Trump White House facing crises. TRANSCRIPT: 02/28/2018. The 11th Hour with Brian Williams

Guests: Tamara Keith, Michael Crowley, Rajesh De, Matthew Nussbaum

Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: February 28, 2018 Guest: Tamara Keith, Michael Crowley, Rajesh De, Matthew Nussbaum

WILLIAMS, THE 11TH HOUR, HOST: For starters, Hope Hicks, perhaps the 

closest aide to the President, is leaving the White House. Her dramatic departure comes the day after admitting she`s told white lies for the boss.

Plus new tonight from "The New York Times," Jared Kushner`s company received a half billion dollars` worth of loans from bankers after they met with him at the White House.

Also, Robert Mueller looking into whether Trump knew about e-mails getting hacked going back to the 2016 campaign.

And in the category of "you can`t make this stuff up," after getting attacked on Twitter by his boss, the President, and after standing up for himself today, tonight, Attorney General Jeff Sessions shows up to dinner in Washington with his deputy, Mr. Rosenstein, who happens to be in charge of the Mueller investigation. "The 11th Hour" on a Wednesday night begins now.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 405 of the Trump administration and it will take us all of this next hour just to tell you what has happened this evening. There are major developments on several fronts.

Here`s a look at the headlines from, again, just the last several hours. NBC News has learned exclusively that Robert Mueller is asking witnesses if Mr. Trump had advance knowledge about e-mails stolen from the DNC and the Clinton campaign. That reporting comes from our own colleagues, Katy Tur and Carol Lee.

"The Washington Post" reporting tonight, Mueller is also looking at Trump`s apparent efforts to oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions from his post. Just today, the President said his own attorney general was disgraceful. And then tonight, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, the very man, shows up in a very public, high-end D.C. restaurant, and he brings along a very special guest. "Axios" describes it this way, "a show of solidarity with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Mueller investigation.

Then late this evening, "The New York Times" is on the board with reporting that Jared Kushner`s family real estate business received hundreds of millions of dollars in loans from Citigroup and Apollo Global Management after those two companies` leaders met with Kushner at the White House. We`ll have more again on each of these stories as we span across the next hour. We will begin, however, with a big change involving the President`s inner circle.

Hope Hicks, easily the closest aide to this President on a daily basis, has announced she is leaving. Word of her departure in a story broken by Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times" comes one day after Hope Hicks spent just over nine hours under questioning by the House Intelligence Committee. Among the things she told the panel, she sometimes "told white lies" for the President, except where Russia or the investigation were concerned. That`s according to committee member, Congressman Peter King, Republican of New York.

Hope Hicks is 29 years old. She is the fifth person to hold the title of communications director in just over a year for this White House. She goes back to the start of the campaign. She was there on every flight, at every stop with Donald Trump.

A photo posted to Instagram by Trump aide, Dan Scavino indicates just how essential she has been to Donald Trump. That photo was taken aboard the helicopter, Marine One. That`s Mr. Porter in the seat opposite her, the former staff secretary at the White House. Hope Hicks flying with the President. And when he was running for the presidency, Donald Trump made a point of singling her out at rallies.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: And Hope Hicks. This is Hope. This is Hope. This is Hope. Nobody takes more phone calls I think in a day than Hope.

I have a great staff, I have a great staff. One of whom comes from Connecticut. Hope Hicks.

She used to be in my real estate company. I said, what do you know about politics? She said, absolutely nothing. I said, congratulations, you`re in to world of ours, right?

She knew nothing. And she was there the first day. And she was fantastic. And I just say a couple of words. You know, she`s a little shy but that`s OK because she is really, really talented. Hope, say a couple of words.

HOPE HICKS, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Hi. Merry Christmas, everyone. And thank you, Donald Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: To our leadoff panel on a frantic Wednesday night, Katy Tur, who broke today`s news on Robert Mueller`s investigation, along with our colleague Carol Lee. Katy, as you may know, covered the Trump campaign from the start and even wrote a book from her experience appropriately called "Unbelievable."

Eli Stokols is also her with us. He also covered the Trump campaign. He is an MSNBC political analyst. And Philip Rucker did as well. He is now the White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post" and an MSNBC political analyst.

Philip, I`m going to start with you. Why is Hope Hicks leaving, and why now?

