IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Russia and Turkey strike a deal in Syria. TRANSCRIPT: 10/22/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Anne Gearan, Mieke Eoyang, Katie Benner, Clint Watts

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR:  Barbara McQuade gets tonight`s LAST WORD.  Barbara McQuade, John Heilemann, thank you both for joining our discussion tonight.  Really appreciate it.

The is tonight`s LAST WORD.  "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST:  Tonight, a public servant for half a century, a veteran turned veteran-diplomat, plainly tells Congress what he saw and what he walked into when he found Rudy Giuliani conducting foreign policy.  And where he encountered Donald Trump`s demand that a foreign country investigate the Bidens in return for money from the U.S.  Because of this man, this was a consequential day for this country.

Also tonight, the President invokes a painful term to talk about his own victimization.  And while it is a giant distraction, it is also a giant wound from our past.

And it doesn`t happen often, but again today Mitch McConnell pushed back on the President.

And another insider book is coming out. We just can`t tell you the author`s name.  All of it as "The 11th Hour" gets under way on a Tuesday night.

Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  And it may be said months or perhaps years from now that this, day 1,006 of the Trump administration, was, in fact, a day of great consequence in deciding the fate of the presidency of Donald Trump.

The historian, Jon Meacham, just tonight called in this an important day in American history.  He compared it to John Dean`s testimony during Watergate, and he says Republicans now face a great moral and constitutional test because of what happened today, when a 50-year public servant a West Pointer, a Vietnam veteran, a diplomat who was called out of retirement to serve his country and this President calmly delivered devastating testimony to Congress over 10 hours.  Put another way, a man with little to lose and no reason to lie.

And over that time, 10 hours, he told the story of what he saw, an effort to get a foreign country to announce an investigation of an American political family in return for U.S. military aid that had been appropriated by Congress.  And as the story goes, all of it was carried out on instructions from the very top.  He is veteran Ambassador Bill Taylor, he is the guy in the text traffic who wrote that it was, "crazy to withhold security assistance from Ukraine for help with a political campaign."

In a 15-page opening statement, Taylor described the effort to hold up congressional funds for Ukraine and a refusal to meet its President until he agreed to publicly announce an investigation into the Bidens and the 2016 election.

Taylor described Trump`s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as part of, "an irregular, informal channel of U.S. policy-making with respect to Ukraine.

Taylor goes on to lay out the events of this past summer when the newly elected President of Ukraine was eager to get a meeting at the White House and with Trump, and to get American aid in its fight against Russia.

Taylor says he was told on September 1st by the ambassador to the E.U., former Trump donor Gordon Sondland, that Trump wanted the Ukrainian leader to publicly say he was open to the inquiry, "Sondland said, "everything" was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance.  Trump wanted President Zelensky "in a public box" by making a public statement about ordering such investigations into the Bidens."

Taylor says later that that month Sondland told him "Trump was adamant that President Zelensky himself had to clear things up and do it in public.  Sondland said that he had talked to President Zelensky and that although this was not a quid pro quo, if he did not clear things up in public, we would be at a "stalemate."  I understood a "stalemate" to mean that Ukraine would not receive the much-needed military assistance."

Well, tonight Democrats say Taylor`s account will be a major piece of their case against the President.


REP. DEBBIE WASSERMAN-SCHULTZ, (D) FLORIDA:  His testimony will be held up as a significant component of the pathway to what we decide when it comes to articles of impeachment as it should be.


WILLIAMS:  Today the White House issued a response to Taylor`s testimony which reads in part and we quote, "President Trump has done nothing wrong.  This is a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.  There was no quid pro quo."

Earlier today Trump sparked a new cycle of outrage and some say distraction with a message to his party saying, "All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here, a lynching."  Amid all the subsequent condemnations all day, one man had his back.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA:  This is a lynching and ever since, this is un-American.  What does lynching mean?  If a mob grabs you, they don`t give you a chance to defend yourself, they don`t tell you what happened to, they just destroy you.  That`s exactly what`s going on in the United States House of Representatives right now.


WILLIAMS:  We`ll have a word or two about that exchange later in the broadcast.

All of this taking place as the administration tries to manage the ongoing fallout from Trump`s decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria, which, as you know, has now exposed our Kurdish allies and their families to slaughter by the Turkish military.

