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Pelosi not budging on impeachment. TRANSCRIPT: 6/13/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Peter Baker, Michael Steele, Alexi McCammond, Alexi McCammond

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  We will miss your points here, Senator Bennet.  Thank you very much for joining us, really appreciate it.

SEN. MICHAEL BENNET (D-CO), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Thank you.  Thanks for having me Lawrence, I appreciate it.

O`DONNELL:  Senator Bennet gets tonight`s LAST WORD. "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, the White House in damage control over the President`s assertion that he`d accept dirt on a political opponent from a foreign power.  It`s illegal, for starters, and now there is even more pressure on Nancy Pelosi, who calls it appalling.

Also tonight, the bus load of Democrats who have now made the cut for the first 2020 presidential debates in Miami in less than two weeks.  Tonight, we`ll look at the field.

And as an independent government agency recommends the firing of the Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Sanders is actually leaving the White House, though there hasn`t been a briefing in 94 days.  The departure of this particular public servant may not get widely noticed as THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on a Thursday night.

And good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 875 of the Trump administration.  The President is in something of a mess of his own making, starting with his comments yesterday that he, indeed, would be open to dirt on a political opponent if offered by a foreign power.  As he put it to ABC News, "I think I`d take it."  He went on to add this.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  -- when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research.  Oh, let`s call the FBI.  The FBI doesn`t have enough agents to take care of it.

When you go and talk, honestly, to congressman, they all do it.  They always have, and that`s the way it is.  It`s called oppo research.


WILLIAMS:  Two months ago Robert Mueller detailed multiple Russian offers of assistance to the Trump campaign in his report.  The investigation found 140 contacts between Trump officials and Russians.

This morning as the controversy over Trump`s comments was building, he defended himself on social media, and we quote, "I meet and talk to foreign governments every day.  I just met with the Queen of England, U.K., the Prince of Whales," and we`re pretty sure here he meant Wales without the "h," not the sea-going mammals, "the PM of the United Kingdom, the PM of Ireland, the president of France and the president of Poland.  We talked about everything," with a capital "e."  "Should I immediately call the FBI about these calls and meetings?  How ridiculous.  I would never be trusted again."

The White House communication shop also swung into action with its own explanation of Trump`s comments, including his assertion that the FBI should not be alerted about attempted election interference.


HOGAN GIDLEY, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY:  I was standing just feet away from the President in his exchange with George Stephanopoulos.  It was very clear the President said if there was wrongdoing, of course he`d turn it over to the FBI.

SANDRA SMITH, FOX NEWS ANCHOR:  The interviewer, Stephanopoulos, did point out the FBI director Christopher Wray has said campaigns should reach out to the bureau if they are contacted by a foreign entity.  The President responded "the FBI director is wrong."

GIDLEY:  Right.  But, first of all, I think we were talking about James Comey at the time and we all know James Comey sure is wrong after being a convicted liar and leaker, so that`s what the President was talking about.


WILLIAMS:  Not clear there.  Members of Trump`s own party also weighed in.  Here`s how two of his strongest supporters in Congress reacted.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA:  It is not okay for any public official to receive assistance from a foreign government.  Whether it be anything of value, money or opposition research.  I hope we`ll do two things.  We`ll make that clear to everybody so that we don`t go down this road.  And then we`ll look at what happened in 2016 with Christopher Steele because he was a foreign agent paid for by the Democratic Party to do opposition research on Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Is it right for the President to say that he would listen if foreigners offered dirt on his political opponents?  Is that the kind of help you would take?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY, (R-CA) HOUSE MINORITY LEADER:  I think we all see -- you`re talking about a hypothetical.

KELLY O`DONNELL, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Sir, are you the president`s comments were not problematic?  Doesn`t the President have to set a tone about what is right and what is wrong?

MCCARTHY:  I think the President`s been very clear.  The President does not want foreign governments to interfere in our elections.  He`s been very strong about that.

O`DONNELL:  He said he would welcome that assistance.

MCCARTHY:  He did not say he would have a foreign government --

O`DONNELL:  He said he would look at the information, listen to it, and if there were a problem, he`d go to the FBI.

MCCARTHY:  I`ve watched the President.  I believe the President would always do the right action.


WILLIAMS:  So while a lot of Republicans today deflected to Hillary, to Steele, to Comey, Nancy Pelosi`s reaction could be called unsparing and yet careful.


REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) CALIFORNIA, HOUSE SPEAKER:  What the President said last night shows clearly, once again, over and over again, that he does not know the difference between right and wrong, and that`s probably the nicest thing I can say about him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Would you consider that grounds to launch impeachment proceedings?

