Nadler: Mueller wants a closed-door hearing. TRANSCRIPT: 5/23/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Kelsey Snell, Michael McFaul

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Rex Tillerson gets tonight`s LAST WORD.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, we have breaking news on when Congress and the American people may first hear testimony from Robert Mueller himself.

Also tonight the President who again today described himself as a stable genius today forced his closest aides to come forward and talk about how calm he was during yesterday`s dust-up with the visiting Democrats.  Trump went on to say Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has lost it and is a mess.  That all came after the speaker accused the President of crying out for impeachment and saying she prays that his staff or family hold an intervention for the good of our country.

And like a tyrannosaurus, Rex Tillerson roars to life telling lawmakers that Trump under prepared for that first meeting with Putin, the former spy chief.  All of it as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on a Thursday night.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 854 of this Trump administration.

We`ve learned two things in just these hours before our air time here tonight.  First and importantly, Robert Mueller apparently wishes to testify behind closed doors when he goes before the House Judiciary Committee.

The chairman, New York Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler theorized on this network tonight that Mueller wants to avoid a media circus of live coverage.  Much more on this in the minutes to come.

Second, Donald Trump announced that he has order the nation`s Intelligence agencies to fully cooperate with the Attorney General`s investigation into the origins of the Mueller inquiry.  Again, more on both of these stories in a moment.

First on this day we have just witnessed the direct attacks the President and Speaker of the House are engaging in against each other out in the open.  Trump got off to an early start on social media this morning.  There it is. Accusing Democrats of seeking a "redo of the Mueller report" and of being the "do nothing party."  He also wrote that he was "extremely calm yesterday with my meeting with Pelosi and Schumer knowing they would say I was raging."

What Trump did and said yesterday at the White House was one of the main points of contention between the speaker and the President.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) CALIFORNIA, HOUSE SPEAKER: The President again stormed out.  I think what -- first, pound the table, walk out the door.

I think what really got to him was these court cases and the fact that the House Democratic caucus is not on a path to impeachment and that`s where he wants us to be.

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  She said I walked into the room right next door yesterday and walked in and started screaming and yelling.  Just the opposite.

I walked into the Cabinet room.  You had the group, crying Chuck, crazy Nancy.  I tell you what, I`ve been watching her, and I have been watching her for a long period of time.  She`s not the same person.  She`s lost it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  So then Trump did this.  He put his senior aides on the spot, so one by one they had to come forward to say how calm he was yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  Kellyanne, what was my temperament yesterday?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDTENT:  Very calm.  No temper tantrum.  Mr. President, why would you have to raise your voice?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You were very calm and you were very direct.

TRUMP:  What was my attitude yesterday at the meeting?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mercy (ph), Kellyanne is right, you were very calm.

TRUMP:  What was my tone yesterday at the meeting?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  Very calm.  I`ve seen both, and this was definitely not angry or ranting.  Very calm and straightforward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  Good.  So it`s decided.

Pelosi has been dealing with her discordant Democratic caucus steering her fellow party members away from the idea of impeachment right now, urging them to continue their investigations, which have rankled the President.  Here`s what they had to say on those topics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PELOSI:  The White House is just crying out for impeachment.  That`s why he flipped yesterday.

The President`s behavior in terms of his obstruction of justice, the things he is doing, it`s very clear.  It`s in plain sight.  It cannot be denied, ignoring subpoenas, obstruction of justice. Yes, these could be impeachable offenses.

TRUMP:  The whole Democrat party is very messed up.  They have never recovered from the great election of 2016, an election that I think you folks liked very much.  Right? Well, Nancy Pelosi was not happy about it.  And she is a mess.

We went through two years of Bob Mueller with 18 people that hated Donald Trump.  Now all of a sudden we continue to go down this path.  I don`t think people are going to stand for it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  The swipes became even more personal as each questioned the other`s temperament and fitness to lead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PELOSI:  I pray for the President of the United States.  I wish that his family or his administration or his staff would have an intervention for the good of the country.

If you don`t start honoring your oath of office, I can`t work with you.  That`s basically what he`s saying.  Maybe he wants to take a leave of absence.  I don`t know.

I actually ardently pray for the President.

TRUMP:  It was sad when I watched Nancy all moving, the movement and the hands and the craziness, and I watched it -- that`s by the way a person that`s got some problems.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  Then in the midst of all that Trump tossed out this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  I`m an extremely stable genius.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  The speaker responded quickly, and we quote. "When the extremely stable genius starts acting more presidential, I`ll be happy to work with him on infrastructure, trade and other issues."