Just today, as we will hear Richard Engel report here tonight, Putin of Russia and Erdogan of Turkey basically carved up the region in a total victory for them as U.S. forces retreat.

One former U.S. ambassador to Russia says the crisis in Syria and the Ukraine scandal are examples of Trump`s insistence on carrying out a foreign policy of one.


MICHAEL MCFAUL, FMR. U.S. AMB. TO RUSSIA:  And what you see here is you see the President of the United States, somebody with zero national security experience, zero experience in diplomacy, making it up as he goes along, not trusting his advisers, not trust the interagency process.


WILLIAMS:  Today we also learned the senior official who is the anonymous author of last year`s "New York Times" op-ed "I am part of the resistance inside the Trump administration," that guy or woman has written a tell-all book to be published next month.  The book titled "A Warning" is said to be, an unprecedented behind-the-scenes portrait of the Trump presidency that expands upon the original "Times" article.  The book will list the author similarly as anonymous.

Well, on that note, here for our lead-off discussion and on the record on a Tuesday night, Ashley Parker, Pulitzer Prize-winning White House Reporter for "The Washington Post," Anne Gearan, White House Correspondent for "The Washington Post," focusing on foreign policy, national security, and Mieke Eoyang, attorney and former staffer for both the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees on the Hill.  Welcome to all of you back to the broadcast.

Anne, I`d like to begin with you.  The only problem in Jon Meacham`s comparison to today to a John Dean moment, we could hear and see John Dean.  I`ve got no video to show the folks in our audience tonight of what went on today.  It`s an acute problem for the Democrats who have thus far not proven adept at storytelling, witnessed the Mueller report, but we`ll get to that later on in the broadcast.  What we know from today we learned from your team, broke the story of the opening statement.  Tell our audience in your own words what kind of story Ambassador Taylor told today.

ANNE GEARAN, THE WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Brian, Ambassador Taylor gave Democrats a kind of a step-by-step road map to what they should be looking at and how he as a career public servant became disillusioned over the summer with what he what he saw around him in Ukraine.

Recall that he took this job under somewhat -- sort of under duress at the behest of Mike Pompeo at the end of May after the sitting ambassador, who is a friend of Bill Taylor`s had been ousted in what Taylor thought was completely, you know, awful circumstances and told Pompeo so.  And Pompeo said I want you to go, I want you to be the face and voice of the U.S. government.  And Taylor thinks about it a little bit an goes.

And also as soon as he got there, he describes for Democrats and for everyone else in his opening statement how he saw two different things happening in Ukraine.  The normal foreign policy of which he was the face, and a whole set of shadow foreign policy outreaches to the new Ukrainian government, which he really -- he was there to protect and defend.  He wanted the United States to show its support for the new Ukraine government and their anti-corruption agenda and their pushback against Russia.

And at first he thought that was happening.  And as the summer goes on, he sees how that is not happening and he describes in a really detailed, and as one lawmaker described to us today, damning portrait of how that sort of normal foreign policy is undermined by a shadow foreign policy led by people who were, in his view, doing the President`s bidding.

WILLIAMS:  Ashley Parker, Ambassador Sondland may grow wistful about his civilian life back home in Chicago.  He was a major Trump donor, the job of E.U. ambassador sounded great.  Now he may find himself hauled back before Congress for a do-over.  Can you tell our audience why that might be?

ASHLEY PARKER, THE WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE REPORTER:  Well, the reason he would be called back is basically to clean up what he said before, which doesn`t really track with the more full picture we`re seeing.  Sondland -- there`s a sense that he was maybe trying to protect himself and was not totally forthcoming.  And again, we don`t know everything, we don`t know everyone`s responses to each question they were asked.

But when you look at what he said, what he reportedly said, and then you look the what Bill Taylor said today in that 15-page opening statement that as Anne said really was a road map to say, you know, when Sondland said that this wasn`t a quid pro quo, and when the President said this wasn`t a quid pro quo, well, in fact, it was.  That`s what the facts and the evidence and the actual reality on the ground points out.  And so you`re sort of trying to square one version of events with another one, which is now much more complete and came from Taylor`s extemporaneous notes and texts and e-mails, all of which can be rigorously and have been rigorously documented.

WILLIAMS:  And Mieke, that brings us to our friend and former fed, Elie Honig who wrote today, when a trial witness gives testimony like Bill Taylor gave today, that`s usually when the defense lawyer slides over at a break and asks if the plea offer is still on the table.

