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Trump invites Putin to Washington. TRANSCRIPT: 07/19/2018. The 11th Hour with Brian Williams

Guests: Robert Costa, Jeremy Bash, John McLaughlin

Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: July 19, 2018 Guest: Robert Costa, Jeremy Bash, John McLaughlin

BRIAN WILLIAMS, THE 11TH HOUR, HOST: Tonight, after days of bad headlines after their summit together, Donald Trump invites Vladimir Putin to Washington this fall. It was news to our director of National Intelligence who learned about the Putin invitation while being interviewed by Andrea Mitchell. And he, like the rest of us, says he has no idea what the two men may have agreed to in private in Helsinki.

And behind the scenes, the Mueller team prepares for the glare of federal court. What we learned today about the Manafort trial, which will be under way by this time next week. All of it as "The 11th Hour" gets under way on a Thursday night.

Well, good evening, once again, from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 546 of the Trump Administration. And at the height of the hubbub over Helsinki, Donald Trump has invited Vladimir Putin to Washington this fall.

As "The New York Times" and others have been saying, Trump long ago became the first American President even suspected of having any kind of loyalties or obligations to the leader of a foreign power, in this case a full on adversary who hacked our presidential election. And now the President has apparently doubled down. He apparently had his White House aide for national security extend the invitation to Putin. It was not shared, apparently, with those at the top of his administration.

So witness this, our own Andrea Mitchell was interviewing Dan Coats, who happens to be the Director of National Intelligence, in Aspen, Colorado, this afternoon when the news broke, and it was immediately apparent it was news to him.


ANDREA MITCHELL, CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: We have some breaking news. The White House has announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.


MITCHELL: You -- Vladimir Putin coming to the --

COATS: Did I hear you --

MITCHELL: Yes, yes.



COATS: That`s going to be special.


WILLIAMS: "The Associated Press" reports Putin told Russian diplomats today the Helsinki meeting was successful. He has briefed his own diplomatic core on the meeting. President Trump has not done the same.

In that same interview today, DNI Coats in Aspen gave Andrea his assessment of the meeting in Helsinki.


MITCHELL: Moments after the President appeared to be siding with Vladimir Putin over you, you personally by name, you stood up and spoke out.

COATS: I just felt at this point in time that what we had assessed and reassessed and reassessed and carefully gone over still stands and that it was important to take that stand on behalf of the intelligence community. Obviously I wish he had made a different statement.

MITCHELL: In Helsinki, the President was alone with Vladimir Putin for two hours, more than two hours, with only translators. Basically, how do you know what happened? You were on the dark side of the moon. Do you have any idea what happened in that meeting?

COATS: Well, you`re right. I don`t know what happened in that meeting.

MITCHELL: Is there a risk that Vladimir Putin could have recorded it?

COATS: That risk is always there.


WILLIAMS: Meanwhile, the White House has been in the process of trying to clarify another proposal that emerged at that Helsinki news conference. On Monday, you`ll recall the Russian President suggested a kind of trade. He would allow Robert Mueller to interrogate 12 Russian agents indicted for hacking our election if U.S. officials would allow Russians to question Americans that it suspects of interfering in Russia affairs. That would include our former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

President Trump seemed at first to welcome the idea.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What he did was an incredible offer. He offered to have the people working on the case come and work with their investigators with respect to the 12 people. I think that`s an incredible offer.


WILLIAMS: Yesterday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated the incredible offer was still under consideration. She said the West Wing was actually discussing the matter. But today, as outrage over the suggestion grew, the White House released a statement that read in part, "It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it."

Well, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was more firm and less respectful in rejecting the proposal.


MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: That`s not going to happen. The administration is not going to send, force Americans to travel to Russia to be interrogated by Vladimir Putin and his team.


WILLIAMS: As all of this unfolds, NBC News is reporting Microsoft has discovered new attempts at election hacking similar to what took place in 2016 directed at three unnamed candidates running in the mid-terms.

And "The Wall Street Journal" is reporting three of the FBI`s highest ranking cybersecurity officials are stepping down from their post. One official says other experts are expected to leave soon.

