Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: March 27, 2018 Guest: Jill Colvin, Joyce Vance, Philip Rucker; Bob Bauer
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, a President hiding in plain site, avoiding comment and being seen as yet another news cycles consumed by Stormy Daniels. We`ve got the latest reporting tonight from the West Wing.
Plus, what the White House says about all those lawyers who don`t want this President for a client. All of it as another lawyer, Robert Mueller, remains hard at work.
And the breaking news tonight from Asia, it`s been confirmed that was Kim Jong-un in his secret armored train traveling to China to meet with President Xi Jinping weeks before the North Korean leader is set to meet with the President of the United States, as the "11th Hour" gets underway.
Well, good evening once again from our NBC News Headquarters here in a rainy New York City. Day 432 of the Trump administration.
And President Trump remains uncharacteristically silent over alleged affairs with a porn star and Playboy Magazine model. It has been over 48 hours now since 22 million people, give or take, watch Stormy Daniels detailed her alleged intimate encounter with Trump on "60 Minutes." And for a President who normally lacks steely message discipline he is exhibiting steely message discipline through the White House and officially from the Briefing Room podium. He has denied affairs with both Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal.
Today, Sarah Huckabee Sanders again said President Trump denies Stormy Daniels allegations and pointed reporters to the President`s outside counsel. But she was also asked about the President not punching back on this issue.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you sat down with the President to talk about Stormy Daniels? What has he told you that he wants us to know about on this topic?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, PRESS SECRETARY: As I just said, and as we`ve addressed on a number of times, the President has denied these allegations, and I don`t have anything else further to add on that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You also called him a counter puncher many times. Why has he not punched back on this one?
SANDERS: Look, the President, I didn`t say he punches back on every single topic. If he did, he would probably be addressing a lot of the stories that most of you write every single minute in every day. He also has a country to run. And he`s doing to a great job with that.
Sometimes he chooses to specifically engage and punch back and sometimes he doesn`t.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Let`s remember here for just a moment, this is a President who has gone after countless people. He gave derisive nicknames to his primary opponents, he went after Pope Francis and routinely trolls his own attorney general.
"The New York Times" reports Trump`s advisers are relieved with his silence over Stormy Daniels, but "Inside the White House, Mr. Trump is eager to defend himself against allegations that he insists are false, those close to him say. And he is growing increasingly frustrated with breathless wall-to-wall news media coverage of the salacious details from the two women."
Stormy Daniels` attorney, Michael Avenatti, is doing all he can to keep his client front and center and in the headlines. Tonight, Avenatti said that eight more women have now come forward with stories similar to Stormy Daniels. But that he could not vouch for their accounts until they have been investigated.
Earlier this evening, and on this very network, Chris Hayes asked him why Trump is remaining silent on Stormy Daniels allegations.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL AVENATTI, STORMY DANIEL`S ATTORNEY: I guess there`s two theories, one, maybe we`re not punching hard enough. Maybe we`re not being aggressive enough. And that`s why he`s not counter punching. So, we`re going to examine that tonight.
CHRIS HAYES, "ALL IN WITH CHRIS HAYES" HOST: Do you judge yourself harshly for that, if that`s true?
AVENATTI: Yes. I mean, I guess we`ve been pretty weak in our approach over the last three weeks and we`re going to have to reexamine how we`re going to approach this thing. So, that`s one theory. And we`re going to go to work on that tonight.
And then the second theory, and I actually think this is the theory that holds, he knows it`s true, Chris. And, you know, he wants deniability. It`s the same reason why he didn`t sign the agreement, so he could later claim he didn`t know anything about it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Catherine Lucey and Jonathan Lemire of "The Associated Press" write today that the President`s opponents are taking a page right out of his own playbook. "With suggestive statements, cryptic tweets, provocative lawsuits and must-see television interviews, Trump`s adversaries are using some of his own tactics to grab and keep the spotlight. At the moment, the most visible is Daniels, who received a $130,000 payment to stay silent about an alleged affair with Trump and his now seeking to invalidate a non- disclosure agreement. She and her attorney, Michael Avenatti, have teased out details of her relationship with Trump for weeks, with Avenatti giving explosive interviews almost daily and Daniels taunting the President on social media."
