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Trump backs off threat. TRANSCRIPT: 1/11/19, The Last Word w/ Lawrence O'Donnell.

Guests: David Corn, Glenn Kirshner, Frank Montoya, Neera Tanden, Malcolm Nance, John Harwood, John McLaughlin, Joaquin Castro


JOY REID, HOST, MSNBC:  Yes, it`s all about manners, good manners. Jason Johnson, politics editor at The Always good to talk to you man. Thank you for being here.

JOHNSON:  Thanks Joy.

REID:  Appreciate it. That does it for us tonight. I will be back here tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. eastern hosting my very own show, "A.M. JOY," and, oh, do we have a lot to discuss. And not to worry, Rachel will be back here on Monday. And now it`s time for "THE LAST WORD." My friend Ali Velshi is in for Lawrence tonight. I get to talk to Ali. Look at how lucky I am.

ALI VELSHI, HOST, MSNBC:  Joy, I am quite comfortable saying that being a white nationalist is a bad thing empirically. I`m quite comfortable saying being a white supremacist is a bad thing empirically and Republicans should wash themselves of that bigot Steve King.

REID:  Yes, but also when he said that you don`t want to build your civilization with other people`s babies, that seemed to be pretty openly, you know, a nod to white nationalists. We said so much before. Why now?

VELSHI:  This is not nuanced, right.

REID:  At all. It`s unsubtle.

VELSHI:  Joy, you have a fantastic weekend and we`ll see you tomorrow on T.V.

REID:  Thank you very much. Have a great show. Bye Ali.

VELSHI:  All right, breaking news tonight from "The New York Times," the FBI opened an inquiry into whether President Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia. That`s the headline tonight. Here are the stunning opening lines of that report.

  "In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president`s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation."

So what does that actually mean? Well, according to "The New York Times," counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether Trump`s own actions, "constituted a possible threat to national security." Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow`s influence.

"The New York Times" reports that Trump caught the attention of the FBI counterintelligence agents after this moment, this moment in the 2016 presidential election.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Russia, if you`re listening, I hope you`re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.


VELSHI:  But even after that and other alarming incidents during the campaign, "The Times" says that, "law enforcement officials put off the decision to open the investigation until they had learned more, according to people familiar with their thinking." That all changed, apparently, with the firing of James Comey in May 2017 and two other actions that the president took around Comey`s firing.

According to "The New York Times," the first action was, "a letter Mr. Trump wanted to send Mr. Comey about his firing but never did. In which he mentioned the Russia investigation. In the letter, Mr. Trump thanked Mr. Comey for previously telling him he was not a subject of the FBI`s Russia investigation."

Now, the second event that troubled investigators was one we all watched. It was this interview with NBC News` Lester Holt, which occurred two days after James Comey`s firing. The president said this.


TRUMP:  Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact, when I have decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.


VELSHI:  This Russia thing. Now "The Times" notes that special counsel Robert Mueller took over this inquiry into President Trump when he was appointed, just days after the FBI opened it and it is unclear whether Mr. Muller is still pursuing the counterintelligence matter.

No evidence has emerged publicly that Donald Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from the Russian government. Let`s just be clear about that. But one final note that caught our eye in this bombshell "New York Times" report is that FBI officials felt that their decision to open a counterintelligence investigation was validated, "when a comment the president made to visiting Russian officials in the Oval Office shortly after he fired Mr. Comey was revealed days later."

"I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job." Mr. Trump said according to a document summarizing the meeting. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That`s taken off." It was an interesting meeting if you recall. U.S. press was not allowed into that meeting. We heard about it afterward. James Comey is a nut job and a crazy guy according to the president of the United States.

Joining us now, David Corn, Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones. Glenn Kirshner, former federal prosecutor. Both are MSNBC analyst. And joining us, Frank Montoya, retired FBI senior executive who served as the national counterintelligence executive.

This, Frank, is a counterintelligence investigation. There are two kinds of investigations that the FBI does. Most of what we talk about are criminal investigations. Counterintelligence investigations serve a different purpose. What was this for?

FRANK MONTOYA, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT:  Exactly that, to determine if there were intelligence activities that a foreign power was conducting, in this case Russia, against the United States and that perhaps Americans of some sort, witting or unwitting were enabling or helping or facilitating that interference or that intelligence collection.

VELSHI:  Glenn, that`s a high bar and a big decision for the FBI to make, to go after or to look in to a president of the United States. In fact, according to the article, I want to read a little more from the article. There was a debate within the FBI.

