11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS March 16, 2018 Guest: Matt Apuzzo, Joyce Vance, Jeremy Bash, Bill Kristol, Catherine Lucey, Toluse Olorunnipa, Jon Meacham
LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: "THE 11th HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS" starts now.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: The breaking news on this Friday night, the Attorney General has fired Trump nemesis Andrew McCabe, the former FBI Deputy Director.
Also breaking, in a new court filing, Trump`s lawyer is now going after $20 million from the porn star, Stormy Daniels. That news coming hours after her attorney dropped a bombshell on morning T.V. , THE 11th HOUR on a busy Friday night gets underway now.
Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 421 of the Trump administration and we actually have two lead stories as we begin here on a Friday night.
The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, has just fired the Former Deputy FBI Director, Andrew McCabe, a little more than 24 hours before McCabe was set to retire after over two decades as a federal employee. President Trump was highly critical of McCabe, attacked him publically a number of times.
And as "The Washington Post" points out, McCabe has become a lightning rod in political battles like the Russia investigation. McCabe`s firing was recommended by the FBI Disciplinary Office over misleading investigators about conversations he had with the media about an investigation into the Clinton Foundation.
Additionally, tonight, we have a major development on the Stormy Daniels front as the President`s lawyers have come out with an all-out attack looking for $20 million from the porn star, a first for a sitting President. But first, the dismissal tonight of Andrew McCabe. It is very clear tonight he is not taking this dismissal lightly, nor is he going quietly.
In a statement, he says here in part, "For the last year and a half, my family and I have been the targets of an unrelenting assault on our reputation and my service to this country. Articles too numerous to count have led of any false, defamatory and degrading allegation against us. The President`s tweets have amplified and exacerbated it all."
"He called for my firing. He called for me to be stripped of my pension after more than 20 years of service. And all along we have said nothing, never wanting to distract from the mission of the FBI by addressing the lies told and repeated about us. No more."
"Here`s the reality. I`m being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey."
With that, let`s bring in our lead-off panel on a busy Friday night. Geoff Bennett, NBC News White House Correspondent. Danny Cevallos, a Veteran Criminal Defense Attorney and MSNBC Legal analyst, Former U.S. Attorney, Joyce Vance, who spent 25 years as a Federal Prosecutor. Jeremy Bash, Former Chief of Staff at CIA in Pentagon and Former Counsel to House Intel. And importantly, with us by phone "New York Times" Reporter, Matt Apuzzo. He spoke to Andrew McCabe for a story he has just posted to "The New York Times" website.
Matt, it`s your byline shared on the story breaking the news. You have since spoken to the Former Deputy Director for awhile, Acting Director of the FBI. Did we characterize it correctly that he does not plan to go quietly or softly?
MATT APUZZO, REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" (via telephone): Well, obviously he`s no old barge here tonight. You`re seeing he`s unequivocal and blunt. He`s saying he`s being fired as part of a career assassination, an effort by the Trump administration to undermine his credibility because, and this is important, because he is a potential witness in the special counsel`s investigation into whether the President obstructed justice. That is a bold allegation.
He`s saying that this is part of the President`s war on the FBI, the war on the Special Counsel. And, you know, obviously we haven`t seen the Inspector General`s report that, you know, that we are told accuses McCabe of showing a lack of candor and that is the kiss of death at the FBI. Lacks of candor and official interview, there`s really no coming back from this.
But this is all playing out under extremely political back drop. And Andrew McCabe is upset obviously, and he is saying this was a political decision.
WILLIAMS: Matt, let`s balance this out. What were the forces internal who had concurred with this firing? What are the mechanisms, career people, not Trump appointees who looked at all the evidence and came to the conclusion that he should go prior to his retirement date?
APUZZO: Absolutely. There was an Inspector General report, again, which has not been made public that was done by a holdover from the Obama era that faulted him for a lack of candor. And that was taken by career people in the FBI`s Office of Professional Responsibility, that`s the disciplinary office, those are career people. The recommendation was termination. And under the rules, he can appeal that to the Attorney General, which we did.
This played out -- I will say, this played out unusually fast. The disciplinary process is not known for great speed at the Justice Department. And so, one of the thing that I`m quite interested in is why did this happen so fast. And McCabe`s lawyer said they were only given days to respond to this.
So it does appears that, you know, the Justice Department wanted to get this done quickly, and I`m not exactly sure why. And so that -- well, career people definitely were involved and they did the recommendation and that appears to have all been above board. The speed of it is certainly very interesting.
WILLIAMS: Matt, please remind us. Has he yet been called in to talk to Robert Mueller? Of course their careers intersected at least once in life.
APUZZO: Yes. We don`t know if he`s been in to -- he formerly testify, but as an FBI agent and as somebody who`s involved in the Russia investigation before it was the Mueller investigation, any notes that he had, anything that he wrote down, anything that would have corroborated FBI Director Comey`s observations, that would have belong to the FBI and Mueller would have had access to that. So whether or not he`s interviewed -- whether he`s interviewed and yet, I don`t know, but we do know he certainly has access to all of the work products.
