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Trump faces sweeping document request. TRANSCRIPT: 3/6/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Michael Crowley, Rebecca Ballhous, Bob Bauer

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Donald Trump, the greatest economic ignoramus in the history of the American presidency, gets tonight`s LAST WORD.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, Michael Cohen hands over more evidence to House Intel and it`s new evidence aimed at proving he was instructed how to lie by the people around the President.  He also warns he`ll continue to cooperate.

Plus, one-time Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort learns tomorrow if he`ll spend the last of his days on earth in federal prison.  Tomorrow the first of his two prison sentences that will be handed down.

And we`ll have a former White House counsel with us tonight to talk about what these next few months might be like on the inside.  As "The 11th Hour" gets under way on a Wednesday night.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 776 of the Trump administration.  And Michael Cohen has reportedly just today offered up new evidence of possible wrongdoing by this White House.  Cohen testified at another hearing today.  He spent eight hours behind closed doors in front of the House Intelligence committee.  This is his fourth Capitol Hill hearing, mind you, in a little over a week.

According to our folks at NBC News, Cohen "provided the documents to the House Intelligence Committee with the intention of supporting his public testimony before Congress in which he said members of Trump`s legal team made changes to his statements on the Moscow real estate talks."

Cohen is going to federal prison, let`s not forget, two months from now for tax and bank and campaign finance violations and for lying to Congress.  Last week Cohen testified publicly before the House Oversight Committee telling them and by extension telling a live televised audience that the President`s attorneys had helped him with those lies.


REP. JAMIE RASKIN, (D) MARRYLAND OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE:  Which specific lawyers reviewed and edited your statement to Congress on the Moscow tower negotiations?  And did they make any changes to your statement?

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP LAWYER:  There were changes made. Additions.  Jay Sekulow for one.

RASKIN:  Were there changes about the timing?

COHEN:  There were several changes that were made including how we were going to handle that message.  The message, of course, being the length of time that the Trump Tower Moscow project stayed and remained alive.


WILLIAMS:  "The New York Times" has more on the documents that Cohen revealed today in that hearing room, writing "It was not immediately clear how many changes were made by Mr. Trump`s lawyers including Jay Sekulow or how drastic those changes were."

The paper add, a source, "said that at least some of the changes appear to play down the knowledge of the President`s eldest daughter Ivanka Trump about the project."

Now, Trump Attorney Jay Sekulow denies the President`s legal team made any edits.

As Cohen himself left Capitol Hill this evening, he offered a brief assessment of today`s proceedings.


COHEN:  The hearings went very, very well.  I believe that all of the members were satisfied with the statements and the responses that I gave to them.  I told them that any additional information that they would want they should feel comfortable to reach out to my counsel and I would continue to cooperate to the fullest extent of my capabilities.


WILLIAMS:  Note that last bit there about continuing to cooperate.  Shortly after Cohen spoke, the House Intel chairman hinted of yet more to come.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF, (D) CALIFORNIA CHAIR. INTELLIGENCE CMTE.:  He answered every question that was put to him by members of both parties.

We had requested documents of Mr. Cohen.  He has provided additional documents to the committee.  There may be additional documents that he still has to offer, and his cooperation with our committee continues.  We will fill you in on further witnesses and testimony that we anticipate.


WILLIAMS:  There is also new reporting from the "New York Times" tonight about Trump`s lead lawyer Rudolph Giuliani and presidential pardons.  The "Times" reports "Giuliani said Wednesday that lawyers for several people facing scrutiny from the Justice Department in the investigations into the Trump campaign and presidency had contacted him to see whether the President would pardon their clients.

Giuliani declined to identify the lawyers who broached the subject.  He made his statement in response to questions about President Trump`s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen who has told federal prosecutors in Manhattan about pardon discussions last year that involved Giuliani."

The "Times" here adds "Testifying behind closed doors on Wednesday before the House Intel Committee, Mr. Cohen was pressed on whether he sought out or was offered a potential pardon."

Our NBC News colleague Kristen Welker spoke by phone with Giuliani late this evening about the issue of Presidential pardons.  He told her that over the past eight to ten months many lawyers and reporters have asked him about Trump`s possible pardons.

Giuliani told Kristen, "I can`t tell you exactly what I said to the lawyers because it`s privileged.  I can tell you I said to them the President will not consider a pardon now, nor will the President give a pardon now."

Also tonight another former Trump associate, Paul Manafort is about to learn just how much prison time he`s looking at for bank and tax fraud.  Tomorrow a federal judge in Virginia is scheduled to sentence the former Trump campaign chairman.

Manafort, you`ll recall, convicted in August, he now faces up to 24 years in federal prison, millions of dollars in fines.  But then he gets sentenced in his next case in D.C. that`s next week.  Manafort pleaded guilty in that case and agreed to cooperate with investigators.  But then that deal collapsed and he was found to have lied to Robert Mueller`s team.