Michael Cohen has said the payment came from his own personal account, a line of credit and not the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization. But Avenatti provided another tease for viewers tonight saying there is much more to come.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AVENATTI: The initial interview was about two hours. And I think the total time for her on the "60 Minutes" piece was probably 16, 17, 18 minutes. So there`s a lot of information. There`s left and were coming. There`s a lot of details, there`s a lot of embarrassing information that has yet to come out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: As Avenatti keeps up his media tour, we should note, President Trump`s last public on camera event was last Friday. Germane to this discussion we`re about to have, let`s turn to our lead-off panel for a Tuesday night, Jill Colvin is back with us, White House Reporter for "The Associated Press." Philip Rucker back with us, White House Bureau Chief for "The Washington Post." Also returning, Former U.S. Attorney, Joyce Vance who spent 25 years as a Federal Prosecutor.
Jill, I`d like to begin with you. There`s a term of art at the White House, something called the in-town travel pool. And it means you have the glory and honor of riding many vehicles behind the President to wherever they are going for the evening tonight.
I understand, he went to a donor`s home in Virginia for a closed media event. But you`re among the few who saw him at least out of the vehicle and walking, correct?
JILL COLVIN, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: That`s right. I mean, this is the only appearance that we`ve seen at all from the President`s last day appearance. I mean, a photographer with a very long lens manage to capture an image of him with an umbrella, walking between the White House and his limousine to travel to this event with donors out in the McLean, Virginia.
The President has had no events on his public schedule that have been accessible to reporters. We haven`t been able to ask him questions. We couldn`t yesterday, today.
It looks like the public schedule tomorrow has no events now. And this is very unusual for the President obviously. He`s someone who`s typically interacts a lot with reporters, and we`ve also seen him completely silent on this topic on Twitter.
You know, it`s really interesting because usually Trump`s advisers are basically begging him to please stop tweeting about issues, the Russia investigation being the first and foremost saying you`re going to make things worse by tweeting. Here, the President is actually following their advice. And we know that the Stormy issue is something that is bothering him increasingly personally.
You know, he you turn on any television station, it`s wall-to-wall Stormy except when he`s watching "Fox and Friends" in the morning. We know that he`s been telling friends, talking about it, and concerned about it. Nonetheless, he`s decided to stay quiet. You know, this is something where he has felt so far that if engages, it might actually continue to make this percolate. But I mean, at this point, even though he`s not engaging it`s not going away.
WILLIAMS: So, Joyce, you`re the former Fed here, unless Phil has a past I`m not aware of. So, your first rodeo this is not. You shared with our producers a theory, and we want to label it as such, a theory you have as to what is keeping the President so uncharacteristically silent and disciplined on this topic?
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: He really has been silent here, he`s been almost as sphinx-like as Robert Mueller, and that`s not behavior we`re used to seeing from this President. He has had some prior experiences, recently in January that may be helping him to take his lawyer`s advice to remain silent in this case.
In January, a federal judge in California issued a nationwide injunction, telling Trump that he couldn`t bring about an end to the DACA program involving immigrant children as he had planned to. And one of the primary pieces of evidence that the judge used was Trump`s own tweets. So this process that he`s been using, where he`s almost giving a public nationwide deposition on Twitter, telling us about his internal thought processes, really came back in a very negative way to impact the DACA case.
Perhaps he`s figured out here that having public statements could harm an ultimate position in litigation with Stormy Daniels, whether that`s in court or in some form of adjudication that`s outside of the public eye. In addition there, Brian, it`s got to be awfully difficult for the President to counter punch with a wife and family at home. And those sorts of family sensitivities may have also given him the impetus here to remain quiet.
WILLIAMS: Philip, on a broadcast you were frequently a guest on and a broadcast I never miss here at 4:00 every afternoon, Nicolle Wallace today did her broadcast in front of a massive graphic that our graphics department put together. The theme of which was disparagement, all of the names and organizations that Trump has disparaged on social media. To make this point with a sledgehammer that the discipline we are seeing is beyond rare. And I`m assuming you concur.
PHILIP RUCKER, WITH HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, "THE WASHINGTON POST": That`s exactly right. And there are really only a few people not on that wall on Nicolle`s show today, and the other one is Vladimir Putin.
You know, President Trump counter punches against almost every side and perceive attack and grievance that he has but he`s not doing so here on Stormy. That doesn`t mean that he`s not throwing his punches in private. The public Trump is very different than the private Trump as Jill was getting to a little earlier.
