LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR: That`s tonight`s LAST WORD. THE 11TH HOUR with Brian Williams starts now.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: On our broadcast tonight there`s a good chance February 7 could be the worst single day of the Trump presidency thus far. That`s when Michael Cohen, former keeper of the secrets, who spent 10 years on the inside, will be sworn in for public testimony about what he knows. With nothing to lose before heading off to prison.
The news broke while the president was on his trip to the southern border with reports swirling that he wants to use his special emergency powers to get his wall or his steel slat barrier possibly including rerouting money from disaster relief in places like Puerto Rico.
Meantime, the government remains shut down. Families are suffering. Friday paychecks won`t be coming in for federal workers. And Friday begins in less than an hour in the east as THE 11TH HOUR gets underway on a Thursday night.
Good evening, once again from our NBC News headquarters here at New York. Day 721 of the Trump Administration. Day 20 of this government shutdown. And what happened today certainly got the president`s full attention.
He was in McAllen, Texas, dressed in that black crisis jacket, getting briefed on what his administration insists is a crisis at our southern border and about how a wall or a steel slat barrier could easily put an end to that crisis. And that was the moment during that roundtable presentation there that the bad news broke back in Washington.
Michael Cohen said yes. Before leaving for federal prison, on the 7th of February, Michael Cohen will be sworn in on live television at a public hearing where he will be asked about what he knows, what he saw from his decade long service inside the insular business world of Donald Trump.
In describing Michael Cohen and his former role as Trump`s lawyer, journalists have often reached into the vocabulary of organized crime for comparisons. He`s been called a consigliere, a fixer, a Tom Hagen like lawyer for a single client.
Michael Cohen, who once dreamed of becoming Donald Trump`s White House counsel, can say a lot. To borrow a phrase, he knows a thing or two because he`s seen a thing or two. Perhaps including but not limited to potential Trump-Moscow construction schemes, payoffs to women, the planning and killing of news stories and the like.
Remember that on the day the FBI raided Cohen`s hotel room and offices, the President of the United States called it an attack on our country. In a true sense, it`s an attack on what we all stand for, he said. Cohen said only this today, "I look forward to having the privilege of being afforded a platform with which to give a full and credible account of the events which have transpired." Knowing exactly how much Cohen`s testimony could do to his presidency, the president, when asked about it today decided to foul it off.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There`s some big news about Michael Cohen. He`s agreed to testify before the House Democrats next month. What do you think of that? Are you worried about this?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I`m not worried about it at all. No.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Let`s review here for just a moment. The extent of Cohen`s work for Trump first started to emerge at the beginning of last year when the "Wall Street Journal" reported on a woman named Stormy Daniels and the $130,000 payment that Cohen arranged in return for her silence about an alleged an affair with Trump.
Few months after that came the FBI raid that resulted in over a million pieces of evidence. Cohen eventually pleaded guilty to several charges including illegal campaign contributions. He says those contributions were hush money payments made to Daniels and another woman at Trump`s direction.
Then in November, Cohen reach as plea deal with Mueller`s team and admitted to lying to Congress about the effort to build a Trump Tower Moscow during 2016 campaign. Just last month, he was sentenced to three years in prison. The relationship between Cohen and Trump has, let`s say, changed with these events and before our very eyes.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: They broke into the office of one of my personal attorneys a good man, and it is a disgraceful situation. It`s a total witch hunt. Frankly a real disgraceful, it`s an attack on our country in a true sense. It`s an attach on what we all stand for.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, how much of your legal work was handled by Michael Cohen?
TRUMP: A tiny, tiny fraction. But my goal would represent me and represent me on some things. He represents me like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal.
He`s a weak person and what he is trying to do is get a reduced sentence.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Cohen is such a bum, why did you hire him, have him on your payroll for 12 years, and have him do so much of your dirty work by paying off a stripper?
