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Pres Trump sues to block release of taxes. TRANSCRIPT: 9/19/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Carol Leonnig, John Brennan, Philip Rucker, Clint Watts, MikeMurphy

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  We now wait to see whether our case will be approved, as well as confirmation on the future of the program in order to give families like mine the assurance that our lives won`t continue to be threatened.

Isabel Bueso gets tonight`s LAST WORD.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, a second explosion in the story of the whistleblower inside the Intelligence Community who reportedly witnessed the President engaged in something troubling enough to tell people about it.  Tonight`s reporting is, it was a phone call Donald Trump made to Ukraine.

In a moment we`ll hear from a reporter who broke the story in "The Washington Post" and the former head of the CIA and we`ll get the latest from the Trump White House.

Plus, the issue that has the power to sneak in and change the course of a presidential campaign, and we know that because we`ve seen it happen before.  THE 11TH HOUR on a Thursday night just getting underway now.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  Day 974 of the Trump administration, once again we have breaking news tonight centering around that explosive whistleblower complaint from inside the administration that has set off this latest battle with Congress.

"The Washington Post" has already reported the complaint, which was filed with the Intelligence Community inspector general involved Donald Trump`s private communication with a foreign leader that included some sort of promise.

Importantly "The New York Times" reported today, the whistleblower`s complaint is set to involve multiple acts by the President.

But now tonight, a short time ago, "The Washington Post" breaking the latest on this story in a four by line piece that includes Carol Leonnig who will join us in just a moment.  She and her colleagues report, "A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter.  Two and a half weeks before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with the Ukrainian president, who was elected in a landslide in May.  That call is already under investigation by House Democrats who are examining whether Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani sought to manipulate the Ukrainian government into helping Trump`s reelection campaign.

Democrats earlier this month demanded records related to what they say are Trump and Giuliani`s efforts to coerce the Ukrainian government into pursuing two politically-motivated investigations.  One to help Trump`s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a second to target the son of former Vice President Joe Biden."

You may recall this comment from Trump earlier this summer about receiving information on political rivals.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS HOST:  Your campaign this time, if foreigners, if Russia, if China, if someone else offers you information on opponent, should they accept it or should they call the FBI?

DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I think maybe you do both.  I think you might want to listen.  I don`t -- there`s nothing wrong with listening.  If somebody called from a country, Norway, we have information on your opponent.  Oh, I think I`d want to hear it.

STEPHANOPOULOS:  You want that kind of interference in our elections?

TRUMP:  It`s not an interference.  They have information.  I think I`d take it.


WILLIAMS:  The House Intelligence Committee has been trying to get its hands on the actual whistleblower`s complaint.  They have been met with a refusal from the current acting director of National Intelligence who consulted with the Justice Department on this matter.

We can`t stress enough this is highly unusual if not unprecedented.  The refusal comes even as the Intelligence Community`s inspector general noted that complaint and, "met the definition of an urgent concern" and that "the complaint disclosure not only falls within the DNI`s jurisdiction, but relates to one of the most significant and important of the DNI`s responsibilities to the American people."

Well, tonight, the President`s lawyer in an eventful interview on CNN, Rudy Giuliani said, "It is perfectly appropriate."


RUDY GIULIANI, TRUMP`S ATTORNEY:  All I can tell you is if what is report is true, it doesn`t make any difference.

If the President of the United States said to the President of Ukraine investigate the corruption in your country that has a bearing on our 2016 election, isn`t that what he`s supposed to do?


WILLIAMS:  In a moment here, we`re going to be able to speak to the former CIA Director John Brennan.  Our panel is also standing by.  But first, we want to get straight to one of the reporters on this breaking story, the aforementioned Carol Leonnig, Pulitzer Prize-winning Investigative Reporter for "The Washington Post."

Carol, layout as best you can for our viewers, the allegation here, the phone call, the backdrop and anything else we`ve left out.

CAROL LEONNIG, THE WASHINGTON POST POLITICAL INVESTIGATIONS REPORTER:  So many things about this story, Brian, which, you know, we learn something new it feels like every day since Chairman Schiff`s letter.  But so many things about this are surprising and unprecedented.

And tonight my great colleagues at "The Washington Post" especially on the national security team, I was just an assistant essentially to the story, but they -- and with a little help from me broke the story that these complaints -- this complaint about multiple communications by the President that were viewed as a flagrant and serious abuse involved his discussions with the president of Ukraine.  And there are a lot of questions because this complaint was filed August 12th, just two and a half weeks roughly after the President had spoken with the president of Ukraine.