PELOSI:  It has nothing to do with any campaign.  Make sure -- I want you all to understand that.  As we go down this path to seek the truth for the American people, and to hold the President accountable, it has nothing to do with politics or any campaigns.


WILLIAMS:  Earlier tonight the chairwoman of the Federal Election Commission offered a very rare and very blunt public warning.  We can`t remember anything quite like this before.  And we quote. "I would not have thought that I needed to stay this.  Let me make something 100 percent clear to the American public and anyone running for public office.  It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign nation in connection with the U.S. election.  This is not a novel concept.  Any political campaign that receives an offer of a prohibited donations from a foreign source should report that offer to the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

This is where we are, and it all comes as the President is just a couple of weeks away from a planned meeting with Vladimir Putin when they attend that G20 summit in Japan.  In an interview yesterday, Putin sounded oddly less optimistic about relations with the U.S.

( speaking foreign language )

WILLIAMS:  Meanwhile, there are also new developments tonight involving two of the President`s closest aides, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders is leaving after almost two years on the job.  In fairness, we haven`t seen her a lot.  She talks to reporters in the driveway sometimes but it`s been 94 days since she held a press briefing.

And an independent federal watchdog appointed by the President is urging the White House to remove Kellyanne Conway for violating the Hatch Act, which even interns at the White House learn prohibits partisan politicking by White House employees, because ideally you`re working for the American people.

Conway has repeatedly weighed in on political candidates over the past year.  Here she is talking about the 2020 Democrats.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT:  If he were a republican running against him, they would immediately call him a sexist.  I`d also ask him, what exactly have you accomplished that qualifies you to be the commander in chief?  I`ve yet to see presidential timber, I just see a bunch of presidential wood ships.

Amy Klobuchar who seems to be a very nice person, I guess unless you`re on her staff.  But you can change the A to an O and O my instead of Amy there.

Elizabeth Warren is running for President.  She tried to appropriate somebody else`s ethnicity.


WILLIAMS:  So much to talk about, so little time.  Here for our leadoff discussion on a Thursday night, Peter Baker, Chief White House Correspondent for "The New York Times," Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence, Mimi Rocah, former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York now a Distinguished Fellow in Criminal Justice at the Pace University School of Law, and Jeremy Bash, former Chief of Staff at CIA and Pentagon, former Chief Counsel for the House Intel Committee.

Jeremy, I`d like to begin with you.  Your reaction to the President`s words now over 24 hours later.  They do linger.

JEREMY BASH, FMR. CIA CHIEF OF STAFF:  What innocent person says what the President of the United States said in this interview?  What innocent person says this was not illegal, in fact, I would do it again?  I think it is clear consciousness of guilt that he called for Russian assistance.  He received Russian assistance.  He welcomed Russian assistance and he has rewarded Russian assistance.

And what`s most astonishing, Brian, is that he has said in the 2020 campaign not only would he welcome it again but that he urges everybody else to accept it as well.  It is the complete undermining and breakdown of our election system if the person at the top of the political food chain, the President, says the rules don`t apply.

WILLIAMS:  Frank Figliuzzi, I`d like to play a clip from a former colleague of yours, Andrew McCabe appearing today with Nicolle Wallace.


ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER FBI DEPUTY DIRECTOR:  The comments I heard yesterday only reaffirm for me the concerns that we had in May of 2017.  If I am a foreign intelligence officer today, the message I got from the President`s own words yesterday was it is open season on U.S. political figures in 2020.


WILLIAMS:  So, Frank, play it the way you usually do.  Hyperbole aside, what are the real world consequences of what the President said yesterday?  How will they stay with us?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FMR. FBI ASSIST. DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE:  Well, we`re going to see an increase, perhaps more than ever before in recent history, in attempts at foreign governments to meddle and interfere with our upcoming election and we`re going to see it at all levels.

And here`s why.  They now see more than ever a permissive receptive environment.  Today around the world in world capitals, intelligence service directors were having translators translate the President`s words.  They were scratching their heads saying, "Did he just say he would be receptive and not report to the FBI if we gave him research on his opponents?"  Answer, yes, that`s what he said.

And so any intelligence service worth their salt is saying, "How can we get this done, get him vulnerable and compromised by having him listen to our stuff and yet not come across the radar screen of the FBI, the CIA, et cetera?"  So they`re going to get more sophisticated at doing it.  They`re going to try to do it.  They`re going to do it in a way that doesn`t make them look like foreign intelligence services and it`s going to get very, very complicated.

