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Meet the Press - April 2, 2017

NBC NEWS - MEET THE PRESS"4.2.17"

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:This Sunday, a presidency in crisis. New urgency in the Russia investigation as President Trump's former national security advisor Mike Flynn asks for immunity from prosecution to tell his story.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

You know Flynn said himself if you want immunity, you must, you know, be guilty.

CHUCK TODD:

The president calls the Russia investigation a witch hunt. A top Republican disagrees.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ:

No I don't think it's a witch hunt. Look, it's very mysterious to me though why all of a sudden General Flynn is suddenly out there saying he wants immunity.

CHUCK TODD:Plus, Supreme Court battle. Will Senate Republicans finish what Democrats started, and end the filibuster to confirm Neil Gorsuch? Russia, the Supreme Court, and a struggling presidency. This morning I'll be joined by the Senate's top two leaders, Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Chuck Schumer. Also, the fake news cycle. A former FBI agent says Russia speaks, and the president tweets.

CLINT WATTS:Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at time against his opponents.

CHUCK TODD:

Clint Watts says the Russians are still at it and he's here live this morning. Joining me for insight and analysis are Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, MSNBC's Greta Van Susteren, Robert Draper of the New York Times Magazine, and Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report. Welcome to Sunday. It's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, the longest running show in television history, celebrating its seventieth year, this is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. The drip drip drip of crises in the Trump presidency is quickly developing into a steady rainstorm. Just this week, President Trump, smarting from his health care defeat, took on both the Republican Freedom Caucus in the House and the Democrats, who put together, actually comprise a majority of the House.

On Friday, the president referred to the escalating Russia crisis as a "witch hunt." His former National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, asked for immunity from prosecution to tell what he knows about Trump campaign ties to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee has rejected that request so far.

And then there's the House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes, who softened his denials about the White House's involvement in providing him information on the president's discredited wiretapping claims. If there was one moment that best characterizes the week, it came when White House press secretary Sean Spicer gave this answer to CBS's Major Garrett who asked how the information about alleged surveillance was handled.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MAJOR GARRETT:

You told us that you were willing to look into it when I asked about the process and provide us answers--

SEAN SPICER:No no no. Please don't put words in my mouth. I never said I would provide you answers. I said we would look into it.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. However you look into it, it's clear Donald Trump's presidency, at least for now, is on an unsustainable trajectory.

(BEGIN TAPE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Nobody ever told me that politics was going to be so much fun.

CHUCK TODD:Donald Trump is a president in crisis. His governing agenda is going nowhere, his credibility shattered with many, his public approval is mired in the thirties and low forties, and an escalating Russia crisis is threatening to undermine the president's ability to persuade even Republicans that he can bounce back.

REPORTER:

Any comment on Michael Flynn, Mr. President?

CHUCK TODD:

On Friday morning, Mr. Trump intervened in the criminal investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia, tweeting of his former National Security Advisor, "Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt." A top Republican was quick to contradict the president:

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ:

No I don't think it's a witch hunt. Look, it's very mysterious to me though why all of a sudden General Flynn is suddenly out there saying he wants immunity.

CHUCK TODD:

Awkwardly, during the campaign, both Flynn and Mr. Trump repeatedly said that immunity from prosecution indicates guilt.

MIKE FLYNN:

When you are given immunity that means that you've probably committed a crime.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

If you're not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

You know, Flynn said himself, if you want immunity, you must, you know, be guilty.

CHUCK TODD:

And by Friday afternoon, the White House was trying to soften Mr. Trump's statement.

SEAN SPICER:

He believes that Mike Flynn should go testify.

REPORTER:

With or without immunity?

SEAN SPICER:

Well I mean that's up to him and his lawyer to decide.

CHUCK TODD:

Also changing, the story on whether the White House was involved in helping Republican House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes view classified documents to attempt to prove Trump aides were incidentally swept up in surveillance. On Monday--

WOLF BLITZER:

Did you meet with the president or any of his aides while you were there that night?

REP. DEVIN NUNES:

No. And in fact, I'm quite sure that people in the West Wing had no idea that I was there.

CHUCK TODD:

But by Friday--

REP. DEVIN NUNES:

There were people that probably knew about this, knew about me being there but the fact of the matter is, that doesn't make them the source of my information.

CHUCK TODD:

The New York Times and Washington Post have named three White House officials who may have been involved.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Nunes. The House. They're off in a ditch. I don't know where he, who invited him to look at the evidence in the White House. All I can say is: why do you show it to the chairman of the intel committee if you've got it yourself.

CHUCK TODD:

And then there's the president and his fight with House conservatives. On Thursday he lashed out at members of his own party, tweeting, "The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team and fast. We must fight them." Those conservatives are hitting back.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I mean, it's constructive in fifth grade.

MARK MECKLER:

The guy who said he was going to DC to drain the swamp. Now it looks like we got the creature from the Black Lagoon in the White House.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is the Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Senator McConnell, we got a lot to get to, Supreme Court, health care. And I want to start with Russia, sir. And by the way, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:Yeah good morning, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

The president has used the following phrases to describe the Russia investigation: fake news, nonsense, phony, total scam. Do you believe any of those phrases apply to the Russia investigation?

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:Yeah let me just say in the midst of all of this, and listening to your introductory piece this morning, there are two things you can depend on. The Senate Intelligence Committee under chairman Richard Burr and ranking member Mark Warner are going to have an investigation. They're in the middle of it. They're going to handle it on a bipartisan basis. They're going to go wherever the facts lead us. And I hope at the end, we'll have a bipartisan report.

