CHUCK TODD, MSNBC HOST: Welcome to Thursday. It is MEET THE PRESS DAILY. I`m Chuck Todd. It`s good to be back. We`re following two big stories at this hour, the unrelenting surge of COVID cases in the United States, and the fallout from the Supreme Court`s landmark rulings in the president`s tax returns and the bigger question of whether a president is above the law.
First, the latest on the virus. This country is experiencing a second nightmare, one which was arguably totally avoidable, given what our government should have learned from the first nightmare. Folks, it is Groundhog Day in America right now and it is bleak. Cases are surging. Hospitals are being pushed to their breaking points. This time, it`s hospitals in the south.
States are playing catch-up. Businesses are again being curbed. There isn`t enough testing. And in some cases the testing is too slow to be of much use. It takes days to get the results back in places like Florida and Arizona right now. There isn`t enough personal protective equipment. The president doesn`t seem to be listening to the advice of his top public health experts and the death toll is projected to go up. Moments ago, Texas reported its third day in a row of record deaths.
The president has tried to convince the public that the situation is not what you see, that the situation is actually getting better, but the overwhelming reality of the situation is clearly broken through, because everybody sees that it is getting worse. And as that is happening, we also got the other big story of the day, that I mentioned at the top of the show, the Supreme Court today rejected the president`s assertions of absolute immunity as part of a ruling that could clear the way for prosecutors in New York to see his tax returns.
Prosecutors want these financial records as part of a criminal inquiry into the illegal hush money payments the president made to an adult film star and a playboy model ahead of the 2016 election. In a separate case, the court pushed back a bit on Congress` demands to see those financial documents in its investigation into whether foreign governments like Russia hold sway over the president.
They didn`t outright reject Congress` ability to get the documents, they just simply said they needed to have a clear rational. Both cases now go back to lower courts. But a precedent has been set. And this practically means that the president`s tax returns will likely remain shielded from the public view until after the election but we will eventually see them.
Still, broadly speaking, the headlines of both of today`s big stories reveal something quite important about this president right now. He has tried to live in a pair of alternate realities. One where he enjoys absolute immunity as president and another where he`s all but defeated the virus. Neither is the actual reality.
Joining me now from the White House, with the latest, is my NBC News colleague Carol Lee, Pete Williams is on the justice beat for us, he`ll unpack those rulings and Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and a MSNBC political analyst to figure out what is going on inside the president`s head.
But Carol, let me start with you and the virus today and sort of the alternative realities. I think schools is probably the best place to start. A lot of confusion yesterday on schools. Do we have any more clarity today?
CAROL LEE, NBC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Not much, Chuck. But, look, I think the clarity we have today is that -- and what everyone should know who is interested in this topic is the president`s unhappy with the guidelines, there will be something new coming out. We just don`t know exactly what that is. Is it revised CDC guidelines? Is it CDC guidelines with some augmentations meaning extra documents and explanations, does the White House put out its own version of guidelines, which has been under discussion that meshes the CDC guidelines with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations?
But there will be something that comes out that is new, and just to sum up, kind of the state of play, the press secretary said, quote, there is a number of guidelines floating out there and we believe there is a safe way to do this. That`s not exactly clear on what specifically they think needs to happen.
TODD: Oh my goodness.
LEE: But that was what she said in the press briefing today. And then you hear the -- from the president and who was in the Rose Garden and said, schools have to open, that children are young and healthy and they can go to school, and that he wants them to open in the fall fully. And so that really underscores how we got here, which is the president doesn`t like the current situation.
He`s putting a lot of pressure on people who work for him to come up with something new and to push for schools to reopen, and so everyone is trying to kind of reverse engineer and come up with something that will make him happier.
TODD: Well, I want to go back -- I want to play something Dr. Fauci said this morning in a radio interview, because it sort of -- it fits our Groundhog Day theme in this show, which is we have been through this before, take a listen to Dr. Fauci, Carol.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALERGY AND INFECTOUS DISEASES: I think it was less of a problem with the guidelines themselves than what the response to the guidelines were. Namely some states, some cities actually did not adhere to that step by step fashion of going from a gateway, the number of days of cases going down to go to the first phase, the second phase, the third phase.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: The point I want to make here, Carol is that, he`s referring to those original reopening guidelines that the White House unveiled for the public for one day only, they made a deal out of it, and then the president basically told governors, ignore our own guidelines, reopen faster, and we`re at a Deja vu moment again where same thing, there is specific guidelines.
