Deputy AG oversees Mueller probe. TRANSCRIPT: 03/27/2018. The Rachel Maddow Show
Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
Date: March 27, 2018
Guest: Vanita Gupta, Richard Blumenthal, Jason Leopold
ANNA GALLAND, NETROOTS NATION: Yes. I mean, I was going to say, I think
the North Star that the students are setting out for all of us is save our
lives. That`s the North Star.
That`s the thing – that`s the challenge they are putting out and I do
think the role of organizations, institutions, groups that are out there to
support the organizing energy that the students are calling forth is to
help find imaginative ways that we can live in to the world that we need.
I think one of the important things for all of us to understand is, it`s
not enough to say no in this era of catastrophic attacks on all fronts,
from the Trump administration, from the NRA and others.
We have to talk about what we want to see. And what we want to see is a
country that`s safe for everyone.
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, ALL IN: Laurence Tribe – sorry, Laurence Tribe,
I have to go.
LAURENCE TRIBE, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: OK.
HAYES: I have to hand the show over to Rachel. Laurence Tribe and Anna
Galland, thank you for joining us.
Everyone, by the way, should read Justice John Paul Stephens` amazing
dissent in the Heller case, which is the big gun case in 2008. It`s a
great read. Very convincing in my mind.
That is “ALL IN” for this evening.
THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thank you, my friend.
HAYES: You bet.
MADDOW: Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
We have just learned where the president is tonight. We had known that the
president was going to a dinner in a private home tonight somewhere in the
D.C. area. He hasn`t done all that many of these since becoming president.
When he leaves the White House, he tends to go to one of his own private
property somewhere or his D.C. hotel for example, but the White House today
emphasized that the president would be leaving the White House to go to a
dinner with supporters.
He`s done a couple of these now in the last two weeks. The White House
went out of his way to say, this is not a fundraising dinner. And so,
we`ve been wondering where he was going to be.
Well, “The New York Times” reports tonight that the dinner is at the home
of Giuseppe – I think you pronounce his last name Cecchi. It`s c-e-c-c-h-
i. I think they`re Cecchi. He`s described as a Trump loyalist.
But just because history is a dog that not only chases its tail, it catches
it and bites hard, “The New York Times” further reports tonight helpfully
that Giuseppe Cecchi, at one point was known as the condo king of
Washington. Among his most famous achievements in business was that he was
the developer of the Watergate complex. Yes, that Watergate complex.
The president holding a private dinner tonight with the guy who built
Watergate, you can see the president`s dinner host here at work on the on
the future Watergate building. That`s the puppy`s tail in the news
tonight. Biting onto it is something else in the news at this hour.
I think we should I think we should have expected this to happen at some
point I don`t know why it happened today in particular, but I`m very, very
curious about it. And we have to go to Watergate in order to make sense of
what`s happening tonight.
This was the front page of “The New York Times” on Sunday, October 21st,
1973. You see the big banner headline there across all eight columns of
the front page. Three big lines of all capital letters, so much happening
that was so important that the freaking headline had not one but two
semicolons in the headline.
Quote: Nixon discharges Cox for defiance, semicolon, abolishes Watergate
task force, semicolon, Richardson and Ruckelshaus out. This was, of
course, the Sunday morning after the Saturday night massacre. And we`ve
all memorized by now, right, what happened in the Saturday night massacre -
- Saturday night massacre.
The Watergate special prosecutor was closing in on Nixon specifically
closing in on getting the Oval Office tapes from Nixon. Nixon freaked out
and ordered that the Watergate special prosecutor should be fired. He told
the attorney general to fire the Watergate special prosecutor. The
attorney general said no and resigned, that`s him on the left side of your
Then with the attorney general out of the way, Nixon went on to the next
man in the line of succession. The Deputy Attorney General William
Ruckelshaus on the right side of your screen. Mr. Ruckelshaus too said he
would not carry out the president`s order to fire the Watergate special
prosecutor. And he too resigned as deputy attorney general. And so then,
the president had to keep chewing his way through the upper ranks of the
Justice Department until he found the guy who was the third down the line
of succession, and he agreed to do it.