The other thing we know is happening is the FBI's looking into these allegations. In a rather unusual announcement, they have indicated that they are. And so in the middle of all these other things that are swirling around, there are two things you can depend on. The Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan investigation, and of course, the FBI conducting a criminal investigation.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you concerned, speaking of the House, you saw Senator Lindsey Graham or at least you heard him say, he said, they're off in a ditch somewhere. Senator Feinstein is, she said to me, she's concerned that what's happening over in the House, that she expressed by the way the same support for this House-- the Senate intelligence investigation that you were doing. But she's worried that the House mess is going to put a stain on the Senate investigation. How concerned are you about that?

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:

I think just the opposite. It's pretty clear the contrast, excuse me, pretty clear the contrast here. The Senate committee, Burr and Warner had a joint press conference last week. They basically locked arms and said we're going to go wherever the facts take us. So I think the American people can depend on the Senate intelligence committee investigation to be done on a bipartisan basis and to go wherever the facts lead us.

CHUCK TODD:

So basically what you're saying is that the president's description of this investigation as "fake news, nonsense, phony, total scam," those are just phrases he's used since he's become president on this, they don't apply as far as you're concerned?

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:

I'm not characterizing what the president is saying. What I'm telling the American people is they can depend on the Senate intelligence committee to do a credible bipartisan investigation and tell us where the facts led them.

CHUCK TODD:

Have you seen any evidence-- you're part of this-- there's a lot of gangs when it comes to describing members of the U.S. Senate. There is a Gang of Eight, and you're a member of one of these gangs that gets high level classified intelligence briefings, the same ones that the intelligence committee chairs get. You're one of those folks that get it. Have you gotten any intelligence information that indicates the Obama administration somehow applied, asked for surveillance of the Trump transition, the Trump team, any Trump associates?

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

Under nothing, not even a hint of this, not anything?

​​SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:Well, not yet.

​​CHUCK TODD:Do you believe that these allegations are worthy of investigation that the president has made? Or that they're a sidetrack?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:The committee-- ​I don't know how many times I have to say it. The committee is going to conduct an investigation. You asked me if I knew anything about alleged wiretapping by the previous president. The answer is no.​​

CHUCK TODD:​Have you ever received intelligence briefings that are classified like that on the grounds of the White House?

​​SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​Have I?​​

CHUCK TODD:​Yes.​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:No.​​

CHUCK TODD:Is that-- So that's not a common practice, that any of the gang of eight would be--​​SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:I don't, I really don't--

​​CHUCK TODD:​--brought to the White House?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​I don't know what a common practice is. You asked me if I had, and the answer is no.

​​CHUCK TODD:Do you-- Are you concerned that this, that the president himself is too consumed with the Russia story?

​​SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​I think we ought to be talking about what the president is doing, which is really the right thing to do. We're in the middle of a deregulatory effort to try to get the economy going again. We're going to confirm an incredible nominee for the Supreme Court later this week, we're going to do comprehensive tax reform. We're doing a lot of the things that the country needs and that Republicans felt the election was about. I think we'd all be better off, including the president, talking about what we're trying to accomplish for the American people.

​​CHUCK TODD:​I want to ask you something that Peggy Noonan wrote, a conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, "Maybe the mad boy-king of North Korea will decide it's a good day to see if his missiles can hit Los Angeles. Maybe a sleeper cell of terrorists will decide it's a good day to show it's woke. Crisis reveals the character, the essential nature of a White House. Seventy days in, that is my worry." It's a column that she is concerned that this White House is not prepared to handle a major crisis. Are you concerned?

​​SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:No, I'm not. I think General Mattis, Mike Pompeo, the whole national security team, the Secretary of State, are well qualified to handle this, give the president the best possible advice. This is a tough problem. I read that President Obama said to incoming President Trump, "This will be the biggest international problem you'll have." We all recognize that.​​

CHUCK TODD:Let's move to the Supreme Court. There is clearly a debate and a fight about how Supreme Court justices are confirmed, how it was handled. Do you have any regrets on how you treated Merrick Garland last year?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​No, the tradition had been not to confirm vacancies created in the middle of a presidential year. You'd have to go back 80 years to find the last time that happened, go back to 1880s to find the last time it happened. Before that, everyone knew, including President Obama's former White House counsel, that if the shoe had been on the other foot, they wouldn't have filled a Republican president's vacancy in the middle of a Supreme Court-- in the middle of a presidential election. So that clearly wasn't going to happen, even if the roles had been reversed.

​​CHUCK TODD:​Well, I understand that. But why not-- if that was the rationale, that's a rationale to vote against his confirmation. Why not put him up for a vote?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​Really?​​

CHUCK TODD:Well, I mean, why isn't that--​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:

Really? Because--

CHUCK TODD:I mean, I'm just asking, that is a-- look, any senator can have a rationale not to vote for a confirmation, why not put Merrick Garland on the floor, and if the rationale is, "You know what, too close to an election," then vote no?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​Look, we litigated that last year. The American people decided they wanted Donald Trump to make the nomination, not Hillary Clinton. And what's before us now Chuck is not what happened last year, but the qualifications of Neil Gorsuch, unanimously well qualified by the American Bar Association, 99% of the time in the majority, 97% of his opinions were unanimous, only one time reversed by the Supreme Court. There's no rational basis, no principled reason for voting against Neil Gorsuch. And that's what's before the Senate this week.

