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Russia probe looms over White House. TRANSCRIPT: 05/10/2018. The 11th Hour with Brian Williams

Guests: Jennifer Rodgers, Josh Gerstein, Catherine Lucey, Sahil Kapur, Mara Gay, Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss

Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: May 10, 2018 Guest: Michael Schmidt, Cynthia Alksne, Daniel Goldman, Jackie Calmes, Matthew Nussbaum

BRIAN WILLIAMS, THE 11TH HOUR, HOST: -- Vice President Pence says respectfully, it's time for Mueller to call it quits.

The President avoids any talk of witch hunts or Russia at a rally in Indiana tonight as news breaks his Homeland Security Secretary was ready to quit after being berated by Trump in front of the entire Cabinet.

And a White House staffer says in front of a meeting that John McCain is "dying anyway after he opposed the nominee for CIA director.

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

And good evening, once again, from our NBC News Headquarters here in New York. Day 476 of the Trump administration and President Trump has returned after rallying his base at a campaign-style event in Elkhart, Indiana tonight. But as the President calls for border security and urges his supporters to get out and vote in the midterms, this Mueller investigation is looming over all of it.

Today, we learned that Rudy Giuliani resigned his post at a Manhattan law firm, apparently freed up now to solely focus on representing the President in the Russia investigation. NBC News reports tonight "partners said they had finally had enough, having grown increasingly frustrated with how Giuliani has handled himself in the last couple of weeks. In a phone interview Thursday, Giuliani said that when he took on the role as the President's lawyer, he initially thought it would be part-time and quick, but realized you can't just jump in and jump out. He called his departure from the firm a mutual decision." More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, as Giuliani prepares to spend all of his time on Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, Vice President Mike Pence told our own Andrea Mitchell today, respectfully it's time for the investigation to end.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's been about a year since this investigation began. Our administration's provided over a million documents. We've fully cooperated in it, and in the interest of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up. And I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.


WILLIAMS: Those comments there by Pence come as other Trump allies continue their attacks on the Russia investigation.

"Washington Post" reporting tonight, Congressman Mark Meadows plans to ask a federal financial watchdog to audit the office of Special Counsel Mueller. The "Post" says the planned request from Meadows "appears to be mainly calibrated to force the disclosure of a three-page Justice Department memo spelling out the authorized scope of Mueller's investigation. Meadows said he believed the audit is required under federal law and could not be completed without an unredacted copy of the memo written in August of 2017 by, you guessed it, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein."

"This scope memo, as it's known in the trade, as turned into a major flash point between the Justice Department and a cadre of House Republicans, including Meadows and other members of the Freedom Caucus who say that Mueller has gone outside the bounds of his original charge to investigate possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign."

Let's bring in, shall we, our lead-off panel on a busy Thursday night. Michael Schmidt, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Correspondent for "The New York Times." Cynthia Alksne, Former Federal Prosecutor and a Veteran of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. And Daniel Goldman is back with us as well, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Welcome to you all.

Michael, you led the way today on this reporting on the Giuliani matter. Talk to us some more about this decision to, as they say, spend more time with his client.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think that there were concerns at the firm about Giuliani. Many law firms over the past few months, as the President has looked for lawyers, have discouraged their lawyers from representing the President. They realize that internally they may have difficulties with that. On top of having an internal issue, there was the issue of what Giuliani had said. He said that the firm sort of practiced in ways that the firm actually didn't in terms of making payoffs and such. And this was something that bothered the firm as well.

So what we had today was them parting ways. Giuliani going off on his own to do his own thing, to represent the President. Giuliani did make it a point tonight to say that this was not anything -- this issue about how he described the payments was not something that the firm had raised with him directly. This was not something that they had brought to his attention and said was the reason they were getting rid of him. But at the same time, they have parted ways.

WILLIAMS: Cynthia, how has Rudolph Giuliani made things worse since coming onboard in your view?

CYNTHIA ALKSNE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think he embarrassed himself by jumping into this without really working with his colleagues at all at the White House, by essentially saying the President was a liar because the President apparently did know about this payoff, by announcing that perhaps it was a campaign violation because it would be terrible if it came up in the middle of the debates and/or if it came up in the campaign. So he's embarrassed himself that way. He's also suggested that perhaps there were other payoffs.

