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Cohen lawyers dispute Avenatti report. TRANSCRIPTS: 05/09/2018. The 11th Hour with Brian Williams

Guests: Joyce Vance, Guy Lewis, Robert Costa, Anita Kumar, Jeremy Peters, Michael Crowley, Sue Mi Terry

Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: May 9, 2018 Guest: Joyce Vance, Guy Lewis, Robert Costa, Anita Kumar, Jeremy Peters, Michael Crowley, Sue Mi Terry

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: -- that`s tonight`s "Last Word." We`re doing a special edition of Facebook live tonight a few minutes after the show. And "Washington Post" reporter, Robert Costa, has once again been talking to Rudy Giuliani today, and Robert Costa will be talking to Brian Williams next on "The 11th Hour With Brian Williams," which starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, Michael Cohen fights back. His lawyers disputing some of the allegations from Stormy Daniels` attorney Michael Avenatti who notes, they don`t contradict 99% of what`s been alleged. What all this means for the President as well as the ongoing Mueller investigation.

Plus, how the firing of Jim Comey one year ago today has haunted this President and this White House each day ever since.

"The 11th Hour" on a Wednesday night begins now.

Well, good evening, once again, from our NBC News Headquarters here in New York. This was Day 475 of the Trump administration. And there is building legal drama tonight between Stormy Daniels` attorney and cable news staple Michael Avenatti, and President Trump`s long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen of New York.

Tonight, attorneys for Cohen filed a document calling into question some of those documents put forward last night by Michael Avenatti. They say some of Avenatti`s reports about Michael Cohen`s financial transactions are inaccurate. And, in fact, have to do with a different Michael Cohen, one in Canada, one in Israel, to boot.

But we should note, Cohen`s attorneys acknowledge not all the documents are wrong. They confirm, for example, that AT&T and Novartis are Michael Cohen`s clients. And they write, "While much of the information in his report is completely inaccurate, Mr. Avenatti has published some information that appears to be from Mr. Cohen`s actual bank records and Mr. Cohen has no reason to be believe that Mr. Avenatti is in lawful possession of these records." The letter concludes by saying, "Michael Avenatti deliberately distorted information for the purposes of creating a toxic mix of misinformation."

Mr. Cohen said as much in shorter form when cameras descended upon him outside his midtown hotel while getting into a cab today here in New York.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Any response? Any response to Avenatti?



WILLIAMS: Mr. Avenatti was back on television tonight, two hours ago, in fact, in this very studio pushing back hard on all of this. Here is what he told Rachel Maddow.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: This is really a clear example, Rachel, of ignoring the elephants in the room and concentrating on the fleas on the floor. And what do I mean by that? So in the report that we issued, we identified about $3,180,503 worth of financial transactions. So $3,180,503.

They`ve taken issue with a whopping $20,583, OK? So we struck a percentage -- our report appears to be 99.35% accurate, which if this was an election, that would be pretty good for the popular vote.


WILLIAMS: Tonight`s news comes as we`re still tracking developments on the parts of Avenatti`s report that are accurate and seem to intersect with the overall Russia investigation. "Washington Post" reporting that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was looking into payments the pharmaceutical giant, Novartis, made to Cohen.

"Novartis said Wednesday that it -- it was contacted last November by lawyers from the Special Counsel`s Office regarding the company`s agreement with Essential Consultants." That`s the Cohen company." The drugmaker said it cooperated fully and provided all the information requested."

And a senior official inside Novartis told NBC News that Michael Cohen contacted the company after the 2016 election, promising access to the new administration. In a statement, Novartis said it had an agreement with Cohen`s company, the LLC, focused on U.S. health care policy matters.

We also know that AT&T, which acknowledged paying Michael Cohen for insight into Trump, was also contacted by Mueller. They released a statement tonight. It read, "When we were contacted by the Special Counsel`s Office regarding Michael Cohen, we cooperated fully, providing all information requested in November and December of 2017. A few weeks later, our consulting contract with Cohen expired at the end of the year. Since then we`ve received no additional questions from the Special Counsel`s Office and consider the matter closed."

