Show: THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL Date: December 13, 2018 Guest: Nicholas Kristoff; Neera Tanden; Malcolm Nance; Joyce Vance
ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST: Fridays are always a doozy, Rachel. Thank you. Have a great evening.
Tonight is too. It`s a big night of breaking news. Tonight, President Trump`s private business -- his presidential campaign, his transition team, his White House and now his inaugural committee all to varying degrees under criminal investigation.
"The Wall Street Journal" is reporting that federal investigators are investigating the Trump inaugural committee, an investigation that partly arise out of materials seized by the FBI in its raids of Michael Cohen`s home, office and hotel room. Quote: Federal Bureau of Investigation agents obtained a recorded conversations between Mr. Cohen and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former advisor to Melania Trump who worked on the inaugural events.
In the recording, Ms. Wolkoff expressed concerns about how the inaugural committee was spending money, according to a person familiar with the Cohen administration -- investigation. Now, people familiar with the matter tell "The Wall Street Journal" that the criminal probe is looking into whether the committee misspent some of the $107 million it raised and, quote, whether some of the committee`s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions.
"The Journal" also reports investigators have spoken to this man, Rick Gates, about the inaugural committee spending. Gates previously served as the deputy Trump campaign manager and deputy chairman of Trump`s inaugural committee. He`s currently cooperating with federal prosecutors as part of his plea deal.
The report of an investigation into Trump`s inaugural committee comes as NBC News confirms Donald Trump was the third person in the room in August of 2015 who was talking about hush money payments to women with Michael Cohen and "National Enquirer" publisher David Pecker, the guy on the right. Remember Trump keeps saying he had no knowledge of this, it wasn`t illegal, it didn`t even happen.
Federal prosecutors in New York said in a press release yesterday that American media, that`s the parent of "The National Enquirer", admitted to making the $150,000 payment, quote, in concert with the campaign. And there was a meeting between Cohen, Pecker and, quote, at least one other member of the campaign. The news tonight that other person, the third person in the room, Donald J. Trump himself.
This new report dropped just hours after the president`s increasingly desperate attempts to distance himself from Michael Cohen and his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Attempts that are often contradictory and obviously false.
Take Cohen, this morning Trump said Michael Cohen should have known better than to break campaign finance laws because Cohen is a lawyer. But hours later Trump tried to claim Cohen was actually just a PR flack.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: First of all --
INTERVIEWER: That was his title, a fixer.
TRUMP: Very low level work. He did more public relations than he did law. He would see him on television, he was okay on television.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: In a matter of hours, Trump picked his own argument apart and then the president falsely claimed that Michael Flynn did not lie to the FBI. He did. And that prosecutors recommend Flynn not serve any jail time because, quote, they`re embarrassed. They`re not.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: What`s going on right now with General Flynn? The FBI said he didn`t lie.
INTERVIEWER: I saw your tweet on that.
TRUMP: But Mueller said he did lie. So they took a man who`s a general and a respected person and a nice man, and I don`t even know what he said about me because maybe they scared him enough he`ll make up a story. But I haven`t -- I have a feeling that he`s a tougher kind of a guy than Cohen.
But they took a general that they said didn`t lie and they co convinced him he did lie and he makes some kind of a deal. And now, they`re recommending no time, you know? Because they`re embarrassed that they got caught.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: They said he didn`t lie, they`re embarrassed, who`s they? For the record, which in front of you, Michael Flynn said in federal court that he entered into his guilty plea voluntarily and he entered a plea of guilty because he is guilty and for no other reason.
They said he didn`t lie. There`s no they. It`s no surprise that this week of stunning developments has the president on edge. NBC News reporting Trump, quote, has told people close to him in recent days he`s alarmed by the prospect of impeachment, according to multiple sources, end quote.
Joining us now, Joyce Vance, formal federal prosecutor, MSNBC legal contributor, and Harry Litman, former federal prosecutor and deputy assistant attorney general under President Clinton.
Welcome to both of you. Thank you for being here.
Joyce, help me make sense of Trump`s crazy interview with Fox in which he just sort of said -- I don`t know, he always says they. Who`s the they that said Michael Flynn didn`t lie?