The Solicitor General Robert Bork finally said, OK, yes, he would fire the
special prosecutor. But by then, this was such a conflagration in
Washington that`s Saturday night. By the next morning, it was learning
double semi-colon headlines across eight columns of print and the whole
country had its hair on fire about Nixon`s behavior and frankly after the
Saturday night massacre, politically and in terms of the scandal, he never
But, you know, that did not happen by happenstance. It wasn`t an accident
of circumstance or a personality quirk that led Elliot Richardson and
William Ruckelshaus to resign in protest when Nixon ordered them to fire
the Watergate prosecutor. Now, Richardson and Ruckelshaus did that. They
said, no, sir, I will resign instead. They did that because somebody
Go back to that big front page again, big headline summing up all the big
news across the top of the page. But then look a little bit further down
the page, look at this article. This is the article that actually split
explains the third line of the big headline. It explains why the Attorney
General Richardson said, no, Mr. President, you`re going to if you`re going
to order me to fire that prosecutor, I`m going to quit in protest.
And then you see the head the sub-headline there, the explanation attorney
general says he couldn`t oust prosecutor, cites autonomy vow. What`s the
autonomy vow? Aha, turns out to be very important.
Elliot L. Richardson resigned as attorney general tonight saying he could
not carry out President Nixon`s order to discharge Archibald Cox, the
special Watergate prosecutor in light of his earlier pledge to provide Mr.
Cox with full authority to contest presidential claims of executive
privilege. During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary
Committee, Mr. Richardson promised that the special prosecutor would have
unimpeded authority to subpoena potential evidence from any source,
including the president himself. Elliot Richardson insisted that he would
not countermand or interfere with the special prosecutor`s decisions or
actions and he promised that the special prosecutor would not be dismissed
from his post except for extraordinary improprieties on his part.
If there weren`t extraordinary foreign proprieties, he wasn`t going to fire
that guy. So that`s what Elliot Richardson had to promise in order to get
confirmed as attorney general. He was nominated to be attorney general in
the middle of the Watergate scandal. The previous attorney general who he
replaced ended up going to prison on perjury and obstruction of justice
charges related to Watergate.
Nixon out stood that previous attorney general on the same day he ousted
John Dean and H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, all of whom would also end
up going to prison for Watergate. So, when those guys were being pushed
out and they`re trying to bring in a new attorney general, it comes time
for the Senate to confirm this new attorney general in the middle of the
Watergate scandal and, yes, they were thinking ahead there may be a problem
in the Nixon administration.
And so, they obtained promise from him under oath as part of his
confirmation proceedings. He promised that he would not fire the Watergate
special prosecutor unless there were extraordinary improprieties on the
part of that prosecutor. They got that promise from the attorney general.
And then when the new deputy attorney general was nominated and confirmed,
Bill Ruckelshaus, the Senate extracted that same exact promise from him.
He too promised that he would not fire the Watergate special prosecutor
unless there were extraordinary improprieties.
Well, you know, there weren`t extraordinary improprieties on the part of
that prosecutor. Dude just subpoenaed at the White House tapes, which was
pushy but not extraordinarily im – not an extraordinary impropriety,
especially given that the subpoenas held up in court.
So, when Nixon nevertheless told his new attorney general that he should
fire the prosecutor for going after the White House tapes, the attorney
general said no. It was only earlier that year that he had promised that
he wouldn`t fire the guy except in extraordinary circumstances. He
basically was able to tell the president. Listen, I made a public promise
that I wouldn`t do exactly what you`re asking me to do. And so, I`m not
going to do it, I`ll resign instead.
And then the deputy attorney general basically had to say the same thing.
I made a public promise that I wouldn`t do that except in extreme
circumstances. These aren`t extreme circumstances. So, if you`re telling
me to fire the guy anyway, I made a public promise that I wouldn`t do that.
So, I`ll quit too.
That`s why the Saturday night massacre happened the way it did. It wasn`t
just the goodness of their hearts. It wasn`t just stoic civic virtue by
these two Justice Department officials, Richardson and Ruckelshaus.
I mean, at least it wasn`t that alone. It was also key. It was
instrumental. It was how they explained their behavior at the time, both
to the public, to the press and to the president. They`d made a promise
publicly because somebody thought ahead to ask them to make that promise,
before push came to shove.
So, because we have that history I think we should have expected this to
happen at some point. But now, tonight, it has and I`m curious as to why
it`s happened tonight. Nine Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee
have just written to the whole line of succession at the U.S. Justice
Department, asking five officials in the line of succession to make the
same kind of commitment to protect the Mueller investigation in the Russia
scandal, that Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus did to protect the
Watergate prosecutor back in 1973.
The person at the Justice Department who oversees the Mueller investigation
is, of course, Rod Rosenstein. He has already made this kind of public
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you were ordered today to fire Mr. Mueller, what
would you do?
ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: So, I`ve explained previously, I
would follow the regulation. If there were good cause, I would act. If
there were no good cause, I would not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: If there were no good cause, I would not act. I would not follow
So, Rod Rosenstein is already first in the line of succession. He`s
overseeing the Mueller inquiry. He has made this kind of public commitment
that he will not fire Robert Mueller unless there`s good cause to do so.
Well, if the president fires Rod Rosenstein, though, the line of succession
in terms of oversight of the Mueller investigation would go from him to the
Solicitor General Noel Francisco and then to the assistant attorney general
for the Office of Legal Counsel, Steven Engel, and then to the head of the
national security division of the Justice Department, John Demers, and then
it would go to two specific U.S. attorneys.
First, the U.S. attorney in the eastern district of North Carolina who is
Bobby Higdon and then to another U.S. attorney in Texas, Erin Nealy Cox. I
think no relation to Archibald Cox, although I should probably check.
These nine senators tonight have now written to this whole line of
succession to all – at that Saturday night massacre, you have to go
through three. Well, in this case, it`s written to all five below
Rosenstein – Francisco, Engel, Demers, Higdon, Cox.
And this is what they said, quote: We have significant concerns that the
president or his White House could order individuals at the Department of
Justice with the authority to oversee special counsel Mueller`s probe to
interfere with the probe or shut it down. You fall in the line of
succession at the Department of Justice if Deputy Attorney General
Rosenstein were to either resign or be removed. We right now to request
that you provide a written and public commitment that you will not
interfere in the special counsel`s investigation into Russian meddling in
the 2016 elections, possible collusion with such meddling by the Trump
campaign, efforts to obstruct justice or any related inquiry.
As such, we ask that you publicly commit to refuse any order or request,
whether expressed or implied to interfere in the special counsel`s
investigation, including but not limited to firing Mr. Muller, cutting off
funding or resources, limiting staffing or inhibiting his ability to follow
the facts wherever they may lead. So, again, that letter is being sent out
tonight from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and they`re
saying that they want a response right away.
So far, there`s no word from these five senior Justice Department officials
as to whether they will make that kind of commitment, whether they`ll make
that kind of promise. It is worth noting that the man above them at DOJ
who`s in that oversight position now, Rod Rosenstein, he has made that kind
of public promise, so it wouldn`t be weird if these other officials
followed in his footsteps and did so as well.
We`ll have to wait over the next few days to see if they think they ought
to make this kind of promise. It`s very interesting. Imagine being in
their shoes right now, right, knowing this history, knowing the way the
president has talked about this special counsel, knowing the way he`s
railed against the attorney general for recusing himself and against Rod
Rosenstein even for his oversight of it, the way he started to rail against
Mueller, again knowing the history of the Saturday night massacre, knowing
how Richardson and Ruckelshaus are viewed in history versus how Robert Bork
is viewed in history, because he was the guy who said, yes, he`ll fire him.
I would imagine being one of those Justice Department officials tonight
facing this letter from these nine senators saying, should I make the
promise? Other thing I`m curious about is why these senators felt
compelled to send this letter today requesting this promise. I am
interested in that particularly because only about minutes before this
letter went out tonight, we also out of the blue got this – right before
that letter to all these Justice Department officials, we also unexpectedly
got this joint bipartisan statement from Delaware Democratic Senator Chris
Coons and Republican North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis. They released
this tonight without any warning.
Quote: We have heard from constituents, Republicans, Democrats and
independents alike who agree that special counsel Robert Mueller should be
able to conduct his investigation without interference. This should not be
a partisan issue. We introduced the Special Counsel Integrity Act because
we believe that the American people should have confidence in the
Department of Justice`s ability to conduct independent investigations and
its commitment to the rule of law. We urge President Trump to allow the
special counsel to complete his work without impediment, which is in the
best interest of the American people, the president and our nation.
OK. Good to know that Special Counsel Integrity Act they referenced there
is in fact bipartisan legislation that Chris Coons and Thom Tillis
introduced a while back to protect the Mueller investigation itself, in
case, the president tries to kill it off. That legislation has not gone
anywhere because Republican leadership in the Senate hasn`t let it.
So, maybe this unexpected joint statement tonight from these two senators,
it`s just an effort to put a new spotlight on their old bill that`s still
kicking around that hasn`t been acted on? But I`m curious why now, why
tonight and why less than two hours later did we get this “we need some
promises here” letter going out to the whole line of succession at the
I don`t know why both of those things just happen tonight, but I am about
to get to ask somebody who should probably know.
