Meet the Press - February 23, 2020

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
SUBSCRIBE

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, Sanders surging.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

We have now won the Nevada caucus.

CHUCK TODD:

Bernie Sanders dominates in Nevada, more than doubling his nearest competitors.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

No campaign has a grassroots movement like we do, which is another reason why we're going to win this election.

CHUCK TODD:

Joe Biden appears headed for his best showing.

JOE BIDEN:

I think we're in a position now to move on in a way that we haven't been until this moment.

CHUCK TODD:

With Democrats divided, the question now: Can anyone stop Sanders? My guest this morning: House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, where Biden will be making a do-or-die stand. Plus --

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR:

Are you trying to say that I'm dumb?

CHUCK TODD:

-- fear and loathing in Las Vegas.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG:

None of them accused me of doing anything, other than maybe they didn't like a joke I told.

CHUCK TODD:

The candidate some Democrats saw as the answer to Sanders, flatlines in Wednesday's debate.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN:

And I hope you heard what his defense was, ‘I've been nice to some women’.

CHUCK TODD:

Can Michael Bloomberg's money buy his way out of that performance? And President Trump falsely dismisses as Democratic propaganda an intelligence report from his own administration that the Russians are again trying to help him win.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

It's disinformation. That's the only thing they're good at.

CHUCK TODD:

And as a result he dismisses his intelligence chief. I'll talk to Marc Short of the White House. Joining me for insight and analysis are: Hugh Hewitt, host on the Salem Radio Network; Kimberly Atkins, senior Washington news correspondent for WBUR in Boston; Dan Pfeiffer, co-host of the "Pod Save America" podcast; and Betsy Woodruff Swan of The Daily Beast. 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. If there was any question about who the Democratic front-runner is, Bernie Sanders has put that to rest. Sanders won a smashing victory yesterday in the Nevada caucuses, lapping the competition. With the votes, with more votes still being counted, here's where the Nevada caucus stands right now, with Sanders more than doubling the competition. This powerful showing in a diverse state will give Sanders huge momentum as the race moves to South Carolina on Saturday and then to the Super Tuesday states in just nine days. Sanders was already thinking ahead last night, in the Super Tuesday state of Texas.

[BEGIN TAPE]

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

In Nevada we had just put together a multi generational, multi racial coalition which is going to not only win in Nevada, it's going to sweep this country.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Sanders indeed won a smashing across-the-board victory. According to our entrance poll, he won among men and women, college graduates and non-college graduates, liberals and moderates-slash-conservatives, union and non-union members, people who decided early and people who decided late. In short, Sanders crushed it, and in doing so, he may have crushed the hopes of a Democratic establishment desperate to stop him. The enthusiasm among Sanders' supporters is matched by trepidation among Democrats who fear that Sanders will not only lose to President Trump, but will take down the House majority and any chances of winning back the Senate, as well. While the two sides in the party disagree over the merits of a Sanders nomination, they do agree on this: After a narrow loss in Iowa, and wins in New Hampshire and Nevada, Bernie Sanders is now the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee. Joining me now is Jon Ralston, he’s editor of the Nevada Independent -- our go-to guy for Nevada politics. And since we don't have all the vote in, Jon, we begin with you. Look, let's start with how big Sanders' win was. I want to put up some key groups. I mean, he was powered by young voters, Hispanic voters, very liberal, and those who supported Medicare for all. But I want to focus specifically on Latino voters, Jon, because he made huge inroads there.

JON RALSTON:

Chuck, he didn't just make huge inroads there. Remember that the Culinary Union, which is the largest political force in the Democratic Party and is made up of at least half Hispanics, was very anti-Bernie in its messaging. They didn't endorse anybody. Bernie Sanders went into all of those Culinary Union strongholds in the casinos, and he won almost every one, showing that he went beyond their messaging, made his pitch about what you saw him say in Texas, the multiracial coalition. And he won in most of the casinos, Chuck, where you have all of these Hispanic workers.

CHUCK TODD:

What does that say either about the power of the union leadership? Or was this a reminder why they decided not to endorse, essentially against Sanders, endorse another candidate for fear that their endorsement might be hollow?

JON RALSTON:

Yeah, I think it's both actually, Chuck. I think there's always -- not always but often a disconnect between what union leadership does and how the rank and file feel. It's not just with the Culinary Union. And Bernie Sanders' campaign had already made incursions into the Culinary Union, had recruited some of those folks. But, listen, the Culinary Union leaders are not dumb. They saw what was happening in this state. They've had nice words for Joe Biden, but they saw what happened in New Hampshire. They saw that his campaign here was not nearly as organized as Bernie Sanders' is. And a lot of Biden folks got upset with this analogy that I used, Chuck. They were not going to get onboard the Titanic after it hit the iceberg.

CHUCK TODD:

Ouch. I want to put up from our entrance poll among moderate and conservative voters in Nevada. And here, Sanders and Biden essentially were tied, among moderate and conservative. And a lot of these non-white voters didn't call themselves liberal, called themselves more moderate-conservative. A lot of Hispanics, a lot of African Americans. And they still ended up supporting Bernie Sanders.

JON RALSTON:

Listen, I think that moderates and slightly to the right-of-center Democrats are still flailing about, right, Chuck? They don't know which of these non-Bernie candidates to choose. And so that splits up that vote, and that allows Bernie Sanders to even do well in that cohort. Is it going to be Mayor Pete? Is it going to be Elizabeth Warren, even Amy Klobuchar? And so they all split up that vote. That is part of the reason, beyond his phenomenal organization and his messaging to young people, that Bernie Sanders is now the clear frontrunner in the race.

