Trump v. Rule of Law TRANSCRIPT: 2/19/20, The Beat w/Ari Melber

Gene Rossi, Mary McCord, Errin Haines, Michael Hirschorn




Good evening, Ari.


ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Chuck. Thank you very much.


We have a special show tonight, reporting on this crisis facing Attorney

General Barr, amidst Donald Trump`s pardons for well-connected insiders.


Plus, my special report on a hidden force in this 2020 race.


and later this hour, how the lawyers on both sides of the Stormy Daniels

case wound up in jail, the fall of Michael Avenatti.


But we begin tonight with the continuing crisis at Donald Trump`s Justice

Department, the crisis matters growing out of blatant political meddling by

the Trump administration.


And as a Trump era story, there are efforts to, of course, script and

stage-manage what is still a crisis, efforts by Trump and Barr to try to

stay in control.


So keep that in mind as you see this headline we`re about to show you,

which is not about stopping the actual meddling or changing the actual

sweetheart treatment for Trump adviser Roger Stone, but rather a vague

report that maybe Attorney General Bill Barr would consider resigning, that

he`s weighing that, and then quickly accompanied by an on-the-record denial

from Barr`s own DOJ.


As of this hour, I can report for you that Barr is not quitting and his

office says he`s not quitting. But it appears someone close to Barr wants

the impression he might quit, which comes after Barr claimed to criticize

Donald Trump`s tweets, only the tweets, about the Roger Stone case, all the

while standing by Donald Trump`s demands to go easier on Stone.




WILLIAM BARR, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE:  To have public statements and

tweets made about the department and about judges before whom we have cases

make it impossible for me to do my job.




MELBER:  Barr is under pressure publicly from over 2,000 DOJ veterans who,

of course, demanded he resign.


One can only imagine the private internal heat on him from DOJ staff or FBI

agents and everyone who basically backs independent, nonpartisan justice,

over Donald Trump`s demands to go into cases involving his friends.


All of this only further undermined by Donald Trump`s new use of his pardon

power to benefit 11 people who pretty much have something in common, as

“The Washington Post” documents in their front page today. They are just

about all connected famous people convicted of abusing their power.


Now, this is vintage Trump. And this is a coda to his Senate trial, where

his team spent weeks claiming, remember, he wanted to fight corruption in

Ukraine. Remember that? And here he is literally releasing people from jail

who are there for corruption, most infamously, Governor Rod Blagojevich.


He literally went to jail for trying to extort bribes in exchange for

Obama`s Senate seat. And then, of course, he had that stint on “The

Apprentice,” because of course.


Now, that was the news yesterday. I could tell you today the news is here

he was, a little lighter hair, a little different look, Donald Trump`s

beneficiary, Blagojevich, freed from prison, back in Chicago recounting his

journey, and, as Trump would demand, pledging his political allegiance.





long journey. I`m bruised and I`m battered and I`m bloody.


It`s been a long time since I have shaved with a normal razor. And it takes

a little practice. I`m sorry about that. I got to keep dabbing the blood.


We want to express our most profound and everlasting gratitude to President

Trump. I`m returning home today from a long exile, a freed political



He`s got – I`m a Trumpocrat.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  A Trumpocrat, that`s right.


QUESTION:  Are you going to vote for him?


BLAGOJEVICH:  If I have the ability to vote, I`m going to vote for him.




MELBER:  Trumpocrat is not a thing.


Now, I will tell you straight up there is no joy to be had in Mr.

Blagojevich`s hard time in prison, and one can argue there are too many

harsh sentences in America.


But Donald Trump didn`t shorten sentences for the hundreds of thousands,

hundreds of thousands of other anonymous unconnected people serving long

and harsh sentences. He reached out to help this “Apprentice” contestant

who brazenly schemed about selling Obama`s golden vacant seat.




BLAGOJEVICH:  I have got this thing. And it`s a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) thing,

golden. And I`m just not giving it up for (EXPLETIVE DELETED) nothing.




MELBER:  To paraphrase Donald Trump`s impeachment lawyer, why are we here?

A phone call?


Well, yes, today, America can see and is reminded that person you just

heard and saw, that`s the kind of convicts that Donald Trump wants to

specifically spare, just like America can see Donald Trump and his attorney

general working towards the same goals, even after their public claims of

disagreements over just the tweets.


We have to keep our eye on the ball even with all the other stuff going on.

Right now, the Justice Department`s still pushing to cut Roger Stone`s

prison term. A judge will literally rule on that as soon as tomorrow.


So, when you scrutinize the results, and not the spin, you find Mr. Barr is

not resigning, not changing the results in that controversial case that

keeps the DOJ in crisis, and continuing to do what Trump demands, while he,

Mr. Barr, apparently prefers Trump just doesn`t say it out loud.


