Meet the Press - January 13, 2019

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, when will this end? The government shutdown now in its 23rd day. Negotiations going nowhere.

REP. NANCY PELOSI:

Our meeting did not last long.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:

And he just got up and said, "Then we have nothing to discuss. And he just walked out.

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump says, he can declare a national emergency.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I haven't done it yet. I may do it. If this doesn't work out, probably, I will do it.

CHUCK TODD:

Then insists he doesn't want to.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I'd rather not do it. Because this is something that Congress should easily do.

CHUCK TODD:

With neither side giving in and Congress not even in town, is there any way out of this mess? Joining this morning, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, and Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Plus, the bombshell Russia story. The New York Times reports the F.B.I. opened an investigation into whether the sitting president was secretly working for Russia, against the United States. At the heart of the probe, Mr. Trump's firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey and evidence that he linked it to the Russia investigation.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I said, "You know, this Russia thing, with Trump and Russia, is a made-up story. It's an excuse."

CHUCK TODD:

The president responds by harshly criticizing Comey and other F.B.I. leaders. We'll have New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt and NBC News legal analyst Ben Wittes on what this could mean for the Mueller investigation, going forward. And joining me for insight and analysis are Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher; Peggy Noonan, columnist for the Wall Street Journal; Republican strategist Al Cardenas, and NBC News national political reporter Carol Lee. 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. We have two stories that are driving this day. The first, that explosive story posted by the New York Times on Friday night, that in 2017, the F.B.I. opened an investigation into whether President Trump was working as a Russian asset, as the sitting president, against interests of the United States. The investigation was opened after Mr. Trump fired F.B.I. Director James Comey, because he mentioned the Russia investigation in his dismissal letter to Comey, and because the president told my colleague, Lester Holt, that he fired Comey, in part, because of the Russia investigation. Now, it's important to note that the Times says no evidence has emerged publically that Mr. Trump was, in fact, working with the Russians when he fired Mr. Comey. The second big story, of course, is this government shutdown, now in its 23rd day and now, officially, the longest ever. What we're seeing is not so much the consequences of divided government, which voters generally say they like, because each party acts as a break on the other. No, what we're seeing are the consequences of a polarized government, with two parties that often don't talk to each other, sometimes, can't talk to each other, and right now, may not want to talk to each other. And caught in the middle, some 800,000 federal employees, who are out of work and not currently getting paid. That has actually led some in Washington to hope President Trump follows through on his constitutionally questionable threat and declare a national emergency as a face-saving way out of this mess. If he does, this would be a national emergency designed to solve his own political emergency.

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI:

Shutting down the government is not governing.

CHUCK TODD:

For President Trump, the focus on a wall and the symbol it represents to his supporters may be the political crisis he needs to deflect focus from his own legal jeopardy.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

They could name it whatever they can name it. Peaches, I don't care what they name it. But we need money for that barrier.

CHUCK TODD:

But ultimately, the shutdown leaves the president boxed in and weakens him for the fights ahead. Mr. Trump responded to the Times story about the F.B.I.'s counterintelligence investigation, tweeting that it was opened for no reason and with no proof and attacking James Comey as, "a total sleaze."

JEANINE PIRRO:

Are you now, or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I think it's the most-insulting thing I've ever been asked. I think it's the most-insulting article I've ever had written. And if you read the article, you'd see that they found absolutely nothing.

CHUCK TODD:

The President's mounting legal problems are the backdrop to the shutdown stalemate. Mr. Trump and Democrats are both dug in with no end in sight.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I don't want to give an easy way out of something as simple of this.

REP. NANCY PELOSI:

I'm a mother of five, grandmother of nine. I know a temper tantrum, when I see one.

CHUCK TODD:

After floating the idea of a, quote, "national emergency --"

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

If we don't make a deal, I would say it would be very surprising to me that I would not declare a national emergency.

CHUCK TODD:

-- on Friday, the president said he is not planning to declare one after all.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I have the absolute right to do it. But I'm not going to do it so fast.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM:

We need to have an endgame. If the endgame is an emergency declaration by the president, do it and do it now.

CHUCK TODD:

But most Republicans pan the idea.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO:

Tomorrow, the national security emergency might be, you know, climate change. So let's seize the fossil-fuel plants or something.

CHUCK TODD:

Democrats also see no incentive to negotiate.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS:

Let's put all of this in context, right? The president, at this point, is holding the American people hostage over his vanity project.

CHUCK TODD:

Most Republicans are standing with the president for now.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY:

It is laughable to think that you can seal a 1,900-mile border without some sort of barrier.

CHUCK TODD:

But the shutdown is already causing pain.

FEDERAL EMPLOYEE:

We want to work. We're not pawns. We're not bargaining chips. We're people.

CHUCK TODD:

Including for Mr. Trump's own voters.

FEDERAL EMPLOYEE:

I'm starting to get scared. I've been a Trump supporter. I think he's done a lot of wonderful

things. But this is not one of them.

CHUCK TODD:

One White House advisor appeared to compare the shutdown, for furloughed workers, to a vacation.

