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Meet the Press - May 28, 2017

NBC News - Meet The Press

"05.28.17"

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, the growing Russia investigation. New reports that President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner tried to set up back channel communications with Russia to avoid U.S. monitoring. The reaction, former Deputy C.I.A. Chief John McLaughlin.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

If an American intelligence officer had done anything like this we'd consider it espionage.

CHUCK TODD:

The Trump administration responds but not in front of cameras.

GARY COHN:

We're not going to comment on Jared. We're just not going to comment.

CHUCK TODD:

This after former C.I.A. Chief John Brennan testifies that Russia can lure people unwittingly into treason.

JOHN BRENNAN:

Frequently individuals who go along a treasonous path do not even realize they're along that path until it gets to be a bit too late.

CHUCK TODD:

My guests this morning, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Bob Corker, former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, and homeland security chief, John Kelly. And that Congressional race in Montana. The Republican won, the Democrat closed the gap. Which party has reason to celebrate?

Joining me for insight and analysis are MSNBC's Joy Reid, Kimberley Strassel, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC political analyst, Charlie Sykes, and Amy Walter 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 70th year. This is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning on this Memorial Day weekend. The president came home late last night from his first overseas trip in office. And when he did, the Russia investigation got much closer to home as well. So much closer, in fact, that it now involves the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

President Trump faces a growing scandal that threatens to overshadow his agenda and perhaps his entire presidency. Just consider what has happened in just the last week. Monday, Washington Post reports that Mr. Trump had asked his intel chiefs in March to push back specifically on then-F.B.I. Director James Comey's comments on the Russia investigation.

Tuesday, former C.I.A. Director John Brennan testifies that he saw intelligence revealing contacts between Russian officials and Trump campaign members that he thought deserved investigation. Thursday, NBC News reports that Jared Kushner is now under F.B.I. scrutiny in the Russia investigation though he is not a target.

And then late Friday night, the Washington Post bombshell that Kushner and Russia's ambassador to the United States discussed setting up a secret backdoor channel using Russian communication facilities so that their pre-inauguration discussions would not be picked up by U.S. monitoring. That last item was so explosive that the Trump administration went out of its way yesterday to field reporter's questions off-camera even if they didn't actually answer them.

(BEGIN TAPE)

GARY COHN:

We're not going to comment on Jared. We're just not going to comment.

CHUCK TODD:

National security advisor H.R. McMaster did try to defend Kushner without saying his name.

H.R. MCMASTER:

Generally speaking about back channel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discrete manner.

JEREMY BASH:

It's very concerning that they wanted to have these communications at Russian diplomatic facilities using Russian phone lines. That shows that they were really trying to conceal this from the Obama administration and from U.S. intelligence.

CHUCK TODD:

The reactions to the Kushner story include just simple shock from the intelligence community.

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN:

I can't keep out of my mind the thought that if an American intelligence officer had done anything like this, we'd consider it espionage.

CHUCK TODD:

Reuters is also reporting that Kushner had at least three previously undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador including two phone calls before the election sometime between April and November. Kushner's attorney did not deny the story but responded this way, "Mr. Kushner participated in thousands of calls in this time period. He has no recollection of the calls as described."

On Thursday, NBC News reported that Kushner is under F.B.I. scrutiny though not a subject of the investigation like former Trump aides Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn. Also this week former C.I.A. Director John Brennan publicly acknowledged for the first time his concern that Trump campaign associates wittingly or unwittingly may have been cooperating with Russian operatives though he says he saw no proof of collusion.

JOHN BRENNAN:

I saw information intelligence that was worthy of investigation by the bureau to determine whether or not such cooperation or collusion was taking place.

CHUCK TODD:

Now the Senate Intelligence Committee has asked President Trump's political organization to gather and produce all documents, emails and phone records going back to his campaign's launch in June 2015. Mr. Kushner was also in charge of the campaign's data operation.

BRAD PARSCALE:

I think we knew exactly where our 14 million voters were that we needed in those key swing states. I mean, Jared was an incredible leader to help make this all happen, you know.

CHUCK TODD:

At home, the president will not be able to avoid questions as he did overseas beginning with his own party in Congress, many of whom were already losing confidence in his ability to lead.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:

I think we have a situation on our hands where every few days there's a new revelation.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

The idea that Congress continues to do nothing about Russia interference in our election is completely unacceptable to me. In the next work period I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that we sanction Russia for interfering in our election.

CHUCK TODD:

Former House speaker John Boehner told an energy conference Wednesday that foreign policy aside, “everything else he's done has been a complete disaster.”

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:Joining me now is Republican senator and the chairman of the foreign relations committee Bob Corker of Tennessee. Senator, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Chuck, good to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with the allegations involving Jared Kushner and these meetings that he had where he, either he suggested or somebody suggested that a backchannel be put together in some form, possibly using Russian facilities. Can you think of any good reason to do something like that in a transition period between one presidency over another?

