Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: December 20, 2018 Guest: Tom Nichols, Cynthia Alksne, Jill Colvin
BRIAN WILLIAMS, THE 11TH HOUR, HOST: Tonight, day 700 and perhaps the most grave and consequential of the Trump presidency thus far. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has resigned in protest of Trump`s policies. The government`s on the verge of a shutdown after the President demands money for his border wall.
And on Wall Street, the markets in chaos as stocks tank. Market now facing the worst December since the `30s.
And on top of the Syria troop draw down, another one being considered, half the American force in Afghanistan. Former Secretary of State John Kerry will join us as "The 11th Hour" gets underway on this Thursday night.
Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. This was day 700 of the Trump administration, and here is what we are dealing with and covering tonight. Put it this way. The usual order in our government is not in place tonight. The diligence that dictates the behavior of the White House in normal Times is not in place.
Here is a loose tally of where we are. The President of the United States, under criminal investigation, his children facing possible legal jeopardy, is threatening to shutdown the federal government tomorrow at midnight over funding for his border wall, which he described today as being more like "steel slats."
The U.S. Senate is being called back to Washington from their Christmas break for a vote on border wall funding that, as of now, will fail.
The Defense Secretary announced his resignation today because he cannot go along with the President`s policy which includes a surprise pull-out of U.S. forces from Syria that Trump posted on Twitter.
And today`s news that a pull-out of half the U.S. forces in Afghanistan is under consideration. Defense Secretary Mattis, a four-star marine general, was openly referred to as the human guardrail in this administration, the last adult in the room.
Add to that this chart. The stock market just so far this week, and headed for the worst December since the 1930s.
Here is the "New York Times" headline tonight, "Congress, the military and the markets were all in upheaval on Thursday." They go on to explain to their readers, "The news is too much to fit in one story." We will try our best to get to all of it here tonight.
We begin with the resignation letter of Defense Secretary Mattis. It reads, in part, and we, "My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-I`d about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity, and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position."
The reaction from lawmakers. Well, the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released an unusual statement on Mattis that reads, in part, "I am particularly distressed that he is resigning due to sharp differences with the President."
Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia wrote on Twitter tonight, "This is scary. Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration."
And as we mentioned, a partial government shutdown is looming after Trump said he is not accepting a bill without his border wall funding attached to it. Most members of Congress were hopeful that Trump would sign a short- term funding bill, the Senate passed on Wednesday.
But this morning, Trump reportedly went into what the "Washington Post" is reporting as a tail spin over the bill with no wall funding after being urged by conservative media and the House Freedom Caucus to fight for his wall.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I would argue, it`s not a punt. A punt actually helps improve the field advantage. This is a fumble and we need to make sure that the President stays firm and a lot of people are very nervous this morning about whether the President will cave or not.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that not funding the wall is going to go down as one of the worst, worst things to have happened to this administration. Forget Mueller. The wall, the wall, the wall has to be built
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Four Times we promised him that we would build the wall and put it on the spending bill. And now we`re saying, "Oh, oh, no e we`re going to keep --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: One person briefed on the conversation told NBC News that the Freedom Caucus Chairman, Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina, spoke to Trump multiple times last night and then again this morning and that Meadows resistance to the short-term bill impacted the President`s thinking.
In the meeting at the White House today with House Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Meadows, Trump said he would not sign any bill without money for the wall. After the meeting, a somber-looking Paul Ryan addressed the cameras as one of his last official acts as Speaker of the House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. PAUL RYAN, (R-WI) HOUSE SPEAKER: The President informed us that he will not sign the bill that came up from the Senate last evening because of his legitimate concerns for border security.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So, here`s what happened. Just hours ago, the House Republicans added $5 billion in border wall funding to the Senate Bill and sent it back to the Senate where it would need 60 votes and thus is considered dead on arrival. The Senate is set to reconvene at noon tomorrow.
Earlier tonight, Democratic leaders, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, addressed this looming shutdown and the events of this day.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D-CA) MINORITY LEADER: The President is doing everything that he can to shut the government down. Have to ask the question, why does he not believe in governance? Does he not care about the American people? Doesn`t he know that the economy is uncertain? Hasn`t he followed the stock market that he likes to brag about sometimes?
There is something wrong with this picture.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D-NY) MAJORITY LEADER: President Trump is throwing a temper tantrum and creating the Trump shutdown of the government.
