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Meet the Press - February 11, 2018

NBC News - Meet the Press

“02.11.18”

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, the White House in chaos. Two White House staffers resigned over allegations they physically abused it wives. President Trump defends his departing Staff Secretary Rob Porter.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House.

CHUCK TODD:

Two top White House officials now under siege for their handling of the accusations while Chief of Staff John Kelly insists he acted quickly.

JOHN KELLY:

Tuesday night, if the accusations are true, 40 minutes later he was gone.

CHUCK TODD:

But Kelly reportedly has offered to resign. What's going on in this West Wing? I'll ask White House legislative director Marc Short and Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Plus, Russian election meddling. President Trump says he doubts Vladimir Putin did anything wrong.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election.

CHUCK TODD:

And Secretary of State Tillerson seems to shrug his shoulders.

SECRETARY REX TILLERSON:

Once they decide they're going to do it, it's very difficult to preempt it.

CHUCK TODD:

Is the administration saying, "There's nothing we can do"? I'll talk to NBC News national security analyst Clint Watts. Also, the Winter Olympics are underway. Who's most interested in the game and what does what you watch say about your politics? Joining me for insight and analysis are Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, Eddie Glaude, chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, and Erick Erickson, editor of The Resurgent. Welcome to Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

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

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. It wasn't just the stock market that experienced wild swings this week. Consider the last few days at the White House. White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned amid charges by his two ex-wives of physical abuse. Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly offers to resign over his handling of the issue. We learned that White House Counsel Don McGahn has known for a year about the allegations against Porter. White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, who is reportedly dating Porter takes part in crafting the initially statement supporting him.

And then White House speechwriter David Sorensen resigns after his ex-wife claims to the F.B.I. he was physical abusive.Yesterday, President Trump tweets in an apparent defense of both Porter and Sorensen, quote, "People's lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Is there no such thing any longer as due process?"

Finally, on Friday, as if all the staff chaos wasn't enough, the president chooses to block, at least temporarily, the Democratic memo attempting to rebut the Republican claims that the F.B.I. abused its authority as part of its Russia probe. All of this has many on both sides of the aisle wondering is this a White House West Wing right now that is spinning out of control.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Well, we wish him well. He worked very hard.

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump defending former top aide Rob Porter on Friday, who resigned after allegations of domestic violence went public.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

As you probably know, he says he's innocent. And I think you have to remember that.

CHUCK TODD:

Porter's two ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennie Willoughby, accuse him of physical and emotional abuse. Both women describe his abusive behavior to the F.B.I.

JENNIFER WILLOUGHBY:

He definitely let me know that I was going to be contacted by the F.B.I. once he was tapped for the White House. And he was curious what I was going to say. And I told him, "I'm going to tell them the truth."

CHUCK TODD:

Now a second White House staffer is out, speechwriter David Sorensen's former wife told the F.B.I. during an ongoing background check that he had been violent and emotionally abusive. Sorensen denied the allegations, but resigned. The president, who himself has denied allegations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women--

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Have no witnesses, there's nobody around. They just come out. Some are doing it for probably a little fame.

CHUCK TODD:

--has been quick to publicly defend other men accused of sexual assault and violence against women. But now, Mr. Trump is venting, reportedly unhappy with how Chief of Staff John Kelly handled the Porter situation. Kelly learned from the F.B.I. in November that allegations against Porter were credible and could prevent him from passing a background check.

But in this statement on Tuesday night, Kelly was still defending him, calling him a man of true integrity and honor. Some White House staffers are accusing Kelly of rewriting history by claiming that he acted quickly.

JOHN KELLY:

Tuesday night, if the accusations were true, 40 minutes later, he was gone.

CHUCK TODD:

Also under scrutiny is White House Counsel Don McGahn, who first learned about the allegations against Porter more than a year ago. And Communications Director Hope Hicks, who is reportedly dating Porter, and was involved in crafting the original statements defending him.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY:

I don't care who you are, even if you're a Rhodes Scholar. You can't beat the hell out of your

spouse.

CHUCK TODD:

Now Mr. Trump is openly musing about potential chief of staff replacements. Kelly denied to NBC News on Friday even that he has offered his resignation. But if Kelly goes, he would be the latest in a long string of Trump administration departures. With the White House in chaos, there's a real question of who can take control. That was supposed to be Kelly's job.

COREY LEWANDOWSKI:

The general is there to put in policies and processes and procedures. And in this case, those didn't work and need to find out why.

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now is the White House Legislative Director Marc Short. Mr. Short, welcome back to Meet the Press.

MARC SHORT:

Chuck, thanks for having me back.

CHUCK TODD:

As Vice President Pence and others have said that the White House could have handled this Rob Porter situation better. What were some of the missteps now that you can outline here that you hope to correct?