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Look I think Jared has said that he’s more than willing to answer any and all questions. They reached out to us yesterday to make sure that we knew that was the case and I’m sure he’s willing to do so. I look at what the reports have said about asking questions of him. It seems to me that he’s, based on just the reporting that you and others are making,he’s not a target and so I think I would just wait. Sounds like he’s more than glad to talk about all of these things and instead of getting wrapped up into a lot of hyperbole, as these things can sometimes do, I think talking with him directly and getting him to answer any and all questions as he said he would do would probably be the prudent course of action.

CHUCK TODD:I understand that. But can you think of any good reason-- let’s take, as you know, you had the Washington Post bombshell and then clearly the White House hasn’t said much publicly. They seem to be talking anonymously to the New York Times and they implied that well, the meeting, wasn’t clear who suggested a backchannel and that it was gonna involve Mike Flynn and Syria. Here’s what I don’t understand, why would anybody want to set up something like that, if it was about Syria, and not let the Pentagon know about it?

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Yeah I have no idea. Again, I think it’s best to talk directly with these people. I know that from a military standpoint, obviously we have ways of deconflicting with Russia on things relative to Syria. Again Chuck because I just don’t know, these things or these sources are not people who are willing to give their names. It’s just hard to respond to things like this. Again, you know, no names attached, no dates attached. Look, let’s let this unfold. I’ve spent a lot of time with Jared. He was over just recently in a bipartisan way, briefing us on the upcoming trip. They achieved all of their goals. He seems to me to be a very open person and again, I’d let him speak for himself when the time is right on all these issues and at that time we can actually render judgment on the reality of what did or didn’t take place.

CHUCK TODD:

“The time is right.” I guess I’m a little concerned. Do you not have a sense of urgency about this? This is-- let’s think about the time period here. You just had 17 intelligence agencies report that Russia interfered in this election. These interactions in the month of December, Senator Corker, you would think would trouble many people if they thought that geez, there’s been accusations that maybe they were trying, the Russians were trying to assist one campaign over the other. And then to have these meetings and then to have them talk about the idea of avoiding American eavesdropping, I guess if you want to call it that. None of this troubles you? I mean you want to wait until it unfolds?

SEN. BOB CORKER:

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

These recent reports is what I’m talking about. Again as I understand it, Jared Kushner’s more than glad to talk about all of these things. As it relates to the interference in the election, no question. And as you know, we’ve been allowing for a short period of time, for Secretary of State Tillerson to see if he can change the trajectory in Syria. But this next work period, we very much, unless there’s some major change in Russia’s actions in Syria, plan to double down on sanctions with Russia. So, absolutely not. Couldn’t agree more with that.

CHUCK TODD:Why tie-- Let me-- No, I--

SEN. BOB CORKER:

I’m not disagreeing that they interfered with our elections and we need to do something about that. So if you’re trying to tie me into that--

CHUCK TODD:

No, I’m not trying to tie you into--

SEN. BOB CORKER:

No, no, no, I agree one hundred percent.

CHUCK TODD:

I’m not trying to tie you into knots, but you just connected potential sanctions on Russian election to the behavior in Syria. Should that be connected? Or should Russia be punished for election interference, period?

SEN. BOB CORKER:

They should, and sometimes Chuck what we want to do is make sure that we’re having a good outcome for our nation, and so we can act with passion over an issue. On the other hand, if we know that there are some negotiations taking place when our relationship with Russia is at the lowest point ever since 1991 for good reason, if there are some negotiations taking place relative to that, does it make some sense to give the secretary of state some time to see where that goes, there are gonna be sanctions against Russia, or at least a codifying of existing sanctions on Ukraine and Crimea. That is going to happen. But I think my job and many people in the foreign relations community in general is to make sure we have good outcomes. So look, there-- Russia is going to be punished for what it did, in interfering in our elections. There is an investigation that's underway. I talk each week multiple times with Senator Burr and Senator Warner as to how that is unfolding. But, again, to give a diplomat, I mean, everybody's going nuts over the 1% issue that we spend on diplomacy and aid.

We care about diplomacy in our country. We want to make sure that it works. We want to give it every opportunity. And to wait a few weeks at the request of the secretary of state to see if he can change things in Syria seems to me to be an appropriate thing to do. That's what we've done. But next work period we plan to take it up.

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say, you said, “a few weeks,” it’s been four months since they have taken office, so, in your opinion, is it now time to decide the Russians aren’t going to change their behavior in Syria?

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Well, we’ll see. Unless there is something demonstrable that occurs. I read the intelligence on Wednesday morning down in the SCIF. It doesn’t seem to me that they have changed their behavior in any way. So, I think we are going to be moving on with this.