KEVIN HASSETT:

We have a shutdown. And so they can't go to work. And so then they have the vacation. But they don't have to use their vacation days. And then they come back. And then they get their back pay. Then they’re, in some sense, they're better off.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now from Houston is Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Senator Cruz, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Chuck, always good to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with the fact that you're in Houston and not here. And you're not the only one. I'll have Senator Kaine on. He's coming to me from Richmond and not here. Why isn't the United States Senate here, sir?

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Well, it's very simple. I'm here over the weekend, as most senators go home to the state and come home during the weekend. I came back to Texas on Thursday to travel with the president to go down to the border. And so working down here, meeting with stakeholders on the border, meeting with Border Patrol agents, meeting with ICE officials, meeting with families who've had family members murdered by criminal, illegal aliens. And so I'm down here, doing my job. I'll be back in Washington on Monday. I hope on Monday, what we'll see is, finally, Washington coming together and opening up the government. What that's going to take is for the Democrats to move off the position that they've been taking so far of no compromise, no movement. Their extreme position, they've got to be willing to give in on.

CHUCK TODD:

Does the president, though, need to move? He hasn't moved at all, publicly. And it's not clear what, what the offers are, other than concrete to steel.

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Chuck, that's actually not accurate. The president has said, over and over again, I've been in the room when he's said it, that he's more than willing to compromise. He's more than willing to meet in the middle. The reason we have a shutdown is -- let's go back to December. In December, the then-Republican House passed funding for the entire federal government. It included $5.7 billion for an additional 234 miles of steel barrier. When it got to the Senate, Chuck Schumer and the Democrats filibustered that bill. Every Democrat said, "No. We will not allow the government to be funded, so long as they're building even a single mile of barrier." That's why we have a shutdown. And that's not a reasonable position. And the president's position has been, he's perfectly happy to negotiate, to compromise. He's said, many times, doesn't have to be $5.7 billion. He could find some other number. But the Democrats have said, "No." The only thing they're willing to consider is zero, zero, zero. That is not reasonable. And that's why we have a shutdown.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator, you yourself, I think, in 2017, was -- you were lamenting the fact that, here, you had all Republican control of the House, the Senate, and the White House. And things weren't moving very quickly. He didn't make his case for a wall. He didn't, he didn’t plow the field over those two years to try to make this work. And he tried to jam it in at the last minute. Isn't this on the president, for his lack of being able to get Congressional Republicans to come together much earlier?

SEN. TED CRUZ:

You know, I don't think that's true at all. I don't think it's the president's fault that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats are being political. If you look at the two years we had Republican control of both houses, we saw incredible forward progress. We saw an historic tax cut. We're seeing booming economic results. We've got the lowest African American unemployment that has ever been recorded, the lowest Hispanic unemployment that's ever been recorded.

CHUCK TODD:

But my question was about the immigration issue.

SEN. TED CRUZ:

And in fact --

CHUCK TODD:

He didn’t --

SEN. TED CRUZ:

All right let’s take it --

CHUCK TODD:

He didn't do anything to try to actually get Republicans united on this. And he jammed it through at the last minute.

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Well, but that's not actually right. You remember the fairly remarkable Oval Office meeting between Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and the president. And Nancy Pelosi said then, she said, "Mr. President, you can't pass this in the House." She basically said, "I dare you. You don't have the votes." He said, "Yes, I do." And she said, "No, you don't. I dare you." So he turned around. He took it to the House, which was Republican. And they passed it. And Chuck, here's the ridiculous thing about the position of Senate Democrats. This is not substantive. They voted for it before. Chuck Schumer and every single Democrat in the Senate, in 2013, voted for 350 miles of additional border fencing and border security. They've now shut the government down on 234 miles. And so I think an awful lot of people are asking, "Well, if you voted for 350 miles, why would you force a shutdown on 234?" That is not reasonable. And the president remains willing to come together and compromise. But so far, the Democrats don't want to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

Why not open up the government and just -- and move the Homeland Security debate to the side and debate that, while you pay government workers?

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Well, the House passed a bill opening the government, funding all of the government, and securing the border. And the Democrats' position can't be, "We've got to force a shutdown." We’re going to hold -- what the Democrats are saying is, "We're going to hold federal workers hostage." And you know, you've got my friend, Tim Kaine coming on in a minute. He represents Virginia. There are a lot of federal workers in the Commonwealth of Virginia. If Tim Kaine and Mark Warner were to say, "We're going to put the jobs of the men and women of Virginia ahead of our partisan interests, ahead of the fact that our base hates Donald Trump." Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, it would take only five more Democrats in the Senate to have the votes to say, "This second Schumer shutdown is over. We're reopening the government. And we're going to implement common-sense border security that the American people want."

