Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: September 5, 2018 Guest: Richard Painter, Harry Litman, Malcolm Nance
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, another wild day capped off with an audible alarm sounding from inside the White House. A senior official in the administration shares his deepest fears with readers of "The New York Times." Fears about a President unfit for office and the President wonders if it`s treason.
Tonight with a Bob Woodward book not yet in stores already rattling the windows of the White House. The focus now intensifies on the Supreme Court nominee and his stance on Presidential pardons.
And so tonight from the reporters covering the story, the portrait of a volcanic President who wants a newspaper to hand over a mole in his own government, or as we call it, "Wednesday night" as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way.
And good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 594 of the Trump Administration brings a first-person takedown of a President anonymously and in print as this President is fond of saying, the likes of which we have never seen before.
In the course of just this one day, the President called for a tightening of libel laws, called out an employee for possible treason and asked a newspaper to hand over someone`s name. And just five hours ago, think of it, the President`s biggest problem was a book that is still days away from going on sale in bookstores. Then came the bombshell late today, an anonymous op-ed in "The New York Times" titled "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration."
That pretty much says it all, the "Time" says. The author is a senior administration official known to the paper`s editors and whose job would be jeopardized by the disclosure of their identity. They first called the source a he on social media but then dialed that back and assigned no gender officially. It`s an unsparing indictment of the President, a dire assessment of the crisis under way every day in the Oval Office.
The author writes, "President Trump is facing a test to his presidency unlike any faced by a modern American leader. The dilemma which he does not fully grasp is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know, I am one of them."
The anonymous author goes on to say, "To be clear, ours is not the popular resistance of the left. We want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous but we believe our first duty is to this country. And the President continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic."
The author insists the insiders have not broken from the Trump agenda. It`s all about the execution, "There are bright spots that the near ceaseless negative coverage of the administration fails to capture, effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more, but these successes have come despite not because of the President`s leadership style, which is impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective. There is literally no telling whether he might change his mind from one minute to the next, a top official recently complained to me it may be cold comfort in this chaotic era, but Americans should know that there are adults in the room."
The piece also includes this, "Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th amendment, which would start a complex process for removing the President but no one wanted to participate" -- "precipitate," forgive me, "a constitutional crisis. So we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until one way or another it`s over."
Just a reminder, the 25th amendment allows the vice president to take over temporarily if the commander in chief is deemed unable to discharge the powers and duties of office. It requires that the vice President and a majority of the Cabinet support removal of the president.
Trump described by White House officials this evening as "volcanic" quickly struck back, first with one word, "treason," then later with more words, "Does the so-called senior administration official really exist or is it just the failing "New York Times" with another phony source? If the gutless, anonymous person does, indeed, exist, "The Times" must, for national security purposes, turn him/her over to government at once."
Earlier, he blasted it in person during an event with visiting sheriffs.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have somebody in what I called the "failing "New York Times" that`s talking about he`s part of the resistance within the Trump Administration. This person we have to deal with. It`s really a disgrace.
And I will say this, nobody has done what this administration`s done in terms of getting things passed and getting things through. So when you tell me about some anonymous source within the administration, probably who is failing and probably here for all the wrong reasons now. And "The New York Times" is failing. If I weren`t here, I believe "The New York Times" probably wouldn`t exist.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAS: The White House Press Secretary sent an official response which reads in part, "The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive rather than support the duly elected President of the United States. He is not putting country first put putting himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people. This coward should do the right thing and resign."
Let us bring in our leadoff panel on a busier than average Wednesday evening. Can we agree on that? Ashley Parker, Pulitzer Prize Winning White House reporter for "The Washington Post." Robert Costa, National Political reporter for "The Washington Post," also happens to be moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS. And Richard Painter, the former ethics lawyer for the Bush 43 White House. Good evening to all of you.
Ashley, I`d like to begin by highlighting a brief portion of the biline you shared tonight from "The Washington Post," "The phrase, the sleeper cells have awoken circulated on text messages among aides and outside allies. It`s like the horror movies when everyone realizes the call is coming from inside the house," said one former White House official in close contact with former co-workers."
