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CIA Director Absent from Senate. TRANSCRIPT: 11/28/18, 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams

Guests: Sam Stein, Shannon Pettypiece, Mimi Rocah, Richard Painter, Bill Kristol, Rick Wilson, Jeremy Peters, Kelsey Snell

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  You can donate anytime at  But for tonight, we owe you a very big thank you for your record-breaking giving Tuesday. 

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Tonight, the president tells "The New York Post" he won`t take a pardon off the table for his convicted campaign chair Paul Manafort.  Trump also says Rod Rosenstein should have never picked a special counsel.  That`s after he posted this on Twitter showing his deputy A.G., Mueller, Comey, and others including two presidents behind bars.  It asks when the treason trials begin. 

And then there`s the new reporting tonight on Trump`s written answers to Mueller`s questions.  All of it as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on a Wednesday evening. 

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 678 of the Trump administration.  And we have new reporting from the "Wall Street Journal" tonight.  The story outlines what may have led to the collapse of the plea agreement between the ex-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and Robert Mueller.  Manafort now stands accused of lying to the feds.  He is facing years in a federal penitentiary. 

The "Journal" reports Manafort`s alleged lies have to do with his personal business ties and his work pre-2016.  "Manafort allegedly made inaccurate statements about his communications with Konstantin Kilimnik, said people familiar with the matter.  Mr. Kilimnik, who Mr. Mueller charged earlier this year along with Mr. Manafort with trying to influence the testimony of two witnesses against Mr. Manafort, had worked for Mr. Manafort`s lobbying firm in Ukraine.  Manafort also allegedly misrepresented information about payments he received related to his lobbying work." 

We may find out more about what`s next for Manafort at the end of this week when a judge is expected to set a sentencing date for him.  This week, we also learned Manafort`s lawyers have been communicating with Trump`s legal team, all while Manafort was cooperating with the government.  Trump lead counsel Rudy Giuliani told NBC News, "The information was what you would normally give if you have a joint defense agreement."  More on that argument in a moment.  Giuliani added "Manafort`s attorneys notified us of things that are relevant to us." 

The president`s been speaking out about Manafort today.  All day today, Donald Trump floating the idea of a pardon during an Oval Office interview with the "New York Post", Trump says the possibility is "not off the table.  It was never discussed, but I wouldn`t take it off the table.  Why would I take it off the table?"  During that interview, Trump also accused Mueller of offering plea deals and then trying to get witnesses to lie, referring to Manafort, Roger Stone, and Stone associate Jerome Corsi.  He says, "If you told the truth, you go to jail", Trump said.  "You know this flipping stuff is terrible.  But I had three people, Manafort, Corsi, I don`t know Corsi, but he refuses to say what they demanded.  This is McCarthyism.  We are in the McCarthy era.  This is no better than McCarthy." 

The president of the United States hammered that same theme on social media earlier in the day and, again, referred to the McCarthy era.  Tonight, we`re also learning more about Trump and the conspiracy theorist, conservative author Jerome Corsi. 

NBC News reports that Trump`s legal team has a joint defense agreement with Corsi.  He explained that arrangement tonight on the air with our colleague, Ari Melber. 


JEROME CORSI, ROGER STONE ASSOCIATE:  It was not ever formal written but we`ve acted that way and we represented such to the special counsel.  My attorneys and the president`s attorneys are communicating.  In other words, we`ll tell the president what we`re doing.  So he`s informed. 

Again, I support the president.  I want him to be able to survive the Mueller investigation.  I want him to run for reelection and be reelected.  That`s all my political preferences.  So I said, let`s let the president know what`s going on. 


WILLIAMS:  Mueller is believed to be looking at whether Corsi and Roger Stone had advanced knowledge of the WikiLeaks stolen e-mail release in the fall of 2016.  Both men have said they did not.  And Corsi says he`s already rejected a possible plea deal with Mueller`s team. 

There`s also this new development tonight.  Some of the details of what President Trump told special counsel Mueller in those written answers he submitted last week.  Two sources are telling NBC News that Trump wrote he was not told beforehand about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with the Russians to get damaging info on Hillary Clinton.  Trump also wrote that his long-time adviser Roger Stone did not pass along any information about WikiLeaks and the e-mails stolen by the Russian government.  Those sources also tell NBC News Trump answered Mueller`s questions "to the best of his recollection." 

Now, ABC News is reporting that Trump was also questioned about a change to the Republican Party platform that fall concerning sending arms to Ukraine.  That was a first at a political convention and at the time slipped by with little notice.  ABC News says Trump told Mueller he wasn`t aware of any change. 

