Meet the Press July 29, 2018

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, turning against Trump. The president's longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen is apparently prepared to say the president knew in advance about the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

It appears the president's former attorney and confidante is ready to talk.

CHUCK TODD:

And Cohen releases a tape discussing buying the story of a former Playmate who says she had an affair with Mr. Trump.

DONALD TRUMP:

What financing?

MICHAEL COHEN:

Well, I'll have to pay him something.

(OVERTALK)

MICHAEL COHEN:

No, no, no, no, no. I got it. No, no, no.

DONALD TRUMP:

Check--

CHUCK TODD:

Rudy Giuliani attacks Cohen.

RUDY GIULIANI:

The man is a liar. A proven liar.

CHUCK TODD:

Not long after praising him.

RUDY GIULIANI:

The man is an honest, honorable lawyer.

CHUCK TODD:

Just how big a threat does Cohen pose to President Trump? My guests this morning, former Trump political advisor Sam Nunberg and Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. Plus, guns and poses. Maria Butina loves guns, cultivated conservatives, and is now in jail, arrested as a Russian agent. Does she hold the key to an NRA-Russia connection? And base politics. Today marks 100 days till election day. It's Democratic enthusiasm versus Trump loyalty. Joining me for insight and analysis are NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Eddie Glaude, Jr. of Princeton university, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, and Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. Welcome to Sunday. It's Meet the Press.

MALE VOICE:

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

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. Perhaps nothing better illustrates how President Trump wants his supporters to see the world than this moment from his speech to the VFW on Wednesday.

DONALD TRUMP:

What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening.

CHUCK TODD:

That's right. "What you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening." Okay. Despite his Orwellian phrasing, one bit of news President Trump does want people to know is happening is that the economy grew at a rate of 4.1% in the second quarter. It's the highest since 2014 under President Obama. But beyond that, the news was not good for the president this week. There were increasing signs of a Democratic blue wave in the midterm elections, now exactly 100 days away.

We learned federal prosecutors are seeking to interview Allen Weisselberg, Mr. Trump's chief financial officer and someone who knows as much as anyone about how the Trump Organization and Mr. Trump personally has done business and with whom. But there were two other stories that got the most attention this week. And they both involve the president's now former longtime attorney, friend, and fixer Michael Cohen.

Not only did Cohen release a tape of him discussing the -- with Candidate Trump hush money payments to a Playboy model Mr. Trump has been linked to. He appears prepared to tell the special counsel Robert Mueller that Mr. Trump knew about the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians in advance. If Michael Cohen tells that version of events and if he can prove it, it could turn out to be the game changer even for members of Mr. Trump's own party.

FEMALE VOICE:

Is Michael Cohen lying?

CHUCK TODD:

For more than a year, President Trump and his surrogates have denied that he knew of the June 2016 meeting with Kremlin-connected agents at Trump Tower that included his son, his son-in-law, and his then-campaign chairman, who is now behind bars.

DONALD TRUMP:

No, I didn't know anything about the meeting.

SEAN HANNITY:

Did you tell your father anything about this?

DONALD TRUMP JR.:

No. It was such a nothing. There was nothing to tell.

JAY SEKULOW:

Well, the president said he became aware of it very recently, right before this came out. And that's when he was notified.

CHUCK TODD:

And just this week, the president repeated, "I did not know of the meeting with my son. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam." That someone? The president's former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, who is floating himself as a possible witness, making it clear he is willing to tell Special Counsel Robert Mueller that Mr. Trump knew about and approved of the meeting beforehand.

LANNY DAVIS:

This is about truth versus lying. And ultimately Donald Trump is going to be done in by the truth.

CHUCK TODD:

Cohen is under investigation for bank fraud and possible campaign finance violations by federal prosecutors in New York City, who are examining his role in Mr. Trump's campaign as well. On Tuesday he released this tape through his lawyer which appears to reference a hush money payment two months before the election to keep a former Playboy model quiet about an alleged affair with Mr. Trump.

MICHAEL COHEN:

We'll have to pay him something.

(OVERTALK)

DONALD TRUMP:

--pay with cash.

MICHAEL COHEN:

No, no, no, no, no. I got it. No, no, no.

DONALD TRUMP:

--check.

CHUCK TODD:

Just months ago Mr. Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani praised Cohen.

RUDY GIULIANI:

The man is an honest, honorable lawyer.

CHUCK TODD:

But now.

RUDY GIULIANI:

He's been lying all week. He's been lying for years. He's lied all his life.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Trump is now desperately trying to keep the Russia issue from consuming his presidency. Just 26% of voters approve of his handling of the relationship between the United States and Russia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was grilled this week even by skeptical Republicans after Mr. Trump's two-hour private meeting and press conference with Russian President Putin.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

It's the president's public statements that create concern amongst Senators on both sides of the aisle.

MIKE POMPEO:

Some of these statements actually achieve important policy outcomes for the United States of America.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

Some of them do.

MIKE POMPEO:

Yeah.

SEN. BOB CORKER:

And some of them very damaging.

CHUCK TODD:

And now, Mr. Trump is ducking questions from the press more frequently, refusing to answer questions 10 times since the release of the Michael Cohen recording on Tuesday night.

FEMALE REPORTER:

Mr. President, will you go to Moscow? Will you go to Moscow?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, let's get some more insight into this relationship between the president and Michael Cohen. I'm joined now by Sam Nunberg. He was a political advisor to President Trump before and then again during the 2016 campaign. Mr. Nunberg, welcome to Meet the Press.

SAM NUNBERG:

It's an honor.