And that`s a basic point that was made by none other than Trump ally Laura





LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS:  All right, John, the media sees the sexy story

of Trump vs. Barr, but they missed the fact that Barr was basically telling

Trump, don`t worry, I got this.






MELBER:  He`s got this.


And that brings us to another little detail we wanted to make sure you saw

in new reporting from “The New York Times.”


Their account says this normally vindictive president has actually

expressed no anger towards Barr, officials noting Trump understood why Barr

felt this need to complain about just the tweets.


Admitting the game in public obviously does complicate Barr`s life at the






do agree with that. I think that`s true. He`s a very straight shooter. We

have a great attorney general, and he`s working very hard.




MELBER:  Bill Barr isn`t standing up to Trump on substance, on results. He

talks about tweets, but he`s not standing up on these pardons, which also,

we should note, undercut some of the DOJ`s most respected nonpartisan

prosecutors in tough cases that also requires standing up to power,

including White House power, like the Scooter Libby case in the Bush White

House, or this Bernie Kerik case, which involves the Giuliani

administration, now the president`s lawyer.


All of this is important. And the news does move pretty fast these days,

but it is worth applying lessons from just last week, if we can all

remember that far, including the clear-eyed skepticism that greeted Mr.

Barr`s performance. It existed on this program. It existed from many legal

experts and in a piece nailing this all down very clearly right here on

MSNBC by Rachel, how Bill Barr`s actions say much more, much louder than

his words.





powers of reasoning and common sense.


I mean, here, plainly, despite the official lie that was rolled out today

to try to alleviate this crisis, here, plainly, the attorney general

intervened personally to do this most unusual once-in-a-lifetime thing for

the president`s friend, because that guy was the president`s friend.




MELBER:  I`m joined now by Mary McCord, acting assistant attorney general

for national security in a previous Justice Department, former federal

prosecutor Gene Rossi, and Jason Johnson from The Root.


Good to see all of you.


Gene, your view on what`s real and what is scripted here.


GENE ROSSI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR:  I don`t know what is real, but I

can tell you this.


I read that memo that was filed on February 11 by acting

Attorney General John Crabb for the Criminal Division, basically the Barr

memo that replaced those four prosecutors, who, to me, are heroes.


And what`s offensive about that memo is, in the opening page, they cite the

famous United States vs. Berger case from 1935, Justice Sutherland, where

it talks about how a prosecutor has a noble role and must strike fair, but

hard blows when needed.


And it talks about impartiality and you should not consider who the

defendant is in their position in life. Yet the memo itself was filed

because of who Roger Stone is and his relationship to the president.


MELBER:  Sure.


What do you read as Mr. Barr or his allies` emphasis here in ginning up

talk of him resigning?


ROSSI:  I think it`s a head-fake in basketball.


I really believe that the president of the United States has given Barr a

little leash, not a big one, but a little leash to sort of say something

negative about the president.


And I want to go back to Bill Barr`s interview on February 13. And you got

it listen to it very carefully, just like his answers to Kamala Harris in

May of last year. He said he never discussed the Stone case at the White



It could have been a Dunkin` Donuts. It could have been an Olive Garden. It

could have been a 7/Eleven.




MELBER:  About a Cinnabon?




ROSSI:  Absolutely.


MELBER:  Also potentially a Cinnabon. OK.




ROSSI:  Yes.


The other thing is, Ari, is, he said that no one from the White House

called him from the White House.




MELBER:  Right. Yes, a lot of parsing.


ROSSI:  Parsing, at best.


MELBER:  Well, let me bring in Jason Johnson on all this.


This matters. This is real people`s lives.




MELBER:  We cover a lot of these issues.


“The New York Times” put it – this isn`t me. This isn`t you. Here`s how

“The New York Times” described those faces we just saw on the front of “The

Washington Post,” these beneficiaries.


“Trump grants clemency to Blagojevich, Milken, Kerik, wiping clean the

slates of rich, powerful, well-connected white men. And it came after years

of sophisticated public relations campaigns aimed at persuading Mr. Trump.”


JOHNSON:  Right.


These people wrote him from prison. These people had friends asking him

questions. Many of these people were connected to the president

financially. And it`s the general message that he has, which is this is a

pay-to-play administration. If you kiss my butt, if you give me money, if

you make me feel good about myself, if you praise me, if you come up with

ridiculous names for yourself 15 minutes after you come out of prison, then

I will do something for you.


And the scary part about this, again, it`s not just that it`s the

destruction of how our justice system is supposed to operate. It is that

everybody else out there who`s committing a crime right now knows, well,

all I got to do, drop a couple coins in the bucket, and Donald Trump will

take care of me.


Everybody out there right now who`s actually working on investigations to

take down corrupt politicians is thinking, why am I going to do this work?

This is like a bad `80s cop film where every single time you catch the bad

guy, he`s got diplomatic immunity, he gets to run away.