CHUCK TODD:

Joe Biden's campaign is calling their performance a strong second-place finish. Not all the votes are counted. Is it possible Buttigieg passes him for second place?

JON RALSTON:

Well, let me tell you, Chuck. I think it's too close to call right now. I don't know what the Democratic Party is doing. I gave them the benefit of the doubt. This isn't a little league game where, you know, it looks like someone's so far ahead you just stop playing. So we really don't know. But I'll tell you this. My reporter Megan Messerly has a letter from the Buttigieg campaign. They have sent a letter to the state Democratic Party, alleging all kinds of errors and inconsistencies, which of course you'd expect in a caucus. But they want to position themselves obviously as having finished in second place so they can say it's them and Bernie because that's how it's been in the first three states. But, listen, are you going to brag? Are you Joe Biden of Pete Buttigieg, you're going to brag about finishing more than two-to-one behind Bernie Sanders? That rings hollow to normal human beings, I think, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, I don't think this is 1984, where Gary Hart can lose by 30 and declare victory, as he did one time in Iowa. Jon Ralston, our man in Nevada, editor of the Nevada Independent, thanks for coming on. Much appreciated. As I said before, it's getting very late very early for Democrats who want to stop Bernie Sanders from running away with the nomination with a national primary day just nine days away.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

We are going to win across the country

CHUCK TODD:

Sanders now leads in national polls by double digits and is ahead in Super Tuesday states like California, which will award 415 pledged delegates on March 3rd. And he only narrowly trails Biden in a new South Carolina poll.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

I think we got a shot to win in South Carolina which I would have not have told you a month ago

CHUCK TODD:

With Sanders' rise - his opponents are beginning to take him on:

PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Senator Sanders believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR:

Some believe that the way to beat Donald Trump is to be just as polarizing.

JOE BIDEN:

I ain't a socialist, I ain't a plutocrat, I'm a Democrat.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN:

Bernie says we're gonna keep the filibuster, I say Mitch McConnell is not gonna get a veto over what we wanna do!

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG:

We may very well be on the way to nominating someone who cannot win in November.

CHUCK TODD:

Buttigieg is on the air in South Carolina, attacking Sanders by name.

VOICEOVER:

Bernie Sanders Medicare for All would completely eliminate private insurance, forcing 150 million Americans off their current plans.

CHUCK TODD:

Sanders is already being eagerly named by congressional Republicans in campaign ads, like this one from Arizona Senator Martha McSally.

VOICEOVER:

Kelly says he would support Bernie Sanders. 60 trillion in new spending. Taxpayer-funded healthcare for illegal immigrants.

PAUL RYAN:

I love the idea of a Sanders candidacy. It gets me excited about the down-ballot. I feel like we’d have a pretty good shot at the House, pad our majority in the Senate.

CHUCK TODD:

Still, in Wednesday's debate, Sanders' opponents left him largely unscathed - attacking Michael Bloomberg instead.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN:

Mr. Mayor are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements?

JOE BIDEN:

He has stop and frisk, throwing close to 5 million young black men up against a wall.

PETE BUTTIGIEG:

It's not just about how much money you've got. It's what you stand for.

CHUCK TODD:

Now with the prospect that Sanders could build an insurmountable delegate lead on Super Tuesday if Democrats don't align behind one alternative all of Sanders’ opponents say no candidate should get the nomination without a majority of delegates.

HARRY REID:

You can't have somebody with 32% of the vote think they're going to be the nominee. what about the other 68%? If you're going to be the nominee, play by the rules, get a majority.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is the Democratic congressman from South Carolina, Jim Clyburn. He's also the House Majority Whip. Congressman Clyburn, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

Thank you for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

Bernie Sanders, Democratic frontrunner at this point. Do you accept the fact that he's right now the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee?

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

Well, I would accept the fact that he's the frontrunner. I want South Carolina to have its say before I talk about who would be the odds-on favorite.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, let's talk about South Carolina. I want to throw up an entrance poll graphic of African American voters in Nevada. And just because African American voters vote one way in Nevada doesn't mean they'll vote another way in South Carolina, but I want to show this. Biden at 39, but Sanders getting 27%, Steyer at 16, Warren at 10 among African American voters in Nevada. I looked at that and it felt like a reasonable South Carolina poll going in with a week to go. Is that how you would see the spread right now in South Carolina?

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

I don't know if I've spent enough time trying to figure out exactly who has how much, but all these candidates will get some African American votes, no question about that. I do believe, however, that if we were having the election tomorrow, that Joe Biden would have more of the vote. How much more, I don't know yet. I think that the debate on Tuesday night will have an impact. And I think that some activity after that might have an impact as well.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you concerned -- look, Joe Biden believes you're going to endorse him. A lot of people believe you want to endorse Joe Biden. You have said you know who you're going to vote for at this point, but you want to wait until after the debate. But has Joe Biden done enough to assuage any concerns in South Carolina about his electability yet?

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

Well, I think that what has happened here is that in the first two contests, people from South Carolina, like around the country, were looking at this. And I've heard from a lot of the people that they thought that Joe Biden could have done more to engage on the -- during the debates. They thought he could have done more to say why he would be deserving. And so I think he suffered from that because he didn't do enough, but I do believe that a lot of that had to do with the other candidates. I think that at that time you had, what, 17 or 18 people on the stage. Kamala Harris, I think, unnerved him a little bit with her question. So all of this changes when you only have six people. So the dynamics on Tuesday night will be totally different from what they were on those two contests.

CHUCK TODD:

What did you learn from the last debate? Do you think that candidates spent too much time on Bloomberg or too much time attacking each other? What was your takeaway from the debate?

