The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 6/12/17 Jeff Sessions-Russia connections
Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
Date: June 12, 2017
Guest: Michael McFaul
HEIDI PRZYBYLA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don`t know that you can count
on that and also at the same time, though, don`t know how serious to take
this because, like Ruddy is now making clear he didn`t necessarily get that
firsthand from the White House. And I do think there would be a big
uproar. I think there would be demonstrations in the street. And maybe at
some point that would push Congress to do something, but it`s not a given.
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: Yes, Lynn Sweet and Heidi Przybyla, thank you
Before we go, a quick note, I`ll be signing copies of my new book, “A
Colony in a Nation”, this week here in New York. I`ll be at the shop at
NBC Studios on Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. You can find more information on our
Facebook page. Please stop by. I love to see you.
That is “ALL IN” for this evening.
THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: The shop at NBC Studios?
HAYES: Yes, that`s – it`s in our building, which is convenient.
MADDOW: I could go see you.
HAYES: I would happily sign a book for you.
MADDOW: Well done. Thank you. I`ll try to prevent my entire family from
enclosing upon you. Thanks, my dear.
All right. Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Happy Monday.
There are only 100 people who serve in the United States Senate. Like the
House, the Senate does all its work through committees. That`s where they
hold their hearings. That`s where they work on legislation. That`s where
they do oversight and investigations. And, of course, there are a lot of
internal politics about who gets on what committee and who gets to be chair
of a committee.
In some states, certain committees are very important and give you a lot of
home-state advantage if you`re on those committees. You can understand,
for example, why a senator from, say, Iowa would want to be on the
Agricultural Committee. You could understand why a senator from New York
would want to be on the Banking Committee, right? Some states go with some
But some of the committees, no matter where you`re from, everybody wants to
be on them, because they are prestigious in all the right ways for
everybody in the Senate. And so, even though there are only 100 U.S.
senators in total, 26 out of the 100 senators are on the Armed Services
Committee. More than one in every four senators is on that committee,
because they all want to be on the Armed Services Committee.
I think they decided at one point, you know, rather than make the Armed
Services Committee hard to get on to rather than make all the senators
compete, they`re just going to let everybody join. Everybody wants to be
on that committee, so everybody gets to be on that committee, 26 out of the
100 members of the Senate. A couple months ago, at the end of February,
beginning of March, a passel of national security reporters from the
“Washington Post”, they got in touch with every single senator who serves
on the Armed Services Committee in the Senate.
And they asked the one very specific question, they didn`t want like full
length interviews. They didn`t want these senators to weigh in on some
controversial issue. They didn`t want to talk about. They weren`t asking
them how they were going to vote on a bill. It wasn`t anything like that.
They actually just approached them all with a yes or no question. They
wanted a yes or no answer to one very specific, very granular question.
And the question was this: Senator, you serve on the Armed Services
Committee. Did you meet with the Russian ambassador last year? That was
“Washington Post” asked all 26 senators on the Armed Services Committee.
They didn`t get a response from all of them. They got a response from 20
of the 26. And every single one of the 208 senators who answered, answered
the same way. All 20 of them, 20 out of 20 said no. Thanks for asking,
no, I did not meet with the Russian ambassador last year.
And by the time “The Washington Post” was asking this question in the last
days of February for publication on the first day of March this year, at
that time, one long time member of the Senate Armed Services Committee had
just left that committee and in fact, had just left the United States
Senate because at the beginning of February, he had just been confirmed as
the next attorney general of the United States. His name is Jeff Sessions,
former Alabama senator, former Senate Armed Services Committee member, Jeff
Now, in the course of his confirmation hearing to become attorney general,
he had volunteered to have Minnesota Senator Al Franken that during the
course of the presidential campaign where he had been such a high profile
supporter of Donald Trump, he said he had not met with any Russians. He
volunteered that under oath at his confirmation hearing talking to Senator
He then put it definitively in writing. Some of the questions they asked
out loud, some of them they asked in writing at these confirmation
hearings. Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont had submitted a question to Jeff
Sessions in writing for his hearing. Leahy asked him in writing, quote:
Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian
government about the 2016 election either before or after Election Day?
Jeff Sessions gave a one-word answer to that question. No.
But then on March 1st, this year, “The Washington Post” published this
story, documenting the fact, confirming with multiple sources, despite
those unequivocal denials on the record and under oath during his
confirmation process, despite Jeff Sessions stating without any caveat that
he had never had any meetings with the Russians, there`s “The Washington
Post.” Reporters Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller all reporting
March 1st that, yes, actually, our brand-new Attorney General Jeff
Sessions, he did meet with Russia`s ambassador to the United States.