With that, let`s bring in our lead-off panel on this Wednesday night, Sam Stein, politics editor for The Daily Beast, Shannon Pettypiece, White House correspondent for Bloomberg, and Mimi Rocah, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.  These days, a distinguished fellow in criminal justice at the Pace University School of Law. 

Shannon, I`d like to begin with you because you of all of us had the most recent conversation with Rudolph Giuliani.  Always a party.  Tell us what he said about things like Manafort and the possibility of pardons. 

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG NEWS:  He said that essentially the president is not going to be pardoning anyone anytime soon.  But it doesn`t mean that he necessarily won`t be taking -- won`t be pardoning people eventually.  Giuliani said that the president`s lawyers advised him back in April, so right when Giuliani came onboard, not to talk about or consider or issue any pardons until the investigation is over. 

So what the president said today when he said that there`s a pardon for Manafort still on the table, you know, Giuliani said that`s in line with that, that, you know, the president doesn`t plan to issue a pardon now but he`ll consider it.  It doesn`t necessarily mean he will pardon him, but once this investigation is over, he can take a look and make a decision if he wants to pardon any of the people involved in this investigation if they want to, that that`s his right and that`s his presidential power.  You know, that`s the line that, you know, Giuliani`s been giving. 

And, as to why he would want to pardon Manafort, the case Giuliani makes is that the president feels that Manafort`s been treated very unfairly that -- you know, that he`s been sort of overprosecuted for the crimes that he`s done and this idea of what the president has said publicly, that Manafort`s been treated unfairly, he`s a good man and that none of this would have happened to Manafort if it wasn`t for the short time he spent on the campaign.  That`s sort of the line that`s coming from the president`s camp at this point. 

WILLIAMS:  Mimi, so many questions, so little time.  Let`s begin with this joint defense agreement, something where the potential witnesses and this entire case have agreed to share notes and talk with each other.  Does that apply?  Is that a defense of Paul Manafort now that he`s working for team USA? 

MIMI ROCAH, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY, SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK:  No.  Absolutely not, Brian.  Look, once he signed that cooperation agreement with the government, the joint defense agreement with anybody else, Trump or anyone, is vitiated.  It cannot exist.  They don`t have a common interest.  He doesn`t have a defense anymore. 

Remember, this is a man who both pled guilty and was convicted at trial by a jury.  So, the idea that they could have a joint defense is simply just - - it doesn`t make sense.  You don`t need to even be a lawyer to understand that. 

WILLIAMS:  And let`s talk about pardons.  When Rudolph Giuliani is -- what is Rudolph Giuliani doing as the president`s personal lawyer talking about pardons, which are a presidential action? 

ROCAH:  Exactly.  I mean, it`s preposterous.  And it`s -- first of all, this idea that Giuliani is saying, well, as long as he doesn`t issue a pardon now or promise a pardon now until after the investigation is over, it`s OK.  That is an artificial line in the sand because they know, Trump and Giuliani know very well, that by the mere fact of leaving this option open, you know, we call it dangling pardons, whatever you want to call it, it is offering something, the potential of something that Manafort wants.  And what is it in exchange for?  It looks like it was in exchange for what they thought at least was valuable information from the Mueller team and possibly his agreement to not really cooperate. 

If you add all of that up, that sort of exchange of promises or even suggestion of that promise, you know, that is coming really close.  Again, I know we said this again, but this one really looks to me like obstruction and potential bribery charges as well.  And Giuliani as his personal lawyer, one, should not be involved in it.  It is -- pardon is a presidential power but not an absolute one.  And I think here, this has crossed the line. 

WILLIAMS:  Which brings us to you, Mr. Stein.  We note that the president has given, what, four print interviews since the --


WILLIAMS:  -- first of the week.  Rudy, you may have noticed, is back in public circulation.  Our friend, Mike Schmidt, over at "The New York Times" says this is all about sound and fury.  It`s all about softening the ground on public opinion, public perception, because they know the territory we`re about to drive into.  Do you concur? 

STEIN:  Yeah.  There`s a notable lack of commentary from team Trump on this in the lead up to the elections.  They`re over.  I think, also, we have to note that Trump has submitted his written answers.  So the expectation is that we`re in the winding down stages of this investigation now that his answers are in.  And they`ve been fairly upfront about their desires to muddy the waters here. 

Rudy Giuliani has talked about putting out a secondary report that they will author that will compete theoretically with the Mueller report, although it looks like it`s mostly going to be press clippings.  They`ve talked about their desire to actually fight the Mueller report`s release.  And they`ve been very upfront about their desire to paint Mueller as a partisan hitman out there to get the president staffed with, I think Trump calls them, 13 angry Democrats.  So this is all a concerted effort. 