Then there is what the President did just a few hours ago.  Again, the White House press secretary released this statement, and we quote, "Today at the request and recommendation of the attorney general of the United States, President Donald J. Trump directed the Intelligence community to quickly and fully cooperate with the attorney general`s investigation into surveillance activities during the 2016 Presidential election.  The attorney general has also been delegated full and complete authority to declassify information pertaining to this investigation, in accordance with the long-established standards for handling classified information."

Now, that last part is important because the A.G. will be bound by existing law but this is part of that effort to investigate the investigators going back to the time before Mueller.  More on this in a moment.

And finally, Trump and his people will have to live with this over the long Memorial Day weekend.  "The New Yorker" is on the board with a Barry Blitt caricature cover offering a devastating depiction of the President`s supplicants Graham, Barr, and McConnell.  The art work is entitled "The Shining."

On that note, we are so happy to welcome tonight`s guests to our lead-off discussion on this Thursday evening.  All four returning veterans, Kimberly Atkins, Senior Washington Correspondent for WBUR, Boston`s NPR news station.  Kelsey Snell, Congressional Reporter for NPR.  Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for the "Washington Post," moderator of "Washington Week" on PBS.  And Jeremy Bash former Chief of Staff at CIA and Pentagon, former Chief Counsel for the House Intel Committee.

And Jeremy, given your experience on the Hill, I`d like to begin with you on this potential for the Mueller testimony.  Here is how we know what we know tonight.  This is Jerry Nadler, Democrat from here in Manhattan, with Rachel Maddow in this studio in the past two hours talking about the conditions for Mueller`s testimony.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERROLD NADLER, (D) NEW YORK, CHMN. HOUSE JUDICIARY CMTE.:  He wants to testify.  He`s willing to make an opening statement but he wants to testify in private, and we`re saying he ought to -- we think it`s important for the American people to hear from him and to hear his answers to questions about the report.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Does he want to testify in private and have it be a closed session where we the people would not even get to see a transcript?

NADLER:  No, no, no.  We`d see a transcript.

MADDOW:  Do you have any indication of why he might want that?

NADLER:  He envisions himself correctly as a man of great rectitude and apolitical, and he doesn`t want to participate in anything that he might regard as a political spectacle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  So Jeremy Bash, how in your view does this change things?

JEREMY BASH, FMR. CIA CHIEF OF STAFF:  Well, look, I think bob Mueller to his credit ran the investigation very professionally.  He stayed out of the media.  There were no media leaks.  He didn`t even do a press conference when it was over.  He submitted his report.

And I think all things being equal he would like not to play any further role in this.  But of course there are many lingering questions including questions about specifically what the special counsel found and what his intent was with respect to obstruction of justice.

So unfortunately for Bob Mueller, despite the fact that I think he wants to stay out of the public eye, I think he`s going to have to testify.  He`s probably going to have to testify in public.  So these questions can be resolved and answered once and for all.

WILLIAMS:  Robert Costa, there is no figure in contemporary America quite like him.  He was spun into an almost mythic figure during the entire time of the investigation.  Is the fear among Democrats, do you think, that the Trump forces will spin this closed-door testimony into something of a victory?

ROBERT COSTA, THE WASHINGTON POST NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER:  There is that concern.  But House Democrats also know that they eventually could subpoena and urge Mr. Mueller to testify publicly.  What they`re trying to do at the moment based on my conversations with House Democrats is have a good faith negotiation with the special counsel to try to figure something out that would be agreeable to both sides.

But for House Democrats the testimony of Mr. Mueller is critical as they paint a picture for the American people about the President`s conduct.  So what Mr. Mueller wants may not be what he ends up getting as this process plays out.

WILLIAMS:  Kimberly, in your view, you also happen in your life to be a lawyer, do you think people will be making a mistake if they cast this as the last card the Democratic side has to play?  Are they forgetting all the deputies to Mr. Mueller who could also come forward having done the work in all their subcategories?

KIMBERLY ATKINS,WBUR SR. NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Certainly. Robert Mueller`s not the only player in this. He is the biggest player because he is the person who has carried out this investigation.  He`s overseen it while not speaking for two years except through his indictments and through this report.