He's embarrassed his firm saying it's not unlike things that would happen that -- here's the problem. You can't just make payments without telling your client, and he intimated that that's what happens at big firms, and I'm sure it was upsetting for them.

The funny part about this whole thing is that I'm sure that in the White House Counsel's Office, they're saying, "Oh, great. Now he can work full- time with us because this last two weeks has been a complete disaster, an embarrassment for himself, an embarrassment for the White House, and an embarrassment for his firm."

WILLIAMS: Yes. After all, they have a partner from Williams & Connolly who just moved all his stuff over to his new office at the White House, perhaps falsely assuming he was going to be the lead lawyer.

ALKSNE: Right. And he should have been consulted before all of a sudden Giuliani went out and made this announcement on Sean Hannity. And it's a huge mistake.

WILLIAMS: Daniel, welcome back by the way. Mr. Avenatti, who I have joked spends enough time on cable television to have his mail forwarded here and at least one other network. The big document release that got a lot of news attention this week, in any way has that harmed not him. Has that harmed the investigation, either the one Mueller is conducting or your old shop, SDNY, the Southern District of New York?

DANIEL GOLDMAN, FMR. ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: It remains to be seen. The one way I can think that it would potentially harm is that we do know that several of these companies have already met with investigators and prosecutors, and they likely made statements to explain what these payments were. Now they're in the public eye and then in the heat of the press, and those statements may or may not add up and may or may not be good publicity. And there is always the potential that as they're measuring the reaction, that they change tack a little bit and have a different explanation.

So then you have inconsistent statements. And as a witness, that's the worst thing you could ever have, and it makes you almost unusable. So we don't know what they told the investigators. We just know what they've been telling the public. And if there is a difference between the two, that could be problematic for the investigation.

WILLIAMS: Michael, I want to read you John Kelly has given an interview late today apparently to NPR. They deal with audio. While we don't have their audio until it airs tomorrow morning, we do have the transcript. And here is a portion of what he said.

"Something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me there is nothing there relative to our President. It may not be a cloud, but certainly the President is, you know, somewhat embarrassed, frankly. When world leaders come in, it's kind of like, you know, Bibi Netanyahu is here and he, who's under investigation himself and it's like, you know, you walk in and, you know, the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing."

Michael, people had to check the record again because this White House is not known to do embarrassment.

SCHMIDT: Well, the thing about Kelly's statements that stuck out to me and some of my colleagues who were looking at it was that the President doesn't like the idea of being embarrassed. And here Kelly is talking about that, talking about the President being embarrassed. And I don't think that's going to be something that sits well with the President. He doesn't like the idea of the humiliation of this investigation. It certainly has humiliated him, but to hear his Chief of Staff say that I think will unnerve him.

At the same time, Kelly does highlight a real issue that the President has had, where world leaders come in and want to ask him about this and want to say what's going on with this? Will you, you know, still be here? Is there something larger? You know, are there more difficulties for you?

And the President believes this gets in his way of representing the country on the international stage, and that bothers him very much because he thinks that this is in the back of the heads of the foreign leaders that he's speaking with. So Kelly there sort of acknowledging the problems of the cloud of the investigation that the President contends with on the international stage.

WILLIAMS: Cynthia, both Rudy and Pence have now made similar points through the public media to Mueller saying some form of let's wrap this up. There was Mike Pence with Andrea Mitchell early today. Pained expression on his face.

A lot of people then quickly ran Richard Nixon on tape saying a year of Watergate is enough. But after hearing Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani make the similar point, I want to listen together to our friend Matthew Dowd on this week on ABC this weekend. Listen to a point he makes about how long investigations traditionally go.


MATTHEW DOWD, ABC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: One thing I want to go back to what something that Rudy Giuliani said and many of the people that support Donald Trump, including Donald Trump has said. Basically, he's saying there's nothing here. We ought to get this over with. It ought to be done and this.

Benghazi was a four-year investigation. There were zero indictments, right? Clinton e-mail scandal was a two-year investigation. There were zero indictments. This has been a 14-month investigation. There's been 23 indictments. So if you're going to make an argument that something hasn't existed, this is way far above and beyond what's happened in this."