PHILIP RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF FOR "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, Brian, in her sort of official version of events she`s leaving because she`s ready to move on. She`s ready to explore opportunities in the private sector, to get back closer to her family in Connecticut. White House officials tell us she`s simply exhausted and emotionally and physically drained by working for three straight years in the Trump orbit.

But the timing is, of course, interesting. It comes a day after she was testifying for nine hours with the Intelligence Committee about the Russia probe. She has become ensnared in this Russia investigation.

She`s met with Robert Mueller, the special counsel, because of her special and unique and close relationship with President Trump. She`s not just a communications professional, she`s his confidant. She advises him on really all matters, from the most substantive to the most trivial. And she has been in that role at his side for three straight years. So she knows a lot.

WILLIAMS: Eli, let`s look at another aspect of this. Think of the price she has paid by dint of being in this circle. What will probably be hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees by the time this is all over? Having her love life splashed across the news, around the world, really. Photographers outside her apartment. Is anyone drawing a straight line from yesterday`s nine hours of testimony to today`s departure?

ELI STOKOLS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Not a straight one. Although, you know, I think -- look, she may have had plans for an exit strategy for a while. Three years is a long time in Trump world.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

STOKOLS: And I think, you know, what you talked about in terms of the scrutiny of her personal relationships, I think what happened with Rob Porter was really traumatizing, on top of all the pressure that she already feels about the Mueller probe. Here is a guy that she`s in a relationship with, news breaks of that. Suddenly his two ex-wives come forward, there`s a huge scandal, allegations of assault, and he leaves.

And also something that happened there, she got on the bad side of President Trump when she decided to help craft a statement for Porter, who the White House essentially defended for a long time as the story shifted around. She was involved in crafting a statement. The President told his confidants and friends outside that he was disappointed in that. I think all of this just adds up to a lot of fatigue and frustration.

And I can tell you that the timing, this may have been something that was sort of planned. There were statements that accompanied this news today that we`re ready to go. But there`s not a replacement ready to go and the White House tonight is scrambling to try to figure out what to do and how to manage this. So, that gives you some indication that this may not have been a total surprise, but it happened pretty quick.

WILLIAMS: So, Katy Tur, let me take now another side. In the parlance of witnesses and prosecutors, this young woman is a potential whale for the Mueller investigation. She knows so much. She has seen so much in this job. Talk to us about the Hope Hicks you came to know.

KATY TUR, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: She`s in the innermost of the inner circles. And she has been there since the beginning. Donald Trump said it himself on stage. Since before the campaign began.

When Donald Trump was crafting his policy positions, when he was deciding to be friendly towards Russia, which obviously is of interest to the Mueller campaign, she was there as he was doing that. She was there when he announced, when he was in the campaign. She was there for that July 27th press conference where he said, Russia, if you`re listening, find the e-mails.

She was there when the GOP platform was changed. She was there as her boss waved around the WikiLeaks e-mails. She was in the White House when he fired James Comey. She has been there for all of the major and pivotal moments of not only the campaign, but of the administration.

And not only there, not like on the outside and just hearing about it through news reports or having them filter down. In the room with him as these things either were happening or the explanations were being written out and explained and decided what was going to be told to reporters. She can reveal perhaps more than anybody can reveal. If she`s not the key figure here, she`s certainly loosening the lock.

WILLIAMS: So, Philip Rucker, we talk about Donald Trump. There`s this storyline about how he values loyalty. I`m just wondering if it`s accurate still. We`ve put together a graphic of just some of the bigger names who have departed. And perhaps you can fill in what should be the storyline. Loyalty until what happens?

RUCKER: Well, loyalty only goes so far, and Brian, that`s a long list there. There are a lot of people who have cycled in and out of this White House in these 13 months. But look, the President demands absolute loyalty. And a lot of his aides serve him loyally, but he turns on them when either they create bad PR for him, when they pull him down, when they hurt his image, when they make a mistake that he feels he can`t recover from.

He`ll turn on his aides and we`ve seen it time and again. A number of people have resigned prematurely from this White House. But in reality, they`ve been fired or pushed out.

I don`t think that`s the case with Hope Hicks. I mean, we certainly don`t have any reporting to indicate that`s the case. And she and Trump have had a very close relationship and Trump actually put out a statement praising her as part of the rollout of this announcement this afternoon. But loyalty`s a big -- the biggest factor, I think, in this White House and with this President.

