Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: May 31, 2018 Guest: Sam Stein, Jill Colvin, Steve Holland, Michael Steele, Jonathan Swan, Ken Vogel, Doris Kearns Goodwin
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC, HOST: Tonight, a wild day`s worth of news even by Trump Administration standards, including a Presidential pardon for a man who pleaded guilty to a federal crime and word that two members of The Apprentice family may be pardoned next. There`s also the looming questions are these pardons meant as a message to people like Cohen and Manafort.
Also, the President reportedly pressured Jeff Sessions to take control of the Russia investigation not once, not twice, but at least four times. The reporter who broke that story is standing by. All that plus some actual perspective tonight from Doris Kearns Goodwin on a Thursday night as "The 11th Hour" gets under way.
And good evening once again from our headquarters here in New York. Day 497 of the Trump Administration, and the President is making waves with another controversial pardon as he considers even more clemency for former members "the Apprentice" family, Martha Stewart who`s done time, and Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who is still doing time.
Earlier today President Trump pardoned Conservative Author and filmmaker Dinesh D`Souza who pleaded guilty back in 2014 to making illegal campaign contributions. At the time, D`Souza argued he was being politically targeted because of his opposition to President Obama.
The White House released a statement that read in part, Mr. D`Souza was in the President`s opinion, a victim of selective prosecution for violations of campaign finance laws."
Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who oversaw D`Souza`s case, wrote this on Twitter today, "The President has the right to pardon, but the facts are these. D`Souza intentionally broke the law, voluntarily pled guilty, apologized for his conduct, and the judge found no unfairness. The career prosecutors and agents did their job, period."
D`Souza wrote back on Twitter, "Bharara and his goons bludgeoned me into the plea by threatening to add a second redundant charge caring a prison term of five years."
President Trump also flew to Texas today to meet with families affected by this month`s shooting in Santa Fe, and during the flight, the President returned to the subject of pardons. He told reporters onboard Air Force One that he`s considering clemency for Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich.
Martha Stewart was convicted in 2004 on charges related to insider stock trading, including conspiracy, lying to investigators. And Former Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges, including trying to sell President Obama`s Senate seat once vacated.
Jill Colvin of "The Associated Press" writes tonight, In the Trump administration, the odds of a pardon have heavily favored those with a celebrity backer, those who have become a cause celeb among conservatives and those with a reality T.V. connection. Trump has been particularly drawn to cases where he believes there was a political motivation to the prosecutions, a situation that may remind him of his own predicament at the center of Special Counsel Robert Mueller`s investigation into Russian election meddling."
Both Blagojevich and Stewart have ties to Trump`s reality T.V. days, of course. Rod Blagojevich was famously a contestant on "Celebrity Apprentice" back in 2010.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You`re the project manager.
FMR. GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH (D), ILLINOIS: Right. I know.
TRUMP: And, Governor, I have great respect for you. I have great respect for your tenacity, for the fact that you just don`t give up. But, Rod, you`re fired.
BLAGOJEVICH: Thank you.
TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you very much.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Who could forget that? And in 2005, Martha Stewart hosted an Apprentice spinoff series. It was the same year the President and his wife, Melania, made an appearance on Martha Stewart`s show.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARTHA STEWART, TELEVISION PERSONALITY: And I`m here with Donald and Melania Trump, and we`re going to make a scrumptious meatloaf sandwich, which is Donald`s favorite sandwich according to Melania. Is that true?
TRUMP: Well, it`s very good. I`ve never had meatloaf this good, but it`s very good.
STEWART: We`re using --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Aside from pardons, it was another whirlwind day of fast- breaking news from the President with no particular focus. The President wrote on Twitter today, and this is important, that he never fired James Comey because of Russia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: 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."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The President had a big day today, went back on the attack against ABC over Roseanne. And prior to departing for Texas and his meeting with loved ones from the latest mass school shooting there, he said, "We`re going to have some fun today."
On the diplomacy front, the President also broke some important news on North Korea. In an exclusive interview, he told Reuters reporter Steve Holland onboard Air Force One that a nuclear deal may take more than one meeting with Kim Jong-un.
And Axios is reporting tonight that President Trump pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reclaim control of the Russia investigation on at least four separate occasions.
Well, with all of that, let`s bring in our lead-off panel for a Thursday night. We welcome to this broadcast the aforementioned Steve Holland, the veteran White House Correspondent for Reuters. Sam Stein returns with, Politics Editor for "The Daily Beast." The aforementioned Jill Colvin, White House Reporter for "The Associated Press, "and Michael Steele, pretty much a veteran of everything, including Former Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Welcome to you all.