WILLIAMS: Matt, without going near editorialization, which I know is not a danger for you, what else -- as we try to let you enjoy what`s left of a Friday night in your life after having written the story for the front page of "The New York Times." What else in your experience should we know about Andrew McCabe?
APUZZO: I`ve known him for a long time. I mean, he was a rising star of the agency -- I mean, at the bureau. He was very clear that he was being groomed for big things.
He`s a lawyer. He`s a Duke graduate. He was very well respected at the Justice Department and elsewhere in the Intelligence agency.
He had his friend and he had his detractors among the line agents in particular because he did rise so quickly and because he has that law degree. But he was also seen as a real -- maybe a new model for that number two position. Not a sort of traditional line agent, you know, personality. Somebody whose maybe a little bit more intellectual managerial than somebody whose, you know, lock them up cops and robbers kind of guy.
WILLIAMS: Yes. I heard him once described as a "G-Man" about circuit 2018, a modernized version. Do you concur with that?
APUZZO: Yes. I think that`s right. I mean, the FBI is not the FBI of pre-9/11. They`re not going after bank robbers. And this is a key complicated agency that is a big part of the intelligence infrastructure of the United States. And as a Deputy Attorney General, he was front and center at the heart of that.
WILLIAMS: Well, tonight it`s why we always tell folks to look for your byline. Matt Apuzzo, who, once again, is at the absolute very front of this crusting wave of news. If not a Friday night massacre, certainly a Friday night take down in Washington. Matt, thank you so very much for making time for us.
APUZZO: Thanks a lot, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Let`s go to our Former Fed on our panel first and that`s Joyce Vance. Joyce, tell folks perhaps how they should feel about this news.
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER UNITED STATES ATTORNEY: I think Matt makes a key assessment, which is that the speed of this process is very troubling. I`ve watched this process happened before when people have been disciplined and it`s never a process that moves at lightning speed. You never have someone interviewed by the decision-maker and then have a decision the next day. So, we know that we have a President who`s called repeatedly on Twitter for McCabe`s firing.
Earlier in this week in the White House press briefing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders also was characterizing McCabe as a bad guy. On the other hand, though we have career people in the Justice Department, people who makes these kinds of decisions, folks like Michael Hurwitz, who although he`s a political appointee, the Inspector General. He`s worked for both administrations, a straightforward kind of guy and the folks in the Office of Professional Responsibility. People in the Deputy Attorney General`s office who really look at these issues with the long view. Consistency in the department across a long period of time.
But what we have is a conflict of that professional process with this very political context. And there`s no reason that the Attorney General had to fire Andy McCabe tonight, on a Friday night at 10:00 at night. In fact, you know, this whole idea that this firing was done this late on a Friday night makes it look very rushed, very politicized.
It might have been wiser for the Attorney General to simply let the time clock run out to avoid making the Justice Department look like a place where the President can go to condemn his political opponents. It`s a deeply troubling development.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash, if you need any more proof that we`re in differing times, the story after we conclude this is a sitting President whose lawyers are trying to get $20 million out of a porn star. So, we`ll put that out as the background.
Before I show you this on the screen, think about the Christmas time that the McCabe family had around their tree and in their house, because on December 23rd, the President of the United States took to Twitter to say this about Andy McCabe. "How can FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, the man in charge, along with leakin` James Comey, of the phony Hillary Clinton investigation, including 33 thousand illegally deleted e-mails be given $700,000 for his wife`s campaign by Clinton Puppets during the investigation?"
Just for clarity, it was Terry McAuliffe related political action committee. Let`s go to the next frame which says, "FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. Ninety days to go?!!!"
Jeremy Bash, out if America, if a defendant gets a really bad dose of publicity, a talented lawyer will move for a change of venue. Get it out of there. Try it in a nearby community.
You can`t go anywhere in this country with a President who has openly attacking a civil servant on Twitter.
JEREMY BASH, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: That`s right Brian. And for you to believe that Andy McCabe`s firing was on the level, you have to believe that it is entirely coincidental that he was fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions 24 hours before he was eligible to retire after a 20-year career of distinction of honor with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And it is entirely coincidental that the two things are happening at the same time. And of course, nobody in America believes that.
It is clear as day that the President of the United States directed the Attorney General either implicitly or explicitly to fire Andy McCabe to undermined him as a witness in any upcoming proceeding in which McCabe could corroborate the James Comey`s testimony that the President of United States obstructs justice.
WILLIAMS: Danny Cevallos, of course, it`s McCabe and not Trump who knows and has worked with Comey. It`s McCabe and not Trump who knows and has worked with Mueller who also knows the quality of his work product. If you`re Mueller and the 16 or so co-counsels on Mueller`s team, how are you looking at this tonight?
DANNY CEVALLOS, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: There are a lot of implications from a firing like this. In every situation like this, you have to think about obstruction of justice, just off the bat. To what degree could you make a case that the President by firing people, by removing anybody that he perceives as adversarial?
WILLIAMS: How about trolling them publicly on Twitter?