WILLIAMS: Cynthia, is that in line with your thinking?

ALKSNE: That is in line with my thinking. My hunch is that it's going to be difficult to wrap this up. There are a lot of things still to do. There are a lot of details to still be uncovered and discovered.

And then once all of the investigation is done, it has to be written up. I don't believe that can happen before the midterms, and I do not think that Mueller will issue a report right before the midterms. So my guess is this continues at a bare minimum into the next year.

WILLIAMS: And, Cynthia, you know the parlor game in law and media is to ask whether you think the Mueller investigation writ large or the Southern District of New York investigation of Mr. Cohen, which one of those two is a more pressing and existential danger to the presidency?

ALKSNE: Well, I don't know, but I will say I don't think that they're independent necessarily of each other. Just because the Mueller team handed over and Rosenstein handed over the search warrant into Cohen's house and lockers and everything to the U.S. attorney's office, if in the course of that search there are things that are relevant to the Russian investigation like apparently there is with this Columbus Nova, uncovering of their payments, that will go back to Mueller. So I don't think -- they're not either/or. They work together.

WILLIAMS: And, Daniel, talk a little bit about -- this is a tough one to explain, this effort to expose the memorandum in Washington by Republicans who are part of the so-called Freedom Caucus in the House of Representatives. Why is this important to you?

GOLDMAN: Well, this is important because it's part of an effort by the House -- some of the House Republicans who are Trump supporters to obtain a detailed memo outlining the mandate that Bob Mueller has. And they are -- the have asked the Department of Justice directly, and the Department of Justice has said no because it's part of an ongoing investigation, which is a confidential matter that is not shared with Congress and should not be shared with Congress. So now there's talk of trying to do an end run around the DOJ and force them to disclose this. And when you read that "Washington Post" article that you referenced at the top of the show, their rationale for wanting to do this is that somehow the American public thinks that we should figure out what's going on with Russian collusion but nothing more.

And I would ask those House Republicans who are clearly using -- making a partisan effort to undermine this investigation by exposing that memo potentially to targets of the investigation, to witnesses, I would ask them whether they would like to know if our President, or other members of the campaign, or the administration committed other crimes, perhaps such as bribery. Is that not something that the American people would want to know? So the rationale is flawed, and therefore it seemed like a naked partisan political effort to obtain the memo.

And we know that Devin Nunes and others who are Trump supporters have shared information with the President. So it's really a way to undermine the foundations of our criminal justice system and the investigation that's going on, and it should be getting more attention, and it should be getting more reaction.

WILLIAMS: Michael, what are you looking for next? I realize that a lot of this falls in our lap every day and we're in reactive mode. In proactive mode, what are you looking for?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think the big question sort of hanging over the President, the most pressing question is on the interview. And I just find it hard to believe that the President is going to voluntarily go in and do that. I don't think that that is something Giuliani thinks is a good idea. I think Giuliani understands the difficulties of that process and of the President going into such a situation even if the President wants to do that.

So what that will set up is this, is that Mueller will have to make a decision. Is he going to subpoena the President to testify before a grand jury? And that will be a very big call to make. And if he does that, it will likely be something that has to go all the way up to the Supreme Court and will be a real legal fight.

The question is, is that when could Mueller do that, and when would Mueller do that? And what accusations would Mueller get for trying to interfere with the President? Let's say Mueller wanted to subpoena the President on June 1st. Would people say that's unfair because the President is going off to try and make a deal with North Korea? If he did it in August, September, or October, is that too close to the election? There's going to be some tough calls that Mueller has to make about that as we go through these different political things that the President has on his plate.

WILLIAMS: Cynthia, it's quite possible I've been watching too much television, but I have a hypothetical question for you. Is Mueller the kind of person and is this the kind of federal investigation where they could go to the President theoretically and say, your daughter and son-in- law are in a certain amount of legal peril and perhaps lay it out and use that as incentive to bring the President in for a conversation?

ALKSNE: You could be watching too much television.

WILLIAMS: All right. I laid that out as a possibility.