MARC SHORT:

Well let’s put things kind of in perspective. I think that Rob is a friend to many of us in the administration. Rob is somebody who is a Rhodes Scholar, is a Harvard educated guy. He did a great job as staff secretary. But there can be no, no tolerance for domestic abuse. And there can be no tolerance for violence against women and we have to be absolutely clear about that. I think there was probably some -- in the process some lack of communication between different elements in the White House. But keep in mind Chuck, this is the same process in the administration that the Obama administration used, the Bush administration used and others, and that the FBI runs this clearance process. And when they provide somebody an interim security clearance, that means that they’ve done an initial vet and say, this person is okay, there are some mitigating circumstances we’re going to continue to investigate. We had not received a final investigation. When General Kelly learned the depth of the nature of the accusations Tuesday night, by Wednesday morning Rob Porter submitted his resignation

CHUCK TODD:

Explain why John Kelly only found out on Tuesday night -- to to to take you at your word here, that he only found out on Tuesday night when there’s been plenty of reporting now that indicates that Don Mcgahn, the white house counsel, he was con-- he knew, the FBI, the FBI informed him of the two allegations, and then he was contacted by a former girlfriend, in November saying hey, take these charges seriously. So is Don Mcgahn not informing the chief of staff or is somebody not wanting to hear bad news ?

MARC SHORT: It's a fair question Chuck. I don't know, to be honest. I don't know who knew what when at this point.

CHUCK TODD: But let me pause you there. Why?

MARC SHORT: Well, Chuck--

CHUCK TODD: Why come on here and not know. If we don't know the tic-toc then, then how can you defend any of this yet?

MARC SHORT: Because I do know what General Kelly has told me which is he learned the full information on Tuesday and by Wednesday morning Rob Porter was out.

CHUCK TODD: Should he have known earlier?

MARC SHORT: I think that we’re following the same investigative process the other administrations have followed, which is the FBI does the investigation, they complete it, and they come back to you with an investigation. There’s plenty of people in the last--the last couple of years Chuck, who -- there’s been a rath of sexual harassment investigations, including at your own network, that you later come back and say there are things we could have done better to prevent it. I think the White House will go through that same experience.

CHUCK TODD: I guess I want to go back to this idea though that you say the FBI is the final say. Well the FBI raised plenty of red flags here. Do -- does the f...how do you guys vet staff? Do you just outsource it all to the FBI? In previous administrations, White House counsel actually led the vetting of staff with the assistance of FBI investigations.

MARC SHORT: Has final decision, but the FBI has the ongoing investigations. They have not completed that investigation Chuck.

CHUCK TODD: Who gave uh, the ability of Rob Porter, since he only had an interim status, he shouldn’t have...which meant on paper he that doesn’t give him the highest security clearance, somebody would have had to have waived that. So did the president waive that and did he know why he had to waive that?

MARC SHORT: I’m -- the president didn't waive security clearances. I think that we all had full confidence in Rob. And I think that we had -- cause he provided interim clearance we assumed there was, there was mitigating circumstances. But keep in mind there are plenty of people who never get that interim security clearance because there’s something that comes up in their background and they never get that first step.

CHUCK TODD: Right. Well Jared Kushner does not have full security clearance. At what -- and he is supposedly getting -- is able to read the presidential daily briefing. Again the FBI is saying he is not, they are not yet ready to sign off on a full security clearance for him. Why is this FBI--FBI report basically only taken as a suggestion.

MARC SHORT: So my, my understanding is that this typical in the beginning of an administration Chuck. That yes these, these sort of review processes begin to go faster. When you start an administration, you are flooding the FBI with hundreds and hundreds of requests for security clearances that take longer. So I think that uh, that there will hopefully be a expedition of some of these that are outstanding.

CHUCK TODD: Did John Kelly want Porter fired or not?

MARC SHORT: I don't think that--

CHUCK TODD: Because his attitude changed. On Tuesday, he was almost lamenting the resignation, called him a man of integrity. And then, and then by Wednesday he said he was shocked by the allegations. Again we went through why he didn’t know at the time. But what…

MARC SHORT: I think we're all--

CHUCK TODD: --what changed there

MARC SHORT: Look Chuck, I think we're all saddened by this. We’re all saddened by the nature of it. And when you've been working with somebody for a year, your first instinct is to say that doesn’t match up with the person I know inside our office. But that doesn’t mean that once you learn that actual extent of the allegations, that you have any tolerance for it. And General Kelly had no tolerance for it.

CHUCK TODD: What-- Why didn’t the President or General Kelly talk about the victims of Mr. Porter.

MARC SHORT: Chuck, as I said, I think that probably there's more reason to go back and talk about the victims, just as I’m sure that NBC learned about their way they handled the Matt Lauer situation.

CHUCK TODD: This is not about NBC. I understand why you're trying to do that. This is about his--

MARC SHORT: I’m talking about there are people that go through a process like this, when you know somebody, in y'alls case for 25 years, we only knew Rob for a year in this, in this White House. So yes when we learned about it we were sad and shocked and we did not think that this is something that Rob would be capable of doing. But if it’s true, there is no tolerance for it, and he is, he has since left the White House. That happened between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

CHUCK TODD: Do you -- there are other members -- there are other Republican Party members who went on some of the president's favorite programs last night and blamed the FBI. Does General Kelly blame the FBI?

MARC SHORT: We're not blaming the FBI.

CHUCK TODD: This -- the FBI did its job here?

MARC SHORT: The FBI -- we wish we could all expedite this process. But I think that that’s probably incumbent upon all of us to see what we can do to make sure it goes faster.

CHUCK TODD: So members of congress that are trying to deflect blame and put it on the FBI, they’re making a mistake?

MARC SHORT: I’m not blaming the FBI, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD: Fair enough. Let me ask you one more question about the President. He seems to hesitate accepting the story of an accuser. Let me show you an array of responses he's made over the years.