What`s different now, I think, than in the past is they have sussed out information essentially from people who have gone before Mueller`s team to be questioned.  It`s -- whether it`s through these joint defense agreements or through Jerome Corsi`s own testimony in reporting back to them, they are now sort of -- they have an ammunition, so to speak.  I don`t necessarily think it`s trustworthy.  Jerome Corsi is not the beacon of truth here nor is Donald Trump for that matter.  But they have these testimonies that they`re able to use to portray the Mueller team in the light that they want to portray them in. 

WILLIAMS:  Mimi, just to go back over this pardon ground, there`s no orientation day for presidents where they sit you down and say, OK, you`ve got nuclear weapons, you get to award the medal of freedom, and your power to pardon is absolute.  But here`s what the "New York Times" says about this.  "By leaving open the possibility of pardoning a former aide whose lawyer was a source of inside information about an investigation into Mr. Trump himself, the president showed a new willingness to publicly signal that he will intervene to protect people who are in the special counsel`s crosshairs." 

This dovetails with the point you were making.  But who will hold the president to account for this?  This is very hard to prove.  This is ephemeral.  This is saying to the "New York Post", no, I`m not going to take it off the table. 

ROCAH:  Well, look, there are two possibilities here.  One is that he`s held accountable by Mueller, that it becomes part of an obstruction case that Mueller makes along with the, you know, dozens of other things that we`ve talked about and others have talked about on this program that the president has done to interfere, to try and interfere with this investigation both publicly -- well, largely publicly he`s done them, which is confusing sometimes because we forget that they can be part of obstruction of justice if they`re so public.  And yet they can.  And then the other possibility is obviously Congress. 

And, you know, right now, Giuliani and other people are in danger of being subpoenaed.  I think, you know, as we discussed, if there`s no joint defense agreement, the reason that is relevant is that it means that the communications between Paul Manafort`s lawyers and Trump`s lawyers about this whole cooperation and possibly about a pardon, you know, are not privileged.  And so, either one of them can be subpoenaed and asked about those communications under oath. 

WILLIAMS:  Sam, you and I have long established this is a golden age for journalism, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. 

STEIN:  Yes. 

WILLIAMS:  But, tonight, the "Washington Post" is on the board with a terrific piece.  I`m going to read a bit of it.  "Caller ID labeled them "unknown," but Roger Stone said he knew to pick up quickly during those harried months of the 2016 presidential campaign.  There would be a good chance that the voice on the other end of the line would belong to his decades-long friend, the restless insomniac candidate Donald Trump, dialing from a blocked phone number.  Those nocturnal chats and other contacts between the man who now occupies the Oval Office and an infamous political trickster have come under intensifying scrutiny as special counsel Mueller`s investigation bores into whether Stone served as a bridge between Trump and WikiLeaks as the group was publishing hacked Democratic e-mails." 

Sam, you`ll forgive, I hope, a dramatic reading from a competing publication, but you get the point here.  The Roger Stone you`ve reported on in the past, is he the kind of guy who would play up to the boss? 

STEIN:  Yes, definitely.  And also in the piece, if you read the piece through, he doesn`t deny that he was a bird on -- you know, chirping in Trump`s ear.  What he says essentially is that Mueller can`t prove anything unless he was listening in on the conversations.  So Roger Stone is someone who clearly was in contact with Trump. 

What his defense rests on is he`s essentially saying, I didn`t say anything that I didn`t know about, so I couldn`t have possibly informed him about the WikiLeaks e-mails coming out there. 

But with Trump, this is a reoccurring thing.  Trump loves to be in contact with numerous associates.  He loves to work the phones.  Sometimes he loves to work the phones of aides of his.  So he`s on someone else`s phone.  So it`s very difficult to track all the people to whom he has spoken with.  And these aren`t the only conversations that the special counsel`s office is looking into.  We know for a fact that Don Jr., Trump`s son, made a phone call after the infamous Trump Tower meeting.  We don`t know to whom that call was made.  But it is presumed or expected that it was likely his father.  These are the types of pieces that Robert Mueller`s trying to piece together.  And we`ll see what the final outcome is eventually, I assume. 

WILLIAMS:  And I note that another byline, Shannon Pettypiece, reports that Trump is in no hurry to replace his interim attorney general, Mr. Whitaker.  Shannon, how long can this go on? 

PETTYPIECE:  About 210 days.  It`s actually exactly 210 days from when --

WILLIAMS:  Can you give it to me in hours, please? 

PETTYPIECE:  -- Sessions stepped down.  And it can go on even longer if whoever the president has appointed to replace Whitaker has not been nominated yet.  So, I mean, he could be in there for a year.  And, yes, I mean, me and my colleague, Jennifer Jacobs, we were asking around all week, everyone we could think of, where is the status of this attorney general search.  And essentially, it is nowhere.  There are a lot of names that are being discussed.  A lot of advisers to the president are suggesting people.  But there is not a short list.  There is not a formal interview, vetting process.  You know, have there been casual conversations in the Oval Office?  It seems like it. 

