The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 5/19/17 Comey to testify
Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
Date: May 19, 2017
Guest: Devlin Barrett
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: That is all in for this evening. The RACHEL
MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening – Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening – Chris. Thanks my friend, have
a great weekend.
HAYES: You bet. You, too.
MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Happy Friday.
Two major news stories dropped today as soon as Air Force One was wheels`
up for the new President`s first trip abroad since he was inaugurated. As
soon as we saw what broke in today`s news it suddenly became newly-
interesting to note just how many of the people you have ever heard of who
work in this White House were all together on that plane leaving Washington
today or who are leaving Washington in the next couple days to join the
traveling White House on this giant tour.
Look at all of the people who are going. Look at all of the people who
left. Honestly, who`s left at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? If hypothetically
somebody comes to the door and knocks tonight. Oh heck, let`s just say the
FBI rings the doorbell tonight, who`s there to answer? It`s like Elaine
Chao? Like who else is around?
As soon as wheels were up to start this foreign trip, the “New York Times”
reported this story. According to the “Times`” reporting, and the White
House does not dispute it – according to the “Times”, the official White
House record of the President hosting the Russian foreign minister and the
Russian ambassador in the Oval Office last week, the official White House
record not disputed by the White House includes direct quotes from the
President telling these Russian officials that thank God the pressure on
him about Russia is lifted now because he fired the FBI director.
Quote, “I just fired the head of the FBI. I faced great pressure because
of Russia. That`s taken off.”
Lots of subsequent headlines about this story and discussion about this
story today have been focusing on the fact that the President is also
quoted in this official White House account of that meeting calling fired
FBI direct James Comey, quote, “crazy, a real nut job”.
You know what though? When one of your work colleagues is somebody the
President calls “sleepy eyes”, when the President says Senator McCain is
“no war hero”, and Senator Cruz is “lying Ted”. I think best maybe not to
get too caught up in what names and epithets this particular president
flings at people, right. That`s just what he does; that`s how he behaves
even now that he`s president of the United States. He calls people all
sorts of stuff.
So I realize everybody was very excited about him calling the FBI director
a nut job. If I`m the FBI director, I am probably very unhappy about that.
I`m sure it hurt feelings. It`s exercising. It`s weird. It`s a display
of his temperament.
But beyond the, what he called the FBI director, there is big news in this
story. And the news here is, one, that he confirmed again on the record
that he fired the FBI director to try to alleviate the pressure of the
Russia investigation, right. I mean that admission alone would have been
an unthinkable admission for any American president before even just the
past two weeks. But he`s now confirmed that that`s why he fired the FBI
Number two, this shows that the White House is abandoning its previous
effort to cook up a different purported rationale for why the President he
fired Comey. Again, I stress that the White House is not disputing to the
“New York Times” tonight that what they`re quoting is the official White
House account of that meeting. They`re not disputing that it`s accurate
So they`re now confirming that the President says he fired the FBI director
because the FBI director was leaving the Russia investigation into the
And not incidentally, the third big piece of news here is that he was
bragging about that fact to high-ranking Russian government officials,
telling them don`t worry about it. I think the pressure`s off now. I
fired the guy.
I mean, that was the quote, right? “I just fired the head of the FBI. I
faced great pressure because of Russia. That`s now taken off.” Accurate
quotes. So that broke.
And then moments after that story broke in the “New York Times”, the
“Washington Post” updated its front page to this. “White House adviser
close to Trump is a person of interest in Russia probe.” With this story,
the “Washington Post” gets one of those landmark stories that makes people
buy the print edition of the newspaper and save it because they think they
might be able to sell it for a lot of money someday or because impress
Quote, “The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination
between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House
official as a significant person of interest” – citing people familiar
with the matter, reporters Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report that –
this fact, the fact that a senior current White House official is a person
of interest now. That means that quote, “The probe is reaching into the
highest levels of the U.S. government.”
And not just into the highest levels of the government, reaching into the
center of the government as well. Quote, “The senior White House adviser
under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the President.” Again,
in the “Washington Post” they cite sources here at people familiar with the
But after the “Washington Post” published their scoop on this today, NBC
News was able to confirm it from reporters Pete Williams and Ken Dilanian,
quote, “Two U.S. officials say the activities of a current White House
official are now under investigation in the FBI`s Russia collusion probe.”