CHUCK TODD:

So let's start with this. Just a simple question, right, which is, you've seen these two interact quite a bit, President Trump. Help us understand the relationship between President Trump and Michael Cohen.

SAM NUNBERG:

Michael was one of the closest people I've seen with the president. Highly devoted to him. A sense of loyalty, that I thought at least, until this week when I learned that he was taping him in person. A sense of loyalty that was yes, he would take a bullet for him. He would do anything for him.

CHUCK TODD:

And, is it this - your sense that Michael Cohen basically just handles things. Is that - when you hear the term fixer, that's what -- the president's got a problem he handles them. Is that how he was known around Trump Tower?

SAM NUNBERG:

Yes. Look, this was in Michael's purview. Issues like this were. These are Michael's responsibilities.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to play an excerpt of the tape that Michael Cohen's legal team released. Here it is.

[BEGIN TAPE]

MICHAEL COHEN:

I need to open up a company for the transfer of all of that info regarding our friend David --

DONALD TRUMP:

Yeah.

MICHAEL COHEN:

You know, so that I'm going to do that right away. I've actually come up and I've spoken --

DONALD TRUMP:

Give it to me.

MICHAEL COHEN:

-- and I've spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with --

DONALD TRUMP:

So what are we gonna do?

MICHAEL COHEN: -- funding.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

That exchange. I know you weren't there for it. I'm not going to sit there and assume you were there for it. Familiar to you though? That style of exchange and back and forth between the President and Michael Cohen?

SAM NUNBERG:

Once again, the idea that Michael was taping him in that office - when I heard that, I felt like you were back in the 26th floor of Trump Tower. And remember, they never consummated this transaction. So it's, there is no idea there's an FEC violation. With that said, yes. These sound like the conversations you would hear in private.

CHUCK TODD:

Why -- you talked about, you said Michael Cohen was very loyal and devoted--

SAM NUNBERG:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

-- to Mr. Trump. Did you ever see Mr. Trump be loyal to him?

SAM NUNBERG:

Well, ultimately I felt that he wasn't. And I, you know, and I sympathize with Michael . I understand the way Michael feels. I felt like that. With that said, Chuck, for somebody like me, who has defended Michael publicly, I mean when he takes Lanny Davis out of the Clinton crypt, and decides to start talking about Watergate, releasing these tapes, it's a bridge too far.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you saying you no longer count yourself as a friend of Michael Cohen? You did -I would - it sounded like just a couple days ago you did.

SAM NUNBERG:

No, he is a - he is a friend of mine.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay.

SAM NUNBERG:

I like him personally. Once again, I feel bad for what his family is going through. But vis a vis his professional relationship with the president, this is, I mean it's highly unethical, if not, if not. you know being -- getting disbarred for what he did.

CHUCK TODD:

Who's telling the truth?

SAM NUNBERG:

In terms of?

CHUCK TODD:

Who's telling the truth here? Who's words should we take here? Michael Cohen intimating what the President knew about these various payments, or the President's word that he knew very little about it all?

SAM NUNBERG:

But there was no payment. But let's say -- we hear this conversation. But ultimately, if you're asking me who do I believe, the President or Michael Cohen, with what Michael Cohen may say, for instance when Michael Cohen says, now, that the President knew about the Russia meeting in advance, I would believe Don Jr. and the President in light of learning that Michael was taping conversations, the way Michael was conducting himself behind the scenes and in front of all of us.

CHUCK TODD: So you're saying, let's go to, you brought up the, this infamous Trump Tower meeting. Wouldn't it be unusual if Donald Trump, Jr. never told his father about it at all?

SAM NUNBERG: Yeah. Look, under normal circumstances, if you asked that, if you asked in general, I would think the president was told about it, especially because this was a relationship. Everybody can understand, this was done through the Agalarov family. This was a relationship. They had hosted the president legally, perfectly legally, in Moscow for Miss Universe. They had talked about a Trump Tower Moscow over the years. With that said, because you understand Trump Tower, you worked through it, but let's remember, the email was sent directly to Don, Jr. from Goldstone. It was not sent to then Mr. Trump's executive assistant Rhonna Graff.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay

SAM NUNBERG:

So there is, I would say that if you had to ask me, specifically now, and in light of learning, one that Michael was taping the president, two -- two, he doesn't have a tape of this, I would believe the president.

CHUCK TODD:

You say you're so shocked here that Michael Cohen was taping. Michael Cohen had this reputation among every single Trump person I've ever dealt with who said, oh yeah, Michael Cohen, hey he tapes everybody.

SAM NUNBERG:

Correct. I thought he was taping all phone conversations.You know, for instance, if he had an iPhone and it just taped all conversations. He taped everything, you know, plays them back to the president. That would be something. But to tape people, when you're sitting in the office with them, that was highly suspect. I never thought that. I never thought that if I was sitting across from him in his office I was being taped.

CHUCK TODD:

Why do you think the president -- some of this decision potentially by Michael Cohen may have to do with one of two things, number one, no one seems to be wanting to pay his legal bills, and that has bothered him.

SAM NUNBERG:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

The RNC paid Hope Hicks' legal bills.

SAM NUNBERG:

A lot of them.

CHUCK TODD:

And would not pay Michael Cohen's. Is that a motivation here, you think, for Michael Cohen?

SAM NUNBERG:

Well remember, they were paying Michael Cohen's legal bills before it went to the Southern District. And I thought that that was unfair and I had even said that, you know, when I said Michael -- remember I was quoted by Maggie Haberman I said 'well Michael has the leverage here.' What I meant was he should get his legal bills paid. With that said, if they're not investigating anything illegal vis a vis the Trump Org, and this goes to Michael's private businesses, which the president gave him the latitude to conduct in Trump Org, then I don't think they necessarily should have. And perhaps they even knew then or suspected that he was taping conversations with the president.