He met with the Russian ambassador at a Heritage Foundation meeting that
had been held on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention last
summer. And in addition to that, they reported that he had a second
meeting with the same Russian official, in private, one-on-one, in his
Senate office, on September 8th.
And when this “Washington Post” reporting came out on March 1st, Jeff
Sessions and the new Trump administration spokesperson at the Justice
Department, they insisted that there was nothing fall strange, nothing even
unexpected about the fact that Jeff Sessions would be having a one-on-one
meeting in private in his Senate office with the Russian ambassador eight
weeks before the presidential election. They insisted this had nothing at
all to do with the Trump campaign. They insisted this was a normal,
totally forgettable meeting, because this is the kind of thing is that
senators on the Armed Services Committee do all the time. This was just
related to his Armed Services Committee membership. That`s what this is
what Armed Services Committee members do.
That was their defense. That`s why it was particularly awkward that the
“Washington Post” learned that not a single other member of the enormous
Senate Armed Services Committee had taken even a single meeting with the
Russian ambassador in the past year, let alone two. Nobody else was doing
this. There are a lot of other senators on the Armed Services Committee.
Only Jeff Sessions was meeting with the Russians.
So, this has ended up being a problem for Attorney General Jeff Sessions in
an ongoing way for a few reasons. The first is that these meetings, these
contacts remain unexplained. The Russian attack on the U.S. election to
try to help Hillary Clinton, to try to help Donald Trump, that, of course,
was well under way by the time of the conventions when the first of Jeff
Sessions` first meetings took place with the Russian official.
By the time of his second meeting with that Russian official, though, not
only had the Russian attack been going on for months, by that point, it was
very big news. The “Washington Post” says that second meeting between
Sessions and the Russian official, the one that happened one-on-one in
private in Sessions` office. They say that happened on September 8th.
That was a Thursday.
The start that have same week, Monday of that same week, “The Washington
Post” had run this screaming headline: U.S. investigating potential covert
Russian plan to disrupt November elections. That same day, President Obama
had met directly with Vladimir Putin and told him – look at the look on
his face. That`s when – that is the week that Obama met with Putin and
told him to knock off these Russian attempt – elections, these Russian
government attempts to affect our elections. Cut it out.
And then just a few days after that, the top Russian government official
operating in the United States takes a one-on-one private meeting with the
first senator to endorse Donald Trump, who is the most prominent senator
involved in the Trump campaign. This was happening when the Russian attack
on our elections was a huge news story. I mean, that week, our president
had confronted their president about it. It`s on the front page of
national papers at that point. That`s when Sessions met with Kislyak.
Did they talk about the Russian attack on the election? I mean, given the
news at that moment, it would be weird if they didn`t, right? I mean, any
high ranking American meeting with any high ranking Russian at that point
presumably would have been talking about the Russian attack on our
election. This was an affront, right?
Did they talk about it?
I should mention that there are also numerous unconfirmed reports there may
have been a third meeting it between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and
that same Russian official. It`s been reported that fired FBI Director
James Comey might have discussed that alleged third meeting in closed
session with senators on the Intelligence Committee last week after his
televised testimony that we all saw in open session on Thursday.
But, you know, the Justice Department and Jeff Sessions himself have
insistently and consistently and repeatedly denied that there was any third
meeting. And as yet, I mean, truth be told, there has been no public
evidence that any third meeting took place. And, you know, as a general
principle, until you have compelling evidence to the contrary, you want to
take the top law enforcement official at the United States, you want to
take him at his word, as to what he did or didn`t do.
And that brings us to the other reason these Russian meetings have been
such a big problem for Jeff Sessions. You want to take him at his word but
with Jeff Sessions, there`s a problem with that. If these meetings he had
with this Russian official were innocuous, were nothing to write home about
as the attorney general and his Justice Department have repeatedly claimed,
why did he deny for so long that these meetings ever took place?
He denied that he had these meetings out loud under oath at his
confirmation hearing. He denied that he had had these meetings in print in
his written answers on his confirmation hearing. And when “The Washington
Post” first started reporting out these meetings, they went to Attorney
General Jeff Sessions for comment and he denied it to them, too.
On March 1st, “The Washington Post” reported these two meetings and they
included in their report Sessions` statement in response to their
reporting, saying he, quote, never met with any Russian officials, to
discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation about.
It is false.