Meanwhile, President Trump`s outspoken attorney Rudolph Giuliani told NBC News this afternoon that President Trump was not involved in any way with the business dealings in question, either before or since becoming President. We were able to locate Mr. Giuliani tonight. We found him behind home plate at the Yankee game tonight, because no matter what else is going on in the world, after all, the Boston Red Sox are in town.

For more, let`s bring in our lead-off panel on a Wednesday night. "Washington Post" National Political Reporter Robert Costa, also happens to be the moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS. Joyce Vance is here with us, Former U.S. Attorney who spent 40 -- 25 years, I don`t want to date you, as a Federal Prosecutor. And we welcome to the broadcast Guy Lewis, a Former U.S. Attorney who also worked with Robert Mueller, James Comey and Rod Rosenstein among others while at DOJ. Welcome to you all.

Joyce, does this Cohen filing tonight, which you described -- it`s one of the smartest attorneys you`ll ever meet, described to our producer as a weird critter procedurally. They`re trying to kick Avenatti out of court in New York. Does this filing tonight change what is in effect as we said our lead story, the body of Avenatti`s documents?

JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: It`s interesting on a couple of fronts, Brian. For one thing, the letter obviously reveals a couple of flaws in Avenatti`s data. But it also perhaps gives us an interesting clue into where Avenatti`s information came from.

The fact that there are a couple of inclusions in this report that aren`t allegedly from Michael Cohen, the New York lawyer, but rather for other Michael Cohens indicates perhaps that the name was run through some sort of government terminal and came up with some good hits and some bad hits. So that`s an interesting takeaway here.

WILLIAMS: Guy, what did this change? When Avenatti`s documents came out last night, did it change how you view this case? And where do you think we`re headed here?

GUY LEWIS, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, despite what -- Brian, despite what Avenatti was saying earlier in the broadcast, I don`t think it`s good to file papers with a federal judge, and even be wrong 3%, 4%, 5% of the time. To make mistakes, which if true, that they`ve gotten the names wrong, they`ve gotten amounts wrong, they`ve gotten transactions wrong. Even though the bulk of it may be right, I still don`t think that`s good for Avenatti.

I mean, look, I`m not a fan and never have been a fan when I was with the government. And now that I represent people on the other side, I`m not a fan of trying your cases in the media. And clearly, that`s Avenatti`s strategy here.

WILLIAMS: Well, let me ask a clearer question. Do you think what we learned from Avenatti last night only changed what we learn about this case? What the public knows about this case and what`s always been true remains true, Mueller`s proceeding at his altitude. Southern District of New York proceeding at theirs. And we get to know a small portion of it?

LEWIS: I think that`s right, Brian. And I also agree with Joyce as well in as much as you`ve got even another level of an investigative agency who`s now announced their presence, which is the Treasury Department. I think these were -- that he included information based from SARs, suspicious activity reports, SARs, which are generally filed by financial institutions. And then they go to the Treasury Department.

And so somebody has either leaked that from the financial institution or they`ve leaked it from the Treasury Department. I think one of two would be my guess.

WILLIAMS: And we should point out Mr. Avenatti asked again tonight is not sharing where he got all this from.

Mr. Costa, I`d like to share a bit of the work of your colleagues at "The Washington Post." It`s about Mr. Cohen and it reads, "President Trump had been sworn into office and his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, saw a golden opportunity. From his perch in a law office," in this very building, "on the 23rd floor of New York`s Rockefeller Center, Cohen pitched potential clients on his close association with Trump, noting that he still was the President`s lawyer, according to associates. He showed photos of himself with Trump and mentioned how frequently they spoke, even asking people to share news articles describing him as the President`s fixer. I`m crushing it, he said, according to an associate who spoke to him in the summer of 2017."

Robert, you`ve known this man for quite a while. Is that the Michael Cohen you know?

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": He`s always been a hard charging associate of then businessman Donald Trump, now President Donald Trump. What`s intriguing now about the Cohen case, talking to Mayor Giuliani tonight just before he went to that Yankees game is that they believe that if Mueller was really concerned about Cohen in relation to the President he wouldn`t have delegated the case to the Southern District of New York. And the Trump legal team tonight is in a protection mode around their client, the President of the United States, knowing that Cohen is battling Michael Avenatti.