It says "a vigorous debate has taken shape amongst some former law enforcement officials outside the case over whether FBI investigators overreacted in opening the counterintelligence inquiry during a tumultuous period at the Justice Department. Other former officials noted that those critics were not privy to all the evidence and argued that sitting on it would have been an abdication of duty."

For the FBI to decide after the firing of James Comey, that this sort of investigation was necessary meant -- there must have enough evidence for them to want to go forward with it.

GLENN KIRSCHNER, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  Yes, Ali, and I think we should all be heartened that the counterintelligence investigation was up and running because, you know, for the last couple of years we`ve seen what -- at least to my eyes as a career, a former career prosecutor -- to be collusion with Russia in plain sight.

I mean, we have a president who at best has this strange affinity for Putin and for Russian positions and at worst, has been conspiring and even doing Russia`s bidding all along to the detriment of America. And, you know, you had a great run-up of everything that demonstrates that.

One other thing I would add, Ali is, you know, when James Comey and Clapper and some others gave the president and his team after he had been elected the first national security briefing and told them, you know, Mr. President-elect, Russia hacked and interfered in our elections.

The president-elect didn`t ask, oh, my goodness, how does this happen? How do we hold them accountable? How do we prevent it from happening again? What did he do according to former director Comey? He immediately started to say how can we spin this so it`s not a public relations disaster? That should have told us right there.

VELSHI:  He had none of the normal curiosity that someone would have when told that a foreign entity may have interfered in our elections. David Corn, as Glenn said, some of this happened in plain sight, right? The conversation with Lester Holt, that weird meeting at the White House with the Russian foreign minister, and the Russian ambassador to the United States in which Americans were not allowed in.

That press conference in Helsinki next to Vladimir Putin, which no one could understand. But some of it didn`t happen in plain sight. Like the Trump Tower meeting, like the idea that Donald Trump warned America that e- mails were going to be released and then suddenly e-mails were released. Put this all in context for us.

DAVID CORN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, MOTHER JONES:  Let`s take it to the campaign itself. During the campaign, after it came out, it was publicly reported that Russia was attacking the DNC and that it was clear that the hacked materials being released at the Democratic convention and afterwards hurt the DNC.

Donald Trump and Paul Manafort and Donald Trump, Jr. and others related to the campaign again and again reiterated, they repeated, they echoed the Russian propaganda, the Russian disinformation that they had nothing to do with this. This is where the real collusion in plain sight is, even after Donald Trump in mid-August 2016 received a private intelligence briefing and was told then by the U.S. intelligence community that the Russians were behind these attacks.

He came out publicly and repeated what Vladimir Putin was saying, that Russia had nothing to do with this, and he did that throughout the campaign and even after the U.S. government made it official publicly that they believed Russia was behind this. So there`s collusion in the cover-up.

And you have the Trump Tower meeting and you have time and time again where Donald Trump himself or someone associated with the campaign is sending a signal to Moscow, we want to work with you, we`re on your side, we`re going to protect you. If people charge you with intervening in the election, we`re open for business. We want to deal with you.

And I know throughout that, throughout the 2016 campaign, counterintelligence people and people in the National Security world were aghast. They were wondering what`s going on with this guy and wondered if there was something else other than what was obvious.

VELSHI:  Frank, let me read you the response from the White House. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has given us a response in which she said, "This is absurd. James Comey was fired because he was a disgraced partisan hack, and his deputy Andrew McCabe, who was in charge at the time, is a known liar fired by the FBI. Unlike President Obama, who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia."

The second part is its own thing, but the first part, the consistent -- Frank, the consistent attack on the FBI, on law enforcement in general at a federal level, but on the FBI, the idea that it is populated with hacks, that it`s a witch hunt, this is the president`s response to everything that the FBI has said or done.

MONTOYA:  Well, and it`s totally irrelevant. Whether it comes from him or comes from any of his spokespeople because as David said, it`s about his actions. They speak for themselves. In terms of the initiation of an investigation, it`s all based on the suspicions that the FBI had about his behavior.

You know, I noted that in typical counterintelligence investigations, it`s about determining if one foreign power is collecting intelligence against us and if Americans wittingly or unwittingly are enabling or facilitating that collection. In this case, I mean, it seemed loud and clear beyond, you know, the suspicions even that there was something that was there.

And, you know, we were compelled or the FBI was compelled in those instances to conduct an investigation to determine if it was unwitting or witting. The fact that, you know, there was just so much of the activities that were out there, whether it was meetings by individuals associated with him, closely associated with him or his own behaviors.

And it was before and after Jim Comey`s dismissal. So, in terms of the counterintelligence investigation itself, really relevant that it was conducted because of all of the suspicious behavior.