Mieke, I know you guys don`t always get to pick your witnesses, but the diligence that Ashley just talked about on the part of this former military man turned veteran diplomat had to add to his luster as a witness.

MIEKE EOYANG, FMR. HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE STAFFER:  Yes.  I think that`s right.  And also, his sense of integrity and the importance of what was the bipartisan U.S. policy, his adherence what was in the U.S. national interest is very clear and it comes through in his written statement that what he was concerned about is that was we knew what the U.S. policy was, which was to help the Ukrainians fend off this Russian aggression.  The President was basically extorting them by withholding aid that they desperately needed.  They`re like a drowning man and Trump is holding back the life preserver and saying I need you to do this thing that they don`t want to do.  And Bill Taylor`s recounting of that, the time line and the detail, his focus on what was normal and what was not normal is really stunning.

WILLIAMS:  Anne Gearan, let`s took on Jon Meacham`s assertion that this was on par with John Dean, with Alexander Butterfield in Watergate saying, tapes?  Yes, we taped conversations all the time, with the smoking gun tape.  Do you think -- obviously it`s taking hours to filter out.  And again, my point that we can`t see or hear what happened today is hampering.  But do you think in hindsight it will be viewed that way someday?

GEARAN:  Well, Brian, I think a lot of that depends on how Republicans, frankly, react to this.  I mean, we have now the account of Democrats who were in the room describing how completely and utterly appalling they found the story that Bill Taylor told them.  And you have Republicans mostly saying that they are not entirely convinced or giving, you know, the President some leeway or some cover here.

I think the next several days will be very determinative of just how big a pivot point this is.  What I think is completely clear, however, is that, you know, Ambassador Taylor gave a extraordinarily detailed account from his own meticulous notes and, you know, never underestimate the power of a State Department guy with a pad and pen.  Like, this guy totally took notes.  He understood exactly what was happening around him and he knew that it needed to be documented.

And so that goes into the record.  And, you know, what democrats do with it in terms of using it as a spear to carry forward the impeachment charge will be one thing.  But how Republicans respond to it, I think, might end up being more consequential.

WILLIAMS:  And Ashley, as Anne references, sooner or later, the focus is going to be squarely on republicans.  Sooner or later we`re going to be talking a lot more about Mitch McConnell.  There was an interesting episode involving McConnell today.  I`m going to show you two things.  We`ll talk about it on the other side.

The first is Donald Trump, I`m going to show you two things.  We`ll talk about it on the other side.  The first is Donald Trump, October 3rd, recounting McConnell`s glowing review of his Ukraine call.  The second one is McConnell asked about that incident today.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I spoke to him about it too.  He read my phone call with the President of Ukraine, Mitch McConnell.  He said that was the most innocent phone call that I`ve read.  I mean, give me a break.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The President has said that you told him that his phone call with the Ukrainian President was perfect and innocent.  Do you believe that the President handled this Ukrainian situation --

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) KENTUCKY SENATE MAJORITY LEADER:  We didn`t have any conversations on that subject.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  So he was lying about that?

MCCONNELL:  You`ll have to ask him.  I don`t recall any conversations with the President about that phone call.


WILLIAMS:  Ashley Parker, it will be theorized that McConnell is beginning a very slow, very long walk here because of what he may know is coming.  Should we engage in such rumor mongering?

PARKER:  Well, I think the way to look at this is twofold.  The first is just worth noting that there is a trend where President Trump has a long history of making up oftentimes out of pure cloth things that he alleges allies and others have said.  He did that with leader McConnell, he did that with his defense secretary, he did that with Kevin McCarthy, he has a friend name Jim in Paris who he often attributes things to.  So, first of all this is part and parcel with how President Trump operates.

The second thing I think with McConnell kind of coming out and not quite calling him a liar but certainly contradicting the President`s version today is just another example of those thin little cracks we`re starting to see in the Republican wall, in the Republican resistance that the President needs.  You`ve seen criticism on Syria and foreign policy.  And again, we shouldn`t conflate impeachment.

In foreign policy you`ve seen some Republicans come out in favor of at least an inquiry into what the President did.  And you`re seeing a lot of very muted defenses.  And I think when you have this with the leader, it`s just another sign that the President really is facing down the most vulnerable moment of his presidency thus far.

