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Meet the Press - January 15, 2023

Rod Rosenstein, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Hallie Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and Marc Short

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday: classified controversy. Attorney General Merrick Garland appoints a special counsel to investigate President Biden’s handling of classified documents.

ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND:

The extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel for this matter.

CHUCK TODD:

Just months after a special counsel was appointed to investigate Donald Trump, the Biden White House revealed classified documents were discovered in the president’s private office and even in his private garage.

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

My corvette’s in a locked garage, okay, so it’s not like they’re sitting out in the street.

CHUCK TODD:

Now the two 2024 rivals, the current president and the former president, are both facing criminal investigations. I'll talk to Rod Rosenstein, the former Trump deputy Attorney General who appointed a special counsel to investigate Russian interference. Plus, House Republican reset.

SPEAKER KEVIN McCARTHY:

I think Congress has to investigate this.

CHUCK TODD:

After a rocky week, House Republicans unite around Biden's troubles and launch their very first investigation on the Biden documents, just as the White House struggles to answer new questions about the timeline of disclosure.

REP. JIM JORDAN:

They suppressed this information so that the American people don’t have access to it as we’re getting ready to decide who’s going to be in office in the midterm election.

CHUCK TODD:

I’ll speak with Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. And, capital attack. Protesters storm Congress outraged over the election results. The scenes in Brazil echoing the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

FORMER VICE PRES. MIKE PENCE:

It is evidence that what happens in the United States has repercussions around the world.

CHUCK TODD:

Was misinformation spread through social media by some of Trump's supporters to blame for creating this new threat to democracy in our western hemisphere? Joining me for insight and analysis are: NBC News senior Washington correspondent Hallie Jackson; the Reverend Al Sharpton, host of "Politics Nation" on MSNBC; and Marc Short, former chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence. 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 often joke that a week is a lifetime in politics. Well, we just lived one of those weeks where we just had a lifetime. We are just two weeks into 2023, but it's already clear this year is going to be defined by a brutal and confrontational political climate with probably a lot of gridlock. What we don't know is how President Biden and Washington Republicans will look at the end of this year. But Biden, who a week ago was looking the strongest politically that he's looked in years, now finds himself on the defense, and congressional Republicans, who seemed likely to try to overreach as Republicans did after the 1994 and 2010 elections, as well as their chaos in finding a speaker, have now been delivered a political gift. The classified documents discovered at Biden's private office in Washington on November 2, just six days before the midterm elections, only became public Monday because of mainstream news reports. And there's been a cascade of revelations ever since. Thursday the White House acknowledged that more classified documents had been found in a garage at Biden's home in Wilmington, as well as in an adjacent room. And the president's public comments produced more questions than answers.

[BEGIN TAPE]

REPORTER:

Classified materials next to your Corvette. What were you thinking?

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

Let me – I’m going to get a chance to speak on all this, god willing soon, but as I said earlier this week, people – and by the way, my Corvette’s in a locked garage, okay, so it's not like they’re just sitting out on the street.

REPORTER:

So the material was in a locked garage?

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

Yes, as well as my Corvette. But as I said earlier this week people know I take classified documents and classified materials seriously.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Then on Saturday, President Biden's personal attorney released a revised timeline of all the events involving these classified documents. So it begins on November 2, that's when the president's personal attorneys discovered some Obama Biden documents at a private office Biden used after his time as vice president. They informed the National Archives. November 4, the National Archives inspector general informs the Justice Department. December 20, the president's attorneys identified what they call a “small number” of documents with classified markings in Biden's Wilmington garage. Then this past Wednesday, Biden's attorneys located yet another classified document at the Wilmington residence inside a room adjacent to that garage. Then on Thursday, still more classified material was found in that same room and delivered to the Justice Department. Now the White House has reported that the five new classified pages were found on Saturday. It's worth noting that it was in the middle of all of this, on November 18, that Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed the special counsel to investigate Donald Trump. And that's 14 days after the Justice Department was notified by the Archives of the found Biden documents. The facts surrounding the Biden and Trump special counsels are significantly different legally. The special counsel investigating Trump is also looking into his role in the January 6 insurrection. But politically, just the presence of the files at Biden's private office and his Delaware home have delivered Donald Trump and Republicans both a political gift, and for Trump specifically, perhaps a legal gift as well by threatening to muddy the waters with voters and with folks at the Justice Department concerned about his mishandling of classified documents. And statements like this one from Biden that would criticize Trump back in September do not help Biden's cause.

[BEGIN TAPE]

PRES. JOE BIDEN:

How that could possibly happen, how anyone could be that irresponsible? And I thought, “What data was in there that may compromise sources and methods? By that I mean, names of people helped, et cetera. And it’s just totally irresponsible.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Now it's worth noting there is one giant difference between these two investigations. President Trump actively defied a subpoena, and his lawyer lied on a federal form regarding the return of those classified documents. There was no subpoena in Biden's case. But Biden campaigned and was elected asking to be held to a higher standard, to restore integrity back to the executive branch. These twin special counsel investigations also remind us of just how intertwined Biden and Trump are. Biden wouldn't be president today without Trump's 2016 victory. And Biden's viability as a candidate in 2024 may depend heavily on Trump. Biden's political flaws – his age, his verbal gaffes, his family baggage – all were minimized in 2020 because of the comparison to Donald Trump and his flaws. And it now means the single most powerful person in the 2024 campaign may be the current attorney general Merrick Garland. And for the record, here's the public rationale the Attorney General used in appointing each of those two special counsels.