​​CHUCK TODD:

​You say it's been litigated, last year, the Merrick Garland situation. For a lot of Senate Democrats, they're not done litigating this, including someone like Tom Carper, a Democratic Senator who is not comfortable with the idea of filibustering, but believes Merrick Garland was mistreated. Again, what was wrong with allowing Merrick Garland to have an up or down vote?

​​SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​I already told you. You don't fill Supreme Court vacancies in the middle of a presidential election. That's what Joe Biden said back in 1992. And he's the chairman of the Judiciary Committee.​​

CHUCK TODD:So is this the policy? Should that be the policy?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:We knew exactly--

​​CHUCK TODD:Should that be the policy going forward? Are you prepared to pass a resolution that says, "In election years, any Supreme Court vacancy," and have it to be the sense of a Senate resolution that say, "No Supreme Court nominations will be considered in any even-numbered year." Is that where we're headed?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​Chuck, with all due respect, that's an absurd question. We were right in the middle of a presidential election year. Everybody knew that neither side, had the shoe been on the other foot, would have filled it. But that has nothing to do with what we're voting on this year. Why don't we talk about what we're voting on this week. And that's this extraordinarily well-qualified nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.​​

CHUCK TODD:I understand that. But I go back to we're about to go on a situation where there's going to be this extra level of filibuster. And let me ask you about that. Do you have the votes to change the rules among Republicans? Do you have all 52 Republicans ready to stand behind you, that if the Democrats filibuster Neil Gorsuch, you have the votes to change the rules?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:Yeah, what I can tell you is that Neil Gorsuch will be confirmed this week. How that happens really depends on our Democratic friends, how many of them are willing to oppose cloture on a partisan basis to kill a Supreme Court nominee, never happened before in history, the whole history of the country.​In fact, filibustering judges at all is a rather recent phenomenon, started by your next guest, Senator Schumer, after George Bush 43 got elected president. We didn't used to do this. Clarence Thomas was confirmed 52 to 48, the most controversial Supreme Court nominee in history. And not a single senator said, "He has to get 60 votes."​​

CHUCK TODD:You're somebody though that was very concerned when this rule was changed by Harry Reid for judges below Supreme Court. Do you-- If you regret what Harry Reid did, why continue down this slippery slope?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:Well, I think breaking the rules of the Senate to change the rules of the Senate, which is what was done in 2013, was terrible for the Senate. But when we came to the majority a year and a half later, we discussed this about whether or not to restore the old system. And we decided not to do it because the custom, even though it was always possible to filibuster judges, the custom down to 2000 was not to do it.In other words, the Senate restrained itself and gave every Supreme Court nominee an up or down vote, down to 2000. So this recent invention of this level of controversy we decided was best left alone by just leaving us where we were after that.​​

CHUCK TODD:So you now believe Harry Reid made the right decision?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​No. I don't think he should have broken the rules to change the rules of the Senate, but that's the precedent. That's the precedent now that they set on what we call the executive calendar. And the Supreme Court is part of the executive calendar.​​

CHUCK TODD:​Are you comfortable that in ten years, we may not even have a filibuster anymore? Because somebody else may replace you and continue down this slippery slope?​​

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​I don't think the legislative filibuster is in danger. It's a longstanding tradition of the Senate. The business of filibustering judges is quite new. All really begun by the current Democratic leader, and you should ask him about that when he's on your show.​​

CHUCK TODD:​Well, that is my plan right now. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky, thank you for coming on sir, sharing your views, appreciate it.

​​SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL:​Thank you.

​​CHUCK TODD:Well, as introduced there by Senator McConnell, his Democratic colleague across the aisle, the minority leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Senator Schumer, welcome back to Meet the Press.

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:Good morning. Hi Mitch.

​​CHUCK TODD:Let me say this. Let me start this way. You expressed regret earlier this year for the rules change that was made on judges in 2013. Why did you go along with it if you regret doing it?​​

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:Well, let's look at the history. Our Republican colleagues had been holding back on just about all of so many lower-court judges, including very important D.C. circuit. I went to Lamar Alexander, one of my dear friends in the Senate, and I said, "Look, if you keep holding back on scores and scores of judges, my side's going to want to change the rules. Go to Mitch and tell him at least let us have some votes on a few of these, many of whom have gotten bipartisan support."The answer was no. And we changed the rules. But the one thing that stands out here, Chuck, is we did not change it for Supreme Court for one very important reason. And that is on the most important of decisions, 60 votes is called for. That's how you get a mainstream justice. Mitch calls it a filibuster, we call it the 60-vote standards. Most Americans believe in the 60-vote standard.

​​CHUCK TODD:But okay, that's fine. But there is no rule that says that it has to be 60 votes. There's no part of advice and consent that says there has to be 60 votes. And in fact, there are currently two members of this Supreme Court right now that did not get 60 votes, Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas.

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:​Well, actually Clarence Thomas is the only one, because when the filibuster came up with Alito, there were 72 votes to go forward. So there's just one, just about every nominee gets 60 votes because in the past, presidents have actually consulted the other side before picking someone. In this case, Donald Trump consulted the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, hard-right groups with extreme special-interest-oriented views. And it didn't leave much chance for compromise.