And usually the attorney general would be the one to step in, call time-out and say, "Look, Mr. President, you`re wrong, I have the back of the FBI, they are our premier law enforcement agency."  He hasn`t done it.  We`ve heard nothing from him.  And the intelligence services around the world are saying, "Let`s make this happen.

WILLIAMS:  Mimi Rocah, I never thought a document from the Federal Election Commission could be sobering.  I have never seen a document like that from the Federal Election Commission.  Question for you, is -- did the President increase his legal peril at all yesterday?

MIMI ROCAH, FMR. ASSISTANT U.S. ATTY. SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NY:  I think he did.  I mean, and, you know, it`s striking to me that one of the things Nancy Pelosi said today is that this is, you know, the President doesn`t know right from wrong.  I really respectfully beg to differ with that.

I think if anything what this statement in the interview shows is that he knows he just doesn`t care.  And it puts in a new light all of the conduct, I think, that Mueller documented because, you know, he spent -- Trump spent so long telling us it didn`t happen.  I didn`t meet with the Russians.  Yes, I met with the Russians, but it wasn`t about the election.  OK, we met with them, but, you know, now, we`re at the point that it`s OK, it`s OK to do this.

That`s where he`s been all along.  It`s just now that he`s admitting it, but I think it puts that conduct in a new light of, yes, I knew I wasn`t supposed to be doing this.  That`s why I wouldn`t admit doing it.  But now I`m admitting it.  I just don`t care that it`s wrong.

So, you know, to the extent that willfulness, intent is an element of any of these crimes, he has blown through the water on that.  I mean, you would -- you barely would need anything other than that interview to show the President`s intent to not only commit a crime in the future, which he`s announced and admitted, but I think puts light on his conduct in the past as well.

WILLIAMS:  Peter Baker, any senior Republicans who are in the President`s orbit and by default in your orbit expressing real regret?  All we have to go on so far is the President tweeting about Wales.

PETER BAKER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, actually, there was a pretty universal reaction against this by Republicans on Capitol Hill today.  You saw any number of Republican senators say pretty flatly, no, that`s not what you`re supposed to do, the answer is supposed to be no.  You hear not just heard Lindsey Graham who you played there but Johnny Isakson, Joni Ernst, Marsha Blackburn, Lisa Murkowski.  One Republican after another saying, "No, I wouldn`t do this, this isn`t the kind of thing you should do."

Now, some of them as Senator Graham did try to then turn the tables on the Democrats by saying, "Well, what about Christopher Steele?"  That`s a different situation, obviously.  There`s plenty to argue about with regard to the Steele dossier.  But of course Christopher Steele wasn`t working for a hostile government, the Russians, and he did in fact turn his dossier over to the FBI.  The question is what the FBI then did with it to justify, you know, its investigation.

So I think the Republicans are very uncomfortable with this today.  They did not want to see the President revive this.

Remember, just a couple of weeks ago with the Mueller report, it seemed like he had put the Russia part of this thing behind him, the issue was about obstruction of justice and these subpoenas, but not about Russia.  Now he`s put that question, his relationship with Moscow, right back in the center of the American debate.

WILLIAMS:  Jeremy Bash, what have we done in the meantime to strengthen our elections to fortify them, what have our fine patriotic members of Congress done in that interest?

BASH:  Well, unfortunately not enough, Brian.  I mean, if you look at the efforts that are across the states, we have so many different election systems, and I think it could have really benefitted from some strong leadership from the federal government, but, of course, states and localities want to do things their own way and I think there`s been some reluctance by this administration to acknowledge the deep vulnerabilities we have in our election system.  We heard reports about the foreign interference in two places in Florida.  Places where the vote tabulation systems have been infected potentially with malicious code.  So I think this is a very unresolved issue and, again, our defenses are down going into 2020.

WILLIAMS:  Frank Figliuzzi, the President of the United States just declared publicly his FBI director is wrong, and I hate to disagree with the White House, he wasn`t talking about Comey, he was talking about Director Wray.  How must it be inside that institution right now?

FIGLIUZZI:  Oh, the world`s getting very, very small at the Hoover building and it must feel very isolating because as I said earlier, it`s the attorney general that you rely on to have your back.

And so, on the topic of what we`re doing about our elections, even if the FBI said to the attorney general we need "x" number of agents, "x" number of dollars, Department of Homeland security comes in and says we want to bolster cyber security in the following states and voting precincts.  If the administration isn`t tuned into that, isn`t supportive of that, that money, those resources, that manpower is not going to happen.

And so what we need to hear from, really, is ask the secretary of Homeland Security, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, ask the FBI director, do you have what you need?  Have you gotten everything you`ve asked for to secure the 2020 election?  And I`ll bet you the answer is no.

