feed that he is back in the area of dominant influence of a chief of staff and perhaps a lawyer or two?

ELI STOKOLS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don`t even know if it means that. It just means that he`s gotten a lot of things off his chest over the weekend and will go quiet for a short period.

But I think, Michael`s use of the term narrative is really important here because that is something that consumes this President. He is the principal actor in this administration. He is the President and yet he is consumed by the reflected reality that he consumes that comes back to him from TV that he watches constantly. He was tweeting about 60 Minutes interviews last night.

It seems like he spent most of the weekend watching Twitter -- watching television, being on Twitter, and making phone calls to people that he trust outside. And the reality that is reflected back to him is what he acts on. He gets agitated when people stop believing that John Kelly is a calming force in the White House. That`s what bothers him about the Rob Porter saga.

And with the information that came down about the Russian indictments as Maggie Haberman of The New York Times reported, you know, initially it wasn`t -- he didn`t believe, he didn`t hold on to what his own advisers told him when he saw it on television being portrayed differently. It aided him.

I mean, this is a guy who`s own lawyers have tried to lay in his anxieties by telling him, hey, this investigation is going to be over by Thanksgiving or by Christmas or by the end of the year. I mean, this is a guy who the people around him are constantly trying to soothe and keep from the sort of freak outs like the one that we saw this weekend on Twitter.

WILLIAMS: And Shannon, let`s take the narrative further. It was notable that when the Mueller story came out at the end of last week, his initial reaction was I didn`t do it, not I will protect you my fellow American citizens. Is there anyone in your view based on your reporting who is explaining to him that this is existential, that this story, this plot line is potentially ball game for his presidency?

PETTYPIECE: I think he is having a hard time in those around him, continue having a hard time of making this Russia issue not about him personally and conveying the broader national security issue going on here. So many of the struggles this President has had throughout his presidency is his inability to step outside himself and see that there`s a bigger issue here beyond him. Everything is about a personal slight. Everything is about his election.

We saw H.R. McMaster try to speak in a broad term, addressing the national security threat to our democracy, not just ours but democracies in Europe, all over the world that the Russians would like to interfere. And, you know, it was a knee-jerk reaction from the President that he had to respond to that and make it, again, about himself.

So, I think there is a much bigger threat here as the Intelligence Committee keeps raising about Russian interference in the election. But I don`t think there is any chance at this point, we`re over a year and that the President is going to be able to make this about the country and national security and not about himself and his own electoral victory. There`s no sign that that`s changing.

WILLIAMS: Michael, by tomorrow, it will be one week since our last White House briefing, the folks who work for the U.S. taxpayers. What would your number one question on the Russia matter be?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think you have to come back to the question about what has this administration done to try and prevent this going forward? That is a large question that has continues to be unanswered and they really haven`t done much there. And the question is why. Why is it that if the Russians were so successful for Bob Mueller to lay it out dozens of pages the way that he did it on Friday, why is it that nothing is being done on that issue? Is there a rationale for that or is it simply that the White House officials are afraid to confront and deal with that issue because the President is so, hates that issue so much?

And that`s a larger thing. You don`t hear a ton from Republicans on Capitol Hill about that. You hear some of that, but there`s not a large chorus behind that. But I guess in a broader sense that would be the question that I have. Is that, why does this thing continue to be ignored? What is it that motivates that?

WILLIAMS: Eli, put on your predictive cap. We have, by my count, Porter, Kelly, porn stars, security clearances, guns, what do you think is the headline tomorrow out of this White House?

STOKOLS: Yes. Don`t forget the two Cabinet secretaries flying first class all over the world. And that --

WILLIAMS: Oh, there`s that. Yes.

STOKOLS: -- that is -- but that is the problem is that, you know, all of that can take place in a week that can all be questions about those things in one briefing. The problem is what -- how can the public focus on any one of these things. I mean, we`ve been at this for over a year now with this administration. And there has been times -- most of the times it hasn`t really felt sustainable given all of the turn in the news and yet, you know, this is the sort of norm now.

And just -- I think that is one of the things that almost enables this President to just keep going because it`s hard for the public to grasp on to any one of those things or to be outraged about all of those things. And so there will be questions about all of it tomorrow. But I think, you know, the Russia matter that is, like as you said, an existential crisis for this presidency. These other things are scandals that would be huge in a normal administration but this is not a normal administration.