[BEGIN TAPE]

ATTORNEY GENERAL MERRICK GARLAND:

Based on recent developments, including the former president's announcement that he is a candidate for president in the next election and the sitting president’s stated intention to be a candidate as well, I have concluded that it is in the public interest to appoint a special counsel. I strongly believe that the normal processes of this department can handle all investigations with integrity. But under the regulations, the extraordinary circumstances here require the appointment of a special counsel for this matter.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is the former Deputy Attorney General under President Trump, Rod Rosenstein. The newly-appointed special counsel looking into Biden, Robert Hur, served as Rosenstein's top aide in the Justice Department, overseeing the special counsel investigation into the Russian election interference. Mr. Rosenstein, welcome to Meet the Press.

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Thank you. Glad to be here, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

In December, after the appointment of the Trump special counsel, when asked whether you would've done it, you said you probably wouldn't have. How about this Biden special counsel?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Yeah, I think, Chuck, having made the appointment in the Trump case, Merrick Garland put himself in a position where he really had no choice when this matter came along, unless the preliminary inquiry were to establish that there was no chance that a crime had been committed. And according to what we've heard, John Lausch did not make that decision.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you believe that appointing a special counsel strengthens the Trump special counsel, and strengthens their ability to come to different conclusions? Or does it muddy the waters?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

I think, Chuck, you have to differentiate between the political consequences and the practical consequences for the special counsel. For Jack Smith and Rob Hur, they're conducting independent investigations. They're going to go evaluate the facts and the law, make their recommendation based upon what they find. So I don't anticipate that the existence of two special counsels is going to influence the way either one of them goes about their jobs.

CHUCK TODD:

To the public it appears - I had somebody use this metaphor with me, and I want to use it, there are two car wrecks: one clearly is an accident, one appears to be intentional. Is that a fair way to look at these two classified document situations?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

I think, Chuck, we should wait until we know the facts. You know, the key fact with regard to the Biden documents, of course, is what did the president know about those documents? Was he aware that they'd been moved? Did he, in any case, in the past five years, has he handled those documents? Was he aware of them? We just don't know that yet. So I think even that we really can't speculate, just based on what's been public record.

CHUCK TODD:

Tell me your confidence level in Jack Smith and in Robert Hur.

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Well, these are two professionals who spent extended amounts of time in the Department of Justice. They understand that their goal is to focus on the facts, and law, and apply department policy. And both of these men are not going to be influenced by political pressure.

CHUCK TODD:

You feel that they’re both - you said something intriguing to me. You said, "You know, every special counsel starts with sterling credentials, and then the public gets a hold of them." But would you say that's the case with both of these gentlemen?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

It's certainly true of these gentlemen, as it was with people like Ken Starr and and Bob Mueller, that you pick people with sterling reputations who are known for being nonpartisan. But you're in the political arena where it's inevitable you're going to be attacked.

CHUCK TODD:

There's two sort of unique defenses in each of these cases that I'm curious your take on. One is Donald Trump's claim that he could declassify anything he wanted. Now, he's not made a legal claim that he did that. And the second is, Joe Biden's currently president. So is it currently illegal for him to have classified documents in his possession, even if it's at his home, next to his Corvette?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Well, that's one of the questions the special counsel will have to look into. And in addition, you know, the legal status of the vice president, whether or not he has authority to make any declassification decisions. But the key question, the threshold question here is going to be: was President Biden aware of those classified documents?

CHUCK TODD:

And how does that get proven? Do you think he's going to have to sit for an interview?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Well, that would be a logical step if I were conducting this investigation. I want to go right to the source and ask the president directly whether or not he was aware of those documents.

CHUCK TODD:

A sitting president can't be indicted, according to the Justice Department. So let's say something is found, what would happen?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

You know, Chuck, I think what should happen in a special counsel investigation is that the special counsel should evaluate the facts and the law, look at Department of Justice policies, and make a recommendation to the attorney general about whether or not prosecution is warranted. Then it's up to the attorney general to make the decision whether to apply that DOJ policy.

CHUCK TODD:

Alright. If you were – you had been in this similar situation. It's November 4th, it's four days before the elections. The National Archives informs you that, "Hey, you know, President Biden has just turned over some classified documents that he had in his possession." Is it too close to the election to tell people? Is that why the Justice Department didn't inform folks publicly? Is it too soon? Are there questions that should be raised about this or not?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Chuck, it's not the Justice Department's job to make public announcements like that. The decision about whether or not to go public would be left to the president and the White House. So I would not anticipate the Justice Department under any circumstances to make a public announcement about something like that.

CHUCK TODD:

You wouldn't have done that in that similar situation?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

In the Justice Department I would not have publicized it, no.

