Trump ramps up rhetoric on Iran. TRANSCRIPT: 5/20/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Bill Kristol, Barry McCaffrey

JASON JOHNSON, AMERICAN PROFESSOR:  This is an example of the leadership that was lacking in the Democratic Party.

The people were asking for in 2018, I hope Amash, is the beginning of a change in attitude for the Democratic leadership, but it doesn`t seem like that`s happening right now.

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Professor Jason Johnson gets tonight`s LAST WORD.  Rick Wilson, Jason Johnson, thank you both for joining us, really appreciate it.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Donald Trump flies to Pennsylvania tonight and rails against spying and treason.  But the problems he left behind are substantial including the real threat now that his financial records must be handed over to Congress so says a federal judge.

Michael Cohen is back in the news tonight even while in prison because of an allegation that a Trump lawyer instructed him to lie about the detail surrounding Trump Tower Moscow.

Don McGahn, now a private citizen, will not show up for his House testimony tomorrow because the White House told him not to.

And the Republican congressman who made the case for impeachment and how they`re coming after him now as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way now on a busy Monday night.

Well, good evening once again, rather, from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 851 of this Trump administration.  A couple of big stories have dropped just in these past few hours.

Tonight we learned that Don McGahn, as we said, who is the former White House counsel, one of the leading voices in the Mueller report and who is now a private citizen will ignore a subpoena to testify tomorrow morning before the Senate -- the House Judiciary Committee.  The White House apparently told him not to show.

Tonight the Democrats are threatening what they are calling all enforcement mechanisms, more on that later.

Another big story late today, federal judge ruled against Trump in his fight to keep his financial records that would include tax returns out of the hands of Congress.

And Michael Cohen is both in prison and in the news. We`ve learned he testified that one of the President`s attorneys encouraged him to make false statements to Congress.

But let`s go back to former White House lawyer now private citizen Don McGahn for starters.  He sat with the Mueller team, you`ll recall, for 30 hours give or take.  He is seen as a key witness on obstruction.

With legal backing from the Justice Department, the White House told Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Democrat of New York that McGahn was, "absolutely immune from compelled Congressional testimony with respect to matters occurring during his service as a senior advisor to the President."

Tonight as he headed to Air Force One to a Pennsylvania rally Trump tied -- tried to frame that argument as one that wouldn`t just benefit him but future commanders in chief.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I think it`s a very important precedent.  And the attorneys say that they`re not doing that for me, they`re doing that for the office of the President.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  McGahn`s lawyers say he will respect, "President`s instruction to not testify tomorrow morning."

One New England Democratic member of Congress said today, "If that`s indeed the case, the House needs to act."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DAVID CICILLINE, (D) RHODE ISLAND JUDICIARY COMMITTEE:  If Mr. McGahn doesn`t testify tomorrow, I think it is appropriate for us to move forward an impeachment inquiry to begin the process so that we can compel the production of witnesses and documents to make an informed judgment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  And more on that later in our broadcast.  House Judiciary Chairman Nadler says the committee will meet tomorrow.

In a letter sent to McGahn late tonight, Nadler says he expects McGahn to appear and that if he does not, here`s that quote, the committee is quote, "prepared to use all enforcement mechanisms at its disposal."

Meanwhile, a federal judge`s ruling that Trump`s accounting firm cannot keep his financial records from the House Oversight Committee is the first big court test, really, for the President`s efforts to resist all incoming subpoenas.  Without a stay from a higher court, this one will be the tough one to beat.

Tonight, Trump hinted at that and pointed to his predecessor when responding to questions about this judge`s decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  We disagree with that ruling.  It gets crazy because you look at it, this never happened to any other President.  They`re trying to get a redo.  They`re trying to get what we used to call in school a do over.  It`s totally the wrong decision by obviously an Obama appointed judge.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  And late today the House Intel Committee voted to release hundreds of pages of Michael Cohen`s non-public closed door testimony dates back to February and March.  Cohen is currently doing time as you`ll recall.  In his testimony he told Congress that Trump attorney Jay Sekulow told him to lie to lawmakers in 2017 about those negotiations over Trump Tower Moscow.  He also testified that pardons were mentioned.

Lawyers for Jay Sekulow responded in a statement, "That this or any committee would rely on the word of Michael Cohen for any purpose much less to try to pierce the attorney-client privilege and discover confidential communications of four respected lawyers defies logic and well-established law and common sense."

