IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump trying to distance himself from scandals. TRANSCRIPT: 3/7/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Jessica Roth, Nancy Cook, Clint Watts, Jon Meacham

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  The Deputy Attorney General of the United States, Rod Rosenstein, gets tonight`s LAST WORD.  Always make sure that you can stand proudly with the company you keep.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  The breaking news tonight, it`s a stunner in a federal court room where the Feds wanted to send Paul Manafort away for 20 years.  The judge not so much.  He hands down a sentence of 47 months minus the time already served.  Manafort in a wheelchair wearing a prison jump suit finds out his sentence in his next case next week.

Plus, after unloading on his old client, Trump`s one time personal attorney goes a step further now.  Michael Cohen suing his old employer for unpaid legal bills while he cooperates with the Feds.

And in nondescript office building in Washington tonight, the Mueller investigation goes on, but for how long?  As THE 11TH HOUR gets underway on Thursday night.

And good evening from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  We reached day 777 of the Trump administration, and tonight, it brought an explosive turn of events in the case of Paul Manafort.

Tonight, in the first of two prison sentences, he will receive in a course of a week.  A federal judge in his first case in Virginia sentenced Donald Trump`s former campaign chairman to 47 months in prison.  That`s a month shy with four years with a further nine month reduction for time already served.  A 47-month sentence in this case where Mueller`s prosecutors had asked for 19 to 24 years, almost a quarter century in prison for a man days away from turning 70.

The Paul Manafort who we usually show at this point in the broadcast in this file video looking robust while walking into and out of court, that Paul Manafort appeared in court today in a wheelchair wearing a green prison jump suit with the words Alexandria inmate in black letters on the back.  His previous chestnut hair coloring has grown out all gray.

Federal Judge T.S. Ellis spoke before sentencing, he talked about that recommended prison term guideline of 19 to 24 years from the Feds.  "These guidelines are quite high.  I think this sentencing range is excessive.  Manafort has been a good friend to others, a generous person, he has lived an otherwise blameless life."

Manafort also had a chance to speak saying, "The last two years had been the most difficult years for my family and I.  To say that I feel humiliated and ashamed would be a gross understatement.  I ask for your compassion.  I know it is my conduct that has brought me here."  And that was as close as Manafort got to an apology.  Then came the surprising 47- month sentence.  His lawyer later spoke outside the court.


KEVIN DOWNING, PAUL MANAFORT`S LAWYER:  Mr. Manafort finally got to speak for himself.  He made clear he accepts responsibility for his conduct.  And I think most importantly what you saw today is the same thing that we had said from day one, there is absolutely no evidence that Paul Manafort was involved with any collusion with any government official from Russia.


WILLIAMS:  Mueller`s focus on Paul Manafort became public back in the summer of 2017 when the FBI executed the search warrant at his home.  Then in October he and his Trump Campaign Chair Deputy, Rick Gates were indicted.  February 2018 things got even more interesting when Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to investigators, he started cooperating with the government.

Last August, Manafort was convicted in Virginia.  One month later he pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges in D.C. federal court and entered a cooperation agreement with the Feds.  But that agreement was torn up last month when Manafort was found to have lied to prosecutors and they frown on that.

Next week the judge in that D.C. case will sentence him for the two conspiracy charges.  Each carries a maximum penalty of five years.  Manafort spent five months on the Trump campaign.  He was hired to manage the 2016 Republican convention, and generally keep the nominee front and center in the news media.


PAUL MANAFORT, FMR. TRUMP CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN:  Donald Trump understands media.  He`s a television star.  And he`s connected with America.

This is the ultimate reality show.  It`s the presidency of the United States.


WILLIAMS:  Manafort also defending the President amid mounting questions about his ties to Russia.


NORAH O`DONNELL, CBS THIS MORNING CO-ANCHOR:  So to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs.

MANAFORT:  That`s what he said and that`s what I said.  That`s obviously what our position is.


WILLIAMS:  There you go.  In recent months, President Trump tried to distance himself from Paul Manafort while also praising him showing sympathy for him, and painting him as a victim.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I think a lot of it is very unfair.  I mean, I look at some of them where they go back 12 years.  Like Manafort has nothing to do with our campaign.

I feel badly for both.  I must tell you that Paul Manafort is a good man. He was with Ronald Reagan.  He was with a lot of different people over the years, and I feel very sad about that.


WILLIAMS:  Comments like that have fueled speculation about whether Trump could potentially pardon Paul Manafort.  He was asked about that late last year.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It seems like you`re leaning towards pardoning Paul Manafort.  Is that true?