The President has been fuming to some of his friends and advisers about the Story Daniels situation. He`s been insisting that the allegations are untrue. He`s even been telling some people in the White House that Stormy Daniels is not his type, that she`s not the kind of woman that he`s attracted to.
It`s also worth pointing out that he has sent now two days in row his spokesperson at the White House. Yesterday, it was Raj Shah, the Deputy Press Secretary. Today, it was Sarah Sanders, the Press Secretary, to deny the accusations, to deny what Stormy Daniels had alleged in that "60 Minutes" interview. And they did it two days in a row despite the fact that privately, you know, top White House officials they view Stormy Daniels as relatively credible and they view this news story as a serious one, and one that could potentially have damage for President Trump.
WILLIAMS: Say nothing in the fact that average of two-thirds of our fellow citizens are telling pollsters they believe the woman`s stories in this case.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Jill, this is a serious question asked at least without snort, how did the Trump agenda proceed today? How did it advance, and what are the plans to advance the Trump agenda tomorrow?
COLVIN: I believe that today the plan was to reemphasize infrastructure week. I think that that was something that Sarah released about that at some point this morning that you can tell, I can`t really remember all that well about.
Look, this is an administration that is constantly derailed by whatever the news bubbles up. That said, we had an important developments today on North Korea, with confirmation that Kim Jong-un was indeed in China. That kind of sets of stage now, we`ve had this first historic trip. Kim Jong-un has first kind of state visit now, which really lays the groundwork for negotiations with the Trump administration about where and when their meeting might take place.
You`ve got them moving forward announcing additional sanctions. There are so many different issues that are happening here on the backdrop of still this enormous staff churn in the White House with McMaster`s replacement, John Bolton kind of making the rounds, trying to introduce his self to people. Assuring folks that, you know, things aren`t necessarily going to be changing.
And so, there`s still a country. I mean not to quote Sarah Sanders here, but there is still a country that needs to be run.
WILLIAMS: Joyce, another question about the law. Tell us about what you imagine to be the pressure on the existing legal team. There`s no other way of saying it, they`re fighting a war now on two fronts.
VANCE: They are. They`re fighting multiple battles. They`re fighting both the Stormy Daniels battle and the Trump-Russia investigation battle.
And to make matters worse, I mean, in no way to denigrate Jay Sekulow, who`s a fine constitutional lawyer, but he`s essentially taking on a criminal probe on his own and it`s a lot like sending a heart surgeon in to do brain surgery. That`s something that you wouldn`t do in medicine. And the same thing holds true in the law.
Trump really needs, but has been unable to attract a top tier criminal defense lawyer. We heard earlier this week that he was talking with former solicitor, General Ted Olson, that would have been the type of addition to his team that he needs. With Olson not just finding a way to bow out due to conflicts but also denigrating the level of confusion and dysfunction in the White House. It seems to be really in question, whether the President will be able to attract the type of lawyer that he needs to bring some semblance of order to his legal processes.
WILLIAMS: Phil, I know neither you nor I is in charge of this kind of thing, but where would it originate in the White House, a plan to send the President to the Washington subway system, to any number of interstate highways, an hour`s drive or helicopter flight from the White House? You name the big ticket item in this country. And it`s suffering/dilapidated in need of repair or replacement.
If they want to do an infrastructure event, they merely need to put a pin on the map and they can find one. Who shop with that originated and why isn`t that kind of thing, the normalcy, the daily grind of the presidency as sales job, why isn`t that happening?
RUCKER: Yes, it`s a great question, Brian. They want to promote this infrastructure plan, Trump cares deeply about but he`s really done very little publicly to use his bully pulpit to advance that agenda. You know, the responsibility for that would fall on a number of different offices within the White House. One of them would be the Communications Department, which in addition to putting out sort of the hour-to-hour media grassfires.
They`re supposed to be in charge of long-term planning. Planning a message, planing events, trying to figure out how to advance and spin a story if it were, but they have just been become so bogged down in managing these crises from Russia to Stormy Daniels to the personnel chaos inside the White House. That it doesn`t appear that those plans have been made.
WILLIAMS: Our thanks on a Tuesday night to Jill Colvin, to Philip Rucker, to Joyce Vance. We really appreciate your role in getting our conversation started here this evening.
Coming up for us, as Joyce noted, the problem the President seems to be having finding a lawyer who is willing to take the case, take multiple cases, willing to take on this client at the height of a criminal investigation into the Russia involvement matter.