And so, the fact that this President was elected with claims of adulterous relationships and sexual abuse against him, and voters voted him and in spite of that, which has been the White House`s answers that the American people spoke they elected him. You know, that sort of baked in with Donald Trump. The scandals with Cabinet secretaries being a huge thing in any other administration, not so with this President. So there will be a lot of noise around these things. But I think ultimately what -- the biggest thing is it`s the Russia investigation and that is the thing that above all really agitates this President more than anything else.

WILLIAMS: Our view joining us in our sincere thanks on a holiday Monday night to our lead off panel tonight, Michael Schmidt, Shannon Pettypiece, Eli Stokols. Thank you all very much.

Coming up for us, new reporting on a key figure who could plead guilty amid the Mueller investigation. Plus, two men who know a thing or two about the Russia threat, a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, they weigh in on what President Trump should be saying right about now. "The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Monday night.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS: We mentioned before the break, we`re tracking new developments in the Mueller investigation just days after they indicted 13 Russian nationals for interfering in our presidential election. L.A. Times reports former Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, will" plead guilty to fraud-related charges within days, and has made clear to prosecutors he would testify against Paul Manafort, the lawyer-lobbyist who once managed the campaign," this according to people familiar with the case.

Gates is Manafort`s former long-time business partner in the political consulting field. Both pleaded not guilty back in October to a number of charges, including money laundering that are unrelated to the Trump campaign and are not directly connected with Russian meddling or alleged collusion.

The L.A. Times also reporting, "Gates` testimony, said a person familiar with the pending guilty plea, would place a cherry on top of the government`s already formidable case against Manafort. The same individual said he did believe Gates has information to offer Mueller`s team that would turn the screws on Trump. The President has repeatedly called the Special Counsel`s investigation a witch hunt."

Here with us to talk about it tonight, Brian Bennet, White House Reporter for the L.A. Times and Jack Sharman, former Special Counsel for the House Banking Committee, these days financial services during the Whitewater investigation. He is now a criminal defense attorney.

Jack, I`d like to begin with you. Rick Gates` guilty plea, what does that say to you, and what will you want to know from it?

JACK SHARMAN, FORMER WHITEWATER SPECIAL COUNSEL TO THE HOUSE BANKING COMMITTEE: Well, it says that obviously he is going to testify against Mr. Manafort if necessary. That is a tool to put pressure on his co-defendant to work out his own deal, the indictment and presumably whatever he ends up pleading to are separate from any campaign-related issues or Russian interference issues. But they could conceivably, if they let Mr. Manafort to want to resolve his own case that could lead to further revelations in that regard.

WILLIAMS: And, Brian, I can`t remember the exact wording from the podium and from the President when Manafort started getting so much attention. Trump said, you know, he was here for a very short period of time, remind us the Manafort-Gates relationship and what these two gentlemen may have to offer Mr. Mueller.

BRIAN BENNETT, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES: So Paul Manafort was Donald Trump`s campaign manager from June 2016 to August 2016, which was a critical time because that was when the Republican National Convention happened. And Rick Gates was a long-time associate and partner -- business partner with Paul Manafort, particularly when Manafort was working as an alleged paid lobbyist for Putin-linked interests in the Ukraine. And both Rick Gates and Paul Manafort have been charged with not registering as a foreign agent and also with money laundering charges.

And what we have that`s going on here is Mueller is at the stage where he`s trying to squeeze the little fish to get to big fish. So, he is putting pressure on Gates, trying to flip him, trying to get him to enter a guilty plea so that he`ll get out more information about his long-time business partner, Manafort. And it may not the information that Gates particularly knows about Manafort`s connections to the Russians. But if he could put more pressure on Manafort and then get Manafort to be in an uncomfortable position, try to a get a guilty plea out of Manafort and try to get Manafort to describe more about what he knows, about any connection between Russia and Russian officials and the Trump campaign during those critical months in the summer of 2016.

WILLIAMS: Jack, we`re lucky to have you because I have a legal question that may come up and be germane as we learn more about the case of Mr. Gates. Presumably, Mr. Gate is going to answer a lot of questions by saying, yes, Paul mentioned -- the President said, Paul mentioned he courted a client in Russia, and so on and so forth. That would be, I guess, in the eyes of the law in other cases, heresy. But I understand that in a case like this heresy rules are different where admissibility is concerned, is that correct?

