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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 08/12/13

Guests: Bryan Stevenson

RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Thank you, Chris. Thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour. Nine months after the presidential elections, Republicans have just signed into law the most draconian voter suppression law in the country this afternoon. Before the 2012 elections, Republican-controlled states all around the country took action to make voting more difficult, like the cuts in early voting that led to waits of eight hours or more to cost a ballot in Florida. Amid huge Democratic pushback and some national uproar over the changes in the voting laws, efforts in the Republican-controlled states to make voting harder -- they did get rolled back somewhat. They were subject to a lot of human cry. But now -- now, in the relative calm of this late summer in an odd numbered nonelection year, it is the state of North Carolina that has gone further than any other state in the country. In the name of supposedly cracking down on voter fraud, which is never to any significant extent been proven or even seriously alleged in that state, North Carolina Republicans will now ban you from voting unless you can show new documentation that you never had to show before. And that hundreds of thousands of legal voters in North Carolina do not have. And, of course, those voters who will not be allowed to vote without that documentation now, they, of course, are disproportionately minority and disproportionately registered Democrats. If you live in a state in North Carolina and your photo ID is your student ID from college, you will not be able to vote. You will not be able to go to the polls to cast a ballot anymore. Not after the law that was signed in North Carolina today. Civics teachers and student groups that have been preregistering 16- year-olds and 17-year-olds so they can vote as soon as they turn 18, that is also not going to happen anymore. So, no more voter registration efforts for young people in North Carolina. They dramatically cut early voting. They cut all the early voting on Sundays. You`ve heard of Souls to the Polls efforts. Early voting Sundays before elections largely from black churches, not anymore. No more early voting on Sundays. What exactly does that have to do with voter fraud? Precisely nothing, but it sure will make it harder to vote in North Carolina, particularly for groups that tend to vote Democratic. Something like 70 percent of African-American voters who voted in the 2012 election in North Carolina, 70 percent, voted earlier. So, clearly, early voting`s got to go. Republican Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina signed the voting law changes today. He put out a YouTube video explaining that it is just the extreme left complaining about this bill. He says making up scare tactics about this bill and really he`s just all about protecting the vote in North Carolina, by making it a lot harder to vote in North Carolina. Two lawsuits have already been filed today to stop the new law. A third may be on its way according to reporting from Ari Berman at "The Nation". The lawsuits are being filed under a little thing we used to call the Voting Rights Act, which is not what it used to be, since the Supreme Court gutted it early this summer. Congress made some noise after the Supreme Court ruling that maybe they might think about shoring the law back up, but really as you know, Congress is not doing much of anything these days. It is times like this when you learn what it really means to be the attorney general of the United States, and you learn why who is in that job really matters. At more than a surface level, I mean, presumably by the time somebody gets confirmed for a job that important, "A", we know they`re qualified to hold the job and "B," what they value, what they believe in, what they stand for. What turns out to be interesting over time, though, is how they act on those beliefs in that job, how they maneuver within the constraints of the job and the powers of the job to try to achieve their goals. And so, after the Trayvon Martin verdict, for example, there`s a Department of Justice review whether there ought to be federal civil rights charges filed in that case, but more immediately, there was the attorney general making an emotional public address using the bully pulpit to say these stand your ground laws that changed the definition of self-defense, they maybe ought to be reconsidered, they ought to be looked at to see if maybe they are causing more harm than good. On the Voting Rights Act, the sections of that act that had given the Justice Department the power to say thumbs down or thumbs up to whatever states wanted to do about their election laws, the Supreme Court took that away. The attorney general, Eric Holder, then said, OK, justice will then use the remaining sections of the law to try to uphold the same protections. He said he would transfer resources. He would concentrate resources into the other parts of the law that still remain. So, if they couldn`t use half the protect voting rights law anymore -- well, they`ll use the other half. More than they used to, starting with Texas and continuing presumably with the other states that had had laws blocked by the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court ruling but now feel like they can go ahead. So, Texas first. Maybe Alabama. Maybe Mississippi. Maybe North Carolina after today. Sometimes you use the bully pulpit. Sometimes you have the authority to weigh in and stop something directly. Sometimes when you lose that authority, as Justice Department did during the, with the Voting Rights act case. Sometimes when you lose that authority, you instead decide you`re going to sue. What is the range of options available to you? And how do you use it? How do you still try to make progress when some avenues toward the progress you want to make are blocked? On the issue of drugs and criminal justice, the Obama administration made it a priority to try to reduce the huge disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. I mean, if cocaine is the problem, why be so much more lenient for one variety of cocaine and so much more strict for the other? On that issue, the administration found a lot of allies in Congress. The bill to reduce those sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, that bill passed by a voice vote in the House in 2010. It passed the Senate by unanimous consent. Because of that, thousands of people who had already been sentenced under the bad old guidelines, they had their sentences retroactively reduced because of that law being passed by Congress and signed by the president. The sentence disparity still exists, but it is not nearly as bad as it used to be. That progress was made with Congress. There`s this range of options, right? There`s a range of latitude that you have in the executive branch. That you have as president or the attorney general. And this is some of the most interesting maneuvering we get in American political science. I mean, sometimes you make your case and hope that others will make change. Like in the stand your ground speeches. Sometimes you urge Congress to make a change and they do. Sometimes you sue to force a change through the courts. And sometimes you find a way to make the change yourself, even when nobody had ever thought it might be possible. A really dramatic change was made today by the Attorney General Eric Holder, saying that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason. The attorney general announced today prosecutors will change the way they bring prosecutions for drug crimes starting now. And the change they`re going to make is they`re going to not list the quantities other drugs involved when they bring those charges for some people. Ever looked at the different amounts of different drugs that can get you the same sentence? It`s weird. It`s a very weird table of stuff. A hundred kilograms of marijuana will get you an automatic five years in federal prison without parole. A hundred kilograms of pot, for a mere 100 grams of heroin, you get the same sentence -- five years in federal prison. No possibility of parole. Look at the sentencing for meth -- 100 grams of heroin gets you five years, all right? But you`ll do the same time for five s of meth. With LSD, you get five years in prison for a single gram. All the same sentence for those wildly different amounts of those wildly different drugs. The way the criminal code is written now leads to all of these seemingly arbitrary and sometimes inexplicable results in sentencing between different types of drugs. For what Eric Holder is saying is no particular criminal justice purpose. So the attorney general now is making changes. Both in the cases that U.S. attorneys choose to prosecute and in the way they prosecute them. This is not Eric Holder changing the law. He can`t do that. This is him recognizing that the law comes with all these capricious counterproductive consequences. Both the differences in the way we mete out punishment for one drug versus the other and the enormous amount of times to which we sentence nonviolent, sometimes low-level offenders. In order to side step that, Eric Holder told the U.S. attorneys today, told prosecutors around the country today, that as long as we`re talking about nonviolent people, people who are not in gangs, people who are not selling to kids and these other criteria, as long as we are talking about nonviolent, low level offenders, the way we can side step what is wrong in the law here is to just not list the amount of the drugs involved in the charging document. If you do not put the amount in the charging document, then you do not trigger the mandatory minimum sentence and the sentence will happen with more discretion than that, with an eye toward frankly reducing the number of people in prison and how long they are there for. This is not Eric Holder changing the law. Maybe Congress will get around to changing the law someday. But in the meantime, this today, effective immediately, changes the way the law is enforced around the country, instantly as of today. It kind of seems like this might be a big deal. Joining us now is Bryan Stevenson. He`s founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and professor at NYU. Mr. Stevenson, thank you very much for being with us. It`s nice to have you here. BRYAN STEVENSON, NYU PROFESSOR: It`s my pleasure. Thank you. MADDOW: So, can you explain how significant a change this is and how these changes are going to be implemented? STEVENSON: Oh, I think it`s a very significant change. You know, when we passed mandatory minimum laws, everybody thinks that eliminated discretion. But, in fact, it did -- it took discretion away from judges and it actually gave it to prosecutors. And, today, the attorney general said he`s going to exercise that discretion in a way that actually reduces the number of people being sent to prison for these long prison sentences for low-level non-violent drug crimes. And I think it`s a really significant step forward. It`s the kind of leadership many of us have been calling for, for decades. The problem of vast imprisonment in this country have largely fueled by our misguided war on drugs and the way it has sent hundreds of thousands of people to prison for these low-level drug problems which are not a threat to public safety a cost billions of dollars. So, I think it`s a really enormous step forward for the government. MADDOW: Is he breaking new ground in the way he is approaching this problem? Obviously, this is not a change in the law. This is a change in prosecutorial discretion in terms of how he is directing the nation`s federal prosecutors to go about their work. Is that a new way to approach this issue? STEVENSON: I think it is. I think too few people have appreciated how much discretion prosecutors have to deal with this problem in a more sort of immediate way. I mean, I think it`s significant in that respect, but I also think it`s significant from a leadership prospective. Everybody in this country has been paralyzed by the politics of fear and anger. Most people recognize that