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MTP Daily, Transcript 5/16/2017

Guests: Matthew Continetti, Cornell Belcher, Anne Gearan, Michael Schmidt, Ken Dilanian, Michael Lieter, Jack Reed, Jim Jordan

CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST:  We`re only on day 116. 

NICOLE WALLACE, MSNBC HOST:  How has it only been 16 days since 100?  That`s what I`m grappling with. 

TODD:  Well, there you go, unbelievable.  Nice show.  Thank you.

WALLACE:  Thank you.

TODD:  We`re moving on.  If it`s Tuesday, is it ever OK for a president to reveal classified information?

Tonight, the fallout. 


H.R. MCMASTER, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR:  What I`m saying is, really, the premise of that article was false. 


TODD:  National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster says what President Trump told the Russians in that infamous meeting was wholly appropriate, and then points his finger at the press. 


MCMASTER:  I think national security is put at risk by this leak and leaks like this. 


TODD:  Plus, defining success, President Trump gives his characterization of that meeting. 


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  But we had a very, very successful meeting with the foreign minister of Russia. 


TODD:  And remember this? 


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WISCONSIN, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE:  She mishandled classified information and now she wants to be commander-in-chief.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA:  She inappropriately handled classified information. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Her extremely careless handling of classified information. 


TODD:  How do Republicans in Congress respond after blasting Hillary Clinton`s handling of classified material?

This is MTP DAILY and it starts right now. 

Good evening, I`m Chuck Todd here in Washington and welcome to MTP DAILY.

If you thought it couldn`t get stranger, it does.  We begin tonight with the question of intelligence.  Right now, the White House appears to be in full-scale crisis mode, something we`ve said numerous times, after "The Washington Post" latest bombshell report that President Trump shared highly-classified intelligence with the Russian government, sending some U.S. intelligence officials scrambling to assess the damage and try to contain it.

Today, the White House national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, aggressively tried to use his credibility to beat back the story.  See if you can spot his central argument. 


MCMASTER:  What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation. 

That conversation was wholly appropriate to the conversation.

Wholly appropriate with what the expectations are of our intelligence partners.

It`s wholly appropriate for the president to share whatever information he thinks is necessary to advance the security of the American people.

Which was wholly appropriate.

So, it was wholly appropriate what the threat was.

What was shared was wholly appropriate.

What the president shared was wholly appropriate, if he shares information in a way that is wholly appropriate.


TODD:  Well, OK, but the reaction from some government officials and even McMaster`s own words seem to actually undercut that central argument.

First off, a U.S. counter-terrorism official tells NBC News today that a damage assessment is likely getting underway after what happened which is arguably not consistent with an action that was, quote, "wholly appropriate."

Second, the White House`s own homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, thought it was so concerning that he notified the CIA and the NSA about what the president divulged.  And "The Washington Post" reports that one of Bossert`s subordinates wanted to scrub all of it from internal memos.

Third, we also heard from General McMaster today that the president`s decision to share this information with the Russians was a spur of the moment thing. 


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  When did he make that decision though, sir? 

MCMASTER:  When did he make the decision?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  When did he make the decision to share the information? 

MCMASTER:  He made the decision in the context of the - of the conversation. 


TODD:  But, folks, current and former officials tell NBC News there is an elaborate vetting process to sharing intelligence with the Russians to safeguard the sources, the methods and the flow of information.  Remember, this is Russia we`re talking about, not the U.K.

Here`s the fourth piece of evidence that this was not wholly appropriate.  McMaster said that President Trump helped protect the country by giving this kind of information to a foreign adversary.  But McMaster also seemed to argue that it`s a threat when we, the public, find out about it. 


MCMASTER:  There are national security that has been put at risk by those violating confidentiality and those releasing information to the press that could - that could be used -- connected with other information available to make American citizens and others more vulnerable. 


TODD:  Or to put it another way, the argument is it advances our national security to reveal highly-classified information to an adversary but it might threaten our national security to reveal that the president advanced our national security if you do that to the public.  Confused, aren`t you? 

Fifth, some U.S. allies are signaling they may withhold information because of what happened.  Three government officials confirmed to NBC News that Israel was the key partner here on the intelligence front who provided this ISA-related information that the president went on to share.

This comes after a January report, by the way, in Israeli media that U.S. intelligence sources were warning Israel against sharing secrets with the President Trump administration.  Israel, today, said they had full confidence in the intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States.

And, finally, sixth, there was the government`s response to "The Washington Post" as it went to print.  They asked the paper not to disclose what the president had apparently disclosed.

Folks, none of that seems consistent with something that was, quote, "wholly appropriate."

[17:05:03] Michael Lieter is NBC News National Security Analyst.  He was the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center and worked under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Mr. Lieter, good to see you. 


TODD:  OK, that`s the phrase there, it was wholly appropriate.  Now, the president has powers that no other person with class - with a classified -- with a clearance has.  Is that the only way you can make the case this was wholly appropriate is that he had supreme declassification authority? 

LIETER:  Well, it`s an interesting use of the word, appropriate.  And I think what H.R. McMaster really means is it was wholly legal.  There`s no doubt the president broke no laws in doing this.  And, as you said, the president is the one person in the U.S. government who, at a snap of a finger off the top of his head, can make something go from the most classified to unclassified and release it.

But that doesn`t mean it`s wise.  It doesn`t mean it`s the right thing to do.  And you only know that if you have a context of all the equities that the U.S. intelligence community has, the foreign intelligence organization, how the Russians might use that information.  That is how, taking all of that data and thinking about it deeply with people who know it, you figure out if it`s the right thing to do. 

TODD:  So, let`s take the most generous point -- argument here on the president`s behalf.  If Russia says they`re trying to get rid of ISIS, too.  They believe it`s a threat in some of - in some of their Muslim populations.  They`re concerned about it.

He`s sharing this information about the laptops.  Can you make an argument he is trying to maybe convince the Russians, will you stop with the Syria nonsense?  We`ve got a real threat here.

