Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: May 25, 2018 Guest: Paul Butler, Susan Glasser, Ken Thomas, Josh Gerstein, Nancy Cook, Phil Elliot
STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, Rudy Giuliani and the Trump legal team looking for a classified briefing of their own now as news of another Trump Tower meeting emerges, this time between Michael Cohen and a Russian oligarch.
Plus, is it on, or is it off? A reading of the tea leaves on that summit with Kim Jong-un from his tweeting about it tonight.
And trouble brewing behind the scenes in the West Wing involving the President and one of his top Cabinet secretaries.
"The 11th Hour" on a Friday night begins now.
And good evening from our NBC News Headquarters here in New York. I`m Steve Kornacki in for Brian Williams tonight. Day 491 of the Trump administration.
And tonight President Trump`s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, is taking new aim at the Russia investigation, telling "The Associated Press that" Trump`s legal team "wants a briefing on the classified information shared with lawmakers about the origins of the FBI investigation into Russia`s meddling in the 2016 election. And Trump`s lawyers may take the information to the Justice Department as part of an effort to scuttle the ongoing Special Counsel probe. Also that "the White House hopes to get a readout of the materials next week."
Giuliani telling the "A.P." he wants to know about the use of a longtime government informant who approached members of Trump`s campaign about Russian efforts. He says that if it was inappropriate, Special Counsel Robert Mueller`s entire probe may be illegitimate. Giuliani added, the White House may press the Justice Department to "re-evaluate the investigation."
Yesterday, lawmakers received classified briefings with intelligence and law enforcement officials about the FBI`s use of an informant in the Russia investigation. The President has alleged the FBI source was planted in his campaign for political reasons that`s a claim that has not been proven. Nonetheless, Trump has kept up his attacks on Twitter this morning sending out a series of messages all referring to the informant as a spy.
Today, the White House responded to questions about the President`s accusations.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think that`s -- there`s been a lot of calls for concern, and that`s what we`re asking for those facts to come out. The President`s asked for full and complete transparency, and that`s what we expect to get.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: There is also new information about a formerly undisclosed meeting at Trump Tower between Michael Cohen and a Russian oligarch with ties to the Kremlin. "The New York Times" broke the story of the January 9th, 2017 meeting between Cohen and Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg. It took place 11 days before Trump`s inauguration, and there is video showing Vekselberg with his American cousin, businessman Andrew Intrater, entering the lobby of Trump Tower.
The "Times" reports that Cohen and Vekselberg "discussed a mutual desire to strengthen Russia`s relations with the United States under President Trump and they also arranged to see one another during the inauguration festivities. Vekselberg has already been on Special Counsel Robert Mueller`s radar. The "Times" has reported that he was stopped and questioned at a New York area airport earlier this year.
Let`s bring in our lead-off panel for this Friday night. Susan Glasser, Staff Writer at "The New Yorker." Paul Butler, a Former Federal Prosecutor and Georgetown Law School Professor and Ken Dilanian, NBC News Intelligence and National Security Reporter. Thank you all for being with us.
And Ken, let me start with you with this news, Rudy Giuliani, what he is telling the "A.P. about, he says, potentially going to the Justice Department to have this investigation declared illegitimate. What do you make of his comments tonight?
KEN DILANIAN, NBC NEWS INTELLIGENCE AND NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: It`s a very significant and potentially disturbing development, Steve, because, look, under normal circumstances, the subject or target of a grand jury investigation has no right to learn secret information about that investigation. Now, absolutely, once you`re charged with a crime as a defendant, you have a right to get discovery and to learn how the government investigated and what they got and anything exculpatory. But before that, you have no right except in this case, the putative defendant is the President of the United States. And in theory, he could order that all this information be provided to him. This is his Justice Department, his FBI they are part of the executive branch.
We`ve never been here before, Steve, except perhaps in the Nixon era and Watergate, where you have a President who is under investigation by his own Justice Department. And, you know, a lot of people think there are laws and rules about Justice Department independence. There really aren`t. It`s really a post-Watergate tradition that the President and the White House is supposed to stay away from criminal investigations. But there`s nothing to prevent Donald Trump from simply ordering the Justice Department to produce this material for his own benefit in order to discredit this investigation.
KORNACKI: So, Paul Butler, let`s pick it up there on that possibility that Ken is raising. If the President were to make that order to the Justice Department and say, "I want these materials," play that out. What would happen then?
