Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: August 22, 2018 Guest: Jonathan Lemire, Peter Baker, Carol Leonnig, Cynthia Alksne, Arianna Berg, Eli Stokols
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: -- eye of a political hurricane after all the President has now been implicated in a crime. While the West Wing defense repeated over and over today is that he did nothing wrong and hasn`t been charged with anything.
Plus, the mounting legal threat as Mueller plows forward, as Manafort awaits his next trial, and as Michael Cohen`s lawyer says he`s got more to share. And the political peril for Trump and his party as talk of impeachment grows and election day inches closer. All of it on "The 11th Hour" on a Wednesday night as we get underway now.
And good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 580 of the Trump administration.
One day after Donald Trump was implicated in a crime, in federal court by his long time former personal lawyer, one day after his former campaign chairman was convicted in federal court, "The Washington Post" reports tonight on that, "at least for now, at least for a day, Trump resisted lashing out in a dramatic and public way. Instead, Wednesday was a moment for calculation and conversation, a pause for a rattled administration, according to White House officials and outside advisors familiar with the discussions."
Michael Cohen`s lawyer is making it clear his client is ready, willing, and able to share what he knows with Robert Mueller.
"Associated Press" Jonathan Lemire, who`s standing by to talk with us tonight, captures the state of affairs in his latest titled "More dirt on President Trump? Cohen`s lawyer suggests so."
Cohen attorney Lanny Davis made a series of television appearances today. Here is what he said this morning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is he hoping for a pardon from President Trump?
LANNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL COHEN: Not only is he not hoping for it, he would not accept a pardon. He considers a pardon from somebody who has acted so corruptly as President to be something he would never accept.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Earlier this evening, Davis seemed to dial things back a bit, particularly with regard to previous reporting about what Cohen was prepared to tell the special counsel about President Trump and that meeting at Trump Tower.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDERSON COOPER, ANCHOR, CNN NEWS: So Michael Cohen does not have information that President Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians beforehand or --
DAVIS: No, he does not. At some point, Mr. Cohen might be able to be useful to the special counsel about whether President Trump knew ahead of time about the hacking of the Hillary Clinton e-mails, and it`s not a certainty the way he recalls it. May or may not be useful to Mr. Mueller.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: You can tell, perhaps, the hour is late. It`s been a long week already. And people are exhausted.
Trump did respond to Michael Cohen`s plea today. This morning, he wrote "If anyone is looking for a good lawyer, I would strongly suggest that you don`t retain the services of Michael Cohen. And Michael Cohen plead guilty to two counts of campaign finance violations that are not a crime. President Obama had a big campaign finance violation and it was easily settled."
Trump also spoke to Fox News about his relationship with Michael Cohen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was a lawyer for me for one of many, you know, they would say the lawyer and then they like to add the fixer. Well, I don`t know if he was a fixer. I don`t know where that term came from, but he`s been a lawyer for me.
He didn`t do big deals. Did small deals. Not somebody that was with me that much. You know, they make it sound like I didn`t live without him.
I understood Michael Cohen very well. Well, it turned out he wasn`t a very good lawyer, frankly. But he was somebody that was probably with me for about ten years. And I would see him sometimes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: He then followed that with a denial of Cohen`s accusation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
AINSLEY EARHARDT, ANCHOR, FOX NEWS: Did you know about the payments?
TRUMP: Later on I knew. Later on. But you have to understand, Ainsley, what he did and they weren`t taken out of campaign finance. That`s a big thing. That`s a much bigger thing.
Did they come out of the campaign? They didn`t come out of the campaign. They came from me. And I tweeted about it. You know I don`t know if you know it, but I tweeted about the payments.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The President saying there he learned about the payments later on. That would seemed to contradict the audio recording that Cohen made while discussing the payment with the President.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S FORMER LAWYER: I spoke to Alan about it. When it comes time for the financing which will be --
TRUMP: Listen. What financing?
COHEN: Well, I have to pay something --
TRUMP: And we`ll pay in cash.
COHEN: No, no, no, no, no, I`ve got -- no, no, no, no.
TRUMP: Check --
(END AUDIO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: And that recording seemed to contradict the President`s answer about the payments on board Air Force One.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you know about the $130,000 payments to Stormy Daniels?
TRUMP: No, no. What else?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Then why did Michael Cohen made it if there was no truth to the allegations?
TRUMP: Well, you`ll have to ask Michael Cohen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Take this all together this being the President of the United States after all. "The Washington Post" called out the President for his various explanations about these payments. Tonight calling them lies.
