Mueller preparing charges against hackers. TRANSCRIPT: 03/01/2018. The 11th Hour with Brian Williams

Guests: Jeremy Bash, Cynthia Alksne, Jonathan Lemire, Joe Cirincione, Rick Stengel, Mike Murphy

Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: March 1, 2018 Guest: Jeremy Bash, Cynthia Alksne, Jonathan Lemire, Joe Cirincione, Rick Stengel, Mike Murphy

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, THE LAST WORD, HOST: That is tonight`s Last Word.

Up next, the White House is gripped by tumult and turbulence and that`s according to 16 White House officials, Congressional aides and outside advisers who spoke to "The Associated Press." Sixteen. One of the reporters who worked on that story will join Brian Williams on the "11th Hour," which starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, THE 11TH HOUR, HOST: The new reporting tonight from NBC News, Robert Mueller assembling a case for criminal charges against those who hacked and leaked e-mails during the 2016 campaign. Meanwhile, an elaborate show in Moscow as Russian unveils new nuclear weapons and Putin warns the world, you listen to us now.

And at the White House, another day of turbulence, confusion, another big departure reportedly near. We have the very latest on the chaos tonight along with the rarely heard sound of Robert Mueller`s voice. "The 11th Hour" on a Thursday night begins now.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 406 this was of the Trump administration and Special Counsel Robert Mueller is apparently looking at a fresh round of criminal charges in the Russia investigation. Our own NBC News reporting tonight says Mueller is building a case against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking of private information meant to hurt Democrats during the 2016 election, this according to government officials familiar with the matter as they say.

Our colleagues, Ken Dilinian and Julia Ainsley report the possible new indictment would, "delve into the details of, and the people behind the Russian intelligence operation that used hackers to penetrate computer networks and steal e-mails of both the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman, John Podesta. You probably recall the release of those stolen e-mails by WikiLeaks became a major theme in the 2016 election campaign. They were constantly mentioned by then-candidate Donald Trump. Late in the campaign, he repeatedly expressed his love of WikiLeaks from the podium.

According to sources, Mueller has long had evidence to make this case but strategic issues could dictate the timing here. Possible charges could include violations of statutes on conspiracy, election law and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. While some officials said charges could come in weeks or months.

The reports goes on to say, "it is also possible Mueller opts not to move forward because of concerns about exposing intelligence or other reasons or that he files the indictment under seal, so the public doesn`t see it initially." Much like the indictment Mueller filed two weeks ago now accusing a different group of Russians of election meddling possible new charges are expected to rely heavily on secret intelligence from the CIA, FBI, NSA and Department of Homeland Security. This news comes just weeks after top U.S. intelligence officials warn senators that Moscow would be back to meddle in this year`s midterm elections. And it comes only two days, let`s recall, after NSA director, Admiral Mike Rogers revealed President Trump hasn`t directly told him to combat Russian hacking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND, ARMED SERVICE COMMITTEE: Have you been directed to do so, given the strategic threat that faces the United States and the significant consequences you recognize already?

ADM. MIKE ROGERS, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY: No, I have not.

REED: But you need the direct authority of the President through the secretary of defense.

ROGERS: To do some specific things.

REED: Some specific things.

ROGERS: There are some things I have the authority, and I `am acting within that authority now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: And we should know, tomorrow will be another busy day for Paul Manafort. The former Trump campaign chairman is scheduled to be arraigned in federal court over those additional charges that Robert Mueller filed against him last week. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, just yesterday, Manafort pleaded not guilty, in Washington D.C., to a rewritten set of charges, including alligations of money laundering.

Robert Mueller`s team says if these judges follow sentencing guidelines, Manafort could face eight to ten years in prison if convicted on all of the charges filed in Virginia and 15 to 20 if convicted on all the charges filed in Washington. Paul Manafort is 68 years old.

Let`s turn to our lead-off panel on a Thursday night. Carol Lee is here with us, NBC News national political reporter. She is the co-author of our exclusive NBC News report from just last night on Robert Mueller asking witnesses if Trump knew about these hacked Democratic e-mails before they were released. Also back with us, Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at the CIA and Pentagon. And we welcome back to the broadcast, Cynthia Alksne, a former federal prosecutor and a Justice Department veteran. Welcome to you all.

Carol, about tonight`s story, what is its central impact in your view?