The allegation was not false. It was true, as Jeff Sessions ultimately had
“Washington Post” story comes out March 1st. The next day, March 2nd, Jeff
Sessions gives a hastily convened press conference at which he announces
that he will be recusing himself from overseeing anything at the Justice
Department that has anything to do with the presidential campaign.
Now, that recusal is often described, often reported as Jeff Sessions
having recused himself from overseeing anything that has to do with the
Russia investigation. And in part, that is true. I mean, Russian attack
on our election, the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded in it,
investigations into that, that is part of what Jeff Sessions is recused
But if you look at his actual recusal which he issued in print, he didn`t
just recuse himself from anything having to do with Russia. He recused
himself from any investigation that has anything to do with the whole 2016
So, that recusal was announced on March 2nd. And that ended up being
really, really important. And at question, a couple months later when
Trump administration decided that they were going to fire the FBI Director
James Comey. Now, you might remember that the administration had a little
orchestrated song and dance around the way they fired James Comey, right?
They published a memo from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
They published a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that went along
with the memo and they also published the you`re fired letter, the
dismissal letter from President Trump to James Comey, telling him he was
out of a job.
For the first 24 hours or so after they fired the FBI director, the
Rosenstein memo and the sessions letter created a – I think it`s fair to
call it – a pretext for the White House to argue that Comey wasn`t being
fired because he was overseeing the Russia investigation. Comey was being
fired because of how he handled his public disclosures around the Hillary
Clinton e-mail investigation right before the election, during the
campaign. That was the pretext they created for why Comey was fired. They
did that in writing with that memo and that letter. They did it in
statements from White House officials even speaking from the podium in the
White House briefing room.
The president himself, of course, blew that pretext up very soon and
explained yes, that wasn`t the reason. Actually, he had been thinking of
the Russia investigation when he decided to fire James Comey.
In either case though, Jeff Sessions has a continuing problem here, right?
If the president, in fact, fired Comey because of his oversight of the
Russia investigation is, Attorney General Jeff Sessions should not have
been involved in that, right? He was supposedly recused from that.
So, if you`re recused from the Trump Russia investigation, under no
understanding of a recusal would you be allowed to fire the person running
it, and still say you`re recused, right? But, you know what, even if the
president hadn`t fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, even if
he fired him because of the Hillary Clinton e-mail thing during the
campaign, like it said in that letter from Rod Rosenstein and like it said
in that letter from Jeff Sessions, and like the White House explain the
whole first day and a half that they tried to explain it, even if that were
true, that too would be a problem for Attorney General Jeff Sessions
because he also should have been recused from that.
His recusal said he would not oversee anything at the Justice Department
that had anything to do with the 2016 campaign. Both the reason James
Comey was fired, Russia, and the fake pretext they came up with for why
James Comey was fired, Clinton e-mails, both of those are squarely in the
bounds of Jeff Sessions` recusal. He`s supposed to be recused from
thinking that had anything to do with the campaign. Therefore, in either
case, he should have had nothing to do with firing James Comey.
If the FBI director was fired for either of those reasons, the attorney
general should have been recused from that and arguably he should also have
been recused from the process of hiring Comey`s replacement. But Jeff
Sessions absolutely has been involved in the process of selecting James
Comey`s replacement. He`s been doing the interviewing. He was involved in
that firing decision, too.
And you know what? We still don`t know the exactly how many times Jeff
Sessions met with Russian officials during the campaign. Nor do we have
any explanation from Jeff Sessions as to what happened at those meetings,
particularly because they happened in the midst of the Russia attack on
that election in which Jeff Sessions had such a prominent role. Nor do we
have any explanation about why he lied about and concealed those meetings
repeatedly and for so long.
And when it comes to that private September 8th meeting in his Senate
office one-on-one with the Russian ambassador, if he tries to say that all
the Armed Services committee members do that kind of thing all the time,
then you have permission to jeer and throw spitballs at your TV screen or
at least to laugh out loud at him on your TV screen, because none of the
other Armed Services Committee members were meeting with the Russians. It
was just Jeff Sessions, for whatever reason.
Senator Sessions will have to answer questions about at least some of this
stuff tomorrow. His testimony starts at 2:30 Eastern Time. He`ll be in
front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. You know, when we closed out
this show on Friday night, I told you that Jeff Sessions was due to be
testifying tomorrow morning in the House and then in the Senate in a couple
of subcommittees that oversee the funding of the Justice Department. He
ended up canceling both of those appearances in favor of what will now be
an open session of the intelligence committee tomorrow afternoon.
