LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: Really appreciate it. Thank you. "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Tonight`s 53 minutes in front of reporters, multiple opportunities, and yet no apology to Jeffrey Epstein`s victims. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta defends the plea deal he kept 11 years ago as a U.S. Attorney that now threatens his job. The devastating and lured charges against the long time friend of the President who was also a sex offender now means the President has three acquaintances in jail. I t also means more major drama for this President`s circle including his Cabinet.
And how dire is the threat to our upcoming presidential election? And if it`s as serious as what Congress was briefed on today, why isn`t this man more concerned about it? All of it was THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on a Wednesday night.
Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 902 of the Trump administration. And today the Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, was fighting to keep his job, and he did so on live television. He called a press conference at the U.S. Department of Labor. That would be inside the taxpayer-funded briefing room at the U.S. Department of Labor to talk about a sex offender from New York.
Specifically, he was defending his role in an extraordinarily lenient plea deal with Jeffrey Epstein that he agreed to when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida over a decade ago. Epstein, you`ll recall, was given immunity from federal prosecution. He had to serve 13 months in county jail while being allowed out for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Epstein is now facing new charges of sex trafficking brought by the feds here in New York.
His arrest on his private jet Saturday night has refocused attention on Acosta and now threatens his job in the Cabinet. A source tells NBC News that Acosta`s public defense of the Florida deal today came at the President`s request.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ALEX ACOSTA, SECRETARY OF LABOR: In 2006 a grand jury convened by the state attorney, the district attorney of Palm Beach County, reviewed the evidence and recommended a single charge. And that charge would have resulted in no jail time at all. No registration as a sexual offender. And no restitution to the victims.
Without the work of our prosecutors Epstein would have gotten away with just that state charge.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Would you make this same agreement today?
ACOSTA: We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight, and we live in a very different world. Today`s world treats victims very, very differently. Today`s world does not allow some of the victim shaming that could have taken place at trial 12 years ago.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dozens of girls were allegedly molested. Why didn`t you just keep investigating?
ACOSTA: Under the agreement in the Southern District of Florida, the investigation ceased and they had the opportunity to proceed civilly.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is the message to victims who say they don`t trust you anymore?
ACOSTA: The message is, you need to come forward.
KATIE ROGERS, THE NEW YORK TIMES WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You have nothing else to say to these victims beyond you should come forward? That places a lot of burden on children. What else do you have to say?
ACOSTA: I have seen these interviews and I can`t -- I generally can`t begin to fathom what these victims have been through. At the same time I think it`s important to stand up for the prosecutors of my former office and make clear that what they were trying to do was help these victims.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: That last question to Acosta, the one about the victims, was from Katie Rogers of "The New York times" who`s standing by to join us in a moment.
Late today the former Palm Beach state attorney fired back with a statement that reads in part, "I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta`s recollection of this matter is completely wrong. If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state`s case and felt he had to rescue the matter," forgive me, "he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted. Instead, Mr. Acosta brokered a secret plea deal. Mr. Acosta should not be allowed to rewrite history."
As all this is taking place, a new accuser has come forward. Jennifer Araoz spoke exclusively with our own Savannah Guthrie. She described how she came into contact with Jeffrey Epstein at his New York City townhouse after she was approached by a woman outside her high school back in the fall of 2001.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Did you ever tell him your age?
JENNIFER ARAOZ, NEW EPSTEIN ACCUSER: I told the recruiter. I mentioned it in front of him, yes.
GUTHRIE: You`re 14 years old.
ARAOZ: Yes. He knew very well my age.
GUTHRIE: Did Jeffrey Epstein rape you?
ARAOZ: Yes. He raped me. Forcefully raped me. He knew exactly what he was doing. And I don`t think cared. What hurts even more so is that if I wasn`t afraid to come forward sooner then maybe he wouldn`t have done it to other girls. I feel really guilty. To this day I feel really guilty.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: We should note that this young woman is not part of the case the feds have brought against Epstein but is part of a civil case against him. Epstein`s lawyers have not responded to multiple requests for comment. But in prior discussions with her lawyers, Epstein`s lawyers challenged her credibility.