​​CHUCK TODD:You know, Heidi Heitkamp, one of the Democratic senators in your conference, she came out in favor of Neil Gorsuch and in favor of cloture. She said she's not happy about it, she didn't like the way Merrick Garland was treated. But she ended her statement by essentially saying, "Two wrongs don't make a right."

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:Okay, let me make--

​​CHUCK TODD:​Why not give Neil Gorsuch an up or down vote, Senator Schumer?​​

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:​Let me make a proposal here to maybe break this problem that we have, okay? It looks like Gorsuch will not reach the 60-vote margin. So instead of changing the rules, which is up to Mitch McConnell and the Republican majority, why doesn't President Trump, Democrats, and Republicans in the Senate, sit down, and try to come up with a mainstream nominee?​Look, when a nominee doesn't get 60 votes, you shouldn't change the rules, you should change the nominee. And let's just take, give me one minute here, because this is important, let's just look at the history, okay? Our nominee was Merrick Garland, Mitch McConnell broke 230 years of precedent and didn't call him up for a vote. It wasn't in the middle of an election campaign, it was March.Second, then now it looks like we have the votes to prevent Gorsuch from getting on. Now that doesn't mean you have to change the rules. Each side didn't get their nominee. Let's sit down and come together. Our Republican friends are acting like, you know, they're a cat on the top of a tree and they have to jump off with all the damage that entails. Come back off the tree, sit down, and work with us and we will produce a mainstream nominee. It'll be--

​​CHUCK TODD:​Senator Schumer--​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:​One more point, one more point Chuck.

​​CHUCK TODD:But hang on here.

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:It'll be a Republican nominee. But remember, Democrats voted for Roberts and Alito, and both of them got the 60 votes.​​

CHUCK TODD:​All right, but there are already two Democrats for Neil Gorsuch, so there already is a bipartisan majority that support him. And look, two is two.​​

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:​Yes, it is.​​

CHUCK TODD:​It's more than zero, for what it's worth. But why should Senator McConnell work with you guys on this, when you changed the rules first when you decided to do this? And again, a change that you yourself said this week and two months ago that you regret and it was a mistake?

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:But I don't regret not changing it for the Supreme Court. And let me read you a quote of Mr. McConnell, you like to put up quotes. He said, "I think we can stipulate, and my good friends on the other side of the aisle stipulated from time to time over the years when they were in the minority that in the Senate, it takes 60 votes on controversial matters." That has been the tradition of the Senate for a long time. This is nothing new.

​​CHUCK TODD:Then why did you change the rules in the first place? I go back to this because now we're going down the slippery slope. And everybody has hypocrisy on their side to point the finger. But you guys are hand in hand, sliding down this slope. Tell me this, in ten years, do you think the filibuster will still be alive, for anything--​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:That's one of the few things that my dear friend Mitch said on this show that I agree with. I don't think there's any thirst to change the legislative rules, 60 votes for that. Most Democrats and most Republicans have served in both the minority and majority and know what it means.But why not, you know you can do a lot of finger pointing, each side has some right here, let's stop this now. And the way to stop it is the way I mentioned. You know, other presidents have consulted the other side. President Clinton wanted Bruce Babbitt, he called Orrin Hatch, Orrin Hatch said, "No, why don't you pick Breyer or Ginsberg?" And he did. President Obama called people about Merrick Garland. All Donald Trump consulted was this hard-right, special-interest group, the Federalist Society.​And let me just, The New York Times and The Washington Post, when they looked at Gorsuch's record, one said he'd be the second-most conservative justice on the court, only short of Thomas. And the other, the Post, said he'd be the most conservative. This is not a mainstream choice. He's way far over.

​​CHUCK TODD:And Senator, what makes you think that President Trump, let's say you get your wish, and he says, "Okay, Merrick Garland for Neil Gorsuch, fine, everybody got to kill a Supreme Court nominee, now we move on," and you get your wish, you really think he's going to nominate somebody more moderate than Neil Gorsuch? That instead, he doesn't nominate another conservative? And then essentially say, "Look, we gave you one shot at this, you got your shot. Now here's another perhaps even more conservative potential justice."

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:As you have noted and I have noted, most of the nominees get 60 votes. The last four nominees, two by President Bush, Alito and Roberts, two by President Obama, Sotomayor and Kagan, each got votes from the other side. That's the norm. But when you have the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation have a veto power over who you choose, you're not going to get bipartisanship.​​

CHUCK TODD:​Senator, everybody has interest groups on their side that does these things.​​

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:​No, no, no.​​

CHUCK TODD:​Let me ask you the final question. Do you have the votes--

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:That's not-- okay, Chuck.

​​CHUCK TODD:Do you have the votes to filibuster Neil Gorsuch? Do you have it?​​

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:Look, what happened was that when Gorsuch refused to answer the most rudimentary questions in the hearings, after there were many doubts about him to begin with, he wouldn't even then answer whether he supported Brown v. Board, even Judge Roberts, who was very reticent, did that. There was a seismic change in my caucus. And it's highly, highly unlikely that he'll get 60. That's right.

​​CHUCK TODD:​All right. Senator Schumer, I'm going to leave it there.​​

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:​Thank you, Chuck.

​​CHUCK TODD:It's going to be a lively week in the United States Senate.

​​SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER:Yes, it will.​​

CHUCK TODD:We will be watching. Thank you for coming on and sharing your views, sir. When we come back, fake news and Trump tweets, the cyber expert who says candidate Trump often unwittingly repeated fake news put out by the Russians, and that the Russians are still targeting President Trump.