And we will be able to watch it on TV. You will notice as soon as he
starts testifying that this is the same committee that heard from James
Comey in open session and then in classified session on Thursday. This is
the same committee whose staffers and investigators apparently took a long
meeting today with the former secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson.
This is the same committee whose on-site classified facility, their SCIF
was apparently the site of a meeting with NSA Director Mike Rogers tonight.
Mike Rogers testified over and over again last week before that committee
that he wouldn`t say in open session whether or not the president had asked
him to intervene into the FBI`s ongoing criminal investigation of Mike
Flynn. It was interesting. The Director of National Intelligence who is
testifying at the same committee, he kept saying he wouldn`t testify about
that either, but he didn`t really have a reason why he wouldn`t testify.
Now, remember, he famously said I`m not sure I have a legal basis for not
Admiral Rogers, head of the NSA, at least he had a reason. He said his
discussions with the president were classified for some reason. And he
said that gave him a reason not to talk about it in open session. But that
excuse not to talk about it in open session also means that those senators
would have expected to get his real answers in closed session at that SCIF
where they met with him late this afternoon and into this evening on
There are only 100 people in the whole United States Senate. And after
their – Rogers, Coats, McCabe, Rosenstein hearing last week on Wednesday,
followed the next day on Thursday by their open session with James Comey,
followed immediately Thursday afternoon by their classified session with
James Comey, followed today by their extensive interview with Homeland
Security Secretary from the Obama administration, Jeh Johnson followed by
tonight, their classified session with Mike Rogers, tomorrow those same
senators from the Intelligence Committee are going to get Jeff Sessions in
person in open session.
I don`t personally know – I don`t have a personal relationship with any of
the senators on the Intelligence Committee. If you do by chance, send them
health food. Send them vitamins. Some of those creepy green juices or
Everybody makes fun of Congress and their easy work schedule. But right
now, at least those senators are really earning their keep. And we`ll see
a lot of that tomorrow.
But we`ll be right back tonight.
MADDOW: This is dated November 12th, 2016, which is the first weekend
after the presidential election this past year. November 12th, quote: A
prediction: Donald Trump will make novel and unusual use of the president`s
pardon power. OK.
Just a few weeks after that prediction, the person who made that prediction
showed up again. This time as the lawyer for Trump national security
adviser Mike Flynn. So, here he is, the same guy who predicted novel and
unusual use of the president`s pardon power, here he is just weeks later
asking for immunity from prosecution for his client, Mike Flynn.
Ever since Mike Flynn asked for immunity from prosecution and his lawyer
promised that he had a story to tell, ever since then there has been this
real live possibility lurking out there that the president could stop
attempting to interfere around the edges of the Mike Flynn investigation
and instead just pardon Mike Flynn. Presidents can do that. A president
has the power to wipe away a conviction. A president can grant a pardon
even to someone never charged with anything whether a president should do
that, that`s a different question but a president certainly can.
The president also has the power technically to fire a special counsel –
to fire a special counsel who is leading an investigation into the
president`s campaign or and his associates or even into the president
himself. And whether or not that is a wise decision apparently on the
president`s side, they are now mulling that, as well.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS RUDDY, NEWSMAX EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: I think he`s considering perhaps
terminating the special counsel. I think he`s weighing that option. I
think it`s pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television
recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake even
though I don`t think there`s a justification, and even though – I mean,
here you have a situation –
JUDY WOODRUFF, PBS NEWSHOUR ANCHOR: You don`t think there`s a
RUDDY: For a special counsel in this case, but also – I mean, Robert
Mueller, there`s real conflict. He comes from a law firm that represents
members of the Trump family. He interviewed a few days before he was
appointed special counsel with the president who was looking at him
potentially to become the next FBI director. That hasn`t been published
but it`s true.
And I think it would be strange that he would have a confidential
conversation and then a few days later become the prosecutor of the person
he may be investigating. I think that Mueller should have not taken the
position if he was under consideration and had a private meeting with the
president and was privy maybe to some of his thoughts about that
investigation or other matters before the bureau.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That`s Chris Ruddy who is a friend of the president speaking with
Judy Woodruff on PBS tonight. We reported on Friday night citing NPR that
Robert Mueller had been interviewed by the White House to potentially come
back in as FBI director again after they had fired James Comey. Silly me
on Friday night, I thought that it would make it harder for the White House
to slime Bob Mueller somewhere down the line, right? Since they themselves
considered hiring him for the top job.