And then finally this summation sentence, "The stark and anonymous warning was a breathtaking event without precedent in modern Presidential history."
I hesitate to ask, Ashley, what else have you learned from inside in just the few hours since you filed that story?
ASHLEY PARKER, THE WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: A number of things. First is that the President is absolutely livid about this. He is, you know, described to us as sort of a volcanic level of anger. And he is surmising that it`s someone who either works in the national security arena or someone in his Department of Justice, which as we all know is an agency he doesn`t particularly love.
The other thing that was so striking in talking to people inside and outside the White House is just how little everyone knows and how much speculating and finger pointing there is going on from various officials I`ve heard, you know, over a dozen names of specific people they think it may be, of different agencies and different theories of who this person is and why they did what they did.
And if you put that all together, it`s striking that there are so many possibilities of who they believe could be a member of this resistance, but they really, just like the rest of us, have no idea.
WILLIAMS: Robert Costa, you have read the Woodward book, and so I`d like to know where the symmetry and alignment is between the book you`ve read and now this anonymous piece in "The New York Times."
ROBERT COSTA, THE WASHINGTON POST NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: This "New York Times" piece is an echo of some of the themes that appear in Bob Woodward`s book. In Woodward`s book you have depictions of scenes where a former economic adviser Gary Cohn takes documents off of the President`s desk. Former Staff Secretary Rob Porter tries to guide the President away from making certain decisions. And even Defense Secretary James Mattis at times ignoring the President`s direct orders on foreign affairs.
And so with this op-ed you see this continuation of the same alarm among some of the President`s advisers. What matters here for the administration politically is what is the actual rank of this person? This is a member of the Cabinet writing an anonymous op-ed. This could be explosive politically. If this is a minor staffer, it could have a less cost.
You think about Stockman with Reagan, Dave Stockman in the early 1980s breaking with the administration, a big name. But sometimes when people who are a minor speech writer, a minor advisor write an op-ed, it doesn`t mean the same thing.
WILLIAMS: Richard Painter, I think you and I could sooner fly to the moon this evening than count on half or a majority of members of this President`s Cabinet to opt to invoke the 25th amendment. It is no easy feat. And for a lot of people further, there`s been this frog boiling experiment. This has happened in slow motion.
David Frum published a piece tonight that says in the headline, "This is a constitutional crisis." So when you read something like that, it gets your attention. There is a sense of moment. But for a lot of folks that sense of moment is not here. So what do you do?
RICARD PAINTER, FMR. BUSH 43 WHITE HOUSE CHIEF ETHICS LAWYER: Well, this is a constitutional crisis and it`s not about being a conservative, as is the author of this piece in "The New York Times," or a liberal, or a moderate such as myself.
Now this is not about ideology, it`s about the mental condition of the President of the United States. He is not mentally fit for office.
I wrote an op-ed with a psychologist, Leon watt, in California. We wrote an op-ed months ago about the 25th amendment and the need to invoke the 25th amendment. There are those around the President who know that he is unstable. That has been reported multiple times in books and in articles in the press.
This is a very dangerous situation. Every day this man remains in office. We are putting our children`s lives at risk, our grandchildren`s lives at risks, the future of human civilization because he controls nuclear weapons. This is a dangerous situation. It has nothing to do with political ideology. He needs to be removed.
And we look at his reaction to this just today and it shows how dangerous he is. He says it is treason for someone to criticize the President of the United States. Well, that`s not the definition of treason. Perhaps collaborating with a foreign power to obtain the presidency, that might be treason but not criticizing the President of the United States. He demands that the newspaper hand over, that "The New York Times" hand over the name of this. For what, so that he can be prosecuted?
He is acting like a dictator. Just in his reaction to this, he is a very dangerous man. As I emphasize once again, he controls nuclear weapons. We can not he cannot allow him to remain in office. We`re taking a great risk with him there and it`s not about being a Democrat or Republican. It`s the Republicans who should take him out right away and put in Mike Pence.
I don`t agree with Mike Pence about a lot of things, but it`s the Republicans who are going to pay the price for this in November.