And according to a readout from the Ukrainian government, the discussion was the president of our country, President Trump, saying that Ukraine could really help their reputation if they could complete these investigations into corruption.  It would really help with relationships between the two countries.  And that they could really help their image.

So, already you have sort of this red flag being waved about this July 25th call.  On August 12th, a whistleblower whose identity is not yet public, comes forward and then somewhere along the line, the inspector general who received this complaint is blocked from reporting it to Congress even though it is defined as an urgent concern under the statute.

WILLIAMS:  Forgive this very basic question.  Is there any evidence that is a direct line and not a dotted line, that connects the nature of this whistleblower complaint with the Herculean and unprecedented efforts to keep this secret?

LEONNIG:  Well, I hope I understand your question properly, Brian.  This whistleblower is under what I can only imagine must be the most intense pressure because on the one hand, there is this terrifying element called the Espionage Act and if you violate it by sharing anything that is truly sensitive and endangers our national security, you`re in a world of trouble.

But on the other hand, there is the Whistleblower Protection Act that is passed into law in the 1990s for intelligence personnel so that they could come forward with sensitive materials.  There was great fear that they weren`t allowed to come forward because the material was so sensitive.  And that act right now is basically being stalled.  And it appears that at least the Justice Department was conferred with about this decision that the acting director of National Intelligence made blocking the I.G. from going forward and alerting Congress about the substance of what the President said that was so worrisome.  The promise that they made -- I`m sorry, that he made allegedly to the Ukraine.

WILLIAMS:  Carol Leonnig is -- has agreed to stay with us.

And right now joining us by telephone is the former CIA Director John Brennan also happens to be our Senior National Security and Intelligence Analyst.

Director Brennan, when you hear Rudy say, as he said tonight, if what they are saying is true, it doesn`t make any difference.  He just becomes the latest person I`ve heard recently to say in effect some form of the President can say whatever he wants.  Is that your understanding?

JOHN BRENNAN, FMR. CIA DIRECTOR (via telephone):  Well, I think Rudy`s defense and Donald Trump`s comments in those tweet are belied by the very, very rigorous effort that the administration will be taking to prevent this whistleblower`s complaint from going to the Intelligence Committees.

If it was appropriate in their minds, if it was something they had no concerns about, why are they making this Herculean effort prevented from going forward?  It`s clear that the whistleblower and the inspector general of the office of the DNI have followed to the letter the procedures in the Whistleblower Act.

And from my perspective, the Acting DNI, Joe Maguire, who I know well and I had a lot of dealings with him, he`s a straight shooter in my mind.  So, he consulted with his general counsel to make sure that what he would be doing is consistent with the law.  But unfortunately, I think now the Department of Justice is becoming involved because I wouldn`t be surprised if Joe Maguire`s general counsel consulted with the Department of Justice, which are normal procedures.

And it`s clear that our attorney general is a highly politicized individual who will use the instruments of power of the Department of Justice to protect his client, Donald Trump.  And so I don`t know to what extent Joe Maguire is being coerced, intimidated, threatened by the Department of Justice to not take these actions that could even be saying that there would be legal action taken against him if he were to go forward and share those complaints.

So this is clearly a very abnormal, very worrisome situation where the whole intent of the Whistleblower Act is being toted by the Trump administration and is preventing information that truly should go to the committees of jurisdiction of the Congress.  And so I think we are at this point of seeing this trampling of our laws and procedures by a individual in the Oval Office who is being supported in this by an attorney general and the Department of Justice that is -- that are not fulfilling what their responsibilities and obligations are under the law.  They are looking to do what the White House, what Mr. Trump wants done.

WILLIAMS:  To our viewers, a phrase we use a lot around here.  This is truly uncharted territory.  I want to read something a frequent contributor of ours, former U.S attorney, Joyce Vance, has just said on social media.  "If this turns out to be what the whistleblower complaint is about and it`s accurate, Trump must leave office immediately.  A president can`t offer U.S. aid to a foreign country in exchange for prosecution of a political opponent.  Heaven help us if we can`t all agree on that."

Director Brennan final question, you`ve been around the block a few times, you certainly been in the Oval Office a lot.  Is this an unusual phone call to overhear on the part of a President of the United States?

