McConnell plans TRANSCRIPT: 1/20/20, The Rachel Maddow Show
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. Much
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: You bet.
MADDOW: Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
Exactly one year from right now, on January 20th, 2021, whoever wins the
next presidential election will be sworn in as president of the United
States. President Trump was sworn in three years ago today, either he or
somebody else will be sworn in one year from right now.
In what better way to celebrate the occasion than by kicking off the Senate
impeachment trial of President Trump tomorrow. Kind of the numerology and
the coincidence of dates here is remarkable.
Regardless of what happens here in the impeachment proceedings, I mean, if
the president is not removed from office through this impeachment process,
if the Senate doesn`t convict him on one or more articles of impeachment
and thereby remove him from the presidency, if he manages to stay president
through 2020, you know, through the election on November 3rd, it will still
always be true for the history of this presidency that day one of his
fourth year in office started with day one of the trial in which U.S.
senators will decide whether or not he should be convicted and removed from
his post. I mean, that is how this is going to look from a wide-angle lens
in history. This is how we are starting year four of the Trump presidency.
That`s the wide-angle lens.
If you look through the narrow lens of this particular news cycle, though,
it`s a little bit crazy, it`s at least remarkable, that it wasn`t until
after the close of business tonight, it wasn`t until roughly 6:00 Eastern
Time tonight, the night before the trial is due to start that the
Republican leadership of the Senate finally released their proposed rules
for how the trial`s going to be conducted. I mean, you kind of think that
all of this time since the president had the articles of impeachment passed
against him in the House more than a month ago, you think that the senators
would have been preparing, the House impeachment managers would have been
preparing for how they`re all going to handle their individual, specific
roles in this all-important trial that`s due to start tomorrow. I mean, I`m
sure they`ve all been preparing in general, but none have been preparing in
specific detail on what each of them individually is going to do because
before just tonight, nobody has known how the trial was going to be
conducted because it was only tonight when for the first time Mitch
McConnell released this four-page resolution laying out how he`s proposing
the trial should go.
And it turns out, now that we can finally see his proposed rules that the
way he wants it to go is that he wants a significant proportion of the
trial of the president to happen after midnight on week nights. Oh. We`re
going to get some expert advice on this in just a moment.
But just from a layman`s point of view, just from a president`s point of
view reading this stuff, I mean, looking how the Republican leadership of
the Senate is saying they want to conduct this trial – I mean, it`s almost
hard to believe that what they`re doing is something that they want to be
called a trial. First of all, at least as I read it, there are no
guarantees that the Senate will hear from any witnesses at all. We`ll have
more on that in just a moment.
There`s also appears to be no guarantee that they will accept any new
evidence that`s been obtained or made public since the impeachment
investigation wrapped up in the House and the articles of impeachment were
passed against the president. So, no new evidence guarantee either. We`ll
have more on that in a moment as well.
But what is surprising to me, maybe even shocking to me, is that this
resolution explaining how the trial is going to go, it appears at least to
me to not even allow that the evidence from the House impeachment
investigation will be admitted in the Senate either, by which I mean they
may not even consider the evidence that produced the articles of
impeachment. They may not even consider as evidence the formal evidence as
compiled by the House, just the stuff they`re going to get from the House
that is the results of their investigation that led to the articles of
I mean, we had known there were going to try to make a stink to block new
evidence from being introduced, but the existing evidence? They might not
allow the existing evidence from the House? I mean, what they`re laying out
here, what the Republicans in the Senate are planning on is a trial
potentially with no witnesses and no documentary, evidentiary record at
So it will be, like, I don`t know, charades? Abstract arguments about the
theory of the case, I guess, but you`re not actually allowed to try to
prove the case or document its existence in any way? Again, not a lawyer
and this is how it appears to me. We will get expert advice on this in just
But as remarkable as that is in terms of what they don`t necessarily plan
on considering as part of this trial, the proposed time line is even more
impressive in terms of what they`re trying to do here. You remember that
the House impeachment managers, this group of Democratic members of
Congress appointed by Speaker Pelosi, remember they function essentially as
prosecutors in the Senate trial. They`re the ones who are supposed to lay
out the case for the jury for the full Senate, the case against President
It is hard enough to imagine how they`re going to do that if they`re not
allowed to refer to any evidence at all potentially. But McConnell`s
resolution tonight also says that the full 24 hours that those prosecutors
have been given to lay out their arguments to make their case against the
president, those 24 hours of argument they`re being given must be delivered
over the course of no more than two actual days. So that means 24 hours in
two days, that`s 12 hours a day for two days.
