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Meet the Press - March 4, 2018

NBC News - Meet the Press

“03.04.18”

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, crisis, chaos, and confusion at the White House. One of President Trump's closest aides, out. His son-in-law under fire. His attorney general defying the president. Now Mr. Trump is reportedly feeling increasingly isolated and under siege by special counsel Robert Mueller.

KELLYANNE CONWAY:

The president is very frustrated about this entire what he calls "witch hunt" and "hoax."

CHUCK TODD:

Is a White House built on chaos now being consumed by it? Plus, President Trump promises tariffs to help American businesses.

PRESIDENT TRUMP:

45% for steel, it'll be 10% for aluminum.

CHUCK TODD:

But already, allies have promised to retaliate against American blue jeans, bourbon, and Harley Davidson.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH

It's just going to be a huge tax on American citizens.

CHUCK TODD:

Will the administration actually go through with Mr. Trump's threat? My guests this morning, commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, independent Senator Angus King of Maine, and chief of Staff for President Obama, Denis McDonough. Also, President Trump and guns. On Wednesday, he seemed to favor restrictions.

PRESIDENT TRUMP:

We have to keep the guns out of the hands of those that pose the threat. This really includes background checks.

CHUCK TODD:

By Thursday, he was tweeting about his great meeting with the N.R.A. Will that White House meeting bring results or was it just good TV? Joining me for insight and analysis are NBC News special correspondent Tom Brokaw, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur, Republican strategist Al Cardenas, and presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Welcome to Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

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

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. If this were Spinal Tap, we'd say this is the week that things at the White House got turned up to 11. Newspaper headlines around the country chronicle events as a White House built on chaos was even more chaotic and apparently dysfunctional than usual. And at the center of it all is a president who is increasingly looking isolated.

Unhappy with his attorney general, with his chief of staff, with his national security advisor, and now soon to be without perhaps his most trusted loyalist who announced her resignation this week, perhaps also his son-in-law, who is increasingly under fire for mixing his personal business with White House duties, and then of course maybe soon to be without the person he's closest to of all, his daughter. If all of this weren't enough looming over this administration, is special counsel Robert Mueller, and a Russia investigation that seems to be moving closer to the White House by the day.

PRESIDENT TRUMP:

Thank you very much.

REPORTER:

Do you still have confidence in Attorney General Sessions?

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump increasingly isolated and lashing out as special counsel Robert Mueller peels away his defenses. Tightening his net around the president's inner circle. The president is besieged on many fronts. Hope Hicks.

PRESIDENT TRUMP:

Hope Hicks is a tremendously talented person.

CHUCK TODD:

His communications director, one of Mr. Trump's closest and longest-serving aids abruptly resigned Wednesday after eight hours of testimony on the Russia probe in which she admitted to telling white lies on behalf of the president. That left Mr. Trump seething.

DAVID BOSSIE:

You have ups and downs in administrations. Her departure is going to be a surprise, you know, and a shocking thing.

CHUCK TODD:

Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law was stripped of his top-secret-security clearance by the White House chief of staff, amid news that the special counsel is investigating Kushner's efforts during the transition to secure financing for his family's real estate properties from entities in Russia and the Middle East.

JOHN BRENNAN:

I think the Russians are very, very clever in terms of how they exploit relationships.

CHUCK TODD:

In his last public statement to the media, more than seven months ago, Kushner denied those relationships.

JARED KUSHNER:

I had no improper contacts. I have not relied on Russian funds for my businesses.

CHUCK TODD:

John Kelly reportedly intent on sidelining Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the chief of staff is defending his own handling of the Rob Porter domestic abuse scandal, telling reporters off camera this week, "I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over." Jeff Sessions, the president lashed out again at his attorney general, calling him "disgraceful" this week for not using Justice Department lawyers to push back on what he believes are surveillance abuses at the F.B.I.

KELLYANNE CONWAY:

The president is very frustrated about this entire, what he calls "witch hunt" and "hoax." The entire investigation.

CHUCK TODD:

Sessions responded curtly in a statement, quote, "As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor." And he had this very public unity dinner with his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. Mr. Trump has taken pride in his ability to thrive in the midst of the chaos he likes to create.

PRESIDENT TRUMP:

We have to be unpredictable. We have to be unpredictable. We have to be unpredictable, folks.

CHUCK TODD:

But now aids say the president's consuming anger at Mueller is making him erratic, even unglued. Spoiling for a fight, any fight, the president decided to pick one on trade, announcing new tariffs against the advice of many of his top advisors, and without any internal review, tweeting, "Trade wars are good and easy to win."

PRESIDENT TRUMP:

It'll be 25% for steel, it'll be 10% for aluminum.

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now is President Trump's Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Secretary Ross, welcome to Meet the Press.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Good to be on with you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let me start with this. It it, We had some reporting that said the president was looking for a fight, you gave it to him. But there weren't many preparations with this announcement. There was no diplomatic strategy. We had people at State, Treasury, Department of Defense. They were blindsided by this. What's the urgency? Why-why was this suddenly needed to be done the way it was done and why the odd announcement the way it was done?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Well, first of all, it wasn't sudden. The president, ever since the campaign, has said he's going to do something to fix steel and aluminum. Almost a year ago, he commissioned the Commerce Department to do the studies on steel and aluminum. They've been through any number of interagency reviews before they were released to the public. So with a whole year of preparation, I don't know why anybody should've been so shocked.