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: You know, the they in this case I think is maybe the deep state they, this fictitious cabal that Trump sees at every juncture that gets in his way.
But the reality is this. You reach a point where you listen to him where you realize that when prosecutors investigate him, they`re corrupt and evil. When the FBI finds evidence against him, there`s something wrong with the FBI. When judges rule against him they must be corrupt.
And so we know that they is really a fiction in Donald Trump`s mind and in reality as that evidence mounts from a variety of sources. It is far more likely than the reality is simply that Donald Trump has violated the criminal laws of the United States and it`s catching up with him.
VELSHI: Joyce Vance, I never want to contravene you`re saying but Harry Litman, Donald Trump says what Joyce Vance is not true. He tweeted this morning this was not campaign now, we`re talking about Michael Cohen, right?
He says, this was not campaign finance. This is the payment that Michael Cohen made to Stormy Daniels and the one he made to pay Karen McDougal. This was not campaign finance. Cohen was guilty on many charges unrelated to me but he pled to two campaign charges which were not criminal, and of which he probably was not guilty, even on a civil basis. Thos charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence.
Harry Litman, again it`s just not true what the president has tweeted there.
HARRY LITMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: I also wouldn`t want to contravene anything Joyce says, but it`s only because she`s always right. But here it`s pretty straightforward.
You know, there`s an element almost as I watched it again, Ali, a pathos to seeing the leader of the free world making up lie after lie in such short order. You know, it`s an almost dazzling lie here to say Michael Cohen has just pleaded guilty to something that isn`t a crime and a judge accepted it. You know, it`s a complete fantasy, and only the latest in an increasing series of ever weaker excuses.
And, you know, this last -- this has been a blockbuster week. Everything is coming home more and more to the president and his immediate circle. The revelations of today I think bring peril even potentially to Melania and just everyone around him now seems to be really implicated and the epicenter of all of course is the president of the United States.
VELSHI: So, both of you are former U.S. attorneys, former prosecutors. You`re not strangers to people lying. But what`s often very interesting to you is real evidence that helps prove that.
Donald Trump, a Trump ally has told NBC News and I think this part is interesting, that impeachment or whatever comes to Donald Trump as a consequence for all of this lying and misdeeds may hinge on David Pecker -- I`m very interested in this -- the head of American Media Incorporated and the non -- I don`t know what the term is, but the agreement he`s come into with the southern district of New York, and Allan Weisselberg, the CFO of the Trump Organization, Joyce, when there was that recording of Donald Trump and Michael Cohen, Cohen makes reference to Allan Weisselberg and David Pecker, right?
These are the four people included in whatever transactions took place. Weisselberg wrote the checks. He`s known the Trumps forever. He knew Donald Trump`s father and wrote the checks for him, too. Between these two guys, there may be stories we don`t even know about.
VANCE: So, we`ve talked a time or two about this idea that prosecutors don`t just rely on the uncorroborated word of one witness. Michael Cohen will never take the stand in a future case and testify without any backup. Instead what prosecutors do, we`ll have layer and layer of evidence that confirms and reinforces the strength of their case.
And that`s what we see now. We`ve got Weisselberg the check writer. We`ve got David Pecker at AMI. There`s some indication the chief officer at AMI is also cooperating. And each would have given prosecutors evidence and prosecutors would have painstakingly corroborated it, either with documents or perhaps, you know, we have this titillating detail that there may be more audiotapes from Michael Cohen.
But it will be a very solidly built building rather than something that will crumble and that`s the strength we see emerging now that the Southern District of New York has the reputation for putting together so meticulously.
VELSHI: I guess, Harry, the question I have for you is what do you do as a prosecutor with a case that is built around the testimony of a whole lot of people who were involved in crooked enterprise?
LITMAN: You bring in every week. The majority of big cases are built exactly that way and the defense always says, oh, but he`s a liar as the senators have said and as the prosecution always says. As Joyce just pointed out, look, there`s corroborating evidence.
For my money, by the way, the biggest development in a blockbuster week is the revelation that Trump is the third man in the room who not only oversees but actually directs and convenes the whole activity, sits down to Pecker and says, what can you do for me? It`s all instigated with him, but now we`ll have at least two corroborators there.