Now, it turns out they`re floating the idea that they will use the fact
that they thought about hiring him for that top job as a reason to fire him
as special counsel. That possibility again being discussed tonight on PBS
with Judy Woodruff. But it was first raised by one of the president`s
lawyers this weekend.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS HOST: And finally, will the president
promise not to interfere, not attempt at any time to order the deputy
attorney general to fire Robert Mueller?
JAYE SEKULOW, TRUMP LAWYER: Look, the president, the president of the
United States as we all know is a unitary executive. But the president is
going to seek the advice of his counsel and inside the government as well
as outside. And I`m not going to speculate what heal or will not do.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: I`m not going to speculate. He might, he could. That`s Jay
Sekulow, who learned this weekend is now working as a private lawyer for
the president in dealing with the Russia investigation.
If Jay Sekulow looks familiar to you, he is actually a quite famous and
accomplished attorney for the religious right. He started off working for
like the televangelist side of the religious right. He now does religious
liberty and religious civil rights cases for a very conservative law firm.
He`s a very accomplished attorney in that field.
But defending a sitting president on constitutional issues like this, that
is very far removed from the kind of law he has done his whole career.
That`s also the case with the president`s other personal lawyer, Marc
Kasowitz, who again is an accomplished lawyer. In his case, he`s an
accomplished civil litigator. His work for Donald Trump in private life is
ranged from fighting sexual harassment allegations against Trump to making
sure Trump`s divorce records stay sealed. But he has no constitutional law
background. He has no background even as a criminal attorney.
These lawyers are not bad lawyers. They are accomplished in their own
ways, but hiring them for this kind of defense is a little bit like hiring
a really good house painter to paint your portrait or like hiring an
excellent barbecue pit master because you need somebody to run your raw
vegan juice bar. It`s a mismatch of skills and the task at hand.
Five months in, we can now tell at least the first year of this presidency
is going to be largely consumed by the legal fight over what may be the
very existence of this presidency. And as these investigations continue at
full speed and continue to expand with, for example, the attorney general
getting sworn in and testifying before Congress tomorrow, it`s starting to
get important that the people who the president has hired to be his lawyers
here, they`ve never done anything even remotely like this before.
Hold that thought.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOODRUFF: There are some Republicans out there saying that Robert Mueller
shouldn`t be doing this job. Is President Trump prepared to let the
special counsel pursue his investigation?
RUDDY: Well, I think he`s considering perhaps terminating the special
counsel. I think he`s weighing that option.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That`s a man named Chris Ruddy who is a friend of the president`s,
telling Judy Woodruff on PBS tonight that President Trump is thinking about
firing the special counsel Bob Mueller who is, of course, in charge of the
Russia investigation right now, and who is thought to be looking at the
possibility of obstruction of justice by the executive branch, possibly by
the president himself in the course of that investigation.
This discussion now being floated on the eve of the attorney general`s
testimony in open session tomorrow to the United States Senate. This is
the first time that he will have testified since he recused himself from
overseeing the Russia investigation or anything else that relates to the
Joining us now is Matt Miller. He`s a former chief spokesman for the
Mr. Miller, thanks very much for joining us. Appreciate your time tonight.
MATT MILLER, FORMER CHIEF SPOKESMAN FOR THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT: Of course.
MADDOW: So, could the – could the president really fire Bob Mueller?
Could he fire the special counsel?
MILLER: Yes, absolutely. He could do it one of two ways. One, he could
repeal the regulations under which Mueller was appointed and directly fire
And the second way is probably the more likely way and has historical
precedent. He could order or ask the Attorney General Jeff Sessions or the
deputy attorney general to fire Mueller. That`s, of course, what happened
in Watergate. You saw the top two officials at the department resign
rather than fire the special prosecutor. I think there`s a big outstanding
question whether we would see that same level of principle at DOJ now.
MADDOW: Am I right in what I remember about the special counsel
regulations? Again, it`s not a statute. It`s not a law, just regulations
at the Justice Department that created this position. Am I right in
remembering that those regulations say that if the special counsel is
fired, it has to be for good cause, it has to be for some sort of egregious
violation of Justice Department policy or other very bad behavior?
MILLER: Yes, that`s right. But, of course, those regulations are under
the president`s purview. All of that authority, the regulations and
everything under them, extend from the president`s constitutional
So, he could repeal the regulations. He could interpret the regulations to
find some cause for firing him. Obviously, that would be controversial. I
think you would see – you know, I would hope you would see mass
resignations at the Justice Department not just in the leadership but in
the career ranks if that would happen. And, hopefully, you would see
outrage in Congress.