And, indeed, if this man is in control of nuclear weapons. And he is -- does something rash. You know, we could be in very, very serious trouble. And this is about all of us. And once again about human civilization and our future on this planet. We need Donald Trump out of office now.
WILLIAMS: Ashley Parker, for a young person you know a lot about how the newspaper business works. And I get this is the competitor of you and Bob, this is "The New York Times," but talk about how consequential a decision this is to run this piece.
PARKER: Look, it`s not something that I think "The New York Times" op-ed page takes lightly. You`ve had the spokeswoman for "The Times" and the editor of the page coming out is and explaining their reasoning and explaining the -- as you point out, they rarely do grant anonymity. And they take that very seriously. That said, one open question, which is not a criticism but is because this person is anonymous and they are defined basically as a senior official in the Trump Administration, there have been a lot of questions about what exactly that means.
That designation even from publication to publication can mean very different things, very different levels. "The Times" -- we reached out to their P.R. department, they offered no clarity. It makes sense that they might want to keep this vague to protect this source, this author of the piece, but it has added to the sense as everyone scrambles inside the White House and then as a Washington parlor game to figure out who this person is.
Is it really, you know, sort of Cabinet ranking official, whereas Bob said it would really be explosive or could this be some Deputy Chief of Staff at a peripheral agency. And right now "The New York Times" is not providing us with enough information to sort of have that full understanding that I think everyone craves.
WILLIAMS: And Bob, let`s be candid here, inside the small world of journalism, people are saying things like, if it turns out to be the latter, a lesser, less named official, then "The Times" is going to be open to charges of fomenting given the pitched battle of this era.
COSTA: You know, I`ll leave it to "The New York Times" op-ed page to talk about the "New York Times" op-ed page. They`ll have to answer questions regardless of how this plays out.
What matters here is that this is a single source based on "The New York Times" reporting, publishing on the op-ed page. A single source about this administration. The woodward book has more sources. Our stories in "The Times," stories in "The Post," stories in "The Journal," other places, NBC News, have more sources. We`re all just trying to paint a picture of this administration.
This is important because this is -- it says it`s a senior administration official talking about real concern inside of the administration. We should take it seriously. It`s published in "The New York Times" but it`s part of a broader picture of growing anxiety in the Republican Party. A Republican Party that interestingly stands by President Trump in the polls.
People even like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina standing by him. But the ranks of establishment Republicans, people in the national security establishment, in our reporting it`s coming through that there are strains, there are cracks in a facade that has somewhat held over the last year and a half.
WILLIAMS: We`re going to ask you to keep covering that moving target of a story as we move on from this first night of this latest story with our thanks to our big three on a Wednesday night, Ashley Parker, Robert Costa, Richard Painter. Appreciate it.
Coming up, as the Woodward book crests over the White House, days before anyone is able to buy it, along comes this thud from "The New York Times."
Two political insiders join us next with a damage assessment.
And later, the furious President demands to know which one of his people is talking and why it`s a call back to another era for a lot of folks.
THE 11TH HOUR getting started on a consequential Wednesday evening.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: So if the failing "New York Times" has an anonymous editorial, can you believe it, anonymous, meaning gutless, a gutless editorial, we`re doing a great job. The poll numbers are through the roof. Our poll numbers are great.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: President Trump today after reading the following about himself from an anonymous senior official in his own administration, "The root of the problem is the President`s amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making."
The warning echoes red flags raised by insider to the author Bob Woodward whose new book describes, "A nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world."
Trump has announced the book on Twitter 10 times since the first excerpts surface notably asking why Washington politicians don`t chair libel laws. He addressed it on camera for the first time this afternoon.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Yes, I think because the book is, you know, a total piece of fiction. You know every week I seem to have a book coming out. Some good, some bad, in all fairness, I get some good ones too, but I like to take them on when they come out. That`s a piece of fiction.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: "The Washington Post" describes the one-two punch of the book and then the op-ed pay -- the op-ed this way, "Taken together, they landed like a thunderclap portraying Trump as a danger to the country that elected him and feeding the President`s paranoia about who around him he can trust."