A lot to take in, a lot to talk about as we bring in our lead-off discussion on a Wednesday night. Katie Rogers, White House Correspondent for "The New York Times." She was there at the Labor Secretary`s press conference today. Mimi Rocah, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, these days a Distinguished Fellow in Criminal Justice at the Pace University School of Law. Ashley Parker, Pulitzer Prize-winning White House reporter for "The Washington Post." Philip Rucker, Pulitzer Prize-winning White House Bureau Chief for "The Washington Post." Welcome to you all.
Katie, I`d like to begin with you given your proximity to this story today. Did you come away feeling that Acosta had helped himself? If not with the general public, then with his audience of one in the West Wing?
ROGERS: Those are two very different audiences, I would say. I think that he delivered a very nuanced and very, you know, legalese-heavy argument for his prosecutors in particular. He defended his prosecutors nearly every single question he received. His argument was nuanced. It was measured.
He took nearly an hour of questions. It got to the point where every third question was asking him why he was not apologizing to victims. But he got his point across. He came armed with testimony from his prosecutors that detailed how hard it was to get victims to stay the course back -- he acts like this is in the 1950s, but it was only 12 years ago. But whatever the case, he said it was a different time.
On the other hand, he took an hour away from the President. For better or worse, a President who programs his presidency. He has gotten a lot of news coverage. He referenced it today. He reached the level where it was time for him to speak out. And now it`s sort of whether or not that audience of one liked what he saw.
WILLIAMS: Mimi Rocah, your legal assessment of this plea deal perhaps now in light of this news conference today.
MIMI ROCAH, FMR. ASSISTANT U.S. ATTY. SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF NY: If anything, frankly, I have as much skepticism of that plea deal if not more. I think Acosta tried to make two main arguments. The first one was that he was this knight in shining armor who had to come in and rescue this case --
WILLIAMS: Revived it. Yes.
ROCAH: Yes. From the state that was going to give Epstein no jail time. Well, I don`t know if that`s true. I don`t know what the facts are in terms of what the state plea or the federal plea was. What I do know is this. Every federal prosecutor, including myself, has done dozens of cases where the state has a plea first and you look at the case and you say, "That was too light, I`m going to investigate this further and then I`m going to bring a bigger, better, more significant case."
And you know what? Not only is that OK, it actually makes your case stronger to have a plea in the state first. So this whole premise that Acosta started with of I had to come in and swoop in with my 18-month plea deal because they weren`t going to give him any jail time makes absolutely no sense under the way that our system works. That`s number one.
Number two, his point of, well, times were different then, victim shaming, it was OK. I was a prosecutor 12 years ago that he is talking about. I was a prosecutor along before that. Victim shaming was not OK in the federal U.S. attorney`s office. It`s not -- it wasn`t OK then. It`s not OK now. I do not buy that as an excuse.
I would be the first person here defending prosecutors if I could. Believe me. But I don`t buy what Acosta is trying to sell here. There is something else going on about what was motivating this plea that was so far below what he could have charged here and what is now charged by the Southern District of New York.
WILLIAMS: Ashley Parker, this poses a unique personnel problem for the President. Number one, the time he spent, especially in the 1990s, especially in New York and Florida, with one Jeffrey Epstein as civilians. And number two, the fact that -- oh, by the way, the Labor Secretary oversees the enforcement of human trafficking for our federal government.
ASHLEY PARKER, THE WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes. It sure does. That second point came up at Acosta`s news conference today. And to the first point, the White House has been -- we haven`t really heard exactly what the President thought. It`s worth noting that his Twitter account has been quite silent on this matter and that sometimes -- the absence of a tweet can be a sign in and of itself.
But one thing the White House has been clear on has been sort of condemning Jeffrey Epstein`s alleged crimes and distancing themselves from him and what he did. And the President has made it a point to do that as well. Now, I`m not saying that can erase the time they spent together in Palm Beach, the photos of the two of them together, the fact that when Epstein`s address book was leaked he had sort of, I believe it was 14 numbers for the President, his wife, his daughter, people in his orbit and there clearly was a relationship there. It has seemed to have genuinely cooled over the last decade or so, and that is certainly the PR message that the President and the White House is pushing and wants the public to understand.