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

I think they spent too much time on Bloomberg. I think that there's enough going on out there to leave it up to you guys to talk about his record. But I thought that Elizabeth Warren did herself a lot of good. She demonstrated to the viewing public that she has tenacity and she was not unwilling to engage. So she did herself a lot of good.

CHUCK TODD:

I think at one point you and others believed that the winner of the South Carolina primary would be the Democratic nominee. Do you believe that now?

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

Well, I still believe that South Carolina's record -- you know, I'm a history guy and, you know, I'm informed about history. And on both sides of the coin, I remember John McCain coming into South Carolina the odds-on favorite. He left South Carolina in bad shape. We had Barack Obama to win South Carolina and be launched all the way to the presidency. Hillary Clinton won South Carolina and became the odds-on favorite and she won the nomination. So South Carolina has a demographic that lends itself well to Democratic voters especially. So I think that if you can win South Carolina decisively, I think you will set the stage for Super Tuesday and you will become the odds-on favorite.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you about the likelihood of Sanders as the nominee. One of your Democratic colleagues in the state of South Carolina, Joe Cunningham, appears to be quite nervous about this. Here's what he said. "South Carolinians don't want socialism. We want to know how you are going to get things done and how you are going to pay for them. Bernie's proposals to raise taxes on almost everyone is not something the Lowcountry wants and not something I'd ever support." Again, Democratic member of Congress, Joe Cunningham. This is one of those Trump districts that you guys successfully flipped in '18.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you concur with your colleague?

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

Well, I concur with his conclusions. I don't know that all that should apply to Bernie Sanders. I have worked very closely with Bernie Sanders on many issues. Community health centers, we have been working on that together for 15 years. And so I do believe that community health centers, as well as other initiatives in rural America, I think that Bernie Sanders brings a lot to the table for people to consider. So I know why he's nervous like that. Anybody who refers to themselves as a democratic socialist, that word has always had really dire consequences throughout South Carolina.

CHUCK TODD:

Is there a chance you'd decide not to endorse publicly before the primary? I say that because maybe you're not comfortable with where a certain candidacy is headed.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

There's no chance that I won't endorse.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

I will endorse Wednesday morning. I’m not -- I've just gotten there. I just believe it be -- it would not be good for me to hold myself out as a person who has been in South Carolina politics for as long as I've been and not say to people who've been asking me --

CHUCK TODD:

Who you're going to support, yes.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

-- who I'm for.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

So I'm going to tell everybody who I'm going to vote for. I'm just not going to do it today.

CHUCK TODD:

Jim Clyburn, Democratic House Majority Whip, Democratic -- the dean of the Democratic delegation down there in South Carolina. Thanks for coming on and sharing your views, sir.

REP. JIM CLYBURN:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

I appreciate it. When we come back, looking ahead to South Carolina and Super Tuesday, do skeptical Democrats have just nine days to come up with a plan to stop Bernie Sanders? The panel is next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here, Hugh Hewitt, host on the Salem Radio Network, Kimberly Atkins, senior Washington news correspondent for WBUR in Boston, Betsy Woodruff Swan of The Daily Beast and Dan Pfeiffer, cohost of the Pod Save America podcast and author of the new book Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again. Welcome, everybody. Mr. Pfeiffer, I will start with you since you've been on a winning presidential campaign in the past. This is where we are with Bernie Sanders right now. It's very interesting. Among all voters, a majority of voters have reservations about somebody over the age of 75, somebody who's had a recent heart attack, and somebody who is a self-described socialist. Among Democratic primary voters, majorities aren't concerned. High pluralities. 44% say the same about someone over 75, 47% about somebody with a heart attack, 42% about somebody who is a socialist. What does this tell you about Bernie Sanders' future as the nominee?

DAN PFEIFFER:

Well, those polls also show that Bernie Sanders is beating Donald Trump in almost every head to head matchup in these hypothetical general election polls. So what it tells me is that Bernie Sanders absolutely can win this election. He comes to it with a specific set of potential vulnerabilities, primarily around labeling a series of particular popular policies with an unpopular label around Democratic socialism. But he can win if the party unites around him. And we should also, we talk all about his weakness, we talk about his strengths. He has the most powerful economic message in the field to date. He is the only person who's demonstrated an ability to compete financially with Trump, and he has a really impressive organization. And so he can win. Will he win is dependent on how he navigates those vulnerabilities.

CHUCK TODD:

James Carville had a very strong opinion about the rise of Bernie Sanders last night. I want to play a clip of it and let you guys react.

[BEGIN TAPE]

JAMES CARVILLE:

If you want to vote for Bernie Sanders because you feel good about his program, because you don't like the banks on Wall Street or you don't like pharmaceuticals, that's completely legitimate. I understand that. If you're voting for him because you think he'll win the election because he'll galvanize heretofore sleeping parts of the electorate, then politically, you're a fool.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

So Betsy, the Democratic establishment in some ways is speaking, I guess, through James Carville.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

And I think what's most notable about it is how lonely of a voice he is. There is so -- our outlet, you know, my colleagues at The Daily Beast have talked to a number of veteran Democratic operatives and fundraisers who say, part of the reason there isn't a coordinated machine behind Carville, there's not organization on the money side and the voter mobilization side, is that they worry that if they tried to do something like this, Bernie would say, with a lot of evidence to support the argument, that Wall Street was working with the establishment to try to damage his movement. They worry that an organized effort to take Sanders down would backfire and would actually help him.

CHUCK TODD:

It's stunning --

KIMBERLY ATKINS:

It is. It is.

CHUCK TODD:

-- that they all have the same opinion and they're all paralyzed.