WILLIAMS: Katy, I`ve watched every show on cable since this news broke this afternoon. And every show has had at least one person point out, this President is his own communications director. That said, Hope Hicks sat right outside the Oval Office and was just involved in the daily grind, the daily churn in the White House.

TUR: Well, he is his own communications director. He has his own Twitter --

WILLIAMS: See, now you said it.

TUR: -- obviously, you can add me to the list.

STOKOLS: That`s Hope`s line. I mean, you`ve heard say that, right?

TUR: Hold on. Hold on. Let`s look at it another way. This is now Donald Trump alone, essentially, in the White House. His loyalists, those closest to him, his family, other than Ivanka and Jared, aren`t there any longer. He`s losing key person after key person.

Hope Hicks is now gone, Keith Schiller, his personal bodyguard, is no longer there. They were the ones that he would speak to in private. He would confide in. They were his friends and his family within the White House.

If you look at who`s left from the beginning of the campaign, the very beginning of the campaign, the only person that`s not Ivanka or Jared is Dan Scavino, his social media manager. And we have reporting now the special counsel is asking about Dan Scavino. But other than that it`s Stephen Miller, Kellyanne Conway, everybody else has left.

WILLIAMS: Eli, will they recruit for this job? There was some speculation on Nicole Wallace`s broadcast this afternoon they wouldn`t fill this job.

STOKOLS: I think they will fill this job. If for nothing else then they know that these sort of personnel dramas, the personalities of this administration, that`s a big part of the show and that is something that obscures a lot of other things. We`re starting off tonight`s broadcast talking about this and not the other insane things that happened today. And the bombshell news reports that I know you`re going to get to. And so I think the personnel drama is a big part of the White House story.

I know for a fact there are meetings taking place at the White House tonight about filling this job. There are a lot of people who believe Mercedes Schlapp, who has been there not all that long, is probably the front-runner for this position. But there are other people who have been called in at the last minute to talk about this job, to talk about the strategy. And I think that just tells you that this is going to be filled, whether or not, you know, it`s hard to understand why people would want this job at this point.

TUR: What does this mean about John Kelly`s power? We heard in the last couple of days that John Kelly has now diminished Jared Kushner`s security clearance, when nobody expected him to be able to do that. They expected that the President would put pressure on him and allow Jared Kushner to remain operating with that interim security clearance at the level he was. He`s downgraded him.

Now Hope Hicks is out. What does this mean with John Kelly? Is his power only getting larger here? Or are we seeing something big happening behind the scenes that we just don`t know about this.

(CROSSTALK)

STOKOLS: -- Kushner is the first person living just yesterday. I mean, we are seeing the disintegration of that Jared and Ivanka wing of the White House.

WILLIAMS: Hey, Phil Rucker, take the last word, answer that question about Kelly.

RUCKER: Yes. Well, it certainly seems like a power consolidation by John Kelly. But one thing that`s so important with Hope Hicks` departure and Katy got it a little bit is that the President is very alone right now.

I interviewed Doug Brinkley, the presidential historian tonight, and he said he`s a lone wolf President, isolated if his own White House. He`s raging against the Justice Department. He doesn`t have confidants left anymore, and his friends are out the door.

WILLIAMS: Well, as they say, what could possibly go wrong?

RUCKER: Look to Twitter.

WILLIAMS: Our thanks to - yes, exactly.

RUCKER: Yes.

WILLIAMS: Watch this space. Katy Tur, Eli Stokols, Phil Rucker, we appreciate you so very much for coming on and starting us off tonight.

Coming up for us, it was a remarkable moment in a campaign full of remarkable moments. Donald Trump calling on Russia to find those hacked Democratic e-mails. Tonight, new reporting on why it`s of particular interest to Mueller.

And later, Jared Kushner the subject of this damaging "New York Times" story tonight. It`s about hundreds of millions of dollars. It`s about access to the White House, all of that and more when we continue.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Russia, if you`re listening, I hope you`re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Remember that moment. When asked about that comment by Donald Trump on the campaign trail, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, later said that Trump was joking.