WILLIAMS: So Phil Rucker, let`s be sure we have this right. The President wanted a Cabinet secretary to go to that Cabinet Department`s briefing room, and I don`t know if anyone has raised questions about the stagecraft here of a secretary with the imprimatur of the federal government standing behind the seal of that Cabinet department wrapped in the American flag to send a message about his handling of a case about a sex offender. What does that reveal about 2019?
PHILIP RUCKER, WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF: Look, Brian, it reveals that so much of our federal government is a public relations exercise right now. The main reason that Secretary Acosta went to that podium was to do battle in PR. This was not a case before the Labor Department. It frankly has nothing to do with his job as the Labor Secretary. But it has everything to do with the quality of press coverage he was receiving, which as we have documented so many times on this broadcast is paramount for President Trump. Acosta was getting bad headlines. Trump wanted Acosta to fix that.
I think it`s noteworthy, and this was alluded to a little earlier in the conversation tonight. But it`s really noteworthy to underscore what Acosta did not say in that hour at the lectern at the Labor Department. He showed no contrition. He showed virtually no empathy for these victims.
He could have begun his opening statement by talking about the horrific crimes that occurred here and by talking about the experiences of these girls, now women. But he chose not to do that. He instead was defending himself and the work of his prosecutors without much concern for the victims.
WILLIAMS: Yes, Mimi, a brief sidebar. Would it have killed him to express an apology? Was there any standing legal reason you can think of that he couldn`t use those words?
ROCAH: No, absolutely not. And that`s what seems to be missing from all of this. Like, even when he offers these explanations now and he talks about a very real calculus that prosecutors go through every day of, you know, do I have a litigation risk, do I take the sort of plea where I know this guy`s going to get a conviction versus the risk of litigation. But the way he talks about it, the lack of empathy that he seems to have for the victims, it was -- it seems like from day one it was I`m not putting them on the stand. Because, you know, as if he didn`t believe them.
He said the words today that he believed them but I didn`t believe him when he said that. And that`s the problem. If you`re a prosecutor who comes at the case from, you know, what I believe you, I don`t know what`s going to happen when you go on the stand, I can`t guarantee an outcome, but I am willing to fight for you and put you on the stand and try to buttress as much as possible with other evidence to let the jury hear your story and include you in the plea process, because that can be as important and therapeutic to a victim as actually testifying.
WILLIAMS: Katie Rogers, more about this Mr. Epstein. You can still find the B word being used in press coverage of him, for billionaire. All evidence to the contrary. This is from your newspaper tonight. "Mr. Epstein is routinely described as a billionaire and you a brilliant financier, and he rubbed elbows with the powerful including former and future presidents. Even after his 1908 guilty plea in a prostitution case in Florida he promoted himself as a financial wizard who used arcane mathematical models and he often dropped the names of Nobel Prize-winning friends. He told potential clients that they had to invest a minimum of 1 billion. Much of that appears to be an illusion and there is little evidence that Mr. Epstein is a billionaire."
What outstanding questions, Katie, would a reporter like you have for oh, I don`t know, you name it, Mr. Acosta, Mr. Epstein, Mr. Trump at this point?
ROGERS: How is it so easy to perpetrate a myth about yourself? How is it so easy to elude justice over and over again? How easy -- how has it been so easy to strike a pretty lenient deal?
I would just go back to that story and just examine these circles of power, the people who are in them, the cover they provide for each other. It`s just there are so many questions about how people aid each other. If you make it into this crowd, how easy it is to just sort of keep it moving even if you catch trouble.
WILLIAMS: And Mimi Rocah coming right off that point, this speaks sadly to your occupation. This is "Washington Post," Mark Fisher. "Epstein`s influential allies have included a dream team of defense lawyers including Alan Dershowitz, former Clinton special counsel Kenneth Starr, leading white-collar defense attorneys Lefcourt, Roy Black, Jay Lefkowitz." Underscoring people`s belief, already hardened, that you can indeed buy your way out of trouble in this country.
ROCAH: Yes, look, and unfortunately we`re seeing that still today. This isn`t a problem of the past. This is a problem of the present, of two systems of justice. And, you know, it`s interesting because Acosta in 2011 wrote sort of a statement, I believe to the Daily Beast, where he talked about it and used the word "assault" by the defense team, Epstein`s defense team, on the prosecutors and, you know, it was so hard to fend them off. That is just another way of saying there were these high-powered defense lawyers who we couldn`t -- we couldn`t, you know, fend off. We couldn`t resist.
