Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: December 7, 2018 Guest:
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: The breaking news we`re covering tonight, the President`s own Justice Department has directly implicated Donald Trump in a felony, a federal crime. This time it`s not the Mueller team but career prosecutors making perhaps the most consequential day yet in the Russia investigation and we`ve learned more tonight about way more contact than first thought between the Trump team and the Russians.
Also today, Rex Tillerson calls out the President on his lack of reading and policy engagement and he indicates the President was willing to break the law. That`s when Trump called his own Secretary of State "dumb as a rock and lazy as hell."
And the latest reporting tonight on a big name soon to depart the West Wing, and this time it just might happen as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on a Friday night.
Well, good evening from our NBC News head quarters in New York. This was day 687 of the Trump administration.
And let`s say this at the outset and make no mistake. On top of everything we have covered thus far, each and every night on this broadcast where the Russia investigation is concerned this may have been the most consequential day so far. Prosecutors from the President`s own Justice Department straight up accused him of engaging in a felony. three new court documents fired by Robert Mueller and federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York detail events involving Trump, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort and have shed new lights on this investigation and what could be an existential threat to this administration.
Trump tried to get out ahead of it between 6:00 and 10:00 a.m. this morning with fusillade on Twitter. Today we learn much more about Michael Cohen`s contacts with Russians on behalf of individual one which is how our President is now referred to in court documents.
Mueller filed a sentencing document that indicated Cohen met with the Special Counsel seven times and has, "provided relevant and truthful information." Cohen told Mueller about "his own contacts with Russia interests during the campaign and discussions with others in the course of making those contacts." He also "provided information about attempts by other Russian nationals to reach the campaign."
And said "In November 2015, he received contact information and spoke with a Russian national who claimed to be a trusted person in the Russian federation who could offer the campaign political synergy and synergy on a government level." Cohen "recalled that this person repeatedly proposed a meeting between individual one -- that would be our President -- "and the President of Russia.
Mueller says in the filing that Cohen provided useful information, "concerning certain matter s core -- certain discrete Russia related matters, that should be, core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with company executives during the campaign." As well as, "relevant and useful information concerning his contacts with persons connected to the White House during the 2017, 2018 time period." That brings it up to this year. "And describe the circumstances of preparing and circulating his response to the congressional inquiries while continuing to accept responsibility for the false statements contained within it."
You may recall Cohen has admitted to lying to Congress about Trump`s attempt to build a tower in Moscow while campaigning for the White House. There was also a telling footnote in today`s court filing and we quote again, "In a radio interview in September 2015, the defendant, Cohen, suggested that individual one, Trump, meet with the President of Russia in New York City during his visit for the U.N. General Assembly. The defendant admitted that this account was false and that he had, in fact, conferred with Trump about contacting the Russian government."
Here is Michael Cohen during that radio interview, September 17, of 2015, followed by Trump just three days later.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL COHEN, FMR. TRUMP ATTORNEY: There is a better than likely chance Trump may even meet with Putin when he comes here for the United Nations. people want to meet Donald Trump.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your outside counsel intimated that you may have a meeting with the Russian President. Do you plan on trying to do that?
DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I had heard that he wanted to meet with me and certainly I am open to it, I would love to do that if he wants to do that. I don`t know that it`s going to take place. I`m not sure. I know people have been talking but we`ll see what happens. But certainly if he wanted to meet, I mean, I`d like -- I`d enjoy doing it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York also filed their own memo to advise a judge on Michael Cohen`s sentence. It lays out all of Cohen`s crimes over the course of several years, "willful tax evasion, making false statements to a financial institution, illegal campaign contributions, and making false statements to Congress."
What`s key here is about what prosecutors say about Trump and the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, "During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories, each from women who claim to have had an affair with individual one, Trump, so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 Presidential election. And as Cohen himself has now admitted with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Donald Trump, individual one."
That right there amounts to Justice Department prosecutors accusing the President of a felony. Cohen has been cooperating with both Mueller and the Southern District of New York prosecutors. He`s scheduled to be sentenced next Wednesday.
While Mueller acknowledges Cohen`s assistance, the team in New York was less than impressed with his information. They argued that he deserve, "a substantial prison term" which could amount to about four years.
In a harsh attack on Cohen, prosecutors in New York say he was motivated by greed and he did not deserve much leniency in exchange for cooperating with the government.