CAROL LEE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, you know, as you mentioned, this hacking and leaking -- strategic leaking of these e-mails was the most visible part to any American during the campaign of Russia`s meddling.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

LEE: And I think that -- so this is significant in the sense that we knew this was happening. But if there are -- if Mueller decides to move forward with an indictment, to me, the key question is whether or not there are any Americans that are tied to this. It is one thing for him to indict Russians who are probably never be extradited and come over and stand trial in the United States.

It`s an entirely different ball game if there are Americans named or unnamed, should he decide to do an indictment. And there could be strategic reasons why he wouldn`t necessarily name an American who was part of the hacking and leaking campaign. But either way --

WILLIAMS: It gives too much of the case perhaps.

LEE: It could give away because, you know, he could want to hold back on that to try to pressure somebody to try to cooperate with the investigation. There are a number of different reasons, but that`s what I think is -- that gets at the heart of the matter, and not only an American, but was there anyone in the Trump campaign or any Trump associates who potentially who corroborated with WikiLeaks.

WILLIAMS: So, Cynthia, this guy Mueller, very rarely that we can tell ever gets out over his skis. Everything is planned and timed out. How will this be a part of the story?

CYNTHIA ALKSNE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, prosecutors and trial lawyers are basically story tellers, and that`s what he has to do. You know, his first indictment really tells the story of the bots and that role of spreading fake information and helping the Trump campaign. And this will be the second story, whether he does it through this indictment now or he does it somewhere down line. He has to tell the story of how the Russians stole this information and how it eventually got out.

So it makes sense to me that Chapter 1, it was the bots. Chapter 2 are -- it is the whole story of the e-mails and that at some point down the line, he has to also get to the important question about whether any Americans were involved. In the meantime, of course, he has all these little sub chapters in his story. Different people pleading guilty and being forced to plead guilty.

WILLIAMS: And Jeremy, how will this ratchet up the seriousness overall?

JEREMY BASH, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, if you think about the two buckets, Brian, if you think about propaganda, which was the subject of the indictment two weeks ago, and now the hacking and leaking, which was the subject of potentially a future set of charges. In the first case, in the propaganda, the Trump team could argue, hey, we were merely passive beneficiaries, but we had nothing to do with it. With regards to the hacking and leaking, we already know that Papadopoulos was tipped off to the fact that they had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

We know that that was the set-up in the Trump Tower meeting in 2016 in June. And in fact, Don Jr. said, if it`s what I think it is, meaning, what Papadopoulos probably told people in the campaign, I love it. And then, of course, the presidential candidate himself, Donald Trump talked about WikiLeaks, talked about the leaking, talked about this e-mails incessantly during the fall campaign. So they cannot argue that they are merely passive beneficiaries of that. And I think Bob Mueller is looking squarely at that issue.

WILLIAMS: And Carol, you`re so right to differentiate, if we get an indictment with a series of hard to pronounce Russian names that even a lay person kind of can guess will never come before the bar of justice. But American names, real U.S. individuals that we can go follow and get pictures of, to tell their stories, that is different.

LEE: Extremely different. And that is the heart of this investigation. Was there anyone specifically on the Trump campaign who colluded with Russia as part of its efforts to meddle in the election? And any Americans, that, you know, to be on the Trump campaign would be -- it would be extremely significant much more so than as you said, if it was just Russians who were never going to come here and aren`t going to actually pay any penalty for their crimes. It would be more of a symbolic sort of diplomatic slap at Russia sort of move and if there are no Americans.

But, you know, in our reporting yesterday, we know that the Mueller`s team is asking about President`s potential knowledge of these e-mails in advance. And we also know that it`s not just Papadopoulos, it`s Roger Stone. And he also talked publically about his alleged connections to Assange and WikiLeaks, and there`s a lot of questions about his knowledge of this. And he was, you know, well, not on the campaign for very long period of time, very much still in close contact with the President, then- candidate Trump and so there`s that. And that relationship with Trump and the Papadopoulos piece, and I think that those pieces to play out are going to be the most significant in terms of this.

WILLIAMS: Jeremy, I keep picturing the mother of all whiteboards in Mueller`s offices in D.C. with all the tentacles probably as closely secured as a battle plan in warfare. And they`ve got to know what would reveal too much about sources and methods. What would tip their hand to any other lawyers about where this is headed, where this is ultimately headed?