CHUCK TODD:

I am curious. There's a lot of new committees on the Hill that want to investigate some Justice Department practices. And some of these are for current investigations. You essentially said, you know, no, when you were there and others, you didn't turn stuff over to Congress in active investigations. Do you expect Merrick Garland to do the same?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

I think the bright line, Chuck, is not to turn over anything that's going to in any way interfere with the investigation. And so that's a decision the department needs to make in addressing each request as it comes along. There are legitimate congressional oversight requirements that the department can accommodate. But there really is a bright line when it comes to anything that might interfere with the investigation.

CHUCK TODD:

So the fact that they have already sent letters demanding certain things now, in your mind there's nothing Justice can do until they're done with this investigation, correct?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

I wouldn't say that. I mean, there are, as I said, legitimate oversight issues that can be resolved without interfering with the investigation. So for example, one bright line would be investigating the prosecutor while the case is ongoing. I think that's a place where the department would need to draw a line.

CHUCK TODD:

Let's go back in time. In hindsight, doing special counsels, is this the slippery slope that many previous attorneys generals have always feared, that once you appoint one you essentially can't stop appointing them? Once you claim there's a rationale of a perception of unfairness, aren't you stuck, basically, appointing them throughout the rest of the term?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Yeah, that was true, Chuck, under the independent counsel statute, where there was actually a statutory obligation to appoint an independent counsel. It's not true under the special counsel guidelines. It's always left to the discretion of the Attorney General to decide whether the public interest warrants it in that particular case. So I do think when you have a similar case, as you do with the Trump and Biden documents, that you have established a precedent. But I don't know that you need to apply that universally.

CHUCK TODD:

I ask that because a decision was made last year not to appoint a special counsel on the Hunter Biden investigation. But now he has appointed a special counsel to look into Joe Biden and these classified documents. Merrick Garland made the decision to put both January 6 and the classified documents under the umbrella of one special counsel. Is he going to be forced to do the same thing with Hunter Biden?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Well, I think you need to distinguish Hunter Biden from President Biden. We don't know whether that Hunter Biden implicates the president in any wrongdoing. If it did, I think Merrick Garland would need to make that decision. But as long as it's just about Hunter Biden, I don't think that decision point will be reached.

CHUCK TODD:

There's a lot of criticism on Capitol Hill of the FBI. You worked pretty closely with Christopher Wray. What say you about Christopher Wray?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

I think Christopher Wray is doing a superb job under very challenging circumstances. You know, this criticism of the FBI has been ongoing for some time. But if you look at the work the Bureau is doing on a day-to-day basis, I think the American people should have confidence in what they're doing. And I think Chris Wray is the right person to be in that job now.

CHUCK TODD:

Judging by our political climate of the last decade, do we have to figure out another way to politically appoint members of the Justice Department? Or do you think we can get through this moment?

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

I don't think there's any reason to mess with the appointment process, Chuck. You know, the majority of employees of the department are career employees. The leadership is subject to political appointment, and I think that that's an appropriate way to manage the department.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Rod Rosenstein, former Deputy Attorney General who's seen his share of special counsels, and has been through this. Appreciate you coming on--

ROD ROSENSTEIN:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

--and lending your perspective to this. And joining me now is Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. He's the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Investigations. Senator Johnson, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Well, Chuck, it's been a while.

CHUCK TODD:

It has. Let me start with -- do you approve of Merrick Garland's decision to appoint a special counsel to look into the Joe Biden classified documents?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Well, I guess because he assigned one to President Trump, it was pretty inevitable. I'm not a real fan of special counsels. I did join 32 of my colleagues in calling for one for Hunter Biden because we had a whistleblower that said that Attorney Weiss doesn't have the resources to do the type of investigation required. So, but in general, I'm not a fan of special counsels. I think the way we handle these investigations of wrongdoing -- I'll call it that -- in the political realm is we just do it completely backwards. I think Congress ought to be able to have access to all the information, do their oversight. You know, I never held public hearings. We just, you know, did our investigation and then issued a report. If there is evidence of wrongdoing, then we should refer that to the Justice Department. Then the investigation should take place. What happens nowadays is the investigation begins, Congress never gets access to the information, and as a result, the American public never understands the truth of these situations. And so, again, we just do these investigations in the political realm with wrongdoing completely backwards.

CHUCK TODD:

So, do you think though that -- I mean, Congress has an oversight role. So shouldn't Congress do their oversight role after an investigation is over? If doing it during the investigation, doesn't that end up, either on purpose or inadvertently, interfere in the investigation?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

The problem is is Congress never gets access to the information. And by the time we do get access to the information, if we do, it's all old news and the political figures aren't held accountable. And from my standpoint, you know, I'd much rather have political figures held accountable with the truth being exposed of what they did, what their wrongdoing, as opposed to the criminal penalties. Oftentimes it's very difficult to get any kind of criminal charges or convictions, particularly if you're a Democrat in Washington D.C. So, from my standpoint, the more important imperative here is for the public to understand exactly what is happening inside government, inside of the administration. And we never find that out. And so, that is part of the problem we have in terms of our politics today is the American public remains in the dark. Misinformation is spread on all sides. And certainly from a conservative viewpoint, one of our frustrations is the censorship, the suppression of information primarily is coming from the left against the conservative viewpoint.