I know the banking committee plans to do the same. But, again, Chuck, I don't know what you're getting at here. I, you know, obviously yes it has been six months. So does waiting two or three weeks for the secretary of state to see if he can negotiate a change, does that affect our ability to focus on what they did on the elections? I don't think so.

And by the way, we're not going to wait for the Senate investigation. But there is an investigation underway in the intel community. Typically you wait until those things are complete before you take action. In this case, we're probably going to go ahead just because of the clamoring for this to occur, rightly so. We're going to take up sanctions this next work period.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you a question about--

SEN. BOB CORKER:

In the event some--

CHUCK TODD:

--speaking of your next work period, John McCain made this interesting analysis of all the things you guys got to get done in the Senate before Labor Day. “Here's the reality, we've got 11 weeks between now and the end of September. We've got a repeal of Obamacare. We're talking about tax reform. We're talking about a defense bill. We’re talking about-- There's about three other things, a looming debt limit. How do you pack all that in? And so far I've seen no strategy for doing so. I'm seeing no plan for doing so.” There seems to be-- He's not alone but he's on the record. There seems to be a lot of concern among your colleagues that you have no idea how many of these things are going to get done in the next three months.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Well, it's obvious that not all of those things are going to get done in the next three months. There is a lot to do. And, you know, we're right now meeting on health care. The meetings have been, I will say, very substantive. I would've liked for them to be more in the public so you're bringing the public along.

There seems to be some consolidation beginning to take place on tax reform. I had a great discussion this week with Fred Smith at FedEx who's I know working with many business associates. There seems to be something gelling there. But no, we've got a lot to do. There's no question. And we're going to do the best that we can. But, you know, we have a full two-year Congressional cycle here to get many of those things done. And, again, I think we're moving along a thoughtful way with way too much work, you're right, to get done. A lot of people to get confirmed nomination-wise. Spending issues. Lot to get done. It's a privilege to serve in the Senate, to try to accomplish those things.

CHUCK TODD:

Fair enough.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

We'll move along as quickly as we can.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Senator, I'm going to leave it there. Got a busy show this morning. Senator Bob Corker, Republican from Tennessee, thanks for coming on, sharing your views, sir.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it. Earlier this morning I spoke with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. And I began by asking him about the Jared Kushner news.

(BEGIN TAPE)

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I know Jared. He’s a great guy, decent guy. His number one, number one interest, really, is the nation so you know there’s a lot of different ways to communicate, backchannel, publicly with other countries. I don’t see any big issue here relative to Jared.

CHUCK TODD:

Even with an adversary, somebody that was, at the time, our own intelligence community had collectively said “this is a country that had infiltrated our election.” Did this show good judgment?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

Well you know, it was before the government was in place during the transition period I think, from what I understand. And I think any time you can open lines of communication with anyone, whether they’re good friends or not so good friends, is a smart thing to do.

CHUCK TODD:

Had you ever, in your lifetime of government service, both in the military and outside of it, had you ever used another government’s communications facility though? The idea of sort of going around American communications.

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

Well no, but I didn’t have to. I mean in my previous life, we wouldn’t do that kind of thing but youknow politics being what they are-- a better way to put it, not politics but the kind of interaction here in Washington, there’s a lot of ways to communicate with people.

CHUCK TODD:

Intelligence sharing is something that’s extraordinarily important to your job.

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

Mmhmm.

CHUCK TODD:

If you get to the point where you now have our own intelligence community not very comfortable with how this administration is dealing with intelligence, how problematic is that for you?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

For me, and again I don’t necessarily accept this, you know, the issue of, the issues related to intelligence being a problem right now, but for me, I mean I interact with my counterparts overseas all the time. I rely on all of the intelligence community to make decisions that I make. It’s not an issue for me for sure.

CHUCK TODD:

Did you— I want to, just one more time going back to the Russia thing. Is this any way— Are you concerned that if there is a backchannel over here that it is going to actually disrupt our ability to know what the Russians are up to?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

Well just because you have a backchannel, if indeed that’s what Jared was after, doesn’t mean that he then keeps everything secret. I mean he shares that. But the backchannel as I understand it, and of course every administration has had it all the way forever. Backchannel communications with people are ways to communicate with people, again not in front of the press, as an example, but that information is not necessarily kept secret from the rest of the government.

CHUCK TODD:

Does Jared Kushner have the same level of security clearance that you do?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I don’t know.

CHUCK TODD:

--on the intelligence front?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I don’t know.

CHUCK TODD:

Is that something you should know?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

Not necessarily. I mean I— everything we do in the security world, classification world, of course, before I would start talking to anyone, I would make sure that they had the requisite security clearances. I mean I’m cleared for you know, top secret compartmented SCI, that kind of thing.