As we`ve mentioned today, two of our own, Katy Tur and Carol Lee, shed new light on how those comments are impacting the ongoing Russia investigation. They did so in an NBC News exclusive report. They write, "Special Counsel Robert Mueller`s team is asking witnesses pointed questions about whether Donald Trump was aware that Democratic e-mails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release, according to multiple people familiar with the probe."

President Trump has repeatedly denied any collusion with Russia, as you may have heard. He most recently composed a two-word tweet just yesterday, very simply "WITCH HUNT" in all caps. One of the authors of that NBC report, Katy Tur, has agreed to stick around and join this conversation. And joining this conversation as well from the great city of Chicago, Jill Wine-Banks, attorney, former assistant Watergate special counsel and an MSNBC legal analyst.

So, Katy, you first. What kinds of questions is Mueller interested in, what do they tell about a broader canvas he might be painting?

TUR: So this is significant because we all thought that the investigation, or it seemed like the investigation was moving more towards, did Donald Trump obstruct justice when he fired James Comey? And was he trying to hamper the investigation into collusion?

WILLIAMS: Which it may well cover.

TUR: Which it may well cover as well. These questions focus directly on Donald Trump himself and what he knew and when he knew it about the e-mails that were stolen, not only from the DNC, but from the Clinton campaign. You played that press conference a moment ago. That`s July 27th, 2016. I was at that press conference. And it was right in the middle of the DNC, right in the middle of the Democratic National Convention.

And he`s asked about these DNC e-mails that were just starting to trickle out. Will you tell Russia to stop interfering or not to meddle in our elections? And he says, I don`t need to tell Russia anything. And then pivots and says, if you have these e-mails, these Hillary Clinton e-mails, please release them.

That was a big deal to investigators back then. That`s when they started looking into this. And now the special counsel wants to know, was he told to say that by somebody? Was that line scripted, or was it ad libbed?

And if it was scripted or if he was told to say that or if it was something he intentionally was saying, why was he saying it? Or was he saying it to potentially give himself some cover? Did he know not necessarily about the DNC e-mails that were already coming out, but that John Podesta would later be targeted?

WILLIAMS: Right.

TUR: And what did Roger Stone have to do with this? Because Roger Stone, who`s Donald Trump`s long-time confidant, no longer working with the campaign at this point, had tweeted very shortly after that that Podesta`s time in the barrel was going to come, and then Podesta`s e-mails come out. Was Roger Stone still working in unofficial capacity for Donald Trump, and were they somehow back-channeling to Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

It`s a pointed line of questioning that really shows you that Donald Trump is still at the center of this investigation.

WILLIAMS: So, Jill, pointed line of questioning. What does it demonstrate to you about Mueller?

JILL WINE-BANKS, FORMER ASSISTANT WATERGATE SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: It shows that the investigation is both obstruction of justice, which it has always been, but that it is really focusing now on the conspiracy and working with Russia, the so-called collusion part of this investigation. And that it isn`t just Don Jr., but it is the President himself who`s involved in this.

And I think the evidence is really getting much clearer that there is definitely not just an obstruction, which I`ve said from the -- I mean you asked me almost eight or nine months ago if I thought there was obstruction. I thought there was. Now I know there is. But I also am equally convinced that there is collusion.

WILLIAMS: Yes, the commercial airs every four minutes still. Hey, Jill, is it the point in the investigation where Mueller is -- switches to asking only those questions he already knows the answers to? Is this fact-finding or is this case-building and corroboration now?

WINE-BANKS: I would say he`s building the case. And he`s getting ready for either indictments or a report to Congress for impeachment, or some other form of action against additional people. And from what we know, he`s really into the details.

And when he asks questions, people are surprised by how much he knows and the detail he knows where people were sitting in a meeting, not just that they were at a meeting. And I think that this is all part of how you really build a very compelling case. Because in the case of the President or anyone as significant in his administration, you need more evidence than you would if it was just an ordinary citizen. Because it will take more to convince a jury of guilt than it would if it was just an ordinary citizen.

So he`s going to be very careful in building his case. That`s an important element for him to do. And I think they`re doing, from all we can hear, they know a lot more than we know. And it`s going to be something big.

The speed that this is happening is amazing, because if you look at what happened today, you can`t make this stuff up. It`s almost hard to comprehend from the morning to the evening, all the things that happened in one day. And how many people have left the White House, for whatever the reasons they`ve left, or people who, I mean, he named a new campaign director, and he`s already involved in a scandal one day later.