WILLIAMS:  And so, Mieke, let`s go back inside.  As I said, the Democrats have had their challenges in storytelling.  The Democrats have now listened to 62.5 hours of closed-door testimony.  I don`t have one inch of video to be able to show you this parade of insider witnesses, no less brave for coming forward and telling their stories.

Do the Democrats know they have a public hearing issue before them?  Because soon, they`re going to have to put this in bite size, understandable narrative fashion.

EOYANG:  I think that they do understand that.  And what you`ve seen from Speakers Pelosi is a very clear message to her caucus to focus on what really happened here, what were the President`s actions, what was the shake down, what was the pressure campaign, what was he doing in Ukraine, and using all of these statements to build out that narrative.  And to not take the bait into the process arguments, which is really where they got bogged down during the Mueller investigation going to these issues of obstruction, arguing with the administration on some of these issues that were very procedural.  You see them not trying to take the bait in this White House counsel letter about whether or not they`re resisting subpoenas but really staying laser focused on what was the President trying to extort out of Ukraine.

WILLIAMS:  To our three returning veterans, our thanks for starting off our conversation as we said on such a consequential night, I`ll get it out.  Mieke Eoyang, Anne Gearan, and we know fresh from a huge war to (INAUDIBLE) alma matter, the University of Pennsylvania, Ashley Parker, thank you for joining us here tonight.

Coming up for us, Rudy Giuliani`s role in foreign policy and the grave consequences that may come of it for his friend, his boss, and fellow New Yorker.

And later, no matter what transpires between them, at the end of the day, as you saw Lindsey Graham is always there for Donald Trump.  He was there today when Trump used a word he knew to be a loaded term.  "The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Tuesday night.



RUDOLF GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S PERSONAL LAWYER:  My desire to be in the Cabinet was great, but it wasn`t that great.  He had a lot of terrific candidates and I thought I could play a better role being on the outside.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  For the secretary of state position there?

GIULIANI:  Yes.  Honestly, the other positions I didn`t have an interest in.


WILLIAMS:  So as you may know, U.S. foreign policy is overseen by our secretary of state, and under this President, also by Rudy Giuliani.  It`s the increasingly takeaway from this parade of insider testimony on the Hill.

And indeed, today the veteran diplomat Bill Taylor pulled out of retirement to serve in Ukraine at the request of our current secretary of state testified that Rudy fell into this irregular category of policy-making on Ukraine adding, "By mid-July it was becoming clear to me that the meeting President Zelensky wanted with Trump was conditioned on the investigations of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. elections.  It was also clear that this condition was driven by the irregular policy channel I had come to understand was guided by Mr. Giuliani."

Meanwhile, two of Rudy`s associates, the gentlemen that "SNL" has dubbed the two shreks, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, are scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow on federal charges tied to illegal campaign donations.  And if tomorrow night we show you Fruman`s attorney in court and he looks familiar, it`s because he was Paul Manafort`s attorney.  What are the chances?

With us tonight to talk about it, a reporter who is consistently out front on this story, Katie Benner, Justice Department Reporter for "The New York Times."

So, Katie, Rudy wanted to be secretary of state.  In Ukraine, at least, he kind of did one better, as it turns out.  Tell us how much legal jeopardy he might be facing this evening.

KATIE BENNER, THE NEW YORK TIMES JUSTICE DEPT. REPORTER:  So it looks like things are getting worse for Giuliani as we saw with Taylor`s testimony today.  More and more people have come out to say the not only was there a shadow diplomatic effort that was extraordinarily questionable and might even lead to something like bribery, which, as we all know, is part of the impeachment section of the Constitution.  It`s clear that Giuliani was spearheading it.  It`s been said time and time again.

And of course the reason why this also creates jeopardy for President Trump is that Giuliani is not a member of the government.  He does not work for the government, and so the only person from whom he can be taking orders plausibly is the President.

WILLIAMS:  We noted, I guess, two weeks ago, every weeknight during one given week he was on alternating Fox News prime time shows, it almost limitless air time.  We further note we haven`t seen him in a couple of days.  I am guessing the importance of this has been made plain to him?