ALKSNE: I don't think so. I ultimately think somehow Mueller will find -- or will try to thread the needle and find the right time. He will subpoena the President, and the President will eventually, after some legal battles, assert his Fifth Amendment right.

WILLIAMS: All right. Maybe I should watch better television. That's the answer. Michael Schmidt, Cynthia Alksne, Daniel Goldman -- you had a last word, Daniel? You had --

GOLDMAN: No, no. I think all of this stuff with the posturing by Giuliani is maybe a negotiating tactic to narrow the scope of an interview because I think that it's much preferable for the President to meet with prosecutors with his lawyers there than to potentially be subject to grand jury testimony.

WILLIAMS: OK. Good to get that in. Again, thank you to our guests for being part of our conversation on a Thursday night. A break for us.

And coming up, how the President's anger over not getting what he wants almost caused a resignation on his Cabinet just over the past 24 hours.

And this week's evisceration of the Vice President with the adoring and borderline heavenly gaze. We'll show you the Mike Pence takedown in print and on the air when we continue.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To me, probably one of the reasons we're all here in this great victory celebration is border security. We have many things to do, but we have already begun the construction of the wall and so many other things are following. We will have those borders extremely strong, extremely powerful, and we will have laws that match the border.


WILLIAMS: Point of order. The construction of the wall he keeps talking about was a scheduled and planned reconstruction of a section of the wall. No new wall construction is under way as of yet.

The President tonight in Elkhart, Indiana, hours after we learned that his frustration with his signature campaign promise almost led to a vacancy in his Cabinet. "The New York Times" reports it this way. "Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security Secretary, told colleagues she was close to resigning after President Trump berated her on Wednesday in front of the entire Cabinet for what he said was her failure to adequately secure the nation's borders, according to several current and former officials familiar with the episode."

The "Times" goes on to report, Nielsen drafted a resignation letter but has not submitted it and, "Ms. Nielsen viewed the President's rant as directed mostly at her, and she told associates after the meeting that she should not continue in the job if he did not view her as effective. One person close to Ms. Nielsen said she is miserable in her job." After the "Times" story was published, the Homeland Security Secretary said in a statement she's not leaving her post and will continue to implement the President's security-focused agenda.

Here to talk about it, Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for "The New York Times" and an MSNBC Political Analyst. Jackie Calmes, White House Editor for the L.A. Times. And Matthew Nussbaum, White House Reporter for Politico.

Peter, is this potentially a case of misdirected anger at Congress, say, for not funding the signature program of the campaign?

PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, it's interesting. You heard him talk about this at the rally tonight. You've heard him talk about this a lot in recent weeks, his frustration that Congress hasn't come forward with more money for the wall and for other border security measures. His frustration that his own Department of Homeland Security, in his view, has not been tough enough. His own sense that the borders are porous.

The numbers of crossings had gone down substantially when he -- after he took office. He was proud of that, he'd like to cite that but they've been going up again the last few months and that has frustrated him.

Now, Kirstjen Nielsen, of course, shares a lot of his views about how important it is to close the borders, but she has become the focus of his ire as we've seen in recent days and particularly in that Cabinet meeting on Wednesday. She's in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, and as far as he's concerned, you know, she hasn't been doing the job aggressively enough.

WILLIAMS: Jackie, your newspaper pays particular close attention to this issue, and it bears repeating that the construction was planned. It was a long rollout as opposed to any new border wall going up in Southern California or anywhere else.

JACKIE CALMES, WHITE HOUSE EDITOR, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, it not only bears repeating, it's borne republishing a number of times. The paper is consistently coming out and saying, no, this is scheduled repair of a long existing fence at the border. And if I could, I agree completely with my former colleague Peter there about the fact that none of this has really gotten under way yet.

And if I could put it in perspective, this week the President -- the White House has put forward $15 billion worth of rescissions as a sort of sign that it is fiscally conservative and get the deficits down, which is frankly a rounding error in terms of the deficit. But $15 billion, if they're going to cut that from the budget, he's complaining that he's not getting $25 billion for the border wall. It's just -- you know, it's an expense that Congress, even Republican-controlled Congress is balking at, and that doesn't even get to the feasibility of putting a wall across the southern border.

