Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: April 12, 2018 Guest: Jonathan Lemire, Philip Rucker, Joyce Vance, Michael Crowley, Anita Kumar, Bill Kristol
LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: More on James Comey`s book with two reporters who have actually read it, and that`s on "THE 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS," and that starts now.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: The breaking news we`re covering tonight, James Comey and the book that could rock the foundation of the Trump presidency. Tonight, the detailed allegations revealed by the former FBI director and two reporters who broke the details of this story are standing by.
Plus, an NBC News exclusive interview talks break down between the Mueller and Trump teams in the wake of the Michael Cohen raid. And tonight, "The Washington Post" is reporting Trump allies are worried that Cohen raid swept up audiotapes of sensitive conversations.
And the looming decision with global implications. How close are we tonight to an attack on Syria? THE 11TH HOUR on a Thursday night begins now.
Well, good evening once again from our NBC News Headquarters here in New York. Day 448 of the Trump administration.
And during this time when the President appears to be mulling over firing both people and missiles, along comes Trump nemesis and Former FBI Director James Comey with a new book, a copy of which has been obtained by this news organization. The book is called "A Higher Loyalty, Truth, Lies, and Leadership."
And in reviewing it tonight, "The New York Times" says "the former FBI director, James B. Comey, calls the Trump presidency a forest fire that is doing serious damage to the country`s norms and traditions. This President is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values, Comey writes. His leadership is transactional, ego-driven, and about personal loyalty."
Jonathan Lemire of the "Associated Press" writes, Comey "casts Trump as a mafia boss-like figure who sought to blur the line between law enforcement and politics and tried to pressure him regarding his investigation into Russian election interference.
Philip Rucker of "The Washington Post" details how in the book, Comey writes about Trump`s obsession with trying to prove those infamous allegations in the Steele dossier untrue. "Comey writes that Trump called him and said he was concerned about the dossier being made public and was fixated on the prostitute`s allegation. The President-elect argued that it could not be true because he had not stayed overnight in Moscow but had only used the hotel room to change his clothes."
Comey also writes that interacting with President Trump gave him "flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth."
The former FBI director also details that January 27, 2017, that dinner at the White House on that night with President Trump. "The Washington Post" points out, "As the dinner concluded, Trump returned to the issue of loyalty. I need loyalty, Trump tells Comey, according to the book. You will always get honesty from me, Comey replies. That`s what I want, honest loyalty, Trump said, reaching what Comey writes was some sort of deal in which we were both winners."
And Phil Rucker sums it up this way, "the book is an indictment of Trump`s presidency as well as of his character. Each chapter can be interpreted as an elaborate trolling of Trump, starting with the title "a higher loyalty," a subtle reference to the loyalty pledge that Trump sought and did not receive from Comey."
So far, there has been no response to any of this from the White House. But on that, let`s bring in our lead-off panel on a Thursday night. Philip Rucker, White House Bureau Chief for "The Washington Post." Jonathan Lemire, White House Reporter for the Associated Press. Both have already read Comey`s book. Also with us, former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, who spent 25 years as a federal prosecutor. Welcome to you all.
Jonathan, I`ll start with you. How does Comey come across in this book? Corollarily, how does Trump come across in this book?
JONATHAN LEMIRE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Among James Comey`s final words in this book, in his epilogue, he says Donald Trump`s presidency threatens much of what is good about this nation. He holds little back. It is a scathing indictment of the President both on high- minded ideals and also a handful of cheap shots.
He sort of mentions that when he does finally meet him in Trump Tower in January 2017, he notices hand size. Though he notices Trump`s hands seems to be of normal portions, that Comey`s hands himself were bigger. He notes that his skin was orange, that he seemed to have the outlines of where his tanning goggles may have been.
And repeatedly he goes back to the idea that the President seem ill suited to the job and not up to it and ill qualified in temperament to be President of the United States. That he often, as indicated there, seemed to have a Mob-like mentality about it. That he kept trying to sort of demand this sort of mafia-esque vows of loyalty, that he kept coming back to the salacious details of the dossier, that he seemed really concerned about the idea that what the Russians may have on him.
You know, he, of course denies them, but he thinks that these allegations are out there and he`s afraid of what his wife might think. If there`s even a 1% chance that Melania Trump would think they`re true, then that would be very upsetting. Comey, sort of, in his book writes that he`s surprised that marriage such where his wife would even think that there is a 1% chance as opposed to a 100% chance that it couldn`t be true.