With us to talk about this Michael Steele, happens to be former chairman of the Republican National Committee, happens to be former lieutenant governor of the great State of Maryland. And John Heilemann, veteran and journalist, our national-affairs analyst, co-author of both "Game Change" and "Double Down." Gentlemen, welcome to you both.
John, home field advantage, first question goes to you. Where do you stand on whether or not this anonymous author is a hero, whether he or she is better off staying or now leaving? And where do you stand on the kind of entomology of figuring out who this is?
One word that jumped out at me, a word I highlighted on this broadcast when it first appeared in the nomenclature of national security, "malign." About five people in the world use that word with any regularity. It`s brand-new on the word radar, which along with load star does get your attention. Please.
JOHN HEILEMANN, MSNBC NATIONAL-AFFAIRS ANALYST: I went from malignant tonight on Twitter.
Well, first of all, I am fully with our friends Steve Schmitt on this, which is great to hear from you. Thank you for sending out this message in a bottle to the world.
WILLIAMS: Now tell us who you are.
HEILEMANN: Now it is your obligation if you genuinely, given the news in this, which is not -- all of it is confirmation of things we already know except for one thing, which is the notion that the Cabinet, how it had an active consideration at some point early on of the 25th amendment. That is news. And if that is something that was serious and this is to be believed, the person who wrote this now has a duty I think to come forward. And I think it`s in the best interest of the country if he or she should do that.
I think that there`s a lot of word gaming going on. Load star obviously is focused a lot of people`s mind on Mike Pence. We know people in the Trump Administration, we who cover it know that there is a lot of folks who look around and find the el cushion --
HEILEMANN: -- in the syntax of others to lead bread crumbs, to lead off in false directions.
WILLIAMS: It`s an older leaker`s trick.
HEILEMANN: It is an old leaker`s trick. You and I have seen it many times. And I have watched it with amusement, I`m sure, many times.
I do not think Mike Pence or his aide, Nick Ayers, who are very much in the Twitter sphere right now are being pointed out.
I like Lawrence O`Donnell`s theory about Dan Coats. I think that`s a plausible theory. I think it makes sense that someone from the national security establishment could be the person here.
I also think of the people on the economic side, people who have pointed to trade and the President`s illiberal views on trade. So people like Larry Kudlow, people like Kevin Hassett, the -- respectively the head of the NEC and the chairman of the Accounts of Economic Advisors. Two guys who`ve written a lot of op-eds, it`s a very good op-ed, very nicely written, very nicely executed, well done. Those two guys have written a lot of op-eds in their times. They`re both good writers and they`ve done a lot of these kinds of things.
I`m not confident about any of those. But those are three, I think it`s a senior person and I think it`s clearly someone who is an establishmentarian and someone who is in the classic Reaganite mold on economics, someone who obviously admires John McCain and someone who could conceivably be in the national security firm, and that would point to Coats.
WILLIAMS: Michael Steele, Mr. Chairman, I ask you some version of this question every time --
MICHAEL STEELE,: Yes.
WILLIAMS: -- you`re kind enough to come on this broadcast. What just happened and where did this leave us?
STEELE: Well, what just happened was aptly described by my friend John Heilemann, and I think it`s just kind of that`s the bread crumb. That there are a lot of bread crumbs here sort of give a shout out to John`s tweet, good spinach, my friend. good spinach. I do, though, want to add a little cabbage to that.
You know, at the end of the day, it wouldn`t surprise me if Trump wrote the op-ed but that`s just a head game that takes us to a whole another level. But I do think in terms of some of the key code words that have popped up that there is agreement or acquiescence by certain members of the vice president`s staff, maybe not the vice president himself, but this has a level of sign off by throwing that word in there.
Yes, it could be a head fake but I also kind of been around this town long enough to know that people have a way of saying while the principal may not have written this or know of it, he is in agreement with the sentiments. Having said that, though, where this takes us next is beyond a space that we`ve known before because this goes beyond what the book is talking about.
