CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Ari.
ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chuck. We have a lot. I will talk to you soon. We begin THE BEAT with breaking news.
New bombshell testimony in the impeachment probe out tonight, the key Trump ally telling Congress - listen closely, there was a bribery plot and also telling Congress there was a bribery quid pro quo and also telling Congress U.S. funds - taxpayer dollars were withheld from Ukraine to get the political investigation that Donald Trump wanted.
We stop right here. If you`re thinking this sounds like a turning point. It is. And that`s as much about the who as the what, because this damning breaking news bombshell testimony against Trump that I`m telling you about is coming tonight from a Trump loyalists or at least he was it loyalist in the eyes of everyone at the White House until today.
Trump Ambassador Gordon Sondland. He is a Trump donor who has been defending Donald Trump and echoing denials even after the impeachment probe launched. Now Sondland, rattling Trump world, striking at the heart of Trump`s impeachment defense. And that`s not all. This is a very simple and damning development for Trump tonight. And I`m about to show you a few simple highlights from the new testimony.
But before we even do that, here is the incriminating context, and this is something anybody can understand, even somebody with an open mind about whether or not Trump did a bribery plot.
Mr. Sondland is not just pointing a finger at the White House right now. He`s doing so in the guiltiest possible way, by walking back and revising his past testimony that was initially more friendly to Trump.
Democratic investigators are already saying this shows a consciousness of a cover-up, because Sondland is changing or reversing the past testimony that was defending Trump. Where he played down why the crucial money for Ukraine was ever frozen, something that, as we reported at the time, was contradicted by other insiders. Democrats pressing Sondland on potential perjury for those very claims.
Perjury to Congress is no joke. Today another Trump aide right now Roger Stone is starting his own criminal trial for the same thing, for lying to Congress. So how does a diplomat change his story under these conditions? By suddenly remembering and recalling things.
In this new testimony out for the first time today, Sondland says some version of I now recall eight different times, in order to change the story about the core of this impeachment case. Saying he now recalls bribery, and he now recalls the plotting and the scheming and the detailed financial pressure put on Ukraine in the bribery plot. So that`s the context.
Now to a simple highlights for you, brand new. Sondland testifying he told Ukraine they would get no U.S. aid without the investigations that Trump wanted. OK, right there that is Trump`s point person confirming the way Trump sought this bribe. He wanted something from Ukraine, the Biden probe.
He wasn`t giving them that U.S. aid unless they bribed Trump with the probe to help his reelection. So that`s Trump current ambassador lying this details under the oath. And not only was this Ukraine money held back, but the Trump folks wanted this whole investigative storm they were they were cooking up to hit Joe Biden in public and box him Ukraine into the plans.
Sondland now telling Congress Trump, "He wanted it public." OK. Two more simple things. When asked what he thought about asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, this whole bribery plot that Sondland was working on, he now testifies he thought it was, "Improper and he assumed it was illegal." That is not good. That is all new tonight.
Now, Sondland also revealed now details of a key call that he had with Trump in September in the midst of all of this and those text messages. So we are getting this as new. He says Trump was in a very bad mood and it was a very quick conversation. Sondland asking him, "what do you want from Ukraine?" And Trump replies, according to Sondland, "I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky, the Ukraine leader, to do the right thing," Sondland says.
And then Sondland, who is the point person here, asked the President to clarify what that means, and Trump adds, according to Sondland, "I want him to do what he ran on. And then it was almost like he hung up on me, Sondland says, how quickly that call ended.
Everything I just reported to you is new. This is the core of the bribery quid pro quo case against President Trump. Now it has new details on the bone and it`s coming in under oath. And this case I`m reporting to you against Trump was just delivered to the impeachment probe by someone who as of tonight still works for President Trump.
I turn now to former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance and John Flannery as well as Emily Bazelon, from "The New York Times" magazine. Good evening to all of you.
JOHN FLANNERY, FORMAL FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Good evening.
MELBER: John, this--
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Hi, Ari.
MELBER: John this sounds like very damning testimony from maybe one of the worst people with the closest hands and action on the bribery plot for the Trump White House.
FLANNERY: Right. It does. It it`s an important piece of corroboration for the others that it seemed to me come forward unblemished and talking in full voice about what happened. I have the feeling from this that - reading his statement that he`s still a reluctant declarant, if you will.
He has to - be in his statement he says he had the - he had his recollection refreshed and so forth. But he comes to the table and he makes very dramatic statements nonetheless. He admits to the quid pro quo. He admits to a conversation that he had with the President in October before he testified, although he minimizes what the content of that was.
But the most significant thing is going to the question we all say quid pro quo, the bribe.