BASH: That`s probably right, Brian. And they probably want to reveal just enough to make the case. And prosecutors are due to bound, even in filing charges to be able to make charges that they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. So they`ve very high ethical bar in bringing charges. But they obviously don`t want to reveal too much because worst, the propaganda happened in the open, it happened in the clear. It was in the open source activity and therefore can be discussed. It is hacking.

This dissemination of the e-mail of Clintons in this way was really the work of Russia`s intelligence agencies. We know that from the January 2017 intelligence estimate. That`s lot more sensitive, a lot more dicey to reveal.

WILLIAMS: Cynthia, how does knowing Robert Mueller, as you do, change the lens through which you view this? I guess it`s another way of saying, how does he look at all of this from his world view?

ALKSNE: Well, you know, he`s fundamentally a Marine. And I think he looked at it through a patriotic lens that the President is not doing anything about the Russian intervention in our election and he is going to tell the American people that story. And he`s going to find out what happened. And pretty much anybody who was involved is going to be sorry. I mean, if anybody was involved or knows anything about Russian hacking, they ought to go see Bob Mueller and they ought to move to Russia, because otherwise they`re going to end up in jail

WILLIAMS: OK. Well, that says a lot. Jeremy, we keep talking about the bots, the hacking, the false information. In real-time, a lot of us, most of us, all of us didn`t know what we were seeing online on the web. We knew a nakedly false story when we saw it but these were -- this was an interesting intervention into our electronics.

BASH: Yes, and there`s a lot of political noise during the campaign and so you could argue that the propaganda piece was a drop in the ocean and didn`t really affect the outcome. But again, Brian, this hacking piece that substitute to the new reporting, that was discuss in the an October 2016 statement by the director of National Intelligence and the director of the Homeland Security -- the secretary of Homeland Security that this was under the authorship of the Russian federation. And unlike propaganda which happens in a campaign, legal and potentially illegal, hacking only illegal, hacking only done by someone trying to do something improper during an election season.

WILLIAMS: I think after tonight we are left with the, "his fundamentally a Marine." We`re much obliged to Carol Lee, to Jeremy Bash, to Cynthia Alksne for tonight`s conversation. Appreciate all three of you being here with us.

And coming up as we continue, continued chaos, continued leaks, word of more impending departures, or as they call it in the Trump West Wing, Thursday.

And later, what Vladimir Putin told Megyn Kelley today about his nuclear weapons capability, conveniently unveiled 17 days before his reelection, which is not predicted to be a squeaker, by the way. "The 11th Hour" just getting underway on a Thursday night.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS: As we mentioned, this week brings more chaos to the Trump White House. National security advisor, H.R. McMaster, may be the next departure. Our own NBC News colleague, Nicole Wallace reports the White House preparing for a McMaster exits as early as the end of this month. McMaster was brought in to replace Michael Flynn, you may recall, who was fired after less than a month on the job for lying about contact he made with Russians during the campaign.

In a statement, the White House said, "We frequently face rumor and innuendo about senior administration officials. There are no personnel announcements at this time." News of McMaster`s apparent coming departure comes a day after communications director and importantly close Trump aide and confidante, Hope Hicks, tendered her resignation. All of this comes amidst questions about the President`s son-in-law and his security clearance.

Speculation that John Kelly may also be on thin ice somehow in a very public feud between Trump and his own attorney general. "The Associated Press" in their wisdom is reporting it this way tonight, "Rarely has a modern President confronted so many crises and controversies across so many fronts at the same time. After 13 months in office, there`s little expectation among many White House aides and outside allies that Trump can quickly find his footing or attract new, top-flight talent to the West Wing."

Here to talk about with us tonight two of our favorites, John Heilemann, a veteran journalist, MSNBC national affairs analyst, and Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for "The Associated Press", who contributed to that report we just quoted from.

All right, Mr. Lemire, as of tonight, you saw -- first of all, you cite 16 sources. So the leaking business is robust these days in Washington. Is there any more stability tonight than say, let`s pick a long time ago, last night.

JONATHAN LEMIRE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": No.

WILLIAMS: Continue, please.

LEMIRE: The people we`ve talked to, White House officials, aides on Capitol Hill, outside advisors, all paint the same picture. The morale in the West Wing is as low as it`s been in months. And the recent tough stretch, they all point back to beginning of one thing, the departure of Rob Porter, which has had a chain reaction, which has had a significant effect throughout the building. I let you remember, when Porter left after accusations of domestic abuse by both of his ex-wives, a spotlight was then shown on John Kelly, the chief of staff, who came under extreme fire for letting Porter be in the building and, you know, defending him immediately after these allegations came to light.

