The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 4/11/2017

Guests:
Adam Entous, Eric Swalwell, Spencer Ackerman
Transcript:

Show: The Rachel Maddow Show 
Date: April 11, 2017
Guest: Adam Entous, Eric Swalwell, Spencer Ackerman

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.

A lot going on in the news. Literally, tonight, there`s a bunch of
developing stories.

We`re waiting right now on news out of Kansas where counting is under way
in what appears to be an unexpectedly close congressional election. I say
this is an unexpectedly close race because this is a deep red district in
deep red Kansas. This is a district that Donald Trump won by nearly 30
points in November.

This is the sort of race that should be called immediately when polls
close. This is something where it shouldn`t be hard at all for the
Republican Party to hold onto this seat. This is a seat so partisan that
you might expect the Democratic Party wouldn`t even run someone in a
district like this.

But the Democrats are running someone, and we`re watching these results
come in tonight. Polls close at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. We do not yet have a
result. We will be watching that throughout this hour. We`ll be reporting
on that story later on this evening.

Also tonight, the White House made itself the center of quite a lot of
unflattering attention today as the White House spokesman basically almost
talked himself out of a job, with a series of repeated unforced, bizarre
misstatements, including about World War II, statements that he continues
to try to apologize for into this evening. So, we will get to that tonight
as well.

But we have to start with a little breaking news which has just been
published by “The Washington Post.” And I want to say from the outset that
the source of this news is very unusual this is a breaking news story about
the Trump campaign and Russia. And this story springs from a very unusual
leak. It`s a leak of something that really doesn`t usually leak.

And “The Washington Post” goes out of their way tonight to point out in
their reporting that what is the source of this scoop that they`ve got,
this is not a typical, you know, people talking to the press sort of leak.
This is not something that usually gets leaked to the press. I`ll just
quote the way “the Washington Post” describes it.

This is about a FISA warrant. FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act. They have been leaked the contents of a FISA warrant.
As “The Washington Post” explains, quote, “The judges who rule on FISA
requests, on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests, those judges
oversee the most sensitive national security cases and their warrants are
some of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of U.S. law
enforcement and intelligence gathering.”

Nevertheless, the content of one of those warrants is what appears to have
leaked tonight. At least what “The Washington Post” says they have
obtained tonight in the Trump Russia story. That is a very unusual thing.
FISA warrants don`t leak.

But one has leaked, and it is breaking news tonight. It`s breaking news
about somebody who was recently listed in court documents as male number
one. You might remember this story that we covered a few nights ago on
this show. Male number one, as described in this criminal indictment from
a few years ago, was an American energy consultant.

According to this filing by the court, filing by the U.S. government, he
was recruited as an unwitting asset for Russian intelligence back in 2013.
Quoting from this court filing, “On or about April 8th, 2013, the
defendants, who are Russian spies who are being surveilled by the FBI in
this case, they discussed efforts to recruit a male working as a consultant
in New York City as an intelligent source.”

The FBI picked up these conversations between Russian spies who were
working out of New York and, according to the indictment, where the U.S.
government brought charges against them for being Russian spies, one of the
things these guys were caught on tape talking about was their new American
intelligence asset who was listed in the indictment as male number 1.

The spies described him as literally an idiot, is the word they used for
him. They described him as basically having no idea that he was
befriending Russian spies. He wanted to make contacts and get promoted by
the energy business.

Eventually, the FBI goes and pays male number 1 a visit. And male number 1
reveals that in the course of this friendly relationship he struck with
these Russian spies, he did pass them documents about the energy business,
which is what they were trying to get from him in the first place. That`s
what the Russians were after.

This is how Russian spies cultivate Americans to betray the United States,
right? Start off friendly. Start off with something that seems like a
business relationship or an academic relationship. Start off with handing
over your own thoughts on specific industries.

Try to get them hand over some documents about those industries. Stay in
touch, right? Start a transactional relationship. Maybe it turns into
something. Maybe it does not.

This is what Russian spies, what spies from all countries who spy here try
to do when they try to recruit Americans.

Well, earlier this month, “BuzzFeed News” reported that male number 1 in
that spy ring indictment was actually a Trump campaign foreign policy
adviser named Carter Page. It seems like a weird coming together of
different news stories, but Carter Page was apparently recruited as an
American asset by Russian spies in New York in 2013. And it was a
successful recruitment effort. They may have described him as an idiot,
but he handed them documents. He handed them information to help them out.

Carter Page met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy
who was in fact, later charged by the U.S. government, along with two
others for acting as unregistered agent of a foreign government.

