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Transcript: The 11th Hour with Brian Williams, 5/6/21

Guests: Neal Katyal, Mike Murphy, Jason Johnson, Robert Gates


GOP is pushing laws nationwide to restrict voting. Texas lawmakers debate bill that restricts voting. Voting and Civil Rights groups file suits over Florida law. Cheney is expected to lose leadership post to Stefanik. Audit of 2020 vote is now underway in Arizona. President Joe Biden pitches infrastructure plan to Louisiana voters. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida signed new voting legislation into law. U.S. Defense Chief says Afghanistan withdrawal is "going according to plan." Joe Biden will withdraw all the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11.


LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: The indifference shown to my colleagues and I is disgraceful. Officer Michael Fanone gets Tonight`s Last Word, the 11th Hour with Brian Williams starts now.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: And Good evening once again, day 107 of the Biden administration, the President making a relentless push now for his agenda and his multi-trillion dollar proposals to set our country on a new course, yet he may now have to contend with even more intense resistance from a Republican party devoting itself more and more to Donald Trump and the big lie.

In response, they`ve set in motion what amounts to a national movement to pass new state laws restricting voting, all of it as if to remedy voter fraud that did not take place.

The latest effort playing out tonight in Texas where lawmakers are debating a new voting law amid vocal opposition, this one would increase criminal penalties for some voting irregularities and greatly empower partisan poll watchers on the day of the vote. Earlier today and what amounted to a photo-op carried live on Fox News, Florida`s Governor DeSantis signed their new voting law which is largely aimed at curbing mail-in voting access. All other news outlets other than Fox News were denied access to the event. Something to set us clearly didn`t think was a problem.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did you only allow Fox News to capture the moment you singed the controversial election bill?

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): We were happy to give them the exclusive on that and I think it went really, really well.


WILLIAMS: For the record, Fox says it didn`t request the event to be an exclusive, didn`t ask for the other networks to be locked out. The developments in Texas and Florida follow that Georgia law passed back in March that also limited mail-in ballots. Several voting and civil rights organizations have filed suits to block Florida`s law, including the NAACP which calls, "a blatant and calculated attack on the right to vote, and a horrifying reminder of the fragility of democracy."

Earlier today, Former Obama Campaign Manager David Plouffe had this warning.


DAVID PLOUFFE, FORMER OBAMA CAMPAIGN MANAGER: This is a DEF CON 1 moment for democracy. We`re not threatened by other nations or enemies. It`s a threat from within democracies hanging by the fitness threat in our country`s history.


WILLIAMS: As others have raised, it`s no coincidence here that this is happening as the Republican Party undergoes what appears to be a purge of those seen as insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump. Party members in the House are on track for a vote next week to remove Congresswoman Liz Cheney from their leadership ranks because she refuses to stay quiet about Trump and the big lie. Her replacement will likely be Elise Stefanik of upstate New York who today showcased her total willingness to promote that lie on a podcast hosted by ex-Trump White House Strategist Steve Bannon.


REP. ELISE STEFANIK (R-NY): And when you talk to any voter across this country, certainly at any Republican events, they are focused on election security and election integrity. It is important to stand up for these constitutional issues. And these are questions that are going to have to be answered before we head into the 2022 midterms that the American people have faith in our election system. I fully support the audit in Arizona. We want transparency and answers for the American people. We need to fix these election security issues going into the future.


WILLIAMS: All of that right out of the Trump playbook that Arizona audit the Congresswoman referred to ongoing in Maricopa County, it was commissioned by Republicans there, it involves recounting over 2 million already recounted ballots.

Stefanik didn`t just push the dubious claim about the need for election security DURING her interview with Steve Bannon. She also made a pitch for a job and House Republican leadership.


STEFANIK: This is also about being one team. And I`m committed to being a voice and being a clear, sending a clear message that we are one team. And that means working with the president and working with all of our excellent Republican members of Congress.


WILLIAMS: By the way, when she says, the president, she`s talking about the last president. The current and actual president was in deep red Louisiana today where he tried to sell voters on his massive install infrastructure and jobs bill. He chose as his backdrop 70-year-old bridge federal transportation officials say is now 20 years beyond its projected lifespan.