CHUCK TODD:

So you’d understand— is Jared the same way?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I don’t know but then, but if I ever had to talk to him or anyone else about intelligence at the level which I’m briefed in, I would make sure that they had that clearance before I talked to them.

CHUCK TODD:

I gotta ask you about a comment you made on Friday. Here it is. Let me get you to explain.

(BEGIN TAPE)

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I was telling Steve on the way in here if he knew what I know about terrorism he'd never leave the house—

AINSLEY EARHARDT:

Really?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

--in the morning.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

I have to admit it was a little jarring. I don’t know if you meant it tongue in cheek or not. What do you mean by that?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

There are incredible plots against the United States, terrorism plots against the United States. The really really good news is we have incredible men and women that are protecting us every day. The away game overseas - Department of Defense, CIA, NSA. The home game fought by DHS, local law enforcement, FBI. Every single day there are people plotting to try to hurt us from a terrorism point of view and every single day we beat them, the men and women of law enforcement, again I say DHS, FBI, DOD, we beat them every day. But we have to be perfect. They just have to be lucky once.

CHUCK TODD:

It was interesting to me that you seemed to say you wouldn’t sleep at night. How serious - if we had a threat level the way the UK has it, would be at the highest level?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

Well, we have no specific threats right now. Otherwise, we’d be at a higher level. But there’s always a threat. We just are vigilant every day. And, again, the 99.9 percent of Americans can sleep safe in their homes every night. Their children are protected. They are protected. But it is a relentless mission of our law enforcement, intelligence, military people to protect Americans.

CHUCK TODD:

Did British Prime Minister Theresa May have a point when she complained to the United States about leaks?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

She did.

CHUCK TODD:

She did. It did come from our side.

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I don’t know where the leak came from. But I will tell you this, as I always do in cases like this, I immediately called my counterpart in the UK. And after offering my condolences about the attack - and unbelievably the third time in 120 days I’ve done that; I’ve called the minister and offered my condolences. She immediately brought this topic up. And, if it came from the United States, it’s totally unacceptable. And I don’t know why people do these kind of things, but it’s borderline, if not over the line, of treason.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you plan - you call - you believe it’s treason, to leak some of this stuff, you believe that’s treason?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I do believe it is. I believe when you leak the kind of information that seems to be routinely leaked - high, high level of classification - you are telling the -

CHUCK TODD:

And what was leaked on this Manchester bombing you believe maybe even meets the treason standard?

SEC. JOHN KELLY:

I think it’s darn close to treason.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Secretary, I’ve run out of time, I’ll have to leave it there.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Coming up, how unusual is it for an incoming White House to attempt to arrange backchannel with a foreign government to elude U.S. monitoring? I’ll ask my next guest, former director of national intelligence James Clapper.

But first throughout the show, as we go to break on this Memorial Day weekend, we pause to honor our fallen men and women in uniform since last Memorial Day.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. As questions continue to swirl about the Trump transition team’s communications with the Russians. We’re going to walk through the timeline of when specifically all of these events took place because we have learned more through at least the month of December of 2016. It was on the 1st or the 2nd that we now know Jared Kushner and Mike Flynn met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to reportedly discuss setting up a system of back channel communications between the Trump transition and the Kremlin. For what reason? That’s in dispute. Later in December, Kushner meets with Sergey Gorkov, the head of a sanctioned Russian state-owned bank, the bank was sanctioned, not the individual. On December 29th, calls take place between Flynn and Kislyak, allegedly to discuss the new sanctions that the Obama administration had issued against Russia that day. Those sanctions were in response to Russian interference in the election. Well, joining me now is the Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Mr. Clapper, welcome back to the show.

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER: Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD: Before I get into the Russia story, you just heard Secretary Kelly talk about the leaks that took place. We know the UK complained about the Manchester bombing. And he referred to some of these leaks that they sort of walk up to the line of treason. Some might say, hey, they’re just leaking out something that they think the public should know.Where do you draw that line?

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER: Well, I think - First of all I have to say leaks are damaging, they’re corrosive. They risk compromising sources, methods and tradecraft. As we’ve seen recently, they damage relationships with crucial partners, UK and Israel come to mind. This is particularly serious now because, in my experience, 50 plus years in intelligence, I don’t know of a time when we depended more on friends and allies for sharing information and intelligence, particularly with respect to terrorism. So I know Secretary Kelly takes...takes this quite seriously and he should. Legal definition of what’s treason? I’ll leave that to the lawyers. But just from a practitioner's standpoint in the intelligence business, leaks are bad.

CHUCK TODD: Alright, let me go through the issue that has been the bombshell this weekend, this issue that Jared Kushner, at the time private citizen, yes, a private advisor at the time to the president-elect was having these meetings with the Ambassador to Russia Sergey Kislyak and they hid these meetings from public eye. We also learned that he met with the head of a sanctioned Russian bank. You were still the director of national intelligence in December. Are these things that you would have known?