WILLIAMS: Matthew, "The Washington Post" has added to the reporting from that Cabinet meeting, and they have a quote that the President apparently said out loud. "Why don't you have solutions? How is this still happening," he asked, adding later, "we need to shut it down. We're closed," meaning the border, meaning editorial cartoonists are scrambling to put "we're closed" at the pedestal of the statue of liberty, no doubt.

Matthew, is this core Donald Trump, or is what we're hearing channeled core Stephen Miller and maybe others?

MATTHEW NUSSBAUM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: I think this is core Donald Trump through and through. This has been one of the messages that he's been most consistent on, that he's been most animated by. He talked about immigration and illegal immigration soon after he came down that infamous escalator, and he's been talking about it ever since. He loves to talk about the wall at these campaign rallies. He knows that animates his base.

So I don't think it's any surprise to see him once again getting riled up over this issue. I mean he almost vetoed the whole omnibus funding bill over not having money for his border wall. I think it shows a little bit of a misunderstanding of how the government works and sort of hearkens back to his business days when running a relatively small company, he could maybe yell at somebody and get something in line.

Yelling at your director of Homeland Security doesn't suddenly fix problems along the border, and it sounds like in this situation, it actually made their relationship worse and almost led to another Cabinet vacancy, which is the last thing this administration needs right now.

WILLIAMS: Peter, I want to show you one thing and read you another. Let's run a clip of what happened on Fox Business earlier today. The subject is John McCain and torture.


TOM MCINERNEY, FOX NEWS ANALYST: She can't use it anymore because we have determined in Congress that it's not legal. The fact is, is John McCain -- it worked on John. That's why they call him "Songbird John." The fact is, is those methods can work, and they're effective as former Vice President Cheney said.


WILLIAMS: In the hours since, the host of that hour on Fox Business has apologized for that comment being made on his air at all. He said he couldn't hear it live because they were talking in his ear. This is what the Hill is reporting about John McCain tonight.

A White House official mocked Senator John McCain's brain cancer diagnosis at an internal meeting on Thursday, a day after the Arizona Republican announced his opposition to President Trump's nominee for CIA Director Gina Haspel. Special assistant Kelly Sadler made the derisive comments during a closed door White House meeting of about two dozen communication staffers on Thursday morning. "It doesn't matter. He's dying anyway, Sadler said according to a source familiar with the remarks at the meeting."

Peter, I don't know what my question is other than when did we become this? When did this become OK to have in the public dialogue?

BAKER: Well, let's remember, of course, it's not started just today. It was Donald Trump himself who said in the 2016 election campaign that he didn't particularly think much of John McCain, he didn't think he was a war hero. He only thinks he was a war hero because he got captured. He liked the ones who didn't get captured, he said.

Everybody thought at the time that such an incendiary comments, such seemingly offensive idea would have been the end of Donald Trump's campaign, the idea of attacking a prisoner of war who spent five years being tortured by the North Vietnamese. That was unthinkable. Well, he got elected. Not only did he get elected, you got, you know, people have moved on.

So we see this happening today, similar comments in away, and it does say something about the nature of the debate today, particularly at a moment when John McCain is being venerated by most Liberals and Conservatives alike as he faces this, you know, challenge, you know, toward his health and presumably toward the end of his life.

WILLIAMS: Jackie, it's possible archaeologists will trace the death of class to 2017 or 2018. It is also likely that Cindy McCain has opted pure class in tweeting back at Kelly Sadler. She says simply, "May I remind you, my husband has a family, seven children and five grandchildren." Yet, Jackie, here we are having this discussion.

CALMES: Right. The end of class and civility. I'm glad you showed the tape from Fox of retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney because there's been so much attention to Kelly Sadler, the young communications staffer at the White House, that I thought that man who was of an age and stature that he should really know better. I mean it was just a heinous slander that he said on the air, which has been found to be pants on fire false by fact checkers.