You don`t see Giuliani on T.V. tonight except texting friends from that Yankees game because they`re trying not to get drawn into Cohen`s problems legally. It`s really interesting to hear Giuliani talk that through and other people close to the President through. They know Cohen is close to the President, but they`re trying to disassociate the President from that long-time fixer.

WILLIAMS: Yes, we`ve heard some of that at the White House. Tell me within reason, within bounds of what you can share what Giuliani did say to you. And what you`ve been able to ascertain as to his mindset these days?

COSTA: His mindset these days is the presidential interview is still up for grabs. Is it going to happen or not, sitting down with Robert Mueller. That`s the decision they have to make. And he says if they`re not going to do the interview, they expect maybe to get a get a subpoena from the Special Counsel. And then it becomes a weeks long, if not months long legal fight.

WILLIAMS: Joyce Vance, if I pronounced you Robert Mueller, what questions would you ask of companies like Novartis and AT&T, which I`m quite sure were surprised to find themselves drawn into this publicly.

VANCE: You know, absolutely. And these are fascinating questions for the Mueller investigation. They are perhaps a little bit of a curveball.

Interesting to contemplate whether they`re part of the core Mueller investigation. But these are questions about were they in essence being offered the opportunity to buy access, to buy influence, to this new administration. Is that what their connection with the President`s fixer involved?

WILLIAMS: Is that illegal at any level? I mean, this kind of influence is bought and sold every day in Washington.

VANCE: You know, maybe, maybe not. We don`t know enough about the facts. It certainly is an accumulation of the swamp that Trump ran against.

Law in this country -- it`s interesting. If this was foreign law, it would be illegal under a statute called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, most likely. But in this country, there`s recent Supreme Court case law that makes it very difficult for prosecutors to allege this sort of pay to play conduct as a crime.

And there is a case in Virginia involving McDonald. And that case came out poorly for the government. So it might be very difficult for this to be indicted as criminal conduct.

WILLIAMS: Hey, Guy, just back to Avenatti for a second. I know you said there`s a certain danger in submitting anything to federal court with any kind of percentage rate of error. Does it matter, and to whom, where and how he got these documents, these records?

LEWIS: It may, Brian. Because the way this is -- the posture of this thing is very interesting. The lawyers for Cohen have opposed Avenatti`s request to even practice in front of Judge Wood. They`ve come in and they`ve said, "Look, he is on the media, he`s poisoning in essence the jury pool. He`s submitting false and misleading documents to the court. He shouldn`t be allowed to practice in the Southern District of New York."

Very aggressive stand. I`ve only seen it, doing this for about 35 year, I`ve only seen that once, maybe twice in extreme circumstances.

WILLIAMS: It`s usually I`m told kind of a courtesy to allow someone to argue a single case.

LEWIS: Exactly. That`s right.

WILLIAMS: Robert Costa, final question for you. I heard a bunch of journalists today talking about how -- what Avenatti has done with these documents is kind of proved that if you want to look at Stormy Daniels as a tawdry side show, you can. But those people who always thought it was a subset of the Russia investigation have been proven right. Where do you come down?

COSTA: That`s an important point, because the relationship -- the NDA that was agreed to by Mr. Cohen and Ms. Stephanie Clifford is one issue. But really the funding of that NDA has really become the issue. How did Michael Cohen finance the nondisclosure agreement, and what was his source of income more generally speaking at the time of the nondisclosure agreement. Because that -- he is so close to President Trump that reporters are hoping and perhaps lawyers to illuminate more about what we don`t understand about how Michael Cohen`s financial dealings worked and whether that ever had an impact or an effect on the President.

WILLIAMS: Terrific, thanks to our two returning veterans, Robert Costa and Joyce Vance. And another welcome to the broadcast to Guy Lewis. Thank you for joining us tonight.

LEWIS: Thanks, Brian.

WILLIAMS: And coming up for us, how this all plays politically for this President, this White House, this administration. Two of the very best covering this West Wing standing by with their reporting.

And later, we`ve called in the man living rent free in Donald Trump`s mind. How the firing of James Comey a year ago today is still affecting this White House every moment of every day since. "The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Wednesday night.


WILLIAMS: Welcome back. These new details about Michael Cohen`s corporate clients, reports that his consulting appeared to involve some level of promised access to the President, it`s putting the White House in an even further uncomfortable position tonight. The details have raised questions about whether the President knew anything about these arrangements.