But I think at the end of the day he does need to speak.  Yes, he wants to stay out of a media circus.  Yes, he also wants to protect the ongoing investigations that have spun off from this probe.

But at the end of the day when you have an attorney general who publicly has said repeatedly things that contradict the very words of this report, it`s only Robert Mueller who can come out and say for certain did he intend for Congress, not the attorney general, to be the final arbiter of what happens based on this information, particularly on obstruction?  Did he not pursue collusion because of DOJ regulation and not because he didn`t find it?  These are big questions.  And I think the American public and the people of Congress have to hear from him directly.

WILLIAMS:  Kelsey Snell, let`s talk turkey here.  Are the Democrats going to be driven crazy by this?  Because after all, rectitude is one thing.

The other side of this is he has now published one of the most important public documents, dense as it may be, going back several decades in American life.

KELSEY SNELL, NPR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER:  Well one of the things Democrats really want to do with Mueller here is I think Kimberly is exactly right.  They want to clarify the space between what the attorney general said the report would say and what the report said.  And they also want to clarify some of those questions about obstruction of justice.

And they feel like the only way to convince the American public is to bring Mueller to do it himself.  Because, as we have said, there was so much focus on the Mueller report being the kind of the final answer, the thing that tied it all together.

And they don`t feel like they got that from the actual report.  So having him testify, having it be the words in his own -- out of his mouth and speaking directly to the American people is very important to Democrats.

WILLIAMS:  Robert Costa, let`s go back a little bit further.  If you`re old enough to remember earlier today, let`s talk about that.  How are Trump- loyal forces thinking about their guy`s performance today?

COSTA:  They know he`s in a tough spot as this all plays out.  But many Trump allies I`m talking to tonight just got off the phone with Rudy Giuliani, the President`s lawyer, Mark Meadows, his top ally in the House of Representatives, they`re trying to swing the spotlight away from these dramas with Speaker Pelosi and bring it back to the origins of the Russia probe.

This has been a months-long effort on the Republican side to try to bring some heat on the Department of Justice.  There`s always this talk now on the Right Wing about a so-called coup in their eyes against the Trump administration.  This effort, this language, it`s only escalating tonight, and it comes amid these tensions with Congress where you have the Speaker of the House and the President of the United States in essence walking away from infrastructure talks and having an all-out war over the possibility of impeachment.

WILLIAMS:  Kelsey, let`s remember that the President of the United States today again publicly declared himself a stable genius and then in order trotted out senior White House staff to speak of his calm yesterday.

The way Pelosi is handling this, in your time on the Hill, do you think this might be a coalescing moment for her, because again, there`s been some disparity in that Democratic caucus?

SNELL:  Well, there`s certainly been some disparity, but I`ve had it described to me as a vocal minority of the House Democrats who want to move toward impeachment.

And the meeting that Pelosi had yesterday where she brought all of her members together actually did seem to tamp down that talk for a little bit.  Part of that is because Pelosi is doing this thing where she is more or less trying to talk to a party of two bases.

There`s the base of her party that is much like her constituents in San Francisco, very progressive.  And the other base, the more moderates from across the country that essentially deliver her the majority.  And she has a tough line to walk of satisfying both of them.

And in large part that`s what she`s trying to do when she talks about cover-ups but also talks about ways to kind of get the information Democrats want without having to go off the cliff towards impeachment.  It`s something that`s going to be difficult for her for sure, but it`s something she has -- had to navigate before.  She`s not new to a difficult constituency of her own party.

WILLIAMS:  Kimberly, the President tonight put his imprimatur, that is to say, tweeted out a kind of super-cut highly edited clip of Nancy Pelosi today.  Coming to pauses and stammering during her time before cameras, is this just where we are now?

ATKINS:  I think it is.  And look, I`m not a psychologist but it seems that this President seems to hit at others on the issue that people come to him on.  And when his own --

WILLIAMS:  It`s been said about him.

ATKINS:  Yes.  And when his own competence and stability is questioned like he`s insisted he`s a stable genius at the same time he has to paint his adversaries as what he`s being accused of.  And I think that`s basically what you see here.

I think anybody who has spent any time on the hill knows that Nancy Pelosi is one of the sharpest people who are there.  And that she is a formidable opponent and she has been able to needle him.  She knows exactly where to press him to get a reaction out of him.  So I think that`s what this is about.

WILLIAMS:  Jeremy Bash, you`ve spent time studying and dealing with our adversaries and our allies over the years.  How do you think both communities are viewing the behavior of the President right now?