Late today, the Justice Department released a detailed report describing all their efforts to fight foreign interference in American elections. But our colleague in Washington, Ken Dilanian, reports it includes no major new policy initiatives and there is no single official in the Trump administration in charge of preventing election hacking.

The President, however, remains focused on his relationship with the trained KGB spy who now leads Russia.


TRUMP: Getting along with President Putin. Getting along with Russia is a positive, not a negative. Now, with that being said, if that doesn`t work out, I`ll be the worst enemy he`s ever had. The worst he`s ever had.


WILLIAMS: With that, let`s bring in our lead-off panel on Thursday night. Andrea Mitchell is with us, fresh off her interview today. She, of course, is the NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and Host of Andrea Mitchell Reports at noon Eastern, weekdays on this network. She`s in Aspen tonight along with Jeremy Bash, Former Chief of Staff at the CIA and Pentagon. And with us from Washington, Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for "The Washington Post" and Moderator of Washington Week on PBS.

So, Andrea, here we all were watching your interview as covered on this network on live television. It occurred to us in realtime this was nothing less than someone at long last in a way putting his job on the line for the cause. Were you surprised at that, and were you equally surprised that he was in the dark in as much as he was, especially this invitation for Putin to come to Washington?

MITCHELL: Well, that`s the way President Trump operates. I`ve seen it with secretaries of state and other Cabinet officials completely blind- sided over and over again in the last 18 months by a decision from the President. And in fact members of the White House staff often shutout of a decision that the President makes. That is what is so unique about this presidency. So I wasn`t surprised that he did not know.

I noticed on Friday, of course, when he gave that interview and spoke strongly against the Russians, what they were doing in cyber, that they were the worst cyber actors, that he was ramping up his criticism. And then on Monday, he very swiftly responded to the Trump-Putin comments where specifically the President sided with Putin over by name Dan Coats and the intelligence assessment. And he very quickly came out with a statement while the President was getting on Air Force One, reasserting that consensus agreement, which he said today had been assessed and reassessed in the last 18 months and is still valid. That it was not just the Russians but it was Vladimir Putin`s Russians, that all things are decided by the former KGB spymaster at the head of that country.

So he was very clear, and he feels that that is his job, as he said, to stand up for the intelligence, that he is not being -- you know, he wants to keep politics out of intelligence. And he is putting it all on the line. And I have to say he replicated what Chris Wray did last night here in an interview with Lester. And these are two law enforcement and intelligence officials who really feel that they have to stand up for their agencies.

WILLIAMS: Andrea, this may call for an opinion on your part, but it was lost on none of us who could see you on live television that the White House communication shop, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tweeted out the invitation to Putin while you`re sitting there with the director of National Intelligence whose word the President seemed to go against. Last we saw in Helsinki. Accident, quirk of history or not?

MITCHELL: I am not in a position, especially at this distance to know. I don`t have the sourcing to know exactly what was going through your minds. Was it deliberate, was it an accident, was incompetence? There`s a lot of lack of communication in that shop or has been.

So I don`t really know that, but I do know that a senior intelligence official tonight is pushing back very strongly against "The Washington Post" reporting. Perhaps Robert Costa can shed some light on this.

"The Washington Post" reporting that people in the White House, in the political side of the White House, are saying that Dan Coats went rogue in this interview. And the senior intelligence official telling me that they just do not understand the role of intelligence and that they don`t realize that it is not supposed to be political.

And it`s also to be noted that Dan Coats came from the Senate. Twice he was elected from Indiana to the Senate, and that he has a lot of support and allies in the Senate. So he`s not going to resign. If he`s fired, I think he`d be very hard to replace.

WILLIAMS: All right. Robert Costa, your name was invoked clear from the Rocky Mountains. What say you about the reporting of "The Post" tonight and your reporting on just in general Republican action from White House aides to aides on the Hill behind you to actual members of the House and Senate?

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": To pick up on Andrea`s great points, roaming the halls of the Senate this week, Brian, you really get a sense of quiet alarm among Republicans.

Senator Lindsey Graham told me, he said, speaking about Republicans, "We have to bring in Secretary Pompeo. We have to figure out was there a deal cut."

Senator Blunt of Missouri is telling me he`s calling up Cabinet members trying to figure out what is going on. Is the President isolated? Is he getting the information he needs?

