Justice Department under new scrutiny TRANSCRIPT: 2/14/20, The 11th Hour W/ Brian Williams

Guests: Susan Page, Philip Rucker, Josh Gerstein, Frank Figliuzzi, Errin Haines, Fred Kaplan, Doris Kearns Goodwin

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: And he got tweeted out by the President a day after saying the President tweet`s made it impossible for him to do his job.

And Barr is still making news ordering a fresh and an unusual outside investigation into the case of Michael Flynn. And we learned today the Justice Department has dropped its case against Andrew McCabe.

And the first ballots in the first western presidential contest get filled out just hours from now but fair warning, Nevada may be way more like Iowa than a lot of Democrats care to admit. All of it as this valentine`s night edition of "The 11th Hour" gets underway.

Well good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 1,121 of the Trump administration. That leaves 263 days to go until the 2020 election. Two other quick numbers here tonight. The President is at Mar-a-Lago for the 29th time as president, his 175th day there as president.

Back home in Washington, another fairly explosive day at the usually quiet Justice Department. And a second straight day of completely mixed signals, including what appears to be a slow rolling campaign to seize increasing amounts of control over politically charged cases. And they are numerous.

"The New York Times" was the first to report that Trump`s A.G. Bill Barr has tapped an outside prosecutor to, quote, "Scrutinize the criminal case against President Trump`s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Barr installed a handful of outside prosecutors broadly reviewing the handling of other politically sensitive national security cases. They go on to say over the past two weeks, the outside prosecutors have begun grilling line prosecutors in the D.C. office about various cases.

Well, you may recall that Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during Special Counsel Mueller`s investigation of ties between the Trump campaign and Russia and all those contexts. Earlier tonight, our senior Washington correspondent Andrea Mitchell explained to the audience why a review of this case is raising concern.


ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: This sets off all sorts of political alarms. First, former FBI officials say if there are concerns they should call in the inspector general, not a prosecutor. Second, Flynn now wants to withdraw his guilty plea saying the FBI surprised him. But former prosecutors say being surprised is no excuse for lying to the FBI. That`s a crime. Third, as with Roger Stone, the Justice Department overruled the prosecutors reducing Flynn`s proposed sentence from six months to probation. No jail time. This raises suspicions that even though the President has sole authority over pardons, he might be trying to make a case for a pardon for Flynn.


WILLIAMS: As that unfolds, "The Washington Post" is reporting feds in New York, the office we call the southern district of New York, has taken new steps into the investigation of the man who once ran the southern district of New York, Rudy Giuliani. Those new steps include apparently evidence and witnesses potentially against Rudy. Even as the main Justice Department in Washington reported days ago with a straight face they set up a mechanism to receive private citizen Giuliani`s information that he gathered in Ukraine.

Also tonight, Justice Department has dropped its case against former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe who was accused of lying to investigators about a leak to the media. The U.S. attorney`s office in Washington informed McCabe`s attorneys, quote, "The government has decided not to pursue criminal charges. We consider the matter closed".

McCabe opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump in 2017 after the President fired Comey. That launched the Russia inquiry. That also put McCabe and the FBI in the President`s cross hairs and McCabe has been trolled, threaten and attacked ever since.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: They should be looking at all these FBI guys who got fired and demoted.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should Andrew McCabe face charges for lying to the FBI?

TRUMP: I think he is a sick guy personally. Andrew McCabe, is a bad guy.

Andrew McCabe made a fool out of himself. He`s a -- I think he`s a disaster. And what he was trying to do is terrible and he was caught.


WILLIAMS: All of this is taking place while the President appears to be asserting his growing control over federal law enforcement. And as Attorney General Barr is speaking out about Trump`s habit of weighing in on all things Justice Department, yesterday Barr told ABC News the President`s Twitter habit was making a quote, impossible for him do his job and he suggested the President stop it.

Hours later of course, the President tweeted about Barr, quote, "The President has never asked me to do anything in a criminal case, A.G. Barr, this doesn`t mean I do not have as President the legal right to do so. I do. But if so far chosen not to. Barr who today marks one year on the job is under fire for his decision to reverse a sentencing recommendation for a convicted Trump ally Roger Stone. The decision was announced shortly after the President criticized the recommended federal sentence of seven to nine years.

