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Meet the Press - May 14, 2017

NBC News - Meet The Press

"05.14.17"

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:This Sunday, the firing of James Comey. Why did President Trump do it, and why now?

Was it based on a justice department recommendation? The administration said this.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE:

Because of the actions that the deputy attorney general outlined.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

The president accepted the recommendation of his deputy attorney general.

CHUCK TODD:But then President Trump said this.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

CHUCK TODD:

Did it have to do with the Russia investigation? The administration said this.

KELLYANNE CONWAY:You want this to be about Russia when this is about quote, “restoring confidence.”

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:This absolutely has nothing to do with any investigation into Russia.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE:

That’s not what this is about.

CHUCK TODD:But then President Trump said this.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.

CHUCK TODD:

So what's the real story? Joining me this morning are Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Plus we have brand new numbers from our NBC News Wall Street Journal poll about what a very skeptical public is now thinking.

And West Wing shakeup watch, a report this morning says a frustrated President Trump is considering firing many of his top White House aides. We'll get the latest. Joining me for insight and analysis are: NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay and Matthew Continetti, editor of The Washington Free Beacon. Welcome to Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:From NBC News in Washington, the longest running show in television history celebrating its 70th year, this is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning and happy Mother's Day to all the moms out there. After the firing of the F.B.I. director James Comey, conflicting administration explanations and open disagreement about what Comey and President Trump said to each other at what is now an infamous dinner. What happened on Friday feels like a perfect capstone to a whiplash week. The president tweeted, "James Comey better hope that there are no tapes of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press." Are there tapes? Here's what the president later told Fox News:

(BEGIN TAPE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

That I can't talk about. I won't talk about that. All I want is for Comey to be honest.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

It's just something else for Congress to try to subpoena, all of which leads us to our brand new NBC News Wall Street Journal poll that just finished overnight: 29% of those we polled say they approve of President Trump's decision to fire James Comey. 38% say they disapprove. Roughly a third say they don't know enough to say. That tells you the story hasn't quite penetrated the national consciousness when you have a undecided that high.

As a result, just 6%, though, of people say the firing has given them a more favorable impression of Donald Trump as president, while 30% say it has given them a less favorable one. 61% said it has no impact. And finally, this is the most troubling number for the White House. 46% say they agree that President Trump fired Comey to slow down the Russia investigation, while 38% buy the original explanation from the White House that it was done over legitimate concerns about how Comey handled the Hillary Clinton e-mail issue.

And there's now a report this morning that a frustrated President Trump is considering firing many of his top White House aides. It all adds up to a week in which, at best, the administration has a communications problem or, at worst, it is facing accusations of obstruction of justice.

(BEGIN TAPE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.

CHUCK TODD:

Donald Trump contradicted his own White House aides and his vice president, adding to questions about why the president chose to fire F.B.I. Director James Comey when he did.

SEAN SPICER:

No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

He took the recommendation seriously and he made a decision based on that.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE:

President Trump made the right decision at the right time. And to accept the recommendation of the deputy attorney general.

CHUCK TODD:

But in an interview with Lester Holt on Thursday, the president said not only had he already decided to fire Comey before getting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's recommendation, he had the Russia investigation on his mind when he did.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, "You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won."

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Trump also said he pressed Comey in a private dinner on January 27th to tell him if he was under investigation. The dinner was held three days after the F.B.I. interviewed now former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, and one day after acting Attorney General Sally Yates briefed the White House, warning them that Flynn could be blackmailed by Russian contacts.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the F.B.I. head. And I said, "I'll, you know, consider. We'll see what happens." But we had a very nice dinner. And at that time he told me, "You are not under investigation."

CHUCK TODD:

In fact, sources close to Comey say the president invited him to the White House in a last-minute request, either on the day of or day before, and asked Comey if he would be loyal. Comey refused to pledge loyalty, but promised to be honest.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Number one--

JEANINE PIRRO:

Did you ask that question?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

No. No. I didn't. But I don't think it would be a bad question to ask.

CHUCK TODD:

Then, on Friday, came the President's warning: "James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press." The second ranking Democratic Senator Dick Durbin calls that a thinly veiled threat that could be a violation of federal law. Democrats are asking the president to hand over any recordings.

SEN. DICK DURBIN:

President Trump is dangerous. Dangerous because he may be obstructing justice in terms of the investigation.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now is Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Senator, welcome back to Meet the Press. Boy, I have you laughing. I assume it’s dark comedy.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Why did I agree to do this?