Mueller also filed documents on ex-Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who he accuses of lying to prosecutors even as he was cooperating with the government. Mueller says Manafort has met with investigators 12 times. He says Manafort did not tell the truth about a number of issues, including his contacts with the Trump administration during this year.
Well, with that let`s bring in our front four, our lead of panel on a Friday night, Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for the "New York Times." Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance who spent 25 years as a federal prosecutor. Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence who in the past has worked for one Robert Mueller. And Jeremy Bash, former Chief of Staff at the CIA and the pentagon.
Joyce, I would like to begin with you. did we get it about right that this is Trump`s own DOJ just alleging that he directed a felony? And part two of my question to you is, if this were Donald Trump civilian, would today`s papers have included an indictment perhaps?
JOYCE VANCE, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: I think that those are the perfect questions to start with. You`re absolutely right. This is not, you know, Robert Mueller and 17 angry Democrats making these allegations. This comes from the Southern District of New York, a venerable U.S. attorney`s office that`s tough but fair and charges people with crimes and has a great track record of convictions. So that`s where this charge comes from.
By the same token, if President Trump were citizen Trump, he would likely be charged in this indictment. The protection that he has against indictments stems from DOJ`s policy of being very hesitant, if not forbidding the indictment of a President. And then I think in fairness to the President, we have to mention that this violation that he`s charged with, the campaign finance violation, you know, typically you hear prosecutors or police say that ignorance of the law is no excuse.
When it comes to the campaign finance violation, though, prosecutors have to prove defendants knew that they were violating the law. So that`s maybe the one outstanding issue here is whether there`s evidence that Trump when he engaged in this conduct with Cohen knew he was violating campaign finance law. But that`s pretty slender hope for the President.
WILLIAMS: So, Frank, after a life in and around the law as an investigator, what leapt off these pages to you? And I have to say that when you look around the cable news sphere tonight, there are some trying awfully hard to say nothing to see here. Sean Hannity said tonight on Fox News, he read all the documents and was ready to fall asleep. So give us a reality check. Just how bad a day was this for the Trump administration and Donald Trump?
FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FMR. FBI ASSIST. DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: Well, if Sean Hannity fell asleep reading this, he should sleep with one eye open because interesting things are about to happen. As you`ve already said, our own government today has labeled our President a likely criminal, as directing criminal activity.
Understand this is not just about silencing women who you`ve had affairs with. This is about money laundering as you pay these payments in a covert fashion to mask where they came from. It could involve bank fraud and other crimes.
But what leapt off the pages for me, Brian, I saw a couple things. One is that Cohen gave Mueller information about his preparation and circulation of Congressional testimony. We already know that Cohen lied during his Congressional testimony, but now we have seen something more. That he shared his draft testimony with unknown people.
Why is Mueller telling us that? Who are these people? Does this reach to the President himself? Who was directing or telling Cohen what he could or could not see?
Secondly, let`s not forget what this investigation of Mueller`s is all about, it`s about Russia, an adversarial government. What did we learn today in this filing? We learned that Cohen was cooperating significantly with Mueller and providing information as far back as 2015 about overtures from Russians to get next to Trump and where this would go.
And why is Mueller telling us that? If it`s meaningless to him he wouldn`t even mention it but he threw in the there because it goes to the core of what his investigation is about. He already knows what the Russian involvement is. Cohen likely corroborated that for Mueller from his end.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash, I know you told one of our producers that what leapt out at you was the money, the huge amounts of money where Russia is concerned.
JEREMY BASH, FMR. CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: December 7, Brian, a date which will live in infamy for the Trump legal team because I think today the full gamut of Trump`s legal troubles were laid bare for everybody to see. And the thing that I really honed in on when reading the sentencing memo about Michael Cohen was the fact that the Moscow/Trump Tower deal was going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Those are the words on the page.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in licensing and licensing fees for the Trump organization, for Donald Trump. So just contemplate this for a moment which is the government has proven through evidence that while Trump was securing the Republican nomination for the presidency, Vladimir Putin was authorizing a direct payment to him and his business of hundreds of millions of dollars. If that doesn`t establish a very troubling pattern of financial impropriety and potentially outright bribery, I`m not sure what does.
WILLIAMS: Peter Baker, put it that way and it sounds serious. In your early reporting, is there any accounting yet from inside this White House that anyone there views this as the deathly serious moment that it clearly is?
PETER BAKER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is deathly serious. It`s a big moment in this investigation. We`re starting to connect the dots. What we`ve had up until now is a series of desperate factual scenarios that didn`t necessarily tell us the whole picture and the only person who we think has the whole picture is Robert Mueller.