CHUCK TODD:

Why do you think the President didn't want to offer him a pardon?

SAM NUNBERG:

I don't think the President is -- has obstructed this investigation. He understands now that he cannot fire Robert Mueller, he cannot fire Jeff Sessions, he cannot fire Rod Rosenstein because that would go down the Watergate model, and that is what they're going down to ultimately get his impeachment.

CHUCK TODD:

Michael Cohen ever tell you who knew about this Trump Tower meeting?

SAM NUNBERG:

No. Remember I was fired in 2015, I had not been in Trump Tower, and I was sued.

CHUCK TODD:

No, I understand, then you ended up being brought back and forth, I mean it was a weird -- you've had a weird relationship with -- in Trump world.

SAM NUNBERG:

I had never heard -- I never discussed this with Michael or anyone by the way, about the meeting after it was reported. What I did say, what I did say was that when I saw that statement that was given initially to the New York Times, I was like, oh no, just please put it all out, and I was happy to see when Don put the entire email chain out.

CHUCK TODD:

You had a feeling the president had misled?

SAM NUNBERG:

I had a feeling that they weren't being clear and they were going to make a mountain out of a molehill.

CHUCK TODD:

Has the president ever lied to you?

SAM NUNBERG:

Has he ever lied to me? Directly, about an issue? No. Has he ever lied to me about whether or not, where I stood within the Trump organization? No. But there were -- obviously there were issues that I wouldn't ask him. So there was no reason for me let's say-- to explain this, there was no reason that I would go in and ask him, "What about this accusation or that?" It was none of my business. And I didn't want to know.

CHUCK TODD:

I understand that. But as sort of a character witness. At the end of the day, and I know what you've said about Michael Cohen, because you, you seem to be -- the fact that he would secretly tape somebody, you think that goes to his character, would you be able to be comfortable to say that President Trump tells the truth?

SAM NUNBERG:

Tells the truth vis a vis this investigation and ultimate collusion?

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, okay, how about be that specific, yes.

SAM NUNBERG:

Yes, I would. Yes, I would.

CHUCK TODD:

That he tells the truth overall you're not comfortable saying?

SAM NUNBERG:

Tells -- i mean look, when I worked with him, he play -- when i worked for him, excuse me, he plays everyone off of everyone. He would tell somebody one thing, tell somebody another thing. But that was his motivation, his management. And frankly, he enjoyed it, Chuck. So -- but with that said, he never, ever lied about anything when it came to, for instance, business. And for instance when they call on Allen Weisselberg now-- and I think if they're calling him in because of the tape that Lanny Davis played, then their relationship with Michael is certainly done. I would just tell you very quickly everything was always done on the up and up. The president always would say, "Everything's got to be legal. I'm not getting a fine. I don't want anything going on here."

CHUCK TODD:

You told me about, you just brought up Allen Weisselberg the former CFO, how much does he know about Trump World? Is he the guy that knows everything?

SAM NUNBERG:

Look, he knows every single financial transaction, he's responsible for creating the business system they had there. And I think in fact ultimately, and I've said this to everyone, I've said this to you if you've ever asked me, ultimately he's going to, essentially, be a character witness for Trump Org, and it'll come out positive, because they have not, trust me, Donald Trump knew he was under the limelight. He had, he had, you know, he had a contract with NBC. Everything that was done was on the up and up. That's what I believe at least.

CHUCK TODD:

Alright, Sam Nunberg, I appreciate you coming in, sharing your views and helping me out. Thank you very much.

CHUCK TODD:

Now, let me turn to the elected side of things. Joining me now is Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and was one of the senators who grilled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week on the Trump-Putin relationship. Senator Portman, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Chuck, good to be on with you again.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with the Michael Cohen situation, because he is now contradicting something that Donald Trump Jr. said under oath to Congress, and whether it was under oath or not, lying to Congress is a crime. Donald Trump Jr. told the Judiciary Committee that he did not tell his father about anything of the Trump Tower meeting, before or after. Michael Cohen apparently is contradicting him. Should Michael Cohen be called before the Judiciary Committee and clear this up sooner rather than later?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

I think the Mueller investigation is probably the place it should be cleared up, but you know, that's up to the Judiciary Committee.

CHUCK TODD:

If this is something that -- let me ask you this, you as a Republican senator, would you want to see the Judiciary Committee sort of clean this up since they've gone done this road, or you would say punt? You would tell Senator Grassley, your advice would be, "Leave it alone?"

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, I think it's going to be, you know, a he said and he said issue. So I think it's probably better that, you know, this goes through the regular process, which is ongoing, Chuck. And I think the Mueller investigation ought to be brought to an end also. I mean, we need to have the facts lead to the right conclusion, and so I support the investigation, I have from the start. But we do need to wrap it up, and you know, I'm not an expert on Michael Cohen, never met the guy. I am not on the Judiciary Committee; I'm not involved in this issue directly. But I do believe that it's important for us to get to the bottom of it, but do it expeditiously.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me move to the subject--

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

we have a lot of other issues.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes, I know. Let me move to the subject you were grilling Secretary Pompeo on, on the issue of Russia. It seemed to be that he wasn’t -- his comments didn't satisfy many senators and it was pretty contentious, particularly on the issue of policy. Let me play a mashup.

