WSJ reports Manafort sought plea deal. TRANSCRIPT: 08/27/2018. The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell

Guests: Barbara McQuade; Sam Stein; Mimi Rocah; Jon Meacham; Jennifer Rubin

Show: THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O'DONNELL Date: August 27, 2018 Guest: Barbara McQuade; Sam Stein; Mimi Rocah; Jon Meacham; Jennifer Rubin

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: That does it for us tonight. See you again tomorrow. Now, it's time for "THE LAST WORD" with Ali Velshi, sitting in for Lawrence O'Donnell tonight. Good evening, Ali and a belated thank you for filling in so ably for me on Friday night. My staff loved working with you.

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST: It was fantastic. It was a great, great experience. I loved doing it and if you all discuss that you'll have me back, I'd be happy to do it again.

MADDOW: Yes, sir.

VELSHI: But it was great spending time with your team. Thank you.

MADDOW: You too. Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI: Have a great evening.

Well, breaking news tonight from the "Wall Street Journal". A surprising twist in the criminal trials of President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Manafort's defense team reportedly held talks with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutors to discuss a possible plea deal to resolve the second set of charges against Manafort.

According to "The Journal", "The plea discussions occurred as the Virginia Jury was spending four days deliberating tax and bank fraud charges against Mr. Manafort," sources said. Of course, that Jury convicted Manafort on eight counts. They deadlocked on 10 others. Now, the talk between the two sides were aimed for stalling a second trial for Paul Manafort. That one is currently set to begin on September 17th in Washington, D.C. That's just three weeks from today.

That second trial will focus on his alleged violations of the Foreign Agent's Registration Act. But the two sides apparently couldn't reach a deal and now they are moving closer to that second trial. People familiar with the matter tell the "Wall Street Journal", "The plea talks on the second set of charges stalled over issues raised by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. One of the people said it isn't clear what those issues were, and the proposed terms of the plea deal couldn't immediately be determined."

The plea discussions on this, the second upcoming case, "Represent a softening in posture for Mr. Manafort," the Journal writes. Manafort has fought charges more aggressively than other defendants in the Mueller investigation. Just last week, President Trump praised his brave former campaign chairman saying he had, "Refused to break." It seems that Manafort was a bit closer to breaking than we all realized. There is no indication that if Manafort had struck a plea deal that he would have cooperated with Mueller's team. And we all know the president's feelings on former allies who cooperate with prosecutors.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONAL TRUMP: This whole thing about flipping, they call it, I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I have been watching Flippers. It almost ought to be outlawed. It's not fair that I have many friends involved in this stuff. It is called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Almost ought to be illegal. Earlier today, we also found out that Trump may be willing to take drastic steps to pardon Paul Manafort. Sources told "Vanity Fair's" Dave Sherman that Trump is continuing to raise the possibility of a pardon and has been, "Clashing" with this man, White House Counsel Don McGahn who's apparently strongly against granting Manafort a pardon.

According to "Vanity Fair", Trump has told people he's considering bringing in a new lawyer to draft a Manafort pardon if McGahn won't do it. He really at this point doesn't care, a former official said. He would rather fight the battle. He doesn't want to do anything that would cede executive authority.

Now, all this is happening while the deadline draws closer for Mueller's team to decide whether to retry Manafort on a handful of charges that didn't yield convictions from his first trial. Mueller has until this Wednesday to inform the judge of that decision. If Mueller follows through on a second attempt to obtain guilty pleas on those counts, he could add to the already immense pressure on Manafort by extending his potential prison sentence and inflating his legal bills.

All right. There is a lot to get through here. Joining us now, Mimi Rocha, Former Federal Prosecutor, Barbara McQuade, also a Former Federal Prosecutor. She's a professor of law at the University of Michigan and Sam Stein, Politics Editor of the "Daily Beast". All three of them are MSNBC contributors. Welcome to all three of you.

Barbara, let's start with you. This business, first of all, of Donald Trump, saying flipping should almost be illegal. Obviously, he's sending a message about who he likes and who he doesn't like and what Paul Manafort should do. But how do you evaluate that comment?

BARBARA MCQUADE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think it is a terrible comment for law enforcement and anybody that cares about criminal justice. Cooperators are used in courtrooms across the country every day. There are a lot of safeguards in place to ensure that they are telling the truth, like requiring corroborating evidence and Jury instructions that tell them to use additional skepticism when evaluating the testimony of a cooperator and making sure that it lines up with the other evidence in the case.