CHUCK TODD:

Oh, because you’re a glutton for punishment sir. Welcome.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start here. Look, the president said that Russia was on his mind when he was making this decision. How concerning is that to you, when it comes to him admitting that was among the things on his mind when he made this decision to fire James Comey.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Well, I think we need to have Comey come before the Judiciary Committee and clear the air. Did the president ever say anything to the director of the FBI that would be construed as trying to impede the investigation? The president called me about the firing and he referenced the Comey testimony last week in the Judiciary Committee about how bad it was and that’s all I know. But I think it’s time to call the FBI director before the country and explain what happened at that dinner and, if there are any tapes, they have to be turned over. You can’t be cute about tapes. If there are any tapes of this conversation, they need to be turned over. I doubt if there are. But we need to clear the air.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, let me put up that tweet where the president put the word “tapes” in quotes, so we don’t know quite what that means. But did you think that constituted a threat to Comey?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

I think it was inappropriate. I think it requires somebody like me, a Republican, to call Comey before the judiciary committee to let him explain that conversation. Right now, I do not believe President Trump is a subject or a target of any investigation regarding collusion with the Russians. That’s what I believe. But this tweet has to be answered. I would advise the president not to tweet or comment about the investigation, as we go forward. The Russians did interfere in our election. I don’t think they changed the outcome. I have no evidence of collusion. But the president needs to back off here and let the investigation go forward. We need to call Comey and get to the bottom of all this. And I think it’s time for an FBI agent to lead the FBI. When you talk about a new person to lead the FBI - how about an FBI agent who is above reproach?

CHUCK TODD:

Why do you think it has to be an FBI agent at this point? Why not a US attorney, prosecutor, somebody like that.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

It could be. It could be a lot of people. But how about the idea of an FBI agent leading the FBI, promoting within the ranks. There’s so many good agents, men and women out there capable of leading the agency.This is up to the president. He has a duty and obligation to pick somebody beyond reproach outside the political lane. I think he’ll do that. I hope he’ll do that. I’m ready to move on and pick a new FBI agent and get to the bottom of what Russia did. I have no evidence that the president colluded with the Russians at all. Nobody on the campaign that I know of colluded with the Russians. But we don’t have all the evidence yet. We need to continue forward and protect these investigations.

CHUCK TODD:

While we’re staying on the FBI director, eight people interviewed yesterday. One of them is a colleague of yours, Sen. John Cornyn. Two were women, could be the first woman to ever head the FBI. You’ve got a former FBI agent and then a former member of Congress. Let me ask you this - in this political environment, do you think it is the right time to have the first ever FBI director with an elected political background, which is what it would be if either Mike Rogers or John Cornyn were named.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

No. I think it’s now time to pick someone who comes from within the ranks or has such a reputation that has no political background at all that can go into the job on day one. You know who does the FBI director work for? To me, it’s like appointing a judge. The president actually appoints the judge, but the judge is loyal to the law. The president appoints the FBI director, but the FBI director has to be loyal to the law. John Cornyn under normal circumstances would be a superb choice to be FBI director. But these are not normal circumstances. We got a chance to reset here as a nation. The president has a chance to clean up the mess that he mostly created. He really I think did his staff a disservice by changing the explanation. So I would encourage the president to pick somebody we can all rally around, including those who work in the FBI.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you something about the Russian interference. Later in the show, I have an interview with the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. I conducted it yesterday. And he would not give an explanation as to why the issue of Russian interference wasn't even brought up during his meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. We go back and forth. And not once--

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Right, right.

CHUCK TODD:

--was it thought of as a top priority. Can we move on in a relationship with Russia if we don't confront them on this?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Absolutely not. I don't know if they privately talked about it. But Secretary Tillerson did a masterful job in the U.N. Security Council, talking about the threat of North Korea. I understand wanting to engage the Russians and Syria because they're part of the solution if we ever find one.

But here's what I believe. I'm 1,000% certain that the Russians interfered in our election. It was the Russian Intelligence Service that hacked into Podesta's e-mail, the DNC, to create chaos. They did try to undercut Clinton. I don't think they change the outcome. And I do not believe we could go forward as a nation until we punish Russia.

I have bipartisan sanctions against Russia for interfering in our election. And my goal is to put it on the President's desk. And I hope he would embrace it. Russia didn't change the outcome of the election, but they sure as hell tried. And I want to punish the Russians. And I hope the president will see their interference as a threat to our democracy.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to talk about the investigation. Word just out of the field, NBC News Wall Street Journal poll, I've got to put up this number here. I'll read it to you. I know you don't have a screen. Who should investigate Russian interference? Only 15% think it should be you folks in Congress, Senator. 78%, so that means it's a bipartisan group of people, would like to see an independent commission or a special prosecutor. Do you understand why the public doesn't trust, now, the politicians to do this?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Yeah. But here's what I think about the investigation. Right now, it is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. So you don't need a special prosecutor. I trust Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to do this. If he gets to the point that he can't do it and it becomes a criminal investigation, we'll have a special prosecutor, An independent commission takes it outside of Congress.

I think the Intel Committee, the Judiciary Committee, we're doing a good job. So I want to keep it inside the Congress. I'd like a select committee where we all work together. But right now I see no need for a special prosecutor. It's not a criminal investigation.

CHUCK TODD:

But--

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

I see no need--

CHUCK TODD:

Sorry.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

--for an independent commission yet.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Well, you, though, have called for a special counsel a number of times during the Obama years--

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

--for the Clinton e-mails.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Oh yeah, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, yes.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes. For the Department of Justice supposed--

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

--targeting reports, leaks.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

That's true.