And remember that these proceedings don`t start until the afternoon. They
don`t start until 1:00 p.m. at the earliest because Chief Justice John
Roberts, who`s overseeing the Senate trial, still has to do his day job
over at the Supreme Court. He does that in the mornings. He can`t be at the
Capitol until 1:00. So, that means the prosecutors are being given a full
24 hours in which to make their case, but they have to use those 24 hours
over two days, and the clock doesn`t start on each of those days until well
into the afternoon.
So, they basically want to lay out the case against the president in this
trial significantly after midnight likely on Wednesday and Thursday night
with no guarantee that any evidence whatsoever can be cited by the
prosecutors or referred to during the trial at all. And only after that,
after the president`s defense counsel is also allowed their midnight run,
same deal, 24 hours over two days maximum not starting until the afternoon,
either of those two days, only after that amazing display will anybody will
allowed to even bring up the question of whether there should be witnesses.
But that apparently is the plan. For it to be sort of a dead of night,
marathon, fact-free, testimony-free cram session designed to repel public
When the trial formally convenes tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. eastern once chief
justice is done at the Supreme Court for the day, they are expected to take
up this proposed resolution laying out Mitch McConnell`s plans for the
trial that will essentially be the first order of business. Senator
McConnell has asserted he can pass this resolution with Republican votes
only and he appears happy to do so.
That said, we expect that the Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck
Schumer, will also offer proposed amendments to the resolution. We shall
see. But again, Mitch McConnell has been essentially crowing about the fact
that he doesn`t need or necessarily want any Democratic votes for what he`s
doing and he thinks he`s got all his Republicans in line.
If you remember the Clinton impeachment from 1999, or if you`ve studied it
in school, you`ll remember that this equivalent moment then on the eve of
the first day of Senate trial for President Clinton, the equivalent of this
was not passed on anything like a partisan party line vote. In 1999, the
equivalent to this resolution that we just got tonight was worked out on a
fully bipartisan basis and was passed by the Senate unanimously, a vote of
Mitch McConnell in contrast appears to be happy to do this vote with the
Republican votes alone for 2020. Obviously, though, we`ll be watching
closely tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. to see what happens to the Democratic
amendments and then to the resolution as a whole. And as I said, we`re
going to have some expert advice in terms of assessing what this means we
should expect in terms of the overall process.
I would just point out just a couple things before we get to that
discussion, though. One of them is about the evidence. I mean, the headline
tonight is yes, they`re not guaranteeing they want to hear any new
evidence, they might not even accept the existing evidence from the House.
But it is also worth noting that new evidence has not just been piling up
since the articles of impeachment were passed in the House.
New evidence – I think it`s fair to note here, is going to keep coming out
throughout the trial, including on day one tomorrow. I mean, this is just
one piece of it. Look at this announcement from American Oversight, which
is one of the watchdog groups that brought a big Freedom of Information Act
lawsuit against the presumption to pry loose documents about the Ukraine
scheme. Look at the timeline by which they are expecting court-ordered
releases of documents from the Trump administration about the Ukraine
Today is January 20th, look, documents are expected tomorrow by court order
on January 21st. Tomorrow, day one of the trial, documents from OBM, the
Office of Management and Budget, which we learned broke the law when they
withheld U.S. aid from Ukraine on the president`s orders. New, OMB
documents about the Ukraine scheme are due to be released tomorrow.
And thereafter, presumably when the trial is still going on, they`re also
expecting new document releases about the Ukraine scheme from the Energy
Department and the State Department and on and on, on a basically weekly
So if the Senate decides they`re just going to pretend that new evidence is
not being revealed, is not being shown to the public, that`s going to
become more and more difficult each passing day as the trial coincides with
new evidence being provided to the public by court order, new evidence that
potentially she does not light on what the president did. While the
Republican-controlled Senate pretends they don`t know anything about it.
Don`t talk to me, I`m pretending it doesn`t exist.
So the not looking at evidence thing is remarkable on a few different
levels, but it is going to continue to be remarkable and I think difficult
and awkward and hard to explain to the public throughout each day of the
trial if they really are going to try to wall themselves off from the
Also, on the point of witnesses, “Washington Post” is reporting tonight
that the White House is so freaked out about John Bolton, they`re so
freaked out about the prospect of Trump national security adviser John
Bolton testifying to the impeachment trial that even though they`re trying
to do everything they can to get the Republican Senate to block witnesses
overall, even though they`re going to try to make sure that every
Republican senator toes the party line and doesn`t vote for any individual
witnesses, including John Bolton, in Bolton`s case specifically, they`re so
worry about the prospect of him testifying and what he might say that
they`re also, according to “The Post” tonight, considering a sort of
doomsday contingency plan.
Quote: One option being discussed, according to a senior administration
official, would be to move John Bolton`s testimony to a classified setting
because of national security concerns, ensuring that it is not public.
Quote: That proposal discussed by Senate Republicans is seen as a final
tool against Bolton becoming an explosive figure in the trial.