FLANNERY: The exchange for the President`s need to have something happen while he withholds the money that is necessary to the defense--
MELBER: And this John is where we`ve seen a lot of movement back and forth. But this is the very simple part. Trump says give me the attack and probe on Biden and I`ll give you the money, and if you don`t, I won`t give you the money.
And so returning to the shortest quote in all this that I mentioned to lead, John, I told Ukraine no U.S. aid without the investigation Trump wanted.
FLANNERY: Right. Well and you have the text messages that corroborate what he`s saying now, which suggests that the statement was going to be dependent upon - well, the statement was going to determine what we would do.
And I think they were rightly anxious in Ukraine that they would make the statement and then Trump would walk away from his promise and he would have it both ways and he would for Russia expose Ukraine to the possible danger without the funds to defend itself for the Javelin missiles, one of the things.
MELBER: So Joyce is this an admission of the bribery plot?
VANCE: I don`t think that Congressional investigators had to have Ambassador Sondland`s testimony to make the bribery case. It`s very clear from a number of witnesses. But what this does is it deprives the President of the one witness that he was relying on to counteract all of those witnesses who had come forward Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador Yovanovitch.
And this is pretty spectacular, the way it happened, because we know now that what happened with Sondland was he blinked. He got right up to the moment where his testimony was going to be released. He realized he had perjured himself. He walked it back. Everyone can understand what happens here. This is as easy to comprehend as the bribery charges themselves are.
MELBER: Yes, Joyce, you`re hitting on that other point, which is, as I mentioned, a real thing. Roger Stone, in fairness to him, was not ultimately charged with an election conspiracy or colluding with the Russians. But federal prosecutors viewed his lies to Congress as enough among other things to bring him into court in a trial that starts today and we`ll get to later in the hour.
Your view then is that Sondland, who is relatively new to all of this and was being very loyal and spinning for Trump as recently as the past few weeks saw that others contradicted him in a way that he, you think, was worried about perjury?
VANCE: He has to have been worried about perjury, that`s what`s written all over this statement. I think this "I can now recall" is the new version of "I don`t remember" that we`ve seen so many witnesses use during the Mueller investigation and in other settings. He had to recall. He told investigators what he knew they already knew in order to save himself.
MELBER: Emily, let me read to you some other parts that I haven`t gotten to yet, that are also new obviously. We got a lot of new information here where he talks about the role that Giuliani played. That Giuliani proposed language "Negotiating a public statement to get that Biden probe - the Burisma 2016." And that language was, "Being proposed by Giuliani."
Emily, how important is this that they`re not only getting different people appearing to admit this, but really showing everyone in real-time who was writing what. And that Giuliani we`ve heard the shadow foreign policy a lot. He also apparently is a ghost writing announcements from Ukraine.
EMILY BAZELON, THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE STAFF WRITER: Right. So you see Giuliani in the middle of this and Sondland, who is supposed to be our Ambassador to the European Union is the kind of in between middleman between the irregular shadow diplomacy channel that Giuliani is operating on and then our State Department, our regular government.
He`s in this bridge position. And this is a guy who made his money operating hotels. He was a Trump donor. He didn`t have diplomatic experience. And he was in a very tricky role, which is now proving to be quite precarious.
MELBER: Yes. Here is how top Republican Mark Meadows views it, saying, "Look, even with everything that`s come out, Giuliani`s role is fine." Take look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MARK MEADOWS (R-NC): Rudy Giuliani had a critical task of defending the President of the United States against allegations, and some of those that have a Ukrainian nexus. His role as a private attorney to defend the President against some of the 2016 election interference allegations both for and against are certainly something that a private attorney should do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FLANNERY: Well, that`s a fantasyland statement if you ever heard one, particularly given everything we know. And one of the interesting things about Sondland doing this is, he was the defense that Trump himself chose. Well, the text message in which he says the President reported to me no quid pro quo, and then that`s all now evaporated. And then here we have him testifying to the quid pro quo in that brief amended statement.
MELBER: Yes. Let`s dig on that, John. Because do you find that in and of itself suspicious? I mean, just watching this, I`m pretty fascinated because this is Trump`s guy and he`s now dishing on the call.
MELBER: That call was supposed to in Trump`s mind apparently remain secret. And he`s giving what sounds like a criminal defense. It doesn`t even sound like they`re doing diplomacy and talking about plans, whoever may be carrying them out.
It`s like he`s calling him and saying, no, it wasn`t vehicular manslaughter. And you`re like, I`m sorry, I thought we were talking about the directions. I mean, there`s something very suspicious just about the way that Trump speaks to Sondland and he is now saying to the impeachment investigators, look, I tried to get a straight answer and what I got was this no bribery defense, which isn`t really typically how Presidents talk about achieving lawful foreign policy goals.