KIMBERLY ATKINS:

But the establishment of the Democratic party isn't who is going to the polls and voting. And one thing that Nevada has shown is that Bernie Sanders, at least from 2016, is growing his base. He is expanding. He is reaching out to Latino voters. And that has an important impact when it comes to momentum. Remember in 2008 when Barack Obama won in Iowa. What did that do? That told voters in South Carolina, "Hey, there's this guy who can win an election. And white people are voting for him too." Now this is telling voters in South Carolina and other states, "Look, people of color, he has the majority of Latino voters. This is somebody who we should take a look at.” He is finding a way to break the ceiling that we've been hearing about for years now."

CHUCK TODD:

Four years ago at this time, Hugh Hewitt, you were one of those people arguing, "Hey, Donald Trump doesn't have this in the bag. He can be stopped. There're a whole bunch of people." Now you are looking at this, you were telling me this morning, this looks like the Democrats are watching what happened to your side four years ago.

HUGH HEWITT:

I watched the debate that you did this week. I thought it was a replay of the debates I did four years ago. And it know James Carville, who was with along with you on election night, is living a dream that doesn't exist anymore, that the Democratic establishment can stop Bernie Sanders. In fact, The Atlantic this morning compared the Democratic establishment unfavorably with The Muppet Show, saying that The Muppet Show is better organized than the Democratic establishment. And I think that's unfair to The Muppet Show. I'll tell you what, if I wanted to Un-Trumpify, using Dan's book's title, Un-Trumping America, I would go to Pete Buttigieg because he's the opposite. And when you get to South Carolina, he's the representative of America's small cities and big towns. That's where he wins. Nevada has two cities. They don't have a lot of small cities. You look at Columbia, at Greenville, at Orangeville, at Hilton Head, I think Buttigieg could surprise and close that gap in South Carolina.

CHUCK TODD:

But is it too late, Dan? It's so weird to say that. We've only been through three states, but my God, putting Super Tuesday what they did, four days -- I mean, this calendar is a disaster for the Democratic party if they want to try to slow Sanders down.

DAN PFEIFFER:

Well, it's not too late, but it's getting pretty close to too late. Bernie Sanders is building up a tremendous amount of momentum with no one -- no clear alternative to stop him. And Michael Bloomberg's presence out here, spending a half billion dollars, is actually helping make it more likely that Bernie Sanders is going to win because it's further dividing -- because I don't consider it Bernie Sanders and a moderate side. It's Bernie and --

CHUCK TODD:

Everybody?

DAN PFEIFFER:

-- not Bernie, because Elizabeth Warren is in the not Bernie camp and wants to be the not Bernie alternative. But right now, the vote is so split. And I do think -- I saw that South Carolina poll where Tom Steyer is getting double digits.

CHUCK TODD:

Bernie could win South Carolina.

DAN PFEIFFER:

The irony that two billionaires are going to conspire to elect the Democratic socialist, the Democratic nominee, is something for the history books.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. But a lot of this has to do with Michael Bloomberg as well. And one of the things, Betsy, we talk about all of the lack of preparation of Michael Bloomberg at this debate. I want to isolate his closing statement. The closing statement is something you president in advance, you have one minute. You know you're going to have one minute. Number one, he didn't use his entire one minute. But here's an excerpt from it, because it's just surprising to me. Take a listen.

[BEGIN TAPE]

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG:

Look, this is a management job and Donald Trump's not a manager. This is a job where you have to build teams. The people that we elect, and it's not just the President of the United States, they should have experience, they should have credentials. They should understand what they're doing and the implications thereof. We shouldn't just say, "Oh, nice person. Gives a good speech." We should say, "Didn't do the job and you're out of here."

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Betsy that was -- he had more time. Everybody else knew their one minute, had it timed. It's the elevator pitch. They knew what they were doing. This told me he doesn't have a message.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

And to say it's a management job for a party that historically has been fueled by labor is a little bit of a head scratcher. You'd think someone might've said, "Maybe don't use the M word when you're making a case to these voters." In addition to that, Bloomberg has very much been insulated from having to answer hard questions for this entire process. He's barely sitting down for any interviews with reporters. As a reporter, I'm a little biased, perhaps. But look, candidates who sit down for tough, challenging interviews do better in the debates because they're used to being outside their comfort zone. Bloomberg was totally in his comfort zone until the moment that was the most important.

KIMBERLY ATKINS:

Yeah, that's absolutely right. And look, voters in this election, more than others, are wanting to be heard. These are people who the exit polls have shown consistently, they want to hear the candidates talk about health care and how difficult it is. They want to hear them say how difficult it is that they can't send their kids to the schools that they want. That's the kind of inspiration that is helping fuel candidates like Bernie Sanders. And for Bloomberg to come in and say, "Hey, I'm the tough guy with a lot of money and I'm going to beat Trump" just doesn't seem like the message that he's pulling.

HUGH HEWITT:

The movie Cats got better reviews than Bloomberg. It was so bad. It was maybe the worst debate performance I've seen since watching debates in '76, forward. However, Bernie can still lose this because I saw de Blasio out last night attacking Buttigieg as smug. I saw Amy Klobuchar attacking Pete Buttigieg as too perfect. You know, they're killing themselves. On the sidelines, I'm applauding, but they're killing themselves.

CHUCK TODD:

Dan Pfeiffer, I'm going to give you the last word because I'm going to use your book because you said something here that some could argue is a case for Bernie Sanders. And here's what you write. "The Republican base responds to fear and Democrats respond to hope. To win elections, we need to inspire non-voters to become voters. To win elections, Republicans need to fire up their base, while keeping everyone else from voting via cynicism and/or suppression." The point being, and I say it this way, of all the candidates right now, isn't Bernie Sanders the one that's running on a message to do something and it sounds hopeful to his folks?