And so I worry about the impact that that has when jurors across the country hear the president of the United States say that it ought to be illegal because prosecutors ask juries to believe cooperators every day in all kinds of garden-variety cases. and I think that this statement makes it harder for prosecutors to obtain Convictions in many kinds of Cases.

VELSHI: Sam, according to "Vanity Fair," the president spent the weekend calling people and screaming, following the Cohen, Manafort, Weisselberg and Pecker revelations. Let's just see what it says here in "Vanity Fair". It says the news of Cohen's plea, Paul Manafort's conviction which were followed by revelations that Trump Organization's CFO Allen Weisselberg and "National Enquirer" Publisher David Pecker are cooperating with Federal prosecutors have rattled Trump, like few other terms in the investigation has, sources said.

He spent the weekend calling people and screaming, one former White House official said. And according to sources, the president feels cornered with no clear way out. What do you make of it?

SAM STEIN, POLITICS EDITOR, DAILY BEAST: Well, I spend my weekends calling people and screaming too so it is not that remarkable. Secondly, I think that the walls are closing in on the president. These are people who are not insignificant, smallish players on his campaign like George Papadopolous for instance. These are people with intimate knowledge of his business empire, of what happened during the election, his campaign and even of his staff currently.

And so if these people are potentially talking with prosecutors, if they're working with authorities, then certainly the president is right to feel that some of his most unseemliness secrets could be exposed to the public. So yes, this is a very tense moment. You get the sense from talking to people in and around the administration that it is a different type of intensity, a different variety of intensity. It is not necessarily political.

Although, that matters and certainly you can see the future potentially where the House is dominated by Democrats and that could create some competition. It's not necessarily that. It is a personal intensity in which he sees everything that he's built up potentially come crashing down.

VELSHI: Mimi, let's talk about pardoning Paul Manafort. Political morning console Paul finds the majority of Americans disapprove of the idea of pardoning Paul Manafort. For Manafort, 11 percent think the pardon would be appropriate, 60 percent say inappropriate for Cohen. Numbers are similar, doesn't seem like there is any chance of Cohen getting a pardon.

But what's this business? The president keeps sending signals about how Paul Manafort is a good guy who didn't break. He won't discount the idea of a pardon. He is now talking about getting rid of Don McGahn if he doesn't agree to pardon Manafort. On the other side, the Manafort trial, his team has been thanking the president for their support. Can they be actually talking about a pardon? Or is that they can't do that?

MIMI ROCAH, ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: They shouldn't be. It is bad enough that Trump is doing this public dance, which we have called floating pardons. We called it dangling pardons. Some people have suggested and I don't think it's farfetched that it's coming close to the line almost of a bribe. I mean, is he offering Manafort basically a pardon in exchange for, you know, him not cooperating?

So, I mean, you know, could the lawyers be talking to each other? Maybe. But, you know, I think he should not be talking about it at all. It is dangerous territory for Trump to be doing.

VELSHI: Would you interpret this as that, that the president is sending messages out to Manafort, don't cave?

ROCAH: Yes, it really does seem that way, particularly after the trial. Particularly when at the trial Manafort's lawyer in the closing argument was making this argument that he had sort of said they weren't going to make and were supposed to not be making which was how unfair this is and he's being sort of selectively prosecuted.

So that to me seems, not only to be appealing to try to get a hung Jury to, you know, just get one Jury to be sympathetic to Manafort but also directly playing into what Trump is saying, which is poor Manafort. He's being targeted because he worked for me. And that's all a big set-up for he can pardon him and it goes to this question of why isn't Manafort pleading guilty? I mean one possibility is that Manafort couldn't plead guilty because if you plead guilty, it would be harder for Trump to give him a pardon.

VELSHI: Oh, that's interesting.

ROCAH: He goes to trial and fights it and looks like, you know --

VELSHI: Looks like he might be innocent. Looks like he might be.

ROCAH: Yes, you know, poor prosecuted guy. So it's interesting to hear that there even have been discussions about that. I don't know how that is going to play into the pardon talk.

VELSHI: Barbara, "The Washington Post" is reporting about the second trial. It says the Paul Manafort trial set for September in Washington is expected to last three weeks and on the basis of a list of 1,500 possible exhibits will delve far more deeply into how he operated as a lobbyist and a consultant than was done and just completed trial in Virginia.

