Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: May 11, 2018 Guest: Jennifer Rodgers, Josh Gerstein, Catherine Lucey, Sahil Kapur, Mara Gay, Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, AT&T says hiring Michael Cohen was a big mistake. Donald Trump can't help but weigh in on Twitter this evening. And now we learn Mueller looked into Cohen's overtures to an iconic American company.
Plus, John Kelly tries to walk back his comments on Trump being embarrassed about being under investigation while serving up new comments about the kinds of immigrants we don't want.
And still, no apology from the White House after a staffer's graceless and hurtful comment about John McCain. Steve Schmidt here to talk with us about it tonight as "The 11th Hour" gets under way.
And good evening, once again, from our NBC News Headquarters here in New York on a Friday night. Day 477 of the Trump administration. Exactly one year to the day since we heard this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was going to fire Comey. He made a recommendation, but regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said," You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story." It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The President's comments to Lester Holt instantly became an enormous component in what is now a year-long Russia investigation. Tonight, there's new reporting on one of the largest remaining questions about this inquiry, and that is whether or not the President will sit down with Mueller and his team.
Jonathan Lemire of "The Associated Press" has just spoken again with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Lemire writes "any preparation with Trump for a possible interview with federal investigators would likely be delayed until after this June 12 summit in Singapore because, I wouldn't want to take his concentration off something far, far more important." Giuliani, who also suggested that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team had indicated it would not attempt to indict Trump, said he had hoped to resolve the question of a possible interview by May 17, the one-year anniversary of Mueller's appointment, but that was no longer feasible. Now that target date has gone by the boards. The President would probably like the resolution of an interview, said Giuliani to the A.P., but right now we're not there."
This week, we also learned more about Mueller's interest in Trump's longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen of New York. The special counsel has questioned the pharmaceutical company, Novartis, along with AT&T about their payments to Cohen, who sold himself as something of an adviser on how to deal with the incoming Trump administration. "The Wall Street Journal" reports Mueller also contacted Ford Motor Company about Cohen's effort to provide similar consulting services, an overture Ford rejected."
Today, the CEO of AT&T called the hiring of Michael Cohen "a mistake." And according to Politico, Rudy Giuliani now says that Cohen no longer represents his client, Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, comments from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about the Russia investigation and President Trump's reaction to it are reverberating throughout Washington.
Last night, on this broadcast, we read you Kelly's comments as they were made public. Now we have the audio of Kelly's conversation with NPR Correspondent John Burnett, which aired this morning.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
JOHN BURNETT, NPR CORRESPONDENT: The President keeps calling the Russia investigation a witch hunt. Do you think it's a witch hunt against the President?
JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: From what I read in the newspaper, something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me that there is nothing there relative to our President.
BURNETT: Is there a cloud because of it hanging over this White House?
KELLY: Well, yes. You know, it's -- there may not be a cloud, but certainly the President is somewhat embarrassed, frankly. When world leaders come in, you know, Bibi Netanyahu was here, who's under investigation himself, and it's like you walk in and, you know, the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: This afternoon, Kelly tried to walk back his remark about the President being embarrassed there by the Mueller investigation. Speaking to reporters off camera in the Rose Garden, he explained it this way. "It's a witch hunt, right? It distracts him. Not too much, but it's unfair."
On that, let's bring in our lead-off panel for another Friday night. Josh Gerstein is back with us, White House Reporter for Politico. Catherine Lucey is back with us. White House Reporter for "The Associated Press." We also welcome back Jennifer Rodgers, Former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, now the Executive Director of the Columbia Law School Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity.
Counselor, I know you can handle two questions right off the bat. First of all, on this general behavior by Mr. Cohen, as I always point out to folks, no one expected Donald Trump to win. There was no acceptance speech written by the campaign. Only a concession backstage, we've since learned. So Michael Cohen looks around and longtime friend and longtime client has been elected President. It is not illegal to say, "Hire me, and I may be able to infer some of the thinking I'm picking up."