Sam, I`d like to begin with you. Based on the strength of your journalism and headline today, the headline on your latest piece reads "The formula for a Trump pardon, reward celebrity and punish thy enemies." Sam, what on earth could you mean by something like that?
SAM STEIN, POLITICS EDITOR, "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, we were trying to divine what the formula was because this is definitely an unorthodox presidential pardon pattern that we`re seeing here. In the past, I think it`s important to note these processes took a lot of time to actually put into effect. Barack Obama took many, many months, if not years, to get his process for pardons going, in part because it goes to the Department of Justice, to the White House counsel`s office, and then to the President`s desk. With Donald Trump, it`s been entirely different. If anything, it`s been impulsive.
He finds a cause that he likes and jumps on it with a pardon. So we saw that with Jack Johnson, the boxer. But by and large, what we see are people who are quasi-celebrities in his sort of weird universe of, you know, politics, entertainment, reality T.V. And so today was just a whirlwind.
The Dinesh D`Souza pardon came out of nowhere, but it was something that was put on his radar by Ted Cruz. It`s something that conservative activists have bemoaned. It`s something that he himself has talked privately with aides comparing it to Rosie O`Donnell and donations that she made that were over the legal limit. Totally different thing. But still it`s something compared to.
And then the stuff with Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich all tied into "The Apprentice." So it was a whirlwind day. It was a little bit crazy, and try to make sense of it. There`s only two threads. One was that his enemies get punished and his celebrities get the benefit.
WILLIAMS: And, Jill, even staying in your lane as a straight-up day to day deadline journalist, you kind of put it into categories today, noting that this lacks the usual rigor, the usual process we`ve seen in pardons and acts of clemency.
JILL COLVIN, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": Yes. As Sam was saying the way that this is supposed to work, that the way it`s traditionally worked in other at White House is that there`s actually an office within the Department of Justice, an attorney there who is supposed to handle pardons. It often takes years to vet these cases. It`s supposed to go first through that office. Then it heads off to a deputy attorney general, who`s supposed to then refer cases to the President.
Now, there are hundred, thousands of these cases that are brought to the Justice Department, and there`s supposed to be a very thorough process of looking at who deserves clemency. The Obama Administration, for instance, made a priority of trying to give pardons or at least grant reduce sentences to low-level drug offenders who had committed non-violent crimes.
The President has obviously gone about this entirely differently. I mean, not just the announcement today on Twitter about D`Souza, yesterday, it was just yesterday that Kim Kardashian, the reality T.V. star, was at the White House not just visiting Jared Kushner, but also in the Oval Office posing with the President to talk about another case involving a woman she had stumbled upon this woman`s story on Twitter. And was there asking the President to reduce her sentence.
So this is really a very strange way going about things where the President will -- you know, his first pardon was for Joe Arpaio. That was somebody who was a big campaign supporter, who appeared with Trump at his rallies. The President didn`t even wait for Arpaio to be sentenced before deciding to issue that pardon. So it`s just a whole different ball game.
WILLIAMS: Or as we call it, Jill, just an average week in the life of this presidency, which bring me to my old friend, Steve Holland.
Steve, we`ll talk about your conversation with the President on North Korea specifically later in the broadcast. But I`m looking at the whirlwind day you had, especially having made this flight out and back to Texas with him. You had subject areas, Comey, North Korea, pardons, trade war to use the President`s own tweet, these shooting victims that were in the background. Can you describe his state of mind onboard that airplane en route to this day?
STEVE HOLLAND, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: Well, he -- Brian, he`s in a very good mood. He feels like things are going very well with North Korea. The U.S. economy is doing well.
We went into this trip thinking it was going to be a nothing-burger because it was just a couple of closed fund-raisers in Houston and Dallas. But little did we know that we were going to get so much news out of the President. We were surprised that he brought up Rod Blagojevich and Martha Stewart as possibly getting pardons. But he is in a very good mood.
You can tell he`s upset with Jeff Sessions about the whole Russia collusion investigation, but he is moving on, and he feels like he will eventually get out of that. When, we don`t know. But he did have an emotional meeting in Houston with the families and those impacted by the shooting at Santa Fe high school. He told us he was deeply moved by that. Now, whether that will lead to any action to change the situation, that was left unclear. But he did have a very lengthy meeting with these people.
WILLIAMS: Michael Steele, you used to run this party.
MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN: Mm-hmm.
