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tv   The 11th Hour With Brian Williams  MSNBC  January 5, 2018 1:00am-2:00am PST

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breaking tonight from the "new york times," how the president tried to stop attorney general jeff sessions from recusing himself in the russia investigation. knowledge now in the hands of robert mueller. plus, the bombshell book rocking the trump world, set to go on sale early, despite a legal threat to cease and desist. and the trump white house now facing questions on the president's mental fitness for office. the 11th hour begins now. good evening once again from nbc headquarters here in new york, i'm in for brian williams. day 350 for the trump administration, trump's attempt to interfere in the russia investigation. "the new york times" headline tonight, obstruction, trump's struggle to keep grip on russia investigation.
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michael schmidt of the times reporting, quote, president trump gave firm instructions in march to the white house's top lawyer. stop the attorney general from recusing himself and the justice department's investigation into whether mr. trump's associates had helped a russian campaign to disrupt the 2016 election. the times citing two sources, saying mcgahn tried and he failed. the report goes on "mr. mcgahn was unsuccessful and the president erupted in anger in front of numerous white house officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him." mr. trump said he expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him in the way he believed john f. kennedy has attorney general has done for his brother john f. kennedy. and eric holder had done for barack obama. you might remember last week president trump sat down for an inter view with michael schmidt while vacationing in mar-a-lago. he made similar comments about
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holder and obama. "i will say this, holder protected president obama, totally protected him. when you look at all of the tremendous real problems they had, not made up problems like russian collusion, these were real problems. when you look at the things they did and holder protected the president, and i have great respect for that." "the new york times" also reports tonight that mueller has corroborated fbi director james comey's claims that he felt pressured to drop the russia investigation. and then there's this shocking detail. quote, the president's determination to fire mr. comey, even led one white house lawyer to take the extraordinary step of misleading mr. trump about whether he had the authority to remove him kwts. hour leadoff panel tonight, kimberly atkins, chief white house reporter for the boston herald, and peter baker for the "new york times." peter, let's start with you, this is your colleague's
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reporting, lay it out for us. >> well, this is adding a lot of new flavor to our understanding of the first months of the trump presidency when this russia probe was really getting under way. and you see from the events that michael schmidt my colleague has outlined how much the president felt the investigation was getting out of his control and how much he didn't understand why that was happening. as far as he was concerned the justice department was supposed to answer to him and the idea that jeff sessions, the attorney general, might recuse himself, was mystifying to him. wasn't jeff sessions supposed to be there to protect him, as bobby kennedy. at one point, he says where's my roy cohn, the old mccarthy aid and lawyer who had been a friend of president trump's in earlier days. it tells you about the mind-set of the president at this time and it does suggest that the special counsel, robert mueller, is focusing intently on whether there might be a case of
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obstruction of justice. >> certainly that. there's also this quote from the "new york times," michael, "the new york times" learned that four days before mr. comey was fired, one of mr. sessions' aides asked a congressional staff member whether he had information damaging mr. comey. this is an aide of jeff sessions going to congress, going to staffers on congress looking for dirt on the fbi director. have you ever heard of such a thing? >> maybe you would have to go back to roy cohen to come up with a precedent for that, katy, and that might have been the most startling detail in that incredible story. as peter said, in some ways that story adds flavor to our understanding of donald trump in the white house in these early months, but it's consistent with things we knew. that trump was telling people the russia investigation was phony, he was trying to get his name cleared, he was pressuring people to drop the charges. there are a lot of startling new details. but they're consistent with this picture of donald trump thinking that the federal government is
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like the trump organization, that people are there to serve him and defend him, serve his pleasure, as long as they're loyal to him, not necessarily the constitution. but that particular detail is something different. that is a -- if true, it's a little sketchy. i don't doubt the voracity of it. we want to know more about it. it suggests a sleazy political smear campaign that is in a wholly new category and can't be explained why. donald trump was in some kind of strange way naive about how the government work. he thought the attorney general was his employee to protect him. this is something much more sinister. katy, i hope we'll be learning more about it soon. >> you can't say jeff sessions, or presumely his staff, were naive about how the federal government worked or the rules. you're right to point that out,
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michael crowley. the other part of the story talks about what mueller has been able to corroborate, and the story says he has been able to corroborate james comey's memos. there's one in particular that it highlights, one that talks about reince priebus's handwritten tho notes showing that donald trump called him urging him to say publicly he's not under investigation. if he's able to corroborate that one, doesn't it allow credence to the others, the one where donald trump earn couraged him to stop the investigation into michael flynn? a big one here. >> it absolutely does. the things that corroborate, reince priebus's note as well. how methodically robert mueller and his team are going through every aspect of this to create a timeline and put together all of the pieces that could possibly lead up to obstruction. we don't know that it's there yet, but we see a lot. between the corroboration of comey's testimony, this idea