SHARMAN: Well, heresy is just a statement made out of court in court. And so, heresy is perfectly appropriate and used all the time in interviews with witnesses or defendants, in grand jury testimony. So, there`s nothing unusual about that.

And then if two or more defendants are charged as co-conspirators and if they go to trial, then there`s actually an exception to the heresy rule even at trial such that their statements if it`s shown to be in furtherance and made in the course of the conspiracy, those are admissible. So that`s a trial question.

But certainly before then, in interviews with agents and prosecutors, in any grand jury testimony, Mr. Gates relaying what Mr. Manafort said or even what Mr. Manafort said the President said which would be double heresy, that`s perfectly fine up until trial.

WILLIAMS: That going to be interesting. Brian, what do you anticipate? Is Sarah Huckabee Sanders going to try to diminish -- she`ll be asked about Gates, I`m guessing tomorrow, again, the first briefing in a week`s time. Is it dangerous strategy? Do you think she`ll go there anyway to try diminish Gates and his role and his title and his importance and his service?

BENNETT: I`m sure she will. Gates was a campaign staff. He was liaison to the RNC, even after Paul Manafort left the campaign. He also worked on the inaugural committee. And this has been a strategy we`ve seen from podium, from Sarah Sanders and from Sean Spicer in the past where they try to diminish the role of the people who are linked to the Russian investigation have played.

And, you know, I also would say that Rick Gates may not be a central figure in proving collusion between Russia and Trump campaign managers and the Trump campaign. But what Mueller is trying to do here is to put pressure on Manafort and maybe get Manafort to put pressure on other people to get to that critical question which is, yes we know that Russia tried to sow discord in the elections, but was anyone in the Trump campaign orbit helping Russia do that and helping Russia to help Trump get elected?

WILLIAMS: Jack, few seconds left. Who or what would you have us looking for next here?

SHARMAN: Well, I would look at the amount of time, if it can be discerned, that they spend with Mr. Gates and if there`s any indication that there are discussions with other lawyers, if deadlines get pushed off, that sort of thing that allows the government and the defense to try to come to some terms would be the things that I`d look for.

WILLIAMS: Very able journalist and a very able attorney, Brian Bennett, Jack Sharman. Gentlemen, thank you both very much for joining us tonight.

And coming up on our broadcast why it`s what the President hasn`t said since the Mueller indictments on Friday that may matter the most.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: Above all this rhetoric here, again, we`re losing sight of, what is it we`re going to do about the threat posed by the Russians? And he never -- he never talks about that. It`s all about himself, collusion or not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Right there when you hear thoughtful people talking that way, it does focus your attention. That was former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, this weekend, criticizing the president`s response to this now indisputable proof that Russia meddled in the U.S. election and then some.

It`s been three days since we learned the depth of Russian involvement. And in that time the president has gone after in no particular order fake news, Democrats, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, former President Obama, Congress, the FBI, the DOJ, Congressman Adam Schiff, America and Oprah.

Notably, the president has had nothing to say about Russia or Putin or protecting our nation from further attack. The intelligence community has been begging the president and his administration to take this threat seriously. Former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts testified before Congress almost a year ago now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINT WATTS, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Part of the reason active measures of work in this U.S. Election is because the commander in chief has used Russia active measures at time against his opponents. On 11th of October, President Trump stood on aq stage and cited what appears to be a fact news story from his sputnik news that disappeared from the internet. He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged. That was the number one theme pushed by R.T. sputnik news, wide outlets all the way up until to the election.

So, Putin is correct. He can say that he`s not influencing anything because he just putting out his stance. But until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country, get some agreement about the facts whether it would be do I support the intelligence community or a story I read on my Twitter feed, we`re going to have a big problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: That man, Clint Watts, is now with us, the former FBI special agent who was attached to the joint terrorism task force, he also our national security analyst. And Michael McFaul is with us as well, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration. He`s these days a Professor and Senior Fellow at Standford and our Russian Affairs Contributor. Gentlemen, welcome.