And once again, he`s beginning to sort of show his hand, just sort of one card at a time, very carefully, very slowly. And it reminds us, I think today, one of the things you get out of these documents when I look at them is how much does he know that he`s not telling us yet? He`s been very good about not leaking, about not producing information before he`s ready to.
And every time he puts out one of these document files in court or whatever we get. Just to tie that more glimpse of some fact, some scenario, some detail that begins to pull us together. The idea that the Russians were connected or they contacted Michael Cohen as early as November 2015, even though he said he didn`t act on it, suggests that they were trying from the very start to infiltrate the Trump circle. The fact that Michael Cohen tells us that he was negotiating to try to construct this hundreds of millions of dollar building all the way up through June of 2016 is the other point on that thing. You draw the line from one to the next and start to see a picture.
WILLIAMS: So, Frank Figliuzzi, we now know we had Russians at the RNC convention in Cleveland. We`ve had Russians in the Oval Office. We now know the Russians reached out.
Put on your counterintelligence hat for a moment. Russians reached out to Cohen talking about let`s find some political synergies between the two of us. Is that what we`re supposed to call what we have now?
FIGLIUZZI: I call it one hand washes the other. Corruption, prosecutors call it quid pro quo, you do this for me, I do this for you. That`s what was happening here. And we saw an all hands on deck effort by the Russian government and intelligence services to penetrate the campaign in any way they could.
I believe they found their vector for the Russian infection through Manafort. We can talk about that as the show progresses. But we saw an effort directed by Putin himself get next to this candidate, get him compromised and let`s get our man in this Oval Office.
WILLIAMS: Joyce, something we noticed. Cohen is being called in these documents to account for public statements he made that were false. Why is that an important distinction here?
VANCE: So we don`t know for certain from these pleadings but I`ve actually got a theory, Brian, because this involves Cohen going very publicly, releasing a two-page document ahead of his testimony and in essence giving a very public rendition of how he`s going to accelerate the timeline for the Trump Moscow project. Instead of continuing all the way through primaries close to the time where candidate Trump becomes the actual nominee, he pushes it much further back so that nothing is really happening after January of 2016, or thereabouts.
And when he does that publicly he`s telling everyone else, it`s time to line up, this is what our story should look like. He doesn`t go around and sit down with folks and arrange explicitly for that to happen, that would be a conspiracy and somebody might flip. But instead he gives this implicit instruction hoping that they can get away with doing it like that. I think that that`s why this is mentioned so carefully in the document we see today.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash, if we fast forward and look at this a certain way and someone comes up to you and says, "So wait a minute, all of this was about hotels and money and hotel rooms that had the Trump brand name on them?" Will you be confident saying, "Yes it appears that was the motivation here?"
BASH: No, I`d put it differently, Brian. I think this is all about leverage. It was about financial leverage over Donald Trump to make him indebted to the Russian federation in the way they lent him money and did business deals with him so that when he came into office he would owe them and owe them big time. It was also about political efforts, their interference in a campaign set up a situation in which they were able to demand during the transition that the incoming Trump administration do certain things for them.
And guess what, they did exactly what they asked to be done. They helped avert sanctions on Russia. They began to denigrate NATO. And they began to posture the most pro-Russian foreign policy coming out of Washington in our history.
WILLIAMS: So, Peter Baker, interesting timing on all of this, of course, the financial markets are having a go of it. There`s all kinds of dire predictions about the economy near term. Do you have a favorite bell weather in your reporting in the coming days? The Republicans, perhaps, that you will dial around to -- who will have come around to the realization themselves that things just got real.
BAKER: Well, that`s the real question, Brian, because in fact, what you`re going to see after this of course are a lot of people who already suspected the worst about President Trump, who already believed that he was in cahoots with the Russians saying "Ah-ha, you know, we`re seeing more evidence of that." And the people who don`t believe it are saying "Well, this doesn`t prove anything, this is still so much smoke and mirrors."
So the question is what about those Republican lawmakers, particularly Republicans in the Senate. Does this ever -- does this begin to change that dynamic? Does it begin to shift their thinking about these things? I`m not sure whether it will. I don`t see any sign of it yet, still early.
But they have digested an awful lot over these 20 months in terms of revelations. They have digested the firing of an FBI director and now the firing of an attorney general. They have digested the news of the Trump Tower meeting. They`ve digested all these different revelations and pieces of information and basically concluded, well, you know, we`re still on his side.