But perhaps the most damning indictment of all in that particular meeting in Trump Tower is that at no point, Comey writes, does the President or any of his adviser around him when presented with information, with proof of the Russian interference election, at no point do they say, well, how did this happen, and how can we stop it from happening again?
WILLIAMS: Phil Rucker, you point out as Jonathan just did, the instances of trolling in this book. It gets detailed. It gets personal.
I`ve heard some folks on television tonight already say that it may take away from the heft and the seriousness of the book that Comey can`t help himself but get into that. Do you think Trump can avoid reacting to this book?
PHILIP RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, "THE WASHINGTON POST: I think we`re going to see a reaction at some point whether it`s later tonight or, you know, 6:00 in the morning or later on in the weekend. But I don`t think the President`s going to be able to restrain himself from commenting on what he`s seeing on television tonight about this book.
In terms of the trolling, it`s interesting. There are chapters in this book that have nothing to do with Trump ostensibly. It`s a memoir. It`s the story of Jim Comey`s life. And yet you`re reading it and you think about Trump. And I think that`s by design.
There`s a whole chapter about how Comey was bullied in elementary school and high school, thrown against a locker, teased, beaten up, mocked by his classmates. And he gets into the psychology of the bully. He also ruminates on the psychology of the liars, why people lie, how when they tell small lies, they then tell big lies. They encircle themselves with fellow liars and it creates a whole culture of life around lying. And I think that`s a very deliberate move by Comey to try to paint a portrait of this President as, frankly, unethical and unfit to hold this office.
WILLIAMS: Joyce Vance, while I`m holding it in my hand and while I`ve skimmed it in great haste tonight because it came to us late in the day, you and I are the two in this conversation who haven`t read it. So based on what you have read, press reports from these two gentlemen we are joined by this evening, remembering the firing of Comey gave us Mueller, what stands out to you reading it as you do as a former Fed?
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: One aspect of this, and John touched on it a little bit, that really jumps out at you is the reaction that the President and his team apparently had to this news that they`re briefed on by Comey and by the DNI, Jim Clapper. You know, they`re hearing for the first time that the election was influenced by Russia, that Russia tried to make cyber inroads into our country and essentially attacked us.
What you would expect to see is surprise, horror, questions about what they could do to strengthen the United States and protect it from ever happening again. And we don`t see, at least in what we`ve heard so far about the book, any indication that there was, for one thing, surprise. If I`m Bob Mueller, I`m very interested in that testimony, whether or not there was surprise when they were first advised of the Russian incursion into our election. And then of course just as may over the fact that the immediate reaction was to think about how this impacted the President personally as opposed to how it was going to impact the country he had just been selected to lead.
WILLIAMS: Jonathan Lemire, if you work at the White House, is anything in this book going to surprise you?
LEMIRE: I don`t think so. I mean perhaps some of the details of some of these exchanges with Comey. But I think it might not surprise you, but it might depress you somewhat.
There`s a scene in there where he talks about after he has one of these one-on-one meetings with the President at the White House, and the next day he calls to meet with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, basically to indicate to him like, "Hey, that`s inappropriate.
WILLIAMS: Yes, you got to watch my back.
LEMIRE: That`s right. And so many times Comey said that, that he served under two other presidents and he said that Trump would do things in just few months that he worked for him that that he said that Bush or Obama would never dream of doing. He felt like it was inappropriate, and he didn`t respect the independence of the FBI. And he said he went to Sessions and he asked him about that, and Sessions just sort of stared down at his hands and kind of --
WILLIAMS: His eyes darted back.
LEMIRE: -- his eyes darted, that`s exactly right. That`s the phrasing. And I think there are people in the building who probably would be disturbed about moments like that, who wonder like what is the President trying to do, what is he trying to do people around him?
And on that note, there`s a moment in the book where John Kelly, then Homeland Security Director, calls Comey after Comey is fired, unceremoniously when he`s in Los Angeles talking to FBI agents there. No word from the White House. No word from the attorney general or the deputy attorney general. He finds out by T.V.
Kelly calls and says he`s disgusted by how this firing went down. He felt Comey wasn`t respected and he`s going to quit out of protest. Comey says to him, "Don`t do that. This President in particular needs good people around him. You should stay." John Kelly does stay, becomes chief of staff, but now we know that his clout seems to be rapidly reducing and his days in the building may be numbered.