FLANNERY: Well, I get the feeling from even the updated version what that conversation was. Well, you just tell him there`s no quid pro quo and he knew better than that when he communicated that back, he being Sondland. And everything else that he said tells us he had to know about it.
And the question about what did he recall and when, his statement is, "I had my recollection refreshed," which I think is an effort to avoid the perjury of the nature that would come under the federal statute that doesn`t really allow you to recant very easily. There`s a second Section 1623 that allows you to do that.
But this particular section he would come under required some sort of gymnastics and he did that. But we still have problems about the July 10th meeting, what he said, knew and what really happened and there are witnesses who contradict him. So I think he`s put himself in a precarious position.
And I originally said when they were talking about the witnesses, that I couldn`t imagine putting Sondland in that position given the messages we already had from him. But he`s made himself useless to Trump as a witness in the trial in the Senate.
MELBER: Emily, your view on that?
BAZELON: Yes, I think that`s going to be a big problem going forward for President Trump. You`re going to see people continuing to defend him. There is an increasing gap between Trump`s claims that this phone call was perfect, that there`s nothing wrong.
And then the kind of illusions, the sort of shadowy way in which Sondland and others are reporting how Trump is talking, as if he doesn`t quite want to say what`s going on, a kind of wink, wink, nod nod. And that gap is going to be an increasing issue for the President and for his defenders.
MELBER: And, Joyce, finally, I have one more quote. We`ll try to go through it and they`re all pretty simple tonight. But this is Sondland also explaining the intricacy of they wanted Giuliani to get out of Ukraine. The public statement of these Biden probe would need to come, they said, directly from Zelensky. But it might have been written by Giuliani himself, Joyce?
VANCE: So this is absolutely incredible, this notion that Rudy Giuliani would write a statement for the president of a foreign country. They have abandoned any pretense here that what they`re concerned about is corruption in Ukraine. This was always about, it is about getting some sort of a benefit for the President in the upcoming presidential campaign. That`s the only thing that`s going on here.
MELBER: Yes. And the level of detail - it is really striking the level of detail in this new, to quote John Flannery, this refreshed testimony. Joyce, I want to thank you, as always. invaluable part of our coverage. John and Emily, I`ll be coming back to you on other pieces of this.
MELBER: Up ahead, we have a lot more on the bombshell news, including what it does to the Republican defense on the Hill. Also, in a different vein, a different impeachment nightmare for Trump as a Giuliani associating is linked to Ukraine and very upset now, apparently, at Donald Trump himself.
And then as promised, day one and there was already drama and incidents at the Roger Stone trial. We have a reporter who was inside the courtroom all day, giving us everything we need to know.
And then tonight later, a very special interview, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker on THE BEAT. We`re going to get into all of it. I`m Ari Melber. Stay with us.
MELBER: We are back with this bombshell breakthrough in the impeachment probe. A top diplomatic Trump loyalist reversing course and admitting a bribery plot with Ukraine. It`s a major development because Ambassador Sondland, as we`ve been reporting was handpicked by Trump, a donor to the 2016 campaign, and someone who went to bat for Trump on this very scandal.
He texted Trump`s defense in real-time. He claimed to Congress initially he didn`t think there was a bribe, so tonight`s news comes only after he faced new evidence and pressure for potential perjury. We`ve been covering how some Trump aides admit the whole bribery plot in public and claim it`s OK. Some call it going full Mulvaney.
This looks like a reverse Mulvaney - admit the plot after denying it, while Mulvaney claimed that whatever happened was fine. Sondland`s new testimony today said the Ukraine plot was improper and he assumed illegal.
So how do Trump`s republican allies and the rest of Congress deal with this? I want to bring in fresh and live from Capitol Hill, Jake Sherman from POLITICO, who`s been all over the story and John Flannery back with me.
Jake, first of all, this news comes amidst some new developments you`ve been reporting on that Republicans are trying to fortify their defense. What have you got?
JAKE SHERMAN, POLITICO SENIOR WRITER: Yes. So Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority leader, House Republican leader and close ally of Donald Trump is going to place Jim Jordan, the another close ally of the President, on the Intelligence Committee. And here`s why that`s significant.
First of all, we don`t really see many pinch hitters, so to speak, or substitutions on big committees like that in the middle of Congress for seemingly no reason. Sometimes there`s a vacancy and you need to fill it, but that`s not the case here. And the Intelligence Committee has basically become an impeachment committee, that`s how Republicans see it.