And as long as that`s the case, then you know, where this actually will lead us is still an open question because there`s not likely to be any kind of an indictment, at least not of the President. So where does that leave us in the end of the day?
WILLIAMS: To our viewers, a brief note. We have so much news tonight, so many court filings. We`ve had to divide them up into two trenches having just dealt with the Cohen set.
We`re going to take a break, our panel has agreed to stay with us. When we come back, we`ll take a deeper dive into the Manafort filing and what we could learn between the redacted lines.
And then later, what Rex Tillerson said that caused the President to call his former secretary of state "dumb as a rock and lazy as hell." That`s a first in U.S. history as far as we can tell. THE 11TH HOUR just getting started on this consequential Friday night.
WILLIAMS: We`re back, and now to area two of our coverage. In today`s court filing, Robert Mueller`s team says Paul Manafort told multiple discernible lies on a number of topics after signing a plea deal saying he would work for the feds in effect by cooperating with the Special Counsel. This filing says Manafort lied about his interactions with konstantin kilimnik, a Russian who has alleged ties to Russian intelligence. Also says Manafort lied about a separate DOJ investigation about a wire transfer and about contact with Trump administration officials.
According to the feds, Manafort has said he had no direct or indirect communications with anyone in the Trump administration. But federal prosecutors write, "The evidence demonstrates that Manafort had contacts with administration officials. For instance, in a text exchange from May, 26 of 2018, Manafort authorized a person to speak with an administration official on Manafort`s behalf. Separately, according to another Manafort colleague, Manafort said in February 2018, that Manafort had been in communication with a senior administration official up through February 2018. A review of documents recovered from a search of Manafort`s electronic documents demonstrates additional contacts with administration officials."
Back with us, Peter Baker, Joyce Vance, Frank Figliuzzi, Jeremy Bash.
Jeremy, on this Manafort matter, I`m trying to focus my thinking on area two of today`s court documents, what is your takeaway about this relationship between Trump -- team Trump and Paul Manafort?
BASH: Well, I think the important player here is Konstantin Kilimnik. And you`d be forgiven on a Friday night for confusing you vessel in sky (ph) from your Kislyak`s from your Bretons (ph) from your Kilimnik`s. And he was the guy who was a Russian, Ukrainian official who worked with Paul Manafort in Europe and Ukraine. He has ties -- historic Ukrainian (ph) ties to Russian intelligence.
He was also, by the way, I should say indicted by the Special Counsel back in June for trying to witness tamper. And there is clearly something that Paul Manafort is trying to do to minimize his relationships with this individual. And this individual was one of the individuals who was trying to set up briefings during the campaign for people like Oleg Deripaska, who`s obviously a close Putin ally, and there`s something in the Kilimnik relationship that loops back to the Kremlin that Paul Manafort deems too big of a secret to confess to at this hour.
WILLIAMS: Well, Frank, speaking of secrets, again today, the terror of the black lines of redaction. What do you read into the black lines of redaction in these documents?
FIGLIUZZI: Yes. So while many folks might be disappointed that we didn`t learn more specific details today, the reality is that those black lines of redaction tell us that Mueller has reached a level of target and a level of sensitivity that he cannot yet afford to disclose. He doesn`t want to fall into what I call the Comey trap which is being accused of unnecessarily or prematurely exposing and tainting a public figure. He doesn`t need to do that.
But it`s also part of a strategy to lock in the facts. Remember, it`s redacted from us, but it`s not redacted from the court system or that federal judge. So he`s putting this on the record in the event that he gets fired or that his report is ultimately put in a shredder. He`s using the court system to tell the story. The fact that we can`t see it should not disappoint us but should tell us that he`s on to something and it`s so big and so sensitive that he can`t yet disclose it to us.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Joyce, on all of this, the sum total of all of this, I`m not trying to get you in a tussle with a Harvard law professor whose back may be sore after the water weight from carrying the water for this President, it`s been observed of late. But here now we`ll talk about on the other side Alan Dershowitz on his view of the sum total of today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALAN DERSHOWITZ, ATTORNEY: Well, I think we`re seeing a coming attraction to what the report will be. And I think the report will set out a circumstantial case based on all the lying that`s taking place. A circumstantial case for arguably political sins. But I don`t see any crimes.
WILLIAMS: Joyce, he doesn`t see any crimes. Do you?