TRUMP:  It`s very sad what`s happened to Paul, the way he`s being treated.  I`ve never seen anybody treated so poorly.  I have not offered any pardons and I think they asked or whatever would you?  I said I`m not taking anything off the table.


WILLIAMS:   Lot to talk about.  Let`s bring in our led off panel on this busy Thursday night.  Jessica Roth, former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York, now a professor at the Cardozo School of Law, Yashiva University.  Jonathan Lemire, White House reporter for the Associated Press.  And our own and Ken Dilanian, NBC News Intelligence and National Security reporter, he`s been covering the Manafort case for months and broke the news of the sentence while appearing live on our air earlier tonight.

And Ken, for that reason, I`d like to begin with you.  Manafort shows to take a pass on a full apology.  Federal judge then chooses to take a pass on the recommended sentence from the Feds.  What was having watched you in the moment, what was your level of surprise when this sentence came down?

KEN DILANIAN, NBC NEWS ITEL. & NATL. SECURITY REPORTER:  Oh, it was a stunner, Brian.  I mean, not terribly surprising that Judge Ellis would go lower than the guidelines.  After all, Judge Ellis has expressed skepticism about this case from the moment the Mueller team walked into his courtroom.  He expressed doubts about the entire special counsel investigation, and at one point suggested that the only reason they cared about Paul Manafort`s crimes is to squeeze him to get to the President.  But nobody expected a sentence this light.

And it was particularly before the sentence the first surprising thing was as you said the idea that Paul Manafort, his first opportunity to speak publicly since 2017 and he said really not a word of apology or regret.  The judge even remarked on it.  The judge said I was surprised to hear no expression of regret from you.

But nonetheless, the judge didn`t appear to make him pay any price for that and it was really discord and disconnected from reality to hear Judge Ellis say you`ve lived an otherwise blameless life.  It`s as if Judge Ellis has never read the first thing about Paul Manafort, had never known that Paul Manafort was known as a leader of something called the "torture`s lobby" for representing unsavory dictators around the world long before he ever came to Donald Trump`s orbit.

And, you know, this wasn`t a one off, you know, brief period of crime here that he`s been accused and convicted of, this was a 10-year crime spree as Mueller -- as prosecutors have laid out.  This was a massive effort to defraud banks and evade taxes for a long time and to lie and commit felonies after already admitting guilt and making a deal with prosecution.  So, it`s a really surprising outcome from a federal judge who, you know, from what I`m told by prosecutors been in front of the court tends to be a lot harder on poor defendants than on white collar offenders.

WILLIAMS:  Oh, there, we`ve said that.

And Counselor, when you look at it, a guy who has stolen millions, a guy who has lied to the Feds, tampered with witnesses, then to hear that he has led an otherwise blameless life.  What was your level of surprise at this sentence?

JESSICA ROTH, CARDOZO SCHOOL OF LAW YESHIVA UNIVERSITY:  I was shocked by the sentence.  And it`s not to say that four years is a significant sentence, it is.  Four years in prison is a significant sentence.  It`s in the context of this case and then the context of sentencing generally in the United States where we routinely send people to 10 years or 20 years for dealing drugs.

And when we look at other white collar sentencing, for example, Bernard Madoff was sentence to 150 years in prison when he was 70 years old.  Sheldon Silver sentenced to seven years in prison when he was in his 70s for public corruption.  They also had led lives where they had at least not yet previously been convicted of crimes.  And they had done a demonstrable public service.

So, in that context and given what the guidelines range was here, it was extraordinarily low as a sentence.  And also when we think about the magnitude of the crimes, I mean, these were eight felony counts of conviction.  Some of them were for crimes where the jury had to find that he willfully violated the law, meaning he knew he was violating the law.  That`s the highest standard we have in criminal law.

And to use some of the numbers that the special counsel used repeatedly in the sentencing memorandum, we were talking about 34 in bank accounts in three countries, going through 12 entities, concealing $55 million and $6 million in taxes that weren`t paid.  I mean, this was an extraordinarily extensive crime over a 10-year period.  So what the judge said, there was a real mismatch between that and the facts that were established during the trial.

WILLIAMS:  Let`s talk about your former colleagues, the federal prosecutors here.  What is that locker room likely like when they come out of a courtroom with a gut punch like this, how does Mueller feel in his top lieutenants, let`s theorize.

ROTH:  Well, I`m guessing they were shocked, too.  I think any observer of this proceeding would have been shocked given what the guideline range was and again, what the crimes of conviction were and facts established during the trial.


ROTH:  I mean, to be clear, they didn`t recommend a particular sentence.