VELSHI:  And Glenn, obviously the FBI before and after Comey`s departure was concerned about how this would look. According to "The New York Times" report, "as for a counterintelligence inquiry, law enforcement officials concluded they would need strong evidence to take the sensitive step of investigating the president and they were also concerned -- this is interesting -- also concerned that the existence of such an inquiry could be leaked to the news media, undermining the entire investigation into Russia`s meddling in the election."

So that has come to pass. The news media now knows that there was an investigation. The president has given us exactly the response that we would have expected to such a thing. Once again, choosing not to take the matter seriously of Russian interference into the election, but to somehow design this as a witch hunt with partisan hacks.

But this is important to me because the FBI must have thought about this and thought about it and thought about it five more times before moving ahead.

KIRSCHNER:  Yes, there is no more sort of dramatic or -- and perhaps even unprecedented step than for the FBI to open a counterintelligence investigation into a presidential candidate or a sitting president. But I can tell you, declining to do it would have been irresponsible and it ultimately would have been dangerous.

You know, we in law enforcement, when I was a federal prosecutor, I had people attacking me all the time for prosecutorial decisions I made. And, you know, we can`t decline to do the right thing for fear of reaction by the wrong people or by the complicit people. So, I think the FBI did the right thing, the necessary thing, and you know what? Let the criticisms come.

VELSHI:  Yes. And that`s an interesting point you make, Glenn, and I want to ask you about this, Frank -- I want to ask David about this. I mean, the article is a remarkable read. It`s full of detail. Michael Schmitt, one of the authors of it said that they`ve really been working on if for a year and a half because they`ve had bits and pieces of this information for a year and a half.

But here is something that it says. It says, "As the FBI officials debated whether to open the investigation, some of them pushed to move quickly before Mr. Trump appointed a director who might slow down or even end their investigation into Russian interference."

Here is the key sentence to me. "Many involved in the case viewed Russia as the chief threat to American democratic values." And David, ultimately that`s what this comes down to.

CORN:  Yes. You know, we use the word meddling, interference, intervention. Russia attacked American democracy in the 2016 campaign. They attacked it with social media. They attacked it by hacks and releasing material that arguably had an impact on the election itself.

They did so with -- to disrupt and cause American democracy to look messy and at some point they also decided helping Trump would be part of their aims as well. So this was information warfare. This is the most serious matter that one can think of because it attacks the foundation of our society.

And yet Donald Trump has never come to terms with this. Republican Party in general has not had a reckoning and realized that this was a monumental act. And I think what we`ve seen is one of the biggest scandals in the history of America, yet we get distracted, we talk about Donald Trump`s tweets. And so I can only imagine what it was like inside the FBI all this time when they worried about the Russian attack and any interactions between the Trump crowd and the adversary that was attacking a U.S. election.

VELSHI:  Gentlemen, I thank you for helping me kick off this hour in such a meaningful way. Your analysis is indispensable. David Corn is the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones and the co-author of a remarkable book called "Russian Roulette." Glenn Kirschner is a former federal prosecutor, Frank Montoya is a retired FBI senior executive who served in counterintelligence.

I`ve got an all-star cast for you for the rest of the night to determine what is going on here. We`ve got more analysis of this bombshell "New York Times" report ahead from Malcolm Nance, an expect on the Russian e-mail theft and from Neera Tanden who was targeted by the attack in her role in the Clinton campaign.



REID:  From what you know as of now, what you`ve learned about the president of the United States so far, do you trust Donald Trump with the national security of the United States?

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT:  I absolutely do not.


VELSHI:  That was Democratic congressman Jim Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, last hour right here on MSNBC reacting to the breaking news report from "The New York Times" that the FBI opened an investigation days after former FBI director James Comey was fired into whether President Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia.

Joining us now, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, Malcolm Nance, MSNBC counterterrorism and intelligence analyst, and John Harwood, CNBC editor-at-large. Thanks to the three of you being here to help me through this.

Malcolm, let me just start with you. One of the things -- I really think it`s important that people read this article. It`s well-researched and it`s long, but one of the things in "The New York Times" report is quoting from Lisa Page, the former FBI lawyer who said, "in the Russian federation and in president Putin himself, you have an individual whose aim is to disrupt the western alliance and whose aim is to make western democracy more fractious in order to weaken our ability, America`s ability and the West`s ability to spread our democratic ideals."

That`s from Lisa Page, former bureau lawyer. She told House investigators that in private testimony that "The New York Times" got its hands onto. That seems to have been central to why the FBI decided to launch a counterintelligence investigation. They really were fearful. Our nation`s top law enforcement officials were fearful that the president of the United States might be working in Russia`s interests.