VANCE: You know, I disagree with him very strongly. I think that there are all sorts of crimes here, including a crime that lands at the President`s doorstep.
And this issue of well, there`s only circumstantial evidence is absolutely silly, because prosecutors rely on circumstantial evidence all the time. You know, if you go to sleep at night and there`s no snow on the ground and you wake up in the morning and there is snow, you can be pretty certain that it snowed overnight. There might be another explanation but it`s more than likely that it snowed. Prosecutors use circumstantial evidence all the time. You don`t have to have a smoking gun in every case.
Here where you`ve got witness after witness ling up and where you`ve now got evidence that there wasn`t just suddenly a Trump Tower meeting out of the blue with Russians in 2016 but rather a course of conduct between folks in the Trump campaign and the Russian government or at least government linked that spanned years, it`s not so much smoke and mirrors. It`s looking like hard evidence.
WILLIAMS: And Jeremy, by the way, we must say on this broadcast once a week, "Don`t lie to the feds." Rule two is see rule one, "Don`t lie to the feds."
Paul Manafort, I note, went before the grand jury on October 26 and November 2. Six days later he`s called out for lying to the feds.
BASH: Yes, I mean, a lot of the big convictions in this case, Papadopoulos, Cohen, Flynn and Manafort have been about obstructing the investigation, about misleading investigators, both the Senate and House Intelligence Committee as well as the FBI, as well as the Special Counsel`s office.
And I think fundamentally what Bob Mueller is signaling to all of the targets in this investigation, including the person who sits in the in the Oval Office is that if you try to abstract a federal investigation, a major and national security and criminal investigation we`re coming after you.
WILLIAMS: Let`s turn to the White House angle of this since we have a better-than-average White House correspondent on this panel. The President responded to today`s court filings related to his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen by saying, "totally clears the President." We should take pains to note here that no serious person who read these court documents tonight came away with that same take away.
And earlier tonight we got this summation of what it all means from the government`s former lawyer before the supreme court, this is Neal Katyal and he said this about today`s filing from the feds here in New York.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NEAL KATYAL, ATTORNEY: This is southern district prosecutors, his own Justice Department, Trump`s own appointees saying that you, Mr. President, are directly implicated in federal felonies and they have to do with campaign finance violations. That`s another thing Trump has been gambling on. Oh, I can say no collusion with Russia.
And what this document says is, you know, there`s a whole separate thing going on here. If I`m the President tonight right now and I can read, which, you know, it`s unclear whether he did read any of this stuff but once he reads it, if he reads it, it is devastating.
WILLIAMS: And Peter Baker, I have one more for you. I have a chunk from the president`s wild and woolly news conference. This was February of 2017 and the topic was Russia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven`t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don`t speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn`t, I just have nobody to speak to.
I spoke to Putin twice. He called me on the election, I told you this. And he called me on the inauguration. I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I`ll do with does.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So Peter, that last bit was interesting. This is the constant battle between nothing to see here and all it is we can see here tonight.
PETER BAKER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, the last part obviously was not true because people he does know have in fact had something to do with Russia including, by the way, his own son, his son-in-law, his campaign chairman and his personal attorney. We know that repeatedly.
Now, he leaves the impression there by using the present tense "I have no deals with Russia" which might or might not have been the case in that particular moment but clearly as recently it just a few months before that particular press conference he was trying to have something to do with Russia through his agent, through his fixer Michael Cohen.
The idea that we`re going to build a multi -- hundreds of millions of dollar tower in Moscow at the same time we`re running for president, at the same time as was pointed out here the platform was changed at the Republican Committee, of course it`s going to raise a lot of alarm bells.
I don`t know whether it`s criminal or not, I`m not a lawyer but it certainly -- it`s much more, you know, there`s much more there than the president was acknowledging in February, 2017. Where does it end up? That`s the ultimate question but each kind of piece is being put together and a wall is being built around him and he`s feeling penned in.
WILLIAMS: Joyce, you are a lawyer and it`s kind of hard to believe that our president is now referred to as "individual one" in these federal documents. Could it be? Is there any way that for him this is just beginning?
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: It`s undoubtedly just beginning. Mueller has, as we`ve always said, shown us the tip of the iceberg. We don`t have good sonar that lets us know what`s buried beneath. But increasingly it`s clear that Mueller selectively puts information into court pleadings and limits it to what`s essential to get it to the next step. We don`t know what sells out there regarding the president but it seems very unlikely his troubles end tonight.