STEELE: This is taking us beyond Woodward. So there`s a lot here to unpack. The President is clearly going to be rattled to the point where he is going to get into a Twitter taunt and go down that road while the rest of us spend our time trying to figure out who this person is.
And meanwhile, there are candidates running for office. So putting that hat on for a moment as a former national party head, I`m sitting there going, what the hell do I do these words on? What do I do with all of this crazy? I`ve got candidates in vulnerable seats. I`ve got candidates in opportunistic seats.
How do we now focus our energy and effort to actually win elections this November? That gets harder and harder with all of this.
WILLIAMS: Well, thank God you`re not the chairman anymore, I guess. It`s the first thought that comes to mind.
HEILEMANN: Not Michael Steele`s Republican Party anymore. That`s the truth.
STEELE: Well, let me put it to you this way, fellows, they beat me up with the wins that I got.
SEELE: Can you imagine what they do with the losses that are about to hit this party.
WIILIAMS: That`s right. Same here.
STEELE: So, yes, I`m good right where I am with you two.
WILLIAMS: Michael Steele seen here in happier times. So, John, you get the last word. What happens as a result of what happened today? How does tomorrow feel any different?
HEILEMANN: I think it feels different. I think we really are in a, you know, we did the parlor game of trying to figure out who did this. This is interesting and worthy of pursuit. I know -- I think we will find out who wrote this op-ed.
WILLIAMS: The frog is boiling.
HEILEMANN: The frog is boiling. And I have had this feeling since around the time that Mueller did the indictments, the last set of indictments of the Russian military intelligence people, that we sort of now know what the end of this story is.
And today I felt that more strongly than ever. There is this sense, I think, that we -- that I don`t know how we get there but this does not -- it`s beyond crazy and beyond unprecedented now and beyond all the superlatives. There is a feeling about this now that there`s not shock at this. There is the sense of at last. People are saying what people have said quietly in hushed rooms and private conversations for months, in some cases for years about Donald Trump.
And if Robert Mueller has the goods on him and you combine that with the sense that the man -- by dint of the closest people around. The person who wrote this op-ed is clearly a conservative movement Republican. This is not a leftist. This is not Elizabeth Warren. This is not Cory Booker. And this is not anybody on the other side.
These people around the President who are up close to him. When Michael Wolff said these things in his book that people were contemplating the 25th amendment, they all thought he was nuts. People said that is probably exaggeration.
We now know that not just the Woodwork book but those most garish rhetorical flourishes of Michael Wolff`s book now turn out to be right. And I just -- I believe enough in the country and in this administration -- not in this administration but I believe enough in this country and in this system that someone who is mentally unfit for office, as well as having all of the other defects that have come out in the course of this Russia inquiry, I just can`t imagine that it is sustainable for that man to finish.
WILLIAMS: I`ve known you for a long time so that is notable. As is Michael wondering if Donald Trump wrote it. You need to see a doctor, my friend.
I`m going to end the last word of this segment, it comes from Donald J. Trump at 11:22 Eastern Time, six minutes ago, "I`m draining the swamp and the swamp is trying to fight back. Don`t worry, we will win."
We will first thank Michael Steele and John Heilemann, gentlemen, both please come back on future broadcasts.
STEELE: All right.
WILLIAMS: Appreciate you being here tonight.
Coming up, the uproar over today`s op-ed comes as his pick for the Supreme Court fields questions about the President`s ability to pardon himself. Among other topics, that when we continue.
WILLIAMS: Well, if you were watching then you know. If you weren`t, picture this. Right in the middle of the second day of Judge Brett Kavanaugh`s confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, the White House was rocked by this news "The New York Times" had published this scathing internal op-ed from an anonymous administration official, slamming the president. But President Trump was still front and center at those hearings. Kavanaugh refused to answer some questions that could eventually come to play for Trump in relation to the Mueller-Russia investigation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) CALIFORNIA: Can a sitting president be required to respond to a subpoena?
JUDGE BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: So that`s a hypothetical question about what would be an elaboration or a difference from U.S. v. Nixon`s precise holding.
FEINSTEIN: That`s right.