But there`s no sign that the president is anywhere close to naming someone.  I mean, one reason for that is there`s no White House counsel in place who`s the type of person who would do that sort of vetting and organizing.  And Congress isn`t even going to be back until January, when they could even begin a confirmation hearing.  So why pick or nominate someone before then and just leave them out there hanging, you know, to be sort of attacked and picked apart in the months before Congress can get back together? 

So, I mean, it`s at least several months, if not, longer before there`s a nomination for the attorney general.  And, I think that`s surprising to a lot of people because the president knew for over a year that he wanted to replace Jeff Sessions.  He had conversations going back more than a year with people about who he should pick, would they be interested in being attorney general.  And yet here we are.  And there is no one to fill that post, no logical choice.  So, yes, I think everyone should get comfortable with Matt Whitaker unless some of these lawsuits that are, you know, forming in the courts against him are successful. 

WILLIAMS:  These days can`t have a conversation without at least two writers and a lawyer.  And we`ve done that tonight.  We are so grateful to Sam Stein, to Shannon Pettypiece, and to Mimi Rocah.  Thank you, gang, for coming on tonight. 

And coming up for us, are Paul Manafort`s lawyers now in legal jeopardy themselves for briefing the president`s team on the Mueller investigation from the inside?  We`ll ask a former White House ethics lawyer. 

And later, one of our guests says the president feels the heat rising and he doesn`t like it.  We`ll ask him to expand on that as we are just getting under way on a Wednesday night. 


WILLIAMS:  Now that President Trump`s lawyer has confirmed he received briefings from Paul Manafort`s lawyer since Manafort has been working for the feds, questions are being raised, as they say, about the legality of those briefings. 

Our own Ken Dilanian writes this.  "Some legal experts believe that the feeding of information by Manafort`s lawyers to the Trump legal team could amount to obstruction of justice or witness tampering if Manafort disclosed confidential information or the president`s side discussed the possibility of a pardon.  But that would depend on exactly what was said." 

Former U.S. attorney and one of our legal analysts, Joyce Vance added this.  "Once Manafort signed up to cooperate with prosecutors, the common interest he shared with Trump and others that let them shield their communications from prosecutors behind the attorney-client privilege evaporated.  Any information that was shared after this point isn`t protected by their joint defense agreement."  She goes on to say, "If I were Mueller, I would be issuing subpoenas today to Rudy Giuliani and Kevin Downing, and anyone else involved in these communications so they would have to explain under oath exactly what was conveyed." 

So, with us tonight, Richard Painter returns to the broadcast, veteran attorney and the former West Wing ethics lawyer in the Bush 43 White House.  Richard, first of all, is Joyce right?  And what about these lawyers?  They`re adults.  They make car payments.  They have mortgages.  Shouldn`t they know that now that Manafort is on team USA, you can`t be talking back and forth like this? 

RICHARD PAINTER, FORMER BUSH 43 WHITE HOUSE CHIEF ETHICS LAWYER:  Well, absolutely, they should know that.  And these lawyers better themselves hire some lawyers because they could be in deep trouble.  And first of all, you`ve got the obstruction of justice that`s going on when the president dangles a pardon in return presumably for Manafort changing his testimony or changing his level of cooperation with Robert Mueller.  That is obstruction of justice. 

The president has the power to grant a pardon at his own discretion, but he can`t take a bribe to grant a pardon and he cannot grant a pardon to a material witness in a criminal investigation in exchange for that witness changing his testimony or not cooperating with the prosecutors.  That is obstruction of justice. 

Furthermore, if the lawyers were finding (ph) out information about the Mueller investigation and Manafort`s lawyers were doing that while pretending to cooperate with Robert Mueller and then conveying that information to Donald Trump`s lawyers, that, again, is obstruction of justice.  That is deceitful, and the lawyers themselves are going to be in very, very hot water.  And none of those communications are subject to the attorney-client privilege.  They could be -- Robert Mueller could get that information through the crime fraud exception to the privilege.  There`s no privilege for communications between an attorney and a client for purposes of committing a crime or a fraud.  And second, there`s obviously no joint privilege once Manafort had agreed to cooperate with the government. 

Lying to Robert Mueller, trying this kind of stunt on Robert Mueller is a very, very bad idea and it could land a lot of people in jail and possibly some lawyers in some very hot water. 

WILLIAMS:  But Richard, when you`re home in Minnesota, people come up to you over the weekend at a cocktail party or a football game and they ask you, just tell me something, do you think Mueller has the goods, do you think Mueller has the case?  How do you answer? 