Joining us now is Senator Richard Blumenthal, member of the Senate
Judiciary Committee who signed that letter calling for Justice Department
officials to commit publicly that they won`t interfere in the special
I should tell you, he also co-wrote an op-ed for “Slate” tonight, along
with historian Rick Perlstein called “How to Protect the Mueller
Investigation” which explicitly calls out those parallels to what happened
in October 1973, that does feel like quite a quite a curtain opener for
what we`re seeing right now.
Senator Blumenthal, thank you very much for being with us tonight.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT), SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thank you,
MADDOW: I am – I`m not suspicious but I`m curious as to why now – why
you and these other eight senators on the Judiciary Committee have sought
these assurances from the Justice Department tonight, particularly given
that we also saw this interesting statement tonight from Senator Coons and
Senator Tillis on a similar matter.
BLUMENTHAL: The reason I led this letter was my increasing alarm with that
swirling reports, unconfirmed and unspecific, but more and more concerning
that the president may attempt to fire Bob Mueller. He tried it last June
and he stopped only because his White House counsel threatened to resign.
Now, his legal team is disintegrating, including the possible departure of
that White House counsel. The departure already of one of his lawyers and
his tweets are increasingly erratic and extreme, but most fundamentally is
the fact that the investigation is coming closer and closer to Donald Trump
He may well be interviewed shortly. There are three guilty pleas of
witnesses potentially against him with very relevant and important
information that could incriminate him. There`s a credible case of
obstruction of justice right now against the president United States, and
that case becomes more and more compelling every day, in fact, the
president`s actions themselves are creating that case, unfolding in real
time right before us.
So, this letter with Congress now out of town and therefore unavailable to
take action is meant to send a warning, but also to elicit the commitment
of these five officials who were in line of succession to Rod Rosenstein
that they will not fire Bob Mueller or interfere in this investigation by
limiting staffing cutting resources, constraining in any way his ability to
follow the facts and the law.
MADDOW: I`m struck by the fact that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein
has given those sorts of public – he has given that public assurance more
or less, he`s told Congress on several different occasions that he will
strictly follow the special counsel regulations, that he would not follow
in order to fire Bob Mueller if there weren`t good cause for that order to
have been issued.
Given the fact that he`s already made public assurances related to this
matter, has the Justice Department or any of the individual Justice
Department officials who you`ve now approached, have they given you any
indication as to whether they would see it as appropriate or inappropriate,
whether they plan to address your concerns through any public statements.
They`ve given no indication whatsoever, which is also a reason for alarm
because it is very uncomplicated. There`s nothing particularly elaborate
or challenging about adhering to the rule of law.
And I`m alarmed as well by the Republican leadership blocking these bills.
There`s strong bipartisan support for the bills that I have introduced as
long as well as Senator Coons and Tillis. Democrats have supported it.
Senator Graham, Republican of South Carolina.
And so, I think that there ought to be a hearing, in fact there ought to be
votes in the Judiciary Committee that approve this legislation, bring it to
the floor, allow us to vote on it, and dispel a lot of the concern that
there may be that we will be too late and the president will have acted and
we will have this constitutional conflagration unnecessarily. But in the
meantime, the pledge from these five officials in line of succession to Rod
Rosenstein are very, very important and they`ve given no indication about
what they will do.
MADDOW: Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – from the Senate
Judiciary Committee spearheading this overture to the Justice Department
tonight – thank you, sir, and thank you for helping us understand the way
you`re thinking ahead on this. Much appreciated.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. We`ve got lots more to get to. It`s been a busy news
day and a busy news night. Stay with us.
MADDOW: The person who ran the Census under our last Republican President
George W. Bush, he says, quote: It would be a horrendous problem for the
Census Bureau and create all kinds of controversies.
The guy who ran the Census under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and Jimmy
Carter, he says adding this question would be, quote, beyond comprehension
at this point. It would be really bad.
Four former census directors told the Supreme Court and a legal filing a
couple years ago that if this particular question was added to the census,
quote, the sub effect would be bad census data.
And yet the Trump administration is going ahead and doing it. They have
now announced that they are adding a citizenship question to the next
census, which is set for 2020. They`re adding this question without even
testing it, without doing any preparation on what effect this might have on
the overall census. That`s despite the fact that everybody who has run the
census for the last 40 years says don`t do it. It`ll screw everything up.
They`ve just like decided they`re going to pour sugar in the gas tank. Why
have they decided to pour sugar in the gas tank? Everybody says no.