PAUL BUTLER, FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: It`s up to Rod Rosenstein and the Attorney General, You know, Steve, I used to think that the erosion of the rule of law would be a big, dramatic thing like the President suspending the Constitution or declaring martial law. This week, we see it happening drip by drip.
The President sends his own lawyer to a meeting in which secret evidence in a case that may involve him is revealed. There`s no other subject of a criminal investigation in the United States who would have that kind of access. This is not about law. This is not about regulations. This is a bald power play by the President. He`s doing this because he can.
KORNACKI: Yes. And Susan, I`m curious what your sense of this is because there have been issues whether it`s with Rudy Giuliani, whether it`s with anybody who has purported to speak for President Trump during his political career with, you know, is the President going to undercut this? Is this person actually speaking for the President? Is this actually a statement that we can take to the bank?
When you see these comments from Rudy Giuliani tonight, do you read this as temporary posturing in the court of public opinion or potentially something more strategic in terms -- something more significant in terms of a legal strategy?
SUSAN GLASSER, STAFF WRITER, "THE NEW YORKER": Well, a couple of things. First of all, in his short tenure, Giuliani, as President Trump`s at least T.V. lawyer, clearly he is speaking for the President to a certain extent because he said a lot of what we initially took to be wild things that the President did not have him dial back, he`s continued to stay on his team. There were thoughts initially that perhaps Giuliani was saying so many things and giving so many interviews on the air that Trump would have to fire him. That hasn`t happened.
So I think, first of all, we have to have the default position that Giuliani is doing this in at least a somewhat authorized way. Second of all, you know, I`m not a lawyer. I`m interested to hear the perspective of the former federal prosecutor and others. But it strikes me that Giuliani`s comments tonight really suggest that, you know, Trump ought to be paying for real legal advice and not just T.V. legal advice because on what basis they would be making a claim for this. It`s hard to imagine that this fits any definition of legal conduct.
And even if the President were to invoke his executive authority to demand this information and to create this kind of a crisis with his own Justice Department, I don`t see how his private attorneys would be able to do that on his behalf. On what basis should Giuliani have access to classified information? It`s just not clear to me at all. And so I think it has got to be seen as part of an extraordinary public campaign to see how far the President and his team can push this thing.
KORNACKI: Yes. I mean, Ken, I`m wondering if there`s anything you can adhere in terms of context or reporting trying to just understand exactly what the claim is that`s being made here by Giuliani, the claim that could potentially, I guess, be made here by Trump and by the administration. It just seems to be that what, this investigation grew out of materials that were ill gotten because the FBI had used -- under false pretenses had sent this source over to talk to, you know, Papadopoulos. Is that essentially what it is, that false pretenses and it`s politically motivated because of that?
DILANIAN: Yes, the fruit of the poisonous tree, Steve. You`ve got it exactly right as absurd as that seems because after all, if the evidence leads in the direction of improper contacts and collusion, the question of whether the FBI followed procedure seems almost secondary. But actually it is important. I think we shouldn`t minimize what happened here.
The FBI ran at least one informant at three Americans who worked on a presidential campaign. That is a big deal, and it properly should be scrutinized. Republicans should be asking how that happened, who approved it, on what basis.
But, you know, knowing the way the FBI operates and knowing the sensitivity of investigating the presidential campaign, you`ve got to believe that that decision was approved potentially at the highest levels, even by the Attorney General of the United States, that they dotted every I, crossed every T, followed every procedure. If they didn`t, they should be held accountable for that. But there were very good reasons that they sent this informant to talk to these people, principally because two of them had already been established as suspected foreign agents with contacts with Russians.
And so this was a very serious investigation. They were concerned about Russian influence in a Presidential campaign. But you`re absolutely right, Rudy Giuliani is arguing that that was inappropriate, and therefore the whole investigation is invalid.
KORNACKI: And, Paul, on another front here tonight, there is this "New York Times" report we mentioned about that meeting that Michael Cohen had apparently 11 days, I think, before President Trump`s inauguration with a Russian billionaire. We know obviously the situation legally with Michael Cohen. He`s in some perilous territory right now. What does this reporting now do to that situation?
BUTLER: So Cohen is Trump`s Mr. fix-it, and he`s meeting with this Russian oligarch for 30 minutes. What are they talking about? This is a few days before the inauguration. A question Mueller wants to know, is there a quid pro quo? Is the conversation the Russian oligarch says, "OK, we helped Mr. Trump win the election. Now what are you going to do for us?"