WILLIAMS: Phil Rucker, I need your help in fast-forwarding to tonight. I should specify just within the last two hours, we`re always on alert for shiny objects, but I have to ask about two actions the President has apparently undertaken tonight. A top to bottom financial review of all things the U.S. Postal Service. See earlier fight with Amazon owned by Jeff Bezos. And, secondly, what appears to be an action to pardon Scooter Libby
In your dead-level best, can you update our viewers on both of those?
RUCKER: Yes, so, Brian, I wrote about both of those developments tonight, and they`re significant developments. To start with the Postal Service order, this is an executive order by the President to set up a task force that will be chaired by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to evaluate the U.S. Postal Service, to come up with recommendations for how to change the business model.
The Postal Service, as we all know, has had financial trouble over the last number of years largely because of pension funding and the retiree system. But the President has blamed Amazon for that with false accusations about Amazon ripping off taxpayers by using the bulk delivery rates. And so the President`s instructing his administration to develop some sort of plan to change the system. It very well could impact Amazon as a company although Amazon is not singled out by name in the text of the executive order.
And the second piece, Brian, is a pardon. The President`s planning to pardon Scooter Libby. We all remember that name from the 2007 trial involving the former covert CIA agent Valerie Plame, and Scooter Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice and of making false statements and perjury.
Now, he was not pardoned by President George W. Bush at the time although his prison sentence was commuted so he did not have to serve any time in jail. But he was not ever pardoned by Bush. Trump has decided, has told people inside the White House that he will pardon Libby, and Libby is important because he was a top aide, a top national security adviser to then-Vice President Dick Cheney.
WILLIAMS: So, Joyce, I won`t ask you to comment on Amazon, which is probably big enough to be able to say, you know what, we`re good. We`ll form our own postal service, buy the trucks and the planes and hire the people. But on Scooter Libby, Philip just touched on it. Why answer this question no one was asking? Why Scooter Libby? Why now?
VANCE: Well, I think that we`ll have to draw the obvious conclusion. Libby was convicted in 2007. Ironically by a special counsel who was appointed by Jim Comey of all people. And Scooter Libby was convicted of perjury, of obstruction of justice, and of lying to the FBI. His sentence was commuted.
There`s no urgency to fire him at this particular moment in time, and it`s really hard to miss how strongly this reeks of being a signal that Trump is willing to issue a pardon for these particular types of crimes to someone who had this high level of standing inside of the White House. Almost as though it`s a message to Paul Manafort or to Mike Flynn in many ways.
It feels like the circle of hypocrisy in this administration is fully complete at this point with Trump starting out complaining about Hillary Clinton and potential release of classified material and now pardoning the quintessential conviction for that same sort of conduct with Scooter Libby.
WILLIAMS: I can`t thank our opening panel tonight enough for joining us and adding to our conversation. Philip Rucker, Jonathan Lemire, Joyce Vance, thank all three of you so much.
Coming up for us, there is more breaking news we`re covering tonight. Two stories with critical details of where the Mueller investigation may well stand involving a breakdown between teams Trump and Mueller. The upcoming obstruction report apparently and fears among Trump allies the Feds have gotten their hands on audiotapes of critical conversations.
And later, what we know about the possibility of a U.S. attack on Syria and the chances that any such attack will kill Russians. "The 11th Hour" -- there, the drummers are back at work. "The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Thursday night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you be willing to speak under oath to give your version of --
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One hundred percent.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you going to talk to Mueller?
TRUMP: I`m looking forward to it actually.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, would you still like to testify to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, sir?
TRUMP: Thank you. Sure. I would like to.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Tonight, the possibility of that conversation actually taking place is looking unlikely. NBC News is reporting both Mueller`s prosecutors and Trump`s legal team "are now proceeding with strategies that presume a presidential interview will not take place." and that Mueller "may be able to close the obstruction probe more quickly."
We have been talking on this broadcast for weeks about that potential interview. Our NBC News colleagues also report negotiations hit a roadblock after that FBI raid of the office, residence, and hotel room of Trump`s longtime confidant and personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. The investigation into Cohen, who has not yet been charged with any crime, appears to be expanding.