CHUCK TODD:

But I want to quote you to you. Here's what you said just before taking office about tariffs.

[BEGIN TAPE]

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Everybody talks about tariffs as the first thing. Tariffs are the last thing. Tariffs are a part of the negotiation. The real trick is going to be increase American exports.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. You just described a process to me before that that said that that you've done interagency stuff. You've been researching it behind the scenes. But no negotiations with China. No negotiate-- no new negotiations with these other countries. Why?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Well, we've certainly had discussions with China. Their um big advisor to Mr. Xi was in Washington that very same day. We had Mar-a-Lago session with China, we had another session in November back in Beijing. There's been plenty of discussion.

CHUCK TODD:

How many people tried to stop the president from doing this? Gary Cohn reportedly has threatened to resign over this. What's your understanding of this?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Well, I don't know anything about Gary resigning. Gary was certainly part of the interagency process. The president likes to have dissenting views, likes to hear every side of everything because that way he makes sure that his final decision is the best informed.

CHUCK TODD:

Hard to find a Republican supportive of this decision on Capitol Hill. Hard to find many people in business that's not, a perhaps somebody in-in steel or aluminum, and not even everybody in those industries are for this. Does this give you pause at all? Do--Should we believe this is actually going to happen?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Well, I think you have to take the president at his word. He made campaign promises. He's pretty well proven so far he intends to keep his campaign promises.

CHUCK TODD:

So this is going to happen this week for sure? The way he said it, 25%, 10%?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Whatever his final decision is is what will happen.

CHUCK TODD:

Meaning this isn't a done deal.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

I didn't say that. I just said what he has said he has said. If he says something different, it'll be something different. I have no reason to think he's going to change.

CHUCK TODD:

[Laughter] What does this mean? You just said, "Well, he may say this, and he may say that."

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

No, I didn't say that. I said he is the one who makes the decision. He has made a decision at this point, 25 and 10. If he for some reason should change his mind, then it'll change.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you--

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

I have no reason to believe he's going to change his mind.

CHUCK TODD:

He said trade wars are good. They're easy to win. Give me an example.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

I think what he was talking about is we have a big trade deficit with the rest of the world. Our cumulative deficit equals the cumulative surplus of the rest of the world. They therefore have much more at risk in a trade war than we do. That's what I believe he was meaning to say.

CHUCK TODD:

But is that the case? You slapped this on steel. There are more jobs in this country based on using steel to make a product versus the number of jobs you may save in the steel industry itself.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Sure. But that makes an implicit assumption that's false. And the false assumption is that just because there are more people in the consuming industries, there'll be a net loss of jobs. That's not the case at all.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. And we're going to have retaliations though on blue jeans, on Harley Davidsons, on bourbon, retaliations with Canada. I-I-- What part of this doesn't turn into just a massive tax increase on consumers?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Well, what are we talking about right now? We're talking about a fraction of a penny on a can of beer.

CHUCK TODD:

That's if nothing--

WILBUR ROSS:

We’re talking--

CHUCK TODD:

-- is retaliated though, Mr. Secretary. And right now, Europeans have said, "Oh no, they're retaliating and they're going to do it quickly."

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Retaliation isn't going to change the price of a can of beer. It isn't going to change the price of a car. It's just not going to. It can't.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, the beer industry says it will.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

The beer industry, you'll notice, hasn't put forward any numbers. My number is there's roughly 3 cents of aluminum in a can of beer. If you put a 10% tariff on that, that's 3/10ths of a cent. Beer sells for over $1 a can.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. But again, that doesn't account for the retaliation on every other industry.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Retaliation has nothing to do with the price of beer.

CHUCK TODD:

Oh, it's going to have to do with the price of everything.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

No. We'll see what it has to do with. What we're talking about in terms of the economy is $9 billion of tariffs. That's all. That's a fraction of 1% of the whole economy. What the European Union has talked about is some 3 billion or so of potential retaliation. That's an even smaller fraction of 1% of the economy.

CHUCK TODD:

I've got to ask you about the president personally. You've known him a long time. You're a personal friend of his. There is a lot of concern among other friends of his that what's happening inside the White House, his relationship with the chief of staff, are you concerned?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

I think Chief of Staff Kelly is doing a very good job. He's a very disciplined, very organized person. And I think he's doing a very good job so far.

CHUCK TODD:

No, but are you concerned about the president's state of mind?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

His state of mind is fine. If you went to the Gridiron last night, which I did and others did, he was very relaxed, he was self-deprecating, he had some very good humorous lines. I don't see any problem with his behavior at all.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. But if others are trying to, John Thune, the the pretty high-ranking Republican senator, especially in reaction to the tariffs, he's sitting there going, "Well, every day is an adventure," this lack of working with allies to inform them what's going on, this erratic decision-making progress, none of this is problematic in your view?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

I don't know how you call erratic a decision that he announced in 2016 that he was going to help steel and aluminum, then went through the whole process with the 232s. How is that erratic? That's consistent. This president has been more consistent in following up his campaign promises than anyone I can remember.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I want to go back because we've seen him change his mind on guns, we've seen him change his mind on immigration. These tariffs, you said this is the decision he made as of Friday. Does that decision hold on Monday if the markets are hammered again?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Well, the markets started recovering on Friday as it began to adjust to the realities that this is not the end of the world.