KAVANAUGH: And I think going with the Justice Ginsberg principle, which is not the Justice Ginsberg alone principle, it`s everyone`s principle on the current Supreme Court, as a matter of canons of judicial independence, I can`t give you an answer on that hypothetical question.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) VERMONT: President Trump claims he has an absolute right to pardon himself. Does he?
KAVANAUGH: The question of self-pardons is something I have never analyzed. It`s a question that I have not written about. It`s a question therefore that`s a hypothetical question that I can`t begin to answer in this context as a sitting judge and as a nominee to the Supreme Court.
LEAHY: And the other half of that is the obvious one. Does the president have the ability to pardon somebody in exchange for a promise from that person they wouldn`t testify against him?
KAVANAUGH: Senator, I`m not going to answer hypothetical questions of that sort.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Let`s talk about what happened today on both fronts. With us to talk about it, Harry Litman, former U.S. attorney and former deputy assistant attorney general under President Clinton, and Malcolm Nance is back with us as well, author, decades-long veteran of service to this country, including naval intelligence special operations in the field and Homeland Security domestically.
Gentlemen, thank you for coming on. Harry, two-part question for you. Did anyone land a blow on this federal judge, and, second, will we find out why Leahy kept answering -- kept asking a tranche of questions as if there`s evidence we`ll see later, why Kamala Harris tonight was asking questions about phone calls that might have been made? Are we going to get part two of that?
HARRY LITMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Yes. So it certainly seemed that both Leahy and Harris had some kind of information. Now, part of the whole controversy with the Congress has been the use of so-called committee confidential questions, things that they have documents on but they`re not allowed to use in open session.
So I think if we do see -- I don`t think we`ll see something but Kavanaugh may, Leahy and Harris will likely have something in mind. Did anyone lay a glove on him? Barely. You know, he played the part he would have been expected to play. And as he said, other justices have played, though interestingly, not Justice Ginsberg. The Ginsberg rule was not, in fact, honored by Justice Ginsberg herself, who talked a lot about legal principles.
But it`s a broken system and he played his part in it. Congress has just been stymied for 20 years trying to get the most important information, which is a candidate`s substantive views, and this notion that, well, if I gave it to you, it would somehow be as if I were selling my vote for your vote. That`s really not accurate at all. Judges talk about hypothetical cases all the time and real ones, as he did, but nevertheless it`s an answer that the Senate to date has not been able to surmount.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm Nance, what happens inside you when you read the president asking a newspaper to hand over the identity of an anonymous source for national security reasons?
MALCOLM NANCE, AUTHOR, "THE PLOT TO DESTROY DEMOCRACY": The Well, I get very nervous. And everyone should get very nervous. That was extraordinary today in a day full of extraordinary comments. I mean, considering, you know, that by the time we all go to bed, there will be another breaking news story. But for the president to suddenly make clearer precisely what was in that op-ed, that he acts like a petty dictator wannabe and that he is -- wants the individual responsible to be found out and turned over for his own designation of what he would consider justice violates, good god, how many laws. We don`t know. But that`s just it.
Donald Trump does not work within rule of law. Donald Trump believes that he as president has the ability to do anything that he wants. And we need to really be careful now because it`s not just amusing that he`s -- what did they say, he has a volcanic eruption, you know, to this news. It`s what he may do to lash out at more than just the government and the individuals who wrote this op-ed.
WILLIAMS: Gentlemen, lightning round, one question each. First to Harry, can the Democrats or is there any mechanism either party could use, is there the willingness to stall or slow down this nomination based on a widely-held fear that there might be something wrong in the White house?
LITMAN: Probably not. And in any event, they won`t use it.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm Nance, as someone who wrote the book about Russian interference in the United States, how does it make you feel to read in the anonymous op-ed about Donald Trump`s reluctance to punish anyone named Putin, any nation named Russia?
NANCE: Terrified. And it should tell us that Donald Trump in some way, shape or form that is yet to be determined is in debt to Russia and they are holding this president in their sway.