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER: Well, yes they would have and just to reinforce John Brennan’s, former director of central intelligence agency, his comments before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and I have to say that, without specific...specifically affirming or confirming these conversations, since, even though they’re in the public realm, they’re still classified, just from a theoretical standpoint, I will tell you that my dashboard warning light was clearly on and I think that was the case with all of us in the intelligence community, very concerned about the nature of these approaches to the Russians. If you put that in context with everything else we knew the Russians were doing to interfere with the election. And just the historical practices of the Russians, who typically, almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique. So we were concerned.

CHUCK TODD: And this is what’s likely triggered the FBI’s now extra attention to Jared Kushner that we’ve been reporting - that they believe he has more information. They’re saying he’s not a target. It would have been intelligence like this that would have triggered it?

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER: Well, I think so. And I think John alluded to his concerns that he expressed to the FBI, which is the proper channel. I have to say, at the time I left, I did not see any smoking gun certitude evidence of collusion. But it certainly was appropriate for - given all the signs - certainly appropriate for the FBI to - and necessary for the FBI to investigate.

CHUCK TODD: Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, there’s been different ways people have described him. Does the intelligence community believe he basically is an agent of the KGB? Or the, excuse me, the FSB, the old KGB.

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER: Given the fact that he oversees a very aggressive intelligence operation in this country - the Russians have more intelligence operatives than any other nation that is represented in this country, still even after we got rid of 35 of them - and so to suggest that he is somehow separate or oblivious to that is a bit much.

CHUCK TODD: Why didn’t we kick him out? Why didn’t he specifically get sanctioned, if he basically is viewed, not as the ambassador to a country, not as diplomat, but as basically the American head of an intelligence agency. That’s sort of what you just described.

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER: I’m reflecting an intelligence perspective. You know we’re paid - Intelligence people are paid to be suspicious. And of course that - whether to expel people or declare them PNG, is at least in the last administration, was an inter-agency determination. And so what we did do is get at 35 of the more notorious intelligence operatives and ask them to leave quickly.

CHUCK TODD:

One of the caveats in the Washington Post bombshell story was that the Russians frequently will do misinformation, even in intel channels. How often does that happen and how likely is that in this case?

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER:

It happens a lot. It happens overtly and covertly. And certainly that was one of the tools that the Russians used in the run up to our election, was fake news, misinformation, paying trolls to insert phony information in social media. So, this is a standard practice of the Russians and the Soviets before then.

CHUCK TODD:

If Jared Kushner’s meeting was somebody that you referred to as sort of oversees a large intelligence operation, and while you said you didn’t see any smoking gun on collusion, how close to the line is that in your mind?

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER:

Well it certainly arouses the - arouses your concern about what’s going on. Given, Russia, at least for my money, is our primary adversary. They are not our friends. They are in to do us in. And I have say as well, Chuck, we have a kind of a time-honored custom that we have one president and one administration at a time. And oncoming administrations don’t get a head-start before the end of the current president’s incumbency.

CHUCK TODD:

What would you like to see, what is the appropriate action now that you would like to see take place against Russia? Is sanctions enough at this point?

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER:

Well, I think it’s really not for me to say what happens now. I think, certainly sanctions are a compelling, powerful weapon—Russians don’t like them. And I think what the actions the last administration took, the sanctions and other actions of the twenty-ninth of December, I always thought it was first step. And I haven’t seen any change in Russian behavior anywhere that would merit a relaxation, and if anything, an increase in those sanctions. As we have learned more about -- as more has become public about what they’re going to do. And, as I said at Sen. Graham’s subcommittee hearing on the eighth of May, they are only emboldened. They are going to continue to interfere in our political process. To me, that is the big story here and what American people should be concerned about.

CHUCK TODD:

James Clapper, I have to leave it there. The former director of National Intelligence, somebody I think people are getting used to, you are almost going to be referred to as a member of Congress. We see you up there …

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER:

Oh, I hope not

CHUCK TODD:

… in those committee hearings. Anyway, Mr. Clapper, thanks for coming on and sharing your views. Appreciate it.

FMR. DIR. JAMES CLAPPER:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, much more on the Russia investigation. Plus republican Greg Gianforte who infamously body slammed a reporter, won that Congressional race in Montana, but the Democrats closed the gap. So which party has more reason to smile this weekend. But first, as I told you before the last break, we continue to honor those who have fallen since last Memorial Day.

*** COMMERCIAL BREAK ***

CHUCK TODD: Welcome back, panel is here, Charlie Sykes, of course, long-time Wisconsin conservative radio guy and MSNBC political analyst, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, Joy Reid, host of AM Joy on MSNBC and Kimberley Strassel, columnist for the Wall Street Journal. The president is tweeting this morning. I will - Let's get people up to speed on this.