With Dan Coats you have a Director of National Intelligence, who isn`t just some former backbench member of the Senate flock from Indiana. No. This is a former ambassador to German, a former -- longtime member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senators I`ve spoken with, Republicans say he`s the canary in the coal mine. As Andrea said, he won`t resign.

But they`re also really wondering about this, political advisers at the White House. Are they even aware that the director is in Aspen? Are they aware that so many people in the administration appointed by President Trump feel like he`s now making foreign policy without their interaction, without their guidance? That is the real story inside of the White House and this administration at this moment based in my reporting.

WILLIAMS: Coats, it should also not be overlooked has a fellow Republican Hoosier in the vice presidency. So those friendships go way back, especially, as you correctly point out, in the U.S. Senate.

So to Jeremy Bash we go, and to our viewers, who have seen days of these panel discussions and interviews, Jeremy and Andrea are part of something called the Aspen security forum, which is kind of like burning man for national security types minus some of the major hallucinogenics or so we hope.

And, Jeremy, there you are in the audience today. I am guessing that his response to Andrea`s breaking news was a moment in the room among professionals in the field.

JEREMY BASH, FORMER CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: Yes. There was an audible gasp. I was sitting about 25 feet in front of the director of National Intelligence where Andrea was interviewing him. And I think it dawned on the audience as it is dawning on this nation that the President of the United States has entered into a secret deal with Vladimir Putin.

And I call it a secret deal, Brian, because even the director of National Intelligence, the person from whom no secrets are kept, doesn`t know what the anticipated agenda of the summit was, what in fact the content of the two-hour private summit was, and the fact that there will be a follow-on summit. If your own director of National Intelligence doesn`t know, it is by definition a secret deal.

WILLIAMS: And back to Bob Costa, I have to ask you about the optics of what could become Helsinki 2 in Washington, in the people`s house.

COSTA: It`s now going to fall on the shoulders of Bill Shine, the long time media executive at Fox News. He`s been brought on as Communications Director to see if he can keep the Republican base ahead of the mid-terms with the President to have the theatrics of this kind of summit. And there`s a big question inside the White House and the Capitol tonight, will President Putin come before or after the mid-term elections?

Republicans on Capitol Hill are telling the White House this week, "Enough with Russia. Can we just run on the tax cuts," they`re saying. "Can we run on something else? The Russia investigation is already enough of a political obstacle in our way."

And so this is still the President, again, isolated and making his own decisions with a core group of advisers around him.

WILLIAMS: Andrea, it won`t hurt to go through the worries about what could be a Helsinki 2 based on what we know about or don`t know about Helsinki 1.

MITCHELL: Exactly. Well, for one thing we had three officials today, Rod Rosenstein here, Chris Wray here last night, and of course Dan Coats today, saying that cyber is the new terrorism. Cyber attacks from overseas, primarily from Russia, also from North Korea, Iran, but mostly in China of course. But mostly -- most aggressively from Russia are the biggest threats to the U.S. and could be the equivalent of what happened in 9/11.

They are looking forward at what are the biggest dangers we face, and they say and you were reporting earlier that there is reporting from Microsoft that there are current threats from -- we don`t know if those are foreign actors or those are criminal syndicates, but there are current cyber attacks that are potentially meddling with election boards in various states. And that is the real threat to this election.

And what Coats said to me today is that the biggest threat we have now to this upcoming election is coming from Russia and that we have to protect American democracy from Vladimir Putin. That is not in sync with the President`s agenda. Whatever that agenda is, you know that`s not his agenda coming up for this Putin summit.

And we don`t know what happened in those two hours. There is no way to debrief him. There weren`t any note takers. He acknowledged that they don`t know whether or not Putin recorded it.

They certainly swept the room to make sure there were no bugs there in the room, but we don`t know what was on Putin`s person. And I even asked whether the soccer ball could be wired. And he laughed and he said we do have ways of dealing with that.

WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash, the gravity of what you said in your last answer as someone who knows you is not lost on me. This has been -- this line of work has been your life`s work and having said that, I have to ask you about the man you witnessed today. Did you feel fortunate as a member of this society and as a patriot that we have a Dan Coats in this job right now as director of National Intelligence?