CHUCK TODD:

And I think they would say the same thing about you and your fellow Republicans and the political base. I think that's why we're in this stalemate. I want to move to another topic here. Let me ask you this --

SEN. TED CRUZ:

But hold on a second --

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CHUCK TODD:

I gotta, I gotta move --

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Let me say something on that point, Chuck. There is a difference between one side, the Democrats, who are saying, "We will not move. We will not compromise. We will not negotiate," and the other side, the president, who is saying, "I'm happy to negotiate." And what he's proposing, the Democrats have already voted for. They're playing politics, because they hate Trump. And that's not a good enough reason for Chuck Schumer and the Democrats to shut down the government.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you this. The New York Times reported, on Friday night, that the FBI, after the Comey firing, because of what the president said, both in a letter to Mr. Comey and to my colleague, Lester Holt, they opened up a counterintelligence investigation, concerned that a sitting president was working on behalf of a foreign agent. How much of a concern is this to you?

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Well, I don't know the details or the specifics there. I know what was reported publicly in the media. And I sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, so we will consider any allegations that come forward. But I'll tell you, Chuck, something that is really interesting. You and I work in Washington, but I also come back to Texas. Just about every week, I'm back, outside the Beltway. There is an incredible divide between Washington and the rest of the country, when it comes to Bob Mueller and the Russia investigation. The mainstream media, Washington is obsessed with it. And when you get outside the Beltway, I don't find anybody concerned with this at all. They're concerned with jobs, lower taxes, higher wages, more opportunity. They're concerned with securing the border. So the questions I get are not about the latest obsession and allegations about Russia, Russia, Russia. They're about, "Hey, when are we actually going to secure the border? When are we going to keep making this country safer?" So that's going to stay my focus. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, I'll consider whatever evidence is produced. But I'm not going to base it on unsubstantiated media reports.

CHUCK TODD:

How about, on the Foreign Relations Committee, the Washington Post is reporting that the president, basically, is not sharing what he discusses with Vladimir Putin behind closed doors? Do you think you guys in the Senate ought to, for instance, subpoena a translator, so that you have a real readout of what the president and Vladimir Putin are saying to each other?

SEN. TED CRUZ:

You know, I think it's premature for that. I've seen the allegations. I want to find out a little bit more about what happened there. I want to learn more than just the allegations in the press. Listen, I will say, if you compare, objectively, President Trump's policies to Russia, compared to President Obama's policies to Russia, by any measure, President Obama was much easier, was much more gentle, on Russia. You and I both recall Obama leaning over on a hot mic and saying, just before the 2012 election, "Tell Vladimir I'll have a lot more flexibility after the election." Now, there, they weren't keeping notes. It just happened to be a network had a camera going. If you compare substance, for example, Trump went to NATO and urged the Europeans, "Don't let the Russians build a pipeline through Europe." You want to talk about what actually makes a difference, standing up to Russia? That, on policy, was far, far more important than much of the weakness and appeasement we saw under Obama.

CHUCK TODD:

And finally, before I let you go, I want to get you to comment on your colleague, Tim Scott's, op-ed in the Washington Post about Steve King, Iowa congressman, who is your national co-chair for president. He said, he writes this, "Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism. Well, it is because of our silence when things like this are said. King's comments are not conservative views but separate views that should be ridiculed at every turn possible." He questioned, in a New York Times interview, why we find phrases like white nationalism to somehow be offensive. Where are you on this, sir?

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Well, listen. Tim is a good man and a good friend. He and I have worked together on many, many issues. What Steve King said was stupid. It was stupid. It was hurtful. It was wrong. And he needs to stop. I think all of us ought to be united, regardless of party, in saying, white supremacism, white nationalism, is hatred. It is bigotry. It is evil. It is wrong. And I think we need that clarity. And I'm certainly going to urge everyone to provide that clarity.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you going to support him in the future?

SEN. TED CRUZ:

You know, what I'm going to do is urge everyone to stand for principles that matter. You know, this same weekend, in Texas, there was a movement, from some activists, that asked to remove a local official in Fort Worth, who was a Muslim. I spoke out actively, because it was my home state, I spoke actively against that. I said, "Listen, we believe in religious freedom. We believe in free speech. We believe in diversity." And ultimately, the voters in the Tarrant County GOP did the right thing. They didn't remove that official. So I'm going to speak out and engage. And when it comes to speaking out against bigotry, whether it is the Klan or Nazis or anything else, I have a lifetime of standing up to that bigotry. And I'll continue it.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Cruz, Republican from Texas, appreciate you coming on and sharing your views this morning. Thank you, sir.

SEN. TED CRUZ:

Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now from the other side of the aisle and from Richmond is Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Welcome back to Meet the Press. And Senator, I'm going to start with this.

SEN.TIM KAINE:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Why are you guys not here, okay? Why aren't you in Washington this weekend, trying to force a, force a way to open up this government?