BRENNAN:  Well, I think it would have been people who were either in a room when Donald Trump was making that call or individuals who read the MEMCON, Memorandum of Conversation that was done on this.  But in my 30 plus years of experience, I`ve never seen a situation like this where there is this effort in the part of a president of the United States to prevent the appropriate steps to be taken by the Executive Branch, inside of the Executive Branch and to work with the Congress on something that the inspector general, at least says, is an urgent national security importance.  This is something that I believe the information is going to get out.  It`s already getting out in dribs and drabs.  I`m sure the whole thing will be out.

And I tend to agree with Joyce, this is explosive and I think we have just started to see this iceberg emerge.

WILLIAMS:  Former CIA Director John Brennan, thank you very much for joining us by telephone on this Thursday night.  We appreciate it.

We now move to our discussion of tonight`s breaking news story.  Carol Leonnig of "The Washington Post" remains with us.  Let`s add to the conversation a second Pulitzer Prize recipient from "The Washington Post," Philip Rucker is "The Washington Post" Bureau Chief.  We are also fortunate to be joined by Jeremy Bash, former Chief of Staff at the CIA and Pentagon, notably former Chief Counsel to the House Intel Committee.

Jeremy Bash please let our viewers know what whistleblower status is supposed to mean in the law.  How it`s been enshrined and protected in the law to come up the chain with protections built in.

JEREMY BASH, FMR. CIA CHIEF OF STAFF:  Well, the law is crystal clear, Brian.  If you are an Intelligence Community professional and you observe wrongdoing and you observe it in the context of your responsibilities as an Intelligence Community professional and make a complaint about that either to the congressional committees or to the inspector general, you cannot be retaliated against.  You can`t be fired.  You can`t be prosecuted.

And so we have an individual, a very courageous individual in our country tonight that clearly observed wrongdoing in abusive authority, possible unethical or illegal acts as reported by "The Washington Post" and others at the White House possibly involving the presidential -- the President`s phone calls with foreign leaders about Ukraine.  And that individual has come forward and it`s been separately investigated by the inspector general of the Intelligence Community and determined to be credible, determined to be urgent and determined to be necessary to report to the Congressional Intelligence committees.

And what we see now emerging is a massive coverup effort by the White House and the Department of Justice to prevent the facts from coming to light.

WILLIAMS:  Phil Rucker, no surprise really.  No comment tonight from the Trump campaign.  Tossed it over to the White House and said this is a White House matter but your reporting is something else entirely.  What are you hearing?  What tea leaves are you reading that might show that they are worried about this?

PHILIP RUCKER, WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF:  Well, at the moment, Brian, I think the fact that there is virtual silence from the White House on this tonight, it shows you the concern.  They are proceeding with caution.  The staff is that is -- to try to figure out exactly what is going on here.

We have heard from the President in a tweet this morning and he`s effectively telling the American people that he would only do what is right in a phone call with foreign leaders.  Of course, it`s not the President`s job to determine what`s right and what is wrong.  He also said it would be incredibly dumb for someone to surmise that he might say something inappropriate on a call with a foreign leader because other people are listening.  But we should remind all of the viewers that it was President Trump back in the beginning of his presidency in the spring of 2017 who shared classified intelligence information with the Russian diplomats in the open of the Oval Office, in front of other American officials.  And that -- at that moment, was a shocking occurrence.  And so there is a pattern to his behavior if in fact what this whistleblower is alleging is actually true.

WILLIAMS:  Carol Leonnig, you had to do much more complicated acts of journalism than what I`m going to ask you to do now.  But I need you to explain for our viewers the background of a tweet from Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy.  He writes, "A few weeks ago in Ukraine, I met with President Zelensky and we discussed the surprise cut off of aid and the inappropriate demands the Trump campaign was making of him.  The obvious question everyone in Kiev was asking was, were the two things connected?"

Carol, remind our audience what this aid is we keep mentioning.

LEONNIG:  The Congress, the U.S. Congress had approved $250 million in military style aid for the Ukraine government to protect itself from largely what they use it for is to protect themselves from Russian aggression.  The President had held that money hostage.  Basically decide blocking it from being released.  It`s all roughly in the same time that he was stressing to Zelensky that they could improve their relationship with the U.S. if they would complete some of their anti corruption investigations.