JENNIFER RODGERS, FMR. ASSISTANT U.S. ATTY., SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: That is true. I mean, we know that after the election when he did know that Trump was going to the White House, he expected a post in the administration and didn't get it. So he's kind of scrambling to figure out how he can make something of this. It's not illegal to share his expertise with people. Illegality comes in two possible ways here, putting aside the lobbying, you know, lobbying --
WILLIAMS: Not registering, yes.
RODGERS: -- registering, which is enough big of deal. You know, either there's a quid pro quo where he actually does manage to get people in the administration to do something like, you know, grant a merger or gave a government contract in exchange for money to Cohen, or he's defrauding people. He's saying, "Look, I can get things done" that he knows he cannot get done. "Pay me this money. I will do something for you," and he knows he can't, and he doesn't, and then that's a fraud. So those are the two possible illegalities here.
WILLIAMS: Now we move on to Mr. Giuliani and something he has said to "The Daily Beast" this evening. And I'll quote it. Giuliani said Cohen's business relationships did not contradict Trump's campaign promises to end pay-to-play schemes and "drain the swamp" because Cohen did not get for his newfound clients what they wanted. "Whatever lobbying was done didn't reach the President," Giuliani said, offering as proof the fact that AT&T's proposed merger with Time Warner has not gone through. "He did drain the swamp. The President denied the merger. They didn't get the result they wanted."
Jennifer, that reverberated tonight because that goes contrary to a whole courtroom full of filings that the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger, which apparently the President didn't like because he doesn't like CNN, a big part of Time Warner, was considered independent of any White House view.
RODGERS: Yes. So I've seen the reporting as well that that's very unusual, that the White House would have any influence on that kind of decision, and people are taking Giuliani's comments to mean that in fact he did have influence on that decision, which is, you know, its own problem. But, you know, to the point of whether this is swampy or not swampy, I mean, I think most people think it is swampy to be monetizing access to the President and this thing just saying to people that you can actually have influence on government processes if you just pay Michael Cohen a big, you know, bucketful of money. So the whole --, you know, they didn't get what they wanted and so the swamp is drained, I think most people will look at as laughable.
WILLIAMS: Allow me to correct myself. Tonight's reporting, the interview with Giuliani was "Huffington Post." I said "Daily Beast."
Josh, we got to you, and allow me to read the President's tweet of this evening. Along these same lines, he says, "Why doesn't the fake news media," capitalized, "state that the Trump administration's antitrust division has been and is opposed to the AT&T purchase of Time Warner in a currently ongoing," capital "t" "trial? Such a disgrace in reporting."
Well, that is, in a way, what people are saying, that this was an antitrust finding, not that the President interceded.
JOSH GERSTEIN, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: Right. I mean it seems to me this is yet another example of Rudy being rusty for lack of a better word. Here you have the President being, I think, more cautious and perhaps more accurate in framing what transpired with the AT&T transaction, at least the official position of the administration, saying it's a decision the Justice Department made as opposed to a decision he made. But it's certainly unhelpful to have Giuliani -- unhelpful for the administration to have Giuliani out there suggesting the President was the one who made this decision, especially when there's so much scrutiny being given to Michael Cohen's role and whether he was attempting to sell some kind of influence at the White House.
WILLIAMS: Catherine, because everyone gets a dramatic reading tonight, yours is a tweet by our friend Maggie Haberman, who is quoting an A.P. piece, and here it is. Giuliani tells "The Associated Press" he believes Mueller isn't planning on calling Kushner or Trump's children for interviews. "Our understanding is that he's pretty much finished," Giuliani said. As far as we know, we're basically the last witness.
Catherine, as far as I know, you're not on the legal team on either side, but do you think Rudy Giuliani has the standing and knowledge and direct orders or ability to say that?
CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": I mean that is what he is saying for now. He is the President's attorney, and we do know there's a lot of interest and sensitivity around whether those interviews would happen. I think what we do know is that there's a lot of interest in the Trump camp in wrapping this up. We heard that from Vice President Pence this week. We're clearly hearing that from Giuliani.
That piece which you mentioned my colleague John Lemire did today speaking to Giuliani, obviously they're going to -- they may end up sort of delaying a decision around an interview until after his trip to hold this meeting with the North Korean leader. But they are interested in trying to resolve this. And so I think this is part of that effort is trying to get to the end of this.