Oh, so that`s what classification procedures are for. So you can call
something a national security concern that must be classified because it
might show the potential to incriminate the president at trial. Is that the
national security you`re worried about? Is that what the classification
process is for? That seems pretty desperate.
I will also just note for the record that “The Wall Street Journal”
reported earlier today that the White House also appears to be freaked out
about the prospect of Senate testimony from Lev Parnas, who I was able to
interview last week and who was a sort of right-hand man and fixer for the
president`s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, throughout the Ukraine scheme.
According to “The Wall Street Journal,” Trump`s team aims to block any
attempt from House managers to include in the Senate trial testimony,
include in the Senate trial, testimony from Lev Parnas.
Given the claims that Mr. Parnas has made about the president`s alleged
direct involvement and supervisory role in the Ukraine scheme, including,
according to Mr. Parnas, the president directly employing Vice President
Mike Pence as a tool of pressure against the Ukrainian government. Because
of all that and all of the other assertions and documents Mr. Parnas has
made public, you can understand why they don`t want him to testify at the
trial. The question is why the power – why the White House believes they
have the power to block him from testifying, right?
I mean, technically, it`s the Senate that runs this trial under the
guidance of the chief justice. The White House may not want Lev Parnas to
testify, but in the end, it won`t be their call either way, right? It will
be the Senate`s call, even though the Trump White House appears to believe
they could block him?
Here we go. I mean, it`s starting. Year four of the Trump presidency, one
year to go exactly until the next presidential inauguration, and day one of
the president`s trial. Here we go.
Joining us now is Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general under
Mr. Katyal, it is great to see you. Thank you for being here tonight.
NEAL KATYAL, FORMER ACTING SOLICITOR GENERAL UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank
MADDOW: So I`m not a lawyer. I don`t even purport to play one on
television. As I just laid out what I understand is being –
KATYAL: And I agree (ph) with Dershowitz, so don`t worry about it.
MADDOW: Well, that`s your assessment. Did I get anything wrong in terms of
how I explained what`s been revealed tonight by the Senate majority leader?
KATYAL: No, I think you got it exactly right despite not having a law
degree. And, you know, basically, here we are. we`re on the eve of one of
the most important trials not just in our lifetimes but in American
history. And these rules have just been dropped on us on the 11th hour. And
like every one of my students who drops a paper at me in the 11th hour,
it`s fairly shoddy.
And this isn`t – I think you`re – Rachel, you`re right to say, you used
the phrase from a citizen`s point of view, let`s evaluate this. I think
that`s exactly right because I don`t think this is about the Republicans
winning in these rules or the Democrats losing. I think ultimately, it`s
the American people who are profound victims if these are the rules that
are allowed to take place, because what they`ll do is force the trial to
occur, parts of it at midnight over the next week, when nobody`s watching.
And we know why that is. I mean, you know, the only things that happen at
midnight are trash collection and the execution of prisoners. I mean, those
are the kinds of things that happen. Government – major government
decisions and certainly government trials don`t happen at that time.
But all these rules are united by the McConnell rules announced tonight
have the same basic theme, which is how do we hide as much information as
possible from the American people, and that`s the travesty of these rules.
MADDOW: The – one thing that truly surprised me, I mean, I didn`t know
exactly what to expect overall, but I was very surprised to see what
appears to be no commitment to even review the evidence collected by the
House when they conducted their investigation of this scandal and when they
passed the articles of impeachment.
It made me wonder, if they`re not committing at the outset to accept that
evidence from the House, the way, for example, they did in the with Clinton
impeachment, as far as I remember, does that open up to a situation in
which Senator McConnell could try to sort of cherry-pick specific pieces of
evidence from the House investigation. So, like when Ambassador Gordon
Sondland said he got a call from the president, where the president said
there`s no quid pro quo. They accept that, but then they wouldn`t accept as
evidence the part where Gordon Sondland said he didn`t believe the
president on that phone call and he believes there was a quid pro quo.
I mean, could they actually try to engineer their own facts by cherry-
KATYAL: Totally. You got, Rachel, at this point, my juris doctorate
degree. I mean, that`s exactly right.
So, what would happen – you know, into the Clinton rules, the evidence
from the House was admitted to the Senate. Here, this allows a case-by-case
adjudication of all the evidence that was already generated in the House.
Remember, these are Trump`s own administration people. It`s not like these
are, you know, people, you know, wide-eyed, you know, people who are anti-
Trump people or something like that from outside the government. These are,
you know, very respected folks and there was a process there.
And look, I understand that there are a bunch of people, Republicans, who
say Trump did nothing wrong and so on. That`s exactly what trials are all
about. Get that evidence admitted, have some new evidence if you have any
that exculpates and points to Trump being innocent. The problem is, they
can`t point to anything that shows Trump`s innocence, and so, what they`re
doing is they`re saying, well, let`s try to have a really fast trial all at
midnight, no witnesses, no documents, and maybe we`ll just get it through
the American people that way.