ROTH:  I mean, they agreed that the probation office`s calculations of 19 to 24 years was the appropriate range under the sentencing guidelines was the correct calculations.  And they pointed out that they saw no mitigating factors here for Paul Manafort.  And they emphasized he`s lies, including perjury before the grand jury after the conviction.

So, I would imagine that they are shocked and disappointed but they also, don`t forget, have next week before Judge Amy Berman Jackson in D.C.  Will they get another opportunity effectively to add more time to his sentence because she does have the authority to impose her sentence to run consecutively to the sentence imposed today.

WILLIAMS:  All right, Jonathan Lemire, let`s talk your lane of work and that is gathering reaction beginning with, one, Rudolph Giuliani.

JONATHAN LEMIRE, ASSOCIATED PRESS WHITE HOUSE REPORTER:  Yes, I spoke to the President`s attorney just in the last 90 minutes.  He was at the White House today.  He said though that he had already left the President`s company by the time the Manafort`s sentencing came down.  So he has not spoken to the President about that.  He says he`s speaking just for himself, but he used this moment to take a real swipe at the special counsel`s investigation.

I`ll read you a little bit of what he said.  He said, "It`s not American to keep a man in solitary confinement to try to crack him."  He made a point of saying that he`s not a terrorist.  He`s not an organized criminal.  He`s a white collar criminal.

WILLIAMS:  Let me interrupt and just say, the term of difference between solitary confinement and protective custody.  He was held alone but not as a punitive matter.  It`s been explained to me.  Please, continue.

LEMIRE:  Correct.  And also, remember, Rudy Giuliani`s background as a U.S. attorney and prosecutor.


LEMIRE:  And he is here going light, it seems, on a white collar criminal.

He also made a point of saying that he thought this was out of proportion for what Manafort has done.  He sort of echoed the judge in that way to sort of not take into account Manafort`s decades of perhaps wrongdoing.

And he said that in particular this was characteristic of Andrew Wiseman, who of course is one of Mueller`s tough lieutenants in the special counsel probe, and has been a frequent target, not just of Giuliani, but the President himself who, according to our reporting behind the scenes, calls him scum and derogatory names.  They feel like that for other prosecutors, Wiseman particular, they are over reaching and they`ve made it personal.  And that they feel like this is perhaps a victory for them and a real blow to the special counsel and could undermine whatever findings are coming next according to the report which could come out in a matter of days or weeks.

WILLIAMS:  Ken Dilanian, remind us how much of what we`re talking about and witnessing is Manafort`s own doing from the start.

DILANIAN:  Oh, my goodness, I mean, look, first of all, you know, when Paul Manafort crime to the Trump campaign, I heard people portray him today as this master genius that they needed to coral delegates.

The only client that he had was a Russian back Ukrainian oligarch.  That`s what he had been doing.  That`s what was exposed in his trial that he was especially out of the political game.  He hadn`t run a Republican campaign in years.  So, he had devoted his life to flaking for this Russian back Ukrainian politician who essentially was opposed to American interests.

I`ve talked to people in the Intelligence Community who believe that Manafort was essentially a Russian asset, if not a name in function because he was doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin.  And he was enriching himself while he was doing it.  And, you know, it could have just taken the many millions of dollars that he was paid by these Ukrainians and just lived a nice life.  But instead chose to massively evade taxes by routing all this money through foreign bank accounts in Cypress.

So this is entirely of his doing and he lived a great life.  I mean, the $10,000 suits, we all saw the ostrich jackets, the manicured landscaping, the house -- the homes in the Hampton and elsewhere.  So, you know, no one should shed a tear for Paul Manafort in the sense that he profited from his crimes and now he`s paying the price, Brian.

WILLIAMS:  And Counselor, further attempt at tear shedding, our friend Jennifer Jacobs from Bloomberg wrote this tonight.  "Manafort, his fortune depleted and his health deteriorating, appeared in court in a wheelchair.  He as severe gout, high blood pressure, psoriasis, arthritis, severe anxiety, panic attacks and a constant feeling of claustrophobia, his lawyer say."

Other than occurring to me that we have products for just about all of that in just our first commercial break.  Do you think the judge kind of went for that?  Do you think that was a kind of exculpatory thing?

ROTH:  So we haven`t seen the transcript yet, so I don`t know if he actually talked about Manafort`s health condition in his reasons for imposing the sentence.  I`ll be interested to see that when we have the transcript.

From what`s reported, that doesn`t appear to be a focus of his reasons for departing downwards so severely.  People who have serious health conditions go to prison for significant periods of time all the time.  And in fact, the U.S. sentencing guidelines talk about how generally having a health condition, a medical problem is not a reason not to send somebody to prison because so many people have those conditions and our prisons are set up to treat the vast majority of conditions.

