Sessions may resign if deputy fired. TRANSCRIPT: 04/20/2018. The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell

Guests: Rosalind Helderman, Joyce Vance, Neera Tanden, Seth Hettena, Ana Marie Cox, David Jolly, Wendy Sherman

Show: THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL Date: April 20, 2018 Guest: Rosalind Helderman, Joyce Vance, Neera Tanden, Seth Hettena, Ana Marie Cox, David Jolly, Wendy Sherman

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Now, it`s time for THE LAST WORD TONIGHT with Ari Melber sitting in.

Good evening, Ari.

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Rachel. Can I ask you a question that`s --

MADDOW: Please.

MELBER: -- not about breaking news, but about your interview last night?

MADDOW: Yes.

MELBER: You, near the end, pressed James Comey on something that is the issue in our era, which is should the political process or the FBI care about how people will misuse lies?

And I just wonder, because you were conducting the interview, we didn`t hear what you thought of his answer. You were asking about his concern that a lie about Loretta Lynch would be misused and what he did then to pre-empt that.

MADDOW: Yes, it`s -- thank you for picking up on that. It`s kind of -- it`s hard to -- it was sort of a hard thing to bring up because it`s not something with which everybody is already all familiar about all the details.

But one of the important things about James Comey and the remarks that he made publically about the Clinton investigation during the campaign, which were so consequential and potentially changed the course of history, is that he did it on his own as the FBI Director, without the Attorney General, without the -- without it all going through the Justice Department the way it does.

And part of the way he justified that was by saying that he had these concerns about whether or not Attorney General Loretta lynch should be associated with that campaign, whether it should be sort of -- whether that campaign issue, whether that investigation, should be separated from her in some ways.

And one of the things he said he was worried about was a -- what he said was a classified document -- he describes it in his book -- that created a misperception, essentially, that Loretta Lynch had done something wrong with regard to that investigation.

And he says that, in fact, she didn`t do anything wrong with that investigation, and he never knew her to have behaved inappropriately with regard to that investigation at all.

But there was this document out there and it was maybe going to circulate and it was maybe going to affect people`s perception of her, even if it wasn`t true. And he described that document when he was describing his decision-making process for why he acted the way he did around the Clinton investigation.

And in his book, he says we shouldn`t take account of what lying people will do, and they misperceive things. And I felt like that`s what he did there, so I tried to pin him down on it. He said, basically, that`s not exactly right. It`s not exactly all the details. It was -- there were some subtleties here.

I mean, you saw how it went in the interview. I don`t think I pinned him on it at all, but I do think that`s a real -- that`s a real issue.

A lot of issues have been raised, a lot of factual issues about what that document was, whether it was Russian disinformation or some other thing. And if it constrained or controlled the FBI Director`s actions in a way that was so consequential, that`s a serious national security thing.

MELBER: It was fascinating. And I don`t know if this is a thing, but it felt like you pinned it by implication.

MADDOW: Oh. Thank you.

MELBER: Thank you. And it was fascinating to watch. I hope you have a great weekend, Rachel.

MADDOW: Thanks, Ari. Much appreciated.

MELBER: Here on THE LAST WORD, I am Ari Melber in for Lawrence O`Donnell tonight.

And we begin this Friday night with a breaking news. It`s basically a blueprint of what a Saturday night massacre would look like in the Trump era.

The news is this -- Jeff Sessions warning the White House he will do something if Donald Trump tries to take control of the Mueller probe by firing Mueller`s boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

And the news is that Sessions says, explicitly, he might quit over that, which is exactly the kind of move that can change a single personnel decision into, yes, a massacre.

"The Washington Post" is reporting tonight, Sessions went through the official channels, called the White House Counsel -- this was just last weekend, breaking tonight -- as Trump`s furry at Rosenstein peaked after approving that FBI raid on the President`s personal attorney, Michael Cohen.

Now, there`s actually a lot packed into just that sentence. First, the idea of corrupt intent. That people in this administration, people who are loyal to Trump, are worried Trump would fire Mueller`s boss over a lawful raid of the President`s lawyer.

Now, remember, the President does have the power to fire DOJ officials for almost any reason, except an illegal reason, except an obstructive reason.

"The Post" goes on to explain Sessions` thinking, a source saying he wanted to convey the untenable position that Trump firing Rosenstein would put him in. Would put Sessions in.

Well, untenable is a careful word, maybe a euphemism, because it may be more than untenable for Sessions. If he has reason to know that a firing is taking place for an illegal reason and he stands by as that happens at the DOJ that he is still in charge of, well, that could lead to his own problems, his own criminal liability.

And when everyone thinks of Jeff Sessions, who served, of course, as a federal prosecutor, he does know, by the time Watergate was all over, Nixon`s Attorney General served 19 months in prison.