Well, that`s your job, though, as a prosecutor. You`re not some lone, you know, ship out at sea. You`re part of the Department of Justice. If you really feel like you`re being overcome, overpowered, then you have the resources of the government at your -- and your point -- your role is to stand up for the victims and resist that. And everything here about this just is what people are disgusted with about the justice system. And that makes me sad.
And I`m so proud of the Southern District of New York because not just for bringing the charges but the way that press conference went it spoke to, you know, they literally said the words, "we are giving the victims their day in court that they deserve." And that`s important.
WILLIAMS: By all accounts they will finally have a voice in this. Our thanks to Katie Rogers, to Mimi Rocah, to Ashley Parker, to Phil Rucker. Our first break.
Coming up, the Cabinet secretary who reported to live T.V. to save his job and where he fits in the damage assessment of Trump personnel these days.
And later, a classified warning of active threats targeting our upcoming election and the partisan differences over what to do about it, whether to do anything about it at all. As THE 11TH HOUR is just getting started on a Wednesday night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ACOSTA: My relationship with the President is outstanding. He has, I think, very publicly made clear that I`ve got his support.
ROGERS: There have been several advisers of his who he stands up for initially but you`re about at the level where he has backed away before. So what makes you so confident?
ACOSTA: So, look, I am here to talk about this case. I`m doing my job. If at some point the President decides that I am not the best person to do this job, I respect that. That is his choice.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So the Labor Secretary there refusing to resign over his past role in the Epstein sex offender case. NBC news today confirmed the President himself is the one who urged Acosta to go and hold that press conference. "New York Times" puts it this way, "Mr. Acosta`s appearance before cameras was seen as a crucial test of whether he will keep his job, with an audience of one as President Trump watched and weighed a decision."
Jeremy Bash offered us a damage assessment on Trump personnel on this broadcast just last night.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEREMY BASH, FMR. CHIEF COUNSEL TO HOUSE INTELLIGENCE CMTE.: We`ve had three White House Chiefs of Staff, two Secretaries of Defense, two Secretaries of State, three Homeland Security Secretaries, two Attorneys General. We`ve had two Cabinet Secretaries at HHS and interior resign under a cloud of scandal.
And now this scandal possibly could sweep in two more Cabinet Secretaries, the Secretary of Labor and the Attorney General.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Interesting thought at the end there. We have talked to Ashley Parker and Phil Rucker into spending a few more minutes with us to keep talking about this topic.
Ashley, where is the GOP outrage?
PARKER: Well, you`re not seeing that much of it. They`re focusing the outrage on the place where it`s easy to focus it on, which is Jeffrey Epstein. But when it comes to a tougher question, which is what does this mean for Secretary Acosta? What do they think of his behavior about a decade ago? And should he still be in his role? And it`s worth noting that all the Republicans voted to confirm him. I don`t believe a single one has called for his removal.
WILLIAMS: And Phil, so many personnel, we just got the top of the list from Jeremy Bash, have gone down in just the short history of this administration. Are there any differences, any distinctions with this case? Does this differ from any or all of it?
PHIL RUCKER, WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, the circumstances of this case are different, obviously. And by the way, I don`t know how Jeremy kept all of that straight last night. That is a long list.
WILLIAMS: Yes. That was pretty good off the top of his head.
RUCKER: Ashley and I cover this for a living and I don`t think we could recite that for you. But, anyhow, the case is different but the circumstances mirror some of the other patterns. And what we`ve seen with Trump is he will dig in initially and stand by his people, especially in the face of criticism from the media or from lawmakers because Trump`s tendency is to view that as unfair and biased in some way.
But then he can just flip a switch and you won`t necessarily know when it`s coming. But at some point if Trump feels like the person, the secretary, is causing too much political damage, is creating too many bad headlines for over too many days, which is certainly a possibility here with Acosta, he`ll let him go, you know, fire him by tweet, for example, and there could be no end.