All of this will have corroboration, and the prosecution could say if it ever went to a jury, which it probably won`t, you don`t have to take Michael Cohen`s word for it alone. Here are the tapes, here`s the evidence, here`s your common sense. There`s a wealth of material there that would let a prosecutor bring the case.
VELSHI: I mean, Joyce, I feel like that`s a huge piece of information that Harry just made reference to there, that there are people in that room in August 2015 talking about paying hush money to women so it won`t interfere with the campaign. And Donald Trump was one of them. Other than the fact that`s interesting, the fact Donald Trump has been remarkably consistent at denying that he knew anything about this, and then when he figured out that everybody knew he knew something about this, that it wasn`t really a thing and it wasn`t about the campaign and it wasn`t a campaign financial violation.
Again, talk to me about this as a prosecutor. The guy was there when they made the decision to pay the money.
VANCE: If Donald Trump was one of your kids and talked to you like that, you`d send him to his room without dinner, right? This is just lie after lie. And as the truth emerges, he sort of shifts his story to conform, but it`s always a new lie.
And so, what prosecutors now have is the folks who were in the room with him. That matters. That`s critically important because for these campaign finance fraud counts the law is a little bit different. Typically, ignorance of the law is no excuse. But here for campaign finance, you have to actually prove that a punitive defendant knew he was violating the law.
You don`t have to show he knew he was violating this particular campaign finance law, just that he knew his conduct was illegal. And so the conversations that were held first person with Donald Trump in that room could be really important in this area. And if I can just go back and confirm what Harry was saying about the way prosecutors build cases, as you pointed out where the defense comes forward and says, you know, all of these witnesses are liars, well that`s the prosecutors stalk and trade.
And the argument that you make as a prosecutor, and jury understands this, is that the prosecutors didn`t pick the witnesses. The defendants pick the witnesses. It`s Donald Trump in these cases who hired these people, who worked with these people and conspired with them.
VELSHI: This is an important point, America.
Thanks to both of you for your help in helping us analyze these things. Joyce Vance and Harry Litman, thank you to both of you.
Coming up, NBC News also reports that the president is very worried about investigations from the incoming Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congressman Mike Quigley, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, joins me next.
And is President Trump`s bizarre series of interviews opening him up to even more trouble?
VELSHI: We`re back with more on tonight`s breaking news that the multiple investigations into Trump continue to grow, with federal prosecutors now looking into Trump`s inaugural campaign fund, an investigation that arose partly from materials obtained in the raid on Michael Cohen`s home, office and hotel room.
Earlier today, former Michael Cohen lawyer Lanny Davis said Michael Cohen had a lot more to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LANNY DAVIS, FORMER MICHAEL COHEN LAWYER: I believe Mr. Cohen will have an opportunity before probably a congressional committee to answer every question and to tell the full story about what he knows about Mr. Trump.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: I`m joined now by Mike Quigley, Democratic congressman from Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, good to see you. Thank you for joining me tonight.
Do you and your -- I can`t really speak of the House Intelligence Committee anymore in the last two years because it feels like two separate bodies, the Republicans on the House Intel Committee and the Democrats on the House Intel Committee. So do you and your Democratic colleagues, at least, want to interview Michael Cohen?
REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D), ILLINOIS: Oh, absolutely. And look, I don`t hold any animosity towards Mr. Cohen. He seems to have finally come to terms with this and I take him at his word he wants to cooperate. So if he`s finally willing to open up and tell us exactly what took place, particularly with meetings with Russians or information about how money flowed through the Trump Organization, was there money laundering, we would absolutely love to let him speak unabated about such things.
We have to remember that the special counsel`s role is different than ours. His decision is who to bring to justice. Ours is to find out exactly what happened, how to prevent in the future and how to inform the American public.
VELSHI: So and I think you make a good point that there are things the special counsel is looking into, the Southern District of New York, the United States attorney is looking into. There`s things that the attorney general of New York are looking into and there are things that you might look into.
"Mother Jones" has published a story tonight in which it says, quote: Flynn said he discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak a grand bargain in which Moscow would cooperate with the Trump administration to resolve the Syrian conflict and Washington would end or ease up on the sanctions imposed on Russia. These sanctions imposed on Russia were sanctions that were imposed because of human rights violations, they were sanctions because of the Russian incursion into a sovereign country, Ukraine.