As for the reporting tonight, a Trump official adds, quote, Sessions does not like the way Rosenstein has been treated by the President and had expressed such concern for months.

Now, this report notes that as Trump has moved towards firing Mueller, he`s also been on the verge of firing the Deputy Attorney General. And then look at this.

"Vox" is also reporting that Trump has been questioning Sessions and FBI Director Chris Wray on January 22nd about why two senior officials from the FBI, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, were still in their posts. Strzok and Page, of course, the FBI agents who had exchanged this private messages criticizing Trump.

"Vox" reports that Trump was pressing his appointees to work more aggressively to uncover derogatory information within the FBI files to turn over to congressional Republicans working to discredit Strzok and Page.

Now, that just makes Trump look bad. But it`s not just reporting in "Vox" because this ties back to what I was just discussing with Rachel and what James Comey has been discussing -- the newly leaked memos he wrote.

Which reveal, at the time, how Trump was consumed with targeting FBI officials he saw as a threat, which included Comey`s deputy, Andy McCabe, and, it turns out, the official Lisa Page. Because she was the same chief counsel that Comey cited in his testimony while recounting Trump`s efforts to lift the cloud and short circuit the probe into his White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANE FEINSTEIN (R), CALIFORNIA: Who did you talk with about that -- lifting the cloud, stopping the investigation -- back at the FBI, and what was their response?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER DIRECTOR, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: I discussed the lifting the cloud and the request with the senior leadership team, who in -- typically, and I think in all these circumstances, was the deputy director, my chief of staff, the general counsel, the deputy director`s chief counsel. And I think, in a number of circumstances, the number three in the FBI.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER: The Deputy Director`s Chief Counsel is Lisa Page.

Reading again from "Vox," Trump`s efforts to discredit Strzok and Page came after Trump was advised last summer by his then-criminal defense attorney, John Dowd, Page was a likely witness against him in Special Counsel Mueller`s investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice.

So Trump knew that Page might be a potential witness against him. And that, they say, hasn`t been previously reported or known.

So Donald Trump, trying to discredit and remove Lisa Page before she could become a witness, which is the same playbook against McCabe, much of which is now freshly corroborated by these newly released Comey memos.

Joining me by phone here in THE LAST WORD live tonight is one of those journalists who broke this big Jeff Sessions story tonight, Rosalind Helderman. She`s a political investigations and enterprise reporter for "The Washington Post."

Why do you think this is coming out now?

ROSALIND HELDERMAN, POLITICAL INVESTIGATIONS AND ENTERPRISE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST (via telephone): Well, this is quite fresh. And I think what happened was, you might remember this time last week, there was great feeling like President Trump could make a move against Rod Rosenstein any minute. People were kind of expecting it. And there`s -- then this week, kind of a dimming of that expectation and some question as to why.

We don`t know for certain that this conversation from the Attorney General played a role, but it does seem as though the President came to understand that firing Rod Rosenstein would create an enormous political firestorm. That, in my ways, that was not substantively easier than firing Bob Mueller, something he has obviously given some thought to as well.

MELBER: Does your reporting suggest that this could be an improper firing?

HELDERMAN (via telephone): You know, that`s an interesting idea that perhaps the Attorney General is concerned about that. That does go somewhat beyond what our reporting shows as of now. What we --

MELBER: Well, let me put it another way because I want to give you the benefit of expounding on it. I was exploring in our lead, which is based on your reporting, this word of art that you have in the article. That Jeff Sessions reportedly, from your sources, would find this position untenable.

HELDERMAN (via telephone): Sure.

MELBER: And so I wonder what`s the basis of untenable because, as we have discussed, as you know from reporting the stories just like I do, presidents can fire most of their top people for almost any reason. I wouldn`t think that an appropriate and lawful firing would be untenable.

HELDERMAN (via telephone): Right. Our understanding is he was concerned that it was a bad idea politically, a bad idea that would create enormous public pressure on the Department of Justice and an enormous uproar that would interfere with his ability to serve.

After all, Rod Rosenstein is his deputy. He played a role or probably had a hand in helping to select him, and -- that`s our best understanding. Though, of course, the notion that it would be perceived as yet another attempt to potentially interfere in the investigation, certainly, I think everyone who works in the White House and the Department of Justice are very aware of those questions.

MELBER: What is the significance of the Michael Cohen raid in the mind of the President if that, for him, is so scary that it would trigger him doing the very thing that everyone, including some of his loyalist allies on television, have been pleading with him not to do.

Alan Dershowitz was on "THE BEAT" earlier this week. He is a loyal defender of Trump on collusion, among other things, other issues. And he is pleading with him not to fire Rosenstein.

HELDERMAN (via telephone): Yes. All the reporting shows that the President was deeply rattled by that development, deeply concerned, deeply angry, believed it crossed some kind of red line.