During that day of live public testimony in February Cohen did mention Sekulow when he was asked about his 2017 testimony.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JAMIE RASKIN, (D) MARYLAND 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 ATTORNEY:  there were changes made, additions, Jay Sekulow for one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  Here for our lead off discussion on a Monday night as we start a new week, Philip Rucker, Pulitzer Prize-winning Bureau Chief for "The Washington Post."  Barbara McQuade, Veteran and Federal prosecutor and former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.  And Michael Schmidt, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Correspondent for "The New York Times."

A note to our viewers, if you see anything weird on television, we`re having a technical problem with that bank of switches called luckily the switcher.  So we`re working on that if anything appears untoward, that`s all it is.

Michael Schmidt, I`d like to begin with you on the subject of Mr. McGahn.  He is if memory serves a partner at Jones Day Washington, D.C. law firm.  This can`t be a good look for him in private practice or the firm that employs him.  But I guess his strategy here is kick the can down the road and let it kind of float atop the legal system until it compels a decision.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, THE NEW YORK TIMES WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it sort of cuts both ways with McGahn with his law firm.  His law firm still represents Donald Trump`s Presidential campaign.  It still represents a lot of Republican politicians in Washington.

So McGahn, if he gets on the wrong side of Trump, could have an impact on his firm.

On the other hand, does McGahn want to be held in contempt?  Does that mean anything to his legal practice in Washington?  Could he have his law license taken away or something along those lines?  Probably not.

But he`s in a dicy position here, and he`s fallen back and said, "Look, I`m going to do what the White House tells me to," and that was his message to Congress.  And that`s why he`s not going up tomorrow to testify.  And he`s asking the committee and the White House to work this out.

Look, putting all the legalese and law firm stuff aside the most important thing for the narrative of this story is that the Democrats can`t seem to get a witness.  They have a 400-page report that has a bunch of damning allegations against the President.  It`s all laid outright there.  And they can`t seem to get any momentum.  And now they can`t seem to get any documents or anyone to come up and talk about it, at least anyone who would maybe galvanize the public or get the public`s attention.  That`s where we find ourselves.

WILLIAMS:  Barbara, I`m coming to you for what I`m afraid we just referred to as legalese.  But, you`re on because you always put it into English.

Two part question for you.  Testifying 30 hours before the Mueller team does that equal a de facto waiver of executive privilege on the part of the President`s former White House lawyer?  And secondly, can the White House really tell a private citizen, no, you`re not going tomorrow?  You`re not taking part in this?

BARBARA MCQUADE, FMR. U.S. ATTORNEY:  Well, with regard to the waiver issue I think the answer is sort of yes and no.  Anything that has appeared in the published report, is in the public domain is no longer protected by any privilege.

The purpose of privilege is to keep secrets.  Since that`s no longer secret there`s no way you can assert privilege over that which is not in the public domain.

The other things that were told to Robert Mueller because he`s still within the executive branch is at least arguably still protected by the privilege because it has not gone outside the executive branch.  But rather than claim immunity for and even appearing before the committee I think the proper way to assert the privilege is to go question by question.  And I suspect that`s where it`s going to go.

So I`m less pessimistic than Mike about that.  I think at some point we`re going to see Don McGahn as a witness and the assertion of privilege will be only question by question.

WILLIAMS:  Interesting.  Phil Rucker, is McGahn is loyalist or an institutionalist?  Traditionally I would say you have to pick one, can`t do both, but that describes at least half of the U.S. Senate on a given day.

PHILIP RUCKER, WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF:  Yes, well, I`d say throughout Don McGahn`s 10-year in Trump world which actually began before the launch of the campaign, he`s been in Trump sides since the very beginning.  He`s been -- he tried to be both a loyalist and an institutionalist, and he`s continuing to try to do both of those things and he`s finding it difficult.

I -- you know, he certainly does not want to be in this moment where he has to choose sides and has to take orders from the White House that he no longer serves.  But there`s a great deal of anxiety that the President feels about what McGahn might say.

It`s one thing for all of those details for that narrative to be spelled out in a written report, the 400-page Mueller report.  It`s another thing entirely to have a national television spectacle of the former White House counsel before Congress answering these questions under ought.  And getting in, frankly, into more detail than we read in the Mueller report.

WILLIAMS:  That`s right. Barb, another matter for you to take on and that is this financial ruling by a federal judge today.  Now, this it seems to me as a civilian is different.  This is an accounting firm.

Perhaps they`re not going to have the wallet or the stomach for a protracted court fight.  Why would they?  This is their work product.

Also, it seems to me this company can be compelled to act by the White House.  So this could actually happen.  These documents, barring a stay from a higher court could actually come out?