CEVALLOS: Trolling them publicly, which also could infringe on their free association, their free speech. I mean, there are many potential problems. Every time the President attacks one of these officials on Twitter and then fires them what appears to be summarily and if nothing else, exceedingly quickly in a situation like this because we know that these investigations generally move slowly.
There may have been a good cause to terminate McCabe, but the speed at which it`s done alone raises the specter of doubt. Ultimately obstruction, even if it`s not a criminal action is always an impeachable offense. And you do not need an impeachable offense to be a crime at all. These are thing that special counsel is going to look at, especially with the shadow of obstruction hanging over all of this.
WILLIAMS: Geoff Bennett, let`s show our homework since you and I worked for the same news organization. We have a broadcast done and dusted. It was in and written.
Our lead story was this legal case petting the President`s lawyers against the porn star to the tune of $20 million. I had written something to say at the top of the evening like, we have made it through a Friday night with no further personnel changes. And, Geoff, here we are. Sir
GEOFF BENNETT, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And here we are. And I`ll tell you based on our conversations in the White House booth with White House officials they couldn`t even tell us for sure if anyone would be fired by the end of the day or who that person might be. But I`ll tell you, I was particularly struck by something in Andy McCabe`s statement where he mentioned the unrelenting assault that he was subjected to at the hands of the President.
You mentioned the tweet the President sent back in December where he said time`s running out for Andy McCabe to retire with full benefits. Joyce mentioned the fact that Sarah Sanders referred to McCabe as a bad actor during one of the White House press briefings this past week without any evidence.
And as we reported earlier, the President directly in private asked McCabe whom he voted for in the 2016 election. And in a separate instance, in fact, the day after the President fired James Comey he called McCabe to ask why Comey was allowed to fly back from Los Angeles, where he was, back to D.C. on an FBI plane. And when the President wasn`t satisfied with McCabe`s answer, he said, you know what? Ask your wife what it`s like to be a loser. And what he was referring to was the fact that McCabe`s wife ran and lost of a Virginia Senate seat.
She run as a Democrat and she got during the process of that some campaign contributions from then-Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is a friend of the Clintons. And the President often points to that as a fact suggesting that the FBI or McCabe is somehow biased in his role, although the facts don`t support the President`s theory in that McCabe has described himself to friend as a life-long Republican. Brian.
WILLIAMS: Joyce, same questions that I asked Danny. You know something about the dynamic in a building commandeered by Mueller and his co-counsel and his team and they`re investigators and how everyone signs in and out. They have been free of any leaks, watching this unfold on a Friday night, reading this statement from the normally testator or a proper McCabe. What are you thinking if you`re the special counsel?
VANCE: They`ll go about it in a very deliberate way. They`ll look at the Inspector General`s report. We haven`t seen that yet so we don`t know what`s in it. We don`t know how different that is from Andy McCabe`s version, but they`ll get that and they`ll know.
And then they`ll look again at what Andy McCabe says, his justification for his conduct and I suspect that they`ll make a sort of baseline decision as to whether they think the firing was warranted. But it`s important and so many peoples have not noted that even if the firing was justified, it`s this political context that will force the special counsel to contemplate whether this is more evidence of obstruction.
McCabe, of course was the person that James Comey famously came back to and shared his impression of his initial meetings with the President, with McCabe. So McCabe will be a key witness in support of Comey as the Mueller investigation moves forward. And if the President`s drumbeat the insistent Twitter and just this constant press barrage against McCabe is perceived by special counsel as an effort by the White House to marginalize a witnesses, to destroy a witness` credibility, then this, again, will be another act in this entire play of obstruction that we watched play out over the last few months.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash, last I knew, the Attorney General had recused himself something that was actually applauded in the legal community, had recused himself to the President driven of distraction by that decision. From all things dealing with Russia, this case, the matter of Mr. McCabe, not only bumps up against the subject of Russia, it kind of collides with that subject. So, is there anything big enough to supersede a recusal, even if you`re the boss?
BASH: Well, this is entirely in discretion of the Attorney General. I don`t think there`s anything to supersede it. I thought it was interesting that Andy McCabe`s statement recounting his career tonight open with the fact that he began his career investigating Russian-organized crime and Russian activities inside the United States.
So, it`s almost dangling a hint that this was very much connected to the Russian matter that the Attorney General should not have ruled on this matter or should not have ruled in the fashion that he ruled tonight. And, again, I think it`s just -- you have to believe in coincidences, Brian.
There`s used to be a show on T.V. that you and I watched called "That`s Incredible." You have to call the show "That`s Incredible" to believe that this is entirely a coincidence that it has nothing at all to do with the Russian investigation.
WILLIAMS: Danny, you were nodding your head as Jeremy spoke.
CEVALLOS: Absolutely. I think that -- I have a theory that that statement was probably drafted days, weeks ago because it was very well written to begin with.
CEVALLOS: Secondly, there are references -- very direct references to Russia and other things that are relevant today, even though they are how McCabe started out his career. I think those were no accident listing as his accomplishments and his career, Russia and other thing that we`re talking about now.