Nevertheless, at the White House today, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders gave a repeated defense of the President.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As the President said, we`ve stated many times he did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him.
Just because Michael Cohen made a plea deal, doesn`t mean that that implicates the President on anything.
The President did nothing wrong. There are no charges against him.
I`m not going to give you a different answer. The President has done nothing wrong. There are no charges against him. There is no collusion. That`s what I can tell you about this.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The President has not forgotten about Paul Manafort, who was convicted yesterday of banking and tax fraud and now faces another trial next month. Trump writing this as a show of support "a large number of counts, 10, could not even be decided in the Paul Manafort case. Witch hunt. I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. Justice took a 12-year-old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to break, "Sammy the Bull Gravano style, "make up stories in order to get a deal. Such respect for a brave man."
Tonight, the President also said this when asked if he was considering pardoning Paul Manafort.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I have great respect for what he`s done in terms of what he`s gone through. You know, he worked for Ronald Reagan for years. He worked for Bob Dole. He worked -- I guess, his firm worked for McCain.
He worked for many, many people, many, many years. And I would say what he did some of the charges they threw against him every consultant, every lobbyist in Washington probably does.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Let`s bring in our lead-off panel for a Wednesday night, the aforementioned Jonathan Lemire, White House Reporter for "The Associated Press," Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for "The New York Times," and Carol Leonnig is back with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning Investigative Reporter for "The Washington Post." Good evening to the three of you and welcome.
Jonathan Lemire, you were inside the West Wing for the split screen day we had yesterday. What can you report about what that was like and what today was like there?
JONATHAN LEMIRE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": So this is a West Wing that has become accustomed to bad headlines. Yesterday was a particularly striking one. It was. It was a day for the history books seeing that image, the dual images of Cohen in court, Manafort in court. Both of them getting the word "guilty" attached to their names.
The West Wing sort of went silent. Doors were closed, aides disappeared. There was no immediate response. Eventually, we got a very terse two- sentence response from Sarah Sanders sort of yes about the reaction to those denounced in the moment.
This is a White House that is still reeling. And it`s gone to the President, as well. According to our reporting, he`s been far more subdued the last day or so, sort of distracted, angry behind closed doors about what has happened, particularly on the Cohen matter.
He was able to sort of maintain, this is last night, at the rally. In fact, he didn`t even speak about either man while on stage in West Virginia. But today, of course, we saw him start venting.
He started on Twitter, including the tweet about if you`re looking for a good lawyer, don`t go to Michael Cohen, which I think it`s one of his better efforts of late. And then, you know, he continued on word. And then we have the moment, of course, Sarah Sanders at the podium today sort of this rote sort of the repetition of just the President didn`t do anything wrong. He`s not charged wit any crime, which is I don`t think is allaying many concerns.
The issue is, according to our reporting, there`s not much of a battle plan there yet. They put together some talking points. They barely circulated them.
You know, Rudy is currently golfing in Scotland. It was relatively MIA today compared to what he usually is when he`s trying to hit back against something threatening the President.
They`re still reeling. They`re trying to figure this out. They`re trying to determine the scope of the damage that is still coming.
WILLIAMS: Peter Baker, your newspaper as well also with fresh reporting tonight that this was a consequential event yesterday. Two of them, actually, and this is a subdued President adding to the sense the feeling of moment.
PETER BAKER, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": No question about it. This is a day that sort of put the question of impeachment on the table in a way it hadn`t been before. Any White House, of course, would be reeling, as Jonathan describes, given that political reality.
Now that the Republican Congress is going to necessarily take up that kind of action against him but it reinforces the consequences and the stakes involved in this fall midterm elections that now is on the table. Allegations against the President go beyond just the Russia case where there has been, you know, no firm conclusion by prosecutors yet of, you know, allegations the President has done -- participated in something that is a crime by his personal lawyer. That changes things. And that now, for the next two months until the election, you`re going to hear a lot of discussion about what the proper remedy is.
Sarah Sanders says the President hasn`t been charged with any crimes. Remember, this is the same White House that said the President can`t be charged with any crimes. Under the Constitution, their theory, anyway, and the Justice Department prevailing policy is the President is not capable of being indicted while in office.
So when she says he`s not charged with any crimes, that`s not really telling us anything. The real question, again, comes to Congress and the political process and the midterms that are being held in the next couple of months.