SEN. TIM KAINE:

Well, Chuck, we are trying to work a deal over the weekend to open the government. But I'll tell you why we're not here. I objected to adjourning in the Senate on Thursday. Because I have been talking to all of these victims of the Trump shutdown. It was President Trump who said he would be proud to shutdown the government, that it would be on him. He's done that, and people are hurting, worried about missing mortgage payments, having to reschedule medical appointments. So I objected to the adjournment on Friday, Thursday, which is very, very rare. And then I ended up working a deal with the majority leader where we would be in Friday, the day on which people missed their paychecks, the day on which the shutdown became tied for the longest ever. And the Republicans agreed to fast track and pass my guarantee of back pay. I was a co-sponsor of a bill to guarantee back pay for every federal worker. We got it passed, unanimously, in the Senate. President Trump has agreed to sign it. The House passed it Friday morning. So I think we should be in. But I was able to get the Senate and the House to act to protect our federal employees. And I've been on the phone all day yesterday, and I'm going to be on the phone today, with Republican colleagues trying to find that path so we can reopen government.

CHUCK TODD:

Is it time to give the president something here? Let me put, let me put up a quote here from your, from the Virginia delegation. Abigail Spanberger, who just won from a district that President Trump carried. And she, she said this. "If I am getting comments and contact from my constituents expressing concern that the Democrats are not prioritizing security, then I think we can do better." She's, obviously, concerned that it looks like the Democrats aren't for any border security. Do Democrats have to meet the president somewhere north of where they are now?

SEN. TIM KAINE:

Chuck, the willingness of Democrats to invest billions of dollars in border security is not in doubt. In 2013, we did a bill in the Senate that Ted Cruz voted against that was going to invest $40-plus billion over ten years. Cruz voted against it. House Republicans killed it. Democrats support border security. In February of this year, we took a deal to the president, $25 billion in border security. 46 out of 49 Dems voted for it. Senator Cruz voted against it. President Trump killed the deal. At the end of December, we reached a deal with the Republicans, ample border security funding that they supported in committee and on the floor. We supported it just three weeks ago. But when President Trump put out a tweet, suggesting he didn't like it, now, Republicans have fled for the hills. Democrats invest, over and over and over again, in border security. Just this week, Republicans, led by Lindsey Graham, tried to negotiate a deal of border security, and President Trump blew up the negotiations. This is a guy who has prayed for a shutdown. And get this, Chuck, who is he injuring? We've got 13,000 F.B.I. agents, more than 10,000 Bureau of Prison prison guards, air traffic controllers, Coast Guard folks, who interdict drugs, all of them working without pay, because of this president's shutdown. And yet, he says he cares about national security, when he's taking paychecks away from hardworking public safety professionals? It makes no sense. All that has to happen is the Republicans have to be willing to vote the way they did just three weeks ago, open up government. And then we'll dialogue about border security.

CHUCK TODD:

It does sound like, though, you're willing to support some fencing, barriers, if they call it something else, if it reopens the government.

SEN. TIM KAINE:

I will say this. We first should reopen government. Why punish people who are applying for food stamps, because the president is having a temper tantrum? Open government first. But Democrats have always been willing to invest in border security. Chuck, all we want to do is make sure that it's spent the right way. Drugs come in through ports of entry. Let's beef up ports of entry. The biggest group of undocumented people in the country come in on legal visas and overstay. If you build a million-foot wall, it won't deal with that problem. What we don't want to do is waste taxpayer money on a vanity project that's ineffective, that the president said Mexico would pay for. But spending massive amounts on border security to keep us safe, Dems do it over and over again, and it's been Republicans that have been blocking it.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator, on the campaign trail in 2016, you spent the last two months regularly questioning the president, at that time candidate, Donald Trump's ties to Vladimir Putin, complimentary ways he talked about things. So you have those questions that you had, as a candidate. Now, you have this story in the New York Times that has the F.B.I. worried that the president acted on Comey at the behest of the Russian government. What does that tell you where things are now? Does that mean that Democrats should be looking at actually beginning impeachment proceedings? Or is this something you think, "Let the Mueller probe go first"? How much more do you need to know?

SEN. TIM KAINE:

Yeah, Chuck, it's got -- we've got to protect the Mueller investigation. You're right, I was very worried about this, you know, in 2016 because the president took a public stage in July and encouraged Russia to cyber hack the election, at the same time as my son and his entire battalion were deployed helping allies on the border of Russia protect themselves against Russian aggression. I found that highly unusual for any American, much less somebody who wanted to be president. But now, what we have is, you know, more -- nearly 100 documented instances of ties between the Trump campaign, transition and administration with Russia, bizarre failure to be honest about meetings, and now this indication that President Trump has gone to unusual lengths to hide the content of discussions with Vladimir Putin. But the right answer is, as you suggest, it is to protect the Mueller investigation at all costs, let it get to its end, make sure that the results are made public, so then can we decide.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you at all concerned -- are you at all concerned though, that the F.B.I. look like it overreacted in trying to investigate a sitting president this way? I mean, this is a pretty alarming investigation, that the sitting president was acting against the interests of, of, of the United States of America.

SEN. TIM KAINE:

Well, I flip the question around, Chuck. I think it's less, “Did the F.B.I. overreact?” I think the question is this. They had to have a very deep level of concern about this president to take this step. And that's, again, why we need to protect the Mueller investigation. And I think that's going to be a critical issue in the Judiciary Committee hearings about the attorney general nominee. Will you guarantee to protect this investigation? And will you make sure that the American public and Congress get the results of it?