But I think, you know, that is an open question, certainly the second part
MADDOW: Yes, the difference here, the prospects of mass resignations
particularly at the career level of the Justice Department is that this
White House might delight in that as might some of their supporters.
MADDOW: Matt, speaking of controversy, the attorney general is going to –
surprise – testify tomorrow in the Senate Intelligence Committee. There
have been some reports he`s signaled he will refuse to discuss his
conversations with the president which, of course will be a big part of
what the senators want to ask him about tomorrow.
Would that be an executive privilege claim that he would be making there?
MILLER: Yes, it would be. I think there are two big areas he`s going to
get questioned about. Obviously, you`ve covered the conversations with the
Russian ambassador. It seems likely he will answer questions about that.
But then the second area is his involvement with the firing of Jim Comey.
I think there are two big sets of questions about that. One, are his
conversations with the president and he could decline to answer those by
citing executive privilege saying I don`t discuss conversations with the
president. And two, are any conversations he had with Jim Comey or anyone
else at the Justice Departments.
We know from Comey`s testimony that Comey said he was concerned about being
left in a room alone with the president. What did Jeff Session dozen about
that? Well, how did he follow up with Comey? We know Comey`s side of the
story. We need to hear Jeff Sessions`.
And if it comes, I mean, if it turns out that Jeff Sessions knew in any way
that Comey was being fired because the president was unhappy with the
Russia investigation, for him to have signed off on that is really the
biggest scandal at the Department of Justice since John Mitchell went to
jail. I think the answers are probably bad. That`s my suspicion.
I think that`s why you`ll see him cite executive privilege to avoid
answering the first set and maybe cite an ongoing investigation to avoid
answering the second set of questions.
MADDOW: Matthew Miller, former chief spokesman for the Justice Department.
I really appreciate your time tonight. I didn`t know we were going to have
another big week of being glued to congressional testimony, but happy to
have you here to understand what`s going to happen. Thanks, Matt.
MILLER: Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. Appreciate it.
Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Today in Russia, the country`s most prominent critic of Vladimir
Putin, the most high profile opposition leader in the country, Alexei
Navalny, was arrested again. This time sentenced to 30 days detention.
Alexei Navalny had been on his way to anti-government, anti-corruption
protests that he helped organize today. He walked out of his apartment to
head into downtown Moscow to go to this rally.
He was scooped up by police right at the front door of his apartment
building. His wife tweeted out this photo of him being taken into custody.
The arrest of Alexei Navalny did not stop anti-corruption protesters from
turning out in force today, in central Moscow and across the country, as
well, in hundreds of sites across the country.
Lots of people turned out. Thousands of people turned out in cities all
across Russia. Riot police also turned out in force. Hundreds of people
were arrested at multiple sites, including a lot of young people who
reporters said – police appeared to just pluck out of the crowd at random
no matter what those individuals were doing at the moment.
It`s unclear exactly how riot police targeted the people who they did
arrest. It`s also unclear how many people they took in. One Russian
website that independently tracks arrest is reporting about 750 people were
arrested today in Moscow. And even more than that, 900 people were
arrested in St. Petersburg.
These protests today all over Russia were some of the biggest since the
huge nationwide protests in 2012 that so unnerved Vladimir Putin.
While we here in the states focus on the Russian attacks on our election
and the question of whether or not there were any American confederates in
those attacks, this is the way Putin is wielding his power at home. As we
continue to watch these protests struggle and their leaders get attacked
and people get arrested, I do have an ongoing question as to whether or not
these folks trying to oppose Putin actually have a legitimate hope of
making a dent at home.
Joining us now is Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Ambassador McFaul, I really appreciate your time tonight. Thanks for being
MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Sure. Thanks for having
MADDOW: This is not the first time I`ve asked to you join us on a night
when there`s been people out in the streets in Russia in multiple cities,
people facing arrest. The most prominent leaders among them certainly
being arrested and sentenced to jail-time.
What do you think about that last question I asked about whether or not
there`s any hope that they`ll ever change things for their own government?
MCFAUL: Well, you know, we political scientists and U.S. government
officials were pretty bad at predicting revolutionary breakthroughs.
Before they happen, they seem impossible. After they happen, they seem
But, you know, my own reading of the situation here is that these are
happening with greater frequency now. This is not the first major
demonstration this year. I have been on your show, Rachel, already this
year to talk about this. This seemed bigger to me.
And remember, these are illegal, so people are going, knowing they`re going
to be arrested and they`re still showing up.
MADDOW: The people who are being arrested, whether it`s these – you know,
young people looks like a lot of teenagers got arrested today, a lot of the
footage that we saw.