BASH:  Well, I think the dysfunction in Washington led by the President`s either unwillingness to execute the office of the President of the United States, which is of course his constitutional oath of office, I think is going to worry our allies, worry our friends around the world, wonder whether Washington can be counted on.

And of course anytime Washington appears unstable, fractured, and the President seems distracted and wobbly in his job, that also emboldens people who are out to get their licks in when they think we`re at our weakest.

WILLIAMS:  Our guests have agreed to stay with us over the break.

Coming up, more on this Trump move tonight that could incite an even larger fight in Washington if that`s possible.

And then later, two blasts from Trump White House past are back in the headlines with one even attracting the President`s notice on twitter, which is really the ultimate honor.  THE 11TH HOUR just getting start on a Thursday night.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  No collusion.  No obstruction.  I hope they now go and take a look at the oranges or the oranges of the investigation, the beginnings of that investigation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  Again, by oranges the President there meant the origins, or beginnings of the investigation that became the Mueller investigation.  Our guests have remained with us, Kimberly Atkins, Kelsey Snell, Robert Costa, Jeremy Bash.

Jeremy, again, this announcement from the White House, while it`s announced tonight under this headline in "The New York Times," "Trump gives attorney general sweeping power in review of 2016 campaign inquiry" by Maggie Haberman and Mike Schmidt.  It appears the A.G. has to follow established norms.  Does this worry you in any way?

COSTA:  Very much so, Brian.  And look, let`s break this down.  What this order, this directive issued by the White House tonight, does is it strips the power of the CIA director, the NSA director, and the director of National Intelligence from making decisions about what information should remain classified, which Intelligence sources should remain protected, and it gives all of that power over to Bill Barr.

Now, the power to declassify, which is what now Barr has, is also the power to selectively declassify, to let drips and drabs out there, to bolster the President`s political narrative.  And I think that power in the hands of a political ally of the President, the attorney general, who`s already shown that he`s willing to mislead and misrepresent on behalf of the President, I think is very dangerous.

And Intelligence sources, human sources tonight, Brian, I think should be concerned that their identity could be revealed in an investigation.

WILLIAMS:  Well, that as they say gets your attention.  And Robert Costa, I know you talked to a key Republican tonight.

COSTA:  Jeremy brings up very relevant issues.  And some sources of mine in the Intelligence community beyond Jeremy words are really appalled tonight by the administration`s decision.  But talking to the administration, it is clear they think they can get away with this because they feel all they`re trying to do is give the attorney general the ability to declassify information as part of this I.G. report into how the Counterintelligence operation started that was related to the Trump campaign.  But this has a potential cascade of consequences in the weeks and months ahead.

But it`s important to note briefly, Brian, that this is part of a real effort by Mark Meadows, the Freedom Caucus, other House Republicans, the cadre of Republicans who are really in a Trump wing in the GOP, have been trying to make this origins their focus for months.

Finally tonight, the President got on their side, and formally gave the A.G. this power.

WILLIAMS:  And Kimberly, it`s clear.  Watch any Fox News in prime time, there was an air among some of the lawmakers of vindication after Mueller dropped, that now we`re going to go after the folks who caused this to be a thing in the first place.

ATKINS:  Right.  Investigate the investigators.  And this is not new.  Remember, they were calling for a second special counsel while the --

WILLIAMS:  Right.

ATKINS:  -- investigation was going on to look into the origins of this.  There`s a lot of talk about the Steele dossier, which we from reporting was not what spurred this investigation in the first place, but there`s a persistent narrative that it is.

And now, just as Jeremy said, normally speaking, giving an attorney general, the head of the DOJ, declassification power, and especially saying that he has to stay within the bounds of the law may not in itself seem like a big deal, but given that this attorney general has been providing cover for the President, we have seen him classify the Mueller report in a way we could read with our own eyes was in conflict with what it actually said to now say that he can pick and choose what the public sees and what the pubic doesn`t.

The national security folks who I was frantically texting with tonight are deeply, deeply concerned about that.

WILLIAMS:  And Jeremy Bash, back up to you for a second.  Are we going to have in effect two Justice Departments, one the cadre loyal to Barr and the other the institutionalist trying to do the job at the Justice Department?