BASH: As a former member of the intelligence community, Brian, I did feel that Dan Coats was at least this week really truly living up to the ideal of the intelligence credo, the model of all intelligence professionals, which is to speak truth to power.

And even though the President has openly contradicted the intelligence community`s unanimous findings and even though he has undercut his own intelligence professionals, somebody like Dan Coats is kind of, you know, listening to that old song about freedom, which is, it`s just another word for those nothing left to lose. And when you are free to tell the truth to the commander-in-chief, then in fact that`s the way we preserve a democracy such as ours.

WILLIAMS: With a tip of the hat, Kris Kristofferson from the rocky mountains all the way east to Washington, our thanks to Jeremy Bash, to Andrea Mitchell, to Robert Costa. Really appreciate it on this busy Thursday night. Thank you all.

Coming up for us, the director of National Intelligence warning of a cyber attack on the scale of 9/11. He says today what he means by that. And we`re going to talk about the risks with the man who was number two at the CIA when the actual 9/11 happened.

And then later ahead of next week`s Paul Manafort trial, special counsel Mueller reveals a 21-page list of the evidence.

"The 11th Hour" just getting started on a busy Thursday.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The White House announcement that Andrea referenced earlier said Putin was invited to Washington this fall. Were you aware of that? I just want to clarify because you didn`t seem to be --

COATS: I think based on my reaction I wasn`t aware of that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you recommend that there not be a one-on-one without note takers?

COATS: If I were asked that question, I would look for a different way of doing it.


WILLIAMS: It was incredible to witness, apparently. Some more of Andrea Mitchell`s interview with the Director of National Intelligence, the DNI, Dan Coats of Indiana today at the Aspen Security Forum.

As we mentioned, Coats said he didn`t know that Vladimir Putin was invited to Washington. He also said he, like the rest of us, still doesn`t know what Trump and Putin talked about during their two-hour plus private time together in Helsinki.

Want to talk about all of it with a man with experience in the field. Also from Aspen tonight, John McLaughlin, Former Deputy Director of the CIA who also served as acting director back in 2004. He of course is a lifelong expert in counter-terrorism and intelligence policy.

I have to ask you your reaction upon finding out that our director of National Intelligence is unaware that an adversary has been invited to Washington, say nothing of others of our allies who have yet to receive their first invitation of this presidency.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FORMER CIA ACTING DIRECTOR: Well, Brian, you know, my reaction sitting there in the audience today was, you know, our government has slipped out of gear. It is not functioning normally. That would not happen, I served seven presidents. That would not happen in any other administration.

And it shows that the President was not prepared for the Helsinki summit and is now improvising again. Normally the way this works in a normal government that is in gear is that, as you know, there will be deputy`s meetings and principles meetings to prepare for these things.

The pros and cons of inviting Putin here again would be discussed in detail. People would put their cards on the table. We might go ahead.

But with full knowledge of what we want out of it and with all of the unintended consequences spelled out, clearly none of that has happened. It seemed to go from Trump`s head to his thumb and out to the world.

WILLIAMS: Yes, to your point that`s why you have a gentleman like Dan Coats on the payroll. Director, I want to share with our audience, we use the phrase cyber hacking. We talk about being vulnerable to electronic attack, and you`re used to this scary line of work.

But Director Coats today ran through what we mean when we talk about a cyber 9/11, a phrase not to be tossed around casually. But here for just a minute we`ll give our viewers some idea of what we mean. We`ll talk about it on the other side.


COATS: I`m concerned about a cyber 9/11 that --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What would that look like?

COATS: Well, let`s say you shutdown Wall Street for a week. What does that do to world markets and people`s investments?

Let`s say you crash a Bank of America or Wells Fargo or whatever and all of a sudden people are saying, "Wait a minute, what happened to my account? What happened to my retirement? Well, we`ll get a back. OK."

We`ve seen this and we`ve seen coverage of that. We haven`t seen the big one.

What about our attack on the electric grid in New England in January? That may be sophisticated enough to take it out for three days. How many people will die from minus degree weather on that?

I mean, those are the things that I think you have to look. You have to try to anticipate what are the capabilities that our adversaries now have if they wanted to use them.


WILLIAMS: John, that gets our attention. And what`s the gap between that potential reality and our reality, what we`re doing to prevent it right now?