This is obviously an area that you`re going to want to inquire about because these were congressionally imposed sanctions in some cases.
QUIGLEY: Sure. These were also sanctions that involved the Russian attack on our democratic process. Before President Trump became President Trump they were also already trying to circumvent and coordinate with the Russians in this extraordinary mix of personal business, professional political worlds. I once described it as a cesspool.
As you see the news break as you described at the opening of the show, this isn`t a cesspool. This is much larger body of water, but it is certainly just as foul.
VELSHI: If it were just a cesspool, it would be manageable.
Sir, I know you had a meeting or that Gina Haspel, the head of the CIA, has briefed you on some of the matters dealing with Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudi involvement that night. I imagine you can tell me on some of the matters of what you heard but you might have to kill me.
So, let me quote to you what Senator Corker said about this. Let me play for you what he said and then I want to get your thoughts on it. Let`s listen together.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: We`ve got a crown prince that`s out of control. I was in the most recent intelligence briefing, the most crisp and clear intelligence briefing I`ve been a part of in 12 years, by far. If he was before a jury, the crown prince, he would be convicted in 30 minutes, OK? I`ve never seen such compelling evidence in an intelligence briefing. Never.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: So that`s interesting. Without telling us what you heard in the intelligence briefing, can you conquer that the evidence is compelling?
QUIGLEY: Let me be clear I have been in several briefings, none of them with a director. But I have been briefed I think pretty thoroughly on the Saudi situation with the murdered journalist.
But I also have served on the intelligence committee for four years. I have traveled to the kingdom. Common sense in that wealth of experience have told me there is absolutely no way the crown prince doesn`t have knowledge of this before it happens. And everything I`ve learned since then convinces me that he directed this and the United States needs to respond accordingly.
A lot of those briefings dealt with a fact, a reminder, hey, the Saudis are really important to us. That`s absolutely true. We have to remind ourselves, though, that our moral standing in the world matters. It is one of those things that makes our country special.
And we start doing attacks on our moral standing when we build walls, when we pull out of treaties, when we talk about America first. That combination of things sets us apart. It isolates us.
In a final analysis, if all we`re talking about is America first, that doesn`t work. It makes us less safe, keeps us isolated from the world and our friends simply don`t trust us.
VELSHI: As it relates to Russia or Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, the president seems to have a very binary view of disagreements with those countries. These sanctions are equated to war. I mean, the whole point of sanctions is it`s not war. It`s not an end of all relationships with other countries.
You can continue to have certain relationships but these are the signals that say you don`t share certain values or activities that occurred. Those are the waters the president has muddied when it comes to both Saudi Arabia and Russia.
QUIGLEY: Yes, when the Russians invade and take over large areas of Ukraine, when they have a war going on with one of our allies, the alternative to war is diplomacy and sanctions. When the Russians attack our democratic process, our first reaction must be as President Obama did, telling them to cut it out. And if they don`t, we sanction them and then we take the next step.
These are subtleties lost upon a president who didn`t believe in a role of the Justice Department, the independence of the intelligence community and help the State Department whose actions will prevent wars. Instead, what he`s done is gut that State Department.
Collectively all this does is make America more vulnerable to our enemies.
VELSHI: Congressman Quigley, good to talk to you. Thank you for joining me tonight. Congressman Mike Quigley is member of the House Intelligence Committee.
QUIGLEY: Thank you.
VELSHI: Coming up, is Jared Kushner going to be the next White House chief of staff? That and other bizarre news from the White House is next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: We`re interviewing people now for chief of staff, yes.
REPORTER: How long is the list now?
TRUMP: Five people. Really good ones. Terrific people. Mostly well- known.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: "The Huffington Post" and CBS News are reporting that one well- known person under consideration to be the chief of staff for the White House is Jared Kushner whom met with Trump to discuss the job yesterday. I`m not making this stuff up.
Unlike some other possible candidates, Kushner wouldn`t have to worry about lawyering up, he already has and has for some time been paying a defense lawyer to represent him with the special counsel`s office. But with all of the candidates, thanks to Twitter and the president`s predilection for TV cameras, they know what they`re getting into.