WILLIAMS: We`ve just -- sorry for that vivid reminder. We just talked about Kim Kardashian in the Oval Office yesterday.
STEELE: That`s a visual.
WILLIAMS: The members of "The Apprentice" family are in the news today. Dandy recipe there for a meatloaf sandwich. Does any of this look familiar to you? Is this just as I said to Jill, an average life to this presidency?
STEELE: Average life for Trump. You know, this is playing out just as we drew it up back in --
WILLIAMS: Oh, sure, yes.
STEELE: -- yes, we forecasted this.
WILLIAMS: You knew it.
STEELE: We knew it. But this is the deal. This is a reality T.V. presidency, and everything is an episode. Every day is an episode. And events, big events, become part of the series.
So he`s already set up a future series when he talked about, you know, that there may be more meetings with Kim Jong-un down the road. So, you know, you`re building up to June 12th, which is a big day. And then there`s going to be, you know, series after that. And that`s how he does it.
And I think, you know, as he was just saying about didn`t expect this to happen, how can you because for him, it`s a spontaneous moment. He probably thought about these pardons on the flight from Washington to Texas. He may have thought about them five minutes before he got off the plane. No one knows, not even his own staff, how this plays out.
The administration is in large measure in a reactive mode. The press is absolutely in a reactive mode. And the American people, by and large, find themselves sort of waiting, waiting for the next thing to drop.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Sam, why would the President choose to say on Twitter today that he didn`t fire Comey over Russia? I mean this was a layup. This was an open net.
Every broadcast today and tonight did what we just did. You show the tweet. You slam edit into the sound bite sitting cross from Lester Holt that says the exact opposite. What`s the thinking there?
STEIN: Is there thinking there? I`m not even sure. It was so obviously an erroneous, false, misleading lie that it was almost not even worth the fact check. I mean the last predominant news interview he gave on camera to a television network that wasn`t a friendly one was Lester Holt`s, and he very clearly stated in there that Russia was on his mind when he made the firing of Comey.
The only thing that I took away from it is that, you know, through this all, we have all this drama that comes up that Chairman Steele referenced. Every single day is a different episode. But there is a consistent thread through it all, which is that this Russia probe, which began with Comey essentially, is continuing in the backdrop. And even the pardon news, to a certain degree, sent clear signals that were relevant to the Russia probe.
He hasn`t done it yet, but the critics of President Trump rightfully fear the idea that this unchecked power to pardon, which he has, can be used as a signal, a fairly obvious signal, to people like paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and others that if you just hold tight, you will have any sentencing given to you absolved. And we talked for our piece to Roger Stone, obviously famed dirty trickster and close Presidential adviser, and he was fairly overt about it. He said to us that he wishes the next pardon will be Michael Flynn.
So, you know, this is something that continues to, you know, have a slow burn in the backdrop of the Trump presidency. And I guess this morning on Twitter he decided he was going to ignore all evidence that he was clearly thinking of Russia when he fired James Comey.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Jill, I read the President is going to Camp David for the weekend. I suppose we could learn that there`s prep sessions involved as part of the thinking behind that trip. Have you lost all ability to predict what happens on a day like, oh, say, tomorrow, at the White House?
COLVIN: I mean, as everyone has been saying, I guess things are always up in the air and we`re always surprised, we`re always ready for it. I mean, tomorrow, the President is expected to be speaking about North Korea. There is a letter on the way from Kim Jong-un that will be delivered by a high-ranking member of the North Korean government. We`re waiting to see what that says.
But the President has really -- I mean as Sam just mentioned, kind of teased this forward as he does in his kind of reality show way of presenting things. Will there be a meeting? Will there not be? "I`m going to cancel it." Oh, it`s back on.
At this point, I mean, there are reporters that are preparing to fly to Singapore very soon for this meeting, and at this point nobody is even sure whether there`s going to be a meeting that happens when everyone lands. This is just how he does things.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Steve, somebody said today that the power to pardon, it is such an absolute power that we grant our Presidents going back to the ancient British rules of kings, that this is perhaps how Trump viewed the whole presidency would be, kind of a series of awesome powers of the executive. Do you get the sense, Steve, that this is the first warble of something we`ll be seeing a lot of?
HOLLAND: Well, it feels like he`s discovered this new talent that he has, and he`s eager to use it. He`s told us that when he spoke to Dinesh D`Souza last night to tell him he was being pardoned, that D`Souza almost had a heart attack, which suggests D`Souza was a bit surprised by this. We saw the pardon last week of Jack Johnson, the boxer, a case that was brought to him by Sylvester Stallone. The Kim Kardashian case yesterday.