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat from Virginia, I have to let you go there. Thanks for coming on and sharing your view, sir. I appreciate it.

SEN. TIM KAINE:

Absolutely.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, we're going to have more on that story about Russia, the F.B.I., and President Trump. I'm going to talk to Michael Schmidt, he's one of the New York Times reporters who broke the story, and NBC News legal analyst Ben Wittes, on why this story may be even bigger than it seems.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. We're going to dig a little deeper into the New York Times story about President Trump and Russia. Frankly, we think it deserves an explainer. So with me now are Michael Schmidt, one of the reporters who broke the story about the F.B.I.'s counterintelligence investigation into whether Mr. Trump, as sitting president, was working as an agent for Russia. We also have Ben Wittes. He's an NBC News legal analyst and is the editor in chief of the national security blog Lawfare. And he actually worked with Mr. Schmidt on this story. Gentlemen, welcome to both of you. So Michael, walk us through the piece here. The designation is a counterintelligence investigation. We've always thought of the Comey firing and the Mueller aspect as simply obstruction of justice, as sort of separate. But we're calling it counterintelligence. And it's a bit confusing. Why?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:

So it was a two-pronged investigation. It had a criminal aspect. Did the president break the law in trying to obstruct the investigation, interfere with it, and this other Russia question. And it's important, as--as you said, because our collective understanding was much narrower. It was just on obstruction. Did the president break the law there? And now, we know that it was far broader. It had national-security concerns. The F.B.I. was afraid that the firing of Comey was a way to help the Russians stop the F.B.I. from figuring out what they did in the election.

CHUCK TODD:

Are they — is this still a counterintelligence investigation into whether Mr. Trump, himself, is acting as a Russian agent? Is that what the Mueller probe inherited?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:

We know the Mueller probe inherited it. We know the Mueller probe has spent an enormous amount of time trying to figure out what the president has done in office in regards to the investigation, his interference with it. They've talked to all these White House officials. Do we know if there is still this belief and aspect --

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:

-- that the president is working for the Russians? I can't answer that.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Ben, this was all, the -- sort of the nut of this scoop by the Times was based on testimony by, now, a former F.B.I. general counsel, James Baker. And this is what he told Congress, and this was in the New York Times story, about why they viewed it as counterintelligence. He said this. "Not only would it be an issue of obstructing the investigation. But the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done. And that is what would be the threat to national security." It led you to write that, the collusion question and the obstruction question are now the same thing. Collusion is obstruction and vice versa. Explain.

BENJAMIN WITTES:

Well, so as Mike just described, we had sort of thought of the obstruction investigation as this kind of separate criminal investigation that arose at the time of the firing. In other words, that you had this underlying election-interference investigation going on, the so-called collusion investigation. Then the president comes along and kneecaps the investigation by firing the F.B.I. director. And a few weeks later, we learn that Bob Mueller is investigating the, whether that's obstruction of justice, i.e. a crime. The significance of Mike's and Adam Goldman's story is that it forces you to reimagine the -- how the F.B.I. understood what it was doing, which, as Mike just said, and as the quote that you read from Jim Baker reflects, was we had this investigation, for national security reasons, of Russian activity. Then somebody on the U.S. side, i.e. the President of the United States, took some action that kind of looks like they were trying to shut down the investigation. That raises national security concerns about the — whether we will be able to find out what the Russians were doing, whether we will be able to stop what the Russians were doing. So the Bureau understood, appears to have understood, what happened, in terms of whether the president was working with the Russians. That's a very different thing. And it collapses the obstruction inquiry into that larger collusion inquiry.

CHUCK TODD:

So Michael, it made me think of another scoop of yours, about, I want to say, a month ago, six weeks ago, where you had Rod Rosenstein supposedly saying, "Should I wear a wire?" talking about the 25th Amendment. And the question is, you know, was he serious? Was that just sarcasm? When you open a counterintelligence investigation on the President of the United States, you have — and F.B.I.'s going to get a sign-off from the Justice Department, one would assume it came from Rod Rosenstein, since he was overseeing it. But is that where this may have come from? When they were trying to figure out, "Should I wear a wire?" Were they trying to figure out, "How do you investigate the sitting President of the United States?"

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:

They were struggling with that. And these two stories take us inside, let us see what the F.B.I. and the Justice Department were looking at in this critical period of time, a little more than a week, in May of 2017. Comey has just been fired. The F.B.I. is -- thinks there can be this huge threat coming from them. Rosenstein had just provided Trump with a rationale for firing Comey that wasn't Trump's rationale.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:

So the F.B.I. is looking at Rosenstein, who is overseeing the investigation, skeptically.

CHUCK TODD:

So they were not trusting him at that time?