Not specific of what he's referring to but I think you'll get an idea. It starts with, "It is my opinion that may of the leaks coming out of the White House are fabricated lies made up by the fake news media." Then he says, "Whenever you see the words, 'Sources say,' in the fake news media and they don't mention names it is very possible that those sources don't exist but are made up by fake news writers. Fake news is the enemy." Okay, Amy Walter, it is now - there's not a specific. We don't want to assume that he's referring to a specific story. It's likely it's to what is going on with his son-in-law.

AMY WALTER:There's no doubt. Look, I think what we're learning is we don't know that there's a fire. But there is a whole lot of smoke. And that cloud is blocking everything. And I think if you're the president right now trying to get back on course, you thought that going overseas, having a foreign trip, nine days, this was going to reset. We were going to be talking about that trip today.

We're not talking at all about the nine days that he spent overseas. We're talking about what's been happening here. We're going to continue to talk about it. And I think the most important thing - one of the most important things you talked about with Senator Corker was the fact that this black cloud is also blocking out what he needs to reset, what Republicans need to reset is actually getting points on the board with something happened legislatively.

They have a Republican House and Senate and White House and nothing is moving. The one thing that has passed, the House health care bill, not particularly popular. It's stuck in legislative purgatory right now in the Senate. And all those other things, tax reform, the budget, they're not going anywhere either. If you're a member thinking about running for reelection in 2018 you're not just worried about the Russia piece but what are you going to talk about when you go home over the next recess about what you've actually been able to accomplish?

CHUCK TODD: By the way, Charlie Sykes, we've been hearing all weekend long, we get our weekly, "Hey, there's going to be a staff shake-up story." And I feel like it is a weekly. And it doesn't happen. But there have been all sorts of chatter, "Oh the president's going to have somebody vetting his tweets."

Well, I think they've gotten to him in this case. He used the phrase, "It is my opinion," before putting all of that out about fabricated lies. We did a cursory search. He has never used that phrase or I think in his tweets before since - so far going back his president.

CHARLIE SYKES: You might almost think that these were kind of low energy tweets from the president. But it does look like, you know, we know the president has lawyered up. Are the lawyers now going to be looking at his tweets? Look, you know, the nightmare here for the White House is this is not an alignment of the planets. It's a collision of the planets.

You now have, you know, the Russian investigation. You have the family, you have the finances. We're not talking about drip, drip, drip anymore. It's a torrent. And I think that the difficulty of this White House dealing with this is going to be exponentially raised by the fact that now it is Jared Kushner. And, you know, listening to, you know, the folks you had on earlier, the reluctance of Republicans or members of the administration to criticize Jared Kushner because this is family, this is one of the reasons why you avoid nepotism generally in business and in politics because he's the one guy you cannot fire. He's so close to the president. This raises the threat level exponentially.

CHUCK TODD: Kim?

KIM STRASSEL: I think we are having a discussion that is absolutely divorced from reality this week. It is astonishing. Let me set the scene for you. It's 2008. We are having an election. And candidate Obama, he's not even president-elect, sends William Miller over to Iran to establish a back channel and let the Iranians know that should he win the election they will have friendlier terms.

Okay, so this is a private citizen going to foreign soil obviously in order to evade U.S. intelligence monitoring and establishing a back channel with a sworn enemy of the United States who was actively disrupting our efforts in the military in the Middle East.

So is that bad judgment? Is that a bad thing that happened? Back channels are completely normal. They happen all the time. Reagan did them. Obama did them. Everyone did. So I'm not quite sure why supposedly having, at least the president's now elected, setting up a back channel with the Russians is somehow out of bounds.

JOY REID: Well, here's one key different. In October, months before this latest meeting, and it was one of 18 separate contacts that we now know of between the Trump campaign and Russia, our primary adversary in the world--

AMY WALTER: And a major superpower.

JOY REID: in October the collective judgment of the 17 intelligence agencies had said that Russia had been taking active measures to interfere in our elections. So quite a difference. We don't think that Iran was doing that. So we know that that was happening in October.

So in December the now president-elect decides that he's going to name Jim Mattis to be his secretary of defense. But he doesn't open a back channel. He sends his real estate developer son-in-law supposedly, or the real estate developer son-in-law decides to open this back channel not just-- and it isn't a back channel, by the way. Because this isn't how it works. You don't go to the adversary country and say, "Let's set something up inside your secure facility in your embassy so--"

CHARLIE SYKES: That's--

JOY REID: "--that we evade our intelligence services." Sorry. "We set it up inside of your secure facility," which even takes them aback. Because that's bizarre, the idea that we're going to do this on your facility. And you send him to do that without Jim Mattis.