WILLIAMS:  Mimi Rocah, let`s just take a brief sidebar to Mr. Flynn, who is awaiting sentencing.  Dumped his last lawyer and has taken on a new one.  We know this thanks to the President`s tweet this morning.  "General Michael Flynn, the 33-year war hero who has served with distinction, has not retained a good lawyer, he has retained a great lawyer, Sidney Powell.  Best wishes and good luck to them both."

Sidney Powell is a frequent contributor and guest on Fox News.  Well known in the Republican legal world.  What does all this mean to you?  Does anything get your attention there?

ROCAH:  I mean, the whole thing really gets your attention, and I can`t tell you exactly where this is going, but, look, first of all, Flynn is about to be sentenced.  This judge has signaled very -- pretty clearly that he was planning on sending Flynn to jail, and we have no reason to think yet that that would have changed.

I think Flynn is, you know, going down a different path.  He thinks, well, if I`m going to go to jail with this judge then I might as well roll the dice on a pardon, and Trump is certainly signaling that he is amenable to that by that tweet.  I mean, I thought that tweet was astonishing because, first of all, he supposedly fired Flynn because he was not an honest man, who had lied to the Vice President.  And for him to now go back and, you know, he`s doing the dance that he did with Manafort and with Cohen, the, oh, he`s a good man, he`s a good man.  I mean, he`s holding out something for him now, the possibility of the pardon, and this at a time when Flynn is being subpoenaed to Congress.

There is still very much Flynn could do in his cooperation, in his testimony now with Congress.  And Trump knows that.  And I think this is his way of holding out this pardon, holding out the possibility.  It hasn`t worked out for Manafort so I don`t know why Flynn would trust him.  Manafort is sitting in jail.  But that seems to be where this is going.

WILLIAMS:  And Peter Baker, the other news of this day, the recommendation that the White House fire Kellyanne Conway for violating the Hatch Act, which used to matter and the departure of the press secretary where they used to hold daily briefings.

BAKER:  Yes, that`s, you know, another day in Trump world.  We`re busy, you know, re-examining his relationship with Russia.  The staff is turning over.  Illegalities are being alleged.

You know the Office of Special Counsel that made this complaint against Kellyanne Conway is not related to Robert Mueller.  It`s a part of the government that existed long before this presidency, will presumably exist long after it goes.  In order to enforce workplace rules on politics in the federal government and what they said was that Kellyanne Conway was using her official position as a White House counselor, and from the setting of the White House, no less, to engage in partisan politics.

She`s basically dismissed their relevance.  She said a couple of weeks ago blah, blah, blah, you`re not going to stop me by, you know, waving around the Hatch Act and they followed up with this complaint saying that she had violated the law and the President should fire her.

Now, the White House defended her.  They sent out a memo today drafted by the White House counsel saying that the special counsel had overreached and was misinterpreting the law.  But it`s hard to make an argument that`s biased because this special counsel was appointed by none other than President Trump himself two years ago.  So, once again you see the President at odds with the FBI director he appointed and odds with the special counsel that he appointed.

WILLIAMS:  One of those evenings where our public numbness seems very acute.  Peter Baker, Frank Figliuzzi, Mimi Rocah, Jeremy Bash, greatly appreciate you all starting us off tonight.

And coming up for us, more on Speaker Pelosi`s response to this increasing pressure to impeach.

And later,, we`ll ask a retired four-star general about a suddenly very tense situation in the Gulf of Oman and ask the question what could go wrong.  As THE 11TH HOUR is just getting started on a Thursday night.


PELOSI:  I don`t think there`s anything more divisive we can do than to impeach a president of the United States, and so you have to handle it with great care.  It has to be about the truth and the facts to take you to whatever decision has to be there.  It should by no means be done politically.  You shouldn`t impeach politically or you shouldn`t not impeach politically.  But you -- we must always remember we have a responsibility for oneness.


WILLIAMS:  Despite the President`s stated willingness to accept campaign dirt from a foreign power, the House Speaker is no closer to opting for the impeachment course of action.  Nor to be fair is her caucus of over 200 individual politicians.  So far, however, 62 Democrats are in favor, including most of the Dems on the House Judiciary Committee.

Lots of crickets among republicans today, not surprising, it`s become rather stand.  Here are a few exceptions.


SE. MITT ROMNEY, (R) UTAH:  I ran for President twice, I ran for governor once, I ran for Senate twice, I`ve never had any attempt made by a foreign government to contact me or a member of my staff, and had that occurred, I would have contacted the FBI immediately.