Today, the White House Press Secretary was asked nearly a dozen times about Cohen`s transactions and any possible connections to Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you know whether Mr. Cohen ever approached the White House as a representative of any of those companies, whether the President was aware of the payments, or whether he was aware that Mr. Cohen was marketing himself?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I`m not aware. And again, I would refer you to the outside counsel.

KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The President promised to drain the swamp. So does he feel it`s appropriate that Michael Cohen, his personal attorney, was selling access to him?

SANDERS: Again, I`m not going to weigh into this. That`s a determination that individual companies have to make, and I haven`t spoken with the President.

WELKER: Has the President taken any action during his administration to benefit Novartis, AT&T, Korea Aerospace?

SANDERS: Not that I`m aware of.


WILLIAMS: You may recall, and we are somewhat duty bound to point out the notion of paying for access was a topic Donald Trump returned to often during the campaign.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It`s called pay for play. It`s true. It`s illegal.

You`re paying and you`re getting things. But it came out to her people, pay for play. But this was big stuff. Pay for play. It`s illegal.


WILLIAMS: Fast forward to today. And as to what else we might be witnessing at work here. Phil Rucker of "The Washington Post" puts it this way in his latest piece, "By making brash and risky moves on the world stage, from shredding the Iran nuclear deal to negotiating nuclear disarmament with the North Koreans to imposing tariffs on Chinese imports, Trump has a chance to change the way voters evaluate his presidency. For Trump, each bold stroke is like a spritz of Febreze on his narrative of domestic scandal, momentarily masking the expanding Russia probe of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Or the federal criminal investigation into his long-time attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen."

The aforementioned Phil Rucker is with us tonight. He`s the Pulitzer Prize-winning White House Bureau Chief for "The Washington Post" and MSNBC political analyst as well. Also with us Anita Kumar, White House Correspondent for McClatchy Newspaper.

Phil, nice turn of phrase. The crowd is still cheering, the ball is still going over the fence after you filed that one. What do you think the biggest fear is at the White House? And obviously how does it feed into the narrative you wrote about?

PHIL RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, the fear continues to be Michael Cohen. And what more are we going to learn about his business arrangements, about what he used that money for, about whether there were other payments to other women that have not been publicly disclosed. And the danger here is that the disclosure of Michael Avenatti last night depicts a whole business that Cohen had that the public didn`t know about and that goes directly to the White House.

He was quite literally selling his access to and knowledge of President Trump and his associates to corporations for millions of dollars. And the White House has not yet come up with, you know, an answer of any kind, let alone a satisfactory one to explain why Cohen might have been doing that, why the President`s personal lawyer was offering those services, and what the President knew about the arrangement.

WILLIAMS: Anita, our friend and long-time GOP political aide Steve Schmidt was on with Nicolle Wallace today. We were going to run that for you. But it was a soliloquy he delivered about the swamp in Washington, about how rampant corruption seems to be.

This President, who did run on swamp drainage, is fighting this now counternarrative. What are members of his base likely to say? What are they likely to make of it?

ANITA KUMAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPER": Yes, I mean, we`ve been seeing over the past, you know, 16 months different ways that he has failed to drain the swamp. So not just this, but lobbyists in his administration, you know, failure to disclose certain financial agreements, things like that. So it`s something that I`ve been talk to a lot of Trump supporters out there about, not particularly today, but just, you know, has the President drained the swamp and what do you think of this? And what I keep hearing over and over again is that they are disappointed but not really surprised.

But the funny thing about it is they don`t really blame him, the person. They say that Donald Trump is just one person. You can`t expect him to get rid of, you know, this whole culture that`s in Washington in 15 and 16 months, maybe not even in one term. So they`re disappointed, they don`t like it, they want him to act faster, but they`re not that upset with him.

WILLIAMS: And Phil, there`s two aspects of this I keep thinking about and maybe you can speak to them given your knowledge of Donald Trump. Number one, think of what Cohen knows was vacuumed up was in his home, his hotel room and his office. Think of that in terms of Donald Trump not liking surprises. Number two, Donald Trump aspect is he usually needs an enemy, an opponent. And this doesn`t fit nicely into that category.