Our reporting tonight suggests that you may recall, it was Ash Wednesday and about a week after the Porter scandal broke, John Kelly with the mark of the cross on his forehead was set to talk to the press in the White House briefing room and finally give forth, supposedly, what would be the definitive narrative of the events that lead to Porter`s dismissal. That was the same day of the school shooting in Florida. There was no press briefing that day.

And then also in some ways it give John Kelly a reprieve to focused and shifted to security clearances, which then of course speaking about Jared Kushner, and he has become the senior aide in spotlight in recent days. This moment has laid barrier a real rivalry between Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump versus John Kelly as they jockey for prominence within the White House. The President has been frustrated at times with both camps and certainly, of course, with the attorney general who is frequently his whipping boy.

And now there are people very close to the White House who are concerned, what impact Hope Hicks` departure going to have on the President. As we know she is one of his closest confidantes, rarely more than shouting distance away from the Oval Office. And her departure on top of Keith Schiller, his long-time security man`s departure a few months ago, you know, leaves the President without a lot of his sounding boards. He`s usual the friendly faces that he likes to see in the White House, who spend time to be close to him. He misses the camaraderie of the campaign and people think that he may be that much more isolated in the building and perhaps that much less stable.

WILLIAMS: John, as I don`t need to tell you, most of what you need to know in life is available in godfather one and two. Having said that, not even family is sacred. I want to read for you tonight`s dramatic reading.

Maggie Haberman is on the board again with Mr. Landler over at "The New York Times. "Privately, some aides have expressed frustration that Mr. Kushner and his wife, the President`s daughter, Ivanka Trump, have remained at the White House despite Mr. Trump at times saying they never should have come to the White House and should leave. Yet aides also noted that Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out." It`s like Hunger Games.

JOHN HEILEMANN, NATIONAL AFFAIR ANALYST, MSNBC: It`s little like Hunger Games. It`s a little like -- it`s also a little like, I don`t know, I don`t even know what the right analogy is. There`s -- I think he`s got the Hunger Games of cannibalism involved in it.

WILLIAMS: OK.

HEILEMANN: And, you know, you got -- I was thinking more reptiles before I came in here. So, I was thinking about, you know, the scorpions in the jar. It`s like scorpions in a really wet sock and a lot of scorpions in really wet sock.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: The thing is these, you know, Brian, you`ve covered elections for a long time and you know that personnel is policy. And to some to some extent there`s a feedback loop. When it`s working it right, personnel makes a good policy, the good policy reinforces the personnel and you get into that loop.

In this presidency, the personnel and the policy have always been kind of messed up. And so most of these -- the existing White House staff, the senior ones were still there, there have been simmering grievances against them from the very beginning and no too more or so than Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: Now you have a fair number of White House -- senior White House people who no longer in the building. Those people still don`t how to use a telephone and they still talk to the press all the time. So between the leaking that Jonathan and you are alluded to in the first round here, that`s coming from inside the building.

You`ve also got people, and I`m not alleging about any particular person, but you got people, like Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, people like that, who saw a lot of stuff in their time in the White House and didn`t necessarily like some of the people who are still in the White House and are taking this opportunity to, I said on a call show today, today, you strike at the head, you strike at the head of the prince.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

HEILEMANN: You know, in particularly in Kushner`s case. He`s so vulnerable now. The security clearance story opened the door and weakened him and made him vulnerable. And now you have Mueller, you have maybe Eric Schneiderman, you`ve got the attorney general in New York, you`ve got bank regulators here, all circling around Kushner. And those who have always wanted him out or who never thought he should be there in the first place, are taking this opportunity to try to kill him.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Lemire, if someone like Gary Cohn, let`s say what you will about Goldman Sachs, who was a former president of Goldman Sachs, is upset that the President ad libbed today on tariffs and throws up his hands and says I`m done, going back to New York. You point this out in your work tonight, hiring. How do you go out and recruit for these top positions? John alluded to this, too.