WILLIAMS: Jennifer, let me ask you based on your understanding of the Feds as a former Fed, does it sound to you like Mueller would say to Giuliani, "It's great because we're not going to bring in the kids and you're pretty much the last witness?"
RODGERS: Probably not. I mean, you know, he's not going to make any promises one way or the other until he's far enough along to know for sure that he won't be calling certain people. So I think this probably again is Giuliani kind of saying what he feels like he wants to say instead of what he really is actually learning.
WILLIAMS: So a client list of one in this case, who is probably watching television.
Hey, Josh, "The Wall Street Journal" was on the board today reporting that Cohen was gauging the interest in Ford Motor. The problem with the story for a lot of folks was that Mueller has already known about this. Questions about it have been asked and answered, and that pretty much is in keeping with a whole lot of the news we consume. The Feds have been several steps ahead.
GERSTEIN: Right. It changes the narrative in the moment for those of us reading along in the media, but it turns out these are things that Mueller's office knew about months and months ago. I have to say, Brian, I'm somewhat bowled over by a feather, if you will, by some of the reports about the Michael Cohen situation when people claim that they're aghast that we have, you know, influence or access to the White House being sold. It's worth keeping in mind just two years ago the Supreme Court ruled that it was perfectly legal or at least that it wasn't bribery to sell meetings with any government official, even directly or indirectly. So if that's all Cohen was doing was selling some sort of access as opposed to providing some kind of guarantee about a specific policy outcome, it seems to me this is not something that Mueller is going to get a great deal of leverage over.
WILLIAMS: Josh, another devil's advocate way of putting what you just said, is it cleaner or nicer or more sanitary if a guy went to end over with poppy and is charging the same going rate as opposed to a guy from New York who knew Donald Trump back in the day?
GERSTEIN: Right. It's a different crew as you said earlier, was very unexpected that Trump found himself headed for the White House. And big companies were scrambling because some of these companies with literally billions of dollars on the line to find somebody, and some of these characters made have seemed to folks somewhat more unsavory and a bit more unpolished in their presentation, and we may well see that when we start to look at their e-mails in more detail. But I hope there's more there there on the Russia front or the slush fund with Stormy Daniels front because that does seem more interesting. The straight-up influence peddling, I'm sad to say there are many folks down there drinking on K Street right now who would probably meet these same definitions.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Catherine, you get the last word and that is that somewhere either perhaps Washington or Boston, the Kelly family is celebrating John Kelly's 68th birthday. It was a sporty 68th birthday where his career is concerned. He had to walk back a comment or two. He's made further comments on immigration coming up as our broadcast continues tonight. A rare foray into public statements and media. In this case, just an NPR interview that backfired.
LUCEY: It was a rare interview, and it was interesting. It was a wide- ranging interview. He covered a lot of topics. He mentioned a couple of it.
One thing I thought was really interesting was that he really sought to stress his relationship with the President, the time he spends with the President. You know, hours a day. That they are close. And this obviously comes after, you know, sort of months of speculation about that relationship and a lot of reporting about how that relationship has cooled, that they don't have the same, you know, bond that they once did, that he doesn't have the same kind of influence in the West Wing. So it seemed he was trying to send a message there. We'll see if that holds.
WILLIAMS: Josh Gerstein, Catherine Lucey, Jennifer Rodgers, our sincere thanks for spending a part of your Friday night with us after what's been another long week. We appreciate it.
And coming up for us after a break, Steve Schmidt will join us with his reaction to a White House that cannot and will not apologize to John McCain, who is fighting terminal cancer.
And later, what the Chief of Staff meant to say about his boss, the President, in the aforementioned interview. "The 11th Hour" just getting started at the end of the week on a Friday night.
WILLIAMS: The White House is continuing to feel the wrath of some lawmakers after a White House aide mocked Senator John McCain this week. As we reported here last night, multiple sources say Special Assistant Kelly Sadler dismissed McCain's opposition to Gina Haspel's CIA nomination by saying in a meeting, in front of many others, "it doesn't matter. He's dying anyway. Senator McCain, of course, is battling brain cancer.