BASH:  Actually, I put it differently, Brian. There`s one justice department, and it`s principally staffed by career law enforcement professionals.  And now you have a small political cadre at the top that is going to war against those professionals.  I think it`s very dangerous, it`s bad for morale, and it`s going to tear apart what has traditionally been a very non-partisan community.

WILLIAMS:  Kelsey, I`ve saved the difficult question for you.  And that is everything is taking a long time.  And the part of this that the public sees has rendered the Democrats in the House where they have party control to kind of angry letter writers.  And everything has kind of grown down quite slowly.  There`s got to be some building frustration.

SNELL:  Oh, there absolutely is.  It`s something I heard a lot from Democrats this week, including from Maxine Waters, the Financial Services Committee chairwoman.  She`s saying that it`s really difficult when you`re in a situation where going through the courts, which is what Democrats expect will happen next with many of these subpoenas and document requests, going to courts for decisions takes a long time.

And it`s very hard to go back for a member of Congress, to go back home over a break like they have coming back for Memorial Day, and talk to their constituents and say "trust me, I`m working on this, the courts are taking a long time but I`m working on it."  Because voters really care about results and they often don`t want to wait around or even forget what it is that Democrats are working on.  So there is anxiety.

And that`s one of the main challenges for Pelosi and the rest of her leadership team, is to convince their members to stay the course and to stay calm in the middle of something that could take years.

WILLIAMS:  Well, we were handed some breaking news out of nowhere tonight.  And so I thank our front four for being up to the challenge and staying with us.  Kimberly Atkins, Kelsey Snell, Robert Costa, Jeremy Bash, our thanks.

Coming up for us here, Nancy Pelosi says Trump is gunning for it.  Trump says he doesn`t want it.  More on the intensifying fight over the "I" word when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS:  The relationship, let`s call it, between the President and the Speaker of the House, never close, really not close now.  NBC News quoting Nancy Pelosi in a meeting with her Democratic colleague saying President Trump wants to be impeached and said Trump`s actions were "villainous."  This afternoon Peter Alexander asked President Trump about Pelosi`s remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS:  First, just to confirm some details as it relates to Nancy Pelosi.  She says that you want to be impeached.  Do you want to be impeached?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don`t think anybody wants to be impeached.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  The President again attacked Democrats for investigating him one day after a second federal judge ruled Trump`s financial statements can indeed be given over to Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP:  They don`t feel they can win the election.  So they`re trying to do the thousand stabs.  Keep stabbing.  Let`s have a financial.  Let`s have -- and if you look, for $40 million I would think seriously that Bob Mueller and his group of 18 killers have gone over my taxes.  They`ve gone over my financial statements to a level that nobody has gone over them before.  And they were not discussed even.  They weren`t even discussed or brought up.  I have great statements.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  By the way, that was not an episode of "The Rifleman" today.  He was meeting with a group of visiting farmers.  We never explained the backdrop.  Also tonight, Politico is reporting that Democrats are readying a strategy shift.  "After returning from a week-long Memorial Day recess, Democrats envision a wave of hearings on the substance of the Mueller report."

With us for more on all of, this Tim O`Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, happens to be the author of "TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald."  Also back with us, Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the "Washington Post."

And because you are and because you`ve written this today, I read you your own writing back to you, Gene.

EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST:  Thank you. 

WILLIAMS:  "I don`t think Pelosi`s strategy of resisting a formal impeachment inquiry can last forever, but I have to admit it`s working.  She looks like a responsible public servant trying her best to serve the public interest.  He looks panicked, desperate, out of control and concerned only, as usual, with self-interest." I guess there are two ways of looking at this, Gene.  She may be winning on strategy.  What`s doing the nation`s business, however?  What`s getting done?

ROBISON:  Well, nothing.  Nothing.  And there`s stuff that has to get done.  I mean, the President said yesterday, I`m not going to work with the Democrats.  Well, we need a budget.  We need to raise the debt ceiling.  The President would like to get his trade pact with Canada and Mexico passed.  You need the House of Representatives for all of those things.  Infrastructure.  This was infrastructure week.

WILLIAMS:  Yes.

ROBINSON:  Yet again.  And yet again we have no hint of an infrastructure bill.  And, you know, a bridge is going to fall down.  A train`s going to careen off the rotten tracks.

WILLIAMS:  Take a walk through New York City and look around.

ROBINSON:  Totally predictable.  So no, the people`s business isn`t getting done.  And look, I don`t think the people`s business is going to get done frankly for a while.