So he`s developing his own process, and as Jill said, not based on any big background check but just what he likes to do. He lives in this world of celebrities. These are the people he knows.
WILLIAMS: And --
HOLLAND: He did say that he`s considering a lot of other pardons for other people. He didn`t get into that. He didn`t say whether it was Flynn or anybody else.
WILLIAMS: -- it boggles the mind, the names that could be on that list.
Michael, a final word. The pardon of Dinesh D`Souza specifically, what does that say to you about Donald Trump, about this process?
STEELE: I think it says that he recognizes, you know, again, this was brought to him by Ted Cruz. And I think this is an homage to the base. It`s sort of an olive -- not even an olive branch, but, here, here`s one more piece for you. I`m out here fighting for you." He was wrongfully convicted. He was a victim, an important word here, a victim of the Obama Justice Department, the Obama FBI. And even though he did plead guilty.
You know, if I didn`t do something, I`m not going to plead guilty. I don`t care what the FBI says to me. But that`s the reality that he`s playing into right now. And I can`t help but think in listening to this conversation unfold, particularly the last point, that all of these roads, all of these pieces lead to one point, and that is the moment that Donald Trump pardons himself.
WILLIAMS: Wow. I know a place to end a conversation on when I hear one. With that, to Steve Holland, to Sam Stein, to Jill Colvin, to Michael Steele, our thanks for a thought-provoking initial conversation for tonight`s broadcast. Really appreciate it.
Coming up, will it have any effect on an obstruction case now that new reporting is out tonight detailing the number of times the President pressured Jeff Sessions on his role in the Russia investigation?
And later, with a Bloody Mary at hand, a more relaxed John Boehner gives his candid analysis of the state of the grand old party.
"The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Thursday night.
WILLIAMS: We are back with more now on that new reporting that reveals the President tried repeatedly to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions to get himself back on the Russia investigation.
"New York Times," you`ll recall, first to report the special counsel is investigating a conversation from March of last year in which Trump asked Sessions essentially to unrecuse himself. But today Jonathan Swan of Axios, who joins us in just a moment, reports there were three additional instances that we know about.
According to his report, "A source with knowledge of the conversation said they occurred throughout last year until fairly late in the year and not just in the short period after Sessions recused himself last March." And that "the sustained pressure made several officials uncomfortable because they viewed it as improper and worry that it could be politically and legally problematic."
Trump has repeatedly raked the head of the Justice Department publicly over the coals for his recusal decision as recently as last night he quoted one of his favorite Fox News legal analysts on Twitter. He said, "The recusal of Jeff Sessions was an unforced betrayal of the President of the United States. Joe diGenova, former U.S. Attorney."
For more, we are joined by the aforementioned Jonathan Swan, National Political Reporter for Axios, and by Ken Vogel, Political Reporter for "The New York Times." Gentlemen, welcome to you both.
Jonathan, there is evidence that the President has bought the argument, confirmation battle chief among the points, that he should not do this, that Jeff Sessions should remain the nation`s top law enforcement officer. But what you report here is the kind of thing the Pentagon calls a sustained campaign by the President.
JONATHAN SWAN, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, AXIOS: At least four times last year, we know about "The New York Times" was the first to report the Mar-a-Lago meeting in March. But there are three separate other occasions, two in person and one on the phone. That`s corroborated.
The White House did not -- declined to comment, and this was President Trump telling Jeff Sessions, "You`ll be a hero." That was the word Trump used, "A hero to conservatives if you unrecuse yourself and take back control of the Russia investigation." He also used that word, "hero," directly to Jeff Sessions to tell him that he should investigate the Clintons. And so this is a very sustained campaign of pressure not just publicly, but directly with Jeff Sessions throughout the course of last year, not just in those hot months after the recusal.
WILLIAMS: Ken, I intend to say this without snark, but this cannot be helpful to Rudy Giuliani at all in their crafting of a countercase to obstruction.
KEN VOGEL, POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, that`s right. We know that Mueller is looking at this, looking at these efforts to both prevent Jeff Sessions from recusing and then to get him to sort of take back his recusal. We know that because of the questions that my colleagues at the "Times" were able to unearth that Mueller wants to ask Donald Trump. Several of them are about his treatment of Jeff Sessions. We also know that because we know that Mueller`s investigators are asking White House staffers about the treatment of Jeff Sessions.