This is the center of gravity in this probe and Donald Trump and the House Republican leadership want some of their strongest allies, their strongest defenders of the President on that committee so we expect Jim Jordan--
MELBER: Let me ask you about that. You say strongest, other people on the democratic side have said, well, they`re just reaching for people that will defend anything.
MELBER: Put Jim Jordan as a spirited warrior in that context for us.
SHERMAN: Yes. Strongest, I mean most fervent, most firm and most up front in public. I don`t think - I`m not passing judgment on the character of what he`s saying.
SHERMAN: But he has been willing to take bullets - proverbial bullets for Donald Trump for a long time.
MELBER: Well, you know, Jake, if you want a good pinch hitter, they got to be willing to go to bat, right, I mean?
SHERMAN: Yes, that`s right. And listen, I think there are some people who believe that Devin Nunes has not been the task. That has been chatted about behind the scenes on Capitol Hill and Jordan is somebody who will go out there publicly and defend the President. Remember, this is going to move to a public phase very, very soon--
MELBER: So let me get you on that as well, as our ace on the Hill. You`re talking about the public phase. I want to play a little bit of recent, but perhaps now wildly out of date remarks by Lindsey Graham, because he previously was hanging his hat on the idea that either there wasn`t this bribery plot or it wouldn`t be provable.
Today, tonight, you have someone who`s literally still Trump`s ambassador corroborating it. Take a look at what we might call classic Lindsey Graham.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): If you`re looking for a circumstance where the President of the United States was threatening the Ukraine with cutting off aid unless they investigated his political opponent, you would be very disappointed. That does not exist.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Fact check, false. Evidence exists and that evidence now has been stacked. I`m going to go to you and then John. The evidence has been stacked from people that might be considered career or even critical of some of Donald Trump`s policies to now someone who`s loyal, Jake. How does that play out? I imagine we`re not going to hear that argument from a lot of republicans tonight.
SHERMAN: The argument you`re going to hear is that there was no statement from the Ukrainians at the end of the day and the aid was restored, so how could there be a quid pro quo? That`s what - I`ve been just on the phone with a lot of my Republican sources and that`s the line they have been firing back to me.
And they say, listen, how could there be a quid pro quo if the U.S. has restored this aid without that statement they were seeking.
FLANNERY: Yes, it`s the kind of Orwellian news speak we`ve gotten used to when the evidence is there and manifest and obvious. And it`s interesting to choose Lindsey Graham as an example as the point of the spear if you will. Because I first met him when he was coming to the Judiciary Committee and he was sort of dropped in there to prosecute the Clinton impeachment.
And he did that in the committee as actively as he could and he became one of the managers that went over to the Senate. And we`ve since seen what he said then contradicted by his positions now. So the best you can say is that he`s a flexible advocate.
But worse than that is, all of these members who are saying these things have seen the primary documents and the testimony. They know what they`re saying is false. That means they`re part of an obstruction. They`re no better than the lieutenants of the obstruction by the syndicate that comes out of the west wing.
MELBER: And that - to draw the point there, John, that`s what I think Gordon Sondland may have been worried about. Jake, on the Hill, last question with the little time we have, when will we see public hearings?
SHERMAN: It has to be this month, and that`s what democrats are now saying. But again, then we`re going to enter a real high-wire phase here where Republicans and Democrats both have significant risks, according to people in both parties. I mean, Republicans do run the risk of grasping at straws that they think, and they think they will have to create distractions to detract from what is now quite clear in testimony.
The big question for Democrats is who do they bring to Capitol Hill to testify? Who is up for it, and how many people can they get to Capitol Hill to testify publicly against a sitting President and it`s not entirely clear yet. There`s some names being batted back and forth, but this is a high pressure situation and historic situation so who they choose and how it plays out.
MELBER: A very busy evening unfolding here on Capitol Hill and in the legal part of all of this. So I appreciate both of you making time for us. Jake and John, thank you.
FLANNERY: Thank you.
MELBER: What does the bribery testimony mean for Trump and Giuliani? That when we`re back with Maya Wiley in 30 seconds.
MELBER: We are back right here with former federal prosecutor Maya Wiley. Nice to see you.
MAYA WILEY, FORMER COUNSEL TO MAYOR OF NEW YORK: Nice to see you. Civil --?
MELBER: Former civil prosecutor.
MELBER: What did I say?
WILEY: You said federal. I just like to be clear.
MELBER: You were a federal prosecutor.
WILEY: I was on the civil side.
MELBER: Civil side and a former counselor to the mayor.
MELBER: So a lot of experience here on law and law that affects government officials. Big picture, because I`ve been discussing it with people, how big is it to have a witness like Sondland come out?
WILEY: Pretty dang big, that`s my legal opinion.