WILLIAMS: Yes, It`s a lot to fit into one hour, I`ll say that. And all of it today fits into the "you can`t make this stuff up" category. Our thanks to our friends, Katy Tur and Jill Wine-Banks, really appreciate you both coming on.

And coming up, the late-breaking story in the "New York Times" tonight. It means deeper trouble for the President`s top aide and son-in-law who was already having a bad week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS: We`re back. And let`s go back to breaking news from the "New York Times" tonight. This was as we said already, a bad week to be Jared Kushner. Senior adviser to the President who is not allowed the security clearance that would normally come with his job.

Tonight, the "Times" is reporting that Kushner`s family real estate business received massive loans after he met with executives from the lenders. According to the "Times," "Joshua Harris, a founder of Apollo Global Management, was advising Trump administration officials on infrastructure policy. During that period, he met on multiple occasions with Jared Kushner. Among other things, the two men discussed a possible White House job for Mr. Harris. The job never materialized, but in November, Apollo lent $184 million to Mr. Kushner`s family real estate firm Kushner companies."

The report continues, "An even larger loan came from Citigroup which lent the firm and one of its partners $325 million to help finance a group of office buildings in Brooklyn. That loan was made in the spring of 2017, shortly after Mr. Kushner met in the White House with Citigroup`s chief executive, Michael Corbat."

Kushner resigned as CEO of his real estate company when he went to work for the White House but held on to most of his stake in it. Both lenders told "The Times" they did not discuss Kushner`s family business in those meetings. However, "The Times" goes on to say this. "This blurring of lines is now a potential liability for Mr. Kushner, who recently lost his top-security clearance amid worries from some United States officials that foreign governments might try to gain ins influence with the White House by doing business with Mr. Kushner."

Let`s talk about this with our guests. Tamara Keith is back with us, White House correspondent for National Public Radio. And Michael Crowley, is back with us, national security editor for Politico.

Tamara, obviously these are allegations. This is a story running in "The Times" tonight. What will get so many people angry and energized is the optics all over again. This building that is so special in the history of our nation that sits on 18 acres in Washington, D.C., people approach it with awe. People enter it to serve the people of the United States. But these stories have been about enrichment instead.

TAMARA KEITH, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NPR: right. And there is a lot of correlation in this story. And there`s a lot of correlation because Jared Kushner didn`t divest. He has these large -- these holdings in his family`s company. His family`s company is massive and does a lot of business with a lot of different other organizations.

And so, they`re just -- there simply is this perception problem that there isn`t a great answer to. And this is not the first time that Jared Kushner has run into trouble with his family business, creating headlines that he doesn`t want for the White House. His sister was in china making a pitch to investors that involved visas. And, of course, in the transition, Jared Kushner met with the Russian banker, and there are differing accounts of what that meeting was about.

And this is all traces back to the fact that although he has no longer any sort of hands-on role according to Kushner and the people who speak for him. You know, he still owns a stake in this very vast company.

WILLIAMS: Michael, we said as recently as last night, to get everybody`s cards out on the table, an organic talent search for a senior adviser to the president of the United States would not have returned the name of this 37-year-old in the real estate business in New York. It just wouldn`t have. Having said that, this story adds to his troubles, certainly, and will probably add to the people questioning his viability and his job.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, NATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR, POLITICO: There`s no question, Brian. And I would say, in particular, to the degree that he has assumed a large foreign policy portfolio. He`s all the more unqualified, frankly. And an odd choice for the role he has in the White House.

His defenders will say he has the trust of the president and that`s very important in diplomacy. There is something to be said for that. But generally speaking, this is somebody who knows very little about how national security and foreign policy works. I mean, people spend a life time getting up to speed on these issues. And it raises real problems.

And as "The Washington Post" reported in their excellent story last night, officials in several major foreign governments were talking about the fact that they saw Kushner as naive and inexperienced. And also, we`re looking at his family business liabilities, the huge amount of debt that they`ve incurred and their need for foreign investments, and we`re looking for ways to exploit that.

One last point, Brian, you know, the response to the "New York Times" article tonight, from I believe it was a -- maybe a spokesman for Kushner`s lawyer. But the general response has been, this is unfair insinuation, you`re not proving that anything has clearly been done wrong here. You`re drawing in for instance.