BENNER:  Of course, giving Giuliani the benefit of the doubt, he`s the former prosecutor.  He ran the Southern District of New York himself.  So, he would understands the jeopardy that he is in because as we`ve reported and others have reported, not only are his two associates who have been charged with crimes in SDNY, going to be arraigned tomorrow, he himself is under investigation for possible violations of the FARA Act which basically state that, you know, he, without telling the Justice Department, without telling the U.S. government possibly could have been trying to influence either the U.S. media or U.S. politics on behalf of a foreign government.

WILLIAMS:  Katie, of course, our lead story tonight is the testimony today by Ambassador Taylor, a career guy, if there ever was one, 50-year public servant in this country.  I want to know from you who has reason to worry after today?  Ambassador Sondland, for one.  And I note in correction as a proud native of Portland, Oregon, is he the guy, for starters, who may get a return visit out of this.

BENNER:  Yes, lawmakers have already said they want Sondland to come back, that he has some questions to answer.  It`s clear that his statements to Congress were not as fulsome as they could have been and certainly they were contradicted by Taylor.  So that is -- he would be top of the list for people who need to worry.

Also keep in mind that Sondland has been described by others, including, I believe, Fiona Hill, as somebody whose naivete and who`s inexperience made him dangerous not because he actually has bad intent, because he did not know what he was doing.  And so when you pit a person like that against somebody with 50 years of experience in government, it`s going to be interesting to see how lawmakers come out in who they truly believe.

I would say another person who needs to look out or who needs to at least be cognizant of all of the testimony happening on the Hill and that will happen in the coming weeks are a variety of people within the justice department.  I realize that`s my beat, so I might be a little bit biased, but it was something that was not -- has not been mentioned a lot in Taylor`s 15-page statement.  Is he says August 16th, he`s speaking with Volker.  He`s having yet another dispute with him about whether or not it`s a good idea to tie aid, to tie a presidential visit to, you know, to an investigation into the Bidens.  And he`s told by Volker that the Ukrainians have said that if they`re going to do this for the United States, they want the U.S. to basically put it in writing that they want this.

And what Taylor says is very interesting.  He says, I gave Volker the name of somebody at the Justice Department who could give him sort of a legal analysis of what to do in this situation.

Now, if that indeed happened on August 16th, we don`t know whether or not Volker actually contacted anybody from the Justice Department, but to the extent he did, that would mean that the Justice Department was sort of read into what people have called Rudy`s scheme, you know, what Bolton called a drug deal and what others have called a possible quid pro quo.  And then you have to wonder what did the Justice Department know.

WILLIAMS:  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the reason to look for Katie Benner`s byline in "The New York Times."  Katie, as always, thanks so much for making time for us tonight.

Coming up, Trump follows his own playbook, when the going gets tough, throw out a shiny object.  More on that when we come back.


WILLIAMS:  The President is ramping up attacks on impeachment and is most likely trying to change the conversation by saying things like this today.  "All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here, a lynching."

Many quickly condemned the President`s remarks.  Some Democratic lawmakers pointed out the President is trying to distract the country.


REPRESENTATIVE SHEILA JACKSON LEE, (D) TEXAS:  It is very painful, and it is a distraction that America should not accept or tolerate and, frankly, we should proceed constitutionally as we are, as members of Congress, to do our job.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES CLYBURN, (D) SOUTH CAROLINA:  I think what we see here once again is this President attempting to change the narrative using what I consider to be real caustic terms to change the conversation.  To compare the constitutional process to something like lynching is far beneath the office of the President of the United States.


WILLIAMS:  The congressman from South Carolina.  But as we showed you earlier that somehow brings us to Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.  The site by the way of 164 recorded lynchings of African Americans.  Senator Graham knows the history and doubled down on the President`s use of the word.

Separately "The Daily Beast" reports tonight that the President`s allies are upset with Graham for not holding hearings in the judiciary committee looking into Joe Biden`s son and Ukraine.

With all of that in mind, we are happy to have with us tonight Jason Johnson, Politics Editor at The Root.

Jason, first off, I thought we`d start with a definition for our viewers, a lynching is mob rule.


WILLIAMS:  It is murder by mob without due process of law, without any process, often accompanied by torture.  It is, in short, the worst thing humans can do to each other, the worst thing to imagine a family member of any of us going through.

We should also mention, it was my privilege in June to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in effect, our nation`s lynching memorial.  It is no less impactful than the holocaust museum, than Yad Vashem in Israel, than the 9/11 museum.  I wish it was a rite of citizenship for all people to visit the memorial.