WILLIAMS: Frank, what Neal Katyal said that we just ran is devastating for Donald Trump.
FIGLIUZZI: Well, and let`s go to the other clip you played where Trump was actually saying "to the best of my knowledge no one around me is talking to Russians." He`s almost hanging his family members out to dry here. We know from Cohen and from the filing that he was briefing family members on the Moscow tower project and so is our president ready to distance himself from his family members and say I didn`t know what they were doing, that`s on them.
I think we`re coming close to seeing someone with the last name of Trump or Kushner in criminal indictments and we need to determine whether the president is going to stand up and say I knew about this or whether he will let them hang out to dry.
WILLIAMS: And Jeremy, you know this because you`ve been around a while. It`s a big distinction to journalists first of all but also a lot of Washington-based lawyers. When something goes into the White House, when something reaches into the white house you hear people say keep it out of the White House. These documents reached into the White House this year, 2018.
BASH: Yes, that`s right. And the discussions between administration officials and Paul Manafort`s counsel obviously raises the specter of a pardon for Paul Manafort and one has to wonder at this hour whether that`s his ultimate game.
In response to my former professor Alan Dershowitz and the sense that this is only political and there`s no criminal activity, just imagine had a U.S. senator taken hundreds of millions of dollars from the Russian federation during an election campaign and then once that person was in office actually did every single thing that the Russian federation asked to include stating they believed the KGB`s word over the CIA, no one would have doubt there was criminal activity afoot.
WILLIAMS: Again, as I always say, put it that way, this starts to sounds serious.
We have asked a lot of our front four tonight and we are in their debt. So our thanks to Peter Baker, to Joyce Vance, Frank Figliuzzi and Jeremy Bash for their superb analysis of what we keep saying is such a consequential Friday.
Another break for us and coming up, the other first in this administration today.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REX TILLERSON, FORMER UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: The president would say here`s what I want to do and here`s how I want to do it and I would have to say to him, well, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do but you can`t do it that way. It violates the law, it violates a treaty, you know. He got really frustrated and I think he grew tired of me being the guy everyday that told him you can`t do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Nine months after being fired via Twitter, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson is finally breaking his silence about Donald Trump. His administration experience. In a discussion with journalist and fellow Texan Bob Schieffer last night in Houston. Tillerson talked about the challenges of working for this particular president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TILLERSON: Most challenging for me coming from the disciplined, highly process-oriented ExxonMobil Corporation to go to work for a man who is pretty undisciplined, doesn`t like to read, doesn`t read briefing reports, doesn`t like to get into the details of a lot of things but rather just kind of says, look this is what I believe. And you can try to convince me otherwise but most of the time you`re not going to do that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: The response, as predictable as a beautiful sunset in Texas hill country, came from Donald Trump this afternoon and we quote, Rex Tillerson didn`t have the mental capacity need. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn`t get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell.
It was right around this time last year that NBC News first reported Tillerson called the president a moron, something Tillerson refused to confirm at the time.
With us tonight, our own Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent and of course the host of the noon hour Eastern Time here on this network. And still with us, we have prevailed upon the chief White House correspondent for the "New York Times," Peter Baker, to hang out for just a little bit longer. Andrea, you had a front row seat on the Tillerson era at the State Department. What did you make of this conversation with our mutual friend Mr. Schieffer?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, trust Bob Schieffer to be able to get that out of Rex Tillerson. That was the most honest, direct statement I`d ever heard from Rex Tillerson. He never fully denied the moron question when we reported it, as you recall, and when we asked him, he said, you know, I never discuss what I say about the president. He never flatly denied it. He didn`t lie about it. We all knew he felt it.
But for him to say he didn`t read, he didn`t take briefings, we all know that. But the other people around the president are not willing to quite say that. And this was, you know, a man who had been fired. He was just back from Asia that morning at 8:30 in the morning on Twitter he was fired and it was just humiliating and a terrible end to a really bad relationship.
WILLIAMS: Peter Baker as you know, from achieving the rank of eagle scout to running ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson has generally succeeded at everything in life. And then he gets caught up in the orbit of the Trump folks. ExxonMobil is a big enough company to have its own weather forecasters and today he gets called lazy as hell and dumb as a rock by Donald Trump.
This is an administration that even managed to leak out the fact that he was on the John when he got the call from General Kelly, he was overseas and was told his services would no longer be need. Is that this part of that now-familiar pattern of diminishing those, everybody the ones high and mighty who serve and spend time around this orbit?