Tonight, "The Washington Post" is reporting Trump`s allies worry that federal investigators may have swooped in and seized conversations recorded by Michael Cohen and his associations. Multiple people with knowledge about the matter tell NBC News that investigators have requested all communications between Cohen and top executives at the "National Enquirer`s" parent company, American Media Incorporated. The CEO of that company, David Pecker, happens to be a close friend of the President, has been for years.
That brings us to this new reporting from "The New Yorker" and "The Associated Press," both of whom say a former doorman at one of Trump`s Manhattan buildings made a claim, an unverified rumor based on second-hand information, about Trump fathering a child in the late 1980s with an employee. "The A.P. reported that in late 2015, American Media Incorporated allegedly paid the doorman $30,000 for that rumor. AMI says neither Donald Trump nor Michael Cohen had anything to do with its decision not to publish the story.
The Trump Organization has denied the story and says that the doorman is pushing a false story. NBC News has not confirmed the story and has reached out to the White House for comment.
Here to talk about all of it, Julia Ainsley, NBC News National Security and Justice Reporter, and Jeremy Bash back with us, Former Chief of Staff at CIA and the Pentagon, also an MSNBC National Security Analyst.
So, Julia, every time you come on, I ask you where you believe the Mueller investigation stands. Today your reporting does help us get a clearer picture of where the Mueller investigation might stand. So my question stands to you.
JULIA AINSLEY, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Well, Brian, tonight I`m actually able to answer that question with a little more clarity, I hope, although things can change pretty quickly here in Washington. But as of earlier this week, these talks broke down between Trump`s legal team and Robert Mueller`s team that would have led to at least the parameters of an interview.
We know that people in Trump`s legal team are starting to prepare the President for potential questions and they were working out kind of the scope of this interview. These are the things you can do when your client is not being subpoenaed by a grand jury but is sitting down for a volunteer interview. It means his lawyers could come with him. It would actually be kind of an easier route for the President to take. But after those raids on Michael Cohen`s office and hotel room that you just laid out, the President basically just said, no, I`m not going to cooperate, and he`s taking a much more aggressive stance.
Meanwhile, Mueller`s team is moving forward with an obstruction case with or without that voluntary interview. It`s unclear whether or not they might try to subpoena the President then before a grand jury, but from what I`ve been told, they really want to try to wrap this obstruction case quickly between May and July, and they may be able to do that even faster now that it looks like the President will not be interviewed.
If he doesn`t want to be interviewed, they don`t need to prep the questions. They don`t need to follow up on his answers, and they really have a lot of information on some key areas of the obstruction probe. So they could actually go ahead and send a report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that can sum up their findings without that interview. And so the President could be reading this tonight thinking, "Gosh, I`m now missing the chance to defend myself against an obstruction case."
WILLIAMS: Julia, our folks have gone ahead and put together a graphic showing some broad outlines of that obstruction case. If Mueller received, for example, a kind of pencils-down command, and they had to put it together today, there is the Comey firing. There is the Trump Tower meeting and the subsequent cover story. There is the floating of pardons, and there`s the pressuring of Sessions. Those are kind of four starters, are they not?
AINSLEY: They are four starters. And, you know, three sources who are close to this told me that is kind of the overlap of what they`re hearing. There`s some other areas that we know that Mueller has looked into. He`s very interested in the firing of Flynn. He`s interested in what -- or when Flynn had to leave, he`s very interested in the pressure that he put on James Comey not to investigate Flynn.
But these four areas that you just laid out there seem to be areas where Mueller has collected the most evidence and is likely to touch on those areas. But I will point out it could be possible that in some of those areas, he`s found exculpatory evidence. As a lot of your legal experts on this show will tell you, intent is the thing that drives an obstruction probe.
So if he can show not just -- he would need to show not just that the President was involved in these things but that he intended to take these acts in order to obstruct this probe. And so without that intention, he could have found exculpatory evidence. We just know that these are the areas where he has findings, and we need to see, as this time line moves forward quickly, where he actually takes us in the end.
WILLIAMS: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we`re so happy to have Julia Ainsley on our team. Jeremy Bash, let me ask you a question you may have dealt with in law school. Does any of this deal with the oath we saw the President swear to on inauguration day, and could any other federal employee take a pass on such an appearance and still be employed by the federal government?