Everybody knows it`s really bad for your car to put sugar in the gas tank
but, yes, they`re going ahead, they got a different idea.
Why is that?
The census data we get every ten years is used to determine all kinds of
things. Congressional seats, electoral votes, voting districts, how
hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding is divvied up, how much
healthcare and how many schools and how many roads your area needs.
Businesses use census data all the time.
And everybody who has overseen the gathering of this data in the past says
what the Trump administration has just decided to do will throw a wrench
into it, will screw up the data.
The likely effect of adding the citizenship question to the census,
according to all the experts, is not just bad, inaccurate data, but
specifically an undercount. Adding this citizenship question is likely to
result in an undercount because not just immigrants, but anybody who has an
immigrant anywhere in their family or in their household might rationally
or irrationally have a worry about reporting that fact to the government.
That person is therefore less likely to stand up and be counted, and
therefore, we`re less likely to get an accurate count of the number of
people in the country.
And the government knows this is the likely effect because internal focus
group data from the census bureau shows that people are already so freaked
out by the current administration and its attitude towards immigrants and
people of color that they`re already more reluctant than they used to be to
answer census questions this is from a September Census Bureau memo.
Quote: Census researchers heard respondents express new concerns about
topics like the Muslim ban, discomfort registering other household members
by reporting their demographic characteristics, the dissolution of the DACA
program, repeated references to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, et
Census researchers emphasized facing a new phenomenon in the field and
reported that respondents` fears particularly among immigrant respondents
have increased markedly this year. Getting a bad count, specifically the
undercounting of America, it`s already a significant problem for
communities of color, for immigrant communities in particular. The Census
Bureau already estimated that they under-counted the Hispanic population in
the U.S. by 1-1/2 percent in 2010, for the last census, which is big when
you`re talking about the whole population of the country.
This is certainly assuredly going to make that way, way worse, which is bad
for the Latino community in this country, it`s also bad for everybody who
uses the census data for anything and counts on it being true. And that`s
why this sort of seemingly technical but inexplicable rejection of all
expert advice on the subject both clearly has a purpose and has led to the
blooming of a thousand lawsuits today and that story is next.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: California has already jumped in. California has already filed
suit to stop this. New York has also announced that they`re going to sue.
At least ten other states say they`re going to join that New York lawsuit.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder`s organization is suing.
It`s been barely hours since the administration announced late last night
that they would add a question on citizenship to the next census. To make
that call, they overruled career officials at the bureau who warned that
adding that question would lead to an undercount of the American
population. They also pressed forward despite the warnings of every living
person who has actually run the U.S. Census before.
And so, yes, already, a dozen states and a group run by the former attorney
general of the United States have already filed at least three different
major lawsuits against the Trump administration`s decision here. And it is
only day one.
Joining us now is Vanita Gupta. She`s the former head of the Civil Rights
Division at the Justice Department. She`s now president and CEO of the
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
Ms. Gupta, it`s an honor to have you here tonight. Thank you for your
VANITA GUPTA, LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE ON CIVIL & HUMAN RIGHTS CEO: Great to
MADDOW: So, why is an undercount on the census such a big deal? And are
you confident in the data that suggests that will be the result of this
action by the Trump administration?
GUPTA: An undercount on the census is a very big deal. The census is the
basis as you said for congressional representation, for the doling out of
state and federal dollars to every part of the country. What I think is
really important to note here is that when the Justice Department sent a
letter to the Department of Commerce back in December asking for the
inclusion of this question, Jeff Sessions` Justice Department said that
they needed this question to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
Now, you and I may know that Jeff Sessions has been no champion of civil
rights and has indeed called the Voting Rights Act an intrusion. And so,
to say suddenly that Jeff Sessions Justice Department has found religion on
the Voting Rights Act, and that is the basis for this.
I think really it`s laughable and what they did the decision to add a
citizenship question that was made yesterday by Secretary Ross in effect
weaponizes the census for the kind of nativist, partisan agenda that Donald
Trump and Jeff Sessions have been promoting.
And this is a deeply alarming thing because ultimately, the census is a
constitutionally mandated program that is supposed to count every single
person in this country, not just citizens, every person.
MADDOW: I know a little bit about the interesting constitutional origins.
We have very few things in the Constitution that were actually actively
directed to do by the Founding Fathers and by our constitutional
inheritance. We got to have a post office. We got to do a census. There
aren`t that many of those things.
So I`m familiar with that. I`m also familiar with the political importance
of the census, all the different things that`s used for, everything from
the business world to academic research to the allocation of federal
dollars and very, very important political allocation decisions, including
congressional districts and stuff like that.