And later, our election night duo, Steve Schmidt, Eugene Robinson both standing by with their take on citizenship in the U.S. census and other of the night stuff`s headlines. We`re just getting started on a Tuesday evening. Please stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUCKER: I`m wondering why the President has had so much trouble finding an experienced lawyer willing to take him on, and who at this hour is his lead counsel in negotiating with Robert Mueller and the Special Counsel.
SANDERS: Look, the President has a highly qualified team with several individuals that have been part of this process, Ty Cobb, Jay Sekulow. For specific details on any sort of process outside of the White House, I would refer you to his outside counsel.
RUCKER: Who is his lead counsel now?
SANDERS: I would refer you to --
RUCKER: That`s not --
SANDERS: -- outside of the White House. I would refer you to Jay Sekulow.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: That exchange at today`s White House briefing highlights this growing challenge for the President as Mueller`s investigation gets closer to the Oval Office. The President`s legal team has dwindled down to just two lawyers, the aforementioned Sekulow and Cobb. Several high-powered criminal defense attorneys in and out of Washington have been approached, have been recruited to join the team as lead counsel representing the President and so far have declined.
Two former members of Congress from both sides of the aisle appeared on our air today to weigh-in on why some lawyers are turning down the President.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN (D), NEW YORK, FMR. U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN: The problem with the President Trump is that the people who are associated with him come away tainted in that process. It`s kind of a different sort of commentary that the American people ought to be looking at. People don`t want to do business with him. Lawyers don`t want to represent him.
DAVID JOLLY (R), FLORIDA, FMR. U.S. CONGRESSMAN: An attorney cannot represent a client in this case of Donald Trump who is going to purger himself lie and defraud in court. And that is what`s coming together in the Trump world and it might be his ultimate unraveling.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Also today, some top Senate Democrats are making a new effort to protect Mueller from the Trump White House. They sent a letter to those key Justice Department officials who might be in the line of succession to be Mueller`s supervisor if something should happen, as they say, the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein`s job.
These senators write in part, "We have significant concerns that the President or his White House could order individuals at the Department of Justice with the authority to oversee Special Counsel Mueller`s probe to interfere with the probe or shut it down. We ask that you publicly commit to refuse any order or request to interfere in the Special Counsel`s investigation, including but not limited to firing Mr. Mueller." In other words, trying to avoid a Saturday night massacre.
Two other Senators, Chris Coons of Delaware and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Democrat and Republican who are co-sponsors of a bill to protect Mueller`s job today called on this White House to allow the Special Counsel to "complete his work without impediment."
An interesting conversation we have planned for you tonight. Here with us to do that. Bob Bauer, Former White House Counsel to President Obama, and back with us is Philip Rucker. Welcome to you gentlemen.
And as we say in the business, I`ve just been handed some news tonight. This is from the "Reuters News Agency" and I need to get you both to react. A little known former prosecutor, with a doctorate in medieval history will play a central role on U.S. President Donald Trump`s legal team, as many top-tier lawyers shy away from representing him into the probe into Russia meddling. "Andrew, and because he is unfamiliar to us, forgive me if I`m getting the last name pronunciation wrong. Andrew Ekonomou, 69, is one of handful of lawyer assisting Jay Sekulow, the main attorney representing Trump."
Sekulow told Reuters on Tuesday, that after the departure of Washington Attorney John Dowd from Trump`s personal legal team last week, Ekonomou will assume a more prominent role.
Later on in this piece it says, Sekulow said, Ekonomou who works under contract as an assistant district attorney in Brunswick, Georgia was a brilliant strategist who had handled complex investigations for decades. He assisted Sekulow in a famous case involving the religious group, "Jews for Jesus" before the Supreme Court back in the `80s.
Phil Rucker, first of all, your take on this?
RUCKER: Well, Brian, that`s news to me. I have not reported that myself. So I can`t verify that that`s true. But it is -- if he`s coming on to join the legal team, it`s a significant development.
Currently, Jay Sekulow is really the only attorney working directly personally for the President on this matter. Ty Cobb who Sarah Sanders mentioned today at the White House briefing is actually a White House lawyer playing slightly different role, managing the White House`s response and defending the presidency as an office as opposed to the President as a person.
Look, this is not a Ted Olson. It`s not a big name sort of experienced Washington litigator. But, you know, perhaps President Trump has developed some chemistry with him. Perhaps he can help the President manage his relationship and negotiations that are ongoing today with Robert Mueller.