The comments have generated a whole lot of reaction over these past 24 hours. McCain's fellow Republican Senator from Arizona Jeff Flake simply wrote on Twitter "there are no words." Vice President Joe Biden, a close friend of McCain's released a statement that read in part, "People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration. It happened yesterday. John McCain is a genuine hero, a man of valor whose sacrifices for his country are immeasurable. As he fights for his life, he deserves better, so much better."
Earlier today on "The View," Senator McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain, responded to Kelly Sadler.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OR JOHN MCCAIN: Kelly, here's a little newsflash, and this may be a bit intense for 11:00 in the morning on a Friday, but we're all dying. I'm dying, you're dying, we're all dying. And I want to say this -- since my dad has been diagnosed, the past, almost a year, July 19th, I really feel like I understand the meaning of life, and it is not how you die. It is how you live.
UNINDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right.
MCCAIN: And -- thank you. I don't understand what kind of environment you're working in when that would be acceptable and then you could come to work the next day and still have a job. And that's all I have to say about it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The White House has not denied the account of Sadler's comments, nor will they apologize. No one on the payroll at any level. They provided a very brief statement after the news first broke. It reads, "We respect Senator McCain's service to our nation, and he and his family are in our prayers during this difficult time."
But at today's White House press briefing, Sarah Huckabee Sanders dodged all manner of questions related to this matter.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does she still have a job?
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I'm not going to comment on an internal staff meeting.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does the White House not think that you need to condemn these remarks, or comment, or issue an apology?
SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to validate a leak one way or the other out of an internal staff meeting.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you saying that she didn't say this?
SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to validate a leak out of an internal staff meeting.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there a tone set from the top here where it is allowed for an aide to say he's dying anyway?
SANDERS: Certainly there is not a tone set here. We have respect for all Americans, and that is what we try to put forward in everything we do both in word and in action.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why not just apologize to Senator McCain?
SANDERS: Again, I'm not going to get into a back and forth because, you know, people want to create issues of leaked staff meetings.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does Kelly Sadler still work at this White House?
SANDERS: Yes, she does.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Does the President set the tone? Does he bear responsibility for the tone within this White House?
SANDERS: The President, as I mentioned just a moment ago, supports all Americans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The one guy we wanted to talk to about this is here with us tonight, Steve Schmidt, a Republican Political Veteran of the Bush White House and importantly the John McCain Presidential Campaign. He also proudly is an MSNBC Political Analyst.
Steve, this quote and the subsequent hubbub, today's briefing have gutted a lot of folks. And I know they truly gutted you.
STEVE SCHMIDT, FMR. MCCAIN CAMPAIGN CHIEF STRATEGIST: Well, they don't say anything about John McCain. John McCain's valor, his heroism, his love of country, his perfect love of the country, the fact that but for six months when he first ran for Congress, that he spent every hour of his adult life from age 17 when he put on the uniform at Annapolis in service to the American nation. He is a giant figure in American history. He is a giant for the ages. He's a living legend. He's a statesman, a soldier, a peacemaker.
One of the things we don't talk enough about is the role that he played along with John Kerry in bringing reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam, peace, so that this generation of Americans can be in peace with Vietnam and that we can be friends. I was there a couple of weeks ago, and he is revered there not as a warrior but as a peacemaker as he is in many, many parts of the world. So the greatness of John McCain is not dispensed by this White House.
What her comments show is the viciousness, the cruelty, the meanness, the culture of bullying, this toxic miasma of toxic putrid crap that emerges out of this White House. She's obviously a perfect fit for it. One more disgrace. One more member of a team that's doing real damage, real sundering to this country, real staining of the national fabric.
So this great man, the judgment of Donald Trump matters not. Donald Trump frankly, in my view, is unworthy to say John McCain's name out loud. And the reason I suspect the McCains don't want Donald Trump anywhere near John McCain's funeral is the point that Meghan made earlier. It's about how you live your life. And John McCain's led a big life, a glorious life, a life of service to others and service to the country.
Donald Trump's life has been the story of selfishness, of greed. He's never sacrificed anything for anyone. He's a con man.