That is what we`re facing right now. And William Barr was always in on this

stuff. This humblebrag nonsense that we always hear from this

administration, I can`t believe that Donald Trump is keeping me from doing

my job, they always end up working with the president at the end of the



So no one should have believed that he was ever upset with what he was

already in line with doing.




And, Mary, I want to bring you in. And it was really a site seeing Governor

Blagojevich out there today. It`s hard to imagine any other president

making this choice. Mr. Blagojevich did serve as a Democrat, but was widely

condemned by both parties on his way into prison.


And we showed last night a Republican leader in Illinois condemning the

president`s use of pardon.


Mary, take a listen to how some of this adds up, because many have noted

the overlap in the questions about abuse of power, which Donald Trump

apparently wants to define deviancy down. Take a look at this comparison.




TRUMP:  Just so you know, the call was perfect. He`s been in jail for seven

years over a phone call where nothing happens.


Perfect, I mean, perfect conversation.


I would think that there have been many politicians – I`m not one of them,

by the way, just in case – but that have said a lot worse over telephones.




MELBER:  Mary, the president has a unilateral power here in the pardon,

commutation process.


But I`m wondering what you think of the message it sends. Are you concerned

that these are self-interested, politicized pardons?



certainly self-interested.


And those comments you just played are particularly telling, because he was

drawing a parallel, frankly, between himself and former Governor

Blagojevich, and in a way that suggested – again, it`s just a mouthpiece

for Trump to say what happened to him was so wrong, was so corrupt, he was

such a victim of a hoax. Look at how I`m helping out this other person that

was also essentially the victim of a hoax.


And I feel like what I worry about is that this entire business between

Trump and Barr and the appointment of different prosecutors to oversee the

work of other prosecutors, the firing of people who testified or removal of

people who testified in the impeachment hearings against him, the attacks

on the judge, the attacks on a juror, that we`re all building up to is this

– what he and his attorney general would call a crackdown on corruption

against him, as opposed to the corruption that exists out there.


MELBER:  Well, I mean, Jeffrey Toobin from “The New Yorker” and obviously a

known legal comedy on television went so far as to say, this smacks of



Does it concern you heading into a reelection where the president has beat

Senate acquittal and is clearly on the warpath?


MCCORD:  Yes, it does, and because he`s shown ever since the acquittal and

before that, but even more so since that, that he just feels himself above

the law entirely, his declarations, I`m the chief law enforcement officer,

et cetera.


Now, to be clear, it is not illegal for him to direct the attorney general,

right? And I think you have said that before.


MELBER:  I have.


MCCORD:  But it has been well-understood and respected and part of internal

DOJ policy and White House policy since Watergate to keep a separation to

preserve that independence.




MELBER:  You`re reminding us of that, which is where some of the toughest

stuff in the nature of federal power is not illegal.


Your work in national security, Mary, no one said it was a felony for the

Bush administration to mislead the country into the war in Iraq. But many

people said, if anyone – and you can go through the list and decide who

you believe, but if anyone, a Dick Cheney or a Paul Wolfowitz, or whomever,

knowingly misled the country into war, right, that`s a terrible thing,

potentially the kind of thing you don`t want someone in government doing

that is worse than things that are felonies.


As we discussed in impeachment history, defacing a mailbox is a federal

felony. Lying you into war may not be.


How do you, given your national security experience, look at that with –

we have talked about this, the president, on the Navy SEAL case, Bernard

Kerik, who was already out of prison.


But the president seems to be sending a message. Every honest cop in New

York, you don`t get a pat on the back, even though, as I have pointed out

on this program, most officers are never accused of anything like what Mr.

Kerik was convicted of.


But, boy, if you`re Giuliani`s friend and you`re Kerik, suddenly, it`s OK

to be a corrupt police chief, Mary.


MCCORD:  Right.


Well, the message is loud and clear. And, also, I was a prosecutor in the

D.C. U.S. attorney`s office for 20 years. So, before I even moved into the

National Security Division. So the office where a lot of this is happening

is an office where I spent most of my career.


And what`s so scary now is it appears that the president wants to use the

Department of Justice to deliberately go after his enemies, right, and to

get rid of any types of investigation into those who are his friends.


I mean, that is exactly putting yourself above the law. That`s what you

said. That`s forget the work of investigators and prosecutors trying to

pursue what they have reason to believe are criminal charges, because if –

once there`s a loss of faith and credibility in the department when it

comes to anyone who has any political connections to the president, then

you have really lost a lot of credibility going forward.


And that`s in front of judges in the courts and in the eyes of the American

people. And that`s why I think what`s happening recently is so terribly



MELBER:  Yes, it`s really striking, and really helpful to have some experts

on hand, Mary McCord, Gene Rossi, and Jason Johnson.


We are, of course, broadcasting on a big political night.


And coming up, I have a special report on money in this election, the

hidden hand, and why buying support sometimes is fair game. Should it be?