If schools would follow it, it probably would cost money and need extra time, but there is no offering of that and the president is just saying just do it, and they`re basically encouraging people to ignore guidelines. Well, the last time that happened we got a spike in the south of the virus.
LEE: Right. That`s been the story of the pandemic that the president is out further and ahead of where the current situation is, where his health experts want him to be, and are telling him that he needs to do and repeatedly we have seen as you mentioned with the states, putting out guidelines and then the president pushing states to go further than the guidelines say, or ignore his own guidelines.
We saw this most recently with churches, the president came in and made a big deal about how churches weren`t opening and pushed states to go further than they were going, and the White House came out with its own guidelines for churches, through the CDC, because they were unhappy there. Now we`re seeing this with schools, but schools are different, this is everybody who has a child wants their child to go back to school, but people are concerned and the lack of clarity from the White House, I think, is what is really making people uneasy.
TODD: And now every school superintendent, every school board, every principle, if they make -- if they somehow come out for a guideline and for an extra this, extra that, somebody is going to accuse them of playing politics, it is a terrible situation the president has put on school administrators in.
Let me move to the Supreme Court. Pete Williams, there is two Trump tweets, of his reaction to the court rulings today. The first one, he goes, Supreme Court sends case back to lower court, arguments to continue, this is all a political prosecution, I won the miller witch-hunt and others and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York, not fair to this presidency or administration.
A second tweet, courts in the past have given broad deference but not me. He clearly personalized these decisions. What is the big picture meaning of these decisions, Pete?
PETE WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president had advanced the basically the MC Hammer can`t touch this defense in the Cy Vance case. He basically said, because it was a state prosecutor, he was beyond the reach because the president can`t be indicted, therefore he`s completely immune from any part of the criminal justice process, including a subpoena, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that.
He also said if you unleash 2,300 global prosecutors, they`ll harass the president politically, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected that too. So we say it is a 7-2 decision, because what the two dissenters, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said is, yeah, you can subpoena the president, but you have to have a higher standard when you`re going after a sitting president, the court rejected that too.
So, it goes back to the lower courts. The president can now assert the same kind of objection anyone would to this specific subpoena now that he`s lost his categorical never-never defense. But I must say, I think the wind is at Cyrus Vance`s back, it seems likely he may get his hands on these documents, but as you say we are unlikely to see them because, of course of grand jury secrecy.
In the Congressional case, you`re right. It was a different kind of approach, another 7-2 ruling. The Supreme Court again said no, the president can`t erect a barrier and say you can`t touch me, but he said this -- these are -- we`re referring now for the first time ever a case like this between two branches of government and there has to be a balance.
So Congress can`t just get anything it wants. It has to have a valid legislative purpose. It has to show that these documents are the only source to get them, it has to show they`re not overbroad, and it has to show that they wouldn`t overly burden the president.
So, back to the lower courts to try again. Clearly this -- the same subpoenas that Congress have -- has are not going to fly. They`re going to have to narrow it if they want to try to get their hands on some Trump documents.
TODD: Pete, there is a part of these rulings that I can`t help but look at this and it felt like this court thought about what happens -- this is the first president we had that, you know, didn`t come from politics, a wealthy businessman, had his own businesses, they were intertwined in his personal finances, and it was unprecedented territory for us as a political society, if you will, as a government. Do we now have a clear road map, essentially for the next president that comes to office with all of this financial complication?
WILLIAMS: Sure, if a president is being investigated for a crime by a state grand jury, he can try to fight the subpoena like anybody else does, but he can`t say you can`t have it no matter what. And if Congress wants to get it, they`re going to have to make it more narrowly focused. But yes, these are both precedent setting opinions, first time ever answering both questions.
TODD: Hammer time. Have to say, Pete, did not expect a hammer time reference from you. But, you know, I ain`t touching that, that`s for sure.
WILLIAMS: Yes, you did.
TODD: I appreciate that. By the way, to take it further, MC Hammer, former bat boy for the Oakland A`s, speaking of A games. So, I will continue down that road if I have to. Peter Baker, before I lose total control of this segment here, on this front. I want to go back to the president`s tweets today. Because one of my producers said, imagine putting them all in one paragraph today and it was one Facebook post, how troubling would friends and families think troubled would they be by that person? I mean he was on an extra tear today, then again it has been this way for a few months. Where do we think the president`s head is at?