CHUCK TODD:

So, I guess the problem that I feel like you run into with that decision is what you're saying is if the Justice Department decides a crime wasn't committed, they're not going to prosecute a crime, it sounds like you still want the information out there because you want to politically damage the person that was investigated?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

No, Chuck, because a lot of political wrongdoing does not necessarily result in a crime, but it's still wrong and the public needs to understand exactly what happened. So, you know, take a look at the political wrongdoing on the part of the FBI. They went to Twitter and they were censoring information. Take a look at the 51 intelligence operatives that issued a letter saying that the Hunter Biden computer was -- had all the earmarks of a Russian information operation. That letter was an information operation. What happened? The FBI had access to Hunter Biden's computer in December 2019. Senator Grassley and I were conducting an investigation during Covid -- not the easiest thing to do. We were smeared. There were false intelligence products leaked to the media. We got unsolicited briefings from the FBI designed to smear me because they leaked it later. The FBI spent almost nine months setting up the ability to sabotage the Hunter Biden computer, should it ever surface, which it did the day after. We were offered Hunter Biden's computer the day after Chuck Grassley and I issued our report. But we did our due diligence. We went to the FBI. "What do you know about this?" They never came clean with us. Mr. Mac Isaac ended up getting frustrated and offered that to Rudy Giuliani's computer,and then -- or to his attorney, and then to the New York Post. But again, nine months of the FBI setting up the process of sabotaging Hunter Biden's computer, which we now know is authentic. Our investigation was accurate, but we were smeared. All that information was censored and suppressed. And the FBI, in their actions, impacted the election to a far greater extent than anything that Russia or China ever could have hoped to have accomplished. These are facts, and that's all I'm interested in, is I'm interested in the truth. And I think the American public deserves the truth. And again, these investigations, they cover up the truth.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator, senator, do you have a crime that you think Hunter Biden committed because I've yet to see anybody explain. It is not a crime to make money off of your last name.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

So, Chuck, you ought to read the Marco Polo report, where they detail all kinds of potential crimes. You know, Senator Grassley has certainly uncovered the --

CHUCK TODD:

Oh, hold on, let me stop you there. Potential. This is -- senator, potential is innuendo.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

About, about, about, about, $30,000 --

CHUCK TODD:

This is why you do investigations.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I mean, Chuck, is it a crime to be soliciting and purchasing prostitution in potentially European sex trafficking operations? Is that a crime? Because Chuck Grassley and I laid out about $30,000 paid by Hunter Biden to those types of individuals over December of 2018, 2019, about $30,000. That's about the same time that President Biden offered to pay about $100,000 of Hunter Biden's bills. I mean, again, that's just some information. I don't know exactly if it's a crime.

CHUCK TODD:

Here's what I don't get. All right, Senator --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

It doesn't really look -- it sounds sleazy as you know what.

CHUCK TODD:

I’ll -- I'll take you, I’ll take you at your word that you're ethically bothered by Hunter Biden. I'm curious, though, you seem to have a pattern --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Are you not? Are you not?

CHUCK TODD:

You seem to have a pattern. I'm a journalist. I have to deal in facts.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Are you not?

CHUCK TODD:

I deal in facts. Senator, my question to you is, I'm always worried, I have skepticism of both parties. I sit here with skepticism of a lot of people's work --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

So do I.

CHUCK TODD:

-- and I'm curious, are you, were you at all concerned? This -- Senate Democrats want to investigate Jared Kushner's loan from the Qatari government when he was working in the government negotiating many things in the Middle East. Are you not as concerned about -- are you not concerned about that? And I say that because it seems to me if you're concerned about what Hunter Biden did, you should be equally outraged about what Jared Kushner did.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I'm, I’m concerned about getting the truth. I don't target individuals, target individuals. I target the truth.

CHUCK TODD:

You don't? You’re targeting Hunter Biden multiple times on this show, Senator.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

My concern -- my -- my --

CHUCK TODD:

You're targeting an individual.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Chuck, Chuck. My concern -- you know, Chuck. You know, part of the problem, and this is pretty obvious to anybody watching this, is you don't invite me on to interview me, you invite me on to argue with me. You know, I'm just trying to lay out the facts that certainly Senator Grassley and I uncovered. They were suppressed. They were censored. They interfered in the 2020 election. Conservatives understand that. Unfortunately, liberals in the media don't. And that's part of the things that -- part of the reasons our politics are inflamed is we do not have an unbiased media. We don't. It's unfortunate. I'm all for free press.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, Senator --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

It needs to be more unbiased.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator, look, this is --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

There's misinformation on both sides --

CHUCK TODD:

Look, go to partisan --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

-- but the censorship and suppression --

CHUCK TODD:

Senator -- Senator -- look, we’re trying to do issues here and facts.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

-- primarily occurs on the left.