The estimated trial timeline and exhibits were included in a joint filing Friday night in Federal Court on Washington by Manafort's defense and prosecutors with Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, III. This trial, we learned through the Cohen stuff for those of us who are not lawyers, that he could plead guilty, he could cooperate or he could do neither and go on with this trial. But legal watchers that I have talked to has said that this is a tighter case and possibly a better case for the government than the first trial.

MCQUADE: Yes. And, you know, the government also I think is coming in with a lot of momentum after the eight convictions it obtained in the prior case. And now we know, it was only one juror who stood in the way of convicting on 18 counts. I watched that trial. It was a very strong trial and now they have the chance to go in and prove-up some of that same evidence will come in to prove the money laundering charges.

And now we're going to hear a little more about the work he did as a lobbyist because that is the substance of the Foreign Agent Registration Act. It makes sense to me that this is the moment when they might be considering a guilty plea. You know, they took their shot in the first case, Manafort did and lost.

And now, knowing what the writing is on the wall, maybe this is the opportunity to try to work out some sort of deal. The only leverage he really has is cooperation but he could still plead guilty without cooperating and still receive some sort of sentencing benefit by doing so. So it wouldn't surprise me to see a guilty plea at this stage.

VELSHI: Sam, Roger Stone has been talking to a publication about the possibility of Don Jr. being charged by Mueller with lying to the FBI. Let's listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER STONE: I predicted yesterday, based on excellent sourcing, that the special counsel is going to charge Donald Trump Jr. with lying to the FBI.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Donald Trump Jr., you just mentioned him. Is he going to be -- is Mueller going after him next? You said they're going to try and get him for lying to the FBI.

ROGER STONE: I believe so. They're not going after him for the underlying crime because there is no crime. He's done nothing wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Sam, what do you think about that? Some say that Donald Trump's kids are his Achilles heel. He has tweeted that he's concerned about Don Jr. Others say that even that doesn't move the guy. He's mostly interested in protecting himself.

STEIN: Well, I take everything Roger Stone says with like 10 grains of salt, to be clear. So I'm not entirely sure if he has the best insider knowledge on this. But to the broader question of what role Don Jr. plays in the president's orbit, yes, I do believe that the kids are the sort of the Achilles heel here. I mean this is a man who doesn't have many obsessions or sorry, things that he holds close to him but family appears to be at least some of them, at least in some part.

And Don Jr. would be, of course, the eldest child and certainly a close associate to the campaign and somebody you want to protect. We do know one thing that Don Jr. has misled, let's put it that way, the initial story for instance about the Trump Tower meeting was just erroneous. It wasn't really about adoption policy in Russia, it was about finding dirt on Hillary Clinton.

So there are clearly cases where the story hasn't always lined up, at least publically. Now, I don't know what he said privately but if there is the same pattern, then, sure, he has some legal vulnerabilities it appears.

VELSHI: Let's talk about that, Mimi. That's probably -- I mean we don't know what Roger Stone is talking about. But in theory, we do know that that's a public statement, as Sam said, that didn't match up with reality. So it's quite possible that Donald Trump Jr. and others repeated that lie in private to the FBI. Is that the kind of thing the Mueller investigation might do?

ROCAH: Charge him at lying to the FBI for that statement?

VELSHI: Yes.

ROCAH: They could. I mean there is also this possibility that he could be charged for lying to Congress in his testimony because he lied about the meeting there as well, it sounds like. You know, and we don't know what else -- this is the most public thing that we know he lied about because he lied in public about it as well. My guess is --

VELSHI: Right. He released all of these tweets and he released e-mails.

ROCAH: Right.

VELSHI: We know what he said.

ROCAH: So we sort of saw the lie play out in, you know, plain sight as we have said many times about Donald Trump, the father. But, you know, remember as we say over and over, Mueller knows so much more and so if he asks -- if he interviewed Trump Jr., he asked him so many other questions that presumably he also lied about. And we just don't know about them because, again, they are not in the public arena.

VELSHI: Barbara, where do you think that goes? Because if you look at the way these cases are being built where they are finding people sort of peripheral and then moving up to the center on this thing, do you think the kids are a possibility?