And the weird thing is Cohen gets a million-dollar contract from someone who`s related to this Russian oligarch. This is an investment firm. What can Cohen do to help an investment firm? He can`t even run his own taxi medallion business.
And so, again, what Mueller wants to know is why is this meeting happening? What are they talking about, and how is it related to these other meetings, the meetings a few months before with Kushner, Trump Junior, and the Russian lawyer. And, again, around this time, George Papadopoulos is also running around Europe on behalf of the campaign, meeting with Russian intermediaries.
KORNACKI: And, Ken, this name, Viktor Vekselberg -- excuse me, I`m having trouble with it, Viktor --
DILANIAN: Vekselberg. KORNACKI: -- Vekselberg, right. What do we know about him? Fill in some of the blanks for folks not too familiar.
DILANIAN: Sure. He`s worth about $15 billion, reported to be the fourth richest man in Russia, happens to have the largest private collection of faberge eggs, fun fact. But you know what? He`s been cultivating influence in the United States for a long time. He was a contributor to the Clinton Foundation years ago.
So it`s not clear to me that this entree to Michael Cohen wasn`t garden variety influence peddling, which could be a scandal in its own right. It could be that, or it could be a gesture on behalf of the Russian government because after all, this is an oligarch who operates, you know, with the permission of Vladimir Putin, you know, is wealthy because Vladimir Putin allows him to be wealthy and wants sanctions lifted. In fact, he is under sanctions now as of April by the United States, and so he has an interest in pursuing policies that Vladimir Putin wants to see happen. Steve.
KORNACKI: Yes. And, Susan, the even broader context for this then is the other reporting this week from "The New York Times" about meetings in August of 2016 Donald Trump Jr. had with other foreigners seeking some kind of involvement with the campaign.
GLASSER: Well, that`s right. I think actually that this "New York Times" story today about Michael Cohen and Vekselberg is quite significant. Notice the language which I found particularly kind of dry and ironic, suggesting, well, they were discussing Russia policy and their desire to see a change in Russia policy in the new administration. Come on.
You know, Michael Cohen is not a noted Russia policy expert. And, to me, this actually had a very sharp echo of the explanation that President Trump initially offered about the Trump Tower meeting that was referenced in the summer during the campaign at which they were just merely discussing Russian adoption policy. Now, come on. That`s not what they`re discussing. They`re discussing sanctions. They`re discussing potentially very specific actions that Vekselberg and possibly those in the Russian government wished the Trump administration to undertake in the new administration.
The context here, 11 days before Donald Trump took office, was a very serious consideration by the soon to be President to lift sanctions on Russia that had been imposed in the wake of Russia`s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. And this is a very, very serious policy discussion that was happening. And by the way, Michael Cohen again not a Russia policy hand. He`s there only in his capacity as Donald Trump`s personal attorney and fixer.
Was he also asking for money on his own behalf? We don`t know presumably. That is part of the subject of the very serious criminal investigation into Michael Cohen that seems to be ongoing right now. But I find this to be actually a very significant report today.
KORNACKI: And, Paul, again, that other piece of it too there with Donald Trump Jr., we mentioned that reporting about the context with foreigners. The new reporting about contacts with foreigners. You now have Chris Coons, Democratic Senator from Delaware, saying that he wants more testimony now from Donald Trump Jr., suggesting at least he misled in his initial characterizations here. Donald Trump Jr., that name sort of reentering the picture of the conversation with some prominence here.
BUTLER: Yes. So, Steve, both Trump junior and Kushner, the son-in-law, have serious short-term memory issues. Kushner, Junior can`t remember all of these meetings he had with the Russians. And now we see Trump doesn`t remember this very dramatic and illegal meeting where foreign operatives offer to help his dad get elected President. There comes a time when a prosecutor wonders, "Is this just faulty memory, or is this a lie?"
KORNACKI: Yes. And, Ken, it does strike me when you hear all the different names, the meeting in August, the meeting at Trump Tower, Manafort enters into it. It seems one of the central questions here with Mueller looking at this or anybody else looking at this is if you`ve got these different strands here, you know, one involving Manafort, one involving all this reporting about Trump and Cohen and potential business dealings with Russia that were discussed during the campaign, the question of Russian meddling. It seems the central question in all of this is, are these strands that all intersect in some way or are they just ultimately independent strands somehow?