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that not just that an aide of jeff sessions was looking to get dirt on james comey, but that deputy attorney general rod rosenstein then talked to white house counsel about james comey. then after that, wrote this memo purporting to say that the reason that he's unacceptable is because of the way he handled the clinton probe. >> go ahead. >> i was going to say all those things put together seemed to really create -- start to create a picture of what was going on in this white house before james comey was fired. doesn't look good. >> don mcgahn's behavior as well. he's not donald trump's lawyer. donald trump's lawyer is not don mcgahn. don mcgahn is the lawyer for the government, the lawyer for the white house. he does not enjoy confidentiality between him and the president. >> he does not and his job is to act on behalf of the american people, not to protect the
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president. he was going to try to convince the attorney general to remain loyal to the president and protect the president is extraordinary as is the fact that one of his deputies tried to lie to the president to keep him from firing comey and convince the president that he needed to do it for cause even though he didn't. a lot of details. >> he's totally exposed if he has to go up with robert mueller. there's nothing holding any of his testimony back. >> no. >> but doesn't this, peter, fit a larger pattern? we've been alluding to this. donald trump in his opinion on how the government is supposed to work and who it is supposed to answer to. just the other -- a few weeks ago donald trump was on the larry o'connor radio show. he said this. take a listen. >> but, you know, the saddest thing is that because i'm the president of the united states i am not supposed to be involved with the justice department, not
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supposed to be involved with the fbi, not supposed to be doing the kind of things that i would love to be doing and i'm very frustrated by that. >> later in that interview, peter, he seemed to imply he could change paths and could end up controlling or influencing the doj. >> well, that's exactly right. and in his interview last week with the same michael schmidt who wrote the article in florida, president trump said he had the "right" on what to do about this investigation or open on investigation into his defeated rival hillary clinton. his understanding of his role in terms of what it should be, overseeing the fbi and the justice department is at odds with what most presidents in the post watergate era believed. that's not to say there haven't been presidents who abused the fbi or used it for political purposes, but since the 1970s it's considered to be out of bounds. whether that's legal obstruction or not, is a big question, a big debate about this. i'm not a lawyer, but you can
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find lawyers who say, look, he is the president of the united states. under the constitution he is the head of the executive branch and does, in fact, have great latitude in directing the justice department and the attorney general on investigations that might involve him, even. if it comes down to it, and robert mueller were to find an obstruction pattern and send it to the house of representatives for an impeachment proceeding, they have the right to decide what constitutes obstruction under the constitution as well. there is a big debate on whether the president crossed lines. >> there's more in the article we haven't covered, including the fact one of the lawyers in the white house lied to the president, misled the president, was afraid of telling the president he had the authority to fire the fbi director because he was afraid the president would fire the fbi director. michael, that lawyer still works in the white house. what does it say to you that even the teams inside that white house are afraid to tell the president the truth because they're afraid of what he might do?
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>> katy, it tells me the big story we're talking about tonight is merging right into the story that has slightly bumped out of the way, the michael wolff book about life inside the trump white house. the consistency there, the dots that connect are this picture of a president who is not even trusted or apparently respected by a great many of his own staff. now, as you know, the white house disputes the contents of the michael wolff book, but there is a consistent theme here, that people around the president don't feel like they are confident he can make rational decisions. they are trying to save him from himself. they're trying to -- sometimes it would seem save the country from the president. and that is a really stark example. you have obviously, you know, anyone who's in the white house counsel's office is going to be an accomplished, intelligent person, and you have a lawyer like that who is willing to
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essentially allow the president to be misled about his own powers for fear of what he might do and whether the motivation was to save trump's presidency, or whether it was, you know, to kind of protect the nation or the constitution doesn't matter. it's something that we just really haven't seen before. and does lend credence to michael wolff's account of what life in the west wing is like around this president and how, even the people who work for him view him. >> we're going to have more on michael wolff's book, including a response from the president he tweeted out moments ago coming up in a moment. but just one more note on this "new york times" article, which by the way we should say that donald trump's lawyer ty cobb is declining to comment on to the nbc news right now. peter, we don't hear a lot coming out of mueller's office. but this story does sound like
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it's coming directly from mueller's office. >> well, i can't say anything about that. i actually don't know michael's sources. it wouldn't be right for me to comment even if i did. robert mueller has been very disciplined about leaks from his office, much more so than any prosecutors we've seen in the past in these politically charged investigations. that doesn't mean he's the only person who has information about this. so, you know, around town there are defense lawyers who have been dealing with the mueller team. there are obviously congressional investigators looking into this kind of thing. i don't know that we can say where this came from. you're right, it provides an insight into where he's going. >> could be don mcgahn, who knows? i don't know michael's sources obviously. there was an interesting portion from michael wolff's new book, "fire and fury," one that stuck out to me, early on a conversation between roger ailes and steve bannon, happened a couple weeks before the inauguration, a dinner hosted by michael wolff in which roger ailes asks steve bannon about russia. he says, what has he gotten himself into with the russians?