What I don`t know anything about it although is the census as a subject of
litigation. How clear is the case law and the precedent in terms of
conducting the census fairly, conducting it in a way that is designed to be
effective and not purposely undercount people. What do you make of the
chances these various lawsuits have at challenging the administration`s
GUPTA: Look, I mean as you said, there are very few things that are truly
mandated and in the Constitution and conducting a fair count of every
person who is in this country is one of them. And it`s for the purpose of
being able to determine congressional representation.
And so, here, we have a situation where the Trump administration is
purposely setting the census up to ensure in this kind of context
depression of participation of certain vulnerable communities. And so, I
think that these lawsuits are making a very strong and viable claim that in
so doing, there is purposeful unconstitutional efforts to undermine the
census and frankly to put over $16 billion of taxpayer money at risk
because this is one of the most complex operations, peacetime operations
that the government conducts.
This is a – this is a consequence by the way that we will have to live
with for 10 years. So, litigation is really important, and there will be
more of that to come. But also, Congress can undo this and they can undo
it anytime between now and when the census has actually counted in 2020.
And that`s why it`s really important that the Leadership Conference
Coalition continue to urge Congress to take the right step. That`s why
people need a vote in November to make sure that this kind of thing – the
politicization of the census and the undermining of our democracy is not
allowed to go unaccounted for.
MADDOW: Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice
Department in the Obama administration, now president and CEO of the
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights – thank you for helping us
understand this. When you say there will be more litigation to come, I
believe you. Thanks for being here tonight.
GUPTA: Thank you.
MADDOW: Also, you know, the last point she was making there that Congress
could overturn this in November 2018, obviously, that won`t happen with
Republican control of Congress.
But you can already see among sort of the brightest lights in Democratic
strategizing that people are realizing that a Democratic takeover of
Congress in November should in some ways be predicated on this issue. If
Democrats are going to be procedurally disenfranchised or at least
disadvantaged in electoral politics by something that the administration is
about to do right now, I think Democrats would see that as a matter of some
urgency to re-level the playing field if they got control of Congress in
November. This is going to be a big deal over these next few months.
All right. Stay with us. More to come.
MADDOW: This is a good story with a bad ending, but it`s a good story.
When Boris Yeltsin announced he was running for reelection in Russia in
1996, his advisors famously wept. He was in fifth place in the polls.
Political observers had totally written him off.
His staff said he seemed old and frail and sick. They thought they were
witnessing their guy`s last hurrah in Russian politics. So, they stood
backstage and cried when he announced he was running for re-election.
But then, Yeltsin made a big comeback and he did it in part with
advertising. He ran very aggressive attack ads against his communist
opponent. This one has a big picture of the communist guy`s face that in
Russian it says: this could be your last chance to buy food. Vote for
Boris, otherwise, you`ll starve. Wow.
Russia hadn`t really seen a political ad campaign quite like the one that
Yeltsin deployed that year, but it works. He beat his opponent. The guy
he said would take away all the food, he beat him by 14 points.
This is “The Washington Post” after that election in `96. Quote: Yeltsin
campaign rose from tears to triumph. Money and advertising turned fortunes
One observer said Russians were so bamboozled by that ad campaign that it
turned people`s brains to mishmash, that`s the technical term, mishmash.
But that strategy that never before seen in Russia ad campaign, it was
designed by this guy. His name is Mikhail Lesin. L-e-s-i-n, Lesin.
He developed the ad campaign that won Boris Yeltsin re-election and for
that, Yeltsin made him his press minister.
And Mikhail Lesin stuck around the Kremlin for a while, through the
beginning of the Vladimir Putin years. He was an important person in
Putin`s political inner circle. He helped run oppo against Putin`s
critics. They called him the bulldozer,
He ended up founding the TV station RT, Russia Today, Russia`s state-run
propaganda outlet. Most recently, he worked for Gazprom, Russia`s state-
owned gas company. He`s head of media there, because in Russia, it`s not
weird for the state gas company and the state oil company to have their own
TV stations and media empires.
But this guy Mikhail Lesin was a longtime fixture of Russian politics in
Putin`s Russia and then he up and quit. Uh-oh.
In 2014, Mikhail Lesin announced he was quitting his cushy job at Gazprom
media. He did it suddenly and unexpectedly. Nobody knew why he was
There were reports he was about to be investigated here in the United
States for possible money laundering. By some accounts, he went into
hiding. By some accounts, he had a falling out with people close to Putin.