DILANIAN: That is the big question, Steve. I mean, clearly this is a campaign filled with people who were willing to accept help from foreign governments, potentially illegal help. But the question is was there a conspiracy here? Was there a plan, or was this just a bunch of opportunists, basically some of them trying to get rich, others like Donald Trump Jr. trying to get his father elected, meeting with whoever asked for a meeting, seeking help wherever they could find it? That I think is the central question of the Mueller investigation.
Was this an organized conspiracy to coordinate with foreigners? Or did these people just happen to have all these meetings and accept all this help enthusiastically with no particular plan, Steve?
KORNACKI: OK. Ken Dilanian, Paul Butler, and Susan Glasser, thank you.
And coming up, first, it was on. Then it was off. Now it`s a maybe. Could Donald Trump`s abrupt moves be working with North Korea?
And later, Harvey Weinstein out on bail tonight after being charged with rape. We`ll get the latest reaction from some of his accusers.
THE 11TH HOUR just getting started on a Friday night.
KORNACKI: In a major reversal, President Trump said the June 12th North Korea summit could still happen. This just a day after officially scrapping that meeting.
The President writing on Twitter tonight, "We are having very productive talks with North Korea about reinstating the summit, which if it does happen, will likely remain in Singapore on the same date, June 12th. And if necessary, will be extended beyond that date."
And this morning, the President told reporters he`d still like to make that summit happen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the summit still on?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We`re going to see what happens. We`re talking to them now. It was a very nice statement they put out. We`ll see what happens. It could even be the 12th.
We`re talking to them now. They very much want to do it, we`d like to do it. We`re going to see what happens.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: Today`s abrupt change from the President coming after North Korea issued a statement last night saying they were still willing to meet with the United States at any time.
Peter Baker of "The New York Times" summed up today`s sudden shift from President Trump, writing, "The President`s comments were the latest head- spinning twist in a diplomatic dance that has played out unlike any in recent years."
NBC News reports the President was eager to cancel the summit before North Korea could and that key allies were not given advance notice of the cancellation.
Meanwhile, earlier today at the Naval Academy commencement, the President said America is being respected again/
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: And our country has regained the respect that we used to have long ago abroad. Yes, they`re respecting us again. Yes, America is back.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: Here with us now, Ken Thomas, White House Reporter for "The Associated Press," Josh Gerstein, Senior White House Reporter for "Politico." And Susan Glasser is back with us.
Ken, let me start with you the President saying this could still happen. This could still happen on June 12th. Is that a realistic possibility right now?
KEN THOMAS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: It`s certainly possible. It seems like nothing is ever really dead in this White House. You know, they were certainly disappointed yesterday. There`s seems to be more optimism in the building today.
One thing to look for is whether the White House advance team actually goes to Singapore this weekend. Joe Hagin is the Deputy Chief of Staff. He leads that group, and they told us today that there`s still a possibility that he could go out there.
But it just does raise this whole question of whether, you know, there`s a risk that the President could essentially be left standing at the altar in Singapore. You know, if logistics are an issue here, if there`s concern that, you know, they can`t have meetings of advance teams on time or that calls can`t be returned as they get ready for this summit, it raises risks of whether the President would actually be stood up by Kim Jong-un.
KORNACKI: I`m curious, though, if it was off yesterday and now it`s maybe back on and there`s more optimism in the White House, what was the cause of that? What was the source of that? What changed between yesterday and today to change that likelihood?
THOMAS: It speaks to the degree to which this President would like to have this meeting, especially if they can accomplish something. This is a President who is really drawn to grand gestures. This is a White House that really believes in a high-risk, high-reward strategy. And, you know, lastly, it`s something that none of his predecessors have been able to accomplish. So this is something that the President is really attracted to, is drawn to, would love to be able to be the President who gets Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.
KORNACKI: Josh, how do you read how North Korea reacted to this? We quoted from their official response there. But do you read into it any potential for the U.S to gain any leverage through this cancellation?
JOSH GERSTEIN, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: It seems like there`s at least a possibility of that. I mean, it seemed like they felt that their more belligerent comments of the last couple days. Shouldn`t have been taken as seriously by the U.S. administration, and it may have just been posturing on their part and then they were somewhat startled by the President`s decision to pull out.
But I mean I think the sense of the White House had been that if they were going to take a P.R. hit, it was better to take the mild embarrassment of the one of canceling the summit a few weeks out rather than, as Ken suggesting, having to pull the plug or even see the President embarrassed right up at the time of the summit once everybody`s there in Singapore.