Having established that, Jason, your take on the invocation of this powerful word in our national discourse today?

JOHNSON:  Well, first, Brian, the reason this can happen so glibly on the part of this President is the lack of history that most Americans understand.

Lynching is still seen as this terrible thing that occasional the Klan did.  People don`t realize things that happened Kamala, George or a law in South Carolina or (inaudible) at Arkansas, what happened in Tulsa Oklahoma until they watch Watchmen on Sunday.

Most Americans don`t realize that acts of terror on the part of white Democrats, white citizens, police officers in the army were standard in this country for over a century after the end of the civil war.

If there was even the slightest inkling of understanding on the part of the average American about how pervasive lynching was, how violent it was, the women who were raped and then lynched, the children who were lynched, the men who`s body parts were cut and stuffed in their mouths and lynched, you would never have a president, even one who has the sort of racial mind-set that Donald Trump has would ever get away with being able to use that terminology.

So it`s not just a reflection of how bad and racist a lot of Donald Trump`s language is, Brian, it`s a reflection of how many Americans do not understand how serious and how bloody our history is, so they can act shocked if someone does something else like this as suppose to immediately condemning it.

WILLIAMS:  Jason, I`m going to read you a quote.  You have long sense put to your memory, Strange Fruit, song by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s.


WILLIAMS:  Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root.  And this is the act being used today politically to send everyone to their corners.

JOHNSON:  Yeah.  And here`s the other thing, Brian.  I think it`s important to remember, it also reflects -- you know, we`re in, what, five, six years since the beginning of Black Lives Matter Movement.

There`s undercurrent to that.  The fact that black death and violence and lives can be thrown out so easily whenever someone faces politically convenience.  Donald Trump could have said, it`s a witch hunt, OK, that`s fine.  Donald Trump could have said, it`s a hoax, it`s a fraud, it`s unreasonable.  But the fact that he can throw out something that has long and bloody history, both in our popular culture and in the lives of people -- there`s still victims of lynching who are trying to get restitution from states now, shows that he doesn`t care.  He doesn`t care.  And he has a party that doesn`t understand.

And I think this is important for people to remember in the future.  This is not the first, second, third, fourth, fifth or, 27th time that Donald Trump has said something that is perceived by many people with any degree of knowledge as racist, by basically asking for the death penalty of the Exonerated 5.  He was asking for a modern day lynching.

What we need to understand is that, we have a president of the United States who can so easily and glibly invoke violence against the others to defend himself.  You have to recognize this is a man who will never defend any citizen, who he does not see as a direct reflection of his own needs and desires.  And that`s the true danger of Donald Trump in a lot of his language on Twitter.

WILLIAMS:  So let`s talk -- let`s turn, if we can, toward politics and the upcoming race in 2020.  Article in "New York Times" got a lot of attention.  Anytime a crowd of otherwise hushed donors gathers in a restaurant in New York to make kings and queens out of what they see before them.

The talk is the Democratic funders are not happy with the current slate.  There`s all kinds of questioning about who`s out there, who can get in, all of this under the banner of what I like to say in this broadcast, no one can screw up an election like the Democrats.  What do you make of all of this talk, Jason?

JOHNSON:  I completely agree with you.  Democrats are the -- they`re the party of fear.  They never seem to be happy.  Look, I`m old enough to remember op-eds being written in 2012 saying maybe Obama should drop out because they didn`t think that he was going to be able to survive after the great recession in 2011 and some of the negotiation he did since.

Look, at the end of the day what we have to understand is the same group of rich donors are the ones that have led Democrats to consistent defects at the state and the national level.  Their desire for some mythical centrist candidate who can somehow get former MAGA voters in Lordstown, Ohio, and also get a liberal 20 something couple living in Charlotte, North Carolina, that person doesn`t exist.

You have to operate with a candidate who can inspire people and move them towards your politics.  Donald Trump didn`t turn the nation into MAGA.  He dragged the nation to MAGA.

Barack Obama didn`t make the entire nation inspired.  He dragged them towards inspiration.  So rather than trying to force a 2020 candidate into some mythical democratic box, they should look to support the candidate who can inspire the most people. And that won`t be Hillary Clinton, and it won`t be Sherrod Brown.  And there`s no magical person out there who`s going to appear and run even if the rock decides that he`s going to throw his hat into the ring.