Does anybody have any doubt that if Donald Trump was sitting in that Vietnamese torture cage and they asked him if he wanted to go home early, what he would do. The man is a coward. John McCain is a hero. And that's why those two men are different.
WILLIAMS: Steve, John McCain also knows who his friends are, and there he is at his beautiful ranch in Arizona. He's been visited by so many of them over these past few weeks as he deals with his illness. Where are -- are you frustrated at all that your friends and other Republicans have not risen up, have not raised their weapons and gone into the battle these past two days?
SCHMIDT: Look, there's nobody who loves a good saloon fight more than John McCain, and so if it's time for a saloon fight, so be it. But it's not about John McCain. It's about the values that John McCain has stood for, selflessness, service, sacrifice, valor, valor that beggars the imagination. They're good and they're right. And these were the values and the virtues that built the United States of America.
We're a flawed people. John McCain's a flawed man. But the idea of America, the nation that said, all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator were inalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the first country in the history of the world founded on that idea. It's a perfect idea.
The whole story of America is the battle to achieve that idea from more flawed reality. And John McCain has been in that fight. And all of the virtues that define his life are necessary for the thriving and the survival of the nation. There as necessary for the nation as air and sun and water are for the forest.
And this vile White House's attacks are not on John McCain but on the material importance of those values in the life of the nation. And the degradation of those values and the constant assault on them, the assault on our institutions, the assault on goodness and decency in this country, that's what this fight is about.
WILLIAMS: That is why we wanted to hear from Steve Schmidt on this Friday night at the end of this week. Steve, my friend, thank you very much for joining us tonight.
A break in our coverage. We'll be right back. We'll talk about the Chief of Staff's comments on immigration.
WILLIAMS: This has been a tough week for one of the tougher guys in Trump West Wing and that's the Chief of Staff, John, Kelly, the retired Marine Corps General. Not only has he been forced to witness this shameful quote about fellow veteran John McCain, let's not forget, which has gone without criticism or apology by Kelly among others, now he is taking heat for these remarks he made in that NPR interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13. But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They're overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth, fifth, six grade educations are kind of the norm. They're coming here for a reason, and I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: We have two returning guests with us tonight to talk about all of it. Sahil Kapur, national political reporter for Bloomberg, and Mara Gay, a member of "The New York Times" editorial board.
Sahil, I'll begin with you. Let's talk first about John Kelly before we get to the subject matter. It's been pointed out ad infinitum tonight on cable that all of the previous Kellys had come from agrarian island with, you know, as much school learning as any of the folks who preceded us here. People who know Kelly know he's been a hardliner on immigration. Was the difference today people just hearing him say it?
SAHIL KAPUR, BLOOMBERG NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: I mean one thing about Kelly that progressives especially had thought was that he was going to be a moderating force on issues like immigration, and that certainly has not been the case. My reporting tells me that he is of a kindred spirit of hardliners like Stephen Miller and he worked to prevent scattle the DACA deal that, you know, President Trump was initially open to, to keep these young undocumented people in the country here.
So, you know, I think Kelly has had a hard line past on this and he continues to do that starting with the DHS and right now some of the things he said, though, don't bear out in the data. Immigrants, second-generation immigrants in particular are higher achieving and commit crimes at fewer rates than, you know, native born Americans. I think there's a lot of data that shows that.
WILLIAMS: Mara, even if everything he said had been true, that educational standard, fourth, fifth, sixth grade learning, that would have disqualified most of our forebears. Anyone brought to this country in bondage and as someone said on CNN tonight, what tells me he's not talking about Scandinavians.
MARA GAY, THE NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: Well, that's right. All of that is true but a couple of things really stand out to me. One is, you know, this is -- Kelly is somebody who is working for a president who started his campaign calling Mexicans rapists. So we were talking about being able to draw a direct line between certain things.
You know, when people are willing to talk about maybe more vulnerable people who can't fight back that way, in this case, talking -- Kelly's remarks, for example, on immigrants, we shouldn't be surprised that the people around him in that room are going to say the same thing about Senator John McCain. So I just think that's something for people to consider when they decide, you know, when they're appalled.