WILLIAMS: Counselor, I know how much lawyers love to comment on other lawyers. Your comment on this development?
BOB BAUER, FMR. WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA: I don`t know the gentleman. There was a reference in the press there that you cited that there are may be a handful of other lawyers assisting Mr. Sekulow and I suspect that`s the case. He may have been there for some time and now he`s surface again to more prominent role because Dowd has left and perhaps others have left.
I don`t know that I -- in your background comment here that I know what to say about his expertise in the dark ages, but maybe as an historian that would be helpful to him here, too.
WILLIAMS: Bob, in your professional opinion, what kind of lawyer does this President need? And what do all of these lawyers who said, no, seem to know?
BAUER: Press reports would give lawyers who are considering this, who the President might be considering for this role, some significant pause in working for him. After all that we hear, he doesn`t like to listen to lawyers, he tends to berate them. He`s often telling them they`re doing a good job while interviewing, there are replacements behind their backs. And he also makes demands on them that they`re not comfortable with. For example, directing his White House counsel to tell Mr. Sessions that he should ignore the recusal regulations or asking him to see to the dismissal of Mr. Mueller.
So, I think when lawyers examine the conditions under which they`re going to be expected to work, to perform professionally, they would have to view working for Mr. Trump as a challenge that they might want to pass up.
WILLIAMS: Also, Phil, I`m sitting here looking at a list published by CNBC of all the lawyers who`ve turned them down, did you ever get your question, if not answered from the podium today, answered via phone calls to the rooms behind it?
RUCKER: I did not. There was not much of an answer to that question. You know, look, the other day, the President tweeted that every law firm, every top lawyer wants to work for him and promised fame and fortune to those who do. But the reporting, by asset, the "Post" and elsewhere shows just the opposite that one after another, these top lawyers are declining the offer to come into the White House. Some of them are citing business conflicts.
And others like Ted Olson made pretty clear in his interview, on his interview the other day that there`s just too much chaos and crisis inside this White House. So it`s a very different reality from the one that the President tried to paint in his tweet over the weekend.
WILLIAMS: And Bob, a final question to you. While they haven`t reached the heights of Hillary and Toensing, diGenova and Toensing are a well-known couple in the law in Washington. They have had to turn down representing the President we`re told because of another client Mark Corallo. We know about his alleged role in all of this. Does that necessarily mean -- Nicolle Wallace put it this way yesterday, Corallo and Trump have divergent interest. Does that necessarily mean Corallo has testified against Trump?
BAUER: No, it doesn`t. But maybe that they`ve identified the potential for a conflict that could develop into a serious one later in the representation. Also, it was known I think to the White House, to the President, that pair were representing Corallo and conceivably another, if I had recalled another witness in the investigation. So it may be that simply in the conversations that were reported to have occurred in the Oval Office, they came to the conclusion, they simply didn`t have an understanding about how the relationship would work that was satisfactory to the lawyers.
I would also point one other thing out just in closing here, the other event that lawyers are going to be observing is this entire set of controversies around Ms. Davis, Stormy Davis. And the role that Mr. Trump`s personal lawyer has played in all of this. And if that`s, in fact, the kind of loyalty he`s looking for, if that`s in fact the kind of representation that he`s seeking, translated into the situation he currently faces in the White House with Mr. Mueller, once again, that would give some lawyer a lot of pause.
WILLIAMS: Yes. The Stormy Daniels case could not be more different from the Russia matter and yet has its own, as you know, legal perils to it. Bob Bauer, former White House Counsel, it`s always such a pleasure to get you on the broadcast. And Phil Rucker, you know, we appreciate you sticking around to extend our conversation tonight. Gentlemen, thank you both.
And coming up for us, two more gentlemen, Eugene Robinson`s column today`s headline, Trump has played his supporters for suckers. He is standing by to join us next to explain along with our friend and colleague, Steve Schmidt when we continue.
WILLIAMS: The decision to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 Census is drawing fire. The U.S. Commerce Department just announced the change, arguing it will permit more effective enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
But critics say the addition of this question will discourage undocumented immigrants from responding to the Census. The White House defended the decision this way.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The purpose is to determine individuals that are here. It also helps to comply with the Voting Rights Act. Without that information, it`s hard to make those determinations. And that information needs to be gathered and it has been part of the United States Census. Every time we`ve had a Census since 1965, with the one exception of the 2010 Census.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: That last part there is not true. NBC News is among those confirming that "A citizenship question has not been included in the typical short form Census received by most households since before 1950."