MALCOLM NANCE, MSNBC COUNTERTERRORISM AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST:  Well, she`s absolutely right, and I wrote an entire book about it called "The Plot to Destroy Democracy." And it was precisely about this. There is an entire chapter on how Russia co-opted Donald Trump. Two years ago this month, I said on MSNBC that this nation at some point was going to enter a Benedict Arnold moment.

And it had to exist. All of the actions, the behaviors, all the information that we had back in September 2016. We saw that Donald Trump was working in the interest of Russia and not in the interest of the United States. The FBI counterintelligence division would had to have taken this into consideration at some point.

But the fact that they did it right after the firing of Comey is only good defensive measures by loyal patriots of the United States whose job it is to root out foreign spies and foreign assets, no matter who they are.

VELSHI:  But in the White House --

NANCE:  Donald Trump has done more than enough --

VELSHI:  Not just in the White House, that would be a great novel. But the occupant of the oval office -- Neera Tanden, you at a later point had your e-mails fiddled with, but I`m sure this is a sore point for you, in June of 2016.

This was June the 7th, 2016. Right after the Trump Tower meeting that none of us knew about at the time. Let me just play this for you. No, we don`t have it so I`m going to read it to you, but Donald Trump said --


VELSHI:  You remember it well, right? He said, "I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we`re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you`re going to find it very important -- you know what, it`s not as good listening to me. Let`s play it.


TRUMP:  I am going to give a major speech on probably Monday of next week and we`re going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons. I think you`re going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.



VELSHI:  Now, Neera, I`m neither a lawyer nor an investigator. I`m possibly average to middling intelligence. It wouldn`t have been hard for me to figure out that he seem to be indicating that he knew something and then guess what? Suddenly a bunch of hacked e-mails showed up.

TANDEN:  Yes. Those hacked e-mails showed up right at the cusp of the Democratic convention. And just as a reminder to viewers, it -- those e- mails played havoc for the first several days of the Democratic convention. Now, if you wanted a way to help Donald Trump and hurt the Democratic Party and hurt his opponent, Hillary Clinton, it was really well-timed.

It was -- it definitely did sow division. There were chants against Hillary on the floor of the convention, basically because of the work of WikiLeaks. Let me just say, you know, I`ve been in politics a very long time, probably longer than I`d care to admit, and I have never in my decades-long work ever heard of the FBI launching a counterintelligence investigation of the president of the United States.

I worked at the White House. I worked in the Obama administration. I worked in the Clinton administration. The idea that the FBI was worried about a foreign adversary`s control over the president of the United States is mind-boggling and would be, I mean, it is probably the gravest news we`ve heard. And if this was the only thing we`d heard in the Russia investigation, it would be days-long news.

VELSHI:  Right. All of these things in and of themselves would be remarkable. John Harwood, Donald Trump didn`t end 2018 well, right? They lost the midterms, Flynn goes to jail, Manafort goes to jail, Cohen goes to jail. He comes into 2019, he`s got a government shutdown and he`s got his worst nightmare in Nancy Pelosi.

He`s got three committees on Congress now that are going to take the lead in investigating him, the Judiciary Committee, the Oversight Committee and the Intel Committee, and now this news. The White House can`t get a chief of staff, a proper chief of staff to stick around. It can`t seem to staff itself properly at all. What do you make of what happens now?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC EDITOR-AT-LARGE:  Well, I think President Trump obviously is in very big political trouble, both legally and politically. But one of the things amid all of the maelstrom of activity that you just recounted, what is the one thing the president did? He found time to tell reporters that the Soviets had been right to go into Afghanistan.

He affirmed a bit of Soviet propaganda about what happened in Afghanistan. What did he do a few months ago? He affirmed a version of Soviet propaganda about Montenegro. What did he do in Helsinki? He dissed his own intelligence community and said that he was persuaded or he was impressed by the strength of the Putin`s denial about interfering in the election.

Why did he before that not only fire Jim Comey but consistently discredit American intelligence? And keep in mind, this is somebody who put in charge of his campaign, Paul Manafort, somebody who had worked indirectly for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. They changed the Republican platform to the benefit of Russia.

And this is also somebody who for years he and his family members had benefitted by their own account from a huge influx of Russian money into their business.

VELSHI:  Right.