WILLIAMS:  So on style points and on knowing his triggers, Nancy Pelosi gets credit.

ROBINSON:  She definitely gets credit for knowing his triggers.  And, you know, when she was speaking today, it was an interesting combination of yes, knowing where to stick the stiletto but also I think some sort of genuine dismay and distress.  She`s talking about the President of the United States.  I know Nancy Pelosi pretty well, and she has a kind of reverence, that`s not too strong a word, for our constitutional system.

You go to her office she sits -- she has the best office in Washington.

WILLIAMS:  Yes, I`ve been in it.

ROBINSON:  Exactly.  You go out on that balcony, you look down the mall all the way to the Lincoln Memorial.  It`s amazing.  And you can`t sit there and not feel just in awe of our constitution and our constitutional government.  She`s talking about the President of the United States.  And on a certain level, it gives her great pain I think to speak of the President of the United States in these terms.

WILLIAMS:  Tim, the President has a pretty good view out the Truman Balcony.  When you watched him in action today, did anything trigger with all your vast knowledge of him?

TIM O`BRIEN, AUTHOR, "TRUMPNATION":  Well, you know, he did this routinely in New York with local politicians.  He famously got into these over-the- top media brawls with Ed Koch.  When Ed Koch didn`t zone buildings, Donald Trump wanted zoned, Donald Trump would say it`s mayhem in New York, I`m leaving, it`s horrible, this city`s going to hell.  This is just an updated version of that.

The problem being, which you and Gene have just landed on, is the stakes are awfully high here.  Nancy Pelosi is representing the Congress.  President Trump is representing the executive branch.  And we are in the midst of I think a very epic constitutional standoff over congressional oversight of the presidency and then the powers the President himself is able to exercise.

And you`ve seen a lot of news this week that tees off both of those things.  You have two federal judges reaffirming the constitutional right that Congress has to pursue oversight of the executive branch to the point of getting the President`s financial records.  At the same time, you have the President tonight giving his attorney general sweeping powers to investigate the investigators essentially.

WILLIAMS:  Both gentlemen are going to stay with us over a break.  When we come back, we`re going to deal with this breaking news we`ve been talking about tonight.  What we may or may not see or hear from Robert Mueller when he does testify right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS:  Welcome back.  Coming up on 40 minutes after the hour, and right quick here, to our lead story, and here`s how we know what we know.  Jerry Nadler is a Democrat, represents Manhattan here in the great city and state of New York.  He was in the studio tonight sitting across from Rachel Maddow and let it be known that they expect Robert Mueller to testify before a House Judiciary Committee, maybe give a statement at first but then go behind closed doors.  Here`s what the chairman of the Judiciary, easy for me to say, Committee said here tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JERRY NADLER, (D) NEW YORK, CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE:  He wants to testify -- he`s willing to make an opening statement but he wants to testify in private, and we`re saying he ought to -- we think it`s important for the American people to hear from him and to hear his answers to questions about the report.

RACHEL MADDOW, NBC NEWS:  Does he want to testify in private and have it be a closed session where we the people would not even get to see a transcript of it?

NADLER:  No, no.  We`d see a transcript.

MADDOW:  Do you have any indication of why he might want that?

NADLER:  He envisions himself correctly as a man of great rectitude and apolitical and he doesn`t want to participate in anything that he might regard as a political spectacle.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  So, Gene, you know how these things work.  We`ll get a transcript, and then we do dramatic readings --

ROBINSON:  Dramatic readings.  Right.

WILLIAMS:  -- as Robert Mueller.  And what will people like Colbert do with that?

ROBINSON:  I don`t know if we get De Niro to come out as Mueller, I guess.  I don`t know.

WILLIAMS:  So won`t this be far less than satisfying for folks who are waiting to hear from the most important public figure there has been?

ROBINSON:  Totally.  There are a lot of people who have been waiting for a long time to hear from Robert Mueller.  And when the report came out, we heard from William Barr.  We didn`t hear from Robert Mueller.  And but so if he doesn`t want to speak publicly and if he doesn`t end up speaking publicly, then I think we won`t know really what he meant to say.  The report itself does not say -- does not boil down its message in a way that`s easily digestible.  And that`s an understatement.  If you read the whole thing, it`s an amazingly impactful document.  But it`s 478 pages.

WILLIAMS:  And, Tim, my contention has been that all it was missing was a writer.  Any one of us who tells stories for a living, just to put it in narrative form.  And then part two of my question to you is what`s the danger Trump will spin Mueller`s closed-door appearance as a victory for that side?