California and New York are already preparing to sue the Trump administration to block this change. A number of state attorneys general have joined them. With us to talk about this and any other topics that might be on our minds, Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning Columnist for the Washington Post, and Steve Schmidt, Republican Strategist and political veteran of the Bush White House and the McCain presidential campaign. Both gentlemen are MSNBC Political Analysts, all right.
Eugene, to you first, why are people seeing this as something pernicious?
EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, you know, because it walks, talks and quacks like a duck. You know, start with the Census, 2020 Census.
The Census specifically supposed to count everybody who`s here, right, and regardless of citizenship.
WILLIAMS: It`s the whole ball game, tells us who we are.
ROBINSON: Yes, everybody who`s here. And a lot of decisions apportioning federal benefits and representation in Congress, and things depend on that Census. So it`s very important. To put a citizenship question on the short form that goes out to everybody, not the long form that goes out to a sampling. But on the form that goes to everybody, can only intimidate and discourage those who are not citizens.
WILLIAMS: What would that be?
ROBINSON: You`re going to answer that, you know, "No, I`m not a citizen." And if there`s any question about your right to be in the country or even if there isn`t a question, you`re just nervous before it because you know that Donald Trump is president and Jeff Sessions is attorney general, and you think they may try to kick you out.
You`re going to be a lot less likely to send that back. So I think it`s very important it will clearly end up in an under count, unless counteract. It is only will be lawsuits.
As you said New York and California already lawsuits that might well succeed. And failing that there will have to be a massive sort of education program to counteract the impact of this if indeed, it goes through.
WILLIAMS: So, Steve Schmidt, you too don`t believe this assertion from the White House podium that this is in part to help enforce the Voting Rights Act?
STEVE SCHMIDT, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYSTS: No, I don`t, Brian. Look, the administration simply doesn`t get the benefit of the doubt here, through the campaign, through a year and a quarter of the presidency. We have seen consistent race baiting from this administration. We`ve seen them divide the American people on the basis of race, time, and time, and time again.
And so, I think that anybody who takes the White House at their word for it is profoundly naive here. And lastly, the administration clearly has decided to wage political war against the state of California. And I think this is just one more front in that war. And I think that one of the dynamics we`ll see continuing to play out over the next year or so, is this dynamic between the administration and the state of California on a range of issues from marijuana, to the environment, to the Census issue.
WILLIAMS: Eugene, it may be why you have a Pulitzer Prize, but you write very, very thought provoking columns. I`m going to quote from your latest. "President Trump`s most urgent political problem doesn`t involve Robert S. Mueller III, Stormy Daniels, Vladimir Putin or the hundreds of voters who marched for gun control. Rather, it`s that his die hard supporters might be starting to realize how thoroughly he has played them for suckers." Defend your thesis.
ROBINSON: Well, there was -- after the President signed the Spending Bill on Friday, which does not fund the massive big beautiful border wall that he planned to build but does fund Planned Parenthood, among other Democratic priorities.
Some of the loudest and most caustic voices on the far right lit up and started to light him up about, I believe it was Ann Coulter who tweeted "Congratulations President Schumer." And these are voices that the Trump base listens to.
You know, he has talked a big game. But on this issue on which he has connected so viscerally with his base, disgracefully in many ways, I would think, immigration, sort of a highly emotional issue.
He has not delivered. He has not built his wall. And yet he expects continued support. And one wonders again. You know, you could go broke, yes, predicting that Donald Trump`s base will abandon him, so one can`t predict that. But he is not totally immune to the laws of political physics. And in fact, if you tell people long enough, I`m going to do X and you don`t do what you promised to do, you know, they might go against you, but they might not come out for you.
Steve Schmidt, this two front war, we`re talking about the White House fighting the Russia matter Putin writ large, Stormy Daniels, for the other side. You and I keep having this conversation, but this President`s playing with House money.
This is your political party, the ruling political party right now in this country. And we`re going to see in short order, couple of months, if the president can take any of his agenda out for a spin, and what`s going to happen at the polls?
SCHMIDT: Of course. Look, we haven`t yet had a chance as a country, to have a referendum on Trumpism. The first opportunity for the American people to weigh-in with a verdict will be in the November midterm elections. And this will be a nationalized election.