CHUCK TODD:

White House leaks of investigation. The idea that Joe Sestak--

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

--may have gotten a job offer in exchange.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

My point is why did all of those meet the test for a special counsel but this one doesn't?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

This is a counterintelligence investigation. We're not investigating a crime yet. If it becomes a criminal investigation of the Trump campaign colluding with the Russians during the election and Mr. Rosenstein doesn't believe he can do the job, then we'll have a special counsel.

There's a process in place. I'm not worried about polling. I'm not worried about anything other than trying to get the right answer. The Russians did it. They need to be punished. Trump's not a target of an investigation yet. Leave this investigation alone. Congress is doing a good job, in my view. If it gets to the point we can't, then we'll take it outside of Congress.

CHUCK TODD:

You have been looking at the President's finances. The president has made a big deal that he--

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

--sent you a certified letter from his accountant, which all that means is you signed for it and that's fine.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

But why does it ma-- in this case, shouldn't you want to see the tax returns from one of these LLCs that run a golf course? For instance, there's this report out there in North Carolina that the Trump National Golf Course may have been financed with Russian money. That's not going to be in the President's tax return, that's going to be in that LLC of Trump National in Charlotte that has that. Are you going to be able to get your hands on those records?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

I have yet to find any evidence of improper business dealings between the Trump organization and Russia regarding the election or anything else. However, if you can show me there is reason for that to-- there's a suspicion of that, then we need to get financial documents. I just can't--

CHUCK TODD:

But have you seen those records?

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

--ask for documents unless I have a reason. But the president should turn over his tax returns. He should do that. I don't have a reason to subpoena them. If I get that reason, I'll do it. But he should turn over his tax returns.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

He should do that now.

CHUCK TODD:

All tax returns, not just his personal but these LLCs? Because that’s where this could be. It's not going to be in his tax return, if there's anything there.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

If you can show me that we need to do that, I will do it. I can't say on television, based on your question, that's a good idea. But I'm open-minded to all things Russia. The bottom line is I think Russia tried to affect our election, undermine our democracy. I want them to pay a price. I have yet to find collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

There's a Washington Post story that Comey went to Burr to get more agents and more money. That's not true. There's a lot of things being said that are true or half truths. Let the process work. I promise the people of South Carolina, the people of the United States, I do care about this. I've got nobody to punish and nobody to reward other than get to the facts.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Lindsey Graham, I hope you don't regret coming on now. But anyway, I appreciate your coming on.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Happy Mother's Day. It was fun.

CHUCK TODD:

That's the most important message there to say. There you go.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM:

Happy Mother's Day.

CHUCK TODD:Thank you, sir. Appreciate it. Well, let me go to the other side of the aisle, Senate Democratic Leader, Chuck Schumer of New York. Senator, welcome back to Meet the Press. I hope that you are more enthusiastic about being on than Senator Graham was.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:Yeah, I didn’t see Senator Graham but I just want to join him in wishing all the moms of America, and your family Chuck, Happy Mother’s Day and particularly to my mom who , god willing, will turn 89 in three weeks.

CHUCK TODD:Well done. Okay, let me start with the issue of a special prosecutor. Why do you believe that it needs to be done? As you know, Senator Ben Sasse indicated that if you do that, it is sending a message that you don’t trust the Intel committee to do their work and it’s sort of a vote of no confidence there. Shouldn’t you let them do their job to see if they could do it without a special prosecutor?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:Well, there are two separate lines of activity here. One is the oversight function of the Intelligence Committee, they are doing their job. Mark Warner has done a very good job. I’ve had some differences with Senator Burr in the last week. People tell me that he was very upset with Comey’s firing and he has been very good. I hope it continues, but they can’t prosecute. A special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department has the ability to actually prosecute people for violation of law and they go on in tandem. One shouldn’t step on another and I know that they are talking to each other right now. The FBI was with the intelligence committee to make sure no one is granted immunity. But it is two separate issues and you very much need a special prosecutor, Chuck. We need someone who is independent of the Justice Department to get to the bottom of this, and I just say one more thing: the silence of my Republican colleagues on this issue is sort of deafening. This is not an issue of party, this is an issue of country. Foreign interference in the elections is a very very serious serious thing and we should get to the bottom of it. Where is the Howard Baker of 2017? We desperately need one.

CHUCK TODD:One of your Democratic colleagues, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, said the following to me about why he is skeptical of a special counsel. Take a listen. His concern is that everything starts over and that we are suddenly hitting a reset button and it sets the investigation back.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:

Look I have a great, I love Sheldon Whitehouse I have a great deal of respect for him. He’s one of the great lawyers around. But you can easily, and there have been many instances where a special prosecutor comes in, they’re in charge, they’re the shields, so there’s no outside interference or direction, but at the same time the same investigators who have been working on this continue to work on it and that’s how I imagine we’ll work. Let’s remember, special prosecutor has four abilities that an internal justice department person doesn’t. First, he or she makes the decisions day-to-day on who to subpoena, who to examine, what questions to ask. No outside interference. Second, can only be fired for cause. Third, has the ability if there’s interference, someone’s trying to thwart the investigation from up above, they can make sure that doesn’t happen and investigate that. And fourth, they have to report to Congress. So there are a lot of advantages over a special prosecutor and if you look at the department of justice guidelines, there’s never a more important time, a more appropriate time for a special prosecutor than in this situation.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Warner, who’s the vice chair of the Senate intel committee conducting the intel investigation, he said unless the deputy attorney general Rosenstein appoints a special prosecutor, he thinks it’s going to be very difficult to get any Democratic support for a new FBI director. Do you plan on linking those two issues, not trying to tell the Democratic senators “withhold support until there’s a special prosecutor named”?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:

Well each Democratic senator’s gonna make up his or her own mind. But I think the two are very much related. If you have an independent special prosecutor, then you really have the ability to get to the bottom of this, so it matters in terms of who the FBI director is. You need both of them really to have a lot of courage, to resist any pushback not to do the investigation. You need both to be very experienced. That’s important as well. And I think both should be nonpartisan, not from either political party. Those would be my criteria. But I think the two are linked because they’re both involved in one of the most serious investigations we’ve seen in a very long time.

CHUCK TODD:

There’s eight candidates that were interviewed yesterday, two of them have an electoral background, a sitting senator in John Cornyn and a former member of Congress. Some have bipartisan backgrounds like a Fran Townsend served in both the Clinton and Bush administration. Anybody jump out as a favorite of yours or somebody that you could foresee supporting?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:

You know I’ve generally made it a practice, Chuck, of not commenting on nominees publicly. Let’s see who they nominate. But I, as I said, certainly somebody not of a partisan background. Certainly somebody of great experience and certainly somebody of courage.

CHUCK TODD:

What do you make of the Merrick Garland suggestion?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:

I’m not going to comment on any of them. I like him as a justice though. He’s very good on that DC circuit. I don’t know if he’d want to leave.

CHUCK TODD:

You think that was a little too cute at that point?

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:

No comment.

CHUCK TODD:

No comment. All right.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:

--smiling.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Senator Chuck Schumer, I will leave it there. Senate Democratic leader thanks for coming on Meet the Press, sharing your views. When we come back, signs of a big White House shakeup. Yet more reporting this morning that President Trump may be prepared to do a little house cleaning in one part of the West Wing. But as we go to break, here's a moment from President Trump's commencement address yesterday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

(BEGIN TAPE)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Being an outsider is fine. Embrace the label. Because it's the outsiders who change the world and who make a real and lasting difference.

(END TAPE)

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, our newly appointed chief White House correspondent Hallie Jackson. Hello, Hallie. BBC World News America anchor Katty Kay, and Matthew Continetti, editor of the conservative publication The Washington Free Beacon. And a quick late addition to the panel, first some breaking news, Jim VandeHei, founder and CEO of Axios. He joins me. And Jim, you're going to sort of throw some more wood here on the fire, a whole shakeup that you say is coming soon. Walk us through it. I think we're going to put up the four positions that could be on the firing line here, including the Chief of Staff.

JIM VANDEHEI:

You talk to the same people that we do. You have a president who is so frustrated that he's getting nothing done, that he hates the coverage, feels like he's being ill served by his staff. In the last couple of days, he's been on the phone, talking about getting rid of everyone from Steve Bannon, his top advisor, to his White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, to even his White House lawyer, Don McGahn.

He's even frustrated with his cabinet officials. He's been talking about getting upstaged by some of his top officials, including his friend, Wilbur Ross at Commerce. And I think what this suggests is he's just angry, he's just frustrated. But the thing for the White House is he's the product. He's the pitch man. He's a producer. And firing the stagehands, I don't-- I think that denies--

CHUCK TODD:

Look, we know that this happens a lot. Is there a timeline here? Is this something he's moving on quickly? Or is this like Comey, it could happen today or it could happen in a month?

JIM VANDEHEI:

You never know, right? We had this three weeks ago. We know that he wants Steve Bannon out. We know Jared Kushner wants Steve Bannon out. They're worried about the optics of when to do it. And remember, when he vents, when he gets frustrated, he really gets frustrated and really vents. And so you never know if he's blowing off steam.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

JIM VANDEHEI:

Though this has been so sustained for so long, something is coming.

CHUCK TODD:

Hallie, it's clear to me in my own reporting that the circle has shrunk again around the president.

HALLIE JACKSON:

Yeah. Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

And I think that this report comports with that. Walk us through that.

HALLIE JACKSON:

And I think you saw that with the Comey decision. It's our reporting based on two White House sources telling me that Steve Bannon just was not in the loop with this. There is some pushback on that from, I think, his allies. But the point is the circle is shrinking.

I think to your point here, Jim, the president is frustrated. When he gets frustrated, he vents and he spit-balls. How real is it is a question? I will tell you that since Sean Spicer's first press briefing I get a text maybe every six days from somebody who says, "Spicer's gone."