WILLIAMS: Phil Rucker of the Washington Post reports tonight this way, "Trump has been isolated in bunker mode in recent weeks as political and personal crises mount, according to interviews with 27 current and former White House officials."
Let us bring in our lead-off panel on an eventful Thursday night. Phil Rucker, Pulitzer Prize Winning White House Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and the host of the noon hour "Eastern Time" on weekdays on this very network. And Jeremy Bash, former Chief of Staff at CIA and the Pentagon, former Counsel to House Intel.
And, Jeremy, it is your past in national security that leads me to begin with U.S. Someone who knows General Mattis and has worked with him, how bad did it have to get for him to do this?
Second part of the question, where do you assess our risk right now?
JEREMY BASH, FMR. CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: Extremely bad, Brian, because Secretary Mattis has told confidants over the past several weeks that he was not going to quit out of fatigue or frustration. He would stand his ground unless the President asked him to do something that Secretary Mattis believed was manifestly not in the interest of American national security. Here comes the President directing, ordering the secretary of defense to pull out of Syria, possibly to take down our troop levels in Afghanistan, to destroy the alliance structure that has kept us strong since World War II.
And, in essence, to see a lot of territory and game to Iran and Russia in the Middle East, that was enough for Jim Mattis. He`s gone. He`s been pushed out and President Trump has jumped a key guardrail.
And Brian, tonight I think he is driving American foreign policy into uncharted territory. And I think we`re -- what`s of concern tonight is that when adversaries see the United States in such chaos and such dysfunction, both domestically and internationally, that is a recipe for mischief by our adversaries.
WILLIAMS: Andrea, what is your further reporting on what got this bad that it led to his resignation?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBS NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: i think it was precisely that Syrian, the precipitous Syrian withdrawal over his objections. He tried to talk him out of it at the final meeting when he did resign. And also the plans being asked to draw down troops in Afghanistan, because Jim Mattis thought that he had persuade the President time and time again since April, again in September, the Syrian plan would not work, the withdrawal would not work.
And this was abandoning the Syrian Kurds, abandoning them to whatever Erdogan would want to do to them. And this was hatched and finalized in a phone call with Erdogan on Friday. First brought up at the G20 in Argentina about three weeks ago, and then again on Friday. So he was ignoring all of the advice of Mattis.
And I have to tell you how extraordinary this is. I consulted with our historical guru, Michael Beschloss, ours collectively and yours in particular and mine, and this has never happened. A defense secretary never in American history has resigned in protest.
There have been two historic references where a foreign policy advisor -- SI advance, I covered that in 1979 against Jimmy Carter in protest and William Jennings Brian in 1915 against Woodrow Wilson for being too war like. That equating to Mike Beschloss.
So, I remember the events, but I thought someone must have resigned in protest from the national security team, but no one since then. Think of it. And this letter, without any salutation, no thank you, no it`s been a privilege. This was extraordinary. It was a tutorial.
And it`s very alarming to our NATO allies and other allies around the world. I was talking to one NATO minister very concerned that this might happen just 24 hours ago.
WILLIAMS: You are so right, that every resignation letter, an official Washington contains that --
WILLIAMS: -- cursory sentence about what a privilege and an honor it`s been to serve the President, fill in the blank, this letter conspicuously without that.
Phil Rucker, again tonight, spectacular reporting on your part.
PHILIP RUCKER, WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF: Thank you, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Reporting that the President in the midst of a tail spin. Tell our viewers who haven`t read your work yet, the Rucker, Costa, Dossey trio, how bad it got in the West Wing, how bad it is tonight and who is left?
RUCKER: Well, it`s quite bad tonight, Brian. And we talk a lot on this program and others about the chaos in the West Wing. But this is really a new chapter that we seem to be entering.
You know, it`s not just Trump critics who are alarmed, but some of Trump`s own administration officials past and present, and his political friends and allies. One former senior officially talked to tonight said there may be an intervention that is need and said that it is note worthy that Mattis did not resign only over policy, but also over what this official termed the madness from the President. So there is a real sense of concern.
And what you have inside the Oval Office, with what the President is doing, is just so much pressure mounting on him. He sees these legal cases mounting, the pressure mounting on him and his family and his children. He sees that Mueller is nearing the conclusion. That report could be out in a matter of weeks into the New Year.