As I mentioned earlier, Brian, this also comes in that July time frame, which is right after the President speaks with Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, Rudy Giuliani meets as a private citizen who also happens to be the President`s lawyer, but not a government official meets with an aide to Zelensky to talk about these investigations.  And that aide to Zelensky remarks with some concern that he is not sure who exactly Rudy Giuliani is representing.

The idea that all of these things converge at the same time, a President with holding congressionally approved funds from a foreign government to protect itself from our own adversary, and it`s adversary pressure to improve the relationship with the Ukraine by completing investigations, and then a couple of days later, the President`s own personal attorney and ally meeting with a Ukrainian aide to discuss those probes.  It`s sort of worrisome how all of those things aren`t connected, how could they not be connected?

WILLIAMS:  And let`s under score something, Carol Leonnig just said and that is Rudy Giuliani is a lot of things and was a lot of things.  He is not a federal employee.  He is not a White House aide.  He is not the President`s attorney.  He is Donald Trump`s personal attorney that`s going to end up being important here.

We have a lot more questions.  Our guests have agreed to stay with us over the break.

Coming up, the challengers that -- challenges, rather, that whistleblowers face when they attempt to come forward like this and hold some of the most powerful people in the world accountable.

And then later, the tax returns Trump has refused to release.  The tax returns he`s gone to great pains not to reveal.  The fight to get those returns getting a bit closer to Donald Trump as THE 11TH HOUR is just getting started on this busy Thursday night.


WILLIAMS:  We`re back.  And quickly to the breaking news, we`re reporting yet again tonight, "The Washington Post" is upfront on this story reporting that a complaint about President Trump from this yet unknown whistleblower inside administration involves a promise made to the nation of Ukraine.  The complaint, according to "The Post," centering on Trump`s communications with the foreign leader.  The complaint was made August 12th.

NBC News has compiled a list of the President`s phone calls known to us and has so far confirmed that he spoke with at least nine different world leaders during this relevant time period including a call with Ukraine`s president indeed there on July 25th.  One with Putin, July 31st.

Also we should note that on August 15th, former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and his Chief Deputy, the Veteran Sue Gordon left the administration.

Still with us, Carol Leonnig, Phil Rucker, Jeremy Bash as is frequently the case.  I have more questions for our guests than time allowed.

So Carol Leonnig, here it goes.  Congress truly does not seem to know, and if the law works, they are not supported to know the identity of this whistleblower.  Do you get the same feeling about the White House?

LEONNIG:  Oh deep breath.  I would just say that we don`t know for certain, Brian.

Here is one thing I want to say about the whistleblower, however, this person is in a bit of a bind.  I agree with Jeremy, very brave person to put their neck out like this.  And some intelligence operatives have essentially said this is a career defining moment.  You`re skiing off the edge of a mountain and, you know, there may be no turning back.  It seems like it is definitely within the White House`s ability to know exactly who this is.

This whistleblower has some advocates in the inspector general.  The inspector general has basically sent a letter saying, you know, we`d like to send this whistleblower to you directly Congress if we`re not allowed to tell you what this complaint is about.  And that may be something that`s going on behind the scenes right now, a discussion about whether or not this whistleblower can come forward with their own complaints and figure this out with the committees.  Right now at this moment, the acting director of National Intelligence has not given any approval for that but that is one option for this whistleblower.

WILLIAMS:  Jeremy Bash, another aspect of whistleblower law, there was Rudy tonight on CNN speculating this was a Democrat holdover deep inside administration.  Used the phrase deep state again as everyone was expecting.  Is he allowed to talk about whistleblowers that way?  Is there not some equivalent of witness intimidation in these cases?

BASH:  Well I think clearly they want to silence anybody who sees wrongdoing by the President or by somebody at the White House.  They want to silence that person.  They want to cover things up.  But I`d like to see the leadership of the National Intelligence Director`s Office have at least as much courage and bravery as this whistleblower, one of their subordinates.  Usually in a Military or Intelligence organization, you want the leader to have as much bravery and courage as one of the troops that they command.

So we need to see the leadership from the community, from community head, Joe Maguire.  But we also need to see the Justice Department and the White House step aside and let the law play out.

I do want to emphasize what Carol emphasized earlier which is that, if you look at the July 25th phone call between Trump and Zelensky, this is really potentially about a -- holding out the prospect that we would withhold military assistance from Ukraine unless the Ukraine investigated Joe Biden.  Of course, Trump believes is the most threat to his reelection.  That`s what this is about.