CHUCK TODD:

Partisan cable --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

It's frustrating.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, you can go back on your partisan cable cocoon and talk about media bias all you want. I understand it's part of your identity. Let me move to what happened in Brazil. And I want to play something that Former Vice President Mike Pence said about what happened in Brazil. "It is evident that what happens in the United States has repercussions around the world. I have no doubt that that tragic day in January of 2021 in this country played some role in sowing the seeds of what's taking place in Brazil." Do you agree with Mike Pence?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I don't know, did the 570 riots during the summer of 2020 play some part? I have no idea what the connection is. But again, Chuck, this interview is just --

CHUCK TODD:

Armed insurrectionists attacking Congress, Steve Bannon, the Trumps.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

-- you know, example A of what frustrates conservatives about --

CHUCK TODD:

You don't see any connection here at all?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

-- the media.

CHUCK TODD:

You don't see any connection here at all?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

You know, Chuck, you know, Brazil is -- Brazil is Brazil. There are issues in terms of election fairness in every election, so I can't really comment on Brazil. And this is just a -- again, I'm not making any connection.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm curious -- when it comes to that brief moment where you were handed the potential of alternative electors, and you say it was a brief moment --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I wasn't.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you being -- have you --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I wasn't, I wasn't, I wasn't. That's, that’s false. I was, I was never handed -- I -- that's not -- you are incorrect.

CHUCK TODD:

I know you weren't handed it. They were asking to hand it -- handed it -- hand it to you and you were --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

No. So Chuck let me --

CHUCK TODD:

-- obviously contemplating it, and obviously your staffer was dealing with it.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

No. No. No. Chuck, Chuck I never was. I was contacted by the attorney of the president of the United States. He had something he wanted to deliver to the vice president, could I arrange it? So, I contacted my chief of staff who worked in the White House, see if he could do it. I had no idea what they wanted to contact -- what they wanted to hand the president or the vice president. Within an hour, we found out the vice president wasn't accepting anything, end of story. Nothing was delivered. I had no idea what I was being contacted to deliver, and we never delivered it.

CHUCK TODD:

Have you ever been interviewed --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

There's no story there. There never was a story there. And everything I've always said about that has proven to be true, even though the media lied about it.

CHUCK TODD:

Have you been interviewed by the FBI or, or, or the special counsel's office --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

-- investigating the alternative electors?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

No, there's, there -- there's -- no, there is nothing to interview me about. I played no role in it whatsoever.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you know why Congressman Kelly thought you were going to be the best person to hand the slate of electors to?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I have no idea. But remember, Congressman Kelly denied initially that his office was involved in trying to get those -- that information to the vice president. I told the truth about that. He lied about it, and I was smeared for about a week and a half and by the way, it’s never been corrected.

CHUCK TODD:

Meaning the Congressman? You believe the Congressman lied. To you? Or lied about your role?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

You, you, you, you -- he, he lied about his, his non-role. His office did play a role in this. That's what I suspected. Again, this was such a non-event for me. I had a hard time -- we had to go back and really scour our records to find out what happened. And Chuck, you started this questioning falsely. You falsely accused me of getting those and I never, I never took possession. I never had them. Okay? So again, this is, this has been a complete smear job against me. So, again, this has been a complete smear job against me. The January 6th Committee --

CHUCK TODD:

You say this. You dabbled in so much of this --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

-- did not do their due diligence like Chuck Grassley and I did during our --

CHUCK TODD:

You dabbled in so much of this --

SEN. RON. JOHNSON:

Go ahead.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you understand why somebody might have thought you were willing to go along with the scheme?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

Well, I had -- I did not dabble in very much of this. It's just false.

CHUCK TODD:

“Very much” is doing a lot of work there.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I held a hearing in December 2020 examining the irregularities of the 2020 election. What you ought to do is go back and read my opening statement. And that pretty well lays out exactly what I thought about the 2020 election. But the news media never does that. They smear me. They lie about me. They make these things up. And then that becomes, that becomes the narrative. It's a false narrative. Most of the things I -- everything I've said that I'm aware of has panned out to be true. The things I am accused of, providing misinformation, have been true, time and time again. I'm happy to come on in a longer format and we can go over this point by point if you’d like to do it –

CHUCK TODD:

Well, as I've always said, look, remote interviews --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

-- where I can refute every lie told about me.

CHUCK TODD:

-- remote interviews are never easy when there's a back and forth. And that, I think, that is a fact --

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

So have me in studio. Happy to do it.

CHUCK TODD:

-- for a lot of folks. We would love to have you in studio. Always want you here. Last question. Donald Trump's been a candidate for office for a couple of months. You have not endorsed him. Do you plan on it?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I don't endorse candidates. I let the voters decide that. I don't make endorsements.

CHUCK TODD:

You're not going to endorse anybody in the presidential race?

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

I don't make endorsements.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Senator Ron Johnson, I look forward to our face-to-face at some point. Thanks for coming on and sharing your perspective with us.