WILLIAMS: Gentlemen, as with every time you come on our broadcast, I`m in debt to both of you. We`ll have you back. Harry Litman, Malcolm Nance, thank you gentleman both so much.
Coming up for us, some perspective from a man who routinely reaches way back into U.S. history for a living. The historian and author Jon Meacham on how much of a moment it is we`re looking at right now.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When Watergate started he helped Carl and I immeasurably and, you know, is a very reluctant person in the torn, the turmoil of am I doing the right thing, you know, how do I get this out?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Over 13 years after the identity of Deep Throat was revealed, it turned out a man name Mark Felt, former associate director of the FBI, served as a anonymous source for "Washington Post" reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. His leads proved Watergate ultimately led to the resignation of Richard Nixon. And as it was going down, the president, of course, raged about Woodward and Bernstein.
So tonight fast-forward to another presidency dealing with a damaging anonymous source from within as another president rages about Bob Woodward.
With us tonight to talk about all of it, Pulitzer Prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham, who also happens to be an MSNBC contributor.
Jon, I`ll start with a small question. How does our country and democracy stand tonight in your estimation?
JON MEACHAM, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I actually think we`re in better shape than we were maybe two or three weeks ago.
WILLIAMS: Please tell me how that is possible after the day we`ve just had.
MEACHAM: I will. I will tell you because we`re talking about it and there is increasing evidence, there`s facts in a post-truth world, facts are coming into play. Look at the institutions that have been functioning over the past three weeks. The rule of law, the justice system in terms of the Manafort verdict, the Cohen plea, the CFO of the Trump Organization beginning to cooperate. We had -- so that`s the legal side.
We had the emotional national identity element working with the memorials for Senator Mccain, a really -- a tribute to an idea that we would put country first. And now we have, both with Bob`s book and with the op-ed, we have evermore evidence that things are not as they should be. A lot of people say, well, we`ve known that forever. Well, yes, but those aren`t the people who wrote the things. That`s easy to say if you haven`t reported it out and said this.
So here we have for all the issues about anonymous writing and should this person have put their name on it and resigned dramatically like Cyrus Vance in desert one? Leave that aside for a second. This is actually moving toward, it seems to me, a genuine reckoning, because there are facts in evidence that weren`t necessarily in evidence when we started the month of August.
WILLIAMS: Well, let`s talk about this person who has written this anonymous piece. Where do you stand on the coward versus traitor versus hero versus trailblazer? And when -- I`ll go further, when Woodrow Wilson was addled by a stroke in the White House, when Dick Nixon was three scotches deep in the evening doing strange things, walking down the hallway, did people on the inside talk and were we better or worse for the lack of it?
MEACHAM: Well, they talked after the fact. That`s what`s so interesting. You know, and again, Bob Woodward`s the common denominator here. Much of what we knew about Nixon talking to the portraits and worrying that the portraits might talk back or turning up the air conditioning and building a fire in the Lincoln sitting room and raging, most of that came in a book called "The Final Days," which was not published I think until `76 or `77. It came after the fact.
This is, as ever, Trump has sped everything up. This is a real time final days playing out. It`s as if we had this almost a webcam inside the White House to some extent. It says, though, what happened today when "The New York Times" posted that piece is it`s rather as though Al Haig, who had been the Henry Kissinger aide, became the White House Chief of Staff after Bob Haldeman was fired on -- or resigned on April 30th of 1973.
This is as though Al Haig had decided to anonymously write an op-ed. And a lot of the things that we found out in the books afterward, we found out in real-time. That, I think, is one of the reasons I`m somewhat optimistic. At least the facts are unfolding when we still have time to do something about them.
WILLIAMS: Hold that thought. Mr. Jon Meacham has agreed to stay with us over this commercial break. After which we will resume our conversation.
WILLIAMS: As we`ve been talking about, the anonymous piece posted today has been raising concerns about chaos inside the White House. There`s an understatement. But the author also raises a flag about what`s happening on the outside to all of us, to Americans. "The bigger concern he or she writes is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but rather what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us. We have sunk low with him and allowed our discourse to be stripped of civility. There is a quiet resistance within the administration of people choosing to put country first, but the real difference will be made by everyday citizens rising above politics reaching across the aisle and resolving to shed the labels in favor of a single one, Americans."