MCLAUGHLIN: Well, I think we`re doing a lot to prevent that kind of cyber 9/11 in a sense of preparing our defenses. But on the other hand, this White House has eliminated the cyber coordinator who would have been the person to organize all of the efforts in the U.S. government.

The problem with cyber, Brian, is that everyone has a piece of it. On the technical side, you have the national security agency. On the policy side, you have the Department of Homeland Security and so forth and so on. The Defense Department has a role. You need someone to pull all of that together, and no one`s doing that from the White House angle.

And I would add this, Brian, in a way I think we`ve already had our cyber 9/11. For me, it`s a cyber 9/11 when 150 Americans have been exposed to Russia propaganda through Facebook as Facebook has acknowledged and countless others through Twitter. The problem is that`s not the kind of cyber attack that is dramatic in the way that the director pointed out.

There are all sorts of dramatic cyber events that could occur. The ones he mentioned shutdown all the ATMs on the East Coast, for example. Imagine the chaos that would create.

Frankly, I don`t think those kinds of things are going to happen except in a context of a war, a conflict where you have escalated to that level. The worry is that the adversary has the capability to do that, they have the capability and so you`ve got to monitor their intentions very carefully. Brian.

WILLIAMS: A Republican has stepped up tonight on the pages of the "The New York Times," a potential risk to his political career. He`s actually one of your former employees. Congressman Will Hurd, Republican from Southwest, Texas, a former CIA officer who has written this piece for "The New York Times" and here is his lead paragraph.

"Over the course of my career as an under cover officer in the CIA, I saw Russia intelligence manipulate many people. I never thought I would see the day when an American President would be one of them."

Director McLaughlin, do you share that assessment?

MCLAUGHLIN: I do, Brian. I think it`s a valid fear. We don`t know precisely what`s happening in this relationship but it certainly looks that way. And good on Will Hurd for stepping up to say it.

You know, I think his piece there is emblematic of something I was thinking just before coming on air, which is I sense in the last two weeks a kind of shifting of the tide here. You know, you on your program and others have talked about at what point will this tip? At what point will there be critical mass of objection to some of the lunacy that`s going on here under this President?

And I think something has happened in the last two weeks when you consider Director Wray, Director Coats, the deputy attorney general today. Some prominent Republicans have spoken out, though not in an organized way yet about the Russia events. I just think that the way the President -- to state it boldly, the United States was attacked and the President sided in his Helsinki remarks, I think that really got people`s attention that nothing else has up till now. Brian.

WILLIAMS: And for your part, sir, I think hearing those words from a man who has served seven presidents will get the attention of a lot of folks watching tonight. Former CIA Acting Director, John McLaughlin, thank you for always being generous with us with your time and for coming back on our broadcast tonight from Aspen. We truly appreciate it.

And coming up for us, evidence of a life well lived thus far. We learned today about what jurors might see from inside the world and the three domiciles of one Paul Manafort when "The 11th Hour" continues.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Welcome back. We are getting a better idea of the case the special counsel will be presenting next week against President Trump`s former campaign chairman. Paul Manafort`s trial is the first trial of the overall Mueller effort. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of bank and tax fraud. Make no mistake he could die in prison if convicted of all he`s accused of.

The Special Counsel`s Office has now released a list of more than 500 pieces of evidence that could be introduced at trial. Much of it speaks to Manafort`s decidedly high end lifestyle. Jurors may be getting a look at among other things photos of Manafort`s three homes, Brooklyn, New York, the Hamptons, and Virginia. He also has a place in Trump Tower here in New York.

The list also includes pictures of Manafort`s clothing, receipts for expensive Yankees season tickets as well as evidence of offshore bank accounts in places like Cyprus, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the U.K.

As Bloomberg News puts it tonight, "Prosecutors will argue that Manafort hid income and offshore accounts from USA authorities while earning tens of millions of dollars as a political consultant in Ukraine before he joined the Trump campaign in early `16."

With us to talk about it, an expert on the subject Daniel Goldman, the former assistant U.S. attorney for, of all places, the Southern District of New York. I hold this potential evidence list in my hand. There`s a lot. There`s a $21,000 watch. There`s a Mercedes and a Range Rover. I guess this is the predicate you lay down in a financial trial. The guy made a lot of money for a lot of years. He likes the good life and you take it from there.