After two days of coverage about Trump`s promise to shut down the government if Democrats don`t vote for $5 billion to build the wall with Mexico, the president tweeted early this morning quoting himself that Mexico is paying for the wall.
I often stated Mexico is going to pay for the wall. This has never changed. Our new deal with Mexico and Canada, the USMCA, is so much better than the old very costly and anti-USA NAFTA deal that just by the money we save, Mexico is paying for the wall. Just by the money we save Mexico is paying for the wall which makes the Mexico is paying for the wall a lie.
Today, in an interview with Fox News, Trump was asked about the General Motors plant closures in Ohio.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
INTERVIEWER: And the nation got to see you as GM said, you know what, we`re going to wipe away 15 percent of the workforce right before Christmas and you said, I want to talk --
TRUMP: Yes. I don`t like what she did.
INTERVIEWER: The CEO, Ms. Barra.
TRUMP: It was nasty. It doesn`t really matter because Ohio is under my leadership from a national standpoint. Ohio is going to replace those jobs like in two minutes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: Ohio is not under the president`s leadership and they`re not actually replacing those jobs in two minutes.
But two minutes further into the interviewer, there were still no new jobs in Ohio.
Joining us now is Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. She was Hillary Clinton`s policy director during the 2008 presidential campaign, Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for "The New York Times".
Welcome to both of you.
Nick, I want to go in the ancient history -- February 2018 when you wrote this in "The New York Times" and it pertained to the Rob Porter scandal at the time. And you wrote: Dishonor is like a cancer that spreads inextricably as it feeds upon ambition, protect itself with lies and doubles down with cover-ups.
Looking at the chaos in the White House these days, I worry about inexperience, incompetence and lack of judgment but maybe I worry most about an utter lack of integrity and the way it is proving infectious.
Nick, you wrote that in February.
NICHOLAS KRISTOF, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Ten captures (ph) ago.
VELSHI: Ten captures (ph) ago, yes.
This is real problem.
KRISTOF: Yes, it is. It`s striking and I think it compounds itself that the White House has become such a bizarre and infectious place that good people don`t want to work there, don`t want to work with the administration. So, only tainted people who maybe able to monetize the White House are more inclined to do so. And I must say I mean the very idea that Jared Kushner would be considered chief of staff seems to me play in both the integrity issues and the capacity issues. I mean, this is coming right after we have the disaster with Saudi Arabia and we have the architect of that relationship with the crown prince. Jared Kushner who had his own ethical and financial issues with Saudi Arabia now being considered for chief of staff. I mean, it`s just incredible.
VELSHI: And I don`t know whether the -- it`s kind of interesting the way you divide that into integrity issues and capacity issues because they`re both really serious, right. That is really serious. And the ability, Neera Tanden, for this White House to get things done. The White House chief of staff is not just the chief of staff of a bunch of people who work in the White House. This is a job that is crucially important for the functioning of America.
NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I mean, honestly, after this week where we have more and more criminal activity that`s been pointed to, it really seems a lot. I have to say it seems a little bit like the mafia. I mean, essentially, the president can`t rely on anyone who is not related to him at this point to do anything because everyone -- who else is actually going to be a person you could rely on?
Essentially, he has to get relatives to do jobs for him because he already has a hold on them. I mean, what person is going to enter -- what competent person is going to enter a White House that is so demonstrably incompetent but under so many investigations? I mean just the revelations in the last 24 hours would make most rational people run for their lives. So, you know, I think it`s -- you know, I think this is a problem where the president`s integrity and incompetence is costing us at a greater, greater, and greater pace.
VELSHI: So Nicholas Kristof, there is another matter here and that is that it is not healthy for a country to have a party, a Republican Party or any party that is experiencing abject critical failure. Clara McCaskill was on "Morning Joe" today talking about what her Republican counterparts say about Donald Trump behind his back. Let`s listen together.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CLARA MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: Nuts, weak, doesn`t really understand government, doesn`t care to understand anything complicated. Asks and says the most unbelievable things in meetings that clearly shows he doesn`t understand the subject matter. No intellectual curiosity. I believe history will judge down the line those members of the Republican Party who have silently looked down and think they can just waive this out without even speaking up about the level of lying that goes on.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: So I think the last sentence there is the most important. There`s nobody who needs to be concerned about whether Donald Trump -- or needs to be convinced that Donald Trump doesn`t tell the truth but this is the issue. There are people on Capitol Hill who can fix this, who can do something, who can confront the president. And many of those people are members of the Republican Party, particularly in the Senate who have chosen not to time and time and time again.