WILLIAMS: Everything we covered on this broadcast night in and night out has to be considered against a backdrop of politics and against a backdrop of the contemporary history we are making and witnessing. There is one guy we`ve wanted to talk to tonight since this word broke and that`s Bill Kristol, a Veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, editor-at-large of "The Weekly Standard."
Bill, how do you feel about your country and this administration after this news tonight, say, nothing of the story we`ve yet to get to?
BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Hi, Brian. Well, not great. But I`ve been trying to think this has been a very good discussion, I think. Let`s assume Sessions hasn`t gone ahead and fired McCabe, despite apparently an Inspector General`s report claim that he had lack candor and an Office of Professional Responsibility`s recommendation that he`d be fired, which is pretty weighty.
I believe Trump would have fired Sessions and he would have said, look at this, the career people of the FBI and DOJ says McCabe should be fired, I was right all along. Sessions has been totally captured by the building, by the deep state. I`m going to make prove it or someone like that, the Attorney General, and then he goes ahead and fires Mueller.
I really wonder what Sessions felt, and I`m not in the business of making excuses for Sessions. I have a lot of issues in what Sessions have done as Attorney General before. But it is at least possible for me that Sessions felt he was doing what he had to do to prevent himself from being fired and Mueller from being fired that he felt with the career officials recommending the firing.
It may be unfair and unjust to Andrew McCabe. This will be litigated and - - maybe literally litigated and argued out in the court of public opinion in the next days and weeks. So we`ll see eventually the report and all of that.
But I don`t think it`s impossible that Sessions thoughts he was protecting not just himself, but Mueller at this point. And I`m very struck to one other thing in the reporting, it was yesterday, I think on Kelly`s waves today, time flies in the Trump administration. You know, Kelly`s off the record session with reporters who are seeing got on the record or some of reporting about it, it was apparently came out that Kelly has called Pruitt, the EPA head, and tell him to stop campaigning for Session`s job. Hard to believe Sessions did this today without talking to Kelly at least, and the Chief of staff and the White House.
I wonder if Kelly and Sessions, and, again, I`m not defending either of them, are basically trying to work together to prevent Trump from firing Mueller. Because otherwise, I agree, the Friday night at 10:00 p.m. looks ridiculous. Unless Sessions really felt that this was a moment of crises, and even if he felt it, I don`t know what felt about McCabe, whether it`s unfair and ungenerous to McCabe or whatever, that he had to do this to protect himself and to protect Mueller.
All of that said, I don`t know if what I said, I`m being generous here to Sessions and it`s generous but also worrisome in the sense that it makes it clear, if I`m right. If I`m wrong, you know, Trump is politicizing justice and Sessions is carrying out Trump`s orders. If I`m right, Sessions himself and Kelly are worried that Trump desperately wants to fire Mueller and they`re doing their best to prevent that or slow that down.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash and the Joyce, in order, your reaction that theory that because we know there are good hearted people and patriots working in government, and I can second what Bill Kristol says, knowing my friend, Bill, he`s not a paid spokesman of Jeff Sessions, Lord knows. But that cooler heads might have thought this was a kind of reverse bank shots, a way of taking a bullet for better thing to happen in the country?
BASH: No, that`s totally unethical. That`s unethical for an Attorney General to fire someone who served with distinction over the course of their career because they wanted to protect themselves or they want to protect and insulate the President from doing so. That would begin politically damaging. That`s improper.
WILLIAMS: All right, Joyce?
VANCE: You know, I agree here with Jeremy very strongly. The attorney general is not supposed to decide that situation here is so unusual, so out of bound, that he has to break the rules somehow to head off danger. That`s really a perilous road to go down.
And so, although, I think Bill`s comments is an interesting one and it may well be a calculus that Sessions is engaged in, if he did I think it was the wrong one. You follow the rules. You support the institution.
You fire someone if it`s appropriate. You don`t fire them if it`s not appropriate. And here with the President calling for a politically motivated firing, the support for the institution would have been to let clock run out and go ahead and let McCabe retire on Sunday afternoon.
WILLIAMS: Fascinating. Geoff Bennett, we note the President`s public schedule is out for the weekend. He is in Washington, he`s not in Florida. There`s nothing on his publicly posted schedule.
You`ve been at this a long time in your life of course, reporting for MPR before NBC News. What does it mean to you?
BENNETT: What it means is that we can expect the President to be up early tomorrow morning on Twitter, giving us realtime peak in to what`s on his mind, probably a reflection of what he`s seeing on cable news tomorrow morning. That`s often what happens when the President spend time over the weekend when he`s not in Mar-a-Lago hold up at the White House.
I will also tell you based on my conversations with diehard Trump supporters that the developments tonight will only embolden them as they take aim at their next target who happens to be the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who was overseeing the entire special counsel Russia investigation.
Remember that GOP memo that was released by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee detailed the purported abuses of in the FISA warrant process, which could give the President a pretext if he so choses to fire Rosenstein. So that`s one of the thing I`m looking for tomorrow morning.