CHUCK TODD:

This is-- Will you say definitively that this is going to happen this week?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

The president has announced that this will happen this week. I have no reason to think otherwise.

CHUCK TODD:

And will there be exceptions for other countries in here?

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

We shall see. We shall see. I know that there are a lot of ministers from a lot of countries have been talking with the president, they've been talking with me, they've been talking with others. We'll see. The president makes the decisions.

CHUCK TODD:

Secretary Ross, I will leave it there. Thanks for coming on and sharing your views. Much appreciated.

SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS:

Thank you, Chuck, for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it. All right, joining me now from Brunswick, Maine, is the Independent Senator who caucuses with the Democrats, Angus King. Senator, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Chuck, good to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to get you to respond to Secretary Ross on the tariff issue first, and then I want to get into some other things. Are you reassured by what you've heard from the secretary about number one, that these are definitely going to happen, and number two, that it isn't going to have the impact on the economy that others fear?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Well, I think you made the right point. We don't live in a static universe. You can't make a change of this significance and assume that nothing else is going to happen as a result. And that's what worries me is second, third, fourth. You know, the only thing I can think of is Smoot-Hawley, the tariff in 1930 that many economists believe contributed significantly to the worldwide depression. I'm not suggesting that's going to happen, but what I'm suggesting is the results are hard to determine. In the last 24 hours, I've heard from two small companies in Maine that use steel. One of them has already seen about an 8% increase in the price that they're going to be charged for the steel that they use to fabricate things. Another is a company way up north in Fort Fairfield, Maine, right near the Canadian border. They get their steel from Canada simply because of the proximity. And they're very worried about the impact. So, you know, you want to do these kinds of things with a scalpel, not a chainsaw. And, and what worries me is, you know, the whole world that -- he said 25% and 10% on the whole world in the name of national security. I don't think we need to block Canadian steel in the name of national security. They're annoying, but you know, they’re nice, they're too nice. But we don't fear a war with Canada.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm curious, I know a lot of Republican colleagues of yours were shell-shocked by the decision not just in sort of the, the turn in orthodoxy, and yes, Secretary Ross makes a point, Donald Trump the individual has been talking about this frankly for 40 years. Not just for 40 months. But the way it was sort of announced is -- how concerned are your colleagues about this White House?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Well, I think there's a concern because as you, as you mentioned earlier, at least as far as anyone can tell, there wasn't a great deal of consultation outside of the Commerce Department. And even there was significant dissent and surprise, as I understand it, within the White House when the announcement was made on Thursday. So there is a concern. I mean, this is a very, very important decision and it's one that could have long-term ramifications. And it was announced in this kind of shorthand way. And by the way--

CHUCK TODD:

Do you want to roll back--

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

I think the president has a point about trade.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator, do you want to roll back, do you think he shouldn't do this?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Well, I think he should do it much more carefully. I think it should be refined and say, "Okay, for example, there's a difference between steel and, and aluminum." We do have a significant problem with aluminum. Steel, and for example, China, my understanding is supplies 4% of the steel in the U.S. So we need to-- it needs to be more carefully tailored. And I'm hoping based on the secretary's final comments there that that may happen this week and it will be a much more narrow and, and, and a directed effort.

CHUCK TODD:

You're a big part of the Senate Intelligence investig-- Senate Intelligence Committee and the investigation that you guys are doing in a bipartisan basis of Russian interference. We are reporting here that the special counsel has been looking into whether Jared Kushner's discussions with various, during the transition, with various foreign entities, how much did -- was it mixed with his personal business? I'm curious, what have Sen-- what has your committee looked at when it comes to Jared Kushner during the transition and his interactions between his business concerns and for instance, Middle East -- and Middle East policy?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Well, I'm not going to comment on the internals of our investigation. We're really trying to keep it under control, not do a lot of leaking. So I'm not going to really talk about that. I can tell you that we are looking at all aspects of this. And, and Chuck, a lot of it is-is pretty well done. We're going to issue a report hopefully within the next two or three weeks about the Russian, Russians' effort to get into state election systems. That's a crucial part of it. Then there'll be something on what the Russians did in the election generally. The hardest part and the most contentious part, frankly, is is the final piece, which is, as you suggest, to talk about connections between the Trump campaign and officials surrounding the president with with foreign entities leading up to the election and after.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you have any reason to believe that the Trump administration has made any policy decisions based on a personal financial issue for either Mr. Kushner or Mr. Trump?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

I, I, I have no reason to believe that. But I am not prepared to comment on it one way or the other.