[BEGIN TAPE]

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

Policies are statements, and statements are policies. It goes both ways--

SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO:

Oh, that's not true. That's absolutely not true. People make lots -- I make lots of statements, they're not U.S. Policy.

SEN. BOB MENENDEZ:

I want you to think about the suggestion that what the president says is not the policy of the United States.

SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO:

I misspoke, it is the case. The president calls the ball. His statements are, in fact, policy.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Are you as confused now as you were before the hearing about who's in charge of policy with Russia: the president, the administration? Are they contradicting him? Do statements serve as policy? What was your interpretation of what you heard?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, first I thought Pompeo did a terrific job. I was there for practically the entire hearing and it lasted several hours. And what I liked about it is that he laid out very clearly and consistently what our issues are with Russia, the fact that, you know, we continue to have policies in place that are very tough. Tougher, frankly, than the previous administration, toughest sanctions since the Cold War.

We're arming the Ukrainians, which is something, as you know, I pushed the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration on. We're finally doing it so they can defend themselves. We just gave them another $200 million. We're sending more troops to Europe, we're doing exercises in Eastern Europe, not making the Kremlin happy.

And then we're pushing back in other ways. We talked about the Global Engagement Center, which pushes back on disinformation and propaganda coming from Russia, which I think is long overdue. And I commend Secretary Pompeo because he's put that in place and is using it aggressively. So Chuck, it's interesting, you know, there are concerns, as I expressed, after Helsinki of an inconsistent public posture as to Russia. But in terms of policy I think the administration is doing things that are appropriate and very tough. And I think that came out clearly at the hearing as well.

CHUCK TODD:

But I want to go back to the Helsinki summit, because now you have Vladimir Putin saying he'd come to Washington, he's offered another invite, he talked about that they seem to have a lot of constructive conversations. Moscow essentially looks like they were pretty happy with the summit; you were pretty unhappy. What does that tell you?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

We don't know what happened behind closed doors, so I don't know whether to be happy or not. My concern was about the public statements not being consistent and clear with our policies. And you know, frankly, again, our policies are, are a lot tougher than previously, and probably not making the Russians very happy. But look, I think it's fine if we have these conversations, I think talks are appropriate.

You need to be prepared for them. So the president chose to postpone the potential meeting here in the United States that he had talked about. That's, you know, that’s appropriate because I assume that we were not going to be prepared to have those discussions. So let's be prepared. Look, I supported talking to North Korea as long as we were prepared. So of course we should talk to them.

We are two major superpowers, we have a lot of nuclear weapons aimed at us. We need to talk. But let's be clear, because if you're gonna end up with a better relationship it's only gonna happen through being consistent and clear, and being matter-of-fact about the very real issues that exist between us.

CHUCK TODD:

You asked, I thought, a very important question to Secretary Pompeo when you said, "How come the sections don't seem to be working?" It hasn't changed Russia's behavior. You want more sanctions. Why do you think it hasn't worked? Is it the president's rhetoric?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, it's a great question because we do have unprecedented levels of sanctions, certainly since the Cold War and we're talking about increasing those, which actually I support. But my question was very simple, which is, you know, they haven't backed off in terms of the illegal annexation of Crimea, they haven't backed off in terms of what they're doing on the eastern border of Ukraine, which is a hot war, Chuck, as you know. Casualties every week on the Ukrainian side.

They haven't backed off in terms of supporting the murderous Assad regime. So are the sanctions effective or not? Now, some would say they have been effective to get the Kremlin's attention, but they obviously have not resulted in the kind of actions and reactions that we would expect.

So my question is, how can we be more effective and more targeted in the sanctions? And my sense is, Chuck, that the better way to approach this is to actually go after folks in Russia who are influential-- including some of the oligarchs who support President Putin and really to be more effective in targeting those sanctions. But I'm interested in hearing back from the secretary for my question.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you, I'm going to move to the Supreme Court. I know we're gonna start the confirmation process. There's a bit of a fight over what papers in the archives should be there. Democrats believe Republicans are asking for a limited amount, only looking at Brett Kavanaugh's time in the White House counsel's office. Since Brett Kavanaugh himself has talked about his time as Staff Secretary in the White House, that that's important too. Shouldn't the answer be release all the papers of his time in the Bush Administration?

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Well, you know, I've served with Brett in the Bush Administration. By the way, incredible guy. Humble, a good listener, compassionate. I think he's going to do very well at the hearing. And as you've probably seen in some of these poll numbers in these states that are red states where you got a Democratic senator, he's very popular. People want to see him confirmed. So I think in the end he will do very well.

In terms of the issue on document production, it ought to be documents that are relevant. In other words, when you're staff secretary, which was his job, there are millions of documents, literally, that go through your office. You're the gatekeeper, you're the traffic cop. It's not substantive. So I think when he was associate counsel to the president, certainly his 200 opinions, obviously that's very important. So those are the relevant documents.

But Chuck, to go on a fishing expedition into millions of documents that he had nothing substantive to say about I think would be a mistake. And I think, frankly, it's not necessarily in the Democrats' interest to do that because it's going to postpone this to even closer to the election, which I'm not sure they want.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. Rob Portman, Republican Senator from Ohio. I'm going to have to leave it there. Thank you for coming on and sharing your views, sir. Much appreciated.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN:

Thanks, Chuck. Thanks for having me on again.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, the panel on what the breakdown in the Trump/Cohen relationship could mean for the Russia investigation and the future of the Trump presidency. And it turns out another employee of President Trump's may pose an even bigger threat to the president.