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mostly, said bannon, he went to russia and he thought he was going to meet putin, but putin couldn't give an expletive about him, so he's kept trying. that really struck me, kimberly. present tense, two weeks before the inauguration. he's kept trying. i assume you don't know exactly what bannon means. but i would imagine that this is something that might peak the interest of an investigator. >> i think it certainly would. we saw the president speak in glowing terms about vladimir putin and how much he admired him and he's the sort of leader that was at least strong. perhaps that was just some sort of kinship he saw and he wanted to continue that. i mean, of course, we are taking steve bannon's word for this. but, i mean, it adds another level to this ongoing flirtation that the president has had, a bromance, especially before the inauguration, with vladimir putin that does not in any way make him or anyone else in his circle look better as this investigation goes forward.
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>> michael, where do we go next? >> oh, boy. well, look, we're waiting for the next shoe to drop, is mueller going to bring more indictments? the papers are filed. the grand jury meets on fridays. something could happen tomorrow. everyone is speculating about who the next target of the mueller indictment could be and house and senate committees are seeming to wind down their investigations. they will be issuing reports, house maybe sooner than the senate. partisan division there. still a few weeks away. katy, if you'll allow me to tack on one last quick point. i read that story very carefully, and there's no information in the times story that only could have come from mueller's office. that's an important point. any assessment so far is that mueller's team is not leaking. tonight's story does not change my judgment. i could be wrong. the sourcing is ambiguous.
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that information could have come from lawyers and other people who have been interviewed by mueller. i wanted to put that out there. >> and michael schmidt is a skill of reporter, put that out there as well. peter, you're at the white house, what's the mood like lately or like today? >> it's every day. you know, they thought they were getting off to a nice slow start to the new year. it's opened with a bang instead. they thought they would have more time to prepare for this book as we're about to talk about in the next segment, more leeway and breathing space given the big victory on the tax cuts before the holiday. instead, boom, right out of the gun, they're facing questions about the president, his mental health, the russia investigation. so the tension is gone right back up as if there had been no holiday. >> the mental health question came up early this week, in fact, the first working day of this week when donald trump himself ended up tweeting about his big button, his big nuclear button that was bigger than kim
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jong-un's. we're going to get to that later as well. michael crowley, kimberly atkins, peter baker, thank you so much. coming up, a threat to cease and desist. publishes of fire and fury, will start selling the book early, what the president and the book's author had to say. and steve cornacki is at the board. the 11th hour just getting started on a thursday night. he thinks it smells fine, but his mom smells this... luckily for all your hard-to-wash fabrics... ...there's febreze fabric refresher. febreze doesn't just mask, it eliminates odors you've... ...gone noseblind to. and try febreze unstopables for fabric. with up to twice the fresh scent power, you'll want to try it... ...again and again and maybe just one more time. indulge in irresistible freshness.
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mr. president? any words about steve bannon? >> he called me a great man last night. he obviously changed his tune pretty quick. thank you all very much. >> thank you. >> thank you. i don't talk to him. i don't talk to him. that's just a misnomer. >> thank you. >> thank you. >> the president speaking today, one-time chief strategist, steve bannon, a controversial book, a book donald trump is trying to stop. michael wolff's "fire and furry:inside the trump white house" is hours away from publication, and the president is threatening legal action against steve bannon as well as wolf and his publisher. bannon is quoted as making scathing comments about president and his family. the president's growing dissatisfaction with his attorney general jeff sessions. >> i am disappointed in the attorney general. he should not have recused himself. almost immediately after he took office. and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me prior to taking office.