CHUCK TODD:

I've got to ask you about your friends on the House side of things. I know it's been reported that Senators Burr and Warner went to Speaker Ryan about the behavior, apparently about the behavior of the House Intelligence Committee. And-and something that may have leaked out from the Republican side about Senator Warner. How bad is the relationship between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Well, I would say there's not much of a relationship at this point, to tell you the truth. We're trying to just continue on on a bipartisan basis. You'll notice there haven't been all the memos and counter memos and that kind of thing. And-and there really isn't that much of a relationship. We're only a couple hundred yards apart. But it's uh it’s worlds apart in terms of the way we've approached this.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm curious what you think of Tom Rooney's comment, Republican from Florida, he's on the Intel, House Intel, he said this, he goes, "Hey, I want this House investigation to end because we have gone off the rails of being able to objectively do our job." Do you agree that the House Intelligence Committee is off the rails? And they can't do their job anymore?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Well, I thought that was a really interesting comment, because he wasn't talking about the substance.

CHUCK TODD:

No.

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

I at first thought he was going to say, "Let's end it because I don't like where it's going." But he basically is saying, "We're just not getting anywhere." Again, that’s, it's not my position to comment on, on what they do. I'm going to concentrate on doing our role as as best we can. And so far, we've been able to maintain a bipartisan approach to this and we're certainly going to continue to try to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. And do you believe that Devin Nunes was trying to harm Mark Warner? Do you believe he leaked this information to harm Mark Warner?

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

I don't have any evidence to-to justify that conclusion. Somebody did. And Mark Warner, by the way, made clear to the committee, to the Republicans on the committee, to Chairman Burr what had happened. We were trying to chase down Christopher Steele and Mark Warner was trying to further that effort. And and so, we don't know where it came from. But it appears, there is evidence that it came out of the House side. And that's uh that’s disturbing.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Angus King, the Independent from Maine, thanks for coming on and sharing your views. Much appreciated.

SENATOR ANGUS KING:

Always a pleasure, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Coming up, allies of President Trump are being quoted anonymously as saying they're very worried that the president under siege is starting to spin out of control. We'll get into that with the panel when we come back.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here. NBC News senior correspondent Tom Brokaw, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Republican strategist Al Cardenas, my friend from Florida. Welcome everybody. All right I've got to do this. We have to do this as a scroll. I can't name all the departures from the Trump administration. Here it is. It's quite a long list.

And then, I have to tell you, when you start to wonder about the president and his inner circle, Katy Tur, you've covered him longer than anybody, John Kelly said the following the other day, and it apparently got under the president's skin. Take a listen.

JOHN KELLY:

And I miss every one of you every day. The last thing I wanted to do was walk away from one of the great honors of my life, being the secretary of Homeland Security. But I did something wrong and god punished me, I guess.

CHUCK TODD:

"One of the great honors of my life," is apparently not being chief of staff to Donald Trump.

KATY TUR:

The reason why that got a laugh, that joke works, is because it's true. It seems like he is in a miserable situation in the White House with infighting not only with staff members that have their own agendas, but the president's own family who is there. Think about John Kelly, three weeks ago, he was on the verge of being fired over this whole Rob Porter scandal. On the verge of being fired. How long is John Kelly going to last?

Three weeks later, Jared Kushner doesn't have a security clearance any longer, Hope Hicks, Donald Trump's longest-serving advisor, the person closest to him in the White House other than his daughter, somebody that John Kelly would have to go through, to a degree, to get to the president, is gone as well. So John Kelly's position is somehow out of the ashes much stronger than it was. But even then, it seems awful looking from the outside.

AL CARDENAS:

Yeah, I'm with Katy. I think, you know, if you look at John Kelly, here's a man who spent 40 years in the most disciplined, structural environment in the world. It's all about truth, it's all about discipline, it's all about loyalty, it's all about ethics. And then he's going from there, thrust into the White House as chief of staff to easily, you know, the most chaotic environment in the White House history. And so how does a person deal with that? I agree. I think that was a truthful statement.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

I think at the center, it's a monumental failure of leadership on Trump's part. I mean, how can you expect a chief of staff to study someone who makes a promise one day and undoes it the next? Whose word is not trusted? I mean, old George Washington, he said, "You have to set an example every day with your team, with your country." Firmness and integrity are what count. That counts in spades.

Teddy Roosevelt says, "The kind of politician you want is somebody who makes a promise that they can always keep and whose word can be trusted." How can you possibly not have demoralization when at the center, there's no leader that's giving those trusted and those sense that their word matters. And that he himself knows what he wants.

CHUCK TODD:

Tom, you've known Donald Trump a long time. He's now without anybody he knows personally from a long period of time, surrounding him at that White House. It's all new people now. It's relatively new for him.

TOM BROKAW:

Well, he had no foundation to be the president of the United States. Because he ran his empire in New York hot and cold out of his back pocket. He didn't have a group of directors. He was always kind of working the financial system. He was stiffing people on his bills, any number of law firms in New York or other people who dealt with him will tell you these god-awful stories about how he behaved during that time.

So when he got to the White House, he thought he could just have an extension of that, to be a reality television star, to kind of have a lot of collapsed businesses when you stop and think about it, the Trump steaks, the Trump ties, the Trump schools, all that stuff. He brought all that into Washington D.C. and the heart of the most important office in the world.

I said earlier this week, if you're in Des Moines, Iowa, and the biggest bank in town, or the local university, or the biggest manufacturer in town started to behave like this, there would be people in the streets in those communities saying, "We can't go on like this, it’s the center of who we are."