CHUCK TODD: Welcome back. Panel is here. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal columnist and an NBC News political analyst. NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who is celebrating 40 years at NBC News this week. And Matthew Continetti, editor-in-chief of the Washington Free Beacon. Welcome all. Let me put up the president's tweet about Michael Cohen and the response to the Trump Tower thing. This was basically about his only response that he's given. "I did not know of the meeting with my son Don Jr. Sounds to me like someone is trying to make up stories in order to get himself out of an unrelated jam. Taxi cabs maybe? He even retained Bill and crooked Hillary's lawyer. Gee, I wonder if they helped him make the choice." Cohen versus Trump. Peggy Noonan, what do you make of this?

PEGGY NOONAN: I thought it was very interesting when you said to Sam Nunberg, "So who's telling the truth here?" I think his answer was more or less, "I think Trump." Do you know what I mean? Could that be a fair--

CHUCK TODD: There were--

PEGGY NOONAN: --interpretation?

CHUCK TODD: It felt like he put a lot of caveats in there. It felt like there were a lot of, "Well, on this." Yeah.

PEGGY NOONAN: One of the things I'm curious about is where the heck does this go. You have a sense as you watch the story that more tapes will come, more testimony, more of this, email, whatever and we'll find out, yes, the president kind of knew about the Trump Tower meeting. Someone wanted to share information against Hillary Clinton. He says, "Sure, let me know how it goes." If that is true, where does that get you? What is our endpoint there? That doesn't prove criminality. It proves poor judgment. It proves a lack of sophistication within his campaign organization. Normally, these Russians would come in off the street and they'd meet with extremely low-level people.

CHUCK TODD: These guys got right--

PEGGY NOONAN: Not top-level people. Oh my gosh. You know, it's out of a Daniel Silva novel it's so unsophisticated.

(LAUGHTER)

ANDREA MITCHELL: That's high praise.

PEGGY NOONAN: What I keep-- yeah, it is high praise. But that's what I keep thinking of it as. But still, if the moment comes when we find out Trump knew about this meeting, what does that mean?

EDDIE GLAUDE JR.: Well, you know, first of all, we've heard this kind of denial, right? So on Air Force One when he denied the payment to Stormy Daniels and then Giuliani comes out and we realize he's lying. I mean, so he lies a lot, Donald Trump. So to ask, "Who's telling the truth?" between Cohen and Trump is like asking, "Who's the more trustworthy in the mob?" Right? Sammy the Bull or this guy. I mean, that's not really the issue. The issue is the evidence, right? That's the question. The evidence. What is being put on the table here? And what I think Cohen's tape reveals is intent. And the difficult part about the collusion claim is the intent claim. And if there's intent here, which I think the tape suggests, then we have a stronger case around collusion.

CHUCK TODD: I talked to a few Republicans this week who the combination of the disastrous Helsinki summit with this news, Matthew, is starting to make Capitol Hill Republicans very nervous. I'm sorry. Senator Portman, he didn't like those Michael Cohen questions. He didn't want to--

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: He wanted to move on.

CHUCK TODD: He didn't want to have anything--

(OVERTALK)

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: --more substantive issues.

CHUCK TODD: --to say. And there are a lot of other Republican senators. They don't seem to be as ready to just take the president's side as they were even two weeks ago.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: They, like the Trump administration, would rather Robert Mueller go away. And I think Cohen's claim that the president knew about the Trump Tower meeting is basically a message to Robert Mueller and saying that, "This claim, given the evidence," if he has any, which he has not produced to date, "would help you, Robert Mueller, in your construction of an obstruction of justice case against the president." And that's where it seems to me the Mueller investigation has been trending for some time. This would be another bullet point in that eventual report to Congress where Robert Mueller would say, "Yes, the president interfered with this investigation."

ANDREA MITCHELL: But from what we know of Robert Mueller, he either has evidence already to corroborate this. He will not be relying on Michael Cohen as a key witness. One has to think that a lot of people-- people including in the Trump orbit say, "Look. This meeting took place one floor in Trump Tower away from where the president was at that time, that Candidate Trump was that day at that time. He then went to a fundraising lunch with Don Jr." The possibility, the probability that the son did not tell the father before or after this meeting or both is just so hard to believe. Plus, the two blocked phone calls, one before, one after, that the Republicans on the House Intel Committee would not let the Democrats subpoena. So Mueller either has those phone records and a lot of other corroborating information or not. If this is going to go anyplace, it's not going to rely on Michael Cohen.

CHUCK TODD: Go ahead.

PEGGY NOONAN: Just a small thought. In a funny way I think the Cohen stuff, and the meeting, and the payoffs, check or cash for the Playboy person, that has had a funny way of obscuring the really big story of the moment, which was Helsinki, a two-hour meeting about which we know nothing. No American--

ANDREA MITCHELL: Exactly.

PEGGY NOONAN: --note takers. And then an obsequious, and fawning, for me as an American to watch embarrassing joint press conference with President Putin. That is huge, historic--

ANDREA MITCHELL: And--

PEGGY NOONAN: --and scandalous.

CHUCK TODD: What about the Mike Pompeo--

CHUCK TODD: --hearing after? I was surprised that Senator Portman thought that Secretary Pompeo did so well.