WILLIAMS: And, Bill Kristol, back to you for a moment. If tonight`s story was reporting, say, the dismissal of Rosenstein, the dismissal of Mueller, question we all get asked a lot that you may have some wisdom on. Do you trust that there is a common core in both Houses of Congress, of commonsense Republicans and Democrats who would do something, switch Mueller the next day to a special prosecutor statute, continue to work without dropping a stitch? Would they save the day in terms of the investigation that a lot of people have said will speak to the future of our democracy?
KRISTOL: I hope so, but I can`t be confident based on their performance so far. I would just say I agree with Jeremy and Joyce that Sessions may have been wrong to calculate if he calculated as I think he might have, I`m not saying he did, might have. But I`m just saying that that might actually have been what he was thinking. But that`s what I -- my scenario was not a happy one because it means that Sessions and Kelly are sitting there thinking that Trump is looking for an excuse and looking for a very proximate excuse to fire Rosenstein, presumably Sessions, Rosenstein and Mueller.
I do think this is a moment for Republicans on the Hill to say, if they want to say, you know, this seems like they`re have time presumably on internal Justice from deliberations, reports they haven`t seen from the Inspector General and so forth. But this will be a very good time to say, OK, whatever Attorney General Sessions did with McCabe we need to let this investigation go forward. What McCabe has been fired presumably is apparently a lack of candor about something entirely irrelevant to this investigation. That has nothing to do with the investigation of Hillary Clinton from October 2016.
So, I think this is a moment for Republicans on the Hill and for others to press Republicans on the Hill to say the Mueller investigation needs to be allowed to go forward what just happened. It`s an Internal Justice Department matter. It may be unfair, it may be unfair, it may be unseemly, it may be wrong. But in any case Mueller has to -- this is the moment people need to step up and say that Mueller has to be protected.
WILLIAMS: For folks who have not gone near their devices for the last 40 minutes it may be hot to the touch when you get to it because as you can imagine social media is also will blowing up. I`m going to ask all our guests to stay in place while we widen this conversation just for a brief moment. I`m bringing in another member and that`s Catherine Lucey, White House Reporter for "The Associated Press."
Catherine, as I said one of things I wrote to say on this broadcast tonight -- earlier tonight in a far simpler time, was that the West Wing had escaped a Friday evening, and by midnight Eastern perhaps had escaped the week without another departure. There have been several. They have shaken up for a lot of what passes for the veterans. We have been there since day one.
What can you say about the stress, the chaos, the lack of cohesion and the staff, kind of this ghoulish game going on wondering who`s going to be next?
CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": Well, the staff is anxious. The White House tried to push back on stories today that more departures were coming. Obviously, there was a lot of speculation that there will be, you know, firings or exits in some fashion today. And obviously, we didn`t see that in the West Wing during the day.
But what I hear from people inside is that, you know, people are looking over their shoulders. It`s certainly sort of Shakespearian as people wonder who`s going to be out of there next. I know a younger staffer, some of the more junior staffers were really rattled this week by the president`s personal assistant, you know, being removed from his job, so people at different levels, you know, seem to always be, you know, sometimes joking of sort of -- in a cob way about, you know, what -- whose going next.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Yes. I`ve had a good fortune to know three people in adult life who`ve had that job as personal aide to the president. It`s gender specific because so far, they have all been man. But it loosely referred to as the body man.
They get to know everyone on the staff. Few people get to know the president better or spend more intimate time. It`s actually been gender specific because to put it in plain English, they sometime have to follow the boss into the restroom, especially in a holding area on the road to keep talking or showing documents, or getting something signed or hand them a phone.
So to see that person, who is the kind of day-to-day go between for all members of the staff as was Rob Porter in a similar job, that must shake a lot of people to the core.
LUCEY: Yes. People are rattled. And you`re absolutely right, that`s a person who is with the president a lot, can read the president`s mood, you know, really often access of a conduit, can let people know, is this a good, is this a bad time to come in. And so -- and to see that person who is seem well liked by staff, go, has let a lot of people feeling very shaky.
WILLIAMS: The great Catherine Lucey of the AP, thanks so much for making time on your Friday night to join our widening conversation.
Here`s what`s going to happen. It`s 31 minutes after the hour. We`re going to fit in our fist break of this broadcast tonight. When we come back as we`ve been calling it our other lead story as attorneys for the president of the United States are trying to change a jurisdiction and get $20 million out of a porn star. We`ll continue right after this.
WILLIAMS: We are back and let`s reset our conversation and onto what is our second lead story this evening. Also a legal matter, also surrounding this president and the people around him, members of President Trump`s legal team have now publicly engaged in a big way in what is at heart, a tawdry case.
They have now chosen to fight hard to keep the porn star, Stormy Daniels silent over the intimate relationship she has alleged to have had with Donald Trump before he was president. The White House has denied that.
Trump`s lawyer, Michael Cohen, has accused Daniels of violating a non- disclosure agreement 20 separate times. He`s claiming the right to seek $20 million in damages from Stormy Daniels as a result.