And what it speaks to and where it could potentially fit in to Mueller`s case is in order to be able to prove obstruction of justice, a key part of that is intent. Well, we know from what Jonathan has reported that Trump has said that Jeff Sessions would be a hero if he sort of unrecused himself from the Russia investigation. It doesn`t take too much dot-connecting to figure out what Trump wants here is for Jeff Sessions to take back control of the Russia investigation in order to tamp down the Russia investigation. That is certainly helpful to trying to prove obstruction.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Jonathan, I have something I want to play for you. This happened during Nicolle Wallace`s broadcast today. The FBI Veteran Frank Figliuzzi was talking about the net effect and the takeaway from today`s pardon talk. We`ll watch it together. We`ll talk about it on the other side.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FMR. ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: We have an almost masterful strategy being executed by the President. He is picking out the crimes and the people and the prosecutors and saying, you have no power over me. We`re talking about Pat Fitzgerald, who was the special counsel in the Scooter Libby-Valerie Plame case. He prosecuted Blagojevich when he was U.S. attorney in Chicago. He`s saying, "Yes, people who were appointed by Comey, special counsel, no power over me at all."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Jonathan, I`m guessing that in your reading, he has it about right. We`ve put together a graphic that shows all these tangential -- not so tangential direct connections between these cases. I looked out of deference for a rugby term to explain this, but sadly I fall back on baseball and say this touches all the bases, does it not?
SWAN: It certainly touches all the bases. What I don`t have is that missing piece of reporting, which is that, you know, the ideal thing being Trump actually saying this to somebody. It`s certainly what people are inferring from it.
What I would say is there was a very interesting interview earlier tonight on Fox News with the wife of Blagojevich, speaking to Martha McCalum, and she says that she sees parallels between the way these people, and she`s obviously referring to Fitzgerald, who is a close friend of Comey`s, treated her husband, perverted the law, and then now they`re trying to get the President. So I think she was talking to an audience of one there, but clearly even if Trump hasn`t made that connection, which I find hard to believe, but I don`t have any proof of, she was certainly broadcasting it, the wife of Blagojevich, on television earlier tonight.
WILLIAMS: And, Ken, this may be the stuff of a mob movie, but if you`re Cohen, if you`re Manafort, how were you watching this unfold on T.V. today?
VOGEL: I mean, certainly the message is being received, and we don`t even have to speculate because Roger Stone actually gave an interview to, I think, Sam Stein, who was on your last segment, saying that the way he interpreted the pardon is that the President is going to take care of people who take care of him, even if they are in the crosshairs, and that`s certainly the situation for Roger Stone potentially. I mean he`s speculated that he could be indicted, and you have people who have been indicted who are probably looking at that.
And there has been open speculation among people close to Paul Manafort, for instance, that he could be in for a pardon as long as he held strong, and so far he is. You see the pressure on him to flip. You see his longtime Deputy Rick Gates flipping. You have to wonder. Manafort is racking up these huge legal bills, if this isn`t part of his thinking that if he doesn`t flip, there could be some relief at the end.
WILLIAMS: Two terrific journalist and friends at the broadcast, both Jonathan Swan, Ken Vogel, gentlemen, thank you both very much for being part of our Thursday night.
And coming up today, President Trump gave one reporter some exclusive news on North Korea. That reporter tells us what the President told him next when "The 11th Hour" continues.
WILLIAMS: Before departing for Texas, today, President Trump praised the progress being made toward a deal with North Korea. The veteran White House reporter Steve Holland of Reuters then spoke one on one with the president onboard Air Force One, where Trump told him, "There`s a very good chance that it won`t be done in one meeting or two meetings or three meetings. But it`ll get done at some point. It may get done really nicely and really intelligently, or it may not get done intelligently. It may have to be the hard way."
We`ve asked Steve Holland to join us once again. And a point of personal privilege here, Steve, before we begin. Look what I found today. There was a time when you and I were young White House correspondents. This is a plane flight on Valentine`s Day of `95 to California from the archives. From left to right, Steve Holland, who does not age.
Yours truly, who does. Ken Bassenette (ph) is down there, UPI. Nancy Benac, A.P, who`s now their White House editor. The indefatigable Mark Knoller of CBS News. And if we widen out, in the door frame, just visible beyond President Clinton`s shoulder, Jay Carney of "Time" magazine, who went on to become White House press secretary in his own right.
So when I say that our current guest and I have flown thousands of miles together, we have. Back to you, Steve. What else did the president say, and were you surprised that he trotted out this two-meeting, three-meeting possibility?