And if Acosta was trying to perform to that audience of one, to Trump, he was missing some of the ingredients that others have had in the past. Remember Brett Kavanaugh under sexual assault allegations during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings showed so much passion and fire and kind of righteousness and indignation, and that really pleased the President. Those characteristics were missing today from Acosta.
WILLIAMS: And Ashley Parker, we have to veer into politics here because amid all the talk about potential impeachment and investigations among the Democrats, the Democrats are shooting at each other. I speak of the feud between the Speaker of the House and the freshman Democrats.
And in your newspaper tonight, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, AOC, Congresswoman from New York, has chosen to fire back at Nancy Pelosi. She says, "When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm`s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood," AOC told "The Washington Post." "But the persistent singling out, it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful, the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color."
Ashley, that`s a hell of a charge in plain English. Fox News already loves this story. This is a dream scenario for the GOP. How do you think the Speaker now handles this?
PARKER: That`s a great question. One brief point to who also was this, I was talking to someone on the campaign today and they were saying they absolutely love the circular firing squad of the Democrats on both the candidates and then of course the unrest in the Democratic caucus.
How the Speaker handles it is a fascinating question, but it`s worth noting that this all began or at least this latest set of grievances with Speaker Pelosi telling Maureen Dowd in an interview basically that these four women have four votes and that`s really it and they don`t matter that much.
And Pelosi in the same way we saw AOC today be very deliberate in those on the record comments with my colleagues at "The Post," Speaker Pelosi does very little that is not calculated and deliberate and precise. So she is trying to isolate these members. You could see her sort of continuing with this strategy. She is incredibly steely. That`s something even the President respects about her.
And one of the real questions is, is what Speaker Pelosi said true, that it`s just four members, four loud members with a very loud social media following but just four votes or are they going to do something like the House Freedom Caucus did on the right, where they get a bloc of members together who can actually block Democratic initiatives and really make Speaker Pelosi`s life difficult because they have the power, they have the massive votes that can actually change the way her conference votes and force her to sort of move further to the left and toward their policy goals.
WILLIAMS: And it`s only Wednesday night. Our thanks to our friends Ashley Parker and Phil Rucker for agreeing to stick around and talk about this topic on top of everything else, we appreciate it.
Coming up, the Intel chiefs made clear to Congress today the extent of the threat to our next election. The problem is an important member of Congress doesn`t seem to share in their urgency. We`ll talk about it with an expert when we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. BENNIE THOMPSON, (D-MS) CHAIR, HOMELAND SECURITY COMMITTEE: We were assured that as we go into the more formal part of the election season our systems at this point are secure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Members of Congress are reacting to today`s classified briefings from high-level Trump administration officials regarding the security of our upcoming elections. The director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, the acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, the FBI Director Chris Wray among those who briefed members of the House and Senate.
Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan told the A.P. that the officials "Made it clear there are active threats and they`re doing everything they can to stop them." Politico reports that "Multiple House Democrats emerged from the briefing escalating their warnings about serious threats to the `20 election renewing their push to force Republicans to support new legislation to protect U.S. voting systems."
Some Democrats say Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is blocking election security legislation. McConnell has said their bills would give too much power over local elections to the federal government. Ahead of today`s briefings, the Majority Leader said protecting elections is a crucial task but he then added this, which seems totally absent any concern for our country`s next election.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) KENTUCKY, MAJORITY LEADER: It`s interesting that some of our colleagues across the aisle seem to have already made up their minds before we hear from the experts later today. Their brand new sweeping Washington intervention is just what the doctor ordered. I for one am looking forward to listening to the experts, to hearing more about why the Trump administration was more successful in 2018 than the Obama administration was in 2016.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: In his book "The Apprentice" Greg miller refers to a briefing then CIA Director John Brennan gave to McConnell about Russian interference. This is back before the 2016 election. He wrote, "As Brennan moved through his talking points, the Kentucky senator expressed no alarm about what Russia might be doing in the U.S. election and instead accused the CIA director of playing politics. You`re trying to screw the Republican candidate, McConnell said."
Here to talk about all of that with us, Clint Watts, former FBI special agent. He`s also a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and author of "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News."
Clint, what do we do if the Senate Majority Leader isn`t worried about it?