With us, the historian and author Jon Meacham.
Jon, first of all, that`s a pretty good bit of writing there.
MEACHAM: It is. Isn`t it? So that`s a tell. So I`m sure there`s a -- the amount of Google searching right now through previous writings --
WILLIAMS: Oh, man.
MEACHAM: -- is probably driving the stock even higher. One of the things that that line reminded me of is Harry Truman used to say that in the end, we get the government we deserve.
MEACHAM: And that is the nature of a republic. We`re the sum of our parts. Politicians are far more often mirrors of who we are than they are molders. And so our dispositions of heart and mind matter enormously.
Another data point that leads me to being rather more cheerful this evening than you are which I don`t think is very hard is of 36% in the approval rating. That`s -- to me that`s a more natural number at this point for the president.
And one of the -- to me, one of the also fascinating things the detail in the piece about whispers about the 25th Amendment and then wondering about -- that prompted people all night, all day to say well, there`s that but we really have to worry about the election, that`s absolutely right.
The 25th Amendment is a very complicated mechanism here. And what people are really talking about is and here`s some political porn for you at this hour is Section 4 of the 25th Amendment. And it has to do really with psychological disability. And it requires the vice president, a majority of the cabinet to send a letter to the House speaker and the president of the Senate and say the president does not -- cannot perform his office. The president can be appeal that. The Congress has to meet within 48 hours. They have 21 days to make a decision. They either ratify the move or they side with the president.
But if they ratify the move and they have -- continue to have the acting president, there`s nothing in the amendment that doesn`t keep the president from simply being able to appeal it again. So I think of this as kind of advice and consent meets "The Apprentice." We could he have this constant flow of things.
But if you read the legislative history of that amendment, it was for psychological disability. Emmanuel Celler, the old House Judiciary chairman from New York said basically he said on the floor of the House, we`re here in case the president becomes nutty as a fruitcake. And so there`s -- that`s a very complicated thing. It`s not supposed to be a substitute for impeachment. It`s not supposed to be a substitute for elections. But it is there for existential crises and it`s something that I suspect, I hope, the council to the vice president has boned up on.
WILLIAMS: The record will reflect Mr. Meacham who thinks it I`ve gone around the bend just tried to cheer an anxious nation with poll numbers for the president in the 30s. Jon Meacham, it is always a pleasure and you`re good at what you do. Always appreciate you coming on the broadcast. Thank you, friend.
MEACHAM: Thanks, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Coming up for us, we have news that we did not want to get lost in an otherwise busy week. And you asked that you stay with us -- we ask that you stay with us for this next story when we come right back.
WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go here tonight, a huge loss for this country and a story we feared would not get told amid all the other news of this week. U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Timothy Bolyard was killed on Monday in Afghanistan. His remains arrived home in this country just today.
He was 42 years old. He was killed in an insider attack by a member of the Afghan National Police, a supposed friendly, the kind of attack that has happened all too often during America`s longest war. He was the highest ranking enlisted man in his unit. He was a 24-year Army veteran from West Virginia originally, who was married, the father of two.
And here`s the important part at a time when the military civilian split in our society has never been wider, Command Sergeant Major Bolyard was on his 13th deployment. He was recipient of the bronze star on six separate occasions. Command Sergeants Major and today`s all volunteer military are a force unto themselves. They move and motivate and care for and provide for the men and women under their command.
And when they come home and their service is done, civilian employers who hire a sergeant major or a command sergeant major from our Armed Forces are hiring someone who can do anything because they`ve already done just about everything. It`s why this has been a tough week where he was posted over the recent years at Forts Benning and Carson and Stewart and for all those who encountered him on his 13 overseas deployments.
There are 14,000 Americans serving right now tonight in Afghanistan where the U.S. has indeed lost one of our very best and we of course, offer our condolences to his family.
That is our broadcast on a Wednesday night. We thank you so very much for being here with us. Good night from NBC News headquarters in New York.
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