STEVE HOLLAND, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, REUTERS: Well, a little bit. I was a little bit surprised. He wants to be able to see whether North Korea is really serious about giving up its nuclear weapons program. A lot of people in Washington don`t think that Kim really will do this. So he wants to just see what it feels like. He`s very excited about this letter tomorrow that he`s going to get at the White House around 1:00 p.m. from the North Korean official. He`s hoping that this will lead to the summit, that they will officially declare it back on again. That would clear the way for a June 12th meeting in Singapore, lasting, we think, just one day.
There`s only so much you can do in a number of hours according to the president`s thinking. And it feels like they`re making some progress, then maybe they go into another meeting. But he`s -- go ahead.
WILLIAMS: No, I was just going to say on so many of the flights you and I were both on, you`d get a message that the press corps was invited up to the president`s office, which is kind of at mid ships in the aircraft, or the president would come back to the press compartment. Rarely, one of us would get summoned to talk to the president in his office. That`s what happened to you today.
Did you get the impression that he was looking to soften things or extend - - especially since you write for a global news organization, extend any thought into the public realm?
HOLLAND: Well, he had talked about North Korea a little bit before departure, and he assumed that I would have more questions about this. And he was very happy to take some. He -- you can tell that he really wants this meeting to take place. You can tell he thinks that Kim Jong-un is going to be a wiley (ph) character. He`s not sure what to expect. For someone who tweets as much as Trump, for him to be so excited about a letter is quite fun. We don`t know what to expect at this point. But the president`s optimistic. He thinks that Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, is doing a great job in setting this thing up. So, we`ll see what happens.
WILLIAMS: Steve Holland, the great veteran of the White House press corps, please come back and visit us. It was great to see you, old friend. Thanks very much for coming on.
HOLLAND: Thank you, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Coming up for us, as Donald Trump makes yet another controversial pardon pick, we wonder, is this the kind of thing the founders had in mind? We have the perfect person to answer that question when we continue.
WILLIAMS: As we mentioned, the president today pardoned a right wing author named Dinesh D`Souza, and he`s said to be mulling two more pardons, clemency acts for contestants on or members of the families surrounding "The Apprentice." Rod Blagojevich, who`s in federal prison, and Martha Stewart, who did time herself.
And tonight "The Washington Post" reports that we should get ready for more, "A senior White House official said as many as a dozen other pardons are under consideration by Trump, adding that most of them are likely to be granted. "There are going to be more", said the official, who spoke, you know the rest, on the condition of anonymity to comment candidly on the issue."
In the past, presidents have worked with the Justice Department`s Office of the Pardon Attorney, a whole department dedicated to that one task. But so far, the president has bypassed that route. It`s one of the topics we want to discuss with our friend, the presidential historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin who is here with us in New York, and that is notable, because I`m going to hold your hand as I say this, you lost your husband, the great Richard Goodwin, just a few days ago, and we join everyone else in extending our condolences to you and remembering him.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN & AUTHOR: Thank you, Brian. Indeed, I`m so glad to be on with you because the tribute you gave to him was so incredible that it meant so much to me and my kids. I`ve spent a lifetime telling stories about people who are no longer alive. And having stories told now about everything my husband did for JFK, for Bobby Kennedy, more importantly for the country, for LBJ, and having that out there, it`s everything I care about. It`s how a person lives on after they`re gone. So, it meant everything, and I`m so glad to share it with you tonight.
WILLIAMS: Well, we`re grieving with you. And as I tried to point out that night, he helped so many Americans who never knew his name or never got to meet him, and that`s, I think, the measure --
GOODWIN: He was the best.
WILLIAMS: -- of a life well lived.
Let`s talk about pardons. Let`s talk about this president, who your husband did not serve and had his own opinions about. Where is the business of pardoning versus where you know it from the standpoint of a historian, the standpoint of the brilliant framers who gave this all to us in parchment?
GOODWIN: Well, what makes me so sad about these pardons right now is that when you look at the pardons that mattered in history, they often meant forgiveness or healing for the country. The first pardon of George Washington was for the members of the Whiskey Rebellion because they had been considered traitors. They were going to be hung, and he decided he wanted to heal the country, didn`t want it to go on any longer, this problem.
And then you think about Abraham Lincoln. What did he do? He pardoned soldiers who may have been afraid and ran away from battle or maybe deserted to go home to their family. And he wanted them to be able to be soldiers again so that they could retrieve their lives. He said in the middle of the Civil War, the only thing that made him happy when all these people are dying was to be able to pardon a soldier.