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:

He had just provided —

CHUCK TODD:

Wow.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT:

— an incorrect or not what the president's rationale was for the firing. And he's supposed to be overseeing the investigation. So they're sitting there. They know there's this larger investigation into Russia. They know there are these questions about the election. And they are struggling to figure out what to do. And it is in that context that they open this investigation.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, legally, the obstruction question has always been, "You can't indict a sitting president." Maybe they can't even interview him about his actions as a sitting president. But if it's part of a counterintelligence, does that give Mueller a better shot of having — of subpoenaing the president and having it being upheld?

BENJAMIN WITTES:

So I don't think it affects the likelihood that a subpoena would be — would have legs, one way or the other. I do think it will profoundly -- it should profoundly condition our expectations of what Mueller's report is going to look like.

CHUCK TODD:

Meaning much more damning?

BENJAMIN WITTES:

Well, much, much more of a continuous story, as in, the Russians did this stuff to influence the election. And here are all the things that we investigated, on the U.S. side —

CHUCK TODD:

Gotcha.

BENJAMIN WITTES:

— that may have been done in support of that: people lying; people doing X, Y, and Z; president trying to shut down our investigation. I think, I think it provides a through narrative, potentially, to the report that is, potentially, quite profound.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Michael Schmidt, Ben Wittes, appreciate you trying to help us out here. I think, basically, now, instead of Trump as the hub, and everything else is the spoke, Russia's the hub, Trump's the spoke.

BENJAMIN WITTES:

It was about Russia, full stop.

CHUCK TODD:

There it is. Thank you guys. When we come back, does President Trump hope the government shutdown will deflect attention from the Russia investigation? The panel's next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher; Peggy Noonan, columnist for the Wall Street Journal; NBC News national political reporter Carol Lee; and Republican strategist Al Cardenas. Welcome, all. Okay, like everything in the Trump era, Carol Lee, there's always a government uncertainty and then scandal uncertainty. I want to start with this F.B.I. story. Because on one hand, it seems gigantic. And on the other hand, you see, because I found it interesting. Senator Ted Cruz did not exactly dismiss the story. I do think it has landed with a level of concern in Washington.

CAROL LEE:

Yeah, it was interesting. He said, you know, "I don't know the details. We'll need to learn a little bit more about this. I'm going to look into it." I think what we've seen, and we saw this a little bit with the Michael Cohen developments, several weeks ago, that the Republicans are getting a little bit more nervous. The big questions coming out of this New York Times report is whether this counterintelligence investigation involving the president, what the status of that is. And then this question of whether he -- the question they were asking is whether he was wittingly working for the Russians or unwittingly, you know, under Russian influence. And we've already seen, in some of Mueller's indictments, that there are Americans out there who were unwittingly under the influence of Russians. You know, I think it's interesting that a number of things that all of us have covered and that Democrats have and the president's critics have used against him on these various data points, whether it's changing the platform during the -- at the Republican Convention or, you know, "Russia, are you listening? Can you get Hillary Clinton's emails?" These various data points really raised -- were very serious and weren't just political talking points. They were seen as very serious within the F.B.I. And then eventually, that boiled over with the Comey firing. So I think we're going -- we’re supposed to see Mueller's report soon. And if it is airtight and is of high significance, and this, this particular piece is real, then you'll see Republicans, like Ted Cruz, get even more.

CHUCK TODD:

What'd you get from this?

AL CARDENAS:

Listen, first thing we can't forget is the fact that this investigation was opened to see what Russia's meddling in our election process was all about, what the interference was all about, and who else may be culpable, in addition to Russia. We already have hard facts on their involvement with social media. We have hard facts on a lot of other things. At the beginning, you know, there was a lot of speculation that the president's objection was purely political, based on the fact that, "Hey, they're questioning and challenging my electability. And so I'm going to fight back. Because I don't want people questioning the integrity of my being elected." A lot of other things have happened since. A lot of indictments of people in the president's administration have taken place. All of a sudden, you know, the inquiry looks far more personal than political. And so we're all questioning, where is this thing going to lead us to? You know, the F.B.I. is supposed to turn suspicion into fact. That's what an investigation is about. There was a suspicion as to why would you fire Comey? Why was this beyond just political, you know, strategy? And so yeah, we'll see where it ends. We already know that there are a lot of people, close to the president involved with Russia. Whether he personally got involved, for whatever reason, we don't know. So we'll see.

PEGGY NOONAN:

It is astonishing, Chuck. We are talking about a major newspaper report that the Federal Bureau of Investigation in America has launched a counterintelligence probe against a sitting president. Based on the --

CHUCK TODD:

It's like a bad movie plot.

PEGGY NOONAN:

Oh, you know what? You would reject it, if you were producing it.

CHUCK TODD:

I don't know, maybe not.

PEGGY NOONAN:

You'd say, "That's a little over the top." My only thought, coming out of this, beyond astonishment, is the thought that, you know, "Congress must know something about this." Because indeed, they probably have been dealing with the F.B.I. on this. They knew a few things. I also think, "My goodness, this Mueller report, if this is what we're talking about, could we please get it out there quickly?"

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah. It's funny. It's like, we're sitting in the shutdown, Cornell. And you have this out there. It does color everything that we’re -- that’s facing us right now.