LEMIRE: Yes. And this White House, even before this latest round of chaos, has had really hard time bringing in talented experienced, you know, Washington hands, you know, to come into the building. First, because so many of them were sort of, you know, opposed Trump as president during the campaign, these are never Trumpers, who some of them, the staff he`s presented with the President saying like, hey, these are -- should we consider, and the answer is been no, because they were perceived as disloyal and therefore they won`t even get a shot to come inside the White House.

You know, there are people throughout Washington who are throwing up their hands who might be in a normal administration would be thrilled to work in the White House but don`t want to walk in because of how chaotic it is and of course the ongoing legal concerns, the Russia probe that shatters all of this. And to further point there about Jared, Ivanka, and Kelly, I mean, the chief of staff, you know, has been talking to people over the last week or two sort of ruminating, what do Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner do all day, you know and not being sure why they still have the authority they do.

HEILEMANN: There were a fair number of public spirited individuals who knew the Trump`s White House is going to be chaotic, who decided to go in despite that at the beginning.

WILLIAMS: Yes, that`s right.

HEILEMANN: Now they`ve seen not the theory, not the hypothesis, not like how chaotic it going to be. They now know exactly how chaotic it is and they`ve seen how the White House has chewed people up and spit them out. And the level of chaos has risen and this is not a coincidence with the Mueller probe starting to indict people, starting to get guilty and verdicts on people.

As the net seems to both strangely seems to both widen and tighten simultaneously, you see more and more chaos in the White House. And so if you`re now a smart public spirited Republican who wants to save the country from chaos, you look at this and say, I`m going to go in there? Those guys went in there, I saw what happened to them, why would I go in there, it`s not going to work. And so, you`ve got this horrible situation where the President doesn`t want people who might want to serve him, that very small group and the much larger group who are, again, past theory into practice. They know what will happen to them if they go in the building, which leaves you in a terrible position if you`re trying to actually run the country.

WILLIAMS: And that, ladies and gentlemen, of our viewership is why we have these gentlemen on. John Heilemann, Jonathan Lemire, always a pleasure. Please hurry back.

Coming up for us, Vladimir Putin puts on a thoroughly Russian show, positively reminiscence of the Soviet era. Is this really what an arms race looks like in 2018?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

Today, Russian President, Vladimir Putin announced a new class of nuclear weapons that he says renders defense systems useless. Putin`s presentation was accompanied by computer animation that`s appeared to show warheads targeting the United States, the state of Florida, to be exact.

The entire event harkened back to the Brezhnev Soviet era. Before we talk about it, we want to get a report on it tonight so you see what we mean from our Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Richard Engel.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In his last major speech before presidential elections, he is almost guaranteed to win again. Vladimir Putin sounded more like his cold war predecessors, warning of a nuclear war. Showing elaborate animations of what he called invincible nuclear weapons.

Like this apparently new, low flying cruise missile described as having a limitless range and unpredictable flight path evading American missile defenses and shown targeting the United States. And a long range underwater drone tipped with a nuclear warhead.

ADMIRAL JAMES STAVRIDIS, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think we ought to take this very seriously. Vladimir Putin is a very serious leader. He has powerful scientific establishment behind him. And several of these weapons will be game changers.

ENGEL: President Trump seldom critical of Russia, didn`t respond. But the White House did.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: U.S. defense capabilities are and will remain second to none. And now because of the new defense budget of $700 billion, our military will be far stronger than ever.

ENGEL: To some, it all harkens back to the duck and cover days of the American-Soviet arms race. Not everyone`s convinced.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The little threat about nuclear weapons was really interesting because, boy, if ever there were an empty threat, that was it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: While the Pentagon has been warning that Russia has been developing advance cruise missiles.

ENGEL: Putin saying today, "Nobody listened to us. It`s time to listen to us now."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WILLIAMS: So Richard Engel starting us off from Moscow. Now to our exclusive interview with Vladimir Putin. After his press conference today, our own Megyn Kelly who was on assignment in Moscow sat on with the Russian president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MEGYN KELLY, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Several analysts in the west have said, this is the declaration of a new cold war. Are we in a new arms race right now?

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): My point of view is that individuals who have said that new cold war has started are not analysts. They do propaganda. If you were to speak of an arms race, then an arms raise began in exactly the time and moment when the U.S. opted out of the anti-ballistic missile treaty.

KELLY: Some analysts are suggesting, you`ve tested it and it`s failed, and that`s why you only showed animations of it today and have not yet produced any actual videos.

PUTIN (through translator): Are you talking about ICBMS?