LIETER:  Well, first of all, there`s no doubt whatsoever that the president should try to get the Russians to help on ISIS.  I don`t think he`ll be successful in that, but that, I think, is a worthwhile goal. 

Second, there`s no doubt that we should have and we already have shared elements of this intelligence globally.  How have we done that?  We put in place public screening limitations, so the Russians know the basics of that.

The question then becomes, how much do you actually tell the Russians?  And you generally would want to stop well short of something that would disclose how we gathered the information.  And that`s where I think the president didn`t really know where the line probably was drawn. 

TODD:  You know, it`s interesting, last year, apparently, the Obama administration made an offer, essentially, if the Russians would back off their support for Assad.  They would actually share more intelligence.  I guess that offer is no longer offerable? 

LIETER:  Apparently, we`ve closed the deal --

TODD:  Yes.

LIETER:  -- we are now offering.  And, in fairness - I want to be fair to the president on this one.  He is new to this.  This is an arcane world of intelligence.  It`s not easy.  And that, then, requires really good staff work to train him and he needs to learn. 

TODD:  Who`s at fault here?  Is this the president`s inexperience and temperament or is this staffers that still don`t know how to work for him? 

LIETER:  Yes.  I don`t think there`s any doubt, if we look at the president`s previous comments on Twitter and elsewhere.  He speaks pretty rapidly without a lot of introspection and I think he probably did that here.

I think it also does come down to the staff, making sure he understands the sensitivities.  Whether he would listen, that`s a whole different matter.

But the reason this really becomes an issue, if this was the first time this happened, no one would have even noticed it.  There wouldn`t have been any leaks.  But it is the exclamation point at the end of a paragraph of 116-plus days of real animosity between the president and the national security organizations.  And that`s why this looks so bad to so many people.

TODD:  And why make it worse before it gets better?  All right, Michael Lieter, NBC News Analyst, long-time head of the Counter-Terrorism Center.  Thank you, sir. 

LIETER:  Great. 

TODD:  Good to have you back.

Joining me now, Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.  Senator Reed, welcome back to the show, sir. 


TODD:  I know you`re concerned about this but what is the next step?  What is beyond concern?  What safeguards do you want to hear from the White House that`ll make you less concerned? 

REED:  Well, first, we`d like to get ahold of the actual transcription if they had or first-hand account so that we know exactly what was said.  It appears, at this juncture, that those remarks were reckless, off the cuff, not responsible.  Don`t think the president understood the consequences of what he was talking about.

And he certainly didn`t seem to be a, sort of, following the guidance that his staff tried to give him.  And it reflects this impulsive, off-the-cuff attitude that he`s brought to so many statements.  And they end up, sort of, complicating our situation.  In this case, severely complicating our situation. 

TODD:  Do you think this is an issue of - you know, are you willing to say, well, this is just -- he`s getting his sea legs.  He`s still learning how to take classified information.  What he can share.  What he can`t share.  And this is a staffing issue.  Or do you think the president just doesn`t have the temperament for this anymore? 

REED:  I think it`s more temperamental than anything else.  It`s been 116 days.  That`s not a long, long time, and there`s a very steep learning curve.

[17:10:07] But this is not the first incident.  This is not the first time that someone had to go out and, sort of, re-explain his words.  In some cases, accurate.  In some cases, they were left, sort of, holding the bag.

This has to stop and, frankly, the president has to be much more willing to listen to trusted advisers, to take their measured -- to listen to the debates before he sits down with a foreign leader.  And then, essentially, stick to the points that they`ve all agreed upon and communicate a message that is helpful, not confusing.

One of the most significant examples of this meeting was immediately thereafter someone had to rush out to all the intelligence services and start, you know, warning them as to what might happen.  That shows that this was just a -- they perceived it immediately as a very serious breach of protocol, at least. 

TODD:  All right, but what`s your recourse if he doesn`t take -- I mean, you know, I`m not -- this is not any -- don`t take offense here.  But you gave very predictable wise counsel, meaning it`s, sort of, national security classified information 101.  If he`s not following it, what`s your recourse? 

REED:  I -- the recourse is continually to reiterate the message and the recourse is to get the people around him like General McMaster who is a very, very thoughtful and very, very knowledgeable person to be able to indicate the risk.

And I think the president has to be hopefully understanding that this self- inflicted, sort of, wound is not something he can repeat again.  That`s the hope.

But, again, I don`t think it`s poor staffing.  I -- from what we`ve heard, he, essentially, wouldn`t take a long, involved memorandum, asked for some talking points, and then disregarded the talking points and then injected this in the spur of the moment.

That`s not the way to deal with a country like Russia or any other country. 

TODD:  All right, but do you take General McMaster`s word for it that this was wholly appropriate? 

REED:  I don`t think it`s wholly appropriate.  I think, as the preceding commentator pointed out, it`s legal.  But appropriate, no.

And, again, General McMaster has had to, sort of, step in and, sort of, fix things before.  When the president tweeted about the Thaad deployment in South Korea, General McMaster had to get on the phone and then get on the media and explain how this was nothing unusual when it was highly unusual.

So, again, that`s another example of this, you know, self-inflicted wound, in terms of a statement that should never be made. 

TODD:  Again, you said the recourse is to keep saying it. 

REED:  Well, that`s the recourse we have right now. 

TODD:  OK.  Do you get to the point where do you use amendments?  Do you hold up other parts of his legislation until you get confidence on national security?  Do you wait for recordings?  I mean, I`m just -- it seems like talk is talk, but if this is truly a national security crisis, what`s next?

  REED:  Well, I think what you`re seeing is senators, representatives, members of Congress, public officials and the public, themselves, voicing concerns.  And I hope the president listens to those concerns.  Some of my Republican colleagues have been very articulate in pointing out the dangers to this continued type of behavior.  And that, I think, is important, too.

Again, we have to just hope that our public statements, our cautions and the advice of his advisers, who I think we all have confidence in the secretary of defense, in the General McMaster, that he begins listening more to them and being more cautious in his statements. 