PAINTER:  It`s pretty clear he`s got the case.  You know, most people I know in Minnesota are very well aware that Robert Mueller`s got the case.  Just look at President Trump`s Twitter feed today.  I mean, he`s tweeting out pictures of all of his political enemies behind bars saying, when are the treason trials going to begin?  He is attacking Robert Mueller again on Twitter. 

Just today, President Trump threatened to declassify information in order to retaliate against the Democrats.  So he is going to destroy our national security, make us vulnerable to our enemies by disclosing classified information simply in order to get retribution against his political enemies.  This is a very dangerous man.  That`s the way he`s behaving.  And just about everybody I know is well aware of that. 

And it`s -- what people -- what boggles people`s mind is why Congress won`t do anything.  And I`ll tell you the reason may be that Russia has hacked a bunch of the e-mails of members of Congress including a lot of the Republicans.  And so I don`t know what Putin has on them.  But this is a very dangerous situation for our country, to have the president behaving this way and the Congress doing absolutely nothing about it. 

WILLIAMS:  Well, you put it that way and that`ll scare the hell out of us as we try to go to bed on this Wednesday night.  But Richard Painter, that`s why we have you on the broadcast.  Thank you so much.  It`s always a pleasure. 

Coming up for us, the president expands his list of people he would like to see behind bars, when we come back. 


WILLIAMS:  As he often does, this President started his day today attacking Robert Mueller on Twitter.  But then he took things a bit further, retweeting this image that Richard Painter just mentioned from an account called the Trump Train.

It reads, "Now, that Russia collusion is a proven lie, when do the trials for treason begin?"  As you can see there, the image features two former presidents for starters and a number of this president`s political enemies behind bars.  They include Robert Mueller, James Comey, and the current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

Well, the New York Post, one of several media outlets to interview the president in recent days, asked him about posting that on Twitter.  Writing, "It was no accident that President Trump retweeted an image of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein among others locked up.  When asked during an interview with the Post, why do you think he belongs behind bars?  Trump responded, "He should have never picked a special counsel."

Well, here with us to talk about it all tonight, two veterans, Bill Kristol, a veteran of the Reagan and Bush administration and Editor at Large of the Weekly Standard.   And Rick Wilson, a proud Floridian, a proud Never Trumper, a veteran Republican Strategist whose latest book may sum up his opinion of the times we`re living in.  It is called "Everything Trump Touches Dies."  Welcome to you both, gentlemen.

Mr. Kristol, I`ll start with you.  Presidential panic isn`t pretty.  That`s what I read you said on social media today in light of that piece of artwork.  These are new times we`re in, aren`t they? 

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD:  It does seem that the President thinks that the walls may be closing in on him.  We`ve thought that a few times before but it just feels more that way.  And I do think the fact that Bob Mueller seems to think that he has proof that Manafort didn`t cooperate, i.e. lied, which means he must have evidence that these things were lies.

As I understand it, you can`t just say we`re abrogating the deal we made because I don`t like the way he`s behaving.  It has to be -- you have to really show that he lied.  And if Trump has some sense that Mueller knows that Manafort lied about things related to Trump, and that Trump may have lied about those things, then we`re at a whole different level.

WILLIAMS:  And can you believe we`re playing this?


WILLIAMS:  This kind of -- this is a screenplay stuff.

KRISTOL:  Yes.  And I -- we were talking about this in the break for a minute.  I`m just amazed by the joint defense agreement which we`re all talking about and lawyers are intelligently explaining, here`s why it doesn`t work.  And if you`re -- think about this.  The fact the president of the United States is in a joint defense agreement against the special prosecutor is itself astonishing.  If he did nothing wrong -- he`s the president for one thing.  He can`t be indicted --

WILLIAMS:  What if it were Rico?  You want mobsters sharing information among their legal teams?

KRISTOL:  Yes, so they do.  And this is -- that`s what they are setup for.  You know, the contractor, the union boss, the supplier.  They`re all in some conspiracy to defraud someone.  And they have a joint defense agreement.  The thing -- I mean, Richard Nixon`s, to the best of my knowledge, did not have a joint defense agreement with Haldeman, Reagan, with people in the Iran-Contra thing.  We would have thought that`s astounding.

He`s the president.  He`s going to be presumed innocent.  He`s going to tell the truth.  And, you know, whatever he might have done or might not have done, the idea that he would treat a special counsel investigation, in this case the former head of the FBI, duly appointed and so forth.  He would treat this as the way one, you know, a mob boss or a dubious businessman would treat some local prosecutor trying to go after him.  It`s a game that you try to escape.

He`s the president of the United States.  And I think that also holds for the attacks on Mueller which have gotten more and more, you know, intemperate.