This is the 2016 campaign all over again, except this time, Trump is President, he`s got military aid to hold as a weapon to achieve his objective.

WILLIAMS:  OK, Phil Rucker, obviously, and unsaid part of this is that there may be more.  There may be more individuals like this.  Our mutual colleague Nicole Wallace reported after talking with two veterans of the Intel business that they keep noting, here is another phone call from inside the House saying the House is on fire.  And I am guessing Phil, the White House may be bracing for the fact that there could be more.

RUCKER:  Yes Brian, there always could be more with this President and it`s -- one of the main reasons for that frankly is his lack of discipline and his interactions with foreign leaders.  This is not a president who reads from notes or who follows a script.  He sort of free wills in conversations.  He thinks that makes him an effective leader and negotiator when he`s going head-to-head, face-to-face or, you know, handset to handset with a counter part around the world.  But the problem according to people in the White House is that he will oftentimes say things he`s not exactly prepared to say or doesn`t fully appreciate the ramifications of those comments.

We saw it very early on in the administration with that pretty ruckus phone call he had with the then Australian Prime Minister, the contents of which were reported soon there after in a "Washington Post" that created a real diplomatic problem for the administration.  There could be many other instances of this.

And one other thing to keep in mind about the whistleblower in his or her state right now, this is an administration that has gone to extreme lengths to try to silence people who from the inside will try to tell the truth.  They investigate and try to rat out sources to journalists.  They try to with hold information from being sent to Congress.  They try to block testimony to the Oversight Committees and the Congress.  And so, you can expect that President Trump and also his top aides in the White House are going to do everything they can to find out who this whistleblower is and punish this person or multiple people if there is another occurrence.

WILLIAMS:  Hey, gang, we asked a lot of you tonight because we`re covering this breaking news in realtime.  That`s all the fault of "The Washington Post", but our thanks go to Carol Leonnig, to Phil Rucker, to Jeremy Bash for rolling with all of it.  We greatly appreciate it.

Coming up for us tonight, a former FBI special agent weighs in on just what we`re talking about tonight.  What this means to the intelligence community when we come back.



CAROL LEONNIG, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST:  This whistleblower is under what I can only imagine must be the most intense pressure because on the one hand there is this terrifying element called the Espionage Act.  And if you violate it by sharing anything that is truly sensitive and endangers our national security, you`re in a world of trouble.


WILLIAMS:  The new reporting tonight that a presidential conversation involving Ukraine alarmed an intelligence official enough for that official to kick it up the chain.

Clint Watts, former FBI Special Agent is here with us.  He`s also happens to be a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and also happens to be the author of "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers Terrorist, Russians and Fake News".  So we thought we would have you here and ask you, is a whistleblower considered the last line of defense?

CLINT WATTS, FMR. FBI SPECIAL AGENT:  It would be.  In would be seen as that way and particularly I think in this circumstance.  If you look back what did we just get done with?  Two plus years in the Mueller investigation where people were scrutinized publicly or brought out to Capitol Hill, brought to the Mueller committee, you know, questioned, interrogated, spilled out on to Twitter.  So to make this decision to be a very high level intelligence officer in the U.S. government and to make this decision, to make a whistleblower claim and to do it exactly right, it seems like everything has been done very much by the book.

And according to those procedures, I think it would have to be something they felt was extraordinarily important to bring up.  And it just shows also though how our systems are really untested.  We have never really gone through these situations before.  We have an acting DNI, we have acting representatives in many positions.  They`re not quite sure what to do.  They`re reading the rule book and none of those really account for what if the President does it?

These statutes are designed around the organization.  It`s not really about the top leader of the country.  So none of these situations really have been thought and we`re really testing all of these boundaries about what`s the role of Congress for oversight and what`s the role of the executive branch.

WILLIAMS:  I want to play this for you.  A mutual friend of ours is Frank Figliuzzi speaking in effect directly to this whistleblower this afternoon at 4:00 Eastern.


FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FMR. FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE:  If this system keeps breaking down, I would say this to the whistleblower if he or she is watching.  There is one more week, one week from today where the DNI, the acting DNI claims he`s going to testify.  If at that point next week this whistleblower complaint doesn`t substantively be conveyed to the House or Senate Intelligence Committee, it`s time for you to come forward directly to those committees.


WILLIAMS:  So that as they say gets your attention and this is going to be all about trust.  The whistleblower has to be able to trust --

WATTS:  Right.