KELLY: Yes. The one that you claim renders defense systems useless.

PUTIN (through translator): As a matter of fact, every single weapon system discussed today easily surpasses and avoids an anti-missile defense system.

KELLY: But you`ve tested it?

PUTIN (through translator): The test was excellent. Some of them still have to be fine tuned and worked on some, but these are already available to the troops and already are battle ready.

KELLY: For the record, right now, do you have a workable ICBM that`s powered by nukes, that you`ve tested successfully?

PUTIN (through translator): All of those tests were successful. It`s just each of these weapon systems is at a different stage of readiness. One of them is already on combat duty. It`s with troops.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WILLIAMS: So that`s just a bit of their conversation. Megyn Kelly, we`ll have more reporting from Russia in the coming days.

With us tonight to talk about all; of it, Joe Cirincione President of the Ploughshare Fund and author of the appropriately titled, "Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late", could we have a more appropriate author on our broadcast? Rick Stengel is also back with us, former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, as well as former Managing Editor of Time Magazine, who notably interviewed Putin when he was named Person of the Year back in `06, such an innocent time back in `06.

Hey, Joe, your latest headline for Defense One, I`ll read it back to you. "Putin just gave Trump the arms race he sought." What do you mean by that?"

JOE CIRINCIONE, PRESIDENT, PLOUGHSHARE FUND: Meet the new nuclear arms race, same as the old nuclear arms race. This is what President Trump said to Mika Brzezinski back in December 2016, "Let it be an arms race. We`ll beat them at every turn. We`ll outlast them." He keeps harping back to this theme, even in his state of the union, about a massive new nuclear build-up.

Well, Putin just answered him. To Trump`s three new nuclear weapons that he introduced last month, almost a month ago today, Putin introduced five new nuclear weapons. He is saying, "Bring it on. You think you can beat me? I`m your equal." And this sort of plays into Putin`s hands, this is one area where they do match us weapon for weapon.

WILLIAMS: So, Rick, after mutually assured destruction, isn`t the rest all gravy? Part one, and part two, how do you conduct diplomacy given the current relationship, we`re led to believe there`s Russian all over the place, the current relationship between our two presidents?

RICK STENGEL, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR PUBLIC DIPLOMACY AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: It`s bizarre, isn`t it, because, of course, people are wondering about Trump colluding with Russia and even with Vladimir Putin, and yet they`re at logger heads over this nuclear issue. I was -- this isn`t very diplomatic but both Trump and Putin are like the kids in the play ground, when you are kid, and you just dare them to do something stupid. And you know they`re going to it. Both of them are guys that respond to dares like that.

That is a dangerous situation when countries are armed to the teeth with these nuclear weapons. I mean, what Putin did today, whether it`s real or not, and I`m more sympathetic to what Condoleezza Rice said that it could be a mirage. But the point is, the tone, the tenor as Joe was saying is, it`s an arms race. Bring it on is what they both saying, and that is not good for humanity.

WILLIAMS: Joe, what about the point I just made about mutually assured destruction? What if all they have is fantastic computer graphics? What if, let`s hope our guys know exactly what they have or don`t have?

CIRINCIONE: Here`s the danger. You`re right, Brian. There`s an underlying level of insanity about this. We both have about 4,500 nuclear weapons. More than enough to destroy each other, more than enough to destroy human life on this planet and yet, we keep building more, we keep having arguments. Each one believes that they are responding to the other.

So you heard Putin. He is responding to our withdrawal from the ABM Treaty back in 2002. You heard Trump, he thinks he is responding to the introduction of new nuclear weapons by Putin. And so, you hear Putin again, I`m going to match you.

And I`ll tell you, in Washington, nuclear hawks are already using this speech as a justification for a massive build up of our missile defense system. So yes, you remember the old saying, we have enough weapons to just bounce the rubble at this point and yet, we keep building them.

WILLIAMS: And, Rick, this is also what we mean when we talk about robust intelligence around the world.

STENGEL: Yes.

WILLIAMS: Living in the time of the only president directly at war with the intelligence establishment. Americans have to hope that someone in the art department putting together those graphics is on the home team, and someone who is one of their defense contractors is on the home team. That`s what we`re left to here.

STENGEL: Yes. I would hope that and believe that the intelligence community, the U.S., has an understanding of whether some of these things have been tested, whether they`re able to measure that. So I think that is a good thing.