(BEGIN TAPE)

TRUMP: It’s my opinion that to a large extent Mike Tyson was railroaded in this case. It's very sad. Because he's a very good person. These people are horrible people, they're horrible, horrible liars. Roy Moore denies it. That’s all I can say. He denies it and by the way, he totally denies it.He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD: Does the President believe Rob Porter’s still innocent?

MARC SHORT: I think the President is shaped by a lot of false accusations against him in the past Chuck. But in talking with President, I think he’s saddened about what happened with Rob, I think he’s very disturbed by it and he’s um very disappointed in it. I think that he believes that the resignation was appropriate.

CHUCK TODD: Does he still have confidence in General Kelly?

MARC SHORT: He has absolute confidence in General Kelly.

CHUCK TODD: Did General Kelly offer to resign or not? There’s been a lot of confusion, with our own reporting, with other reporting, there seems to be -- did he unofficially offer to write the resignation letter, but just not officially hand it to him? What can you clear up?

MARC SHORT: General Kelly, in my mind, is an American hero. There’s few families in America that have sacrificed more for our country. John Kelly knows that he serves at the pleasure of the president and he will step aside as soon as—anytime the president doesn’t want him to be there. But John Kelly has not offered his resignation. John Kelly is doing an outstanding job. in the last six months Chuck, we have seen 4.2 million Americans receive either a bonus or a paper wage increase. We have seen the repeal of the individual mandate, we have seen budget caps deal produced. We have seen ISIS flee. Now if, over 100% of its territory that it had between Iraq and Syria is gone. General Kelly is doing a great job.

CHUCK TODD: Let me ask you about the memo and the decision by the White House to delay the release of the Democratic memo and essentially not release this version of it. This is what you said before the release of the Republican memo. You and a bunch of your colleagues, take a look.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MARC SHORT: I do think that we typically prefer transparency.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: we want full transparency. It's what we've said all along

JOHN KELLY : This president has said from the beginning and certainly since I’ve been the chief of staff for 6 months now, 'I want everything out. I want this thing, I want the American people to know the truth.'"

KELLYANNE CONWAY: This president is for transparency and accountability in the main.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD: That was the message before the release of the Republican memo. Democrats write a memo. Nope. No transparency. Why is the President afraid of transparency in this case?

MARC SHORT: We're not afraid of transparency. I think you're going to see us release the memo Chuck. What the President said is that we believe that that Congressman Schiff intentionally put in there methods and sources that he knew would need to be redacted. And if we redacted it, then there would be an outcry that said the White House is trying to edit it. So we said take it back, work with the FBI, clean it up, and we'll release it. I think we have every expectation---

CHUCK TODD: Why didn't you do that for the Republican memo? The FBI basically sc---issued a primal scream about the Republican memo, and you didn't respond to the FBI.

MARC SHORT: There were not sources and methods that were of concern in that memo there were concerns about actually us releasing it cause they didn’t want the same transparency. It’s different. Talk about hypocrisy. Republicans voted to release the...Republican memo.. And the Democratic memo. Democrats--

CHUCK TODD: But the President decided not to release the Democratic memo.

MARC SHORT: Democrats in the House only voted to release their memo. They voted against the Republican memo. There is a hypocrisy here Chuck. We will be releasing that memo. We’re asked them to clean it up

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, Marc Short, I will leave it there. Thanks for coming on.

MARC SHORT:

Thanks for having me, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:Appreciate it. Joining me now, Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He joins me from Phoenix. Senator Flake, welcome back to the show.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:Thanks for having me on.

CHUCK TODD:Let me start very quickly with what you're seeing in the, in the White House. Do you have faith in John Kelly as chief of staff right now this morning, sir?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:Well, I think the way the White House said, that they could've handled the situation better, that's a bit of an understatement. Yes, they could've done a lot better. Particularly with the Rob Porter situation.

CHUCK TODD:It seems, do you worry that this is a pattern here, that it seems as if particularly with the president, that number one, accusations are not believed, it's, it’s sort of a knee-jerk response, always? And, you know, you can, you can decide whether it's projection or some other reason. But it seems as if women are never believed when it comes to an accusation to the president or somebody close to the president.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:I do think if you put on a political hat, that that is a big problem. Certainly how we are viewed as Republicans in the next election. I think that that, that is a big problem. And certainly, substantively, it's a big problem. Not to show any concern or empathy for the potential victims of these incidents. That is a problem. And that's something I think the president ought to correct.

CHUCK TODD:There seems to be also another thing we've discovered in all of this, which is we've got a security clearance backlog. The F.B.I. clearly is, they've had to spend a lot of time doing background checks on some people in the administration. There's also a backlog of some others. Does this process need to be reformed in some way? And, you know, it's not clear to me if the White House views F.B.I. background checks as suggestions or as definitive.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:Right. I think there, there are signs that it does need to be reviewed. I think that we're going to have to talk about that with the judiciary committee, certainly in the Senate. Because to have so many, dozens of people who are on an interim clearance over an extended period of time, that are certainly viewing and considering classified material is a problem. So if we do need to reform the process, let's do it. But this current situation shouldn't continue.