SEN. RON JOHNSON:

So do I.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, I'm going to talk with retiring Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan as Democrats struggle to defend the leader of their party.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Democrats are facing a daunting Senate map in 2024, having to defend 23 seats. That's nearly half of the entire conference. Remember, they only have 51 seats. Compare that to just 11 for Senate Republicans, Democrats are already bracing for challenges to incumbents in some Republican-leaning states like West Virginia, Montana and Ohio. And now Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow has become the first Democrat on that side of the aisle announcing she will not seek reelection. It sets the stage for another very competitive race. And perhaps one of the most important battleground states in not just the presidential race, but in every race that we deal with. Well, Senator Stabenow is also number three in Democratic Senate leadership. Senator Stabenow, welcome back to Meet the Press. Or welcome to Meet the Press.

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

Well, Chuck, it's great to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with what we've been dealing with with President Biden and these classified documents. When you look at the timeline and it feels like a drip, drip, drip, how concerned are you that perhaps the White House is holding back information a bit too much, leaving other Democrats out there like yourself, not knowing what to defend and what not to defend?

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

Well, Chuck, a little while ago I heard you say that someone described it as two car accidents, one that was an accident and the other on purpose. This is very much about how it's being handled. And so President Biden bringing things forward, they found a small number of documents. They want to make sure there aren't more. They take it very, very seriously. And they're talking to all of the right people. They're not going to defy subpoenas or require FBI raids to be able to get the documents. The president isn't saying that somehow magically when he thinks about classified documents that he can declassify them. I mean, it's totally different right now. Both serious in terms of having classified documents. But the president is doing the right thing.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, the president said what Donald Trump did was careless. Are those words he has to eat? Are those words he has to eat, basically does he have to admit he was wrong?

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

I'm sorry? I lost you there for a second.

CHUCK TODD:

That's okay. He said what Donald Trump did was careless. He said what Donald Trump did was careless. Does he have to eat those words considering what happened with him?

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

Well, it's certainly embarrassing. Right? I mean, it's embarrassing that you would find a small number of documents, certainly not on purpose. They don't think it's the right thing and they have been moving to correct it, working with the Department of Justice, working with everyone involved with the archives. And so from my perspective, you know, it's one of those moments that obviously they wish hadn't happened. But what I'm most concerned about, and this is the kind of thing that the Republicans love, we just heard it from my colleagues, Senator Johnson, let's talk about investigations, let's create chaos. Let's not talk about the fact that we have a manufacturing renaissance going on in this country. More jobs created, lower unemployment rate, higher wages. And what they're proposing to do that would interfere with that would really put us on the edge economically. They don't want to talk with us about how to move the country forward. And I can tell you people in Michigan, they want folks that are going together, get things done, that care about their families and aren't interested in all of this just chaos and investigations. Which is where the Republicans feel comfortable, unfortunately.

CHUCK TODD:

Listen, you announced your retirement early which means, in theory, this means you're free from politics. So what freedom, now that you don't have to worry about reelection, is there a specific issue you think you can throw yourself into now that might have been more politically-difficult if you were seeking reelection?

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

Well, Chuck, good question. You know, first of all, I have to say we have a wonderful Democratic bunch of new leaders in Michigan. This is the moment for me to really pass the torch and have great confidence in them. And comes at a personal time for me with my 96-year-old mom that's important for me to make a transition. When we look at the issues, I have been able to work across the aisle on issue after issue after issue to get things done which I'm going to continue to do. The big issue that has bipartisan support to actually get done this next year is what we call the Farm Bill. I chair the Agricultural Committee. This is the five-year Farm Bill. It's about a safety net for farmers and families. It's the largest investment we make in land and water conservation for the country. And so that's incredibly important. And frankly, we need workers. And one of the things we need to do is comprehensive immigration reform so that our farmers have access to a legal system for their workers.

CHUCK TODD:

You have had the luxury of working in the one area where everybody actually wants to see a bill passed. And that is that farm bill. That is the one area there's usually bipartisan support. Let me ask you a few political questions here. Should Democrats support Kyrsten Sinema's reelection bid?

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

Well, from my perspective, we let it play out on what's going to happen in Arizona. Kyrsten and I work together on many issues -- when we look at the gun safety bill, when we look at the comprehensive transformational changes in mental health in that bill, she was key to that. And so we'll let that play out a bit. But I'm glad that she's working with us and caucusing with us.

CHUCK TODD:

So there is a scenario where you think Democrats should support her re-election?

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

We'll see going down the road how all of this plays out. I think it's very, very early.

CHUCK TODD:

A lot of people think Washington and Congress specifically is broken, that the Senate is broken. Do you share that or do you think this is just a temporary problem?

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

I think it's a very interesting situation, Chuck, because on the one hand, we see all the division and chaos and everything that's happening and trying to pull the country apart, stop us from governing. When we see the attack on January 6th and so on. But with all of that, we actually, in the last two years with a 50/50 Senate, you don't get closer than 50/50 in the United States Senate, Democratic House and President Biden got more done than at any time, literally in our lifetimes. And that's not an exaggeration. And so from my perspective, and the reason we won last time when everybody said we would lose the majority and we actually picked up a seat, the reason we will have the majority next time is because we are actually focusing on the things that people care about. Putting them first, working across the aisle when you can't, we stand up to big pharma and big oil. That's why we have a $35 cap on insulin for seniors starting this month. We would have had it for kids and everybody if the Republicans hadn't blocked it because they're so close to big pharma. So that's what we're focused on. And every single one of my colleagues up for reelection has strongly represented their state, stood up for people. And I'm confident that we're going to have the majority--

CHUCK TODD:

All right, well--

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

--in 2024.