TRUMP: Because a long time ago he did me a favor.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: And here is Michael Cohen talking about Donald Trump in an interview late last year after admitting his guilt.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP PERSONAL ATTORNEY: The people of the United States of America, the people of the world, don`t believe what he`s saying. The man doesn`t tell the truth. And it`s sad that I should take responsibility for his dirty deeds. I have my freedom and I will not be the villain, as I told you once before. I will not be the villain an of his story.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: The special counsel did say that you were doing your best to tell the truth about everything related to their investigation, everything related to Russia. Do you think President Trump is telling the truth about that?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: If like us it`s been a while since you saw that interview with George, his answers there are striking. Cohen`s decision to testify live and under oath has already prompted comparisons to former White House Counsel John Dean who broke ranks with President Nixon in `73 to reveal the true extent of the Watergate cover-up. Nixon was of course forced from office the next year.
Also today, CNN is reporting that the special counsel met in February of last year with a Trump campaign pollster. Now, this comes just days after we learned that Paul Manafort shared of all things, Ttrump campaign polling date with a Russian colleague with ties to that nation`s military intelligence agency. Today trump was asked about Manafort`s actions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, did you know that Paul Manafort was sharing polling data from your campaign with the Russians?
TRUMP: No. I didn`t know anything about it. Nothing about it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: With that, let`s bring in our lead off panel on a Thursday. Mimi Rocah, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, now a distinguished fellow in criminal justice at the Pace University School of Law. Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at CIA and the Pentagon and former counsel to the House Intel Committee. Also with us, Michael Crowley, White House and national security editor over at POLITICO.
Good evening and welcome to all of you. Mimi Rocah, home-field advantage has its privileges. You get to go first with the big question. What`s in the constellation of things we could learn about from Michael Cohen, sub question, what would Mimi Rocah like to learn about from Michael Cohen?
MIMI ROCAH, FORMER ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NEW YORK: Great questions. Well, first of all, I think there are two main areas that we can divide up in terms of what we`re going to learn.
One is more details about things we sort of generally already know about. Like the payments to Stormy Daniels. The whole campaign finance fraud scheme which Michael Cohen has already said in one or two sentence that`s Trump directed and orchestrated. What does that mean? What did he say? You want to get details about that. There is no substitute for sort of hearing something in generalities and then hearing a witness testify about it under oath, in detail. And having the opportunity to judge his credibility.
My sense is that Michael Cohen is going to come across as quite credible. That doesn`t mean anyone should take just his word for it. They`re going to have to have other evidence, other corroboration, which we know, because of the southern district case, because they would not have relied on him in their paper if there weren`t other corroboration, but I think it`s going to be very compelling.
The second category, and I`m not even touching the Russia stuff because I think that is sort of going to be a whole separate matter, it sounds like in a closed door testimony. So, as to what, I think, we can expect in the public testimony.
There is a whole other world out there of information that I think Cohen probably has about Trump. And the reason I think this is because we know that Cohen did not get a cooperation agreement from the Southern District of New York. Why? From all the signs, it seems that he didn`t want to come clean about other criminal conduct he was involved in. And you have to do that to get a cooperation agreement with the Southern District of New York. Well, what is that all that other conduct he didn`t want to come clean about? And who did he commit those other crimes with?
WILLIAMS: Tell us.
ROCAH: Well, I have -- all arrows point to Trump. Because that is the person who he worked for so many years, who he was in partnership with. That was his function for Trump was to be his fixer. His, you know, dirty person. His dirty man. And we know, you know, Trump made all these claims when Cohen`s office was raided about attorney-client privilege and that turned out to be a complete sham, right? Look, a very miniscule am of those documents were privileged. And that`s a sign of how little actual legal work he did.
So I think -- and this is all fair game. All this stuff that Cohen didn`t necessarily want to tell the Southern District of New York because he would have had to plead guilty to it, it fair game to be asked about it now when he`s testifying. And there`s very little disincentive for him to not answer those questions. He`s not going to be -- I assume he`s going to get some kind of immunity in order to an exchange for his testimony.
And so there is very little reason for him not tell the truth about those now. So there`s all sorts of new conduct we can learn about.
WILLIAMS: So Jeremy Bash, you have looked at important testimony in the House of Representatives. Let`s assume, and I don`t know if this is correct even, that there`s not a question that could be asked in this hearing that hasn`t already been asked and answered by the Feds. So, provided we`re right there, what does the House need to glean from this? What are they going to do with what they learn and what we all see said on live television?