Now, in neither the “Washington Post” reporting on this nor NBC`s reporting
do we actually have the name of who the person of interest is. We are told
the person is a senior White House adviser who is close to the President,
but – put that list up again. This is at least a partial list of who`s
going on the big foreign trip today. That`s a very large chunk of all the
people who are known to be senior advisers in this White House.
We don`t have a name. We don`t know if it`s one of these White House
officials, who is on this foreign trip, who is also the person of interest
in the Trump-Russia collusion, law enforcement investigation, but somebody
Earlier this week, NBC News was first to report that Mike Flynn and Paul
Manafort – the former national security adviser, the former campaign
chairman – Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort were now officially subjects of
criminal investigations in which federal grand jury subpoenas have been
And the “Washington Post” tonight reaffirmed that investigators remain
quote, “keenly interested in Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort”. So Flynn and
Manafort are both subjects of criminal investigations, they`re both in the
cross hairs but we now know it`s not only them because neither of them can
be this new person of interest reported by the “Washington Post” and by NBC
because neither Mike Flynn nor Paul Manafort is a current White House
So the President flies off on his first foreign trip tonight in the face of
confirmed reporting now that his former campaign chairman, his former
national security adviser and somebody who is working for him now as a
senior adviser in the White House are all the subjects of active law
enforcement investigations specifically into whether his campaign colluded
in the Russian attack on the United States last year.
These are not normal times.
The “Washington Post” also reports tonight that the FBI is investigating
whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the
President. And they report that the FBI`s inquiries are getting to a point
where their work may be more public – may be more visible in public
because the FBI, according to the “Washington Post” is getting to a point
where we`re going to see more subpoenas and more FBI interviews.
And we don`t always find out about those things immediately when they
happen, but oftentimes people who are subject to FBI interviews or subject
subpoenas oftentimes those people peep about the fact that has happened.
And so prepare for more news days like this.
Now, in terms of what we know substantively about the Russian side, about
Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, we`ve also had two new
developments on that front that have been lower profile but are going to
end up being really important.
The first is Viktor Medvedchuk – Viktor Medvedchuk. He`s known to be one
of Vladimir Putin`s closest friends. Vladimir Putin is godfather to his
daughter. He`s one of Putin`s trusted active political fixers. He`s a
zillionaire oligarch. He wages his own political power but he has
frequently been used by Vladimir Putin as an emissary, even as a courier in
sensitive political matters.
Yesterday Reuters named him. Yesterday Reuters reported that Viktor
Medvedchuk is one of the Russians who turn up in these 18 previously
undisclosed calls and texts and e-mails between Trump associates and
Kremlin associates; these 18 previously undisclosed contacts between April
and November of last year that are now in the hands of federal
Viktor Medvedchuk denies any such contacts with the Trump campaign, but
Reuters names him as one of the two Russian names that have been seen in
those intercepts between the Russians and the campaign. The two Russian
names that apparently have been seen according to Reuters that apparently
are not classified or being kept from investigators, at least the ones who
are able to get this information to Reuters – the two names that are out
there – Kislyak the ambassador and Medvedchuk.
So as the collusion probe is now reported to reach into the White House –
that`s one new, one very high-ranking, one very close to Putin Russian
connection to the Trump campaign that we just learned about yesterday.
The other one we`ve just learned about this week relates to this bank –
VEB. VEB is a Russian state-controlled bank, state-controlled means in
this case Vladimir Putin personally sits on the supervisory board for this
bank. He is known to personally direct its activities. VEB is a big part
of how he financed the Sochi Olympics construction.
The Sochi Olympics construction was fantastically, phenomenally corruptly
over-budget. It was the most spent on any Olympics ever. But it was all
spent through VEB Bank at Putin`s discretion. VEB is under sanctions by
the United States government. A top executive in their New York office
just recently got out of federal prison in Ohio after being convicted of
basically serving as an undeclared Russian spy while he was pretending to
work for this VEB bank branch in New York City.
The charging documents against that just released Russian spy showed that
one of the Americans his spy ring tried to recruit in New York to be a
Russian agent was Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
In addition to all of that that we have known about VEB, one of the
meetings with the Russian official that presidential son-in-law Jared
Kushner didn`t disclose on his application for a security clearance was a
meeting that he had with the head of VEB who was personally installed in
that position by Vladimir Putin.
So VEB, this Russian bank, this Putin-controlled bank – it was already on
our radar in terms of unaccounted for and in some cases surreptitious
meetings between the Russian government and the Trump government.