RUCKER: It does not. There`s no easy opponent here. I mean, it`s one thing when he can go after Robert Mueller in the "witch hunt." But this is different. This is his personal lawyer. And a lot of these personal private records that have been vacuumed up.

Clearly Michael Cohen know what`s the Feds have. But I`m not sure Donald Trump knows everything that the Feds have. And certainly the White House officials don`t know what the Feds have.

And one thing to point out, Brian, we`d be remiss if we didn`t talk a little bit about how this pay to play pattern has been a problem for many others in the administration in the last few months. Most notably the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has come under a barrage of headlines over many months, disclosures in the news media, about effectively acts as a grifter, taking advantage of taxpayer funds, taking advantage of perks, many of them unethical by lobbyist. And there`s a danger here for Trump in a political context that his administration becomes denied by corruption.

WILLIAMS: Yes, nor am I and the Ethics lawyer said tonight he believes Pruitt is under no fewer than 11 separate investigation, which is staggering.

RUCKER: Yes, and still has a job.

WILLIAMS: Yes, exactly. Anita, later in this broadcast and later tonight, we`re going to be talking about the return of these detainees from North Korea. In normal times, that would be a front page story that would get a good ride. A news cycle or two.

But as no one needs to remind you, Anita, we could wake up tomorrow morning to just the latest headline on all things Russia, and it could be washed away, having happened while most Americans slept.

KUMAR: Right. It`s true. But this President is trying to really use this moment tonight -- you know, the Americans are supposed to come back in the middle of the night, 2:00 a.m. He has decided to go there with the First Lady to greet them at the airport.

He has opened the event to all media, not just the pool that, you know, normally travels with him. So he`s really trying to make it a T.V. moment and he`s hoping to capitalize on that. And he hopes that people will wake up to it in the morning.

WILLIAMS: A great thanks to two of our friends, Phil Rucker and Anita Kumar. Really appreciate you joining our conversation.

Tonight and coming up for us after a break, it is perhaps the most consequential action by this President. It all started with a letter, hand delivered by former New York cop named Keith Schiller. "The 11th Hour" back after this.



CHUCK TODD, MSNBC NEWS ANCHOR: Breaking news, Jim Comey is out at the FBI.

CHUCK TODD, MSNBC NEWS ANCHOR: The city erupting at the news that the President of the United States has just fired the person leading the investigation into the President`s own involvement with Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This came as a total shock to him, to everybody else in the FBI. They absolutely had no heads up on this.

WILLIAMS: The White House was caught off-guard by the political backlash from this. But with some Democrats in Congress saying we are now in a constitutional crisis.


WILLIAMS: That was a small sample of the conversation we were having here on this network exactly one year ago today. While Comey was on the West Coast, his firing was delivered via letter in a Manila envelope delivered by long time Trump body man and former cop Keith Schiller. Television news helicopters followed Comey to the airport and on to his chartered Gulf Stream jet like it was a slow motion police chase. It was President Trump`s decision to fire James Comey that set into motion the chain of events that may come to define the Trump presidency.

Bloomberg Columnist Noah Feldman put it this way today, "Without the firing of Comey, there would have been no appointment of Robert Mueller has special counsel, Comey would not have had any reason to go after Trump personally, especially as regards to Michael Cohen."

And even one year later, here we are, Trump can`t seem to let go of his feelings about James Comey. In just the last month, look at this, the president has attacked the former FBI director at least 20 times on Twitter.

With us tonight to talk about all this, Jeremy Peters, Political Reporter for the New York Times and Michael Crowley, National Security Editor for POLITICO.

Michael, you told one of our producers that looking back, you were among the first to learn of the firing of Comey. And you had enough sense as a veteran reporter to not believe it at all.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, NATIONAL SECURITY EDITOR, POLITICO: Yes, Brian. It`s kind of amazing. You know, the first is relative, but I learned about it well before it became public. By that, I mean, maybe 20 minutes before it was announced. No one else in our newsroom had heard about it.

I had a source who, I can`t get into the details, but almost kind of by accident found out about it very soon after the White House started spreading the word. Sent me a text and said Trump just fired Comey. And I had been having kind of a quiet afternoon, was working on some totally unrelated story. And I literally didn`t believe it. And we exchanged several texts where I was saying you must be confused. Something gotten lost in translation, what are you talking about? That`s not possible.