DANIEL GOLDMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: And in order to get that money into the United States without paying taxes on it he funnels it through any number of shell companies, doesn`t disclose that he has foreign registered shell companies and then transfers those money -- money from those accounts to his interior designer, to his clothing person for high end suits, et cetera, et cetera. Homes and all sorts of other luxury items.

And so it`s a pretty -- it looks to be like it will be a pretty intensive document case as you would expect in a tax fraud, mortgage fraud case. And I think that`s ultimately what this exhibit list demonstrates.

WILLIAMS: The prosecutors have a big help here because a very important person in Manafort`s life and work flipped and is now playing for the home team and as you put it, may be kind of a narrator in this trial.

GOLDMAN: That`s right. I think Rick Gates is going to be on the stand for at least a week. I think he is going to narrate this entire scheme.

WILLIAMS: He`s the keeper of the secrets.

GOLMAN: He`s the keeper of the secrets but all of these documents that at least he has some relevance to are going to come in through him and he is going to explain them. While I think this case was pretty strong to begin with, the fact that the government has Paul Manafort`s right-hand man with all of these documents is going to be a huge help to the jury and for us watching the trial because otherwise there`s a lot of drudgery as you`re going through bank records and tax returns.

WILLIAMS: You have helped us in your time with us, paint a picture of how serious and how much depth this Mueller team has. While not a monastic existence they are told every day to put their heads down and do their work by a guy who gets to work before a lot of them, in the morning Robert Mueller. What is all this atmospherics, the Helsinki summit?

Last night "New York Times" story comes out, their own reporting that the Donald Trump two weeks before he became president was told what the Russians had done and kind of grudgingly accepted it. That would mean that all the investigators have known that the president knew during all these cries of witch-hunt. What does all the atmospherics do to the head of even the most serious Fed?

GOLDMAN: Well, I think that it`s impossible to avoid realizing what`s going on, paying attention to what`s going on.

WILLIAMS: What`s in the papers, what`s on TV?

GOLMAN: And in part because so much of what Donald Trump says becomes relevant to the investigation they`re doing. So they have to pay attention.

WILLIAMS: In real-time.

GOLMAN: Absolutely. The people who are getting ready for this trial next week are not focusing on that. They are really drilling down 18 hours day. They are getting ready for this trial. But everybody else who`s working on the broader collusion investigation, the obstruction of justice investigation, the American citizen focused aspect of this investigation, which is seems to be the part that has yet to be uncovered, they`re paying attention. And they`re probably trying to work even faster because who knows what`s going to happen next, and let`s get this done and let`s get it done as soon as we can.

WILLIAMS: Do you solemnly swear to help us understand this trial while it`s under way?

GOLMAN: I will do my very best. Luckily there are a lot of charts on this list and there are a lot of photographs of expensive watches. And I think we`re going to be spending the next couple of weeks focused on those.

WILLIAMS: Much obliged. Thank you very much, Daniel Goldman for once again joining us here on our studio tonight.

Coming up for us, has it done damage to the base, as they like to ask. After this half week of walk backs and corrections, after Helsinki, are Republicans hanging in with their president? That when we come back.


WILLIAMS: Mike Allen of the Axios news organization said this tonight about the poll numbers we`re about to show you. "This poll foreshadows the coming national drama. Every piece of data and virtually every public action of elected Republican officials shows Trump will have overwhelming and probably unbreakable party support regardless of what Robert Mueller finds with his Russia probe."

And now the numbers he`s talking about. About that press conference in Helsinki, Trump next to Putin, Trump agreeing with Putin at times, a vast majority, 79% of Republicans surveyed say they approved of the way the president handled that news conference. And among Republicans 85% of those polled would describe the Russia investigation as a distraction more than they would a serious issue.

With us tonight to talk about it two of our returning favorites, Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize winner and long time veteran of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who is now a nationally syndicated columnist, full disclosure. In her spare time she happens to be married to Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown. Also with us tonight, Jeremy Peters, political reporter for "The New York Times".