Tonight, Stormy Daniels` attorney, Michael Avenatti, wrote on Twitter the following, "The fact that a sitting attorney is pursuing $20 million in bogus damages against a private citizen who is only trying to tell the public what really happened is remarkable, likely unprecedented in our history. We are not going away and we will not be intimidated. How can President Trump seek $20 million in damages against my client based on an agreement that he and Mr. Cohen claim Mr. Trump was never a party to, and knew nothing about?"
As we`ve reported, Daniels is suing to invalidate that NDA, the nondisclosure agreement, over an alleged relationship with the president. She contends that relationship, that settlement is valid because Donald Trump never signed the agreement
The White House -- she`s claimed that it`s invalid, forgive me, thank you for the correction to our control room, because Donald Trump`s signature never appeared on it. The White House has repeatedly denied that Trump had a relationship with Stormy Daniels. Tonight`s developments come after an extremely busy 48 hours in this sage.
Among other things, this week we learned that her "60 Minutes" interview is now slated to air on Sunday, March 25th. And just this morning, her attorney made some explosive new charges that she was threatened with physical harm to keep silent about her alleged relationship with Donald Trump.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKA BRZEZINSKI, MORNING JOE HOST: asked lawyer Michael Avenatti: Was she threatened in any way?
MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIELS` ATTORNEY: Yes.
BRZEZINSKI: Was she threatened physical harm?
BRZEZINSKI: What do you mean by that? Was her life threatened?
AVENATTI: Again, I`m not going to answer that. People have to tune in to 60 Minutes on March 25th.
WILLIE GEIST, MORNING JOE HOST: Can you tell us whether it came from the president?
AVENATTI: I`m not going to answer that.
GEIST: Will you defy that the president of United States threatened you client?
AVENATTI: I will not confirm or deny it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The new allegations were a topic in today`s White House press briefing as you might imagine with Philip Rucker of the Washington Post leading things off with this question.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PHILIP RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: The attorney for the porn star known as Stormy Daniels said this morning on television, telling in an interview that she was physically threatened to stay silent about he affair with President Trump. I`m wondering if you`ve talked to the president about that. If he knows who might have threatened her and more generally, if there`s any concerns about women accusers being threatened in that way?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Obviously, we take the safety and security of any person seriously. Certainly would condemn anyone threatening any individual but I have no knowledge of that situation and would refer you to the president`s outside personal attorneys.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: All right. So our panelists remain with us, Geoff Bennett, Danny Cevallos, Joyce Vance and Jeremy Bash, my belated thanks to Bill Crystal for joining our conversation at the top of our broadcast tonight and having an important and opinion there.
Danny, home field advantage, has its sparks and I`m going to begin with here in New York. I`ve used the expression change of venue in a different context at the top of the broadcast. In a way this is a form of that, I guess, but just happened today? Why are they trying to move the court jurisdiction where this is going to be heard?
DANNY CEVALLOS, NBC NEWS LEGAL ANALYST: This is a classic defense maneuver. I`ve removed cases, attorneys who have had any practice in federal court on the defense side have likely removed cases. What it is, it`s a federal law that allows were defenses are from different states and you have enough dollar amount in controversy. That`s why there was so many millions alleged in this document because they have to satisfy those standards.
But if you have enough money involved and the people are from different states, a defendant can drag a case unilaterally out of state court and up to federal court. It`s automatic.
This is not a motion. This is not a request. Once a defendant files this notice of removal, the case is now in federal court and it`s incumbent upon the plaintiff to get it back down to state court, which is not an easy thing to do.
Why do defendants do this? Strategy, home field advantage, take the plaintiff out of their choice of courthouse and bring them up to federal court. Maybe they don`t spend a lot of time there. Or, there may be some chief advantage to federal procedure that makes the case better for the defendants in federal court. But sometimes, Brian, it`s as simple as the defendant sticking it to the plaintiff`s attorney and throwing them off their game.
WILLIAMS: Joyce Vance, we were led to believe that Michael Cohen from his home -- home loan line of credit paid Stormy Daniels that money. There is a fictional name that is said to represent the president in court documents. But does this now out Donald Trump as being a participant in this case? There`s no coming back from this?
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: There are now court papers where Donald Trump has entered the fray here and has also been identified by the alias name that`s used in the nondisclosure agreement for him. So, it seems that for better or worse he`s bought this litigation and bought the Storm Daniels nondisclosure agreement.
WILLIAMS: Joyce, I heard some legal experts tonight saying this is probably a crafty move on the part of Mr. Cohen et al, because this may, what, force this into arbitration and keep it from ever coming out into open court?
VANCE: That`s their real strategy here. The way Ms. Daniels` lawyer filed this case in state court was claiming that the nondisclosure agreement wasn`t valid. And he`s asking the state court in essence to declare that it`s invalid and they`re not bond by its arbitration proceedings.
The president on the other side and, of course, his lawyer, Mr. Cohen, they like for this to occur outside of the public eye. And the way that they get there is by successfully proving that the nondisclosure agreement is valid. That it`s mandatory arbitration procedure is valid. So, to the extent that Ms. Daniels want to oppose the nondisclosure agreement in any way, her only form would be this private arbitration that occurs, not like our court`s do in the public`s view but rather sort of the need this opaque veil where people won`t know what goes on in the arbitration proceeding.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash, what do you make of this development tonight?