JEREMY BASH, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF, CIA: The answer to your second question undoubtedly is no. If you refuse to talk to an investigator who is investigating whether or not you violated the law in the conduct of your official duties, you would be fired by your boss. That`s clear, and that`s actually happened before.
The President`s oath actually, Brian, since you referenced it, is the only oath in the constitution, and it`s different than every other federal officials oath, not substantively with regards to what I just said, but basically there`s nobody to fire the President but of course the Congress through the impeachment process and the removal from office.
WILLIAMS: And, Jeremy, these Cohen recordings, we are told that he had the habit over these years of making -- we`ve called them tapes as a form of art. They actually are apparently digital recordings that he kept on computers of phone calls, perhaps in-person conversations. We just don`t know.
Is there anything ill gotten about them? If you`re the Feds and you come back from, in effect, vacuuming Cohen`s office and you look and listen to these and you can hear knowable voices of known figures on the other end, is there any problem with that? Does that just automatically become part of the case?
BASH: It`s evidence like anything else, like any documentary evidence, any e-mails, any text messages, any records. There may be some violations of the law per se in actually making the recordings. It depends on the specific jurisdictions and there are certain laws governing, you know, when you need consent of the person you`re recording. But by and large, I think this is just going to be part of the body of evidence that the Feds look at when they`re investigating the full gamut of Michael Cohen`s business activities.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy, finally, two words. Scooter Libby. What should we think about the effort to pardon him, which has apparently been pushed by, among other, Attorney Joe diGenova, and his wife, Victoria Toensing, also an attorney?
BASH: It`s a strange one, Brian, because of course Scooter Libby had his sentence commuted by President Bush. President Bush did not pardon Scooter Libby. And the pardon is really nothing other than sort of saying for history`s purposes, for Scooter Libby`s family and for his reputation, you know, this criminal conviction has been expunged. It`s meaningless.
Some people say it might be kind of setting the stage for other pardons. I`m not sure. I think this is part of a long running effort by Scooter Libby`s friends and colleagues to clear his name.
WILLIAMS: Two of our very best. Julia Ainsley, Jeremy Bash, thank you so much for coming on with us tonight.
And coming up, as we continue, where this administration stands at this hour on a possible military strike in Syria? I`ll speak with a medal of honor recipient and a three-decade Naval Intelligence veteran who has conducted operations in Syria. THE 11TH HOUR back after this.
WILLIAMS: Welcome back. The White House is still weighing its options tonight on what we now know was a confirmed chemical weapon attack that killed dozens in Syria last weekend. Those remarks from President Trump earlier today did add to the stream of mixed messages coming from the West Wing.
Just this morning, Trump wrote this on Twitter, that he never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all. That seemed to contradict yesterday`s Twitter statement warning of U.S. missiles aimed at Syria, "Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and smart. You shouldn`t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal, capital letters, who kills his people and enjoys it."
Defense Secretary James Mattis was cautious today about any kind of military response. Here to talk with us about it, retired U.S. army Colonel Jack Jacobs, a heavily decorated combat veteran in Vietnam. He`s one of only 71 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. Malcolm Nance rejoins us tonight as well. He is a veteran of naval intelligence and counterterrorism, also notably a veteran of U.S. operations against Syria in the 1980s. Both gentlemen are MSNBC analysts.
Malcolm, you can begin. What do you know? What do you think about when something could happen? When -- I guess the window is open now.
MALCOLM NANCE, AUTHOR, THE PLOT TO HACK AMERICA: Well, the window generally opens around 4:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and goes to about 11:00 p.m. That`s the area of operations we like to be in is nighttime. And, these night operations give us the advantage. A lot of systems in Syria are very rudimentary, 1960s, `70s. They have some modern technology in their anti-aircraft defense systems, but they have a relatively low- level visual system outside of the Russian air defense systems that they have.
When I carried out the first air strike or helped participate in their first air strike in 1983, it was a very simple operation. We fly an Alpha package, a strike package off an aircraft carrier, and we go in and we bomb the targets that we want. We lost aircraft in that strike. All of the planning that I did over the next 30 years for operations against Syria and certainly since we`ve been in Iraq, we can start coming from other directions now. And Syria has to account for that, and they just don`t have the capability to stop us if we really want to hit them.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm, if I put you in front of the president as a 60-second briefer to tell him something or things that you don`t think he knows about Syria, what would you say?