And I would also just say that, you know, we already know that these comments are wrong that John Kelly made. I think everybody really knows that. I think the real question isn't are they offensive or are they wrong. We know they are. The real question is, you know, what are bosses going to say to their employees about this? What are parents going to say to their children? What kind of country do we want to be?
We're at an inflection point, and frankly, I think it's time that everybody really stand up for -- and make it clear, you know, I mean what kind of country do we want to live in? I mean this is offensive. It should offend every American. It shouldn't just offend immigrants. It should offend all of us and our sense of who we want to be.
WILLIAMS: Sahil, a longtime protege of General Kelly, Kirstjen Nielsen is now the secretary of Homeland Security, Kelly's old job. She was apparently received a tongue lashing by the president in front of the full Cabinet about wall-building and putting a lid on immigration. John Roberts of Fox News said Kelly called her and implored her not to resign. She has not resigned, but another kind of crazy chapter in this week in the West Wing.
KAPUL: Right. She's part of a long list of administration -- Trump administration officials and former staffers and sometimes current staffers who have been humiliated, you know, and I think the process of working for the White House and the administration. She is an ally of John Kelly. Some former Trump aides that I've spoken to say she's probably going to stay because Kelly is protecting her. He is going to speak in favor of her. This is one of the reasons that the president has a bond with John Kelly, that they have -- they share a common view on the issue of immigration, which is the centerpiece of the president's campaign.
Many, you know, current and former senior Trump administration officials have threatened to quit. Some have not, like Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He's still around. Some have, like Gary Cohn. There are a lot of almost quits in this administration.
WILLIAMS: We have an actual list compiled by our friends at Axios of people who some of them have left by now, but certainly, all of these folks started out by threatening to leave. So you see familiar faces and names on that list.
Mara, is -- do you buy the theory that volatility is baked into the cake, that it's an active measure on the part of this administration?
GAY: I don't know if it's on the part of the administration, but I certainly believe it's on the part of the president. I'm not sure if there's a real strategy behind that. But aside from the chaos, one thing that stood out to me is the amount of sniping that goes on behind the scenes. You have so many people in the White House who are -- right, they're willing to essentially sell out the aide sitting next to them.
WILLIAMS: And reporters know this because --
GAY: And reporters know this.
WILLIAMS: -- we're the ones talking to them.
GAY: That's right. That's right. So I guess I'm curious about what that says about the kinds of people that the president surrounds himself with. And I do know that -- and I want to be fair here -- there are also a number of people who have considered quitting for various reasons.
GAY: And have stayed because they -- some of them believe and have told us that they believe that if they leave, it would be kind of scary to see what would happen to the agency that they're leading. And so they kind of are trying to bring some competence to the job, and they're afraid of who might replace them.
WILLIAMS: A tradition as old as government, those who do feel a genuine sense of duty, and that keeps them on the job. Sahil and Mara, thank you very much for spending part of your Friday night, again, after a more active than normal week.
GAY: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Coming up for us, we talked to not one but two presidential historians standing by about this week in the Trump White House. That's when we continue.
WILLIAMS: The week that started with the White House campaign to be best, as the first lady called it, is tonight ending, shall we say politely, far from that mark. Let's bring in two smart guys to talk about it. With us from Houston is Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize winning author, historian, biographer of President Bush 41, whose latest book just out this week, we note in time for mother's day, and we hate to note things like that, is "The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels." With us from Washington, Michael Beschloss, the author and presidential historian and biographer of, among others, President Lyndon Johnson.
Gentlemen, welcome. Before we say another word, I'm going to put a picture on the screen that Mr. Beschloss supplied to us. It looks like two high school kids visiting 41 in Kennebunkport. In the center of your screen, television veterans will note dead ringer for Ken Olin of "Thirtysomething", now executive producer of the runaway NBC hit, "This is Us", but those are young men, Meacham and Beschloss, probably trying not to get sea sick and listen to the 41st president of the United States.
So on that note, Jon, I note as his biographer, you happen to be in Houston tonight. Inquiring minds want to know if you visited with the former president today.
JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I spent about an hour with the former president, whom I first met, introduced to the Bushes by my friend, Michael Beschloss. And that's exactly 20 years ago, wasn't it, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: It was indeed, this fall. Right.
MEACHAM: It was the fall of '98. And what I think you can see in that picture is as ever, Beschloss is smarter than I am because he was behind the glass of the boat, and the wind was not blowing him. I had a jacket, a parachute jacket essentially, and was almost blown out to sea. So once again, Beschloss is ahead.
I spent about an hour with the president this afternoon. He -- I left him sipping his martini in his house in Houston. He's looking forward to going to Maine next week. And I want to say perhaps as a subtle or not so subtle contrast to what we've seen from the incumbent in the White House this week and his staff, that while I was there this afternoon, an old Navy veteran who had served with President Bush was calling -- his family had called because this man is on his death bed in Florida. And he had called, and the family had wanted President Bush to know this.
President Bush looked at his Chief of Staff and said, let's get him on the phone. The phone was picked up. The president spoke a few words to him, spoke a few words to the family. The daughter who answered the phone was sobbing because the former commander in chief of the United States, who had served with her father in the great struggle against tyranny, had taken the time to reach out to a friend. And it's a reminder, I think, of the humanity and the dignity that's so self-evidently missing from our national life today.
WILLIAMS: And Michael Beschloss, let's fast forward to a heroic naval aviator shot down in the Vietnam war who sadly has been at the crux of our news coverage for all the wrong reasons. What has this quote from inside the White House, someone paid with taxpayer funds -- what has this quote and the White House's failure, refusal to apologize revealed or shown to you about this White House right now?
BESCHLOSS: It makes me absolutely furious. Brian, you know, can you imagine if George H.W. Bush had employed someone on his White House staff who had said something like what Kelly said --
BESCHLOSS: -- was reported to have? I mean that person would have been out of that White House so fast. And to hear Sarah Sanders say, you know, almost nonchalantly that that person is still on the White House staff, I don't know any president of the last 100 years who would leave someone on the staff who had said such a horrible thing about one of the great war heroes of American history.
WILLIAMS: Jon, I'd like to repeat something you said. I'd like you to do it for us. You said it during the 4:00 p.m. hour Eastern Time. You called this, this period right now, a test of citizenship.
MEACHAM: It's a stress test, absolutely. There are five or six institutions in the life of the republic that form our national being. They are the people. There's the press, there's the courts. There's the Congress. And there's the presidency as it has evolved since 1789. And right now, the presidency and the Congress, by and large, are not helping the long journey toward what Winston Churchill once called the bright sun lit uplands.
But the people and the press -- the people centrally have to protest. They have to resist. They have to have conversations like this. The republic is only as good as the sum of its parts. It's a perennial truth about republican, lower case "r," life. And I think that to some extent, we have to say to the president and the presidency, this is not acceptable. He won't care. He'll keep doing it.
You know, he keeps kicking the soccer ball, and we're like third graders. We chase it across the field to some extent. But this is an hour that will, to quote Lincoln, we will be lit in honor or dishonor down to the last generation for how we confront and how we stand up against this kind of indignity from the presidency itself.
WILLIAMS: Gentlemen, let's hold it right there. It's where I want to continue our conversation. We'll just sneak in a commercial break. We'll continue right after this.
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GEORGE W. BUSH. FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The price of greatness is responsibilities. One cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems. When we confront suffering, when we save lives, we breathe hope into the devastated populations, strengthen and stabilize society, and make our country and the world safer.
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WILLIAMS: That was actually a big deal for 43 to give that speech, quoting Winston Churchill, President George W. Bush warning against the dangers of isolationism. This week President Trump took steps toward his America first platform while angering some of our closest allies.
Look at some of the headlines from the week proves some context as to how others see us and the cover of "Der Spiegel" in Germany is as close to self explanatory as we're going to get.
Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss continue to join us.
Michael, in my lifetime, in part because I was a White House intern back then and really thought I would never have a front or a front row seat in this. I thought Carter to Reagan was the biggest swing of the pendulum politically that I would ever witness as an American adult, but do you have reason to think that we're in for something even greater, say nothing of the Obama to Trump swing of the pendulum?