This feels different. And even though who are in Sean Spicer's corner say this is a different situation. I would not understate, though, when you talk about timing, the importance of this foreign trip. That keeps getting brought up to me again and again. The president has an extraordinarily busy week, three foreign leader visits this week, a speech at the Coast Guard Academy, then he leaves to hit like six countries in seven days.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Gene, does a White House shakeup, I mean this, in some ways, is very Trumpian. "Oh my god, everybody's focused on Comey, let me do a White House shakeup, maybe everybody will focus there, act two."

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Possibly. Figuring out timing with President Trump is impossible. I mean I will just flat out say it's impossible. Look at the Comey firing, right? It's awful, terrible timing. You know, you ask for this report that's supposed to be the cover story. You get it, the next day he's out. Or later that day he's out. I mean the timing was awful. It created the appearance of all sorts of conflicts.

And then, of course, he'd scheduled the Lester Holt interview and decides to, you know, blurt out what sounded like a confession to a lot of people to obstruction of justice. I mean so I take your point, Jim, you have no idea when this is going to happen or might happen. But it does feel different. It feels like something has to give in this White House.

HALLIE JACKSON:

But the other part of it is the more somebody gets talked about getting fired the less the president wants to do it then.

And that's what we've seen from him again and again.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, the more we'll bring it up. Matthew, you wrote a great column on Friday that may summarize this whole thing best. "You hear it all the time, President Trump hasn't been tested, hasn't faced a real crisis. The events of the last few weeks, however, have made me want to turn that formulation around. Trump doesn't face crises so much as manufacture them. In a way, he is the crisis. And his presidency is in danger of being defined not by any legislative or diplomatic achievement but by his handling of the multiplying and daunting obstacles he creates for himself."

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

You have the most unpredictable and impulsive president probably since Theodore Roosevelt, right, who was president before the 24-hour news cycle and the immense responsibilities of the executive office. There are a lot of Republicans who worried about President Trump's policies when he took office, but thought, "Well, you know, he's a businessman. He'll manage like a businessman."

Now we come to the reverse, which is that many Republicans are fine with President Trump's policies, which remain the conventional conservative policies with a few Trumpian twists. But you hear a lot of complaints from Republicans about the management.

KATTY KAY:

I wrote this week that perhaps it's the President's thin skin that's getting in the way of his presidency. There may be nothing behind the firing of Jim Comey. It may have nothing to do with Russia. It may have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton's e-mails.

This may be purely the psychology of the president that cannot bear the idea that this man was not loyal to him, that he went on television, hit the sweet spot of undermining, somehow, the President's electoral victory. But the problem is that, without a straight story, conspiracy theories will fill the vacuum. And we're not getting the straight story and we're not getting the facts from the White House. And that is leaving them wide open to the criticism that this was somehow nefarious.

JIM VANDEHEI:

And on top of this, he thinks so small. For all the rage against the media, he remains, even this past week, obsessed with coverage. He spends so much time critiquing Spicer's performance.

KATTY KAY: That’s his thin skin.

JIM VANDEHEI:

So much time. He's probably watching this, critiquing our performance. And when you think small and you're trying to do big, that's hard to do in life. It's certainly hard to do with the presidency.

CHUCK TODD:

That's something Katty was sort of implying. The worst thing Comey may have said in that testimony, Hallie, "Mildly nauseous."

HALLIE JACKSON:

Yeah.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

Because it came across to the president as Comey agreeing with the Clinton narrative that Comey cost her the election.

HALLIE JACKSON:

Despite it probably not being James Comey's intention to make that impression. But that was the moment, that day was the moment that the president-- this kicked into another gear. Yes, he may have wanted to fire Comey since day one. But what we heard privately and then later publicly was Wednesday was it.

KATTY KAY:

Look--

EUGENE ROBINSON:

He may never accept that this investigation of Russian meddling exists separate from any, you know, question of Hillary Clinton having lost the election and whether she ran a bad campaign or not.

KATTY KAY:

The question of whether the thin skin, that reaction gets in the way of his presidency, is that it leads to a lack of competence in the White House.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

So he told Lester Holt--

KATTY KAY:

He can't overcome his personal feelings to run the White House as it should be run.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

Comey was a “show boat and a grand standarder.” And there's only one star of the show that we're in, and it's President Trump.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I'm going to leave it there. Mr. VandeHei, a little breaking news this morning. Appreciate you getting up to do it.

JIM VANDEHEI:

Good to be here.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, thank you. Up next, President Trump says the Russia story's fake news and a witch hunt. Does the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson agree? My interview with him after the break. But first, here's a moment from Senator Elizabeth Warren's commencement address at The University of Massachusetts.

(BEGIN TAPE)

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN:

Study up, because knowing something about an issue makes a difference. So go online and read the facts, not the alternative facts, the real facts.

(END TAPE)

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. When President Trump fired James Comey, a lot of Democrats jumped to the collection that the president was trying to stymie the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. And on Thursday, the president told NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt that he was thinking of, quote, "This Russia thing," when he made his decision. Yesterday, I sat down with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and I began by asking him whether he agrees with the president that the Russia story is fake news and a witch hunt.