NANCE: Well, I certainly hope that he would have been briefed well before I had gotten there because there`s a lot of things about Syria that I suspect that he doesn`t know.
First off, you really have to have your objective down. If you hit that country and you do not destroy some capability that weakens that regime, you have lost. Last year`s 59 TLAM strike or Tomahawk air missile strike on those air bases, up at Shayrat, we destroyed a few very old practically junk aircraft. We cratered the runway. It was back in operation in 48 hours. We did not hit the chemicals. If we do not destroy the chemical weapon stockpiles there or the command and control facilities that sent those orders, or the aircraft that does that and change the military balance between Israel and Syria, it will be seen as a failure.
WILLIAMS: Colonel Jacobs, same question. What`s the mission? What`s the objective? What in your view should the target list include?
COL. JACK JACOBS. U.S. ARMY RETIRED: Well, we`ve got targets, and we can pick among a wide variety of targets. But you and Malcolm hit on the quintessential first-order question, and that is, what is the objective? If we`re -- this is not regime change, and it`s not even -- it`s not even to denigrate their capability because we don`t have the capability of doing that without killing Iranians and Russians, having collateral damage and so on. No, I think the objective here is just punishment, and there`s not much you can do about that except hit the same kind of targets we`ve hit before. Maybe we`ll do it over a couple of days rather than just one day. Maybe there`ll be 100 missile strikes, not 59.
But at the end of the day, there`s not going to be any deterrence here. He`s not going to be deterred from using these weapons again. The Russians are not going to be deterred from continuing to assist the Iranians either. You could perceive that Assad has already won with or without these weapons.
WILLIAMS: If you have a son or daughter on a guided missile destroyer that`s going to be participating in this and you see the president`s mixed messages on Twitter, what are you thinking?
JACOBS: Well, you think that we`re poorly led. There`s no doubt about that. But I think that people who have had -- who have served in the military before have perceived that they have been poorly led in other wars as well. No, I think it`s irrelevant from that standpoint.
The real issue for people who are actually and operational -- doing operational things is that they`re going to complete the mission to the best of their ability the way they`ve been trained. We don`t -- at the forward edge of the battle area, when you`re in harm`s way, you`re not really thinking about decisions that are made at the stratospheric level. I mean, you can take issue with them. You can think that they`re not very bright, but at the end of the day, you`re going to do your duty, and you`re going to do it because you have to do it and you`re among others who will do it and do it for you, too.
WILLIAMS: Yes, they`re depending on you to do your job. Two more of our very best. Both gentlemen are on a loose standby in case this conversation gets, say, more serious by this time tomorrow evening. Colonel Jack Jacobs, Malcolm Nance, gentlemen, thank you both.
Coming up, a look inside the room where Trump learned about Russia`s interference in the U.S. election. The 11th Hour back after this.
WILLIAMS: Former FBI director James Comey`s new book provides, let`s call it, new insight into President Trump`s state of mind on Russia. As Jonathan Lemire mentioned earlier in our hour, Comey writes of the meeting where he and the intelligence chiefs, including then director of National Intelligence James Clapper and then CIA director John Brennan, first briefed the president and his advisers on Russian election interference, "What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn`t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be. Instead, with the four of us still in our seats, including two outgoing Obama appointees, the president-elect and his team shifted immediately into a strategy session about messaging on Russia. And how they could spin what we`d just told them."
That description casts these comments by John Brennan last month into a new light.
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UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why won`t the president confront Vladimir Putin?
JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER DIRECTOR, CIA: I think he`s afraid of the president of Russia.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why?
BRENNAN: Well, I think one can speculate as to why, that the Russians may have something on him personally, that they could always roll out and make his life more difficult. Clearly, I think it`s important for us to be able to improve relations with Russia. But the fact that he has had this fawning attitude toward Mr. Putin, has not said anything negative about him, I think, continues to, you know, say to me that he does have something to fear and something very serious to fear.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Here to talk about all of this, Michael Crowley, national security editor and senior correspondent for POLITICO. Anita Kumar, White House correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. And Bill Kristol, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, now editor-at-large of the Weekly Standard, he has launched a new effort which we will get to in a few moments.
Michael, we`ll begin with you. On top of everything else in this book, large and small, that`s the moment they were informed the country was under attack. This is the moment people will seize on for the lack of questions and comment afterwards.