* * *COMMERCIAL BREAK* * *

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here, Robert Draper, writer at large for The New York TimesMagazine, where this morning, he has the cover story Trump Versus Congress: Now What? Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, my newest colleague, Greta van Susteren, not so new anymore, you're an old hand, old hand--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

Not so new--

CHUCK TODD:

--right over here, it's good to see you, and Eugene Robinson, columnist for The Washington Post. All right, Amy Walter, let's start with the Trump presidency. Where are we in this? And it's 70 days in, it may seem extreme to be passing judgment about how concerned folks are about the state of it, but where are we?

AMY WALTER:

If I were a House Republican, I'd be really nervous right now. In fact, I wouldn't be looking at what does it mean for Donald Trump in 2020, I'd be thinking, "What does it mean for me in a midterm election?" Chuck, you and I have covered a lot of midterm elections, we've seen a lot of wave elections since 2006, and they all start the same way, or they all end the same way, which is a president who has a decent approval rating among his party, but they're not energized.

In this case, we have a party that's fighting amongst itself. That depresses enthusiasm from the party. Independents abandoned the president and his party. The president right now has a 33% approval rating with independents. That's the same place where Bush, Clinton, and Obama were when they lost the House. And the other side is fired up.

When you look at the strong disapproval versus the strong approval rating, it's a two-to-one advantage for strong disapproval. Democrats are fired up, Republicans are sort of meh, they still like him, but they're not as energized. Independents are abandoning him. There are only 24 seats that Democrats need to take over the House. Really, if I were a House Republican, I would be very, very nervous about where this goes.

CHUCK TODD:

Seventy days in, Robert.

ROBERT DRAPER

Yeah, I would not yet call it a presidency in crisis. We are not at war, the economy is still recovering, there is one person in charge of the executive branch, and everyone around the world knows who that one person is. It's an unhappy presidency, it's an anxious presidency, and it's a struggling presidency. And to me, the question has always been, can this man who succeeded so well in New York as his own boss, bring those rules to the Washington ecosystem?

And the telling moment for me was a week ago last Thursday, when Trump dispatched his Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney to the Hill to say to House Republicans, "We are done negotiating, we are leaving the table," in essence. What they failed to recognize was that the House Freedom Caucus had already left the table. And so it is a different series of play here for the term presidency.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

You know though, I agree with the things you're saying, but I think it's early. You know, I still think that it's early. All of those things sound terrible and horrible, but if the G.D.P.'s up around 4% by the time of the midterms, all bets are off, it's a completely different thing. Because now we have money to fund things. So it sounds really horrible if the election were today, but a lot can happen.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Well, you're right. It is early. But there are other things going on as well. I mean, we are drifting toward greater involvement in the war in Yemen, in the war in Syria. You know, so events can play on both sides of that scale. And meanwhile, inside the White House, you have this sort of Court of the Borgias situation where, you know, Bannon and Priebus and Kushner and, you know, the Democrats, you know, "Gary Cohn," in quotes, which is not conducive to governance, obviously. Because look what's been happening.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it seems as if, and I've said this before, Bill Clinton compartmentalized his scandals, right? Bill Clinton did that. Probably seethed as much as Donald Trump seethes. Now granted, there was no Twitter then, and who knows if Bill Clinton would have gotten into Twitter back then. But when, it seems like President Trump can't compartmentalize Russia.

AMY WALTER:

Well, it's like he's taken everything and just shaken it up. I mean, like, he's put us all in a cage and shaken us and rattle us, whether it's Russia, whether it's healthcare, whether it's about Flynn, whether it's anything. And we're all trying to sort it out. But he's just shaking us.

ROBERT DRAPER:

Well, and he has a bona fide legislative agenda he's trying to promulgate. The problem is is that he diverts us from all of that by talking about fake news, by talking about, you know, how people are conducting a witch hunt. And we'll get later to the merits of whether or not this is a witch hunt. But the point is is that when even people on the Hill are trying to focus on his legislative agenda, he undercuts that.

AMY WALTER:

Yeah, can you imagine if that's what he did? He said, "You know what, I'm going to let the process play out. I don't think it's right, I don't think any of this is fair, but the bottom line is, the process is going to play out, and here's what I'm going to focus on, the economy jobs, what I ran on, pushing a legislative agenda." That would be amazing.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Amy, what you just said is fake news. That's not happening. It's not going to happen. That's not who he is.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah. It seems like another problem, and this really to me showed up in your piece. He does not instill fear in this town. And he did instill fear in this town before he took the office. He's eroding away. And by the way, a president needs a little bit of that if you want to get something done.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

But there's two power sources here. There's the president and there's the media. And he's totally alienated the media. And so that's why there's no fear, because everybody in the news organizations knows that the next news organization going to support you when he goes after you and insults you.

ROBERT DRAPER:

There's another power center, and that is the Hill. And Amy actually wrote about this very cogently a couple of days ago, saying that the House Freedom Caucus, for example, conservative Republicans, know their district better than President Trump does.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Exactly.

ROBERT DRAPER:

I think Steve Bannon and President Trump were of the belief that they understand what these voters are after more. But in fact, many of these people carried their districts by wider margins than the president himself did.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

That's one of the fundamental problems. The Democrats are excited because their base is so enthused. Donald Trump has been great for enthusiasm on the Democratic side. And a lot of the Republicans do not fear him because again, as Robert said, they know their districts better, they did better in their district.