HARWOOD:  Now, you can look at all these things and say it`s a coincidence. And all of them have innocent explanations. But I think the fact that John Brennan, then the CIA director, and other national security officials, Jim Comey at the FBI, were alarmed about this in 2016 is not evidence that they were partisan hacks. It`s evidence that they were patriots who were concerned about the fate of their country and what was happening with this major presidential candidate.

VELSHI:  So Malcolm, John has taken us down an interesting road because less than a month ago the president announced withdrawal from Syria. He lost his defense secretary over the whole matter, but he also said something very interesting. He said nobody`s more upset than Russia in Iran that U.S. troops are leaving Syria.

Vladimir Putin had his marathon news conference at the time in which he said he was thrilled by the whole thing. There is no bigger winner to the U.S. leaving Syria than Russia, and the president misses no opportunity to denigrate NATO and to weaken the alliance that most -- that Russia most fears.

NANCE:  Well, you`re absolutely right. And that`s because -- and you`re going to find out, and we`ve all been projecting this for the last two years, that Donald Trump is a wholly owned subsidiary of Vladimir Putin. And all of the evidence has led us to this.

Look, this is the man who went on national T.V. and said Russia, if you`re listening, please release Hillary Clinton`s 33,000 hacked e-mails and then Russian intelligence started hacking again after that.

VELSHI:  Which -- I just want to stop you on this because you`re an intelligence guy. You spent, I don`t know, three decades in Naval intelligence. You understand how this works. By Donald Trump saying that, he didn`t have to text anybody, nobody had to hack his phones, nobody had to subpoena his communications, nobody had to eavesdrop on anything.

He made a public speech in which he said, Russia, if you`ve got these e- mails, please release them. If there was some contact between Donald Trump and the Russians, that might have been a pretty good signal, wouldn`t you say?

NANCE:  Well, it`s treason in plain sight. I mean, and that`s the problem. It`s so obvious that it`s improbable. Look, from the very first day that, you know, we started getting indications of this in late July after figuring out the hacking and then the DNC attacks, it became very obvious that no other person in the world would not have had an FBI counterintelligence investigation going.

I wrote that in a book in September 2016. It had to exist because there is no way that we would have this level of interaction, involvement, conspiracy and cooperation, no matter who it was. Donald Trump wasn`t president. He was a candidate. He became president and only then did the imponderable have to be pondered.

Was this person an asset of a foreign intelligence agency and an ex- director of Russian intelligence? And all of the evidence, that`s -- well, the tip of the iceberg shows that he most likely was. I fear the Mueller report. It`s only going to break open things that we really, really are afraid to open our eyes to.

VELSHI:  Imponderable indeed. I cannot actually believe, Neera, that we`re having this conversation. I never would have guessed we`d be having this conversation or the last 35 conversations we`ve had. Thanks to the three of you. Malcolm Nance, Neera Tanden and John Harwood. Former acting CIA director John McLaughlin joins me next with his expertise on national security investigations.


VELSHI:  All right.  We`re back with more on tonight`s breaking news from "The New York Times," reporting that the FBI opened an inquiry into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia.

Joining me now is John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA and an MSNBC national security analyst.  John, I wasn`t planning on talking to you tonight.  It`s always a pleasure to see you.

I`d like to, one day, talk to you about something that isn`t blowing my mind because it`s, as Malcolm says, so imponderable.  This is a little bit different than -- not to suggest that collusion is a casual matter.  The FBI, we don`t know what the outcome was and we don`t know what the status of this investigation is.

But the FBI chose to open an investigation into whether the president was actually acting on behalf of Russia, perhaps in opposition to American interests.  That`s -- that sort of feels bigger to me than sort of a quid pro quo that might have helped him get elected.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN, FORMER ACTING DIRECTOR, CIA:  Well, Ali, your phrase "blowing your mind" is appropriate, I think, because with the rush of bizarre things that we observe in these times, every once in a while, every once in a while, something comes along that hits you in the face just at the point when you`ve become kind of become numb to all of this as one can become.

And remind you that we`re in the midst of a very serious crisis in our country, a crisis of confidence in our leadership and a period of high uncertainty.  And that`s what this story does, I think, it takes you back.  You know, thinking about it as I absorbed it just an hour or so ago, I thought in a way it would be -- it`s surprising to learn this.  But in a way, it would be surprising if the FBI had not done this at that time.

It would be a little bit like sitting in a room that`s filling with smoke and not getting up to see if there was a fire.  Because that`s kind of where we were at this point in time when the investigation was reportedly opened.

And many of the previous guests have talked about all of the things that were occurring, the fact that the president during his campaign had encouraged the Russians to hack the e-mails, the fact that he had shown really apparently so little interest in this when it was laid before him, whereas you would expect a president to react with horror and determination to get to the bottom of it.