MCQUADE:  Yes, I do expect that we`ll see an appeal, and so we may not be done with it just yet.  But, you know, there`s an old adage in the law that says no man may resist a subpoena and must produce it unless there is some relevant privilege that protects it.  And so the accounting firm received a subpoena and must produce these documents.

President Trump is trying to refer to this as a redo and a do over from the Mueller report.  This is completely different.  Congress has a right to look at these financial records.  The judge found that it is within the proper scope of the Congress` legislative powers to look at whether they`re a violations of the emoluments clause or Ethics and Governments Act.  And so it`s proper for them to seek these documents.

It seems like a sound legal opinion.  We may see an appeal, but I suspect that before we`re done Congress will get those records.

WILLIAMS:  And Phil, this is question I`ve asked you before.  Give us the basics of the personal damage, the political damage that Donald Trump`s fearing, if this kind of traunch of documents comes out from an accounting firm?

RUCKER:  Yes.  And Brian, it`s not just the documents from the accounting firm, but if those documents were to took on forward because of this judges ruling, that would effectively sort of green light a number of other document requests in other areas.

And the President`s concerned not only for the political damage.  I mean if he`s found to have suspect financial activities with foreign countries that would certainly be fodder the Democrats will try to use against him in his re-election campaign.

But there could be outright criminality here.  That`s one of the things that the Democrats in Congress are trying to get to the bottom of as part of their oversight investigations.

They`ve been blocked by the White House every time the White House says no and threatens to with hold these documents it stokes even more suspicion on the part of the Democratic investigators, and this is likely to continue for some time.

WILLIAMS:  Michael, first, I want to go back to something you said about the Democrats in the House.  Is it so far just a bad look for them?  Does it appear to be a kind of where do we go first disorganization?  Are we impeaching, are we not, let`s write a bunch of letters and try to get people up here?

SCHMIDT:  Well, I think a lot of the part of the game here is momentum and Barr took a lot of that momentum away with his initial four-page letter that cleared the President and then having the report come out several weeks later.  People thought the Democrats could take the report and use it as a launching off point to do more investigation, to dig in deeper, to bring witnesses up to testify and they haven`t been able to do that.  And they haven`t been able to articulate at a sort of larger level to the country why there needs to be more investigating.

They`ve struggled to do that because they don`t really have a forum.  They tried to have Barr up there, and Barr didn`t show and that whole thing with the chicken and the congressman and stuff and it sort of detracted from the narrative and stuff that`s in the report.

Last week they read the report aloud, and, you know, I`m not sure how many people paid attention to that.  I`m not sure how many Americans have actually read the report.

But in terms of building the sort of larger story about what the President did, it looks like they have struggled.  And what happens today when McGahn says I`m not coming, that means that there`s no hearing tomorrow.  There will be no Don McGahn up there even not having to answer questions, trying to invoke the privilege and say, "look, I can`t do that."  We`re not even going to have that.  There will be no hearing tomorrow, so there will no event for them to use.

WILLIAMS:  And final question, this implication of Sekulow in the Cohen testimony, obviously they`re all over Cohen tonight saying flawed witness, already lied to Congress, is not credible.  Does it have staying power, the accusation, do you think?

SCHMIDT:  Well, look, I went back and read the Mueller report.  And the stuff that`s in the Cohen testimony to Congress was enough for Mueller to include in his summary, more in his summary and his details of his report.  So I don`t think Mueller would have put it in his final report if he did want believe there was really something there.

So, when you look at it, I think you have to take it seriously because of that.  Mueller saying, hey, you know, here`s this account.

Now, the question is that, does the criminality of others come into question here?  And what I`m trying to say is that when Mueller sat down to do this investigation he says, "Look, I have to find out whether the President broke the law or whether others broke the law."  And he ultimately said, "Look, I can`t do anything about the President because he`s the President but we`re doing this investigation to find out if anyone else did any, you know, committed any crimes."

Now, the question is will anything else happen to those who got caught up in the report who were looked at for this conduct?  We haven`t heard anything from the Justice Department on that.

WILLIAMS:  Phil Rucker, I have heard it said that the report needed a writer.  That the report needed someone to sit down and say "let`s look at what you have here."  That it was too important a public document as you can see just by sampling our conversations still tonight to be as dry as voluminous as it was.

RUCKER:  Well, part of the power in the report is it just lays out the facts, the very basic facts.  And the difference in a report and what you would get in a testimony, if you would have a lot more emotion in a testimony.

WILLIAMS:  Yes.