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and i would have, quite simply, picked somebody else. so i think that's a bad thing, not for the president, but for the presidency. i think it's unfair to the presidency. and that's the way i feel. >> according to michael wolff, steve bannon tried to protect jeff sessions from trump's anger, he writes "jeff sessions was a close bannon ally. sessions was a -- corrosive -- talk the president down reminding trump of the difficulties they would encounter during another attorney general confirmation. the importance of sessions to the hard conservative base, the loyalty that sessions had shown during the trump campaign, backfired. to the anti-bannon side satisfaction they resulted in another round of trump's dissing bannon. author michael wolff will be a
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guest on the "the today show" show tomorrow morning. and david jolly, former republican congressman from florida. gentlemen, welcome. >> good to be with you, katy. >> 20 minutes ago, the president tweeted about this book. going to make michael wolff happy with continuing book sales. i interviewed -- i never spoke to him for book, full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don't exist. look at this guy's past and watch what happens to him and sloppy steve. he's got a new nickname. we should also -- >> presidents the white house. >> even though he authorized no access, he was still there. >> he was there. and it should be noted if you're just cleared in for a member of the press into the white house, you don't have a hard pass, a permanent press core, you get a gray, temporary pass. he got a blue one, which means he had west wing access. he had access to parts of the building that normal reporters would not have, allowing him to hang out on the couch in the
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lobby, talk to who's coming and going,or set up camp in steve bannon's office. >> he has the "t" word, tapes. >> he says he has tapes. as we've learned, not every time someone in the white house says they have tapes doesn't mean they do. >> that's true. david, the president has threatened legal action. he sent a cease and desist order to michael wolff, to steve bannon, to the publisher. despite that, they've pushed up the publication of this book, it's coming out tomorrow. it was supposed to come out next tuesday. all books come out on tuesday. for it to come out on friday is a big deal. he doesn't often follow through when he threatens legal action. kristen welker, my colleague in the white house pressed sarah huckabee sanders earlier today. >> president trump filed 20 lawsuits and followed through with two of them. why should they be concerned? >> regardless of whether or not there's a lawsuit. they should be concerned about peddling fake stories, concerned
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about putting out information that's not true. they should be concerned about the fact we're spending all of our time here focused on talking about this instead of things that people in this country care about. i think that's a really sad process and i think that that should be everyone's concern. >> is the president committed to following through with these lawsuits? >> that's a question you would have to talk to his attorneys about and whether or not that moves forward and what it looks like. >> i imagine if a book came out about past administrations like this book, hard to imagine one of those happening, because i don't think anybody would have this sort of access, if one did, i would imagine past administrations wouldn't go above and beyond to help publicize the book. the cease and desist letter to the lawyers helping keep it in the medlines, sarah huckabee sanders talking about it keeps it in the headlines, donald trump tweeting about it keeps it in the headlines. why is the white house so
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incapable of trying, at the very least, to ignore this? >> sure. because this is a president very defensive tonight. there's no legal standing for the suggestion that the president and -- in his personal capacity could file a cease and desist. he is a public figure. it takes extreme malice to be held for anything related to slander when it comes to a president or public figure. to your point about the tapes, katy, and this is why it's important, the president's attorney is working on the mueller investigation are working overtime. because michael wolff single handedly likely extended the bob mueller investigation. d.c. and new york are one-party consent tapes. sources agreed to go on tape, perhaps others did not. the important thing is candidness with which people spoke to michael wolff, and the reality, those conversations either contradict or confirm statements made to bob mueller by some of the same people in interviews during his investigation.