He`s got Democrats taking over the House of Representatives. He still is not comfortable yet with how to govern, how to be a President in a divided Washington where his party doesn`t control both Houses of Congress. And you have all of this and he`s trying to exercise his power. He`s trying to silence the critics in his own base, the Ann Coulter`s, the Rush Limbaugh`s who have been banging the drums all week about the wall. And he feels very boxed in and without a lot of options and he`s lashing out.
WILLIAMS: But Phil, as you know and as you`ve pointed out, if the Coulter`s and Limbaugh`s carry the day, the government gets shutdown four days before Christmas, the optics are bad. The reality is bad. And so walk us through the psychology of that, what many people see as --
WILLIAMS: -- setting himself up for failure because 60 votes don`t exist for it in the Senate.
RUCKER: Well, to begin with, President Trump has taken ownership of whatever shutdown is going to come. He said last week in the Oval Office with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that he would be proud to shutdown the government. That is a sound bite I am sure we are going to be hearing again and again and again, if indeed the government shuts down.
So set that aside, what Trump is trying to do, according to our reporting, is show that he`s fighting. He wants to show the base that he`s fighting for this wall. His aides recognize that the wall funding is likely never going to materialize simply because it cannot pass the Senate today and it certainly won`t be able to pass the House in January when it`s under Democratic control. But Trump just wants to fight.
The problem, according to the people we`re talking to, is he does not have a plan for what to do beyond simply fighting and protesting and demanding the wall funding and delivering that ultimatum to Congress. There`s no plan for how he ends this. There is no real plan for what to do when the government shuts down.
Remember, he is scheduled to leave tomorrow on his own Christmas vacation down to Mar-a-Lago in Florida. I`m planning to be on that trip. We`ll see if the plane takes off. I suspect it probably won`t if there is a shutdown. But again, everything is limbo -- in limbo right now and there is real chaos in the White House.
WILLIAMS: Yes, we note they have taken the departure time off the official schedule for tomorrow.
Jeremy, I`m sitting here thinking of what you just said about our vulnerability. And then listening to Phil, we`ve got the markets in the tank. We`ve got a potential government shutdown. The whole world is watching. It reminds me of crimson tide with the exception that Denzel isn`t around to help us out of our current situation.
But a key scene in the movie is they call a missile drill during a fire in the kitchen because it`s all about being ready when you`re vulnerable. Are you convinced, given your years experience at the Pentagon for starters, that no one tries any funny business, that the United States will present its usual muscular presence to the world?
BASH: Well, the problem, Brian, and this was illustrated not only on the USS Alabama in that movie, but in fact in real life is that when you have chaos and dysfunction and you have a government that actually cannot work, that gives a signal to our adversaries. And I`m thinking in particular about the Russians, in particular about places like the Baltics, like Estonia, where they may want to test the resolve of the United States at this hour. They may want to understand whether or not our government is functioning properly, whether or not our chain of command is truly intact.
Now, I think we know and, of course, we know domestically that it is. But again, this is -- this may be a moment of miscalculation by our adversaries. And so again, if I were in the Intelligence Community or at the Pentagon, I`d be on a higher state of alert tonight because I think our adversaries are not fully comprehending what is going down in our nation`s capital.
WILLIAMS: Andrea, you talked about similar moments, searching your mind and Beschloss`s and I`ll take that bet any day, for similar resignations. You`ve covered a great many presidencies and a great many consequential days. And I`m right there behind you. Can you think of any chain of events in the course of one day in a presidency that quite matches this?
MITCHELL: No, I can`t. And it`s the confluence of the markets who are reacting, of course, this is all a vicious cycle now, not a virtuous cycle. And it`s markets reaction. It`s obviously the shutdown threat. And the lack of any coherent outcome for this.
I mean, with the Senate and the House now in such deadlock because Paul Ryan thought they had a deal that Mitch McConnell does not go to the Senate floor with anything without knowing that there is a deal there. Everyone thought there was an agreement until the tweets and the signals from the White House.
The President is objecting to this without a plan, as we`ve just been saying, without a plan for coming out on the other side. So there`s no way out that anyone can see without him backing down, and that is not likely to happen.
The other thing that was so offensive, and it may be a minor thing, but I think it affected Jim Mattis. I was talking to John Allen, four-star marine, retired general today, and deeply offended by that video. The tweeted video about the Syrian withdrawal evoking -- invoking, I should say, the heroes, the men and women who have died in the fight against Isis, and saying, you know, pointing up and saying, they`re looking down at us and basically saying that they are approving of this --
WILLIAMS: Speaking for them --
MITCHELLE: -- political gesture. And speaking for them, speaking in their name, and General Allen said, "he has no right to speak for them," with such contempt.
And I think that others, you know, others whom we all know in the military really were offended by that. The politicization of our, you know, fallen soldiers.
WILLIAMS: It`s a grim night in Washington, Andrea, as you were talking. We took the live picture of the Capitol dome tonight, kind of matching the mood. Sheets of rain are falling. Yet those spot lights are cutting through the fog as everyone hopes reason will cut through of all this, starting first thing tomorrow morning.
Our thanks to Philip Rucker, to Andrea Mitchell, to Jeremy Bash on this consequential night for starting our conversation off.
WILLIAMS: And coming up, special guest on day 700 of this administration, former Secretary of State John Kerry will react to this chaotic day and night.
And later, more on tonight`s reporting that the end of the Mueller investigation could well come as soon as February now. "The 11th Hour" just getting started on this Thursday night.
WILLIAMS: The defense secretary`s abrupt resignation today came a day after the President`s decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Mattis met with the President, tried to dissuade him, but did not prevail.
In his letter, Mattis writes, "One core belief I`ve always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies."
Well, with us tonight by telephone, former Secretary of State John Kerry. He served in that role under President Obama from 2013 to 2017. Before that, a member of the U.S. Senate representing Massachusetts for 28 years.
And, Mr. Secretary, where moments of peril in the modern era are concerned, how great is this one?
JOHN KERRY, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE (via telephone): Well, it is an enormous consequence, Brian, in terms of our own governance and in terms of the ability of other nations to miscalculate and to allow a vacuum to continue with respect to American leadership. I mean, Secretary Mattis, a United States marine, I mean, marines don`t quit, ever.
He`s not -- he`s clearly not leaving because he`s tired or because aspects of the job affect him. He`s leaving and he states it so clearly in four very power packed paragraphs of his letter, in which you read one of the sentences most important. That you have to have a strong alliance, you have to show respect to allies. He clearly believes that`s not happening and the world understands that`s not happening.
Then he talks about how you have to be resolute and unambiguous dealing with threats. And then he points to China, Russia, and he makes it very clear that we`re not calling that shot. And then he talks about treating allies with respect to being clear-eyed about where we go.
So I find it quite dramatic. And it`s underscored, no one should under estimate the last sentence of the letter. "I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform." Not a word about serving the commander in chief, about serving the administration, serving the President. So, this is a very powerful statement, and it has broad implications.
I have confidence in our country and I have confidence in the people who will be at the Defense Department as he transitions. He`s going to transition appropriately. So I think we need to understand the sort of two layers of danger here.
The first is the ability of people to misinterpret now and America walking away from Syria, walking away without getting anything. No negotiation for how it might be resolved, how we might bring about peace, what might be the resolution to Assad. For President Putin and for the Iranians, this is a day of an enormous Christmastime gift of unbelievable proportions.
But the second tier on which this is important is the long-term. There are opportunity costs here, and already we are seeing the implications at home in terms of the market place and so forth. But our leadership, our leadership is going to be questioned.
I was talking to somebody today on the telephone in another country who just blurted out to me and said, "I`ve been to all these meetings the United States is absent." This is someone in another country pointing out to me what they observe about our country. So I think the implications of this are very, very serious.
And, frankly, we need other players in the Congress who have sat on the side lines, happy to talk at night over dinner and with their friends in the cloak room about how absolutely chaotic this White House is. But not willing to stand up against party, President, and power in order to protect the Constitution and the country. And this is a moment where that judgment has to be made, I think.
WILLIAMS: Mr. Secretary, I was texting with a Marine friend of mine just before the broadcast. Your quote about "Marines don`t quit" has already been memorialized on the graphic at the bottom of our screen.
You are so right. Marines don`t quit, but this marine, so attuned to the chain of command, resigns when he feels he can`t carry out the orders from his commander in chief, and only under those circumstances.
KERRY: Well, he made it very clear in his, in his letter that there are certain things he believes are critical in order to protect the United States of America. He believes -- I share the belief. I think just walking away from Syria is an absurd loss of leverage. It is an insult to people who put their lives on the line there to simply say, "Oh, OK, I`m out of here."
But without any process, without honoring the nature of decision making about big decisions that affect security and nation and credibility. And none of that is evidenced here. You know, I remember months ago Senator Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that the "White House is an adult day care center." People all through the Congress know this, Brian. People in our nation know it.
They have read Bob Woodward`s book. They read the Wolff book. There is no secret about how chaotic this is. And increasingly, there is no secret about how corrupt it is. And it`s obviously not just corrupt on a question of criminality level. It`s corrupt in terms of keeping faith with American principles, keeping faith with the direction of the country the way we need to go, and the way we need to govern ourselves.
So I think, you know, this is not -- this is a continuation of a crisis that too many people have been too content to live with. And I think we have to be resolute ourselves about believing in the strength of our institutions, which I do. And I am convinced that, you know, we`ll get through it. But it`s not without great cost. Not without great cost.
And by the way, pulling out, I mean, I don`t know, I`ve listened to the bragging about the God-given ability to be the best negotiator in the world. But he doesn`t negotiate. He walks away from the TPP, gets nothing. He puts three quarters of it in the deal with Canada, by the way, and Mexico.
Walks away from the climate change deal, notwithstanding all the evidence that is there. Walks away from the Iran deal without negotiating a way to bring our allies on board and create a unity of effort to get a follow-on agreement. And now walks away from Syria. So this is the great walk away presidency, you know. And I think people are going to notice it.
WILLIAMS: On an important night, our thanks to John Kerry for calling in and reaching us by telephone. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being on the air with us tonight in reaction to today`s news.
Our next guest responded in real-time on Twitter, and one got our attention. After word of Mattis` resignation, Tom Nichols had this caution. "Our national security is in danger. I do not say this lightly."
We know him well enough to confirm that he doesn`t say this lightly, and with us tonight is Tom Nichols, a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, and a specialist on Russian affairs.
Tom, I realize you don`t speak for the Armed Forces. You speak for Tom Nichols, but all your life`s work and experience goes into this. What kind of danger, in your view, are we in and what worries you?
TOM NICHOLS, U.S. NAVAL WAR COLLEGE NAT`L. SECURITY AFFAIRS PROFESSOR: I`m especially worried that our opponents -- and Jeremy Bash actually brought this up earlier and I agree with him -- our opponents are watching this. This does not happen in a vacuum. It`s not happening in secret that our opponents are following the President`s Twitter feed. They are following these events. They`ve read the secretary`s resignation letter.
And I think they may well believe that we are simply paralyzed than incapable of functioning. I think that would be a terrible miscalculation on their part. But it`s certainly a conclusion that it would be easy for them to reach at this point because one of the important things here is this was not just a mere difference of policy.
I think, the secretary`s letter was pretty clear about a major disconnect on principle, and that, I think, leaves a wide opening for states that mean us harm -- it leaves the field open for them to make their play.
And I`m really concerned about that. I think that this kind of collapse, of coherence in an already chaotic White House really does expose us to foreign dangers, and I think we`re going to be in that situation for a while to come now.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: So, taking your argument that we are -- the whole world is watching, as they say, and we are in this time of peril, do you feel it`s a done deal that the next person in this job could be an ideologue?
NICHOLS: I can`t imagine how the search for the next secretary is going to go. Because one of the things that was clear is that the secretary wasn`t being listened to. The President doesn`t take expert advice. He`s not interested in it.
He doesn`t want to be told about things that are not possible or nuanced or complex. He wants to be told that what he wants to do is -- can be done. And the job of every good expert and Cabinet secretary is to speak truth to power, is to tell the boss the truth.
And clearly the President is just not interested in that. I think it was Phil Rucker earlier who referred to the President as bunkered at this point. And that doesn`t really lend itself to a President who wants to hear advice. The President who`s not really fond of expert advice even on a good day, but especially not now.
WILLIAMS: Well, because you are not given to hyperbole, what you said today really did get our attention. Thank you for paying such close attention to our broadcast. We appreciate it.
And tom Nichols, thanks for making yourself available to us tonight.
Coming up for us on this broadcast, our new reporting on Robert Mueller`s time line in the Russia investigation. We`ll be back with that after this.
WILLIAMS: Welcome back. And as we keep saying on this eventful evening, there are also indications the Mueller investigation could soon reach its conclusion. Soon meaning in a matter of weeks.
NBC News is reporting the special counsel, quote, is expected to submit a confidential report to the attorney general as early as mid February, dead of winter. That`s according to government officials and others familiar with the situation, as they say.
When complete, Mueller`s report will go first to the head of the Justice Department. Now, remember, currently that happens to be acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker who has publicly criticized, some say prejudged, the Russia investigation.
NBC News also reporting that Justice Department has concluded there`s no legal reason for Whitaker to take himself out, recuse himself from overseeing that investigation, but they add an agency ethics official did suggest he step aside.
Late tonight, NBC News obtained a copy of a Justice Department letter sent to Congress that explains all of this. Washington Post reporting Whitaker disregarded that recommendation after his hand picked team of advisors suggested he stay and not recuse himself.
Now Whitaker apparently has no plans to step aside. Well, with us to talk about it, Cynthia Alksne is back with us, the former Federal Prosecutor and veteran of the Justice Department who also during her time worked with Robert Mueller.
So, Cynthia, does February sound about right? And where do you think we are in this?
CYNTHIA ALKSNE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: It doesn`t sound right to me. And I would like it to be right. I`m dying to see the report, but it just doesn`t, it doesn`t sound right to me unless he`s going to do some kind of partial report.
Because think about what`s outstanding. He has to make a decision about follow-up questions from the President and whether there is going to be a subpoena. Don Jr. has not been interviewed or been in the grand jury. Jared Kushner has been interviewed but not in the grand jury. Ivanka has not been in the grand jury. Roger Stone has not been indicted, Jerome Corsi has not indicter both have been essentially promised they about to be indicted.
He just won some battle about a subpoena for what we believe are banking records overseas, which he can`t receive the records yet. So there`s just a lot to do. There aren`t enough hours in the day, I think, to be done in February, unless it`s some kind of partial report.
WILLIAMS: And what do you make of Whitaker`s role? And does that -- I don`t know. Does that pose any legal danger as you see it?
ALKSNE: Well, I mean, Whitaker should recuse himself. I mean, it`s completely ridiculous that he has a double secret probation group of advisors that he refuses to say who they are. And then when the ethics people say you should recuse, the double secret probation people say he doesn`t have to recuse and so he doesn`t do it.
As a first point, that`s just a very bad sign for the investigation, that he is willing to bend over backwards like that and turn himself into a noodle to supervise this investigation that he has no business supervising.
I think there is a critical mass about the report that was going to be very hard for them to put it in a drawer and hide it. There`ll be some negotiation about it because much of the report will include grand jury material. We call that 6-e material, and it has to stay secret. So there will be a pull and a push to figure out what can be released, but I just cannot imagine there is anyway not to release this report.
WILLIAMS: Well, thinking --
ALKSNE: I would say one other thing -- I`m sorry. One other thing about the prediction, the constant predictions that we get. Not enough because of this report, because obviously the reporters are two outstanding reporters.
From now, year and a half, we heard this investigation was about over. On some level ha hurts the investigation because it gives people the impression that, since nothing`s coming, he must not have anything. That just isn`t so.
So that concerns me about the drip, drip, drip of it`s coming any day now.
WILLIAMS: Frank Figliuzzi, as he often does, said something that perked our ears up today on the 4:00 hour. I want to play it for you, see if you concur.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FRANK FIGLOUZZI, FORMER FBI ASSITANT DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: Matt Whitaker today stands on a conflict of interest cliff. He has a choice to make. He can leap off that cliff and spend the rest of, say, the next year or so testifying before Congress, testifying to the special counsel being interviewed by FBI agents, maybe even testifying before a grand jury. Or he can do the right thing, the smart thing, and stay the heck away from the special counsel.
We are about to see how bright and how ethical this acting attorney general is. And if the past is prologue, Nicolle, with regard to trump associates, my money is on dumb and corrupt.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Cynthia, what do you make of that?
ALKSNE: He`s just so concise. I think he`s already jumped, though. I mean, I think he`s already jumped off the cliff. And we got that letter this evening, soon to be chairman Nadler has been asking for a long time, what has been the ethics review? Give us some information about the ethics review.
Has it been to the professional responsibility people? And the justice department has been stonewalling. And then tonight in day 700 of chaos, they send this letter that basically says he absolutely has jumped off the cliff and fully intends to supervise the investigation. So I think Frank is being hopeful and I`m not.
WILLIAMS: Well, I don`t know whether to thank you or not for laying out all the stories we have yet to cover and the work yet to be done as you see it by this Mueller effort. But I rather think you may be right. Cynthia, always a pleasure, thank you for returning to our broadcast, Cynthia Alksne.
And coming up, veteran senators who`ve seen a lot say these are scary times, as of today, what to look for from this White House in crisis when we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But I like generals. I think generals are terrific. You know? They go through schools and they sort of end up at the top of the pyramid.
First thing is that -- and I love great generals. I love General MacArthur.
Did our generals do a great job? Did our military do a great job?
"Mad Dog", he`s great. He is great. I asked one of the generals -- I love the generals. But I said to him, you`re a good general, aren`t you? Yes, sir, I am. I said, so, how do you compare to General Mattis? How do you compare to "Mad Dog"?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: President Trump has often he praise on the military leaders he hired to start off this effort and work in the White House. They were often dubbed the adults in the room. He loved it early on when someone told him that General Mattis` nickname was "Mad Dog".
Trump liked that branding. The truth was, while Mattis has earned four stars on his shoulders the hardware, in the Marine Corps, he was equal parts warrior and scholar, a well trained fighter, and a well read man.
Since he arrived at the Pentagon, some have taken to calling him by a different nickname, Moderate Dog, for his moderating influence in the Trump circle. And today we learned he was the last to go, the last of the generals, the so-called human guardrail in the Trump administration is coming down.
With us tonight to talk about it, General Barry McCaffrey, decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam, two time recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, former battle field commander in the Gulf War, retired U.S. army four star general.
And Jill Colvin, White House reporter in the trenches for the Associated Press these days. Thank you both very much for coming on.
General, just last night, you said of Jim Mattis he won`t quit. You talked about his service to the Marine Corps. My question to you is how bad do you think it got to lead General Mattis to leave?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, I don`t think it was Syria (ph). I think the bottom line was we`ve had over the past two years of the Trump administration an increasing sense that there is no National Security Foreign Policy process.
The branches of the U.S. military, soft power, military power, intelligence, covert action, are completely uncoordinated. We seem to have a unilateral lone ranger approach of an impulsive President of the United States who frequently arrives at bad decisions and does so unilaterally.
In some cases, by one on one direct negotiation with dictators of one sort or another. Erdogan, Putin, Duterte in the Philippines. So I think it finally got to the point that Secretary Mattis, who as you say is a defense intellectual, very thoughtful man, he`s idolized by the armed forces. I think he finally said, look, I don`t want to be associated with this going forward.
WILLIAMS: Do you think we`re necessarily headed for an ideologue in this job?
MCCAFFREY: Well, our constitution Article 1 deals with the Congress, one of the major powers of Congress, is Senate approval of senior officials. Every second lieutenant, every four-star general. I`ve been confirmed by the Senate four times in the military and in civilian office.
So I don`t think they`re going to allow the wrong person, a crazy, into that position. They better not. Three people have enormous power over the American people, domestic security and foreign policy. The Secretary of Defense, quite obviously, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the attorney general.
We have an attorney general -- I don`t understand why he`s in office. He has not been confirmed by the Senate. Secretary of Homeland Security is about to go. And now we`ve had Mattis resign. One good note, though, Brian, that needs to be said.
The Pentagon, 2.1 million men and women in the U.S. armed forces globally deployed, high technology, disciplined. The civilians we`ve got in the Pentagon are the best we`ve had in 25 years. So Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan, we`re going to hear more about his name, a Boeing senior executive 30 years technology.
And the service secretaries are a very capable lot. Chairman of JCS Dunford, a dedicated four-star marine, former Marine Corps commandant. I don`t think we`re in short-term in trouble. But the Congress better step up to their constitutional responsibilities.
WILLIAMS: Jill, we`ll just ran through some of the names. We`ve put together a graphic that is rather incredible. These are just senior folks. Mattis, Tillerson, Sessions, Zenke, Pruitt, Kelly, Priebus, Price, McMaster, Michael Flynn, the last two veterans and generals. Who is left, most importantly, Jill, to push back to be the, quote, adult in the room?
JILL COLVIN, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: At this point, you ran through all of those names and you have to keep in mind how significant some of these people were. Not just Mattis, but General Kelly, one of the other military former four-star generals who is set to depart the administration.
You had H.R. McMaster, you had Tillerson. These are people who thought of themselves as guardrails that would be protecting the nation, that would be protecting Trump from himself and from his worst impulses. These people are all out and so far what we`ve seen the people Trump is choosing to replace them with are people who are much more conciliatory.
For instance, you`ve got Mick Mulvaney, the budget director who`s coming in to replace John Kelly. And he is someone who -- the reason the President decided to bring him in is because the two of them get along.
He`s someone who is not seen as the kind of personality who would be willing to butt heads with Trump, who`d be willing to tell him no, who would be willing to really stand up to him. And as Trump fills in all of these positions, it looks like increasingly he picks people that he winds up agreeing with.
WILLIAMS: Both our guests have agreed to stay with us through this break. And when we come back, we`ll talk with them about what our President showed the world on social media today. Please stay with us.
WILLIAMS: That was posted to Twitter this afternoon by the President of the United States. The video speaks for itself. Baffling and troubling as it may be, on a day when our government plunged a bit further toward chaos, and given the headlines of just the last 12 hours.
Still with us for our conversation, General Barry McCaffrey and Jill Colvin.
Jill, I also have to say we noticed something else. This week, after campaigning on build that wall and who`s going to pay for the wall, Mexico, the President has added a caveat. Mexico is going to pay indirectly. And today he changed his definition of the wall. We`ll air that and talk to you on the other side.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: There`s a debate over funding border security and the wall -- also called, so that I give them a little bit of an out, steel slats. We don`t use the word wall necessarily, but it has to be something special to do the job. Steel slats.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So, Jill, not to be snide, but build those steel slats doesn`t have the ring of build the wall perhaps had before all those really audiences. Anyone else notice the migration of the wording here?
COLVIN: Most certainly. Look, this started as this big beautiful concrete wall the President said he was going to build from one end of the border to the other. And over time he has changed and pulled that back.
He decided at some point that the wall was going to be see through, so the border officials could see through it. Now he`s talking about these steel slats, which to many people sounds an awful lot not like a wall.
I think there are two reasons the President is doing this. One, according to sources, the President feels like by framing it this way, it might be more appealing concept to Democrats. He`s trying theoretically to get votes in favor of this from more moderate members. And believes that if he describes it sort of in a more attractive way that it might sway them.
But also there`s a technicality here. We heard back and forth over the last two years now, the President claiming that he`d received money to build his wall. But Democrats saying, no, we only provided you money for border security and fencing.
There are some specific language within those budget allocations that say that he can use border security money to fund certain types of barriers, and not others. He can build the kind of fencing that they did, for instance, under the Bush and under the Obama administration.
And so what the President could be doing here is trying to make things a little bit mushier so if he only gets money to pay for fencing, he can then spin that as a win.
WILLIAMS: And General, back in your area of operation, almost lost in today`s news, the White House wants plans drawn up to draw down half U.S. forces in our longest war in Afghanistan, and as much as we love service families being reunited and deployments to come to an end, what do you make of it?
MCCAFFREY: Well, it`s another impulsive decision. Look, Afghanistan is an utter mess. It`s going in the wrong direction. The centralized government in Afghanistan is gradually losing control of the country. We have a very thin footprint on the ground.
The problem in Afghanistan is not squad-level training of Afghan soldiers. It`s a lack of a political structure that works. So we clearly need a diplomatic way out of this morass. Again, unilateral withdraw that the small footprint on the ground is more likely to precipitate on immediate disaster than anything else.
WILLIAMS: Jill Colvin, in 30 seconds or less, we do note that the departure time has been taken off the schedule for tomorrow. Is it necessary that we`re heading for a midnight tomorrow night shutdown?
COLVIN: Yes, look, Sarah Sanders told us tonight at a very rainy driveway scram, if there was going to be a shutdown, the President would not be leaving for Washington with the House vote that we saw tonight, it very much seems like that`s where we`re headed.
And clearly it`s not on the President`s schedule. Who knows, Phil Rucker may be taking off on that plane tomorrow. I would doubt it.
WILLIAMS: Our great thanks to our final two guests for really staying up late with us. We appreciate it. General Barry McCaffrey, Jill Colvin, the Associated Press, thank you both so much.
And a last item here before we go, because these times are so consequential and because this is genuinely a moment we are witnessing, a few reminders. Forgive us about how to stay in touch with this broadcast, because we want to stay in touch with you.
You can watch us any time you please by downloading the MSNBC app on your phone. If you`re on the move, you can listen to us live each night on SiriusXM satellite radio. We are also available as a Podcast, and so we like to think and we like to say there is never a reason you`d have to miss a single broadcast, and we appreciate it always.
With that, that is our broadcast for this Thursday night. Our thanks to our guests for joining us on this evening. Thank you for being here with us. Good night from our 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