MADDOW: Yes, let me ask you one last thing and feel free to not answer
this if it makes you uncomfortable. But if you were advising the Senate
Democrats tonight, looking at what`s been proposed by Mitch McConnell in
terms of how he wants to run this thing, and you know the political
dynamics at work here as well as the law.
Is there anything that you would advise them to do to try to make sure this
trial is as fair as possible and as complete as possible given that Mitch
McConnell is proposing as a framework?
KATYAL: Yes, two things. One, the Republicans are claiming these are the
same rules as Clinton. They`re not for exactly the reasons you identified.
So, just hit control F, call up the document in the Clinton impeachment and
the rules, hit control F and swap Trump for Clinton, play by those rules.
That`s number one.
And number two, there is a difference between Clinton and here, and one
that requires witnesses. Here, remember in Clinton, there were already a
bunch of witnesses that came before an in earlier stages of the
investigation. Here, Trump has gagged them all. And McConnell, I think, and
the Senate Republicans have shown they want to hide the truth from the
At that point, I think the Democrats have one really good option left. It`s
the one our Founders gave them in the Constitution, which is the chief
justice presides over the impeachment proceedings. Under the existing
rules, Rule 7 and 16, I think it`s the chief justice`s call as to whether
witnesses should testify.
John Bolton has said he wants to testify. This is the president`s own guy,
the national security adviser. Let him testify. Mick Mulvaney is the
president`s chief of staff. If what the president did is so beautiful and
perfect, let`s hear from him and, indeed, let`s hear from Trump himself.
I mean, if he`s afraid to come and testify, that tells you all you need to
know about whether that call was perfect and beautiful.
MADDOW: Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general – thank you so much
for being here on the eve of the trial, Neal. It`s good to see you. Thanks
for being here.
All right. We`ve got much more ahead tonight on the eve of President
Trump`s impeachment trial. There is a very important new book that is going
to be a huge best seller that comes out tomorrow, with lots of previously
unreported news about the Trump administration and specifically the
behavior of the president. We`re going to be speaking with those authors
tonight. I got an excerpt from that book coming up.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: OK. The timeframe here is August 2018. President Trump has just
announced he`s going to strip the security clearance from former CIA
Director John Brennan. Well, here is part of the response to that in detail
that we have never known before this. Quote, too many professionals in the
national security community, this extraordinary action crossed a red line.
Among those shocked was William McRaven, former Navy admiral who`d been a
commander of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command and had led the 2011
raid on a Pakistani compound that killed Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda
terrorist mastermind of 9/11.
McRaven had considered Brennan a trusted friend and critical partner in
that unique mission. Now, McRaven was enjoying his semi-retirement,
visiting a friend in the Colorado Mountains, when he heard the news that
Trump was revoking Brennan`s security clearance.
The next day, August 16th, McRaven has plans to go fly fishing in a
beautiful river valley, but felt an urge, a duty even to speak out on
Brennan`s defense. McRaven had spotty cell reception and no wireless
connection, so sending an email was not an option. He asked his host if he
could use the landline at his home.
First, he gathered his thoughts and scribbled a few phrases on a piece of
paper. Then he called the cellphone of a reporter he knew and trusted.
As a child growing up in San Antonio, McRaven had been in the same fifth
grade class as Karen Tumulty, who had been a distinguished political
correspondent for “The Washington Post” and had recently moved to the
opinion section as a columnist. McRaven figured he would give her an on the
record quote she could share with whichever “Post” colleague was writing
about the Brennan controversy.
Tumulty was heading to a doctor`s appointment when the admiral dialed. She
didn`t recognize the Colorado number, so she let the call go to voicemail.
Not sure when he could call her back, McRaven decided to speak aloud into
the voicemail message saying what he would tell Trump directly if he had
Here was what I`ve come up with, he said, do whatever you want to with it,
Karen. Then he dictated his comment verbatim.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, whose clearance you revoked on Wednesday,
is one of the finest public servants I`ve ever known. Few Americans have
done more to protect this country than John. He`s a man of unparallel
integrity, whose honesty and character have never been in question, except
by those who don`t know him. Therefore, I would consider it if you would
revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of
men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.
Like most Americans, I had hoped that when you became president, you would
rise to the occasion and become the leader this great nation needs. A good
leader tries to embody the best qualities of his organization, a good
leader sets the example for others to follow, a good leader always puts the
welfare of others before himself or herself.
Your leadership however has shown little of these qualities. Through your
actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us
in the world stage, and worst of all, divided us as a nation.
If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the
voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue
until you become the leader we prayed you would be.