CLINT WATTS, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: I guess we wait and cross our fingers that we don`t have the disaster we had in 2016, which we are still talking about now. This is three years later. We`ve talked about it continuously for three years. Doesn`t happen again.
And one of the weird things that`s going on right now is because we have briefed this so many times, whether it`s the Mueller report, the hearings that we watched there, if we don`t do something about it we`re actually telling foreign adversaries or anybody even domestically where they should hack the election at.
We`re telling them these are the places that don`t have audit trails, paper ballot back-ups. If you make foreign contact with a campaign, maybe you report it, maybe you don`t. We heard the President himself say the FBI director is wrong. This tells anyone if they want to mess with our election starting from right now forward here is how you do it. We`re laying out a blueprint.
And I think the other point that`s really important is we`ve seen those people that went and did that briefing today, NSA director, FBI director, DNI. We`ve seen them come up there repeatedly and give a briefing. We`ve seen no budge in terms of legislation.
McConnell said there, he said more new legislation. Some of these authorizations and acts have already been out there for two years. The Honest Ads Act, which essentially says the disclosures that you would make for ads for radio, television, print like we would do here on this television show should be held for social media as well. Why wouldn`t we want to do that? Why wouldn`t we want to charge hacking as a federal crime or initiate sanctions against a foreign country for doing that? Who is against these things?
I also think the characterization that Senator McConnell makes that this is some big government coming down over local systems, I bet in many cases local and state electoral systems would love to have more support in terms of how they protect their systems, how they get information. We are not going and centralizing all these apparatus but we should have a minimum standard so if this happens again if there`s just a pinprick hacking attack against voter registration, we don`t have doubts in this country about who actually won the election.
WILLIAMS: And that`s where I want to drill down. Our frequent viewers will know my distaste for national polls, especially this time of year. We don`t have national elections. Ask President Hillary Clinton what the popular vote did for her. We have 50 state elections. So with that in mind, if Congress fails to act, if not another dollar is appropriated, do you have faith that 50 states on their own or with help can solidify their security?
WATTS: I do have hope in a certain circumstance, meaning that if you look at what the agencies are doing independently, Director Wray, the Foreign Influence Task Force, General Nakasone, they took actions going into 2018. DHS, their CISA group under Krebs, they`re doing a lot of outreach and working with state and locals. And they feel pretty good they can get there.
But what would help them? Well-defined laws, resources to back them up, and bipartisan support across the board at Congress. What they`re being held to right now is you need to protect the election but we don`t want to give you the tools to do it, we don`t want to give you the resources to do it, we just hope that it turns out right. And guess who they`re going to point their fingers at if it doesn`t go right. They`re going to point at the same five officials that showed up there today.
So I`m disappointed in the legislators because I don`t see why anyone wouldn`t want those basic protections going into 2020. I see no logic for it. And at the same point we`ve discussed it to such length now it`s so documented in the Mueller report, we`re actually telling everybody if you want to break us down again in 2020 here is exactly the things that we`re weak on and here`s what you could do.
WILLIAMS: Clint Watts, the pride of West Point, the pride of the FBI, and the pride of our broadcast when he`s on. Thank you very much. Always appreciate it.
Coming up, after days of presidential attacks, the British ambassador calls it quits, saying it would be impossible to carry on. While other diplomats in Washington say it could have been them.
WILLIAMS: The British ambassador to the U.S. resigned today following a barrage of attacks from the American President. In his resignation letter the ambassador said, "Since the leak of official documents from this embassy there has been a great deal of speculation surrounding my position and the duration of my remaining term as ambassador. I want to put an end to that speculation. The current situation is making it impossible for me to carry out my role as I would like."
In those leaked documents the ambassador was quoted as describing the Trump administration as being inept, insecure, and incompetent for good measure. President Trump fired back at the ambassador blasting him as a pompous fool, wacky and a stupid guy. In the U.K. word of the ambassador`s sudden resignation was met with regret by his defenders.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Sir Kim has given a lifetime of service to the United Kingdom, and we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude. Good government depends on public servants being able to give full and frank advice.