RUCKER:  You would have Don McGahn filling in the color.  How was he feeling?  How did he react to that?  What was the President`s emotion like when he heard something or when McGahn told him no?

And you know, Mueller I think looked at this as a prosecutor, as an investigator.  What he was seeking facts, he found the facts and he laid them out in a sort of tick-tac, day by day of what happened.  But it was sort white clean of some of that color and that drama that would come forward in an in-person testimony which is one of the reasons why the White House is so adamant that these witnesses not appear before Congress because that could provide the momentum that Mike has been talking about.

WILLIAMS:  Our thanks to Philip Rucker and Michael Schmidt for coming in of the front lines and talk to us.  To Barbara McQuade, as always for turning the law into actual useable English.  Appreciate it greatly tonight, gang.

Coming up, some anxiety in Nancy Pelosi`s House.  An apparently tense meeting of House Democrats tonight, and can you guess what the rank and file wants?

And later Trump once again threatens Iran with the end of Iran.  A man who once wore four stars on each shoulder and knows the region well is here with us to talk about it tonight as THE 11TH HOUR is just getting started on the Monday night of a new week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Mr. President, your reaction to Justin Amash who says you committed impeachable offenses?

TRUMP:  Well, I`ve known him and he`s said he`s been against Trump from the beginning.  He probably wants to run for some other office.  I don`t think he`ll do very well.  He`s been a loser for a long time.  Rarely votes for Republicans and, you know, personally I think he`s not much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  OK, we`ll put him down as a no.  Michigan Republican Congressman Justin Amash is doubling down, indeed, on his call for that man to be impeached.

On Saturday, Amash became the first Republican to publicly say Donald Trump has, "engaged in impeachable conduct."

Amash faced immediate blow back from fellow Republicans including a primary challenge in his home state of Michigan.  But the Congressman defended his criticism today posting a document length thread he wrote on social media to back up his argument, which boils down to this, Trump can be impeached for obstruction of justice.

Here is what Amash had to say tonight as our cameras found him on his way out of Capitol Hill.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Are you disappointed, though, the leadership is coming down on you like this?  I mean, they called you a (INAUDIBLE), they`re going after your character instead of what you said in your tweets?

REP. JUSTINE AMASH, (R) MICHIGAN:  I`m not -- that doesn`t describe me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And sir, what about President Trump calling you a loser?

AMASH:  OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  Here with us for more on all of this Ashley Parker, Pulitzer Prize-winning for "The Washington Post," and Bill Kristol, a Veteran of the Reagan and Bush administrations, Director of Defending Democracy Together, imagine that, and Editor at Large of the Bullwark.  Welcome to you both.

Ashley, I know you`ll forgive me because Bill is indirectly in the news.  I`m going to start with Bill.  Bill`s reaction to this moment on CNN earlier tonight.  This is Michael Caputo, one of the Trump political types from upstate New York talking about Congressman Amash but listen here for the conspiracy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL CAPUTO, Republican POLITICAL STRATEGIST:  I think he plans to run against the President as a libertarian, as a third party candidate.  We know the host of, you know, network Trump Republicans who, you know, lost their magazine and weekly standard have been meeting on a regular basis trying to find a third party person to come in and Ross Perot the President this time around, and I think Amash is doing a trial right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  So, couple of things there, Ross Perot is now a verb in addition to being a noun.  And your reaction sort of saying Bill Kristol it was calling out your cabal clearly.

BILL KRISTOL, THE BULWARK EDITOR-AT-LARGE:  Well my cabal would like to see the President primary in the Republican Party and there`s been no secrete about that.  I`ve been in no contact with Justin Amash, who -- which comes from a different wing of the Republican Party than I do.  Certainly our --

WILLIAMS:  Remember the freedom cause.

KRISTOL:  Yes, foreign policy, very much an anti-interventionist, and I guess I`m the opposite.  So, I had no knowledge that Amash was going to say what he said.

But I do think what he said was significant, and I think that kind of response suggests it`s not -- he is only one person.  He is kind of a, you know, low in the rush (ph) he writes that in Republican conference, he won`t take (ph) a lot of Republicans with him.

I the main effect will be Democrats, actually, on Nancy Pelosi like we saw this already tonight in the meeting they apparently had on the Hill.  It just becomes harder for Nancy Pelosi to keep saying, "No, no, it`s politically risky to do impeachment, we`re not going to do it."  And the Republican congressman has laid out a pretty sober and serious way not that Donald Trump should be impeached but there should at least be and inquiry hearings into the possibility of impeachment.