CHUCK TODD:

--I imagine we'll be talking over the next two years and we'll see if your optimism holds. Senator Debbie Stabenow, thanks for coming on and sharing your perspective. Up next--

SEN. DEBBIE STABENOW:

Absolutely.

CHUCK TODD:

--Washington, how paralyzed by scandal will it become? With dueling special counsel investigations, a divided government, that debt ceiling showdown. Can anything get done this year? Panel is next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here: NBC News senior Washington correspondent Hallie Jackson, anchor of “Hallie Jackson NOW” on NBC News NOW; Marc Short, former chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence; and the Reverend Al Sharpton, host of “Political Nation” on MSNBC and the president of the National Action Network. Hallie, I used the cliché at the beginning. We also say a week is a lifetime in politics. Holy cow.

HALLIE JACKSON:

We've all aged a decade. Yes. Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

Everything we thought we knew literally a week ago at this time about the craziness in the House Republican side, Biden looking like he was above the fray, it's all done. It's all changed.

HALLIE JACKSON:

So – and it was interesting to me to hear your conversation with Senator Stabenow. You asked her about some Democratic frustration with the way that this has gone, with the president, with the way that the White House has handled the transparency issue on these documents, that she pivoted right away to say, well, the line that we keep hearing from the White House, "inadvertent and we told them right away," right, because that speaks to the intent issue. Let me tell you what I'm hearing just last night in having some conversations with allies of President Biden. Heard an F-bomb. Heard somebody describing themselves as pretty pissed. “Drip, drip, drip.” “Amateur hour at the White House,” from one member who is extremely frustrated with the way, not the issue itself, right, not the underlying issue, but with the way that this has been handled, pointing to the fact that, listen, Republicans just spent the last week right, a week ago, which also felt like an eternity the week before, struggling to simply elect a speaker of the House. This should have been a week where Democrats were on offense, and instead they are way on defense.

CHUCK TODD:

You're going to be with the president tomorrow. Are you going to say anything to him?

REV. AL SHARPTON:

I'm going to say Happy King Day, but aside from that, no. I think that this has been handled in a way that's embarrassing, I think Senator Stabenow said. But I think that the Republicans ought to be careful that this does not politically start turning against them, in the sense that as you continue to compare what Trump did and what Biden did around classified documents it could really end up being something that Biden's base can become energized by because a lot of people are going to say, "Wait a minute. This only spells out more clearly how egregious what Trump did was."

CHUCK TODD:

Marc, what do you think this means for Trump?

MARC SHORT:

I think that it's impossible for the Biden administration to prosecute Trump at this point. I think it’s – I think what Americans are frustrated about is the continued double standard that they see at Department of Justice, and I don't see how they would continue forward with this --

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think Garland at least attempted to -- I mean, do you think he's doing his best to try to essentially push back at that narrative?

MARC SHORT:

Oh, I don't know. I mean, I think the reality is that the fact here is that they discovered this in November. Why did they hold it? Why didn't anybody talk about it? Is it because of the midterm elections they didn't want to interfere with? And this was six years ago. This wasn't from the time he was president. It's from the time he was vice president of the United States. I mean, it's like the Biden administration decided that the 12 Days of Christmas weren't enough for Republicans. They want to keep it going as long as they can.

CHUCK TODD:

Hallie, it does seem as if it matters what these documents are, doesn't it? That might matter.

HALLIE JACKSON:

Oh, for sure. And I think that matters on both sides of the aisle. The key thing that I keep hearing in conversations over the last even 24 hours is, "What matters is national security," right? And I think there is an acknowledgment, and frankly I don't know that there is unanimity in the Republican Party. I've had conversations with at least one Republican member who said, "Hey, like, I'm not going to get on Joe Biden for self-reporting here." Like, we should be encouraging that, right, people to come forward if they do, setting aside the issue of the transparency thing and how they responded, et cetera. But you are going to continue to see more investigations. I think you will try to see Republicans seek to link these investigations to other investigations. Like, for example, is there some Hunter Biden connection, et cetera. That's something that is --

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I would think the fear is, Reverend Sharpton, is that somehow Garland decides, "I better move Hunter Biden into a special counsel at this point."

REV. AL SHARPTON:

I think that becomes the fear, but I think, again, you'd have to deal with whether Hunter Biden in any of these allegations even involves the president and how that plays out. If it does not involve the president I think it becomes a different ball game as to why he would even entertain that. But I think the real problem here goes to intent. And I think that is where the Republicans are going to have a problem.

CHUCK TODD:

Marc, you have a vested interest in how this sort of impacts the 2023 version of the presidential race, right, the sort of the invisible primary part. How do you think – both of these investigations, does it paralyze things? Does it slow announcements down? What's your sense?