TODD:  What is the damage on the intelligence front?  Will this mean we get intelligence that goes dark? 

REED:  I think that`s an assessment that the intelligence community has to make and I assume is making right now.

I hope not, obviously, because some of our most valuable intelligence comes from allies and to lose that would be a serious blow.  But my hope is that that`s not the case.

But, again, this behavior -- not just this behavior but other incidents have raised questions about the reliability of giving us the intelligence.  Will it be held safely?  Again, that`s something that we don`t even want to raise the question.  And the question has been raised. 

TODD:  Senator Reed, I`m going to leave it there.

REED:  Thank you.

TODD:  Ranking member on the Armed Services Committee.  I appreciate you coming on and sharing your views. 

REED:  Thank you.

TODD:  I`m going to bring in Republican Congressman Jim Jordan of Ohio.  For what it`s worth, there aren`t a lot of Republicans who were willing to be on T.V. today.  So, Congressman, I appreciate you keeping this commitment.  And, full disclosure, --

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO:  You bet.

TODD:  -- we tried to - we booked you a while ago but we thought we were going to talk about health care.  We thought we were going to talk about tax reform.

[17:15:01] JORDAN:  Yes.

TODD:  But let me start here.  How concerned are you that these missteps out of the White House -- whether you agree with the policy, but how they`ve been handled sort of universally getting criticized.  How concerned are you that this is going to make your job harder in getting health care done, tax reform done, things like that? 

JORDAN:  Well, I mean, look, we can - we can do a couple things that I think at the same time.  Let`s hope so.  So, I think we can move ahead on tax reform and do the things that the American people elected us to do.

At the same time, getting to the - you know, the bottom of what happened in this situation.  I think, you know, "The Washington Post" has said one thing.  General McMaster has said it was appropriate.  I kind of like what Congressman Schiff suggested.  He said, let`s get a classified briefing and find out.

So, look, we -- I think we can do both.  Certainly, the American people elected us to accomplish certain things.

TODD:  Yes.

JORDAN:  Our job is to do what we told them what we were going to do when they elected us and they sent us here to accomplish that.  So, let`s focused on that and let`s just keep moving forward. 

TODD:  It sounds like - look, you`re a member of the Oversight Committee.  Do you think this is your job, at this point?  Do you think you guys should be getting the -- you hope there are some transcripts of this meeting?  Is that what you`d like to see, among other things?

JORDAN:  Look, I have said all along, Chuck, in this whole broader Russian issue, let the intel committees do their work.  If, at some point, it`s - the facts suggest that we need the Judiciary Committee, the Oversight Committee or, in fact, if it`s warranted to some special select committee, I`m open to those, at that time.

But, right now, let`s let the intel committees do their work.  No one`s ever accused me of going easy on my own party.  So, if we need to do that,

TODD:  Right.

JORDAN:  -- I`m open to that.

But, right now, let`s keep it focused where it should be, I think, and that`s in the intelligence committees in both the House and the Senate. 

TODD:  Would you understand if there were people that were concerned about whether the president is handling classified information correctly? 

JORDAN:  Well, I mean, he`s the president of the United States.  I think by -- he is going to -- he understands the national security concerns.  He gets briefed every day.

Look, I think we got to let the facts be sorted out and we`ll move on from there.  That`s most appropriately done in those committees where they deal with classified information on a day in and day out basis and that`s the intel committees.  So, let`s let them proceed just like they have been doing thus far.

TODD:  How do you respond to somebody -- look, this is what you said about Hillary Clinton.  You wrote it in an op-ed.  Whether through incompetence or willful disregard for security protocol, Hillary Clinton jeopardized national security.  That was, obviously, in reference to the e-mails.  Tough language on her in the e-mails. 

JORDAN:  Yes, hundreds of e-mails. 

TODD:  You look at this incident.

JORDAN:  Yes, hundreds.

TODD:  This is divulging classified information directly to a potential adversary. 

JORDAN:  Hillary Clinton also --

TODD:  I understand that.  But how is this -- nobody says two wrongs make a right here.  But can you sit here and feel good about what President Trump did? 

JORDAN:  That`s not - that`s not what the national security adviser said, Chuck.  The national security adviser said the president didn`t do anything wrong.  Again, so, we got two stories out there.  It`s just now starting to unfold.  Let`s get to the truth.

What we do know about Secretary Clinton is, during that whole thing, the whole focus was on the fact that WikiLeaks had given this information, not on what was contained in so many of those e-mails, not on the fact that I sat on the Benghazi Committee as well, not on the fact that they misled the American people 56 days before the 2012 presidential election about what really happened there.  So, there`s all that there.

This is something that the national security adviser says nothing was done wrong here.  So, let`s let the intel committees do their work.

TODD:  Well, --

JORDAN:  And get to the facts.  And then, we can be focused on those things the American people elected us to do, like performing our tax code, --

TODD:  Well, --

JORDAN:  -- making sure we replace -- repeal and replace Obamacare. 

TODD:  I have to say, you`re giving an awful lot of credence to the president`s national security adviser.  There were plenty of other people that examined Hillary Clinton`s e-mails and said, while it was careless, it didn`t end up in foreign adversaries` hands.  This is a case we don`t know.  You`re putting all your chips -

JORDAN:  I do -

TODD:  -- with General McMaster.

JORDAN:  No, no.  I do know that Secretary Clinton misled the American people.  You know, I do know when she had this whole false narrative about the videotape of Benghazi and then a whole host of other things, regarding national security.  So, I do know that.  We studied that in depth in that committee and we had those hearings in the Oversight Committee.

And, as I said before, if, in fact, some - where the facts warrant it, we will be willing to look at those - the situation in the Oversight Committee and, or if warranted, a select committee. 

TODD:  You say, if warranted.  Is it warranted right now? 

JORDAN:  I don`t think so.  I think we`re just - we`re just starting this - we`re just now starting this - this story has just happened here in the last several hours, last couple days.  Let`s get to the facts.  Let`s get the intel committees do their work. 