And when I finally got up and sort of dared to tell a colleague thinking this is crazy, I remember my colleague looked at me like I said I was a time traveler or something, like I`ve completely lost my mind. And after a couple of minutes, we snap out of it and realize, this might actually be happening and did our best to break the story. We were on the trail and then the White House put it out officially.

So unfortunately, I missed my chance at glory, Brian, in part to wrap up because I could not believe this was really happening. Donald Trump broke all the rules as a candidate. But at that point, I still didn`t realize that he was willing to shatter every norm as the President of the United States. I just didn`t think an act like that was possible. It defied my understanding of what was possible. But I`ve learned my lesson since then.

WILLIAMS: Jeremy, this case, the firing of Comey, makes me want to dust off the old phrase. They didn`t know what they didn`t know. And here`s what I mean about that. The lack of institutional knowledge on the part of the President, and you could argue his daughter and son-in-law who had much more sway arguably than they have today in the West Wing, did not know the consequences, the traditional relationship or lack thereof between a White House and the Department of Justice. They didn`t what they didn`t know.

JEREMY PETERS, POLITICAL REPORTER, NEW YORK TIMES: That`s exactly, right. And Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, Brian, were key in pushing Donald Trump to do this. They thought that the Democrats would greet this news with delight.

But yes, sure, the guy who opened this investigation into Hillary Clinton and probably cost us the White House, yes, absolutely, he should be fired. But of course, they made a terrible miscalculation there, as did Trump who did not understand or care to understand the parameters of the office, and the duties that the people who work in his cabinet have.

But when you run the government like you run a personal fiefdom, this is what happens. And Trump never saw Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department and the FBI as people who work for the American people. He saw them as agents of his own bidding and doing. And that`s what happened here, with Donald Trump really has never understood what the difference is between personal loyalty and an oath to the constitution of the United States.

And so he has said memorably, where`s my Roy Cohn? Why isn`t Jeff Sessions protecting me? That`s how he viewed this. These people were supposed to protect him, not uphold the constitution. And that`s why we are where we are today.

WILLIAMS: And, Michael, the obsession remains. Donald Trump still remains obsessed with Comey.

CROWLEY: he does. It`s incredible. Not only that he has this obsession, but how willing he is to display it. And this need he has to articulate it. I think that, you know, among the many ways in which this was a terrible blunder, one was that he chose a guy who is really well spoken, telegenic,, was able to put together a book that a lot of people find very compelling, did a powerful media tour.

I mean Comey is a terrible enemy to have made, not only to the substantive reasons that led to the appointment of Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor, created this whole new category of possible wrongdoing, this question of whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice. But also creating in Comey this incredibly compelling, you know, tall, handsome, incredibly intelligent figure who is just, you know, letting it rip against the president. It`s sort of a public relations nightmare.

WILLIAMS: Still out there trolling the President, one could argue. Hey, Jeremy, I also note that Mueller, Rosenstein, Sessions, all three remain on the job, in the federal payroll tonight.

PETERS: They do. And I`m sure all of them are wondering when the ax falls on them. Because as the Comey case showed us, President Trump doesn`t really seem to have much restraint when it comes to making bold, really reckless decisions like this.

So I think that, you know, when all is said and done, when you look back on Donald Trump`s first year in the White House, there`s no doubt that this is the most consequential. I do wonder, though, if we are where we are today not because of Trump`s decision to fire Jim Comey, but because of all of the reckless and improper things that the people around Trump during his campaign did that would have been uncovered anyway.

Yes, Comey`s firing was a catalyst for the special counsel, but ultimately would we -- are we going to be in a different place sick months from now than we would have been anyway had he not done this? And I`m not sure, because I think there would have been investigations going on to this, going on in this in the first place.

Well, while it may feel like it`s been a decade, it`s been a year tonight. And our thanks to two guys who were around and remain with us now. Jeremy Peters, Michael Crowley, thank you both very much.

Coming up for us, three Americans back over US air space tonight after being held in a North Korean prison camp. More on what this could mean for Donald Trump, for the North Korean relationship when we continue.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: I appreciate Kim Jong-un doing this and allowing them to go. We`ve picked a time. We`ve picked a place for the meeting, or summit as you like to call it. And I think it will be very successful. But as I always say, who knows, who knows what`s going to happen.