MADDOW: A lot of young people. These people are being arrested, also the
named leaders who are getting arrested. How much danger are they in?
MCFAUL: Well, first of all, your point about the youthful figures that,
you know, the faces I saw were really shocking because even going back all
the way to 1990, `91, when those demonstrations did lead to a revolutionary
breakthrough and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the youth were not a
part of that.
So, this is different. This is fundamentally different than either 2011
and 2012 or going back 20 years earlier. With respect to fear, of course,
people should be fearful.
You`ve had Vladimir Kara-Murza on your show. He`s testimony what can
happen. Other people have died. Mr. Navalny is threatened often with
these, you know, this green stuff that they throw in his face. And people
should be worried about their security without a question, especially Mr.
MADDOW: Has there been a softening of the United States government`s role
in trying to protect those dissenters and trying to keep Russia sort of on
the straight and narrow when it comes to the way they treat political
dissidents in protest?
MCFAUL: Well, I was heartened to see that there was a statement by the
Trump administration today condemning these arrests. That`s a good sign.
I also know of other individuals looking for asylum in this country. They
are seeking that. That`s a good sign.
What I don`t know is what the president himself thinks. President Trump.
I`ve never heard him talk about democracy and human rights in any country
abroad, let alone Russia. And at the end of the day, that`s what`s going
to really matter in terms of signaling for support or signaling to Putin
not to do the most – you know, the most dramatic difficult violent
measures against these protesters.
MADDOW: Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, a thorn in the
side to President Putin while he was there, which he never let you forget
for a moment – thanks for being with us tonight. Appreciate you being
MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Having just been out sick for an extended period when I was out
for those ten days or whatever, take it from me, there is really good
television on at like 2:00 in the afternoon.
Tomorrow, for example, there is a new episode of “General Hospital.” It`s
the 13,826th episode of “General Hospital.” Woo!
There`s also the show called “Wild Russia,” which is not about like them
attacking our election or anything. It`s a show about crazy wildlife
creatures that live in Russia.
But, you know, tomorrow, there`s going to be competition and not just from
cable news as you are used to seeing it. Tomorrow, there will be the
attorney general of the United States testifying at the U.S. Senate about
the Russia investigation and his role in it, or lack thereof.
And you know what? There is one thing that`s not really being talked about
in advance of that big important surprise hearing tomorrow but I think it
is super important and he really better get asked about it. And that is
our closing segment tonight and that`s next.
MADDOW: OK. There were elements of the transition, the Obama
administration to Trump administration transition. That did not go well.
For example, on the big day when the president-elect and all his top people
went to the Obama White House for the first time, we now know that at that
meeting, President Obama warned Mr. Trump that he should not hire Mike
Flynn for any important job. Incoming president ignored that and how did
that work out?
There was also that embarrassing report that senior Trump folks at that
day, at that visit that day kept walking around the White House, asking
various Obama White House staff if they were staying on at their jobs, as
in, it will be good to be working with you in a few weeks. And the Obama
White House staff had to gently inform all the Trump people, no, no, we`re
leaving. We`re all leaving. You guys actually need your own people to run
this place, right away. You`re hiring for that already, aren`t you?
So, there were some weird things about the transition, which overall was
not run very well. But, you know, it wasn`t all bad. Some things in the
transition proceeded kind of normally. I will admit to being surprised,
pleasantly surprised to hear it at the time. But when interviewed the
outgoing Obama attorney general, Loretta Lynch, one of the things she told
me in that interview was that actually the transition at the Justice
Department proceed kind of normally.
She said there was a normal qualified Trump landing team. There was a
professional and thorough preparation by the outgoing Obama folks. She
said they met in a timely way. The Obama folks handed over all their
stuff. They had discussions. They made policy decisions about how the
Justice Department was going to handle important aspects of the transition.
I mean, I`m sure it wasn`t perfect, but at least at DOJ, by all accounts,
the transition was not nutty. It was – it was reasonable. It was OK.
And that is how we learned that one of the decisions the incoming
administration made, the incoming Trump administration made was about U.S.
attorneys, about federal prosecutors. The transition team recommended
explicitly that even if the new president, even if President Trump wanted
to replace all the U.S. attorneys, which all presidents have a right to do,
even if he wanted to do that, the transition team recommended and the Trump
people accepted the recommendation and agreed that Trump would not fire
them all at once.