It`s a lot to talk about.  Let`s bring in our lead-off panel on a Wednesday night.  Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for the ""Washington Post"," moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS.  Michael Crowley, White House and National Security Editor at Politico.  And Julia Ainsley, our own NBC News National Security and Justice Reporter.

Robert Costa, last time you were on this broadcast we had the following conversation, that in the television age we tend to link scandals and investigation to televised hearings.  Heretofore this had not been a televised hearing-driven story.  It`s been driven otherwise by our colleagues in the news media.

Now we have Mr. Cohen appearing and making a big splash including today continuing to offer up new evidence.  Tell me how people are reacting and who specifically is reacting.

ROBERT COSTA, THE WASHINGTON POST NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER:  It`s another appearance by Mr. Cohen on Capitol Hill but entirely different than his public testimony last week.  This was private, behind closed-doors, before the Intelligence Committee, talking to people familiar with that process.

They say one of the main topics was that "New York Times" story.  I just got off the phone 30 seconds ago with Mayor Giuliani myself about the issue of pardons.  Were pardons discussed by Mr. Cohen`s lawyers with the Trump legal team?  What was the extent of those conversations?  What was the intent of Mr. Trump`s attorneys in those conversations?  Was anything dangled before Mr. Cohen?

These were all the sorts of issues that were brought before the Intelligence Committee today.  Mr. Giuliani in a sense baited Mr. Cohen in our interview tonight.  He said he would like to see this attorney-client privilege waived so he could discuss at length the kind of lawyers that came to him to talk about pardons.

And Mr. Giuliani insisted that the President or his team never offered pardons, but certainly there were discussions.  And the context of those discussions is what is critical at this moment.

WILLIAMS:  I hope our viewers understand what would be the upside.  What would be gained by Rudolph Giuliani in waiving such a privilege and talking openly about this?

COSTA:  Mr. Giuliani said two to three attorneys who were part of the Trump joint defense legal agreement, this team of a wide world of Trump associates who`ve entered into a legal collective of sorts, have an attorney-client privilege and he would like to talk more at length about those discussions.  He claims attorney client privilege is preventing him from doing so tonight.

WILLIAMS:  Julia Ainsley, when you hear Mr. Cohen one foot out the door today promise to keep cooperating, what should we think about that?  What could that mean?

JULIA AINSLEY, NBC NEWS NTL. SECURITY AND JUSTICE REPORTER:  Well, I think, Brian, we have as much of a P.R. battle going on right now as anything.  He wants to show he has more suitcases, more documents he can bringt out to Congress because he is now seeing this star cooperative witness.  Unlike people who are cooperating with Mueller, he can do so in the spotlight.  He is making this the televised drama people were talking about.

And he realizes that the P.R. battle he`s waging against his enemy would be the White House.  He wants to show their lawyers are the ones who edited his testimony, which caused him to lie.  He wants to show that it was Mr. Trump who, in an indirect way, asked him to be untruthful because that`s what it meant to work for Donald Trump.  All of these things are a way to show that Michael Cohen is now someone credible who can be trusted even as he heads to prison for three years, as we know he will do in May.

So, I believe that it`s part of that.  We don`t think that they`ll really be able to see this collaboration with Congress as a way to bring his sentence down.  In fact, he also runs the risk of saying something wrong that could increase that prison sentence.  But, I think, at this point it`s trying to be a foil against the President because he has certainly done a 180 since the days he stood by Donald Trump no matter what.

WILLIAMS:  Michael, let`s talk about Mr. Manafort.  Give us a preview of tomorrow other than the epic fall from grace.  Many say owing to his record and epic ne`er-do-wells in his rolodex over the years.  And remember, tomorrow is just Chapter 1 of the sentencing portion when he in fact learns whether he will perhaps expire or die in federal prison.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, POLITICO SENIOR CORRESPONDENT:  That`s right, Brian.  Paul Manafort is not a young man.  And he is looking down the barrel right now of I believe up to about 24 years in prison.

And special counsel -- and this is -- as you say, he was -- faced two different trials.  This is the Virginia case in which he was convicted on several counts of bank and tax fraud, largely involving him essentially laundering and sheltering money that he was making illicitly from his work in Ukraine.

Special counsel Robert Mueller did not recommend a specific sentence in terms of the number of years but submitted very harsh document to the court essentially saying that Manafort had few redeeming qualities, still hadn`t paid any of the back taxes that he has evaded, did not fully cooperate with the Feds.

Manafort`s lawyers are saying, well, you know, this is a first-time offense and he`s an older guy and crimes like the ones that he`s been convicted of are normally not punished to the max, it`s going to be up to Judge Ellis to make that decision tomorrow.  But even if Manafort ends up getting a lighter sentence, as you say, he has to go on to face his reckoning in D.C.  So it`s looking pretty bleak for him.

