NBC News – Meet The Press

2.19.17

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, the turmoil presidency, President Trump back on the campaign trail, thrilling supporters.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

People wanna take back control of their countries. And they wanna take back control of their lives.

CHUCK TODD:

While at Town Halls, his critics worry.

TOWN HALL ATTENDEE:

Ever since the election, I have felt like a passenger in a car that’s being driven by a drunk driver.

TOWN HALL ATTENDEE:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

This after a week in which the president went after the intel community for leaking.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake.

CHUCK TODD:

Fired his national security advisor.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple.

CHUCK TODD:

Lost his labor secretary nominee, and called the media “the enemy of the American people.” This morning, I talk to President Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Also, Senator John McCain says President Trump needs to learn from history about attacking a free press.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN:

That’s how dictators get started.

CHUCK TODD:

My interview with Senator McCain. Plus, spy games, how serious is the rift between President Trump and the intelligence community?

LEON PANETTA:

The last thing they need is to have a president who questions their patriotism to this country and to him.

CHUCK TODD:

I’ll talk to the former head of the C.I.A., Leon Panetta. And stress test, how politics is getting all of us stressed out, but some a lot more than others. Joining me for insight and analysis are David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, Amy Walter, national editor of The Cook Political Report, Hugh Hewitt, host on The Salem Radio Network, and former Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland. Welcome to Sunday, it’s Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:From NBC News in Washington, the longest running show in television history, celebrating its 70th year, this is Meet The Press with Chuck Todd.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. It’s only been four weeks, but already we’re running out of adjectives to describe the Trump presidency. And this past week did nothing to clear things up. Late yesterday, President Trump returned to familiar territory, comfort food for politics, essentially, addressing adoring supporters in Florida, far away from protesters or reporter questions.

Mr. Trump is hardly the first president to seek validation from campaign-style events so early in his presidency. The last three presidents, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, all chose to escape Washington early in the first months of office. But none were dealing with the kind of self-induced crises that President Trump is facing right now.

In just the past week, the president fired his National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, saw his Labor Secretary nominee have to drop out, forced to react to a report that his staff had repeated contacts with Russian officials during the campaign, and realized that Congressional Republicans were becoming more emboldened to both distance themselves from the president and investigate his team’s ties to Russia. And he watched his poll numbers in Gallup plummet to historic lows for this phase of a presidency. So it was no surprise that the president, set to go back to what he does best, communicate directly with the American people, first through a televised news conference and then, at yesterday’s boisterous rally.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump was back on the stump last night for what his team called a campaign rally. More than 1,350 days before the next presidential election.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Despite all their lies, misrepresentations and false stories, they could not defeat us in the primaries, and they could not defeat us in the general election. We will continue to win, win, win.

CHUCK TODD:

Mr. Trump is hoping to shore up his base after a bruising week, and to put pressure on Republican lawmakers who are returning home and are being greeted by an angry opposition.

TOWN HALL ATTENDEE:

Ever since the election, I have felt like a passenger in a car that’s being driven by a drunk driver. Your hand is on the emergency brake.

CHUCK TODD:

This week, Mr. Trump returned to a well-worn playbook. He held a 77 minute “flood the zone” style news conference and spent much of it defending his own performance.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.

CHUCK TODD:

And the president selected and targeted enemies, including the intelligence community.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

The leaks are absolutely real. The f– the news is fake because so much of the news is fake.

CHUCK TODD:

And then there’s the media. In a tweet on Friday, the president called the media, quote, “The enemy of the American people.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

They have their own agenda, and their agenda is not your agenda.

CHUCK TODD:

But President Trump can’t escape the governing problems that have pushed his job approval rating below 40 percent in several polls after just 30 days in office. White House infighting and chaos, a rejection of his key foreign policy initiative by the courts, and the forced firing of his national security advisor after just 24 days on the job.

Then there are the multiplying questions on Russia. At least seven Congressional committees, led by Republicans, say they are investigating issues related to either Russia, former National Secretary Advisor Michael Flynn, or the handling of classified information. At his news conference, Mr. Trump repeatedly was pressed on whether anyone from his campaign had contact with Russian officials. And he would not directly answer the question.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Well, I had nothing to do with it. I– I have nothing to do with Russia. I told you, I have no deals there. I have no anything. Nobody–

REPORTER:

So you’re not aware of any contact during the course of the election?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Look, look, look. How many times do I have to answer this question?

REPORTER:

Can you just say yes or no on it?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.

CHUCK TODD:

Congressional Republicans are not exactly rushing to defend the president.

REPORTER:

The president said in his press conference that nobody he knew of from the campaign was in contact with Russian officials. Do you believe him?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

I have no idea.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is President Trump’s Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Mr. Priebus, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.

REINCE PRIEBUS:

Good morning, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with the issue of Mike Flynn and the conversations, what was said or not said, with the Russian ambassador. You were on this program just before the inauguration. And here’s what you told viewers at the time.

(BEGIN TAPE)

REINCE PRIEBUS:I have talked to General Flynn. None of that came up. The subject matter of sanctions or the actions taken by the Obama administration did not come up in the conversation.