DAN PFEIFFER:

I think all the candidates onstage have the capacity to execute that message. But it is without a doubt that Bernie Sanders is doing the best job of it right now. He has a strong message that inspires people. It creates enthusiasm. And it is a message that can work in the election, if he can navigate people coming after him.

CHUCK TODD:

If nobody drops out before Super Tuesday, is it even possible to stop Bernie Sanders?

DAN PFEIFFER:

I do not believe it is.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, new evidence that the Russians are, again, working to help President Trump. Marc Short of the White House joins me next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Last week, we learned that U.S. Intelligence officials have concluded that the Russians are once again trying to interfere in the presidential election, presumably to help President Trump. Mr. Trump falsely dismissed this as Democratic disinformation.

[BEGIN TAPE]

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

The do nothing Democrats, they said today that Putin wants to be sure that Trump gets elected. Here we go again. I was told that was happening. I was told a week ago. They said, you know, "They're trying to start a rumor." It's disinformation.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

And yet, the president dismissed his intelligence chief involved in that briefing, Joseph Maguire. Bernie Sanders also confirmed that intel officials told his campaign a month ago that Russia is trying to help him too.

[BEGIN TAPE]

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

Here's the message to Russia: Stay out of American elections.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now representing the White House is Vice President Pence's chief of staff Marc Short. Mr. Short, welcome back to Meet the Press.

MARC SHORT:

Chuck, thanks for having me back.

CHUCK TODD:

Just a basic question. Does the president believe that Russia's trying to interfere in the 2020 election?

MARC SHORT:

I think that Russia and other nations have consistently tried to interfere in American elections. The question that I think is out in some of the fake news media was an assertion that Russia was intentionally trying to help Donald Trump. That's different than four nations consistently looking to undermine America's democracy. They always try to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

Alright. He called it a disinformation campaign, the president himself. He believes his intel officials are passing on disinformation to him?

MARC SHORT:

No, Chuck. What he believes is that the people leading the House Intelligence Committee, particularly Chairman Schiff, intentionally distort information and leak information that is false. These briefings –

CHUCK TODD:

This information didn’t come from them though. This information came from the intel officials.

MARC SHORT:

No. No, Chuck. I, in fact, was in the very briefing that the president received from the intelligence committee. There’s not been an assertion. There’s not been an assertion that Russia is trying to benefit Donald Trump. That’s different than saying that --

CHUCK TODD:

Well, forget Donald Trump. What I don't understand is why isn't the president concerned about Russian interference?

MARC SHORT:

Concerned, Chuck? How about the media covering the fact that in 2018, when Donald Trump was president, we had midterm elections that went off without a hitch? In 2016, when there was interference, it was under the Obama administration's regime. In 2016, National Security Advisor Susan Rice told her team to "stand down." That's what they testified. The head of cybersecurity, NSC, said, "We were told to stand down when raising concerns about Russian interference." We continue to talk about what's happening here with Donald Trump, when in fact, we've enhanced security in elections. Elections today have been asserted that they are safer than they were.

CHUCK TODD:

The acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said that the previous head of, the previous -- the last Senate confirmed Department of Homeland Security secretary that we had, Kirstjen Nielsen, was told she could not bring up efforts to deter election interference, particularly when it came to Russia because it set the president off. I mean, are officials even allowed to bring this up to the president?

MARC SHORT:

Of course. I don't know what Mick said in that context. I was there just this week when officials were bringing it up and talking about it. It's why the president has had the Department of Homeland Security and others basically work with 1,100 municipalities across the country to ensure that --

CHUCK TODD:

Why did he get rid of --

MARC SHORT:

-- it is safer.

CHUCK TODD:

-- Mr. Maguire?

MARC SHORT:

Joe Maguire, Admiral Maguire is an American patriot who has served with honor and distinction. And Donald Trump hopes that Joe Maguire will find another role in our administration. His term was --

CHUCK TODD:

Why did he dismiss him?

MARC SHORT:

Because March 12th was his end date. We had to nominate somebody else.

CHUCK TODD:

You could have nominated him permanently for the job --

MARC SHORT:

We have an interim director --

CHUCK TODD:

-- Why didn't you?

MARC SHORT:

We have an interim director in Ric Grenell. And the president is going to come forward with a more permanent director.

CHUCK TODD:

Supposedly, he was going to appoint Mr. Maguire, but he decided not to. Was it due to this briefing?

MARC SHORT:

I don't know anyone who said that he was supposed to be briefing, he was supposed to be nominating him, Chuck. I think that the president --

CHUCK TODD:

He was never under consideration for the job?

MARC SHORT:

I don't know if he was or he wasn't, but I never heard somebody assert that he's the leading contender, this is what -- he's definitely going to get the position. Again, Admiral Maguire served with distinction. He's an American patriot. And the president hopes he'll find another role for him in our administration.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to get you to respond to something that the former Admiral William McRaven wrote in The Washington Post. He said this, "In this administration, good men and women don't last long. Joe was dismissed for doing his job, overseeing the dissemination of intelligence to elected officials who needed that information to do their jobs." Admiral McRaven's no partisan hack.

MARC SHORT:

I respect Admiral McRaven's point of view. But he doesn't know what he's talking about here. He's not part of the administration. I've seen the president interact with Admiral Maguire. He respects Admiral Maguire. And as I just said to you several times, he's looking to find another role for Admiral Maguire inside our administration.

CHUCK TODD:

Why can't the president say he wants to deter Russia from interfering in the election? His first reaction was, "It's made up. It's Democrat disinformation."