WILLIAMS:  And here`s alluded question because when you`re on TV, I watch and I saw you this afternoon.  Will you be buying the book by anonymous, Jason?

JOHNSON:  You know, I really don`t want to buy the book, but I will probably have to, for the purposes of understanding this job.  Look, I just-- I can`t respect people who want to constantly talk about the dangers coming to this country but don`t want to put their names and faces on the line.

Journalists put their name on the line.  Police officers put their names on the line.  Activists, whistle-blowers put their name on the line.  If you truly care about the United States of America, you should be able to put your lips and face behind these words, otherwise you`re just whistling into the wind.

WILLIAMS:  And that is why we asked Jason Johnson to come on the broadcast tonight.  Thank you, sir, very much for taking our questions.

JOHNSON:  Thanks, Brian.

WILLIAMS:  Coming up, living in the U.S. in 2019 means you need to know what a Russian asset is because it happens to matter.  And an FBI veteran is here to give us the definition.



HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES:  I`m not making any predictions, but I think they`ve got their eye on somebody who`s currently in the democratic primary, and are grooming her to be the third- party candidate.  She`s the favorite of the Russians, they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far, and-that`s assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not because she`s also a Russian asset.  Yeah, she`s a Russian asset.  I mean, totally.


WILLIAMS:  I see everybody getting along those comments from Hillary Clinton in reference, at first there to Hawaii democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.  They have brought a whisper campaign among the Democrats out in the open, let`s see.  Gabbard fired back with a fresh response just tonight.


REPRESENTATIVE TULSI GABBARD, (D) HAWAII:  Hillary Clinton, your foreign policy has been a disaster for our country and the world.  It`s time for you to acknowledge the damage that you have caused.  And it is long past time for you to step down from your throne that the Democratic Party can lead with a new foreign policy which will actually be in the interest of and benefit to the American people and the world.


WILLIAMS:  Reminds me of a campaign slogan, stronger together.

With us to talk about all of it, Clint Watts, a former FBI Special Agent, a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and importantly, author of "Messing With The Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News" in no particular order.

Clint, this is going to sound like a 1950s film strip.


WILLIAMS:  Before we get into politics, what is a Russian asset, and how do we know one when we see one?

WATTS:  Right.  So an asset in Intel speak is anything that is designed, developed, or utilized to collect intelligence.  That could actually be a human source or like a technical source like signal intercept, some sort of technical tool.

An agent is somebody who is recruited before human intelligence, surreptitiously to gain information on a foreign government.  In both cases, they are directed, controlled, and usually resourced by a foreign country for the purpose of espionage.

What has been confusing over the last three to four years in the Mueller reported era and going all the way back to 2016 is people throw around agent or asset as if there`s a Manchurian Candidate.  But that`s not how Russia influence works.

Russia goes after what`s known as agents of influence.  These are people without size presence in the target audience of the country that Russia wants to elevate that is saying what Russia wants Americans to hear.  They are either witting or unwitting.  Sometimes you`ll hear unwitting is a useful idiot.  That is an espionage kind of race.

A witting one is someone who thinks like and talks like, maybe the Kremlin wants.  They`re not necessarily directed but they just naturally do it, and they would be called a fellow traveler.

So what the Kremlin does is they go and they identified people that are saying things that are what they want Americans to hear and they help elevate them.  And that`s really the scenario we have right now.  Agents of influence, you could say that probably about President Trump in many contexts.  This is his foreign policy or Congresswoman Gabbard in many of her statements that she`s made recently.

WILLIAMS:  Well, let`s take it out of personalities, because that`s what we have Twitter for.  And let`s just say that a lot of people who aren`t in on the debate about Tulsi Gabbard.  Look at her resume and say she`s a major in the Army Reserves.  She is a foreign war veteran.  It couldn`t be?

WATTS:  Right.  So in terms of influence, she`s also, though, someone who met with President Bashar al-Assad, has taken his position about the war there, has denied the U.S. Intelligence Committee at times about the use of chemical weapons, something that not just U.S. Intelligence, foreign organizations and think tanks have also confirmed.