WILLIAMS: As he said, who knows how the meeting with the North Korean leader will go, but we do know Kim Jong-un made what the White House said, called a positive gesture of goodwill by releasing three Americans held captive in North Korea.

In a few hours, President Trump, as we reported, plans to meet the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the three now freed Americans when they arrive at Andrews. The AP is reporting Pompeo didn`t know for sure until very late in the trip that he would be able to fly the three of them home.

Here with us to talk about it, we`re joined by one of the foremost experts on North Korea, Sue Mi Terry, Senior Fellow for the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Senior Analysts formerly at CIA while on the White House National Security Council.

Sue, your reaction to this happening, how momentous is this release?

SUE MI TERRY, SENIOR FELLOW, KOREA CHAIR: Well, it`s a positive step. And I do think this is an indication that the negotiation that`s taking place by now, between Washington and Pyongyang is going pretty well. This is obviously Pompeo has met with Kim Jong-un.

So I do think this is an indication that when Trump meets with Kim initially, at least, that summit is going to be successful. That there will be some sort of an outcome. Otherwise, I don`t think North Korean would have release these Americans.

WILLIAMS: This may sound cynical, don`t the North Koreans grab prisoners to have leverage over the United States?

TERRY: Absolutely. And that`s why they grabbed 12 of Americans since 2010. They have released two. And you know what happened to Otto Warmbier. So the fact that they`re releasing them now, I think is part of their strategy. They want to sort of lay the ground work of goodwill because they`re looking for something more, when they sitting down with President Trump, which should be soon, early June, perhaps in Singapore.

WILLIAMS: Yes. There`s been no official announcement. It appears media reports are that it`s probably Singapore. Is that the fact that it might be in Asia, does that mean anything? And set the stakes for us.

TERRY: Well, that fact it is -- I think it`s because Kim Jong-un has a logistical issue. His own plane cannot fly too far.

WILLIAMS: They don`t want to stop for fuel.

TERRY: Right. No, and they don`t have a pilot that has flown that far. They don`t actually have a plane that`s flown that far, to Switzerland on or Sweden for example. So as far as they can go, and so they really wanted this to take place in Pyongyang because it`s, you know, it is a propaganda coup for Kim Jong-un. So this is a place in a neutral country that they could both agree on.

But again, I think what President Trump did by getting out of the Iran deal is he really set the bar very, very high for his meeting with Kim Jong-un. Because now he has to come up with a deal with North Korea that`s tougher, right, tougher obviously the Iran deal because that wasn`t strong enough or tough enough for President Trump, so we`ll see.

WILLIAMS: Final question, if you were the White House adviser on the Korean Peninsula, is there a way to give me a number, how many hours of prep time would you ask for with the President before going into this high stakes meeting?

TEERY: As many hours as possible. It`s taking place way too fast, we didn`t have a lot of prep time, we don`t have a lot of people working on it. But of course and, you know, all these guys could probably come up with a big prep like this, where President Trump read it. I hope he`s taking advice by his officials. So we`ll see.

WILLIAMS: Sue Mi Terry, please come back as we get closer. Thank you for being with us.

Coming up, it was a tough hearing for the CIA nominee, but it wasn`t torture. That was the subject behind most of the questioning. We`ll show you what happened when "THE 11TH HOUR" continues.


WILLIAMS: Just so we`re clear, the next item is about torture, which the government prefers to call by a euphemism, a friendlier name, enhanced interrogation techniques. This is from today`s New York Times, it`s about what the US did to this guy, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 planner.

But just so we`re clear, this is torture. And in reads, quote, "In the weeks after his capture, an Intelligence Committee report said Mr. Mohammed was subjected to the suffocation technique called waterboarding 183 times over 15 sessions, stripped naked, doused with water, slapped, slammed into a wall, given rectal rehydrations without medical need", there`s euphemism, "shackled into painful stress conditions and sleep-deprived for about a week by being forced to stand with his hands chained above his head."