KRISTOF: You know I find there`s a huge distinction between the Republicans in Congress who are completely aware of the president`s shortcomings of his lies and so on and the Republican base. And in my hometown in rural Oregon, people are very much standing by President Trump. They don`t believe he lies or don`t care about the lies. And I think that as long as the economy is strong, they will support him.
And as a result, every Republican member of Congress feels obliged to just stick with him because they`re more concerned about a primary challenge in most cases than about a general election defeat. And so I think that they have -- they know that the things they say in defense of President Trump are not true. But they are afraid of being defeated in the primary.
VELSHI: Let`s talk about that, Neera. "Fox News" has a poll that was taken between December 9 and 11 about President Trump`s job performance amongst registered voters, 46 percent approve. A little bit fascinating, 46 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove. This is kind of interesting. Two years in after the blunders that Donald Trump has committed, he`s still got a lot of support.
TANDEN: He does. But I think actually this week has really been a sea- change because this week we saw what an empowered Congress, an empowered Democratic House would actually mean. When Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer sat in front of him, argued with him, told him he was wrong, actually stated facts, did things that you would expect Republican leaders could have done two years ago but never did because Nick is right, they were worried about a primary.
But what we should also remember is a lot of Republicans lost their seats on November 6 because they would not be a check on Donald Trump. Democrats had a historic victory. Much of what has fueled that victory was a desire to have somebody speak truth to reality to Donald Trump. That happened this week.
And what happened? He caved. He caved immediately. He said immediately it was his shutdown. His whole staff must have been ripping their hair out. So I think Nick is right that the Republican Party has this problem, but the majority of the country still -- and I believe that majority will grow over the next two years but the majority of the country recognizes that Donald Trump is lying, is incompetent, and they want a different direction. And that`s what they voted for.
VELSHI: Neera, thank you tonight for your analysis. Neera Tanden. Nick Kristof, stay close by. I want to talk to you. You just come back from Yemen and I want to have that discussion with you in a bit.
Coming up today, Maria Butina has pleaded guilty to being a foreign agent. The questions remain, what does she know? A stunning line in her plea agreement suggests prosecutors think that she could be very valuable to future investigations. Malcolm Nance and Joyce Vance join us next.
VELSHI: Today for the first time, a Russian agent pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally trying to interfere in U.S. politics ahead of the 2016 election. Maria Butina agreed to cooperate with investigators and admitted that as early as 2015 she illegally conspired to establish unofficial lines of communication with members of the National Rifle Association and the Republican Party, according to court documents.
"Butina sought to use those unofficial lines of communication for the benefit of the Russian Federation. She took direction from Alexander Torsion, this man, the former deputy head of Russia`s Central Bank who`s close to Vladimir Putin. Butina`s activities including bringing top NRA members to Moscow in 2015 to meet high-level Russian officials", court documents say. After that meeting, she messaged Torshin, "We should let them express their gratitude now. We will put pressure on them quietly later."
She also met Donald Trump Jr. in 2016 in a dinner hosted by the NRA. And today`s guilty plea is raising new questions about the exchange that she had with Donald Trump during the campaign. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MARIA BUTINA, UNREGISTERED FOREIGN AGENT: I`m visiting from Russia so my question --
TRUMP: Oh, a good friend of Obama.
BUTINA: If you would be elected as a president, what will be your foreign politics especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging both economy? Or you have any other ideas?
TRUMP: I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK? And I mean where we have the strength. I don`t think you need the sanctions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: Joining us now, Malcolm Nance, an MSNBC counterterrorism and intelligence analyst. And back with us is Joyce Vance. Welcome to both of you.
Malcolm, just put this into perspective. In all the noise and everything else that`s been going on, Maria Butina sort of been in the background. She`s now pleaded guilty but what -- and I`ve heard you describe this before so I want you to do it again. What is the role that we need to see Maria Butina having played in the Russian interference in the election?