CHUCK TODD:All right. I'm going to move onto a couple other topics. One has to do with the president's use of the word "treasonous," in criticizing Democrats who didn't clap. You went onto the Senate floor this week, you said, "Treason is not a punch line." And yet, the White House has said many times that actually some of these most controversial tweets are -- should be treated just like that. Take a look.

(BEGIN TAPE)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS:

The president was clearly joking with his comments. He made a joke. Maybe you guys should get a sense of humor and try it some time. I believe he was making a joke at the time.

REPORTER:Can you say affirmatively that whenever the president says something we can trust it to be real?

SEAN SPICER:

If he's not joking, of course.

PAUL MANAFORT:And he was making a sarcastic point about those 33,000 emails.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:Let me ask you on the treasonous comment. Do you think we need to get a sense of humor or does the president need to watch his words?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:No, I think the president stops-- needs to stop calling Democrats or Republicans or others who, who don't stand or applaud at every line that he has that they're "un-American." He also used that term, or "treasonous." Words matter. And when he talks about fake news, for example. I gave another speech where I talked about how that gives aid and comfort to authoritarians around the world who are now labeling their opposition or dismissing real dissent as fake news. So those things matter. So I don't think that it's a joking matter to say that somebody is treasonous and he ought to stop it.

CHUCK TODD:You're one of the few Republicans that spoke up on that issue. Not many others did. And it seems like fewer and fewer are comfortable criticizing the president when he, when he does some of these sort of unusual attacks on his opponents. Why is that?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:Well, I think the real problem, as I've tried to mention, is that we are seeing now as normal things that we shouldn't see as normal. And this degradation of the political culture is a real concern, where we're no longer outraged when we ought to be. And that's a problem. So I do think that more of us ought to stand up and say, "Hey, this is beyond the bounds of where politics ought to be." And the longer we go without doing that, you know, the further politics slides into areas that just are unhealthy.

CHUCK TODD:Let me move to immigration. You're already publicly talking about a backup plan. I know Lindsey Graham is talking about a backup plan on DACA, some sort of temporary extension, you're talking about three years, that would coincide with three years of significant border funding. Is this basically admitting defeat?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:No. I do think that we can get something done this week. We're going to have something in the Senate that we haven't had in a while. It's a real debate on an issue where we really don't know what the outcome is going to be. That-- we haven't done that for a while. But there will be proposals put forward. The president put together a framework that I think is constructive. There's bipartisan groups working, several of them in the Senate, to come to a solution. I think that we can, but if there is a problem in the end, and we can't reach that, I think that these dreamers need to be protected.

CHUCK TODD:You said something earlier this week, you said that the president claimed to you, "I had the meeting with Chuck and Nancy, but then the base went crazy." So let me ask you, can you trust the president's word that he will stick by what he wants here when it comes to DACA and an immigration compromise?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:Oh, we sure hope so. And like I said, when he put out a couple Fridays ago, the framework was actually helpful. I think there are some changes that need to be made to it, for example, legal immigration cannot go down significantly if we're going to have a workforce that we need for the economy going forward. So there are some changes. I hope that he sticks to it. We have had some issues of him saying, "Well, this looks good, and we hope that you in the House and Senate will work it out, and I'll sign whatever." And then later saying, "No, I don't like this proposal," or, "I don't like that." But I do think that this week is going to be, like I said, something we haven't seen before. And I'm looking forward to it, as are my colleagues.

CHUCK TODD:It could be a lot of fun in the Senate, but does that matter?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:And there's a lot of hard work.

CHUCK TODD:I ask you this. Does it matter if the House won't put a bill on the floor?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:No, I do think, I still think that if we put a good bill to the president, that has the support of 65, 70 members of the Senate, that the president will accept it and the House will like it as well. By definition, if we can get something with support of 65 to 70 senators or maybe more, it's going to be a good, broad bill that will address, I believe the concerns that the president has outlined, but also take into account the things that we need for our economy going forward.

CHUCK TODD:Well, you're a member of Gang of Eight, you guys got 68, I'm guessing you better get north of 68 on that one. Anyway, Senator Flake, as always, sir, thanks for coming on and sharing your views.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE:Thanks for having me on.

CHUCK TODD:Much appreciated. When we come back, could this be the end for John Kelly as chief of staff? You just heard that the president has full confidence. But, has he actually reached his sell-by date for Donald Trump? That's next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back, panel is here. Eddie Glaude, chair of the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, and Erick Erickson, editor of The Resurgent. All right. I want to start with the idea that there’s a--there are sell-by dates for people that work for President Trump and John Kelly may have reached his. Take a look at this. Corey Lewandowski was with Trump in the campaign for 369 days, but he's the outlier. Paul Manafort spent 144 days as campaign manager before being fired. Steve Bannon was the chief White House strategist for 211 days. And Reince Priebus lasted 190 days as chief of staff. So what about John Kelly? Today is Kelly's 199th day as chief of staff. Kristen Welker, um--how--you heard Marc Short express, say the president has confidence. Okay. When a sports team owner says he has confidence in the coach--

KRISTEN WELKER:

Right

CHUCK TODD:

--that doesn't mean the coach doesn't get fired the next day.