MCQUADE: Oh, I think so. You know, they're close. And I guess I wouldn't lump them altogether, but Donald Trump Jr. is really at the heart of this with his involvement in the meeting at Trump Tower. And, you know, I take exceptions to what Roger Stone said about there is no crime there so you charge him with lying. Lying to the FBI, lying to investigators is a very significant crime. The whole system relies on people telling the truth when you talk to them. If you don't want to talk to them, don't talk to them. But if you do talk to them, don't lie.

And so you see it again and again. Martha Stewart, every day, people are charged with lying to the FBI because it is the way they do their business. And if you lie to them, it is a crime. And so if they can prove that lie, I think that they will for the deterrent effect it has on other cases and to hold them accountable for lying in this case.

VELSHI: I have certainly learned that in the last couple of years. Should lie normally but don't lie to Congress and don't lie to the FBI, unless you have very deep pockets. All right. Thanks to all three of you for being with me. Mimi will stick with me. Barbara McQuade and Sam Stein, thanks to both of you.

Coming up, why Bob Mueller's investigation may not be the biggest threat investigation that President Trump faces. There is another Federal probe that could put him and his family even more jeopardy.

And next, the president finally spoke out about Senator John McCain tonight but not before the president was scolded by Veterans.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP: Paul Manafort is a good man. He was with Ronald Reagan. He was with a lot of different people over the years. And I feel very sad about that because it involved me but I still feel, you know, it's a very sad thing that happened.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Very sad. That was the president's reaction when reporters asked him about convicted felon Paul Manafort last week. Today, reporters asked the president of the United States about the death of decorated war hero and Senator John McCain. Here was his reaction.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, any thoughts on John McCain?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: MR. President, do you have anything to say about John McCain?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, why won't you say anything About John McCain?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, do you have any thoughts on John McCain? Do you have any thoughts at all about John McCain? Do you believe John McCain was a hero, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Guys, let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nothing at all about John McCain, sir?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: That's just weird, right? He just got asked several times today, many opportunities, very clear. There was no chance he didn't hear that question and he just looked straight ahead when asked about John McCain. It is a layup. Saying something nice about John McCain is about the easiest thing any American could possibly do today. It would come easier than most of your normal errands.

But all of that came after "The Washington Post" reported that President Trump refused to release a statement that would have called McCain a "Hero". Instead, he sent a tweet that didn't offer a single word of praise for McCain. It said, "My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you." That's nice but no compliment. It's not hard to call John McCain a hero. It's just not hard at all.

The White House also broke tradition this morning by placing its flag back at full staff before John McCain's burial, even as the capital flag remained at half-staff. But tonight, President Trump appears to be relenting after withering criticism from the American Legion which represents two million Veterans and criticism from kind of everyone else, the White House flag sometime in the 3:00 hour went back to half-staff again late this afternoon.

And tonight, after nearly 48 hours of refusing to utter a positive word about American Hero John McCain, the president said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Also, our hearts and prayers are going to the family of Senator John McCain. There will be a lot of activity over the next number of days, and we very much appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done for our country, so thank you very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Well, that's a start. Joining us now is Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and the author of "The Soul of America". Also joining us is Jennifer Rubin, a Conservative opinion writer at "The Washington Post." Both are MSNBC contributors.

I mean, look, Jennifer, I'm just trying to keep it under wraps here because I just don't understand. When somebody dies, it's just not hard to say something nice about them because they're not going to know you said anything nice about them. So you get to take the win about being mean to them while they were alive. I just don't understand why this was such a struggle but more interestingly, why he flipped.

JENNIFER RUBIN, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Ali, it's because you are not a raging narcissist that you find it difficult to understand why someone can't say something nice about a dead war hero. But Trump is incapable of acknowledging other people's superiority and John McCain was in every way imaginable superior to the president of the United States. So it was not going to be something that he was going to do willingly.

And I think he was probably under the impression that, like Charlottesville, like all of the other horrible things he's said and done that there would be a little fuss and then things would move on. But here, he took on the wrong group of people, and that is Veterans. The two million people who are members of or alive with the American Legion I think had an impression on him. And from what we understand, everyone in the White House in terms of his senior staff, in terms of General Mattis, in terms of even Sarah Huckabee Sanders were basically telling him you need to do this, you need to do this.

Now, in the past, John McCain has resisted that kind of advice but I think he could probably see if he was watching Fox which is where he likes to go, even they were praising John McCain. So the jig was up and this is not going to go away --

VELSHI: Everybody was praising John McCain.