ANDREA MITCHELL: In fact, for three hours almost unanimously the members, Republican and Democratic, and not just Bob Corker, who's retiring, went after Pompeo not on a personal level but because he was giving the party line pretty much and not explaining what happened in that two-hour meeting. And their fear is that he does not know, that Mattis does not know, that no one knows what happened. And they are saying, "Do not--" and that's what the leaders said to the president when they went and got him to postpone the return visit right before the midterms. They do not want him going into another private meeting. First of all, no president, especially one as unschooled in foreign policy. The Kremlin is putting out that he agreed to a referendum on Ukraine. The Kremlin is giving us the readout, and we don't know what to--

CHUCK TODD: Look, I thought Susan Glasser put it well, Matthew, in this. And she goes, "For hours, Pompeo had insisted that Trump's tweets and incendiary comments were not the sum total of those policies. But it's a tough argument to make about a prickly boss. The policy has not changed Pompeo insisted. But the real question remains what the policy is in the first place."

PEGGY NOONAN: Yes.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: Right. And in this sense actually the Michael Cohen news came as a relief I think--

EDDIE GLAUDE JR.: Correct.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI: --to a lot of Republicans. Because (UNINTEL) the case that when the spotlight is on Russia, when the spotlight is on Michael Avenatti and Stormy Daniels, the president's base rallies to him. And I was struck by the week that Donald Trump was elected president, his personal favorability rating according to Gallup was 36%. Last month Gallup asked the same question. Donald Trump's personal favorability rating was 36%. Nothing changed.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR.: Wow.

CHUCK TODD: That's what I always say about every week. Everything happens, and nothing changes. I'm going to pause the conversation here. When we come back, the curious case of a woman named Maria Butina. Was she a Russian spy? And could she be the key to a connection between the Russians infiltrating the NRA?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. It sounds like something ripped from a spy movie or a reboot of The Americans: A young Russian woman accused of conspiring to influence American conservative politics on behalf of Russian intelligence. Twenty-nine-year-old Maria Butina was arrested last weekend in Washington where she had recently graduated with a Master's degree in international relations from American University. On paper, she was a student and a gun rights advocate, known around campus for having pride in her homeland and defending Russian interests in class discussions. At the same time, investigators claim she was a covert agent funded by Alexander Torshin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin. And at his urging, investigators say, she worked to gain access to American political operatives, conservative politicians and political groups, including the Trump campaign, and more importantly in this story, the N.R.A. Well, joining me now is someone who has done a lot of reporting on Butina and Russian intelligence efforts in this area. It's Michael Isikoff, he’s the chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo! News, co-author of the book, Russian Roulette, and of course, a former colleague here at NBC News. Michael, welcome back to Meet the Press--

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Good to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. You are Facebook friends with Maria Butina.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

It’s true.

CHUCK TODD:

I, I know you did it for your reporting-- so how did you first discover her?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

I started hearing about her in - during the 2016 election as somebody who kept showing up at conservative political events, CPAC conferences, national prayer breakfasts, N.R.A. meetings, conventions. She met with N.R.A. leaders when they went to Moscow and hosted them. And it struck a lot of people as odd, "What is this woman doing here?" She was extremely flirtatious, she tried to maintain contact with a lot of influential Republican lobbyists, activists.

She had this very close relationship with this guy, Paul Erickson, conservative activist in South Dakota. But what really got my attention was the Alexander Torshin connection. Alexander Torshin, who you mentioned, is, was a deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank, he was a close ally of Putin. And most importantly, he was under investigation by the Spanish National Police for money laundering. In fact, he had these ties to this organized crime money laundering gang in Spain. The Spanish National Police had him on wiretaps--

CHUCK TODD:

He was getting arrested, right? They came to the country--

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

They were planning to arrest him. He was referred to by the organized gang leader as El Padrino, the Godfather. And they were all set to arrest him when he was going to fly into Majorca for a birthday party. He got tipped off and didn't go. But all this time he's flying in and out of the United States with Butina, meeting with N.R.A. leaders and Republican activists.

CHUCK TODD:

So in the criminal complaint against her when they (UNINTEL PHRASE) because they thought she was going to flee, I want to read this email - it’s a bit, it’s a - it’s a bit. It's some rough English, but it's in her words. It's an email that they put in there that essentially explains, I guess, what her plan was. It says here that they’ve - she has discovered the central place and influence-- and they refer in the criminal complaint political party one, meaning the Republicans-- plays the gun rights organization here as N.R.A. The N.R.A. is the largest sponsor of the elections in Congress, as well as as sponsor of the CPAC conference and other events. Again, a little bit of broken English there from her. But this was all part of this plan. It was an email she sent, apparently, to Paul Erickson. This was a whole infiltration plan.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Exactly. And that was a very savvy insight. The way - the goal here was to change the Republican Party's attitude towards Russia. Traditionally hostile, they wanted (UNINTEL PHRASE)--

CHUCK TODD:

Right. There was sort of the John McCain view of Russia is what they assumed all Republicans were (UNINTEL PHRASE)--

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

And the way to do it was through the N.R.A. Who has more influence with Republican members of Congress especially than the N.R.A.? They spend more money, they're the most powerful special interest group. So the idea was Butina sets up this Russian gun rights organization to forge this alliance with N.R.A. members, as a way of influencing the Republican party.

CHUCK TODD:

Let's go back to Paul Erickson. Paul Erickson, she's been now romantically linked with him, I guess they lived together in South Dakota perhaps, or they shared some sort of--

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Apparently not totally willingly on her part, but she felt this was part of her obligation and duty--

CHUCK TODD:

I guess she wrote this email to him at the time to sort of like ask him, you know, "Am I wording this correctly?" It was sort of to get his - is he witting or unwitting here?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Well, we don't know. There’s good reason to believe he's under investigation himself by federal prosecutors, and I think one goal is to get her to flip on him about what he might know. But I do think Torshin is the - is the key. I think he's the ultimate target here, he's been sanctioned by the U.S. One other thing we should mention, remember, Butina for all the work she's doing did one big service for the Kremlin. July 2015, just a few week after Trump announces his candidacy, he goes to Freedom Fest, this Libertarian event in Las Vegas, and takes a question from the floor, from Butina.