WILLIAMS:  -- these committees of Congress for this to work.

WATTS:  This is why we have this whole checks and balances in the system and place.  If we can`t guarantee that sort of oversight, then we actually have no protections.  We have no protections for one individual or two or three loan actors working in concert doing something that could gravely harm the country.  This intelligence officer has to be somebody at a very high level with lots of experience felt the need to bring it up through this process, processes that`s not well worn, one that`s not well ironed out and it was to go for specific oversight.

So if we can`t do this, it really puts us in a position where any branch of government should they want to can push forward.  They can push forward in any direction they want without any sort of checks and balances.  That`s not the way our government was really conceived from the beginning.

WILLIAMS:  So this is as strong as any other link in the chain.  We always cover this as links in the chain of norms that we need to continue on the road to our democracy.

WATTS:  That`s absolutely right, because it`s about what is the interest that is being pursued by the government.  Is it the interest of the people?  Is it the interest of individuals?  Is it the interest of parties?  And what we`re not seeing right now is anyone coming together and saying, hey, what`s the best thing for the American people in this situation?

At this point, we have our fourth national security advisor.  We`ve gone through multiple Secretaries Of Defense, most Cabinet heads, many of them are acting.  And when you look at our foreign policy positions, one thing the acting DNI was correct about is Maguire said I`m really busy right now because he is.  He`s looking at a potential war with Iran at the same time that all of this is going on.

So when you`re operating in these many ways, in these many theories without any real grand strategy or any advisors really in the White House that last one in a few months, it puts this country in danger and that`s the time when we need lots oversight in this country.  That is the time for Congress to step up.  This is yet one more example in those chain of events.

WILLIAMS:  Clint Watts, our great thanks.

WATTS:  Thank you.

WILLIAMS:  Appreciate it.

Coming up, the fight to get the President`s tax returns and whatever they might contain.  We`ll ask a former U.S. attorney about that front when we continue.


WILLIAMS:  The President`s lawyers are once again trying to stop prosecutors from getting their hands on his tax returns.  Earlier this month, the Manhattan D.A. subpoenaed Trump`s taxes as part of their investigation, the hush money payments to cover up alleged affairs.  They are looking for potentially falsified business records in violation of New York state law.

In something of a counter suit filed today, Trump`s attorneys are siting an often referred to federal guideline that a sitting president of the United States is not subject to the criminal process while he is in office.  And they are arguing the subpoena is a bad faith effort to harass the President.

We`ll we see about that because with us to talk about it is Barbara McQuade, a Veteran Federal Prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney for the eastern district of the great state of Michigan.  Barbara, do they have a case here?

BARBARA MCQUADE, FMR. U.S. ATTORNEY:  No, I don`t think so.  You know, I think like so much of the conduct of President Trump, the best defense is a good offense and I think that`s what`s going on here.  In addition to a number of procedural problems that I see with this case like standing and jurisdiction, I think the most significant problem here is that the President says because a sitting president cannot be indicted, which is a theory, not a president, he can`t even be investigated and he can`t even be subjected to criminal process.

Even Robert Mueller disagreed with that.  He said absolutely a president can be investigated because you might want to charge others around him like members of the Trump organization or you can charge the president after he leaves office.  And so I think that procedurally and on the merits, this is going to fail which, you know, causes one to wonder why he bring it in the first place.  And I think it`s most likely a stall tactic.

WILLIAMS:  Let me ask you this and this is just a consumer question because on media these days you hear the hunger on the left among the resistance to get their hands and that`s the expression they use, get their hands on Donald Trump`s tax returns.  But as a matter of law and reality, let`s say the New York D.A. is successful and they get however many years they are looking for.  Is there any kind of public release provision?  Are they put under seal?  Is there any reason why people would assume that we in the public are going to get to pour over this guy`s tax returns?

MCQUADE:  Not immediately but they could come out later, if there were to be a criminal prosecution.  So as you are suggesting there, Brian, grand jury material is secret.  It`s kept private and so it would be shared only with those people, what they need to know who are investigating the case.  But as we saw in, for example, the trial of Paul Manafort, if ultimately they become evidence in a trial, they could be produced as exhibits if, for instance, they show expenditures on the tax returns that could support a charge involving the campaign finance violations or the falsification of business record.  So, not right away but possibly down the road.