Waiting in the representation area to see her doctor, Tumulty played the
mystery caller`s voicemail. She was stunned by what she heard. She called
McRaven back but only talked briefly because he was finally heading out to
go fish. She told him she felt sure “The Post” would publish some of his
reaction. McRaven said he would be you have to pocket for a while but he
trusted she would handle it. They hung up.
As Tumulty sat in the waiting room, transcribing McRaven`s voicemail
recording, she felt certain more than a few quotes and a new story. A
national military hero had called the president a national embarrassment
and a poor role model for America`s children.
She consulted with her editors and they agreed they should publish
McRaven`s impromptu speech word for word as an opinion piece.
McRaven`s essay went viral. It drew notice deep in the bowels of the
country`s national security apparatus, where public servants working many
rungs below McRaven had been silently disgusted watching Trump disrespect
them and their brethren. They took private comfort reading McRaven`s words.
As one of those low level cogs described it, finally somebody revered a
bold faced name was declaring in essence, no more.
Before Trump, this government aide had always felt the presidency had a
kind of magic. No matter which party the president came from, he bore the
weight of history on his shoulders with the seriousness it deserved. But
This aide said of President Trump, quote, he ruined that magic. The disdain
he shows for our country`s foundation and its principles, the disregard he
has for right and wrong. Your fist clenches. Your teeth grate. The hair
goes up on the back of your neck.
I have to remind my self a said an oath to a document in the National
Archives. I swore to the Constitution. I didn`t swear an oath to this
This aide saw Trump`s move against Brennan as one of the first steps of
undercutting America`s democratic system of government and the believe
system upon which it was founded. Quote, if he wanted to, how far could he
push this, the aide asked? Look back. Did people in the 1930s in Germany
know when the government started to turn on them?
Most Americans are more worried about who`s going to win on “America`s Got
Talent” and what the traffic is going to be like on I-95. They aren`t
watching this closely. I like to believe Trump is too self-engrossed, too
incompetent to get us to 1930. This aide added. But he has moved the bar
and another president that comes after him can move it a little farther.
The time is coming. Our nation will be tested. Every nation is. Rome fell,
remember. He is opening up vulnerabilities for this to happen. That is my
That is from “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump`s Testing of America”
written by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig who are both Pulitzer Prize-
winning reporters at “The Washington Post”.
This book comes out tomorrow, and I have to say, the number of scoops and
previously unreported behind the scenes detail here is really remarkable.
Just as an example, they go from that story I just excerpted there, to what
happened later on that same week when on the same day, the president`s
personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pled guilty, and the president`s campaign
chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted of multiple felonies. And on that
same day, President Trump nevertheless spent the day on the phone calling
Japan, trying to get the Japanese prime minister to nominate him for the
Nobel Peace Prize, the same day Cohen pled guilty and Manafort was
Now, of course, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig`s book is being published
tomorrow. It is, they couldn`t have known, the first day of President
Trump`s impeachment trial. I will say one of the only defenses the White
House and Republicans in Congress have mounted against the factual record
of the case against the president was that President Trump maybe wasn`t
pressuring Ukraine to help himself politically or to hurt his political
rival. One of the arguments the White House and Republicans in Congress
have advanced is that the president was only pressuring Ukraine because
he`s just very concerned about foreign corruption. That really bothers him.
It`s very heartfelt concern for him.
One of the other things that Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig document for
the first time in this book is that President Trump explicitly proposed and
tried to get rid of the U.S. law that bans Americans from paying bribes to
foreign officials in foreign countries, right? I mean, for a president very
concerned about foreign corruption, that`s a strange thing to have a
president literally try to legalize American participation in foreign
corruption. But for that reporting to be published on the day he`s going on
trial – Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker join us live here on set, next.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: Ahem. In the spring of 2017, as aides gathered in the Oval Office
one day to brief President Trump on upcoming meetings with foreign leaders,
they made a passing reference to some government foreign officials who were
under scrutiny for corruption for taking bribes. Trump perked up at the
mention of bribes and got rather agitated. He then told Secretary of State
Rex Tillerson he wanted him to help get rid of the Foreign Corrupt
Quote: It is just so unfair that American companies are not allowed to pay
bribes to get business overseas, Trump told the group. We`re going to
Looking at Tillerson, Trump said, I need you to get rid of that law, as if
the secretary of state had the power to magically repeal an act of
Congress. Surprised at Trump`s request, Tillerson first paused, then found
his words. Mr. President, he said, I`m not the guy to do that.
In a somber kind of Schoolhouse Rock episode that had become a regular
feature of the Oval Office education of this president, Tillerson then said
that Congress would have to be involved in any such repeal of the law.
Trump didn`t miss a beat. He was unmoved by Tillerson`s explanation and
turned instead to Stephen Miller, the White House`s senior policy adviser
who had long before proved that he could be relied upon to dutifully
execute almost all of the president`s wishes.
Stephen, I want you to draft an executive order and repeal that law, Trump
decreed. Evidently still unaware or unconvinced that he alone did not have
the power to repeal the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Remarkable timing, right? For Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig`s new book,
including that reporting to be released tomorrow on the actual day the
president is going on trial in the United States Senate for his own alleged
shakedown of a foreign leader, the defense to which is that he was trying
to kibosh foreign corruption, and that`s all he meant.
Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker are Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters at
“The Washington Post”. The new book is called “A Very Stable Genius: Donald
J. Trump`s Testing of America”.
Carol, Philip, congratulations.
CAROL LEONNIG, CO-AUTHOR, “A VERY STABLE GENIUS”: Thank you.
MADDOW: It`s really, really good to have you here.
PHILIP RUCKER, CO-AUTHOR, “A VERY STABLE GENIUS”: Thank you very much,
MADDOW: It`s a big deal to have you guys here the night before this comes
out. The president appears to be quite enraged at both of you and with the
reporting in the book. Has he taken substantive issue with what you have
reported, or is he just insulting you?
LEONNIG: He`s largely saying that we`re low-profile, low-rate reporters,
and it`s part of the fake news that he has to battle with all the time.
And, of course, as you know, Phil and I both put a ton of vetting and
rigorous reporting into this book, and we`re confident that it`s accurate,
and we stand by it.
MADDOW: So there`s no factual rebuttal that you feel like you had to
contend with. It`s just his anger?
RUCKER: It`s his anger and reaction to the book itself, to the title
perhaps. We don`t know what motivates him. But we know what motivated the
more than 200 Trump administration officials and other advisers of the
president who spoke to us, some of them for the first time.
MADDOW: So, three years of reporting, more than 200 sources. As you say,
some sources speaking to you for the first time.
Tell me about the range of motivation for these sources. Obviously, with
that many people, there`s a lot of different human stories behind what
they`re doing. Some of what people told you, though, is – I mean, stuck
with me. Having read 400 pages of the book, I`m still stuck at some stuff
that was said on page 5.
A senior national security official told us, I`ve served the man for two
years. I think he`s a long-term and immediate danger to the country.
Another senior administration official said the guy is completely crazy.
The story of Trump, colon, a president with horrible instincts and a senior
level cabinet playing whack-a-mole.
I mean, that stuff isn`t funny. That sticks with me. People were telling
you very grave, fire alarm kind of things.
LEONNIG: Absolutely. It stunned us too.
As reporters for “The Washington Post,” Phil and I were in the business of
getting this information and putting it in the newspaper. But at the time,
a lot of these people wouldn`t come forward and speak.
And you asked the perfect question about motivations. There`s a range of
motivations, but one of them was people wanted history to be accurate.
There are a lot of national security people here who don`t talk to
reporters as a part of their business, but they wanted this truth to be
told about their experience with Donald Trump.
There are others who came to us and didn`t want to give their names
obviously. There are a lot of anonymous sources in this book, and they were
afraid of the treatment and the belittlement that the president has shown
he`s capable of on Twitter, using that platform to retaliate against
anybody who speaks the truth.
MADDOW: That was part of the long excerpt that I read just a few minutes
ago, part of the reason I wanted to tell that is because I do feel like
it`s not faded into the background. It`s just become part of the context of
this administration that people who have spoken out against the president
or who have spoken truth to power in a way that has proved detrimental to
him have – it`s not an idol threat. They have had their careers destroyed.
They have been personally targeted. They have found themselves feeling like
they`re in physical danger from the president`s supporters.
That over the course of the three years that it took you to write this, and
you guys have been reporting, has that had a chilling effect in terms of
people being willing to talk with or without their names attached to their
RUCKER: It certainly has, Rachel. That`s why you don`t see very many of
these officials talking on the record in newspaper stories. They`re not
coming on TV. They`re not talking to a lot of reporters, except for the
ones they trust.
And it`s because the president is so fixated on perpetuating his own power,
on brandishing his own self-image, on establishing loyal not to the
country, but to himself – loyalty to himself throughout the federal
government. Those have been the main themes of this presidency, according
to the people who have worked for him, who talked to us for this book. And
it`s one of the reasons we`ve seen this chilling effect in the government.
MADDOW: I would also put, again, just from reading the book, maybe even a
starker cast on it. It just feels like revenge has become a number one – a
top tier priority. That even when the destruction of a critic isn`t going
to be of additional benefit to the president, somebody`s life getting that
much worse, somebody`s career being that much foreshortened, isn`t going to
cause him additional material benefit.
There is a – it would appear there`s an affirmative value placed on the
idea of revenge and on making an example of the harm you can cause one`s
enemies. Is that fair?
LEONNIG: I feel like Phil and I are journalists. We can`t get inside
someone`s head and tell you what Donald Trump`s motivations are.
But the one thing we can tell you is what the more than 200 people told us
LEONNIG: – a large portion of them at least, which is that the
perpetuation of his power and his ego, the perpetuation of a glorious self-
image is paramount to Donald Trump. So, everything he does is about making
sure he looks good and that it is often the first thing on the order of
business in the White House above a lot of national security interests,
above a lot of the – just basic interests of what`s best for the country.
MADDOW: I want to take a quick break here. When we come back, we`ll have
to talk about what is obviously the grand conspiracy here, the way that you
guys arranged for the impeachment trial to start on the day the book was
Obviously, I`m kidding. But the timing is remarkable. I want to talk about
some of that when we come back.
Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, again, both Pulitzer Prize-winning
reporters. They are the authors of “A Very Stable Genius”, which comes out
We`ll be right back with them after this. Stay with us.
MADDOW: We`re back once again with Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker from
“The Washington Post,” both Pulitzer prize winners. They`re the co-authors
of a new book called “A Very Stable Genius: Donald TJ. Trump`s Testing of
America,” which is out tomorrow.
There`s a number of instances in the book, some of which have had a lot of
attention already in reviews of the book about the president having
demonstrated ignorance about important and embarrassing things, not knowing
that China borders India and then suggesting as much to the Indian prime
minister, for example. Not understanding the basics of the Pearl Harbor
attack, like the very basics of the Pearl Harbor attack. And some other
things that are just very hard to imagine from anybody in national life,
let alone the presidency.
But I want to ask about something that is maybe a little more specific and
related to the impeachment. You do document that the president was trying
to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That`s the law passed in
1977 which says that Americans can`t bribe foreign officials in other
countries in order to get stuff done.
When he suggested that to a roomful of people, including Rex Tillerson and
Stephen Miller, he obviously didn`t get what he wanted. They didn`t try to
get rid of it. Why is that not surfacing until now? Who sat on that for a
couple of years until you guys could publish it now?
I mean, I`m not asking for your source, but that`s a remarkable thing for
nobody to have said anything about.
LEONNIG: Well, one of the amazing things about this reporting again,
Rachel, is from my perspective, we were working our tails off as reporters
at “The Post”, and people started to basically crack, if you will, when
they knew we were going to be digging deep into some of these scenes and
also when they knew it was going to be a tome for history and they wanted
to share this.
And there are a lot of flies on the wall. There are a lot of people briefed
after the fact. You know, we don`t want to identify any sources but there
were people who were afraid to tell us and then ultimately did.
MADDOW: The title is an allusion – is a quote of the president, calling
himself a very stable genius. It`s also – it`s also a feat of irony
because the portrait that you portray of the president is neither genius
I wondered if in all the sources that you talked to and when you went to
the White House for comment, I know at one point you might get President
Trump to do an interview.
RUCKER: He agreed to initially.
MADDOW: And then withdrew on what grounds?
RUCKER: He initially agreed early in the reporting of this book to do an
interview with us. And then as we were finishing the project, we kept
trying to get it scheduled and we were told through his aides that he
decided not to talk to us. He didn`t want to share his memories of these
events. We wish we could have included his perspective, but he didn`t offer
that to us.
MADDOW: When you were seeking his comment, when you were seeking White
House comment on all of these – all of these vignettes that you describe,
did you ever get effectively exculpatory evidence about the president`s
stability or genius? Was there anybody who works closely with him and is in
a position to know who could tell you a more reassuring portrait about his
LEONNIG: Absolutely. There were people we interviewed who give Donald
Trump immense credit, and we do in the book as well. We`re not trying to
mock him with this title by the way. We`re trying to hold it up as a
It`s his word choice, his definition of himself, and we wanted to sort of
stress test his definition of himself with all the people around him. But
to your point, there is a small subset of people who say, this guy is a
master at messaging. I watched him connect with working white working class
people who were elated to see this man fighting for them, who see him as
MADDOW: In terms of the sum total of all this work, your ongoing reporting
at the post, the fact that this is now about to hit the public on the same
day the president`s impeachment trial is starting, what`s your sense at
this point of what the president`s mindset is and how well equipped he is
both personally and in terms of his advisers to deal with what`s coming up
over these next few days?
RUCKER: Yes. Our reporting shows but also the president`s Twitter feed
shows he feels very much understand siege right now. He feels like this is
a scarlet letter against him, having been impeached only the third in
history, and he feels like this is unfair, that the Democrats are doing
something they have no right to be doing.
He does not acknowledge that he did anything wrong in that call with
Ukraine, in withholding the foreign aid. He doesn`t see why that`s wrong,
and he thinks this is a political witch hunt, much as he saw the Russia
investigation for two years as a political witch hunt. And he`s just
digging in and trying to fight back.
MADDOW: But given that sense, that diagnosis of him about what`s wrong
with the situation, what did you learn from your performing about what we
should expect about how he will therefore act in these contacts under this
pressure which each of these days going to like to present evidence that
things are as bad as he thinks they are.
LEONNIG: You know, I think the president has shown us in this reporting
for the last three years what we show in the book. Phil and I found source
after source who said this is a presidency of one. There`s one guy who
thinks he`s his own best lawyer, his own best general, his own best
communicator in chief, and I think in the halls of the West Wing, but as
well at Mar-a-Lago at some table or in another room where he`s with his
aides, he`s the person barking out the orders. He`s the person saying,
we`re going after every single person who questions me and who tries to
share something that I find embarrassing.
MADDOW: Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of “The Washington Post,”
congratulations on this book. I`m sorry about the opprobrium you`ve had to
deal with from the president himself, reacting to this and going after you
for it. You don`t deserve it. It`s an honor to have you both here.
LEONNIG: Thanks, Rachel.
MADDOW: Thank you so much.
RUCKER: Thank you very much. Thank you.
MADDOW: Good luck.
All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DANIEL GOLDMAN, DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL: Did Ambassador Sondland say who his
agreement on this White House meeting was with?
FIONA HILL, FORMER RUSSIA EXPERT AT NSC: Later, he said that he had an
agreement with chief of staff Mulvaney, that in return for investigations,
this meeting would get scheduled.
GOLDMAN: And was he specific at that point later about the investigations
that he was referring to?
HILL: He said the investigations in Burisma.
GOLDMAN: After both meeting when you spoke to him and relayed to him what
Ambassador Sondland said, what did Ambassador Bolton say to you?
HILL: Specific instruction was that I had to go to the lawyers, to John
Eisenberg, our senior counsel for the National Security Council, to
basically say, you tell Eisenberg Ambassador Bolton told me that I am not
part of this whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Fiona Hill, former top Russia official on the National Security
Council, giving explosive testimony in the impeachment inquiry in November,
testifying that she was essentially witness to the quid pro quo at the
center of the scandal for which President Trump`s now been impeached in the
House. That testimony put former national security adviser John Bolton at
the top of Democrats` wish list for witnesses for the Senate trial of
Fiona Hill interacted with all the players at the center of the Ukraine
scandal. She was there for many of the meetings at the center of the
scandal because her position, top Russia official at the White House, just
put her at the center of the drama, she ended up being at the center of the
So, here`s something to watch for now. When Fiona Hill left her job as the
top Russia official in the National Security Council last summer, she was
replaced in that job by Tim Morrison, seen here also giving critical
testimony in the impeachment inquiry. Tim Morrison lasted less than four
months at that job. He quit literally the night before he gave his first
closed-door impeachment testimony. He walked into that deposition and
announced, surprise, he had resigned from the White House the previous
Well, after that in November, that job, the top Russia job on the National
Security Council at the White House, went to a new guy, this guy. His name
is Andrew Peek. Mr. Peek at been at the State Department before moving over
to the White House. He has been in this job less than three months after
Morrison was there for less than four months.
But on Friday, this weekend, he was reportedly escorted off the White House
grounds according to Bloomberg News. “Axios” was first to report. NBC News
has since confirmed that Peek was, quote, put on indefinite administrative
leave amid a security-related investigation. He was expected to travel with
President Trump to Davos this week, but not anymore, not after getting frog
marched off the White House grounds.
We don`t have details yet as to what this is all about, but I mean this job
of all jobs, right? This is the top Russia post at the White House. It is
now vacant for the third time in less than a year since Fiona Hill left.
Watch this space. If past is prologue, we`ll find out soon enough what is
going on here. We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: Get a good night`s sleep, you guys. Your country needs you, and we
don`t know how long this is going to go on.
Special coverage of the president`s impeachment trial in the United States
Senate starts tomorrow here on MSNBC at 9:00 a.m. Eastern, with coverage
hosted by Chuck Todd. Ari Melber will take over coverage from 10:00 a.m. to
11:00 a.m. Eastern. And then starting at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, we will be in
rolling special coverage over the course of the day, hosted by Brian
Williams and Nicolle Wallace, and they will hold on to it for the duration
as the Senate rolls into day one.
We are not exactly sure what they are going to get through tomorrow, but we
know it`s going to start with a fight over how the trial is going to be
Deep breath, everybody. Here we go.
Now, it`s time for “THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL”.
Good evening, Lawrence.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY
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Copyright 2020 ASC Services II Media, LLC. All materials herein are
protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced,
distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the
prior written permission of ASC Services II Media, LLC. You may not alter
or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the