So it`s possible that on some human level that that was appealing to the judge, he was sympathetic as a matter of legal analysis.  That`s generally not a good basis for asking for a judge to depart so seriously downward.

WILLIAMS:  This is where you told me that federal judges have blinders on, and don`t watch the actions of other federal courts.  Is this going to affect Judge Jackson`s in, as you mentioned, she has the chance to tack on 10 years next week, will she be mindful of what we just watched?

ROTH:  Well, certainly she`s going to be aware of it.

WILLIAMS:  She`s a human.

ROTH:  She`s a human.

WILLIAMS:  She sees the news coverage.

ROTH:  But also it will be appropriate for the lawyers to address what happened today in the sentence that was imposed in their arguments about whether or not she should impose a sentence to run as I said consecutively.

WILLIAMS:  Or concurrently.

ROTH:  Or concurrently.  The norm is concurrent.

And so, if she thinks that the sentence has been imposed so far is not adequate to achieve the purposes of justice.  She has the authority to impose a consecutive and my guess is that she will impose additional time to run consecutive.

WILLIAMS:  Jonathan Lemire, let me play something for you that got our attention.  This is former CIA Director Brennan tonight on "Hardball".


JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR:  A number of U.S. persons worked with the Russians in one form or another, I think it`s been demonstrated now that there was this active engagement.  I smell more indictments.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Family members?

BRENNAN:  Well, I believe that if there are going to be family members indicted by the special counsel, it would be the final raft of indictments because I think Bob Mueller and his team know that if in fact they indict somebody of the Trump family, that Donald Trump would not allow Bob Mueller to continue.


WILLIAMS:  Again, that focuses the mind.  How do you think the White House is feeling tonight?

LEMIRE:  Well, Mr. Brennan is certainly, he`s voicing the conventional wisdom there in D.C. circles, if there are more indictments coming, and let me stress, we don`t know that there are.


LEMIRE:  But if there were and if they were to be members of the family, whether --

WILLIAMS:  It would be a fade away jump shot.

LEMIRE:  That`s right.


LEMIRE:  As the buzzer goes off, Bob Mueller heads for the showers.  That the President how he would react.  There`s been great speculation.  We know that he has talked privately to people around him.  That if, you know, that he is fearful that -- particularly his eldest son, Don Jr. could be in some legal trouble.

Don Jr. himself, according to reporting, has mused at times that he felt he was too.  Although, our sense of it is he`s breathing a little easier these days.  But there is no question that if, if that is where the end game is, whether it`s this month or next or whatever the special counsel does wrap things up and a report is issued to DOJ and eventually the public sees at least part of that and maybe the indictments come along with it.  I mean, that changes things dramatically in this White House.

They already feel under pressure from the investigation the Democratic controlled House has launched.  There is a President reeling from the failed summit of Vietnam last week to very damaging testimony from Michael Cohen to a number of other failures including the government shutdown, the assembling (ph) of the wall.

That wall -- there`s a sense that the Oval Office -- those walls are already starting to sort of close in around him.  And people close to him think that if there was a family member to be indicted, it`s unclear how he would react but it probably wouldn`t be calmly and there is a sense that then action would be taken to finish the special counsel probe, to end it if Mueller wasn`t already on his own terms.

WILLIAMS:  And so an ominous ending for our first segment tonight.  We are greatly indebted to Jessica Roth, to Jonathan Lemire, to Ken Dilanian for your commentary and for your reporting.  We really appreciate it.

And coming up, on his way to federal prison, Michael Cohen with nothing to lose tries to get something out of his former employer.

And later, two Politzer Prize winners are here to take account of a slow- rolling scandal covered here and elsewhere every day and night in realtime.  That`s another way of saying that "The 11th Hour" is just getting started on a Thursday night.


WILLIAMS:  It might be the definition of (INAUDIBLE), but the President`s old lawyer says the Trump organization owes him money and he`s suing for it.  The lawsuit filed by Michael Cohen today here in New York accusing the company of breaking a contract by refusing to pay $1.9 million in legal fees.  He`s also seeking an additional $1.9 million for penalties he was ordered to pay after pleading guilty to crimes while working for, one, Donald Trump and the Trump organization.

Cohen says the Trump org. promised in July 2017 to pay his legal bills when he was employed by the President.  The suit says they company originally honored the agreement, but around in June 2018 the company stopped paying after it, "became clear Mr. Cohen would cooperate in on going investigations into his work for the Trump organization and principals, directors and officers."

A lawyer for the Trump organization disputed there was ever a contract between Cohen and the company telling "The Washington Post" in a quick and simple "It`s an act of desperation."