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upping the likelihood, at least the percentage of possible perjury by one of these senior white house officials. >> one-party consent means just that, only one of the parties involved in the conversation has to consent to the recording. the other person doesn't need to know about it. pretty notable if you look at the acknowledgments of michael wolff's book he thanks his libel lawyer pretty high up. steve bannon is facing blowback from this. the president has a nickname for him, sloppy steve. >> not as good as lying ted. >> or little katy, i guess. is sloppy steve going to be able to make a comeback with this president? how does he feel tonight? >> sloppy steve bannon has -- one would say this is the most per illous position so far. it's not just he's blasted publicly by the president to go after a former adviser like
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this, doing it from the white house yesterday, but also his long-time benefactors the mercer family who fund conservative causes, aren't ones to cause -- to call much attention publicly to themselves. >> no. >> spoke out in sort of a scathing statement today to say they've severed all ties with steve bannon. >> we have the statement. i support president trump and the platform on which he was elected says rebecca mercer. my family and i have not communicated with steve bannon in many months. we don't support his recent actions and statements. there are questions about whether or not breitbart will maintain its relationship with steve bannon. the owners are debating potentially ousting him. losing rebecca mercer and robert mercer, what does that say at
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status quo in washington, for all this big game talk about changing things and getting rid of the swamp and taking the power away from the moneyed elite, the folks who have always run washington? i mean, robert mercer and rebecca mercer are exactly that, and they're flexing their muscle right now. >> trump has always pedalled false narratives to his base, turn out not to be true. it's a false choice. they're both crazy, unfit for leadership, both bad for the party, bad for the country. to your earlier question about will they ever have a chance to make up? yes, they will. we have seen this -- this cult personality that is donald trump. there will be candidates, bannon-recruited candidates in the 2018 cycle that both donald trump and steve bannon get behind and they'll break bread over it and they'll make up. all republicans are currently doing this, they want to cling
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to the power that is donald trump. >> certainly bannon has been telling people in the last day or so despite how angry trump is right now he fully predicts down the road they will start speaking again. in the trump world, you're rarely out forever. >> all you have to do is compliment him. that's the facts. >> that is key. coming up, the delicate topic of fitness for office. back right after this.
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what's the president's reaction to the growing number of suggestions, both in this book in the media, that he's mentally unfit to serve as president? >> the same way we have before that it's disgraceful and laughable. >> when he goes to his physical, are there mental acuity tests that go along with that or is it purely physical in nature? >> when i announced he was going to be doing the physical, we'll have a readout of that after it's completed. >> that isn't a no. the white house fielded questions today by the president's mental fitness for office half scathing accounts of donald trump's competence were reported in that new book, "fire and fury" but michael wolff. trump didn't read, he didn't even skim. if it was printed it might as well not exist. for all practical purposes he
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was no more than semi-literate. he writes "trump was in words used by almost every member of the senior staff on repeated occasions, like a child." john than lamere and david jolly are back with me. some have pushed back on the accounts. this has been the narrative today, jonathan, that the president and frankly for the past week and you can say it goes back farther than that, the president is not mentally fit for the white house. take a look at what he tweets, take a look at the transcripts of his interviews and how he goes back and forth between topics and can't seem to hold a thread. there are a lot of questions about this. members of congress are meeting with a psychiatrist to talk about warning signs. you hear conversations. i have sources who ask me if he's lost a step, if i think he has lost a step. sources who have known donald
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trump for years who have worked in the white house. >> i think there's no question that we're seeing a pretty major store line for 2018. is the president's mental ability and capacity to have this job. now, certainly i'm not in the position to diagnose him one way or the other. it must be said, he is staffed differently than other presidents. it is well-known he has a shaky grasp of policy details and a short attention span. when aides come to him, they do it with briefings largely oral than reading, reading, it's maps, or documents that have his name in it a lot. he is someone whose scatter shot approach for the republican health care initiative back last spring, a lot of republicans on the hill blamed the president or, in part, for its failure, that he wasn't able to stick with one way or the other. he took a backseat role on taxes helped that get through. i do think you're seeing, saw it in the briefing today, those questions are going to continue.