PETER BAKER, MSNBC POLICY ANALYST: Well, this hasn`t been a good few weeks for the president for a lot of reasons obviously, starting when you talk about at the top of the show, the virus obviously has not gone away. It is complicating his desire to reopen the economy, reopen the country. He`s had that disappoint Tulsa rally, miserable poll ratings against Joe Biden. And now, of course, the Supreme Court is basically rejecting his rather expansive view of his executive power.
Now, you know, he lost on principle, in some ways, he won at least on a tactical level. As people we`re not likely to see this tax returns probably before the election because there will going to be additional litigation. They had to go back to the lower courts and even if Cyrus Vance (INAUDIBLE) prosecutor of New York gets them, it doesn`t mean he would make them public right away.
But on a matter of principle, it is a pretty striking decision by the Supreme Court. Much like it did during the Nixon era, much like it did during Bill Clinton`s civil suit against Paula Jones, the Supreme Court is saying, the president of the United States is not a king. And this is a president who has stretched the authority of his office as far as it can be seen, asserting again and again that he has almost absolute latitude in a lot of different instances.
The Supreme Court here saying, no, that`s not true. And among the Supreme Court justices saying that`s not true are his own justices. Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, he brags about them all the time on the campaign trail, both of them today said, no, wait a second, we don`t agree with you on this idea of absolute immunity.
TODD: There seems to be another thing -- another moment that we have approached here, Peter Baker, somebody who covered the last Bush administration so thoroughly, and we`re hearing it from Republican operatives wondering has Trump hit a Katrina phase, where it -- there is just no talking -- the credibility is gone. They can`t sort of -- they can`t convince people of anything at this point. There was a moment where you felt that it didn`t matter what President Bush said in 2007, people were done, they had written them off.
How concern are Trump advisers that the president is in that -- in this perilous situation? You know, similar to where Jimmy Carter was with the Iran hostage crisis. It was sort of at first there was a rally around him and then as the crisis just kept wearing on and in this case that`s what the virus feels like it is doing to him. Are we in this moment right now?
BAKER: Yeah, that`s a great question. I actually think that`s the -- the question in some ways in terms of thinking through how this campaign is playing out. The president has played a weak hand very strong for a long time. He`s never had a high support in the polls, his approval rating has never topped 50 percent for single day on his presidency in most of the major polls. Unlike any president in our modern history, and yet he`s played it like a very strong president.
You would never have known that he was, you know -- he didn`t project weakness the way other presidents who were in trouble did. Now I think you`re beginning to sense a little bit of that. You`re sensing Republicans, you know, clearly concerned that he`s going to not only lose the White House but possibly cost them the Senate. There is a feeling that he is not as you say getting through to the public. He doesn`t seem to be willing to make the changes that his own advisers are telling him to make, in order to try to get through it.
He`s sticking entirely to a base strategy of confederate statutes and, you know, racial politics, rather than reaching out to any kind of independent or, you know, moderate voters he might need in the fall, hoping it seems to replicate the, you know, fluky kind of win he had last time where he lost the popular vote and still managed to win the electoral college vote.
So, I think you`re right. If he were to -- unless he manages to turn things around in the next few weeks, this will reel back at this period as I think a turning point that is pretty significant.
TODD: It does. It feels significant. I think when you`re in the moment, you worry -- we all have been there, you worry or you over reading the moment and all of that. But, boy, I tell you, it does feel a bit bigger right now. Carol Lee, Pete Williams, Pete MC Williams, and Peter Baker, thank you all.
Up ahead, we got much more on the failures that have led us to this place of coronavirus Deja vu. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Protective equipment is running low. And nursing homes are at risk again. We`re going to take you to the new hot spots.
But before we go to break, speaking of Republicans starting to show some distance, an update on a story we are going to keep following. Another Republican Senator today announced that he is opting out of the national convention in Jacksonville next month. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said he`s unlikely to attend. He`s blaming scheduling conflicts for this one. But it brings the total number of GOP Senators skipping or likely skipping to six and after his office told NBC earlier this week that he had every intention of going to the convention, here`s what the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said today about attending.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): A number of my colleague announced they are not going to attend (INAUDIBLE) -- determine whether or not safely convenient.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Welcome back. The U.S. failed at combatting the coronavirus. It is pretty clear we lead the world in all the wrong ways. And we`re still failing. And those continued failures have now put us in a place where we are repeating nearly everything we experienced when the pandemic first hit the United States.