Meanwhile, it`s important to remember just how quickly things went south between this President and his long-time former lawyer.  Exactly one year ago today Michael Cohen was working hard to keep adult film star Stormy Daniels quiet over her alleged affair with Donald Trump.  NBC News reported March 7, 2018 Cohen was trying to, "silence Stormy Daniels, obtaining a secret restraining order and a private arbitration proceeding and warning that she will face penalties if she publicly discusses a relationship with the President."

Well, here with us tonight to talk about all of it, Emily Jane Fox, Senior Reporter for Vanity Fair who has chronicle deplete of Michael Cohen and is the author of "Born Trump: Inside America`s First Family."  We`re also joined by another returning veteran, Nancy Cook, White House reporter for Politico.  Welcome to you both.

Emily, what a year it has been when you put it that way and when that was stated at our meeting this afternoon.  It was hard to believe in terms of Michael Cohen`s day to day role and his public persona and now the Michael Cohen we`re watching live out in public.

EMILY JANE FOX, VANITY FAIR SENIOR REPORTER:  It is truly stunning what can change in just 365 five days.  I`ve been thinking about this constantly over the last week and what has sort of been peak Michael Cohen for the American public.

Last year at this time, he was in pretty much daily contact with the President as they hammered out the details.

WILLIAMS:  At one phone just for his calls.

FOX:  That`s right.  The first time I interviewed him, he was carrying two phones.  One, he explained to me was just for the White House to be able to reach him.  Now, this was actually around the time that he was discussing his initial testimony to Congress.

So there are all other implications about that second phone and that direct line from the White House at that period of time.  But he was visiting Mar- a-Lago twice at this time last year.  And to think of where we are today, where he is filing this lawsuit saying last week what he said publicly and today that not only am I going to implicate you and potential federal crimes, but I`m going to ask you to pay for the legal bills that I`ve racked up.  And those legal bills are quite hefty.

WILLIAMS:  And that`s what I wanted to ask you about.  Does he ever really expect to see a dollar and why is he doing this now?

FOX:  The timing of it to me was a question today.  And I think my understanding of it is Cohen is going to prison and he set to report in less than two months.  He has been spending the bulk of his time since he got sentenced preparing for what he heard last week on Capitol Hill.  And that he has -- at least for finished with his testimony in front of Congress, he has to focus on getting his affairs in order.  And some of those affairs include figuring out how to pay for the lawyers that he has retained over the last year.

And the way I understand it from people close to Cohen is that these were legal bills that were not only because of his work for the Trump organization and for President Trump but promised to him.  And as we saw in the suit he filed today, the Trump organization did pay him back initially for these fees.  So, there was some sort of agreement where they were paying for these legal services, now that abruptly stopped once the defense agreement came to an end in the early summer of 2018.

But I have long thought about how this breakup between Cohen and Trump first began.  And a lot of it had to do with public statements that the President was making on Fox News and Rudy Giuliani was making definitely trying to distance themselves from Cohen and the work he was doing and the trouble he was in with the Southern District of New York.  But also over this dispute, over who would pay these legal fees and both of those things weighed heavily on Cohen as he came to the realization that this is a man I have been protecting for a decade and he`s doing nothing to protect me.

WILLIAMS:  Nancy, talk about exactly that, this breakup and why it`s different, a long time insider keeper of the secrets and a guy who has publicly split with the boss at a critical time.

NANCY COOK, POLITICO WHITE HOUSE REPORTER:  Well, it`s just very rare for Republicans or anyone to rebuke the President so much.  I mean, we`re just now on Capitol Hill seeing the potential first time that senators are bucking Trump over the national emergency declaration.  So he`s really had two years of his presidency where a lot of people in Washington have been to his will.  You know, we`ve seen that with the Justice Department.  We`ve seen that with cabinet members of his, with Republican lawmakers.

And the breakup between him and Cohen has been so epic because it`s just happened over the course of the year, and because Cohen really, right before he goes to prison, is airing all of the dirty laundry of the Trump organization quite publicly.  You know, he was on the Hill last week testifying both publicly and privately before both House and Senate committees and it sort of feels like he has nothing left to lose.

And you know, the White House is really trying to poke holes in the credibility of his testimony but he does have a lot of documents and those documents do back up some of the points that he is making.

WILLIAMS:  And Nancy, I have to ask, I don`t mean to call for judgment on your part but do you get the feeling all this talk about pardons, the kind of pardon side bar story last few days has gotten too much attention more oxygen than it deserves?