I think there`s fundamentally one question on the ballot, it`s the same question that has dominated the decision making of voters in all of the special elections. And that question is around Donald Trump. And the evidence would suggest that there will be a massive repudiation of Trumpism by the electorate in November 2018. Certainly, that will be the case if these special elections are prologue to the main event.
And so for Republicans certainly as you look at their fragile majority in the House, slightly less fragile majority in the Senate, and you look at Republicans who did well in state legislative races over the Obama years, there should be a major commitments upon the Republican Party. And so as we see this continued chaos, dysfunction, recklessness out of this White House.
I suspect that this president, who has the lowest approval levels for any president in history, this early in his term, that there will continue to be growing downward pressure on those numbers that the Republican majority pays a heavy price for.
WILLIAMS: From the great city of Seattle tonight, Steve Schmidt, and here with us in the studio in New York, Eugene Robinson. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.
Coming up for us, what it means for Americans that the North Korean dictator visited China to talk to their president. We`ll talk about it when we come back.
WILLIAMS: Tonight, Chinese state media have confirmed an unannounced visit from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Yesterday, an armored train rolled into Beijing, sparking curiosity about who might be on board. Then later, the site of a heavily defended motorcade added to the speculation that it was dictator, Kim Jong-un, traveling to neighboring China as his late father and grandfather had before him.
We got confirmation of the visit along with pictures after Kim with China`s president late tonight after Kim was safely on North Korean territory. China had previously denied the visit was happening. Hard to believe it was unannounced. By the way, it`s the North Korean leader`s first known trip outside of North Korea, and first meeting with another head of state since taking power in 2011.
Chinese state media saying, "Kim Jong-un says the issue of denuclearization can be resolved if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with good will, create an atmosphere of peace and stability, while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace." Again, that quote attributed to Kim Jong-un.
Tonight, the White House told reporters, Chinese officials reached out today to confirm his visit and deliver a personal message to President Trump, from the Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Here to talk about all of it. Malcolm Nance, Author and veteran of Naval Intelligence Special Ops Homeland Security, 35 years working in the field of counterterrorism and intelligence work. He`s our analyst in this area for good reason.
So, Malcolm, China`s been kind of newly weaponized by us just based on tariffs, and that kind of thing. North Korea we know has been weaponized against us. Can it be a good thing for us if these two are talking and becoming closer?
MALCOLM NANCE, MSNBC FOREIGN POLICY ANALYST: Yes, it can be a very good thing for us if they are doing good faith meetings. They finally got Kim Jong-un out of North Korea, has him in the, you know, the world of international politics now.
But what we -- I think we`re really seeing here is we are seeing not a Nixon goes to China moment, but by getting Kim Jong-un to go come to Beijing. Beijing now controls the entire destiny of the Korean Peninsula. It is no longer in the hands of Washington, which at this point has only been offering bellicose talk and the opportunity to have a meeting with Kim Jong-un.
That meeting if it comes will come in Beijing and it will appear they are the absolute global adults in the room, and whatever happens, happens because Xi Jinping has decided that he wants it to happen.
WILLIAMS: Well, I guess, that`s part of what I was asking as well, is there a net loss of power and fulcrum for the United States in this design?
NANCE: Yes, because we did not engage in diplomacy to get us to this point. We engaged in bellicose threats. We engage in ratcheting up military tensions. And even though the White House will take credit for this, this does not show the United States in a relatively good light.
The only thing that will, it will also show the United States in a position of submission. That`s if Donald Trump goes to China or goes to a third party country, meets with Kim Jong-un, whatever happens, it will have been engineered by China. It will look great on magazine covers, but everyone in the world will know the real player here, the people with real power are China.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm, you`ve devoted so many years of your life to service in the military. It came up today, the military did, and I want to read you the context. "President Trump who repeatedly insisted during the campaign that Mexico would pay for the wall along the southern borders, privately pushing the U.S. military to fund construction of his signature project. Trump has told advisers that he was spurned in a large spending bill last week, when lawmakers appropriated only 1.6 billion for the border wall. He`s suggested to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Congressional leaders that the Pentagon could fund the sprawling project sighting a national security risk."
Malcolm, that would indicate that the people coming across this forest border are somehow combatants or potential combatants, would it not? And do you have any problem with this?