KORNACKI: And, Susan, Ken mentions, too, it does seem every time a President`s engaged in or potentially engaged in this kind of international diplomacy, the concern is raised about does the President want it too much in a way that might affect the deal in a negative way, that might cloud judgment. When Reagan was President, I remember some hard-liners in his party were saying, "You know, and he deal with this, so don`t be too desperate to make a deal with the Soviets." The Republicans against Obama a few years ago with the Iran deal says he was too eager to do that. How does that enter into it, Trump`s desire here, as Ken was saying, his strong desire to be seen as succeeding where his predecessors failed?
GLASSER: Well, I think that`s the overwhelming conclusion just from the last 24 hours of head-spinning, on again, off again romance. The White House was very eager to let us know yesterday that that very strangely and very undiplomatically worded letter to Km had been dictated personally by President Trump himself. And so then to turn around on a dime not because of any policy change on the part of the North Koreans, I think it`s important to emphasize that, but simply because Donald Trump said, as he told us this morning in his remarks before he got on the Marine One helicopter, because we received a very nice letter from them.
So it all has to do with how he feels he`s being treated by the North Koreans. He`s reduced in a way American national security and American diplomacy to a set of interactions between him personally. And completing your own personal engagement, I think, with that of what our national interests are in engaging in this negotiation is something that I can`t imagine any other President doing whether it was Ronald Reagan meeting one- on-one with someone or Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in their opening to China.
Generally speaking, we would never have such a summit meeting between two leaders without months or even years of talks between the two parties first. And, you know, it`s not accurate to say that the United States has never had an agreement with the North Koreans. The United States, along with other leading countries, has made several agreements with North Koreans, which they`ve then violated or walked away from.
And so the question remains not so much about this silly drama that Trump has sort of sucked us all into this reality show aspect of is it on again or off again, and where is the meeting going to be? And I`m struck that we`re talking about that instead of the underlying question of what is the deal? The bottom line is that Trump has boxed himself into a corner negotiating-wise by demanding complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
And the Kim family, for three generations, has made the acquisition of nuclear weapons the foundation of its national security policy. And very few -- really no North Korea experts that I`m aware of in the United States or in Korea or Japan have any sense that Kim is prepared to eliminate his nuclear arsenal. So my question remains not whether the summit is going to happen or not because Trump wants it to happen, but what kind of a deal is even possible given how he started out by boxing himself into a corner.
KORNACKI: Well, Ken, let`s dig deeper in that if we can in terms of what it is the President`s looking for and what is shaping his thinking when it comes to that question of what he`s looking for. Because I think a lot of folks are looking at his national security adviser, John Bolton, some of the comments he`s made publicly about wanting regime change in North Korea, about holding up Libya as a model, where Libya under Gadhafi gave up its nukes and then Gadhafi was gone decade later. How much way behind the scenes are we seeing John Bolton had here?
THOMAS: Well, he`s an important voice, but the President has contradicted him on whether the Libyan model is at play here. The President really wants denuclearization. That`s what he`s pushing for. The question is whether that`s something that is achievable given that Kim Jong-un`s security is paramount here. That`s what the elites in North Korea value the most. That`s what he is most concerned about.
And there doesn`t seem to be at this point a secondary option, something where they could at least get some type of containment. It`s essentially what we had with the Iran deal, and it`s something that the President walked away from. So it`s all about what is achievable and what is the goals are, and they seem to be in different places at this point.
KORNACKI: Yes. Josh, if the Trump goal is denuclearization and the North Korean bottom line is denuclearization means we`re the next Libya, can you see any middle ground there?
GERSTEIN: I can`t see that those two things can really be reconciled. I think it`s possible that there could be some kind of an interim or staged deal. That seemed to be what was under discussion at some point, and the President even suggested that maybe a staged deal was possible although he said it couldn`t take too long.
So it`s hard to see how you could really square those two goals and have both sides come out saving face, but I could imagine something that could perhaps lower the tensions on the peninsula. And maybe both sides could paint it as something of a victory even if it maybe wasn`t worthy of all the hype that has gone into this meeting.
KORNACKI: And, Susan also here. There`s the question of Donald Trump and that image he covets for himself, the idea that he is the ultimate deal maker, the author of the autobiography "The Art of the Deal." You said -- you wrote this week so far as president from the standpoint of making and brokering the big deal, you don`t think there`s much to show for it so far.