We`re going to get into all that, and later look at a cautionary tale in

the resistance to Donald Trump.


Plus, what to expect from Mr. Michael Bloomberg`s first time out on this

debate stage, in fact, his first time in over a decade.


All that and more as we prepare for the big MSNBC debate, Democrats

squaring off. You can see a live shot right here in Nevada.


I`m Ari Melber. You`re watching THE BEAT on MSNBC.




MELBER:  Tonight`s presidential debate features the richest person to ever

run for president in history, a development that voters can decide to view

as a plus or a minus or even as irrelevant. It`s up to you.


But note the wider trend here. While a few billionaires have self-funded

races before, like conservatives Ross Perot and Steve Forbes, Trump is the

first person to sell-fund a primary and win. And the Democrats now have two

billionaires running.


The reason for this broader – is broader, really, I think, than any

particular candidate, right? Apart from whether you like Steyer or

Bloomberg or Perot or not, our democracy is literally now more expensive

for candidates than it`s ever been.


Multimillion-dollar media buys are almost a requirement for getting close

to the nomination. There`s more untraceable dark money. There`s new

technology, which can be a platform for regular citizens, but is actually

increasingly for sale.


Then you have courts cutting back laws that regulated campaign spending,

which leaders in both parties have warned about.





already forming and building war chests of tens of millions of dollars to

influence the fall elections.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA:  If they gave a million dollars, they could

remain anonymous. Is that really what American politics are all about?




When you started talking about $100,00, $500,000, million-dollar

contributions, it was starting to cripple the political process.




MELBER:  And that brings us to tonight`s special report, how money is

shaping this race already, sometimes in subtle ways that can be hard to

see, and why this goes beyond any single candidate, and is actually a

deeper dilemma than even the entire cycle of 2020.


Now, what you`re about to see is all basically legal, the ways that

campaigns can essentially buy votes without technically breaking any laws

against buying votes.


Now, it begins with this little girl singing on the Internet, because every

clip you`re about to see is actually from Internet content posted by people

who`ve now been paid to support one of the Democrats running for president.


Let`s take a look and talk about it on the other side.










MELBER:  Every one of those videos was posted by popular Instagram users or

influencers who the Bloomberg campaign is now paying to post content that

supports or advertises Bloomberg`s candidacy.


That girl who was lip-synching was singing from a song by the Canadian

Drake from a lyric that actually applies to Mike Bloomberg`s approach. I

got big stacks coming out the safe.


Yes, you do. But this isn`t a joke.


Daily Beast now reporting Bloomberg is paying these citizens to post about

voting for him online, which is legal, while paying the same people to vote

for him, of course, would not be legal. This report noting that, for a $150

fee, the campaign instructs people to post about why Bloomberg is the

electable candidate who can rise above the fray.


And the campaign tells these freelancers to be honest, passionate, and be

yourself, unless, of course, you don`t support Bloomberg yourself and

you`re only doing it for 150 bucks.


Now, this could all be the next step in paid branding. The brand here is

the candidate, and the accounts with the audiences in the millions here,

some of them rivaling a radio or TV station, like GrapeJuiceBoys, they took

the money and posted lighthearted content about a request to make Bloomberg

look cool.


Another account, Tank.Sinatra, joked Bernie Sanders was asking again to

make Bloomberg look cool, kind of an inside reference how often Sanders is

again asking for donations.





raising deadline for 2019 approaches, I am once again asking for your

financial support.




MELBER:  Sanders and Bloomberg may be two of the oldest candidates running,

but younger people are engaging these themes online.


There`s a joke meme about college students pulling a Bernie-style move by

once again asking for their parents` financial support.


These jokes tee off something that many Democrats take seriously right now,

searching for the candidate who can run against Trump and deploy the

financial firepower to compete.


Now, for Sanders` supporters, it`s all about the grassroots fund-raising,

which does lead the field, and Sanders` folks argue it reflects hit the

broader enthusiastic movement he`s building. The notion of a grassroots

organizer rounding up small donations, something Barack Obama also touted.


Other Democrats are eying Bloomberg. And they say they liked the idea that

he already has the money to compete. So there`s a contrast.


The point here is not to fixate on technology. There are plenty of

questions about old-school pay-for-play politics offline too for several of

the candidates.


Take this primary going into South Carolina. Sanders touting seven new

endorsements from South Carolina lawmakers. Billionaire Tom Steyer

announcing the support of a lawmaker who heads the state`s legislative

Black Caucus.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  As we have in our midst this afternoon, the next

president of the United States of America!


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  When I first met the senator, one thing I realized, he

had a heart full of grace.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I`m very excited about the candidate that I have chosen

to support for president of the United States in terms of Tom Steyer. I

like what he`s doing.




MELBER:  Now, both presidential candidates were featuring those as genuine

endorsements, but there are they also involved paid politicking, according

to “The New York Times,” which reported Sanders` campaign paid $150,000 to

two of the lawmakers, Wendell Gilliard and Terry Alexander, through their

consulting companies.