Tonight, "The Washington Post" reports Roger Stone has requested a new trial. A day after Trump accused of jury forewoman of bias, interestingly, Barr tells ABC News, he was all for Stone`s prosecution.


WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I supported it. I think it was established, he was convicted of obstructing Congress and witness tampering. And I thought that was a righteous prosecution. And I was happy that he was convicted.


WILLIAMS: Nonetheless, there are at least nine Senate Democrats calling on Barr to resign. They`re accusing him of lying to Congress when during his confirmation hearing he pledged to keep the law enforcement process free from political influence. One former federal prosecutor and U.S. attorney who we have come to know says based on the past 24 hours, it is time for the A.G. to step down from office.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you`re Bill Barr and if you have gone on record telling the President to stop tweeting, and if you believe in the independent Justice Department, which Barr has gone on record as saying he believes in, then when the President`s response is to tweet and say he`ll meddle in criminal cases whenever he damn well pleases, your only move is to resign.


WILLIAMS: Here for our lead off discussion on this busy Friday night, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today", best now selling author who`s now at work on a biography of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Traveling with the President in a great state of Florida Philip Rucker, Pulitzer Prize winning, White House bureau chief for "The Washington Post", co-author along with Carol Leonnig of "The New Times" best selling book "A Very Stable Genius". And josh Gerstein senior legal affairs contributor for Politico.

Good evening and welcome to you all.

Susan, what do you think the Attorney General is up to? And do you remember a time that we were too young when the president appointed his own brother, who had never tried a case in court, when the assumption about DOJ was they were going to straight up endeavor to do the right thing in all cases?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: Yes. I mean, there have been times in the past during the Nixon administration as you say and the Kennedy administration but not in my time in Washington have we seen a situation like this where the President is asserting his right to meddle in any criminal cases that he wishes to do so and that we have an attorney general that seems to be publically -- if you take him at his word, publicly pleading with the President to stop weighing in on Twitter on the Justice Department issues.

There are -- there are all this mixed messages coming out of the Justice Department these days. And I guess it depends whether you think Bill Barr is sincere when he says he`s trying to keep things from being too politicized or if you take a more cynical view that he`s just trying to calm a storm that he has in his own building there with career prosecutors.

WILLIAMS: Well Josh, that brings us to your beat. It was just Tuesday, the four feds walked off the case, choosing to walk off the case, because again they can`t put out statements and call press conferences. This is their form of protest and warning. Then yesterday, the interview that Susan was referencing, people wanting to take an attorney general at his word, becoming the first sitting cabinet member to criticize the boss. What is going on inside the Department of Justice based on your reporting?

JOSH GERSTEIN, SR LEGAL AFFAIRS CONTRIBUTOR, POLITICO: Well Brian, the atmosphere and uproar is something that I`ve really only seen on a couple prior occasions during President Trump`s term in office. One would be the atmosphere, the feeling surrounding the firing of FBI director James Comey and the other would be on a couple days when it looked like Rod Rosenstein the deputy attorney general, who appointed special counsel Robert Mueller, was about to be fired by the President. In fact one day when he was in a car and we were told he was expecting to be asked for his resignation when he arrived at the White House.

But I think this is even more -- severe more pervasive and a bigger problem. Because it really has infected the line prosecutors, the front line people, the investigators who do the day to day work of the Justice Department. As disturbing as some of the other events were, you`re really talking about reshuffling the leadership of the Justice Department. And here after you had those four prosecutors withdraw from the Roger Stone case and one of them quit the government all together, it became clear that this has infected things all the way down to the ground level, to the nitty-gritty place where the rubber meets the road. And I think that`s why you saw the Attorney General come out yesterday and make the statements that he did. Because it became a crisis of confidence in him and the department as a whole.

WILLIAMS: Phil Rucker`s no dummy. We note that traveling with the President means, in this case you at least get a weekend in Florida. So Phil, what`s the viewpoint of those around this President traveling with the President just like yourself?

PHILIP RUCKER, WH BUREAU CHIEF, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, Brian, there`s so much swirling over the last few days involving the President and the Department of Justice. But one thing that is sure to get the President`s attention and perhaps stoke his wrath is the ending of essentially this investigation for Andy McCabe. the decision by the Justice Department announced today not to file any charges for the former deputy FBI director, McCabe has been enemy one or two for Trump now for more than a year. The President has firmly believed and has said so publically that he thinks McCabe should have been charged. He surely is not pleased with this decision.