I mean, nobody pressured them or lobbied them on this. But they talked
about it overtly. The Obama folks, the outgoing folks overtly made a
recommendation, and the Trump folks overtly made a decision about it. The
decision the Trump people committed to was the new president would not can
the U.S. attorneys all in one fell swoop. And then after they made that
commitment, they made that policy decision, something happened apparently,
because then they did end up firing all the U.S. attorneys all at once. It
was just a 180-degree U-turn from the policy they agreed they would pursue.
Just a few weeks later, why did they change their minds?
We don`t know. We still don`t know. And now given everything else that
has happened in this administration, particularly around the Russia
investigation and these questions of possible obstruction of justice by the
president or other members of the administration, now, that mass firing of
the U.S. attorneys back in March, it sticks out more than ever. And
tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time, the attorney general who did the
firings, he is going to be testifying in Congress for the first time since
And as we`ve been talking about, it seems clear he`s going to get asked
about his own contacts with Russian officials and his not initially
disclosing those contacts. He is likely to be asked about his recusal from
things related to the Trump campaign. He is going to be asked about his
role in firing the FBI director. He is likely to be asked about all of
But there is also the U.S. attorney firings, which he was right in the
middle of, and which still make absolutely no sense. There`s no
explanation for them. Preet Bharara was the U.S. attorney for the southern
district of Manhattan. The highest profile attorney in the country by a
Preet Bharara had been assured personally by the president and Jeff
Sessions, the attorney general, that he wouldn`t be fired, that they`d want
him to stay on in the new administration. So that will be one question for
Jeff Sessions. Why did Preet Bharara get fired after you guys repeatedly
told him that he would be retained?
Here is question two for Jeff Sessions on that front. It has been reported
since then that before he was fired, Preet Bharara`s office was
investigating the possibility of money laundering involving either Trump
personally or the Trump Organization. So, that`s a second question for
Jeff Sessions. Was he aware of any investigation involving the president
or the Trump Organization or any member of the Trump family by any U.S.
attorney`s office, including Preet Bharara`s office in New York when this
sudden decision was made to fire all the U.S. attorneys?
I mean, other presidents have removed all the U.S. attorneys. Presidents
have a right to do that. Presidents have done that before. But it has
never been the case that they were all fired en masse on a Friday all at
once. They were all told with no warning that they needed to be out that
day. There has never before been a mass firing of U.S. attorneys with no
warning, no time to plan for any transition out of office. That has never
So, that`s a third question for Jeff Sessions tomorrow. Why the
unprecedented, never-before-seen rush to get all of those prosecutors all
at once that day?
Remember also that the Trump administration had no replacements ready for
any of these jobs. It has been more than 13 weeks. It`s been more than
three months since they were all fired, and just today, the Trump
administration made the first nominations of anybody to replace them. Why
did they rush so fast to force these people out with no warning, no time to
prep anything, and with apparently for months no idea who they would even
put forward to replace them?
Why the change? Did something come up? What happened?
Because it seems like something came up. Multiple U.S. attorneys have told
us even just on this show that as late as two days before the mass firings,
they were on the phone with Attorney General Jeff Sessions while he was
giving them instructions about how he wanted to change their priorities and
prosecutions around violent crime. Rationally, that`s not something he
would not bother doing if he knew all the people he was speaking to were
about to get canned and forced to leave office less than 48 hours later.
What came up?
And there is this fact that this was a total reversal in policy at the
Trump Justice Department. They had explicitly agreed to a plan for dealing
with the U.S. attorneys` offices that explicitly rejected the idea of
firing them all at once. And then a few weeks later, they fired them all
So, Mr. Attorney General, what can you tell us about that dramatic change
in policy at justice? Did you make that change? Did the president tell
you to make it? Was there a reason? What happened there?
There is going to be a lot to ask Jeff Sessions about in his first
testimony since he supposedly recused himself from overseeing anything
having to do with the Trump campaign, including the Russia affair. But
there is this sleeper issue here that is still the unexplained,
unprecedented, sudden reversal of course, and firing all those prosecutors.
Not that long ago, an attorney general lost his job because of the firing
of a handful of U.S. attorneys for improper reasons. This time, it was
dozens of them fired a week after Sessions was exposed in “The Washington
Post” for his undisclosed meetings with Russian officials and just a couple
of days after the Trump national security adviser retroactively registered
himself as a foreign agent. What happened? What happened?
Tomorrow, Jeff Sessions under oath, the first time we will have any chance
of learning the answer to that question, if they ask it of him.
Watch this space.
That does it for us tonight. I`ll see you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for “THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL”, to whom I owe
one minute and seven seconds.
Lawrence, I`m sorry.
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