WILLIAMS: Carol Leonnig, you`ve covered law enforcement and things justice for a long time, perhaps without even knowing how exciting the beat might become someday. So you have your own reporting for "The Washington Post" tonight on Michael Cohen specifically. Walk us through the condensed version of what he might know and what might have motivated this decision by him.
CAROL LEONNIG, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": What he might know is something his attorney has described in many different ways over the course even of today. So sometimes that`s a moving target, Brian. But as for what has happened with his plea agreement, it came together rather rapidly starting after basically late July.
It`s not very common for a plea agreement to come together in two, three, four weeks. That`s really what happened here. And he was under a lot of pressure.
He was facing potentially decades in prison based on charges that he`d lied on numerous bank forms, line of credit. He lied to get, you know, millions of dollars in loans. And he also faced the potential threat that his family was in danger because some of those loans were ones his wife might have actually been a part of or a party to.
And what he decided, and a lot of people would say he made the right call, when he decided was to go for the cap on the amount of time he`d spend in prison. Instead of 40 or 50 years, as Rudy Giuliani said to me, he`s limited this to five. And he`s agreed to plead to three different categories of charges.
And honestly, the weakest of the charges is the most explosive, the campaign finance violations.
WILLIAMS: Jonathan Lemire, there`s no other way to ask this except to ask it. And that is what is the level of concern among the folks you talk to that this presidential term does not end at its organic calendar scheduled ending but ends before that?
LEMIRE: There are certainly some Republicans quietly who are starting to wonder about that. Those closest to the President aren`t ready to go there just yet. They are at their battle stations.
They know this is a big day. This is a big moment. They have a lot of stuff they need to wade through in the weeks and months ahead.
But there`s still the President himself, though, frustrated and perhaps a little subdued or distracted. You know, he is not one who`s going to throw in the towel. We have certainly seen him -- when he is often sort of a Trump cliche that he`s at his most dangerous, he`s most unpredictable when his back is up against the wall.
Let`s remember after the "Access Hollywood" tape when it was released in October of 2016, it was just two days later before the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton when he suddenly surprised the press corps, including me and the press pool with a Bill Clinton attackers and sort of a really dramatic turn around to change the conversation.
WILLIAMS: It was a dark moment.
WILLIAMS: For sure.
LEMIRE: It would not necessarily predict that again but it certainly that he has stuff that he`ll find a way to change the conversation to move forward. That said, this is something the impeachment word is sort of resurfacing here in the last couple of days, as Peter started to say a short time ago.
You know, whether the Democrats actually want to embrace that idea, if they are to capture the House, assuming they don`t control the Senate as well, which seems unlikely. That would be I think with some Republicans would almost welcome that fight.
Steve Bannon has said to me and others repeatedly let`s make it about impeachment. First of all, that would make the stakes high enough for Republicans. They`ll turn out to vote. But also they think that that can be a miscalculation for Democrats.
What worries people around Trump much more so than impeachment would be the idea if the Democrats control the House and have subpoena power, it`ll just be investigation, investigation, investigation. And anyone who`s ever mentioned Donald Trump`s name is going to be hauled up unto the Hill and put in front of a committee.
WILLIAMS: All those oversight committees.
Hey, Peter Baker, I want to play for you a piece of video. This transpired during the 9:00 p.m. hour tonight on Fox News. Ainsley Earhardt was doing what he called a debrief. She was appearing with Sean Hannity talking about her big interview with the President today for air tomorrow morning on his favorite morning program, "Fox and Friends" and this moment happened.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
EARHARDT: He mentioned pardoning Manafort and then you have Michael Cohen`s attorney, Lanny Davis --
SEAN HANNITY, ANCHOR, FOX NEWS: He did mention pardoning Manafort?
EARHARDT: He did. He did, and said that he would consider that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So that happened. Peter, what are we to make of that?
BAKER: Well, you know, it would be explosive thing for him to do. You know, every President who has waded into, you know, the investigations of people around him with a pardon ends up paying a political price. They usually do it after their last election when they`re on the way out of office. That`s when George H.W. Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger in Iran- Contra and Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich and others on his way out to door.
For President Trump to do it now in the middle of the first term and the middle of the midterm election season to pardon the person who was his campaign chairman and just been convicted on a number of serious tax and bank fraud violations, that would be a political fire storm. And it may not accomplish what he might want it to accomplish. In other words, if his point is he doesn`t want -- he`s praising Paul Manafort today for not breaking, for not, you know, giving the prosecutors information, in effect.