TODD:  All right, Jim Jordan, Republican from Ohio.  As I said, one of the few who was willing to come on today.  I appreciate it.  Congressman Jordan, --

JORDAN:  Thank you, Chuck.

TODD:  -- thanks for coming on and sharing your views. 

JORDAN:  You bet. 

TODD:  You got it.

Coming up, what Senate Republicans are saying about the latest crisis at the Trump White House.  Stay with us.



TODD:  If it`s Tuesday, Senate Republicans had another presidential firestorm to deal with.  Here`s just a sampling of some of them trying to react to "The Washington Post" bombshell about the president sharing highly classified information with the Russians. 


REP. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT:  I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House. 

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE (via telephone):  Obviously, they`re, you know, downward spiral right now and they`ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that`s happening. 

BENJAMIN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA:  It`s not helpful that this was with the Russians, right?  I mean, this is just weird.  We and the Russians do not have aligned interests. 

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA:  I would just caution the president, when you share information with Russia, it`s likely to wind up in the wrong hands. 

RUBIO:  I don`t want to rely on a press article.  And I`m not disputing it.  I`m not admitting it.  I just need to know more. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It`s a serious allegation.  With a town full of folks like you all, generally, we get to the bottom of things. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, if it`s accurate, it`s very concerning.


TODD:  Welcome back.

Let`s bring in tonight`s panel.  "Washington Post" correspondent, Anne Gearan; Democratic pollster, Cornell Belcher; and "Washington Free Beacon" editor-in-chief, Matthew Continetti. 

Ann, your paper is the one that kept everybody up all night last night and have been matching together.  So, I think the most intriguing aspect of this, and I know you - I know you can`t speak specifically but you`ve - stories on this.

But it was very clear in "The Washington Post" story that the government asked the Post to leave some parts of this story out.  That felt like a confirmation in and of itself.  Does that mean -- where does that request come from?  Does it come from the White House or does it come from, say, the CIA? 

ANN GEARAN, CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST":  Well, I mean, in this case, our reporters, my colleagues, Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, were dealing with a - with a range of sources across the government.

But the White House was very clear in saying today that they wanted some parts of this reporting not to get out.  And, you know, that`s something we`ve all dealt with before.  The -- you have a piece of national security reporting and the White House asks that it -- on behalf of whatever agency elsewhere in the government asks the news organization to withhold it which then, you know, occasions a conversation, I know you`re familiar with, where people decide --

[17:25:10] TODD:  Yes, there`s gut check. 

GEARAN:  -- to say it or go.  Right.  Yes, exactly. 

TODD:  Of what you do.  That it seems, Cornell, Matthew, that`s the hardest thing, I think, for the White House to overcome. 

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER:  Well, I think the hardest thing - I`ve got to tell you --

TODD:  As far as this specific part of the story. 

BELCHER:  I got to go off script here a little bit here, Chuck.  The Jim Jordan interview, to me, was an amazing interview, right?  Because you have him bringing up Benghazi.  You have -- can you imagine for one second if Barack Obama had did what Donald Trump had did?  They wouldn`t be out in full force and attacking him.  They would be - the Freedom Caucus would have been drafting articles of impeachment for Obama on this.

And it`s just something I don`t think we should play politics with, right?  Our national security should be America first.  And you have our politicians playing politics with it.  And I think - I think it`s why Americans don`t trust politics and why they`re so cynical about politics. 

TODD:  Yes.  Matthew.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "WASHINGTON FREE BEACAN":  Think about this White House right now.  You know, they -- the White House likes to think they`re in a war with -- against the deep state of the unelected bureaucracy. 

TODD:  They are now. 

CONTINETTI:  They`re in a war and they`re losing it.  One of the problems is that the president, himself, is so isolated.  He`s not only isolated from the intelligence community, he`s not only isolated from the FBI, he`s isolated from his own staff now.

And all of these leaks coming out of the west wing, you get the sense, as one source told the "Washington Free Beacon" this afternoon, no one -- not even his staff trusts this president.  And that is extremely damaging. 

TODD:  Well, Erick Erickson, conservative blogger, he wrote on his blog talking about it.  He said, hey, I know one of the sources in that room.  And even said, you know, he was willing to dismiss this story as, you know, careerists that maybe don`t like Trump.

But this was somebody that was very pro-Trump and felt that the only way they could get Trump to listen, the president to listen, was to essentially go public. 

GEARAN:  Well, it`s clear that people who heard this, in the moment, and then there`s a, you know, second ring clearly because it - I mean, our reporting shows that people --

TODD:  We kind of know how this likely leaked, right?  Somebody in the room called the intel agencies to warn them.  No, no, no, to warn them, hey, this stuff is now out, FYI.  And then, that`s when everything (INAUDIBLE.)

BELCHER:  And they`re patriots, right, we should applaud them. 

GEARAN:  No, no, I mean, the -

TODD:  Well, it`s their job.  I guess it - no, that`s their job.  I mean, I understand that your job is to do your job.  Classified information you didn`t expect to leak out, your job is to call -- I hear you that some people will say, but it`s also their job. 

BELCHER:  Yes, but they`re also getting attacked for it, right? 

TODD:  Well, right, no, I understand that.

GEARAN:  Yes, I mean, it -

TODD:  Loyalty to country, is the point. 

GEARAN:  -- and it complicates the message for the White House to then immediately turn this into, you know, this is a problem with leakers and this is a problem with -- that the focus of the press is -

TODD:  Right.

GEARAN:  -- on the wrong thing.  The focus of the press should be on the leakers.  That on the national security (INAUDIBLE.)

TODD:  Speaking of leaks, speaking of breaking news in the moment.  James Comey memo, President Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to shut down the federal investigation of Mr. Trump`s former national security advisory Michael T. Flynn in an Oval Office meeting in February.  According to a memo Mr. Comey wrote shortly after the meeting, Michael Schmidt, "New York Times," just breaking in the last literally three minutes.

You fire James Comey, you just said they`re in a war with the deep state and they`re losing.  This is yet more --

CONTINETTI:  Nixon lost his war.  Reagan came close to losing his with Iran contra.  George W. Bush lost his over the 13 words -

TODD:  Yes.