And as for Kelly Sadler, I don't know her, and for all this talk of her that she should be fired, I'm a little puzzled by that given that the tone is set by the man at the top. And if you don't have to even go back to his campaign to comments that Trump made against John McCain. It's almost become a staple of his appearances on the stump these days that he will make a comment, getting his crowd relic (ph). Remember that one vote, the thumbs down on the healthcare bill. We would have had the health care, Obamacare repeal if it's not for that one vote in the Senate. And everybody knows he's means John McCain. And he knows that they know he means John McCain. It's become sort of a laugh line of his staple of his speeches and the man is there in Arizona dying of cancer.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Yes, Matthew, I'm coming to you after a break. All of our guests have agreed to stick around. We'll shift the topic to the vice president among others when we come back.



MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's the greatest privilege of my life to serve as vice president to President Trump. He's a man of his word. He's a man of action. And how about all the action this week? What the world saw this week is an American president who embraces his role as leader of the free world. It was humbling for me to be there, and it never would have happened without the strong, clear, resolute leadership of President Donald Trump.


WILLIAMS: That was the vice president from just tonight's rally. Mike Pence has been accused of playing a character beyond that of loyal vice president. His bearing and facial expressions described as both pious and permanently pained looking in ways that people just aren't normally. He's hardly the first politician accused of affecting a public persona.

Remember, George Bush 41 desperately wanted to be seen as a rough hewn Texas oil wildcatter following a chauffeured upbringing in Greenwich, Connecticut in a family of towering wealth. His son affected a cowboy persona despite a degree from Harvard Business School. Perhaps because people have shifted their focus ahead to Mike Pence, the attention he's getting this week included a blistering takedown from a lifelong pillar of conservative media.

In an article headlined "Trump is no longer the worst person in government," George will writes, "Pence is the authentic voice of today's lickspittle Republican Party. He clarifies this year's elections. Vote Republicans to ratify groveling as governing. Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic. Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying."

What a nice time to bring back our panelists, Peter Baker, Jackie Calmes, and Matthew Nussbaum. Matthew, you covered him. And before I ask you about him, let's take a look at the Kim Jong-un-style cabinet meeting from December, where Pence spoke as they went around the table.


PENCE: Thank you for seeing through the course of this year, an agenda that truly is restoring this country. You've spurred an optimism in this country that's setting records. I'm deeply humbled as your vice president to be able to be here. I want to thank you for speaking on behalf of and fighting every day for the forgotten men and women of America.


WILLIAMS: Matthew, a number of people come away saying he is not of this world. Question to you is, who is Mike Pence in your view?

MATTHEW NUSSBAUM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Well, it's really hard to say. I mean, the obsequiousness and the flattery are such a constant now, and they have been ever since he was named to Donald Trump's ticket in July of 2016. I mean, I -- like you said, I covered him on the campaign. The cadences, the lines, they're all the same. You know, he just sort of is on repeat. He sticks to the script, and he makes sure that he's always praising President Trump.

Who is Mike Pence? I don't know. You know, he doesn't really seem to have core convictions or beliefs beyond whatever Donald Trump's decided they are. He used to be for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now he's against it. He spoke out against the Muslim ban before he was the nominee. On the campaign trail, he defended it as just extreme vetting. He is whatever Donald Trump wants him to be, and I think that's why so many people sort of see him as kind of phony because he and his staffers work so hard to make sure that they're seen as loyal to Trump, and the rest of us see someone who doesn't seem to have a lot of beliefs beyond making sure Donald Trump feels good.

WILLIAMS: Jackie, one thing he is, is very adept at media. He was one of us. He started life as a radio talk show host. The George Will takedown, how big an audience does that speak to within the party, do you think?

CALMES: Well, George Will is basically one of the never-Trumpers, so they've sort of been a voice in the wilderness. But, you know, I have to think that this really stung Mike Pence, although you wouldn't have known it from the remarks he made at the rally in Indiana tonight. And, you know, what's striking to me about this, though, is I remember Mike Pence from the time he came to Congress as a member of the House of Representatives in 2001, and he quickly established himself as an independent voice.

He was really at the vanguard of the sort of militantly conservative movement that ultimately, you know, became the Tea Party. And he's striking this balance, trying to be, you know, the man that will inherit the mantle of Trump, but at the expense of his own persona. And he did use to have his own persona, but now he's taken the sort of Nancy Reagan gaze to a -- on steroids and then coupled that with these sycophantic words that's made him sort of a laughingstock. And when George Will speaks, you know, he pays attention.