JEREM BASH, FMR. CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, Brian, first of all, substantively, I think the House is going to be interested in a couple of areas. I think they`re going to be very interested in the financial ties between the Trump Organization and the Russian Federation. Specifically the Trump Tower Moscow deal which Michael Cohen has already said publicly that individual one the President of the United States has lied publicly about. And in fact, that act of negotiation was happening during the heat of the presidential campaign in 2016.
Second, I do think like Mimi noted, that Michael Cohen is going to speak about campaign finance violations. And those are very relevant, highly relevant to House inquiries. Not just oversight issues but also potentially laying the ground work for impeachment discussions. Because that has to do with how Donald Trump got elected. The levers he pulled legal and illegal to obtain the presidency.
And then third, I think, importantly, Michael Cohen has information about the Ukraine Peace Plan which was a plan put forward by Kremlin cutouts operating in and around the Ukraine that basically came forward to the National Security Council when Trump was president in effect put forward a Russian version of American foreign policy. And Michael Cohen was at the hot molten core of those discussions.
WILLIAMS: Michael Crowley think about it this way. The last day of live testimony that was damaging to Donald Trump was the former FBI director who had had merely a handful of encounters with Donald Trump. You`re talking about 10 years on the inside. Again, it`s the reason people ascribe and assign kind of mob terminology to this case. Ten years on the inside and they get to ask about all of it.
MICHAEL CROWLEY, POLITICO WHITE HOUSE EDITOR: Yes. I mean he knows so much. We don`t know how much of it he`s going to tell us. But I think that it`s clear, he -- look, Michael Cohen is on kind of -- the Democrats here are on a kind of a public relations campaign, I think to shape public opinion, potentially in the mind of some of them to lay the foundation for the process of impeaching the president, which we`re not there yet. It may not happen but I do think they`re thinking in those terms.
I think the legal significance of this testimony is going to be limited. It`s about helping to build a narrative create a political climate. The Democrats are interested in that. Michael Cohen is looking to reform his image, right? He has been saying for months now, I`ve kind of seen the light. I was the fixer for this, what he says, you know, this crooked man essentially, and I was complicit. And now here I am to tell you that I basically sinned and I`ve changed my ways.
And I think even if he doesn`t give a specific new bombshell information about maybe alleged crimes the President committed. It`s going to be that narrative. It`s going to be very powerful, Brian, to hear him characterize the President and what I assume will be damming material, possibly with some vivid new details about interactions with Trump that will just I think give a new power and force to our current understanding.
I mean, as Mimi said, the details, you know, and the psychology of the public mind, having these details, hearing vivid descriptions and moments I think can have enormous power. And so when -- go back to your first point, when James Comey testified, what do people remember so vividly? I was hiding in the curtain. You know, I was wearing blue and the curtain was blue. We all remember these little moments of recollection and anecdotage. And I think that, again, we`re not going to get game changing bomb shells from Cohen most likely in my estimation. You`re going to get a narrative that is going to help shape the public`s opinion and understanding of what`s happening here. And that is going to be a very powerful thing.
WILLIAMS: Mimi, you know how these hearings work. There are Democratic members, there are Republican members, and I`m guessing the Republican members are going to go try go after this witness and they`re going to call him a liar and they`re going to call him a felon and what do you Michael Cohen says in response to that?
ROCAH: He says absolutely. I`ve been lying for 10 years for Donald Trump. I mean that`s what he should say.
WILLIAMS: Does that make him a good effective witness?
ROCAH: Absolutely. The best cooperators that I ever saw at trials that I ever put on the stand were the ones who admitted who they had been --
WILLIAMS: They owned it.
ROCAH: -- until that point. They owned it. They didn`t fight it. And that`s because the whole reason they`re there to testify, to give information, is because of who they were before. Because of the fact that they committed crimes. Because of the fact that they were alive. That doesn`t mean they`re not capable of telling the truth now. And again there has to be other sort of evidence supporting that.
But Michael Cohen, if he`s prepared well, which he should be. That`s a legitimate thing for witness to do. He should own it. He should get on that stand and not fight the fact that he has been a liar and a criminal. But who has he done that with and for? And that`s the part that is going, you know, really to be the most intriguing.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy, how does this work? Does Mueller send over a list to the chairman of the committee and say, here`s 15 areas I would really appreciate you avoiding in open public testimony because they`re highly sensitive and I can`t say any more than that?