GLASSER: Well, let`s just say that so far, 16 months into the Trump presidency, what he`s proven to be adept at doing is, is breaking deals rather than making them. And he just withdrew, we`ve mentioned, the Iran nuclear deal. Earlier this month, he withdrew from the Paris climate accords. He withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He is of course also threatening new trade conflicts with China, with our European allies here in the western hemisphere. He`s promised to renegotiate NAFTA. That hasn`t happened yet. And domestic politics, of course, he`s promised to redo Obamacare. He`s promised an infrastructure plan.
You know, governing is hard. And by all accounts, President Trump did not come to the office deeply versed in policy. He doesn`t seem to relish the details or the process-oriented nature of the job, which often in the pass historically has led to these kind of big deals. I think that`s the thing that has alarmed a lot of people about this one-on-one, high-stakes diplomacy with North Korea.
But I think Josh has a point that`s an important one, which is that even people who are skeptical of Donald Trump`s deal-making abilities or who are concerned that he`ll go to North Korea and get a bad deal, still people are worried about the risks of conflict, the risks of war between two nuclear powers.
And so I think a lot of people would say, well, at least if they`re talking, that means they`re not moving towards conflict. And so you do have a set of people who think that even a bad deal might be better than nothing at all in this situation.
KORNACKI: All right. Susan Glasser, Josh Gerstein, and Ken Thomas, thank you all for joining us.
And coming up, will a so-called blue wave prove to be short-lived? I`m going to head over to the big board. We`ve got a lot of new numbers. We`re going to break them all down for you. "The 11th Hour" back after this.
KORNACKI: All right, everyone. Some big news about the midterms. Some big things might be happening. So of course we go to the big board. And remember, I said big things might be happening. And let me show you what I mean. We start with this. The question here, the blue wave we`ve been talking about, is it maybe not going to be after all?
So here`s one thing that`s been changing lately. This is the generic congressional ballot. I asked folks in the poll, you voting Democrat, you voting Republican to control Congress?
Now, look, a few months ago, this is where it stood. At the end of 2017, Democrats were up double digits in this thing and folks were looking at that saying double digits in the past has been bad, bad news for the White House Party when they`re in that situation. But guess what`s happened since then? From a Democratic lead of 13 points at the end of the year, the average is now sitting there at about 3.5 points. So that is something Republicans are suddenly getting optimistic about, and Democrats getting uneasy about.
How about Donald Trump`s approval rating? We say the less popular he is, no surprise here, the less popular he is the worse Republicans` prospects are in the midterms. Well, again, at the end of last year, he was sitting down there at 37%. That was the low point of his presidency. And of course he was in that range for a long time in 2017 into 2018.
But look. It`s gone up a little bit. He`s sitting there at 44% now. You know, you don`t put presidents on Mount Rushmore for being at 44% in the polls. But if you`re at 44% heading into a midterm and you were at 37% before, that could make a big difference for your party. So what could be behind this? One possibility, simple. It`s the economy. It`s the economy stupid.
Remember when the Democrats said that in `92, well, seems to be in pretty good shape right now and Trump`s approval rating on the economy up over 50% right now and that`s up from where it was a few months ago.
We just talked about North Korea. Now a lot of suspense there. But until the developments in the last day or two, things seemed to be heading in a potentially positive direction there and Trump`s approval rating was up to 53% on North Korea. That`s a 20-point jump from where it was at the end of last year. So maybe that was driving it.
But we got to say, we say something might be happening. We don`t really know. Let me take you back in the time machine here. In 2010, huge wave here. Remember 2010? Obama was president. First midterm, Republican, blah, blah, blah. At this same point in 2010, you took that generic ballot, Democrats were ahead. They were actually up on average in the generic ballot. They had some good news they were pointing to in the spring of 2019.
The Democrats were saying there`s not going to be a Republican wave. Look at that and then look of course what happened in the end. Republicans gained 63 seats, one of the most catastrophic midterm elections a White House party has had. That didn`t really take off that Republican advantage in the generic in 2010, didn`t really take off until July, August, or there.
So we look at it right now and we say maybe something big is happening here. Republicans certainly hope it is. Democrats fear it is. But also we`ve seen this before. What happened in May, not always what happens in the fall, in November when it comes to these things. So we`ll keep an eye -- believe me, we`ll keep you updated.
And coming up here, disorganized and chaotic. That is how one of the president`s Cabinet secretaries is describing the White House according to new reporting. More on the chaos behind the scenes when "The 11th Hour" continues.