WILLIAMS:  We are fortunate around here to have a number of former U.S. attorneys of counsel to us.  I already quoted one of them Joyce Vance earlier in the hour and now I`d like to quote you back to you, this is you on Twitter tonight.  "We need more facts, but if Trump threatened to withhold military aid unless Ukraine digs up dirt on Biden, that could be extortion."  And I guess, Barb, that`s among the things it could be.

MCQUADE:  Yes, you know, it could be many other things but to me, that is a very traditional public corruption charge that gets charged against city officials, state officials, when they are demanding something that is a value to them in exchange for an official act.  I`m going to withhold this thing that you`re entitled to until you give me my bribe, the thing that I want.  It sounds very much like the kind of thing that we see corrupt politicians engage in all the time.  And if so, you know, this might be the kind of act that actually resonates with the public.

You know, Russian interference was something that didn`t squarely fit with any, you know, of the statutes because Congress could never imagine such a thing but with extorsion.  This is a very bread and butter kind of public corruption crime that gets charged all the time.

WILLIAMS:  What an interesting point.  Veteran Former Federal Prosecutor, and former U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade, it`s always a pleasure having you on.  Thank you so much for tonight.

MCQUADE:  Thanks, Brian.

WILLIAMS:  Coming up for us, foreign policy.  It has a funny way of sneaking in and redirecting a presidential race.  In fact, are we now watching the start of that process?  In a moment, we`re going to talk to the senior most self-described defrocked Republican strategist in the business when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  We talk about polling because it`s fun after all.  So a new poll from Fox News out today shows Joe Biden maintaining his lead among his Democratic rivals at 29 percent.  Bernie Sanders in second with 18, followed quickly by Elizabeth Warren at 16 and so on.  This same poll shows President Trump losing to Biden, Sanders, Warren and Kamala Harris in hypothetical matchups.  The former Vice President has the largest margin against Trump at 14 percent.

Trump addressed the Democratic threat during a Fox News interview yesterday at the southern border wall.


ED HENRY, CORRESPONDENT, FOX NEWS:  Are you getting ready for Elizabeth Warren or someone else who is rising in the polls and not facing Joe Biden?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I -- you know, whoever it is, my attitude is whoever it is.  Elizabeth Warren is doing better than Joe right now.  Joe is having a hard time.  We`ll see what happens.  Whoever it is, I`ll take them on and we`ll do well.


WILLIAMS:  So there he is.  And back with us tonight, Mike Murphy, Republican Strategist, Co-Director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California and importantly, Co-host of the podcast "Hacks on Tap with David Axelrod" and a great follow on Twitter.  Welcome back.


WILLIAMS:  I have in my hand --


WILLIAMS:  -- a list of people that are according to our NBC News poll, polling at 1 percent or below and I hate to lead with a negative but I`m going to.  O`Rourke, Gabbard, Delaney, Steyer, Bennet, de Blasio, Castro, Bullock, Ryan, Williamson, basically a baseball team.  Explain this to me.  I`m told that money is the mother smelt of politics, jet fuel, bumper stickers.

MURPHY:  Right.

WILLIAMS:  What are they all still doing in the race?

MURPHY:  Well, you know, it`s a pretty depressing day when you are losing to the margin of error.


MURPHY:  If you can`t even prove you exist statistically.  But hope springs eternal in politics.  They have seen other races where in the last 30 days in Iowa something happens and you turn over the national polling.  But for these candidates, who don`t have resources, don`t have a base, and the case of Bullock and Bennet I have kind of a tragic story.  They could both probably beat Trump in a general election.

But what`s going to happen now is they`re running out of money.  Not just them, the middle tier is running out of money.  Because this is the time in Iowa where we going to ramp up the spending in New Hampshire.  But if you don`t have poll numbers, you`re not getting any donations.  So you`ve given the plaintiff squeeze which can really cut off your oxygen financially and not have a campaign by the end of the year.

WILLIAMS:  And look, bigger names.  Cory Booker, I think we have him at 2 percent or 3 percent.

MURPHY:  Yes.  But I`ll tell you, the national polls are a bit of a hustle.  Because if the Iowa caucus pops for somebody, maybe it will be Warren, she`s got the energy there.  But we have a lot of time left, it moves late.  It will throw the national polls inside out in two days.

There`s an old thing called the words mean ruler, it was an old Kennedy delegate counter.  And it was, don`t believe any national poll deeply until the first voting contest.  But it gives us a whiff now who is selling tickets and who isn`t, who adds something.  Biden has a junk.  Warren has been going up for 10 months.  So it gives you some hints.  But it`s written in pencil until people start voting, the national polls.