BAKER: Well, what`s striking, of course, is some of the harshest critics you see of President Trump are the people that once were in his circle. People who worked with him, whether it be now his first secretary of state, whether it be his ghostwriter on his first book, "The Art of the Deal," whether it be the guy who ran his casino in New Jersey, whether it be, you know, one of his contestants from "Celebrity Apprentice", whether it be the producer who helped make "Celebrity Apprentice" in the first place.
These are the people who are out there saying things about the president that describe what they found disturbing and when he pushes back, he actually elevates their stature in effect. I mean, a lot of people were paying attention to what Rex Tillerson said today but then it leaped on into a further, you know, stratosphere when the president took it on himself rather than letting it go by and hoped it wouldn`t be as noticed.
Other presidents hadn`t even criticized by disgruntled former aides would have tried to turn the other cheek or leave it to surrogates, to push back not try to call more attention to it by pushing back or something as colorful as dumb as a rock but this is a president who doesn`t like to be criticized and when he is criticized, as he said repeatedly, he`s going to hit back 10 times as hard.
WILLIAMS: And now, Andrea, the State Department, your beat for so many years roaring back into the news because the spokeswoman at state has been nominated to replace Nikki Haley as our United States ambassador to the U.N., former "Fox & Friends" co-host Heather Nauert.
MITCHELL: Well, and the irony here is that Tillerson really excluded her, never took her on a trip, didn`t include her in briefings because he always felt she was forced on him by the White House or a White House spy so she was never in the inner circle but she`s really risen like a shooting star under Mike Pompeo and is very close to him, has been a strong adviser and this nomination today is a real vote of confidence in Pompeo who is very close to the president over John Bolton and the fact with that they are demoting the position, it won`t be of cabinet rank.
She`s not a diplomat, she`s not a foreign policy adviser, she is a spokesperson and it is another testimony to the way the president really believes in television. He likes TV. He watches it arguably way too much of it and he believes in that as a virtue, but not in diplomacy.
I was with about 35 retired foreign service officers and ambassadors today, they asked to come in and talk to me about the State Department which, let`s face, Rex Tillerson did a great disservice to in not filling vacancies and not understanding the role, so there`s that.
And in the middle of all this, the tweet happened and I broke it to them. They were shocked that anyone who had been secretary of state could be treated so abominably on Twitter. Believe me, they are no fans of Rex Tillerson for not appointing assistant secretaries.
Basically, he never got past the White House personnel block which would not let him put people in and he was stymied in every possible way. She`s going to have some problems, I think, in confirmed because she`s not a diplomat. She`s going up against the Russian ambassador, a 30-year veteran. She`s got great skills, she`s very transparent, she believes in the media, she`s been successful at her job but there`s a great argument that you need Daniel Patrick Moynihan or Bush 41 which he, you know, was a great U.N. ambassador or all of the big diplomatic figures, Madeleine Albright, Thomas Pickering, just think, Andrew Young, think of the people who have been in that position and this is definitely putting someone in who does not have that kind of stature.
WILLIAMS: Good time to take our next break. Again, both of our friends have agreed to stay with us for just a little bit longer.
When we come back, the palace intrigue surrounding another key figure in this administration. The newest round of reporting tonight that a big name in the West Wing is out yet again.
WILLIAMS: NBC News is reporting President Trump`s chief of staff, former general John Kelly has been called in and answered several questions from the special counsel. Those questions focused on a reported conversation Kelly witnessed in March where President Trump allegedly asked then White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Robert Mueller.
The report suggests the special counsel is looking into people who`ve witnessed possible instances of obstruction of justice. This news came just hours after four separate sources told NBC News of Kelly`s departure from the white house being, quote, imminent.
Still with us, Andrea Mitchell, Peter Baker. Andrea, do you believe it this time any more than the other than the other times?
MITCHELL: I do believe it. The reporting from every one of these sources is that he is on his way out. They had a Christmas dinner for the staff tonight at the White House, and it was possibly his last big event there. We think it is imminent. We know it`s been long the desire of members of the family and others close people around the president who felt that he was not letting the president run the White House the way he wanted to run it.