Reportedly fearing for his life, he contacted the FBI and the U.S. Justice
Department and reportedly told them that he was ready to cooperate in that
money-laundering case if they could keep him safe.
During that time, Mikhail Lesin`s whereabouts were kind of a mystery, until
he turned up dead in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. with an appointment
to go to the Justice Department the very next day.
Hold that thought.
MADDOW: In November 2015, an employee at the Du Pont Circle Hotel in
Washington, D.C. opened up the room, opened up the door to the penthouse
suite on the ninth floor and found a dead guy laying facedown on the
Mikhail Lesin, Vladimir Putin`s former media czar found dead in that D.C.
hotel room by hotel staff.
According to the medical examiner, the cause of death was blunt force
injuries to the head and also to the neck, torso, upper extremities and
As far as what caused all that blunt-force trauma though, the medical
examiner didn`t know. Quote: Manner of death, undetermined.
So, we`ve got the cause of death but not the manner.
The Justice Department opened an investigation into the death of Michael
Lesin to figure out how an ex-Russian official turned up dead in a D.C.
hotel. After almost a year, the Justice Department announced that they got
it. They figured out the manner of death. They figured out what had
killed that Russian guy, how he got blunt forced to death all over his
They concluded that the death of Mikhail Lesin was an accident, all that
blunt trauma to his head and his neck and his torso and his upper
extremities and his lower extremities, it was all an accident.
The Justice Department determined that Mr. Lesin died alone in his hotel
room after days of heavy drinking. Lesin drunkenly fell down multiple
times, which is how we got all those injuries that killed him. He got
drunk, he fell down, until he died. That`s how they close the case.
There was still a ton of open questions around Mr. Lesin`s death as you
might imagine. For months, people speculated about whether he really did
fall to death in a D.C. hotel room over and over again while alone. It was
big mystery. A lot of discussion about it.
And then three FBI agents came forward and said, no, that`s not what
happened. Three FBI agents spoke to “BuzzFeed News” last summer. They
said unequivocally that Mikhail Lesin did not drink and fall himself to
death in that hotel room. They said he was bludgeoned to death
specifically with a baseball bat.
Quote: Lesin was beaten to death, one of the FBI agents said. There isn`t
a single person inside the bureau, meaning the FBI, who believes this guy
got drunk, fell down and died. Everybody thinks he was whacked and that
Putin or the Kremlin were behind it – which is news. But it still left
open the question of why he got whacked in the first place, and whether
this would ever be solved as a murder.
FBI agents had an answer for that too. Quote: It was the Department of
Justice that paid for the hotel room where Lesin died. DOJ officials had
invited the Russian to Washington to interview him about the inner workings
of RT, the Kremlin-funded network that Lesin founded, according to those
But Lesin never made it to the interview. He died the night before it was
scheduled to take place.
So, these anonymous FBI agents coming to “BuzzFeed” and telling them that
hours before Mikhail Lesin was scheduled to talk to U.S. investigators, he
was murdered in his D.C. hotel room. That report from “BuzzFeed News” for
obvious reasons went off like a rocket last year when they published it,
opened a cascade of fresh questions about that case and what the U.S.
government would do about it if those agents were right.
Well, now, today, “BuzzFeed” has added more supporting evidence to this
dramatic claim and this time, it`s from a different but familiar source.
Quote: The FBI possesses a secret report asserting that Mikhail Lesin was
beaten to death by hired thugs in Washington, D.C. According to the
report, Lesin fell out with a powerful oligarch close to Putin. Wanting to
intimidate Lesin, the oligarch then contracted with Russian state security
agents to beat Lesin up, the report says. The goal was not to kill Lesin
but Lesin died from the attack.
Now, here comes the familiar character. Quote: The report, according to
four sources who have read all or parts of it was written by the former
British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who also wrote the famous
dossier alleging that Russia had been cultivating, supporting and assisting
Just yesterday, the United States joined more than 20 countries and
expelled a whole bunch of Russian diplomats out of the country, closed a
consulate in Seattle, kicked out those Russian diplomats all in response to
the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, former Russian spy who was attacked with a
rare Russian nerve agent on a park bench in Britain earlier this month.
Britain has blamed Moscow for orchestrating that assassination attempt on
their soil. The foreign minister says it`s attributable to Vladimir Putin.
The U.K. has kicked out diplomats. Yesterday, we kicked out 60 Russian
diplomats from our country in solidarity of Britain and all these other
countries around the world.