I`d just like to add, Brian, rewinding to the point about what Giuliani`s interest might be in suggesting, you know, sort of urging Cohen, baiting Cohen to waive attorney-client privilege.  I wonder if Giuliani`s game here is to try to contend that Cohen was seek a pardon from Donald Trump.

And to say, well, Cohen made this sort of sleazy offer to us, you know, I`ll keep my mouth shut if I can count on a pardon and I think that that would be a smart sort of P.R. strategy on the part of Giuliani and the White House to say that, you know, Cohen was asking for this and it wasn`t the President who was initiating it.  And that`s the only motive that I can see in Giuliani saying that.  But I think it`s an interesting question to try to think more about.

WILLIAMS:  Robert Costa, how about you take on that interesting question?

COSTA:  At this moment we have Michael Cohen having testified publicly that he was not seeking a pardon.  Yet there are always conversations among attorneys about the state of cases, things that are sometimes inferred and not explicitly said.  That today is what members of the Intelligence Committee, both Democrats and Republicans in the House were probing.

What exactly was Cohen trying to tell them today behind close-doors about the extent of his conversations with the Trump legal team?  And it does seem to be murky because some of it relies on Mr. Cohen`s memory and Mr. Cohen`s word, which he has been proven in the past to be a liar.  He has admitted to lying to Congress in the past.  And so you have Congress relying on him as a witness.

And they`re also still skeptical of the Trump legal team to some extent.  Was there an intent in any conversation to obstruct justice even if not explicitly said?  This is all what needs to come out in the terms of the investigation, in talking perhaps to more witnesses.  That`s why House Democrats are so interested in bringing more people to the Hill.

WILLIAMS:  And Bob, talk to me about optics.  You`ve got Michael Cohen with a prison date.  You`ll have Paul Manafort heading off to federal prison.

And I don`t think any of these guys are going to country clubs where they`re smuggling in bottles of red wine and Paulie`s cutting the garlic with a razor blade.  I think they`re going to actual federal prisons.  The optics of your campaign chairman, your personal lawyer, and then some heading off to federal prison.

COSTA:  OK.  The optics now politically troublesome.  But if you look at that list of dozens of Trump associates and advisers who could be heading to put their hand up on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks and months, you have a more vexing problem for Emmett Flood and Pat Cipollone at the White House.  Because as we saw with Michael Cohen, questions about insurance, the President`s finances, the President`s conduct, that`s all on the horizon.

When you talk to the people closest to the President, they say Michael Cohen, Brian, Paul Manafort, in some respects old news.  The real worry is what`s coming next?  What can`t they predict?  All these variables, all these requests for documents, that`s why they`re trying to fight it.

WILLIAMS:  And Michael Crowley, how well equipped is this White House right now at this point in time to take this on?

CROWLEY:  Well, better than they were a couple months ago but they were slow out of the gate staffing up the counsel`s office.  Had turnover.  Don McGahn left.  There`s a new counsel and took him a while to get his security clearance.  They were slow hiring up.

They have accelerated the process and they`re pretty well staffed now.  But, you know, legal experts who our reporters are talking to saying that they really seem like they`re behind the ball.  Past administrations got started a lot faster after a turnover in the Congress.  This suggested that oversight and document requests were going to be swamping down on them.

So, I think that it`s going to be a game of catch-up for them, which is not what they want to be playing right now.

WILLIAMS:  And Julia, point of personal privilege.  I`ve got to get you on the record on an exclusive bit of reporting you have about a list.  A list of people maintained by our government having to do with our southern border.  Explain to the folks watching what this story is about because we`re going to be hearing more about it.

AINSLEY:  That`s right, Brian.  These are 59 journalists, attorneys, and advocates who went down across the southern border from California into Tijuana around the time that that migrant caravan arrived.

Our affiliate in San Diego, KNSD, obtained this list, and I was able to run it to ground here in Washington to figure out what this was and why these names in particular were on the list.  The customs and border protection said they just wanted to talk to these people to understand why violence broke out across the border around November.  If you can remember the incidents of tear gas.

But the people we`ve spoken to who were actually interviewed say it went much more beyond that.  They gathered information like who their in-laws were, where they live, what their cars look like, got their contact -- all their contacts off of their phones.  Their social media pages were scoured.  Things that really don`t have as much to do with that unrest at the border.

And we`ve heard that it`s happened elsewhere, people being stopped in Juarez and Rio Grande Valley.  Going back to early 2018 as the border patrol became more concerned about whether or not immigrants were being told or coached on how to respond to asylum interviews.  They started to intimidate these people.

And from what I`ve been told, from journalists and from lawyers and from these advocates who are trying to get down there and do their work, is that it`s having a chilling effect.  They`re starting to be afraid to travel to Mexico because they`re afraid they won`t be able to get back.


WILLIAMS:  Another incredible story emerging from this administration.  To Robert Costa, to Michael Crowley, to Julia Ainsley, our thanks for starting us off tonight so well.

And coming up, defending the President.  We`ll talk with a former White House counsel about the many challenges ahead for this man and his administration.

And later, Democrats get the chance to demand answers about a policy that separated those immigrant children from their parents.  "The 11th Hour" just getting started on this Wednesday night.


WILLIAMS:  Just been handed some reporting that went public 17 minutes ago from the "Wall Street Journal" time-stamped 11:03 p.m. here`s the headline, "Attorney says Cohen directed his lawyer to seek Trump pardon, contradicting testimony."  It`s the work of Rebecca Ballhous, who is with us by telephone.

Rebecca, tell folks who are watching the lead and the import of your reporting here.

REBECCA BALLHOUS (via telephone):  Sure.  So, what we learned tonight from Michael Cohen`s current lawyer is that last spring, shortly after the FBI raid of his properties, Cohen directed his attorney to inquire about the possibility of a Presidential pardon.  We had reported earlier this week that his attorney had contacted several lawyers for Trump in those weeks after this April raid and raised the possibility of a pardon, which it seems was pretty much dismissed although they left open the possibility of a pardon in the future.

But the reason that this is important is because Cohen said last week to the House Oversight Committee that he had never asked for nor would he accept a pardon from Trump.  And while this reporting doesn`t show that Cohen personally sought a pardon, it does show that he was very involved in efforts it ask Trump lawyers for a pardon.

WILLIAMS:  Yes, you just jumped to my question.  Because I`ve learned with this crowd you have to figure out how much room everybody has to wiggle out of a quote.  Could Cohen saying "I never asked for a pardon" give him the room he needs if someone came back at him and said, "Yes, but your lawyer apparently did?"  Could he find just enough plausible deniability in there?  I don`t know.

BALLHOU:  I think it`s likely that he will make the argument that because he did not personally ask Trump lawyers for a pardon that he was not lying to the committee.  But at the very best it seems he was misleading the committee.  And I think he`s going to get a lot of questions about that in particular from Republicans on the committee who have already accused hmm of perjuring himself last week.

WILLIAMS:  And in your line of work I guess it`s fair to say especially in these days since the public Cohen hearing the notion of pardons as a story, as a line of questioning, has just exploded.  Correct?

WILLIAMS:  That`s right.  And we saw these requests go out from the House Judiciary committee earlier this week to more than 80 associates of the President.  And many of those requests referenced or asked for documents related to the discussion of possible pardons for not just Michael Cohen but also for Paul Manafort, the President`s former campaign chairman, and for Mike Flynn, his former national security adviser.  So we may see more come out still on the subject of these pardon discussions.

WILLIAMS:  And again, for viewers just joining us who see the characteristic red of breaking news at the bottom of the screen, we`ve been talking about this story.  Just went up on the website of "The Wall Street Journal" tonight.  It`s an exclusive about Cohen directing his lawyer to seek at one time, it is reported from the President a pardon for whatever his misdeeds might be.

Rebecca Ballhaus, the journalist behind the story, has been kind enough to phone in to us and spend some few minutes with us.  Rebecca, thank you very much for doing so.

Back to our broadcast tonight.  We want to show you something. This was Sarah Huckabee Sanders appearing this morning on the President`s favorite morning program.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  This expedition that you are seeing led by Chairman Nadler is truly an embarrassment to Congress, and it`s hurting our country, and it is the opposite of what they were elected to do and the opposite of what we need them to do.


WILLIAMS:  So, you see there the White House Press Secretary again going after the House Judiciary Committee and its Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York over its sweeping document request from the White House and Trump`s broader orbit, 81 letters in all.  Tonight there are more signs the White House is gearing up for battle with House Democrats and Robert Mueller.

"L.A. Times" is reporting the administration has moved a veteran lawyer to its press shop, as has been reported earlier 17 hires have been made in all in the White House counsel`s office in just the recent months.  Chris Megerian writes, "Together these actions show that a White House known for lack of planning is scrambling to prepare for Mueller`s findings about Russian support for Trump in the 2016 election and for the gathering storm of Democratic-led Congressional inquiries into Trump`s businesses, private foundation, and activities in office."

We`re fortunate to have with us tonight Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Obama.

And Counselor, if you were advising the Trump legal team, and I`m sure not insinuating that you are, how would you recommend they ramp up for what you and I can both guess they`re about to be facing?

BOB BAUER, FMR. WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, you anticipated my first answer.  I`m definitely not advising the Trump legal team.  They`re going to be gearing as White Houses traditionally do for very intense oversight activity.  They could one day become an impeachment inquiry.

And so they`ll be adding lawyers to deal with what will be a very heavy burden of replying, as indeed they`re obligated to reply to these Congressional inquiries.

And as you saw, as you noted in the reporting from the "L.A. Times," they`re going to be working very closely to make sure -- or they`re going to try to work closely with the Com. Department, the communications staff, to make sure the lawyers and the Communications Department of the White House are, if you will in sync and that the people who were handling the press are not making things more difficult for the lawyers.

WILLIAMS:  So just as newspapers have lawyers, television shows, television networks have lawyers, you don`t find it unusual to embed a member of the legal profession inside the shop that does press and coms at the White House so that can be affected by his or her legal eye?

BAUER:  I don`t know that it`s embedding. I don`t know where this particular lawyer will be located, whether he or she will be located in the space where the press normally -- the press office normally functions.

WILLIAMS:  Maybe just electronically.

BAUER:  Correct. But tightening up the communication between the press shop and the communication shop doesn`t strike me as particularly novel.  It makes some sense fundamentally.

WILLIAMS:  And Counselor, we`re just starting to hear the phrase privilege or executive privilege be used.  And I have a dual question for you.  For our viewers at the end of a long day, what is your layperson`s walking around definition of executive privilege and do you predict this is going to come up a whole lot in the months ahead?

BAUER:  It seems like it will come up a great deal.  The administration`s been teasing that.  I`ve certainly seen it reflected in press reports.

Executive privilege is a privilege that presidents assert.  And by the way, there are different forms of executive privilege but they`re fundamentally meant to protect the confidentiality of communications with the president and within the executive office of the president.

And the purpose of the privilege is to make it possible for the building to function, if you will, so that communications are protected and those who advise the President and those who hear from the President don`t have to worry that those communications have to be tailored in some way or avoided because of the possibility they will later have to be disclosed.

Now, let me be very quick to say privilege is not a magic blanket that the President can throw over anything he does not wish to disclose.  The privilege questions that are likely to be raised by the President in the weeks and months ahead will almost certainly be contested by the House.  And the House will have a very strong hand in obtaining the materials that the President might wish to withhold with a claim of privilege.

WILLIAMS:  So it`s one thing to be a patriotic American and to agree that our Presidents need wise counsel and sometimes need to have unfettered conversation.  It`s quite another when you believe that conversation had to do with the commission of a crime?

BAUER:  Absolutely.  As a matter of fact, it`s been policy since the Reagan administration that executive privilege is not properly asserted and is not validly asserted to protect against the disclosure of criminal conduct, of wrongdoing.

WILLIAMS:  And finally, Michael Cohen walking out the door today as we were just discussing say that he plans to keep cooperating.  He already unveiled new evidence today.  That`s got to get your attention if you`re in the legal shop at the White House.  Very tough to defend against kind of a bombshell of the day.

BAUER:  No question.  Here`s testimony that was given before Congress.  He has acknowledged, pled guilty to lying to Congress.  And yet this testimony went to the White House.  It is a certainty that the President saw it.  It is a certainty that the lawyers who saw it had some conversation with the President about what to look for in that testimony.

I don`t know what Mr. Cohen has said was changed or in what way it was changed and to what extent it affected what he said about the timing of the Moscow hotel negotiations.  But what he`s had to say about those changes, what he`s had to say about the review of testimony now known to have been false is a very serious problem for this administration.

WILLIAMS:  Bob Bauer, former White House counsel, we always appreciate you coming on.  Thank you very much for taking our questions tonight.

BAUER: My pleasure, thank you.

WILLIAMS:  Coming up for us, Republican senators are told to stick with him, stay united over the President`s national border emergency declaration.  The problem is they`re not.  We`ll have that rundown when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  It is now apparent there are enough Republicans to reject the President`s national emergency and send it back to him, perhaps forcing his first veto.  This is the President`s own party, after all.  There they are.  And he`s not happy about this.  He said so on Twitter today.

"Senate Republicans are not voting on constitutionality or precedent, they are voting on desperately needed border security and Wall," with a capital w.  "Our country is being invaded with," here`s some more capitals, "drugs, human traffickers and criminals of all shapes and sizes.  That`s what this vote is all about.  Stay united. "

There`s every chance this issue will keep coming up.  Indeed, POLITICO is reporting today that Republicans could face emergency votes every six months in a cycle.  Among the senators we`re keeping an eye on, Mitt Romney, the freshman senator from Utah.  Our own Garrett Haake who joins us in just a moment caught up with Senator Romney earlier today.


Senator Romney:  I`m not saying I haven`t made a decision.  I`m just saying I`m not ready to release something yet.


WILLIAMS:  Here to talk about it, the aforementioned Garrett Haake who covers all things Capitol Hill and Michael Steele, the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, former Lieutenant Governor of the great state of Maryland.  Gentlemen, welcome to you both.

So, Garrett, I couldn`t help but notice kind of startled to learn that a lot of those initial four Republicans have an election coming up in two years.  Often, early Republicans who jump, even though there are very few profiles in courage in this Senate, give air cover to others who are cowering and may come public later.  Is that the case here? 

GARRETT HAAKE, MSNBC WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  I thought it might be when Rand Paul became the pivotal vote here.  He became the fourth vote, which guarantees that their resolution here disapproving of President Trump`s emergency declaration would pass.

I thought Rand Paul might be the one that broke the dam here, but so far that hasn`t been the case.  And it`s interesting to hear folks like Mitt Romney kind of give up the game here today by saying it`s not necessarily that he hasn`t made up his mind.  I pressed him on this.

And the resolution is one page.  It`s something like 80 words.  Dozens of people have made up their minds on it.  He`s one of the few holding his cards.  He gave up the game by saying, you know, "It`s not that I haven`t made up my mind, it`s that I`m not ready to announce it."  I think some of these Republican senators don`t see any benefit in coming out early and saying they will oppose the President to then get the snot beat out of them on Twitter for the next week and a half until this vote actually happens, probably before the end of next week.

So I do think you might see more defections but I think even the folks who might need to defect for political purposes like Cory Gardner, another vulnerable Republican up for re-election in 2020, don`t see the upside in jumping ship before they have to.

WILLIAMS:  So, Chairman Steele, I have two numbers to show you.  When you ask the general public do they approve or disapprove of this national emergency, the general public says back to the kind pollster, 2 out of 3 of us, 66% disapprove.  However, when you ask Republicans, almost by an equal margin the other way it`s above water, 69% approve.

Michael Steele, might there actually be a profile in courage if these Republicans go against these kinds of numbers?

MICHAEL STEELE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN:  Not really.  Look, I`ll tell you why.  Because at the end of the day it`s one thing to have the four or five votes you need to reject the bill.  Give me the 67.  That`s when you will have turned a corner, when you have the majority of the Senate that would override the President`s veto.

So this is a fun little exercise here where everyone gets to be a little bit melodramatic.  Everyone gets to pretend that they`re doing something, you know, courageous, but they`re not.  Because there`s no effort that`s underway -- and I would be really surprise if there is that actually get to 67.  And that`s not happening.

So this is just an exercise that gives Trump the opportunity to send out the kind of tweets he sent out today, saying you know, this is -- remember, Republicans, this is a vote for the wall, and for Republicans to go, "OK, yes.  Well, you know, but we have a problem with the wall so we`re going to vote no."  Give me 67 votes, and then you will see a break with the President that means something.  Up till that this is just typical Washington drama that leads to sameness.

WILLIAMS:  I want to request from the chair a brief side bar and that is to Garrett Haake.  You and I share something of a fascination with the new freshman senator from Utah.  Mitt Romney comes from royalty back home.  So there`s very little risk of voter backlash or accountability.  He`s got the running room of a brand new six-year term in the Senate and name recognition off the charts.  A lot of people have very high expectations about Mitt Romney becoming a national figure in this Senate.

Garrett, do you think the indicators are still there or do you see a go along, get along indicator? 

HAAKE:  Mitt Romney set the bar for himself incredibly high with that Washington Post op-ed before his first day as a senator in which he said he`d be willing to break from the President when he felt like it was necessary.

So far he hasn`t really done that.  It`s, you know, people have asked me for a long time whether I thought Romney would be more like John McCain.  I think he`s going to ultimately -- he`s setting up right now based on what he`s done so far to be more like Jeff Flake, someone who has said he stands up to the President on issues of morality, he`ll stand up to him on issues where they disagree but he hasn`t proven yet that he`s willing to really put the vote against him yet.

And this is such a good test for that issue here because as you said, Romney is politically bullet proof in Utah.  He is untouchable.  He`s got a six-year term.  He`s not going to be on the ballot with Donald Trump ever.  This is not -- he could take this vote if he wants to.

And I think that`s why people like myself have been hounding him every day in the halls for an answer on this because he is such an indicator.  And so far he hasn`t shown he`s willing to vote the same way he`s willing to write.

STEELE:  And now --

WILLIAMS:  Yes, go ahead, Michael.

STEELE:  And, Brian -- I think he makes such a great point there because if Romney comes out and draws that battle line if you will, it may have the impact of stiffening the backbone of some other members in the Senate, in the caucus, to stand with him.  One of the problems that`s been evident is that you don`t have that voice, that leader that`s willing to go to the mat when it counts, when it matters, when you`re leaving the chamber to go back to your district or to go back to your state in retirement, OK, fine, nice.  But you`re not going to be here any longer to take the slings and arrows and the tweets from the President.

But since you`re there now, stand that ground on something that is arguably a principled ground to stand on.  And that`s why I`m saying, Romney lead us to 67.  And then watch what happens if he does that.  I think you will find the sticking post move on this -- on matters like this going forward.

WILLIAMS:  Maybe he`s watching.  I know him as an early to bed type.  Maybe he watches us on the app first thing in the morning but I hope he hears the former chairman of the party.

I wanted to share with you gentlemen and our wider audience watching at home what else happened on Capitol Hill today.  Here was Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen today trying to defend the so-called emergency at our southern border.


REP. MARK WALKER (R), NORTH CAROLINA:  Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen:  Can you tell the American people that this is not a manufactured crisis, that this is a legitimate national emergency?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, SECRETARY, HOMELAND SECURITY:  This is a legitimate national emergency.  This is a twin crisis.  And we can do better as a country.


WILLIAMS:  She faced some withering criticism from Democrats along the way, spent the majority of her time trying to defend the administration`s family separation policy.


REP. KATHLEEN RICE (D), NEW YORK:  It was a policy announced by the Attorney General of this country that families were going to be separated.  That was a policy.  He did not say we`re going to start enforcing a law.

NIELSEN:  The AG memo that was issued directed all US Attorney offices along the southwest border to prosecute all adults who were referred for prosecution.

RICE:  That`s a policy.  That is a policy. 

NIELSEN:  Not as you described it. 

RICE:  Madam Secretary, that is a policy.

REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D), MISSISSIPPI:  For the record, Madam Secretary, are we still using cages for children?

NIELSEN:  Sir, we don`t use cages for children.  In the border facilities that you`ve been to they were not made to detain children.

THOMPSON:  Just yes or no.  Are we still putting children in cages?

NIELSEN:  To my knowledge, CBP never purposely put a child in a cage if you mean a cage like this.

THOMPSON:  I`ve seen the cages.  I just want you to admit that the cages exist.

NIELSEN:  Sir, they`re not cages. 

THOMPSON:  What are they? 

NIELSEN:  Areas of the border facility that are carved out for the safety and protection of those who remain there while they`re being processed.


WILLIAMS:  So thus the expression elections have consequences.  Both gentlemen remain with us.  Garrett Haake, Michael Steele.

Garrett, might this have been one of those hearings on the hill that`s kind of designed to be contentious?

HAAKE:  Absolutely, Brian.  Look, I think in a universe in which Michael Cohen doesn`t exist this would have been a much bigger story today.  But this was teed up for Democrats.  You know, there`s been a lot of talk about how to weigh their oversight responsibilities with how far they want to push against the President so they`re not accused of overreach.

This is essentially a clean shot here.  On this child separation policy, which is enormously unpopular all around the country, Democrats wanted to hammer Kirstjen Nielsen on this today.  And, you know, I think if you`re debating the definition of what a cage is you`re having a very bad day.

And it should be said that Nielsen came into the room today with very low credibility among Democratic lawmakers in particular.  She had been the face of the administration arguing for the wall over the last couple of months, through the shutdown.  A lot of senior Democratic lawmakers had told me over that period of time they didn`t trust her, they didn`t trust her statistics.  And it goes back even farther than that.

I`m old enough to remember when she testified before the Senate talking about s-hole countries and claimed that she didn`t know Norway was a majority white country at the time.  So she came into this room set up to fail and just got hammered all day long by Democrats.

WILLIAMS:  So, Mr. Chairman, as you know, in presidential politics they say if you`re explaining you`re losing.  If you`re make the hand gesture to talk about a cage, probably not a winner of an issue for you.

STEELE:  No, it`s not.  It really isn`t.  And it just -- it is dumfounding to me why the administration -- why the President put his administrators and his secretaries in the position that they have to go out and defend the indefensible.

We all have eyes.  We all saw what they look like.  To sit there and try to say, well, it`s not really a cage when all I see is steel wire and cage formation, that`s a cage.  You know, if it looks like a duck, it`s not a cage, right?  That doesn`t work.  That logic doesn`t apply.

And again, you`re going to see, Brian, over the next year many, many moments like today where administration officials are going to be pounded by Democrats on a host of issues and a host of policies.

So this is no longer for the Democrats.  If they`re smart, the strategy isn`t impeachment.  That`s an afterthought.  Because you have a whole network of issues you can bring administration officials up to Capitol Hill to go after on and thereby effectively impeach not just the president but the entire administration and its policies over the next year. 

WILLIAMS:  Former Chairman Michael Steele, our man on the Hill Garrett Haake, gentlemen, thank you both for staying up late with us and explaining a few things along the way.

And coming up, working for the President of the United States is always a tough job, but there`s new reporting on why it`s especially difficult when you`ve got a boss like this one.


WILLIAMS:  President Trump once told the Washington Post he trusts his gut instinct over advice from other people.  But according to the new reporting, people in his orbit are having a hard time getting on the same page as Trump`s gut.

Donald Trump believes what he believes at times, all evidence to the contrary.  The Washington Post, Anne Gearan and Robert Costa, share the byline that goes along with this headline which says it all and we quote, "I think you mean that, too.  Trump`s aides struggle to defend, explain his foreign policy statements."

And in just the space of the last month, we`ve seen a few examples of this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  Some really bad things happened to Otto.  Some really, really bad things, But he tells me, he tells me that he didn`t know about it, and I will take him at his word.

JOHN BOLTON, FORMER DIPLOMAT:  When he says I`m going to take him at his word, it doesn`t mean that he accepts it as reality.  It means that he accepts that`s what Kim Jong-un said.

TRUMP:  Chairman Kim promised me last night regardless he`s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The threat that`s posed to the United States to the next generation of America from North Korea`s nuclear weapons is a serious threat.

ROBERT LIGHTHIZER, UNITED STATES TRADE REPRESENTATIVE: An MOU is a contract.  It`s a way trade arguments are generally used.

Contracts last while they last.  There is no term.  They last while they last.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr.  President, on North Korea --

TRUMP:  By the way, I disagree.  I think a memorandum of understanding is not a contract.

LIGHTHIZER:  From now on we`re not using the word memorandum of understanding anymore.  We`re going to use the term trade agreement, all right?



WILLIAMS:  An unbelievable moment in the Oval Office.  We have asked Robert Costa to stick around for precisely this segment and these questions.

Robert, how bad is this for the nation?  Forget the staff.  Forget the cabinet.  They work for us.  They serve the President.  They work inside a House that we taxpayers own and maintain.  How bad is this for the country? 

ROBERT COSTA, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST:  You have a president of the United States who`s entirely isolated from the foreign policy establishment, not only in the Republican Party, but also really in the Democrat Party.  A president who sees things through the prisms of transactions going back to his days in real estate, who is not moored in a the traditional American world view of America having a muscular foreign policy, sometimes intervention abroad, a focus on human rights.

President Trump supporters, it should be noted, like this aspect of him.  Some of them cheer him like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who say the United States should be less interventionist, less hawkish, but it does remove the United States from many of its traditional alliances and perspectives such as being supportive of institutions like NATO.

WILLIAMS:  You take North Korea, an example you cited.  The President and the President alone views a dictator with warmth and has made that clear over and over in public.  Has this gotten more pronounced, this kind of thing, since the departure of several of the notable "adults in the room?"

COSTA:  It has.  Because you have the President with his foreign policy in essence pushing out people like James Mattis, his former Defense Secretary, who disagreed with the President`s removal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan, and you have a President who is really out on a limb conducting foreign policy, running a personality-driven foreign policy off of his gut instinct.  And at times encourages his own engagement with autocrats like Kim Jong-un, a murderous dictator, Crowned Prince Salman in Saudi Arabia who has been implicated in the death of Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Erdogan in Turkey, and so many others.  The President has embraced politically and diplomatically in a way that no other American leader has in decades.

WILLIAMS:  Is there a 30-second summation of the effect of the departure of a General Mattis from the kind of counsel of adults around this President?

COSTA:  General Mattis had a reputation of mad dog with the President.  He was seen as someone seasoned and a military presence.  The people around the President now have big personalities, Ambassador Bolton and Secretary of State Pompeo, but they don`t have the same kind of militaristic gruff personality that the President often counted on to be a counterweight to his own instincts.

WILLIAMS:  Robert Costa, as always, what a pleasure.  And tonight we got to have two conversations with you to boot.  Thank you very much for sticking around for us.

Coming up, it seldom happens, but it happened today as a profoundly personal moment took place in the midst of a US Senate hearing.  We`ll have that for you when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  The last thing before we go tonight is Republican Senator Martha McSally of Arizona.  She will be forever enshrined in US military history because she was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat for this country and the first female to command a fighter squadron.

McSally was from Warwick, Rhode Island.  Went to the Air Force Academy then on to Harvard, and flew the fearsome and iconic A-10 in combat in Iraq.  The A-10 is also affectionately called the "Tank Killer" and the "Warthog."

As combat jets go, it`s low and slow and ugly, yet revered by ground forces around the world for the world of hurt it can deliver to the enemy.  After piloting A-10s, McSally retired as a colonel and turned to politics.

But today we learned something about Senator McSally that only close friends and family knew.  She told a hearing of the Armed Services Committee that she is a survivor of sexual assault in the military.  She was raped by a superior officer in the Air Force and today she told her story directly to other survivors.


SEN. MARTHA MCSALLY (R), ARIZONA:  Like you, I am also a military sexual assault survivor.  But unlike so many brave survivors, I didn`t report being sexually assaulted.  Like so many women and men, I didn`t trust the system at the time.

I blamed myself.  I was ashamed and confused.  I thought I was strong but felt powerless.  The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways, and in one case I was preyed upon and then raped by a superior officer.  I stayed silent for many years, but later in my career as the military grappled with scandals and their wholly inadequate responses, I felt the need to let some people know I too was a survivor.  Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again.


WILLIAMS:  Profoundly personal moment in a Senate hearing today from a decorated combat veteran turned US senator.

That is our broadcast for this Wednesday night.  Thank you so very much for being here with us.  Good night from all of us here at NBC News Headquarters in New York.

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