KRISTEN WELKER:

It doesn't. We know that the president is as frustrated as he has ever been with his chief of staff. Not only because of the mishandling of the Rob Porter situation, but because he's had a number of missteps. He referred to dreamers as "lazy," for example, in recent days. That created a firestorm. The president's openly musing about replacing him with Mick Mulvaney, for example. On the other hand, though, I am told that the one thing that might hold the president back, he doesn't want more drama --

CHUCK TODD:

Right

KRISTEN WELKER:

--in his White House right now.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to tee something you wrote--tee up something you wrote, Peggy. First of all, they thought The Atlantic captured something that makes this one different, both Porter and Kelly being in the crosshairs here. A scandal that exposes the White House, quote, "adults." And then you write this, "You can't really blackmail Donald Trump on personal conduct because nothing said about him would surprise or shock. Mr. Porter, however, was blackmailable. Why did they let him stay on? Maybe because they were desperate. He was a respected establishment pro who could do the job. The administration struggled to attract such people. Without them, it was all Omarosa."

PEGGY NOONAN:

Oh yeah. That is -- There are two things that are true. One is that the White House had a lot of trouble because attracting really good workers and high-level staffers early on in the first six, nine months, in part because there were many people in Washington who just thought, "This administration isn't going to work, I don't want to get the cooties on me, I'm not going in there." But there was another thing that was brought on the Trump White House by Trump himself. There were fabulous people in Washington, experienced and accomplished and serious, real patriots. They had opposed Trump in 2016. They said, when he was elected, they said, "I am available. If you want me to come in, I'll go into state, I'll go into defense." The White House was very nice to them until they found out

CHUCK TODD:

Right

PEGGY NOONAN:

-- that those people had been critical during the 2016 campaign. Signed letters from foreign policy people opposing Trump or Catholics opposing Trump. They would not let anyone in who was not a fierce loyalist. And because of that, they lost a lot of talent. And that is all Trump.

CHUCK TODD:

And think about that. It’s--And the F.B.I., they cared more about vetting politics than what the F.B.I. was saying.

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR:

Right. I think it's not only the question of talent, it's also the question of character. There's a sense in which there are some just indecent people in the White House. And that when we think about the melodrama of this reality show that is the West Wing, that is the White House itself, it keeps coming back to the question. Why are these people, these particular kind of people in the White House? People who beat women, people who seem to have questionable financial dealings, folks who seem to have really noxious views about people who are different than they are? Folks who seem to be insensitive to other people who are suffering? It just brings up the question of character. Who are these people and why would they choose-- and are they a reflection actually of the president himself?

CHUCK TODD:

Eric, is it top down here?

ERICK ERICKSON:

You know, it's interesting. I've talked to people inside and around the White House who have said, because I wrote the other day that maybe it is time for General Kelly to go, but if so, a lot of other people as well. They're all like, "Please don't. He's the, he’s the guy who's keeping the trains running around here."

CHUCK TODD:

But isn't that how Rob Porter ended up?

ERICK ERICKSON:

Exactly

CHUCK TODD:

And that goes to Peggy's point.

ERICK ERICKSON:

That's the problem. You know, there's a side issue here of why was Rob Porter able to have such a long Senate career with all of these happening as well with the Republicans?

PEGGY NOONAN:

That’s true.

ERICK ERICKSON:

What's going on in the House and the Senate? Related. You know, I get what what Marc Short was saying, that we looked at this guy, this doesn't comport to what we knew of him.I feel the same way about John Kelly probably did that. If it's true that he acted responsively immediately upon learning the information, 40, 40 minutes later, or whatever he was gone, why did it take so long for General Kelly to find out the information? But again, there are people in the White House who really feel like General Kelly's being set up to be pushed out the door.

KRISTEN WELKER:

Talk to lawmakers on Capitol Hill though and they do not want General Kelly to leave--

CHUCK TODD:

Right

KRISTEN WELKER:

--for the exact reason that you're saying. They say, "Look, we got something done on tax reform." They attribute that to General Kelly. Keeping the president in line to some extent. And so they're concerned, and I have to say, having covered the White House--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah

KRISTEN WELKER:

--he did bring a measure of stability that I think there's a lot of concern about losing.

CHUCK TODD:

What is the stability though, Peggy? I mean, if I'm Reince Priebus--

CROSSTALK

CHUCK TODD:

If I’m Reince Priebus here, what's the difference between his six-month reign now and the six-month reign o off Kelly? It seems they're both chaotic.

PEGGY NOONAN:

This administration started out in chaos and disorder. It evolved to chaos and disorder. It is in now chaos and disorder. The president brings chaos and disorder. I think he thinks he flourishes well in it. I think no one else really does.

ERICK ERICKSON:

But we've been able to get major legislative packages does with General Kelly as chief of staff, including tax reform that we weren't able to get done ahead of time.

CHUCK TODD:

Right. But I'm sorry, Kevin McCarthy, Mick Mulvaney, I mean, why are they so afraid of General Kelly going? I don’t under--Those two are just as competent Capitol Hill guys.

ERICK ERICKSON:

We won't know the answer to this question until he's gone. And that's the problem.

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR:

Well, the interesting thing is that, you know, we don't want to bring up that horrible book, Fire and Fury, whatever it's called. But remember the palace intrigue. There's a sense in which there's always been a particular segment of folks in the White House who did not want General Kelly there.

PEGGY NOONAN:

That's right, they lost power. When Mr.--General Kelly came in, he took power from some people, they want to get him back. So there is that.