O`BRIEN:  That`s a very clear and present danger.  And Bill Barr himself probably will try to spin it.  He`s not been above that --

WILLIAMS:  That`s right.

O`BRIEN:  -- thus far. 

WILLIAMS:  Giving air cover.

O`BRIEN:  Yes, giving him air cover.  And I think the danger in all of this is very early in the process Bill Barr defined the Mueller report inaccurately and he didn`t give proper weight to some of the very serious conclusions that report reached, specifically around obstruction of justice.

There`s no doubt anybody reading that, and many law enforcement officials have that that members of that administration engaged in obstruction of justice.  What the Democrats want to do with that is where the attention is right now, but what they haven`t done is explain to the American public what went off the rails here and why it matters.  And the Democrats are still awaiting that messenger.  They don`t have one.

WILLIAMS:  So, Eugene, are we going to be living in a world where Mueller gives an opening statement, we gnaw over that for a while, then we wait for the transcript of what he says behind closed doors but the new stars of live hearing become the Andrew Weissmans, the deputies to Mueller throughout the investigation?

ROBINSON:  Maybe.  I don`t know.  I mean --

WILLIAMS:  You`re supposed to know.  You`re a columnist.  You`ve got a Pulitzer damn prize.

ROBINSON:  Here`s one thing I do know.  You can write a great column --

WILLIAMS:  No, I can`t.

ROBINSON:  OK.  Well, I can write a great column.  If it pears on the wrong day, it sinks without a single noise.  Wrong headline, wrong news, wrong day, wrong moment in the day.  So timing means a lot.  And the timing, the best timing for actually getting the message of the Mueller report across was when it was released.  And that moment has been missed.  So maybe there will be another right moment.  But the moment makes a big difference.

WILLIAMS:  Two better than average writers joining us, two of our returning veterans.  Gentleman, thank you both so much for coming on tonight.  Tim O`Brien, Eugene Robinson.

Coming up the President says the man he hired to be his first secretary of state is dumb as a rock.  Why would he say such a thing about Rex Tillerson?  Well, we`ll show you why when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS:  President Trump is firing back at his former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, after Tillerson criticized Trump`s first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin.  Here`s some background.  Trump called Tillerson dumb as a rock, totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be secretary of state.  You hired him.  This came about because of this reporting in the "Washington Post," and we quote.  "Tillerson told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Russian President Vladimir Putin outprepared President Trump during a key meeting in Germany, putting the U.S. leader at a disadvantage during their first series of tete-a- tetes."  The congressional aide telling the "Post", "There was a discrepancy in preparation, and it created an unequal footing."

We are happy to have back with us tonight Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia.  And, Ambassador, in its politest, most respectful form let me put it this way.  You could have a fully briefed-up President, could you not, who would be at a disadvantage sitting across from among the most cagey leaders in world history going back a couple of decades, and that is the former spy Chief Vladimir Putin.

AMB. MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA:  That`s right.  I was working at the White House for President Obama in preparation for his first meeting with then Prime Minister Putin.  That was back in July 2009.  President Obama took his preparation very seriously.  We prepared for that meeting.  Because he knew that Vladimir Putin had been at this business, at these issues for a lot longer than he did and it was prudent to prepare for that meeting to go tete-a-tete with Vladimir Putin.  And I was in several of those meetings with President Obama and other senior government officials in the Obama administration, and it is true what Secretary Tillerson said.  Putin comes prepared.  He does his homework.  He knows his brief.  And he`s been at it for almost two decades now.

WILLIAMS:  So give us an idea what kind of stuff can you get played on if this is worst-case scenario, and as Tillerson says, our guy went in ill equipped and ill prepared?

MCFAUL:  Well, you know, just the basic facts of what the bilateral issues are, you know, reporting has shown that the President Trump doesn`t like to do briefings.  He doesn`t read papers.  He doesn`t like talking points.  And he doesn`t bring his advisers to these meetings, by the way.  Remember that.  I was in every meeting with President Obama because he wanted his Russia guy in the President meeting.  President Trump prefers to go it and the alone.