Andrew Johnson pardons the confederate soldiers. And of course, Ford pardons Nixon because he wants the country to move forward. What is this doing to anything except exacerbating divisions in the country, making us more apart than bringing us together.
WILLIAMS: Let`s also talk about words and language, your stock in trade, often not mine even though I get paid to speak. We have Samantha Bee in the news today for a word decidedly not allowed in any of our households. We have Roseanne in the news this week. We have the president kind of always in the news for his use of language. And what have you seen? If words were a tradable stock, what`s happened to them?
GOODWIN: I mean, you think about what words mean at the best moments of our country`s history. The declaration of independence, those words last forever. You think about words that inspired actions as we talked about in the 1960s when we shall overcome helps to produce a voting rights act that changes the face of the country.
And wow there`s a coarseness to the language. There`s a president setting an example that bad language is OK, defending people who say these terrible things. What is it doing to our kids? What`s it doing to our country? I mean, Teddy Roosevelt once said that the most important thing a president does is to set an example by his character, by his words. And words matter. I mean, Abraham Lincoln, the greatest debater you could possibly have had in the 1850s, never wanted to speak extemporaneously, because he was afraid he might say something without being prepared.
So when soldiers would come to talk at the end of the day when a union battle has been run (ph), and they`re waiting for some speech, he would simply thank them and say, I`ll talk to you when the time comes. I mean, if he could hold back, where are we today when nobody holds back? I mean, this whole tweeting thing, when I think about what`s happened to the communication of our country, when Abraham Lincoln gave speeches, they`d be printed in full in the newspapers. You`d read them. You`d absorb them. And then when Teddy Roosevelt is speaking, he has that punchy language.
When FDR comes along, he`s speaking intimately in long prepared fireside chats. He would spend weeks on everyone. And now, people are just saying things all of a sudden with no control over themselves. I mean, something is going wrong in the coarseness of the language in the country.
WILLIAMS: I had a brother who signed up for the Peace Corps after hearing JFK`s inaugural address. Talk about the power --
GOODWIN: That`s what it can mean.
WILLIAMS: -- of words. That`s why we need you here often. So, we`ll sneak in a break. We`ll continue our conversation with Doris Kearns Goodwin right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DEVIN SCILLIAN, BROADCASTER: I want to talk to you about what`s happened with the Republican Party.
JOHN BOEHNER (R), OHIO, FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: There is no Republican Party. There`s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: That was former Republican House speaker John Boehner today, enjoying a Bloody Mary and some good conversation with Devin Scillian, a broadcaster in Detroit in the Upper Peninsula region of Michigan.
We`re back to talk about what we just witnessed with historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Doris, why is it Boehner, Gowdy, I made a list, Flake and Corker, where we hear on occasion these flashes of honesty. Why is it all people out of the game or have already bought their tickets out of Washington? Second question, is he right? Where is the Republican Party residing these days?
GOODWIN: Well, taking your second question first, I think he`s dead right that it is the Trump party rather than the Republican Party. I mean, think about how Trump won the election. He ran the election by going against almost all the Republican candidates, claiming they were politicians. And politicians can`t run the country and what you need is somebody outside the country, outside the party in a sense.
And that`s what happened to our parties, when they lost control over who they could choose as their candidates at conventions, remember those old days?
WILLIAMS: Yes, I remember.
GOODWIN: Maybe with some mediocre presidents, but there was Lincoln, there was Teddy Roosevelt, there was Franklin Roosevelt. I almost would rather the old parties choose them, what`s happened to the primaries, it`s more democratic. But people are choosing based on who does well in the debate, who raises more money, who makes a good comment, who is a celebrity. If we go into celebrity politicians from now on and we don`t value who our political leaders who have given their lives to politics, it used to be an honorable vocation.
And I think that`s what`s happening. These people, when they get out, they feel free. We can now talk as human beings and say what we really believe.
WILLIAMS: I`m remembering FDR was handed Truman, Truman, you know, met the old man once or twice and was not told about the bomb, for instance.
GOODWIN: Right. I mean, they had the choice over who our vice president would be. They had -- but they had an institution and they tried to produce somebody who would run for office that could satisfy the various factions of the party. That`s what they wanted consensus. And they did that pretty well. I don`t know what we`re going to do without our whole electoral system. But I think it`s really in trouble today. When we -- if we go back again now and we produce another Trump, then the citizens are responsible.
WILLIAMS: That also assumes what you hear people saying, which is, leave it to the Democrats, they could still screw up what people are already predicting will be a blue wave come the midterms. And then the Democrats have to put up a presidential candidate.