Clint Watts, you know your stuff. How should the president be talking to us as American citizens right now?

WATTS: He could come forward any day that he chooses since he`s taken the oath of office and say, "Look, you know, I won fair and square but we have a problem with Russia interference and we`ve got future elections coming up. As a commander in chief, it`s my job to defend the country. I will take the access to do that. Let`s get a commission together", which he could have easily done. "Let`s come up with solutions, let`s put a task force together. This was a 9/11 for information warfare that we just suffered and we don`t want it to happen again." We`ve never heard him do that.

WILLIAMS: A lot of people point not being queued, point out the O.C. took on inauguration day, preserved, protect and depend the constitution of the United States. And as you just did, they put this in that category.

WATTS: And instead he then points at his own institutions and maligns them in the same way Russia maligns them. We now see the Russian foreign minister. We see President Putin views, President Trump`s attacks on American institutions as justification for why they should be left alone, and their right to do what they`re doing.

And so our president is actually an advocate for another country`s president against the American people. It`s one of the most bizarre things that`s ever happened.

And the things we now look at is, Russia doesn`t have to make fake news or falsehoods. All they have to do is amplify the ones already going on in our country. Trump tower is wire tapped, the unmasking uranium one. It`s just one falsehood after another, the Nunes memo being maybe the most devastating attack on U.S. institution.

WILLIAMS: Ambassador, I know you`re just back from Munich, A, where H.R. McMaster spoke and, B, where I know you pretty well enough to know that you picked up a lot from the folks you saw and met there. Share your findings from that conference.

MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Well, the first thing I was in the hall when H.R. McMaster spoke, and he only acknowledged what had happened in a direct question from a Russian senator, by the way, Brian, that was interesting.

But let`s be clear way, even what H.R. did. H.R. just diagnosed the problem like we`ve all done. The administration as a whole, not just President Trump, has done nothing to respond to it. And there`s some very simple things you can do. They sent people undercover to spy, to be -- to interfere in our election. We could throw out a dozen spies tomorrow. He could do that if they wanted to respond.

And so I want to be clear. President Trump first and foremost needs to be the leader. But the Trump administration also is not responding to all of this, and that was, many people talked about that in Munich.

The one person that`s responding, however, Brian, is a guy named Bob Mueller. He`s our chief foreign policymaker for Russia today and that indictment got the attention of the Russians. There`s lots of Russians at the Munich Security Conference, and why is that so? Because if you`re indicted like that nobody expects Vladimir Putin to put them on a plane and send them to New York, but now they have to now think about going to London, going to Paris, that Italian summer holiday they were planning. Those are now dangerous places to go. That got the Russians` attention.

WILLIAMS: Clint, the horrendous shooting at the high school in Florida. Number one I`m duty bound to and you about your beloved bureau and the fact that there was obviously a screw up that then gave ammunition to Donald Trump and others. But number two, I want to show you a headline because unbelievably Russia played a role. Here`s the headline. "After Florida`s school shooting Russian bought army pounced." They were already sending out messages, a lot of them apparently about gun control.

CLINT WATTS, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Right. So part of the strategy with that information deluge is any time there`s a fearful incident, they call them calamitous messages, you inject fear in the audience just to amplify it. And that almost always brings up a partisan divide or some sort of social divide which you can amplify and pit parties against each other.

WILLIAMS: That`s sick on top of what we`ve just suffered.

WATTS: Right. And the other thing about is when you`re scared you`re also more vulnerable to whatever messages follow. So you tend to take on, you know, facts that turn out not to be facts or fictitious sort of narratives that don`t actually turn out to be true.

What is true that seems like the FBI dig a tip in, they didn`t follow a procedure and they didn`t follow up on it. At some point, though, they were numerous things that came up into local law enforcement. I saw a number of 20 different times they`d gone to call outs regarding this person, he`d been expelled.

But the truth is we`ve never developed a process around mental health or examining how we keep weapons out of people who have mental health or mentally disturbed. That`s the real challenge that (INAUDIBLE) to wrestle with and that`s whether it`s terrorism or active shooters. I would tell you having looked at a lot of the terrorism cases, there`s a very fine between what is an ISIS supporter and what is an active shooter. We`ve never resolve with this process that`s been.