MARC SHORT:

He does want to stop foreign interference in our election --

CHUCK TODD:

He never says it.

MARC SHORT:

-- He has taken multiple steps at the Department of Homeland Security. And I think you're going to see, he got a briefing on what's happening. And he said, you know, "I think we should be having a briefing here at the White House in the next couple weeks so we can tell the American people how we're making sure that our voting is safer." He wants to do that and he'll be doing that in the next few, couple weeks.

CHUCK TODD:

Does he believe the Russians are interfering in the elections to try to help Bernie Sanders?

MARC SHORT:

Look, Chuck, I think the reality is it's hard to suggest that when this administration has taken steps time and again to sanction Russia harder than any president since Reagan, this president actually took steps and actually killed Russian mercenaries on the battlefield in Syria, that Russia would prefer to have Donald Trump than a person who, Bernie Sanders, who honeymooned in the Soviet Union and still seems to prefer Marxism over capitalism.

CHUCK TODD:

The president though continues to use a Russian talking point when it comes to the 2016 interference, when he brings up things like CrowdStrike in that phone call. So on one hand, the administration sanctions Russia. The president himself, using the bully pulpit, lets Russia off the hook.

MARC SHORT:

The president has taken multiple steps to make sure that our elections are safer. He has taken many steps to sanction Russians. Those are not things just the administration does. They have to go to the president's desk. He's the one that signs off on those, Chuck. He has taken more steps to make sure that America's safer from Russian interference.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. Let me ask you this. By him saying they’re trying to start a rumor it’s disinformation, how does that do anything to deter the Russians? How does that not just actually say “Russia, come on in and --

MARC SHORT:

Because his frustration –

CHUCK TODD:

-- I’m going to call it disinformation.”

MARC SHORT:

His frustration is when there are, when there are mid-level people go up in front of the House Intelligence Committee before they brief the president and they go up and they brief Chairman Schiff. He knows that information is going to get leaked out and distorted and that’s exactly –

CHUCK TODD:

Wait a minute. So, what you’re saying is because he believes it could get leaked, he is not going to, essentially, inform the legislative branch of what’s happening?

MARC SHORT:

No, that’s not what I’ve said. That’s not what I’ve said. We have been continuing informing the legislative branch. What his concern is, that if you do it in a way -- in front of Chairman Schiff, who has continued to lie to the American people time and again, on multiple occasions, particularly about this -- the president’s relationship with Russia and continued to purport a Russia hoax conspiracy, yes that is frustrating to the president. Of course it is.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, but frustrating enough to then mislead the country?

MARC SHORT:

He's not. He's not, Chuck. Look at what the administration is continuing to do. As I just told you, the 2018 midterm elections went off without a hitch. We are working with 1,100 municipalities across the country. We have continued to sanction and actually sign laws that stiffen penalties for election interference.

CHUCK TODD:

Again, I go back to the president's words. How does that -- what does that do to enhance security? Doesn't it undermine the very thing you're just telling me you're doing?

MARC SHORT:

I would tell you that we are continuing to take the steps. The president's frustration, again, remains more with Adam Schiff and those in the House Intelligence Committee, who he thinks will not take the information honestly and will not represent it.

CHUCK TODD:

So was Mr. Maguire dismissed because --

MARC SHORT:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

-- they informed the House Intelligence --

MARC SHORT:

No. No.

CHUCK TODD:

--Committee of this information?

MARC SHORT:

No. No.

CHUCK TODD:

Had he not informed the House Intelligence Committee, would we be here?

MARC SHORT:

Admiral Maguire was not the one who was actually testifying in front of that committee.

CHUCK TODD:

I know that.

MARC SHORT:

It was people beneath him.

CHUCK TODD:

But allowing that briefing to happen, that was something the president did not like?

MARC SHORT:

It was not a matter of allowing it to happen. It's a matter of what is the oversight and how it happens. What's the process to make sure that the people who are testifying are those at senior levels who understand the political gamesmanship that Chairman Schiff is going to conduct.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you believe that Mr. Maguire was somehow being a partisan here and that his --

MARC SHORT:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

-- team was being a partisan?

MARC SHORT:

No. No. Chuck, I've said to you several times that we have great respect for Admiral Maguire. And I think the guy's an American patriot. And the president himself has said, "I want to find another place where he can serve in our administration."

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. But you keep saying somehow, briefing a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, the Intel Committee --

MARC SHORT:

That is our responsibility.

CHUCK TODD:

-- which is a responsibility of the administration --

MARC SHORT:

Yeah, it is. Absolutely, it is.

CHUCK TODD:

-- but the president said that that was a mistake.

MARC SHORT:

No. The president's frustration was that he wasn't briefed before they were briefed. So you had mid-level people going up into a very partisan environment that's supposed to be behind closed doors, Chuck. Keep in mind, that was supposed to be classified information. And yet, it still was leaked out to the American people.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. But who leaked it out? It appears -- it looks like it came, it looks like it came from the administration.

MARC SHORT:

No. No, because the president's concern was exactly to say, "Look, if you do that, they're going to say that the Russians are trying to help Donald Trump," which is exactly what the leak said.

CHUCK TODD:

I want you to try to clarify something. There's been reporting this weekend that the new personnel director of the West Wing, Johnny McEntee, is conducting a review of all agencies and departments to ensure that all political appointees are loyal to President Trump. Can you explain what the freeze is about?

MARC SHORT:

There are thousands of civil servants who serve in the Executive Branch. Of those, a small percentage are political appointees. Every administration will want to make sure the people in those political appointment roles are people who support the administration’s goals.

CHUCK TODD:

How do they prove this?