WILLIAMS:  Our friend Rick Warren went crazy on this topic last night and want to hit it with you -- Rick Wilson, sorry.  We had Jim Warren and Rick Wilson on the same broadcast.  So, I apologize.  Why aren`t the Democrats more worried concentrating more efforts and resources on getting control of the Senate?

MURPHY:  Yes.  You know, I think the most important thing besides recruiting which is always the unglamorous hard part of the Senate contest.  At the top of the ticket, they`ve got to find somebody -- you know, they are excited about this North Carolina 9 special because they took a district where normally the Republican can win by 10.  A bag of cement with an ironic (ph) can get five.  And they held it to two.

But they held it to two with a modern Democratic former marine, not a Bernie or Elizabeth Warren type.  So, you know, it doesn`t look to me at least early here that they are thinking very strategically.  They`re instead having this big catharsis about we are so mad at Trump, we`re going to go the progressives, and we`re going to teach him a lesson, just like when government taught Nixon a lesson.  And, you know, the lesson turned out to be in reverse.

So we`ll see if the pragmatism to be Trump and have a strong top of ticket that could put a North Carolina Senate seat in play, that could give, you know, Cory Gardner a hell of a race in Colorado is where they go or will they nominate a candidate that the President will have the tools to change the topic of the election from fire him which is what that polling says now when they all beat him, into hey, I think I`m bad, look at this.  That`s the huge question.

WILLIAMS:  And finally, since we`ve both been around the block a few times, the ability to sneak in the presidential race or should we ask two-term president Jimmy Carter about this?

MURPHY:  You know, that`s a huge question.  I think this increasingly big whistleblower scandal deservedly big, that`s going to rock the race.  They`re all going to be in that business tomorrow but they`re all going to saying the same thing.


MURPHY:  And let the truth be known.  But if things get dicy, if the Iranians, the Saudis decide to retaliate --

WILLIAMS:  Chinese trade.

MURPHY:  Yes, the Taiwan`s trade, there are a million loose ends here.  If that blows up, it may change the way Democrat voters look at who they`re shopping for.  And it could give Biden the life line he could use right about now as Warren has most of the energy and he`s got all those under study candidates secretly (ph).

So -- But we don`t know until it happens.  And then when it happens, how you handle it can create a star out of somebody who may not be a natural foreign policy fit.  You know, (INAUDIBLE) of veteran they`re all going to be breaking those moves but it could be good for Joe.

WILLIAMS:  This is why we always invite you back.  Thank you so much for being here with us here.

MURPHY:  Yes, good to see you.

WILLIAMS:  Mike Murphy here with us in the studio.

And coming up, a huge crisis tonight and severe damage that is not yet on the radar of all Americans.  We`ll tell you about it when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  Last thing before we go tonight, please spare a good thought for our brothers and sisters in southeast Texas who are suffering tonight.  Many families have lost everything they own in the world in a storm that was just days ago named Imelda, and is now just a pounding and swirling rain storm.

And put it this way, this storm without a name currently has now dropped the fifth greatest rainfall of any storm in the history of the lower 48 states.  Texans of a certain age who remember storm names like bad family members may be stunned to learn, this is worse than Claudette in `79.  And in places, this is way worse that Hurricane Harvey two years ago.

Listen, please, to a pregnant mother of five kids who as of today is left with her husband and five children and nothing else.


ERIKA ZAMORA, FAMILY DISPLACED BY FLOODING:  I looked outside, and our whole entire yard was just covered in water.  There was no way out.  And I opened the door, and the water was to our door.  During Harvey, it wasn`t like that.  We were able to get out.  And this way we weren`t able to leave.  We weren`t able to get out.


WILLIAMS:  Sadly, there are hundreds of Texans going through that same hurt tonight and they will need our help.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston got their September monthly average of rain in 90 minutes.  Some rain gauges measured over six inches per hour.  Some places received over 41 inches of rain as you see there.  The coast guard was forced to land on I-10.  And in places I-10 and the Gulf were one and the same.

The number of swift water rescues is now approaching 2,000.  So please be thinking of the folks in parts of Houston and Port Arthur and Beaumont where the suffering is great, and the water will remain high for sometime.

That`s our broadcast on this Thursday night.  Thank you for being here with us.  Good night 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