So if the president wants to be a leader instead of attacking institution, he would go to the FBI and say, "What do we need to get on the top of this and then do it?" Because I guarantee the FBI would tell you to track all these leads around the country. We need about five times as many people and a lot more support.

WILLIAMS: I can imagine that. Someone has issued a death threat on the web and the time has taken us to have this conversation.

Hey, Ambassador, I can`t believe we`re living in an era where to use language where we`re quoting the president, we have to warn families with young kids in the room. But was he right for the wrong reasons when he said the Russians were laughing their asses off?

MCFAUL: Well, they`re laughing at him. That`s the part I don`t think he understands. There`s one thing I know about Putin. I`ve dealt with him for many, many years, written about him for three decades. He does not respect weakness. And our commander in chief looks really weak when he does that Twitter storm over the weekend. He looks like somebody who is not secure, who is not up to doing the job. That`s what they`re laughing at. That`s what they like to see, and he needs to reverse it.

Brian, you just used a very important word. What the Russians did in terms of media, on social media was sick. That`s what the president of the United States should say as well.

WILLIAMS: That`s a note to end on. Clint Watts, Michael McFaul, gentlemen, thank you both for being with us tonight.

Coming up, how the president marked this President`s Day holiday. That and more when we continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can be more presidential than anybody. I can be more presidential if I want to be. I can be more presidential than anybody. I would say more presidential and I`ve said this a couple of times, more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Originally formed to celebrate the birth of George Washington, modern`s President`s Day has since become an opportunity to remember all of our presidents and what they`ve done for this country. It has also given our retail realities of this age a good day to get a good price on a mattress.

And as we`ve heard him say many time, this current president thought he would stack up very well against the very best that U.S. history has to offer. Sadly, however, for this president a new survey of more than 170 political scholars timed to coincide with president`s day and thus, released just today tells a different story.

Not surprising the aforementioned, Abe Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt came in the first three places. And a little over one year into his presidency Donald Trump has placed last on the list.

With us to talk about what this day means, what it should means, Michael Beschloss, NBC News Presidential Historian. Who has written, of course, a several best selling books on American presidents and American history. Michael, there is a promo that runs to the point of destruction on this network we`ve all committed. It`s a memory sadly in it. I`m asking one of our guests how far is this from normal. And I`d like to ask you that very same question in light of just what we`ve been through this past weekend.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Totally different from normal and in a way that I think is ominous and very worrisome. Because, you know, any normal president, any president, let`s say at the last 70 years back to the beginning of the Cold War, Harry Truman, if he had gotten the news on Friday about that Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, he would know he had a job to do. One of the jobs would be to go to Americans and say this is horrible thing. We`re going to strike back at the Russians so that they`re deterred from doing this in the future.

And the other thing is that this is what I`m going to do, I, as president to do protect you Americans from seeing an attack like this again. Not only did Mr. Trump not do that, but we had a weekend as you were saying, Brian, of this tweet storm. This is not only abnormal. This is almost bordering on dereliction of duty.

WILLIAMS: So when you take away that custodial function we`ve traditionally had in our presidents, when you take away the consoling function that we`ve had in the best presidents, what is this day left to be about in 2018? What`s it supposed to remind ourselves of or have us reflecting upon?

BESCHLOSS: Well, it`s supposed to remind us, I think, of, you know, the best in presidential leadership. You know, as Donald Trump rightly said, Abraham Lincoln would be certainly be at the top of the scale, someone who kept this country from splitting up and represented the best of our ideals, George Washington who designed the presidency at the very beginning.

One of the reasons that the constitution is so vague about what it president should really do is because the founders knew that George Washington would be the first president. It doesn`t help very much when you have a president like Donald Trump who says almost as a badge of honor, I don`t read books, I`m not that interested in history.

WILLIAMS: A story in recent history had me thinking of you today. And that`s Robert Strange McNamara who ran the Pentagon under President Kennedy and Johnson, one of the chief architects of Vietnam War.

We learned years after all the tumult that during the protests in Washington, the McNamara`s put up a couple of kids, friends of their kids on their living room floor who were getting up in the morning and going to protest the Vietnam War being run by the homeowner. It strikes me that there`s a potential parallel in this campaign the students have started in Florida.