MICHAEL CROWLEY, NATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR, POLITICO: Yes, absolutely, Brian. I mean, this book is filled with fascinating and dramatic detail, but this could be the most substantive anecdote that we`ve heard about so far. It`s so fundamental. It goes to the idea of national security, of the health of our democracy, the strength of our democracy, the security of our political system. And, you know, it`s almost satire. It`s almost something really, I got to say, Brian, you know, you think of something like Veep where the president`s team is informed that a hostile foreign power has interfered with the election, and immediately the conversation goes straight to the spin. You would be laughing if it weren`t so disturbing. And it`s quite damning.
Unfortunately, I have to say it`s not surprising. It`s quite consistent with other anecdotes and the visible public behavior of this administration. We have officials in government and across Capitol Hill warning that we really still are not prepared to defend the 2018 and 2020 elections in large part because there has been a lack of presidential leadership on this issue and, indeed, a refusal to acknowledge the basic facts of what happened. So, again, really kind of amazing and disturbing but not surprising.
WILLIAMS: So, Bill Kristol, with all that kind of national security heft and lumbar in that room with you, it`s not a crime to switch the conversation to how are we going to spin this and make it a political meeting. But there are consequences for the country that this happened, correct?
BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes, and maybe that meeting you don`t have to follow up, but there`s not much evidence that President Trump or his top team for that matter followed up much subsequently, right? So either they didn`t care much about what Putin had done, and maybe that`s because they thought it had benefited them, and/or President Trump wasn`t surprised to learn what Putin had done. And maybe that`s because he knew something about it during the campaign.
But in either case, this is not a president of the United -- you know, if you think of a normal situation where a president is told about a hostile act by a hostile country, a hostile dictator, you immediately think, well, gee, I want more details. What do we do to stop it? And how do we teach them that they can`t do this again and so forth. They seem to have gone through none of that thought process, which again, tells me that he either wasn`t surprised and/or he doesn`t care.
WILLIAMS: Anita, meetings don`t get more consequential than this. Screenwriters try to portray meetings like this in films. Does this, to you, explain why Comey and Clapper and Brennan have carried themselves and commented on this the way they have in all the intervening months?
ANITA KUMAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Sure. There`s actually another detail of that anecdote that I thought was really interesting. Donald Trump is asking, immediately says, according to Comey, this didn`t affect the outcome of the election --
KUMAR: -- right? And I believe it was James Clapper who responds, no, we`re not saying that. We don`t know. We haven`t done that analysis. And then, you know, as the anecdote goes on, he -- they are immediately still talking about how they want to tell the American public that they didn`t benefit from it.
So I just thought that was very interesting and very telling. And I think that`s part of the problem. You see that James Comey doesn`t -- takes issue to that. I mean, it goes to, he`s not actually saying those words that I saw, you know, that they`re lying, but that`s basically what he`s saying. He`s saying they`re twisting the words. They`re saying things that aren`t true just to make themselves look better.
WILLIAMS: We`ve asked our guests to just stick around. We have to fit a break in here. We`re anxious to continue our conversation just on the other side.
WILLIAMS: We are back and remaining with us, Michael Crowley, Anita Kumar and Bill Kristol. Bill, you -- I`m an avid and enthusiastic follower of yours on social media as I believe all good American should be. And I saw the photo from the White House dinner that you tweeted out and in your hands with this caption, "As a Republican, I find this photo in equal parts embarrassing, humiliating, and nauseating and for good measurer, infuriating. This is the Republican leadership of the United States Congress, the president, vice president, all with the thumbs up from Steve Scalise on the far right recovering from gun shot wounds to John Cornyn of Texas, Mitch McConnell. It is with that in mind that I`d like to dovetail and have you tell our audience about this new group you have put together and why.
KRISTOL: Yes, I may have overreacted to that photo. I think my wife thought I did a little bit. But I just somehow -- that they all got there and were just, you know, flashing the thumbs up in a sort of obsequious way to President Trump on the day that President Trump had attacked Mueller, attacked Rosenstein, done all kinds of other things that I think Republicans would be well advised to distance themselves from.
We started something called Republican to the rule of law, did a TV ad on Fox & Friends so the president could see it, defending Robert Mueller, urging Republicans to step up to the defense of Mueller. There`s actually been a very good response and there`s been some movement on the Hill, some of the Republicans seeming open now to legislation that would defend the Mueller investigation. And we got a big support, a big response actually from people around the country.