JEREMY HUNT, BRITAIN`S FOREIGN MINISTER: We had a fine diplomat who was just doing what he should have been doing, giving a frank assessment, a personal assessment of the political situation in the country that he was posted, and that`s why I defended him, and I think we all should.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: "The New York Times" sums up the response from Washington`s diplomatic corps with this headline, "It Could Have Been Any of Us: Disdain for Trump Runs Among Ambassadors."
Well, with us tonight are two of our returning favorites, Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the "Washington Post," and Tim O`Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He also happens to be the author of "TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald."
Eugene, journalists tend to love the phrase "Chilling effect." But it seems to me this could have exactly that, a chilling effect in the diplomatic corps.
EUGENE ROBINSON, THE WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: Well, it`s certainly going to encourage ambassadors to find even yet more secure ways of sending their cables home and keeping them out of I guess the wrong hands.
Look, what Kim Darroch wrote about President Trump and his administration could have been and probably was written by 150 other ambassadors posted to Washington because it`s all true. And, you know, not to get too deeply into the weeds, but it seems obvious that he was the victim of this bloody battle that`s going on in Britain over who`s going to be the next prime minister. It`s a battle within the conservative party.
It is shocking to me as a former London bureau chief that these cables, which are pretty sacrosanct and pretty sacred, got leaked in this way as part of this fight. That`s the state to which British politics has sunk. And the state to which the American political scene has sunk is that the President of the United States declared the ambassador from the United Kingdom essentially persona non grata, which is absolutely unheard of. We used to have this special relationship, and President Trump just basically kicked out the British ambassador and took a swipe at the British prime minister, you know, in the process. It`s just extraordinary.
WILLIAMS: Tim, Eugene`s right, first of all. There`s a reason we don`t call these e-mails. Cables are supposed to be cables like the old days sending a telex was supposed to be a secure form of communications. Every day of your life, I imagine several times a day, the Trump you knew, the Trump you sued, the Trump you have written about and covered, another aspect comes to light. What Donald Trump has revealed itself in this story to you?
TIM O`BRIEN, AUTHOR, "TRUMPANTION": Well, you know, I think the interesting thing in this one is we still don`t know who leaked them. I think there`s an assumption that the Boris Johnson side of the equation leaked these to undermine Kim Darroch to get him out of the way because he was anti-Brexit. That`s one explanation.
The other explanation is that Boris Johnson was probably going to take him out of the picture anyway if he became prime minister. I think there`s a possibility the people in the Darroch camp leaked this stuff because they wanted it known how this government felt about what a loose cannon the President is. He can`t be -- Trump can`t be surprised to be hearing this. Everything that Kim Darroch said has been said about Trump since he was president. That he`s unreliable. That the White House is run chaotically, that they`re not strategic thinkers. There`s nothing new in any of that.
WILLIAMS: And Trump doesn`t seem to care about the Atlantic alliance.
O`BRIEN: He doesn`t care about alliances at all. He thinks -- I mean, he always has looked at the world in a zero sum game, you eat or you get eaten. And you don`t think beyond the need to just protect your short-term interests. So he`s not someone who thinks long term to begin with.
I think what`s unfortunate in this scenario is you have the two beacons of western democracy being run by unhinged and unscrupulous people at a time when they`re both needed on the national stage, international stage.
WILLIAMS: Wow. On that note, Eugene and Tim thankfully have agreed to stay with us over this break.
When we come back, the business of managing expectations in the run-up to what will be, let`s face it, the next big event. And that`s Mueller`s testimony on live television. It`ll look something like that. We`ll talk about it on live television when we come back.
WILLIAMS: It is worth a reminder that one week from today special counsel Robert Mueller is scheduled to publicly testify before Congress. But "The New York Times" is reporting the Justice Department is trying to discourage Mueller`s deputies, members of Mueller`s team from testifying before Congress.
Two of those deputies were scheduled to take questions from the committee members and staff behind closed doors. They are no longer DOJ employees. Thus it`s unclear whether or not they can be stopped by the attorney general.
Back again for our double jeopardy round, Eugene Robinson and Tim O`Brien. Tim, we`ll start with you first. On top of what a lot of people believe is a heavy dose of anxiety going through this president right now about what he knows he shared with Mr. Epstein, especially during the `90s, now you have his diametric opposite, his chief accuser, the author the report testifying on live television next week. What must be going on?