RUBIN: Exactly, exactly.

VELSHI: And a lot of people who -- you know, Jon Meacham, I talked to a lot of people who would describe John McCain as their nemesis. John McCain was a thorn in the side to a lot of people in his party, in the Democratic Party. Is there a historical sort of precedent for the idea that the president has or invents a nemesis and then there is just no ability to sort of get past partisanship in order to honor that person?

John McCain is one of these people that people on the left honor, people on the right honor, people say they didn't agree with him but they respected the idea that he put principal before most other things.

JON MEACHAM, AUTHOR: Yes. You know, the person who presided the longest in that office where he was sitting today where John Karl was giving him the chance to do the right thing was Franklin Roosevelt who said in September of 1932 in the midst of the great depression, in the midst of his campaign against Herbert Hoover that the presidency is not an engineering or managerial job, that's the least of it. It is preeminently a place of moral leadership. That was FDR's vision of the presidency. It was also his cousin Theodore's. it was the biggest -- it was the same view that the biggest men so far who have held that office have adhered to.

And, you know, I agree with Jennifer. And, you know, it's sweet of you in a way to be somewhat surprised. I think it speaks well of your character. But we're at a point where I was sort of toting up the list. A lot of us got a sense of this with his attack on Senator McCain during the campaign but also the attack on the Kahn's, the gold star family.

VELSHI: Right.

MEACHAM: And there is something telling about that. I'm practicing psychiatry without a license, but that's what biographers do. He doesn't - - he has a very hard time acknowledging the courage and sacrifice of others. And I think it's because he has fundamental unacknowledged anxieties about his own virtues.

VELSHI: So Jennifer, John McCain had released -- he had written a letter. He had written a statement to Americans that was to be released upon his passing. And his long-time friend and former campaign manager Rick Davis read that today. There is an interesting paragraph in here that I want to play that I think is very telling. It's after John McCain talking about America's greatness, this is what he wrote.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK DAVIS, FORMER CAMPAIGN MANAGER OF JOHN MCCAIN: These are John's words. We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear me down, when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been. Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: So Jennifer, putting aside the fact that he said we weaken it when we hide behind walls, which seemed like a not so attack on President Trump, we weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. There isn't something even remotely partisan about that statement but it does speak to our national anxiety right now.

And I often say to somebody like you, a conservative, is this the kind of thing that Republicans can rally around and say, "This is what Republicans have stood for in this country for decades prior to Donald Trump showing up."

RUBIN: It would be my fond hope. but at this present juncture I feel that the party has completely lost its way and I think they will salute John McCain, they will make nice speeches and then they will go back to their tautism. And it is not until the party has delivered one or maybe more devastating election losses that they will come around to see the error of their ways.

And I think we all think of Donald Trump when we hear those words, but those are equally applicable to the Republican Party as a whole, which has become this tribalistic know nothing, unprincipled party that simply jumps whenever Donald Trump tells them to and is loathed to perform their constitutional obligation which is to check the president of the United States, which is to conduct appropriate oversight.

And so I would like to think that Donald Trump would have finally played his tune out but I see no evidence of that. Now, I will grant you the Republican Party is a lot smaller these days, in part because people like me have left it. If you do the math, you know, you can come up with 10 or 15 people who no longer identify as Republican. So it's a smaller party than it used to be but I still maintain that the only way to rescue the party or to clear the decks is to, frankly, give them a spanking in November and probably in 2020 as well.

VELSHI: Jon, let's talk about how the world is going to remember these two men in their interactions. John McCain was imperfect. He says it himself. There are lots of things he's criticized for, but there are a lot of things for which he is admired. And in the end, he will be remembered the way he wanted to be remembered, a man who served his country hopefully honorably. I think those were, I'm paraphrasing his own words about how he wishes to be remember. How will history remember him and his relationship with Donald Trump, do you think?

MEACHAM: Well, John McCain is a great American. Originally, he's a great American story. He's fascinating not least because he feels as though he's a World War II figure, though he was younger than that. His heroism was tested in the crucible of Vietnam in captivity. And yet, when we look at him, I think we, to some extent, we tend to see someone who has more in common with George H.W. Bush or Bob Dole, the World War II guys who are also passing so quickly.