CONTINETTI:  -- and yellow cake.  Presidents don`t have a good record of going up against the intelligence community or the FBI.

I will say this, those presidents, Reagan, Bush, they didn`t sweat the small stuff.

TODD:  Yes.

CONTINETTI:  They had big principles they tried to pursue and implement.  Donald Trump only sweats the small stuff.  He was elected to implement Trumpism.

TODD:  As somebody said, for him, -- for him, subtext is the text. 

CONTINETTI:  Instead, he spends all of his time fighting these mini battles. 

TODD:  More from the memo.  Quote, "I hope you can let this go."  Comey quotes the president as saying.  I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He`s a good guy.  I hope you can let this go.  Again, these are direct quotes attributed to Comey in a memo, Ann Gearan. 

GEARAN:  You see -

TODD:  And the quotes -

GEARAN:  Call me the smart bureaucrat and professional here.  He goes back to his office and writes it down.

TODD:  Yes.

GEARAN:  This is what happened in a conversation that is going to be important later.  It`s going to be important to the country.  It`s going to be important to James Comey.  He knows that.  He writes it down. 

BELCHER:  One thing I got to jump in on the intelligence stuff here is that, intelligence is how we stop planes from blowing up, right?  We have all these aircraft carriers and stuff and they`re really important.  But we fight terrorism through intelligence, right?  So, this is really important in that our allies are pausing now -

TODD:  Yes.

BELCHER:  -- in consideration of sharing intelligence with us.  It`s a threat to America.

TODD:  Before -

GEARAN:  We don`t know yet whether that -

TODD:  In fairness to the administration, they did provide "The New York Times" a statement.  Let me read it in full on this.  And I know people -- the White House press shop`s credibility is what it is right now.  While the president has repeatedly expressed his view that General Flynn is a decent man who served and protected our country, the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn.

The president has the utmost respect for our law enforcement agencies and all investigations. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversations between the president and Mr. Comey. Of course, if there are tapes.


TODD: We are laughing but this is now important. If there really are tapes, at this point, if the White House`s version of events are this, they should release those tapes yesterday.


TODD: Yeah.

CONTINETTI: Release these tapes if they exist. Release the confidential memo that is prepared after the oval office meeting with Kislyak and with Lavrov that would show exactly what happened here. Transparency would go a long way to furthering the White House`s case.


ANNE GEARAN, NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT FOR THE WASHINGTON POST: Spicer wouldn`t commit today to releasing the transcripts from the meeting in question. He said you should rely on the word of the people who were in the room and came out and gave statements.

TODD: If you thought the congressional Republicans were shaky before.


TODD: I don`t know if we`ve seen anything yet.

BELCHER: How many days are we in?

TODD: This is day 116. We`re going to have more. I don`t know what`s (inaudible) at this point or not. We know executive privilege is a big deal, but now you`re going to have -- this would have changed the Jim Jordan oversight to an if to a it`s time to get more information.

CONTINETTI: Trump has one card to play and that`s the Republican Congress. All these other presidents were investigated under opposition congresses.

TODD: And the question is how much patience do they have.

CONTINETTI: Or how much longer does the Republican Congress last.

BELCHER: Their numbers are getting shaky.

TODD: Guys, wow. We`re going to talk about the politics of that later. Anne, Cornell, Matthew, stay with us. Big day. We`ll be right back.


TODD: As we told you before the break, we`ve got breaking news from "The New York Times." I`ve got the panel still here; Anne Gearan, Cornell Belcher, Matthew Continetti. Now on the phone is the reporter that broke the story of the Comey memo that he wrote about a meeting with President Trump in February where the president purportedly asked him to essentially end the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Michael Schmidt is on the phone now, the reporter of the story. Michael, so obviously you got -- did you get a hold of the memo itself from James Comey? What was the point of this memo? Was this his own sort of notes to himself? Give us the context of the memo.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT, JOURNALIST AND CORRESPONDENT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES: We have not seen the memo ourselves but we`ve been told about it by some of Mr. Comey`s associates. Basically what happened was that on February 14th, Mr. Comey went to the White House for a meeting with other national security officials. Mr. Trump kicked everyone else out of the office and wanted to talk to Mr. Comey one-on-one.

And it was during that conversation that he told him to basically, you know, that Flynn had done nothing wrong and that the FBI should basically move on from the investigation. And Comey interpreted this as the president trying to influence him and influence the investigation, and he wrote a memo about it and he wrote several other memos based on every interaction he had with Trump because he was concerned about what Trump was trying to do.

TODD: Where do these memos go? When he writes these memos, who does he send them to? Does he send them to the attorney general? Does he send it to FBI counsel? Who does he send them to?

SCHMIDT: We don`t know if the Justice Department was informed about these memos but we do know that the FBI has copies of them and that Mr. Comey circulated them with his staff because they thought they need to build a paper trail about what Mr. Trump was doing.

TODD: In this -- so you gotten pieces of this. Is this perhaps one of the meetings President Trump was referring to when he said three different times, Director Comey assured him he was not a target of the investigation?

SCHMIDT: I have not in any of my reporting been able to establish that Mr. Comey ever told Mr. Trump that he wasn`t under investigation. I talked to a bunch of people about this and no one has backed that up.

TODD: So the beginning part here is to me the most interesting and the fact one-on-one meeting, he kicks everybody out. So there`s basically.

SCHMIDT: Correct. Pence and Sessions were there. And Sessions actually tried to linger around but Trump told Sessions to leave. Trump is sitting there at the resolute desk. Comey is sitting across from him and it`s in this discussion that he says to him, that, you know, to basically that Flynn had done nothing wrong and that the FBI should move on from it and, you know, end the investigation.

TODD: You said -- you mentioned Vice President Pence, so he was in the room and he was also asked to leave?

SCHMIDT: There was a larger meeting that had gone that afternoon with a bunch of national security officials. It was when that meeting was over that Mr. Trump pulled Mr. Comey, you know, asked for the one-on-one with Mr. Comey.