What would be his position on sanctions that would - that are damaging both countries? And Trump gives this full-fledged five-minute answer in which he says, "If I'm elected you won't need sanctions. I know Putin. I can get along with Putin." Not a top issue for the -- in the Republican political debate at the time. But very important for the Kremlin, they had him on the record saying he would roll back sanctions.

CHUCK TODD:

Mike, you've been doing investigations a long time, a couple of decades now. Let's raise up to 30,000 feet. You know, we keep, we'll focus sometimes on the Russia/Trump angle, we'll focus on the N.R.A. This, this larger investigation is going to be known as what? It looks to me like a Russian infiltration campaign on all levels of the conservative movement in this country. Is that what happened?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

That's, that’s - what, what, exactly what seems to be happening. This was every much as part of the Russian influence campaign as the cyberattacks, as the phony Facebook ads, the Twitter bots, all of that. And I’ve got to say, just sort of one thing that's really --

CHUCK TODD:

I know, you're the hobby horse. I'll let you have it. Go--

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Hobby horse, yeah. Dereliction of duty on Congress's part. Why every major political scandal in the last half-century-- Watergate, Iran-Contra, you name it-- public hearings by the Congress, key witnesses testify under oath before the TV cameras. None of that has happened here; all behind closed doors including Butina, by the way. We should be seeing these witnesses, they should be hauled up. Grassley and Feinstein could call Michael Cohen up tomorrow--

CHUCK TODD:

Tomorrow, absolutely--

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

--tomorrow! Subpoena him, have him testify in public.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, don't let lawyers spin. Let's see it for ourselves. It's a good point to end on. Michael Isikoff, thanks for coming on.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

Good work, sir. Don't forget his book, Russian Roulette. When we come back the Democrats' big blue Midwestern wall came crashing down on them in 2016. Are we seeing signs that it's being rebuilt?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER:

Meet the Press Data Download, brought to you by Pfizer.

CHUCK TODD:

We are back, Data Download time. President Trump loves to mock the big blue wall that pundits said he could not scale to reach 270 electoral votes in the 2016 election. As we all know, he did. He won in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. President Trump forged a new path to the presidency for Republicans in 2016, albeit a very narrow one. Because he won Michigan by the slimmest of margins, something a Republican hadn't done since 1988. He clinched Wisconsin by less than a percentage point as well, a state that hadn't gone red since 1984. In Minnesota he got well within striking distance, losing the state by less than two points.

No one had gotten that close since Ronald Reagan in 1984. Now, President Trump's success in those midwestern states was fueled by his appeal with rural and working class voters, but now new NBC News Marist polls show him slipping in the Midwest. President Trump's approval rating in those three states, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, deep underwater.

He did not break 40% in any of those states, and his disapproval is above 50% in all of them. This could be as much about tariffs, by the way, as it is about his overall job performance. Tariffs are hitting those three states in particularly hard. Of course the president has two more years to make up for those numbers. But the midterm election is just 100 days away and Republicans are facing uphill battles in elections for the House, Senate, and for governor.

In fact, in our poll, voters in each of those states say they prefer Democrats over Republicans in this year's congressional races. And guess what? These states have a lot of big races to watch this fall. They're home to nine Republican-held house seats currently listed as battlegrounds by our friends at the Cook Political Report.

And there are four Senate races, all with Democratic incumbents, one each in Michigan and Wisconsin, and of course two in Minnesota. Plus each state has a governor's race, and right now our polls show support for Democrats in those races as well. So President Trump has traveled to all of these states this year so he knows how important they are.

But right now the numbers suggest Democrats may be rebuilding their big blue wall, at least for the midterms. When we come back, President Trump says he plans to spend six or seven days a week campaigning in the fall. Why that could really help some Republicans and really hurt others.

ANNOUNCER:

Coming up, end game and post-game, brought to you by Boeing. Continuing our mission to connect, protect, explore, and inspire.

ANNOUNCER:

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

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with End Game. Believe it or not, it's not still the 2016 election. We are 100 days till 2018. I know we'll be fighting the 2016 election for the rest of our lives at this point. Here is the president about what he says he's going to do in the last 60 days of this election year.

DONALD TRUMP:

I'll go six or seven days a week when we're 60 days out. And I will be campaigning for all of these great people that do have a difficult race.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Matthew Continetti, all these great people that have the most difficult race. Do you think they want Donald Trump campaigning for them?

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

Well, it depends on where they live. The closer--

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

The closer they are to a city or a suburb, the less likely they are to want the president to come campaign for them. The president, of course, not one to cede the argument to his opponents or to allow them to even voice their criticism. So I think he plans to take a very active role in the midterms, make the argument, as it already is, of the midterms about him. And the truth is that may actually lead to a Republican advantage. Because the big danger for the Republicans is 1) those never-Hillary moderates vote Democrat but 2) the Trump base doesn't show up. And his presence may actually inspire them to vote if he nationalizes--

PEGGY NOONAN:

Good point.

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

--the election.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, we have done a bunch of polls the last 10 days we came out with, Andrea, as you know here. And what's interesting is that it does seem to be this intensity issue on the left and the right. There's a little more intensity on the left. But the Trump intensity is there, too. But the gulf with the middle. Right now, independents look like Democrats.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

They do. And I think the biggest issue could be the tariffs. Because you look at that so-called blue wall that didn't appear, that collapsed for Hillary Clinton, those tariffs are really hurting farmers. Soybeans, prices down. Wheat. And they're going to go to those grain elevators the end of September, beginning of October. And they're going to see those prices.