O`BRIEN: You know, there`s not a lot of things that Donald Trump is sophisticated about. But he has a visceral understanding of the power of television which you know as well. And I think very few people have read the Mueller report including it appears most of the GOP. At least by news accounts.
Robert Mueller gave a press briefing, I don`t know, six weeks ago at this point where he simply came out in front of the cameras and said, I`m not going to say anything. I`ve said beyond what was in the report but I don`t believe the report exonerated the President and we found evidence of obstruction of justice. And that created three days of coverage and there was nothing new in that press briefing except that it was coming out of Bob Mueller`s mouth.
You now have him going to Congress and sitting in front of both Republican and Democratic legislators who were going to ask him round after round of questions. It`s going to be great theater and it`s possible that his testimony is going to make this, bring this home for average viewers across the country in the way that that report that Bill Barr went out of his way to try to I think bury to a certain extent.
Gets revivified. And the questions in that report I think become -- possibly become salient parts of people`s dialogue about what`s going on. I think particularly around obstruction of justice. I think if the Democrats were talking or interviewing Mueller in Congress, if they`re shrewd about this, they`ll zero in on where the red meat is in that report.
WILLIAMS: Well, Eugene, let`s talk about the Democrats. On the day Bill Barr stood up the House Judiciary Committee, that moment will instead be remembered for a bucket of chicken. Tomorrow`s press coverage will be dominated by a fight between speaker of the House and four freshmen in her caucus. Is there a concurrent danger that said Democratic Party will get out over its skis in terms of expectations management for Mueller`s appearance?
ROBINSON: Well, you did say the phrase, Democratic Party. So yes, there`s a possibility of that. I mean it seems to me, we`ve got two committees involved here. It seems to me there is a pretty logical way they could divide the labor with perhaps, you know, intelligence, looking at part one of the report on Russia and collusion and judiciary looking at part two on obstruction, and lots of ways they can structure the questioning so that it doesn`t run off the rails and it doesn`t become a series of sort of look at me, I`m your congressman on television moments which these hearings tend to devolve into.
I`m not convinced that the Democrats will avoid either of -- you know, any of the traps that are out there. But I still agree with Tim, it will be compelling television. And just the fact that, of Rob Mueller testifying, and even reading parts of the report will certainly have more impact than the report itself which people have not read. I can`t imagine what the President will do to try to distract attention from this hearing.
WILLIAMS: Eugene, I have literally 15 seconds left. Do you think someone will ask Mr. Mueller respectfully point blank, when the President says no collusion, no obstruction, is he telling the truth? Do you agree with that?
ROBINSON: Yes. Someone will ask him that. I hope somebody asks him that. I don`t think he`ll give a straight answer but he might give a revealing answer.
WILLIAMS: All right. With that, our thanks to Eugene Robinson and Tim O`Brien, as always for coming by and making our conversations smarter.
Coming up for us, the scramble to protect an American treasure when we come back.
WILLIAMS: The last thing before we go tonight is the sobering news and the desperate scramble amid the realization that a great American treasure is once again at risk. That treasure is the city of New Orleans.
There is a massive storm system spooling up in the gulf. Forecasters fear it will become Hurricane Barry. Even if it does not, it is dumping an intolerable amount of water on a city that is already below sea level. Some parts of Louisiana received almost 10 inches of rain in just two hours. Awful pictures are already coming in of water on the campus of Tulane. Water in French Quarter, standing water along Canal Street.
The fear is, we are talking about potentially more water than we witnessed in Katrina, which let`s all remember, was an engineering failure assisted by Mother Nature.
And in different places than Katrina, because this time it`s the Mississippi River we are worried about and the system of levees, most of them earthen dams designed to contain it. Most of the levees are built to protect a river height of 20 feet but not all of them and it doesn`t take much water to overtop a levee and flood a neighborhood.
If you know the area, we`re talking about the Lower Ninth Ward, we`re talking about St. Bernard Parish and Algiers. Nola.com tonight has posted a map showing red dots where the levees are at their low points. And even the thought of water overtopping the levees in those locations is too much to bear if you love that city. We should know by this coming weekend how that great city will fare and until then, we are thinking of our friends there.
That is our broadcast for tonight. Thank you so much for being here with us. And 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