CHUCK TODD:

This is a constant in Trump world though. The ousted tribe wants back in.

KRISTEN WELKER:

Well, that's right. But I do think in terms of chaos, it's a measure of degrees. During the first six months, it was chaotic every second of every day. This is the first week we've really seen it devolve to this level of chaos.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, let me play, let me play the thing that sort of, I'll admit, set me off. Here's Omarosa.

OMAROSA MANIGAULT-NEWMAN:

Like, I was haunted by tweets every single day. Like, what is he going to tweet next?

ROSS MATHEWS:

Did anybody say to him, "What are you doing?"

OMAROSA MANIGAULT-NEWMAN:

I mean, I tried to be his person, and then all of the people around him attacked me.

ROSS MATHEWS:

We are worried, but I need you to say, "no, it's going to be okay."

OMAROSA MANIGAULT-NEWMAN:

Okay, but it's going to not be okay. It's not.

CHUCK TODD:

Not a Saturday Night Live parody. That was not from S.N.L. last night. That was real, Erick.

ERICK ERICKSON:

Two letters that come to mind are B and S. You know, this is-- she was there the entire time. She was part of the chaos. Remember, General Kelly, one of his first jobs was to keep her out of the White House. And suddenly we have this wave of people now wanting General Kelly gone. Again, it comes back to we see the chaos on a daily basis. And given the fears of people in the White House, how much worse would it be if he wasn't there? God help us.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Go ahead, quick point.

PEGGY NOONAN:

A quick point, it wasn't scary that she went on that wacky show, it was scary that she had been head of Office of Public Liaison in the White House, a significant job. And she is that person.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. When we come back, Russia attacked our election systems in 2016 and is expected to do so again this year and in 2020. So why is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying there may not be much we can do about it?

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. This week, NBC News reported that Russia was able to actually get into voter registration rolls of several states in 2016. In fact, here's what Jeanette Manfra, the head of cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security told my colleague Cynthia McFadden.

JEANETTE MANFRA

We saw targeting of 21 states and an exceptionally small number of that 21 were actually successfully penetrated.

CHUCK TODD:

And also this week, the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked on Fox News whether the United States will be better prepared the next time Russia attacks.

SEC. REX TILLERSON:

We can take steps we can take. But this is something that once they decide they're going to do it, it's very difficult to preempt it.

CHUCK TODD:

Tillerson's answer prompted some to ask, "what's the Trump administration doing about Russian interference? Does it want to do anything about it?" Joining me now is Clint Watts. He's an NBC News national security analyst and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. And of course a former F.B.I. agent as well. Mr. Watts, welcome back to Meet the Press.

CLINT WATTS:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with the basics here. About a year ago, you were on the show, we talked about the Russian interference and you sort of talked about things that needed to be done. Has anything been done to protect future elections?

CLINT WATTS:

No. I--They've worked on the critical infrastructure designation. But the number-one thing we've got to do is ensure the integrity of the vote.

CHUCK TODD:

You just said designation. Which means they just were trying to decide what should we try to protect? We haven't even started anything, any actual protections yet?

CLINT WATTS:

Exactly. This is the feds reaching out to states and locals that don't have the resources in cyber security and probably can't detect a hack to help them protect the vote. Because right now, we still can't ensure that the vote is accurate or not changed. We need paper ballot backups. We need to always be able to ensure that the vote is correct.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, we've learned this week, there had been denials for a year that oh, the Russians sort of, well, they may have tried to penetrate elections systems, but they didn't get there. And then we learned later, well, it was 21 states. You know, first it was a few states. Now we're learning, well actually they got into, what was her quote, I think was a "small number of states," which is still plural. I found this with Facebook too. Every three months, their story changed about the Russian interference here. Do we have the full story?

CLINT WATTS:

No. And I don't know that we ever will. I mean, it's a minimization strategy everyone's using in public relations. It wasn't that bad. If one vote gets changed. We've seen the Russians do this. They did this in Ukraine. The changed the actual vote. Luckily, Ukrainians caught it before it came out. But the goal isn't just one candidate or another, It's “undermine our democracy” so that we don't trust the election results. It's two parts. Make them think the vote might be changed, then influence them about voter fraud election rigs.

CHUCK TODD:

So they're incentivized to have us almost discover that they've gotten into the voter rolls because they want us to report, "Russia got into the voter rolls."

CLINT WATTS:

That's right.

CHUCK TODD:

That's what you're saying?

CLINT WATTS:

Yeah. Probe, probe, probe, hit. Take a database down. Have somebody not show up and be able to vote. And then say, "Hey, how do you know the election wasn't rigged for somebody? How do you know that your vote counted?"

CHUCK TODD:

All right. One of the things you've said that, you know, if we're going to have a collective response here, the administration needs to be on the same page when it comes to Russia. That is something that the administration is not. Take a listen.

(BEGIN TAPE)

GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.)

They have either interfered or they have attempted to interfere in a number of elections.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I think it was Russia and I think it could've been other people and other countries.

LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER

Russia is engaged in a very sophisticated campaign of subversion to affect our confidence in democratic institutions.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I believe that President Putin really feels, and he feels strongly, that he did not meddle in our election.