And other industries around them, John Deere and others, they're all going to be affected by this. And I just was interviewing, you know, Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania where the tariffs started, just to win that special election. Steel and aluminum. And he said, "We've got so many more manufacturing jobs that rely on the price of steel and aluminum than the steel workers." He's against them, as are other Republican senators.

PEGGY NOONAN:

I just spoke to a government official in South Dakota who said, "We're worried about our farmers here." However, one number we haven't said this morning. 4.1%.

CHUCK TODD:

I said it at the beginning of the show.

PEGGY NOONAN:

All right. At the beginning of the show. But in this conversation here. You know, I know it's only one quarter. We had the last such quarter in 2014. But the White House made the most of it. When people hear 4.1% growth, maybe we're on target for 3% this year. People have a little more money in their pockets. Consumer confidence is up. Taxes are down slightly. When you've got all that, that's going to have an impact, too.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

It's a big bumper sticker.

PEGGY NOONAN:

A general sense apart from tariffs that there's a certain amount of economic push-up that's going on.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR.:

Perhaps. Wages are still flat line. What's interesting to me though is, it's not so much the middle. It's those new voters, right? Those folks that you don't ordinarily count. So you have an excited Democratic base, folks who are motivated because of Trump. And then you have folks that usually don't show up. Usually don't show up to vote. Ocasio-Cortez was interesting not just simply because she was a Democratic socialist. It's who she got to the polls. And we're going to see the same thing in Georgia with Abrams and Kemp. 40% of Georgia is non-white. Many of them don't vote. Her job is to get them out. And I think Trump--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

That's a big job though, getting them out.

CHUCK TODD:

Matthew, I want you to comment on something else. The Cook network. Excuse me. Not the Cook. The Koch network has been having a meeting this weekend. And wow. I want to put up this quote from Brian Hooks. He's president of the Charles Koch Foundation. And he says this. "The divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage.”

"When in order to win on an issue someone else has to lose, it makes it very difficult to unite and solve the problems of this country." There was even some hints among some at the Koch network meeting that, "You know what? Maybe this partisan strategy isn't working."

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

Well, the Kochs are philosophical libertarians who are greatly opposed to the tariffs that Andrea Mitchell mentioned as well as to some elements of more hawking Republican foreign policy that Donald Trump embraces. So it wouldn't surprise me that there would be a lot of criticism at this meeting. This argument about the future of the conservative movement, where libertarians fit in, where do social conservatives fit in, where do again those moderate suburban Republicans. The backbone of--

CHUCK TODD:

Are they still Republicans?

MATTHEW CONTINETTI:

--the George W. Bush coalition. Right. Are they even still Republicans? These are all questions that are going to be sorted out in the next two years.

PEGGY NOONAN:

Yes. And in the two years beyond that. This is all evolving.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR.:

We'll see how it plays out and if the Trump plays the culture war card.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I don't know if the young people are going to come out, if the new voters that you're talking about are going to come out. And productivity is really flat. That 4.1 is a great number for now. We'll see how it plays out.

CHUCK TODD:

It's a second quarter. And as we all know, those are always the best quarters.

EDDIE GLAUDE JR.:

Exactly.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Finally, before we go, we have a little anniversary to celebrate today. As I mentioned earlier, one of us at this table is celebrating 40 years at NBC News. I'm not going to say who it is, but she's appeared on Meet the Press 211 times, not including today.

GARRICK UTLEY:

And joining me for our interviews, Andrea Mitchell, White House correspondent for NBC News.

TIM RUSSERT:

Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.

CHUCK TODD:

NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Should Clarence Thomas then be willing to take a polygraph test?

Senator, you've said what you're against. What are you for?

With all due respect, gentlemen, there is a perception out there that people in power, particularly in Congress, here in Washington, are a closed club. You have--

REP. MIKE POMPEO:

Miss Mitchell, take a look at the email trails.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

That's just--

REP. MIKE POMPEO:

--and you will see--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I cover the State Department. That is just factually not correct.

GARRICK UTLEY:

Andrea Mitchell.

TIM RUSSERT:

Andrea Mitchell.

TOM BROKAW:

Andrea Mitchell.

DAVID GREGORY:

Our Andrea Mitchell.

CHUCK TODD:

And Andrea Mitchell.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

CHUCK TODD:

Andrea Mitchell, 40 years.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Started as a--

CHUCK TODD:

How is it--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

--kid.

CHUCK TODD:

--possible? How is it possible? You started--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

High school reporter.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah. I was just going to say. How does it feel?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

This show above all shows, above all programs, is the heart and soul of NBC News. And I have been proudest of appearing here. My folks always watched it. I watched it as a kid through all of our wonderful moderators. And the legacy continues with you.

CHUCK TODD:

Some of the best, most uncomfortable questions you have made male senators-- and it's been very interesting now. And I say this. You were asking some questions about the culture before anybody else was doing it.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

The culture has been so toxic lately we forget that we've had previous difficult times here and the resilience of this country and of the news media is extraordinary and profoundly moving. But the fact is that we've got big problems still to solve in our society.

CHUCK TODD:

Which means you're not going anywhere. You've got a lot more stories to report.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

And we've got cake.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

That's all we have for today. We've got some work to do on this cake. Thanks for watching. We'll be back next week. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

You can see more End Game in Post-Game, sponsored by Boeing, on the Meet the Press Facebook page.

**END OF TRANSCRIPT**

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