Now that “BuzzFeed” has broken this news today (AUDIO GAP) a report from
Christopher Steele (AUDIO GAP) attack might have been carried out right
here in the United States, a mile away from the White House, what happens
next in the story?
Joining us now is Jason Leopold, senior investigative reporter with
Mr. Leopold, this is some reporting, man.
JASON LEOPOLD, SENIOR INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, BUZZFEED NEWS: Thank you.
LEOPOLD: Took – it was a heavy lift.
LEOPOLD: It was – we spent a year reporting this out.
And just to if I may add, it was not just Christopher Steele who handed
this report, but in addition, three in-depth sources independent of Steele
also went to the FBI with basically the same story about Mikhail Lesin, and
about the way – the manner in which he died.
MADDOW: I`m going to ask you a Steele question that I don`t think you`re
going to be able to answer, just in terms of protecting sources.
MADDOW: But you don`t say why Christopher Steele did a report on this, nor
who he was being – who was paying him to do it? Are those things you
can`t talk about?
LEOPOLD: But what – but let me just be clear (AUDIO GAP) additional
reporting on it. So, (AUDIO GAP)
MADDOW: There`s no indication (AUDIO GAP) this death in D.C. is directly
connected to or paid for by the same people who did that Russia Trump
LEOPOLD: I have no evidence (AUDIO GAP).
MADDOW: (AUDIO GAP) not unbelievable about this reporting (AUDIO GAP) that
this guy might have (AUDIO GAP) his connections at home in Russia. It does
seem unbelievable that the U.S. government came to this conclusion about
LEOPOLD: Yes, it`s a – it`s – I mean, it`s crazy for – when they came
out – first, you know, when he died in November of 2015, it was
undetermined. In March of 2016, that`s when the coroner said it was blunt-
force injuries, head, neck and torso, multiple blunt-force injuries. They
spent a year investigating this.
And we know now from, you know, our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit
against multiple government agencies that they had a grand jury
investigation, that they were investigating this as a homicide, multiple
witnesses came before a grand jury, compelled to give evidence, that the
Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. had asked the FBI to step in, help
them look at surveillance footage to make sure nothing was tampered with.
(AUDIO GAP) asked the FBI to FBI agents to pay particular attention to the
back (AUDIO GAP) in surveillance footage which sort of indicates that
perhaps when they found his body, what the back of his head may have looked
The one thing, however, that in the documents that, you know, that the
government released – has released and it`s part of their narrative they
have not explained how he you know sustained those blunt-force injuries. I
mean, they only in a press release they`ve said that he fell down multiple
times. But in these documents, you know, there`s nothing there.
So, in the course of our reporting and also, we – you know, you noted
previously about FBI agents coming forward, we went aggressively to try to
get FBI agents, from current and former and intelligence officers to speak
to us about this case. So, it was an explanation as to why it took so
long. And it was during that court – the course of that reporting that we
discovered that (AUDIO GAP) himself had written a report in 2016, had
looked at this, that he had sources inside the Kremlin who provided him
with this information.
And then we had additional sources who basically said that, you know,
Mikhail Lesin had a professional relationship with an oligarch that he fell
out of favor with. And that`s ultimately was the catalyst, you know, that
that led to the beating and his demise.
MADDOW: Because of these multiple rounds of reporting you`ve now done on
the subject and because there were multiple FBI officials who are –
multiple FBI agents who are willing to talk to you about this, is it
impossible that this could be reopened as a case and reinvestigated? The
idea that Putin might have gotten away with something like this on U.S.
soil is distressing.
LEOPOLD: Sure, you know, with regard to reopening it, we asked
Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. They said if additional evidence is
MADDOW: There`s some. Yes.
LEOPOLD: – they`ll reopen it.
You know, I also want to make it clear that in these documents, right, that
documents that were released to us under FOIA, that the FBI, you know, and
the MPD said that they don`t have any evidence that there was foul play
here. But again, the fact that there plainly that he fell down multiple
times alone in a drunken state in this hotel –
MADDOW: Until he died.
LEOPOLD: Yes, is –
MADDOW: Jason Leopold –
LEOPOLD: Time for more reporting, obviously.
MADDOW: Jason Leopold, senior investigative reporter with “BuzzFeed News”
- again, congratulations on a heavy-lift of scoop here. Very interesting
LEOPOLD: Thank you, Rachel. I really appreciate it.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for “THE LAST WORD” with the great Lawrence O`Donnell.
Good evening, Mr. O`Donnell. I`m sorry to go to you three seconds early.
I screwed up.
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