It seems to me that the contrast between John McCain and the incumbent president will be a useful one for historians and biographers who look at the competing traditions in American life. John McCain was someone who in this remarkable last testament has once again affirmed a big hearted vision of the country. It's a vision that, again, for all their faults, T.R. had it, Donald Reagan had it, John McCain had it. Donald trump represents the other end of that spectrum, which is the tradition of building walls, imposing tariffs, constricting the classic conservative ideas of the free movement of thought and people.

Conservatives in the classical sense are people who want to let freedom go as far as it possibly can as long as it doesn't harm you or me. And John McCain represents opening arms. Donald Trump today, you saw him, folds them.

VELSHI: Yes, he certainly did. Thanks to both of you, Jon Meacham and Jennifer Rubin.

Coming up next, the special counsel investigation may not be the Federal investigation that's posing the biggest threat to the president. There is another investigation that could also ensnare Ivanka, Eric, and Donald Trump Jr.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: Donald Trump has spent most of his time and energy railing against Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation. But the greatest legal threat to Trump's presidency could actually come from the Southern District of New York. That's where Trump's longtime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws and implicated Donald Trump himself in those crimes.

It is also where prosecutors granted immunity to this man, Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer for the Trump Organization who, quote, knows where the financial bodies are buried. Also, granting immunity in the case are two of Trump's associates from a media company that owns the tabloid the "National Enquirer". Former prosecutors tell the "Atlantic" that the Southern District is building its case like it would build a case of organized crime.

"This is a classic move in investigations of a criminal organization," said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who is part of the team that convicted the Gambino family boss John Gotti. They're moving up the ladder. Peripheral characters are given immunity. Witnesses testify but they're ultimately keeping their eye on the prize.

The "Washington Post" reports that Trump's wall of secrecy, the work of a lifetime is starting to crack. In coming months, certain cases could force Trump's company to open its books about foreign government customers or compel the president to testify about his relationships with women. Trump legal defender, Alan Dershowitz warned the president and his legal team that the Mueller investigation should not be their priority.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Perhaps the special counsel is the least of the threats the president faces right now.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You've got the Southern District. You've got the New York attorney general. You've got the Manhattan district attorney. Where is the greatest threat?

DERSHOWITZ: Well, I said that right from the beginning because I think he has constitutional defenses to the investigation being conducted by Mueller. But there are no constitutional defenses to what the Southern District is investigating. So I think the Southern District is the greatest threat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Joining us now is Natasha Bertrand, the staff writer at the Atlanta -- I'm sorry, having trouble speaking tonight, at the Atlantic covering national security and the intelligence community. She wrote the article about the Southern District. She's also an MSNBC contributor. Mimi Rocah is back with us. Welcome to both of you.

Natasha, what did Dershowitz mean when he said the president has constitutional defenses against the Mueller investigation but not against the Southern District of New York?

NATASHA BERTRAND, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Well, I think you have put me in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Alan Dershowitz on something, Ali. Yes. So I think that the point he was trying to make is that the president could order Rod Rosenstein essentially to fire Bob Mueller at any point. Of course, Rosenstein could refuse to do that and there are certain -- there are, you know, limits to -- there are issues related to the president's executive authority that could hinder the Mueller investigation in a way that the Southern District of New York may not be affected by.

So for example, if Bob Mueller was fired, his work would potentially continue, but you can't really end the investigations that are being carried out by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York by firing one person. I mean, this is something that's out of the president's control, really. And I think that's why he's so terrified at the moment. If you speak to people close to him and people around the administration, they say that he feels like he's being backed into a corner.

And it's also because he knows that this is getting into the heart of his finances, the heart of the Trump Organization, of course --

VELSHI: Which he warned Mueller not to get involved in, but the Southern District has no warning from the president and it needs to heed no warning from the president.

BERTRAND: Right. It's also important to remember that the president really has never had to face consequences for anything. And so this is kind of the system striking back in a way that I don't think he expected it to. Now, of course, I don't think that that means that the Mueller investigation poses no threat to the president.

VELSHI: Correct, yes.

BERTRAND: Of course, he is investigating whether the president obstructed justice, which is a serious danger. And, of course, we also don't know what Mueller has in terms of a potential conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. You know, why has Michael Flynn's sentencing been delayed so much? What do we know about Roger Stone and WikiLeaks? So these are questions that will need to be answered but right now the more immediate threat is being posed by the Southern District.