TODD: At this point, I assume you asked the White House if there would be a transcript or any sort of evidence of this meeting, taped or otherwise?

SCHMIDT: The White House said that Mr. Comey had been there. Mr. Comey -- I mean, it`s a matter of record that Mr. Comey was there, but the White House said that Mr. Trump had not said this to Mr. Comey. He had never tried to influence Mr. Comey in that way.

TODD: Michael Schmidt, I imagine you`ve got a lot more reporting to do, a lot more followups, a lot more fallout from this. Big scoop of the hour. I would say scoop of the day but you never know these days.

SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.

TODD: You got it. Appreciate your time. Let me bring in the panel; Anne, Cornell, Matthew. The White House -- there`s no part of the story -- the president`s own credibility is not in a good place so you`re going to have to take the word of James Comey or the word of Donald Trump, period. There`s no other eyewitness in that meeting.

CONTINETTI: I know two things about this story. One is, as Michael said, this memo is part of a paper trail that Director Comey was compiling, which means there are going to be other damaging leaks at the White House. The second thing I note is, President Trump asked everyone to leave the room, and we know from a lot of the reporting that Trump`s advisers and staff are always wanting to be in the oval office with him for all these meetings. Why? They`re worried about something exactly like this happening.

TODD: On what he is going to say. Quickly, what caught you in this?

BELCHER: Bad judgment, bad judgment caught me on this.

GEARAN: Yep, I mean, that`s not a request that the president would ordinarily make of the FBI director and one that any other president would have known the FBI director would be taking note of.

TODD: It`s interesting to me that Jeff Sessions tried to linger. That was probably the proper thing for him to do.


TODD: He should have tried to linger. He is Director Comey`s boss.

GEARAN: Right, exactly, yeah.

TODD: (inaudible).

GEARAN: If the two of them are going to have a conversation, he should be listening.

TODD: And it sounded like -- let me go to Peter Alexander at the White House. Peter, to say that the White House is in communications crises mode, I guess you could say that if the day ends in "y," this only adds to it. We got the statement they gave to "The New York Times." Any other additional color they can offer here? You know, do they have any way of backing up the president`s story beyond this statement?

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Excuse me, Chuck, the bottom line is at this point literally you set your watch by a new crises in effect coming at this White House. Now we have this latest one. I should tell you a source close to Comey, we are being told a former federal law enforcement official is now confirming the existence in the contents of this memo including a quote that has a little language, a little bit different than we heard from "The New York Times," a little bit more to it.

It said, I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. It`s the exact line which has now been confirmed by NBC News. A senior White House official and I were just upstairs speaking to individuals there as they were huddling near Sean Spicer`s office, tells us they make a point that the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, just a matter of days ago when he was testifying on Capitol Hill said that there was no effort to impede the Russia investigation.

The White House is pointing to that acting FBI director`s comments as a way to try to to deflect from what is this reporting that we now have from this memo written by James Comey. I was struck by what you said where you can either take James Comey`s word or Donald Trump`s word, but the statement that`s been provided to us, I remind you, is from a senior White House official, from White House staff.

As the president himself said just a matter of days ago, how can you trust the information from my staff at this point to be perfectly accurate? So until we hear from the president himself about this specifically, then there`s really no idea whether, in fact, what they`re saying is what he knows to be true.

TODD: Do we have any -- look, he`s supposedly in charge of naming the next FBI director. This news alone for many members of congress and I think on both sides of the aisle, they may make an argument this disqualifies him from naming a new FBI director in this moment in time. This memo itself, that is going to be hard for anybody to handle in a confirmation hearing.

ALEXANDER: He said it`s going to be a fast decision. He said they`re making good progress, said that decision could even come before the end of this week. We know that Senator John Cornyn has now withdrawn his name from consideration as FBI director. There was a lot of focus on whether there should be a partisan politician, you know, even considered, let alone being selected as the FBI director in this process here.

But for this president right now, remember it is the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who pledged to recuse himself from anything relating to the Russia investigation who is helping the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who are ultimately doing the vetting process right now. We don`t believe the president has been involved in that process but a lot of people are going to raise questions about what involvement if any he should be allowed to have.

TODD: All right. Peter Alexander, keep working your sources here. Let me bring it back to the table here. Every -- there is a pattern here to all these mistakes, if you want to call them that, that this president has done. It`s always involving Russia at the end of the day, Anne.

It is always Russia, Russia, Russia, whatever it is. He makes the mistakes in some form or another. Firing Comey was over Russia. Dealing with Flynn was over Russia. The decision to wait as long as they did, over Russia.

GEARAN: Yeah, everything sort of circles back to the fundamental question of what is the president`s relationship with Russia, what was the relationship of his campaign and advisers out from his campaign. And where does he think that this relationship is going. It`s still not clear to me or anybody else what Trump wants to see happen.

TODD: By the way, I`m not fully convinced that he is doing all this because he somehow in cahoots with the Russian government, that this is all about any part of this investigation undercuts his victory.

CONTINETTI: You say (inaudible) Russia. He trumped Trump.

TODD: He sees it as undermining his victory. Look, there`s part of this motivation I think of what you would say is just bad decision-making seems to be because he doesn`t want his victory.

BELCHER: This is really bad. This is really bad decision-making if there`s nothing there, right? If there`s nothing there, it`s completely insane.

TODD: Yes, it`s harder to -- right. Harder to rationalize.

CONTINETTI: You look at Flynn, loyalty, right?

TODD: Yeah.

CONTINETTI: You look at Russia, it goes to the deepest part of Donald Trump which is his self-image. We`ve said what made Comey lose his job, probably saying that it made him feel nauseous that he could have swung the election to Donald Trump.

GEARAN: And that he wouldn`t say he would be loyal.


TODD: Yeah, very quickly, Ken Dilanian, Ken, I know you`ve been working to make sure that we`ve got our own sources that confirm the existence of these memos. What more can you tell us?