MARC SHORT:

I don't know that they prove it, Chuck. I just think it's looking and saying, "We want to make sure the people who are true political appointees are those supporting the administration." That's not any different than what other administrations --

CHUCK TODD:

No, I understand --

MARC SHORT:

-- have done.

CHUCK TODD:

--that. But Cabinet secretaries are no longer allowed to make their own appointments? Because there was a report that said they're not allowed to appoint their deputies anymore, that the White House has to approve --

MARC SHORT:

The way it works --

CHUCK TODD:

-- those folks first.

MARC SHORT:

-- in Republican and Democrat administrations alike is that Cabinet secretaries should be working with the White House presidential personnel office together to make those decisions. That's the way it's going to continue to work.

CHUCK TODD:

Last question. The president had this post Nevada tweet. "Looks like crazy Bernie is doing well in the great state of Nevada. Congratulations, Bernie. And don't let them take it away from you." The president is rooting on Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination?

MARC SHORT:

I don't know that he's rooting on Bernie Sanders. I think he's pointing out the irony that a lot of Democrats today still complain about the Electoral College, yet they have a process that doesn't award the nomination to those who get the most votes. And so I think he’s --

CHUCK TODD:

Does the president prefer to run against Bernie Sanders--

MARC SHORT:

I think the president's --

CHUCK TODD:

-- than any other Democrat?

MARC SHORT:

-- comfortable with any of the candidates in this field. He's got a tremendous record on the economy. He's got a tremendous record on national security. He created over seven million new jobs, unemployment at all time lows.

CHUCK TODD:

It's notable he never, never attacks Bernie. He attacks Bloomberg, he attacks Biden. He never attacks Bernie.

MARC SHORT:

Trust me, Chuck. This president's pretty comfortable with that entire field.

CHUCK TODD:

Marc Short, chief of staff for the vice president. Thanks for coming on and sharing--

MARC SHORT:

Thanks for --

CHUCK TODD:

-- your views.

MARC SHORT:

-- having me on.

CHUCK TODD:

Appreciate it. When we come back, exactly how fireproof is Joe Biden's African American firewall in South Carolina?

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Data Download time. Joe Biden has been counting on strong support from African-American voters to power his candidacy. But a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll shows Bernie Sanders is closing that gap. Almost 70% of black voters say they are comfortable or enthusiastic about Joe Biden, while only 28% say they have reservations or are uncomfortable with his candidacy. That's a net positive score of 41 points in favor for the former vice president. But Sanders is right behind him, and he's gaining. He's got a net positive score now of 35 points, and there are only small differences in the types of black voters who support each candidate. Both Biden and Sanders do slightly better with women than they do with men. Biden and Sanders are even among younger voters, while Biden has a 10-point edge with those African-American voters over the age of 50. Biden gets more support than Sanders does among black voters without a college degree, while they're even again among those who have graduated from college. The big question of course is how these candidates do against President Trump in November. Well, among these African-American voters, Biden and Sanders both beat President Trump by about 80 points in a head-to-head match-up. That's right in line with Hillary Clinton's numbers in 2016. Still, Biden has been counting on African-American voters, who, like others, saw him as the most electable Democrat to be his firewall in South Carolina. But with Sanders beating Biden now in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, that firewall may be crumbling. When we come back, End Game. All those pardons and commutations. Is President Trump draining the swamp or pardoning it?

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with Endgame. President Trump this morning talked to reporters about the U.S. intelligence that was concluding that Russia is again meddling in the presidential election on both his behalf and on behalf of Bernie Sanders. Here's what the president said.

[BEGIN TAPE]

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

Nobody said it. I read where Russia's helping Bernie Sanders. Nobody said it to me at all. Nobody briefs me about that at all. They leaked it. Adam Schiff and his group, they leaked it to the papers. And as usual. They ought to investigate Adam Schiff for leaking that information.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Well, the president there making some allegations that are impossible to fact check. And giving his track record here, probably a little bit questionable. Hugh Hewitt, the president's inability to ever condemn what Russia does only sparks this conspiracy even more, doesn't it?

HUGH HEWITT:

Look at what he does, not what he says -- by the way, my disclosure. My son's a political appointee at State. Pompeo's a friend. Grenell's a friend. O'Brien's a friend. They're all friends. Rick Grenell is outside of the Cabinet the most anti-Russian member of this administration. Trying to stop Nord Stream 2, trying to get Germany up 2%. He is anti-Russia as anybody --

CHUCK TODD:

It is not about the administration. You know this. It's about the president's words that undermines it. That's the question. Why does his words continue to undermine this?

HUGH HEWITT:

Because I think his general diplomacy is to speak softly and carry the biggest stick, $716 billion in military spending, to be nice to Xi in the middle of coronavirus, to be nice to Putin rhetorically, and then to be tough on Nord Stream 2, to be tough on Crimea, to send the anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Tough, tough, tough in actions, soft spoken in words.

CHUCK TODD:

Kimberly, credible?