KRISTOL:  I mean, it really astonishing at this one.  He basically -- Trump is now saying that Robert Mueller, his entire team, presumably half -- all the people in the FBI are cooperating with him are purposely trying to get people to lie, knowingly trying to get Corsi and Stone and Manafort to lie.  Think about that for a minute.

He thinks the whole -- he basically thinks the Justice Department is -- that he presides over is fundamentally corrupt.  I mean, A, he`s wrong.  And B, what does that say about, you know, any faith in our -- what does that do to people`s faith in our institutions?

WILLIAMS:  And so, rick, with that in mind, as a public service, we have put together just a brief list of the out of the ordinary times we`re living in.  Retweets an image of political enemies behind bars, dozens of joint defense agreements, lawyers briefed by Manafort attorneys and Manafort pardon not off the table.

And then there is this, from our 4:00 PM broadcast with Nicolle Wallace.  I want to play for you some Joyce Vance comments on how far we are from normal.  Then we`ll come out of it and you and I will discuss how far we are from normal.


JOYCE VANCE, FORMER US ATTORNEY:  The reality is that this President is making the effort to undermine the American justice system in order to benefit himself, and it becomes normal.  We sit around and we`re all talking about the fact that the president of the United States has a joint defense agreement with 32 other individuals.  They`re all under investigation for federal crimes.  And somehow that`s becoming normal.  And we have to resist that urge and keep it from becoming normal because it`s not.


WILLIAMS:  The point, Bill Kristol just made.  Rick Wilson, to you.

RICK WILSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  You know, I`m going to slightly tweak the old Daniel Patrick Moynihan phrase.  We`re defining presidency down every day.  This president is determined to defend himself, his family, his money, his power with any corruption of our government, of our legal system.  And so, every day, he`s putting out things that are edging us closer and closer to the point, where the fundamental structure that holds our constitutional system together, which is a respect for the rule of law, is increasingly in danger.

And he`s trying to normalize inside the Republican Party, what`s left of it, the idea that any oversight of him, any prosecution of him must be inherently driven by some evil cabal of deep state, you know, Hillary holdovers locked in the Justice Department trying to overturn the will of the people.  And not because he`s a lavishly corrupt scumbag surrounded by other lavishly corrupt scumbags.

I mean, the thought that Donald Trump`s in a joint defense agreement with pathological liars who are on parallel with him as a pathological liar would be funny if it wasn`t so terrifying how far they`re dragging us to the edge of the political abyss in this country.

WILLIAMS:  Both guests have agreed to stay with us as we get to a tiny commercial break.  And Rick has agreed to go ahead and let it fly as we continue our conversation right after this.



MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE:  I do believe I`ve read every piece of intelligence that`s come in, in the last few hours.  I think I`ve read it all.  There is no direct reporting connecting the crown prince to the order to murder Jamal Khashoggi. 

JAMES MATTIS, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  We have no smoking gun that the crown prince was involved.  Not the intelligence community or anyone else.  There is no smoking gun.


WILLIAMS:  So two cabinet secretaries there carefully kind of evading questions about the murder of Khashoggi.  There is international consensus that this man, Mohammed Bin Salman, was responsible despite the President`s assertions that "maybe he did, maybe he didn`t."  NBC News among others confirmed the CIA concluded with high confidence that MBS, as he`s known, ordered the assassination.

Well, today the entire US Senate was briefed on the investigation.  Notably absent was the head of the agency that made those findings.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You`re the former CIA Director, why wasn`t the current CIA director here briefing senators as well?

POMPEO:  I was asked to be here and here I am. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I think it was a basic mistake on the part of the administration not to have the CIA director brief us today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Nobody was happy that she wasn`t there, nobody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Not having Gina Haspel, the CIA director, at this briefing is a cover-up.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The most persuasive presence in this briefing was the empty chair.

GRAHAM:  I changed my mind because I`m pissed.  I think the whole construct is just -- I don`t agree with what they`re doing.


WILLIAMS:  Remaining with us are Bill Kristol and Rick Wilson, and what a night to have these two gentlemen with us.

So much to react to there, Bill.  Pompeo saying I was asked to be here and so I`m here.  That`s what NFL players say on media day at the Super Bowl so they don`t get fined.  Lindsey Graham saying he`s pissed.  What will that mean?

Let`s talk about your political party and this new normal.  How would Republicans normally react to this murder overseas?

KRISTOL:  I think they`d be outraged.  I think they would want to know the truth.  I mean, the CIA director was not there.  It`s pretty obvious why.  Because the CIA did apparently conclude with high confidence that Mohammed Bin Salman had been involved in ordering the -- or was aware of at least or indirectly ordered the murder of Khashoggi.  And she would have had to say that.