This week as we learn more about the Trump-Russia collusion investigation
landing on a person of interest who`s currently inside the White House at a
senior level, this week we also got a new piece of information about that
bank and the Trump Organization. This week the “Wall Street Journal”
reported just a few days ago that VEB pumped money, tons of money, many
millions of dollars into Trump`s business partner in a big Trump-branded
Toronto building that had lots of financial difficulties.
So whether it`s the money inquiries, whether it`s the involvement of U.S.
attorneys offices around the country, whether it is the known subjects of
criminal investigation, whether it`s the naming of a person of interest in
the White House, the Trump-Russia collusion inquiry is getting very hot
We got two named suspects – excuse me – two named subjects from the
campaign, one unnamed person of interest who`s not named but someone high
up in the White House, we are getting more and more information about who`s
who on the Russian side of the collusion investigation. And our new
president flew away today in the middle of all this which, who knows, maybe
a relief to him.
After he was in the air today as all this news was breaking they announced
that he`s firing the deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland from
Fox News. He`s demoting her to be ambassador to Singapore. We also got
news that he`s sending Newt Gingrich to the Vatican with his most recent
wife, Callista Gingrich. He has just named Callista Gingrich to be
ambassador to the Vatican which I think means Newt moves there.
So, you know, the presidency doesn`t stop just because there`s apparently
somebody working as a senior adviser to the President who`s a person of
interest in a very serious criminal FBI investigation into foreign
influence and U.S. politics. I mean it keeps going.
But there are two things I think we have to be rigorously attentive to now
in this news. Number one, as this FBI investigation starts rattling chains
this loudly, as they get this close to the President as this investigation
gets into the White House, what`s within the President`s power to try to do
to shut it down? What could he do to shut this investigation down or to
try to blow it off course?
We have actually got some very striking new news on that for you tonight
coming up in just a second with somebody who is very much in a position to
know how that would work. That`s one. Nail that down. How could anybody
derail this investigation now that it`s getting this close to the
The other thing we have to nail down right now, nail down tight is whether
we`re sure we really get this, whether we really understand what`s being
reported and what we know to be true. I mean this is historic stuff.
There is ample reason to make sure we`re absolutely getting this freaking
To that end, joining us now is Devlin Barrett. He`s national security
reporter for the “Washington Post”. He and reporter Matt Zapotosky today
broke this very big news that the collusion investigation has turned up a
person of interest who`s working as a senior White House adviser, somebody
quote, “close to the President”.
Mr. Barrett – thank you for joining us on a big day. Congratulations on
DEVLIN BARRETT, “WASHINGTON POST”: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: Let me just ask you up the top.
In terms of my describing your story, did I get that right? Did I mess
anything up there?
BARRETT: No, I think you got it exactly right. I think the importance of
it is that there`s no denying at this point that this is a very complex and
fraught situation in which you have DOJ and FBI personnel actively
investigating someone at really, you know, the center of American power
which is the White House.
MADDOW: What is a person of interest?
BARRETT: A person of interest is kind of a term of art. It`s not – it
doesn`t have any particular legal significance. It`s frankly used more by
reporters than it is by law enforcement.
But I think person of interest, it`s another way of saying someone who is
under investigation, someone who`s being looked at very seriously in an
investigation. And look, this is both a counterintelligence investigation
and a criminal investigation. There`s a lot of overlap here of those two
So, you know, my view is that calling them a person of interest is the
fairest way to describe the fact someone is being looked at very seriously
in this investigation.
MADDOW: Ok. Both you guys at the “Post” and NBC News have now confirmed
with multiple sources that there is this person of interest as you say with
everything we need to understand about that term. There is a person of
interest in this investigation currently working in the White House.
Nobody so far is reporting who that person is.
MADDOW: Now, feel free to tell me to buzz off on this. But just – I`m
curious, is this one of those things where you know who it is, you`ve
confirmed who it is, you would consider it to be reportable information,
but you`re being asked for security reasons not to say? That comes up
sometimes in national security reporting as you know. I`m wondering if
it`s something like that or if it`s just that it`s really not reportable
BARRETT: It does. And if that were an issue – that`s not the issue here.
The issue is that we have more reporting to do and we are working on that
reporting. I was working that before I came here. I`ll be working on it
after I leave here. There`s more work to do.
But frankly, I think me and my colleagues felt that this much that we knew
was important and worth sharing with the public and made a difference and
it mattered partly because of the implications of it.