WILLIAMS:  Well, apparently, according to "The Washington Post," Lindsey Graham explained to the President under what circumstances a campaign should report outreach from foreign entities to the FBI.  Helpful.

With us tonight to talk about it, Alexi McCammond, Politics Reporter for Axios and Michael Steele, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and former lieutenant governor of the great State of Maryland and the only host we know of "The Michael Steele Podcast."  Good evening and welcome to you both.

Michael, I have a brief snippet from Mitch McConnell appearing on Fox News tonight --


WILLIAMS:  -- to play for you.  We`ll discuss it on the other side.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) KENTUCKY, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER:  They just can`t let it go, Laura.  You know, I said weeks ago case closed.  We got the Mueller report.  The only objective evaluation that will be conducted.  Nobody has any confidence that the Democratic House is going to engage in any kind of appropriate oversight.  The case is closed.  Why don`t we move on?


WILLIAMS:  Michael Steele, nothing to see here.

STEELE:  Nothing to see here.  It is the attitude that reflects the relationship between the speaker and the President where it is very clear the dominant player is the President, not just because he`s president but because he has individuals like McConnell and others who are on the ballot coming up next year who have a cantankerous base behind them in their respective states and districts reminding him that you are to stay appropriately in line at all times, no matter what the President tweets, no matter what the President says, you know your place and you know the response.

And so in light of the President`s, you know, comments yesterday with George Stephanopoulos, that is not the response that should be coming from the majority leader of the Senate nor one of the leaders of the Republican Party.  But that`s the best you`re going to get.

WILLIAMS:  And Alexi, I have so to play for you.  It happened in this studio in the chair Michael currently occupies.  Last night this is former Republican and former Republican member of Congress David Jolly.


DAVID JOLLY, FMR. REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN:  The eyes of the nation tonight must look to Nancy Pelosi.  It is not her fault that this moment has occurred.  She has not had a hand in Donald Trump`s behavior, but she occupies the highest constitutional office outside the White House.  This is the moment where we`re begging for leadership.


WILLIAMS:  So, Alexi, the question to you becomes, did you pick up any change in belief or behavior among the Democrats today?

ALEXI MCCAMMOND, AXIOS POLITICS REPORTER:  I like David Jolly as a human.  We`ve been on panels together.  But respectfully, I think that he is probably the last person Nancy Pelosi is listening to right now.  Her comments today reflected very clearly that she is listening to herself and her fellow Democratic leaders in the House who are really sort of staying strong on this no impeachment plan despite some of the growing calls, not only from folks in her own caucus but among the 2020 Democrats running for president who I think it`s sort of fascinating.

At first I was annoyed that they were talking about impeachment because none of the voters were really asking them about impeachment.  But now I think it`s fascinating for Nancy Pelosi, this juxtaposition between herself and 2020 Democrats who are at once running to replace President Trump but still calling for him to be impeached.  So that sort of brings up a larger question for me about Nancy Pelosi`s many reasons for why she doesn`t think impeachment is the road to go down right now when she has seen all the different things that President Trump has done as evidenced in the Mueller report and said as his most recent comments he made with ABC News.

WILLIAMS:  All right. Michael Steele, you wanted to put a quick word in before we --

STEELE:  To that point, I think the key thing to recognize is that Nancy Pelosi has a smart political antenna, and she`s reading things and picking up sounds and vibrations that others in the political process aren`t.  She knows where the earth is moving on this issue, and she`s not going to move her party there just yet.

WILLIAMS:  All right.  We`ll stay right there for a moment.  Alexi and Michael have agreed to stay with us over this break.

Coming up, the roster for the aforementioned debates in Miami has been revealed.  Here`s a hint.  Not everybody made the cut, when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  We are less than two weeks away from the first Democratic debates, which you may have heard will be on this network, and with so many candidates in the mix, not everyone is invited.

For the DNC, this was what the NFL calls cutdown day.  Here are the 20 people who will make the main stage in some form or fashion over two hot nights in Miami.  To make the cut, the candidates had to hit at least 1 percent in three approved polls or get 65,000 unique campaign contributions.

Four candidates fell short of both those requirements.  Here they are, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, former Senator Mike Gravel, Miramar, Florida Mayor Wayne Messam and Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton.  Remaining with us tonight or our friends, Alexi McCammond and Michael Steele.

So, Michael, the snarky way of putting this is, Oprah`s political adviser made the cut, but a Democrat who won a great big red state did not.

MICHAEL STEELE, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Yes, that`s the ugly side of the process.

WILLIAMS:  Would you be angry?