I think you combine the Trump administration stone walling with what Amash has done, I think the odds of actually entering an impeachment set of hearings, an actual inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee are now much greater than they seemed to be a week or two ago.

WILLIAMS:  All right, Ashley, Bill just walked right into your reporting.  What do you know about the meeting on the Hill tonight, the Speaker and her leadership team?  Walk us through it.

ASHLEY PARKER, THE WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE REPORTER:  Well, our understanding is this was a meeting where sort of these tensions that had been boiling in the Democratic Party finally came to a head.  And as we know Speaker Pelosi is very opposed to impeachment.  She thinks it is basically a political loser and that they should be working on legislative and different sorts of messaging.

And up until this point you`ve sort of had Democrats in different camps.  There are the people like Speaker Pelosi who, again, thinks it is a political loser unless you have true bipartisan support, which is not just Congressman Amash, but, you know, enough Republicans in the Senate where you could actually move on this.

Then you have some Democrats who are saying impeachment is actually a good political tool because it will allow Congress to sort of, the best explanation I`ve heard is act as a grand jury and get some of those documents and those testimonies that so far they have been able -- unable to get with the White House stone walling.

And then the final group sort of says, it doesn`t matter if it`s a political winner or loser.  This is a moral issue, this is principled issue, this is if the President has done something impeachable or not we are sort of obligated to move.

And so you saw Nancy Pelosi confronted by members of her own leadership team sort of saying, "Now is the time, now is the moment we really do need to consider impeachment."

WILLIAMS:  Bill, Ashley is absolutely right.  That is in capsule form (ph) the argument.  Who wants to walk this into the Senate chamber and watch Mitch McConnell with no effort at all come at us with the votes and kill it?

And then this Sunday Mitt Romney comes out and kind of gently puts a popsicle stick in the spokes of Amash`s bike and kind of says now, now.  So many Republicans and Democrats were hoping that Romney in the Senate basically a guaranteed seat for six years or more would be one of the heroes.

KRISTOL:  I think we don`t honestly know what the politics of it would be.  What if House votes by a most, the partisan vote, to impeach on a couple of articles.  Or what if they consider don`t vote to impeachment, they vote to impeach and the Senate rejects, I don`t know, I suspect it`s not actually having a clear political effect one way or the other.

I think the -- so, I think they should do the right thing.  I think it would look a little weird, honestly, if House won -- the Democrats won the majority in the House as a check on President Trump.  Mueller sent a report saying there are tendencies of possible obstruction which he can`t exonerate the President from obstruction.  And the Democratic House is going to say, well, that`s very interesting report.

But, you know, some of the polling shows it`s sort of mildly negative to move on impeachment, so we`re not going to do it.  And so if they don`t do it, how does that look?  What does Donald Trump say in January 1, 2020 after the polls see House is not even moved ahead with impeachment hearings, says "Mueller didn`t get me, Pelosi didn`t get me, I really am exonerated."

Actually, just from political point of view, they`re safer moving ahead on hearings that are organized, disciplined sort of sober way.  And maybe they end up not impeaching or impeaching on one or two counts, or conturing the President and deciding it doesn`t quite rise at the level of clearly impeachment.

But I think the Pelosi people are being short-term kind of clever.  But actually they`ve thought through exactly how this looks.  And also they had a better dealing with this year than next.  And next year we really will have presidential primaries and will every Democratic presidential candidates going to work on grand stand on it, they can control it for the next three, four, five months and have a pretty dignified sort of Watergate-style impeachment process.

And just lay out the evidence, get people to testify.  If Don McGahn doesn`t testify, say, "OK, we will try to get him testify, if we can`t we`ll go ahead and assume to what Robert Mueller reported is accurate and make a judgment about whether get some common law experts for him to testify.  And I think they could do this in a way that I`m not sure would change public opinion one way the other, but I don`t really think it would hurt them the way Pelosi thinks.

WILLIAMS:  Let`s just let that germinate over a break, Ashley and Bill have agreed to stay with us.

And when we come back how the reality tonight in Montoursville, Pennsylvania differed just perhaps from the reality and the surrounding and known world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS:  This is interesting.  President Trump visited Pennsylvania tonight for the 48th time since first becoming a candidate.  He famously won it in 2016.  Now he`s underwater by double digits in the polls there behind native Pennsylvanian Joe Biden.  Biden was the only candidate Trump mentioned by name during tonight`s rally.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  It`s no wonder that when Joe Biden announced he`s running for President -- by the way, by the way, by the way, we have thousands of people.

Look at the thousands and thousands of people we have.  Now, they said he had 600 people.  No, no, very good.  Very good.  I`d say 150.  But he announced he`s running for president and he`s said it`s because foreign leaders called him up and begged him to do it.  Absolutely.  Foreign countries liked him much better.  That`s what they want.  They want Biden.  Sleepy Joe said that he`s running to, quote, "save the world".  Well, he was.  He`s going to save every country but ours.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WILLIAMS:  Trump gave us more political analysis.  Just this morning, quote, "looks like Bernie Sanders is history.  Sleepy Joe Biden is pulling ahead, and think about it I`m only here because of Sleepy Joe and the man who took him off the 1% trash heap, President Obama.  China wants Sleepy Joe badly."

Ashley Parker of "The Washington Post" who rejoins us in just a moment puts it this way and we quote, "Trump`s handicapping of the Democratic presidential race is one part of his much broader role as the country`s de facto narrator in chief.  Inserting himself into nearly every major cultural moment or controversy and putting his own commentary and jeers at the center of the conversation."

Still with us, Ashley Parker, Bill Kristol.

Ashley, as we await the President`s hot take on game of thrones, just how unusual is what we`re seeing every day?

ASHLEY PARKER, WH REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST:  It`s quite unusual to a degree that in reporting and writing a story, we sort of realized that you don`t even really understand -- first of all, it`s very stark for a President to be narrating his potential rivals as if he`s sort of this objective cable news host or sports talk radio guy, just assessing a field as if it has nothing to do with them.  And then when you put aside politics you sort of realize that he is really inserting himself into the very fabric of our society.  He is weighing in on not just politics but on the Kentucky Derby, the Boston Red Sox, on how the French government should fight the fire that in engulfed Notre Dame.

And so even if you`re a voter who is sort of exhausted with politics and you turn your attention to sports or culture or day to day life, there`s the President sort of wanting to be part of that discussion and insert himself and take the glow and share that moment in a sort of omniscient omnipresent inescapable way.

WILLIAMS:  Bill Kristol, 48 visits to Pennsylvania.  I know Pennsylvanians who haven`t made 48 visits to Pennsylvania.  That`s getting up there.  You don`t need to page Dr. Freud to know what that`s all about.  We saw his games tonight, we see the names and labels his given to all the candidates.  Buttigieg goes on a Fox News town hall this weekend and says, in effect, he better bring his best game because it doesn`t work on me, I won`t engage with that stuff.  Interesting strategy.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, THE BULWARK:  Yes, and I think we`re all supposed not expect Trump to win in 2016, so we`re all very wary of saying it looks like he might be behind in 2020.  But just objectively a president with his approval numbers, with his re-elect numbers, with his matchups and close to the Democrats who are known is not a president who`s in very good shape.  Maybe Democrats will make mistakes, maybe he`ll improve.  And the economy is already pretty strong, no obvious fine policy fiascos yet, lots of stuff beneath the surface is very dangerous, I think.

And so you kind of assume Trump might be weaker a year from -- how rather than stronger.  So I guess I come back to the sort of more conventional view that Trump isn`t very strong.  He loves sort of all that what Ashley is talking about, because it distracts people from the fundamental fact that he is running behind most of his Democratic -- possible Democratic opponents.

WILLIAMS:  And Ashley, how is Trump world viewing Mayor Pete as a potential challengers go?

PARKER:  It`s a great question.  Trump world generally is not super concerned is what they say.  And I sort of take them at their word.  But if you go to the President himself, and again he -- Mayor Pete is not the person he has most concerned about, but he has certainly taken notice.  He`s given mayor Pete a nickname.  You don`t get a nickname from the President unless the President is paying attention.

You saw a President tonight at that rally talk about Buttigieg on Fox News and say you have to pay attention to the competition, and he sort of treating him the way a lot of the establishment treated President Trump in 2015.  He`s taking notice of him, he sort of still treating him as a bit of an oddity, a bit of a punch line.  We know how that ended up for the political world last time.

So it`ll be interesting to sort of watch and see if the President ever begins to take him more seriously.  And if Mayor Pete can kind of hang on and have moment after moment after moment the way frankly President Trump did as a candidate.

WILLIAMS:  Even if people under 50 often hand to Google the nickname to see what he was talking about.  Ashley Parker, Bill Kristol, our thanks two friends of this broadcast really appreciate it.

Coming up, the Iranian foreign minister has fired back at our President`s threat to end the nation of Iran.  That story when we come back.