WILLIAMS: Peter Baker, what's the value of Mike Pence if you're Donald Trump?

PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE HEW YORK TIMES: Yes. That's a great question. I mean, look, you know, there are two kinds of vice presidents. So, there are those who are accused of being so out for themselves and nursing their own ambitions that they're not serving the president who picked them. And there are those who are accused of being slavishly loyal lap dogs and so forth. Mike Pence has decided to be the former -- the latter, that is -- the one who is seen as ultimate loyalist no matter what, as Jackie said, despite his own history of his own views.

And, I think he's calculated that, you know, he wants to inherit the Trump base in 2020 or 2024, whenever that might be. The question is, does he inherit the Trump baggage that comes as long with that? So for Trump, what you get is, you know, validation. You get somebody to flatter you. That we know that's something that means something to this president. And so far, the two of them have stayed tightly wound together as a team. Whether that will last as the tension of these coming months emerge, we'll see because there's a lot of -- a lot of big things coming up, I think, that might test that.

WILLIAMS: We want to let our viewers know that it's worth tuning in until our last segment on the broadcast. We're going to hear out Steve Schmidt on this topic. It's not to be missed. Peter Baker, Jackie Calmes, Matthew Nussbaum, really appreciate. Great conversation on the broadcast tonight.

Coming up for us, with three Americans back safely on U.S. soil, a look ahead at the big job for this president on the world stage.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For all of us, for the world hopefully, something very good is going to happen, and they understand it's very important for them. It's important for everybody. So Japan, South Korea, China, everybody, I think it's going to be a very big success.


WILLIAMS: Nothing like setting expectations. That was President Trump tonight hours after the early morning arrival of those three Americans freed from North Korea. The president also announced today that the summit with North Korean's Kim Jong-un will take place in Singapore on June 12. The release of the three detainees from North Korea brought effusive praise for Kim Jong-un from President Trump, who thanked him for the excellent care he'd taken care of the prisoners, noting his high risk, high reward method of operating here.

The A.P. writes, "Drawn to big moments and bigger headlines, Trump views the North Korea summit as a legacy-maker for him, believing that the combustible combination of his bombast and charm already has led to warmer relations between North and South."

For more, we are joined here by Rick Stengel, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, former managing editor of "Time" magazine, and an MSNBC political analyst. Rick, this is a theory of go big or go home. We didn't know going into, what, that Reagan and Gorbachev, we're going to consider doing away with nuclear weapons. That came up during the meeting.


WILLIAMS: But billing a meeting as being about go big or go home --


WILLIAMS: -- that's more fraught.

STENGEL: Well, there's that old business maxim that actually applies to diplomacy as well, which is underpromise and overdeliver.

WILLIAMS: Overdeliver, yes.

STENGEL: Donald Trump does the opposite. He overpromises and underdelivers. I mean, he has already set the bar so high. The bar is set at denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That would be an ultimate goal. That's a fantastic goal. I mean, I would use --

WILLIAMS: Do you see that happening?

STENGEL: I just find it hard to imagine that Kim would go all the way with denuclearization. I mean, he looks at what happened in Libya to Gaddafi. He looks at other people who have given up their weapons. I mean, his nuclear weapons are what has got him to the table.

WILLIAMS: They have citizens eating dirt so he can afford a nuclear program that gives him his relevance in the world.

STENGEL: But now that does give him an incentive to have a peace agreement where they -- where sanctions can be relaxed. He can -- you know, President Moon of South Korea gave him that plan of where railways can connect the two countries. I mean, he would like that. I mean, he doesn't want his people to be eating dirt. But I don't know that he can actually go whole hog and denuclearize. I mean, that's what's so ironic about Trump breaking the Iran deal. I mean, Iran went so far. I mean, they got rid of 98% of the centrifuges. They allowed the most strict inspections agency in the world. I mean, I think it would be fantastic if Kim Jong-un agreed to the same thing as the Iranians.

WILLIAMS: I remind our viewers the last two nights Iran has four of our hostages. Since you're a communications guy, I want to play for you some of the things Trump has said recently about Kim Jong-un.