STEELE:  I would be -- live it at this point.  Because from -- in one sense, it`s an arbitrary standard, but, OK, so you need to draw the line somewhere.  But I take a different approach to this whole thing.

First out of the gate, first round of this whole thing, put everybody on the national stage, give everybody an opportunity to make their case to the American people.  This is not just playing to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.  This is playing -- this is a national debate.  Because if it were just in Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, then, OK, that`s a different story, but this is a national opportunity.

So now you`ve told four candidates, regardless of what you think of their chances, everybody has the same chance at this point.  You know, the difference between, you know, the number one guy and the last guy is, what, 18 points, 20 points?

So give everybody that opportunity, but since they don`t have it, you`ve now created this -- even with the folks who are going to be going the second night, you`re going to have some issues there.  But, you know, it`s the process.

WILLIAMS:  Alexi, tomorrow night is this kind of like seating in groups on Southwest.  We find out what the on-stage mix is going to be, which, of course, will dictate how they do their prep for the debate.

ALEXI MCCAMMOND, POLITICAL REPORTER, AXIOS:  That`s exactly right.  And some of the campaigns I`ve been talking to have privately been talking about, you know, who is going to play Bernie Sanders or who is going to play Cory Booker, and they really just don`t know yet, right?  Because they don`t know who is going to be on that debate stage with them.

But I think that will be one of the really fascinating dynamics to your question to Michael just now.  If there is somebody like Andrew Yang or Marianne Williamson as they`re inevitably will be on the stage with someone like Joe Biden, right?

Their political experience is totally different.  The things they talk about will be totally different.  And I think that will be a fascinating way to see the nuances in all these candidates` positions.  And also it sort of reinforces this idea that in a lot of ways this is one of the more pure nominating contests we`ve seen for Democrats in a long time.  The simple fact that even though not everyone made it on the stage because of these qualifications and thresholds, you`ll still be able to have someone like Andrew Yang share a stage potentially with someone like Joe Biden.

WILLIAMS:  And, Michael, 15 seconds of brilliance.  I keep thinking about numbness.  Do you think there is a chance that what the President said yesterday will move the needle of public opinion?

STEELE:  That`s very hard to say.  I think at least the public response has been one of incredulous disbelief.  I mean, I think people are really kind of like, really?


STEELE:  But let`s see now how this narrative plays itself out.  Again, what helps the president is that there are no consequences, in his own party is not stepping into that space with any real, you know, concern about what he said.  So if they are not concerned, why should I be?

WILLIAMS:  Wow.  That`s a whole separate conversation. 

STEELE:  Right.

WILLIAMS:  Our thanks to two of our friends.  We`ll have you back.  Alexi McCammond, Michael Steele, greatly appreciate you joining us --

MCCAMMOND:  Thank you, Brian.

WILLIAMS:  -- on this Thursday night.

Coming up for us, our next stop on "The Road to Miami" is, here`s a hint.  It`s larger than Rhode Island.  Number two, they call themselves the first state.  It`s right there on their license plates.  Steve Kornacki back at the big board when we continue.


WILLIAMS:  From the practice squad to the roster.  As we mentioned, cutdown day for the Democratic Party, we now know who will make up the field for the first Democratic presidential debates, 13 days away on this very network.

And we`re continuing our series, "The Road to Miami."  That`s the one where Steve Kornacki tells us everything we need to know about the states along the bustling I-95 Corridor.

Last night, if you`ve been following along, you know Steve was in Pennsylvania.  Tonight he`s crossing over into the First State, Delaware, represented in the Senate for decades by a man who so badly wants to become president.

Back at the big board tonight is our own National Correspondent Steve Kornacki.  Hey, Steve. 

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT:  Here we go, Brian.  We are making our way south.  We said goodbye, Pennsylvania, hello to the First State, Delaware, home of the University of Delaware, the fighting -- oh, of course, Delaware, the toll booth.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Sir, you`re holding up traffic.

KORNACKI:  Brian, you`re going to have to give me a second here.  I`m sorry.  How much is this?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  That will be $4.

KORNACKI:  This road is like 15 miles long.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It`s actually 11.

KORNACKI:  This is highway robbery. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  All right, well --

KORNACKI:  I should pick up my dollar.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Sorry, sir.  See you later, out-of-towner.

KORNACKI:  Thanks a lot.  I`m going to drive away from this toll booth.

As you can see, Brian, I am steaming mad at the toll.  I was just charged, but this is part of life in Delaware, unfortunately.  Here we are on the Delaware Turnpike.  It is only 11 miles long, at $4 total for the toll.  That is $0.36 a mile.  This is one of the most expensive stretches of interstate in the country.  Only the Chicago Sky way more expensive, $0.36 cents a mile to get on these 11 miles of the Delaware Turnpike.