Now, we know that he clashed with Jared Kushner over the security clearances and he kept a lot of the good friends Corey Lewandowski and others out of the Oval Office, they did (INAUDIBLE) walk in, which is not the kind of order you would want in the White House, but it created a lot of resentments. And now it`s a pretty logical time going after the midterm, going into a re-election mode as the president wants to, and you would want to have someone more political adept than this former general, retired general who was good at many things, but not certain at politics, not at Hill politics.
And if it is Nick Ayers who is the chief of staff to Mike Pence, who is a very, you know, a 36-year-old strong political operative and knows the way Washington works, very good on the Hill, that would be a good time to make that kind of decision in any case.
WILLIAMS: And Peter, I don`t want to reduce this to a game. This is a man`s life and livelihood and retirement. He tried to retire once. He`s given every year of his adult life in service to his country. But these rumors have come and gone sporadically. There are going to be recruitment challenges, Peter, for this second half of term one White House, and whether 36-year-old Mr. Ayers is the wartime counsel need, time will tell, I guess.
BAKER: Well, I think that`s right. The circle around the president is shrinking because in fact there have been departures and some of them haven`t been filled and the number of people that he trust and can recruit around him as, you know, to come extent, diminished.
John Kelly whatever his flaws had the virtue of being here to the president at least in terms of age and therefore, you know, could say things to him that somebody else couldn`t. The challenge for Nick Ayers is as bright as he is, as politically adept as everybody says he is, is he`s half the age of the president, and that makes for a different dynamic. That`s just a different kind of relationship.
Will a president who is pretty hard headed himself listen to somebody who is in his 30s when it comes to decision he wants to make that a staff person is supposed to tell a president that`s not a good idea. But it is a sign of how things are changing into a more re-election mode. Nick Ayers obviously is a political operative. He has not, you know, he doesn`t have the kind of experience that General Kelly does, for instance with, you know, military security matters or with running a government in that sense.
And if you are about to run a re-election campaign you know is going to be especially heated, especially difficult, you want somebody at your side who has that kind of skill set.
WILLIAMS: Peter, what is your one to two sentence lead about all that we have witnessed this week? Here we are on a Friday night talking about these, again, deadly serious federal charge documents that came out today. But remember we all spent most of our week mourning a former occupant of the White House.
BAKER: Well, we did. And what a whip saw kind of week it is, right? From the nostalgia from a different era, for a different moment in our history when the parties. We`re still pretty fractious but did manage to come together on important issues at times and it wasn`t bean ball back in the Bush era, but obviously it seems so much more polarized today, so much more toxic. The consequences are huge. These investigations are bearing down on the president. His ability to get his agenda through is definitely challenged. He`s facing an opposition, you know, House coming in January. This is a very, very, you know, volatile moment and where it heads is, I think, very unclear. We could spend two years in, you knw, absolute political war heading into that 2020 election.
WILLIAMS: And a point of personal privilege, anyone wishing to be a journalist begin by pulling the work from this week by the superb Peter Baker and the superb Suzanne Glasser who happens to be married to him and works at the New Yorker, especially if you think thoughtful journalism and deadline journalism are mutually exclusive terms. They will prove you wrong. Thank you very much.
BAKER: Thank you, Brian. That`s very nice.
WILLIAMS: Andrea Mitchell, Peter Baker, two of our best friends. Appreciate it.
Coming up, for a bunch of heavily armed federal employees, they were the nice old couple they got to work with. And coming up tonight, we`ll look at what became the last detail.
WILLIAMS: Last thing is the service we provide our former presidents of the United States because of the service they give us. From the time they leave the White House, our presidents and their spouses receive Secret Service protection for life and usually it`s a good life. It often means multiple homes in better than average places. And as our presidents and their spouses age, their Secret Service detail slow down with them. To put in sports terms, they play more of a zone defense than man to man.
Former president George H.W. Bush who`s passing we covered here this week was known to be very close to members of his Secret Service detail. And this is really all you need to know. How many presidents can you name who would shave their kids for the young son of an agent who was undergoing chemo? Well, 41 did. And those agents on his detail were devoted to the man they knew by the call sign Timberwolf.
But there comes a time when there is no one left to protect anymore, and that moment arrived yesterday. It was chronicled by long time Bush aide Jim Mcgrath who wrote this. Secret Service Bush Protective Division final notification: Timberwolf`s Detail concluded at 0600 with no incidents to report at the George Bush Presidential Library, College Station, Texas. God speed former President George H.W. Bush, you`ll be missed by all of us.
And that is our broadcast on this Friday night for this eventful week. Thank you so much for being here with us. Have a good weekend and good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York.
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