(BEGIN TAPE)

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Well, Chuck, the president I think has made it clear that he feels it's important that we reengage with Russia. The relationship with Russia, as he has described, and I have described as well, is I think at an all-time low point since the end of the Cold War, with a very low level of trust.

I think the world, and it's in the interest of the American people, it's in the interest of Russia, the rest of the world, that we do something to see if we cannot improve the relationship between the two greatest nuclear powers in the world. So the president, I think, is committed to at least make an effort in that regard, and he has certainly asked me to make an important effort as well.

CHUCK TODD:

I understand that, but you look at what's happened in these Western European nations, in France and the U.K., in Germany, Italy. Accusations of Russian interference in their democratic process. What message does it send to those countries that their number one ally, the United States, the president fired the man at the agency that was looking into the very problem they're dealing with, Russian interference in the democracy?

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Well, Chuck, what I hear from the leaders of the other nations, Europe and more broadly, and the subject of Russia comes up in all of our conversations, is all the other nations want the U.S. and Russia to work towards improving our relationship as well, for all the reasons that I just mentioned.

I think it's largely viewed that it is not healthy for the world. It's certainly not healthy for us, for the American people, our national security interest and otherwise, for this relationship to remain at this low level. Whether we can improve it or not remains to be seen.

It's going to take some time. It's going to take a lot of hard work. But I think the president's committed, rightly so, and I'm committed with him as well, to see if we cannot do something to put us on a better footing in our relationship with Russia.

CHUCK TODD:

Can you get on a better footing with them if you don't address this issue of the Russian interference? I mean your counterpart, the Russian foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov, said that you guys didn't even talk about this issue of Russian interference in our election because, as he put it, President Trump himself says it's fake news, so it's not an issue. Why haven't you brought it up with them?

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Well, Chuck, I think we have such a broad range of important issues that have to be addressed in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Obviously the interference in the election is one of those. I think it's been well documented, it's pretty well understood, the nature of that interference, here and elsewhere.

And you know, these are not new tactics on the part of the Russian government, directed not only at us but at others. But again, I think we have to look at this relationship in its broadest contours, and there are many, many important areas which require our attention if we are to bring it back to a relationship that we believe is necessary for the security of the U.S.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Secretary, though. This is fundamental. They interfered with our democracy. I just don't understand how this is not a top issue for you to deal with with them in order to, essentially, start with a clean slate. Can't start with a clean slate until maybe they either own up to what they did, or we punish them in a way that they're not going to do this again.

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Well, Chuck, I think it's important to understand we're not trying to start with a clean slate. I think terms like having a reset are overused. You cannot reset. You cannot erase the past. You cannot start with a clean slate. And we're not trying to start with a clean slate.

We're starting with the slate we have. And all the problems that are on that slate. We don't dismiss any of them. We don't give anyone a free pass on any of them. They're part of the entire nature of the discussion we're having with the Russians. And yes, there are a large number of issues that we have to get around to addressing in order to put this relationship back together, if that is indeed possible.

CHUCK TODD:

During your confirmation hearings you made clear you didn't have-- obviously you hadn't been briefed on the intelligence reports, the 17 different agencies that came to the conclusions that the Russians did make an effort to interfere in this election. Obviously there's an investigation going along to see if there was any collusion in this interference. Since you've become Secretary of State in February, have you been briefed? Have you seen this intelligence now? Is it clear in your mind that it is a fact the Russians interfered in our elections?

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

I have seen the intelligence reports, Chuck, and yes, I don't think there's any question that the Russians were playing around in our electoral processes. Again, as those intelligence reports also have indicated, it's inconclusive as to what, if any, effect it had.

CHUCK TODD:

I understand about the impact, but the fact that they got into it, what should the repercussions be now, in your mind?

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Well, they're just part of that broader landscape of conversations, Chuck. And I think, you know, the real impact is it serves yet again to undermine the trust between the United States and Russia. And as I have said, and the president has said, you know, we're just at a very, very low level of trust between our two countries right now. And so what we're exploring is how do we begin the process of restoring that trust. And ultimately it will touch on all of these issues.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to give you a chance to respond to an op-ed that Senator John McCain wrote, where he invoked your name, sir. He said this. "In a recent address to State Department employees Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, 'Conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interests.'"

McCain goes on to write, "With those words, Secretary Tillerson sent a message to oppressed people everywhere, 'Don't look to the United States for hope. Our values make us sympathetic to your plight, and when it's convenient we might officially express that sympathy.'" Some pretty tough words from Senator McCain. What do you say in response?

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Well, first, I'd say if anyone has earned the right to express their views, Senator McCain has. And I have great respect for the senator. I think the point that I was making, Chuck, in that message to State Department employees is an important one to understand.

And that's that America's values of freedom, of treatment of people, human dignity, freedom of expression throughout the world, those are our values. Those are enduring values. They are part of everything we do. And in fact they serve as the guidepost and they serve as the boundaries as we develop our foreign policy approaches and our diplomatic efforts.

But I make a distinction between values and policy. A policy has to be tailored to the individual situation. To the country. To its circumstances. To the broader issues that we are addressing in terms of advancing our national security interest, our national economic interest.