And remember, too, it occurred to me that on January 6 -- so Comey is fired in May.  Way back January 6, the intelligence community had issued an unclassified statement that walked through the basis on which we believed that the Russians were interfering

And one of the points they made was, rather gently, but they nonetheless said that the Russians were doing this in an effort to boost Trump`s prospects and to damage Clinton`s.  So in that atmosphere, for the FBI to simply say, oh, I think we`ll go investigate some car burglaries and not pay any attention to this would have been I think irresponsible.

Now, having said that, having done a lot of counterintelligence investigations, first, I would say these are the most sensitive things you do in the intelligence world, as I think Malcolm may have said.

VELSHI:  Right.  The FBI had to know that one day when this leaks to the media, as things do, as Glenn Kirschner mentioned, the FBI was going to come under.  They were going to face withering criticisms for doing it but their responsibility is to investigate if they thought there was a threat to America, not to not do so because they might face criticism.

MCLAUGHLIN:  Yes.  And it`s also important to say that opening an investigation, it may have been -- we don`t know whether it was what they call a preliminary investigation or a full -- it sounds to me as though it was probably a preliminary investigation.

And opening an investigation while startling to hear about doesn`t mean that you`ve concluded guilt, it merely means the room`s filling up with smoke and we have to find out if there`s a fire there.  It`s an inquiry.  It`s an effort to find out is there something going on here that we should -- we have enough to be concerned.  Is there enough going on here to be really concerned and to take further action?

Then when the president has this with the Russians and says, oh, by the way, I fired Comey, that takes the pressure off the Russia business, that was just either a very foolish thing or a very candid admission, one of the two things.  But again, it`s the kind of bizarre behavior you couldn`t ignore.

VELSHI:  Let`s just bring that back because it is one of those things that happened in plain sight.  It was two days after the firing of Jim Comey.  It happened on NBC in a conversation with Lester Holt.  I just want to play this again for my viewers.


TRUMP:  Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it.  And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.


VELSHI:  It kind of gives one pause.  I remember listening to this thinking, did he just say that?  That just seems very, very unusual for a president to provide a journalist with a justification for firing the head of the FBI.

MCLAUGHLIN:  Yes.  It`s not only unusual but, you know, knowing Jim Comey, having worked with him at one point, you know, no one is perfect and one can find grounds for criticizing Jim Comey, of course.

But he is a person of integrity.  He`s a person who does what he believes is correct.  And the president never really gave a persuasive reason for firing Comey other than something related to Russia.  He never really fully documented that there -- he just calls him a political hack.

A normal president, a normal firing of someone that`s senior would say in a very serious way, here are the four reasons why I am taking this action, and he would say it persuasively.  But he did it in a way that was so transparently political, just sweeping aside a person who happened to be in charge of doing the one thing in government at that moment that Donald Trump viewed as threatening to him that -- once again it was -- I`m not a lawyer but it felt like obstruction in plain sight.

VELSHI:  This is truly a remarkable discussion, John.  Thanks again for helping me out with so many of these things.  John McLaughlin is a former acting director of the CIA.  He`s MSNBC`s national security analyst.

We`ll have more on this breaking news from "The New York Times."

And as government workers go without their first paycheck from this shutdown, has the president backed away from his idea to get out of this corner with a questionably legal declaration of a national emergency?


VELSHI:  All right.  Joining me now by phone, Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas.  Congressman Castro is a member of the Intelligence Committee.  Congressman, thank you for joining me.

I want to get your reaction now to this "New York Times" reporting that they had an investigation open.  I don`t know what you can tell me.  You and I always struggle with how much you can tell me as a member of the House Intelligence Committee.  But this seems to many people like a major development, that the president might have actually -- or at least the FBI suspected the president might have actually been acting in Russia`s interests.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO (D-TX), INTEL COMMITTEE (via telephone):  Yes.  Even as somebody who sat through all of those interviews at the House Intelligence Committee as we did our investigation, reading that article was jarring.

But it`s also, I think, something, at least just speaking for myself, that I have feared but something as an American, it`s just hard to imagine that, that somebody that runs for president, certainly someone who becomes president could be acting as an agent of an adversarial country, particularly given the history between Russia and the United States, an agent of Russia.

But, you know, as the article lays out the facts and as we`ve all seen as Americans, this president has done some very troubling things that give credence to the idea that it`s certainly possible.

VELSHI:  As John Harwood said earlier, these things could all be coincidences, all of these things that have been happening in plain sight, but what we don`t know is how deep this investigation has gone, what sort of investigation it was. 