CHUCK TODD:

This tariff decision apparently is based on him so frustrated, Doris, that he just wants to do something. And look, he's been wanting to play with tariff matches for 40 years. There is some consistency here. But this is with the U.S. economy. And people are rattled.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

I mean, a tariff is not an abstraction. And he keeps saying, "We're going to win this war of tariff. It's easy to win."

CHUCK TODD:

William McKinley is still trying to win this war, right?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

And William McKinley lost. But, you know, you keep saying you're going to win. I mean, he says the most important thing, the reason why he would always, always be the best, best president that we ever had was because he always wins. Tariffs involve collaboration. He doesn't have a collaboration bone in his body. It's a matter of making compromises with all these other countries and working out something together with the Congress and the country. And all of a sudden, one night, he gets mad, here we are.

KATY TUR:

But that's if the tariffs even live. And I thought it was so interesting when you were trying to press the commerce secretary on this. And he said basically, "Whatever the president says will be what happens."

CHUCK TODD:

So the decision Friday is what happens, and then the decision Monday could be totally different.

KATY TUR:

Exactly. So this is what I used to say on the campaign, because he would flip-flop on his visions over and over again. And he's been doing this in the White House as well. Donald Trump believes whatever he believes in the moment that he believes it. And if he changes his mind in the next sentence, he believes that. You can't follow it. It's a steady stream of consciousness because he is just trying to get a reaction out of people.

CHUCK TODD:

But -- you know, there is something here at the center of why he's this erratic right now. It's Russia. It's the Mueller probe. It's getting closer.

TOM BROKAW:

Well, it appears that it is. I've tried not to project what he's going to find and I think he's acted with great discretion, the special prosecutor. They've kept it as tight as they possibly can. But every other week, we find that there's another layer that has suddenly emerged. And then you look at that list of people who are now in singing their hearts out before the grand juries.

And they were very close to him, despite what he has to say about it. My own impression is about the kind of leadership we have at the moment. If a bunch of martians arrive from Washington and said, "Take us to your leader," the White House would say, "No, he's too busy right now, he's writing a tweet to Alan Baldwin." I mean, he seems to be completely--

KATY TUR:

Alec Baldwin.

CHUCK TODD:

Alex Baldwin. Don't forget that. The seventh Baldwin brother that we didn't know about.

AL CARDENAS:

Yeah, if I can go back to the issue of tariffs, because I'm passionate about it, we tried it in 2002 during President Bush's administration. The whole argument to us conservatives was, "Well, it's national security. You can't be devoid over steel--"

CHUCK TODD:

It was also a Karl Rove political idea of trying, "Hey, we could do well in Pennsylvania here."

AL CARDENAS:

Exactly. It was a Midwest political strategy to do well with the blue-collar workers.

CHUCK TODD:

And it didn't work.

AL CARDENAS:

Didn't work. He made it a three-year tariff, and within a year, he had to postpone it. It doesn't work.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

Lost a lot of jobs.

AL CARDENAS:

Plus, all the manufacturers, except for China, 90% of manufacturers are all allies of the United States. There's no national security issue here.

KATY TUR:

Chuck, though, you got to the point of this. And at the bottom of every one of these scandals every week is the Mueller investigation.

CHUCK TODD:

That's right.

KATY TUR:

And that's what's setting him off again. It's Jeff Sessions on Twitter calling him "disgraceful." But the Mueller headlines this week alone were staggering. I was on one of them. Donald Trump witnesses are now being questioned about whether Donald Trump himself knew about the Democratic emails, the hacked Democratic emails before the public did.

That is a major headline that shows that the president himself is still being investigated for coordination. And it goes from there. The question for the future though is if he gets frustrated by this again, and there's not a tariff war to start, what other things is he going to try to do?

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, all right. Go ahead.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

I think the real question is we do have evidence that the Russians are now trying to meddle with the next election. And our president should be mobilizing everything. Elections are the fundamental basis of what we are. When he takes an oath to preserve and protect the constitution, he's protecting fair elections, free elections, it's at the center of a democracy. A dictatorship is trying to meddle with us and he's not doing anything about it?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it's a perfect place to stop because my next guest, we're going to have the same conversation about the last president, did he do enough to stop the Russians. When we come back, President Trump says, hey, don't blame him, it's the Obama administration that should've done more to stop the Russians in 2016. Does he have a point? President Obama's second term Chief of Staff Denis McDonough joins me next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. There's been no shortage of head scratching and criticism of President Trump's tepid response to evidence that Russia not only interfered with the 2016 election, but that they're hard at work on 2018. But President Trump is trying to turn the tables on the Obama administration, tweeting two weeks ago, "Obama was president, knew of the threat, and did nothing." In fact, even members of the Obama administration have conceded that they could've done more. In June, TheWashington Post ran this quote from a senior administration official, "It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked." Denis McDonough was President Obama's chief of staff for his entire second term and he joins me now. Mr. McDonough, welcome back to Meet the Press.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Thanks for having me, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

As a private citizen, no less.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

A private citizen.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Let's start with that, the the choke comment. Looking back, did you choke?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Look um, we, during the course of 2016 became alarmed about what we were seeing and it became, became very clear to us what the Russians' intentions were. So we took a series of painstaking steps, including the president directly confronting President Putin, us going to Congress to press them to work with us to make sure that the states were doing everything they could to protect the sanctity of every American's vote. And then ultimately releasing a very powerful statement from the secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence calling attention to this threat. So we did exactly what we think we needed to do. And in fact, that discussion with -- between President Obama and President Putin, we believe, was very impactful on the Russia action. Some of the things that we feared they may do, they did not do.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me play for you what President Obama said about this, talking what you just said. This was in December, he was recounting his conversation with Putin in September. Here it is.