My colleagues at "The Washington Post" reported that earlier today when that news was announced, the White House did not have a heads up and there was an effort underway in the Oval Office at the White House to calm the President, to control him, to urge him not to speak out about McCabe. (INAUDIBLE) the White House counsel rushed in to try to talk to the President right away about this McCabe decision.

We`ll see what the morning brings in terms of tweets from the President. But I`m sure he is none too pleased with the outcome here.

WILLIAMS: Hey Josh, for the charges the feds nicked Roger Stone on, I think, correct me if I`m wrong, the max is, like, 20 years, if they wanted to throw the book at him. In this case, they did what they always do. They looked at federal sentencing guidelines. They came back with an answer of a recommended sentence seven to nine years. President tweets calls it a miscarriage of justice. Bill Barr again with a straight face says, yes, I got involved. I took a look at it. Here is Andrew Weissman on how rare it would be for a sitting attorney general to do just what he did.


ANDREW WEISSMAN, FMR LEAD PROSECUTOR TO SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER: The Attorney General does not review sentencing submissions. That never happens. Everybody in the department knows that. To make it sound like he did, which is -- this is kind of a normal thing that I review them, no. He reviewed them in connection with two rich white men who are connected to the President. That is the only two. I would love to hear from the Attorney General, who else has he done this for?


WILLIAMS: So Josh, if first of all that`s saying a lot. Second, this cabinet agency you cover is easily the most process driven and ideally the most rigor driven branch of the government.

GERSTEIN: Right, Brian. And I think it could be up to 50 years that Roger Stone in theory could be sentenced to. But the thing that`s really troubling and what I would pick up from what Andy Weissman said is when he talked about rich white males. You have a Justice Department who under this attorney general Bill Barr and the previous one Jeff Sessions has gone out of its way to say they thought that the prior administration, the Obama administration had been too lenient with criminals particularly folks involved with drugs.

And if folks should have been receiving guideline sentences, meaning whatever the sentencing guidelines require. You shouldn`t deviate, you shouldn`t depart downward because they had a difficult upbringing. You should insist on those in almost every case. And so to come in a case involving, you know, the President`s long time confidant and say well, in this case, you know, we think maybe the sentencing guidelines are a little too much, it`s just an extraordinarily departure from the public rhetoric of this administration.

I think Bill Barr on Tuesday was out giving a speech to share where he said, we need to be super tough on criminals. And why, you know, the people of interest to the President are getting a special break is something that`s going to be very tough to explain.

WILLIAMS: Phil Rucker, in a normal west wing, in a normal political shop, the domestic policy adviser may come up with a policy initiative to pivot off of post-impeachment for a President. Is there any such mechanism, any such plan in the west wing you cover?

RUCKER: I mean, Brian, if there is, I`ve never -- I`ve not heard of it. What we see in this west wing, and it`s what we`ve seen for three years now, is a constant churn from crisis to crisis. And a President scrambling every day for survival. He is fixated on the news cycle, he`s fixated on what`s happening at the Department of Justice. If there`s a broad domestic legislative agenda underway, you know, the American people don`t really know about it. And the President is doing very little to promote that.

He is, we should point out, going to be in Daytona Beach over the weekend at the Daytona 500. There are reports that he may even take the motorcade on a lap of the racetrack. So he is fixated on campaign events like that and trying to promote his image more so I would say than legislating at this point.

WILLIAMS: It was Ronald Reagan who first learned to make the most politically of the Daytona 500.

Susan Page, you`re one of full disclosure, you`re one of two Susans we read with regularity around here. The other is Glasser who writes for "The New Yorker." And I quote from her to get your reaction. Although the President himself is unchanged, the context around him is very much altered. In the history of the Trump presidency, there will be a before impeachment and an after. Your view of that?

PAGE: Oh yes, I think so. I mean there have been some speculation about what would be the effect of the impeachment process. We were sure that President Trump was going to be acquitted by the Senate, but what would be effect on him? And there were some including Susan Collins who suggested he might be chasten, that he might have learned the lesson that is clearly not been the case.

President Trump is clearly been emboldened in the past week since he was acquitted by the Senate. We see that every day. We see that in his tweets, we see in what he`s doing now in these criminal cases. I think we`ll continue to see that. Do you think that Roger Stone is going to spend the day in jail between the Justice Department`s actions and the presidential pardon? I would be -- if I had a farm, I would not bet it on the idea that Roger Stone will actually spend a night in jail.

WILLIAMS: Well Josh, let me give you 30 seconds on this, because this judge is in a tough spot. And the chief judge yesterday put out a statement kind of covering her employees saying, this office is not affected by outside pressures.

GERSTEIN: Right. And remember, this sentencing, unless it`s deferred for some reason, is now basically less than a week away. It`s next Thursday. It`s supposed to take place. So the notion that this story will drop out of the headlines because the President is going to campaign rallies or something is just not going to happen. And there`s so many little wheels spinning here in terms of the reviews that Barr has started in the Flynn case and in other cases that it`s just hard to see this going away.

I think that Amy Burman Jackson the judge will probably give a fairly stiff sentence to Roger Stone. She didn`t seem to care for his behavior very much at all. So I think he`s looking at a tough time. But like Susan says, he may get a pardon very quickly after that.

WILLIAMS: Yes, the prospect of pardon just put everything in question. To Susan Page, to Philip Rucker, to Josh Gerstein, our thanks for joining us after the week we`ve all had late on a Friday night.

And coming up, a closer look at the decision to clear Andrew McCabe. A case one federal judge says was run like an inquiry in a banana republic.

And later what happens in Vegas and Nevada as a whole may reshape the Democratic race in its own way yet again. We have a preview for you tonight when we continue as "The 11th Hour" is just getting started on this Friday evening.



ANDREW MCCABE, FMR FBI DIRECTOR: I.G. referrals to U.S. attorneys offices are handled many times, a year and very quickly, typically they`re declined before the ink is dry on the I.G.`s report. This one they decided to spend two years thinking about. I`m sure a lot of that time was spent thinking about how frustrated the President would likely be when they came to the inevitable conclusion there was no case here. But that`s just a theory on my part.


WILLIAMS: There were some court transcripts released just today from a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. It`s how we learn a lot of what we learn about this government. And those transcripts reveal what one federal judge thought about Trump`s effect on Andrew McCabe`s case. This judge happened to be appointed to the federal bench by Bush `43. And he warned prosecutors back in September that whatever decision they made on charging McCabe would be tainted by the President`s comments on Andrew McCabe.

In a closed door meeting with prosecutors, the judge said, the public is listening to what`s going on and I don`t think people like the fact that you got somebody at the top basically trying to dictate whether somebody should be prosecuted. I think it`s a banana republic when we go down that road.

Back with us tonight is Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence.

Frank, you said I think on this broadcast and I think about a week ago that it was time for the DOJ to put up or shut up. They have chosen the latter. What do you make of this decision? And can Andrew McCabe go back to living his life?

FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FMR FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: Oh Andy won`t be able to live a life as he previously knew it. You can`t do that when you`ve been subject to this kind of witch hunt and hoax for two years and your family has been subjected to it. I used the terms witch hunt and hoax deliberately because as you know Brian, the President`s been claiming that he and his associates have been victims of a witch hunt and hoax.

But here`s the difference. In the witch hunt and hoax against Andrew McCabe, there`s no charges to bring. There`s no criminality there. In the alleged witch hunt and hoax against the President and people like Manafort and Flynn and Stone, we have an impeachment, we have convictions, we have two dozen Russians indicted. That`s the difference. There`s nothing to bring when it comes to Andy McCabe.

WILLIAMS: When you hear the reporting out of the White House, we talked about it on this broadcast last night, that the President is tired of finding never Trumpers throughout this government he has inherited and partially staffed, and it`s a whiff of kind of loyalty test as they go through the payroll. When you hear that, what are your thoughts regarding your beloved former bureau?

FIGLIUZZI: Yes, it`s so important for Americans to understand that the only thing that Department of Justice and FBI employees are loyal to is the constitution and the oath they took when they signed on to the job. So, you know, the President can continue to assert that there needs to be some loyalty to him or that people are partisan. He just doesn`t get it. That`s not why you sign up for the FBI or the Department of Justice. You sign up because you are about the rule of law. And the sooner the President can figure that out, the better off we all will be.

WILLIAMS: Skeptics in the audience looked at A.G. Barr`s remarks and the ABC News interview especially skeptics in the audience who are adept at surviving office politics, let`s say. And they came up with a scenario in their minds that Barr went to the boss and said look, I got to kick you around in an interview because I just have to because of this Roger Stone case at all. What was your take as a also a veteran of figuring out interpersonal communications?

FIGLIUZZI: Yes, I`m one of those skeptics on this ABC interview, Brian. Look, the attorney general has been disingenuous with us. I think he speaks with forked tongue. And here`s why. You laid it out earlier. There was a Freedom of Information Act request that was about to expose a federal judge saying, hey, this thing stinks to high heaven, you better bring charges on McCabe or move on because this looks like a banana republic. And then boom, all of a sudden, after four resignations at DOJ, we get Barr pushing back on tweets by the President.

And then we find out, Brian, we find out today there`s been secret use of U.S. attorneys, handpicked by this attorney general, to continue to investigate who? McCabe, Comey, Pete Strzok, all around the interview of Mike Flynn and the Flynn investigation. So people who think Barr has changed his stripes need to understand that simply hasn`t happened.

WILLIAMS: Frank Figliuzzi, thank you as always for joining us on the broadcast Frank and explaining this to us.

And coming up for us were a week out from the Nevada caucuses. We have new numbers tonight from the place where numbers are king, where fortunes are won and lost every day. A rare new political poll in a state that`s often very hard to figure out politically.


WILLIAMS: Early voting begins for Nevada`s Democratic caucus just a few hours from now. Voters there have until Tuesday to submit paper ballots before the actual caucuses get underway next Saturday. And wait until you hear the story of how they are going to be organized.

A new telephone opinion poll of Nevada likely caucus goers has Senator Bernie Sanders still leading the pack. Former V.P. Joe Biden second. Other Democratic contenders are neck and neck well within the margin of error. It`s been pointed out.

Back with us tonight is our friend Jonathan Allen, NBC News Senior Political Analyst, and our friend Errin Hayes, Veteran of the -- Haines, Veteran of the A.P., "The Washington Post", "The Los Angeles Times". She is now editor-at-large for "The 19th", a non-profit, non-partisan newsroom focused on gender, politics and policy that launches this summer. Errin, it`s great to see you. Jon, it`s great to see you.

Jon, since you`re here in New York, home field advantage. You wrote recently, Sanders is winning ugly. What on earth did you mean by that, my friend Jon.

JONATHAN ALLEN, NBC NEWS SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, we saw the first two contests. He got the most popular votes in Iowa. He got the most popular votes in a tie for delegates in New Hampshire. And in both cases, he got about 25 percent of the vote. He got wins, you know, in terms of the popular vote. But he`s not really getting a huge win there.

And particularly in New Hampshire, he basically won because Amy Klobuchar was able do well enough in third place to stop Pete Buttigieg from getting past Bernie Sanders. If Sanders wants to win the Democratic nomination, he`s going to have to do better than 25 percent wins. And the reason that I say that is, there are a lot of Democrats in the party, the establishment that is lined up and wants to prevent him from being the nominee.

In fact, some Democrats are so concerned about stopping him from taking over the party that at times it appears they are more concerned about that than winning the presidency. So in order to go into a convention and win, he can`t go in as the leader with something like 25 percent of the delegates or 30 percent of the delegates. He`s particularly going to have do better than that.

WILLIAMS: Erin Haynes, I want to -- I hope you can see a monitor where you are. I want to put two sets of South Carolina numbers up from the latest polling there. This is opinion poll of South Carolina Democrats going into their primary. You see one and two, Biden, Sanders. Next is African- American voters going in to South Carolina. Biden, Sanders, 36 percent, 20 percent. Errin, what do you make of the numbers and do you believe that these numbers, even though reflected in the latest poll, are on the move?

ERRIN HAINES, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, THE 19TH: I think that they are definitely on the move. And what you are seeing in that Biden/Sanders split with black voters, Sanders finally starting to kind of erode the black support that Joe Biden has had with black voters really for much of this primary cycle. That seems to be generational from voters that I`m hearing from on the ground in South Carolina. You have older black women who are really pretty still solidly with the former Vice-President.

And, frankly, he is making the case to them, like if you can get me out of this state, you know, I will deliver for you. And I think that they trust him and I think that they believe him and so they are ready to work for him in terms of getting that ground organization that he is going to need to, frankly, finish first, which I`m hearing from his campaign a lot that he needs to have a strong if not first place finish in South Carolina.

Bernie Sanders is somebody that younger black voters especially younger black women that I`m hearing from are open to his candidacy. He`s got the best ground game from what I understand in South Carolina right now. And that really marks a shift from 2016 when he didn`t do as well with black and brown voters. That was a problem for him. Hillary Clinton was able to capitalize on those folks in states like South Carolina and Super Tuesday states. And so, to the extent that Senator Sanders has learned those lessons from 2016 and is building that multi-racial coalition that he is going to need should he become the nominee, I think that South Carolina is really going to be the first test of that.

WILLIAMS: And Errin, another quick question. Steyer has been on the air in South Carolina for a long time. Of course now that we have two billionaires in this race. Is Steyer making any genuine inroads?

HAINES: Absolutely. A name that I do keep hearing come up is Tom Steyer in South Carolina. And that is because he has really been in that state up with radio ads, locally. You see him everywhere on television both local and national television in South Carolina. And so, he is really working very hard to familiarize himself with voters in the state there.

And what I hear is that, that effort feels much more like an investment than transactional, which is a word that I hear a lot when people talk about Mayor Mike Bloomberg, for example, and the way in which he is using his money to influence this election. The endorsements that is racked up for example especially with black mayors, the Columbia Mayor, Steve Benjamin, was one of the early endorsers of Mayor Bloomberg and the Houston mayor just endorsed Mayor Bloomberg today.

But, you know, well some people see that as -- or say -- they suggest that Mayor Bloomberg is buying black leadership, for example. I think it`s also important to point out that these, in a lot of cases, are longstanding relationships that Mayor Bloomberg has with these black mayors in terms of giving money through his philanthropic organizations to a lot of the cities that they govern and a lot of cases stepping in where the federal government didn`t to provide resources for those communities but also training in terms of governance that has been very valuable. So, you know, I think that both Mayor Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, the inroads that they`re able to make with black voters is going to be tested pretty soon.

WILLIAMS: Jon, do Bloomberg have a good week or a bad week?

ALLEN: I think he had a good week and that he was able to dominate a lot of the news coverage in a week where there was a primary that he didn`t participate in. I mean this was the shock and awe week of Mike Bloomberg jumping into the middle of a Democratic primary without being on the ballot, without being on the debate stage. And suddenly finding himself in third place in national polling after all these other people had been campaigning for about a year.

WILLIAMS: There is that. Yes.

ALLEN: But he is also now fending off, you know, a tremendous amount of bad press. He is defending himself against the stop-and-frisk policy and various other things. So, a mixed week for Mike Bloomberg, but absolutely a positive in terms of dominating coverage.

WILLIAMS: Our thanks to two of our friends. Our own Jonathan Allen and to Errin Haines, we wish you a lot of luck with the new gig. Great to see you again. Thanks for coming on.

And just ahead for us, how the President`s tough talk and proposed defense spending is resurrecting fears that a couple of American generations have already lived through when we come back.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.


WILLIAMS: President seems to have ditched his love affair with North Korea at least for now. Yesterday, The Atlantic published its interview with former Chief of Staff John Kelly from a college event in New Jersey, who said Trump`s efforts to use personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un were futile. As Kelly puts it, "I never did think Kim would do anything other than play us for a while", which he did, "and he did that fairly effectively".

But you wouldn`t know it based on Trump`s self-described expertise in nuclear arms control. In fact, the President has been touting this expertise on the issue since the 1980s.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The man who at the age of 39 is not content with being New York City`s latest real estate billionaire. Donald Trump has also ventured into gambling and professional football and says he could negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union.


WILLIAMS: The Holy Trinity gambling, professional football and nuclear arms disarmament.

A story we`re about to hear from our next guest. Fred Kaplan is back with us on the broadcast, happens to be national Security Columnist for Slate. But more importantly for the tonight, he happens to be the author of the new book, "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War". While it is not necessarily germane to your work, please tell us the Donald Trump story.

FRED KAPLAN, "THE BOMB", AUTHOR: It`s very germane. He was -- he is seriously lobbied to be George H.W. Bush`s arms negotiator. He was, you know, he was talking to people. He -- Bush nominated Richard Burt, veteran diplomat.


KAPLAN: He runs into Burt at a cocktail party in New York and says, hey, you`re the guy negotiating with the Russians, right? He goes and he goes -- and, you know, Trump had just written the best seller, "The Art of the Deal". She goes, hey, I`ve got a great idea how you can get a great deal from the Russians. He goes -- yes, what is he goes well.

First meeting with him, you show up late. And then you walk over to their side of the table. You pound your fist on the table and you say -- what he said, I -- this isn`t premium cable so I think it`s fu. And of course, Burt did not take his advice, negotiated a pretty good treaty within a couple of years by which time another one of Trumps businesses have gone bankrupt.

WILLIAMS: This -- The topic of your book, it strikes me has been used twice in world history in anger. And we kept it there.

KAPLAN: Right.

WILLIAMS: Is it to you akin to loosening norms that what we`re seeing right now in our society, that another generation is coming up having not known - -

KAPLAN: Right.

WILLIAMS: -- the sheer awesome force of this. Are we getting too casual in tossing about mentions of it, threats of its use?

KAPLAN: Casual is a word. Cavalier might be another that sums up Trump`s attitude toward this. The famous meeting that took place in the tank, the Joint Chiefs conference room in the Pentagon on July 20th, 2017, there have been books that describe your calling the generals pussies and, you know, weaklings and babies. Another thing that happened, he was shown a chart, a number of nuclear weapons over the ages. And the peak was 1969 when we had 32,000 nuclear weapons. We have not quite one-tenth that number now.

This was shown to show, you know, the value of treaty making and the new stability in the world and so forth, but that`s not how President Trump took it. He looked -- he pointed to the peak of that and goes, how come I can`t have as many nuclear weapons as we did back then. And they explained to him all the reasons and he seemed convinced.

But I was told about a week later in a meeting in the White House with the National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster and some others, he remembered this chart again. He goes, how come I can`t have as many nuclear weapons as other presidents have had? So, I mean with him, you know, this is why he loves a military parade too. It has nothing to do with what you need for legitimate national security games. It`s bigger, stronger looking, more. You know, he was upset that, you know, Richard Nixon had more nuclear weapons than he did, for no good reason.

WILLIAMS: Your closing quote. I`ll leave the audience with this. "Past is not precedence. Some incalculable mix of shrewdness and sheer luck has kept the holocaust at bay. Who knows how many wars we can dodge before an alignment of slow-wittedness and misfortune tips the balance the other way". That is why we chose to end this weekend this Friday night on an upbeat light topic, but we hope people --

KAPLAN: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: -- read the stories contained in the book. Fred Kaplan, the author here with us tonight. It is called, "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals and the Secret History of Nuclear War".

Speaking of presidents, coming up, a presidential historians comparison of our first ever commander in chief with our 45th.


WILLIAMS: The upcoming Presidents` Day weekend begins a heavily promoted mini-series that will tell the story of George Washington. It is billed as a look at the full arc of Washington`s journey from soldier to the first president of these United States.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Washington is, without question, the greatest hero and leader in American history, but he`s a stranger.

GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1ST U.S. PRESIDENT: I, George Washington, do solemnly swear.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People see him more as a monument than a person. But you can`t understand him unless you acknowledge that he was human.

WASHINGTON: That I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And when we understand the man behind the myth, it actually becomes empowering and inspiring for us.


WILLIAMS: Back with us tonight, Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian and author who has written bestsellers about both Roosevelts, Kennedys, LBJ, Lincoln for starters. Her latest work is "Leadership in Turbulent Times" here. She also happens to be executive producer of this three-part mini-series Washington about our nation`s first president, narrated by Jeff Daniels. It premieres Sunday night 8:00 p.m. Eastern on the History Channel.

Doris, first of all, it`s great to see you.


WILLIAMS: Secondly, what are we apt to learn? What`s a mass audience apt to learn about this guy that we haven`t been told in American folklore? And what will people`s minds do when they necessarily compare it to our times?

GOODWIN: I think the most important thing is what you said, it`s the arc of his life. So you see him as a young man. He makes mistake. He has losses, he suffers adversity. But the most important thing is his ability to grow.

He learns from his mistake. He surrounds himself with people, a team, almost the original team of rivals, people who can argue with him in the Continental Army and then people who can argue with him in the presidency. And he grows through them, and he understands his weaknesses and he understands his strengths.