JEREMY BASH, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, I think we`re seeing probably one aspect of this, which is the negative inducement of threat of a major lawsuit against the adult film actress. But I think there may be something else going on that we`re not seeing, which is possibly an attempt to pay her off to settle the case, actually to give her and try to give her millions of dollars and hope that she actually ask "60 Minutes" to take down the interview and withdraw these allegations against the president.
So I wouldn`t be surprise and nobody should be surprised if we wake up tomorrow morning and find that she has gone away, she`s been paid off and told to keep her mouth shut.
WILLIAMS: Danny, I did hear that theory proffered tonight. This could mean tat Trump team is aware that she brought some things with her to the "60 Minutes" interview. Already wrapped on tape, they are now editing the tape and seeing just what it is they have, that people have become aware of how much evidence there is in this case.
CEVALLOS: They have implied that there is some very real concrete evidence. And just reading the tenure of Daniels` attorney on air, when you see him on T.V., he seems confident that he has the facts on his side, and he is pounding the facts.
The problem is, for them, that the law may be on the Trump side, there`s some pretty substantial law favoring in both federal and state court, arbitration clauses. When the party has agreed to arbitrate, federal courts and state courts are like, will send those cases right back down to arbitration. But in a case like this, Trump`s loss may not just be in court, it may be if this information reaches the light of day. You simply cannot unring that bell.
WILLIAMS: Geoff, we were saying a few months ago that when the White House was talking about arbitration that brought the story into the White House. Well, nothing brings the story into the White House quite like this story tonight. So are they just going to have to continue to try to deflect on this?
GEOFF BENNETT, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It appears that will be the case, Brian, but here`s the thing. Throughout his many scandals, the president has used the media masterfully. He`s developed a megaphone that`s bigger than most, to use as a cordial and if effectively beat his opponents into silence. But here you have Stormy Daniels, who dare I say as a consequence of her profession, cannot be shamed into silence, and instead of shying away from the media attention, it`s clear that she and her attorney are really relishing it.
So as the White House continues to say over and over again, that there was no relationship between Stephanie Clifford, that`s her real name, and President Trump and then the president wasn`t aware of this $130,000 payment. They`re dealing with this story that is salacious, yes, but could be legally significant and that there could be campaign finance issues at play here, if this payment is deemed to be in kind contribution to the Trump campaign.
Remember, federal law only allows a person to directly contribute $20,000 to a presidential campaign and this payment was never reported to the Federal Election Commission, Brian.
WILLIAMS: So, Jeremy, that kind of nicely dovetails into what I wanted to know from you. What if anything, is Robert Mueller`s interest in the case of the sitting president, the $20 million and the porn star?
BASH: I`m not sure there`s a direct connection. I think Mueller`s going to stay focused on the issue in the 2016 campaign and potential meddling. It`s possible, if there`s a federal election violation that he may investigate. It`s also possible that this could come up in his investigation into Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization`s counsel, someone who has kind of been the back man for Donald Trump, someone who is paid allegedly out of personal funds, moved money around for the president, negotiated land deals and skyscraper deals for the president in Moscow. And, generally knows about more than about anybody else about Trump`s financial and personal issues.
WILLIAMS: Our great thanks to the panel for helping us navigate through both of topics that have served as our lead story tonight.
Another break for us, when we come back we`re going to look at the explosive comments today by a man who at the time of his retirement was the youngest and most heavily decorated four-star general in the history of the U.S. Army. It`s what he has said about this particular president and what makes him that way that has him in the news tonight.
WILLIAMS: We`re back again and this next part is important as well. A wild week of Russia headlines is prompting an uncharacteristic response from someone you will no doubt recognize from our on-air family of contributors. Today, retired four-star U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, a decorated combat veteran of Vietnam wrote, a former battlefield commander in the Persian Gulf wrote this on Twitter.
"Reluctantly, I have concluded that President Trump is a serious threat to U.S. national security. He is refusing to protect vital U.S. interests from active Russian attacks. It is apparent that he is, for some unknown reason, under the sway of Mr. Putin."
This deserves a word here about Barry McCaffrey. At his retirement, as we said, he was the youngest and most heavily decorated four-star general in the history of the U.S. Army. Four combat tours, a bronze star, three purple hearts, multiple combat wounds, two silver stars, two distinguished service crosses, graduates of Phillips Academy and West Point. He`s the former commander in chief of Southern Command. He`s the former U.S. drug czar.
Just this week, Great Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats over that nerve agent attack on British soil, prompting the U.K.`s closest allies to formally condemn the Kremlin. The White House announced it would finally impose sanctions on Russian at the same time making the startling admission that Russian cyberattacks threatened American U.S. nuclear power plants. And we learned that Robert Mueller has subpoenaed documents from the Trump Organization.
The president has said little about any of these developments as he heads into the weekend, as we mentioned, with no public events scheduled.
With us again tonight, Toluse Olorunnipa, White House Correspondent for Bloomberg, Jeremy Bash has agreed to stick for just a bit, and joining our conversation, Pulitzer Prize winning presidential historian and author Jon Meacham.