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TRUMP:  I think Iran would be making a very big mistake if they did anything.  If they do something it`ll be met with great force, but we have no indication that they will.

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WILLIAMS:  Here`s what he was talking about, this was from our President just yesterday.  "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.  Never threaten the United States again".

Iran`s Foreign Minister responded, quote, "goaded by "b" team", and by that he means John Bolton, "Donald Trump hopes to achieve what Alexander Genghis and other aggressors failed to do.  Iranians have stood tall from millennia while aggressors are gone.  Economic terrorism and genocidal taunts won`t end Iran.  Never threaten an Iranian.  Try respect, it works."

With us tonight to talk about it retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, retired four stars on his shoulder.  A heavily decorated combat veteran in Vietnam, U.S. ground commander in the Gulf War.

General, I see you are smiling.  How does a former combatant commander like you who`s been dealing directly, indirectly with Iran for say, what, 50 years give or take, how do you react to that kind of thing?

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.):  Well, it`s almost hard to comment on it.  These are non-serious exchanges.  We`ve got three objectives dealing with Iran as far as I can tell.  We don`t want them to go nuclear.  We want to constrain their terrorism activities through the Shea Arc, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon.  And finally we want to keep the oil following out of the Persian Gulf.  So what`s our strategy, how we going talk to this people, what`s the reward, and punishment.  And part of that traditionally in foreign policy is publicly speak constructively.  Privately threaten if you must.  And we`ve got it backwards.

WILLIAMS:  The problem is the President`s tweet read broadly does not threaten the religious leadership of that country.  It threatens the Persian people and society.

MCCAFFREY:  Well, that`s true, yes.  But, again, you know, Brian, we have never seen a head of state since World War II with this kind of rhetoric approaching serious business.  A war with the Iranians in the Persian Gulf would be a disaster.  It`s highly unlikely to happen.  The gulf coast states don`t want to see a war.  Neither does Israel.  All this nonsense about Netanyahu wants to goad us into attacking Iran, I don`t believe it.  They`ll be an immediate target and the Iranians don`t want war.

But I think at the end of the day the problem is Iranians are suffocating.  This economic embargo is working.  The people are restless.  They`re blaming their theological dictatorship for the results.  Of course, part of it is the price of oil.  But they`re in desperate straights.  They`ve got to do something to break out of it.  First thing they`re going to do start making nuclear weapons.  And they -- I think they had considered striking at us through proxies and are probably determined not to try that in the short run.

WILLIAMS:  If you were President McCaffrey, and my apologies to Mrs. McCaffrey for even raising the question, if you were president, how would you, on day one, deal differently with this country?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I don`t think we have to impress on Iranians our military power.  It is overwhelming.  2.1 million men and women in the active Guard and Reserve, this is powerful navy.  So our military power is self-evident.  Our economic power is self-evident.  So the question is how do we talk to the Iranians probably out of the public eye and try and come to some understanding that achieves our three objectives?  And none of our objectives include insulting them or, you know, sounding war-like in public.  So we`ve got to get rational, get a strategy and talk to the Iranians.

WILLIAMS:  Trickier topic coming up because it`s domestic and here we are close to Memorial Day.  I want to show you a headline in "The New York Times."  They came out with a story that has kind of grabbed the attention and steered the conversation about potential presidential pardons for servicemen accused of war crimes.  A fellow retired general officer of yours, Mark Hertling, mutual friend.  You and I both know a superior retired officer has written a really interesting piece pardoning soldiers accused of war crimes would be immoral.

General, what`s your take on this story?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, look, Brian, you know, I had three combat tours as a combat grade officer.  So there`s no question that small unit combat is brutal.  It`s kill or be killed.  But the U.S. Armed Forces is still guided by its values, by its discipline.  It operates under the uniform code of military justice.  And for sure we don`t execute detainees or kill civilians.  And if we do, we take action.

A jury trial of your combat experience peers.  So why Mr. Trump would intervene in that process which is widely not supported by the military chain in command, I`m positive of that.  This is a political act.  It`s ill thought out.  It`s harmful to our image.  And indeed it would put our own military at risk.  Are we suggesting that we would allow one of our soldiers to be stripped naked and shot dead while being interrogated?  So we`ve got a real problem with the President`s publicly stated values system.