MARC SHORT:

I honestly don't think it does impact much of the ‘23/’24 cycle. I do think there's a lot of other reasons that that is probably frozen where it is right now. But I do think that this is an indication of how seriously the Biden administration takes it. I don't know if having your classified documents next to your Corvette somehow makes it safer, but the fact that the very next day Janet Yellen is putting out warning signs about the debt ceiling when most of us anticipated that was going to happen much later, months from now, I think there's a clear indication they're definitely trying to change the topic.

CHUCK TODD:

Hallie, that felt a bit clumsy. So, I mean, it felt pretty obvious to me what they were trying to do. "Oh, quickly, let's do a narrative that they don't like."

HALLIE JACKSON:

At the same time there's a real concern about that, right?

CHUCK TODD:

In June.

HALLIE JACKSON:

Yeah, right. But, like, also, you’ve got to start – what I've heard is you've got to start thinking about and working on that now so that when it comes to June it's not a complete, you know, hot mess, if you will.

CHUCK TODD:

Very quickly, Mike Pence, pretty definitive on calling what Brazil did basically an homage to January 6th. Pretty concerning to him?

MARC SHORT:

Well, Chuck, I think if you recall on that day when the Secret Service tried to evacuate him, "The reason," he said, "I'm not going to evacuate is because I don't want the world to see this is what happens to the hallmark of democracy." It's why he stayed in the Capitol that day. And it's why if you continue that interview he also said what he was pleased about is the world saw America complete its business that night and make sure we protected democracy that day too.

CHUCK TODD:

Speaking of protecting democracy, it's King Day tomorrow. And this year is the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. You've got something you're up to.

REV. AL SHARPTON:

Tomorrow we'll be announcing at our annual National Action Network King Day Breakfast here in Washington, and President Biden is the keynote speaker, and we're going to call for a March on Washington since it's the 60th anniversary. Martin Luther King III, Andrea King, and our National Action Network and Drum Major Institute, we've seen a spike in hate crimes against Blacks, against Jews, against Latinos, Asians, Native Americans unlike we've seen in the last couple of decades. And we want to have a unified march against hate crimes, against those that should enforce the criminality of it and show a real unison among different groups that have become the victims.

CHUCK TODD:

So you're hoping to make this multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious --

REV. AL SHARPTON:

Absolutely --

CHUCK TODD:

– you name it, right?

REVEREND AL SHARPTON:

Across the board, which was Dr. King's dream. We really need to deal with hate crime, and we need to really deal with the lack of equality on how we prosecute them.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm going to pause it there. Reverend Sharpton, thank you for that. When we come back, Covid cases are rising right now across the U.S. We're going to look inside the latest numbers, what the nation's political divide reveals about who is not getting the new updated vaccine.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Data Download time. The calendar's flipped to January, and the weather has turned cold in most of the country. For the past two years that's meant a Covid spike was imminent. Why? Because people go inside. So is the same true for 2023. Let me show you. We do have an uptick. Over the last 90 days it's pretty clear we've seen an uptick in cases, about 30% as you can see. And for what it's worth when you're looking at the raw numbers you know most people aren't testing as much as they used to. Mandatory testing is down. So this is all a floor, but there is some apples-to- apples here since testing had started to lighten up last summer. If you compare now though to a year ago we're actually in terrific shape because this is where we were in January 2022 when it came to Coronavirus cases. Here we are a year later. Yes, it's up right now, but overall from year-to-year it is down. Even weekly Coronavirus deaths, again, we saw the big spikes that we had at the start of 2022, we're seeing a spike here but far below where we were. Another interesting point we want to point out has to do with vaccine and the booster. The updated booster among those over the age of 65 does not have a lot of traction. Less than 40% of those over 65 have done the updated booster. Compare that to the initial vaccine series. 94% of those over 65 took it. Look at where we are today. That's not good when it comes to seeing where this virus is going to go. And if you want to look at it, here's our old political map. These are the states where those over 65 are above the national average. Look at how blue those states are. Joe Biden carried more than half of them. Now, if you look at the states that are below the national average of taking that updated booster shot among those over 65, yes, it won't surprise you they're mostly Trump states, mostly red. So we still have that awful political divide among folks over 65 when it comes to vaccines. Up next: In our Meet The Press Minute we're going to hear from the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. when he was on this program in 1966 and what he had to say about the value of nonviolent protests.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. This weekend we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who appeared on this program five times during the height of the civil rights movement. In 1966, on this program he responded to criticism that protests were becoming violent and counterproductive in the fight for racial justice.

[BEGIN TAPE]

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.:

It is very important to see the difference between nonviolent demonstrations and riots. It may be true that in a demonstration people react with violence toward nonviolent demonstrators. But you don't blame the demonstrators. This would be like blaming the robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery. Ultimately, society must condemn the robber and not the robbed. It must protect the robbed. And this is where we are in these demonstrations. And I'm still convinced that there is nothing more powerful to dramatize a social evil than the tramp, tramp of marching feet.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

And before we go, please sign up for our free daily newsletter, First Read. You'll get the best analysis, polling, and political news every morning, wisdom before it's conventional. Scan the QR code on screen right now or just go to nbcnews.com/firstread. That's all we've got for today. Thanks for watching. We'll be back next week because if it's Sunday, it's Meet The Press.