Steyer`s campaign sent $40,000 to Representative Jerry Govan. And unlike

some of those Internet ads I just showed you, which admit they are sponcon,

or sponsored content, which is a requirement under federal rules, some of

these campaign payments don`t have disclosures in real time for voters to

even see.


I think it tells you something about how lax campaign finance laws are now

that they are basically seeing more transparency rules for selling Flat

Tummy Tea on Instagram than the rules for getting to the White House.


Now, on cue, as these campaigns like Bloomberg plow millions into Facebook,

you see the rise right there, Facebook itself is diluting its transparency

rules more. They say they will now let candidates deploy these sponsored

posts, which they call working with creators to run content. And Facebook

will let the campaigns hide the ball. They don`t have to verify identity or

disclose how much they spend.


As for those offline payments, I should note journalists still report on

all of this. Campaigns like Steyer`s emphasize that all of this stuff is

technically legal, which is true.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The Govan Agency was paid for community building

services. The Steyer campaign said Govan is a senior adviser to the

campaign and his salary is consistent with other team members in South



UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The statement filed by the Steyer campaign simply

stating that they paid a corporation owned by Jerry Govan $45,000. This

payment is not illegal, nor unethical.




MELBER:  And it is legal.


And I want to be very clear. We`re talking about the whole issue. The whole

set of practices here are broader than any state, broader than Steyer or

Bloomberg or Sanders.


In the run-up to the 2008 South Carolina primary, the Clinton campaign was

spending $10,000 a month in a fee to a South Carolina lawmaker, which led

to questions about the arrangement, Clinton defending the move, saying

Senator Jackson was someone that they turned to for advice and counsel and

they were proud to have him.


There are many problems with this legal pay-to-play politics in a lot of

places. And the public examples in South Carolina are so common, they have

actually become something of a political punchline, which even the show

“Veep” got in on.




JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS, ACTRESS:  Stealing South Carolina is the bedrock of

our political system. If you can`t figure out how to steal South Carolina,

you have no business being president.




MELBER:  That`s a fictional comedy. Back here in the real world, this

gusher of money is not about stealing something illegally. It`s

increasingly about buying something legally, buying ads, buying the

appearance of support, buying endorsements.


And if you buy enough things surrounding the votes, we have to ask a big

question for democracy. And it`s not about any particular party or state.

It`s, at what point are they basically, essentially buying the votes too?


We`re going to dig into these tougher questions and the clash in tonight`s

debate with two very special guests when we`re back in 30 seconds.




MELBER:  We are back.


And you are looking at live pictures of the hall where these Democrats will

step on the stage tonight joined by Mike Bloomberg for the first time. It

is, of course, the NBC News/MSNBC debate in Nevada.


And a lot of eyes will be on it.


As mentioned, I am joined now by Jelani Cobb from “The New Yorker,” and

Errin Haines from The 19th, a political Web site.


Thanks to both of you for being here.


ERRIN HAINES, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE 19TH:  Thanks for having me.




HAINES:  Super interesting stuff there.


MELBER:  Well, Jelani, Errin, I want both of your views on the way money is

playing an even bigger role online and off.


COBB:  Sure.


I mean, this has metastasized, I think. Going each election cycle, you see

this getting more and more involved. But there are a couple of downsides to

this I think that people aren`t necessarily thinking about, that, if you

are trying to get Instagram influencers or social media influencers to do

things that make your campaign look cool, there`s not a one-to-one ratio

between effort and result.


Like, everyone has done something on social media that craters and, oh,

maybe I should not have tweeted that, maybe this wasn`t taken the way it

was meant to be. And so it`s only a matter of time before someone has to

explain something really indelicate that they have actually paid for.


MELBER:  Is it bad for democracy at this really grassroots level, 150 bucks

here or there, that people are being paid not literally for their vote, but

just to tell their friends, this is who they support?


HAINES:  Well, I was going to say, I think it`s a strategy, right?


I mean, I think that what we`re seeing, this election is largely being

fought online. And I think that that`s been increasingly the case since I

would say 2008. Bernie Sanders is actually pretty good at this. I mean,

make fun of him if you want, but he`s been laughing all the way to the bank

with his online pleas to his supporters, who have been giving him that

grassroots support; $25 million alone in January says that his strategy may

– while it may look awkward, and while he`s maybe not necessarily paying

influencers online, is something that`s paying off for him.




MELBER:  Let me press down on that, though.


There`s a big difference, many argue, between people supporting him in

small increments and candidates, as we just showed, paying whoever,

influencers, elected officials.




MELBER:  I mean, I think people, a lot of people, would wonder, if you`re a

public official paid by the state government of any state, why should you

also be taking money from a federal official who wants to be president?


HAINES:  Well, I mean, I think that people are trying different things with

online strategies.


And like you said, I mean, it is legal. And that is not necessarily

translating into votes for these candidates. I mean, voters are discerning.

Young people are seeing them, saying, oh, that`s cool. And maybe I will

give it a like, but that doesn`t necessarily mean that I`m going to give it

a like at the ballot box.


COBB:  So, I think to Errin`s point, like, one, to answer your question,

yes, it`s bad.


I think it`s an iteration of something that`s been bad for a long time. If

you think about it, and we`re talking about not South Carolina, but lots of

places where they refer to – quote – “walking around money,” which is

what you put out right before the election to make sure that people make it

to the polls.


How that translates into people voting for you or how they get to the

polls, that`s a whole other thing. It`s kind of like not wanting to know

how the sausage is made.


And so there`s that. The other thing I think that`s significant to remember

is that, in 2008, Hillary Clinton lost South Carolina. They spread lots of

money around. And Anton Gunn, who was running the state program for Barack

Obama then, did an end-run around all the elected officials.


They basically created an alternate system of getting votes, and they were

entirely successful in doing that. So even though I think that it`s bad,

generally speaking, I don`t think that it`s a guarantee that all these

things wind up working the way that candidates may think that they will.


MELBER:  Well, and that goes to the question of where the free press meets

the paid press.


Full disclosure, we have got three journalists here discussing this, right?

If you talk to the campaigns, and I showed some of their defenses, they

have their view of it. As journalists, we often believe, well, as long as

all the facts get out there, people can make up their own minds.


And so, with Bloomberg, it`s especially interesting. He`s going to be on

this debate stage tonight for the first time. He is trying to pay for what

Donald Trump and, to your point earlier, perhaps Bernie Sanders were

getting organically.


And the question is whether over the long run that is going to work or

potentially backfire.


Take a look at Donald Trump touting social media in the White House, which

did get him, and to put it in Bloomberg media terms, high return on





TRUMP:  Some of you are extraordinary. The crap you think of is





TRUMP:  I asked somebody, what do you think I`d do without social media?

Would I be here? Because I said, I think so. But they weren`t so sure.




MELBER:  Errin, are Democrats better off saying, well, we will beat him at

his own game with our own organic, excited army, or, no, if you can have a

mercenary army, same diff?


HAINES:  Well, I mean, I think it is kind of a situation, unfortunately,

of, don`t hate the player, hate the game, right? Like, they have to get in

on this.


He is definitely beating them at this game. And Democrats need to figure

out how they are also going to harness social media to get voters excited

and engaged in this election.




MELBER:  What if the player is a hater?




COBB:  That`s not a question.


I mean, we have established that the player is a hater. We established that

in November of 2015, when he announced his candidacy.


But the other thing I want to say just quickly about Bloomberg is that

there are these kinds of things that are kind of paid, they`re not being

really disclosed. It`s kind of cloaking, and almost – I don`t think it`s

too much to say that it`s deceptive to people who are on the other side of



HAINES:  Right.


COBB:  The other thing that I think is very much out in the open, but has a

kind of hazy connection to things, is that even when Bloomberg was mayor,

he had this really influential network with other mayors nationally, and

certainly through his philanthropic ventures, he has put a lot of money and

a lot of places, very well spent for important causes.


The Trace, which is an outlet that covers gun violence – and I`m on the

board for The Trace – and that`s created in connection with Michael



And so I think that in interest of full disclosure. But I think that it`s

also important to say, that is not unrelated to the ways in which people

have rolled out.


If you have seen in the last three days that battalion of people who`ve

come out to kind of minimize stop and frisk, we`d be naive to think that

this unconnected to the causes…


MELBER:  To the money.


HAINES:  … that Bloomberg is supporting.


MELBER:  Right.


And buying up so much of the of the civil society and the nonprofit and

public discussion, it`s so important you mentioned that.


Errin, I`d be remiss given your remarks earlier to not say that what wasn`t

it Drake who said the game is sold separately?




HAINES:  Well, I think what Bloomberg…




MELBER:  No, I`m sorry. I`m sorry.


HAINES:  No, it`s totally fine.


MELBER:  It`s my bad.


HAINES:  We appreciate these references, as always, Ari.


But, I mean, like, Mike Bloomberg is really out here saying to Trump and

the rest of this field, in the words of Lil Wayne, who I`m sure you can

appreciate, what is a goon to a goblin, right?


I mean, like he really is using his money to drive a narrative in a way



MELBER:  Well, I didn`t know you were going to go there. But wasn`t it Jay

Z who said, what`s a God to a king?


COBB:  I`m sorry. If this is going to devolve into freestyle rap…






HAINES:  We`re not going to do that.


MELBER:  No? You know why? You know why? Because I blame myself. You`re new

to the program. We met you on the trail in New Hampshire. So you`re new.


But Jelani won`t do it. So it`s me and you without Jelani. So you`re going

to be that backstop.




COBB:  I know.


HAINES:  He`s going to curb us.




MELBER:  I have got to get in a break, because we`re going into the debate.

I`m shaking your hand because you`re open to it.


Thank you both. A really important discussion. We`re going to stay on it,

Jelani Cobb, Errin Haines.


Again, tonight`s debate, do not miss it, 9:00 p.m. Eastern on MSNBC, plus

the preshow.


When we come back, I have a very special guest on progressives` hunger for

who can actually beat Trump at his own game. We`re going to show you

something you may not have seen.


And then more on digging into the crates for what to expect and preview in

tonight`s debate. That`s later on in the show.




MELBER:  This crisis at the Trump Justice Department putting the spotlight

back on many convicted felons who work for Trump, from Roger Stone,

famously arrested right there in the Mueller probe, to convicted Trump

aides Michael Flynn allegedly getting softer treatment from Barr`s DOJ,

like Stone and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, currently incarcerated.


Cohen pled guilty to campaign violations from payments he arranged for

Stormy Daniels on Trump`s behalf, a problem that drew far more attention

when Daniels got a pugnacious new lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who baited

Cohen and his claim Trump in a string of press conferences, articles, TV

appearances, and earned a following among some in the Trump resistance.


Allegations, though, did pile up against him ranging from domestic violence

and fraud to stealing money and hiding it from authorities.


Now, not all of those allegations have been resolved in court, but Avenatti

was just convicted of a plot to extort Nike, a case brought by the same

prosecutor`s office that indicted his former foe Michael Cohen.


Avenatti was jailed in New York in solitary confinement during this trial.

He now faces up to potentially 20 years in prison.


All of this raising the prospect that he and Cohen, two TV lawyers who

clashed over a Donald Trump case, will both be incarcerated as a liberated

Trump campaigns for reelection, raising larger questions about the politics

and law at play in Trump`s America.


And here is how fast Avenatti rose and fell.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  With the new lawsuit centering on a mysterious

hundred $30,000 payment, Daniel`s lawyer says it`s hush money.



sentenced today. Donald Trump is next. Michael Cohen is neither a hero nor

a patriot. He lied for months on end about his criminal conduct.


BILL MAHER, HOST, “REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER”:  He`s not only the attorney

who represents Stormy Daniels. He`s Donald Trump`s worst nightmare, Michael





AVENATTI:  I`m here to listen to the great people of Iowa and explore the

fair and figure out if it makes any sense to run for the presidency or not.


QUESTION:  Are you seriously looking to run for president of the United



AVENATTI:  I am. If I wasn`t serious, I wouldn`t be here.


What, you may be asking, is a porn star lawyer doing here tonight? What I

fear for this Democratic Party that I love so much is that we have a

tendency to bring nail clippers to a gunfight. When they go low, I say we

hit harder.



remember Avenatti as the man who used to represent Stormy Daniels in her

suit against the president using the cunning legal strategy of spending 24

hours a day on cable news talking about himself.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He`s been arrested and charged with a number of

crimes, including trying to extort more than $20 million from Nike.


AVENATTI:  I am highly confident that when all of the evidence is laid bare

that I will be fully exonerated.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Michael Avenatti has been found guilty on all counts in

the case involving Nike and Avenatti`s extortion of the sports gear giant.




MELBER:  Quite a story.


Joining me now, reality TV guru and innovator Michael Hirschorn. He

actually created the concept of celebrity reality TV at VH-1, hits like

“Flavor of Love,” “Love the `80s,” and, of course, “Celebrity Rehab.” Hi-o.


He`s now president and CEO Ish Entertainment, also writes analysis for the

magazine “The Atlantic.”


We thought of you for this conversation because this seems, even beyond its

details, like a very Trump era story, but also a story of grifting on a

political movement.




And I think what he tapped into was this feeling – I spend a lot of time

in resistance circles – that we need our own savior, we need our own

grifter. So he was the – he was for a minute seriously thought of as the

only guy who could really beat Trump at his own game.


And he had a fantastic jaw line. That`s the most important thing.


MELBER:  And that`s does that as a political matter reveal a blind spot?


HIRSCHORN:  Yes, I think resistance folks have a really complicated reality

– relationship with politics and are fundamentally anti-politics.


And if you look at the Sanders movement, it`s really all about purity and

being precisely clear and righteous about the cause that you are in favor

of. Ditto for, I think, large aspects of the woke community.


And I think Avenatti represents a very different path that we could have

taken. And I think there`s some desire still to take that path, and I think

that`s what explains Bloomberg.


MELBER:  Are you open to speaking about the meta-politics of television

while on television? Is that something you could do with me?




HIRSCHORN:  I live for that. I woke up like this.






MELBER:  Let me read “The New York Times” on this very point, because they

point out: “Inside Donald Trump`s hour-for-hour battle for self-

preservation, he does see the world as a TV show. He makes others live that

way. Trump telling aides think of each presidential day as an episode in a

TV show where he vanquishes rivals,” something you know a lot about.