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it must be added, the president himself sort of made an appearance in the briefing room today by video. >> what was that? >> even though the oval office is only 30 yards or so down the way. he has never once stepped foot in the briefing room to field questions from reporters. we're seeing this. though he certainly does take questions from time to time on the lawn before he goes to marine one, he's only had one full-fledged press conference since taking office. and all-his tv interviews, in depth one on one with follow-up questions have been with friendly fox news for anchors for months. >> another anecdote that michael wolff points out, i believe in the book and also in the hollywood reporter article that michael wolff wrote about about hope hicks putting the -- repeating himself over and over and over. that's from michael wolff. the book is full of gossipy details, yes, david, but the thread throughout it is donald trump's mental acuity, his ability to lead, his ability to
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take in information, to process the information, and then to go out and act on it. is it alarmist for people to seize on this? is this too much? if critics are coming out and saying we're making a big deal about this, what would you say to those critics? >> alarmist, sure, but more importantly it's a grave conversation to have as a nation. you know, in law there's a principle called res ipsa loquitur. the facts speak for themselves. the fact the nation is having a national conversation about whether or not our president is fit to serve, whether he has the capacity to serve, that speaks for itself. that suggests the president does not reach the bar that the american people have set for the fitness of a president. and this is very grave because it's different than politics. i was a republican member of congress, disagreed a lot with president obama. there were some things we did
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you on. some things we disagreed, at times angry disagreed, but i never questioned his fitness, his intellect, his capacity, his morality, his integrity. the in fact, the contrast you can draw now between the lack of capacity of donald trump and what we saw in barack obama, a decent gentleman who was fully capable of carrying out the executive office authority of the presidency, that contrast alone suggests the facts speak for themselves, the president likely does not reach the bar of fitness set by the american people. >> begs the question, will the white house ever be the same again? jonathan, david, thank you you guys. steve bannon was a kingmaker on the right, but are his favorite candidates stieking with him. steve kornacki is at the big board when we come back.
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steve bannon's fall from grace with the trump administration is sending shock waves through the 2018 election.
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republican candidates clambering for his support are now actively distancing themselves. nbc national political correspondent steve kornacki is at the big board for a breakdown of the fallout. has steve bannon managed to reunite the republican party? >> what was supposed to big story for 2018, primary races. senate battle map, the blue democratic seats, what we thought was the big story in 2018 was a lot of primaries, a couple red states in nevada, in arizona, maybe in mississippi where bannon was going to back insurgents challenging republican incumbents, challenging the republican establishment. what are we seeing happen in some of these places as a result? perfect example, nevada, dean helder, republican incumbent, u.s. senator, in trouble in the republican primary, danny tarkanian, the news about bannon, tarkanian. he says this, i supported the
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president before he was elected, support him now, will continue to support him after the primary, and most importantly i will support him after i am elected. the same cannot be said about mr. helder. if mr. bannon chooses to be with me, he can. danny is saying this isn't about president trump, isn't about wannon. >> in arizona, open seat, the flake, the republican is retiring, mcsally, the congresswoman, the establishment choice, kelly ward was shaping up to be the bannon pick. kelly ward out there saying positive things about bannon, no, similar statement. mississippi, roger wicker, incumbent republican senator, looks like he may be challenged by chris mcdaniel. is mcdaniel out there saying, yeah, bannon's got a point? maybe we should worry about
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trump? no, it's all about sporting trump, supporting the president. and these were all the places we've been looking at steve bannon potentially backing candidates, potentially backing insurgentsies this spring, in the spring of 2018. right now, you saw it today, somebody who put out a tweet with an image of him smiling, it was mitch mcconnell because mitch mcconnell is looking at all these places here, and he's saying, that bannon factor may be gone now. >> oh, what a difference a day makes. steve kornacki, thank you so much. >> sure. coming up the white house says the public should be worried about kim jong-un's mental fitness, not donald trump's. that's ahead when the 11th hour continues.
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michael wolff's book fire
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and fury refers to president trump's august threat to north korea has pulled questions about the president's mental fitness back into the conversation. it was starting on tuesday after his tweet, north korea leader kim jong-un stated the nuclear button is on his desk at all times. will someone from his depleted and food starved regime inform him i too have a nuclear button, but it is much bigger and more powerful than his, and my button works. at the white house briefing wednesday, nbc's peter alexander asked the question of all questions, whether that tweet should be cause for alarm. >> should americans be concerned about the president's mental fitness, that he appears to be speaking so lightly about threats regarding a nuclear button? >> i think the president and the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of north korea. >> tonight the associated press reports north and south korea
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have agreed to hold their first talks in more than two years next comes hours after the white house announced that president trump and south korean president moon jae-in have decided to halt military exercises until after the winter olympics. a sign some see as a possible calming of tensions. gordon chang, author of "nuclear showdown" and vivian salama for nbc news. what do you make of the fact that they'll have talks for the first time in two years amid all the other news we're hearing about every day? >> the big story is that north korea is wanting to talk to south korea for a couple of reasons but the more important of those reasons is that trump's u.n. sanctions are actually starting to bite. in come jong un's new year's address, there were a number of hints that way. and that sanctions pose an existential threat to the north korean state. so we're getting to them. indeed, president trump had two tweets on tuesday.