So now we can have Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mattis, both of whom I admire in certain ways, but I really am disappointed they went along with this.  And now they can say well, there`s no -- we`ve seen no evidence that there`s a smoking gun.  But again, they presumably didn`t talk about the actual grounds of the CIA assessment, which Gina Haspel would have gotten through.

So, I mean, the administration doesn`t send her.  Some Republicans were even upset, though, that she wasn`t there.  There was a vote on a related issue with the war in Yemen, where the administration lost quite a few Republican senators.

I guess I would say this about my political party such as -- well, I still have hopes for it.  I do think things is beginning to change but it`s much more slowly than one would hope in terms of the willingness to defer to the president and the willingness to simple roll over.  We may not see that much in this lame duck session but I think the election`s had an effect.  And I think just the evident disregard for all guardrails has had an effect.

So like Lindsey Graham who`s bent over so far backwards to try to get along and even he`s saying, Gee, I mean, we really keep going this way?

WILLIAMS:  Rick Wilson, same question.

WILSON:  What you`re seeing here was a semantic game by Secretary Mattis and Secretary Pompeo, both of whom as Bill said, you know, there`s a lot to admire about both of those men.  But they`re playing a very careful game and saying there`s no smoking gun.  That`s because the CIA is very, very cautious about saying anything definitive to the degree.  It`s a high confidence for them is a deadlock certainty for most of us.

And there`s probably a good amount of intelligence product that Gina Haspel`s been briefed on, both human and electronic, that confirms this.  And that`s why they held her back to, they didn`t want her in that room.  But I do think it was a political mistake.

I spoke to one Senate chief today who told me that they were -- that they were very upset by this development.  They were very unhappy.  And they felt that the administration blindsided them a bit and they would have done their very best not to turn this into a painful public family feud.  But unfortunately the administration didn`t give them a heads-up on it and it led to this situation. 

WILLIAMS:  I can`t thank you both enough.  And while you were talking, Rick, from the very building where President Lincoln kept this republic together after civil war, from the building where FDR and Churchill met together hours, days on end to combat tyranny and save the world, the president of the United States has spoken tonight, and we quote.

"So much happening with the now discredited witch hunt.  This total hoax will be studied for years."  We`ll leave on that quote with our thanks to two men nodding their heads, Bill Kristol and Rick Wilson.  Gentlemen, thank you so much.

And coming up, Nancy Pelosi is one vote closer to reclaiming the speakership for a second time in her Congressional career.  And Congress is nine days away from the next possible government shutdown.  We have two reporters who cover this sort of thing standing by to explain this sort of thing when we continue.



REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER:  This is all the same.  I`ve always had -- one time I didn`t have an opponent.  I`ve always had -- not an opponent but opposition.  Today it didn`t materialize into an opponent.  We are invigorated by new members coming in and new thinking of our members.  So this was no different than any ever before.


WILLIAMS:  Boy, was that interesting.  Nancy Pelosi winning her first round today, closed-door vote in her bid to retake the House speakership.  She secured an overwhelming majority of her fellow Democrats despite weeks of speculation she might lack that support.

Of course the final test doesn`t come till January 3rd.  She needs 218 votes for the full House.  That was just one of the stories dominating a very busy day on Capitol Hill in Washington.

With us to talk about it all, two people who`ve cover it.  Jeremy Peters, Political Reporter for the New York Times and Kelsey Snell, Congressional Reporter for NPR.  Welcome, folks, and thank you for coming on.

And, Kelsey, I`d like to begin with you.  Pelosi, number one, is the vote assured?  And number two, what about lessons learned from all this?  It would be really tempting to withhold a few committee memberships, wouldn`t it?

KELSEY SNELL, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, NPR:  Well, that is one of the main powers she has right now, right?  Is to tell people that if you were against me you don`t get that great committee job you wanted.  And if you`re with me, well, maybe you get to be a little bit more powerful in the eyes of your constituents.

And -- well, it`s not totally locked up, but Pelosi is very near to having the votes that she need.  She had 203 votes and yes, that`s short right now.  But she has weeks to dole out the favors and get people on her side.  It`s not all that uncommon for members to vote no now in this caucus vote.  And then why not voting yes on the floor because the caucus vote is just tends to kind of register a moment of frustration.  But when it comes down to voting for Pelosi or Republican in a public vote, most Democrats are going to come to her side.

WILLIAMS:  Very good point.  And to you, Mr. Peters, I`m going to read a tweet from one Ron Klain, well-known to you.  I think as a Democrat, he shepherded three or four federal judges who are now seated on the Supreme Court.  Former chief counsel, Senate judis.  He wrote this week, "I`ve worked on judicial nominations in DC for 30-plus years, and I`ve never seen a worst nominee" -- we can talk about his English -- "than Thomas Farr," which lead us to as a learn it man like Jeremy Peters, what do we need to know about Thomas Farr?  Why is he in the news?