TRUMP: We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people. They are really three incredible people. He was nice in letting them go before the meeting. I mean, frankly, we didn't think this was going to happen, and it did.


WILLIAMS: As you and I have discussed -- and I say this without rancor, Kim Jong-un craves relevance and recognition. Do you think the president has been told to talk him up, or do you think it's possible the president doesn't know how in the past we have referred to this man?

STENGEL: I think the president doesn't have a continuum of how he describes people. They're either the greatest person who's ever lived or the worst villain who's ever lived. He doesn't have any in between. And so, he can't -- he doesn't have -- he's not capable of diplomatic language, of being able to use some restraint. I mean, maybe it has some positive effect. I mean, I just don't know. I mean, we can't predict anything about Kim, and in fact, one of the things that we didn't predict is that he would make this overture. I would say that he has been rivaling Donald Trump in figuring out how to manipulate the media. I mean, his own image has changed radically in just a few months. Remember, he was this warmonger who, you know, was going to blow up the planet. And now he's a peacemaker.

WILLIAMS: He's the kindly man releasing three Americans last night. Rick Stengel, we'll continue to have you and your expertise on regarding this topic as we near the summit. Thank you very much for joining us tonight.

And coming up, the president picks a fight on Twitter, taking aim at one of his favorite political targets, a fellow New Yorker who happened to have quite a comeback today.



TRUMP: Crazy Bernie, Jeb Bush, we call him, low energy, low energy. Lyin' Ted. Lyin' Ted. Lyin' Ted. Lyin' Ted. Lyin' Ted and little Marco. Little, L-I-T-T-L-E, little, little. Little Marco. If crooked Hillary got elected, you would not have Second Amendment, believe me.

They call her Pocohantas.

Rocket man should have been handled a long time ago.

Little rocket man.

Democrats, like Sleepin' Joe.


WILLIAMS: Our president and his favorite nicknames. Today, he re-upped one of his favorite putdowns against one of his favorite political enemies and fellow New Yorker. He wrote on Twitter, "Senator Cryin' Chuck Schumer fought hard against the bad Iran deal even going at it with President Obama and then voted against it." He went on to attach Comey presumably because it's Thursday.

About that attach on Schumer, Schumer fired back in a classic internet trolling fashion, with just two simple words and a hashtag, the best. Schumer was, of course, referencing First Lady Melania Trump's anti- bullying initiative, which she launched just this week. According to the official White House website, "Mrs. Trump believes that children should be both seen and heard and it is our responsibility as adults to educate and enforce to them that when they are using their voices, whether verbally or online, they must choose their words wisely and speak with respect and compassion."

Another break for us. You're going to want to hear from Steve Schmidt when we come back.


WILLIAMS: There it is. The last thing before we go tonight. And again, perhaps it's because people are thinking of Mike Pence more urgently than normal these days, but Mike Pence is in the news this week in part for telling our own Andrea Mitchell that it's time to respectfully, it's time to wrap up the Mueller investigation. And in part because of that column by George Will this week that carries that headline, Trump is no longer the worst person in government.

And just to repeat the thesis sentence, "Trump is what he is, a floundering inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic. Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying."

OK, two sentences. That was George Will and that was nothing compared to what happened in this studio on this network shortly before 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time today when Nicolle Wallace asked her longtime friend and former co-worker, Steve Schmidt, a life-long Republican political operative about Mike Pence.


STEVE SCHMIDT, FORMER MCCAIN CAMPAIGN CHIEF STRATEGIST: He is a titanic, and I mean, titanic fraud. We've listened to this guy for many, many years in this country on his moral high horse. Assaulting the dignity of gay people across the board. His moral preening is famous throughout the land, yet he is the most obsequious of all of Trump's cultists in the cabinet. There have been occasions, as George Will points out, where speaking of Trump in front of Trump where Mike Pence compliments him on an average every 3.2 seconds. We have never seen such slobbering civility by a high government official in this country than we do with Mike Pence and Donald Trump. It is amazing.


WILLIAMS: Steve Schmidt, ladies and gentlemen. And with that, our broadcast on a Thursday night, thank you so much for being here with us and good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York.


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