MALCOLM NANCE, COUNTERTERRORISM AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST, MSNBC: You know, there`s a big debate going on right now in the media about was she actually a spy or was she an independent person who just thought this thing up and wrote a paper and just came out and exercised all this influence to the benefit of Russia? She`s one or the other. But all the indicators are is that she`s at a minimum an intelligence subcontractor who was tasked out with Alexander Torshin to go out and cut this influence campaign.
What`s missing from this story which to us begins in 2015 but for her, it begins in 2011 when she was a member of the Youth Guard of the United Russia, a political body that falls under Vladimir Putin. And a mentor was Ana Chapman, a Russian spy who was caught in the United States in 2010, deported and became one of Putin`s favorites. She -- between 2011 and 2015, Butina was missing in action because she was developing the Right to Bear Arms Organization with Alexander Torshin. So at a minimum, three years before we start --
VELSHI: Which is weird, by the way, in Russia because there`s no civilian rights to bear arms in Russia.
NANCE: Yes. There is no right to bear arms. We have 240 million firearms, they have 6 million and they`re all hunting shotguns. So this organization was crafted for three years to launch operations in 2015. That means there was a lot of prep and they knew precisely what this -- her and Alexander Torshin were doing which was to be one spoke going after the hub and a wheel of Russian intelligence operations to get Donald Trump.
And if you remember one quick point, Donald Trump actually started his communications with Russia in 2012 and 2013. So this is old school in- depth intelligence operations.
VELSHI: Joyce Vance, there is a very interesting part of Maria Butina`s plea agreement which reads, "Your client acknowledges that your client`s cooperation may include, but will not necessarily be limited, to participating in covert law enforcement activities." Caught my attention. What does that mean to a prosecutor?
VANCE: It`s hard to know if we should read too much into it. This is a fairly standard language in a plea agreement where you require a cooperator to do anything that law enforcement might need them to do. Typically, your ability to do much that`s covert is very limited once people are aware that you`ve pled guilty. Before you`ve pled guilty, it might be possible to make phone calls or wear a wire. That`s much more difficult after folks are aware that you`re cooperating.
And in her case, you`re in custody. But it still leaves open the possibility that she might have leading up to this plea engaged in conversations with people or other activity that we`ll learn about as future cases built on her cooperation progress.
VELSHI: Malcolm, I just want to dig a little bit more into this gun thing. McClatchy reported in January that the FBI is investigating whether Alexander Torshin illegally funneled money to the National Rifle Association to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Two sources familiar with the matter have told McClatchy.
So we know that Torshin was, I don`t know, a mentor or something to Butina and we know that she was involved in NRA contact with the Russian government and we know she was involved in some Right to Bear Arms Organization and we know that the National Rifle Association funded Donald Trump at a level that they have never funded a presidential candidate before. Are you able to make sense of all these disparate parts?
NANCE: Yes. Well, first off, Torshin was her boss and she and him -- or she and he in 2011 created this organization out of thin air. She was a furniture salesman in Siberia at age 19. And then by the time she shows up at age 21 she`s with Torshin for three years, meeting Americans, crafting this gun organization. And then fast forward up to 2015, they`re sponsoring conferences in Russia, bringing Americans over including Sheriff Clark and the head of the NRA and talking about gun rights in a country that has zero gun rights.
And then they go back to the United States and they start spreading their influence by meeting people, by showing her in sexily clad photographs with weapons and that captures the imagination of people. She rapidly moves up the chain of command and starts meeting with very popular people. And then manipulated her boyfriend, Paul Erikson, to a point where they assert that he is probably going to be indicted for some form of espionage under her.
So somebody there is a spy that contacted him, whether it`s her or her boss. But those people exercised a political warfare operation designed to get the Russian Federation through the NRA to Donald Trump. Whether they funneled cash to Donald Trump through their influence, we don`t know yet.
VELSHI: All right. Thanks to both of you for helping us clear up. This is a remarkable story. So remarkable that in the news cycle we`ve got, it`s kind of the side story and yet it has its own novel and plot on its own. Malcolm Nance, thank you. Joyce Vance, good to see you again.