My response to that would be, really this White House has lost the benefit of the doubt on these questions and has earned deep skepticism and merciless scrutiny. They don`t release visitor logs, so we don`t know who is coming and going.

Jared Kushner and Donald Trump have flouted all kinds of norms when it comes to outside business interests, transparency, what you say about your business. And let`s not even speak of the entire question of nepotism and whether Jared Kushner should be in the West Wing in the first place.

So really, I think we don`t have any proven ethical or criminal violation here by any means at this point, but this White House has earned suspicion and lost benefit of the doubt.

WILLIAMS: So, Tamara, how long is this tenable? Especially given what we are hearing and seeing and reading about the Kushner/Kelly relationship among the survivors in the West Wing?

KEITH: Yes. So how long is this tenable, is the question that is asked about a lot of different people in this White House.

WILLIAMS: Yes, sorry about that. Go ahead, I mean, take a swing.

KEITH: Yes, let me try. You know, it`s not clear to be perfectly honest. And the issue also becomes that Hope Hicks is out, President Trump is surrounded by outsiders at this point. He doesn`t have many people around him who he trusts. And we know for a fact that he prizes family and loyalty above all else.

So the question becomes, you know, does this become a problem for the president? Does Jared Kushner become a problem for the president? Not divesting from his family`s business is certainly not something that the president could complain about, given that he also is still receiving money from his family business.

WILLIAMS: And, Michael, a final word from you. You opened this door. How can Kushner continue on just the Middle East front when so much what was we deal with from there, human signals, intelligence among our highest bracketed top secret information?

CROWLEY: It`s really hard to see how he can do that, Brian. You know, again, you could have brought him in and he does have business experience, he knows a lot of very wealthy people, knows some things about real estate, and maybe give him some kind of domestic economic portfolio, maybe he would still be under qualified for that I would argue.

But on the foreign policy front, now he`s shut off from huge amounts of crucial information, so much of our foreign policy decision-making is actually based on information that the rest of the world doesn`t get to see. The White House is looking a couple of steps ahead, knowing what`s coming down the pike, knowing what foreign leaders are saying in private. He may not be privy that information.

And I think that really hamstrings him, including in these sensitive issues of Middle East peace negotiations that he has played such a large role in. So it`s hard to see how it continues, Brian. And, you know, this was also a tough week for Ivanka, who faced some very awkward questions for her about allegations against her father about his treatment of women.

And, boy, Washington has become a really inhospitable place for them. And I don`t know anything about their plans, but it would not at all surprise me to see them pull of stakes in the foreseeable future.

WILLIAMS: Tamara Keith, we`ll be listening. Michael Crowley, we`ll be reading. We`re much obliged to both of you for coming on tonight, thank you.

And coming up, it`s the president versus the attorney general once again.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS: In these new times, we are now somehow accustomed to this president attacking his own attorney general. Still, it was bracing to read this from the president this on Twitter. "Why is Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking the inspector general to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse? Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power, and already late with reports on Comey, et cetera. Isn`t the IG an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? Disgraceful."

It all goes back to Sessions recusing himself, taking him out of the Russia investigation. Trump has called Sessions beleaguered. He has even reportedly asked him to resign directly.

Sessions typically doesn`t respond to these attacks. But today he issued a rare public statement and took the rare step of pushing back. "We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor."

And if that statement wasn`t enough, Axios obtained this photo tonight. Jeff Sessions having dinner with Robert Mueller`s supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, an uncharacteristically bold dinner choice, a public show of solidarity. You can bet the president was told of it by the time Sessions and Rosenstein were being asked if they wanted bottle water or tap.

Here with us tonight to talk about it, Matthew Nussbaum, White House Reporter for POLITICO and Rajesh De back with us former White House Staff Secretary who served under President Obama. He also happens to be former General Counsel to the NSA, and importantly, former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General at DOJ.

So, Raj, this is hardly Obama versus holder. How do you process all of this, given your experience?

RAJESH DE, FORMER PRINCIPAL DEPUTY ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, Brian, given everything we`ve seen over the past year, up until tonight, I think there can be little room for doubt that we are witnessing the president of the United States waging political war against his own Justice Department and FBI. And sometimes it can seem like a hot war when he fires the FBI Director. And sometimes, it can seem like a cold war when he`s publicly shaming his attorney general. But make no doubt about it, this is a political war.