The worst of it is in the Sun Belt right now. But it might not stay there. The gravity of the situation we`re in right now bears repeating. Crowded, vulnerable populations like nursing homes and jails are getting hit hard by outbreaks again. Hospitals are nearing capacity. ICUs are filling up, again. Some hospitals are facing staffing shortages, again. After a national PPE shortage early in this pandemic, doctors in hot spots are also worrying about shrinking inventory, again.
The administration continues to say there is plenty of PPE, but requests healthcare workers start re-using it. There are testing shortages and supply chain issues again. And the expectation is that the death toll is going to start rising as we`re seeing in a few states already again. And one place that is experiencing nearly all of those things at one time right now is Phoenix, Arizona.
That`s where my colleague Vaughn Hillyard is at right now. And Vaughn, you were early on, on the warning and questioning whether Arizona was opening up too soon. You know your state so well. What are we seeing today, sir?
VAUGHN HILLYARD, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: You know, I can continue, Chuck, as we have the last few months to throw stats your way. Today, the percent positive rate in Arizona was at 34 percent high. Record number of hospitalizations, but it also comes down to the fact that here in Arizona pretty much everybody is at that point where they know somebody who has been sick, or either passed away.
Just this month alone there has been more than 400 deaths here in this state reported and I just want to introduce to you an individual that we just met actually today, Kristin Urquiza, your father Mark Urquiza, she laid him to rest yesterday and you were telling me that just a week ago you were coming into town from California, you got the word that your father passed away from COVID.
What do you want folks to know about your father and importantly right behind us here, Governor Ducey is going to be holding a press conference at the end of this hour? What will be your message to this state government right now?
KRISTIN UQUIZA, FATHER DIED OF COVID-19: My dad was an amazing person who was a huge patriot that did not deserve to die alone with only a nurse holding his hand. And the reason his death is so infuriating to me is because it is a failure of leadership and terrible policy. And so what I would like Governor Ducey to know is that he`s been downplaying this virus for the last month, telling people to go out shopping and to bars and restaurants.
What measures is he taking to stop the spread and additionally black and brown communities here in Arizona as well as indigenous communities are seeing the biggest impacts of COVID-19. What is he prepared to do to support those communities? Is he prepared to cancel rents? Is he prepared to stand up and make sure that those folks receive unemployment benefits? So that whenever they choose not to work, to be able to protect themselves, they can be supportive.
HILLYARD: What would be your question to him today?
URQUIZA: My question to Governor Ducey would say when are you going to take the coronavirus seriously, shut down the state, and require people to wear masks?
HILLYARD: Kristin, I appreciate it. And I know all of our hearts are with you here. Again, Mark Urquiza, 65-year-old native of the (INAUDIBLE) Arizona here in the west valley. Again, I`ll say the number, just this week alone, Chuck, more than 400 Arizonans had passed away, a lot of questions ahead of this press conference later this hour with Governor Ducey.
TODD: Yes. And it is, when you look at all the maps and the heat maps, there is really no higher alert area right now than the state of Arizona. Vaughn Hillyard, stay safe out there. Vaughn, thank you.
Up ahead, the mixed messaging over how schools are going to reopen. The White House said new, less stringent CDC guidelines are coming. CDC says no, no, no, they`re not watering down their guidelines. Apparently they`re just going to add to them.
And later the supreme lessons we`ve learned from this year`s Supreme Court decisions. What does this term mean, not just for the Trump administration, but what does the Robert`s court sending as a message overall? We`ll be right back.
TODD: Welcome back. There is deep concern and confusion surrounding the question of reopening schools. And parents and teachers are dealing with mixed messages from local leaders, state leaders, federal officials and public officials. As we said in the beginning of the show, the question of what the CDC is recommending when it comes to schools. That got even more jumbled today. Yesterday the vice president indicated that the CDC would be revising school guidelines after the president said they were too tough. Here`s the vice president yesterday and then CDC Director Robert Redfield this morning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think what you will see in the coming days which you heard from Dr. Redfield yesterday at the summit and again today is very consistent with the president`s objective and the concerns that he`s raised. We don`t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don`t open.