So, Jeremy, again we stress those numbers are among Republicans. When you hear people casually say we`re a 60-40 country, where do you put the party split? So how many people -- what`s the percentage of the whole we`re talking about there?

JEREMY PETERS, THE NEW YORK TIMES, POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, that is good question, Brian, because I think when you see these 90% approval ratings or close to that among Republicans for President Trump, where you see the close to 80% of people who are Republicans who say they approved of this press conference in Helsinki, you know, the question is whether or not the Republican Party is shrinking. The people who identify themselves as Republican is certainly getting smaller. There`s been evidence for that in the data.

That said, the people who support President Trump support him ardently. Those are the types of people who show up in midterm elections. Those are the type of people who showed up in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and put him over the top in the Electoral College.

And I think that when a crisis like we`ve seen really over the last month where you have the child separations at the border and you have this siding with Putin in Helsinki, the reaction becomes not so much about what Trump said but what people are saying about what Trump said.

So there are a lot of people who are digging in on his side saying, look, the Democrats and the media they`re comparing him to the Nazis, and that`s all they hear. They don`t really hear what he said. They don`t differentiate between his siding with the Russians this time or any other time, and really it`s all just noise and they retreat back into their corner.

WILLIAMS: Connie, let`s talk about members of the Trump base and the great state of Ohio. It strikes me Trump is using two talking points to great effect. Number one, relations with Russia have never been this bad. Students of history would vehemently disagree. You`ll note Putin is using the same talking point to a Russian audience. Number two, the president has said a million times isn`t it better to get along? It`s better to get along with Russia. Those two things have helped to soften a Trump base that in a state like yours would have been the most vehement, at first, anti-Soviet Union and more recently anti-Russia base of people in normal times, am I correct?

CONNIE SCHULTZ, PULITZER PRIZE WINNING SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: You are, but I think there`s more to it than this. First of all, even if they don`t object, I mean the extremists in the party who like Trump, even if they don`t object to how he`s behaving, they don`t necessarily want to see it in their next governor, and their senators, and their council members. I mean he stands alone right now, and standing alone is my other point.

They`re not seeing Republicans -- elected Republicans as a whole standing up to the president. So I mean I hear this a lot. Well, if he`s really that bad, why aren`t more people in his own party speaking out?

And let`s be honest, as bad as we know it is, as bad as we think at least, it seems to be right now, there are people in the White House who know it`s worse and they know why it`s worse. And so far they`re not talking. And this is what we have right now, a void of leadership among two groups, Republicans in Congress particularly and Republicans in that White House who so far are not willing to step up and stand out.

I mean he has gone rogue. And he appears to be unhinged. I mean, to tweet that out today and his intelligence director didn`t even know about this new meeting he`s going to have with Putin, what we`re seeing is what happens when you have a void of leadership.

WILLIAMS: Jeremy, here`s another of the president`s tweets. "Some people hate the fact that I get along well with President Putin of Russia. They would rather go to war than see this. It`s called Trump Derangement Syndrome." This is a new talking point. We saw Rand Paul of all people use it on the Senate floor. Give us the viewers guide to this thing we`re going to hear about so much more in the coming days.

PETERS: Right. You and I have talked about this before, Brian. This idea that Trump and his supporters in the Republican Party excuse away his gaffs and his frankly siding with the enemy in this instance by pointing to hysteria. And certainly there is some hysteria here. There`s a lot of overreaction. And that delegitimizes some of the very legitimate criticisms about Trump. Coming from his own party, coming from members of his own administration privately who say that he has handled this the wrong way.

So they can point to Trump and his supporters to these people on the left and in the media who are saying, you know, crying Nazi or whatever and say, see, those people hate us and they will stop at nothing to undue this presidency. And that`s a very galvanizing emotion, and I don`t know that at the end of the day that something that the Democrats are going to be able to overcome when you just look at the fervency of Trump`s base.

WILLIAMS: Connie, I know you`ve been paying special attention to women voters and any movement there might be in that demographic.

SCHULTZ: Well, first of all, I just want to say when I hear the word hysteria, I think the long history of women being accused of being hysterical whenever we stand for anything. So perhaps we can bring the wealth and depth of our experience over the generations to continue the fight to bring truth into this debate and not accept Trump`s terminology and Trump`s characterizations. The fake news, I wish we in the media had never started echoing that if it`s news that is fake and if it`s fake, it isn`t news.