NIKKI HALEY:

Russia did meddle in our elections.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Mattis, McMaster, Haley, definitive. The president not. Him not being definitive about Russia's guilt. What does that do to our response in 2018

CLINT WATTS:

We can't make one step forward unless we're at unity at the leadership level. And we have to be not only in unity, we have to put together a plan and march forward. What is our response? We saw Tillerson say, "Hey, we see what you're doing. You better not do it." If you're Putin, it's a zero-sum game. You keep pushing until you meet a response. And right now, there is no response.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, and I want to get into why we don't have 9/11 commission or an Iraq study group, or a, you know, whatever you want to describe. Any other time in our history when we've had a major event or a catastrophic event that impacted our country, we've tried to study it in response. That's not there. But walk me through, if that existed, what do you think the first three or four steps we could actually take this year to at least mitigate what Russia's doing?

CLINT WATTS:

First thing we would do is protecting the elections and the vote. This is paper ballot backups, making sure there's no hacking going against the systems. The next part is the tougher part, and that's what Tillerson was talking about, which is influence. Are we looking at how the Russians are trying to influence against Senate candidates or congressional candidates?

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, they did the congressional candidates in 2016. People forget this. They actually impacted a Democrat primary with stolen information in the state of Florida.

CLINT WATTS:

If you're a Congressman right now that's very anti-Russia or anti-Putin, you better bet you're going to get an influence effort levied against you. And so this really is having a bad effect because your president is saying, "No, this doesn't happen at all." So who has the congressman's back to be tough on Russia if you're a McCain, a Graham? Rob Portman, you know, from Ohio, a Republican, he was one of the first ones out in front on this.

CHUCK TODD:

So what would that mean, though? Is it protections that D.H.S. should be involved in with the campaign or is this something with the political parties, because that's a fine line here if you want the federal government to help secure campaigns, right? That's something that would make some people uneasy.

CLINT WATTS:

It's really political in civil society and the social media companies that are going to win this battle. Social media companies have to work together. Part of the reason they keep minimizing and keep making discoveries is they don't share data. When we do cyber security or hacking, we share data with each other, companies do. Social media companies, they have to work together to find these signatures of influence. On the political campaigns, they've got to be used in encrypted apps. They have to be securing their communications. And the big thing above all is Americans have to stop doing falsehoods against each other. Release the memo is a homerun for the Russians. They don't need to make a false narrative. Americans are making false narratives against each other. And they just repeat them.

CHUCK TODD:

We keep seeing these reports, how effective do you believe these Russian bots are? Or are some American political forces almost over blaming Russian bots?

CLINT WATTS:

Yeah, Americans are doing active measures to each other now. Everyone's copying the playbook and information warfare. And that's really what Americans should worry about. There are no, the Honest Ads Act, you know, it has not been passed. We're seeing politicians use this warfare against each other. The Russians don't have to manufacture falsehoods. They can just repeat when Americans are saying about each other.

CHUCK TODD:

Clint Watts with that uplifting analysis there at the very end. Anyway, Clint, as always, thank you for coming on and sharing your views.

CLINT WATTS:

Thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, actual uplifting music there, right? The Winter Olympics are underway. Who's most interested and what does it--what does what you watch at the games say about your politics?

CHUCK TODD:

Let the games begin. It's data download time. And for the next two weeks, most of our eyes will be on Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the 23rd Winter Olympics. New data from Gallup tells us who may be paying the most attention. Only about a third of younger Americans are planning to watch a great deal or fair amount of the Winter Olympics this year.

That number jumps double digits when we look at middle aged and older Americans. And over half of those 65 and older do plan to watch a decent amount of the winter games. There's also a divide by gender, even among older Americans. 43% of men aged 50 and older are planning to tune in regularly, while a majority of women in the same age group say they'll be frequent viewers.

Older Americans grew up watching the Olympics in a time when it was more of a singular event than it is today. These numbers are evidence that the Olympics still has a strong hold over this group of folks. There's also a political element here, but the divide is not quite as stark as you might think. 40% of liberals, 40% of moderates, and 37% of conservatives all say they're going to watch a great deal or fair amount of these Olympics.

This lack of a divide may be a big surprising since folks on the left tend to be a bit more active in the winter sports than those on the right. For instance, liberals are 15% more likely than the average American to skate. And they're 25% more likely to ski. While conservatives are 35% more likely to participate in target shooting.

Look, I know what you're thinking. Is target shooting really a winter sport? In a sense, yes. Don't forget the biathlon, the event with both intense amounts of cross country skiing and target shooting. So if you're looking for a sport that could truly unite the left and the right, this could be it.

One problem, it is the only winter sport the United States has never medaled in. When we come back, it's endgame time. President Trump's approval rating is up and the Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot is down. Why that may not mean what you think it means.

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with endgame. I want to quickly do a round on Russia. Look at this poll we had earlier this week. A large majority believe it is likely Russia will attempt to influence the 2018 midterm election, 57% overall. But look at that, a larger majority of Republicans, 64%, do not believe it's likely. For what it's worth, 80% of Democrats believe it and 58% of independents. Kristen Welker, this lack of belief on this partisan split here probably explains why we don't have a plan.

KRISTEN WELKER:

Right. There's no plan. And as you pointed out, the president still hasn't definitively said that he wants to do something about it. If you talk to lawmakers, they say he's got to get tougher, he's got to get tougher on sanctions, for example. He still hasn't imposed those sanctions. He needs to convene a commission to actually hit this head on. And he hasn't done that yet. And it could hurt in the midterm.