[BEGIN TAPE]

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

I felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn't happen was to talk to him directly. And tell him to cut it out. And in fact, we did not see further tampering of the election process.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Based on the Mueller indictment of the internet research agency, we now know that that is not true. That we know the troll farms were working, particularly there were specific references to October 16th in 2016, November 3rd. At the time, the troll farms in Russia were pushing, encouraged U.S. minority groups not to vote, things like that. Were these things you missed? You didn't know they were doing this at the time? Was his comment just about the election systems?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

I think it is very important to recognize that there's two issues here, Chuck. One is the sanctity of the vote, that the voter roll, the individual going into that ballot box and casting a vote and making sure that that vote is counted. And we stand by our position that the thing we feared they may do in that spot, they did not.

CHUCK TODD:

You really believe that that's what he got Putin to back off from doing?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

I believe that, we, I can tell you this. We had great fear that that was what they had in mind during the course of the summer of 2016. We had great fear that we needed to take significant steps to stop them from doing it. A direct confrontation with President Putin when they were both in China, we went to the bipartisan leadership of Congress to ask them to work with us to ensure that the states had what they needed. And by the way, Chuck, the lack of urgency that we saw from the Republican leadership in 2016, we continue to see to this day today. It's beyond time for Congress to work with the administration, to work with the states, to ensure that our electoral systems are ready to go. This is not a game.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to know though, why did Director of National Intelligence Clapper and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson go out by themselves?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

For two reasons.

CHUCK TODD:

Why didn’t--

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

For two reasons.

CHUCK TODD:

Why wasn’t -- Why wasn't it the president flanked by his director of National Intelligence? That would've elevated this to a level that the public might have taken even more seriously.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

For two reasons, Chuck. And I can come back to whether the public actually had an opportunity through the reporting to understand exactly what was happening. But for two reasons. One, you know how we run our elections and our electoral infrastructure. It's by state and local officials who are partisans, Republicans and Democrats. We feared that if it looked like the president was involved, that this was a partisan matter, at the time we were in the middle of the campaign. The president had a view in the campaign. And we wanted to make sure that partisan politics did not color state officials' reaction to the information. Point one. Point two is, we also knew that the Russians wanted to undercut confidence in our electoral system. We did not want to play into their hands. And in fact, we didn't. And as a result, we had 33 states work with the Department of Homeland Security to scan and strengthen their systems. That ends up being very important to the outcome of the election.

CHUCK TODD:

If Putin's goal was to elect Donald Trump, then how is it that what you did in 2016 was the right call?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

The -- Look, I'm not going to get into whether we know precisely what his goal was or not.

CHUCK TODD:

You’re not ready -- You're not as convinced as even Mueller's team and the indictment is that the interference was --

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

I want the indictment....

CHUCK TODD:

--intended to help Donald Trump?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

I'll let the indictment speak for itself. I’m gonna--What I'm going to make is a simple point that says he wanted to do two things. One is sow confusion and lack of confidence in our system. And then he had a view on the outcome is my guess.

CHUCK TODD:

So he's been successful on both counts?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Look, I'm not gonna, I think that he--

CHUCK TODD:

We've sowed discord and Donald Trump got elected.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

And there's a way to address that, Chuck. There's a way to address that. Which is Congress should stop with this stunning lack of urgency about this question, work with the states to strengthen their infrastructure, because only the states can do that. We can't. That's the way we run elections in this country.

CHUCK TODD:

You brought up the lack of sort of bipartisan, bipartisan urgency at the time. I want to play something Former Vice President Biden said about Mitch McConnell.

[BEGIN TAPE]

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN:

Mitch McConnell wanted no part of having a bipartisan commitment that we would say essentially, "Russia's doing this, stop." Bipartisan. So the die had been cast here. This was all about the political play.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Is -- Do you stand by what he said, that Mitch McConnell is the reason why everything was a lower grade, sort of everything that you did in '16, that you couldn't be as robust in a bipartisan sense because Mitch McConnell didn't sign on?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

What I know is that the intelligence community approached the, the entire leadership of the Congress --

CHUCK TODD:

So called Gang of Eight

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

In the early August--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

--2016. Several members of that group did not take the briefing until early September, 2016. Indication number one of a lack of urgency. Number two, the president asked the four leaders in a bipartisan meeting in the Oval Office to join him in IN asking the states to work with us on this question. It took over three weeks to get that statement worked out. It was dramatically watered down. You can ask Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, even the speaker--

CHUCK TODD:

And it was watered down on the insistence of Mitch McConnell?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

And nobody else?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. Do you have any understanding as to why?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

I don't.

CHUCK TODD:

Did he not believe the intelligence?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

I don't.

CHUCK TODD:

Is there a single thing you guys would have done differently in hindsight?