But also because what it said about the investigation, you know. A lot of
the argument over this investigation has been oh it`s really nothing or
it`s the biggest thing in the world. And I think anything we can do to
help define what is and isn`t in play is probably valuable hopefully to
MADDOW: You also report that this investigation is moving in perhaps to a
more public phase, not a deliberately public phase but with more FBI
interviews, more subpoenas coming, that the public may become more aware
about the contours of the investigation.
Do we know anything – do we know anything about FBI interviews with White
House officials yet other than the Mike Flynn FBI interview that we know
about that took place right after the inauguration?
BARRETT: Well, right. That`s the most obviously one. And that`s been
reported, you know, plenty at this point. We have not gained any
information about interviews of White House officials. We`ve been told
that interviews of people, not necessarily White House officials, but there
have been interviews done with Americans and various people related to this
broad category of the Russian influence investigation.
But, you know, that`s not really a thing that has been observable to the
outside world. The people who are describing this to us are saying you`re
likely to start observing more of it because we need to start talking to
people who may talk themselves to the public or may frankly be seen talking
And, you know, there`s a whole issue involved in this process where you can
only learn so much through intelligence gathering and record gathering
before you have to start actually talking to people face to face.
MADDOW: Yes, and seeing stuff happen before your own eyes.
BARRETT: That`s right.
MADDOW: Devlin Barrett, national security reporter for the “Washington
Post”. Obviously this is very, very impressive, historic reporting. Lots
of kids in this country who are like looking at you realizing they want to
be you when they grow up. So I hope you can enjoy it even though you`re
working butt off right now.
BARRETT: Thank you – Rachel.
MADDOW: Thank you.
All right. There is more new in this story today. Stay with us.
MADDOW: So there`s these two big pieces of reporting right. We got the
news from the “Washington Post” that we just discussed with Devlin Barrett
about the Trump-Russia collusion investigation now having a person of
interest in the White House, a person working there in a senior adviser
role that`s described as close to the President.
Almost simultaneously to that report, we got news today from the “New York
Times”, that the official White House record of the President hosting two
Russian officials in the Oval Office last week, that record includes quotes
from the President like this. Quote, “I just fired the head of the FBI. I
faced great pressure because of Russia. That`s taken off.” Both these
stories breaking late today.
That second one, the “New York Times” one – what is particularly notable
about that is that that now fully confirms without a doubt that the
President has been trying to stymie the Russia investigation. He admits
it. He`s been trying to relieve the pressure of the Russia investigation
by messing with it in various ways. I mean the President is now on the
record twice admitting that his firing of the FBI director was about his
unhappiness and his worry about the Trump investigation.
But, you know what, that is not the only thing he`s done to try to stop the
Russia investigation. I mean when you stack up all the things this White
House has done to try to stop that investigation or distract that
investigation or pervert it in some way, it`s a substantial stack of stuff.
I mean there was the strange interaction between White House staff and the
chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who is supposed to be leading
one of the key congressional Russia investigations. A Mike Flynn hire at
the National Security Council reportedly was involved in feeding classified
information to the House Intelligence Chairman to help him try to knock
that Russia investigation off course.
The intelligence chairman is now under ethics investigation for that stunt.
But that White House stunt did succeed in delaying for weeks what was
ultimately that explosive testimony from former acting Attorney General
Sally Yates. The White House-Devin Nunes stunt did delay the Yates
testimony for a while.
But remember, the White House also just tried to block her from testifying.
They tried to tell her she wasn`t allowed to testify. It was only when her
lawyers brushed the White House back on that White House effort to stop her
from testifying that then they appear to have tried Plan B when Devin Nunes
pulled this stunt and canceled their hearing.
Since then we have learned that the President also told the FBI director
directly to shut down the Trump-Russia investigation into Mike Flynn. The
White House is denying it but the ousted FBI director says he documented it
when it happened at the time.
Also, at one point, the White House also drafted the House and Senate
Intelligence chairmen to call reporters, to talk down particularly damaging
Trump-Russia reporting about contacts between the Trump campaign and
Russian intelligence sources – reporting that turned out to be
corroborated over and over and over again by multiple other sources even
though the White House enlisted these guys running the Russia
investigations to please try to shut it down.
We also now know that the President himself and the White House chief of
staff pressured the FBI director to make public statements about the Trump-
Russia investigation to make the administration look better than they do on
this subject. He refused to do that and then, of course, he did get fired.
The President fired him.
And then the next day he admitted first to the Russian officials and then
the next day to Lester Holt that he did it, that he did fire James Comey
because of Russia. This president, this White House has tried very hard,
they`ve tried lots of different ways to head off the Trump-Russia
investigation even before it got as dire as it got today with this.
Now that it`s this dire, how might they try to stop it now? Answerable
question, it turns out. FBI investigations, right, are now being led by
the special counsel Robert Mueller – special in special counsel means his
role is outside the normal hierarchy, outside the normal chain of command
of government employees.
That said, there are ways that the President could try to kibosh Robert
Mueller`s special counsel investigation. For example, Reuters reports
tonight that the Trump administration is exploring whether they might use
ethics rules to undermine Mueller`s investigation by claiming that there`s
some conflict of interest involving his former law firm that he quit in
order to take this job. That would be an indirect way to go after
Mueller`s investigation. Or they could go right at him directly.
Under the special counsel regulations, Robert Mueller as special counsel
technically answers to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. And,
you know, if Rod Rosenstein is going to try to stymie the investigation,
there are ways he can do that.
Let`s assume for the moment that Rod Rosenstein is a good actor, not a bad
actor here. He`s going to let Mueller do his thing. He wouldn`t have
appointed him otherwise. Let`s assume that Rod Rosenstein doesn`t
personally want to mess up the Russia investigation and he`s going to let
Mueller do his thing.
Even if Rosenstein is a good actor here, could the President still mess it
up? Yes, he could. The President could order the Deputy Attorney General
Rod Rosenstein, to fire Robert Mueller. If the Deputy Attorney General
refused the President could fire him.
The President could order the Deputy Attorney General to restrict the scope
of the Mueller investigation. If the Deputy Attorney General refused to do
that the President could fire him for that.
The President could order the Deputy Attorney General to impede the
resources that Mueller needs for his investigation. And again if the
Deputy AG refused to do that the President could fire him.
I mean in any of those instances there would be all sorts of interesting
follow-on questions about what would happen thereafter, right. And if
those orders to the Deputy AG didn`t work and he fired the Deputy AG for
refusing then who ends up – I mean there are all sorts of interesting
But even if none of those things happen, none of those things that all go
through, Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy AG – there`s also at least one nuclear
option which could be way more direct if the President really wanted to
kill this thing.
The regulations that make it possible to have a special counsel are Justice
Department regulations. It`s not a law passed by Congress, Justice
Department regulations. Trump could just order the Justice Department to
rescind those regulations so there`s no longer any such thing as a special
counsel within the Department of Justice. He could direct the Department
of Justice to get rid of those regulations and then Mueller would just go
What do you mean you`re special counsel? There`s no such thing as a
special counsel? Couldn`t he do that? If you don`t think that he`d do
something that radical or you didn`t think he could do something that
radical. Now that this is the friend of the “Washington Post”, don`t you
think he might do something that radical? Again – answerable question
with an answer.
And hold on. That`s coming up?
[21:33:22] MADDOW: Former acting solicitor general of the United States,
Neal Katyal, convened a working group at the Justice Department in 1999 and
that working group wrote the regulations for the special counsel. Special
counsel regulations are the rules that govern the process, the oversight
and ultimately the prospects for what is now Robert Mueller`s special
counsel investigation into the Trump-Russia affair.
When Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to lead that
investigation, Neal Katyal praised the pick of Robert Mueller for that job.
He also, though, sounded a little bit of alarmed that as the guy who wrote
the regulations he knows that there are ways for a president to try to
interfere with a special counsel investigation, even for a president to try
to shut it down.
I would like to hear more about that.
Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general of the United States, thank
you for coming back to talk with us. I really appreciate it.
NEAL KATYAL, FORMER ACTING SOLICITOR GENERAL: Thank you.
MADDOW: So we now got this new round of reporting about the seriousness of
the FBI investigation, the closeness to the president in terms of this
person of interest being named by the “Washington Post” as a senior
adviser. If the president is freaked out by this new reporting, if he was
reviewing his options to try to kibosh or screw up this investigation, what
would be his best bet?
KATYAL: So the first thing to say, Rachel, and just following on Devlin,
your first guest, is, you know, I can`t – I have to start by just saying,
you know, we think of checks and balances and so on as being courts, and so
on, and constitutional lawyers, but the real story this week is the press
and people like Devlin and the “New York Times” doing that kind of
reporting which is just I think what our founders envisioned in the First
Amendment and checks and balances really truly working.
[21:30:06] And that`s actually the answer to this question which is sure,
there are all sorts of ways a president can stymie a special counsel but
the regulations were drafted with a lot of input from, you know, Eric
Holder, Janet Reno, the bipartisan group on the Hill, to try and say
sunlight is the best way to try and avoid a president who`s going to try
and interfere. So all those options that you mentioned like firing Mueller
or ordering the deputy attorney general to fire Mueller, all of those are
things that would have to be forced out into the sunlight and the president
would then have to justify what he`s doing. And so that`s the idea behind
the special counsel regulations.
MADDOW: Can I just ask you one specific point on that, just trying to game
this out, I`m trying to – I`m trying to be able to imagine things before
they happen which I have failed at all year long. If the president did
direct the deputy attorney general to do something related to this
investigation and the deputy attorney general said no, the president
responded by firing him, would those responsibilities of the deputy
attorney general then fall to somebody else below him in the Department of
Justice hierarchy or would the Senate need to confirm a new deputy attorney
general for Robert Mueller to report to, essentially, as special counsel?
KATYAL: They wouldn`t need to confirm. That is, it would go to the
associate attorney general and then to the solicitor general. There`s an
actual defined succession order and the rules for special counsels and the
very first paragraph kind of buy into that – that rule of succession. I
think what you`d likely see, though, is the president if he wanted to
interfere doing things like what you just mentioned, things like try to use
the ethics rules which are now being reported on this week that the White
House is looking at the ethics rules to say, oh Mueller, you came from the
same law firm as Jared Kushner as a client and other people in the
investigation, and so you`re going to be barred from it.
And, you know, apart from the irony of this White House suddenly
discovering the ethics code and the – you know, and kind of following the
niceties of law for the first time, I think, you know, that`s one of these
things which we as lawyers say be careful what you wish for because if that
does happen and they, too, try and evoke that ethics rule instead of
seeking a waiver which you`d ordinarily do I think the result would be two
special counsels, not one. There`d be one from Mueller for most of the
investigations and then the second one for these people who were at
Mueller`s old law firm. And I can`t imagine that`s a good thing for the
MADDOW: No, exactly. Both of them in power to investigate as they saw
fit. Let me ask you about other issue that you raised today in an op-ed in
“The Washington Post” which I had not thought of at all before I read your
piece on this. You suggested that one way the investigation could be
impeded is if Congress screwed it up on purpose, basically. If a committee
decided to start granting immunity to witnesses, giving – telling
witnesses you`ll be immuned from prosecution, come tell us what you know,
thus interfering with the ability to prosecute that witness or to otherwise
sort of make use of them for the inquiry that Mueller would be leading with
Is that – first of all, did I get that right? And it would take, like a
two-thirds – will take a two-thirds vote of any committee to grant that
immunity. So it would have to be a pretty big effort by any committee to
KATYAL: Yes. So it doesn`t need to be nefarious. You got it right,
except for that. So, you know, you could have a Congress that`s just
trying to search for truth and say, look, we`ve got to give immunity to
someone because they`re taking the Fifth, like a lot of corporate
executives do when they`re called on to the Hill. And we actually have
precedent for this. This happened in Oliver North, that is Oliver North
was given that immunity for his congressional testimony, not for criminal
prosecution, and then the independent counsel later prosecuted him and
Oliver North`s convictions were thrown out because they found those
convictions tainted because they said, look, Oliver North testified, gave
this evidence before the committee and maybe the prosecutors used it, maybe
I think, you know, what this underscores is, you know, if I`m the president
right now, the first thing I`m doing is lawyering up. And, you know, he
can`t rely on the government lawyer who after all have an obligation to the
public. He`s got to get his own set of lawyers and I suspect that`s true
about the White House more generally, and the White House senior staff.
And so I think we`re going to be seeing all sorts of complicated moves
between the White House and private lawyers, as well as Congress.
MADDOW: Wow. Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general in the Obama
administration, now professor of law at Georgetown University, really
clarifying. Thank you for coming back and talking to us about it.
KATYAL: Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
[21:43:08] MADDOW: 2011 there was somebody snooping in the United States
in a bad way. He was snooping specifically on people who had moved here or
who were visiting here from Syria, people who were actively protesting here
in the United States against the Syrian regime. This person films and
reported protesters and activists and then sent those tapes back to the
Syrian government. Just ugly stuff.
But the good news is they caught the guy and in 2012 he was sentenced to
federal prison for acting as an unregistered agent of the Syrian
government. The Syrian government was an active partner in this crime.
This is right at the outset of the Syrian civil war, right? And they had
this spy in America, spying on people protesting against the Assad regime.
They sent him a laptop to allow him to communicate with the Syrian
government. They paid for his travel to Syria so he could feed this intel
personally to the Syrian Mukhabarat. They put him in a private meeting
with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But again eventually he got
caught, he got caught here and he got put in prison for it here.
The U.S. Department of Justice has a special office that deals with cases
like that, that specifically authorizes prosecutions that relate to
espionage and sabotage and things like that.
The counterintelligence prosecutor who litigated that spying for Syria case
in Virginia is a prosecutor named Brandon Van Grack. He`s a veteran
Justice Department prosecutor who`s basically an espionage specialist. He
is still there at DOJ. And now Brandon Van Grack is reportedly the guy in
charge of the grand jury inquiry into former National Security adviser
Michael Flynn, specifically on the matter of his foreign business contacts,
his ties to a Turkish businessman who paid him to represent foreign
interests while he was also working for the Trump campaign.
Here`s my question. What is an espionage prosecutor really? Right?
[21:45:05] We`ve now got as of tonight solid reporting that three top Trump
advisers are subjects or persons of interest in criminal inquiries.
There`s the unnamed senior White House adviser close to the president,
who`s described by “The Washington Post” tonight as a person of interest in
the collusion inquiry. There`s the former campaign chair Paul Manafort and
there`s the former National Security adviser Michael Flynn.
We know about the three of them being in the bull`s eye in these criminal
investigations. But for Michael Flynn, what does it mean that there`s an
espionage prosecutor who`s working his part of this? Does that mean it`s
way more serious? Does this mean it`s qualitatively different?
I`m going to ask somebody who knows, next.
MADDOW: In March, President Trump took it upon himself to fire en masse
and without warning 46 sitting U.S. attorneys across the country. Almost
all of them. They had previously decided they were not going to fire them
all at once, but then for some reason they did. We still don`t know why.
One of the U.S. attorneys who got fired is Barbara McQuade who served as
the U.S. attorney in the eastern district of Michigan. She was there for
eight years. Her tenure there was high-profile. It included the
prosecution of the so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who
was ultimately sentenced to life in prison.
Miss McQuade has extensive experience prosecuting cases involving terrorism
financing and also foreign agents. Just the person we need to talk to.
Former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade joins us tonight on a Friday night.
[21:50:03] Ma`am, thank you very much for joining us. I really appreciate
you making time to be here.
BARBARA MCQUADE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: My pleasure.
MADDOW: There is, we are told, an espionage prosecutor who is taking a
lead on this probe of Michael Flynn`s business dealings. This has all been
reported in the press in terms of how that investigation is going on. I
wondered if you could tell us what it means to – for somebody to be called
an espionage prosecutor, and what that tells us about that case.
MCQUADE: Well, at the Justice Department, there is a division called the
National Security Division. And within that division, there is a section
called the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section. That is the
group who are the experts in counterintelligence investigations. And
counterintelligence just means playing defense against foreign spies.
MADDOW: And in terms of there being somebody at main justice who does
that, we`re told that this – this effort around Michael Flynn is not being
run out of main justice. It`s being run out of the U.S. attorney`s office,
in his case in the eastern district of Virginia. Is an espionage
prosecution or something where you`ve got a prosecutor with expertise in
those matters – is that the sort of thing where the Justice Department
might second a prosecutor from main justice to come out and work with the
U.S. attorney`s office, a sort of a specialist on a case like that?
MCQUADE: Yes. It makes sense to me that they would pair like that. The
case needs to be brought in a district where there is venue, where some of
the aspects of the crime occurred. So eastern Virginia may be a place if
the Flynn Intel Group is located there, for example. That could be why
venue is there. And it is very common for an assistant U.S. attorney who
is out of that office to pair with an expert from the National Security
Division. In fact, the U.S. attorney`s manual requires approval and
consultation depending on the statutes that you`re using from the National
MADDOW: As we have been trying to keep up both with the news about Mike
Flynn and also Paul Manafort, one of the things that keeps coming up is the
question of registering as a foreign agent. And the way that gets
described often in the press in a discussion about these things is that
that`s not that big a deal. That violating that requirement to register as
a foreign agent isn`t really a serious legal matter.
One of the reasons I want to talk to you, though, is that in Michigan it
really looks like you did prosecute unregistered foreign agents. They
don`t seem like minor matters. I wonder if you could just address that,
the way that`s described in the press versus how it seems to you from a
MCQUADE: There is a federal offense that makes it a crime to act as a
foreign agent without first notifying the attorney general. So if you tell
the attorney general, you can act as a lobbyist or do business on behalf of
a foreign government. But when you fail to disclose and when you`re acting
under the direction or control of a foreign government, then it becomes a
crime. So if you are being tasked or asked to do things or take action on
behalf of a government, and the United States government doesn`t know about
it, then it becomes a 10-year felony.
MADDOW: Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney for the eastern district of
Michigan. One of these people who was inexplicably fired with no notice
after having been told to stay put. I know – I`m sure it`s been a real
rollercoaster over the last few months for you. Thank you for being with
us tonight, ma`am. I really appreciate it.
MCQUADE: Thanks, Rachel.
All right. We have a bit of a mystery tonight. It concerns the former FBI
director and somebody is really getting it wrong, and that story is next.
[21:55:50] MADDOW: I said at the top of the show tonight that this is a
time when we really need to make sure we nail this all down and get this
all right. To that end, here is where there is something wrong.
There is one part of James Comey`s firing as FBI director that doesn`t make
sense. In the immediate aftermath of his firing last Tuesday, “The New
York Times” reported that just days before the president canned him, James
Comey had been trying to expand and add resources to the Russia
investigation. Quote, “Days before he was fired as FBI director, Comey
asked the Justice Department for more prosecutors and other personnel to
accelerate the bureau`s investigation into Russia`s interference in the
Comey`s, quote, “appeal” described by four congressional officials was made
to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. That “New York Times”
story was first. It was subsequently corroborated by multiple news
organizations. “The Wall Street Journal” that same night, quote, “Mr.
Comey last week sought more resources to support the bureau`s
investigation. He requested additional personnel from Rod Rosenstein.
Sources, people familiar with the matter.”
The AP also got that story citing U.S. officials. “The Washington Post”
also backed up the story citing several people familiar with the
discussion. NBC got it, quoting – getting this quote from a congressional
aide. Quote, “What he wanted was basically more prosecutors, more support
from the DOJ for writing subpoenas and warrants.”
So that quickly became a really important controversial part of the
narrative as to why the president might have fired James Comey. Fired him
right after he asked to expand and accelerate that investigation. But
right from the beginning, the Justice Department insisted that it was not
true. Justice department said instantly that the claim he asked for more
resources was totally false, totally false, 100 percent false. There was
absolutely no request. Then the acting FBI director Andrew McCabe said the
same thing the next day under oath. He said he was, quote, “not aware of
And now today another very high level, very blunt, broad denial from
somebody who, you know, it`s kind of hard to question on a matter like
this, honestly. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, briefed all
members of the House today in a classified setting. We later got a written
version of his remarks. They ended with this, quote, “I want to address
the media claims that the FBI asked for additional resources for the
investigation of Russian interference in the election. I`m not aware of
any such requests. Moreover, I consulted my staff and acting FBI director
Andrew McCabe, and none of them recalls such a request.”
It`s really emphatic. So you`ve got the Department of Justice
spokesperson, the acting head of the FBI, the deputy attorney general, all
forcibly and consistently and some of them under oath saying no, that did
not happen. Comey didn`t ask for more resources for investigation right
before he was fired. That`s on the one side. Meanwhile, “The New York
Times,” NBC News, “The Wall Street Journal,” the Associated Press, CNN, and
Politico are on the other side, all seemingly very comfortable with their
reporting that, yes, Comey did make that request.
These two things cannot co-exist. I mean, when these news reports first
surfaced, Democratic Senators Pat Leahy and Jeanne Shaheen wrote to Rod
Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, seeking details of any request for
increased resources made by the FBI to the Department of Justice in order
to complete its investigation into Russian interference. They sent that
letter eight days ago on May 11th. Senators` offices tell us tonight they
have yet to receive any response to that letter.
Senator Shaheen`s office tells us tonight that the multiple apparently
well-sourced press reports and the Justice Department`s blunt denial, those
two things, those two things being in conflict make it all the more
necessary for Mr. Rosenstein to respond to our letter.
Tonight we also spoke with the Department of Justice. We sort of put it to
them, hey, maybe you guys have been splitting hairs. Maybe you have been
kind of cute about this. Maybe Director Comey had requested more
prosecutors and that doesn`t fall under the umbrella of resources. You
sure you don`t want – but we were again given an emphatic no. We
specifically asked them, is the Department of Justice saying no requests
were made for anything, period.
This is the response that we got. Quote, “None, period. No gray area.”
One person who would be really great to hear from on this is James Comey.
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