I do think the one possible silver lining is, and Putin motioned this, the ABM Treaty, when the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty. If this is a cry for let`s get back to the negotiations table, and supposed be in that early conversation of Putin had with Trump, he brought up the ABM Treaty and Trump rebuffed him.

I would say, guys, get down at the table and start talking about this because as Joe said, we have way too many of these things and we need divest ourselves.

WILLIAMS: There you go. Thinking like a normal person again.

Gentlemen, thank you both. Joe Cirincione, Rick Stengel, two of our favorites. We`ll have you on again. Really, appreciate it.

Coming up for us, from guns to tariffs, aides and fellow Republicans scramble to say what this president meant to say for the second straight day. We`re back with that after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: It doesn`t make sense that I have to wait till I`m 21 to get a handgun but I can get this weapon at 18, I don`t know. So I`m just curious as to what you did in your bill.

TOOMEY: We didn`t address it, Mr. President.

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

Take the firearms first and then to go 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Those comments from President Trump stunned the Republicans in Congress as he seemed to take a position on gun control to the left of any liberal. And today another shocker when Trump announced the United States would impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The announcement surprised Republicans in Congress, his chief economic adviser, even his own chief of staff, most of whom had been strongly discouraging that idea.

As the Washington Post summed it up today, Trump often likes to sow misdirection. Running the White House like a never ending reality show where only he knows the plot. But even by his standards, the day long period that ended Thursday left some senior aides and Republican lawmakers wondering whether the White House had finally come unmoored.

With us tonight, long time Republican Strategist Mike Murphy. He is currently living in the witness protection program. Mike worked with John McCain in addition to a number of other GOP candidates, including but not limited to Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.

So, Mike, the NRA for years has a fundraising tool, said some version of, they`re coming to get your guns. They have put out ads like this one. It was especially prevalent during the Obama presidency. So then, the president goes there yesterday, then the president tweeted tonight about a good if not great meeting with the NRA in the Oval Office. So after the NRA regained consciousness, did they go to straighten out the president at the White House?

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I`m not sure what happened to that meeting but there`s no doubt, the NRA has become a business, whipping up on membership to raise money. And they have been politically effective, part of it is because there are lot of people in America who vote a strong second amendment line.

So where are we now? Maybe the country`s consciousness is moving a little bit. There are some suburban Republicans who are very concerned about the gun issue, got leadership from guys like Pat Toomey, trying to get to something that could actually pass.

But I think the president really did throw a curve ball when he was vamping in that meeting all over the place. And I`m sure they`re scrambling out and Springfield, to the NRA headquarters to figure out what the hell to do about it.

WILLIAMS: What is -- what are McConnell and Ryan doing these days? What is it like to be them, these days?

MURPHY: Oh, I`m sure, Excedrin sales are way up. I mean, what has been happening behind the scenes in the part. And I was talking to a lot of people today is, what -- Trump critics like me here from my fellow Republicans is, quit the pearl clutching. Look, ignore the tweets, ignore the boarish behavior. Look at the output of the machine of the administration. Tax cuts, good judges, victories against ISIS, regulatory relief we never dreamed of. So the machine is doing fine. They`ve got him under control. Ignore the optics.

Bit now, we see the machine starting to fall apart, because the White House has turned into the thunder dome or, you know, sail to Rikers Island is probably, they go there for peace and quiet by comparison. And we start seeing policy, erratic behavior with the first, got it, from the Republican orthodoxy point of view, really scary thing happening in this stupid tariff tax on steel, which is not on the Republican play book. We`re free traders.

So now, we`ve had the kind of things that he has done tweets, threatening to do is scare Republicans, actually being done for the first time on economic policy. That has created fear behind the scenes. Layer that on top of the fact, it`s an election year. The polling numbers are bad and getting worse. So Republican fear maybe the machine argument they`ve all been using, that the outputs are fine, that`s going to fall apart, has a lot of people very spooked right now.

WILLIAMS: Well, me as you. You touched on this, let me ask because this may be part of your job in the coming months. How do you cheer up the home team for the mid-term elections in `18?

MURPHY: Well, the good thing about being in an undisclosed location, you know, don`t often bring me in the room because I`m not sure I get out alive. But behind the scenes, more agree with me than not, frankly, in the professional ranks of Republican Party. What -- I think they`re going to be trapped into doing, which is a hard strategy, is to try to change the subject to localize things and to go on the attack against their Democratic opponents, some of whom may after the primaries, be at the Bernie Sanders ilk, which is, you know, that wing of Democratic Party is not that attractive.