And so policies have to be adaptable. They have to change. They have to adjust to conditions. But our values can never change. Our values can never be put in a position of having to be compromised. And so the values guide our policy, but if we put our values in the front of our policies and say, "This is our policy," we have no room to adapt to changing circumstances to achieve our ultimate objective. And I think if we are successful in achieving our ultimate diplomatic and national security objectives, we will create the conditions for the advancement of freedom in countries all over the world.

CHUCK TODD:

Secretary Tillerson, I know you're busy and you've got to get going. You've got this big trip ahead of you. Thank you for spending some time with us. I appreciate it.

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Thanks, Chuck. And I want to wish all the mothers a happy Mother's Day. Most particularly my own mother, my wife and my two daughter-in-laws, the mothers of my grandchildren. Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

A great message to send. Thank you, sir.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, Secretary Tillerson also indicated in our interview that any decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem would not be made for some time. We also have a trip preview. You can see a lot more of this interview on our website MeetThePress.com. Coming up, could we be seeing the makings of a Democratic wave next year? But as we go to break, there's a little lighter moment here from Will Ferrell's commencement address at USC.

(BEGIN TAPE)

WILL FERRELL:

This is not my first commencement speech. The institutions to which I have spoken at previously include Bryman School of Nursing, Hollywood DJ Academy, and Trump University. I'm still waiting to get paid from Trump University.

(END TAPE)

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back, Data Download time. Millennials have been putting their generational stamp on American politics and at work places, but on this Mother’s Day we’re looking at how millennials are changing motherhood and perhaps politics along the way.

Right now today’s new mothers are just about all millennials. According to Pew Research Center in 2015 eighty-two percent of all births in the United States were to mothers born between 1981 and 1997, that’s Generation Y, or the millennials. In fact, in the ten years between 2005 and 2015, there’s been a five point increase in the number of new moms who are unmarried. And it now means more than a third of all new mothers are unmarried.

Thirty-two percent of millennial mothers, by the way, had a bachelor's degree or more, that's a point higher than the national average and a five point increase since 2005. And more than sixty percent of new moms are in the labor force. That’s a six point jump in ten years. 2015 millennial moms are also more racially and ethnically diverse. New moms were three points less likely to be white non-Hispanics.

What does all of this mean? Well as millennials start to dominate motherhood, it could change our politics. Look ten years ago political strategists focused on ‘security moms’ concerned about their child’s safety in a post 9-11 world. Those issues have been strengths for Republicans. But millennial mothers, who work more, may prove to be focused on other issues as their top priorities. Perhaps it’s child care, family leave, equal pay. And at least for now, those are areas of strength for the Democrats. Bottom line is demographics of moms are changing radically before our eyes, we just showed you that quick ten year snapshot, and along the way they may also change American politics.

We’ll be back in a moment with End Game and those choppy waters at Republican town halls that might, might turn into a wave for the Democrats next year.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CROWD MEMBER:

We need a bipartisan select committee to investigate this. When are you going to open your eyes? When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?

(END TAPE)

ANNOUNCER:

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

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with End Game and the Panel. So town halls have been a home to healthcare rants and now special prosecutor one. Take a look guys.

(BEGIN TAPE)

REP. DAVE BARAT:

We have oversight committees in the House, in the Senate--

TOWN HALL ATTENDEE:

Are you about ready to call for an independent counsel? And if not, what will it take?

REP. ROD BLUM:

Right now I don't think we need an independent counsel. There's been zero shred of-- zero shred of evidence that the president, that there's been an collusion with Russia.

TOWN HALL ATTENDEE:

We need a bipartisan select committee to investigate this. When are you going to open your eyes? When are you going to decide to be an American and not a politician?

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

The atmospherics right now, Matthew, to be a Republican member of Congress going to a town hall. Two weeks ago, you were getting your head chopped off over health care and now it’s this. The timing of all of this, this is when incumbents decide to whether to run again or challengers decide whether to run or not. Boy, it's probably a good time to be a Democrat and a bad time to be a Republican.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

It’s not very encouraging. I’d say the townhalls have been attracting some of the most partisan and some of the most motivated Democrats. Some of the numbers in your poll suggest that-- actually the Comey firing may not have the political impact that a lot of people think. One clip that you didn’t have which, I thought really summed up the politics of this week is when Stephen Colbert --

CHUCK TODD: The Colbert thing, yeah --

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: --mentioned the Comey firing and his crowd broke out into an applause and he had to kind of say, “no, it’s bad!” Right? I mean, the truth is that people have conflicting view of James Comey including this president. And so it might not have the political valence, say, of the health care fight.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, and there's no doubt, look, we'll put up the President's job approval rating on here, Katty. In our poll, it was basically he was even. I think his disapproval was at 54 now, was at 54 on our last poll. Look, as Charlie Cook might say, he trades in a narrow trading range on his job approval. But that tells you the core hasn't left.

KATTY KAY:

Well, the one number that we haven't seen shift, and this is what Democrats are pointing to when they think there is the prospect, perhaps, of a wave election coming up, is the "strongly disapprove" number. And that number has increased significantly just in the last couple of weeks.