VELSHI: Right. It would be overstating it to say that the Mueller investigation is not a threat to the president. But Mimi, you are formerly of the Southern District of New York. I think for a lot of us, again we aren't lawyers, we're not clear on the distinction. But it does seem from what Natasha is saying that the Southern District doesn't have to run scared of anything Donald Trump can do. The only thing he can do is pardon somebody that gets a conviction from the Southern District.

ROCAH: That's generally true. U.S. Attorneys' Offices, in general, run their investigations independently, certainly of the president, but also even independently of the attorney general, the Department of Justice. There are certain things that U.S. Attorneys' Offices like the Southern District need to go to what we call main justice, the attorney general and offices within the Department of Justice in Washington to get permission for certain kinds of charges, tax charges.

Now, if you recall, in Michael Cohen's plea there was, I believe, a tax agent, an agent from the IRS at his plea, which means that they are already involved. So that permission has already been sought because we know that Michael Cohen pled guilty to tax charges. So, you know, I think the point is that it would be so unusual for Trump in some way to impose limits on the Southern District investigation. And the Southern District is not just any U.S. Attorney's Office, it is, as I think Natasha mentioned in her article, sort of sometimes the rightfully called the Sovereign District of New York.

VELSHI: Right.

ROCAH: But it is for a reason and it is because the Southern District has always really maintained its independence, even more than other offices and that's going to come in handy here in this investigation as it grows.

VELSHI: And by the way, there is also the New York Attorney General, the Manhattan District Attorney who are yet farther removed from influences that Donald Trump can have over them.

ROCAH: Right. I mean they have -- he has no power over them, you know, other than I guess political influence but nothing official.

VELSHI: Tweets and saying bad things about them.

ROCAH: Right, right, exactly.

VELSHI: All right. Good discussion. Natasha, I do want to ask you about this business about where there could be a liability for Donald Trump's kids when it comes to these other investigations. BERTRAND: Of course. Well, Trump's three children, Ivanka, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, they were all executive vice presidents at the Trump Organization. So if there was any wrongdoing in terms of the financial dealings in the Trump Organization's history, then that could open them up to some legal exposure.

But of course, what the New York Attorney General is investigating regarding the Trump Foundation, that could be even more problematic for Trump's kids because as we have seen, there is evidence that they used their charity to fund certain aspects of the Trump campaign.

VELSHI: All right. Thanks to both of you, Mimi Rocah and Natasha Bertrand.

Coming up, the Trump administration's hasty announcement of a trade deal with Mexico today with the Mexican president on speakerphone. You're going to want to see this. What we know about the deal and what we don't is next. Whatever it is, just don't call it NAFTA.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: To hear Donald Trump tell it, the United States is touting a huge victory today, a new trade agreement with Mexico. Trump made the announcement in the oval office that a new trade agreement with Mexico would replace key aspects of NAFTA and wanted to do it with the president of Mexico. But he actually had a little technical trouble getting the president of Mexico on the phone to make the announcement.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I believe the president is on the phone. Enrique? You could hook him up. It's a big thing. A lot of people waiting. Hello? Do you want to put that on this phone, please? Hello?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: OK. Well, after all the complications with the speakerphone, they finally got the Mexican President on the phone. Trump went on to give this new agreement a new name, one that entirely excludes Canada.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I like to call this deal the United States-Mexico trade agreement. I think it is an elegant name. I think NAFTA has a lot of bad connotations for the United States because it was a rip-off. We will see whether or not we decide to put up Canada or just do a separate deal with Canada because I want to make the deal, the simplest deal is more or less already made. It would be very easy to do and execute.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: And how much more elegant it is as a name while NAFTA may not roll off the tongue, U.S.-Mexico trade agreement would be USMTA so that's not that elegant. Names aside, let's take a look at what's actually in the new agreement between the United States and Mexico. The deal requires that 75 percent of automobile parts must be made in the United States and Mexico in order for a car to avoid tariffs.

That's up from approximately 62.5 percent, 40 percent to 45 percent of those parts must be made by workers earning a minimum of $16 per hour. Not an average, a minimum of $16 an hour. That means that some Mexican workers could get a raise as auto workers there are paid less than Americans are or it could mean that more car parts will have to be made in America.