KORNACKI: Well, it`s been a wild week at the White House. Just look at the latest headlines from the back and forth over Trump`s meeting with Kim Jong-un to his spygate claim and the controversial intel briefing on the Russia investigation. There`s "The Washington Post" reports even more chaos is happening behind the curtain.
The latest example involves Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. Administration officials telling "The Post", "Nielsen has complained that it is almost an impossible task working for Trump in that he doesn`t understand the nuances of immigration law." The story goes on to add, "Nielsen told others she couldn`t believe how disorganized and chaotic the place was."
Here with us, Phil Elliott, politics correspondent for "Time" magazine, and Nancy Cook, White House reporter for Politico.
Nancy, that commentary there we`re hearing from apparently the Homeland Security secretary herself, that is a -- is that a common refrain from folks inside the White House?
NANCY COOK, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: I think privately people in the White House, you know, reach out to outside advisers, close friends, and the refrain that I think that they often tell people is that they are surprised by, a, the pace of it, b, how chaotic it is, and then, c, just what a back-biting environment it is. How much sort of administration officials go after one another and how there`s a feeling that you can`t really trust each other.
And then of course there`s the president, who I think a lot of times undermines policy decisions they`re trying to make by tweeting or changing his mind, leaving Cabinet secretaries to really scramble. And, you know, Nielsen -- Secretary Nielsen and Trump have clashed over immigration policy, and really part of her problem is the president has very specific ideas about the immigration policy he wants carried out, sort of regardless of what Congress wants, what is legal, you know, what lawyers in the White House think, and he`s insistent that his wish gets carried out. And she is sort of trying to present facts and say, well, this is not totally doable. Let`s find a compromise and he is not interested in hearing that. He just wants her to do what he wants.
KORNACKI: Yes. And so, Phil, the atmosphere there in the White House, this just sort of constant chaos, the churn and all of that, what does that -- what toll does that take on the folks who are supposed to make that place, make the administration and in some ways make the country run?
PHIL ELLIOTT, POLITICS CORRESPONDENT, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, it`s remarkable when you have conversations with people and they`re candid and honest, they can`t believe they`re getting as much done as they are despite themselves. You go into these meetings, and everyone is expecting everything to leak. There is an instant not long ago where the meeting began, I know this is going to leak. Like there is just absolutely no loyalty inside among senior White House staff. They`re constantly at war with each other.
But it`s to an end because they think -- and perhaps they`re right on this -- that if their views are articulated in some of the places Mr. Trump reads or watches, they can win the argument there even if they can`t win it in the meeting. So they`re relitigating or pre-litigating a lot of these policy discussions in conservative media, on Twitter, in "The New York Times," on shows like this, trying to have an upper hand over their colleagues. None of this is happening at the deputies level. None of it is happening at the principals level. Cabinet secretaries are finding these decisions are being made based on retweets, likes, and what the conservative echo chamber is creating for the president.
KORNACKI: So, Nancy, in terms of the president himself, is this something where he sees all of this chaos, the leaking and just the swirl around his administration, and he sees an advantage strategically in that, and he wants that, and he actively promotes it, actively cultivates it, or is it a president who just sort of doesn`t care about it, doesn`t want to be engaged, and this is a consequence of that?
COOK: Well, I think the president really likes chaos and I think he thrives in it. And he sets it up. We saw this dating back to the campaign. You know, his campaign went through multiple campaign managers and we`ve seen that in the White House. You know, there have been firings. There have been a ton of people that have left.
The president often will set up a team of rivals. Look at what`s happening with trade policy now, for instance. You have like five or six principals who have totally difficult -- wildly different views trying to negotiate trade policy with China. And the president really sets up his teams like that. And I think that he likes it. And I think it`s strategic in a lot of ways.
I think it`s a place he feels comfortable because if he can control the chaos, sort of create headlines, make things unpredictable just through a tweet, it really distracts from other things that are happening like the special investigations, like some negative headlines this week about the administration, you know, divorcing children from their parents at the border.
You know, all these headlines sort of become much less important because the president -- everyone is talking about whether or not the North Korea summit will happen or not, and the president has sort of set that in motion and really controls the news cycle and tone around it.
KORNACKI: And, Phil, I have to say my reaction when I hear that folks working in the administration are surprised by the atmosphere they find themselves in, I guess there is a part of me that says, did they watch the campaign?
ELLIOTT: Well, did they watch the campaign? Have they tuned in to any of the coverage before they came on? There`s been tremendous churn and turnover at this White House. One study has it as the most unstable. The instability is setting records. So people are coming in and joining this administration knowing what they`re getting.