JOE BIDEN, (D) U.S. PRESIDENT: The last four years, how many times you say this is going to be infrastructure week? I got so tired here in infrastructure week, nothing happened. I`m willing to hear ideas from both sides. I`m meeting with my Republican friends, I`m ready to compromise. I`m not ready to do nothing. I`m not ready to have another period where America has another infrastructure month and doesn`t change the damn thing.


WILLIAMS: Meantime, there are new signs tonight that our country may be on the brink of a recovery the crater job market may be starting to heal level off the number of Americans who filed for unemployment as of today hit its lowest level during the pandemic less than 500,000. That`s something of a victory Axios reporting data from Johns Hopkins that shows cases have now reached a seven-month low. That`s a big victory and the CDC says nearly 150 million people have had at least one vaccine dose. Almost exactly a third of all-American adults are now fully vaccinated.

California Governor Newsom posted this assessment of where we are, "Turns out, the vaccine works. Following the science works."

And with that, let`s bring in our leadoff guests on this Thursday evening, three friends of this broadcast Jonathan Lemire, White House Reporter for The Associated Press, Lisa Lerer, National Political Correspondent with the New York Times, and Neal Katyal, Department of Justice Veteran, former Acting Solicitor General during the Obama administration, who has argued dozens of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Good evening, and welcome to you all. Jonathan, I`d like to begin with you and your beat, you describe this phase of the Biden presidency, as his most perilous Why is that?

JONATHAN LEMIRE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": Well, Brian, the first 100 days, of course, was dominated by the response to the pandemic in terms of increasing the number of vaccines out to Americans as you just read. They`ve certainly had real success with that, even though they of course there are some who are still hesitant to take the vaccine and they`ve got work to do there.

Also, it was easy to kind of get all the oars rowing in the same direction in terms of Democrats to deal with COVID relief first, that was a slam dunk as the first move. It now gets harder. He didn`t have Republican support then he`s got even less now. We heard from Mitch McConnell this week, saying, his goal was "100%" block the administration`s agenda that the President is attempting, once again today to reach out in a bipartisan fashion for his infrastructure and jobs plan. And to this point, Republicans are saying no, because they object to the idea of raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans or for large corporations.

Now what the White House is doing is trying to aim over the heads of Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill to Republican voters themselves who, for polling, like these ideas, but also local Republicans, mayors, governors, including the one today in Lake Charles, who introduced President Biden this event, said hey, there`s a lot of things we disagree about. But one thing we do agree about, the need for infrastructure, the need to repair this bridge behind us and the need for disaster relief.

So the stakes are high and the clock is ticking. The White House knows that historically, the party in power, the party that has the presidency, loses at the midterms, those off midway through the first term, and Biden and Democrats have historically slim margins. So this will be tough to get this through. And beyond this turning to even thornier issues like policing or voting rights, it only gets harder from here.

WILLIAMS: Lisa, great to have you back on the broadcast. I have for you a piece from Susan Glasser tonight in the New Yorker headline gives it away forced to choose between Trump`s big lie and Liz Cheney. The House GOP chooses to lie. She writes, If Trump does manage to reinvent the big lie in service of his own corrupt ends, Cheney will at least have forced members of her party into admitting on the record, that they are making a choice between truth and Trump`s untruth and choosing the latter. And I guess that would be something of a victory for the pro-Liz Cheney forces. But Lisa, in terms of your reporting, how many elected Republicans privately agree that it was a big lie yet would never dare to cross the man they bout to publicly?

LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, even if they privately agree that the sort of conspiracy theories and baseless claims that the election was falsely decided, even if they know those things are baseless, they`re not very few of them are willing to say publicly, look, this big lie is base -- is baked in the firmament of the Republican Party. I spend a lot of time talking to County Republican charities and local activists, and overwhelmingly they tell me that the number one issue they`re concerned about is not the pandemic or the economy, but is whether the election was fairly decided. And they believe that it was not. And they want to litigate that, again and again and again, with no end, seemingly in sight.