Giving a pardon wouldn`t necessarily prevent that from happening because then Paul Manafort would no longer have the right to avoid testifying because of self-incrimination. That would mean that prosecutors would be able to put him on the stand the very next day and say you have to tell us everything there is to know about President Trump.
WILLIAMS: Carol Leonnig, is it fair to assume that Donald Trump has not done due diligence as a client and told his legal team everything Mr. Cohen might know because in plain English, Mr. Cohen handled just about everything, whatever the President`s effort to diminish him tonight that we showed earlier. And a lot of it is unpleasant business.
LEONNIG: You know, I`m so glad you asked me that, Brian, because it`s something that has perplexed me for months. And I`m just stunned talking to the sources that I talk to or close to the President who say, you know, we`ve never really asked him. It`s kind of uncomfortable.
I mean, every lawyer it`s like lawyering defense 101. You go to your client and you say, "Tell me everything. Tell it to me now. Let`s figure it out. And then we can deal with it."
And it seems like the people who would most likely be able to really give the President a good defense don`t really know every detail. And it`s odd.
I`ll also mention one more thing that`s odd to me, Brian, and that is you raised it at the beginning of the program, this issue of did the President know, didn`t the President know? The tape you played where Michael Cohen is talking to the President about purchasing the rights to Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal`s story. Remember, there are two women here.
So there`s a lot of information that suggest and evidence, and sources certainly confirm this that the President knew about the Karen McDougal story, knew that it was out there, knew that David Pecker probably bought it, knew that they wanted to try to maybe consider buying it themselves. But what`s interesting is the Stormy Daniels story explodes right in the literally days before the election. And there`s some evidence that suggest that the President may not entirely have known what Michael Cohen was "fixing" at that point. He may not have known all the details.
So it`s a really intriguing thing. And again, back to your great question, I`m just shocked at how few of the defenders, the people who should know what the President knows don`t.
WILLIAMS: I can`t thank you enough, all three of you, for starting our broadcast off tonight. Jonathan Lemire, Peter Baker, Carol Leonnig, our thanks.
Coming up for us, how Manafort`s conviction and Cohen`s plea put the President in a new kind of legal jeopardy.
And later, the latest on the Duncan Hunter scandal, one of the President`s first supporters now indicted for misusing campaign funds. And like the President he supports, the Congressman says the Justice Department is on a witch hunt.
"The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Wednesday evening.
WILLIAMS: Well, today happened to be Sarah Huckabee Sanders` 100th briefing. And today to celebrate the milestone, seemingly, the Press Secretary, stayed, as you heard, on message.
While there`s reporting that the West Wing is rattled over the President being implicated in a crime, in federal court yesterday, Maggie Haberman of the "New York Times" writing, "Inside the West Wing, aides to Mr. Trump numbed and desensitized by breathless news cycles blaring headlines about the President`s behavior, said privately on Tuesday afternoon that they were having trouble assessing how devastating the day`s legal events might be."
And just a day after Michael Cohen implicated Trump in breaking campaign finance laws, "The Associated Press" was first to report this afternoon investigators in New York State have issued a subpoena to Cohen as part of their investigation into the Trump Foundation. There are reports Cohen quickly reached out to the state`s tax department.
This is both important and was expected because any state charges against Cohen would not be subject to a pardon by the President, even though we heard Cohen`s lawyer say Cohen isn`t seeking and would not accept a pardon.
Paul Manafort`s conviction also hanging over the White House tonight.
Our own Ken Dilanian writes "His nightmare is just starting." Sixty-nine- year-old former Trump campaign chairman already facing a lengthy prison sentence as he prepares for another and perhaps tougher trial in Washington, D.C. He, of course, could change his mind and choose to cooperate at any time.
With us to talk about all matters legal related, Cynthia Alksne, a Former Federal Prosecutor and a Veteran of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, and Arianna Berg, a Former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a branch of the Justice Department that`s been in the news once or twice this week.
Hey, Cynthia, starting with you. One of the great words in the law is "allocution" and it`s a fancy thing for what happened yesterday.
Michael Cohen gets up in open court. His attorneys are seated behind him. In front of him is a federal judge. And he says aloud what he is agreeing, what he is admitting to, what he`s copping to. And then he said that about being at the direction of his boss, person one who went on to become the President of the United States.
Were you surprised by that? And is it true that nothing happens by accident in allocution? That must mean the feds knew he was going there.