KEN DILANIAN, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: We do now, Chuck. We have multiple sources. I spoke to a person very close to Jim Comey who is familiar with the contents of the memo, confirms the great reporting by "The New York Times" and also confirms that Jim Comey wrote a memo about nearly every single interaction with Donald Trump.

And I asked this person why didn`t Jim Comey go public and resign if in fact he thought President Trump was trying to interfere with his very serious FBI investigation and this friend declined to comment on that, just wouldn`t speculate, had said in the past that Jim Comey wants to tell his story publicly about that dinner and his very different account of it. This is a dinner after all that happened, the day after Sally Yates came to the White House raising concerns about Mike Flynn, so the timing lines up.

TODD: Can the sources explain why we`re only getting pieces of the memo? Why not release the whole thing? I mean, at this point, if you`re doing what you`re doing, release the whole thing.

DILANIAN: Yeah, I mean, recently people have been saying that Comey wants to testify before congress in a public setting and lay it all out.

TODD: Now we know why.

DILANIAN: Exactly.

TODD: Now we may know why. All right. Ken, stick around. Keep working your sources. I want to get to this FBI director. Is Donald Trump in a position where he can credibly nominate the next FBI director?

CONTINETTI: He has to nominate somebody. You could just leave the agency to.

TODD: Yes, you could. That`s my point. That`s the other way to do this. Is he sort of forced to do that?

CONTINETTI: I think the politicals are out of the question which is why Cornyn took himself out, Gowdy took himself out. I think he could nominate somebody now, yeah.

BELCHER: If I were Speaker Ryan, I would be begging him not to do that.

TODD: It doesn`t go through the house. This is Mitch McConnell.

BELCHER: I`m talking about mid-term elections, right? I do not want this fight over his nomination. Take the politics out of it. If I`m Mitch McConnell or Speaker Ryan, I do not want him nominating someone for the FBI.

TODD: Anne?

GEARAN: Yeah, I mean, that`s perfectly logical, but I could also see another scenario where the White House says, look, this is, you know.

TODD: Part of the job.

GEARAN: It`s part of the job. It`s the president`s prerogative to name this. It was the president`s prerogative to fire the last one, it`s the president`s prerogative to hire the next one.

TODD: Here`s a reason not to do it, confirmation hearings. I mean, in some ways do you want to drag this out. Look, he`s probably going to regret ever firing Comey. Do you want the confirmation hearing that will essentially serve as another hearing on Russia.

CONTINETTI: I think the hearing they`re going to regret is Comey if he`s allowed to testify.

TODD: I think he`s going to be allowed to testify in public at this point.

BELCHER: Can`t stop it. Can`t stop it.

TODD: All right. I`m going to hand things off to my colleague, Chris Jansing, in New York. I`m going off to do a quick interview with Laura Bush actually for something having to do with trying to get a museum for women in the Smithsonian at this point. Chris Jansing, breaking news, take it away.

CHRIS JANSING, NBC NEWS AND MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Thanks so much, Chuck. Have a good time tonight. We have got yet another blockbuster story coming to us via "The New York Times" and now being confirmed by NBC News, very bad news for the White House, James Comey kept a paper trail. We`ve heard this before, that he was a fastidious keeper of notes, but these notes were very specifically about a meeting he had with the president in the oval office.

He was in there with Mike Pence, with Jeff Sessions. He asked them to leave, and then, according to our reporting, he essentially asked him, asked James Comey, to let the investigation go. I want to go to Ken Dilanian, the national security reporter for NBC. Lay this out for us once again, Ken. What happened here? What do we know about this memo?

DILANIAN: Chris, we know that James Comey wrote the memo after the dinner. We know that he was uneasy. We knew from previous testimony by James Clapper for example that Comey was uneasy even going to this dinner on January 27th, one day after Sally Yates had come to the White House to warn that Mike Flynn was subject to blackmail. And of course, this was the result of an FBI investigation.

And so Jim Comey was well briefed on that investigation. At this dinner, this one-on-one dinner, according to the memo that Comey wrote, President Trump asked him to let it go, to let the matter go with Mike Flynn, saying he`s a good guy. Now Comey viewed that, a source close to him is telling me, as an effort to interfere with the investigation.

And I asked this source, why didn`t Jim Comey just then go public and resign. And the source declined to comment on that. So there`s still a story to be told there. And the source says that Jim Comey intends to speak publicly about this at some point, Chris.

JANSING: Anne Gearan, if I can go to you, because we were -- and this is break next speed with which we`re dealing with this White House but whatever, less than an hour ago, we were talking about how Donald Trump had shared sensitive intelligence with Russia, how you had to have McMaster come out twice, last night, then again this morning talking about how it was wholly appropriate.

And a lot of analysts questioning whether or not frankly the president really realized what he was doing at the time. Certainly we got the confirmation from McMaster that this was something he sort of did on the fly.

But when you`re in an office and you have your FBI director, you have Jeff Sessions, you have the vice president, and you ask the other two to leave, how do you draw any other conclusion but that the president understood what he was doing?

GEARAN: Well, I mean, we don`t know exactly what was in the president`s mind at that point. But clearly this is a president who is operating in the oval office as if it`s the corner office and that`s what a CEO might do. Hey, you know, let`s have a little private chat here off to the side and disregarding the conventions that a president would ordinarily take here, which is to make sure that the chain of command is present.

I mean, here`s Comey`s boss is hanging around there. Shouldn`t he be in the room? Maybe he might want Vice President Pence around since he had been in the preceding meeting. That isn`t the way Trump thinks. He is not thinking about the conventions of the office or chain of command or any sort of that thing.

And I think we see the same pattern in the Russia story, which is, you know, he threw this thing out there apparently without full knowledge of its sensitivity or what he might be allowing to happen by saying it. And, so, there are some similarities there.

JANSING: Yeah, and Matthew Continetti, I do wonder now, and we`ve heard a lot from obviously Democrats and a growing chorus of Republicans who have concerns about everything that happened up until this point, even without dealing with what we`re learning now over the course of just the last half an hour or so, there are other memos out there.