NANCE: Well, certainly, I have a problem with it. And everyone who is associated with the defense arena is going to have a problem with this. First off, someone really needs to sit him down with a copy of "Schoolhouse Rock!" and show him precisely how the government works.
Funding -- government funding is the mandate of the Congress. It cannot just come out of the Defense Department. This is not a favor that General Mattis can do for the President, which is deep in there and take out $25 billion of allocated funds which goes to war fighting, which goes to combat preparedness, which goes to building new ships and systems, and making sure that they come online over time or goes to the military families and health care.
Why he would think that he could just go and order the defense department and do that is just indicative of the wave he thinks about the world, that, you know, that CEO attitude. If I point to you, you can do it. This is never going to happen and I just think it shows a level of desperation on the President`s part that he thought he could get away with even asking the question.
WILLIAMS: I just thought you might have an opinion if I asked the question. Malcolm Nance, it why we always have you on. Thank you so very much for joining us from the great city of Philadelphia tonight.
Coming up for us, three former presidents joined together today, all to pay tribute to a legend in the political trade.
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GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: 2004, Zell announced that he would support my reelection and offered to endorse me at the Republican Convention in New York if I thought it would help. Darn right, it would help, I told him. Because Zell had spoken at Bill Clinton`s 1992 Convention and he became the first person in American history to deliver the keynote addresses at both parties` convention.
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WILLIAMS: It`s a rare honor, as you may know, to have one former U.S. president speak at your funeral, let alone three. Today, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton all spoke at the memorial service for former Georgia Governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller.
After his death, Friday, at the age of 86, the comments you read most often over this past weekend came from people think thanking him for sending them to college. That`s because Miller allowed a statewide lottery in Georgia to fund college scholarships. And it meant, if you were from a poor family and maintained at least a 3.0 GPA, you went to college for free in Georgia.
As President Bush pointed out, Miller, a lifelong southern Democrat became the first person to deliver the keynote address at both conventions, Democrat and Republican when he endorsed Bush back in `04, the three former presidents remember him as a man willing to reach across the aisle, and put the good of country ahead of his own best interest.
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BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Well, Zell was always a Democrat. He was never an idea log. As he put it, you won`t find average Americans on the left or on the right, you`ll find them at Kmart. He also reminded the country about Wendell Willkie, a Republican presidential nominee who supported Franklin Roosevelt`s military policy. Willkie said that if he had to choose between an epithet that said Here lies the -- president and one that said, here lies one that contributed to save this freedom, he would prefer the latter. And Zell went to ask where are such statesmen today?
JIMMY CARTER, FORMER PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: He also believed that we owe people who disagreed with us human decency, human respect, a presumption that their motives are just as good as ours, their objectives for the future are just as honorable as ours. That`s -- too much of that`s gone now.
He did not believe that people who disagreed with him by party were by definition bad people or the objects of destruction. That particularly in times of great stress, we should find a way to see each other as people and reach across the lines that divide us.
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WILLIAMS: Zell Miller, Marine Corps Sergeant, University of Georgia graduate, Governor, Senator, was 86 years old.
And from there we go to the last thing before we go tonight, President Gerald R. Ford, who came into office when Nixon resigned but was then defeated by Jimmy Carter. President Ford, a Republican and a proud one, had one chance to nominate a justice to the Supreme Court and he chose wisely. He nominated the quirkily brilliant John Paul Stevens to replace the very quirkily brilliant William O. Douglas.
Like President Ford, Stevens was a decorated navy veteran from World War II and he went on to be the third longest serving justice in all time. He left the court in 2010, privately expressed some regret in the years since that he might have left too soon. Put it this way, he`s 97 and this week he has written a searing op-ed piece in the New York Times, and the NRA doesn`t like it one bit. For starters, there`s the title. It`s called "Repeal the Second Amendment."
In it he writes about the student-led demonstrations we witnessed this past weekend. He said "These demonstrations demand our respect. They reveal the broad public support for legislation and minimize the risk of mass killings of school children and others in our societies." He goes on, "But the demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment. Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment which provides that a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
Today he writes that concern as a relic of the 18th century. Stevens goes on to take on the NRA and their unmatched influence over anything and everything related to guns. He says his remedy, which he wrote about extensively in his last book in 2014, would make our school children safer and honor the memories of the dead.
And on that note, that is our broadcast on this Tuesday night. Thank you so very much for being here with us and goodnight 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