We know it was a counterintelligence investigation.  We don`t know -- we know it was handed over to Robert Mueller.  We don`t know where it`s gone from then which obviously makes your work on the House Intel Committee all that much more important now.

Now, Democrats control that committee.  When Republicans controlled that committee, no disrespect to the committee intended, it did not do its work in investigating the connection between the Trump administration and the Russians.  What do you do about this information now that you have it?

CASTRO:  Well, I mean certainly we`re going to want to call in witnesses who may be able to shed some light on this.  A lot of the folks that we`ve spoken to, you know, we still have some unanswered questions about.  There are basically big gaps in information.

There are still very important questions that we have relating to what kind of leverage Russia or Russian oligarchs who are close to Vladimir Putin may have on Donald Trump.  Because the committee under Devin Nunes basically foreclosed any way to subpoena information, either from witnesses or from third parties, travel records, bank records, phone records.

Because they didn`t allow us that, it was very hard for our committee to get to the bottom of some of those fundamental questions.  And in this case, the question of leverage, does Russia, does Vladimir Putin have something on Donald Trump that is getting him to basically comply with what Russia wants to see from the United States and see in the world.

They want a weaker NATO.  They want the United States to be closer to authoritarian powers rather than democratic countries and longstanding allies.  They wanted the United States to get out of Syria.  And so these are things that we still have a lot of questions out there to get to the bottom of.

VELSHI:  Congressman, you and I talked several weeks ago when I asked, look, what happens now?  Democrats take control of Congress.  There are a lot of Americans who just want Congress to get on with the business of America, not seem as dysfunctional as it`s been in the last couple of years.

And, of course, now we are on the 21st day of a shutdown.  We are displaying our dysfunction to the world.  That also is something that plays into the hands of American adversaries.  That is a concern that our security and intelligence officials have, that America is looking quite weak in the eyes of the world right now, certainly quite divided.

How do you manage the fact that you now have to investigate whether or not a president has betrayed America possibly with the idea that you`ve got to get on with governing this country?

CASTRO:  You`re right.  I mean we have to be able to for the sake of the country achieve and accomplish those two things at once.  We`ve got to be able to re-open the government.  You`re right about the fact that Russia generally wants to disrupt American politics but also enjoys seeing an American government that is unsettled the way it is now.

But at the same time, we have to be able to investigate whether the president or people close to him.  We know that they had strong connections and there was collusion with Russia, but just how deep that was.  Because if we don`t get to the bottom of that and we don`t do things to stop it, then Russia will continue and get more aggressive and it will invite other countries to do the same thing to our country in the future.

VELSHI:  Congressman, thank you for taking the time to join me tonight.  Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

All right.  Coming up, we`re going to talk a little bit more about the president and the continuing shutdown.


VELSHI:  President Trump will now preside over the longest government shutdown in American history.  The previous record was 21 days.  It will be day 24 of the Trump shutdown by the time the House and Senate return to work on Monday.

Federal workers have now missed their first paychecks as many of them face increasingly financial difficulty.  Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer says Donald Trump`s refusal to reopen the government until he gets his wall is like a dictatorship.


REP. STENY HOYER (D), MARYLAND:  This is a policy that is immoral, stupid policy.  This is a policy to take hostage the government of the United States in order to force your view on others.

The view shutting down government, taking government employees hostage and taking people who rely on the government on a daily basis hostage to get their way, that`s not democracy.  That`s dictatorship.


VELSHI:  The Democratic-controlled House passed another bill to reopen part of the government before leaving for the weekend but it is apparently going nowhere in the Senate because Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is going to block it until Donald Trump gets the money for his wall.

The president had been threatening to fund the wall without Congress by declaring a national emergency on Thursday.  He told reporters he almost definitely would.  Now he says this.


TRUMP:  So what we`re not looking to do right now is a national emergency.  What we want to do, the absolute right to do it.  In many ways, it`s the easy way out but this is up to Congress and it should be up to Congress and they should do it.


VELSHI:  Back with me now, John Harwood and Neera Tanden.  Neera, this is - - there are a whole bunch of people caught in this political crossfire.  No doing of their own.  They`re going without a paycheck.  You know the percent of Americans who don`t have $400 or $500 extra for an emergency.

There are people who are going to miss mortgage.  They`re going to miss rent payments.  It`s going to affect their credit rating.  And the president says he relates to them and he can feel for them and they`re going to back him because of this wall.

TANDEN:  Yes.  I mean, obviously, we`re completely used to the president saying like 5 or 10 lies a day but during this discussion around, the government shutdown, it`s really accelerated.  Obviously, I think most people in the country recognize that the president is responsible for the shutdown.