CHUCK TODD:

So there was no challenge of American policy currently by Mr. Flynn with the Russian ambassador?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

None.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Obviously now we know that was not true. You clearly were misled. Walk me through this. When did you know you had been misled?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

Sometime after January 27th. It was, our legal counsel got a heads up from Sally Yates that something wasn’t adding up with his story. And so then our legal department went into a review of the situation. And some time after that, when Sally Yates refused to do her job as attorney general, like two days later, we had to get rid of her.

And then, some time after that, the legal department came back and said that they didn’t see anything wrong with what was actually said. But then we started thinking about whether or not Michael Flynn was being straight with us. And that’s when we started asking a lot of questions and sort of deposing Michael Flynn and figuring out what he knew or what he didn’t know.

He maintained the fact that he never talked to the Russian ambassador about sanctions. But still, something wasn’t adding up. And eventually, we determined that he did, in fact, talk about the sanctions, even though we didn’t believe that it was illegal. The fact was it turned more or less into a conversation about whether or not he was being honest with us and the vice president. And the president asked for his resignation, and we got it.

CHUCK TODD:

Did you– Have you– Did you read those transcripts yourself?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

I can’t answer that question. But I can assure you that I am fully aware of the situation. And we determined that he wasn’t being straight with the vice president and others. And that’s why we asked for his resignation.

CHUCK TODD:

Why did– Why was there more than a week– Why did more than a week go by before the vice president was informed of this issue?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

Well, I think he was always aware of the issue as to whether or not he talked about sanctions. I mean that was an ongoing conversation. He was aware of the fact that the F.B.I. interviewed Michael Flynn. The legal department started reviewing the matter to get a report on whether or not anything was actually done wrong, and whether or not he, in fact, talked to the Russian ambassador about sanctions.

And some point after we were first tipped off and got to the point of reviewing whether he was being honest or not, after we got the report back from the White House counsel, that’s when we looped in, or that’s when the vice president was brought into the conversation more fully in regard to whether or not Michael Flynn was honest.

CHUCK TODD:

Waiting that long, do you regret that it looks like that the vice president is essentially not in the loop?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

No, the vice president’s in the loop on everything, Chuck. I mean it happened so fast. I mean what happened was the legal department was tipped off. They looked into the legality of it. The actual investigation was ended almost immediately. So there was no investigation as a matter of whether it was legal.

But then, when we found out that, hey, he may have talked to the Russian ambassador, that’s when we started having the conversations with the vice president as to whether or not it was– whether he was being honest or not. So I mean it felt like it happened very quickly. And we made a determination very quickly.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you still believe this was an honest mistake by Mr. Flynn? Or do you think something– are you concerned it’s something more nefarious?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

No, I don’t think he did– my view is, and I’m not an expert on, you know, the Logan Act. But I can just tell you that our legal department looked at it. My view is what he did wasn’t illegal, like many other people have said, but it was the fact that he wasn’t straight or honest.

And I just found it hard to believe that you would have a conversation with the Russian ambassador and not remember it. So either way, either you don’t remember or you weren’t honest, either way, it was an unsustainable place to be, and the president made a decisive decision to ask for his resignation, and he got it.

But look, the fact of the matter is, in between all that time, the president got a lot of things done, Keystone, Dakota. We got out of TPP. We nominated Neil Gorsuch. We had the Keystone and Dakota Pipeline begin.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay.

REINCE PRIEBUS:

We had a hiring freeze. We had a deregulation executive order. There were so many things that were also happening to the good, Chuck, that it would be nice to talk about some of the accomplishments, which, in 30 days, have been remarkable.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to– I’ll give you some time to get to that. But I want to get back to Mr. Flynn. Is one of the reasons why you ended up having to let him go, when he was interviewed by the F.B.I. on the 24th, before the Sally Yates warning, are you, did he mislead the F.B.I. or lie to the F.B.I.? Is that one of the, one of the issues that came up during the deposing?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

That’s a different issue for the F.B.I. to answer, Chuck. I mean I’m just not in a position to answer it. Certainly we’ve talked about that issue with leadership at the F.B.I.. But I’m not in a position to talk about that with you. But listen, we’ve talked about this. I think we’ve laid it out very clearly. And now it’s up to the D.O.J. and the F.B.I. to take it any further, if that’s what they do.

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, since Mr. Flynn, has anybody else inside the White House been interviewed by the F.B.I. over the last couple of months?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

Not that I know of, Chuck. I think the answer is no to that. I would know.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. I want to go to the press conference on the issue of Russia. The president never seemed to answer the question that was asked three or four times there, which is, “Did anybody– Does he know for sure that anybody on his campaign, does he, can he say definitively that nobody in his campaign, nobody that he’s been associated with, had any contacts with any Russian agents?”

REINCE PRIEBUS:

No. First of all, the answer is no. And we don’t know of any contacts with Russian agents. And that gets to that New York Times story, Chuck. I mean we’ve spent days talking about a story that says that our campaign had constant contacts with Russian spies. And I can tell you, I’ve talked to the top levels of the intelligence community. And they’ve assured me that that New York Times story was grossly overstated, and inaccurate and totally wrong.