Do Democrats have to play on that level? And we`re speaking here on a night

where a media billionaire, who`s certainly good at media, if nothing else,

is about to take the Democratic stage. And Mr. Avenatti represented a

pugnacious version of that.


Is the view here that Democrats politically have to do that first and win

TV before they ever get back to a different form of discourse?


HIRSCHORN:  Well, I think that`s the question that we`re only going to know

the answer to in June and July and maybe in November.


One thing is true, which is that we don`t really know how to play that

game, right? The thing that Avenatti did, when you sort of dissect his

method, was attack, never defend, imply that you know things that you may

not know, represent a certainty that you may not believe in, and constantly

play kind of meta-narratives, constantly play the game that something

amazing is about to come out.


MELBER:  Something amazing.


HIRSCHORN:  Stay tuned.


MELBER:  Oh, the precipitating thing is about to happen.


We have a little video here that went viral from his critics, but is real,

which shows Michael Avenatti here at one of his famed press conferences,

but when it wasn`t working as well, and you see. You will see he`s talking,

it looks like a press conference, but as the video continues to play, you

will notice with a wider camera, he`s speaking to an empty room.


HIRSCHORN:  That was amazing.






No, I mean, it`s – I think he was too smart for his own good. He

understood how media is played now, but he wasn`t able to combine it with

anything beyond his own self-interest. And so I think ultimately he played



MELBER:  And you say too smart for his own good. According to the jury,

also too criminal for his own good.


HIRSCHORN:  Well, criminal now is like incidental, right?


I mean, criminal just sort of makes you interesting. Without any

criminality, you`re not even like playing the game these days.


MELBER:  Spoken like a recovering reality TV show producer who also writes

for “The Atlantic.”


Michael Hirschorn, you bring a lot of insight to this, as well as

experience. Thank you very much. We wanted to really look at that.


Up ahead, we have a special preview of tonight`s debate, including some

classics of Michael Bloomberg that may show you where he`s headed tonight.

Big stakes.


Stay with us.




MELBER:  We`re looking at more live pictures of a room that will fill up

tonight for this big Democratic debate.


Michael Bloomberg will be returning the debate stage, not only for his

first time in this cycle, but his first time in a decade, and facing rivals

who obviously have a lot more debate experience, including recently.


“The New York Times” noting Bloomberg will be out there without much of a

safety net, without his war chest, without the campaign operation we have

been covering.


But we have gone back at the archives to look at how Bloomberg did in his

earliest debates ever when he was transitioning from businessman to pol.

Here he was in 2001.




QUESTION:  Mr. Bloomberg, you have admitted in the past that you switched

to the Republican Party because you wanted to run for mayor and also

because the Democratic field was pretty crowded when the race began. Is

this being a political opportunist?



about a year ago. It was obvious that I could not run for mayor in the

Democratic Party when there were four candidates who`d spent their lifetime

working in the Democratic Party.




MELBER:  Bloomberg advocates may point to lines like that in his history

for consistency to basically say, he was a Democrat, he`s always approached

ballots pragmatically.


Meanwhile, the attacks leveled against Bloomberg, of course, have come up



Here was a debate moderator pressing him on campaign spending, all this

money talk. This was back in 2005.




QUESTION:  Four years ago, you warned against obscene spending. And how did

you define obscene spending then? And how do you define it now?


BLOOMBERG:  Look, Dave, what I`m trying to do is to get my message out to

everybody, every community, every single person, regardless of where they



I`m doing it by buying time on television and radio and in print.




MELBER:  Bloomberg, no stranger to standing up and making the case that he

will spend his own money to make his case.


And, remember, for all the people taking shots at Mr. Bloomberg, he

certainly is looking like a bigger force in the Democratic primary. He will

tonight likely lean on some of his other high-profile public appearances,

including the last time he was in a setting like tonight, a big national

Democratic gathering.


Of course, we`re discussing the 2016 DNC, when Mr. Bloomberg used his

firepower then to go after Donald Trump.




BLOOMBERG:  Trump says he wants to run the nation like he`s running his

business? God help us.








MELBER:  It is quite a night as we ramp up for this debate.


I did want to tell you, on THE BEAT, we will be following a bunch of news

tomorrow. A federal judge will rule on the sentencing of Trump associate

Roger Stone, of course, the case sparking crisis at the DOJ. That is the

judge Donald Trump`s been publicly attacking.


And we are also still on verdict watch in the Harvey Weinstein sexual

assault and rape case. The jury has now wrapped up its second day of



And then lots of reaction to what we expect in tonight`s big Democratic

debate beginning at 9:00 p.m. Eastern right here on MSNBC with all of our

colleagues. Don`t miss it.


And don`t miss “HARDBALL,” which starts now.







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