So that would suggest that there-- and we don't have numbers yet for enthusiasm, how likely people are to vote. So that's the proxy number. If you strongly disapprove, and that's at about 51%, strongly approve is about 25%, that suggests those people may actually turn out and vote in the midterms.

HALLIE JACKSON:

I mean so but even Democratic operatives that I've been talking to in the last 48 hours or so acknowledge nobody's going to go to the polls in 2018 and vote based on Comey and what happened this week. And our numbers reflect that. But here's what this could do, I think, goes the thinking.

Number one, what you spoke to, Chuck, mobilize and get sort of-- more enthusiastic, not voters, but the people who could run, the recruitments, the candidates for people to come out and run. The other part of it is, when you tally up incidents in Democrat views like the Comey firing, when you add that to whatever else might happen over the next year, pointing to Congress' rubber stamp on the President's actions, that that is maybe the messaging that could be effective for them, come 2018. Not this specific incident, but it building up over time.

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Yeah, it's an accretion of things, I think. And look, I think it's a better time to be a Democratic political organizer out of the grassroots than a Republican political organizer at the grassroots. The question is how do you quantify that enthusiasm? Do you find the right candidates, as you say? So let's look again in three or four or six months and see where things stand. But right now, is the potential there? Yeah, the potential is there for--

KATTY KAY:

And the argument the Democrats are making is that the midterms will be the first time people have had a chance to actually do something about Trump since the inauguration, and that that may, even though you're seeing some enthusiasm decline and the protests and numbers are a bit smaller, when you get to an actual election where people feel they can take action, that may drive people out to the polls.

JIM VANDEHEI:

Trump's core is solid. But the danger for the GOP is that it might not transfer to the Republican Party.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

JIM VANDEHEI:

And indeed, Donald Trump won the presidency--

HALLIE JACKSON:

Yeah.

JIM VANDEHEI:

--differentiating himself--

HALLIE JACKSON:

Exactly right.

JIM VANDEHEI:

--from the Republican Party. And it's similar, actually, to his predecessor, right? Barack Obama always maintained that gun connection--

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

JIM VANDEHEI:

--with his base, with his constituency. It didn't translate into the Democratic Party--

HALLIE JACKSON:

Right.

JIM VANDEHEI:

--which was devastated over his eight years.

HALLIE JACKSON:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

And by the way, you bring up, it sort of gets me to this point. I want to get this Charlie Sykes New York Times op-ed into the discussion here. And he talks about this issue now of what's happening on the right, where there isn't conservative intellectualism, it's just anti-anti-Trumpism. He writes, "The real heart of anti-anti-Trumpism is the delight in the frustration and anger of his opponents. If liberals hate something, the argument goes, then it must be wonderful and worthy of aggressive defense. Each controversy reinforces the divisions and the distrust, and Mr. Trump counts on that." But Charlie Sykes is lamenting the fact, Matthew, and I want you to be able to chime on in this first, that the conservatives have sort of lost what it means to be a conservative.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

I think many people come to conservatism for different reasons. And I think a lot of them are driven by opposition to the left. That's why a lot of the conservative movement ended up supporting Donald Trump, because, whatever his flaws as a candidate, they thought that he would be kind of a battering ram against the left. There are others, like Charlie Sykes, who think it's more important to keep their principles intact than win political victories.

CHUCK TODD:

And to me, that's what's going to divide Congress here. Right? You're going to have the Republican Party divided between those--

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

--like a Ben Sasse, right?

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Well, exactly. But--

CHUCK TODD:

You know?

EUGENE ROBINSON:

You know, even those, like you heard Lindsey Graham on the Russia question, for example. Even though who are most dedicated to sort of upholding what had been their prior principles and least connected with Donald Trump are not ready to jump ship yet. Lindsey Graham is not calling for an independent commission or a special prosecutor yet. And so there's some distance yet to cover, I think, before you see any sort of mass defections of the Republicans.

HALLIE JACKSON:

And I would just wonder how that plays out, though, when we look ahead to 2018, particularly on the Republican side with one GOP operative telling me, "Listen, you might see people re-distance themselves from Donald Trump the way that you saw that happen during 2016 if this sort of continues on the way that it is." So it might not stay that.

KATTY KAY:

Well, so you've got several Congressmen who are running who are less popular than the president. So how do they run on something like health care when people don't want--

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Well--

KATTY KAY:

--necessarily to distance themselves from Donald Trump?

EUGENE ROBINSON:

Well, no, that's a good question. There were a lot of unfinished business, right? Health care, tax reform.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah. I've got unfinished business. I've got to stop it there. That's all we have for today. Happy Mother's Day to all of our moms out there, mine, my wife, who's a great mother, Katty--

KATTY KAY:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

--happy Mother's Day to you here. Meanwhile, I want to talk about-- there you-- look at that.

KATTY KAY:

Thank you. All four of my kids are home.

CHUCK TODD:

And we're-- all of watching united behind one wall. It's John Wall. Good luck, buddy, we'll see you tomorrow. And we'll see you next Sunday. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *