Mattis resigns as Secretary of Defense. TRANSCRIPT: 12/20/2018, The Rachel Maddow Show.
Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
Date: December 20, 2018
Guest: Chris Murphy, Jerry Nadler
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, “ALL IN”: RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts now.
Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: You know, some days I know it is hard when
there is nothing to talk about and nothing going on. You just need to
HAYES: Somehow we filled an hour.
MADDOW: I understand you ran a few evergreen segments. Thank you, my
MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. I come to
Washington for two days and look what happens. I feel like I have to get
out of here before the earth cracks open and swallows this place whole.
Was it me?
Today has just been a cascade of what would be generally seen as absolutely
apocalyptic news in any other presidency. In the Trump presidency, maybe
we just think of this as a slightly rockier than usual Thursday, but any
one of the things that happened today would be written into the history of
any other modern presidency as one of its worst days, or the start of the
But let`s start tonight with the resignation of the Secretary of Defense
James Mattis. This is a resignation letter. It`s dated today, December
20th, 2018. It`s on Defense Department letterhead.
Dear Mr. President, I have been privileged to serve as our country`s 26th
secretary of defense, which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and
women of the department in defense of our citizens and our ideals. One
core belief I`ve always held is that our strength as a nation is
inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system
of alliances and partnerships.
While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we
cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without
maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. We must
use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense,
including providing effective leadership to our alliances.
NATO`s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to
fighting alongside us following the 9/11 attack on America. The defeat
ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof. Similarly, I believe we
must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose
strategic interests are increasingly intention with ours. It is clear that
China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their
authoritarian model, gaining veto authority over other nation`s economic,
diplomatic and security decisions, to promote their own interests at the
expense of their neighbors, America, and our allies.
My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about
malign actors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of
immersion in these issues. Because you have the right to have a secretary
of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other
subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. The
end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019.
And it is signed, without salutation, James N. Mattis.
This letter of resignation today was not released by the White House, it
was released by the Pentagon. I can`t imagine the White House would have
ever released this if the Pentagon didn`t do it, just because there is no
lack of clarity here. I mean, this was a resignation in protest against
the president and his behavior, at least that`s how this reads to me.
I mean, there`s no hint that Secretary Mattis was fired or that his
resignation was because he wanted to spend more time writing symphonies or
something. He has resigned in protest over these issues – treating allies
with respect and as he puts it, quote, being clear-eyed about malign
Beyond this blunt letter, though, I think another way you can tell this
wasn`t the president firing the defense secretary, is because this happened
today in person, man-to-man. The defense secretary, Jim Mattis, apparently
went to the White House, met with the president in person today, and he
handed him this resignation. Now, in contrast, when President Trump has
fired people in his administration, I think, without exception, he has
always had someone else do it for him. He does not do that in person.
So, this is the first resignation in protest in the Trump cabinet, and that
makes it – that makes it a first, but on another level this is sort of
just another one of those moments. I`m not going to put up the big wall
behind me again listing all the high-level departures from this
administration, honestly, who has the time? But even if we`re just talking
about the cabinet, just the cabinet, we have had the health secretary
resign in scandal. We`ve had the EPA head resign in scandal. We`ve just
had the interior secretary resign in scandal.
And in terms of resigning in scandal, we`re not going to put him up there
yet, because he`s still there, but if you want to say tick tock next to
resign in scandal, I think safest bets are on Labor Secretary Alex Acosta,
thanks to the new revelations about his role in personally arranging a
sweetheart no prosecution deal for an accused prolific serial child rapist.
So, Alex Acosta right now still at the Labor Department, but keep your
markers on him. And Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has a whole bunch of
legal issues hanging off his bumper like a bunch of tin cans after a cheap
But for now, Acosta and Wilbur Ross are still there. But still, inside the
first half term of this president, we have already had three members of the
cabinet resign in scandal. We have had the secretary of state fired by the
president. And the V.A. secretary fired by the president. And the
attorney general fired by the president.
We have had one member of the cabinet, the U.N. secretary, Nikki Haley,
apparently resign without real explanation, but there remains some opacity
around her departure.
And now, today, we got this first. We got a cabinet secretary resigning in
protest of the president`s behavior and beliefs and being overt about that
being the reason for his departure. And again, that`s just the cabinet,
right? Keep in mind that in the midst of the ever-erupting chaos right now
in this town, the president has just fired his second White House chief of
staff and is about to bring on his third. And a brand-new White House
counsel just started last week. I`m sure he hasn`t been busy at all this
past couple of weeks with how the news has been.
The Dow Jones today dropped nearly another 500 points. That brings the
stock market to a 14-month low. We are now on the precipice of a bear
Tomorrow, I think it is fair to say it is more likely than not that the
federal government is going to shutdown indefinitely, even though the
Republican Party continues to have unified control over the White House and
the House and the Senate. Despite Republicans controlling all the levers
of power in Washington right now, they apparently are not on track to pass
a bill that will keep the government open, which the president will also
see fit to sign. So, the bills the president will sign won`t pass the
Senate, and the bills that will pass the Senate, the president won`t sign.
So, one of the things we`re actually going to be trying to figure out
tonight is the absence factor. Tomorrow the government will just shutdown
right in time for Christmas which will result in the sudden furloughing of
tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of workers and the grinding
to a halt the big parts of what the federal government does. They will try
to pass something in the Senate tomorrow to avert that.
But members of Congress, and even senators have been fleeing this town
today like shoplifters running from a loud check-out alarm. And so, one of
the things we actually have to mathematically factor in here is whether or
not, there will still be enough of them around to cast the votes that will
keep the government open, provided that they can agree on something that
they`d like to vote on.
So, like I said, a lot going on. We are going to need a lot of help
tonight figuring out what`s going on here with a lot of these different
stories that are evolving. What is going on with the shutdown which
frankly is now imminent? What`s happening with the defense secretary
resigning in protest, giving the stated reasons for his resignation, given
what appears to be the immediate precipitating event here, which appears to
have been President Trump`s unilateral Twitter announcement that all U.S.
troops will immediately leave Syria?
One of the things we`re going to need expert help on tonight with regard to
that story is whether Secretary Mattis resigning – and resigning in this
way, might be expected to cause a greater standoff of some kind between the
president and the U.S. military. So, we`re going to get help on that
tonight from an excellent Pentagon based reporter who is right here. We`re
going to be speaking with her in a moment.
But also we`re going to be talking with a presidential historian who is
looking at what ace precedent there is in our history for this kind of
thing, and what that might tell us about the prospects for some sort of
more dramatic split between the defense department and the president. Does
that end up pulling a little bit at the constitutional seams between our
military and our civilian government?
And I don`t mean to just jump right on it too abruptly, but one of the
things that is now in the foreground and not at all in the background of
all of this news is the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, today praising
President Trump for his announcement that he would pull U.S. troops out of
Syria immediately. Vladimir Putin, of course, thinks that Syria should be
Russia`s outpost in the Middle East and everybody else should butt out and
leave them to it. Today, at his annual press conference, one a year
whether he needs it or not, today, President Putin praised President Trump
for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.
But it was interesting. As soon as he was asked about that decision by
President Trump to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, the way he responded was
by praising that decision, but then immediately pivoting.
He said, well, basically, you know, we think it`s good news. We`re happy
that he is pulling out of Syria. We`ll believe it when we see it, though.
The United States has been in Afghanistan for 17 years and they always say
they`re withdrawing there. That was his pivot today.
Within hours, “The Wall Street Journal” was first to report that President
Trump has also ordered about half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, about
7,000 troops, home right now, within weeks. Another sudden announcement
today on top of the sudden announcement yesterday about the unilateral and
complete withdrawal from Syria.
So, we`re going to have a leading member of the Foreign Relations Committee
here to talk about that in just a moment. But this all does come in the
immediate aftermath of the Trump administration also announcing the
relaxing of sanctions on a key Russian oligarch who is linked closely with
the Kremlin. That oligarch`s company, which is the second largest aluminum
company in the world, has been sanctioned by the U.S. government because of
Russia`s behavior towards Ukraine, among other issues. That second largest
aluminum company in the world will now no longer be sanctioned by the U.S.
government. They are being released from those sanctions, which, of
course, will be a boon to the Russian economy. That is a huge Russian
But the way the sanctions deal was lifted, the oligarch himself, Oleg
Deripaska, he`s the same Putin-linked oligarch to whom Trump campaign chair
Manafort offered private briefings. Mr. Deripaska will be allowed to
divest, essentially, from his aluminum companies so the companies can shed
these U.S. sanctions. But the way he`s going to divest from his aluminum
companies is by shifting his shares to a Russian state owned bank that is
controlled by the Kremlin, and that is a bank called VTB.
And that is the bank that was reportedly the financing agent for Trump
Tower Moscow, the Russian real estate deal about which the president`s
personal lawyer just pled guilty for lying to Congress about it. The same
Russian real estate deal that prosecutors said extended well into the
presidential election campaign while the president lied about it and kept
secret that he was pursuing that deal. It`s a deal that prosecutors now
say could have netted the president`s company hundreds of millions of
dollars from Russian sources.
So, these things are – these things are all just happening at the same
time. The same day the president announces that, surprise, the U.S. is
pulling out of Syria and leaving it to Russia after all, he drops sanctions
on the Russian oligarch associated with his convicted felon campaign
chairman in a deal made possible by the Kremlin-controlled Russian bank
that was in line to provide the financing for his secret deal in Russia
that he was working on throughout the campaign that could have been worth
hundreds of millions of dollars to him.
And then the day after that, the president of Russia says, yes, that`s good
about Syria, but you know what, you may want to get out of Afghanistan,
too. And within hours, the president announced that, too. And now, the
defense secretary has resigned in protest, and – and – and, well, the
government`s likely going to shut down tomorrow. But on top of that, if
you think that the pressure on the president over the Russia issue may be
driving any of this, driving the president`s behavior and decisions as
president, maybe driving the stress in the White House about the
investigation into the Russia matter and what it may turn up and what kind
of pressure it may put on the president and his family, today on top of all
of it or maybe intrinsic to all of it, today was also the day that they
really just made their move in the Justice Department.
Now, you may have followed the twists and turns of this over the course of
the day today, but rather than go through the ways this story changed over
the course of the day and how the Justice Department put out an initial
exculpatory story and then had to retract it and later put out the real
story after anonymous officials corrected the record about what really
happened, after going through what was a very weird day today in terms of
the Justice Department letting out this information, where we have ended up
is serious, and actually just to sum it up, what I`m going to do is read
you the lead that was just posted tonight by the excellent reporter Charlie
Savage at “The New York Times” because I think he actually – he nuts this
up pretty perfectly after a twisty day on the story.
Quote: Matthew Whitaker, who was installed as acting attorney by President
Trump, has cleared himself to supervise the special counsel`s
investigation, rejecting the recommendation of career Justice Department
ethics specialists that he recuse himself. The development came soon after
the disclosure about the president`s nominee for attorney general, William
Barr, had written a memo this spring in which he strongly criticized one of
the main lines of inquiry by the special counsel Robert Mueller, whether
Mr. Trump had committed obstruction of justice. The disclosure of the memo
raised questions about whether Barr would order Mueller to shutdown that
component of the inquiry if the Senate confirms Barr as attorney general.
Together, the developments underscored the potential threats to Mr.
Mueller`s ability to complete his work without interference at a time when
his inquiry appears to be drawing closer to the White House and to the
president`s most trusted associates. Charlie Savage then quotes Senator
Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee,
who said today, quote, it is becoming pretty clear that the president is
basing his choices for leadership at the Justice Department on candidates
criticism of the Mueller investigation. We can all see what`s happening
So, buckle up. It has been a day. At the rate things are going, it may be
a night as well. We are going to be joined by the incoming chairman of the
Judiciary Committee in the House tonight, as well as make sense and put in
context some of these major new developments.
But on the issue of the Russia investigation, after a rip roaring couple of
weeks of very dramatic courtroom developments driven by the special
counsel, the mask did sort of get ripped off today in terms of how the
president intends to try to get at the special counsel`s investigation from
inside the Justice Department. Simultaneously, the Russian government has
just gotten a huge series of very, very, very expensive gifts from the
president in very quick succession, including at least one that was so
expensive, it cost him the resignation of his defense secretary tonight.
And so, let`s start there with expert help. Joining us is Courtney Kube,
NBC News national security reporter.
Courtney, thank you for being here.
COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: So, what`s going on? How is your day, pretty normal?
KUBE: Yes, holiday shopping.
MADDOW: Is there any question about why Secretary Mattis resigned tonight?
Is there any ambiguity if he jumped or was pushed?
KUBE: No. I mean, defense officials are saying he was not pushed out,
that this was his decision. And there have really been a series of
decisions that have been made by the president recently that have been
counter to Secretary Mattis` advice. Throughout the course of Secretary
Mattis` time at the Pentagon actually, there have been a lot of decisions,
but the ones most recently have been the most egregious for Mattis, and
those were choosing General Milley, Mark Milley to be the chairman against
Secretary Mattis` advice. That was earlier this month.
MADDOW: Is that such an important issue to him because he was strongly
against Milley or he feels it was disrespectful for the president to reject
his choice of somebody else?
KUBE: I mean, it was a combination of both. I mean, the president has the
authority. It`s his decision who he wants to nominate. But usually they
take the secretary of defense`s advice pretty seriously. In this case,
Secretary Mattis really wanted General Goldstein, Air Force chief of staff,
rather than General Milley. So, that started the month out.
Then there came the surprise Syria announcement, which actually was over
the course of the last week or so, this was a discussion. President Trump
has wanted to take troops out of Syria for sometime. He didn`t hide that
in the spring when he wanted to.
Secretary Mattis, along with others, were able to change his mind on that.
Well, they started talking about it again. What was particularly
surprising was how it came out and the fact that President Trump decided to
take all troops out in search a quick and rapid succession. And then that,
of course, comes, you know, 24 hours later, we heard the Pentagon asked for
plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.
MADDOW: Within weeks, 7,000 troops.
KUBE: Within weeks. It would be – it`s not clear. Nothing has been
decided, but the fact that they are asking for the series of plans, it sure
seems like the president has decided he wants to go down in the number of
troops there. When I was in Afghanistan in October, I got a real sense
that there is a limited time that they have to keep this 14,000 to 15,000
that are there right now.
It seems like the most likely next course of action would be more of a
counterterror force. That would be they`re going after al Qaeda, and ISIS
Khurasan and Taliban and whatnot and less of a focus on the training
mission which, of course, as we heard in Secretary Mattis` resignation
letter tonight, the training mission is the NATO mission.
That`s the partner mission that Secretary Mattis keeps going to the NATO
allies and saying, this is why we need to stay in this mission. We need
more money. We need to fund the training. So if the U.S. is going to pull
out of that as well, you know –
MADDOW: So, I mean, when I was – when I was reacting like everybody to
this news, from Secretary Mattis, immediately read the resignation letter,
saw the way he articulated this. But just sort of jotting notes to myself,
all right, what are all the things on which we`ve seen Secretary Mattis
either explicitly or implicitly disagree with the president on?
I mean, it`s the stuff you mention, but it`s everything from the president
talking smack about NATO and talking down NATO, right? The president
wanting a military parade in Washington, D.C., ban on transgender soldiers,
the Iran deal, that`s weird space force debacle. I mean, just last month
he told the president no on sending – on arming the U.S. troops sent to
MADDOW: To basically enforce immigration issues.
I mean, is this cumulative? You`re talking about what was particularly
important about the Joint Chiefs decision and the Syria decision, and now
the Afghanistan decision has happened in the wake of this. I see why those
would be key issues for him. But, essentially, is this a pile of things
that grew too large or were those qualitatively different issues?
KUBE: So, these are specific security issues. The ban on transgender
service members, having a parade, I think these are things that Secretary
Mattis had an opinion on but he wasn`t willing to go to bat with him to the
point of having to resign.
MADDOW: Having a confrontation over them?
MADDOW: Slow walk down –
KUBE: He totally did. There were other ones, too. I mean, there were
ones that weren`t as well reported, like when President Trump wanted to
pull all dependents off the Korean peninsula. Secretary Mattis just slow
But in this case, if you look at Syria, there are 2000 ISIS fighters left
in Syria. They`re in a relatively small pocket. In the next couple
months, the Syrian Democratic forces in the U.S. could probably have
cleaned that out. So, why now?
KUBE: All this – what this does right now is it leaves them there, and
the potential for them to maybe to grow, maybe to be able to start,
inspiring attacks outside the region, in the U.S., in Europe, something
like that. That`s one of the big concerns.
But then there is also the concern that this is going against the Syrian
Democratic forces, the YPG, the Arabs who have been fighting there, who
have been consistent strong partner to the U.S. and the coalition and this
is abandoning them.
MADDOW: With Mattis leaving the way he`s leaving and leaving over these
issues as you are describing them, do you think it`s possible that this may
precipitate some wider break or additional resignation or some bigger
confrontation or chasm between the White House and Pentagon?
KUBE: So, one of the things I asked about when I heard about this, after
the shock wore off. Does this mean we`re going to see general officers
resign as well?
MADDOW: That`s exactly –
KUBE: So, imagine if you`re the commander of operation Iraqi – Operation
Inherent Resolve, which is the Iraq and Syria mission. And you`re pulling
all of your troops out and you`re building this ally you`re spending time
with. You know, imagine if you`re head of CentCom right now, you know?
So, I wouldn`t be surprised. I hadn`t heard about anything. But that`s
really the next big thing that I`m looking for is, are we going to see
military resignations over this.
MADDOW: Yes, yes.
NBC News national security reporter Courtney Kube, thank you.
First of all, I want to say thank you for being on camera. Thank you also
for being such help to me and my producers every damn day that we cover
stuff and call you for your help in understanding this stuff. Thank you.
KUBE: The best team. I love you, guys.
MADDOW: Senator Chris Murphy is going to be joining us live in just a
moment. Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: There is chaos now in this
administration. This week was one of the most chaotic weeks we`ve ever
seen in American government, and amazingly they want to close the week –
President Trump does – by shutting down the government. Shutting down the
Now, we all know that Secretary Mattis had real disagreements with the
president on Syria and on the wall. Some have speculated that the
president was going to demand that he start building a wall, which he knows
he can`t do by law, and maybe that`s one of the reasons he stepped down.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER-DESIGNATE: You have leaders, great
leaders who have left the administration in dismay, and the rest of them
have left in disgrace. That`s what this administration has been about.
We don`t want to be fearmongers in terms of our country. This great
country can withstand just about anything, but it shouldn`t have to. It
shouldn`t have to.
So – yes, I am shaken by the resignation of General Mattis for what it
means to our country, for the message it sends to our troops, and for the
indication of what his view is of the commander in chief.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Tonight, in reaction to the surprise resignation of the Defense
Secretary James Mattis, you heard their remarks from New York Senator Chuck
Schumer, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, and from Nancy Pelosi,
the incoming speaker of the House.
Tonight, in reaction to that Resignation, I will tell you that one of the
leading lights on foreign policy in his party, Senator Chris Murphy,
Democrat of Connecticut, was even more blunt about it. He said this
tonight in response. Quote: A secretary of defense quitting over a public
disagreement with a president whose foreign policy he believes has gone off
the rails is a national security crisis. No way around it.
Joining us now is Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, a member
of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, I really appreciate you being
SEN. CHRIS MURPHY (D-CT), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Yes, thanks for
MADDOW: I imagine that you might have thought that you`d be home by now.
But that`s not happening.
MURPHY: Yes, Congress.
MADDOW: I have to – I want to talk to you about Secretary Mattis`
resignation, I want to talk to you about your very blunt remarks on this.
I do have to ask you, tomorrow, the Senate is due to convene at noon to
vote on a bill that will or won`t keep the government going.
MADDOW: Are senators all here or haven`t a lot of them left?
MURPHY: Many senators have already left. My friend Brian Schatz landed in
Hawaii about an hour ago, he`s getting on a red eye to come back to vote
tomorrow by noon.
MADDOW: He got all the way to Hawaii, said hi, and then said aloha, and
then turn around?
MURPHY: Turn around and coming back.
Right, because Vice President Pence came to the Republican Caucus yesterday
and told the Republican senators that the president was going to sign this
continuing resolution. So we all left last night, thinking that the job
had been done temporarily. Now, we are going to vote tomorrow on a
continuing resolution with $5 billion for a wall that will not have the
votes to pass in the Senate. The government will shutdown and it will be -
- McConnell and Ryan`s decision is what to do next.
MADDOW: You say that with confidence, the bill with the $5 billion for the
wall, that it definitely won`t pass.
MURPHY: It can`t pass. I don`t know it will get a single Democratic vote.
And the president and the Republicans in the House have known that for a
long time, which is why Mitch McConnell moved this continuing resolution –
a clean continuing resolution earlier this week.
MADDOW: So, is there an effort to put together something else that might
be able to attract Democratic votes, or this is it, this is the one idea
they have, and you`re telling me right now there`s no way it will pass?
MURPHY: So, this certainly won`t pass. We have always been open to having
a conversation about a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that would
get tough on the border and solve all of the other lingering problems in
the system. Or a budget agreement that has some additional money for a
border security, but certainly not money for a wall that no one in this
country wants, not least of which the people that actually live along the
But that conversation would have been nice to have been had last week or a
few days ago. It`s just absolutely insane, cruel and hurtful to all the
people who rely on the federal government and those jobs to be having the
conversation literally with hours to go before shutdown.
MADDOW: You would put the percentage of likelihood of a shutdown at 100
MURPHY: Ninety-five percent. I think it`s tough to pull a rabbit out of
the hat given where we are right now.
MADDOW: Let me ask you about the surprise resignation of Secretary Mattis.
It was a surprise to me, although I, like everybody, have read all the news
and been aware of the issues on which he disagrees with the president.
This seems to, reporting seems to indicate Courtney Kube, our Pentagon
reporter this does seem to be in reaction to the announcement on Twitter
about the pull out from Syria.
Were you surprised by this, and why do you think this is such a serious
matter that you actually called it a national security crisis?
MURPHY: I`m certainly surprised by it, in part, because Mattis has
weathered all sorts of substantial disagreements and reckless behavior from
this president. So it does beg the question if he was willing to go out
there and defend the Muslim ban or sending troops to the border as an
election year stunt, why was this the thing that broke the camel`s back?
That being said, it is a national security crisis because this was one of
the last people close to the president on national security matters who was
willing to tell him no when he was doing something truly reckless. Two, it
exposes this enormous rift between the Department of Defense, its
personnel, and the president of the United States. I still haven`t found
the last secretary of defense to resign in protest.
MADDOW: Right. Some have been fired, but resigning in protest over a
president`s – well, yes.
MURPHY: And in public protest, right? Sending a letter which very clearly
delineates the places where the president`s national security has gone off
the rails. And then finally, and not insignificantly, we`ve left an ally
in the lurch. I wasn`t somebody who supported sending the 2,000 troops
there. But once you`ve made the commitment to protect the Kurds, once the
Turks have told you that they are maybe a week away from going after the
Kurds, it sends a bone chilling message to our other allies around the
world to leave with no plan for what to do instead.
MADDOW: Why do you think the president did it now? Obviously, the
president – I mean, to be absolutely fair about this, he talked about
wanting to get troops home from all sorts of places all over the world. He
talked about not understanding the rationale for lots and lots of overseas
And so, he`s been, in general, been inclined to talk about bringing people
home. Why do you think this announcement was made by this president right
MURPHY: Yes, who knows, right? It may be the mental state of the
It also may have to do with the impending offensive from the Turks.
Remember, many of us were very worried that 2000 troops was simply
insufficient to stop a Turkish force from doing what they said they wanted
to do for a long time, which is wipe out what they perceive to be a
terrorist group. They`re not a terrorist group, the Kurds, but that`s what
the Turks perceive.
Apparently, the president had a conversation with the leader of Turkey,
Erdogan, where he was given notice that this offensive was coming. It may
not be coincidence that he`s pulling the troops out after having been given
MADDOW: That`s a crazy dynamic. A president of a foreign country says we
are planning on attacking your allies where you have 2,000 troops. The
response of the United States is, we better get out of the way then?
MURPHY: And why have been there the last two years. I mean, the whole
rationale given to us we are putting these troops in in part to send that
message to Turkey not to do this and make good on a promise we made to the
Kurds when we asked them to take on ISIS, that we would take care of them
on the back end. And so, right at the moment when the check is coming due
from the Kurds, it`s a very curious and very dangerous moment to walk
Again, I`m not somebody that thought it was a good idea in the first place,
but once you`ve made that commitment, you`ve got to follow through on that
commitment in some way, shape or form.
MADDOW: Do you find it unnerving the president of Russia praising the
decision today in the way that he did?
MURPHY: Of course. Of course, we have handed over American foreign policy
to the Kremlin in a number of different ways. This is just one element of
that. I will say, to back out from all of this, I have always believed
that the ultimate resolution of this was going to be Bashar al-Assad
winning, and the Iranians and the Russians being back in control of that
country. And we have been faking it in Syria for a very long time,
pretending as if we were going to be able to create some alignment in which
America was going to have our interests at the center piece of policy out
That was never going to be the case. And so while I don`t like Putin
crowing about a victory in Syria, I also know that he was going to have a
big – and is going to have a big say in the future role of what happens in
MADDOW: We all have to worry about how much of a say he has and what our
government does on all sorts of issues.
Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, I`m sorry that you are at work this
week and still here, but I understand. Keep us apprised over the next 24
hours. I know it`s going to be dramatic.
MURPHY: Will do.
MADDOW: All right. Much more to get to tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Late last night, we got the news that the president`s nominee for
attorney general, Bill Barr, sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to the
Justice Department a few months ago railing against what`s believed to be a
key portion of the special counsel`s investigation. The obstruction of
justice part of what we believe that Robert Mueller is looking into when it
comes to the president. Of course, if he was confirmed as attorney
general, Bill Barr would become the overseer of the Mueller investigation
in all of its parts.
This memo declaring that he thinks that part of the investigation is a
terrible idea means, at base, Mr. Barr has prejudged that element of the
case. Makes it a little hard to imagine him being put in charge of
overseeing the investigation since that would imply the president could
very well have put him in that job specifically so that he would undermine,
at least, that part of the investigation.
Then we got news this morning about the former cable TV pundit, former U.S.
attorney who is currently keeping the attorney general seat warm as acting
attorney general, the news is that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker,
he did consult ethics officials at the Justice Department over whether he
needs to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe while he`s acting
attorney general because of the many times he has argued publicly against
it. Now, this story evolved a little bit over the course of today, what it
eventually turns out to be in terms of our best understanding of the
reporting is that Mr. Whitaker consulted with ethics officials at the
Justice Department. They advised him that on this matter, he should likely
recuse to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. He then decided
that he would not ask them for a formal advisory opinion as to whether or
not he should recuse, and then he decided that he would not recuse.
Just in the last few hours, the Justice Department sent a letter over to
Congress explaining some of this. The explanation came in the form of this
letter tonight from Assistant Attorney General Steven Boyd at the Justice
Department from their office of legislative affairs. It says the acting
attorney general received briefings on the applicable ethics rules and
regulations from senior Department of Justice ethics officials. The acting
attorney general met with and provided relevant information to the
department senior career ethics officials in the office of the deputy
The office of deputy attorney general ethics official advised that Mr.
Whitaker`s supervision of the investigation should be reviewed. Ethics
officials concluded that after considering all the relevant facts, there
wasn`t a personal or political relationship between the Acting Attorney
General Whitaker and any person requiring recusal under one section of the
However, Mr. Whitaker made public comments prior to rejoining that could
constitute specifically other than those described in the ethics roles
which raise an appearance of impartiality issue. Having been so advised,
he then decided that he would not recuse.
So this letter to Congress tonight from the Justice Department spells out a
little bit about what happened here. But the bottom line, as far as we
understand it, is that the president`s choice for acting attorney general,
despite advice to recuse, has decided that he won`t. And the president`s
likely nominee to be attorney general is already on the record saying that
he, basically, objects to a core issue within the Mueller investigation.
This seems like sort of dramatic turn of events.
Congressman Jerry Nadler is the top Democrat right now on the Judiciary
Committee, and he will be the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee
when the new Congress convenes in the new year.
Congressman Nadler joins us live now.
Sir, thank you very much for being here.
REP. JERRY NADLER (D-NY), RANKING MEMBER, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thank
MADDOW: So, I feel like this story about Acting Attorney General Whitaker
changed a lot over the course of the day. The early headlines suggested
that he had been told by ethics officials that he did not need to recuse.
That later appeared to be contradicted by anonymous Justice Department
officials who went to reporters today to say, no, he actually said he did
not want an opinion after he`d been advised that he should recuse.
What do you make of this?
NADLER: What I make of this is the professionals, the career people at the
department obviously told him that there is an appearance of impropriety
problem here and he must recuse. He didn`t want to do that. I assume the
president didn`t want him to do that. He`s there – remember, the
president got rid of sessions specifically because he recused himself. He
didn`t want someone else who would recuse himself. So that they came up
with a political – political people came up with an explanation, and they
had to try to explain the earlier instructions, and this is what they came
Now, the fact is that we have always suspected that he was put there as a
hatchet man to undermine the Mueller investigation. Chairman Cummings,
chairman to be Cummings of the Oversight and Investigation Committee and I
had a telephone conversation with Whitaker a few weeks ago in which he did
agree to come in and testify before our joint – a joint hearing of our
committees in January. He`s been backtracking on that.
We are sending him a letter tomorrow demanding that he come in in January
as he had promised he would.
MADDOW: He agreed to you overtly and now is rescinding the promise?