KIMBERLY ATKINS:

No. Listen, this is exactly what we've seen from the president from the beginning. He does not like the idea that Russia is helping him. He sees that as a personal slight. He is going to push out against that while simultaneously pushing the narrative that it's helping Bernie Sanders and really having no -- really paying no mind to the fact that that is contradictory. And that is what we are seeing moving forward. I mean, we are seeing, you know, from Marc Short talking about 2018, that there was no interference. There was. This is our -- I think most importantly is the intelligence officials. That's who I heard from this week. Intelligence officials are alarmed at what is going on and at the continual, continuous discrediting by the president of the United States. And that's creating long-term problems.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, and Marc Short attacked mid level bureaucrats, I think. Excuse me. "Mid Level staffers," I think he called them.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

That's right. It's really notable that --

CHUCK TODD:

Those are career professionals.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

Exactly. And it's notable that the purges that have been discussed are looking at politicals as well. There's sort of this wide-angle lens of people who the president doesn't trust. That said, the news that we had come out this week regarding Russian interference is not as surprising as it might sound. In October, Facebook announced that it had pulled down 50 Instagram accounts that appeared to be linked to a notorious Kremlin troll farm that was very active in 2016. Those accounts pushed content that was pro-Trump and pro-Bernie Sanders. That's all open source. The firm Graphica did a great analysis of it, finding that it was basically recycling through this material. And what's really important and so important for people to keep in mind going into 2020 is that these accounts prioritized operational security, secrecy and anonymity, over going viral. If those accounts are linked to the Kremlin, that means the Kremlin has the potential to be much more sophisticated going into this election.

CHUCK TODD:

Dan, what do Democrats running for president do with this information? I mean, Bernie Sanders informed us that he got this a month ago. And, by the way, I think the intelligence community decided to inform Bernie Sanders a month ago. It is hard to imagine the president wasn't informed. This is sort of an oddity of this all. But this is tricky politics in the Democratic primary. Is it not?

DAN PFEIFFER:

Well, it is. And I think we should be very clear that when we say Russia's helping Bernie Sanders --

CHUCK TODD:

What does that mean? Yeah.

DAN PFEIFFER:

They are not trying to help Bernie Sanders be president. They are trying to give Trump the opponent that Trump wants. They helped Bernie Sanders in 2016 to divide the Democratic Party. And so this is not about -- no one thinks that Russia is trying to make Bernie Sanders president. The way that I think this plays out in the election more broadly is we've been having this big conversation about how the Democrats unify. Everything that we have talked about, about what this president has been doing since impeachment ended is going to help unify the party. Because if he is acting this way with this much disregard for laws and norms nine months before an election, imagine what it's going to be like in a second term where he doesn't have to face accountability from voters.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, I do want to show some of this musical chairs in the intel community, particularly at DNI. July 28th, 2019, President Trump fires the Senate-confirmed director of national intelligence, Dan Coats. On August 8th, the president announces that Joseph Maguire will become the acting director. On that same day, the person who was supposed to have assumed the acting director slot, Sue Gordon, who was number two, she resigned because she was passed over for that acting top job role. Then on February 19th of this year, Maguire's ousted by President Trump. The next day, Rick Grenell is named acting director. By the way, Hugh, this is what makes this very suspicious. He made the first shakeup at DNI, was timed with that whistleblower report that was making its way through the DNI. This one is timed with this report about Russian interference. That's some nasty circumstantial evidence.

HUGH HEWITT:

If you want the person who will be most effective in countering the Russian puppetry meme, you put Ric Grenell, who is the most anti-Russian person on there. Also the most combative. Probably --

CHUCK TODD:

He's a pretty political -- he’s pretty partisan --

HUGH HEWITT:

Oh, he's --

CHUCK TODD:

-- in his political activism.

HUGH HEWITT:

No, he came up as a Republican LGTBQ. So he is obviously going to be combative and had to earn his stripes the hard way. But if you want an anti-Russian person to combat the meme that you are pro-Russian, you put Ambitious Grenell in that job.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

I don't know that there's evidence that Maguire was any softer on Russia and the Kremlin than Grenell is. And the important question --

HUGH HEWITT:

I didn’t say that.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

I understand. And the important question that Short didn't answer is why there was this rapid snapback of Maguire from that position and why the president decided he wanted to put Grenell in just for a couple weeks. There's still no clear message from the administration of the added benefit of installing this guy who clearly has national security credentials but also has a very deep and long time working as a partisan and a vocal Trump ally into this incredibly sensitive and strategically important intelligence spot.

CHUCK TODD:

I think not since Bill Casey could I think of somebody as politically connected to get a intel job like this.

DAN PFEIFFER:

Right. I mean, I think we should be real clear. He may have national security credentials, but he has no intel experience. And I know there's nothing more exhausting than playing, "Imagine if Obama did X," game, but imagine if Barack Obama had fired the career professional in charge of the intelligence directorate, put in a political operative, one with a history of pushing conspiracy theories at the exact time Russia was trying to interfere in the election to help that candidacy. Like, Hugh, his head would have exploded --

HUGH HEWITT:

Two words: Ben Rhodes.

DAN PFEIFFER:

He did not put him in charge --

HUGH HEWITT:

Look.

DAN PFEIFFER:

-- of the DNI. He did not put --

HUGH HEWITT:

I am talking about --

DAN PFEIFFER:

-- him for the DNI.

HUGH HEWITT:

-- a guy who has 10 years of intel experience by virtue of being a tenured diplomat with the highest clearances in the security. I think that is a complete fabrication of the Beltway establishment that hates Grenell because he is combative. But I think he's put in there for a reason, which is to be combative --

DAN PFEIFFER:

Yes, to be a political --

HUGH HEWITT:

-- and to stop --

DAN PFEIFFER:

-- loyalist in charge of intelligence --

HUGH HEWITT:

Not a loyalist --

DAN PFEIFFER:

Yes.

HUGH HEWITT:

To be the anti-Russian face. The most anti-Russian person in the administration.

KIMBERLY ATKINS:

I remember when William Barr was put in to be the grown-up in the room at Justice, and we've seen how that worked out. We've seen just the news surrounding him this week. I think that the circumstantial evidence, as you point out, speaks for itself.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm going to have to leave the conversation there. That's all we have for today. Thank you for watching. We’ll be back next week, day after the South Carolina primary and two days before Super Tuesday. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.