COOK:  Well, I think that the White House at least is trying to use it as another data point of Cohen, the catching him in some lie and they`re trying to do the same thing with the idea that he never wanted a job in the White House whereas a lot of people in Washington believe that he did.  And so they are trying to use it to their advantage to say that Cohen is a liar, he is not credible.  You know, I think that you could parse the statement from his lawyer a lot of different ways about the pardon but it`s definitely a statement that the white house is trying to weaponized.

WILLIAMS:  Can`t thank our guests enough for coming on again on a busy Thursday night.  To Emily Jane Fox, to Nancy Cook, our thanks for coming on to talk about this topic.

And coming up, as Manafort waits for the next federal judge to sentence him in that next case, we look at the Russian connections that are perhaps at the heart of all of it when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  The federal judge sentencing Paul Manafort said something we often hear from those close to Donald Trump.  Judge Ellis pointed out Manafort is, "Not before the court for anything having to do with colluding with the Russian government."  Yet, while the Manafort case did focus on bank and tax fraud, there remain several unusual undeniable connections between Manafort and Russia.

To begin, he owed $10 million to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Putin, this information was made public last summer in an unsealed court filing.  While he was deep in debt, Manafort agreed to work for free for the Trump campaign, no one else, no other campaign we know of was vying for his services.

He reportedly was hoping to use his influence as a form of currency to get whole with Deripaska.  He was also part of the now infamous Trump Tower meeting where Russians promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, and during the campaign Manafort shared 75 pages of detailed internal polling data with his former business partner and friend Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian with ties to Russian intelligence.

And our friend Clint Watts is here.  He`s a former FBI Special Agent and expert in this area, and the Author of "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in A Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News."  That about ties all up loose ends.

Clint, I have a dual question for you.  Your reaction to the sentencing, perhaps more importantly what do you think the Kremlin reaction to this sentencing was?

CLINT WATTS, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT:  Yes.  I think it speaks to our justice system, right?  I mean, when you look at it, this has been the case that`s dominated American attention.  This is at the highest levels of our government.


WATTS:  We`re talking about a counter intelligence white collar crime fraud, multi-angles, Ukraine to the United States in four years.  I mean, there are sentences for drugs, basic drug distribution that might go way over that.

WILLIAMS:  These are full if then.

WATTS:  Filled with it.  Whole states, when I lived in California, just looking at the charges out there on a routine basis, you would be over five for what I would consider much lower crimes and it just speaks to who are you?  Are you a wealthy white individual doing white collar crime you get a much lower sentence or you someone, you know, that didn`t end up with the best situation in life, and now you commit a crime and you`re there 15 years for a theft charge?

So I thought it was much lower than you would expect in this kind of a case.

WILLIAMS:  So starting when you were a young man at West Point, you have always worked for the home team this is your life`s work.  When you hear people from this judge or Manafort`s lawyer outside court, use that phrase no collusion, what does that mean to you?  What do you think?

WATTS:  So this is what`s fascinating about collusion is, it kind of goes both ways.  And we tend to look at these as the typical espionage movie.  The Kremlin sends out agents, agents enlist people to do things and they`re trying to install the mentoring candidate.

But it doesn`t work always that way.  The other way is that people build levers.  And this is what you see with the oligarch whether it`s in Russia or here in the US, which is really now the American oligarch.  People trying to get access to the President, and if they can build that, that gives them currency then to push back.  And when you look at some of the statements, text messages there from Manafort, how do I use this to get whole?  How do we essentially reach out to Deripaska, Oleg Deripaska, who was a sanctioned oligarch coming from the US, how do we get back to the Kremlin and use this for our own advantage.  And that begs the question and he`s essentially saying I`m going to open up this tap of foreign influence, and I`ll use it one direction or the other depending who needs it. 

WILLIAMS:  A question I`ve asked you before, we`re all about today`s story.  Every day we`re all about that day`s story.  It happens to be a guy on the down end of his luck, at age 70, in a wheelchair in a prison jump suit today in court.  But for viewers watching, who may lose sight of the big picture, what is the daily threat we all face and our democracy faces from Russia?

WATTS:  Yes.  I think the big thing that we need to look at over time and what we should focus on going into 2020 is erosion in the confidence of Democratic institutions like our elections and in trust in public officials.  That will continue no matter which party is in charge.  The Republicans or certain members of the GOP can play to the Kremlin today and as soon as they don`t do what the Kremlin wants, the Kremlin will be there to punch them on the other side of their face whenever they are not saying what they want.

So I think the big thing looking forward is, don`t let them use our narratives and use people in our government, our elected officials against each other, don`t let them use political parties against each other and don`t let them tap into the main stream media, us, and let them us as a lever to advance their stories.  Those are things that really hurt us in 2016.