In addition, if this agreement is approved by Congress, tariffs on agriculture products traded between the U.S. and Mexico will return to zero, which is how they were under NAFTA before Donald Trump started this trade war. The deal also calls for incentives for increasing the production of textiles and clothing in the United States and Mexico. U.S. and Mexico hope to reach a three-way deal with Canada by the end of this week but it remains to be seen if Canada is going to agree to this deal or reach its own deal with the United States.

There's an issue here though. Officials say they hope Canada will agree to the terms by Friday because the House formally plans to know whether the White House plans to notify Congress that Trump will sign the deal. Congress then has 90 days to approve it.

When we come back, we're going to discuss why the president's new trade agreement isn't all he made it out to be. Austan Goolsbee is standing by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: To be honest with you, I wouldn't mind seeing NAFTA where you would go by a different name, where you make a separate deal with Canada and a separate deal with Mexico because you're talking about a very different two countries.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: All right. Here to help me explain what is in this new preliminary agreement, remember that's what I'm calling it, is Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of the council of economic adviser for President Obama, currently a professor of economics at the University of Chicago.

Austan, the president this morning indicated he's getting rid of NAFTA. Canada is not in this deal. This is the U.S.-Mexico trade agreement and then he got the Mexican President on the phone who kept talking about NAFTA and kept talking about Canada and really looking forward to having Canada in this whole thing. So they don't seem to be on the same understanding about what this thing is they've agreed to.

AUSTAN GOOLSBEE, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: Yes. I couldn't tell that it's really much of anything. I mean as you know, Ali, what I usually say is every day we don't have a trade war is a good day for the economy. And today, we didn't have -- if Donald Trump wants to do a small, meaningless adjustment to one sector within NAFTA and first talk to Mexico, that's fine. If that keeps him from ranting and raving and starting a trade war, then we should all clap politely and say, "Good job, Mr. President," and just move on to the next thing.

VELSHI: Right. The stock market responded well because I think they haven't seen since February when all this nonsense started. But oh, OK, maybe there are things that this president can do that aren't trade warish. The deal doesn't look bad but, as you said, it deals with basically one sector, the auto sector. And it's a small bit of what Trump said he would get if he negotiated with one country as opposed to negotiating with Canada and Mexico so it's bad but it's --

GOOLSBEE: It's not good. I mean it's just a couple of little crumbs. But just to put in context, both Canada and Mexico agreed to far more expansive things that were in the U.S.'s favor to become part of the trans-pacific partnership. If they had signed the trans-pacific partnership, they would have made much more significant concessions than this only in the auto sector thing that they're talking about right now.

VELSHI: What do you make of the few concessions that are in there? For instance, the idea that 40 percent to 45 percent of the parts that are going to be made to make a North American car have to be at a minimum of $16 an hour. What's the net effect to that? Does that mean Mexicans will earn more or does that mean more plants will stay in America?

GOOLSBEE: Well, I mean, A, let's set aside the whole thing of -- this still needs to be negotiated, the details still needs to be voted on. All of that happen --

VELSHI: Right. By Mexico and America, and if Canada is involved, by Canada.

GOOLSBEE: You know, what we've seen with kind of international agreements of this form where you try to put in very specific one-sector deals like that is a counting gimmickry. So I would not be surprised at all if in a way they called it raising the wages in Mexico. In a different way, they split the firm into two and they said, "Oh, no, this firm is paying $16 an hour to the two managers, it was that other firm that's paying less."

I think the original NAFTA lowered tariffs on thousands of products. I mean affected hundreds of industries --

VELSHI: You mean the NAFTA is the worst deal that was ever negotiated?

GOOLSBEE: Yes, what he said is the worst deal. I got the sense that maybe the stall on the phone was the Mexican President kind of calling his friends and saying, "Woah, you mean at the end of the day Donald Trump was willing to sign a deal, asking us to do almost nothing?" He's trying to take it as fast as possible. Look, let's just sign it, move on to the next thing.

VELSHI: Yes, it does seem that this is not as big a thing as the president wanted people to think and that it doesn't actually do away with NAFTA. Austan, good to talk to you, as always. Thank you, Austan Goolsbee.

GOOLSBEE: Yes, good to see you again.

VELSHI: And that -- well, tonight's last word right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: Time now for tonight's last word.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN MCCAIN: In a contests as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.

With all its suffering and danger, the world still looks to the example and leadership of America to become another better place. What greater cause could anyone ever serve?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Senator John McCain gets tonight's last word. "THE 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS" starts right now.

END

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