This is it.  It`s a small state, a small stretch of 95, but, boy, they make your wallet notice it.

But we are on 95 in Delaware and that means we are not far from something else, the Biden Welcome Center right off of 95.  And you mentioned it, Joe Biden, that name is synonymous with this state.  That name is synonymous with Delaware politics.  Joe Biden`s career in Delaware politics, it dates all the way back to 1970.  He was elected to the Newcastle County Council, that`s the Wilmington Area.

He was 29 years old in 1972, took on an incumbent Republican senator, what a big upset that year.  Got himself re-elected all these terms.  Obama picked him in 2008 to be on the ticket for the Democrats.  He won as vice president, won again in 2013.

That`s Joe Biden`s track record in Delaware, of course now, trying to be president.

But here`s the thing, Delaware does not produce a lot of presidents, does not produce a lot of presidential prospects.  In modern times, remember this guy?  Pierre S. Dupont IV, he ran for the Republican nomination in `88, fourth place in New Hampshire.  His campaign was over.

Of course, there`s Biden himself.  He ran in `88, pretty much got nowhere, dropped out early.  2008, didn`t get anywhere in the presidential race.  If course, got on the ticket with Obama.

In fact, there has never been a candidate from Delaware who has won the presidency, and yet a month plus into this presidential campaign for 2020, for Joe Biden, there he is, atop the field on the Democratic side.  We`ve been shown at here every night in the polls against Trump, Joe Biden leading right now.

Who knows where this is going to go.  But, really, Joe Biden`s never been closer to the presidency and Delaware as a state has probably never been closer to the presidency than it is right now.  We will see as this campaign unfolds.  Do they get closer and closer, and closer, and actually get there or do they end up looking back at this moment and saying so close and yet so far away.

WILLIAMS:  Wow, can`t wait for tomorrow night.  Steve Kornacki, our thanks and a toll taker who looked a lot like Bria from our staff.

Coming up, the dramatic incident on the other side of the world that some folks fear could lead our nation into a conflict.  A retired four-star general will be with us next on this dicey night halfway around the world.


WILLIAMS:  There it is.  The United States is blaming Iran for attacks on two tankers in the Middle East today.  The Japanese and Norwegian ships both ruptured and exploded at sea in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz.

Owners of both ships say all the crew have been safely evacuated.  US Navy said the USS Bainbridge was operating in the area and provided immediate assistance.  The news, of course, comes amid soaring tensions between the US and Iran, and for good measure the US has already found and named the aggressor in no time.  The secretary of state was assigning blame here.


MIKE POMPEO, US SECRETARY OF STATE:  It is the assessment of the United States government that the Islamic Republic of Iran was responsible for the attacks that occurred in the Gulf of Oman today.

This assessment is based on intelligence, the weapons used, the level of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and the fact that no proxy group operating in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with such a high degree of sophistication.


WILLIAMS:  Secretary Pompeo provided no detailed proof of that assertion.  The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting Iran at the time of the attack.  And, remember, one of the vessels flies under a Japanese flag.

Iran is denying any involvement in all of this, calling these incidents "beyond suspicious."  Just last month you`ll recall four other tankers were damaged in similar though less severe incidents.  Iran also denied any involvement back then.

To sort this out we`re joined again tonight by General Barry McCaffrey, retired US Army Four-Star, heavily decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, a US Ground Commander in the Gulf War and a veteran of that region.

General, do you buy this instant US accusation?  Do you buy the intel behind it?  And what, in plain English, is going on here?

BARRY MCCAFFREY, MSNBC MILITARY ANALYST:  There`s very little doubt in my own mind that this was an Iranian action.  Probably combat swimmers or small boats affixing pretty small explosive limpet mines to these six ships which have now been attacked.  If it was a naval warfare mine or a torpedo, it would have been a catastrophic incident.

So I think we ought to assume the revolutionary guards, maritime force carried out these attacks, or signaling the fact that they`re desperate.  The Iranian economy is in terrible trouble.  They`ve got to get out of the box.  They`re going to threaten to go back to using their facilities to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.  They`re going to try and isolate us in Europe.  And to my surprise, to be honest, they`re now taking military action to signal their ability to close down the Straits of Hormuz, so pretty serious situation for the region. 

WILLIAMS:  OK.  So if that happens.  If the straits get closed down, I`ve heard it said, you know, the lights go out in Japan in pretty short order.  What happens then?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, you make a good point.  I mean, probably a third of the entire world sea born shipments of oil goes out through the Strait of Hormuz.  There is no question in my mind, if the straits get closed by the Iranians will fight.