WILLIAMS: In the break, I asked you about his physicality, his bearing, how he`s portrayed in the mini-series. Share with the folks what you said to me.

GOODWIN: Yes. There`s a funny part of it where Joe Ellis, the historian, is talking about the fact that Martha was a great catch for him because she was wealthy and she could bring him land. But he was a great catch for her because he was a stud. You know, I`m not sure we think of him. He was taller than most people. Women talked about how great -- gracefully he danced on the floor. Now he has a presence, he had a presence.

WILLIAMS: Also, it`s an era you`ve written about and studied. Life was so hard, not even -- by approaching it, today`s standards, we can`t imagine it. But all of them in Philadelphia, that hot summer, were wearing wool and wigs. And if they were lucky, would dine on hot mutton and kind of a lukewarm ale at the end of the day. It was not a life.

GOODWN: No, that`s really true. And then you think about escalating what you just described, when he said Valley Forge, and when he has to keep those soldiers alive, when the Russians are cut down, when they`re dying, one-fifth of them are dying. And yet he gives them a sense of purpose. And by the end of it, they`ve survived enough to continue on.

It`s hard to imagine, Martha came and visited him at that time, and yes, they lived -- and the great thing about it is that one of the historians talks about the fact. It`s -- no, it`s General Powell who talks about the fact that he saw war young. He`s in his first mission as a British officer, He`s 22 years old. He sees people dying. He sees the toughness of life. And after that, you never think of war as an adventure again. You never think of that romantically again. You`ve experienced war.

WILLIAMS: And of course, General Powell was a decorated combat veteran knows that all too well. What is your theory about does history find great men and women to step up and play in these roles? And/or do they grow to the occasion?

GOODWIN: I think they definitely grow to the occasion. I mean, one of the historianS says he was not born great. He took a journey to greatness. And I think if you saw him at the beginning, he`s making so many mistakes in those early days before the French and Indian War. And he screws up like human beings do. But what makes it possible is that they learn from that.

And then opportunity arises, and he happens to be there and he`s the right man at the right time in the right place. I mean, he could have been anything he wanted to. He could have been a king. The most amazing thing that he leaves to us is the peaceful transfer of power. After the war was won, most generals take control of the government.

He takes off his uniform, goes home and decides that this is it. And the King George III says, my God, if that`s true that he really did that, he gave up power, he`d be the greatest man in the world. And then he`s president for two terms. They want him to stay third, fourth. He could have stayed until he died, and he goes back home. So that`s a really important lesson for all of us that power can be transferred. He becomes a citizen again, and he`s not a king. He`s a president.

WILLIAMS: Put it this way. We had a choice of who to name our capital city after. I think by the end of part three, most viewers will come away thinking we got that part really right.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, loyal friend of this broadcast, always a pleasure to have you.

GOODWIN: Thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much. Congrats on this. This is a great thing.

Coming up for us, an unusual show and tell session as it played out in front of cameras today.


WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight is from an event at the White House today for the National Border Patrol Council. Big day for the President because he got to talk all about his wall and share photos. We`ll hit you up with some facts at the end of this, but here`s one to start with. The President wants to divert $4 billion of Pentagon spending to continue his project. And it looks like even Republicans may object to that. But for now, the President seems very proud of his project.


TRUMP: I don`t know if you can see this but it`s pretty impressive. These are different pictures, different shots. This is the wall going up. They`re working at night, as you can see. Either that or it`s an extremely dark day.

Here`s another shot. This is a shadow of a little different section. After it`s up, it gets spray-painted black. The black makes it extraordinarily hot, especially in areas along the Mexican border. It`s not known for cold weather. It`s known for quite hot weather.

The black absorbs the heat. So not only would you have to be a good climber, but you`re going to have to bring a hose with lots of water to water it down and there aren`t too many hoses in the area. Virtually impossible to climb over the top. Here`s another shot. But we got it built. And I made you a jobs a lot easier. Say, thank you, Mr. President.


WILLIAMS: Finally, and as promised, a fact check from the federal government. Border Protection put this out 20 days ago showing that as of last month, 99 miles of new wall have been constructed where an old existing barrier stood. There has been one mile of totally new wall construction along a section of the border where no barrier previously stood.

On that note, that is our broadcast for this Friday night as we bring another week to a close. Happy Valentine`s Day to all. Thank you for being here with us. Have a good weekend and 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