BESCHLOSS: Yes, that's for sure, Brian. Sure looks that way. And just the juxtaposition that you're suggesting between George W. Bush and Donald Trump, with Barack Obama in between, you know, people will be arguing for the next 50 years whether George W. Bush was too interventionist, but there is no one who's going to doubt that George W. Bush is an idealist about democracy. Contrast that with Donald Trump, who in the people's White House, wherever president has lived since John Adams told Bill O'Reilly last year, O'Reilly said to him, you know, Putin is a killer, and Donald Trump replied, what makes you think we Americans are not killers, too, what makes you think we're so innocent? I never thought I'd live to see the day when I saw a president would say such a thing.
WILLIAMS: Jon Meacham, same question.
MEACHAM: I think that President Bush, whose father received the same award, actually. And it was an award from the Atlantic Council about diplomacy. And it's funny to think back 10 years or so when people would not have thought that possible, when the cool conventional wisdom was that Bush had torn up our alliances and that sort of thing.
And we now see that perhaps it was far more complicated, more nuanced than we think. I was thinking today because of the McCain comment and because of the pulling out of the Iran deal about an observation of President Johnson's, who Michael spent so much time listening to and transcribing those diaries so wonderfully. In which he said that nothing tests or shows us a man's conscience more than the presidency. It literally opens his soul.
MEACHAM: And no longer can he write off hopes and needs, he has to engage the great challenges of the time. And we're living through a fallow period, to say the least, where the hopes and needs and aspirations of the people are going to have to be carried by the people themselves, because the president for political and selfish reasons to stick with his base, to continue to be a kind of entertainer and provocateur in chief, not a commander in chief, he's decided that he's going to play this as a reality show. So the reality falls to all of us.
WILLIAMS: Beschloss, your name was invoked. You get 30 seconds.
BESCHLOSS: Am I allowed to say a nice thing about Jon's book?
WILLIAMS: Yes, sure. We've got 30 seconds for that.
BESCHLOSS: OK. All right. As you've suggested, we've been friends for more than 20 years. But it's an absolutely wonderful book, "The Soul of America" as you can see from what Jon has been saying shows us that we Americans can make it through the even the toughest times. I urge our viewers, everyone buy 10 copies, read it 10 times.
WILLIAMS: We've done just about that in my house. I've got a copy. My wife and mother-in-law are both reading it as well. So there you have it. I think that should be reflected on the Amazon totals as we go into the weekend. Jon Meacham and Michael Beschloss, friends, historians, and two of the great authors we get to all enjoy today. Gentlemen, thank you very much. Have good weekends to each.
When we come back, the blunt message to members of the Supreme Court who may be thinking about retirement. Here is your hat. What's your hurry? When we come back.
WILLIAMS: Well, there they are. And the last thing before we go tonight is this. It is likely most Americans want to believe there is majesty to our Supreme Court. Those nine justices are really our living link to the framers. They are the court of last resort and their only job is to decide what is and what is not constitutional. They are different from us, starting with the quality of their intellect, but also including their lives and how they live them. Where they work, they have a robing room. We don't in our office. Where they work, a clerk announces, oh yay oh yay when they enter the courtroom.
So it was remarkable this week when Senator Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt, "My message to any one of the nine Supreme Court justices, if you're thinking about quitting this year, do it yesterday." Grassley went on to say, "I'm suggesting to them that if they're the type of people that want Trump to replace them, that they ought to think about retiring yesterday. Well, of course, elections have consequences. We could end up without a Republican Senate," he went on to say.
There, that last part gets to the heart of it. Grassley is a cagey old pro who runs the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. When we say elections have consequences, we mean that short of sending troops into war, the most awesome power of the presidency is getting to shape the courts and thus governance of the nation for decades after you're gone from the White House. Grassley may fear a Democratic wave in November. And he fears the time left to confirm another Trump-leaning justice just might be ticking away.
So, something to think about over the weekend, especially if you're a Supreme Court justice. For everybody else, enjoy our weekend.
That's our broadcast on a Friday night and for this week. Thank you so much for being here with us. Good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York.
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