CORNELL BELCHER:

Well, you know, I think two things. One is, I want to underline, sort of, the -- all the people around the Trump campaign involvement, sort of, touching base with Russians. Because, you know, we learned that they passed polling information on to the Russians, Chuck. As a campaign pollster, our polls and our campaigns are sort of what you see, you know, a horse shot. You know the horse race. It is strategic, right? What we're doing, in these polls, we are outlining strategy and decisions and where you should target. And for a campaign to be giving it to the Russians, how is that not collusion, right? I don't know if it's collusion in a court. But certainly, in the public opinion, it has to be. I think it smells like a duck, sounds like a duck, walks like a duck. It is, in fact, a duck. It's hard for you to say, that's not collusion.

AL CARDENAS:

I'll say this. The other side of the situation here is, for some reason, the Mueller investigation clears President Trump. I mean, that's a death blow to a lot of Democrats’ hopes, as well.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, that's a fair point.

CAROL LEE:

And the White House is preparing. You know, they're ready for, basically, a street fight over this. I mean, they're saying that they're going to exert executive privilege and say that they want to see the report. They're going to try to block certain parts of the report.

CHUCK TODD:

Carol, you've done a lot of reporting on this. Do you think Rudy Giuliani was blindsided that the obstruction -- I can't figure this out. Do they know that obstruction and counterintel are the same thing or not? Do you think they know this or knew it until now?

CAROL LEE:

No, it's hard to know, sort of, what they know. And I think that, from their perspective, that is the biggest problem that they have, is that they're trying to go in. And they're preparing to wage this battle against the Mueller report. They want to write their own report.They want to review it. They want to challenge it and, you know, basically, exert executive privilege to cover some portions of it up, potentially. But the problem that they have is they don't actually know what they're going in to fight. And I think we've seen that, particularly, with this story.

CORNELL BELCHER:

I want to push back here. I don't think there’s a Democrat -- most Democrats are sitting around, going, "I hope the president colluded," right? I don’t think that's, sort of, the death wish for Democrats. I think -- I'm a Democrat. I'm a pretty liberal Democrat. I hope the president didn't collude. Because if the president colluded, we have something larger, more problems in this country, than Republican versus Democrat.

AL CARDENAS:

Well said.

CHUCK TODD:

Especially, how well he trashed the F.B.I. right now. Now, we know, this year-long, year-and-a-half long campaign that trashes the F.B.I. And now, we have this news. This is disconcerting.

PEGGY NOONAN:

You know, what we're talking about, at bottom, is what is the story with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, okay? That's really what we're talking about. And I have to tell you, Republicans, Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, I think we would all like an answer. One question I have is, why has the president kind of bragged that -- with Lester Holt and with Rosenstein, that his reasons for his firing of Comey were Russia? If you're a Russian operative, you're not bragging that your reasons is Russia. Can I say, I've never understood this part of the story. Maybe --

CHUCK TODD:

Well, maybe he needed to let somebody know that he was doing it for that reason. That's the thing with Trump, you just don't know. All right, I'm going to pause it here. We've got some shutdown conversation to talk about, as well. So when we come back, we're going to get to that. But first, not long ago, Republicans loved calling Democrats liberal. They didn't mean it as a compliment. And for a while, it was effective. Today, Democrats are embracing the label. That's next.

ANNOUNCER:

Meet the Press Data Download brought to you by Pfizer.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Data Download time. When it comes to ideology, there's actually a degree of difference within the parties, not just between them. There are conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. But here's a question we had in response to data released from Gallup this week. Among Democrats, is the term, liberal, no longer a dirty word? Boy, will that have some impact on 2020? 2018 was the first time a majority of Democrats, 51% of them, called themselves liberal. 13% said they were conservative, while only 34% of Democrats referred to themselves as moderate. It's quite a change from where things stood, when Bill Clinton was president. In 1994, 25% of Democrats called themselves liberal. 25% called themselves conservative. The rest, moderate. And it's not just Democrats, by the way, who are more comfortable calling themselves liberal. The public, overall, is more comfortable calling themselves liberal. In 1992, 17% of Americans said they were liberal. In 2018, the number is now 26%, a nine-point increase. And in the same period of time, the percentage of folks calling themselves conservative remained mostly flat among the electorate as a whole, while the percentage of moderates has decreased by eight points. Hello, polarization. Now, this shift in language we use is actually mirroring the shifting attitudes in our politics. Consider issues that used to be criticized as, quote, "too liberal," in the mid-'90s. Only 25% of Americans were in favor of marijuana legalization. And only 27% believed gay marriage should be recognized. 2018, those numbers: 66% and 67%, respectively. And these aren't just random issues. Bill Clinton was the Democratic candidate who felt that he had to say, quote, he, "didn't inhale marijuana." And he was the Democratic president who signed the Defense of Marriage Act. These issues were a big part of his candidacy and presidency. Here's further evidence the electorate has shifted leftward. In 1992, 41% of Americans believed their taxes were about right or too low. Believe it or not, in 2018, a majority of Americans, 51%, said the same thing. None of this is to say the United States is now some bastion of liberalism. More people, overall, still consider themselves moderate and conservative. But as the Democratic Party moves even more leftward in the age of Trump, pay attention to how 2020 Democrats handle issues the liberal base of the party is pushing for, like Medicare for all or abolishing and replacing ICE. When we come back, Endgame and why the second time around is looking a lot tougher for Bernie Sanders.