I think we`re better in some ways.  But the sad part of going into 2020, as Russia doesn`t need to make fake news because in America, our politics, our political campaigns are doing as much disinformation or more.  There`s plenty for them to tap into without having to make any on their own.

WILLIAMS:  Wow, that gives me chills.  Always a pleasure to have Clint Watts here with us in the studio.  Thank you, sir, very much for stopping by.

WATTS:  Thank you.

WILLIAMS:  Coming up, two Pulitzer Prize winners with us on this Thursday night.  One of them contends we are indeed witnessing a national crisis that has absolutely nothing to do with our southern border, when we continue.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  Manafort has nothing to do with our campaign but I feel so -- I`ll tell you, I feel a little badly about it.  You know, Paul Manafort worked for me for a very short period of time.  And I feel badly for General Flynn.  He`s lost his house, he`s lost his life, and some people say he lied and some people say he didn`t lie.  I mean, really, it turned out maybe he didn`t lie.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Why did you hire Michael Cohen?  He was a fixer.

TRUMP:  Years ago -- first of all --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That was his title, a fixer.

TRUMP:  He have a very low level work.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Why did you need him. 

TRUMP:  He did more public relations and he did law but he did -- so you`d see him on television and he was OK on television.


WILLIAMS:  Low level work for a very short period of time.  President Trump spends a lot of time to distance himself from the scandals engulfing his presidency.  There are a number of them.

For starters, put it this way, his lawyers and campaign chairman are headed to federal prison.  Axios summed up the current state of play this way and we quote, "Even without seeing Robert Mueller`s report or knowing what prosecutors with the Southern District of New York have unearthed or what Congressional investigators will find, we already have witnessed the biggest political scandal in American history."

Historian Jon Meacham who joins us in a moment puts it this way in that same article.  We quote again.  We`re in the midst of making history more than we are reflecting on it."

So here with us tonight, Pulitzer Prize winning Author and Historian Jon Meacham.  His latest work is, "The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels," and Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning Columnist for the Washington Post.  Gentlemen, thank you both for showing up on a Thursday night.

Jon, as we talk, I`m just going to put on the air a list of events and leads, all of it leads to potential legal jeopardy for this President.  It looks like the credits at the end of a major motion picture.  And while it rolls, I`m going to ask you in also seriousness what are we witnessing here?

JON MEACHAM, AUTHOR AND HISTORIAN:  Well, we`re witnessing history being made.  I honestly believe that.  Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, our friends, asked me about whether I thought -- where I thought this rank in terms of scandals.  And I really don`t believe scandal is a word that`s commensurate with what we`re talking about.

I think it`s a slow-moving unfolding crisis of our institutions.  It is a - - it`s a constitutional crisis in the sense that we may have a President who is enthrall to a foreign power.  And that is something that in the 1780s and 1790s was very much top of the mind for the framers of the government because, of course, they were inventing a government.

There were foreign powers that were interested in other, reclaiming what they had in terms of Great Britain or expanding their influence in the new world in terms of France, in terms of Spain.  So it was clearly a central issue for the people who set us on this journey toward a more perfect union.

And I -- except for that conversation, except for the fact that Jefferson thought Hamilton might be an agent and the ferocious partisanship of that first party era.  Except for that, I don`t really see anything that`s particularly parallel and I think it`s bigger than a scandal.  And I think that that`s why whatever Director Mueller comes back with is going to be really essential to defining how we put ourselves back together after this era.

WILLIAMS:  It does make teapot dome look like a pimple.  Hey, Eugene, we like our historians to ponder but unlike them as a news guy, you have the terror of the approaching column deadline constantly.  So I ask you as a news guy what you made of the sentencing today and whether you see the bottom line as a bigger headline and that is, oh by the way, the President`s campaign chairman is going to the big house.

EUGENE ROBINSON, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Yes.  I think that`s the important thing that happened today.  You step back and that is a huge major thing.  I mean, you imagine just that alone happening.  Take away everything else crazy that`s happened and illegal, that`s happened under the Trump administration, just that one thing happening would be an enormous deal yet it`s surrounded by all this other stuff.

So, you know, the sentencing today, we give federal judges discretion.  I actually believe we probably ought to give them more discretion than we have recently with mandatory minimum sentencing, and that means we won`t always like the way they use that discretion.

And Judge Ellis never liked this case in the first place.  He just didn`t like it.  He was -- he had seemed too angry at the prosecutors for using his courtroom in a way that he didn`t like, to squeeze Manafort to get to Trump.  That`s how he saw it from the beginning clearly.  He made no secret of that.  So I don`t think it was in a great surprise that he gave a lenient sentence, maybe not this lenient but no great surprise.