Jeremy PETERS, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  There were a litany of concerns, Brian, about his commitment to civil right`s commitment, the voting rights and racial equality.  And I think, though, the bigger picture here is not so much Thomas Farr but the type of judge and potentially justice to the Supreme Court that President Trump is going to be able to put forward, and that this Republican Senate will be able to confirm over the next few years.

The Senate that will take its seats in January is going to be a more conservative body and a more Republican body, meaning that the votes of people like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who are kind of seen in these judicial confirmation battles as bulwarks against extreme conservative picks.  They`re not going to have the leverage they had before.

And if President Trump wants to nominate somebody who is like Farr, it`s going to take a lot more Republican senators now to block him. 

WILLIAMS:  That`s the thought that gives every liberal chills.  And, Kelsey, as an offshoot of that, will a bill that protects Mueller ever get sent over to the White House for the President`s signature?  If not, why not? 

SNELL:  Well, this is one of those issues where it kind of comes down to how things work out for the entirety of the end of this year.  McConnell, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that his main priority is to get judicial nominations through.  And until a protect Mueller bill is handled, you have people like Jeff Flake saying that they will vote against any nominees.  It was so impactful that the judiciary committee had to cancel a hearing to consider a bunch of nominees that McConnell wanted to get through in these next couple of week.

One theory that I`ve heard and that some Democrats are floating is that, this could become part of the year-end package.  It could become a sweetener to get people who are maybe skeptical about spending say on border security to get involved and to get on board with a spending bill.  Now, that is purely speculation at this point, but we are really reaching the point where a spending bill and all of the many miscellaneous things that are left undone will start coming together in a little bit of Congress holiday magic.

WILLIAMS:  Well, let`s talk about that holiday, she has a way with words, Jeremy.  Let`s that about that holiday magic because the President rather cavalierly Jeremy has been talking about this.

Sure, I`ll shut it down, I will shit this government down if I don`t get my wall funding.  How real, and this is terrible to do to a journalist, ask you to lay odds, how real is it that some night in the near future, we`re going to be covering a countdown to midnight, and whether or not the government shuts down?  And does the President fully understand the impact of such a thing, Jeremy?

PETERS:  No, I don`t think there`s much strategy here.  I don`t think there`s much consideration for the ramifications of a shutdown and what they do beyond satisfy his base.  That`s what he`s really concerned about here.  And to answer your question, I think it`s very likely, Brian, that we are staring at that clock on the eve of the government running out of funding.  It`s almost become a ritual now.  Every time, there is a deadline that this happens.

I do know that President Trump is in a much more politically precarious position than he was in the last couple of times he`s threatened to shut down over wall funding.  President Trump`s aura is a lot about him being perceived as a winner.

Right now, he doesn`t look like a winner.  He`s come off this very bruising midterm battle, where the Republicans lost an awful a lot more than they initially thought they had in the House and he`s no longer able to say, "Hey, we did fine."  This was supposed to be blue wave, the blue wave didn`t happen."

Well, a blue something happened.  Maybe, you know, call it -- I wouldn`t call it a blue wave exactly, but maybe a tidal pool.  And President Trump is weakened because of that.  He can`t afford to lose a battle over the wall, which he almost surely would.

WILLIAMS:  And this is why every night we talk to reporters about the beats they covered, two of our terrific returning veterans, can`t thank you enough.  Jeremy Peters, Kelsey Snell, thanks for coming on tonight and adding to our conversation.

Coming up for us, let`s see if we can`t have just a moment without politics.  Is that even possible these days?  We`ll see.  We`re back after this. 


WILLIAMS:  There you go.  Last thing before we go tonight, in hopes that the lights of the season are bright and joyous enough to distract us from politics for just a time.  We offer you this, the lighting of the 98th National Christmas Tree in Washington.  Your tax dollars at work.  Beautiful.

And this being Washington, that was immediately followed by this from Zeke Miller of the Associated Press, the White House abandoned the press pool at the Christmas tree lighting.  Trump is allegedly back at the White House.

We should mention, this happens under presidents of both parties, usually a motorcade snafu.  Apparently happened tonight, they were eventually gathered up and returned to the White House.

Well, further north, and we hope free of politics, we give you this.  We show you what we keep out back here, the Rockefeller Center, tree is up and lit, 75-footer from the New York suburbs.  It certainly changes the view from here at this time and every year at least for a while.  And that is our broadcast tonight.  Thank you so much for being here with us.  And good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York. 

  THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.                                                                                                     END