I know what the intelligence committees in the House and the Senate were told by the F.B.I. and I know what I was told. And what I will tell you is that story was total baloney. And in fact, Devin Nunes, who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee went on the record after he was informed by the F.B.I. as to that story. And what did he say? He said it was total garbage.

This is what we’re talking about, Chuck. It’s not all media. It’s not everyone involved in the media. It is this sort of fake news stuff that is enormously important that, when you get a front page story of The New York Times without a single source on the record saying that your campaign had constant contacts– they didn’t say one contact. They didn’t say two contacts. It doesn’t matter. We have not been informed of even that. But to say, “Constant contact?”

Then the next day, Chuck, The Wall Street Journal comes out and says that the president of the United States is being cut out of information by the intelligence community. Then later in the day, all of the main departments of the intelligence community says, “That’s not true.” This is what we’re dealing with while we’re putting in a lobbying ban, while we’re freezing federal government employees, while we’re getting the economy back on track, we’re sitting here talking about these stories or whether Steve Bannon and I get along or not, which we do.

I can assure you people in Kenosha, Wisconsin aren’t worried about that. They want to see jobs and money back in their pocket. And that’s what I’m trying to do, and we’re trying to do, every day, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

The Associated Press has a story this morning that the Senate Intelligence Committee has sent a letter to the White House counsel asking for a preservation of any communication, anything that could have any ties, either during, right now since you’ve taken office, during the transition of the campaign, to make sure there are no– all records are preserved regarding Russia. Are you aware of this letter? And have you already acted upon it?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

Yeah, I’m aware of it. And I think they’re going to do their job. And they have to do that. Those are things that Richard Burr and that team have to do. And that doesn’t mean that there’s anything there. It just means they need to do some things that satisfy their committee, that they’ve looked into something. And then they can have meetings behind closed doors that they always do in the Intel Committee, and then they’ll issue a report.

And as long as they do their job, and we cooperate with them, they’ll issue a report, and the report will say there’s nothing there. I know what they were told by the F.B.I., because I’ve talked to the F.B.I.. I know what they’re saying. I wouldn’t be on your show right now telling you that we’ve been assured that there’s nothing to The New York Times story if I actually wasn’t assured. And by the way, if I didn’t actually have clearance to make this comment. I’m not a sloppy guy.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay.

REINCE PRIEBUS:

I dot my I’s and cross my T’s. I was a 15 year litigator–

CHUCK TODD:

Okay.

REINCE PRIEBUS:

–before I became RNC Chairman.

CHUCK TODD:

Fair enough. Let me ask you this final question here on the President’s tweet. I’ll put it up here, “The fake news media failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.” And look, I understand there’s press criticism all the time. It happens with many presidents.

But let me ask it, this question this way. Aren’t you concerned that now that the president of the United States does not have the moral authority to travel around the world and express the openness for a free press in other countries, a free press is being challenged in a Turkey, in a Russia, with the president of the United States trying to de-legitimize the American press, does that not sort of undercut his ability to spread freedom and advocate for press freedoms around the world?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

Well first of all, it’s nothing new. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, have all had their issues with the press. I can assure you this, Chuck, and everyone in your business. The president believes in the First Amendment. He believes in the free press. I believe in those things. We don’t believe everyone is lousy in the media. We don’t believe everything is bad.

But there are some things that are really bad. And we’ve tried to– he categorizes that as “fake news.” What we’ve been through over the last ten days has been unbelievable, the leaks, the fake stories, the anonymous accusations. That stuff is bad.

And that’s what he’s referring to. I know where he’s coming from on this. But I can assure you he believes in the free press, the First Amendment, he loves our constitution. We just want to get this stuff back on the rails and more honest in regard to these really big accusations that are coming at us.

CHUCK TODD:

I know you believe all of this is press generated. Do you not have a problem inside that West Wing with leaks yourself?

REINCE PRIEBUS:

Look, if there’s a problem there, those people will have big issues. But the truth is, is that we don’t have problems in the West Wing. I mean you read about all these stories of I don’t get along with Bannon, and this one said– actually, we’ve really gelled as a team. And we get along great, and we’re working well together.

And the amount of drama and spin that you read about mostly in the Washington daily gossip rags is unbelievable stuff. And it just isn’t true. And you read it every day, and you wonder what alternative universe they’re reporting on. Because it just isn’t true.

I think every West Wing has different personalities. You had Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod. You had Andy Card, Karl Rove. You always have different kinds of people. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t ultimately get along, serve the president, want to make the American people proud. That’s what we’re doing every day. That’s what we’re trying to do every day.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Reince Priebus, I’m going to leave it there.

REINCE PRIEBUS:

All right.

CHUCK TODD:

I guess thanks for coming behind enemy lines. And we’ll see you next time.

REINCE PRIEBUS:

No, I’m happy to be here. Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Thank you, Mr. Priebus. Many Republicans have been largely reluctant to criticize President Trump, but not my next guest. Senator John McCain, who appears on the cover of this week’s New York Magazine, has taken plenty of incoming from Mr. Trump, and has been willing to…