WILLIAMS:  Jon, I`d never thought we would be wishful for dumb old Warren Harding, but this era makes him look a lot more like Thomas Jefferson.  Can you name, Jon, a single individual who`s came into this orbit and had their reputation burnished by it?

MEACHAM:  No.  It`s -- you know, Nikki Haley is kind of like Indiana Jones running in front of boulder at the beginning of the (inaudible).  She got out.  And so, she`s really kind of the one official it seems to me who sort of came from Normalville and got her papers in order and went to Trumpville and has tried to go back.

But otherwise, no.  It`s not.  And it`s -- my god, I mean, that this is like a, you know, Donte or might be Plumix (ph) by the number of characters we have here, and how we could cast them.  And it`s going to be something that deadline guys like Gene and the chin strokers in my part of the caucus are both going to be spending a lot of time trying to make sense of this.


WILLIAMS:  Eugene, go ahead.

ROBINSON:  Brian, you know, it`s not just the officials, by the way.  You know, the other big thing that has happened is that one of our two major political parties has devolved into basically a culted personality.  The Republican Party has seized to function as a political party really it is enthralled to Donald Trump in a way that I certainly have not seen one of our parties behave in my career.

WILLIAMS:  That is another one of the phrase.

MEACHAM:  That`s a great -- that`s a really, really important point.  That`s a really, really important point because even the Republican Party in Watergate had its own separate identity.  George H. W. Bush was the chairman of it, you know, and he actually was one of the people who wanted the president to resign at the very end.  That`s not something we`re seeing here.

WILLIAMS:  So, Jon, sometimes we deadline journalist score one for ourselves.  Two Pulitzer winners as we said, ladies and gentlemen, John Meacham, Eugene Robinson, both dear friends of this broadcast, thank you gentlemen very much for joining us.

And coming up, did Rod Rosenstein of all people just go there where his boss Donald Trump is concerned when we continue.



ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL:  It`s fitting that one of my final speeches as Deputy Attorney General is about promoting compliance and preventing corruption.  I`m going to leave you with the wisdom of an ancient proverb.  If you desire to know a person`s character, consider his friends.  Always make sure that you can stand proudly with the company that you keep.


WILLIAMS:  I know Lawrence O`Donnell had the good taste to isolate that little bit here, but we wanted to come on and show you just that little bit because of its potential news value.  It sure sounds like Rod Rosenstein just went there.  That may be as catty, as crafty and as thinly veiled a comment as we will ever get to hear from the outgoing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.  At least until his book comes out.

Let`s take another break.  And when we come back, there is already a documentary out about the Trump/Kim summit.  This one was put out by the other team, and apparently the summit was a great success.


WILLIAMS:  Last thing before we go tonight.  You`ve got to hand it to the Kim Jong-un traveling documentary unit.  While unlike our staff, it`s possible they were working under the threat of the veiled possibility of being sent to a gulag.  They have nonetheless performed an admirable short turnaround and have already produced a documentary on the Kim/Trump summit that ended abruptly and without an agreement.

One thing that stands out as you listen to this narration, I don`t know that we have any American broadcasters who are quite as enthusiastic as your narrator.

[ Speaking Foreign Language ]

WILLIAMS:  Not understanding a lick of what she just said there, it sure sounds like the summit was a success.  Indeed, the Associated Press reports that at one point she is saying the summit was, "Yet another meaningful incident on the issue of world peace.  The documentary makes no mention of how the summit ended.

[ Speaking Foreign Language ]

WILLIAMS:  We thought the soundtrack was kind of perfect.  The documentary is indeed useful for the scenes it shows us that were not available to US camera crews.  It`s illuminating to see these two men interact, even if it`s just in a hotel hallway.

The President seems to do a lot of pointing at people as if to say this guy, and shakes the appropriate hands along the way.  We also get to see what is apparently the final goodbye after the talks collapsed.

As you`ll hear, there`s at least one American name that is clearly understandable.  At other times they just pause the narration and the music swells as if to answer the question who can turn the world on with his smile?

[ Speaking Foreign Language ]

WILLIAMS:  The documentary catalogs Kim`s 11-day journey in a svelte 78 minutes.  As we`ve since learned from satellite photos taken after the summit, North Korea is apparently back at work making improvements to one of its missile launch sites.

President Trump said he would indeed be "very, very disappointed" in Chairman Kim if that was the case.  That is our broadcast on this Thursday night.  Thank you so very much for being here with us and goodnight from NBC News Headquarters here in New York.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Nothing like this has ever happened before, almost-ish.  There was that one other time.

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