So it becomes really hard for elected officials to break with the base of their party. But this is a situation of their own doing. They fed these lies to their constituents for weeks, for months. And so it`s not surprising that people would start to believe them, quite frankly. But it may put Republicans in a tough spot come the midterms, and there are some Republican strategist who worry that this is not the right message, because it`s a message that will resonate with the Republican base, you look at polling and 70% of Republicans or so will say, in surveys that they believe Biden was not elected in a legitimate way. But it does not resonate with the mainstream of the country. When you look at numbers for independent voters, they don`t even hit 30% of voters are agreeing with that statement. So Republicans are pushing this message that really isn`t in touch with where the general electorate is. And at the same time, they`re essentially giving President Biden a free pass, to push his message, to promote his plans for the economic recovery, to push his infrastructure package to talk about how many vaccines he`s getting out there and -- so democratic strategists, and I`ve talked to them in recent days, think this is great. They see it as a win, win for Biden, and they hope that the Republicans keep talking about this issue right up until the midterm elections.

WILLIAMS: Great point about the free pass for Biden, who needs every bit of it. Hey, Neal, on the legal front, this is clearly a wave effort to restrict voting rights. Florida is just the latest. And here`s the question, what is the ability, even for say the formidable of Sherrilyn Ifill, the NAACP legal defense fund, what is the ability of outside forces, however, well organized, argued, financed, to reach in and perhaps reverse something signed into law by the governor of a state like Florida?

NEAL KATYAL, FORMER ACTING U.S. SOLICITOR GENERAL: Well, Brian, there`s a legal problem, and I`ll talk about that in a minute. But before even before getting there, there`s a big kind of political/governance problem, because I think what the Republican embraces of these voting restrictions and the big lie, is I think it`s three things, I mean first to really suggest a real lack of seriousness on the part of the Republican Party. I think I just heard Lisa say that the big lie is baked into the Republican firmament, but it`s baked like Cheech & Chong. I mean, it`s like, unserious. That`s not reality. It`s contradicted by the fact that 60 different courts, many of whom are not were Republican appointees rejected all this. And does any serious person actually think that this big lie is right. And I don`t think like Rudy Giuliani released the phonic count in that. I mean, so that`s one thing.

The second is, it`s really bad news for the future of the Republican Party. Because normally, when you lose something like if I lose a Supreme Court case, I sit there and I do a postmortem, why did I lose? How did I not get a vote? And good politicians, of course, do that after an election too. But what the Trump Republican Party has done is not engage in that introspection one bit. Instead, it`s -- he did everything right, it must be someone else`s fault.

And then lastly, it really suggests a kind of lack of public spiritedness on the part of the party. I mean, government service edits, you know, core is about something bigger than yourself. And it`s not about you know, you can see that in Al Gore, or the chief justice or whoever. And, you know, our entire system is based on the idea that people will wield their power responsibly, citizens with speech, presidents with presidential power, when you have someone like Trump come in and shatter all that, you know, that`s when you have real problems. And so now we have these laws passed and yes, they`re chatting, you know, the Florida law was challenged within nine minutes. You know, what took them so long? I think there are some very strong legal challenges, but we shouldn`t be having the courts rely. You don`t have to we shouldn`t be having to rely on the courts to fix this. This should have been fixed at the get go at the legislative stage.

WILLIAMS: Jonathan Lemire, everybody in southern Louisiana is all about the I-10. All of life moves east and west along the I-10. If you`re from Lake Charles, people talk about that bridge is a huge part of the local conversation. I`m going to play for you the Republican mayor of Lake Charles, Louisiana today talking about Biden`s visit and his effort.


MAYOR NIC HUNTER (R-LA), LAKE CHARLES.: A joke today that I don`t care if it`s President Trump, President Biden or President Kanye West. If they are here in Lake Charles and they can help us I will be there to break bread with them and to try and accomplish some things. We have needed a new Interstate 10 Bridge in this city for 30 years and we`ve been talking about it for 30 years with Republican and Democratic presidents and Republican and Democratic governors and we haven`t gotten it done yet. And it`s extremely frustrating. This quagmire is polarization is very frustrating.


WILLIAMS: So, Jonathan, they need a bridge. Biden needs more elected officials like that in his corner, but Biden really needs votes in the Senate.

LEMIRE: The choice of Lake Charles, for the setting of today`s venue, Brian, was extremely deliberate for a few reasons. First of all, yes, that bridge, which as you said is now two decades beyond its lifespan. Lake Charles also been battered by a series of major storms, major hurricanes in recent years. In fact, from Air Force One, as it landed there today, you visit plainly visible, blue tarps on the roofs of buildings of homes and plywood, on office buildings to work to cover the holes, the roofs in shattered glass because of these storms, and yes, that Republican mayor who`s willing to work in a bipartisan fashion, and this is what the White House has been saying. They know to this point, they haven`t any support on Capitol Hill. But they`ve been pointed the mayors and governors, from the GOP across the country who are supportive of the President`s work this infrastructure and jobs plan, which of course is even greater than that when you think about healthcare and the families part of it. And Republican voters, as we mentioned earlier, also tend in polling to suggest that they also support these plans. So it`s a tricky balance here for the White House. On one hand, they have to keep a very disparate group of Democrats together, there`s a long gulf between where AOC is perhaps and Senator Joe Manchin, they have to keep them together. And they have to show that they`re trying to work in a bipartisan fashion as a reassuring signal to those moderate Democrats, to be sure, but also in a good faith effort to try to win some Republican votes and McConnell and leadership are saying no, but the White House still to this day, believe they might be able to pluck off a couple of Republicans to come on their side as much of a longshot as that seems to be. And next week, those efforts begin in earnest as the President will be hosting a series of Republican lawmakers at the White House, including Republican leadership, House Leader McCarthy, and yes, Senate Minority Leader McConnell.

WILLIAMS: Lisa, Congresswoman Stefanik gave straight up Trump`s talking points, lifted Trump talking points on that Steve Bannon home team podcast today, is that because she`s reading the clippings that MAGA types are suspicious of an upstate New York, Harvard educated, moderate turned Trumper?

LERER: It`s because this is not about ideology. If you look at how conservative groups have rated Liz Cheney, ideologically averse Elise Stefanik, you see that Liz Cheney has a much more conservative writing, what the party wants to see is someone who is a fighter and by fighter they mean someone who embraces the sort of grievance and fewest politics of Donald Trump and is willing to go along with all the conspiratorial thinking and falsehoods that the President puts out there. So she is demonstrating that that is the team she`s going to be on. It`s an open question whether, you know, I think that is the part of the party right now that is ascendant that seems like they`re in power. We`re certainly seeing that this week. You know, even as Donald Trump is not going to be allowed back on Facebook, his influence is clearly very, very strong in the party. And that`s what we`re seeing in the House.

It`s not clear what the better long term play is going to be here, particularly if a lot of candidates that are sort of fashioning themselves as MAGA types and mini Donald Trump, Trump`s in various seats if they lose their primary bids, or if they lose the general election. Some of this like fervor may run out of steam, but at least for now, this is the wing of the party that seems to be ascendant. And I think there are a lot of politicians who see this as a way to make their career and certainly build their brand up with the base of the Republican Party.

WILLIAMS: Hey, Neal, last word, I only have about 30 seconds. These ballots in Arizona have been counted so many times. They have calluses. This is a tragically flawed recount effort underway now. Same question about a role for the Feds, can they reach in and do anything about this? It has no force of law no matter what they find, correct?

KATYAL: Yes. So they`re already reaching and they`ve sent a letter yesterday, the Civil Rights Division saying, hey, Arizona, be careful here. This looks like voter intimidation. We could have a federal investigation and the like. And you know, literally Brian, the Arizona recount is being outsourced to a Florida outfit called cyber ninjas, which requires their people to have signed NDAs and whose leader Doug Logan is reputedly, you know, part of the big lie promoting that whole thing. So, you know, absolute role for the Feds here. And I expect, you know that scrutiny to exist.

WILLIAMS: As we always say what could go wrong? We`re much obliged to our big three on a Thursday night, Jonathan Lemire, Lisa Lerer, Neal Katyal, thank you, three of you for coming on and starting us off.

Coming up, the risk Republicans run by repeating this big lie in lieu of say, ideas or actual policies. Our two political pros standing by to talk about how it could backfire come election time.

And later, just days into the withdrawal from Afghanistan, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is here to talk about the two prongs drop down and diplomacy. All of it as the 11th Hour is just getting underway on this aforementioned Thursday night.


WILLIAMS: So Liz Cheney, as we mentioned on the verge of losing her leadership post for taking on the big lie that Trump somehow won the election. Today our friend Kara Swisher spoke to GOP pollster Frank Luntz on her New York Times podcast called Sway. They talked about the big lie and its impact moving forward.


FRANK LUNTZ, FORMER REPUBLICAN POLLSTER: More than two-thirds of Republicans believe that the election was stolen.

KARA SWISHER, NEW YORK TIMES HOST: So it`s working. This big lie thing is working.

LUNTZ: It is working. I think the greater impact -- I haven`t said this before, this could cost the Republicans the majority in the House in 2022. What Donald Trump is saying is actually telling people it`s not worth it to vote. Donald Trump single handedly may cause people not to vote.


WILLIAMS: Here with us to talk about it tonight, Jason Johnson, Campaign Veteran Journalist Contributor over The Grio, Professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University, and Mike Murphy, Veteran Republican Strategist, Co-director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California. In his spare time, he has co-host of the super podcast called, Hacks on Tap.

Gentlemen, good evening, and welcome to you both. Mike so much to ask you, do you think Frank Luntz is right? Do you think liberals diminish the big lie by saying no serious people believe that and could pay the opposite of what Frank`s talking about? And a third sub part, do we diminish the big lie by using that phrase, as shorthand? Should we be performing a better service by calling it every time the attempt to overturn a democratic election?

MIKE MURPHY, VETERAN REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, I do like the last one best myself as somebody offended by the fact the Republican Party appears to be holding the Salem witch trials here for anybody who believes that facts are important, and our democracy runs on them.

To your question in Frank Luntz` comment, I think he`s half right. It`s true a big chunk of the Republican base vote will tell you on a poll that the election was, "stolen." I`m not quite sure how much passion is behind that view, beyond the core, you know, Trump wing of the party, because you can look at other polls of Republican voters that show clear majority is more than half want to move on beyond Trump. They don`t really want him to run again. That said, they won`t trash him because there`s kind of a team loyalty thing here. The other thing we have to remember about the whole big life psychology is I`ve been doing campaigns since the 80s. And after you win or lose, there`s always grumbling. Well, those other guys think they stoled it, there were criticisms of George Bush in Florida, you know, stealing the election.

The problem we have now is that Trump, with all this venality has put this thing on a huge amplifier, instead of tamping it down like a president ought to do and convince people in the party, that there is something wrong and then you`ve got these toadying legislators in various states. There`s a new bill in Texas, which is far worse than the Florida one even kind of playing that game. So it is a huge problem.

As to losing the midterms, yeah, I think there`s a risk some MAGA voters will stay home. But I`m not sure it`s a big material risk. I think there are other things the Republican Party is doing, like not taking the opportunity to talk about policy, because Biden has given them an opportunity for a clean, fair, thoughtful debate on spending policy and running around with this silliness and this internal purge that they seem to be obsessed with. That is going to hurt them in the midterm elections. They`re not focusing on where the win could be.

WILLIAMS: Jason, I didn`t forget about you. I got one for you. Fix your eyes and ears on Lindsey Graham. Here he is tonight on Fox News.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): I would just say to my Republican colleagues, can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no. I`ve always liked Liz Cheney, but she`s made a determination that the Republican Party can`t grow with President Trump. I`ve determined we can`t grow without him.


WILLIAMS: They can`t go on without him. They can`t grow without him. Jason, have you ever?

JASON JOHNSON, PROFESSOR MORGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: Look, I`ve never, he sounds like a 90s R&B singer like I can`t go on. I can`t imagine my future without you. And as usual, Lindsey Graham has about as much political integrity and stability as a weathervane.

Here`s the problem, though, if you can`t move on without Trump, that`s fine, if that`s how you feel in your heart, but he ain`t going to be on the ballot. Donald Trump is not going to be on the ballot in 2022. So if you make him your most powerful avatar, and catalyst and motivator, it`s going to be a problem.

And Brian, I`m like this is the thing I always think of. I think of the number 79,000, right? 79,000 people in Georgia who didn`t vote in the 2020 election, came out and voted in that special election earlier in the year. And Democrats got two Democratic senators from a state that nobody imagined that that was possible. That was because you had people who didn`t just believe in the value of voting but had been convinced after winning an election that going out and putting in the additional effort was worth it. That is the problem Republicans are going to have.

In these close races, how are you going to convince people that this is going to be worth their time? Democrats are not going to have that problem. They just have to face voter suppression. So Lindsey Graham may be right in his heart. But if Donald Trump is not on the ballot, you got to get something else to incentivize people and if he`s not there, you`re going to lose seats that otherwise they should be competitive.

WILLIAMS: That right there is what makes those Morgan State students so smart. Both of these gentlemen have agreed to stay with us. We`re going to fit in a break. And coming up, it`s been called on American and Jim Crow 2.0, Florida`s new anti-voting rights law and the larger push to make it harder for Americans to vote generally.



GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): The way Florida did it, I think inspires confidence. I think that`s how elections should be run rather than us be at the center of a Bush versus Gore in 2020. We`re now look being looked at as the state that did it right and the state that these other states should emulate.


WILLIAMS: That was right after the election, Governor DeSantis held a press conference to praise Florida`s election process. But what changed because he`s the same Governor DeSantis, who earlier today signed that restrictive voting law under the name of election integrity.

Still with us, Jason Johnson, and Mike Murphy. Jason clearly knowing the truth and saying the truth isn`t enough. So how do you stop this?

JOHNSON: The only way he can stop it is by having an active Justice Department and the Biden administration and Merrick Garland making this a priority. They`ve got to sue the states repeatedly for violation of constitutional rights for access to the vote. That`s the only way that you can do it. You can`t shame these people out of it. You can`t even necessarily organize out of it entirely.

But Brian, here`s the real danger here. I think people need to understand this, even if they say go after Manchin and say, Hey, we need to get the, you know, John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The issue is state legislators can always move faster than the courts. So if you actually knock down some of these laws right now this summer, they`ll just come up with something else next August right before the election.

So the Biden administration has to be very strategic about going after these voter suppression laws and doing it in a window so that the state can`t do something else to suppress the vote beforehand. And that`s one of the reasons why this is a major priority, but it takes time to do it properly and strategically.

WILLIAMS: Mike Murphy, what does the existence of DeSantis? So what does today`s in effect closed circuit television broadcast for Fox News, say about the state of the party?

MURPHY: Well, it means Governor DeSantis, obviously is trying to run for president and he`s punching his ticket for the Paranoid wing with this ridiculous stuff. There`s a market for the Republican primaries. I`m not sure there`s a market for it in the suburbs in a general election, which is where the Republican Party keeps getting its clock clean thanks to Donald Trump. And people who look at the world like DeSantis does or even from the last segment, Lindsey Graham is an old friend of mine, but Lindsay would not know what a swing state is if it hit him over the head in South Carolina box a hammers with an ironic and when and so I don`t go to him for advice on this kind of stuff.

So again, it`s all about the party turning internal, the fight to appease the Trump wing, which is about half the primary voting universe. And it`s that narrow focus that is screwing up our chance on a legitimate grown up policy basis to go out and win elections. And get back to having a respectable center right party, which we desperately need. I think over the long term, we`re get there, but we`re sure tripping over our shoelaces like a bunch of idiots right now.

WILLIAMS: Hey, Jason, I literally have 30 seconds to ask you to react to word that one of the stars among democratic mayors in this country, Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta announced tonight, she is not seeking reelection.

JOHNSON: It is a surprise. And there`s a lot of thoughts that I have about this. But I will simply say this, this will be one of the most important elections in the country, not just about local African American politics, but also about gentrification, just like Washington, DC. Atlanta wants to stay a chocolate city, but it`s going to be a very close race. The last five mayoral elections in that city were decided by less than 1000 votes.

WILLIAMS: Gentlemen, I can`t thank you enough. Jason Johnson, Mike Murphy for joining us tonight. We`ll do this again.

Coming up for us in 100 days in rather, we will talk Biden national security with the man who ran the Pentagon under two administrations, former Secretary Robert Gates standing by to join us when we come back.



LLOYD AUSTIN, DEFENSE SECRETARY: The President has decided to end America`s involvement in our longest war. And we`re going to do just that. And so far less than one weekend, the drawdown is going according to plan. And as I said in Brussels, standing side by side with our allies, we`re going to do everything that we can to make this drawdown deliberate, orderly and safe.


WILLIAMS: Our Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, acknowledging today the Afghan military will face significant challenges fighting the Taliban without U.S. support. The president announced last month all U.S. troops will be out of country by September 11, putting an end to the nearly 20- year long war. War in Afghanistan is something our next guest knows a thing or two about having overseen it under two different presidential administrations.

We are pleased to welcome to this broadcast CIA veteran former defense secretary for presidents Bush and Obama, Robert Gates, his latest book, "Exercise of Power, American Failures, Successes and a New Path Forward in the Post-Cold War World" is now out in paperback. Mr. Secretary, it`s a pleasure to have you, it`s good to see you. Once again, let`s begin with your opinion of our departure from what the media is fond of calling America`s longest war.

ROBERT GATES, "EXERCISE OF POWER" AUTHOR: Brian, we`ve now had two successive presidents, one Republican and one Democrat, say that it`s time to get out of Afghanistan. As usual, the president gets to choose the least bad option. This is a really tough call. The reality is that even with our forces there, the Taliban are every day increasing the area of control that they have, particularly in the countryside in Afghanistan.

I think of all the possible endings in Afghanistan, a happy ending here is probably the least likely. What will be critical is for the Biden administration to ensure that we continue our financial, economic and military assistance to the Afghan government after we pull out. The Soviet installed government of Nadia Boola (ph) survive for three years after the Soviet troops left, and only fell after the sad collapse of the Soviet Union and all that assistance stopped.

So if this government is to have a prayer of survival, it`s going to depend on continuing U.S. economic and military assistance, as well as that of our allies.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Secretary is unfair as it is perhaps to grab one quote from a long book, here it is you write, How did our country go so quickly from unique global power to a country that is widely perceived as no longer willing to bear the costs or accept the responsibility of global leadership or even capable of governing itself effectively?

I`m guessing our viewers are shouting their own answer, the same answer at the television. I`m curious as to what your answer is.

GATES: I think part of the problem is that at the end of the Cold War, we were affected by triumphalism or hubris, whatever you want to call it, and thought we were in a position to reshape the world in our own image. We`d have defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War. We stood alone as a global power with no rival anywhere in sight in 1993, and decided that we could change the world and 20 years later, nearly 20 years later, our people are exhausted from war, their honor, on and arrested in the costs and burdens of global leadership. And we have, over the past dozen years or so, been through repeated economic and political crises. So the rest of the world is looking at us at us very differently than they did in 1993. And frankly, we`re looking at ourselves differently.

WILLIAMS: How does what we`ve been calling short handing again the big lie the attempt to overturn and election in our country, insurrection, rioting, looting desecration of our beloved Capitol Building. How does that weaken us around the world, you know our allies as well?

GATES: Well, it`s, first of all, looking, first of all to China. The Chinese have played a lot of clips of what happened at the Capitol on January 6. And in their propaganda and in their statements to our own officials have talked about how we`re in no position to advise other countries on how to govern themselves, because we apparently can`t govern ourselves.

So they`ve made a lot of propaganda, hay out of out of what happened and pointing to the flaws and in America and how America is in no position to be criticizing them or anyone else.

I think our allies were shocked. I think one of the most positive things that President Biden has done is to try and mend fences with our allies, our alliances is one of our unique strengths, non-military instruments of power, and trying to recover those alliances and reestablish confidence on the part of our allies is critically important. But they clearly were deeply affected by what they saw on January 6.

WILLIAMS: To our audience, please note, this is probably the only former Secretary of Defense who sets within reach of the biographies of both Einstein and WC Fields. There`s a reason for that. His new book is called "Exercise of Power, American Failures, Successes and a New Path Forward in a Post-Cold War World." Robert Gates has been our guest tonight, Mr. Secretary, always a pleasure. Thanks for coming on.

GATES: Thanks a lot, Brian. Always good.

WILLIAMS: Coming up for us. An NBC News exclusive our own Andrea Mitchell talked to Secretary of State Tony Blinken about this latest threat from Putin`s Russia. We`ll go to that front when we come back.


WILLIAMS: It was important when earlier today our Secretary of State Tony Blinken met with the president of Ukraine pledging support against Russian military aggression along their border again. NBC News Chief White House -- chief foreign correspondent, forgive me, Andrea Mitchell is traveling overseas with the Secretary and talked to him about this ongoing threat.


ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): US officials say Russia still has nearly 80,000 troops on the Ukraine border instead of withdrawing most of its forces by May 1 as it claimed. Tonight the Secretary of State on Russia`s alarming show of force.

(on camera): Will the US defend Ukraine if Vladimir Putin invades?

TONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: So what we`ve seen Andrea is that there was a massive buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border. Some of those forces have pulled back but significant forces remain. Some of the heavy equipment has been pulled back but other heavy equipment remains. And they can turn that around fairly quickly.

MITCHELL (voice-over): Secretary Blinken is also warning Ukraine of a problem from within ramp and corruption.

(on camera): Doesn`t that show that Ukraine has not proved that it can reform?

BLINKEN: Well, you know, Ukraine has aggression coming from outside from Russia, but also inside in terms of corruption that potentially eats away at its democracy. Corruption is a tool that Russia uses to try to erode Ukrainian sovereignty from the inside.

MITCHELL (voice-over): And for the past year, the government`s total failure dealing with a pandemic, with a population of 42 million people only 419 are fully vaccinated.

Now yielding to international pressure, the White House agreeing to support waiving vaccine patents so more nations can manufacture their own.

(on camera): Critics say that this will affect supply chains, and that we could face shortages ourselves back in the US.

BLINKEN: If the virus is replicating anywhere, it could be mutating, and if it`s mutating with a new a new variant, it could come back here and bite us even after people have been vaccinated. So we have to get ahead of that and we have to get ahead of it around the world.

MITCHELL: The biggest challenge for Ukraine is Russia. The Biden administration`s commitment is to help Ukraine defend itself with weapons but not to get involved militarily if Russia decides to cross that border. Brian.


WILLIAMS: 419 Ukrainians vaccinated incredible. Andrea Mitchell, our thanks for that report. Coming up for us, the biggest show this weekend may not be Elon Musk guest hosting on SNL. It may just be in the night skies above us and we`ll explain.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For almost 60 years, we`ve launched rockets and spacecraft into Earth`s orbit. But now thousands of objects from tiny screws and bolts to dead satellites in a circle the earth transforming the space above us into a junkyard.


WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight, depending on where you live, you might want to plan on indoor activities this weekend. Just kidding. Mostly this isn`t about the weather, but it`s about stuff falling from the sky. You heard the man. Sometime this weekend a large 10 story high 23-ton Chinese rocket booster will fall to Earth in some form. It is called the Long March 5 B and it`s possible reentry path takes in population centers like New York.

As you saw in that clip from Discovery while we`ve been the leading space polluters because we`ve sent the most stuff aloft. Every nation in the space business is guilty of not cleaning up after themselves. The Chinese Space Program poses its own danger because they alone lift a giant rocket into space as opposed to allowing stages to fall safely to Earth as they are launched.

Space is crowded, and there are a number of apps that track all of it in addition to our government. There are small parts as you heard and large side panels and dead satellites and nose cones and solar panels. Along with entire rocket boosters all of it up there tumbling and turmoil and orbiting in a violent dance at 18,000 miles an hour give or take.

The US tracks over 23,000 separate pieces. They pose a real danger to those living onboard the International Space Station. They`ve been hit by relatively small stuff before, it`s not like they can get out of the way when something big is coming. Most of the junk will burn up on reentry into earth without us ever knowing about it but the big stuff that makes a splash so to speak as they`re hoping this Chinese rocket will as well.

They have the possible path of entry mapped out. But since the earth is mostly water, the odds are usually good that this kind of thing will startle some fish and the Pacific and not say kill some New Yorker out on an errand. One tracking firm estimates reentry at 11:43 Eastern Time Saturday night.

Ironically, that would put it just after the start the opening monologue of Saturday Night Live, live from New York with guest host Elon Musk space travel pioneer. And while a leading space expert said just today your chances of getting hit by something from this even if you`re in the path of this thing is somewhere north of one and a billion. And while they really aren`t advising people to stay inside this weekend, maybe grab a helmet if you have one handy as you head out the door on Saturday. Just kidding. Maybe not

That is our broadcast for this Thursday night here on earth with our thanks for being here with us. My thanks to my friend Ali Velshi for sitting in for me last night. On behalf of all our colleagues at the networks of NBC News, good night.