WILLIAMS: So, Matthew, now we know from "The Washington Post" that Mueller is interested in these attempts to fire sessions, even if the method used was public humiliation.

MATTHEW NUSSBAUM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Right. It appears to be part of this special counsel`s broader look into any possible obstruction here. We have the firing of Comey and then this endless stream of taunts, perhaps threats, sort of pushing Sessions to resign, if not be fired.

I think the question now for us is, is this time any different? Will the president wake up tomorrow and tweet some more nasty things about Jeff Sessions and then we just keep going? Or will he actually one of these days go through with it and fire him?

I think everyone in the White House would push hard against that move. Of course, that doesn`t mean the president won`t do it. But the prospect of that I think is horrifying to a lot of the folks in the White House who realize how many of this White House`s problems stem from the Jim Comey firing. This would be that all over again and more.

WILLIAMS: Matthew, can you ever remember an instance of this kind of double-reverse public trolling that this dinner tonight represents?

NUSSBAUM: No, it`s pretty remarkable. The Justice Department in their statement to Axios said that this was a pre-planned dinner. But certainly the symbolism there of Sessions and Rosenstein getting together is pretty remarkable. And I`m not sure the president`s going to be too pleased with that.

WILLIAMS: Raj, what about -- I know you have a worry about long-term damage to this institution, the Department of Justice, that has already started to pile up in your view.

NUSSBAUM: That`s right. You know, today we`re talking about the attorney general and tomorrow we may be talking about the outcome of the Russia investigation. But the real long-term story is, how can we prevent, hopefully on a bipartisan basis, further erosion to the institutional credibility of the Justice Department and the FBI?

You know, it takes decades to build the foundation for that credibility. And just minutes to put cracks in it through a tweet or other actions.

WILLIAMS: And it was Sessions` former brother, Republican Senator from Alabama, Shelby, who said today, I wouldn`t be anybody`s whipping boy, I wouldn`t be belittled. So the president versus the attorney general continues.

Gentlemen, thank you so much. Matthew Nussbaum, Rajesh De, we`ll have you both back on.

And coming up for us, something the president said today that may not be sitting well tonight with the NRA when "The 11th Hour" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS: The president today held a meeting about gun violence, and it was important to him that it was televised. In fact, the White House briefing was canceled today, in part to ensure focus on this gun event. Somewhat unbelievably, the event was instantly overshadowed by word of the departure of Hope Hicks, the director of Communications.

But back to this other gathering. What today`s event, this gathering of Republican and Democratic politicians, may have lacked in diversity. It made up for in terms of the hyperbole, the stunning statements that came out of it, most of them from the president who at times took positions on things like the seizure of guns that were to the left of liberals in the gun control debate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: To take the firearms first, and then go to court because that`s another system. Because a lot of times by the time you go to court, it takes so long to go to court, to get the due process procedures, I like taking the guns early. Take the guns first. Go through due process second.

If you add concealed carry to this, you`ll never get it passed. Doesn`t make sense that I have to wait until 21 to get a handgun but I can get this weapon at 18. I don`t know. I was curious as to what you did in your bill.

PAT TOOMEY (R), PENNSYLVANIA: We didn`t address it, Mr. President. Look, I think --

TRUMP: You know why? Because you`re afraid of the NRA, right?

The reason I had lunch with the NRA on Sunday. I called them, I said, you`ve got to come over. I said, "Fellows, we got to do something." And they do have great power, I agree with it. They have great power over you people. They have less power over me. I don`t need -- what do I need?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: here for more tonight, Charlie Sykes, long-time Conservative Radio Show Host, the author of "How the Right Lost Its Mind", and an MSNBC Contributor.

Charlie, after the NRA regained consciousness and got up off the floor, how do you think they reacted to some of the things the president laid out there, which has been pointed out tonight. He articulated much of the Obama gun policy.

CHARLIE SYKES, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Oh, he went to the left of Barack Obama. I mean, for years, the NRA was saying that Obama Democrats are going to grab your guns. And here they are, the president of United States literally saying I want to take the guns without due process.

And I`m thinking that they NRA might be rethinking the culture personality approach that they have taken to Donald Trump. But I think what they`re discovering is the danger of getting into bed with somebody who is ignorant of policy, in different to nuance, and devoid of any fixed principles.