And there might have been potential parallels on gay marriage, the fastest moving public issue I`ve seen in my lifetime. That a lot of these lawmakers, even the guys taking so much money from the NRA are going home at the end of the day to households and families and loved ones who are diametrically opposed.

BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, wonderful parallel, Brian. And, you know, you`re absolutely right. McNamara had those protesters in his house because his son was hated the war in Vietnam that his father was such an architect of. And it took us years for the American people -- a majority who is turning against the war to here is to get reach of Nixon in Congress to stop that war despite public will.

And you`re so right to bring up gay marriage. And that was something that, you know, in the election of 2004, President Bush, you know, backed an amendment preventing that for -- backed laws that would prevent full rights for gay people in America. And here we are a decade later. There is gay marriage.

The thing is that things are moving much more quickly. And I think one of the more hopeful things of what we`ve seen this tragic weekend is we may depend on the millennials to make up for the mistakes we`ve all made.

WILLIAMS: That`s absolutely right. And not far from what we plan to say in our closing segment tonight. What a treat always. Michael Beschloss, thank you so very much for joining us.

BESCHLOSS: Treat for me too. Thank you, Brian. See you soon.

WILLIAMS: And coming up for us, what might be the best chance there is to change a country set in its ways. We`ll hear from them when we continue.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EMMA GONZALEZ, MARJORY STONEMAN DOUGLAS HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT: -- laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS. They say guns are just tools like knives and are as dangerous as cars. We call BS.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Just days after a gunman shot and killed 17 people at that Florida high school. Students from the high school began this vocal push for new gun legislation. President Trump met briefly with some of the first responders and victims of the attack on Friday night, but Saturday he took the Twitter to criticize Democrats and the FBI for failing to prevent the shooting.

The same student leading that chant, Emma Gonzalez spoke on this network about how she is handling the President`s tweets.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GONZALEZ: I think the best way to deal with this is to ignore him. He`s not -- he`s not being --I think we can all agree that the things that President Trump tweets is nothing really has a lasting impact, unless it`s a negative lasting impact, on the people around us. At this point especially, the things that he mentions when he brings up talk of the FBI, he is trying to blame somebody and we can`t let him do that. So the best thing for us to do is to ignore him and to continue fighting our fight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have announced the protest in Washington called "March for our Lives" at the end of the month -- next month, I should say. They say the goal of the event is to demand a comprehensive and effective gun bill be brought before Congress. Earlier today, students from the D.C. area staged their own lie-in in front of the White House to protest the lack of action on gun control. They may already be seeing results.

Monday morning, the White House said President Trump is open to bipartisan legislation to strengthen background checks. Josh Dorsey and Philip Rucker write that over the weekend, the President, "Surveyed Mar-a-Lago Club members about whether he ought to champion gun control measures in the wake of last week`s school massacre in nearby Parkland, telling them that he was closely monitoring the media appearances by some of the surviving students, according to people who spoke with him there.

Congress is on recess, so there is unlikely to be any substantive progress this week, but the students of that high school already have plans to visit to continue their push for change. Quick break for us, we`re back with more right after this.

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WILLIAMS: A draft card burning from 1971, the last thing before we go tonight. As we mentioned earlier, it was the student movement that got the credit for turning the tide in the Vietnam War. Those students are senior citizens now. And in many cases, it`s their grandchildren taking charge and it`s lost on no one that it just might be the student movement in 2018 that changes the way we view the ghoulish deadly and predictable business of mass shootings in this country.

Some of the students leading it aren`t yet old enough to vote, but they will be soon. None of the students leading it had any way of knowing just a week ago that they would be leading a movement. Of course, they also had no way of knowing they would lose 14 of their fellow students when an unbalanced kid with a grudge and an AR-15 walked into their school building.

So here once again is Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GONZALEZ: We are going to be the kids that you read about in textbooks. Not because we`re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting.

If the president wants to come up to me and tell me to my face that it was a terrible tragedy, and how it should never have happened, and maintain telling us how nothing is going to be done about it, I`m going to happily ask him how much money he received from the National Rifle Association.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: High school student Emma Gonzalez, part of a powerful speech she gave in the wake of the mass shooting at her high school. That`s going to do it on this holiday Monday night. That is our broadcast. Thank you so very much for being here with us and goodnight from NBC News headquarters here in New York.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END