GOODWIN: And what the Democrats have to do, most of all, is to frame the story. Right now, the story is not simply about Russia, not simply about the corruption. It`s about what`s happening in every department in the country right now. What`s happening at the EPA, what`s happening in the Justice Department? Fair housing is being undone.
In the 19th century, when you have the MacGregor journalists, they made sexy the stories about the corruption of standard oil and the railroads. We should be hearing about those, we should care about those, we should care about what`s going on in Medicare. We`re obsessed right now with an investigation which will happen no matter what we do. We don`t have control of that. The Democrats have control over the narrative but they`re not winning it.
I`m not sure what`s going to happen in November. It seems like a -- of course, it`ll be a blue wave. But it may not be, unless they control the narrative, which they are not doing right now.
WILLIAMS: And point taken. I think too often, we become process obsessed, we go after the shiny object and we forget how exactly how much is out there each night that we`re missing. Pleasure to see you, friend.
GOODWIN: You too, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Thank you for visiting --
GOODWIN: Thank you.
WILLIAMS: -- us here in New York. The great Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Coming up, it`s 2018, racism and antisemitism in America, are alive and well and on the ballot in some places. We`ll see it and hear it for ourselves when we continue.
WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight is a sign of our times. If you are a frequent viewer of ours, then you know we are so fortunate to be able to spend time with the great historians of our day, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Mitcham, Michael Beschloss. And they often served to remind us that America goes through phases but America survives.
The pendulum swings to the right and to the left and seems to find its way back to something like dead center. Well, we`re not there right now. We`re in the middle of one of those swings. And as a result, according to those who monitor hate groups, there are currently eight candidates for office across our country who are running as white nationalists. We want to show you what happened when NBC News correspondent Morgan Radford went out to talk to some of them.
ARTHUR JONES, WHITE NATIONALIST CANDIDATE: Hi, my name is Art Jones.
MORGAN RADFORD, NBC NEWS REPORTER (voice-over): Arthur Jones is running for Congress in Chicago`s 3rd district.
(on camera): Do you think you have a shot at winning?
JONES: Listen, I wouldn`t be in this if I didn`t think I could win.
RADFORD (voice-over): He`s also one of at least eight white nationalists running for state or federal office this year according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
JONES: I consider myself a white refillist (ph).
RADFORD: Jones was a member of the American Nazi Party who denies the Holocaust ever happened.
JONES: Six million Jews, ridiculous.
RADFORD: He`s also campaigning to keep Chicago`s neighborhoods 90% white.
JONES: I think most white people want a white neighborhood.
RADFORD: Do you think that black people are genetically inferior?
JONES: The average I.Q. of a black person is about 20 points lower than the average I.Q. of a white person.
RADFORD: I went to Harvard.
JONES: All right, and you got a lot of white blood in you, too.
RADFORD: Some of my blood. I`m African American.
JONES: Well, that`s where your intelligence is coming from, I think.
RADFORD: You think it comes from my white side?
JONES: I think so.
RADFORD: 20,000 people voted for Jones in the March primary. He ran uncontested. And now, he`ll be on the Republican ticket in November. Anti-hate groups say the number of white nationalists running for office this year is higher than ever before including candidates like Patrick Little.
PATRICK LITTLE, JEWISH SENATE CANDIDATE: This monstrous nature of the Jewish people must be known to the public.
RADFORD: You think Jews are monsters?
LITTLE: As a group, they are definitely behaving as a monster, 100%.
RADFORD: Little is running against Senator Dianne Feinstein in California, and blames Jews for America`s problems.
LITTLE: Foreign power that is committed terrorist attacks against this country.
RADFORD: He claims President Trump is speaking to people like him.
LITTLE: Donald was told (ph) about globalism. So I didn`t understand he was talking about Jews until after the election.
RADFORD: But the state and national Republican Party say they want nothing to do with him or Jones.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There should be a wakeup call, if these types of candidates are going to come out from under the rock, they need to be repudiated at the ballot box.
JONES: What a nation of communists.
RADFORD: But their supporters say they`re not going anywhere.
ELI JAMES, ARTHUR JONES SUPPORTER: It`s not because we`re racist, it`s because we feel marginalized and we`re the ones who are being oppressed.
RADFORD: Now, they`re gearing up for a battle.
JONES: Put America first.
RADFORD: On the ballot, Morgan Radford, NBC News.
WILLIAMS: And with that, that is our broadcast on a Thursday night. Thank you so much for being here with us. Good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END
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