DR. ROBERT REDFIELD, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR DISEASE CONTROL: I want to clarify, really what we`re providing is different reference documents, so our guidelines are our guidelines. So, I think it is really important, it`s not a revision of the guidelines.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Well, joining me is now Dr. Richard Besser, he is a former acting Director of the CDC. Dr. Besser, it`s good to see you. Look, I guess the one up side to what we saw this morning is that we saw Dr. Redfield. He went on, he at least spoke as the head of the CDC and we hadn`t seen that a lot, what should we take away from all of this?
DR. RICHARD BESSER, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR OF THE CDC: Right. Well, it is good to see the head of the CDC out there. And I think the more we see that, the better. You know, it is not unusual for CDC to revise guidelines. We did it all the time. And you do it when there is new science. What concerns me is if there would be a revision of guidance that was due to political pressure.
The guidance that CDC put out for reopening schools provided a lot of detailed information of what needs to happen for schools to open safely and, you know, I`m a pediatrician and I`m a parent and I know we have got to get kids back to school. But you have to do it safely. And thankfully most kids are going to do well, but you have to make sure teachers are safe and staff are safe.
And CDC guidelines call for a lot of changes in terms of how classrooms are set up and we need to make sure we`re valuing every child. So that even schools in lower income neighborhoods have the dollars to be able to make the changes so that going back to school is safe.
TODD: Well, and, you know, it is one thing for us to be debating these guidelines, but it doesn`t matter if the guidelines aren`t followed. I keep -- I go back to, you know, the one -- look, the White House Coronavirus Task Force on April 26, I believe it was, put out reopening guidelines that were actually really good. And most of the scientific communities said, well, you know, boy, and nobody followed them.
I think one state in the union followed them completely, maybe two. I think it was like Rhode Island and one other that truly followed it to a tee, nobody ignored it. So hasn`t the president already -- because frankly the president was the one pushing reopening. Now the president is pushing back on the CDC guidelines. Is it already too late for us to get the public back focused on these CDC guidelines?
BESSER: Well, I think that the point you make is an important one, that there were gating criteria that the White House put out that are essential. You have to make sure that you`ve got community transmission under control before you even talk about opening schools.
And that requires seeing a two-week decline in cases and hospitalizations. You need to have enough room in your health care system, not just to take care of COVID patients, but to meet the needs of anyone with a health issue. And you have to be collecting data and be able to test at a rate so that you`re identifying cases quickly, you`re able to trace, and you`re able to provide support for isolation.
Without those pieces in place, you can`t open the schools. You open the schools and you`re going to start to see cases and outbreaks and the schools will be shut down very quickly. You to get the community control -- transmission under control first, and then you have to do all the steps so that schools can be a safe for children, staff, and teachers.
TODD: I had a couple of factual questions on some things we heard today. Number one, the White House --
TODD: -- in its pushback on the rise in hospitalizations, one of the excuses was, well, there is a lot of this -- upwards of 40 percent of this hospitalization capacity issue is not due to COVID. Was -- that felt a little misleading to me. Is that misleading to you?
BESSER: Well, what you have to look at is what is happening in states and cities individually. What you`re seeing in many places is what we saw months ago and that`s a health care system in many spots that is getting overwhelmed. And you can look at that by looking at a number of pieces of data.
You can look at how many ICU beds are available. And in places, you`re seeing hospitals having to send patients to other locations for ICU care. You can look at it in terms of excess capacity, how much room there is, how many patients are on ventilators. Thankfully, our ability to treat patients with COVID is improving, so not as many people who get hospitalized are going to succumb to this, but a lot of them will.
BESSER: And so, you know, we are in a very dangerous situation here as we`re seeing numbers going up around the country. If the focus is on opening schools before the focus is on how do you control it in communities, we`re not going to get where we need to be.
TODD: And you mentioned earlier about your pediatrician by trade in the medical world. There is a small study out there that suggests that it is possible for pregnant women to transmit the coronavirus to their babies. I`m curious what you think of this study and what kind of precautions would you suggest.
BESSER: Well, you know, a couple things. One is the study itself hasn`t been published so it is an abstract -- it is a report from there. But it wouldn`t be surprising to me that a virus could spread, could go across a placenta and affect a baby.
Part of what you do whenever there is a new disease is you look at all of the impacts. And it is another point, Chuck, is that we`re in the early days of this pandemic. And so we don`t know what all the short term and long term consequences of this will be.
Thankfully in the abstract that was released, the two babies that did show some signs of having the virus did well. But it is going to take more studies, more tracking to see is there a risk to babies who are born with this virus, is there a risk to pregnant women, are there other consequences, long term, among young people who get this infection, who seem fine.
There is so much for us to learn. A lot of those studies are going on around the world and it is another reason, Chuck, why we need to stay connected through the World Health Organization, to all the efforts going on around the world to learn about this.
TODD: And it is these unknowns that frankly concern me as a parent about the reopening of schools so hastily. I`ll be honest. We don`t know these long-term effects. And that seems --
TODD: -- that seems to be something this administration is ignoring, right?
BESSER: Well, and, you know, it is so incredibly important for kids in terms of the development to get to school. But it is also really important that we`re not putting staff in schools at risk. A lot are lower income workers, people of color. We`re not putting teachers at risk who are in classrooms with children.
You know, when you look at how we fund schools in America and so much fund it off for property taxes, wealthy communities, yeah, they may be able to change the airflow and decrease the class size --
BESSER: -- but in so many communities in America, that`s not an option. What does it say about which children we value and which children we don`t? We need to make sure that all children are valued.
TODD: An important note to end on there. Dr. Richard Besser, former acting CDC director, it is always good to get your perspective on with us and your expertise. Thank you, sir.
BESSER: Thank you, Chuck.
TODD: Well, it has been less than two weeks since The New York Times first reported that Russia was offering the Taliban bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. And today, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, answered questions about those alleged bounties from the House Armed Services Committee.
Esper told lawmakers he was aware of the intelligence about Russia in February but says he never read any report that included the word "bounty." He also said the Intel was not credible. But Milley did tell the committee the U.S. was not doing enough to counter Russia`s support for the Taliban. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARK MILLEY, UNITED STATES ARMY GENERAL, CHAIRMAN OF THE JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: I can tell you that some of that is done. Are we doing as much as we could or should? Perhaps not, not only to the Russians but to others, but a lot of it is being done. Some quiet, some not so quiet.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TODD: Milley also broke with President Trump by calling on the United States to take a hard look at renaming army bases named for confederate officers, saying there is no place in our armed forces for manifestations of symbols of racism, bias or discrimination.
Milley condemned confederate leaders and called the confederacy an act of treason. At the same time, as Esper and Milley were testifying, Geoffrey Berman was also on Capitol Hill. Up next, we`re going to talk to one of the lawmakers who questioned the fired U.S. attorney from New York, forced out by the president`s attorney general, after investigating the president`s inner circle.
TODD: Welcome back. Attorney General Bill Barr said in an interview yesterday that it was called ludicrous to say that he fired U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman as a way to influence the investigations going on at the SDNY. Today, Berman, the now former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, told his side of the story behind closed doors in Capitol Hill, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee.
NBC News can confirm that in his opening statement, Berman told the committee that that Attorney General Barr repeatedly urged him to resign. And when he refused, Barr announced his resignation, anyway.
With me now is someone -- one of the committee members in that room today, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, one of the few that were there in person. And so congresswoman, you are our first-hand account that we have today. What did -- explain how Mr. Berman explained Bill Barr`s attempts to get him to change jobs.
REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D-PA): Thanks for having me on, Chuck. He gave a very interesting narrative of just the two days that took place over June 19th and 20th. He met with the attorney general at the attorney general`s request in New York and the attorney general attempted over lunch, which he said no one ate lunch, to get had him to resign, to say, maybe you can take another position, perhaps a position in the civil department.
And Mr. Berman had none of it. He said I`ll have none of it. I love my work, I love the colleagues I work with, and I would not want any disruption or delay of the important work of this office. That was -- that took place a little after noon.
Later that day, the attorney general asked him to consider it and called him back. Then he tried to entice him some more. That was a word that he used, Berman used, entice him some more, and say, well, maybe you would take the position of the chairman of SEC.
He said, no, I have no interest and I will not be resigning because by resignation, it is against the process and the procedures and precedents before, and it will put in jeopardy the important work, the investigations of our department. And, of course, at 9:15 that night, Mr. Berman learned by way of a press release that he was stepping down.
What I thought was really impressive about Mr. Berman was he just showed his absolute duty to service, to his colleagues, to the work of that office, to investigations, and that he didn`t want anything to interfere with those investigations. That`s why he put out his statement saying, of course, I haven`t resigned. The attorney general had misled the public yet again.
TODD: Did Mr. Berman give -- does he have an idea of the motivation behind Mr. Barr`s insistence that Mr. Berman leave that post?
DEAN: That`s a great question. He was asked over and over again, particularly very ably by our committee. And he was, I think, very appropriate and really narrowly defined his voluntary participation in this interview, and said I cannot speculate on the motivation of the attorney general.
But he warned us over and over again that the reason for his reluctance, the reason for his resistance was to say that simply by putting in an outsider in that position, that extraordinarily important position, it would necessarily interrupt the important investigations, it would necessarily delay. So while he didn`t comment on motivation, he commented on the factual reality of what would happen if he were replaced by an outsider.
TODD: I imagine this was behind closed doors so you can talk about sensitive -- perhaps some sensitive cases or investigations that he may have been working on or the office may have been working on.
DEAN: No, you would be wrong.
TODD: Does he believe there were -- OK. Well, does he --
DEAN: It was in our committee room --
TODD: Let me ask you this. Why was it -- then why wasn`t it on camera? Why wasn`t it on camera?
DEAN: These were the terms that were determined between both the minority party and the majority party, as well as the Department of Justice, that it would be in person, that it would be transcribed, that it would be narrow and limited.
And think about it, if he were to talk about sensitive investigations, I think that would be a misappropriation of his own duty. He was never going to go anywhere near that.
TODD: Well, I guess then the question is, and I`m sure there were versions of this, he -- you said he stated overall that bringing in an outsider would create disruptions into these investigations. Obviously the implication is there must be investigations that some would like to see disrupted.
DEAN: That certainly is the implication. We do know that`s a very powerful office that has held some very important investigations. One of the things that impressed me but did not surprise me was one of the comments that he made to questioning by our counsel.
When the attorney general put out the 9:15 statement, press release, saying that Mr. Geoffrey Berman, glowingly saying he did a nice job, and then said he is stepping down, Mr. Berman confirmed that was a lie. Mr. Berman had not stepped down. There was an agreement between the two men at 7:00 p.m. to talk the following day.
So this was a bungled attempt to take out Mr. Berman on a Friday, late so the news media maybe might miss it. But he had -- what I think is very credible is Mr. Berman had something in mind. Not his own job, but the incredible pursuit of justice and the rule of law.
And so he said, I will not resign, you`ll have to fire me, and what I insist upon is that you go by process and put in my first deputy, Audrey Strauss. So i think it is impressive -- his patriotism, his sense of duty. He wasn`t trying to save his job and he called out the attorney general for yet again, this is one of dozens and dozens of examples of the attorney general lying to the American public.
TODD: I believe the attorney general is scheduled in the next -- I believe it is -- I want to say within two weeks in front of your committee.
TODD: Regardless -- let`s not speculate whether this is going to happen, but assuming that it does happen, what could the attorney general say to you to make you feel better about his handling of the Berman issue?
DEAN: He is scheduled to be before us on July the 28th. We certainly have lots of questions. He was scheduled to be before us when we first came into this Congress and he failed to show. That was during the Mueller report. And then he was scheduled to come before us for the pandemic and did not come, of course. He is scheduled to come before us in the 28th.
He would have an awful lot of explaining to do. He has thrown away his credibility in buckets, as my son likes to say. Think about where this all begun. He began by mischaracterizing for the American public for an entire month the findings of the Mueller report.
I`m an attorney by training. I know that I am a servant of the courts. I know and in this case the court of public opinion, I know that if I misrepresent a fact or law, I have to correct that immediately. This attorney general has spent this career under this administration misrepresenting facts and law on behalf of the president`s political ambitions.
So I think you will have a very hard time rehabilitating his own credibility, but I look forward to him coming forward and we will ask him thorough questions.
TODD: Congresswoman Madeleine Dean from Pennsylvania, one of the few in person for this, thank you for coming on and sharing your perspective with us. I appreciate it.
DEAN: Thank you for having me.
TODD: I`ll be right back.
TODD: Welcome back. This morning`s rulings and President Trump`s tax returns and financial documents are the last ones for the Supreme Court will make this term. It was a long term. The first time in nearly 25 years, the court`s decisions have extended in July. It is a bit pandemic-related and it was a term that took up a lot of polarizing issues.
Abortion rights, LGBTQ workplace protection, religious exemptions, and today`s decisions on the president`s financial documents. Many people believed this would be the term that America felt the impact of the court`s conservative majority.
But this term, the court has been surprisingly, well, not predictably conservative. How about that? They delivered some easy wins for conservatives like yesterday`s religious exemption ruling. But they also delivered some unexpected victories for liberals like Justice Gorsuch`s LGBTQ workplace protections decision. So what does it all mean for the direction of the Supreme Court?
Joining me now is someone who has been covering the court for decades, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. And Nina, I think -- here is the question that I think is unanswerable, but I`m curious about your thoughts. Are we looking at this current version of the Roberts court as a court that is trying to survive the Trump era, or is this directionally something different long term?
NINA TOTENBERG, NPR LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it is definitely directionally something different long term, at least if the court stays as currently constituted. But I think it is also sort of Trump centric in some ways.
The president has a way of pushing the envelope and the court has a way of pushing back, sometimes by a 5 to 4 vote, sometimes like today 7 to 2. But I don`t think you would see quite the same degree of surprises if this were a more traditional Republican president.
TODD: What do you mean by that? So -- I mean, I`ve thought about that, too. If this were a more traditional president, do you think some of the rulings would have been different?
TOTENBERG: Well, first of all, I don`t think they would have done some of the things that Trump has done.
TOTENBERG: They wouldn`t have abandoned -- probably a more traditional Republican president wouldn`t have abandoned DACA at all. But if the president decided he wanted to do that, he wouldn`t have done all of the kinds of things that Trump did in this case, overlooking the usual procedural hurdles that you`re supposed to go through.
And the same goes, you know, for last year in this, adding the citizenship question to the census. And this year, I would say the only real total surprise was the 6 to 3 decision in the LGBTQ case and that is credit to Justice Gorsuch and his very literalist approach to really reading statutes.
So he reads the statute from 1964 of guaranteeing that you can`t discriminate based on gender and on sex, and he reads that OK, sex is sex. They didn`t mean that back then, but that`s what it says and I`m stuck with it and you`re stuck with it. And the chief justice joined him in that opinion maybe for cover, maybe because he subscribed to everything that Gorsuch said. I`m not sure.
TODD: What is the power center in this court right now? You know, The Wall Street Journal opinion page likes to call it the Kagan court. You know, that`s their way of taking a shot at Roberts. But there is this --
TOTENBERG: -- Roberts court. The intellectual center is Roberts. Roberts is not the swing justice. He`s the controlling justice. And I think that he assigned all but two opinions this term. If memory serves, including today`s Indiana case (ph), I think he`s only been in dissent decidedly in a major case, in fact, probably no case, but I think he`s assigned almost all the opinions.
That means he gets to decide whether the opinion is going to be far- reaching or more limited. And so you saw that in the abortion case where the four liberals voted the way they did four years ago and on the same basis.
He said I didn`t agree with it then, I don`t agree with it now, but that`s the precedent of this court, and I`m not going to tolerate in this case, pro-choice forces and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, pitching up to us all over again, the identical law that just happens to be in a different state, and because one of our justices retired and was replaced by in this case, Justice Kavanaugh, we would reach a separate result.
I think he considers that really partisan and just exactly the kind of thing that he would never want to do.
TODD: Any interesting takes on Justice Kavanaugh`s first year, first term? What do you make of it?
TOTENBERG: Well, I thought he might actually join the chief justice a few more times than he did in these five to four cases where the -- where it was very narrow, what the chief justice wrote, but he didn`t. I think he has basically tried to keep a low profile other than that.
TODD: So it does seem there. Definitely Gorsuch and Kavanaugh have been interesting to watch a little bit, but the Roberts court, that`s where we are in.
TOTENBERG: Roberts court. He is the most powerful chief justice probably since the 1930s.
TODD: There you go. Well, Nina Totenberg, this is why we have you on. Good to have you. Good to get your perspective. I`m out of time. We`ll be right back.
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