And you talk to people who are considering going in as part of the third or fourth wave, and they say, well, it can`t be that bad. And then they get there, and they`re like, oh, it`s even worse than you thought. That this is just a president who, to build on what Nancy was saying, likes chaos but likes the image of chaos more. He thinks this is good for his brand to show that he is able to step in to unpredictable situations, uncontrolled situations, and he alone can fix it to borrow a phrase from the Cleveland convention.
KORNACKI: And I guess if there`s a third and fourth wave, there could probably be a fifth and sixth wave behind that and on and on it goes. Phil Elliott, Nancy Cook, thank you both for joining us on this Friday night.
And coming up, the allegations against him helped spark the Me Too movement. Tonight his accusers react to seeing former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in handcuffs when "The 11th Hour" continues.
KORNACKI: An extraordinary scene played out on live television earlier today when former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein surrendered to authorities in New York City charged with multiple sex crimes. You know, convicted Weinstein could spend decades in prison. The moment came after months of allegations against Weinstein that launched the Me Too movement.
NBC News correspondent Kristen Dahlgren reports.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KRISTEN DAHLGREN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It was a day many thought they`d never see. Harvey Weinstein in handcuffs, turning himself in to face charges of rape and criminal sex acts.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This defendant used his position, money, and power, to lure young women into situations where he was able to violate them sexually.
DAHLGREN: The three counts involved two different women, Lucia Evans, who says Weinstein forced her to perform a sex act in 2004 and still unidentified woman prosecutors say was raped by Weinstein in this Manhattan hotel in 2013. Today, Weinstein was ordered to stay away from her. He`s out of jail after posting $1 million bail, but required to wear a GPS ankle bracelet.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We got you. We got you.
DAHLGREN: Actors Rose McGowan, one of almost 100 other women who have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct reacted on Megyn Kelly today.
ROSE MCGOWAN, ACTRESS: It shows people worldwide, which is what I was hoping the whole time that this cannot and will not stand.
DAHLGREN: Weinstein said nothing but almost seem to smile outside. His lawyer saying he`ll plead not guilty maintaining any sex with consensual.
BENJAMIN BRAFMAN, HARVE WEINSTEIN`S ATTORNEY: Mr. Weinstein did not invent the casting couch in Hollywood and to the extent that there is bad behavior in that industry, that is not what this is about.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the defense tries to use a casting couch defense, that is real gamble because it implies that there was a culture of bad behavior, that will not play well with a jury of regular folks.
DAHLGREN: Prosecutors who think criticism for not pressing charges against Weinstein in his 2015 case today ask for other victims to come forward.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There were so many things that had helped protect him for so long. And today, it really felt like that those layers of protection fell away.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KORNACKI: There are still open investigations in London and Los Angeles and the grand jury in New York is still meeting, looking into other allegations, including potential financial crimes related to how women were paid off. Weinstein has until Wednesday to give his testimony to the grand injury if he chooses.
Coming up, a veteran turned United States senator poignantly reminds us what the Memorial Day holiday is really all about. We`re back after this.
KORNACKI: The last thing before we go tonight, as Americans head off to a long weekend of barbecues and beach time, it`s worth taking a moment to remember why we celebrate Memorial Day, to honor the servicemen and women who gave their lives for this country.
Cities across America began observing local memorial days or decoration days as they were originally called following the Civil War. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day to be a national holiday officially placing it on the final Monday in May.
This week, 900 soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Army Regiment known as the Old Guard, placed flags in front of 228,000 headstones at Arlington National Cemetery as part of an annual tradition. Vice President Mike Pence in Arkansas, Senator Tom Cotton joined in that ceremony. Pence made a point to stop at the grave of Marin Corpse Lieutenant Michael Kelly, the son of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Nearly 7,000 members of the U.S. military have given their lives since September 11th, 2001.
In Illinois, Senator Tammy Duckworth, a U.S. army veteran who lost both her legs in Iraq, took this Memorial Day weekend to connect why she chose to fight with a domestic political issue very much in the news this week, writing on Twitter, "One day our nation`s flag will drape my coffin just as it did my dad`s and will my husband`s and brother`s. I will always stand on these legs for the flag and anthem, but it was also my honor to defend people of right to free speech, including those who choose to take a knee to express outrage at the glaring disparity in how Americans of different races are treated."
That is our broadcast for tonight. Thank you for being with us. And good night from NBC News headquarters in New York.
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