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tuesday morning he had a really good tweet talking about how sanctions are hurting, sort of rallying the international community to pressure north korea. then tuesday evening you have that juvenile tweet where it undos -- undoes all the good work because essentially we're not talking about the sanctions is, we're not talking about the campaign to really put north korea in its place, what we're talking about, of course, is button size. and so that's really been stepping on his own message. >> reminded me a lot of the detroit debate back in the campaign when donald trump was talking about the size or bragging about the size of his hands. in looking at the tweets this week, vivian, the big button and the sanctions tweets, how is that being -- how are they being received diplomatically in south korea? >> well, this has been an issue all along. obviously, a number of tweets that the president sends out like this, a lot of times the white house will brush off and they'll say, come on, the president was just joking. but in this case we have to
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remember that literally things get lost in translation. a character like kim jong-un who is already erratic in his behavior can interpret this and has interpreted these tweets in a very provocative way. we've already seen efforts to improve any kind of diplomatic channels and get any kind of low level discussions with north korea suffer as a result of the president's tweets where american diplomats have had to go to lawmakers in capitol hill and say, you have to get him to stop because this is literally, you know, just jeopardizing all of our efforts to establish any kind of diplomatic channels with north korea. >> what if the president pushed back and said, hey, listen, i'm tweeting but the north and the south are talking again? >> it's entirely possible that he sort of brushes it off. but i've been talking to south korean government officials both here in washington and in seoul for the past couple of weeks, and they've really been pushing for some level, low level engagement with the north
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koreans because, obviously, there's much at stake. i want to give you a little context, katie. there's a lot of emotional baggage that's going into this olympics because it resulted in a deadly confrontation at sea between north and south korea. and that's something they really have not forgotten, obviously, and they're so worried that now with tensions even higher than they were back then, that any kind of, you know, misunderstanding, any tweet, anything that's read in the wrong way could obviously exacerbate that situation. so you know, the threat is real, but the concerns are even higher. >> i know you look optimistically at some of the events that are happening and the sanctions is working but elliott cohen who was a bush staffer, had an article out in the atlantic which was titled "waiting for the bomb to drop." it's a stark recounting of what he thinks is going on.
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he says there are sounds, for those who can hear them, of the preliminary and muffled drumbeats of war. do you think he's ahead of his skis on this or is this something there? >> there's certainly something there. there's too much war talk. you hear that from senior white house officials, h.r. mcmaster, you hear it from voices outside of the administration in washington saying we really only got two choices, acceptance of north korea's nuclear weapons program or actually striking them. what we've been hearing is, yeah, we have to go in and take them out. i think that's wrong. there's other things we can do, sanctions can work, especially if we go after the chinese and the russians and push them back. we can disarm north korea peacefully. the trump administration general policy is to cut off the flows of money. that's a sound policy. the problem has been poor implementation, the vigor has gone out of the sanctions campaign. that's why we're hearing more and more war talk. that's really frightening.
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you talk about the tweet on tuesday evening, that's frightening, but also frightening what other people in washington are saying. >> gordon chang whose friends i imagine ask him every day are we going to die of nuclear war today. >> no, my wife asks that. >> even better, gordon chang. good to have an expert on talking about this and keeping us calm. we appreciate it. vivian salama, thank you as well. it was a 50-50 chance. a house election in virginia came down to two slips of paper.
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the last thing before we go tonight, the ongoing saga to determine control of the virginia house of delegates has finally reached a conclusion, at least for now. the republican incumbent for the fourth district david yancey led by ten votes after election day, but a recount left democratic challenger shelly simons ahead by a single vote. a day later a court determined a previously ineligible ballot should be counted for yancey leaving the race tied. today the virginia election board chairman pulled a film canister with the winning candidate's name out of a ceramic bowl. >> the winner of house district number four is david yancey. >> if the decision holds, republicans will maintain a 51-49 majority in the house. but the loser of the drawing is entitled to a second recount, which means it's unlikely this is the last we'll tell but the virginia board of delegates. good night from new york.
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this morning, following new reporting on the special counsel's investigation of possible obstruction by president trump. according to "new york times." gave instructions to stop attorney jeff sessions from recusing himself in the russia probe. plus the white house is waging war against the new book, fire and furry, gives inside look at the administration. attorney for the president is demanding it not be accomplished. >> a massive and deadly winter storm hits the northeast with snow, ice and floodwaters. this morning millions of americans with waking up to freezing temperatures.

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