The fact that they`ve put out ludicrous guidelines about how people can work second jobs or sell their items out of their house to house in order to make ends meet just demonstrates how out of touch this White House really is.  I think Nancy Pelosi put it well which is that you know, we`ve all seen toddlers have tantrums and that`s what`s happening.

The president is basically throwing a month`s long tantrum to get his way on a wall that the American people have rejected time and time again.  And I know we`ve made this point before but he could not pass a wall through a Republican Congress.

He`s asking a Democratic Congress that ran in opposition to his immigration, his xenophobic immigration policy to pass a wall which is just not -- there are not 218 votes.  So why Mitch McConnell continues with this farce is beyond me.

VELSHI:  John, you and I talk daily and we talk about numbers a lot.  The numbers on this thing don`t add up any way you look at it.  $5.7 billion won`t get you anywhere close to a wall.  At best, it`s four or five times that.  it might be 10 times that considering that a lot of the land on which to build that wall is private land, the government would have to seize it or pay people a market value for it.

The 3,755 terrorists that apparently came over the southern border is an absolute lie.  This whole thing is predicated on falsehoods.

HARWOOD:  It`s predicated on falsehoods and I think it`s directly connected, Ali, with the difficulties we were talking about earlier, legally and politically with respect to the Mueller probe and the Democratic Congress.

Donald Trump principally cares about one thing in all of his transactions and that`s Donald Trump.  This is a president who got hammered in the midterm election.  He faces a Democratic Congress that`s coming after him on investigations, potentially impeachment.  Robert Mueller is coming after him.

His popularity is low and what does he have?  The one thing that he has is a Republican base that remains loyal to him.  That is his political protection.  To some degree, it may be his legal protection because he can`t be prosecuted so long as he`s president and the base may be strong enough to prevent him from being forced to leave that job.

Remember how we got into the shutdown.  He was prepared to extend government funding at least until February in an argument of the wall.

VELSHI:  That`s correct.  He agreed to that.

HARWOOD:  He (CROSSTALK) criticism from the right-wing from Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh on people like that.  He changed his mind.  I think that represented his fear of the base turning on him after which he would be politically naked with nothing to support, protect, defend him.  And I think that`s why he`s hanging in for this shutdown as long as he has.

VELSHI:  Neera, some said and you weren`t one of them, that one day Donald Trump will be presidential and one day he`ll realize that he`s president of all the people, not just his base.

TANDEN:  Wasn`t me.

VELSHI:  Well, I know right.  I absolutely know.  It was not you but that is kind of interesting.  The point John just made that the president actually agreed to the continuing resolution and then he changed his mind on the basis of a few right-wing commentators who suggested that he would lose his base.

It is clear that after two years, that`s all the president cares about.  He`s not actually interested in being the president of all people.

TANDEN:  No.  And I mean I know we`re near to the insanity but the fact that all of us, the whole country is basically subject to the whims of Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh is insane.  The fact that hundreds of thousands of people are not getting a paycheck who actually work for this government, who actually are public servants and actually try to, you know, make all of our lives better and they`re not getting a paycheck is outrageous.

And the reason why they`re not -- and I think John is absolutely right.  The president -- only the last people standing with Donald Trump are the extreme right.  That extreme right protects him in a Senate from a possible Impeachment, from Senators bucking him.

The fact that Republican Senators who just a few weeks ago voted unanimously to keep the government open will not put the same bill up right now, just a few weeks later, as people suffer, shows how they are, not by the needs of the country but the political needs of the base.  And that`s - - I think that`s just an insult to the country.

VELSHI:  John, just so that we don`t all go home depressed.  I will say one thing.  We have had the opportunity to hear from Americans who were telling us about the great companies in America who are at least trying to help out a lot of these people.

The furloughed workers, the ones who are still working without pay, and the contractors who may not be able to meet their mortgage payments or their phone payments.  And there are a lot of companies actually doing the right thing and a lot of Americans really being the helpers who are out there saying we`re going to help our fellow Americans until this is over.

HARWOOD:  God bless them because there`s a lot of people who need that help.  You mentioned the statistic before.  A huge percentage of the country, I think the Federal Reserve is reported that half of the American people if they were faced with an unexpected $500 expense, they wouldn`t have the capacity to handle it.  A lot of people are facing those expenses right now.

VELSHI:  Neera and John, thank you again for helping me out tonight.  It`s great to see you.  Have a great rest of your weekend.

And that is tonight`s last word.  "THE 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS" starts right now.