Funny thing about that “BuzzFeed” story from last week is that the way
“BuzzFeed” confirmed that Carter Page was the intelligence asset in this
story, the way they confirmed he was male number 1 is that, quote, “Carter
Page confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he is male number 1 in the court
filing.” He flat out told them and he`d been in contact with this indicted
Russian spy, Victor Podobnyy.

So, that background of Carter Page from that Russian spy story, that`s part
of what adds to the strangeness around the Trump campaign and their
involvement with Carter Page. In March 2016, candidate Donald Trump was
getting pressure in the media, pressure from his Republican rivals for not
having apparently any foreign policy advisers on his presidential campaign
team.

While he was getting that pressure, including from “The Washington Post”
editorial board in an interview, he pulled this random name out of a hat,
Carter Page. He volunteered that name. Carter Page, he`s my foreign
policy adviser.

“The Washington Post” was pressuring him on this subject at the editorial
board meeting and that guy was inexplicably one of the only foreign policy
advisers Donald Trump could name. And just a couple years before, he had
been recruited as a Russian intelligence asset.

And that is the background that brings us to tonight`s breaking news.
According to this remarkable leak to “The Washington Post”, “The Washington
Post” reports tonight that last summer, the FBI got a FISA court warrant.
One of the super secret national security warrants that never leaks.
“Washington Post” reports that a FISA warrant was issued last summer to
monitor Carter Page`s communications while he was an adviser to the Trump
campaign.

I`m quoting from tonight`s article which was just published within the last
couple of hours, quote, “The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer
to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate
Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia
and the campaign.” That`s according to law enforcement and other U.S.
officials.

Quote, “The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting
Carter Page`s communications after convincing a foreign intelligence
surveillance court judge that there was probable cause to believe that
Carter Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case,
Russia.” That`s according to these officials.

Quote, “The government`s application for the surveillance order targeting
Carter Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators`
basis for believing that he was an agent of the Russian government and that
he knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of
Moscow.”

Quote, “Among other things, the application cited contacts that he had with
the Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013. Those
contacts had earlier surfaced in a federal espionage case brought by the
Justice Department against another Russian agent. In addition, the
application said Carter Page had other contacts with Russian operatives
that have not been publicly disclosed.”

Since this 90-day warrant was first issued, it has been renewed more than
once by the FISA court, according to these officials who spoke with “The
Washington Post”.

So, this is – if what “The Washington Post” has reported turns out to be
true, this is a big advance in the story, right? It is worth, though, I
can`t stress this enough.

It`s worth keeping in mind that FISA warrants are super secret. First rule
of FISA is you don`t talk about FISA. I mean, the existence of the court,
the existence of these types of warrants often itself is treated as
classified information.

When House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes gave his spate of
press conferences last month about what he implied might have been improper
surveillance of Trump transition officials, he merely mentioned some of the
intelligence he saw same from FISA warrants. Immediately upon him saying
that, classification experts started wondering allowed if perhaps Devin
Nunes had disclosed classified information just by saying that something he
had seen had been obtained through a FISA warrant. He`s under
investigation for potentially disclosing classified information.

And now, tonight, somebody has leaked to “The Washington Post” not just the
existence of a FISA warrant and the Trump Russia investigation, but a whole
lot of information about its contents. That in itself is stunning, even
before you get to the part about a campaign adviser to the sitting U.S.
president being under FISA court surveillance as a suspected agent of a
foreign power, while that foreign power was affecting the U.S. election to
try to elect our current president.

Joining us now is Adam Entous. He`s a national security reporter for “The
Washington Post.” He was on the team of reporters who broke this story
tonight.

Mr. Entous, thank you for joining us on short notice tonight. I really
appreciate you being here.

ADAM ENTOUS, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST (via telephone):
No problem. Happy to be here.

MADDOW: So, first of all, let me ask you if you think it is appropriate
for me to be putting this emphasis on the nature of this information that`s
the basis of your report tonight. It seems to me as a layman, just as an
observer here, that we very rarely get a leak, let alone a detailed leak of
the contents of a FISA warrant. Is that fair to say?

ENTOUS: You know, I haven`t really looked back to try to get a sense of
what other details about FISA warrants have been – have been leaked. I
think in this case, obviously, it`s – it`s important to kind of understand
the context and, like you said, you know, last summer when it looked to the
intelligence community like Russia was intervening in the election and you
can understand why the FBI, which had launched its investigation,
counterintelligence investigation in July would be interested in trying to
get to the bottom of any contacts between people both who are working for
the campaign and also have Russian contacts.

And like you did notice, you did take note, there was this previous contact
between Page and a Russian agent which, obviously, the FBI knew about when
he surfaced on the campaign.

MADDOW: The – one sharp difference between that described interaction
that he had with known Russian spies in 2013, again for context there, that
was a case that was actually prosecuted by the Justice Department. It was
an employee of a Russian bank in New York. And two Russian government
employees who were associated with legitimate government outposts here in
the United States. The three of them were tried. Two of them were back in
Moscow and didn`t actually get physically put on trial here. One of them
actually was tried and convicted and just got out of federal prison a few
days ago.

In that case, he was described as essentially an unwitting target of those
Russian spies. But what you guys are reporting tonight, I`ll just quote
here, “The government`s application for the surveillance order targeting
Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out the basis for believing
he was an agent of the Russian government and that he knowingly engaged in
clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow.”

So, that would say he was not someone being used unwittingly but, rather,
he knew what he was doing and that he was deliberately acting as a Russian
agent.

ENTOUS: Yes. So, as you know, I mean, the bar is relatively high for
trying to get one of these FISA warrants. And it requires the
investigators to – and the prosecutors to make a case of probable cause.
And so, the officials we spoke to described some of the aspects of that
case.

There are other aspects of that case they were making in this document that
we are not aware of, and which we vaguely allude to, including other
contacts that allegedly Page had with others on the Russian side. And so,
there`s still a lot that we do not know about the contents of the warrant.
What was – what case the government had to make to the FISA court in order
to get this warrant and, you know, as it says in the story, the warrant was
renewed, at least once if not multiple times.

So, typically, they have to – these cases come up again. The judge takes
another look and decides, are we getting anything of value out of this
before deciding whether to renew? And we know in this case it was renewed
at least once.

MADDOW: And to that point, let me just raise with you, Adam, the statement
that Carter Page gave to you when you guys brought him this information,
this reporting. Tonight you quote him as saying, “This confirms all of my
suspicions about unjustified politically motivated government surveillance.
I have nothing to hide.”

He`s implying or stating that this is – this is unfair. There`s no basis
for hum to have been the subject of this court order. When you confronted
him with this information, was this of news to him? Was he aware that he
was under this form of surveillance?

ENTOUS: Just to be, in the sake of full transparency, I wasn`t one of the
– I wasn`t the reporter that made that call. So I`m not sure what his
reaction was when he was told. But, you know, you can pretty much tell
from his statement that maybe in the back of his mind, he suspected that
this might have been going on.

And his statement certainly dovetails with, you know, a talking point, an
accusation that`s been leveled by the president himself and by others in
the administration about, you know, about surveillance that took place in
2016 or alleged surveillance which took place in 2016, some of which, you
know, I think, is pretty clear in the case of Flynn, the former national
security adviser, involved incidental collection but might have also
included FISA warrant like the one we`re reporting on tonight.

MADDOW: Adam Entous, national security reporter for “The Washington Post”,
with this remarkable story that`s just posted within the last couple of
hours – Adam, thank you very much for helping us understand this tonight.
I appreciate it.

ENTOUS: Pleasure. Thank you.

MADDOW: I also want to bring in to the conversation now, Congressman Eric
Swalwell. He`s a Democrat who is on the House Intelligence Committee. He
represents a district in northern California where I happen to have grown
up.

Congressman Swalwell, thank you very much for joining us. I appreciate you
being with us tonight.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA (via telephone): Nice to be back with
you, Rachel.

MADDOW: So, “The Washington Post” has posted this story tonight, just
after 7:00 p.m. tonight, saying that an adviser to the Trump campaign, a
man named Carter Page, is the subject of – or at least was the subject of
a FISA court warrant that he was suspected of being a knowing agent of the
Russian government and that a FISA judge, FISA court judge ordered this
surveillance of him as such.

Can I just get your overall top line reaction to this report tonight?

SWALWELL: Certainly, someone who you would be interested in getting to the
bottom of what his ties to Russia were. And you brought up that back in
2013, he was a – a subject approached for his ties to Russia. He may have
been unwitting at that point.

However, he was someone who had done $25 billion of transactions with
Russia. And then to go to Russia in 2016, just a month after it was
revealed that Russia was involved in an interference campaign in our
elections, and to ask the Trump campaign a number of times for permission
and to be denied and then to go around J.D. Gordon who he had first asked
and then to go to the campaign manager at the time, Corey Lewandowski, that
I think would raise a real interest by the FBI and the Department of
Justice.

So, I`m not surprised at all that they would seek that, if it`s true.

MADDOW: The Trump administration and Trump campaign officials have taken
various lines on Carter Page over the course of this whole saga.
Obviously, the only reason his name came up in the first place is because
the now president, then candidate, Donald Trump, volunteered him when he
was listing off the names of people he wanted to be known as his foreign
policy advisers. Carter Page was the second person he named when he
brought that up with “The Washington Post” editorial board.

Since then, the administration has tried to say that Carter Page was
somebody they`ve never met, had nothing to do with him, persona non grata
and really shouldn`t be associated with him whatsoever.

What do you make of that dynamic within the administration about this
investigation?

SWALWELL: That dynamic, to me, is an administration that is trying to run
away from someone that at one time was close to them. And the way that
Carter Page has behaved, you know, from his interviews with Chris Hayes and
also Anderson Cooper is also the behavior of somebody who seems to want to
cover up prior ties. I mean, he can`t even answer how many people were in
the room each time he`s been with Donald Trump.

And as a former prosecutor, I found that a lot of times, the behavior that
people demonstrate after an investigation takes place tells you a lot about
whether you are investigating the right person.

MADDOW: Congressman, one last question for you. I have to ask if the
House intelligence investigation into these matters is live. Obviously,
the chairman of your committee has recused himself from these matters while
he`s investigated for potentially leaking classified information. There is
a new person on the Republican side, Congressman Mike Conaway of Texas, who
is going to be supposedly helming this part of the investigation.

Should we expect there will be more public hearings, that this
investigation will go on?

SWALWELL: We`re in the best place we`ve been in since the chairman,
Chairman Nunes, went to the White House the day after Director Comey and
Rogers` hearings.

So, we`re back on track. We`ve agreed to an extensive witness list when we
get back to Washington in about a week and a half. We`ll start
interviewing those witnesses.

And it is my hope we have that public hearing we promised the American
people with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Directors
Clapper and Brennan. And that would be I think an important step to
showing that we`re getting to the bottom of what happened, whether any U.S.
persons were involved and, most importantly, how we`re going to make sure
we`re never in this mess again.

MADDOW: Congressman Eric Swalwell of California, member of the House
Intelligence Committee – thank you, sir. Appreciate your time tonight.

SWALWELL: My pleasure.

MADDOW: Again, we`re reacting to this breaking news from “The Washington
Post” tonight. The headline is “FBI obtained FISA warrant to monitor
former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.” The FBI and the Justice
Department convinced the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, secret
court, last summer to issue a warrant, which is a hard thing to get from
the FISA court, targeting the communications of Donald Trump`s foreign
policy adviser Carter Page.

This is the first time we`ve had confirmation of that kind of – that part
of the investigation by a long shot. “Washington Post” just posting this
tonight just after 7:00 p.m.

Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: One of the first close U.S. allies that was offended and yelled at
and reportedly hung up on by the new administration, by the new president,
was the prime minister of Australia.

You might remember President Trump was in a conversation with the prime
minister of Australia. Things turned heated for a reason that was never
quite clear and President Trump reportedly hung up on him in the middle of
their first conversation.

The prime minister of Australia has a name. His name is Malcolm Turnbull.
It`s not that hard, Turnbull. Malcolm Turnbull, that`s his name.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president had a very cordial
conversation with Prime Minister Trumble (ph).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: His name is not Trumble. It`s Turnbull. Just those two
syllables, Turnbull.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: While he has respect for the Australian people and respect for
Prime Minister Trumble –

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: This is not actually that hard, but the White House spokes – it`s
Turnbull.

But right away, from the very beginning, it was clear the White House
spokesman could not manage this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: Prime Minister Trumble. In respect for Prime Minister Trumble.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: His name is not Trumble. His name is Turnbull. There were these
early little signs that maybe even the kind of easy stuff like this was
going to be a problem because it turns out it`s not even just names, it`s
when you spell stuff out, too. Literally acronyms are even hard. Even
short acronyms.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: He received an intelligence briefing and the PBD every day.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The president receives a PDB every day, not a PBD. It`s the
president`s daily brief, not the – president`s daily briefly, really, PDB.
President`s daily brief, PDB.

But the White House spokesman cannot manage that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: He receives an intelligence briefing and the PBD every day. He
received the PBD. He received the PBD. He does get the PBD every day.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: It`s not the PBD. It`s the PDB. It`s the president`s daily
brief. It stands for a thing.

And then he was trying to talk about the terrorist attack in Orlando. It
happened in Orlando. Orlando is a totally different place than Atlanta,
which is what he kept saying instead.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

SPICER: What do we say to the family that loses somebody of a terrorist,
to whether it`s Atlanta or San Bernardino or the Boston bomber?

I don`t think you have to look any farther than the families that were –
of the Boston marathon, in Atlanta, in San Bernardino.

Whether you talk about San Bernardino, Atlanta –

(END VIDEO CLIPS)

MADDOW: When he says Atlanta over and over again, there isn`t a terrorist
attack in Atlanta that he`s talking about. He`s trying to talk about
Orlando. But it keeps coming out Atlanta over and over and over again. He
later cleared that up but not before the –

And now, today, it`s World War II 101, as failed by the spokesman for the
president of the United States. I know you heard about this today, but if
you actually heard the thing itself, because this isn`t just mispronouncing
something. This is the full-blown blossoming of something that appears to
be a thought.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: What makes you think that, at this point, he`s going to pull
back in his support for President Assad and for the Syrian government right
now?

SPICER: I think a couple things. You look – we didn`t use chemical
weapons in World War II. You had a – you know, someone as despicable as
Hitler who didn`t even sink to using chemical weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: I`m not going to go ahead and spell out the history here of Hitler
gassing millions of people to death in World War II. Obviously, you know
that history. Everybody knows that history. Seven-year-olds are too young
probably to watch this show but 7-year-olds know that history, right?

But this is our White House now. That was the statement today.

Do you care to clarify, sir? Were you talking about someone, something
other than Hitler maybe? Do you want to clear this up?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CECILIA VEGA, ABC NEWS: I just want to give you the opportunity to clarify
something you said that seems to be gaining some traction. Quote, “Hitler
didn`t even sink the level of using chemical weapons.” What do you mean by
that?

SPICER: I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no – he was not
using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean,
there was clearly – I understand – thank you. Thank you. I appreciate
that. There was not, in the – he brought them into the Holocaust center.
I understand that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The Holocaust centers? He brought them into the Holocaust
centers?

And when he was not using gas on his own people? By which you mean the
people Hitler gassed by the millions weren`t his own people? Whose people?

I mean, this is an attempt at historical reference gone very, very, very
wrong, clearly. But what it`s about in the present, what this historical
presence is about now is also a problem here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad
is doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The same way who? What?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: The same way that Ashad is doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Ashad. That`s one of his attempts today to say Bashar al Assad.
That was one of his tries. Here`s another try.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: No, I don`t see a future Syria that has Bassad al Aschar (ph) as
the leader of that government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Bassad al Aschar. His name is Bashar al Assad.

The White House spokesman later went on CNN. Still couldn`t manage that
part of it. Still.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: There`s no way that I can see a stable and peaceful Syria with
Bashar al Assad in charge.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Bashar al Assad. You`ve mispronounced his name a few
times. But it`s Bashar al-Assad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Bashad al Assir was the attempt there.

Talking is hard. Everybody gets tripped up sometimes. But this is the
person whose job it is to speak for the White House. And he can`t even do
it in print, let alone out loud. Seriously.

After initially stating that Hitler didn`t use chemical weapons, that
Hitler, OK, OK, well, at least he didn`t gas his own people, that Hitler
only did the gassing of whoever he gassed in the Holocaust centers. After
that happened out loud, look at this – this is how they tried to clean it
up in print.

The White House put out this written clarifying statement at 2:47 p.m. from
the press secretary. “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous
nature of the holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the
tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people.”

When you say innocent people, do you – OK, no, let`s try that again. So,
then a few minutes later, this is nine minutes later. From the press
secretary: “In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the
Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using
airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers.”

OK. You want to leave it there? You sure that`s where you want to leave
it?

Nope, sorry. No, another written clarification ten minutes letter. This
one time stamped 3:06 p.m. from the press secretary. “In no way was I
trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to
draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical
weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is
reprehensible and inexcusable.”

That makes three difference written tries in 19 minutes. Anything else?
Are we done with this now?

Oh, no. Not done. Not done it turns out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: I needed to make sure that I clarified and not in any way shape or
form any more of a distraction from the president`s decisive action in
Syria and the attempts he`s making to destabilize the region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The attempts that he`s making to what?

The White House spokesman today not wanting to distract from President
Trump`s efforts to destabilize the region.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SPICER: Any more of a distraction from the president`s decisive action in
Syria and the attempts that he`s making to destabilize the region.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Talking is hard. Some people are better at talking than others.
I talk for a living on TV, for example. I`m not great at it. I know for
sure that I could not last five minutes as a spokesperson for the White
House. Never. Couldn`t do it. Most people couldn`t do that.

But some people can. Why is he doing it? Just a transfixing series of
blunders today from the White House on an incredibly serious subject. And
it`s only made worse by the fact that it`s actually not just the freaking
spokesman.

Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was at a G7 meeting in Italy. You
might remember this group used to be called the G8 before they kicked
Russia out for invading Ukraine and the G8 became the G7. Rex Tillerson
flew from the G7 to Moscow. supposedly to take this very hard-line with
Russia.

But before he got on the plane to Russia, he managed to pry this out of his
own mouth: Why should U.S. taxpayers care about Ukraine? Quote, “With one
offhand remark, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left European
diplomats befuddled at a gathering in Italy.” Quote, “Why should U.S.
taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?” Tillerson asked.

Yeah, who cares about Ukraine? American people clearly do not care about
Ukraine. Now I`m off to tell Russia what a hard line we`re taking with
them after they invaded Ukraine because that`s so important to us.

Maybe the White House spokesman can walk that one through its paces,
clarify it. Spell it, maybe.

Even on the most serious issues on Earth, this White House, this
administration can make itself the center of attention just by sheer virtue
of how disastrously, distractingly inept they can be at even the simplest
things.

But if that makes you less funny ha-ha and more funny sick, there is a
little bit of a cure. There`s a cure for that despair. It`s called
democracy. And we are having a little outbreak of it tonight. And that
story is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: March 21st, Pennsylvania held a special election for a state
representative seat. And special elections are always a little weird.
They can have low turnout. They can be very unpredictable.

But this race last month in Pennsylvania was particularly weird because it
was a really, really Democratic district but no Democrat was on the ballot.
The Democratic candidate for that state rep seat got thrown off the ballot
in a technicality. So, the only name on the ballot in that election was a
Republican.

And then remarkably, that Republican, who was the only name on the ballot,
she lost. She lost anyway. The Democrat won that race in Pennsylvania
last month even though he had to run as a write-in candidate.

Now, that was a very Democrat – look at that. Democrat got 73 percent as
a write-in. The Republican was on the ballot. She only got 7 percent.
That was a very Democratic district, right?

So maybe that fluky result was not all that strange, but it does sort of
fit what`s starting to look like a national pattern. There have been about
a dozen elections around the country, legislative elections all over the
country. House – state house races, state senate races, including that
one I just described where the Democrat won hugely, even though he wasn`t
even on the ballot.

In 10 of the 13 races that have happened thus far since the presidential
election, the Democratic candidate has done better than you might expect
compared to how the presidential race went in November. It`s not
universal. There are a couple of exceptions.

But in general, Democratic candidates running all over the country are
doing better than you might otherwise expect if you just look at the
results of how the presidential election compared to how the presidential
race went in November.

But after all of those dozen or so elections that have happened for these
legislative seats around the country, today was the first big one. Today
was the first special election for a seat in Congress. And this
congressional seat is one that`s basically structurally impossible for
Democrats to win.

If you just look at the numbers in this district, this is a district that
Donald Trump won by 27 points in November. The Republican incumbent
congressman there was Mike Pompeo. Mike Pompeo did even better than Donald
Trump did. He won re-election to that seat by 31 points in November. This
is a deep red district in a deep red state. It`s literally the
headquarters of Koch Industries, of the Koch brothers fame.

This has a Republican congressional district for decades. And when the
administration decided they would elevate Mike Pompeo from the House to
make him head of the CIA, I`m sure they thought one thing they never would
have to worry about, one thing they`d never have to lift a finger to do
anything about was keeping his House seat in Republican hands. And they
must have been especially cheered when they heard about the candidates who
got slated from Mike Pompeo`s seat, because Democrats decided to run a
first time candidate, a local lawyer who has never run for anything before.
He doesn`t particularly have any longstanding political connections in the
state.

Against him, the Republicans ran his polar opposite. They decided to run
the Kansas state treasurer who has been elected statewide in Kansas twice
already. So, I mean, that`s like an overkill matchup, right? This is a
congressional election that`s Mt. Everest basically for Democrats. This is
just an impossible pick-up for the Democratic Party.

Nationally, the Democrats House Campaign Committee, they declined to get
involved in this thing. The Democratic candidate who`s running for this
seat in Kansas asked the national party for $20,000 – excuse me, asked the
Democratic Party for $20,000 too send out a mailer. The Democratic Party
said no.

But then, last week, there were these shocking sort of murky news reports
out of Kansas that an internal Republican poll in this race, not a public
poll, an internal Republican poll, showed that the Republican running in
the special election, that the Kansas state treasurer, the guy who ought to
be running away with this, was actually only leading by low single digits.
And that caused a panic.

I mean, in a special election where Republicans generally outperform anyway
because special elections always have a low turnout. In a Republican
district this red with these candidates run, this should be a 25-point, 30-
point winning for the Republicans without anybody even trying.

But then that internal Republican poll got publicized last week. Low
single digit lead? Really?

And the Republican Party started to panic, not just in Kansas but
nationally. But the vice president of the United States and the president
of the United States did robocalls in the district. As we reported last
night, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas flew into Kansas and did an in-person
campaign rally last night at a private aviation hangar.

Polls closed tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time in Kansas, which means we
are watching the results trickle in. Even the fact they couldn`t just call
it at poll closing for the Republican, that itself is news in this kind of
a race. And this is just one race. We`ll see how it turns out.

But sometimes, these individual races have a national message. 1974 was a
famous one. Six months before the Watergate scandal forced President Nixon
to resign, the congressional district in Michigan that had been Gerald
Ford`s congressional district, what “The New York Times” describe as one of
the most Republican bastions in the country, that district went to a
Democrat in a special election for the first time since 1910.

And that wasn`t a forever change. Doesn`t mean that was a bellwether for
what that district was going to be like forever, but it did signal the
political temperature in the country at that moment. And that can happen
in off-year elections, particularly when the country is going through a
real upheaval in terms of public opinion.

In 2005, Ohio, a Democrat named Paul Hackett did not win a congressional
special election in Ohio`s second district but Paul Hackett that year got
way closer than anybody thought he could to a Republican incumbent in that
district. He lost but that margin being so unexpectedly close, him not
winning that race but unexpectedly closing that gap, that, too, was an
early warning sign that something was afoot in the country. That something
was about to happen.

And in fact, in the next midterm election in 2006, Democrats swept the
House, took the Senate. So, it`s these Kansas results that we`re watching
coming in tonight. Again, if you look at the numbers, this is an
unwinnable race for any Democrat. But we`re watching these numbers come
in.

And whether or not this Democrat, James Thompson pulls out this, people
will be closely watching, even then, the margin, in what ought to be a 30-
point landslide safe seat for the Republicans. It`s the same dynamic
people will be watching this time next week in another supposedly red
district in Georgia when Tom Price`s congressional seat comes up in a
special election.

These special elections are local. They are about these particular
candidates and these particular congressional districts, these particular
states. But they are also a way to take the nation`s temperature. And
right now, that appears to be hot, at least on the Democratic side.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: When Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put out a statement yesterday
saying the missile strike on the Syrian air base last week destroyed 20
percent of the operational aircraft in Syria`s air force, we noted that
that was actually the fourth different and distinct description of the
damage that that strike ostensibly did. So far, the administration has
said that one strike destroyed 20 planes at that one base.

They`ve also said it destroyed 20 percent of the planes in one wing of the
Syrian air force. They`ve also said it destroyed 20 percent of the planes
that are actually operational in the Syrian air force, and they`ve said
that it destroyed 20 percent of all the planes in the whole Syrian air
force. They`ve given all the different descriptions.

So, today, Secretary Mattis gave this life briefing to reporters. Finally,
that afforded an opportunity to clarify this point.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: In your statement yesterday you said, the cruise missile strikes
took out 20 percent of Syrians operational aircraft. There was some
confusion over that statement, can you clarify and explain how much of a
blow it was to Syria`s overall capability?

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I thought it was about 20 percent. I
think it`s around 20 aircraft were taken out, which probably equates to
about that, although I probably should not have used the 20 percent. We`re
trying to provide information as it comes in and this is one of the
challenges of trying to get it accurate, but get it out as quickly as we
can give you some fidelity. But it`s around 20 aircraft and that damage to
the Syrian air force is pretty severe, as you can tell.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: As you can tell.

This is weird, right? I mean, it`s just – even though 20 percent of
Syria`s operational aircraft was actually written down in a formal
statement four days after the air strike, apparently that was just a guess
rushed out and they didn`t really know – 20 planes, 20 percent, the damage
was severe, OK, as you can tell.

Here`s the thing, we can`t tell, that`s why we ask these questions and why
we expect answers that are true. But that data point about how much damage
was done by the missile strike last week, that is illustrative of a broader
swath of chaos we are getting in the administration on this subject.

In “The Guardian” newspaper today, Spencer Ackerman, who is a great
reporter took on the unenviable task of trying to figure out what exactly
the administration`s policy is on Syria right now. Quote, “Confused by
Donald Trump`s policy on Syria? That just means you`ve been listening to
what his administration has been saying in the last few days.”

For the record, Spencer identifies five different Syria policies in less
than two weeks. Over the course of two weeks, we`ve gone from the policy
being that Assad can stay. To then being Assad must go, to then the policy
being that the only issue for the United States is chemical weapons, to
then the policy being that the United States will attack ISIS first and
then Assad can stay or go, depending on whether Russia agrees, to then, the
U.S. will respond militarily, not just to chemical weapons, but the U.S.
will respond military also to barrel bombs, which are conventional weapons,
which the Syrian military uses every day.

So, that was five different policies in less than two weeks, and then after
that, today, they even walked back the barrel bombs thing. So, apparently,
we`re on to policy number six. What is the policy, what is the policy
under which hundreds of American troops are now serving in Syria? What`s
that missile strike about last week? Spin the chore wheels, so who
answers, you never know what answer you`ll get depending on who explains
it.

Then, today on top of all of that, we got this strange, unsourced document
that was distributed anonymously by somebody at the White House. It`s a
document that claims to be declassified summary of the intelligence
community`s assessment of that chemical weapons attack in Syria, but it is
unsigned. It references no specific intelligence agencies and it frankly
just looks like somebody typed something up on Microsoft Word and said this
is a declassified summary. OK.

It accuses Russia of trying to cover up the chemical weapons attack for the
Assad regime last week, which is very big deal accusation. It would be
good to know if that really is the official White House position on this.
Is it the position of the president and commander-in-chief that Russia is
implicated in chemical weapons attack? Or is this unsigned, unsourced
document being freelanced to reporters by a particular White House official
who doesn`t actually speak for anybody else?

And as this continues to not make any sense at all, A, American troops are
in harm`s way in Syria, B, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow
right now. What is he going to say? And will it be binding?

Hold that thought.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Back when he was the CEO of Exxon and making multi, multi, multi,
multibillion dollars deals with Russia, Rex Tillerson was busy getting the
Russian Order of Friendship medal pinned on him by Vladimir Putin himself.
Now, today, he`s back in Syria as the American secretary of state, trailing
questions about how this first official visit is going to go.

Joining us now is Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for “The
Guardian” newspaper, who`s been covering this with alacrity and with
increasing frustration.

Is that fair to say?

SPENCER ACKERMAN, THE GUARDIAN U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: I feel
like I`m now a human shrugging emoticon.

MADDOW: You wrote this piece essentially that I feel like must have
started as notes to yourself trying to determine what U.S. policy is toward
Syria right now – tracking the evolution of five different positions over
the course of two weeks.

ACKERMAN: It was like a “True Detective” season one white board. It`s so
difficult to figure out, A, if there is a coherent policy and the principal
figures don`t quite understand it; B, if there`s a coherent policy and the
principal figures within it don`t agree with it and are trying to
undermine/redefine it, or if this is getting made up on the fly.

MADDOW: Rex Tillerson has this unusual history in Russia as Exxon CEO. Is
it clear to you, even just looking at him that he has in mind a policy on
Syria, whether or not it tracks with Nikki Haley or Sean Spicer or Donald
Trump or anybody else. Is it clear to you that he has a policy or a
position, or is trying to do something?

ACKERMAN: Absolutely not. Few people in this administration, this is
saying so much, have contradicted themselves so thoroughly and so quickly
as Rex Tillerson. On March 30th, Tillerson basically gave the green light
for U.S. policy to say that Assad can stay, which we had every reason to
believe was going to be Trump`s policy given that it`s everything Trump had
said from 2013 up until that point.

And now, suddenly, after the chemical attack, it seemed like that really
did have quite an impression on either the president himself or,
apparently, his daughter, which may have driven quite a great deal of this.

Tillerson then comes around and reverses himself entirely not just on the
subject of Assad now having to leave. He said that there was a process
underway to get rid of Assad, meaning at that point, hours before this
missile strike, was the U.S. talking about an actual military campaign to
oust Assad, and now, thoroughly going even beyond where he had been before
as bewildering as that is, to try and convince the Russians that they have
to get rid of Assad, which, basically, had been the policy, quite
frustrated amongst –

MADDOW: The Obama administration.

ACKERMAN: – of the Obama administration of John Kerry, and now, we`re all
waiting to see what`s going to happen, if he`s even going to meet with
Putin in Moscow.

And really significant today, as all of this drift sets in, about what U.S.
policy actually is. You saw the defense chief, secretary of – I`m sorry,
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the head of Central Command, General
Votel, come out and define this strike, this whole policy in the most
minimal terms, that this is re-establishing a deterrent and a cost for
Assad using chemical weapons in the future.

MADDOW: Uh-huh. And meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. troops laboring and
risking their lives in Syria in the middle of this, not knowing what the
policy is or what missile strikes into the country in which they`re serving
are designed to do.

Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for “The Guardian” – this is a
mess. Thank you for helping us to try to untangle it. Good to see you, my
friend.

ACKERMAN: Thank you, Rachel. Always.

MADDOW: All right. That does it for us tonight. We`ll see you again
tomorrow.

Now, it`s time for “THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL”.

Good evening, Lawrence.


END


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
BE UPDATED.
END

Copy: Content and programming copyright 2017 MSNBC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Copyright 2017 ASC Services II Media, LLC. All materials herein are
protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced,
distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the
prior written permission of ASC Services II Media, LLC. You may not alter
or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the
content.