And we`d be joined by the gulf coast states.  A war in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman would be ugly.  We have to go after the maritime assets.  Go after the air defense systems.  Go after their combat aviation capability.  Go after their submarines, pretty constricted waters, which would reduce the capability of the US Navy to operate.  It`s to nobody`s benefit.

By the way, the first thing the Iranians would do would be to go after Saudi oil production.  So I don`t think the Israelis or the Saudis, never mind the Iranians, clearly think this would be to their advantage but the Iranians are desperate and they`re searching for a way out.

WILLIAMS:  And you know the political realities in this country, general.  What cautions would you give those who may be secretly or not so secretly jonesing to attack Iran?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I don`t think there is anybody in uniform that thinks this is a great opportunity for the United States.  There`s no -- certainly, there`s no will among the American people.  There is no will in Congress.

If we ended up in high-intensity operations, there are going to be a lot of bloodshed on both sides.  The United States clearly would overpower the Iranian air and sea assets in a reasonably short period of time, but there would be collateral damage amongst the gulf coast states` oil facilities, and the world`s oil market would be in an uproar.  So, again, I can`t imagine anyone that gives it some thought would think this is a good outcome.

The Revolutionary Guard may be out of control.  Trump administration besides putting economic constraints on the country identified the revolutionary guard as a terrorist organization.  So their personal pocketbooks are being hit.  It may be that they`re carrying out these actions in a rogue manner.

WILLIAMS:  All right.  You`ve given us a lot to think about.  We`re going to fit in a break.  General McCaffrey has agreed to stay with us.

When we come back, we`ll have more on this significant week for our country, for that man and the Trump White House.


WILLIAMS:  We are back and General Barry McCaffrey rejoins our conversation.

General, I always think about you during weeks like this, specifically the President`s words yesterday.  As someone who has fought for this country, fought for the -- just the idea of this country and our flag, how were you struck by what he said about his ability to accept campaign dirt from an outside power?

MCCAFFREY:  You know, Brian, I`ve taught national security studies and American government for the better part of eight years at college level.  And I`m at a loss for words to understand the Trump administration.

There`s an element of lawless behavior to what we`re seeing.  And, you know, we say we got three co-equal branches of government, but it`s really a government of checks and balances, and the predominant power is in the US Congress.  They`re not going to exercise that power.

So we`re left with a President that unilaterally is making decisions that are in clear violation of the law, and this isn`t going to be settled until the 2020 election.  So, you know, the question is, do we arbitrate our disputes in the court of law or in bipartisan debate in the Congress or do we have someone unilaterally declaring what the law is?  It`s a dangerous situation for the republic.

WILLIAMS:  Meantime, what about those who serve?  What about all those in uniform spread all over the globe?  What about the American whose business card says he or she is a software consultant and they`re in deep cover walking around the streets of a hostile capital city right now tonight as we have this conversation?  What about their spirit and morale and work ethic?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, I think the, you know, 2.1 million men and women of the armed forces, active guard and reserve, are going to clearly obey the legal orders of the commander in chief, the president of the United states, and the acting secretary of Defense.  So I don`t think there is any question in my mind that the sense of discipline, of obedience to the law in the armed forces will be unaffected.

The same as the intelligence agencies, and as you say, the CIA, NSA, FBI, Federal Marshal Service, these are people who are carrying guns and trying to defend the American people.  I think they`ll keep at it.  We don`t risk any deviance from their sense of duties.

So we`re going to be OK.  The question is how we are going to deal with the president if he says I`m going to ignore the law?  That`s the question at hand.

WILLIAMS:  Do you have -- we have 30 seconds remaining.  What to do about the kind of public numbness that as I said earlier, seems so acute on a night like tonight.

MCCAFFREY:  Yes.  Well, you know, NBC`s got me taking part in the Twitter- verse and I`m bombarded with viewpoints along this line.  I think, look, the country is still in good shape.  The economy is good.  The American people are law-abiding people.  They`re educated.  They are hard-working.  So I don`t think we have a problem with the electorate.

But we`ve become divided.  And one of the things we need to do, as Democratic Party better sit down and think why do 40 percent of the American people support this president?  Some of them may be racists and deplorables, but many of them have an anxiety about the way the government`s been working, so we need a fresh start in the country.

WILLIAMS:  General Barry McCaffrey, our thanks, as always, for joining our broadcast.  And that is our Thursday edition here in New York.  Thank you so very much for being here with us and goodnight from our 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