CYNTHIA ALKSNE, FMR. FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I`m sure they knew, but usually in an allocution you sort of keep things as simple as possible. He obviously felt the need to burn the bridge behind him and just go a little farther. He seems to need to needle Trump and they have a relationship that he has to fight back even as he`s pleading guilty.
WILLIAMS: And, Arianna, this legal development yesterday kind of collided with the P.R. narrative that the President and his team has been spooling out.
ARIANNA BERG, FMR. ASSISTANT U.S. ATTY., SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Yes, it did. We cannot overstate the magnitude of what happened yesterday, particularly with respect to Michael Cohen`s guilty plea in federal court under oath implicating President Trump in the commission of a federal crime.
Now, the P.R. and legal strategy in the past 24 hours of the White House administration and President Trump has been threefold. To say I didn`t do it. If I did it, it wasn`t a crime. Even if it was a crime, everyone is doing it. And I guess the implication of that everyone is doing it is therefore we shouldn`t care that he`s potentially committed a crime. But none of that really distracts from the magnitude of what happened yesterday.
Michael Cohen said that he committed campaign finance violations at the direction of President Trump and for the express purpose of violating -- of affecting the election results.
WILLIAMS: Cynthia, I want to play for you something that happened on the air tonight on CNN. A New York attorney, long time friend of Donald Trump appeared with Chris Cuomo tonight. The following took place.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY GOLDBERG, LONGTIME TRUMP ADVISER AND ATTORNEY: Alleging concern the public that the President can`t be counted on to tell the truth. I agree with you. I mean, I`m a good friend of the President and I don`t condone lying to the public.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So that`s where we are, Cynthia. Jay Goldberg who`s known Donald Trump for a good long time, decades, has to go on television tonight and say he doesn`t condone lying to the public.
ALKSNE: "The Washington Post" estimates that he lies about 7.6 times a day. And they`re just going to have to up it after this week. I don`t think there`s any question about that.
It`ll be interesting to see how Mueller looks at all those lies and what they do to corroborate Cohen`s lies, because Cohen has lied too over the last year or so. There are interesting little nuggets in the indictment about other people in the campaign who knew about the payments to Stormy Daniels and to Ms. McDougal and I would predict that now we`re going to see concentrated effort by the Southern District of New York to interview just about everybody to find out exactly who did know and, of course, do some debriefing of Cohen to find out, you know, how exactly they`re going to handle his cooperation.
WILLIAMS: And Cynthia, knowing something about Mueller in the way he operates, what`s your gut on whether he will regard Labor Day as this kind of beginning of forced rest period where pencils down, we have to act like nothing is going on until the midterms?
ALKSNE: OK. First of all, Labor Day is a day of work in the Department of Justice.
WILLIAMS: That`s right. Thank you for the reminders. Yes.
ALKSNE: Yes, Labor Day is a day of work. And there`s a difference between not making news and affecting the election and not working. Remember, as people are talking about, "Oh no. There`s no real cooperation."
The Southern District of New York is also under the same rules about not effecting election that Mueller is under. So they sort of had to get this plea done and quickly before Labor Day. Right?
ALKSNE: So now they can be quiet. Stay off television, make sure nobody is moving around in front of the grand jury. They`re not indicting anybody. They`re not doing anything in public.
Meanwhile, in private, they`re dealing with the Cohen question and whether or not he`s going to have a full cooperation agreement or not. They can find out who are those other people in the indictment who supposedly knew about all these things with the President and the payoffs to the porn stars. And this time beginning in Labor Day, really, just means more labor for the poor people who work for Bob Mueller.
WILLIAMS: And Arianna, since we`ve been on the air tonight, one of the jurors has broken their silence and granted an interview. And she told Fox News that it was one hold out among them. That`s the reason they didn`t knick Manafort 18-0, instead it was 8-10. But in your view, Arianna, does that change or just maintain Mueller`s stance in this case? Is a win a win?
BERG: Undoubtedly, this was a win for the government, whether it`s eight counts that he was convicted on or 18 counts. Paul Manafort was found guilty of all three categories of crimes from the indictment. That`s a win for the government.
WILLIAMS: I should also end this conversation with something of quote from the Wall Street Journal tonight. They`re reporting that Michael Cohen is the son of a holocaust survivor named Maurice. And Maurice Cohen is quoted as saying, "I did not" -- this is paraphrasing, "I did not survive the holocaust for the Cohen family name to be sullied." And the article, the point of the really is that Michael Cohen was influenced by his father to fight these charges.
Cynthia Oxney, Arianna Berg, can`t thank you both enough, appreciate you coming on and heading to your conversation tonight.