NADLER: He didn`t rescind, but they cannot find a date. They cannot find
a time. They`re backtracking on it.
So we`re sending a letter tomorrow morning demanding that they set up a
date and a time in January. And if not, being the majority, we`ll have
ways of compelling that. And obviously, this is among the major questions
we have to look at because the number one priority is to protect the
integrity of the Mueller investigation.
MADDOW: If he is defying ethics advice from the career ethics officials at
the Justice Department – and those are serious, folks, and they`re not
partisans, and they`re not people who make decisions on the basis of
political whims. If he is defying that advice and sort of trying to evade
that advice by not asking them for a formal opinion, taking an indication
from them they are advising him to recuse and therefore saying I don`t want
you to give me an opinion about it, is that improper? Is that something
that he should be held accountable for by your committee and oversight?
NADLER: It is something he should be held accountable for. It is very
improper because we have ethics officials and we have rules for this
purpose, to prevent conflicts of interest and to assure the American public
that they get dispassionate justice, especially in the Justice Department.
MADDOW: Uh-huh. In terms of the president`s, I guess nominee designate to
be the new attorney general, we also got what to me was very surprising
news about him having declared his position on an important part of what we
believe the Mueller investigation is looking into. I`d like to get your
reaction to that news about Bill Barr right after the break, if you don`t
See, that was a little cable news trick.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back with Jerry Nadler, the incoming
chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: Joining us once again is Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York.
He`s the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a House
Thank you for staying with us.
MADDOW: It has been a remarkable day. The surprise resignation of the
defense secretary tonight has obviously taken I think the whole world by
surprise. We also – the early part of the day today was dominated by
revelations out of the Justice Department, which, of course, you will be –
you will have oversight responsibility for as chairman judiciary. The
president`s apparent nominee to run the Justice Department post-Jeff
Sessions and post – Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has written a
20-page memo criticizing aspects of the Mueller investigation, or what he
believes are aspects –
NADLER: Criticizing the scope of the investigation, saying that they
should not be looking into the question of obstruction of justice because
the president has ever right to, under the Constitution, to fire Comey, to
do various other things which he did, but legally that`s nonsense. Of
course, he has the right to fire the FBI director and do various other
things, but not for improper motives.
NADLER: Not for corrupt motives, not for the motive of shutting an
investigation against himself. That`s obstruction of justice.
MADDOW: The president has appointed Mr. Barr or will nominate, we are
told, Mr. Barr to the attorney general position. Senator Schumer, the top
Democrat in the Senate said he should pick a nominee. That this memo is
disqualifying on its – on substantive grounds because of the arguments
Do you agree?
NADLER: I totally agree. He`s making the argument that you can`t –
essentially that you can`t investigate any president for obstruction of
justice, that no president can conduct obstruction of justice as long as
what he does for the obstruction of justice are legal acts, like firing –
like firing Comey or firing the special prosecutor by Nixon. It doesn`t
matter, as long as it`s a legal act to do, he can`t be guilty of
obstruction of justice which is a nonsensical argument and takes the whole
question off the table. If you had that argument, Richard Nixon would have
And he`s totally prejudiced the investigation. He can`t be the one who
will decide whether Mueller is allowed to prosecute for obstruction of
justice. He can`t be the one who is allowed to decide whether Mueller`s
report is made public or given to Congress because he`s totally prejudiced.
But then again, anybody the president will appoint at this point, I assume,
will be appointed for the purpose of shutting down or prejudicing that
investigation. And that was proven by the fact that he got rid of Sessions
whose only sin from his point of view, was that he recused himself.
MADDOW: What can be done to protect the investigation, given what seems
more bare today in terms of recognizing the president`s intention to try to
get at the investigation, to try to get at the special counsel from inside
the Justice Department? Obviously, legislation has gone nowhere.
NADLER: Legislation has gone nowhere. We can try again, which we will.
That`s number one.
Number two, the attorney general should not be – the attorney general
nominee should not be confirmed because he`s someone who was put there for
the purpose of shutting down or damaging the investigation. Number three,
if necessary, there are actions we can take. For example, if Mueller
should issue a report and give it to the attorney general and the attorney
general, instead of giving it to Congress or making public decides to
pocket it, we can subpoena it. Or we can simply invite Mueller to come
testify and ask in front of the committee, what was in your report?
MADDOW: If the southern district of New York or, indeed, the special
counsel`s office or any other empowered prosecutor anywhere in the country
decides to test the office of legal counsel, advice that the president
can`t be indicted, let`s say the Southern District of New York decided that
the president should be charged with the same felonies that Michael Cohen
pled guilty to because the prosecutors laid out evidence in his charging
documents that suggested that the president was equally involved, as much
involved in those felonies as Michael Cohen was.
What do you – how would that be adjudicated? What would be your view on a
U.S. attorney trying to do that?