The real estate developer who has no foreign policy experience whatsoever. And then if it's a channel about opening up negotiations in terms of something realistic, I mean, in terms of something about foreign policy, why are they also backchanneling with a bank? A Kremlin-connected Russian bank? And why is the Reuters report saying that part of the discussion was the possibility of opening up opportunities for financing for Trump-related--

KIM STRASSEL: Well, we don't know the answers to any of those questions--

JOY REID: --well--

KIM STRASSEL: --because what we're getting here are half--

JOY REID: --that is not a back channel. By the definition, what I just described is not a back channel

KIM STRASSEL: And anonymously.

CHARLIE SYKES: You have to follow the money. You have to follow the meetings. The lies. The attempts to--

KIM STRASSEL: We don't have any of that information.

CHARLIE SYKES: to derail this investigation. And the reality here is that Jared Kushner and the Trump administration apparently trusted the Russians more--

JOY REID: Correct.

CHARLIE SYKES: -than the intelligence community. Look, how can this not be suspicious?

KIM STRASSEL: Why would you--

CHARLIE SYKES: But again--

KIM STRASSEL: why would you trust? I'm sorry, by the way. Like, we can't forget that the intelligence services and also the defense department were being run by the Obama administration. They had plenty of reason not to necessarily want the Obama administration to know what they were doing.

CHARLIE SYKES: What did they want to hide? This is suspicious--

KIM STRASSEL: Because they have--

CHARLIE SYKES: at minimum. What did they want to talk about? Why would you use Russian--

KIM STRASSEL: And why would you not maybe want to have all of these people in these departments with this information which they would go on to leak on a daily basis--

JOY REID: Sorry, the election was over.

KIM STRASSEL: to try to derail your presidency.

JOY REID: Sorry, in December the election was over. In this country we have a continuity of government. We hand over peacefully power from one party to another all the time and have done so for more than 240 years. Are you telling me that the now elected Trump administration didn't trust John Brennan? That somehow the straight-arrow guys in our intelligence services were going to now work to actively undermine? Are they now seeing them as some sort of dissident that would undermine--

KIM STRASSEL: Do you wonder what one of the most--

JOY REID: that has never happened in the history of the United States.

KIM STRASSEL: one of the most interesting pieces of news that actually came out this week was the FISA court revelation that they said that the Obama administration had been actively engaged in abusing Fourth Amendment protections by unmasking people's identities on a routine basis which they did not acknowledge to the court and which they said brought up major, major concerns. So maybe you wouldn't trust that team, in fact.

JOY REID: Who said that? Where did this source--

KIM STRASSEL: The FISA court.

JOY REID: put that information? Do you know how--

KIM STRASSEL: They put out an order.

JOY REID: difficult it is to get a FISA warrant against an American person?

KIM STRASSEL: Yeah but you're not talking about what I just mentioned.

CHUCK TODD: All right, I'm going to pause this conversation because I do have to go to break because I do have to pay for bills. So let me do that. We are a for-profit enterprise. Coming up Hillary Clinton's first full-throated criticism of President Trump.

(BEGIN TAPE)

HILLARY CLINTON: Or even denying things we see with our own eyes like the size of crowds.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD: But as we go to break we continue to honor our fallen men and women in uniform from the last year.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back, Data Download time. Is Donald Trump remaking the Republican Party or was the party already remaking itself in a way that allowed Donald Trump to walk in? Well, there's evidence the GOP was becoming Trumpian before Trump even got there.

Our data guru, Dante Chinni, analyzed NBC News / Wall Street Journal polling going back to 2010 to help us understand this trend. Education is a key measure. In 2010, 41% of college graduates called themselves Republican, while 39% said they were Democrat. In 2016, that number was 39% for the Republicans, a two point drop, and 45% for the Democrats, a six point jump. That's actually a big swing overall when you look at it. Democrats now have the edge with college-educated voters.

The reverse, of course, is true with those of a high school degree or less. Republicans have seen a five point jump with that group while Democrats have seen a five point drop. Also a pretty significant swing. This education gap follows some geographic trends that we've been following.

It helps explain, for instance, why some of the most vulnerable Republican districts have the highest education rates like the special election we're watching in the sixth district of Georgia outside of Atlanta. Now some other areas where Republicans have seen the most growth, men over the age of 50, up five points. Rural voters also up five points. And those between the ages of 50 and 64 are now four points more Republican than seven years ago. Now for the Democrats, there's been a seven point jump in those making thirty to fifty thousand dollars per year. Sort of smack dab in the middle class there.

Eighteen- to 34-year-olds, not just millennials but Gen-Z up six points. And those with post-graduate degrees also up six points. Bottom line, we're in a political realignment. We're in the middle of it. That's why it's not clean and it's going to take more than one election to figure this out. These trends do help explain why Barack Obama won two terms and, frankly, why Donald Trump won in November.