Coming up for us, as we approach our next break, back in October of 2016, some Trump supporters were calling the upcoming election a referendum on government corruption. Safe to say it`s not working out quite the way they have planned or predicted, when we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: It was just announced yesterday that the FBI is reopening their investigation into the criminal and illegal conduct of Hillary Clinton. This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate.
When we win on November 8th, we are going to drain the swamp. We are going to drain the swamp. Drain that swamp.
If she were to win it would create an unprecedented constitutional crisis. Hillary is likely to be under investigation for many years, probably concluding in a criminal trial.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The final days of the 2016 campaign amid chants of "lock her up." Trump`s closing argument to voters was as the anti-corruption candidate. Remember, returning Washington to the rule of law.
By the way, they`re still chanting "lock her up" at Trump rallies as recently as last night in West Virginia. But circumstances have charged for Donald Trump now, 19 months in the White House, five of his closest associates have either been convicted or pleading guilty to crimes. First two supporters in Congress are both now under indictment. And the President himself was implicated in a crime yesterday. So there is that.
Joining us tonight, two men who remember those waning days of the 2016 campaign, John Heilemann, MSNBC National Affairs Analyst, Co-author of "Game Change" and "Double Down", and Eli Stokols, White House Reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
Eli, I was watching you watching the clips wondering if we needed to call in counselors. I know there`s a PTSD factor. What do you make of that looking at it now in the rearview mirror? You were at a lot of those events, which has showed.
ELI STOKOLS, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, LOS ANGELES TIMES: Right. And you have to go back and immediately I was thinking to myself -- sometimes in the moment, you don`t realize how much he`s projecting. You don`t realize exactly how ironic it will seem. How surreal that will look with two years of hindsight.
WILLIAMS: His tales were still new.
STOKOLS: That`s right. But, you know, you also have to remember that at that time, there was in the news, the FBI had just reopened -- Comey had announced that they would reopening the investigation into Hillary`s e-mail server in the closing days of that campaign. We all know the history.
But that gave what he was saying, I think, to voters at that time an aura of believability for people who might have wanted to believe it. And it certainly probably depressed some votes who were considering about coming out for Clinton.
So I think it was impactful. Now, it looks absurd. But I think at that time thinking back to it on the trail, you know, that was the election was hanging in the balance there. And that was his closing argument.
WILLIAMS: John Heilemann, it`s often said that on Fox News, Hillary Clinton is president and Hillary Clinton is president in Donald Trump`s mind. What percentage of his base do you think cast a vote for better government, for good government, for cleaning up government, and who do they see about that now?
JOHN HEILEMANN, MSNBC NATIONAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I think there was probably more -- when I detected in the period and actually all throughout the entire Trump phenomenon from May of 2015 all the way through to the election day was not so much about good government and about cleaning, draining the swamp. It was more about blowing up everything.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, burning down the house.
HEILEMANN: Roll a stick of dynamite into Washington, blow it up and see which way the rubble falls. And I think they did not when I thought that the Washington, they were going to be blowing up, was so similar in so many ways and some ways more swampy than even they imagined under Donald Trump. And that the way the blowing up was going to be done under his auspices.
The other thing I -- that you watch those clips, very powerful for the reasons that Eli suggested because of the sense of projection that Trump on some level is projecting his own problems. But you go back a little bit. Play, the tape back a couple of weeks before that, what he was running on then was it`s a rigged deal.
HEILEMANN: It`s a rigged deal. The system is rigged. He was trying to undermine the legitimacy of the election because he thought he was going to lose. And he want to make excuses for the fact that he was about to lose to Hillary Clinton. He thought that in his mind. Everyone on the campaign thought that.
Of course, it turns out now especially in light of the Michael Cohen pleading, we now know it was a rigged deal. But it was a rigged deal by Donald Trump and his people. Not just even get to Russian collusion, in that ways in which the elections had been rigged in that way. But just on this front, the President, turns out now, if Michael Cohen is to be believed, engaged in this massive -- perpetuated this massive fraud in the American electorate in the last days of the 2016 campaign. It was rigged. It was rigged.
STOKOLS: What he was saying about drain the swamp. I mean, we talk about do we take him literally or seriously or neither? But at that time, he was telling us that drain the swamp was a slogan to him. He would tell the crowds at these rallies.
I didn`t like draining the swamp. I thought it sounded cheesy but people loved it. He was gauging it on the crowd liked it. And so, that`s how he meant it. And maybe, it made sense to people and it`s believable because he was wearing the outsider`s mantra. He was carrying that I`m going to D.C. and I`m going to shake things up.
And that certainly turned out to be true. But, you know, the anti- corruption aspect of drain the swamp, people projected that on to what he was saying, and he never ever meant that.
WILLIAMS: A time out has been called on the field of play. Both guests have agreed to stick around. When we come back, our friend Chuck Todd, who he says could be a hero in the Republican Party.
WILLIAMS: A brief reminder here, 76 days to go until the midterm elections. Our own Chuck Todd raised the idea of one person who could help shield Republicans from any Trump political fallout.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHUCK TODD, NBC NEWS POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I do think Paul Ryan needs to think long and hard about the future of the Republican Party. This is your last chance off this train. And it looks like Manafort and Cohen only have more to say. Only may cooperate more. This could get worse.
Ryan is retiring. I think he actually could do the party a favor. And if you start the procedure in the House Judiciary Committee, you give some home, you know, some place for Republicans getting nervous to say, you know, let`s start an investigation and we`ll go from there.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Eli Stokols and John Heilemann remain here with us. Those two gentlemen both declined comment on Chuck Todd`s notion.
And, John, I heard David Gergen tonight suggest to the Republicans at least look like you have rigor behind your processes. For forward a resolution protecting Mueller, pass a law that are yet protecting Mueller. Put forward a revolution saying, "Mr. President, stop waiving pardons around in a middle of an investigation." That way you can look tough and sound tough but still be Trump Republicans.
I heard you today at 4:00 say the only thing that will turn Republicans against Trump is the day after the midterm elections, if they lose the House.
HEILEMANN: That`s right. I had various views about some of these people on the basis of some things even Paul Ryan did during the campaign. Occasionally stoop up for Trump in the campaign, attacked him said that the definition of racism was the way that he talk about Judge Curiel, you may recall from the campaign.
HEILEMANN: I had some hope that some of these Republicans would behave in a more responsible way. Now, I`ve lost all that hope.
And I do think, to me, the House, in particular, is just a math problem for them. They`re guided by polls. It`s not that different from the Nixon era. The Nixon era Republicans turned against Nixon because facts came out. The public turned against Nixon. And then, they were the -- not the leader edge, they were a lagging indicator. It`s still the case now, there may be worse, in that sense.
WILLIAMS: They lost 40 House seats.
HEILEMANN: Right, exactly. Very crucial, right? So at this point, they`ve been doing the math and every day a lot of them have worried about getting primaried and the math has been, it`s painful to stick with Trump but to divorce myself from Trump would be more painful. The cost would be higher.
On the day after the midterms, Democrats do take back control of the House, and by the bigger margin, the more the math changes. The calculus you`re going to do in your head is going to be different. What are the costs of staying with him? What are the cost of abandoning him? And I think after, if it comes to pass the Democrats take control of the House. That calculus will shift dramatically and not just in the house but also in the Senate as people look towards in 2020 and say, "What -- how much of an albatross around the neck, is this man especially as things on this legal front just get worst and worst?"
WILLIAMS: Eli, the part of this we may not see, we meaning the three of us, is the rich folks who write checks and provide the financial underpinning to the Republican Party in races across the country. They might get wobbly and pull back.
STOKOLS: They might, or they might sit there and say, well, we got tax reform. We got conservative justice. That`s what McConnell is going to say. That`s what Trump will try to say. He`ll try to make this about immigration
WILLIAMS: Gorsuch, yes.
STOKOLS: That`s right. And so, I think, you know, there are things for conservatives. I mean, it`s hard to generalize about the electorate because there are different things that turn out different segments of voters. I think if this is a base election, those safe Republicans seats probably stay Republican.
STOKOLS: The Republicans that I`ve talked to in the last 24 to 36 hours still think they have a decent chance of holding the Senate. But the House is the problem, the White House talking about sending the President on the campaign trail a lot.
They are not talking about sending him to House race to swing Houses, because they just sort of don`t know that it`s going to be helpful in the districts that are going to matter, those suburban districts. And there are so many more of them that are competitive coming into November.
And Donald Trump in those districts is not an asset. He`s a liability. There`s a difficult thing that these candidates face now in having to not just sort of wriggle out a question about Trump but questions about Trump now related to the investigation. Not the fact that Manafort and Cohen are guilty, and it just gets harder and harder to make that calculation.
HEILEMANN: I do think Gergen is right, though. Just as a hedge, the hedge.