NADLER: Well, my view would be that the U.S. attorney would be doing the
right thing. I think that the OLC decision that the president cannot be
indicted no matter what he does is a deeply un-American decision. We
rebelled against the king of England because we said no one should be above
Most Americans we know shouldn`t be allowed the law. Not the king. Not
the president. The framers, if you read the debate of the constitutional
convention were worried the office of the president should not become a
There is language in the Constitution giving certain immunities,
congressman cannot be arrested going to and from – Congress cannot be held
accountable for what they say on the floor and so forth. If the framers
had wanted to make the president immune from indictment, they would have
said so in the Constitution, as they say in these other cases. So it
places the president above the law. And that`s wrong. No one should be
above the law.
MADDOW: So you take issue with those OLC memos. They are controlling
policy at the Justice Department.
NADLER: They are.
MADDOW: Do you intend to interrogate that?
NADLER: What we can do about it is another question. I would certainly,
we`re going to introduce – there is another question, by the way. If a
president committed a crime and you can`t indict him because he`s
president, he may be immune because of the statute of limitations may run.
So one thing we`re going to do is introduce legislation that the statute of
limitations does not run for anything with respect to a president while the
president is president. So he can`t escape prosecution just by being
MADDOW: That is a law I cannot imagine President Donald Trump signing.
NADLER: I cannot either, but it is something we ought to do, even for
after this. I`d like to get rid of this OLC doctrine altogether.
You asked if they decided to prosecute him nonetheless, then the president
presumably would raise the defense in court that a president is
unindictable and the courts would decide that question.
MADDOW: Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, the incoming chairman of the
Judiciary Committee – sir, thank you. Much appreciated.
NADLER: Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Tonight, we`ve got the dramatic news that Defense Secretary James
Mattis has not only resigned, he has resigned in protest of the president`s
behavior and beliefs on the treatment of U.S. allies, and whether or not
the president is clear clear-eyed toward malign actors as – like China or
Russia as suggested by Secretary Mattis.
Now, one of the things that is remarkable about this, that`s the first
member of the president`s cabinet, in fact, the first senior person within
the Trump administration to resign in protest of President Trump. But
Secretary Mattis has gone out of his way to make sure that he knows and
that we all know that this was not a firing, this was a resignation and he
has published his resignation letter tonight, so we all know the grounds on
which he left.
Joining us now is presidential historian Michael Beschloss, NBC`s own
Michael, thank you for being here.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Pleasure always,
MADDOW: So, defense secretaries and presidents sometimes go their separate
ways. Has this happened this way before?
BESCHLOSS: No, this is a historical event. We`ve had secretaries of state
resigned in protest.
BESCHLOSS: William Jennings Bryant, 1915, thought Wilson was too war-like,
Cyrus Vance in 1980 disagreed with Carter`s Iran hostage rescue military
mission. But we have never seen a secretary of defense say, I am seriously
concerned about the president`s ideas and his national security policy, so
much so that I cannot be a part of this any more.
MADDOW: I was struck by just seeing the letter, just as an artifact,
right, thinking about talking to you about this as a historian. We have
what`s a Photostat of the letter at this point, released by the Pentagon,
not released by the White House, which to me is an act by this man who is
still the secretary of defense, he says he would like to remain in office
until the end of February. And he`s making sure his agency puts this out -
MADDOW: – not trusting the White House to release it or put out their own
statement about it. To me, that puts a harder angle, what he wants to be
the public reception of this decision.
BESCHLOSS: Totally. And especially because the president in his tweet
said he`ll be retiring, and Mattis wanted to make it very clear that this
is no retirement. This is something much more important.
MADDOW: In terms of the knock-on effects here, one of the prized and
worryingly fragile things about our constitutional inheritance is the
relationship between our professional military and the civilian leaders who
control what they do.
MADDOW: And that is a precious balance that we have in this country. You
look at any other country inn the world to see how it goes a different way,
nobody does it quite like we do.
MADDOW: Do you – when presidents and secretaries of defense have had
trouble in the past, has it ever precipitated larger troubles between the
defense department and the White House, between civilian leadership and the
BESCHLOSS: A little bit. You know, at the end of Nixon, just before he
resigned, James Schlesinger, secretary of defense famously gave an order
quietly that if Nixon does anything strange, like mobilize the 101st
Airborne to save himself, you have to come to me for a counter order.
MADDOW: Did Nixon know he had done that?
BESCHLOSS: Only found it out later on and was really angry.
BESCHLOSS: Little things like that.
MADDOW: Little things like call me if he calls the 101st Airborne.
BESCHLOSS: Exactly. You know, my operators are on 24 hours a day. But
what scares me is we do not know what things James Mattis has prevented
Trump from doing over the last two years, and we as Americans have to
demand that who ever replaces him is not a lapdog and the model of the
Justice Department is not very reassuring here. Donald Trump may want a
secretary of defense who`s going to be compliant and easy to dominate.
That would be a very scary thing for our democracy.
MADDOW: Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian, we don`t bring
you in like awesome day –
BESCHLOSS: Everyone says that, I`m so nervous, what is it now.
Wonderful to see you.
MADDOW: Thank you, my friend. Thank you.
All right. That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.
I swear tomorrow will be way more normal.
But now it`s time for “THE LAST WORD” with Ali Velshi, sitting for Lawrence
Good evening, Ali.
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