MELBER: That`s your legal opinion. And he is basically saying not just, "oh, there was a plot, but here`s the detailed ways we did it." I want to read from this for your analysis. You have him coming out today and then you have Kurt Volker as well. We haven`t hit this once yet this hour, he`s the other testimony that comes out.
He says, "We have a conversation with Rudy to say Ukrainians are looking at this." Rudy says, "But it doesn`t say the Biden company, Burisma, and it doesn`t say 2016, it`s not credible."
And Volker explains to Congress, new today, what you`re saying is at the ending of the same statement insert the Biden company, Burisma, and that should be more credible and Giuliani says yes. What does that mean there in plain English?
WILEY: What that means in plain English is that Rudy Giuliani is actively instructing public servants whose job is to serve the national security interests of the united states to essentially demand something of value, something that is important to Donald Trump in his personal capacity not as President of the United States of America.
MELBER: Yes. And so this is something as we`ve been reporting out as it hits the Hill. There are a lot more Senate Republicans who don`t really want to talk about this in contrast to what we`ve seen with some of this - what I call the stunting or the stunts in the House.
But Senator McConnell was back out today, and I want to play this, Mitch McConnell. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): I`m pretty sure how it`s likely to end if it were today. I don`t think there`s any question it would not lead to a removal. So the question is, is how long does the Senate want to take? I`d be surprised if it didn`t end the way the two previous ones did with the President not being removed from office.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: If there is a Senate trial, Mitch McConnell will sort of be the foreman of the Senate, but a very powerful one. What do you think he`s doing there?
WILEY: Well, I`d read that as I`m telling you my Republican Senate delegation the way I`m seeing this, which is I don`t want you panicking, I don`t want you saying this is something that somehow shifts our strategy. We are not there yet.
Now that doesn`t mean he`s wrong, right? We know that they have had meetings. We know that they have talked about, what a trial might look like. There`s been news reporting on that. But they really haven`t figured out what`s coming their way.
We have Lindsey Graham refusing to read the transcripts, right? He`s literally saying I`m just going to bury my head in the sand and shirk my responsibilities as a senator, which is on one level a way of saying I don`t think there`s anything to see here to the public, but it`s another way of also saying I don`t really have anything to say to this right now.
So I think it`s pretty premature to say where the Senate will ending up.
MELBER: Well, you say that about the willful ignorance is strike - I mean, Lindsey Graham is doing a reverse Notorious B.I.G., and saying if you don`t know, now you don`t know.
WILEY: Now you know.
MELBER: You don`t, because he doesn`t want to know.
WILEY: Except he does know.
MELBER: But he doesn`t want to know.
WILEY: He doesn`t want to know. The reality is, even if he hasn`t read the transcripts, like any American who hasn`t read the transcripts, we have heard in the news reporting, including from you, Ari, exactly what they tell us.
MELBER: Exactly. Last question, "The New York Times" reporting the President signed off on John Dowd being the lawyer for the indicted Giuliani associate. Is that normal?
WILEY: That`s interesting.
MELBER: That`s weird.
WILEY: Its weird.
MELBER: Because, first of all, unless you have a direct conflict, in which case you might get a waiver of the conflict - he - John Dowd was no longer representing the President.
WILEY: So this was totally political and you`ve got to wonder what other conversations were held.
MELBER: A very striking thing. We`re going to dig more into that. Maya Wiley, I thank you as always for being here.
Still to come, we`re going to break down the web of legal relationships in the Ukraine scandal and a billionaire you need to hear more about. And day one of the Roger Stone trial did not go as planned. We have that news tonight.
MELBER: Rudy Giuliani is back in the news, continuing to conduct a shadow foreign policy agenda with Ukraine. A reminder that while Giuliani says he`s Trump`s lawyer, he`s actually in the most trouble for things that have very little to do with practicing law.
And that brings us to our special report tonight, the growing web of legal relationships amidst these allegations of illegal actions in the Ukraine scandal, Giuliani, of course, at the center of it all for his attempted diplomacy, not lawyering.
And take a look, he was paid $0.5 million by these Ukrainian businessmen, Fruman and Parnas who have been indicted. But Giuliani is not their lawyer for those charges. At one time both were defended by Giuliani`s co-counsel, who defended Donald Trump in the Mueller probe. He is over there on the left. You see John Dowd. In fact, Dowd is still Fruman`s lawyer.
And now those defendants claim their proximity to Trump aides basically should give them some kind of Trump powers. This is a farfetched claim of executive privilege. And those Ukrainians that you see are the client employing two Trump lawyers.
Now look at a much richer client. This Ukrainian billionaire oligarch Dymitro Firtash, a key figure linked to the Russian mob. That`s according to allegations from U.S. prosecutors. And he`s wanted for extradition to the U.S.
Firtash has now hired another pair of lawyers known for making Trump`s case. Two Fox News analysts, you see right there, who advocate for Trump on air and who he tried to hire as his Mueller lawyers at one point.
So take that right there. That`s two Trump lawyers for the Mueller probe working for indicting Ukrainians and two Trump friendly lawyers working for this wanted oligarch. And then it really interesting, because they are the lawyers for the conservative writer at the center of the Ukraine plot, John Solomon.
He was literally pushing the Ukraine scandal before there was one. Before the Trump call, before the Ukraine money was frozen. Here he was on Fox News in March arguing that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, he said, to benefit Clinton.
And now that very segment pushing the so-called CrowdStrike conspiracy, out of the blue, gets tweeted out by none other than Donald Trump. And if that wasn`t enough, Solomon appeared in that same Fox News segment with those lawyers he was paying at the time, who now represent the Ukrainian oligarch with these Russian mob ties, pushing for the ousting of the U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine. This is all now a focus of the impeachment inquiry.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN SOLOMON, THE HILL EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT: The Ukrainian officials leaked Paul Manafort`s financial records to try to sway the U.S. election.
JOE DIGENOVA. FORMER US ATTORNEY: But now we know that the Ukrainian officials were deeply involved in trying to help Hillary Clinton through this, and we also now know that the current United States Ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, has bad mouthed the President of the United States. This woman needs to be called home to the United States.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Oh, immediately.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Lawyers talking. I`m joined by former Watergate prosecutor, Nick Akerman. Thanks for being here.
NICK AKERMAN, FORMER ASSISTANT SPECIAL WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: I`m great to be here.
MELBER: We have the web, just walked through some of it. And for anyone who missed any part of it, we`re going to take it piece by piece. That was a March Fox News appearance we saw there.
What is the significance in your view that these people aren`t just writers or public speakers, - and I`d be the first to defend their right to say what they want - but all these legal links between them?
AKERMAN: No, this is all part of this conspiracy to try and bolster Donald Trump`s effort to get the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden, that`s what this is all about.
I mean if you take that first clump of lawyers there between Dowd and Giuliani and their two buddies, Parnas and Fruman. I mean, what that reflects is that old legal adage that came out of "The Godfather." When Don Corleone told Michael keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer.
The idea behind this is you don`t want your friends going and ratting you out to the feds. You don`t want them turning state`s evidence and joining the chorus up on Capitol Hill and singing about the Ukraine--
MELBER: And it`s also about the foreign money, because Mr. Firtash is a name that people are learning in the Ukraine scandal. He`s hired these Fox News analysts, that`s one link away from Solomon, who we just showed that.
But he`s also hired - we`ll put this up here, Lanny Davis, who represents Michael Cohen.
AKERMAN: So you`ve got a couple of things going on here that are curious. One is this representation between Solomon and the two Fox News lawyers and almost Trump lawyers at one point, I mean we have no reason to believe that Solomon is under investigation or that he needs these two people to represent him.
I mean, in fact, he shows up on TV. They`re all in the same place. I mean to me this appears to be just trying to use attorney/client privilege as a way to basically take information that starts with Donald Trump. Giuliani goes over to Firtash and down to these lawyers and then to Solomon who then winds up publishing it. If he`s ever asked where he got the information - attorney/client privilege.
MELBER: So you think it might be an abuse of these privileges?
AKERMAN: That`s right. And if it ever came to it - I mean, if he ever had to go before a judge, if he was ever questioned before a House Committee and say where did you get this information and the House Committee pushed him and he refused and he said attorney/client privilege, a judge would have the right in camera to determine whether or not there really was a privilege here.
MELBER: And Mueller was able to bring lawyers in and force them to testify, which is controversial, but he had enough proof to break through to that. He also charged a lawyer, Michael Cohen is a lawyer. Being a lawyer, as I think everyone is being reminded, doesn`t mean you are above the law. It just means you have some extra privileges if you don`t abuse them.
On the Giuliani piece, I want to play for you the way he`s touted it. Because here is someone, as we`ve discussed, he does business with these two Ukrainian-linked individuals who then have criminal defense by John Dowd.
But Giuliani hasn`t been, shall we say, shy about this. He says his links to the President are a good reason to hire him. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP`S ATTORNEY: And I think I offer - what I offer to this is something unique. I`m a lawyer who knows the criminal justice system as well as anybody in America. I`m also a very good friend of Donald Trump.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Is there something wrong with him touting the relationship with Trump, while working allegedly pro bono and then getting paid by other people?