Torture by any other name is something militaries, and governments, and presidents get to choose to employ or not. And America`s use of torture during the Bush presidency in the aftermath of 9/11, that was front and center today in the confirmation of the Trump nominee to head the CIA Gina Haspel, a career undercover operative at the agency.

She`s controversial because she ran a so-called "black site" in Thailand where waterboarding was among the methods employed.


GINA HASPEL, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: I can offer you my personal commitment clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, on my watch, CIA will not restart a detention and interrogation program.

Senator, my moral compass is strong. I would not allow CIA to undertake activity that I thought was immoral, even if it was technically legal. I would absolutely not permit it. Senator, I don`t believe that torture works.


WILLIAMS: Senators pressed Haspel on whether she would follow an order from President Trump to bring back waterboarding, a practice by the way he has enthusiastically endorsed.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: As a candidate, President Trump repeatedly expressed his support for waterboarding. In fact he said we should go beyond waterboarding. So if the CIA has a high-value terrorism suspect in its custody and the President gave you a direct order to waterboard that suspect, what would you do?

HASPEL: Senator, I would advise -- I do not believe the President would ask me to do that, but we have today in the US government other, US government entities that conduct interrogations.

SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D), NEW MEXICO: You didn`t actually answer the question. What would you do if the President ordered you to get back in that business?

HASPEL: Senator, the President has elected me to give him advice. I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at CIA under any circumstances.


WILLIAMS: West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin`s announcement that he will vote for Haspel, seems to put nomination over the top as the first woman director of the CIA. However, just tonight, Republican Senator John McCain, the only senator who has been tortured, released a statement saying in part, quote, "Ms. Haspel`s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture is immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty or advise and consent and reject this nomination."

Another break for us, coming up, another vague threat to curtail a free press, otherwise known as Wednesday, when "THE 11-HOUR" continues.


WILLIAMS: The last thing before we go tonight, an attack on the free press today by the President, who let`s face it, as President has never seemed to fully grasp the concept of a free press. And further seems able to tolerate the press only when it`s good press.


TRUMP: I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.

The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake.

Fake, fake media.

Fake as hell.

So fake, fake news.

Tomorrow they will say Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.

It`s a disgrace.

I`m not ranting and raving.

Fake news, folks, a lot of fake.

I`m just telling you, you`re dishonest people.

It`s frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write. And people should look into it.

You know, in the old days when the newspapers used to write, they`d put names down, innuendo. Today they say "sources have said that President Trump." They don`t have sources.

These are very dishonest people, many of them. They are very, very dishonest people. And the ratings are lousy, by the way.


WILLIAMS: People should look into it. Here`s the President this morning on Twitter, "The fake news is working overtime. Just reported that despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy and all things else, 91% of the network news about me is negative", which he calls fake, "why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?"

Indeed some credentials were pulled during the campaign, but so far as of tonight, we`re still allowed on the White House grounds. In fact, the White House is eager for positive coverage of the return of those prisoners from North Korea in the middle of the night. Veteran Journalist and Author Jonathan Altar responded to the President`s dangled threat this way, quote, "If Trump yanks any credentials, the entire White House press corps must walk out and say it won`t return until he restores the credentials. Anything short of that is craven capitulation to a dictator."

To be clear here, credentials do allow access to the White House but if forced to, we can cover him from here, without them, a free press is still free to cover the President. And we thought tonight might be a good time for a normalizing moment. So remember how presidents used to refer to a free press. So here now, a former president in an interview with reporters.


SANDER VANOCUR, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: You once said you were reading more and enjoying it less. Are you still avid newspaper, reader of magazine? Remember those troll with you on the campaign, magazine wasn`t save, or --

JOHN F. KENNEDY, FORMER PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Oh it is. No, no, I think it`s invaluable, even though it may cause you -- it`s never pleasant to be reading things frequently that are not agreeable news. But I would say that it`s an invaluable arm of the presidency. I would think that Mr. Krushiev, operating a totalitarian systems, which has many advantages as far as being able to move in secret and all the rest.

There`s a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily to an administration. When you have, you know, we never like it even though we don`t -- even though we wish they didn`t write it, even though we disapprove. There still any doubt that we couldn`t do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.


WILLIAMS: He was gone less than a year later, John F. Kennedy speaking with reporters on December 17th of 1962.

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


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