I think it`s very important that Republicans see this (ph). I mean, Democrats can defend the Mueller investigation that it looks like, well, they`re just partisans who don`t like Trump. It`s really up to Republicans to say, let the investigation go forward. Let the rule of law prevail here in the U.S. This is important for the country. I think it`s important for the future of the Republican Party. And I hope we can have a little effect (ph).
WILLIAMS: Bill, now that he`s been freed by announcing he`s not running again. Do you think Paul Ryan has heroism within him?
KRISTOL: You know, I hope so. I mean, really, this is why that photo got me sort of (ph). I mean -- this is at the dinner where John Cornyn had said beforehand, it turned out after which showed (ph) that none of them raised the issue of Mueller or Rosenstein for that matter with Trump. I mean, they have dinner with the president of the United States. He is threatening to seriously impede an investigation and I think do real damage to the rule of law, create a constitutional crisis. You`re a senior member of the Republican leadership, you have real power of authority and you don`t take the occasion of being with the president, the small group, to say, Mr. President, you know, I supported you on all these policy issues. I wish you well. You could not do this. This will damage your presidency, it will damage the Republican Party, it will damage the country.
That none of them felt they could raise that with the president. That none of them had the courage, maybe, to raise it with the president. That got me very -- that has been a pattern, obviously, for quite a while. But as things come to a head, well, I think the real possibility of Rosenstein being fired maybe as soon as tomorrow of what hears (ph). I mean, that none of them raised that personally with him and then they`ve only done a little bit publicly, obviously. That`s why I think it`s important to try to say, this is really crucial at this moment to step up for the rule of law.
WILLIAMS: Anita, at the top of the broadcast, I said these days the president is considering firing both people and missiles. On the people front, to Bill`s point, are you picking up anything that it slowed down or picked up or the chance have increased or decreased that people will be fired?
KUMAR: Well, you know how it is with --
KUMAR: -- President Trump, you never know. Every hour, it`s sort of a different thing. So, we hear, you know, one day that it`s very likely and then the next day not so much. You know, the White House, of course, official White House is saying the same thing. You know, that we have the authority to do it which was very interesting that Sarah Sanders said the other day. But we`re not planning on doing it. So we`re sort of back in the same place.
You know, I will say, though, when Sarah Sanders talks and she tells us that she can`t answer questions about this at all and refers us to attorneys, but the only thing she does say is that he has the authority to do it, I took that as a sign.
WILLIAMS: All right, we`ll take that. Michael Crowley, give me the 30- second version of what could go wrong, perhaps by this time tomorrow night, if the Pentagon acts overseas in Syria?
CROWLEY: Brian, I think it`s really important to stress the danger of an unwanted confrontation with Russia and a military strike could potentially kill Russians in Syria. At a minimum, the Russians will feel a need to contest the U.S. action. There have been threats from Moscow that the Russians might try to shoot down Cruise missiles of ours. One Russian diplomat even suggested there could be retaliation against the American forces that launched any weapons against Syria. Of course, Russia has been supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and really does not like to see America flexing its muscle in the country.
Donald Trump still holds out this idea that he`s going to befriend Vladimir Putin and they`re going to work it all out. But American policy has gotten pretty confrontational towards Russia. The Russians really their backs up. There`s a lot of ego and pride on the line. We know that both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are guys who you, I think, had fairly say have chips on their shoulders. It`s a dangerous situation.
WILLIAMS: Our great thanks to our guests, Anita Kumar, Bill Kristol, Michael Crowley. Thank you so much. A final break for us. Something you`ll want to see on the other side.
WILLIAMS: The last thing before we go here tonight has to do with the deep meaning of this day. In the nation that was born from the ashes of the Holocaust, a country formed by the survivors of an attempt to kill off a generation of Jews, this was Holocaust Remembrance Day and as you watch what we`re about to show you, think of what it would take for our country, admittedly a very different place, to feel something, anything so deeply as to stop all activity, including traffic on the highway on this one day each year at the very moment when the air raid sirens sound throughout the nation of Israel.
Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, in the name of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, remembered with both sirens and silence today across Israel.
That is our broadcast for this Thursday night. Thank you so very much for being here with us. My thanks to my friends, Nicole and Katy and Ali for filling in and allowing me to fly south for a few days.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END