AMY WALTER:

But if it gets the economy going, all bets are off.

CHUCK TODD:

There you go. Well, we're going to pause the conversation here, we're going to, on the other side of the hour, talk about that whole Supreme Court back and forth that we just heard between Schumer and McConnell. That was wild. But when we come back, cyber expert Clint Watts., who says not only did the Russians produce fake news that Candidate Donald Trump unwittingly repeated, he says they're still at it, all in an effort to win a second cold war.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. If you're a fan of Homeland, last Sunday, you saw this. It was a fake news operation being run by the C.I.A. heavy in the program, Dar Adal, played by the great F. Murray Abraham. It's fiction, right? Well, this week, in a life-imitating-art-imitating-life moment, a former F.B.I. agent told the Senate Intelligence Committee how the Russians did exactly that during the campaign, putting out fake news that was eagerly, if unwittingly, repeated by candidate Trump. Well, Clint Watts says the Russians are still at it.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CLINT WATTS:

I can tell you right now today, gray outlets that are Soviet pushing accounts, tweet at President Trump during high volumes when they like he's online and they push conspiracy theories.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, Clint Watts is currently the Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and he joins me now in the studio. Mr. Watts, thanks for coming in.

CLINT WATTS:

Thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

For folks that didn't see the hearing, briefly, if you could, explain the active measures that the Russians are using.

CLINT WATTS:

What they want to do is use information as a weapon of warfare to undermine U.S. democracy, such that when we crumble from the inside out, we can't take aggressive foreign policy or stop their foreign policy around the world. So the way they do that is by using what's called a state-to-people and a people-to-people strategy. They're going to bypass the U.S. government, go straight to our Democratic electorate, and try and undermine trust, create divisions, and foment chaos.

CHUCK TODD:

You seem to describe though it was a much more sophisticated technology, almost like in the same way a campaign might microtarget to talk to a specific voting group. You seem to indicate that the Russians were so sophisticated that they went state by state. You know, they made sure that people in Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania were seeing certain things. How did they get that sophisticated?

CLINT WATTS:

The new social media that's out there, Twitter, Facebook, and the way advertisements are done, the way you can demographically target people, the same way we see it with our own political campaigns in the United States, you can use that as an adversary as well. And so what they do is they create automated technology, commonly referred to as bots, to create what look like armies of Americans.

And they can reprogram those. They can make your biography look like you're a supporter of one candidate or another, and then they'll push a series of manipulated truths or fake stories through those accounts to where you think I'm talking to someone who supports my candidate, this makes it more believable, and I'm more amenable to that news.

CHUCK TODD:

Now there has been obviously part of the investigation is was there any collusion, was there any, essentially, any American support to this operation. What can you tell about that?

CLINT WATTS:

Well, I noted in my testimony the two times where there was obvious use of Russian propaganda. One was, Paul Manafort cited it in '14 August, the fake ancillary campaign we talked about, and then President Trump mistakenly cited what everyone thinks is a Sputnik news story. But beyond that, the synchronization at times, how many times the campaign picked up on lines that were promoted by the Kremlin, or vice versa, created lines that were then the Kremlin promoted back into the U.S. base was ironic. It was hard to see that with any other campaign.

CHUCK TODD:

And so was Donald Trump specifically targeted by this Russian operation as a person to help spread this news?

CLINT WATTS:

I don't think they saw him as a person to spread the news. They just knew that he was opportunistic during his campaign. So if you put stuff that helps his campaign, he will likely use it. And they really turned towards him in August of '15. That's when you started to see those stories pop up. But they also pushed for Bernie Sanders at times too. They would go on the left and the right. It's bipartisan.

CHUCK TODD:

It was interesting to hear that. When did you find out and whenever you did, did you start alerting the campaigns that this was happening?

CLINT WATTS:

No, I had no contact with the campaigns. But we started watching it three years ago. January of '14 was the first time I had seen it. April of '14 was when we see the Alaska back to Russia fake story. Through the Syrian fight, we've studied Islamic State. Andrew Weisberg, Jan Berger, and I, and we noticed it through the Syria campaign that Russia was developing the capability. It wasn't till 2015 they really turned towards the U.S. election.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, but it seems like this should have been something that maybe, and maybe this is hindsight now, it's easy to say in hindsight, that all the active campaigns should have been warned, "Hey, there is an active operation here by the Russian government. This is what they're going to try to do during this campaign." In hindsight should that have been done?

CLINT WATTS:

Yeah. What people didn't understand is the hacking-powered influence. We obsess about the tech part of hacks. What are they trying to do? Tech, tech, tech. But really, that was to take information to create information nuclear weapons essentially, that you put into the social media landscape that powers fake news, true news, and manipulated truths. And that connection wasn't made I don't even think until after the election was over.

CHUCK TODD:

The hardest part of all of this has always been how do you respond as a nation state? How do you respond to a cyber attack? Dick Cheney and John McCain have gone so far as to say you could call what the Russians did an act of war. Where are you on that?

CLINT WATTS:

There's two things we have to do above everything else. We can do the whole government approach, but we have to get one, a baseline for fact and fiction. Right now we have arguments over that amongst our executive branch. The other thing is we cannot counteract measures if we are anti-NATO and anti-E.U. That is Russia's propaganda as well. They're anti-NATO and anti-E.U. And that's what it seems like our administration's pushing right now.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, all right. If you have a distrust though, if a majority of the country distrusts what they see anyway in media, is this nearly impossible to stop in this political climate?

CLINT WATTS:

It's exactly what the Russians want. They're still winning today, and they were winning before the election. Just us talking about it here today is a victory for them. People are going to argue when I leave this table and you leave today what's fake news and what's true and false. And until we can put that debate aside and come together as Americans, we're going to continue to lose to other adversaries.

CHUCK TODD:

Good word to end on. Clint Watts, thanks very much for coming in.

CLINT WATTS:

Thanks for having me, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Thanks for sharing your views. When we come back, the unintended consequences of having a huge majority in Congress. Why the Republicans are having such a hard time governing, and why that may not change any time soon.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back, Data Download time. As we've seen, President Trump and the Republican Party are finding it's a lot harder to govern than they thought it would be. Why? The party is deeply divided and, at times, it looks rudderless.

Let's look at the president's poll numbers. Gallup's daily tracking poll shows his approval rating sitting right now at 40%, robbing him of leverage that you would want to have just by popularity. And though the GOP has a majority in Congress, their coalition is incredibly fragmented with not a whole lot holding it together.

In fact, let's look at the House. Republicans won 241 districts in November. That's a huge number, their largest majority in over 100 years. On one extreme, 29 out of 32 Freedom Caucus members outperformed President Trump in their districts back in November. But they're not feeling the political pressure back home to get in line behind the White House. Now you understand. On the other extreme, 23 districts that elected Republicans in the House but also voted for Hillary Clinton for president.

So these divisions aren't just abstract. They represent real differences in what those constituents want and need from government. Take Medicaid: 24 House Republicans come from districts that are likely to support Medicaid. These are districts where the Medicaid population is roughly the national average, 20% or more. But 27 House Republicans, on the other hand, are from districts where very few use Medicaid, 10% or fewer. So it's not hard to see why some of those Republicans are against it and why you can't bridge the divide between the two groups.

Look, it is extraordinarily hard to bridge this divide when you have 20% of the party that fundamentally disagrees on the role of government itself, and government assistance, in the case of Medicaid, is just that: the debate about the role of government. It used to be an argument that separated Democrats from Republicans, but now it's a disagreement within the Republican Party. Look, there's no such thing as the middle ground for Republicans anymore when it comes to that philosophy on the role of government, and that's your problem.

When we come back, the Supreme Court fight over Neil Gorsuch. Will the Senate finally decide to break itself permanently?

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with the panel, let's talk Supreme Court, guys. I'm going to put up a quick poll here we had it this week. A majority say allow a vote, 54 percent, but guess what among Democrats 64 percent say prevent a vote. Therein lies the box.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

You know-- That's the box. I-- Just anecdotally but also from that poll there is no appetite in the Democratic base for being nicey nicey to Neil Gorsuch and in fact I think there's a lot of appetite for you know filibuster, fight. If you're going down in flames I think for a lot of Senate Democrats better than sort of backing off.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

And how disgraceful though. You know, I like, obviously, a lot of members of the Senate but I think both Republicans and Democrats have been so disgraceful both to Judge Garland and to Judge Gorsuch. I mean these are two men who have devoted their lives to the court and they're being soiled and dirtied by really by the poor behavior in the Senate.

ROBERT DRAPER:

Well by deploying the nuclear option as it appears that Senator McConnell will do, he's in essence bringing in a coroner to tell us what we already know about the condition of the body. Senator Schumer did mention a poll actually I hadn't heard of. He said Americans believe in the sixty vote standard. I'm not so sure that they really care about the mechanics of the filibuster.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

Is that fake news?

AMY WALTER:

And I think that goes to your point that you asked both of them about whether the filibuster's going to be around. And I think for a lot of voters this is not something that they think of as particularly productive. Why do we have a 60 vote threshold? Isn't this what's preventing stuff from actually getting done? I think it's going to be very easy quite frankly to forget about that.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

And you know if you look back 30, 40 years, in the senate you had liberal Republicans, you had conservative Democrats like lots of both of those. And so you had this actual bipartisanship as opposed to the--

CHUCK TODD:

Gangs, you have more gangs.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

--right, as opposed to the simulacrum of bipartisanship but look what you have now it's become a smaller, less efficient house.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN

But look what you asked MCconnell about why didn't you give Merrick Garland a hearing and just vote no. I mean, of course that would have been the right thing to do. And now you got Gorsuch that ten years ago, and I realized this is the Supreme Court not the Court of Appeals but many of the Democrats who now say they won't vote for him thought that he was really qualified for the U.S. Court of Appeals. So you know, it really gets me. The American people I don't think are that dumb. They see that both sides are being very dirty and need a time out.

CHUCK TODD:

And oddly, I don't think there's going to be any penalty to anybody for any rules changes.

AMY WALTER

Nope.

ROBERT DRAPER:

No, no, look, this isn't going to serve much of a useful purpose for the Democrats other than to make them feel good. But it does send a signal about how hemmed in President Trump is. I mean, because after all, he has a very slender majority in the Senate with which to work. He has, essentially he needs three votes, or he has a three-vote majority. And on a host of issues, military as well as domestic policy, he's going to find it difficult getting a majority. He's going to need some of those Democrats.

CHUCK TODD:

In fact, if you, if they can't find seven or eight, if they can't find eight Democrats to work for them on this, how are they going to find eight Democrats on anything?

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Well, you know--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

But this is a grudge match, though. This--

CHUCK TODD:

You think this is Garland--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

Oh, this is definitely a grudge match. And that's what makes it so dirty.

CHUCK TODD:

I think you're right.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

This is totally a grudge match.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Yeah, and--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

And the Republicans were bad about that.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Like they're not getting Claire McCaskill on this, for example. Right? Because she's not going to--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

She's up for reelection.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

She's up for reelection. She's going with her base. But--

CHUCK TODD:

--the base, not-- the red state Missouri feel.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Right. But there are some issues on which I think--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

That's money. But you've got to be able to raise money.

CHUCK TODD:

That's exactly what this is. This is donor-driven on both sides. It's only the donors that, like, get amped on this, right?

AMY WALTER:

That are invested in this. That is exactly what's going on. This is about focusing on that. And let's also be clear, this didn't start with Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell or now Chuck Schumer. This has been going on for the last 20 or 30 years, as Gene pointed out. The pole raising--

CHUCK TODD:

Actually, the impeach Earl Warren billboard started in the '50s, but okay.

AMY WALTER:

But that we've been becoming more and more polarized. We're old eough to remember when we did have gangs of people that could come together. And the other point is, the president was elected exactly for a lot of people to break this up. He was uniquely situated to pull coalitions together, or people who wouldn't normally get together.

ROBERT DRAPER:

He alone can fix it?

AMY WALTER:

And yet, he was going to be able to fix this. Instead, he's come in and been just as polarizing.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

And just wait--

AMY WALTER:

And just as, you know--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

And just wait till the replacement is when President Trump is replacing a liberal member of the Supreme Court, which is likely next. You think it's bloody now?

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. We've used that, right? I know. If it's bloody now, it's only going to get worse. Well, when we come back, it's only going to get a little better. I promise. We'll be back in 45 seconds, endgame segment, start talking about the infighting in the Republican party. We'll be right back.

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***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

ANNOUNCER:

Meet the Press End Game is brought to you by Boeing, always working to build something better.

CHUCK TODD: Back now with End Game, this war with the Freedom Caucus. Robert Draper, you wrote about a lot of this in your cover story and it just kept continuing. Yesterday, the president's Director of Social Media Dan Scavino went after Justin Amash, who is sort of a very outspoken member of the Freedom Caucus, a Michigan Republican, and essentially threatened a primary.

ROBERT DRAPER:

Yeah, yeah. And it's look, Justin Amash is gonna beat anybody that Trump puts up there. I mean it's, and this is a war that President Trump cannot afford to have. I mean he's gonna, the notion that he's, as he said in his tweet, will be fighting the Freedom Caucus and Dems, then begs the question well who will he not be fighting, moderate Republicans?

Oh wait, he went after Charlie Dent of the Tuesday group. So it's a, at a certain point he's gonna have to build coalitions and underpinning all of that is the base of the Republican party, which the House Freedom Caucus is very much connected in. So I know he feels, you know, betrayed by them, but as Raul Labrador tweeted, he said, "We are your friends, it's these other people who are, you know, leading you astray with bad legislation."

CHUCK TODD:

Doesn't Labrador have a point?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

He does, but who would've guessed that the Republican party would be the big tent, with all the disparate elements? And the, look at the Democratic party they're actually much more cohesive. The Republicans are now the big tent--

CHUCK TODD:

Is that minority versus majority?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

Boehner once told me that getting Republicans' handled is like trying to get a wheelbarrow across the floor with about 200-some frogs and not letting a frog jump out of it. And now Trump's got this wheelbarrow.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

I mean if you talk to Nancy Pelosi about how she ran the Democratic majority when it was a much bigger tent than it is now, though, she spent endless, endless time with the various caucuses and parts of the party--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:

And she raised the money for all of them--

EUGENE ROBINSON:And she raised money for all of them. And she built consensus and she got favors owed to her and everything like that--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:She raised money, let me go back to the money.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

She raised money. You know, somebody's gonna have to try to do something like that on the Republican side. This party is gonna be governing, for the next few years, right? And the next couple of years at least, and they can't govern.

AMY WALTER:But this was, this had been happening long before Trump came in. Obviously this has been a party-- the only thing that's kept them together, their various factions, was dislike of President Obama, now they've gotta try to figure out how they philosophically, emotionally, intellectually come together. Again, the president was the person who was supposed to be the cohesive part of that and he's been completely unable to do that. And it wasn't just that Pelosi was so good at what she did because of money--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:Money --

AMY WALTER:I got the money, but the party itself is much more united on a lot of these hot-button issues, immigration, gay marriage--

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:But wait till Trump backs off a little bit on his NAFTA statements in the campaign, I mean he's starting to back off--

ROBERT DRAPER:As he's done, as he's done.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN:As he's known, he's already doing that. That's not gonna make things better within his--

AMY WALTER:

Nope, nope.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Within his caucus.

CHUCK TODD:

But that's obviously somebody realizing he's gotta build a different type of coalition. All right, we gotta stop, unfortunately. Quick programming note, NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt is going to be live from South Korea tomorrow and on Tuesday to give us a deep dive on the threat from North Korea. Lester will have unprecedented access to U.S. military capabilities at a time of increasing tensions in the region, something we must take much more seriously. That's all for today. Enjoy the NCAA finals and opening day. Let's go Nats, let's go Dodgers, and that's it. We'll be back next week because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

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