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Look, Chuck, I spent a lot of time worrying about a lot of different things at different times. Working with the information that we had, I think we've made a series of very important and very good decisions. And what I do, what I also believe is we also hol--

CHUCK TODD:

You believe you sounded the alarm enough?

DENIS MCDONOUGH

I do believe that. Yes, Chuck, I do.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Denis McDonough, I will leave it there. Denis, thanks very much.

DENIS MCDONOUGH:

Good to see you, Chuck. Thanks so much.

CHUCK TODD:

Coming up, Democrats hope to win back the Senate and the House and the eyes of Texas are on a Senate race and a handful of Congressional races that just might help turn the Lone Star state maybe from red to purple. We'll be back in a moment.

CHUCK TODD:

Data download time and the midterm primary season officially kicks off this Tuesday in a big way, thanks to a big state. Democrats are hoping to ride a big wave in 2018 and we're going to get a clue this week about how realistic that may be, as Texas voters head to the polls. Texas, you say? Yes, Texas. Consider this.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton came closer to winning Texas than she did Iowa. And remind me, which is the one we call such an important swing state and which did we dismiss? Anyway, the biggest test case may be in the Senate where Ted Cruz will likely face Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke. So if you're watching that race closely, what are you looking for to see if it will be competitive? Turnout and demographics. And on the turnout front, Democrats have reason to be excited.

Through ten days of early voting in the 15 largest counties in Texas, while Republicans have seen a 16% increase in turnout since their 2014 midterm primary, Democrats have seen a whopping 102% increase in turnout in that same time period. That's more than four times the gain Republicans saw in the last midterm primary cycle, which turned into a Republican year.

But the big question in Texas always is who votes? In 2016, white voters made up 43% of the Texas population, but 57% of the Texas electorate. That's a big gap. While Hispanics made up 39% of the population, but only 25% of the electorate. If the percentage of white voters starts to drop closer to the 50% mark or even below, that will be seen as a good sign for the Democrats.

But even if Democrats don't swing the Texas Senate seat, they could still do well in other races. Four House districts we're watching in Texas, all currently held by Republicans. Three of those actually voted for Clinton over Trump in '16. Three are above the national average in college education, three are at least two-thirds, quote, "urban." And one of them is two-thirds Hispanic.

All are indicators that these races could swing in the Democrats' favor. Look, if the turnout trend of 2017 continues, and it looks like it is, where we saw big numbers in typically low turnout races, Democrats are going to benefit. But by how much? Could O'Rourke actually beat Cruz? Maybe. But are Democrats going to be competitive across the Lone Star State? I have a Texas-sized hunch they will be. When we come back, endgame and what Vladimir Putin just told Megyn Kelly about Russian interference in the 2016 election.

(COMMERCIALS NOT TRANSCRIBED)

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with endgame. This week, my colleague Megyn Kelly landed an interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She conducted the interview in Russia. For more than half of the hour-plus sit-down, Kelly pressed Putin on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Putin does not deny that Russians and Russian companies were involved. But he says there was no Russian government involvement. Take a listen to this excerpt.

[BEGIN TAPE]

MEGYN KELLY:

What have you done to satisfy yourself if the 13 Russian nationals who have just been indicted, those three Russian companies, including, as you point out, some of your close friends, were not behind this? This has caused an international incident.

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (VOICE OF TRANSLATOR) :

I know that they do not represent the Russian state, the Russian authorities. What they did specifically, I have no idea. I do not know what they were guided by. Even if they did do something, maybe it's just our American colleagues. Let them just not talk to the press. Let them provide some materials, specifics, and data. We'll be prepared to look at them and talk about it.

MEGYN KELLY:

That would be great. Will you extradite them to the United States?

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (VOICE OF TRANSLATOR):

Never, never. Russia does not extradite its citizens to anyone, just like the United States. Does the United States extradite its citizens to anyone?

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

We'll have a lot more of Megyn Kelly's interview with the Cheshire cat there, Vladimir Putin, in the days ahead. Tom, I mean, Putin almost smiled as she was pressing him about the Russian involvement in the interview.

TOM BROKAW:

Well, that was an important interview on a lot of different levels. First of all, not just President Putin, but Kim in North Korea, Xi in China now has open field. He can run as long as he wants to. They're all looking at the United States and the chaos that is going on here and say, "How do we position ourselves to take advantage of that?

When he talked about a missile that they have now that we can't knock down, nuclear arm, had a long talk with Robert Legvold, who's one of my oldest friends, and he's back and forth to Russia all the time. He's made a life out of scholarship of this stuff. And he said, "Look, he's got an election coming up in March.

"The Russians are now, the rank-and-file people are beginning to be anti-American in a way that they weren't before, the economy is improving just enough. But in all this global competition going on, they're looking at this White House and this president and this country and saying, 'Now we can get him. We can take advantage of the chaos there.'" And that was the opening, as far as I'm concerned, of what he's done. You know, I've dealt with him a couple of times, and he's never not a K.G.B. agent. And you have to always keep that in mind.

CHUCK TODD:

That is what McCain always loved to say, Al.

AL CARDENAS:

Well, look. He has four inflection points that help his strategy. One, you know, he knows our infantry, military in the Middle East. He knows that our military's building up in the South China Sea. So a lot of money is going to a navy which he doesn't care about. He knows that we've got this global competition.