AKERMAN: Yes. I mean, this is the problem with this entire administration. This is not the Kennedy administration where John F. Kennedy said, ask not what you can do for your country - "What the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." This is all about these people lining their own pockets and using Donald Trump as a way to make lots of money.
The problem with Rudy Giuliani is the minute he left that mayor`s office, the minute he went out and - went to work in the private sector, I mean he was all about making money. He and Donald Trump are one of a kind. Their only concern is how can they line their own pockets. So that`s part of what Giuliani is doing here. I mean that`s clearly what`s going on with that relationship.
MELBER: Well, it`s quite a thicket, which is why we wanted to take some time and get some counsel from an experienced lawyer. Nick Akerman, always appreciate you being here, sir.
AKERMAN: Thank you.
MELBER: Coming up, the criminal trial of Roger Stone kicking off today with drama and a surprise. We have a report from inside the courtroom. And later tonight, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker making his debut on "The Beat," we`re talking Obama, civil rights, Malcolm X and a lot more.
MELBER: As the White House braces for a potential Senate trial of Donald Trump, today marks the first day of a trial for Trump`s longest serving advisor, Roger Stone, who was famously arrested by armed federal agents at his federal home in January in this footage that went viral because Stone himself released it.
The arrest came by agents acting under the authority of the Mueller probe at the time. Stone has been fighting those charges ever since, even arguing that this routine handcuffing and escorting him out of his home was a violation of his rights. No judge has agreed with that. Today stone walked into court for jury selection for this new trial where he faces charges for lying to congress, witness tampering and obstructing justice.
Now we turn to someone who was inside that very courtroom today, Political Reporter Darren Samuelsohn, thanks for joining me.
DARREN SAMUELSOHN, SENIOR REPORTER AT POLITICO: Good evening.
MELBER: Good evening. What did you see inside the courtroom today and what does it tell you about this trial?
SAMUELSOHN: Sure. Well, this morning got off to a pretty abrupt start. Roger Stone came into court and only about 20 minutes in after the first questions with one of the very first jurors, Roger Stone got up and he left with his wife, apparently very ill. He later told the judge that he had food poisoning and left after lunch and didn`t come back to the courthouse.
There was another rapid fire incident that happened right after Roger Stone left where a man in the back of the courtroom started moaning and convulsing and fell down and the whole courtroom was cleared out.
Apparently he had a seizure. Medical personnel showed up. Then he was taken out on a stretcher, but apparently walked out of this courthouse not too long after the incident happened. So a little bit of drama to start the opening moments of the Roger Stone trial.
MELBER: Yes. Several unusual incidents there. We wish everyone well. When you look at what we expect and the witness lists, I read from the reporting that Trump advisor Michael Caputo was in the courtroom today along with some others. Who do we expect to hear from as this unfolds?
SAMUELSOHN: Sure. Steve Bannon is probably the biggest name witness, the former Donald Trump campaign chairman. He`ll be coming in during the government prosecution part of this case, which will probably take place later this week or perhaps early next week.
Steve Bannon will be called on to testify about interactions between Roger Stone and the Donald Trump campaign and what he knew about the WikiLeaks document dumps and whether Roger Stone was coordinating in any way, shape or form with the Donald Trump campaign.
Looking forward to Steve Bannon`s testimony when he appeared before the Mueller grand jury, Roger Stone attacked him in print. This is back during the course of the Robert Mueller investigation, so that`s going to be very fascinating to watch as we--
MELBER: but let me ask you--
MELBER: Before I lose you Darren. Let me ask you, what do you see as the key for the Stone side in here? How can they argue that he basically was more performing or goofing than really trying to tamper?
SAMUELSOHN: I think that`s their total defense here is that they were - Roger Stone is an act and in the course of that act he was definitely trying to get the Democratic campaign to bite. And unfortunately he`s got to deal with the fact that he was called to testify before Congress and allegedly gave answers that were misleading, that didn`t give lawmakers what they were looking for.
It`s going to be real interesting to watch how that Roger Stone defense plays out. We really don`t know. Through the court filings that they have done over the course of the last nine, 10 months, they have largely been fighting over issues that the judge dismissed or said you can`t bring these up during the course of the case.
So I think the Roger Stone defense is really looking for one juror here ultimately to have reasonable doubt and to acquit him and get him off of these charges.
MELBER: Darren Samuelsohn, after a busy and long day inside that courtroom behind you, I appreciate you joining "The Beat." I bet we and others will be asking after you again as this unfolds. Thank you, Sir.
SAMUELSOHN: Thank you.
MELBER: Appreciate it. Up ahead, we have something very special on "The Beat." Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, we`re getting into Obama, Malcolm X and maybe something else special when we come back.