The one thing that they can hope for is that, this is going to be a replay of the immigration show, where we talked about act of love and, you know, said, you know, I will sign anything you want. But then, a couple of days later, he has a reality check and backs off.

But, you know, one of the real tragedies of all of this, is the idea that I think he was talking about is something called, you know, the gun violence restraining order. Something that I think that liberals and conservatives can get behind, which basically it`s kind of a red flag law that they have in some states. Where if somebody believes, that somebody might pose a threat, you go to a judge and you say, hey, this person may not be mentally ill but we think they ought to remove their guns at least temporarily.

But that involves a court action, it involves due process, and I think a lot of Republicans, a lot of gun rights activists are shaking their heads and going did you possibly just destroy that possibility of a compromise with your comments about grabbing the guns without due process?

WILLIAMS: Three things, where was the leadership, where were the speaker and McConnell? Number two, you point out correctly, the NRA has fund raised for years off some version of the phrase "they`re coming for your guns". And number three, the president says there`s no bigger supporter of the second amendment. What about the fourth, against illegal search and seizure when you enter to grab to guns promising to go after due process later?

SYKES: Yes. Well, this was a stunning review of the NRA, and there was really no group that really would do the math for Donald Trump, you know, more aggressively than the NRA. And I think they`re probably going to remind him of that.

And in terms of Donald Trump going against the base, the NRA has really been the beating heart of much of this Trump base. Now, I like the fact, of course, that you are, you know, creating some distance. But I think that you`re going to see in the next 24 hours that the president is not going to be getting a lot of support from other Congressional Republicans who really do understand the power and depths of the NRA clout in Congress. So, you know, I think that once again, I think we`re going to see a replay of what happened with that immigration dog and pony show.

WILLIAMS: Charlie, one of the great things about working here is sometimes we get to watch you, watch these events before you come on the air. And you should get some stills for your next book. Charlie Sykes, always a friend of the broadcast, thank you so much for making time for us tonight, Charlie.

And coming up for us, the president insisted today he`s not into popularity. When we come back, we`ll show you what got our attention about that.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I don`t care who`s endorsing you or not endorsing. You`re going to be more popular if that`s what you`re into. I`m not into popularity. I`m into getting something done that`s good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: The last thing before we go tonight, is that very thing we just heard right there. The president at the meeting on gun violence insisting today he`s not into popularity. But even a brief, cursory once-over search of our archives would indicate this president is in fact quite fond of popularity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: And by the way, I get by far the largest crowds.

I`m doing very, very well, record setting numbers, folks. You know, every time I go we have massive crowds like this.

Whatever we`re doing, we`re doing something right because we had I believe the largest bump in the history of conventions.

The Nielsen ratings just came out. These aren`t polls. These are for television, much more important than polls. We beat her by millions on television.

Today I had two stories for the front page. I mean, they used me to sell newspapers.

They do me. I`m on all the time. I do get much better ratings in her no offense.

I came in first in a landslide.

CNN is disgusting. And by the way, their ratings are going down big league, you know why, because I refuse to be interviewed. And I get high ratings, what can I tell you.

I have the most loyal people, did you ever see that? Where, I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn`t lose any voters, OK. It`s like incredible.

And they going to die in the ratings after this election is over.

And they are not watching Hillary, I`ll tell you that. They don`t have great seats but tomorrow, they`ll be famous. OK?

We won so big in Ohio and we won so big in Iowa. I did two and three speeches a day like this, big crowds.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR UNDER TRUMP: This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration period, both in person and around the globe.

TRUMP: I do get good ratings, you have to admit.

What a crowd, a lot of people in here, a lot of people pouring in right now. If you can get them in, whatever you can do, fire marshall.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: President Donald Trump on the various measurements of popularity out there.

Hey, before we go tonight, we have some reminders for you, especially for our time shifting viewers. You can watch us any time you please by downloading the MSNBC app on your phone. If you`re on the move, you can listen live each night on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. We are also available as a podcast.

What we`re trying to say is, there`s really no reason you would ever have to miss a single broadcast of "The 11th Hour."

And with that, that is our broadcast for a Wednesday night. Thank you so much for being with us. Good night from MSNBC 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