So what's he doing? Cheapest thing you could do, he's disruptor in chief. I don't believe he really cared for Donald Trump to win. He wanted to undermine the basic structures of our country. And not only our country, other countries. He's in the disruption business right now. And every once in a while, he'll do this nuclear thing to let the world know he's a top threat. But he is into disruption. But he's letting the other guys do all the sweating and hard work.

KATY TUR:

The weaker we are, the more powerful he is. And you look at the testimony on the Hill, I guess in this past week, which kind of flew by, because we had so many other headlines. But we had Admiral Mike Rogers saying that the price that Putin is paying is basically nothing. And there's no reason for him not to continue doing what he had been doing in 2018 and 2020.

CHUCK TODD:

He saber rattles with a nuclear missile and the president responds with the Alex Baldwin.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

And also responds when Tom was mentioning that the Chinese leader is now in there for life. And he jokes about the fact, "That sounds pretty good, maybe I could have that," that need to be in the center of action is so great with him. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt, they claimed, used to want to be the baby at the baptism, the bride at the wedding, and the corpse at the funeral. This guy now wants to be the president for life.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it's funny you say that, Al. It's a good transition to guns, right? And that whole public spectacle that seemed like, "Well, look at that." And it was maybe more about just him wanting to be at the center of the spectacle. But I am curious here, it does look like we're about to complete the cycle of a gun. There's a massive tragedy, people wringing their hands, we've got to do something, and then the paralysis sets in.

Michael Gerson says the following, Tom, which I think captures the gun debate well. "It's one of the dirty habits of our political discourse, that so many people use thermonuclear rhetorical weapons as a first resort. It is not enough for defenders of gun rights to be wrong; they must be complicit in murder. It is not enough for gun-control advocates to be mistaken; they must be jack booted thugs, laying the groundwork for tyranny. And that is why we have no gun policy in this country."

TOM BROKAW:

Well, the gun thing, I've spent a lot of my life on it, I'm a gun owner, as I've said often before. I go in and out of gun shops out on the West and I've grown up with them. I don't think that we can piecemeal it. I have come to the conclusion that we have to get holistic about how we deal with guns.

We've got to get a blue-ribbon panel out of the Congress and the American people and get together and say, "This is what we have to do in a macro sense." Not just about the access to AR-15s or the bump stocks. You can't do it piecemeal. You've got to change the consciousness of the country, about the place of these weapons and what we need them for.

AR-15 owners will say, "Well, I need them to protect myself." So I went in and looked at two or three incidents in which a guy had an AR-15 and defended himself. He did it from four feet away. He would've been just as happy with a short-barrel shotgun or another kind of weapon. He didn't need an AR-15.

CHUCK TODD:

Al, you were just in Tallahassee. My theory is what Tallahassee can pass is what Washington can pass.

AL CARDENAS:

No doubt. I think 20 or 30 years ago, Tom, unfortunately, gun policy went to the states and left Washington. I think what Florida does this week, which is--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Or doesn't do. We don't know.

AL CARDENAS:

Or doesn't do, will set the tone for national policy. And they're hard at work at it. I can tell you from speaking to leadership that they have a fairly ambitious agenda. We'll see if it passes.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

You know, maybe I'm being too optimistic. But I do think we've reached a tipping point here, just like Rosa Park when she went to the back of the bus, something happened in the Civil Rights Movement. Harvey Weinstein, something happened in the Me Too.

CHUCK TODD:

It still took ten or 15 years for some legislation to pass.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

It may take time.

KATY TUR:

I don't know.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

But I think this Parkland situation and the students and the business guys stepping in right now where there's a vacuum of political leadership, something's happening. We've got to believe it.

KATY TUR:

If something's going to change, it's got to change either on the state level or on the business level, like we saw with Dick's Sporting Goods and a number of other businesses. And the federal level though, I think we're going to get mired in another controversy and we're going to move on with the conversation as we have always done.

Look, the president the other day, I mean, he's a unique person. And he's in a unique position to convince people who otherwise cannot be convinced of things. And if he came out strongly in favor of doing this, that, or the other on guns, he could convince folks. But he always waffles and rolls it back.

CHUCK TODD:

He has yet to use his personal capital with his base to do something against his base. He thinks about it, he threatens it, he says he--

(OVERTALK)

KATY TUR:

Talks about how he can, but he doesn't do it.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, guys.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

That's his security blanket.

CHUCK TODD:

That's right. Before we go, as you surely know, the Academy Awards are tonight. And but what you may not know is that three films from the Meet the Press film festival from our friends at A.F.I. last fall have been nominated for Oscars in the Best Documentary Short Subject Category.

So for your consideration, Knife Skills about the launch of a French restaurant using almost entirely men and women just out of prison. Edith and Eddie, about the country's oldest interracial newlyweds whose love story, threatened by a family feud, and it turned into an elder rights documentary.

And then, of course, Heroin(e), but the opioid epidemic in Huntington, West Virginia, and about three women dedicated to solving that problem, including the city's fire chief, Jan Rader, who's been our guest frequently at Meet the Press and Meet the Press Daily. Good luck to all of you tonight. Can't wait to see which one of the three does win this, because sorry, it's going to be one of ours. We promise. That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.