Toluse, let`s start with you. The view point of the White House, it was said on this broadcast and elsewhere the U.S. was nudged into kind of appropriate behavior, behaving as we used to long ago, two years ago where it concerned Russia.
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG: Yes. If you look at all of the various things that both President Putin and the government of Russia have done, attacking the U.S. meddling in our elections, meddling in our infrastructure, and our power plans and our electrical grid, and also attacking allegedly one of our closest allies with the nerve agent attack in Britain. And we have not heard very much from the president in terms of a response.
We finally did see some sanctions this week, but even those were seen as a sort of just a very minor response given all of the various things that Russia has done and both sides of the aisle, both Republicans and Democrats, are calling for the president and for the administration to do more, to really step up to Russia.
We`ve listened to a president who is willing to talk tough against our enemies and talk tough against some of our allies. But when it comes to Putin, there seems to be this blind spot where he does not want to say anything negative about the president of Russia or about the government of Russia saying he wants to get along with them, saying that he thinks he can make deals with Russia. But it`s clear whatever tactics he`s using to try to get Russia to act in the best interests of the United States have not worked so far and it`s clear that it`s starting to wear patience then of both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.
WILLIAMS: Toluse, thank you. And, Jeremy, over to you, given your time spent in the structure of the U.S. defense community. If you don`t know Barry McCaffrey personally, talk about him reputationally and what would have led a man with as many decorations on his chest, as many administrations as he has worked for to say what he did?
BASH: And on this program. Brian, I`ve disagree with him on some analytical points. But what one to respect, one has to admire, one has to honor his dedication to country, his patriotism and his spot-on analysis of what`s threatening American national security and his deep concern that the Russian federation has unexplained leverage over the president of the United States and that is compromising the president`s ability to defend our country against Russian attacks, and to stand side by side with a critical ally when Russia attacks that ally. We have to pay heed to General McCaffrey`s warning tonight.
WILLIAMS: Jon Meacham, in earlier times, like the 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time, you and I have basically the back half of the broadcast tonight, to have a thoughtful conversation about what it is we just witness. We`ll have to put that off till 2019.
But for now, what have we just witnessed today in this administration and how it differs from any know norms?
JON MEACHAM, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING AUTHOR & HISTORIAN: Well, it does differ from any known norm. And on General McCaffrey`s point, I`m reminded there is something that saying always associated with Jim Baker, the former Secretary of State, has said, "If it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and swims like it duck, you know, it might just be a duck." And so, at a certain point, common sense kicks in about the president and his relationship with Putin.
The one thing that I think links all of these stories, Russia, Director McCabe, the Stormy Daniels business is what the Greeks taught is a long time ago, character is destiny. And as Michelle Obama said really brilliantly in 2016, the presidency doesn`t change who you are, it reveals who you are.
And the one thing that links all of these stories is that, we have a president who is entirely running things on what is best for him and what he thinks will get him through a particular moment. He has raised brazenness to a governing philosophy, and that`s the world we`re living in.
WILLIAMS: Am I right to say that if not a Friday night massacre, what we`ve seen with Mr. McCabe is most certainly at minimum a Friday night takedown?
MEACHAM: Absolutely. And it`s going to raise a huge amount of concerns about rule of law. This is why presidents don`t get into these things. They`re not supposed to get into these things. You know, the Justice Department is like all institutions. It`s a human institution. It`s got its failings.
But, you know, it really began its modern life as an arm of the federal government to fight the Ku Klux Klan during reconstruction. It`s an institution that was created to enforce law and to try to stay as removed from politics as possible. And what the president`s done, again, because to him, this is all paint ball, it`s all media paint ball, then he is just decided that this is a useful target for him today.
And I must say, it will stun me, and whenever he make predictions at this point, we always have to remember that Donald Trump is president, so what the hell do any of us know. But it will really surprise me of some evening, we are not seating here talking about some strike against Bob Mueller.
WILLIAMS: And in 30 seconds of brilliance, Steve Schmidt`s favorite word is rigor. And he keep saying as a lover of words, I know you concur at some point, he keep saying that the lack of rigor in public life right now from this administration is appalling to him.
MEACHAM: Well, it`s mad max. I mean, we`re just -- it`s not real, except it is. Another way of putting it is, Washington seemed to be acting like a reality show. It didn`t seem to be taking the concerns of the people as seriously as it should. And so the right number of voters in the right number of states and Electoral College system, sent a reality TV star there.
But be careful what you wish for. If anyone who was paying attention during 2016 should not be surprised about what`s happening right now. That doesn`t mean it`s acceptable. It means we have to stay as united as possible and try to insist on those norms against all odds.
WILLIAMS: We`re in your debt, Jon. Toluse Olorunnipa, Jeremy Bash, Jon Meacham, gentlemen, thank you so much. This was an on-the-fly hour of television as we`re reacting to these dual breaking news stories and then some. And that is our broadcast on a Friday night.
And to conclude this week, as always, thank you so very much for being here with us. Have a good weekend and good night 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