ANNOUNCER:

Coming up, Endgame, brought to you by Boeing, continuing our mission to connect, protect, explore, and inspire.

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End Game, brought to you by Boeing, continuing our mission to connect, protect, explore and inspire.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, End Game. Welcome to blame game. We have the first national polling out. Who do you blame, when it comes to the government shutdown, our friends over at the Washington Post and ABC. They're out this morning. President Trump and the Congressional Republicans, 53%, deserve blame for the shutdown. Congressional Democrats, 29%. Peggy Noonan, those numbers aren't close.

PEGGY NOONAN:

No, they're not. But I think what will end this thing, first of all, I think both sides are obviously dug in. I think this is a moment in which politics is totally triumphing over reason. I think neither party is looking to the country. I think they're both looking to their base. I think an obvious solution is a trade of border security for DACA, for the Dreamers. So, so, that's the side thing. But I think what settles this whole mess is the public coming forward and saying, "We're mad at both of you. You are screwing this up. It's been 20 years. Get a policy."

CORNELL BELCHER:

You know, I've got to disagree with you a little bit, Peggy, which is not surprising. We disagree with each other sometimes. Listen, the polling isn't close, right? And by 35 points, women blame Trump and Republicans more, more than Democrats. And by 20 points, Independents blame Trump. And so when you look at this from an electoral and, sort of, a political standpoint, we had, what, 9 million more voters vote for Democrats this past time. From a political standpoint, shutting down your government for an extreme position that the vast, vast majority of Americans, in fact, don’t want to have happen, it's not good politics. And it’s, and it’s only sort of -- seals in your base. And again, what I've said about Trump, many times before, is he is not someone who has grown the Republican Party. Over the last couple of years, he has not made it a bigger-tent party.

CHUCK TODD:

Al, inside this number, I got to -- here's the thing. And this is where you wonder if there's a perverse incentive structure here. Inside this poll, a plurality of Democrats say Democrats should not move from their position, even if it means the shutdown should go on, by 42%/37%, a narrow margin. But more Democrats want them to stick to their guns than compromise. 58% of Republicans want the president to stick to his guns. Only 22% want to see compromise. So the bases of both parties, more people don't want them to compromise than compromise.

AL CARDENAS:

Well, you know what? Everybody's wearing their team jersey. Everybody's supporting their particular base, regardless of the merits of the case. The truth of the matter is that, you know, as Senator Tillis said the other day, he said, "Look, Democrats voted for the $1.6 billion for the wall just weeks ago. The bill didn't pass the Senate. But we voted for it." And then the president came up with $5 billion and $5.7 billion and, apparently, didn't give them a reason why he upped the ante. But you know, you could settle for a $2.5 billion wall. As Peggy said, through in the DACA kids, which the president said before. And get government back together again. To me, this is putting politics over country, politics over 800,000 workers on both sides of the fence. I think, frankly, they're equally to blame. There's no reason why you can't. And look, the truth is that this wall is not the overall answer to anything. It's one of many potential ingredients. And it's just, in my opinion, a silly reason to keep government closed.

CAROL LEE:

Well, look. This is an existential political crisis for the president. Because there are two things that are just incredibly important to his brand tied up in this, one, that he's a big negotiator, and he can get deals done. And two is the wall. And I thought, Newt Gingrich, who's an ally to the president, had this incredible quote in the Washington Post, where he said that the president's entire reputation and relationship with the base is on the line. And the base is all he has, if you look at his polls. Now, at the same time, you have Nancy Pelosi. This is her first big mark. And she can't afford to screw that up. And so what you see is the White House kind of trying to do this reverse policymaking that we've seen them have to do before, because the president's announced his endgame without actually having a strategy. And you know, what they're going to try to do is pick off these Democrats that they think might come around and try -- want to compromise. Whether or not that's going to work, you know, who knows? But the longer this goes on, no one winds up looking good.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, before I go, Cornell, you're the pollster in the bunch. I want to put up a quick straw poll that we had from Daily Kos. This is our only 2020 comment. We're going to get in today. These are sort of activist Democrats. I put this up. Here are the top five. Bernie Sanders sits at 11. Four years ago, Bernie Sanders had nearly 70% of these folks. What's going on here?

CORNELL BELCHER:

Well, you also remember that Michele Bachmann won the straw polls -- a straw poll. A lot of what Bernie Sanders, I think, represented was the choice against Hillary Clinton in the primary. I think some of that was more a vehicle for anti-Hillary than a vehicle for pro-Bernie.

CHUCK TODD:

She'll say, "New is winning. That's for sure." All right, that's all I have for today, a jammed show, as you saw. Thank you for watching. I really appreciate that. We'll be back next week. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.