CHUCK TODD:

Erick, explain why so much of the president's base, I know why they don't want to believe it. But does it bother them at all his odd denials?

ERICK ERICKSON:

No, it doesn't. Because he fights. I mean, you hear this over and over. But Gorsuch, on and on, they have felt this existential cultural crisis against them in this country, from transgenderism to gay marriage to everything, Washington influencing every part of their life.

And here comes a guy saying, "Washington shouldn't influence your life. I'm going to fight back against all the people who have been fighting you." And they're loyal to him. And to a degree, you can understand. But I'm old enough to remember when the Republican candidate was denouncing Russia and the Democrats were laughing at him in 2012.

PEGGY NOONAN:

I would say, here's my big concern. We are, as we all know, a deeply divided country. We have these partisan fights, they're very rough and tough, this side watches this, the other side watches this, we're not in the same information flow. One thing that could damage this nation terribly is having a national election where the outcome is unclear because we got hacked.

The states is a national election. By the year 2020, right away we should start saying, "You've got to go paper ballots." We'll figure out all this internet magic, technological stuff, but for now, paper ballots in America so Ohio knows how it voted.

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR:

You know, Peggy, I think that's absolutely right. But I think there's something even one step back. It used, I mean, for distrust to be the background condition for politics is one thing. But for distrust to be the currency of politics is another. And so now there's a sense in which both sides, Democrats, you can't trust what Republicans are saying. Republicans, you can't trust the deep state. Russia, kind of stoking that distrust. Distrust is now a kind of political currency that threatens the very fabric of our democracy.

CHUCK TODD:

That's really well put. So I'm going to put a button there. And I want to do a little turn to the election itself. Midterm elections, a lot has been made lately about some new numbers. According to the real clear politics average, President Trump's approval rating sat at a net minus 21 points on December 13.

Now, it's a minus 12. A pretty big improvement. And the Democratic advantage on the generic congressional ballot has fallen from a high of plus 13 on December 26 to now just plus 7. Now, the caveat of course is we don't know what this latest drama, because a lot of times, Trump drama suddenly recedes any advantages the Republicans have, Kristen.

KRISTEN WELKER:

Absolutely. Well, privately, Republicans already say, "We're bracing for potentially losing the House." The comments that we heard from the president this week in responding to the Rob Porter crisis didn't help in the eyes of Republicans and Democrats, frankly. They feel like he's missing the moment, like he's being tone deaf.

At this critical moment, where there's this national reckoning, this "me too" moment. And you speak to folks who say, "Look, he could have said something about the accusers, about the ex-wives." And then at the same time, said, "And we wish Rob Porter well." But he didn't do that. And they feel like that's something that could cost not only him, but the entire Republican party.

CHUCK TODD:

Erick, I feel like you represent this swing group about President Trump. Because when he vacillates, it's sort of like you're disapproving and then it gets you back. I'm going to put up two different tweets of yours. Because I think you exemplify this sort of back and forth. "President Trump is not perfect," you write in November.

"He was not my choice to be president, but I am thankful he put Neil Gorsuch on the bench. I am thankful for many of the president' policies and stellar personnel appointments." And on a less-approving day, on December 29th, you write, "The gains conservatives have seen have come from the Trump administration. But President Trump himself has been an undisciplined distraction. The gains have come more in spite of the president than because of him." And you went on to warn that you actually think it could actually set conservatism back. Where are you?

ERICK ERICKSON:

You know, look. I think that when he does good things, he should be praised and when he does bad things, he should be criticized. And it's harder and harder now because there are a lot of people who think you can only criticize or you can only praise. That's not my personality. And he has done good things. His administration has done good things.

But I do think ultimately you risk getting conservatism, even evangelicalism in this country set back by a party standard bearer who these people rally to who is ill-mannered, badly behaved, and not a role model. At some point, you want your kids to be proud of the president, regardless of party. And it's really hard to be other than he's the guy who fights. Well, I don't want my kids to fight that way. I kind of believe they're going to be held accountable on the last day. And they shouldn't behave that way.

CHUCK TODD:

Eddie?

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR:

You know, the thing is is this. I, Just talking about Democrats in this next cycle, the progressing wing of the Democratic party is deeply skeptical about how Schumer and others are behaving with regards to Trump. So these numbers are actually an indication that some--

CHUCK TODD:

You think there are some base Democrats that are a little--

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR:

There are some base progressives who are really nervous about what these folks are doing and they need to be very, very careful.

CHUCK TODD:

Interesting.

PEGGY NOONAN:

I think with the Democrats in 2018, something I'd keep my eye on at the moment, I used to say, "It's unclear what they stand for." Now I would say, "Well, they stand for DACA right now." Okay? That's one issue. That seems to me to have both pros and cons with it. Second point, Marc Short said just a few minutes ago, 4.2 million Americans have received a bonus or a pay increase with tax reform or the tax bill, however you put it. That is going to reverberate down the road in 2018. If that is right, the economy's better, watch it.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, guys. That's all I have for today. Thank you for watching. Big thanks to my friends in Miami, a deeply touching weekend for me with Miami-Dade Public Schools. Enjoy the Olympics. And we'll be back next week because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

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