BASH: More or less. And I don`t know if there will be a dialogue between Mueller`s Office or the Department of Justice. But traditionally, when Congress begins to investigate areas that are under act of criminal investigation, when I was chief counsel for the House Intelligence Committee, that came up many times. And often times the Congress will defer to DOJ.
But I think it`s going to be a fairly high bar to keep certain things out of the public domain. And I think the chairman of the committee is going to say, we have a legitimate need to conduct oversight over the president of the United States. Forgetting either whether or not this touches upon high crimes and misdemeanors, impeachment or other criminal activity, we are duty bound to do oversight. We need to know if this president is compromised and what the financial ties are that bind him to the Russian federation.
WILLIAMS: Michael Crowley engage in pure speculation. What do you think that long flight was like home from Texas? What do you think its like in the White House residence tonight where there might be a column of smoke rising from the DVR?
CROWLEY: Look, I mean, at some point, the President has to got it like, you know, like get used to it. It`s just constant barrage of this stuff coming from all directions. How much more stressed out can you get? At some point, it`s one more thing. I don`t know how he keeps it together. It`s coming out from so many directions. Obviously, he`s furious. Obviously, he feels betrayed by Cohen. But he`s known this for a while.
I would actually say all things considered, you know, the tweeting has been somewhat under control relative to some of the president`s comments about Mueller and the Russia investigation, you know, six to nine months ago. So, I`m sure he`s furious. But, in some way, he may be getting used to this sort of ongoing nightmare. Although, it certainly going to get worse over the next several months.
WILLIAMS: Three terrific guests to start us off on an important night. Mimi Rocah, Jeremy Bash, Michael Crowley, our thanks for coming on.
And coming up, as the President visits the southern border, he threatens to use his special emergency powers while leaving behind a trail of fiction and rewriting just a bit of medieval history.
And later, what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said abroad that was a direct shot at former President Barack Obama. As we said, an eventful day. THE 11TH HOUR just getting started on a Thursday night.
WILLIAMS: Well, the President toured our southern border near McAllen, Texas today, and again made the case for his wall on day 20 of the second longest shutdown in government history. He also attempted to clarify major that campaign promise he made that Mexico would fill in the rest, pay for the wall.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: This is common sense. They need a barrier. They need a wall. If you don`t have it, it`s going to be nothing but hard work and grueling problems. By the way, and death. And death. A lot of death. When I say Mexico is going to pay for the wall, do you think they`re going to write a check for $20 billion or $10 billion or $5 billion or 2 cents? No. They`re paying for the wall in a great trade deal.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Well that makes this a problem. A memo the Trump campaign sent to the "Washington Post" detailing their plan for Mexico to, "Make a one- time payment of $5 to $10 billion for the wall." And then there is the stuff he said from the campaign that simply will not go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: So a lot of politicians said you can`t get Mexico to pay for the wall. I said, it`s going to be so easy. Going to be so easy. The American people will not pay for the wall.
Watch this. Watch this. Are you ready for it? Who is going to pay for the wall? By the way, 100 percent. You know, the politicians say they won`t pay, a 100 percent. They`re not going to write us a check. They`ll pay in one form or another. They may even write us a check by the time they see what happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So there`s that. The president also said today, if there`s no compromise with Democrats, he would likely declare a National Emergency to get his wall built.
Today, our own Courtney Kube and Julia Ainsley report Trump has been briefed on a plan that would, "Use the Army Corps of Engineers and a portion of $13.9 billion of Army Corps funding to build 315 miles of barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. The money was set to fund projects all over the country including storm damaged areas of Puerto Rico through fiscal year 2020."
Tonight, Senator Lindsey Graham is urging his friend Trump to declare, you guess it, a national emergency. He wrote on Twitter, "Mr. President, the Democrats are not working in good faith with you. Declare emergency. Build the wall now."
Well, with us to talk about all of it, Tamara Keith, White House correspondent for NPR, and Aaron Blake, senior political reporter at the "Washington Post." The dramatic reading was my own, Tamara, but you get the idea. And here we are.
The President complained about having to make the trip today. We know from leaks supplied to publications, he didn`t think he should. That`s a tough way to sell something. As we always ask, on this broadcast, do you think a single mind was changed?
TAMARA KEITH, NPR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That would be hard to know at this point but probably not. People are pretty well in their corners with a little more than 50 percent of the country thinking the shutdown was a bad idea and blaming the president, and about 30 percent blaming Democrats. And those are the -- the same 30 percent that are always with President Trump no matter what.
In many ways he was speaking to his audience. How do you know? Because while he was there, along the southern border, he did an interview with Sean Hannity that aired on Fox tonight. The Fox audience is just as important for President Trump as the American people as a whole. He has to prove to them that he really is fighting for the wall, that he isn`t giving up on it as it seemed like he was doing before the shutdown began. But how he gets out of it and declares victory, that`s the part that, well, we are quite there yet.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Aaron, all of our viewers are probably wondering some form or the same question, can he do that? Can he declare a national emergency? What happens then? Do you want to take a swing at that?
AARON BLAKE, THE WASHINGTON POST SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. So I think there`s been a lot of focus on the narrow question of whether this constitutes an emergency. And the reporting that I`ve done actually finds that that maybe misses the point a little bit.
Presidents have pretty broad latitude to define a national emergency according to what they want. There is a separate and related portion of the law though that involves the money here. And if you look specifically at that code it suggests that this needs to be, one, for a military purpose. And two, that that military purpose is, well, one of two things basically. One is constructing military facilities. And the other is purchasing land.
If this somehow gets struck down in court, it is more likely to be not because it is not considered an emergency and more because a wall would not be considered a military facility or the purchase of land. Now, we can get very creative with the legal, technical legalese here. But that`s really what this is going to be about. And that`s not clear that the president can do that beyond saying this is technically an emergency and then going from there.
WILLIMAS: Tamara, we note that in the pages of the "Wall Street Journal" tonight there emerged a story about the president`s son-in-law, Jared, painting him in almost heroic light saying that he is the one on the inside in the West Wing urging restraint. I won`t ask you how you think such a thing got into the newspaper. I will ask you, can it be good if they`re peeling off the boss within the West Wing during the shutdown?
KEITH: They`re peeling off the bus inside the West Wing all the time. That would be a situation normal all the time for this White House to have people that conveniently fighting articles into the various newspapers, making their position look good.
And certainly this is a tough position that the President is in and he is trying to find a way out of it. That is why this emergency declaration seems so appealing. But there are a lot of problems with it potentially. More and more people including some Democrats having fun on Twitter are arguing, you know, if President Trump can do this, can declare an emergency to solve what, you know, there are -- there is a humanitarian problem at the border, but a wall is not really related to that.
To solve a political problem which is that Congress won`t give him what he wants. If he uses emergency powers for that, then what`s to say a Democratic president doesn`t come in and use emergency powers to do something that a Democrat would want to do. Like, you know, expand health care access or any number of Democratic agenda items that Republicans wouldn`t want. You know, when President Obama did DACA and some other things like that using executive power, Republicans were not happy at all and thought it was an executive overreach. And if President Trump does it, it will be a real test.
WILLIAMS: And Aaron, we know Mitch McConnell is not happy with the state of affairs, but is there any reason in all your reporting to think that there is any momentum, any movement heading into tomorrow, heading into the weekend?
BLAKE: Well, tomorrow obviously a big day because this is the day in which al those hundreds of thousands of government employees don`t get their first paycheck, the first paycheck that they`re going to miss.
Look, these shutdowns always seem like they will never end until the moment that they end. Both sides have an incentive to signal that they`re not going to cave. They`re not going to giving an inch until they decide it`s time to throw in the towel. That`s just generally how these things work.
That said, we have an unprecedented situation here in which the president has finally made good on his threats, his many threats in the past to take the border wall fund debate to the mat over a government funding bill. He has threatened to do this before and not actually followed through.
Now he is followed through and he also has Democrats on the other side, rather than Republicans in control of Congress. So it`s a situation which if he folds like he has in the past, it is going to be a capitulation to Democrats. We have a very stubborn man in the White House. He is not going to be very happy about having to do that.
And so I think if and when this does come to an end, it is going to start with McConnell, it is going to start with those Senate Republicans getting wobbly and they`re going to send the message to the president that says, enough is enough. We have to get pass this.
WILLIAMS: Well, great stuff from both of you guys. Really appreciate it. Tamara Keith, Aaron Blake, our thanks for coming on and explaining this side of the argument.
Coming up, the Secretary Of State travels to Egypt to trash Obama`s foreign policy. He calls it timid and misguided and he was just getting started. When we continue.
MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Remember, it was here, here in this city that another American stood before you. He told you the radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from ideology. He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed quote, "a new beginning". The results of these misjudgments have been dire.
The good news is this. The age of self-inflicted American shame is over and so are the policies that produce so much needless suffering. Now comes the real new beginning.
WILLIAMS: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier today in Cairo. Part of his ongoing nine-nation Middle East tour. And while he never actually said Barack Obama`s name, he didn`t need to. From birtherism to the continued trolling of the former president by -- for current president on Twitter, diminishing the Obama name and presidency has been a foundational goal of this President and his team.
Pompeo`s attack on Obama`s legacy comes almost 10 years after the former President`s own address to the Muslim world from the very same venue, very same city.
We`ve asked Jeremy Bash to stick around and come back and take a question or two on this. Jeremy does the audience in the room, in the wider Muslim world, look at that and say, well, you have to marvel at America. They pull off a change in their foreign policy without bloodshed. Or do they look at that and hear that and say, what`s going on with our friend America?
JEREMY BASH, FMR CIA CHEF OF STAFF: In my experience Brian, folks in the Middle East actually focus on actions, less so on words and speeches. If you look at the Trump administration`s actions, with this hasty, abrupt, and unilateral withdrawal from Syria, without giving a heads up to any of our allies, we`ve essentially emboldened the Assad Regime, embolden Iran, embolden Russia, abandoned the Kurds, caused deep consternation inside the Israel security establishment, with one fell swoop we basically undermined American foreign policy in the region. I think that`s what people are going to focus on, Brian.
WILLIAMS: But then we undermine that. As you well know Bolton goes over to Israel. We see him standing next to Netanyahu and sounding like every American has sounded. Kind of traditional American foreign policy for the last several decades, completely reversing the pull-out by tweet that the President did by fiat on Twitter.
BASH: That`s right. So there is a lot of clean-up on aisle 8 that`s part in parcel of these efforts to go around the regions and say, you know, don`t worry, we`re still going to be here. But again I think people will focus on our actions, not so on our words. And again with respect to Russia because Russia is a big winner with our withdrawal from Syria. You just have to look at our actions.
The Trump administration has resisted or relaxed sanctions on Russia. The Trump administration has undermined NATO. The Trump administration has failed to hold Russia accountable and they`ve taken the -- and we`ve taken the word of the former KGB spy Vladimir Putin and his intelligence services over our own CIA. And so, again, people just need to look at the actions not the words or the rhetoric.
WILLIAMS: Our own veteran of the CIA and the Pentagon Jeremy Bash, always a pleasure. Thank you for staying up late with us tonight. We appreciate it.
And coming up, Donald Trump is facing multiple challenges on multiple fronts. Nothing less than an existential challenge to his presidency. We`ll talk about what to watch for it next when we come back.
WILLIAMS: As we inch closer to the longest shutdown in history, causing real damage now to families who are not at fault. As we add to that, the Michael Cohen news of just today, you could be convinced sooner or later, we are in for a period of darkness for this presidency. And as things heat up, one of our next guest Eugene Robinson believes Trump is acting out. Quote, "the government isn`t shut down because of President Trump`s unbelievable cluelessness as a dealmaker, it is shut down because of his many fears."
Well, with us tonight the aforementioned Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the "Washington Post" and Jim Warren, a Veteran friend journalist, political commentator who is previously Washington Bureau Chief for the "Chicago Tribune", these days, executive editor of the new startup "NewsGuard" that rates the veracity of news and information sites.
Both our old friends of this broadcast not to say both are old just old friends of the broadcast, which is now old. Gentlemen, good evening and welcome.
Gene, I want to ask you how bad it could get. But as a gale she/he sub question would be, would the President who`s challenged on empathy, does that not make him tougher to deal with for a lot of folks on the Hill? Normally you would feel the impact of something like this.
EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, WASHINGTON POST: Right. And -- but he tends to feel only impacts on him personally. And so the impact on 800,000 federal workers, and uncounted federal contractors, people who clean the buildings, who work for the contracting company --
ROBINSON: -- will never get that money back and don`t make a lot of money. You know, normally, yes, so President would feel -- would empathize with those people. But I don`t think this President does. I think he is thinking about his own political prospects and his own survival as President, and the fact that he, you know, he promised the wall, his base loved the wall.
It was an unrealistic promise from the very first day. It was never going to happen. And he`s got to somehow make it happen.
WILLIAMS: Jim Warren, you`ve always enjoyed words. I want to play for you now some of the stylings of the President at the border. We`ll discuss it on the other side.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There`s nothing that can`t be penetrated but you fix it. Even concrete, there`s acid that can go through concrete. But what you do is you fix it. I`m a professional in technology.
They say a wall is medieval, but so is a wheel. A wheel is older than a wall. The wheel is older than the wall, you know that?
And there are some things that work. You know what? A wheel works and a wall works. Nothing like a wall.
JIM WARREN, VETERAN JOURNALIST & POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Its your show. Nothing like a wall including his sometimes and penetrable rhetoric.
ROBINSON: That was (INAUDIBLE) actually.
WARREN: I -- yes.
WILLIAMS: History we should say correct walls were first and then the wheel.
WARREN: Last time you had me, we`re talking about the job of chief of staff and that evening seemed Daniel Radcliffe of "Harry Potter" theme and of -- of play about fact checking. Would you believe tonight, I saw the great Brian Cranston in network, his amazing adaptation of the 1976 movie? One cannot watch Brian Cranston without thinking of this President, one cannot look at a character who is a creature of this medium, a television studio, whose all whole reality is TV. And not think of a man who is said to sit in the White House and watch hours and hours of television, make personal decisions based on the fidelity to his positions of the people he sees on television and not think of the very Trump in moment today.
He goes down to the border, which he had in a moment of real candor the other day said he didn`t want to do. He knows most Americans are against the notion of the wall. He has in tow a key player for his base media player Sean Hannity who throughout the day and then he stops is not standing with the press corps. He`s standing with the staff. And like Howard Beale who famously was mad as hell and I`m not going to take it anymore. He is playing to fears.
Gene talked about his own fears. But they`re the fears of the folks whose base who supports the notion of a wall. And I think he is adroitly exploiting that. And today in a perfect television moment he went to the border do something he didn`t want to do, why? Because it was a great so- called photo op in his eye.
WILLIAMS: My fear is blowing through a commercial break. But Gene and Jim just stay with us.
Coming up, we`re just moments away now from federal workers` first missed paycheck. What happens next? Our conversation continues.
AMBER BROADWAY, WIFE OF COAST GUARD MEMBER: We are a very proud coast guard family.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Proud is how Amber Broadway would describe what it`s like to be married to an active duty coast guardsman of 14 years. Scare is how she described it now.
BROADWAY: We`re having to plan like we can`t provide for our families.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are holding my paycheck passive (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is a correction officer who still has to go to work without a paycheck.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now, I`m just have to make the choices of what bills I`m going to have to pay. Like anything that`s not essential, I`m going to have to get rid of.
WILLIAMS: Some of the local coverage from our NBC stations around the country. Tomorrow is the day nearly 800,000 federal workers will miss their first paycheck. At protest all over this country today, distressed workers feel stuck in the middle of this seemingly endless shutdown with the adults around them behaving badly.
They are now forced to decide what bills if any they can pay. Think about it, please. Medication or food, rent or mortgage or childcare, college loans or gasoline?
Still with us, Eugene Robinson, Jim Warren. Eugene it`s hard to watch --
WILLIAMS: -- the government behave like this.
WILLIAMS: We wonder why we`re such a deeply, cynical, turned off negative society.
ROBINSON: Because it has taken awhile to get us here. I mean we cant -- you know, there was a time all of us are old enough to remember when Congress would actually pass a budget inappropriate money, you know, in a timely fashioned.
WILLIAMS: Those people we just heard from haven`t done anything wrong, you know?
ROBINSON: No, they haven`t. No, they haven`t. And it`s just a travesty that they are caught in this situation. So how do we get out of it, right? How do we get out of this situation?
And it is difficult to imagine, if not impossible to imagine a negotiated solution between President Trump, who basically just says capitulate, and the Democrats who have no reason to capitulate, and so maybe he issues an emergency declaration and says I can build the wall myself and then it doesn`t matter whether he actually does it, he claims a victory.
But that would be an awful thing. It would be an awful thing for a president of the United States to create, you know, to gin up a fake emergency and to use these awesome powers in that way. That would be -- that would not be a good result, yet that may be the best thing we`re looking at right now.
WILLIAMS: Jim warren, think about where you`re from, Chicago O`Hare, one of the busiest airports in the world. Tower is fully staffed. Everything is landing and taking off safely tonight because of federal employees working without a dime in compensation.
WARREN: And at least I should say parenthetically at least they know they`re going to ultimately get paid. Gene mentioned before we got on, the private contractors, the men and women cleaning a lot of building, dusty government buildings in D.C. and Alaska and elsewhere who are screwed.
WILLIAMS: Food services, deliveries.
ROBINSON: They will never get that money.
WARREN: They`re probably not going to get paid, but as long as there`s not actual inconvenience to folks, just like the crazy Illinois budget mess, Chicago budget mess, it`s not until the garbage doesn`t get picked up that folks -- it won`t be until then that they vent. But nevertheless, bottom line question, is he crashing? How many times have we thought that on many days?
We were talking before even when he -- during the campaign he said John McCain wasn`t a hero. I said that`s it for him and he has survived. I personally suspect that the key indicators will not be the shutdown because that`s going to end, but it will be at what point some fair number of Republicans in Congress turn against him, ala the Republicans against Nixon, I think that`s first and foremost number one, and then how incriminating, if at all, how incriminating is the Mueller report?
WILLIAMS: A lot of people join you and waiting to see those Republicans. Eugene, I can give you 30 seconds. Will we look to February 7th, Cohen`s testimony day, as perhaps the most consequential thus far in this presidency?
ROBINSON: Well, it will -- it`s certainly a sort of red letter day episode in this long-running reality television show that we call our lives these days. A show that, by the way, has jumped the shark several times, but I think February 7th will be an important day.
You know, even if Michael Cohen were not to release or to disclose new -- a lot of new facts, to hear him describe the conversations with President Trump when they conspired to violate federal election law, as he pleaded guilty to, to hear his accounting of other Trump Organization business tactics and projects over the years, in his language, in Trump`s language, I think it`s going to be pretty memorable.
WILLIAMS: Two veterans of journalism who really do know the best words, our friends, Eugene Robinson and Jim Warren. Gentlemen, thank you, as always.
Coming up, `tis the season for politicians to show us that they eat food and drink beverages and are life-like people just like us when we come back.
WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight, politicians, why they`re just like us. They even go to the dentist. Now, we say this because Beto O`Rourke, who was last in the news when he lost the $90 million Senate race in Texas to Ted Cruz, and recently let it be known, he might get in his car and go on a solo drive to talk to voters as he considers a run for president. That Beto O`Rourke was in the news just today because he got his teeth cleaned. And we know that because he thought it was important enough to share with all of us on social media.
You can imagine the comments, many of them along the lines of "Thank God this wasn`t Beto`s day to see the proctologist." This past holiday season especially, it seems so important to politicians, a lot of Democrats among them, come to think of it, to show us that they eat food and drink beverages just like us.
Before she even got to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York showed us that she makes food in her kitchen. California Senator Kamala Harris made gumbo at Christmas time with her sister, just like people do, and Elizabeth Warren drank an American-made beer product in her kitchen, proving she is just like similar beverage enthusiasts in kitchens all across our great country.
In the modern era, we may have President Gerald R. Ford to thank for all of this. He was indeed, an exceedingly normal Michiganer, an all-American football player, a Navy veteran in World War II, but even with all that, people were amazed to learn that even in the White House he both toasted and buttered his own English muffin every morning, even after being told, you know, sir, you have people for that.
And he once famously performed his amazing English muffin stunt for the press corps. And the message then was, our president, he`s just a guy, he`s just like us. Thankfully there was no social media in 1974. We know the president went to the dentist, but no one had yet dared to dream that some day there could be live coverage of a teeth cleaning.
That is our broadcast on this Thursday night. Thank you so very much for being here with us. Good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR: The federal government is still shut down. The President is still the president.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END