Coming up. It is the most notorious, most serious humanitarian crisis in the world and the United States is complicit in it. Nicholas Kristof joins me again. He`s just returned from Yemen. I`m going to talk to him about what he saw, the action the Senate took today, and what has to be done to end the catastrophe in Yemen.
VELSHI: Today, the United States Senate voted to withdraw American Military assistance for Saudi Arabia`s war in Yemen. The 56-41 vote marked bipartisan condemnation of Saudi Arabia, not only for its role in the nearly four-year war that has killed thousands of civilians and brought famine to Yemen but also for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman`s role in the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Now, here`s the thing. It kind of doesn`t matter what happened in the Senate today because outgoing Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan added a rule to the Farm Bill this week that blocks debate on U.S. policy in Yemen., which is amazing because this isn`t just Saudi Arabia`s war or a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It`s the world`s most serious humanitarian crisis and the United States is complicit in it.
The U.S. not only doesn`t sanction Saudi Arabia for participating in it, it doesn`t just tacitly support Saudi Arabia. The United States and your tax dollars actively support the efforts of the Saudis in Yemen, efforts that result in the suffering, starvation, and death of absolutely innocent Yemeni civilians.
Nick Kristof has just returned from Yemen. He used most of his column space this week for this photograph. Abrar Ibrahim, a 12-year-old Yemeni girl who weighs 28 pounds. Look at this picture. Abrar is, in Nick`s words, starving in part as a consequence of the American-backed Saudi Arabian war in Yemen. Nicolas Kristof joins me now.
It is one of those things, sometimes I say the job of journalists is simply to bear witness. You knew all about Yemen but to go and see the starvation and the suffering of innocent civilians has to have an impact on what you think U.S. policy should be there.
KRISTOF: It`s devastating. I mean, you know intellectually about these things, and then you walk through a hospital ward where these kids are starving and dying. And, you know, I`ve covered a lot of famines and nutrition crises around the world. Usually, they`re caused by droughts, by weather. This time, it`s caused by Saudi via U.S.-backed Saudi policy by a war that is dropping American bombs on kids and a blockade that is starving those kids.
And to walk through that hospital ward and, you know, think that my tax dollars are paying to starve these kids, to bring 12 million people to the abyss of a famine, it`s --
VELSHI: Right. You may have the view that your tax dollars don`t need to be spent to solve somebody else`s starvation. But the fact is we are contributing to this. Something needs to be done. This was, at some point, a strategically important war and at some point had something to do with regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But when you see these pictures, I`m just going to ask the control room to keep cycling through the pictures so people can see them.
KRISTOF: Yes. I mean you had a bunch of people in conference rooms. I mean essentially Saudi Arabia wanted to stand up to Iran.
KRISTOF: And Yemen became that battleground. And Saudi Arabia doesn`t have a realistic strategy to oust the Iranian-backed rebels, the Houthis who were there. But what it can do is inflict misery on the population. And so that is what it is doing. The starvation is not an accident of the war. It is a weapon in that war. And we are complicit in that and I just find it unconscionable to -- I mean it`s horrifying to travel around Yemen and to see this.
And I was so glad when the Senate stepped up and spoke up and I know that Saudi Arabia is paying very close attention to the mood in the U.S., the Senate. I hope that they will, indeed, then, choose to end this war. It`s accomplishing nothing except mass starvation.
VELSHI: Right. And thank you to you for bearing witness by showing us these pictures and your colleagues at "The New York Times." Nicholas Kristof, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist for "The New York Times."
Tonight`s last word is next.
VELSHI: Time for tonight`s last word. Last night, members of the Kennedy family presented Barack Obama the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Award for work in the fight for equality and justice and human rights.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Even there through the fog of our grief, we see ripples of progress. Six years ago, Lucy McBath`s son was shot and killed in the parking lot of a gas station because the kids in a car were playing music too loud, apparently. And she turned her grief into hope and her hope into a seat in the next Congress, running unabashedly against the gun lobby in the great State of Georgia. She won.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
VELSHI: And that is tonight`s last word.
Be sure to join me and Stephanie Ruhle weekdays at 1:00 p.m. for "VELSHI AND RUHLE".
"THE 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS" starts now.