Clearly we don`t know how many, but, again, we have heard over the course of sometime since all this happened, since Comey got fired, that he kept an awful lot of notes. Obviously in this case, at least in this case in this one memo, we believe he did it right afterwards. He shared it with FBI officials. But is this going to be a drip-drip-drip or is congress going to go and say, we need to talk to you, we need to talk to you now, and we need access to your memos?

CONTINETTI: I think the answer to your question, Chris, is both. I think congress is probably going to want to have Comey testify in an open setting. And I also think that the most concerning part of this article, if you`re a member of the Trump administration, is when it says that the memo was part of a paper trail that Director Comey had compiled. And what that means in Washington is more leaks. And we`ve seen how the leaks up to this point have infuriated the president. I think he won`t be any more relaxed in the coming weeks.

JANSING: Yeah, it is also really interesting to me, Cornell, that according to "The New York Times" reporting, that the first thing that the president talked about after you had Sessions and Pence leave that room was not a request to put this aside, but was to complain about the media, to complain about leaks.

We heard that -- we`ve heard it time and time and time again sort of this diversionary tactic, that you ask somebody in the administration whether it was McMaster today, whether it`s Sean Spicer, whether it`s the president himself, a direct question and it turns to leaks.

And, look, I don`t like to talk a lot about the media as a member of the media and not always the most popular kids on the block. But at this point you wonder how much longer, even with the base, this can work for the president and for all the president`s men who may want to talk about so much of what happens here as blaming the leaker, blaming the leaks, and not looking at the information that`s out there.

BELCHER: I think that continues -- that`s a real tough argument to make. Now, look, the media is an easy sort of straw man to sort of set up for beating up on. But I`ve got to think that with this, you`re going to have Republicans in the house and in the senate who have been talking about how uncomfortable they are with this off the record.

I think you are going to start seeing more of them coming out and take this more seriously because in the end, look, Republican or Democrat, you want to think that most members of congress put America first. And what`s coming out of the White House right now is really troubling and you have to think a lot of Republicans are going to come out now and want to get more to the bottom of this. I think this helps this issue become less of a partisan issue.

JANSING: All of these stories that have been coming out -- and again, it`s hard to keep track of all of them, Anne, in some ways. One of the stories that has really been building over the course of the last week or so was the possibility of some kind of a shake up within the administration, shake up within his communications staff.

But then the secondary part of that reporting has been that they`re already, as they`re reaching out, getting some push back. We saw today one person, Cornyn taking himself potentially out of contention. So, where does that leave this White House, which everything we see, everything we hear indicates that they`re in crisis mode?

GEARAN: Yeah, I mean, I think any personnel moves the president makes at this point are now going to be framed fully in the context of both the question of the Russia story -- sorry, from yesterday and the knowledge now today from "The New York Times" story that Comey was keeping notes and clearly has a paper trail of what he viewed as if not interference then certainly a troublesome pattern on the president`s behalf because of his interest in Russia and his interest in preserving Flynn`s job.

So, any internal shake up in that could include McMaster. I mean, there were stories a couple of weeks ago that the knives were out at the White House for McMaster. Should there be a move now to replace McMaster would be viewed entirely in the lens of, you know, did he do enough to protect the president on the Russia story or not. Even though presumably any discontent that Trump may have had with McMaster certainly predated this episode and the same is true for the selection of the next FBI director.

JANSING: The problem it seems to me, Matt, is that the knives may be out, but almost everything that we have seen, especially over the course of the last week or so, which has been such a horrible one for this White House, are self-inflicted wounds.

CONTINETTI: Right. It`s hard to see how any staff shake-up will have an effect on this presidency, unless the new staff would be able to control the president. And if there is one thing that we know about the president, he`s extremely impulsive and he`s also very unpredictable. And so a lot of these mistakes have been partly rookie mistakes, they also have been partly been Trump mistakes.

He is the same man that he has been since he kind of launched into the public scene in the 1980s and what we`re learning is that the skills that made him such a successful businessman, TV star and candidate for president don`t necessarily translate into a successful presidency.

JANSING: We just got a tweet from Richard Burr. I just got handed this. He said, actually, this was a tweet from somebody who had just talked to him. He said, the burden is on "The New York Times" to get and show the memo. Let me go back to Peter Alexander who is standing by at the White House. Any more from there about how they are reacting to this?

ALEXANDER: Any more from the White House, Chris?


ALEXANDER: Right now obviously they are disputing the way that this memo is being described. They say this version of events is not true. I reached out to the office of the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, as well as you heard from Michael Schmidt from "The New York Times" who broke the story a short time ago.

He said as this meeting was taking place in the oval office there had been a gathering of several individuals before Sessions among others were taken out of the oval office so the president could have the opportunity to speak one-on-one with James Comey, asked if the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, his team had any comment on it.

They are declining to comment on it right now. Of course, he and the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, right now are in charge of finding the next FBI director, the person ultimately that will oversee this FBI investigation into potential ties between Donald Trump`s campaign aides and Russian operatives, which is notable that Jeff Sessions is playing a role in that given the fact we know he pledged to recuse himself from anything involving the Russia investigation.

The White House appoints to the acting FBI director`s comments just a matter of days ago saying there was in his words no effort to impede the Russia investigation. Chris?

JANSING: Anne Gearan, let me go back to you. I wonder what you make of this by Burr who obviously is a key person, as we look at this Russia investigation. And he`s saying the burden is on "The New York Times."

GEARAN: Yeah, I mean, I think that -- we don`t know the whole of what Burr said here, but I mean clearly that will be the impulse among Trump supporters and probably many Republicans in general just to say, look, here`s something that "The New York Times" said happened. But we want to see it written down. The answer to that will -- the easiest answer to that may be that he -- Comey testifies and says it himself.

JANSING: We have a lot more to learn about this breaking news. Anne, Matt, Cornell, thanks to all of you for being with us as we make our way through this. Peter Alexander at the White House, our thanks to you. Thanks to everybody watching. MSNBC of course will have much more on this breaking news throughout the evening.