And the evidence, you know, you don`t have to think about the Hamburg meeting.  Go to the Helsinki meeting afterwards.  When he`d already had the meeting that Secretary Tillerson was talking about and we know because we witnessed the press conference where President Trump stood next to President Putin and he got played.  He got played on the intelligence thing where he said, I believe my friend, Vladimir Putin.  And then he got played on another thing when Putin rolled out this idea about interrogating Americans in return for interrogating Russian intelligence officers, and, you know, a kind of moral equivalency that had no this is personal for standing.

And this is personal for me, Brian, because I was one of the Americans on that list.  What did President Trump say?  He said that is a great idea.  That is evidence that he was not prepared for that meeting.  That is evidence that he didn`t know what Putin was talking about when he stood in front of the entire world at that press conference. 

WILLIAMS:  Ambassador, what do you see as the danger of what`s going to be this next phase of going back and investigating the investigators, the origins of the entire Mueller effort including but not limited to the President`s directive tonight that the attorney general will get the cooperation of all the intel agencies and has broad discretion on declassification.

MCFAUL:  I find it so disheartening just as an American for a number of reasons.  Number one, we`ve heard for two years now how the witch-hunt was wrong and we should shut that down, and now what does this sound like?  This sounds like a witch-hunt.

Well, guess what, I learned, you know, as a kid in Montana, two wrongs don`t make a right.  So it`s a completely hypocritical.  Number two, for the people in the intelligence community, for the good people, the women and men who serve our country admirably, and I got to know them when I worked in the government, this is going to be disheartening  were doing their jobs disheartening.  They were doing their jobs and now their commander in chief, their leader, is now turning on that`s them.  That`s a horrible thing.

And number three, we`ve already seen it today with some of Mr. Trump`s surrogates.  Corey Lewandowski, for instance, is saying Biden is behind this.  That sounds really political to me to, of all the people in the U.S. government, to single out the Vice President with no knowledge, I don`t know, unless Mr. Lewandowski has evidence that I haven`t seen, out of the blue to just happen to go after the Democratic leader in the, you know, right now in the polls.  That sounds very political to me, and I don`t like it.

WILLIAMS:  Final question.  Do you assume that Russia will just be allowed to tinker in the European elections that are getting under way?  Do you assume the same about our next presidential election?

MCFAUL:  Well, with respect to the European elections, they`ve already been active with their media, both broadcast media and social media.  They have courted like-minded leaders throughout the continent.  These these nationalist populists.  That has already taken place.  Some it has been exposed.  I think a lot of it we probably haven`t seen.  And, you know, let`s wait and see the respect results.

With respect to 2020, they have the capacity to do it and we`ve done next to nothing to try to prevent it from happening.  Remember, the Mueller report was not a 9/11-like commission report to look at everything that happened and then to recommend what we should do to prevent it in the future.  Some of us, Brian, in fact, here at Stanford, we`re going to be publishing in a couple weeks our recommendations for what could be done, pragmatically, nonpartisan things, but to date, we`ve done very little to prepare ourselves to rolling into 2020.

WILLIAMS:  Promise me when that time comes you`ll come on the air and talk about your findings.

MCFAUL:  Absolutely.  I was setting it up, my friend.  That`s what I want to do.

WILLIAMS:  Well, see, there you go, you know I`m a cheap date.  Ambassador Mike McFaul, thank you as always --

MCFAUL:  Thank you.

WILLIAMS:  -- for coming on our broadcast.

And coming up for us here tonight, the surprise of a lifetime for some lucky kids in the nation`s capital.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WILLIAMS:  Last thing before we go tonight, something that made a lot of folks wistful for another time when they saw it today.  Here now our last president, Barack Obama, visiting the nationals academy for kids in Washington, D.C.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I was -- I`m 44.  Who`s the quarterback here?

Touchdown.

Touchdown.  Touchdown.  Touchdown.  Touchdown.  That was a great catch.  All right.  Let`s go.  That was a great catch.  All right.  Let`s go.

I held up.  I held up.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I`m fine.  Thank you so much.

OBAMA:  You know, when I see what you guys are doing, I think everybody here, if you guys work hard, work hard in school, listen to your coaches, you guys are going to do great things.  All right?  So I`m going to be on the lookout for you.  Huh?  Because I think you`re going to do something important.  You guys are going to make a real difference.  We`re going to be really proud of you.  All right?  See you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAMS:  President 44 showing his value and lefty proficiency in two sports but mostly showing the value of showing up at an important time in kids` lives.

And that will do it for our Thursday night broadcast.  Thank you so much for being here with us.  Good night from NBC News headquarters here in New York.

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