WILLIAMS:  Other than getting individuals out of legal jeopardy, who would have help?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, you know, you make a good point, by the way.  That Navy chief SEAL, the allegations are horrendous.  He`s not yet gone to trial, so he is presumed innocent.  By the way, if he accepted that pardon he`d be acknowledging his guilt in those allegations.  I think there`s no benefit, no good outcome to the President intervening.  There may be -- a lot of Americans support their Armed Forces, the most respected institution in American society bar none.  They don`t want them falsely accused.  So there may be, you know, a dog whistle of sorts to people who are favorably disposed who are young men and women in uniform.  This is not the way to do it.  This is horrendous mistake of judgment on the part of President Trump.

WILLIAMS:  From the jewel of the Pacific Northwest tonight, General Barry McCaffrey with us.  General, thank you as always for joining our broadcast.

Another break for us.  When we come back, what NBC News has learned about the reach large and small of Russia into U.S. society.

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WILLIAMS:  A new exclusive report from NBC News confirms that the Russians, after meddling in our presidential elections, wanted to go farther than that.  Some of our frequent guests in fact have written books on the various ways.  The Russians have tweaked our opinion, stoked our discord, reached in to our society.  For them, it`s cheap and easy and it works.  Tonight, our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel reports on documents that point to something else.

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RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT:  Tonight, new evidence suggests Russian efforts to meddle in American society stretch beyond elections.  Documents seen exclusively by NBC News appear to show another bizarre campaign to sow unrest in the U.S.  Russian operatives last year pitched a plot to manipulate African-Americans.  One especially disturbing proposal suggests recruiting African-Americans with criminal records given them sabotage training at camps in Africa and returning them to the U.S.  Another proposal, encouraging African-Americans to push for independent statehood in the south.

REP. VAL DEMINGS, (D) FLORIDA, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE:  It doesn`t surprise me at all the extent to which Russia would go to undermine our democracy and really target divisions that already exist within our country.

ENGEL:  The documents were found in communications between Russians linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a catering magnate dubbed Putin chef indicted by Robert Mueller for trying to sway the 2016 election.  While NBC News cannot independently verify the documents, they were uncovered by an investigative Russian opposition group called the Dossier Center, which, in the past, has revealed authentic material to us.

FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FORMER FBI ASSITANT DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE:  Our adversary is coming at us.  We should expect it to happen now leading up to the 2020 election and these documents indicate we`re going to see it on steroids.

ENGEL:  While there`s no indication the plans were more than aspirational, bipartisan members of Congress were so troubled, they planned to introduce a bill to guard against these and other potential Russian plots.

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WILLIAMS:  Richard Engel, reporting from London for us today.

And coming up, the search for a hero in today`s politics.  And while it`s true, no names immediately come to mind, the idea of it got a big boost in this very room earlier today.  We`ll show you the moment when we come back.

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WILLIAMS:  Last thing, before we go here tonight, more than once during this time slot over the last two-plus years, we have quoted Carl Bernstein, who always says, Republicans were the heroes of Watergate.  And we have asked our guests from time to time, who they see as a potential profile in courage emerge emerging?  Who is out there right now?

Additionally, when it feels as if life is in crisis, it`s always useful to ask, WWAFD, which obviously stands for what would Atticus Finch do?  Well, since we can`t ask him and in our effort to scout out the next best person, we came up with the man who plays him currently on Broadway in the Aaron Sorkin production.  Jeff Daniels was in this very studio today as a guest with Nicole Wallace and what we said has received a lot of attention already because of how he said it.

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JEFF DANIELS, ACTOR, "TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD":  You look at the cowardice of the 15 or so Republicans in the Senate who are still quiet.  And I`m not talking about Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and who`s the other one that`s went --

NICOLE WALLACE, MSNBC NEWS CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST OUT THE BACKDOOR.  Yes.

DANIELS:  You know, that`s not courage, that`s not courage.  That`s making sure you`ve got a job somewhere after politics.  Courage is standing up and being a true patriot like we used to have way back in 1776 and all of that.  We need to -- who are the heroes going to be?  Is it going to be the Daniel Ellsberg Pentagon papers guy?  Who`s the guy the Justice Department is going to go here?  "Washington Post", here`s the unredacted goal.  I`m waiting for that guy.

WALLACE:  We`re all waiting for that guy.

DANIELS:  We need people like that.  And to look at Congress with all of the politics going well, if I do this, I don`t -- I can`t do that, you`re all worthless to me right now.  You are all worthless.  I need people to stand up and be heroic.  Who are you because democracy is at stake?

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WILLIAMS:  Jeff Daniels with Nicolle Wallace from earlier today to end our broadcast on a Monday night as we start a new week.

Thank you so much for being here with us.  Good night from MSNBC News headquarters here in New York.

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