WILLIAMS: Yes, that`s what he saying.
HEILEMANN: Just as a hedge, they should try to put some law in place to protect Mueller. Because the reality is, that is still for all the water Mueller has taken on, because of the Trump attacks against him. It`s still a two-thirds or one-third proposition in the American, two-thirds of the country still wants Bob Mueller to finish his job.
WILLIAMS: Somebody said tonight that --
STOKOLS: Republicans are worried about 2018. They got to be worried about -- after Watergate, the Republicans didn`t win the House back for 20 years. And so, right now, it`s November, but for Paul Ryan in those considerations, it is the future of the party.
WILLIAMS: Eli Stokols, John Heilemann, our thanks. We`re back with more news right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), CALIFORNIA: You have partisan biased Department of Justice employees that are doing it to Trump. They`re doing it to me. This is political, period. This is the US government at what I would call the deep state or folks in the US government that don`t care what the election does. They want to rig the election their own way.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter taking a cue from the president he endorsed trying to blame career public servants in the Justice Department for the legal trouble he finds himself in tonight.
Duncan Hunter received brief notoriety for vaping during a Congressional hearing. When he first ran for his father`s old congressional seat, he received notoriety for becoming the first combat veteran from Iraq and Afghanistan elected to Congress. Hunter quit his job after 9/11 and joined the Marine Corps and served in combat with distinction.
The problem is, tonight he is under criminal investigation, along with his wife for allegedly misusing a quarter million dollars in campaign funds on themselves. The federal grand jury indictment is staggering, 60 counts, 47 pages, the Hunters are accused of lying to use veterans groups as a charitable cover for skimming money for themselves.
For example, Hunter is said to have bought Hawaii shorts at a golf pro shop so the purchase could be falsely labeled as some golf balls for the wounded warriors. The indictment also alleges the couple spent over $14,000 in campaign funds on a family vacation to Italy even though a planned stop at a US base in Italy which was going to be the cover for the trip fell through.
The indictment contains purchases large and small, $11,000 at Costco, lots of golf, lots of trips including Tahoe and Vegas and London. There`s cosmetics and video games and tablecloths and pillows, all allegedly purchased with campaign money as their own bank accounts went dry. In fact, records show the Hunters overdrew their balance 1,100 times over seven years. They`re alleged to have used campaign funds in effect as their bank despite warnings not to do so.
And this has got to hurt. His hometown paper, the San Diego Union Tribune, writes Representative Duncan Hunter, do the honorable thing. Resign. They say he`s become corrupt to the point of caricature. He`s disgraced himself and doesn`t deserve the privilege of representing Californians in Congress.
Hunter says he`ll stay and he`ll fight. It`s a deep red district. He`s on the ballot now for the midterms. The local US attorney bringing these charges, by the way, is a Donald Trump appointee.
Hunter was the second sitting member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president. The first member of Congress to do so, that would be Chris Collins of upstate New York under criminal indictment. House speaker Paul Ryan says Duncan Hunter will be removed from his Committee assignments pending the resolution of this matter.
Coming up for us after a break, why our thoughts tonight are with the people of a beautiful part of the United States of America, we`ll have a late update when we continue.
WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight, a rare event in our 50th state as Hawaii prepares for a rare strike from a category 4 hurricane. The approach of Hurricane Lane has led the governor declare a state of emergency. Hawaii is a small target in a big Pacific Ocean.
And for that reason and because Mid-Pacific storms and weather patterns are different, it rarely receives a direct hit from a hurricane. Just two in fact since Eisenhower was president.
Here is Hurricane Lane from about 200 miles up as viewed during a fly-over orbit of the International Space Station. Indeed, when viewed on radar satellite, it dwarfs the islands, as the storm does. Tonight it remains about 300 miles off the nearest shore. It`s slowly on the move north and west. It`s already weakened from a five to a four, and so our hopes are that it will weaken further.
Still, forecasters are warning of a life-threatening event. There`s the cone of the storm versus the islands. The storm could linger through the weekend.
The summer of 2018 has been challenging in paradise. After erupting into a nonstop lava flow for weeks on end, Kilauea has thankfully gone somewhat dormant after adding miles to Hawaii`s land mass in the form of that brand- new volcanic rock it delivered to the coastline. It has delivered a hard hit to the state`s economy as will this is storm. Our thoughts tonight are with the folks in the 50th state.
That`s our broadcast on a Wednesday evening. Thank you so very much for being here with us. Good night from the NBC News headquarters here in New York.
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