MELBER: We are on the roof with acclaimed actor Forest Whitaker known for everything from global blockbusters like "Black Panther" and "Star Wars: Rogue One", to complex dramas, such as "The Butler" and "The Last King of Scotland," which won Whitaker an Oscar for his performance as Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.
Whitaker stars as notorious mob boss "Bumpy Johnson" in the new Epix show the "Godfather of Harlem." Let`s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It`s been a long time, Joseph. Welcome back.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just because you come from sugar hill, don`t think you can play me.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard you got out, brother.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is it that you want from me?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is something I want you to see.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More heroin comes out of these project towers (ph) than other place in Harlem.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It wasn`t like this when I went away.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Setting down drug corners is the nation`s cause.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got guns.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got soldiers.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Forest Whitaker, thanks for being here.
FOREST WHITAKER, AMERICAN ACTOR: It`s great to be here.
MELBER: How do you approach this character playing this gangster?
WHITAKER: I mean, Bumpy Johnson was a notorious gangster or say godfather of Harlem, and so I got an opportunity to look at some of the records. Some of his criminal records, look at his poetry and try to look historically what`s going on. Because this piece kind of marries like criminal world with the civil rights movement and also the political system that`s going on in the country at the time.
MELBER: You are talking about history. We see this gangster and we see him as a law breaker. But the show also portrays him dealing with lawmakers, like Adam Clayton Powell, civil rights leaders. Why is that important in the story?
WHITAKER: I think it`s critical, because the piece is talking about trying to pursue the American dream, and the human rights issues that happened to stop you from being able to do that.
So like, I think, relationship between Bumpy Johnson and his friend Malcolm X is crucial to the piece, because we`re watching this sort of criminal underclass, which is Bumpy`s character and how it`s affecting the community itself.
MELBER: Now, I have been watching you, like a lot of people for a long time. Today meeting you for the first time is further proof of what a transformative actor you are, because you couldn`t be more different in person and more chill than some of your performances.
MELBER: You blew a lot of people away in the "Last King of Scotland." Let`s take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
IDI AMIN: I want you to tell me what to do.
NICHOLAS GARRIGAN: You want me to tell you what to do?
AMIN: Yes, you are my advisor. You are the only one I can trust in here. You should have told me not to throw the Asians out, in the first place.
Garrigan: I did!
AMIN: But you did not persuade me, Nicholas. You did not persuade me!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: What are you channeling there?
WHITAKER: I did so much research and work on that. I think I started like five or six months before. I even went to Africa like just learning, like he is what he leads, studying the history and trying to understand the politics of the day. And I got there and I did started meeting everyone I could, and his family, and ex-parliamentarians, just reporters, people on the street.
It became a long exploration of trying to understand this man and understand what he was being put through, too, in order to make him make some of the choices that he did, which were pretty horrific.
MELBER: I want to ask you about the way people react to you in pop culture, because you`ve gotten to this point where you`re kind of in that legend status. You may not see yourself that way, but other people do. Have you heard the Migos song Forest Whitaker?
WHITAKER: Yes. I think I like Migos--
MELBER: You like Migos? How did you first hear that song?
WHITAKER: The first time, I think I heard it was my daughter called me from school, and told me to play this song. And then I listened to it. It`s really pretty brilliant the way they, I think, took all these different films and things I`ve done and put them together in this amazing song. So I mean, they are - it was quite surprising, actually.
MELBER: Can i read you some of the Migos` lines?
WHITAKER: Yes, sure.
MELBER: You talking about gas, we having a forest came from the gump, no Forrest. Break in your safe house like Whitaker Who you talking` about? Forest Whitaker if you didn`t get the picture.
WHITAKER: I think that was - it was interesting, because like on the show - the show itself we - it was Swizz Beatz who did work on the music, on the sound track and he brought in all these different musicians and artists - Buddy, Savage - 21 Savage, Belly, you know, Rick Ross, DMX came up for that. So all these different artists - and I have great respect for what they`re doing, trying to do, so.
MELBER: In wrapping up, I`d like to do a little lightning round with you.
MELBER: So I will throw some names at you and you give me a word or a sentence or go longer if you have to.
MELBER: I will start easy. Bumpy Johnson.
WHITAKER: Crime lord.
MELBER: Malcolm X.
MELBER: Idi Amin.
MELBER: Barack Obama?
MELBER: Donald Trump.
WHITAKER: I don`t know if i can find quite the right words.
MELBER: And Forest Whitaker?
MELBER: I really appreciate you coming on "The Beat," sir.
That does it for me. I`ll see you back here tomorrow night 6:00 p.m. Eastern when we`ll have some special guests. But don`t go anywhere, "HARDBALL" with Chris Mathews is up next.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END