This process is still fluid and it's making our elections a bit more unpredictable than we have become used to. Before we go to break we want to note the passing of former senator and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning who died yesterday at the age of 85. Bunning was a Congressman, a two-term senator from Kentucky and the only member of Congress to throw a perfect game in the Major Leagues. And we lost a member of our extended NBC family, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski died on Friday.

He of course is also the father of our own Mika Brzezinski. Brzezinski emigrated from Poland, was a scholar and ultimately moved to the White House. He maintained an enduring suspicion of the Soviet Union and worked tirelessly to limit Soviet expansionism in the late 1970s. Our thoughts of course go out to our colleague, Mika, and her entire family who tweeted Friday night, "Chief at the helm. We love you, Dad, and we'll always be grateful for the love and devotion you showed us all."

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

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CHUCK TODD:

Back now with end game. I feel I'm going to do a political speed round here. We've got to try to get all of this stuff in. Montana -- Amy Walter, you do this for a living. You're the handicapper here on House races. Republicans win by six points in a state that has a Democratic senator.

AMY WALTER:

Yup.

CHUCK TODD:

But looks demographically more like a Trump state. Who should feel good right now?

AMY WALTER:

You know what, it's like pee-wee soccer. Everybody gets a trophy. Right? So on the Republican side, they got a win. They win. Period. And this is not just good because they have a person in that seat who's a Republican. But it's good for recruiting and it's good for retaining. Right?

This is the time of the year where people are trying to get candidates to run and getting donors to support candidates so getting members who are incumbents to run for reelection. So, a toxic environment, bad for those things. Winning, good, helps. On the Republican side.

The bad side, if you're Democrats, what you're looking forward to is the margin in a lot of these special elections. A lot narrower, a lot closer. Democrats over-performing where a traditional Democrat could be. Five points here in Montana, 12 points in Kansas. If Democrats are going to take control of the House they've got to over-perform nationally somewhere between five and eight points. So it's not going to help in a really deep red state like Montana to over-perform by five. It will help in the lighter shade of red.

CHUCK TODD:

But, Charlie, it does seem as if, boy, Georgia's now a must-win for the Democrats, isn't it?

CHARLIE SYKES:

Oh, very much so. You know, in terms of setting that narrative. But I will say that the real significance of what happened in Montana was, once again, we moved the line. We've moved the line in terms of acceptable behavior. You know?

CHUCK TODD:

You're referring to the body-slamming--

CHARLIE SYKES:

The body slam.

CHUCK TODD:

--the reporter, yeah.

CHARLIE SYKES:

And the body-slamming itself I think was not a significant as the reaction to the body-slamming. The way in which so many conservatives, so many Republicans felt that the tribal loyalty demanded that they rationalize this. And what's been happening is this, you know, whether you want to call Donald Trump the role model-in-chief, the fact is you have so many now Republicans and conservatives, and I am one of them, you know, who now model their behavior after this. You know, this thin-skinned nastiness that mimics confidence.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me throw in--

CHARLIE SYKES:

--politics.

CHUCK TODD:

--you know, Mark Sanford put a voice to this, Republican from South Carolina. "Respectfully I'd submit that the president has unearthed some demons. I've talked to a number of people about it back home. They say, 'Well, look, if the president can say whatever, why can't I say whatever?' He's given them license." Do you buy this, Kim?

KIM STRASSEL:

Well, I don't think that you can blame the body-slamming of a reporter by an individual on President Trump. But it is true. We look to a president to sort of set tones and standards. And I think all of us would be happier if President Trump was, in general, exuding a little bit more of a respectful tone to everybody. Look, people like that he's blunt-spoken. And that's fine. But there's a difference between blunt-spoken and being crude or, well, and discourteous in politics.

CHARLIE SYKES:

Words have consequences. Words have meaning. Ideas have consequences. And it's one thing to I think be upset with the bias of the news media. But, again, we've moved the line now to just pure, raw loathing. And he has stoked those fires.

CHUCK TODD:

Last word.

JOY REID:

And you had Donald Trump this morning tweet that journalists, presumably he means the journalists at the Washington Post and New York Times literally make up and invent sources. During the campaign one of the most chilling images that stuck with me from it was a gentleman at a Trump rally who had a t-shirt on that said, "Rope. Tree. Journalist." Donald Trump whipped people up to attack the media. Our own Katy Tur experienced it. Anyone who was at a Trump rally experienced it. He is the head of that party. He sets the tone.

CHUCK TODD:

Alright, guys, that's all I have for today. Pretty jammed week. Have a happy and safe Memorial Day weekend. We're back next week because if it's Sunday it's Meet the Press.

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