You know, on the other hand, it`s now been, you know, what, nearly two weeks since it occurred. And this is a president who has a history of venting loudly, vocally about various people, about various developments that anger him, and his venting does not always result in action. Until it does.

MELBER: Until it does. Rosalind Helderman with the big story tonight. Thanks for calling in to THE LAST WORD.

I now turn to former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance as well as Neera Tanden from the Center for American Progress and a former aide to Hillary Clinton.

Joyce, what do you think is happening here and who is leaking this?

JOYCE VANCE, FORMER UNITED STATES ATTORNEY FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA: Well, it`s interesting. And one of the most interesting things that`s going on is we don`t know what the source of the leaks are.

We know that the President has been vehement in demanding that all leaks be run down. He`s taken some real stern stances there. Perhaps the only leak that he hasn`t insisted be run down is this leak that apparently came out of the New York FBI in the days ahead of the election.

But Trump is starting to look concerned around the edges and frayed around the edges as pincers move in on him from the Cohen investigation and the ongoing aspects of the Mueller investigation.

The next week, I think we`ll see whether he makes a decision about moving in on Rosenstein and trying to fire him, or whether he will follow what we understand as -- I didn`t take it to be, Ari, a very firm warning but a somewhat weaker warning where Attorney General Sessions said he might have to consider his position --

MELBER: Right. I think --

VANCE: -- were Rosenstein fired.

MELBER: I think you make a very important, subtle observation there, which I`ll throw over to Neera.

We haven`t hit that point yet, that this is something that is designed, it appears, to make Sessions and Don McGahn look good, look like the adults in the room. We`ve seen a lot of leaks around Don McGahn`s office.

And yet it wasn`t saying here is the line, watch out for a massacre. It was much more saying there may or may not be a massacre.

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: You know, I know that we get a lot of news on Russia and the Russia-related issues, and there`s almost a saturation point with the book tour of James Comey.

But I think we should really just hold up here and say that someone felt the need to leak that the Attorney General basically threatened to quit if his Deputy was fired by President Trump in the -- to basically limit this investigation.

And, you know, I think we get a lot of, you know, reporting that says, oh, the President`s just venting. He -- a lot of people leak out what he`s going to do, and he doesn`t actually do it. And maybe that`s just a threat that he doesn`t follow up on.

But here we have a threat that is so concerning that the Attorney General of the United States, who`s appointed by President Trump himself and is definitely not some kind of moderate person, has to call the White House Counsel, go through official channels, to basically say this -- I would have to quit if you did these things, or, you know, intimate that he may have to quit if Rosenstein was fired.

And so I think that`s the kind -- you know, it`s like Watergate kind of getting the heads up that the Saturday night massacre might occur. Here, we are seeing, basically, people planning, trying to forewarn and forestall not an idle threat but something the Attorney General took so seriously that he was willing -- he communicated to the White House Counsel he was going to -- he may quit.

MELBER: Yes, I think you put it very well and explained the way this works.

I mean, Joyce, on the scale of, you know, no obstruction to blatant public evidence of obstruction, it would seem that trying to fire the only person more important than Mueller in the Mueller probe, which is his boss, Rod Rosenstein, the person who can literally decide what the jurisdictional targets can be expanded to.

Which we know because when Manafort`s lawyers attacked Mueller for potentially exceeding his jurisdiction, it backfired, and we got a redacted court document that showed Rosenstein had previously explicitly expanded the jurisdiction to deal with some of Manafort`s allegations prior to 2016.

And then the redacted parts, we don`t know what they are, but it wouldn`t be unreasonable to question whether they might include pursuing Michael Cohen.

When all of that comes to the fore, if that were the reason that he was looking to fire Rosenstein, would that be all the way up here like obstruction sandwich?

VANCE: You know, it becomes very, very difficult for Attorney General Sessions at that point in time depending on what he knows.

So that if he`s had conversations with President Trump where Trump or where someone in the White House has conveyed to Sessions that it`s time for Rosenstein to go because he`s been giving Mueller too free of a hand and that needs to come to an end, then it does become difficult for Sessions to stay on.

And it wouldn`t be surprising that he conveyed this to the White House. The only thing that surprises me is that he wouldn`t say, if you fire Rosenstein, I`m gone. I won`t sit here and let this happen on my watch.

One would have expected that when he was talking, apparently, as he thought, privately to the White House, the statement would have been a little bit stronger.

TANDEN: I mean --

MELBER: Go ahead.

TANDEN: -- James Comey is, like, meeting with President Trump, and President Trump is talking about, you know, assassinating journalists or jailing journalists and --

MELBER: Jailing, not assassinating.

TANDEN: Sorry, jailing journalists and kind of crazy things like that, and James Comey doesn`t say, oh, you know, by the way, that`s illegal and this is America. He just, you know, silently takes it in.

So I`m actually -- from my perspective, I think the fact that Attorney General Sessions called up the White House, like, sort of on his own and said, hey, by the way, if you fire my deputy, that`s kind of a big deal and I may quit. I mean, in this White House, given the sycophantic nature of most of the cabinet that we`ve seen so far, that seems a pretty strong statement, from my perspective.

MELBER: Well, Neera --

TANDEN: And he`s actually forestalling, trying to forestall, something that he is worried that will happen. And since when --

MELBER: Neera, let me you ask you this.

TANDEN: Oh, go ahead.

MELBER: You`re pointing out, Neera, that the Comey memos, which, based on what we know, appear to be quite accurate, paint a really bad picture of Trump. But they also -- and I think this speaks perhaps to their accuracy, they also paint a, at times, mediocre picture of their author, James Comey. How do you think he fares now that we`ve actually seen the contemporaneous documentation?

TANDEN: I mean, I really don`t think there are a lot of heroes here. I mean, I`m glad he took those notes. I`m glad he shared those notes with a wide variety of people. I do think it`s fascinating that the President seems to -- President Trump seems to be targeting the corroborating witnesses of James Comey.

But I don`t -- you know, I don`t think his behavior here in either of the lead-up or, actually, the days -- the weeks and months before his firing gives him any profiles in courage. But I think it`s important that we have the documentation.

I guess my only last point I would make about Attorney General Sessions is, again, this is an extraordinary moment. And the fact that we are all relying on Attorney General Sessions to hold the line on the rule of law is an indication of how seriously he took President Trump`s threats to Rosenstein.

And frankly, what would be the other reason to fire Rosenstein? There would be no other reason. There`s no -- nothing that he`s done, other than been the person who is sanctioning the Mueller investigation. There`s nothing you could even make up about him.

So I think this is a pretty obvious case of the attorney generally -- Attorney General feeling the President was on the verge of obstructing justice.

MELBER: Joyce, finally, Donald Trump`s efforts have led to the public feuding between James Comey and his former deputy, McCabe, this week, the supposition or suggestion that maybe there are possible charges against McCabe, the sustained public attacks on these individuals, Strzok and Page who are potential witnesses.

Do you think Donald Trump has been, at a sheer Machiavellian level, more effective than people realize explicitly, and in a focused way, targeting every single potential high-level obstruction witness that Mueller would ever have?

VANCE: One of the strengths of DOJ as an institution is its reliance on policy to guide its practice in individual cases. So Jim Comey ran into some trouble ahead of the election when he departed from the standard practice talking about the Clinton investigation publically.

The reason I think the President -- you know, it looks, this week, like he`s been taking some jabs at folks. Ultimately, I think that will falter because we`re not really seeing Comey getting into any sort of a spat with McCabe. Instead, we`re talking about an institutional process involving the Inspector General. And that will be resolved consistently with the traditional practices of the Justice Department.

The same with Strzok and Page, the former FBI agents who Trump has -- in just a really stunning departure from anything any president would do, is apparently targeting not two of his political appointees but two career employees of the FBI who can`t be fired absent some sort of an institutional procedure.

MELBER: Right.

VANCE: So, ultimately, the institutions will emerge stronger.

MELBER: Well, I appreciate your optimism, although I think --

TANDEN: Let`s hope.

MELBER: -- blanket optimism itself can be dangerous in its own way.

I want to thank Neera Tanden.

Joyce, I`m going to come back to you.

Coming up, Stormy Daniels` lawyer making a startling prediction. We`ll explain the evidence behind it.

And breaking news about Stormy Daniels` former attorney. Who`s he cooperating with?

Also, Republicans` pushed to leak these James Comey memos, but is it backfiring?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: They had every opportunity to walk away from this agreement at any given time earlier in this case. We made a settlement offer very early on where we said that my client would return the $130,000 if everyone walked away from the NDA.

They refused that offer. And I think, ultimately, that`s going to go down in history as one of the dumbest decisions made in any piece of litigation in the history of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER: Stormy Daniels` attorney, Michael Avenatti, is speaking about efforts by Trump and his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to delay their court battle. Cohen now using this FBI investigation of him to try to slow down the Stormy case. The judge is setting a deadline in next week where Cohen has to formally state his rights against self-incrimination would be in peril if this case goes forward now.

So the translation is this -- Cohen is saying if he tells the truth in this civil case, it might incriminate him in a future criminal case, which probably means one of two things.

One, it could just be a ploy where Cohen`s using the criminal investigation to buy time even if he`s not worried about incriminating himself. Or two, this could be true. Meaning, Cohen is saying the things they`re debating in the Stormy case could implicate him in a crime.

Now, door number two is an extraordinary thing for the President`s lawyer to say in public, but it`s also bad for the President. Because whatever Cohen did in the Stormy matter, he did it while serving as Trump`s lawyer and fixer.

There`s also other public evidence that points to door number two. A judge approved the aggressive raid on Cohen`s office. And the only other raid in this entire case against Paul Manafort was followed by an indictment of him.

And then you consider this, raiding a President`s lawyer`s office is a serious legal move. The feds don`t really usually do that unless their case is very developed.

Now, apart from all that, we also have Stormy`s lawyer predicting Cohen will be indicted. But let`s be clear, they are adversaries out to beat each other, so you`d take this kind of comments with a grain of salt.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think Mr. Cohen is going to be indicted soon?

AVENATTI: Absolutely, I do. I don`t know the scope of that indictment. My own personal belief as someone with 18 years of experience who has some knowledge of what`s going on, yes, I believe the indictment will be issued within the next 90 days. But if it`s not issued in the next 90 days, that doesn`t mean it`s not going to be issued.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER: If it does come, an indictment could flip Cohen, according to "The New York Times" under this headline, "Michael Cohen has said he would take a bullet for Trump. Maybe not anymore."

That story breaking tonight and it says, Trump long felt he had leverage over Cohen, but sources say the raid has changed that. Ironically, Michael now holds the leverage over Trump, said none other than Sam Nunberg. Adding, Cohen should maximize that leverage.

I`m joined now by Seth Hettena, author of the upcoming book, "Trump/Russia: A Definitive History." And a chapter of his book focuses on what Michael Cohen is up to. And it was also published in "Rolling Stone" last week.

Joyce Vance is back with us.

When you look at all this, Seth, what do you think is real, separated from the hype of all the sparring in the civil case?

SETH HETTENA, AUTHOR, "TRUMP/RUSSIA: A DEFINITIVE HISTORY": Well, Ari, you know, I think Cohen`s team is bracing for an indictment. That`s pretty clear.

I just had an e-mail exchange with Michael Avenatti before I came in here. You know, he told me from the courtroom that that`s what Cohen`s legal team expressed. And he also, separately, has knowledge that there`s an indictment coming.

MELBER: Well, let`s break --

HETTENA: Although he wouldn`t tell me how he --

MELBER: Let`s break that into two.

HETTENA: All right.

MELBER: Number one, Cohen`s team didn`t say that there is an indictment coming immediately. What they said was that exposure of a potential indictment should give him a cop out of the civil case.

Number two, what sounds more significant is you`re saying that Michael Avenatti is attesting to you that he has knowledge? He has knowledge of a federal indictment coming against Cohen?

HETTENA: Yes, he does. That`s what he told me, but he can`t tell me how he knows that.

MELBER: How would he know that?

HETTENA: Well, you know, as Rachel noted earlier, you know, Keith Davidson, the other attorney in this case, is cooperating. So I don`t -- you know, I don`t know all the details, but, you know, the investigation may be moving in that direction. That there`s some kind of collusion, as Rachel put it, between some of these lawyers.

MELBER: Well, Joyce, let`s go to that because, you know, the President`s lawyer needs his own lawyer. That`s like when a bodyguard needs his own bodyguard. It`s not usually a good sign.

And now, on top of all that, there`s this, lawyer Keith Davidson. This story, again, coming across the wires tonight, that the former attorney for two of the women who were paid to keep quiet about their alleged affairs with Trump, now, has been contacted by federal authorities investigating Cohen, and is cooperating, providing electronic information to the now- famed Southern District of New York. What does that mean to you?

VANCE: There`s every indication that this is a serious investigation. I would tend to discount anyone who says that they know that there`s a federal indictment coming simply because grand jury proceedings are secret, and it`s a crime to disclose those grand jury proceedings.

So no one really knows, but we strongly suspect that this investigation will move forward towards an indictment simply because the bar would have been so high inside of the Justice Department to approve a search warrant of the President`s lawyer`s residence and business.

That, I think, gives us some barometer for determining that there was a significant amount of evidence in the possession of prosecutors before they even let loose with the search warrant. Of course, they haven`t yet had the opportunity to comb through the items that they seized the day that they executed the warrant. And that, presumably, will bring them even closer to indictment.

MELBER: Seth, the personal relationship between Trump and Cohen is unusual, to say the least. Reading from, again, this new "New York Times" story tonight, it notes that, for years, Mr. Trump treated Mr. Cohen poorly with gratuitous insults, dismissive statements, and threats of being fired. Donald goes out of his way to treat him like garbage, said Roger Stone, Mr. Trump`s longest serving political adviser.

What light can you shed on that?

HETTENA: You know, I come at this in kind of an interesting way. You know, my book is about Trump`s relationship with Russia going back many years, and I was investigating the Russian mafia in New York.

There were some criminal figures who were purchasing apartments in Trump Tower in Manhattan in the 1980s. And it was while speaking to former federal investigators in New York that I came across information about Cohen.

That Cohen`s connection to Trump, according to my reporting, comes through not because he -- you know, of his legal skills. It comes because of his connections -- his family connections, which connect him to Russian -- you know, to his father -- he married into a Ukrainian family.

And his father-in-law, according to my sources, was putting large amounts of money into Trump`s businesses in the 1990s. And that`s what opened the door, according to my sources, to Cohen joining the Trump Organization. So, you know, their relationship --

MELBER: I`m -- what are you saying?

HETTENA: What I`m saying is -- you know, what I`m saying is that Cohen was introduced to Donald Trump through the intercession of his father-in-law --

MELBER: Yes, but what are you really --

HETTENA: -- who is --

MELBER: What are you really saying?

HETTENA: What am I really saying? You know, I`m saying that Cohen is -- you know, Cohen has connections that are useful to Trump. That he`s got -- you know, he`s got --

MELBER: It sounds like you`re saying -- and tell me if I`m getting this wrong because I`m just interviewing you.

It sounds like you`re saying that Michael Cohen was not hired simply for his abilities as an attorney or a fixer, but there were other sources of money that linked him in a way that might be of interest to federal investigators. Is that what you`re saying?

HETTENA: Their sources of money are what opened the door. He was -- his role was as a fixer. Now, you know, I can`t go much beyond that.

MELBER: All right. We`ll pause it there. Maybe we`ll come back and get into it more, but it`s interesting stuff.

Seth Hettena and Joyce Vance, thank you both.

Coming up, how leaking James Comey`s memo could be playing into a Republican plan to further undermine the Mueller probe.

And then later, Donald Trump actually praising an announcement from North Korea. Pretty important, but some of the professionals in the White House are less optimistic.

Our special guest tonight, Ambassador Wendy Sherman.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER: As I was discussing with Rachel tonight, we`re now exactly one day out from Congress leaking James Comey`s memos which Republicans have demanded from the DOJ. Which is a lot like the kind of leak that Trump allies typically complain about.

So how is it playing? Well, by some accounts, the leak, blowing up in Trump`s face. Over at Fox News, though, the focus has been on what the memos aren`t really about, investigative findings on collusion, more so than what they were about.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: This is a big, big beginning to the end of what has been a witch-hunt from pretty much day one.

ED HENRY, FOX NEWS CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There is not a piece of information from James Comey that suggests there was any Russian collusion.

GREGG JARRETT, FOX NEWS LEGAL ANALYST: There is absolutely no evidence here of any obstruction of justice.

AINSLEY EARHARDT, FOX NEWS HOST: He told the President I don`t leak.

STEVE DOOCY, FOX NEWS HOST: Just before he got fired.

EARHARDT: What did he tell George Stephanopoulos?

DOOCY: Yes, good question.

EARHARDT: That he leaked.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER: The memos do have at least four big takeaways. One, whatever you take of Comey`s judgment, he`s got a good memory. The memos do match his testimony which matches his book.

Two, whatever you think of Trump`s politics, he`s inconsistent and not reliable, according to Comey, because the memos show internal contradiction and misleading statements by Trump.

Three, whatever one thinks of the dossier, Trump was clearly obsessed with certain parts of it.

And four and finally, whatever one thinks of the collusion question, we do see in the memos that Trump wanted to keep Putin happy.

Comey writing that when Trump discovered during his toast to Theresa May that blank, redacted, had called four days ago, Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday.

And that prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from redacted of a country like redacted. Trump saying, if he called redacted and didn`t get a return call for six days, he`d be very upset. Reportedly all references to Russia and Putin.

What does it all mean? Well, David Jolly and Ana Marie Cox join us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: He told you that he had -- he`d had a personal conversation with President Putin about hookers?

COMEY: Yes.

MADDOW: Did you believe him or did you think he was speaking hyperbolically?

COMEY: He didn`t seem to be speaking hyperbolically.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER: Let`s get right to it with former Republican Congressman David Jolly from Florida and Ana Marie Cox, host of the podcast, "With Friends Like These," and a political columnist for "Fangrrls" from the Syfy Channel.

Go.

(LAUGHTER)

ANA MARIE COX, HOST, "WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE": Well, I think one thing I want to comment on Comey`s exert (ph), even like his demeanor in that interview with Rachel and a lot of his interviews, which is that I think he just still has trouble processing the President.

Like when he said you -- were you speaking hyperbolically? I`m not sure Comey knows what hyperbolic -- I mean, I know he literally knows what hyperbolic means, but I think he has trouble processing a creature like the President.

In the memos, he talks about not being able to follow the President`s conversations. Like, how it`s a jigsaw puzzle that`s tossed up in the air.

But to get to Putin, one of the things that is most interesting to me about these memos is that anecdote about the Putin phone call as actually told by Trump in service of saying how he doesn`t think that Michael Flynn has good judgment. Which is odd because what he`s saying is Michael Flynn doesn`t have good judgment because he wasn`t behaving obsequiously enough about Putin?

And I`ve seen some right-wing outlets say that this doubt that Trump has about Flynn, like that`s proof that, like, he really was on to Flynn early on. And, like, he was thinking that Flynn was somehow -- his inclusion for Trump is misguided because, clearly, you know, Trump had doubts about him. But Trump`s doubts about Flynn seemed to be along the lines of servicing some kind of relationship with Russia, so.

MELBER: David?

DAVID JOLLY, FORMER FLORIDA CONGRESSMAN: Yes, look, I think the bigger story here is the Hill GOP and the fact that the fix really is in among the Hill GOP. They are insulating this President should he move to dismiss -- or have Rosenstein dismiss Mueller or dismiss Rosenstein himself.

Consider the fact you`ve got Freedom Caucus members and Nunes talking about impeachment of Rosenstein. Consider that McConnell has suggested they don`t need to protect Mueller. This is the Hill GOP playing jayvee.

And consider the intrigue they tried to build around the Nunes memo just weeks ago, and it fell flat. Now, the Comey memos, it fell flat.

But Mueller is playing varsity ball right now, and he`s racking up indictments. He`s racking up guilty pleas. And, frankly, that`s the only investigation that matters. This is just a sideshow created by the Hill GOP right now, these Comey memos.

MELBER: Well, it`s both, it can be a sideshow that they are trying to weaponize and politicize them, which seems inconsistent with their supposed concerns about leaks, and yet is very unusual, from a legal or journalistic sense, to ever see this kind of material.

Usually, you have to wait decades in the archives to see it. And some of it does create factual problems for Donald Trump.

For example, James Comey memorializing in the real-time, long before he knew he`d be fired or knew any of these would come out, that Trump told him he`d spoken to people who`d been on the Miss Universe trip with him, and they had reminded him he didn`t stay overnight in Russia for that. So that`s a claim he made to the then-FBI Director.

JOLLY: Sure.

MELBER: The President brought up the golden showers thing, quote/unquote, and said it bothered him if his wife had any doubt and then explained, as he did at our dinner -- that`s twice now -- he didn`t stay overnight in Russia.

But there are actually flight records, social media posts, that he at least overnighted there once, David.

JOLLY: Yes. So as somebody who believes James Comey and finds him to be credible, you`re exactly right, Ari, that the facts that have emerged are important to the greater case.

But put yourself in the minds of Hill Republicans and, frankly, right-wing media, this is all about impugning the integrity of Comey, of creating conflicts --

MELBER: Right. I`m just asking you about the substance --

JOLLY: -- of storylines between him and the President.

MELBER: I`m asking you about the substance of the memo --

JOLLY: Sure.

MELBER: -- that it`s -- what do you take, as a former member of Congress yourself, about the fact that James Comey was memorializing that then for whatever reason, and it suggests that Donald Trump was twice misstating a material fact?

JOLLY: I believe James Comey.

COX: Yes.

JOLLY: And I understand that both parties have a lot of indigestion about James Comey. I believe him. We can question the judgment of his decisions, but I think he is truthful and those facts matter.

COX: And you`re the one with the law background, Ari. When someone makes a spontaneous sort of defense of themselves, of their innocence, and then it turns out later to be a lie, what does that tell you?

MELBER: It`s suspicious.

(LAUGHTER)

JOLLY: Right.

COX: I mean, that`s what`s happening with Trump, right?

I mean, I would agree with the congressman that, you know, the larger story here is like the corruption of the administration. It`s not what -- it`s not Comey`s personality, it`s not Comey`s book tour. It`s not, even to a certain extent, what`s in the memos, right?

It`s that this administration is behaving in a corrupt fashion overall, and we need to have Congress to act as a check upon that. And the Hill GOP is refusing to do so.

And I think it`s their refusal to hold him accountable that`s actually the sort of the larger message that`s effective to voters. I`m not sure if some of these details are going to be what really matters, but just the absolute rolling over.

MELBER: Right. And that thesis or concern about the Hill GOP itself is actually verified in some of the memos because they describe Donald Trump in real time talking very specifically about Nunes and Grassley and other Republicans. He talks about delaying the Rosenstein nomination itself. So there`s a lot in there.

David Jolly and Ana Marie Cox, thank you very much.

JOLLY: Good to be with you.

MELBER: Coming up, North Korea now saying it has achieved its goals of creating a nuclear weapon so it won`t need to test them, and the President welcomes it as, quote, good news.

Ambassador Wendy Sherman is here next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER: Some important news from North Korean state T.V. Tonight, they are saying the country has now suspended their nuclear and long-range missile tests.

Kim Jong-un saying, quote, every process involved with nuclear development has been carried out scientifically and in sequence. And the means of delivery has also been conducted scientifically, resulting in the completion of nuclear weaponization.

I`m reading, of course, from that statement. The idea, apparently, is if you`ve completed your bomb, you don`t need to test it in public anymore.

And Trump, quick with a response. North Korea has agreed to suspend all nuclear tests and close up a major test site. This is very good news for North Korea and the world. Big progress. Look forward to our -- capitalized -- summit.

"The Wall Street Journal" reporting tonight that a senior administration official urged caution, though, adding it may be less than meets the eye. Whatever it is, Donald Trump`s immediate Twitter response is a far cry from the old Reagan approach, trust but verify.

I`m joined now by Ambassador Wendy Sherman, a former U.S. undersecretary and MSNBC global affairs contributor.

If Trump moves forward in this way and then would go on to cancel the Iran deal, what would you make of where we`re headed? And is this, tonight, based on what we know, in your view, good news?

WENDY SHERMAN, FORMER ACTING DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, I think mostly this is old news, Ari, in the sense that they haven`t been testing. And I think Kim Jong-un is playing his hand extremely well.

He is starting out this negotiation by saying, I`ve made a concession. I`ve done an incredible thing. I have stopped testing of my weapons because I don`t need to anymore, by the way.

And I`m not going to use this test site anymore, a test site that we think, during the last test, began to collapse and probably might not have been functional in the future anyway, certainly unsafe. And China didn`t much like it because it was up near its border, and it was worried about the radiation coming over its border.

So I think Kim Jong-un is playing this extremely well. He is going to look like he has the high road, wants -- he wants the President to come to his summit. He got the response he wanted. Great news, I`m looking forward. No comments from the President, well, maybe I`ll go, but maybe it won`t be worth it. I`m going forward.

And as far as the Iran deal is concerned, if the President pulls out of the Iran deal, he will say the U.S. isn`t a reliable partner. He will break the transatlantic relationship, and Europe will be trying to keep the deal alive with Russia and China.

And coming back to North Korea itself, indeed as you pointed out, the verification and monitoring is crucial. There is nothing more extensive than what exists in the Iran deal. That`s the template of what you need in North Korea. And I don`t believe, at the end of the day, that North Korea thinks denuclearization means destroying its stockpile of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

MELBER: All very interesting. Is it possible that Donald Trump, in his tweet, is aware of the history here of the testing issue and that -- their claim of nuclear progress and that he is sort of playing a three- dimensional chess and outsmarting the North Koreans?

Just kidding. I don`t think that`s possible.

(LAUGHTER)

MELBER: What will happen now that he`s tweeted this?

SHERMAN: I think what will happen is that we will head towards the end of this week to the North-South summit, which is really a getting ready for the Trump/Kim Jong-un summit. But the South is likely to put on the table, as we`ve heard, a peace treaty going from the armistice to peace.

Well, peace doesn`t need troops that are doing exercises. And if you`ll recall, the Chinese and Russian play all along has been freeze for freeze. That North Korea would freeze its testing, and we would freeze our military exercises.

We have to -- for our troops to be ready and our troops to be ready with South Korea under the unified U.N. command, we`ve got to exercise. We might change the scope of those exercises, where we do those exercises, but we have to be ready because --

MELBER: I guess my --

SHERMAN: -- we`ve been down this road.

MELBER: My final question to you then is, is there anything in the fundamentals here, I mean in what`s actually real, separate from all of the talk about talks, that gives the U.S. more confidence they could get -- we could get meaningful concessions from the North Koreans this time, given all the past aborted attempts?

SHERMAN: I don`t know, to tell you the truth. I think it is a good thing that dialogue is taking place. I want diplomacy to work. I don`t want to go to war.

Even a bloody nose strike such as it is would be catastrophic, so we`ve got to try diplomacy. We have to put everything into it.

But this is going to be a very long process. This isn`t going to get over in one photo opp or even two or three or four. The Iran nuclear deal took years. This will take more.

MELBER: Ambassador Wendy Sherman, every time I get to talk to you, I feel like it is a speed tutorial and is very useful. I appreciate your time tonight.

SHERMAN: Thank you, Ari.

MELBER: Tonight`s last word is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MELBER: It`s time for tonight`s last word.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": Everyone is talking about Donald Trump`s potentially epic summit with Kim Jong-un. It`s the dispute of the ill-fitting suits. It`s the men with the nukes putting up their dukes.

In this corner, weighing in at 239 pounds. Ha, ha. With a terrible haircut, a man-child who had everything handed to him by his father.

And in the other corner, the exact same thing.

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: Let`s get ready to bumble!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MELBER: That`s tonight`s last word. Thanks for joining us. I am Ari Melber.

You can always find me weekdays at 6:00 p.m. Eastern on my nightly show, "THE BEAT WITH ARI MELBER."

Now, coming up, "The Washington Post" is reporting that even Attorney General Jeff Sessions may have his own limits when it comes to Donald Trump trying to interfere in the Mueller probe. "THE 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS" is up next.

END