But it`s tough. It`s going to be very hard for midterm election not to be heavily a referendum on the president. And if he keeps making actual policy moves, not just rhetoric and things like protectionism and this crazy steel tariff, he`s going to split the party, and that will only weaken our position which is already in peril.

WILLIAMS: And we haven`t even talked about Robert Mueller for four and a half entire minutes. Mike Murphy, you`re always so good about coming on with us. We`ll have you back. Thank you, sir, very much.

MURPHY: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Coming up for us, short of the president, he is the man we talk about the most on this broadcast, night in and night out. And yet, could you identify the voice of Robert Mueller? Tonight we hear from the man at the center of so much these days, when "The 11th Hour" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS: Normally, any time we mention the name Robert Mueller around here, it`s a triggering event. It triggers this, a string of video images that you`re looking at right now. We air some form of this same thing every night, based only upon our own video loop, you`d be forgiven for thinking that all Robert Mueller does is wake up in the morning and find a hallway to walk down purposefully and with a serious looking massive briefcase before turning in for the night.

We of course know that he is so much more than that. He played three sports in prep school, soccer, lacrosse and hockey, and was captain of all three teams. He`s a decorated, wounded Vietnam veteran who left the Marine Corps with the bronze star and a purple heart.

He went on to Princeton, got a master`s a NYU, a law degree at UBA, only J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI longer than Robert Mueller. He`s 73 years his middle name is Swan.

When you think about it, we mention his name multiple times every night on this broadcast and yet would you know his voice if you ever heard it? Have you ever heard him speak? So we looked through his public remarks and we put together something for you. And as you listen, as you hear him speak, listen to the principles of this man who occupies an enormous role right now in our democracy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERT MUELLER, SPECIAL COUNSEL: I care deeply about the rule of law. In a free society, a central responsibility of government, I believe, is to protect its citizens from criminal harm within the framework of the constitution. I have been fortunate indeed to had been able to spend much of my career in pursuit of that goal.

What has never changed and will never change are our values. We have pledged to serve and to protect our nation and to do so while upholding the rights and the liberties guaranteed to every citizens under the constitution.

I`ve always been proud to say that I work for the Department of Justice because of that for which it stands, which is an unyielding commitment to the rule of law and to the safety and security of the citizens we serve.

In the end, it is not only what we do but how we do it. Whatever we do, we must act with honesty and with integrity. And regardless of your chosen career, you`re only as good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate, indeed persuasive, but if you are not honest, your reputation will suffer and once lost, a good reputation can never, ever be regained. As the saying goes, "If you have integrity nothing else matters and if you do not have integrity, nothing else matters."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: Robert Swann Mueller in his own words tonight.

When we come back after a break, it sometimes takes a sense of humor to serve in this White House, as the chief of staff showed us today.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS: And the last thing before we go here tonight, General Kelly made a funny today, notable, probably because it hasn`t looked like his job has been a whole lot of fun of late. Kelly appeared at an event marking the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security. In fact, remember this, the homeland term was never used to describe our country until after 9/11. Kelly talked about leaving the job of secretary and going to work for this president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GENERAL JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I would just open by saying I have almost no right to be up here on the stage. I mean I was in the department.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You have every right to be here.

KELLY: And I missed every one of you every day. I went --

Truly, six months, the last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life being the secretary of Homeland Security, but I did something wrong and god punished me I guess.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS: In airing those remarks from Kelly earlier today, we`ve been airing only the briefest snippet of the event itself. Just that much on television to show the stage, but there on the stage with Kelly is someone we should note, and that`s Tom Ridge, the very first secretary of Homeland Security, former congressman, former Pennsylvania governor. Like Robert Mueller, a bronze star recipient from the Vietnam War.

Tom Ridge had the kind of heart attack you don`t want to have. It happened in an Austin Hotel room back in November and he woke up six days later having flatlined three times. Medics had pounded his chest so hard trying to restart his heart, he awoke with broken bones. Tom Ridge feels very lucky to be alive and the employees at DHS current and former felt very lucky to have him there today.

And that is our broadcast on a Thursday night. Thank you so very much for being here with us. Good night from NBC News headquarters in New York.

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