She`s also spoken out recently and said that President Trump is backing al- Qaeda, which is also untrue.  So-- and also quite strange because as an officer, that would be your commander-in-chief when you`re on active duty in the military.  So these are all very strange positions, but it`s also what Russia wants Americans particularly in the political left to hear, that populist push against establishment candidates that are known to be resistant towards Russia.  And you have an army officer that is shaming America for its wars and saying that we should withdraw from the world essentially and come back to the U.S.  There`s no better spokesman for what Russia views as their views in the United States, and that person is naturally saying that.

WILLIAMS:  As I always try to mention because I find it so impressive, you are yourself a west pointer.  Our lead story tonight has to do with Ambassador Taylor.

WATTS:  Right.

WILLIAMS:  Class of 1969 when so many of them knew they were heading into the meat grinder overseas.  Talk about why we list that appropriately as such a positive on someone`s past and resume.  Why are west pointers different by design?

WATTS:  Yeah.  Well, it`s also a fascinating battle right now.  You have Secretary Pompeo, who is a West Point Grad, who is Secretary of State.  You have Ambassador Taylor who is a West Point Grad.  They seem to have very different views in terms of the conduct of foreign policy.

WILLIAMS:  We have segment about that coming up.

WATTS:  But when you look at Taylor and his experience, it`s not only service in the military in two historic units, he served 82nd Airborne Division, he also served in Afghanistan as a diplomat, Iraq as a diplomat, specially selected essentially to take on this mission in Ukraine.

WILLIAMS:  He doesn`t scare easily.

WATTS:  He`s going to scare.  He is somebody you can count on and he`s going to deliver on his promises when he`s overseas and he`s also going to shoot to you straight when you`re back here at the headquarters in D.C.  And so I think it`s another example of where occasionally we get the right person at the right time and the right position.  And I think he`s a remarkable example, particularly today.

WILLIAMS:  Clint Watts, proud product of the U.S. Military Academy, thank you as always.

WATTS:  Thank you.

WILLIAMS:  Appreciate it.

Coming up, we will hear the reporting from Richard Engel on who won today in the Middle East.


WILLIAMS:  The ceasefire in Syria has only been over for nine hours and already the leaders of Turkey and Russia met today to strike a deal.  Here now a portion of the reporting from there today from our Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, who does not mince words.


RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT:  Russia`s Vladimir Putin tonight became the new kingmaker in Syria as he and Turkey`s President Erdogan carved up the country between them.  Announcing from tomorrow a large swath of land in northern Syria will be cut in half.  Russia`s ally, the Syrian government in charge of the other.  This had been the Kurdish homeland until President Trump effectively allowed Turkey to invade it and then let the fighting continue.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  And I say and some people thought it was a great analogy, some people not, but it`s like two kids on a playground, they fight, you let them fight for a minute and then you pull them apart.

ENGEL:  But these are not kids and this is no playground.  As Kurds bury their dead today, many believe they`ve also lost the right to live in northern Syria.  Kurdish towns are already abandoned.  Everything is shuttered.  Everyone is gone.


WILLIAMS:  Richard Engel on the sad state of affairs there tonight in Syria.

This was Trump just tonight.  "Good news seems to be happening with respect to Turkey, Syria and the Middle East.  Further reports to come later."

Another break for us, and coming up, it`s a small college on the Hudson River, better fortified than most.  And two of its graduates are in the news tonight at the same time.


WILLIAMS:  Last thing before we go tonight.  We noticed this from retired Three-Star U.S. Army General Mark Hertling, West Point class of `75.  He writes, "The lives and careers of two West Point graduates, Ambassador Bill Taylor, `69, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, `86, would make for an interesting story of contrast for any inquiring journalist."

Well, the General has a point there.  Let`s start with Taylor.  The West Point class that graduated during his freshman year lost 30 guys in Vietnam.  If you went into West Point in the `60s, you knew there was a good chance you were going to get your ticket punched for Southeast Asia.

Ambassador Taylor went and he served in Vietnam.  He survived that, came home, and served some more, including war zones for a total of 50 years.

Now to Pompeo, after graduating first in his class, a colossal feat at any of our military academies, he served with distinction.  He was in Armored Warfare, for a time was a tank commander, mostly in Europe in peace time.  He retired at the rank of captain.

Again, it was the West Pointer Pompeo who called the West Pointer, Taylor out of retirement to serve in the Trump administration.

Now life and fate have placed these two USMA Grads at opposite ends of the same story.  They now have an equal hand in how the story of the Trump presidency will be told.  That`s our broadcast for tonight.  Thank you so much 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