What I`m seeing here in Ohio with women and see across the Midwest is they -- you`re not going to see, male or female, they`re not talking a lot about Russia. They`re talking a lot about health care, pre-existing conditions. We`re back to that. And I`m trying not to bring a partisan view to this. I`m always asking -- you know, I talked to -- I related to Trump voters and I`m wondering what are their concern concerns about health care.

The thing is they don`t often connect the dots yet in terms of seeing that it`s Trump who`s pushing this policy, but they are seeing more Democrats standing up for them than they notice before. Also with women, this immigration of -- the policy of separating children from their families, I don`t think we have yet to comprehend the impact that has had, and it could be long-term in terms of how some female voters are seeing Trump.

WILLIAMS: And we`re going to do our own update on those latest numbers on this broadcast tomorrow night. Our thanks as I said to two returning veterans Connie Schultz and Jeremy Peters. Much appreciated. Thank you very much.

We`re back with another first for this administration after this.



REP. PAUL RYAN, (R) WISCONSIN, HOUSE SPEAKER: The last thing I want to do is get politicians involved in meddling with interest rates and the Federal Reserve. So you want to make sure that you keep this thing away from political interference and meddling.


WILLIAMS: House Speaker Paul Ryan starting his day warning about the importance of keeping the Federal Reserve independence as you heard him say from political influence and meddling. Less than two hours after that, CNBC released this excerpt from a new interview that Joe Kernen conducted with Donald Trump.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I put a very good man in the Fed. I don`t necessarily agree with it because he`s raising interest rates. I`m not saying that I agree with it and I don`t necessary agree with it. I must tell you I don`t.

I`m not thrilled because, you know, we go up and every time you go up, they want to raise rates again. And I don`t really -- I am not happy about it. But at the same time, I`m letting them do what they feel is best.

Now I`m just saying the same thing that I would have said as a private citizen. So if somebody would say, oh, maybe you shouldn`t say that as the president, I couldn`t care less what they say because my views haven`t changed.


WILLIAMS: For some background here. For about the past quarter century, there`s been an understanding the president doesn`t critique the job of the Fed as to underscore the independence of the Fed. Not long after Trump`s remarks, the White House attempted to clarify his position writing in a statement, "Of course, the president respects the independence of the Fed. The president`s views on interest rates are well-known and his comments today are a reiteration of those long-held positions and public comments."

And it`s true despite his new job title Trump is being consistent. He talked about interest rates and former Fed Chair Janet Yellen back when he was out on the campaign trail.


TRUMP: Janet Yellen is highly political and she`s not raising rates for a very specific reason because Obama told her not to.

She`s keeping them artificially low to get Obama retired. Watch what`s going to happen after which. It`s a very serious problem. And I think it`s very political. I think she`s very political. And to a certain extent, I think she should be ashamed of herself. I used to hope that the Fed was independent and the Fed is obviously not independent. It`s obviously not even close to being independent.


WILLIAMS: The Fed declined to comment on the president`s breach of protocol today, but former Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher did weigh in telling CNBC, "No president should interfere with the workings of the Fed. Were I Chairman Powell, I would ignore the president and do my job, and I am confident he will do just that."

Coming up, the one word in the middle of a speech the president was giving today that received special attention when we come back.


WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight, is something that happened today while the president was speaking to an audience of mostly students, some corporate types, some government types. His daughter Ivanka was in attendance. It was an apparently spontaneous moment that took place while the president was reading teleprompter remarks about one of his own government programs. He came across a word he recognized and chose to highlight.


TRUMP: Today, 23 companies and associations are pledging to expand apprenticeships, that`s an interesting word for me to be saying, right? "The Apprentice." I never actually put that together until just now. That was a good experience I will tell you that. Isn`t that strange? Ivanka never associated but here we are. Can`t get away from that word. It`s a great word. For on the job training and vocational education.


WILLIAMS: It went on after that. The president at today`s event and about that TV show he mentioned? It originated in this building for 14 seasons.

That is our broadcast for this Thursday night. Thank you so much for being here with us. Good night from NBC News headquarters here at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York.


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