these kinds of reforms are critically necessary. But our instincts after 40 years of mass incarceration make it very hard for politicians to actually pass the laws that produce the amount of time that people spend in prison. So, we`ve been looking for leadership, and I think what he`s done today is significant leadership. I think it has the possibility of being replicated in states which is where we really need it. I mean, we have to remember that only 10 percent of the people incarcerated in this country are in the federal system. Most of our mass imprisonment problem is in the states. And this decision won`t directly effect state policy but it can have an impact on how we think about mass incarceration and also drug policy. Drug policy has been so misguided for so long, that I`m hoping it inspires a healthier conversation about how to move forward. MADDOW: It`s interesting, in the attorney general`s speech explaining this move today, he talked about reforms toward lessening the prison population, toward affording prosecutorial and charging discretion in a way that might lead to shorter sentences or fewer sentences, in a lot of unexpected places, in a lot of red states. He talked about Texas, for example, and other Southern Republican-controlled states that have made reforms to their criminal justice system. Is that -- obviously that`s politically important for trying to get a change like this to stick. But is that a sign this is actually becoming less of a site of partisan combat, this is becoming something that`s treated sort of more technocratically? STEVENSON: I think it is. I mean, there are a lot of people on both sides of the political aisle that have been urging us to be smarter on crime. We can`t just keep, you know, invoking tough on crime. We`ve got to be smart on crime. And a lot of Republicans and Democrats have been making that call and you have seen states, Texas and South Carolina and states that are considered conservative implementing policies that are designed to turn around some of these things. We have to be honest a lot of this is driven by cost. You know, we`re spending $80 billion to keep people incarcerated that are not a threat to public safety. We need those dollars in other parts of our government. It`s not just kind of moral evolution here. There`s also a cost dynamic. But I think this can become an issue that is less politicized than a lot of the issues that we`ve been dealing with here recently at the policy and certainly the national policy level. MADDOW: Bryan, when you look at our overall relationship to other industrialized countries, other well-off countries around the world and see how disproportionately we lock up our own population -- do you think there need to be a root and branch fundamental change in the way we approach crime and punishment, or do you think we could sort of normalize our level of imprisonment in this country compared to the rest of the world through step-by-step changes like this? I despair of the prospect of us rethinking it in a big way, but I do feel like it is possible to make significant changes step by step like this one today. STEVENSON: Well, I think actually in some ways both things are really needed. I think you`re right. We can -- I believe we can reduce the prison population in this country by 50 percent over the next six to eight years if we engage in the kind of policy initiatives that the attorney general announced today. And I think we have to do that. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We`re decimating community. A black boy born in 2000 has a 32 percent chance of going to jail or prison. That`s a shocking and really disturbing reality. We`ve got to make some changes. But I also think we have to think more fundamentally about crime and punishment. We`ve been so carried away with finding ways to put as many people in prison for as long as possible that we`ve got to deal not only with mandatory minimum sentences but we`ve got to deal with three strikes laws ,we`ve got to deal with more rational sentencing, more effective sentencing. I mean, the federal government actually created the war on drugs. They are the ones that spent billions of dollars and gave it to the state to create drug task forces that have really corrupted our criminal justice priorities. In some states, we`re spending all of our money to get marijuana possessors in jail, in prison, and under-prosecuting violent crimes involving rape and murder. We`ve got to change that around. That`s why I think both of these things are needed. We`ve got to do reforms, incremental reforms. But we`ve also got to kind of create a more just, more humane, more rational system of justice that prioritizes public safety but also prioritizes human recovery and rehabilitation and healthy communities. MADDOW: Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan, thank you for being here tonight. It`s nice to have you here. STEVENSON: Very happy to be with you. MADDOW: I will tell you in the 1990s before I was involved in media and everything, I worked in criminal justice issues for a very long time. And I will tell you that the scale of American imprisonment was one of those things that seemed absolutely impenetrable as a political issue. Something that would never get better, that would only get worse over the course of my lifetime to the point where it became the dominant thing in American politics and in American society. It just seemed like it was a mountain that could never be climbed. And it is not a mountain. It turns out it`s a mesa and we`re coming down the other side of it and this thing is changing. Nothing is inevitable in American politics. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Embattled governor ultrasound, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, is in the middle of a two week/22-stop Commonwealth of Opportunity Tour. I think the governor hopes the tour will give the commonwealth the opportunity to stop wondering whether he`s going to resign or be indicted or both. And also which order might be best if both of those things end up happening. Unfortunately, for his efforts at taking everyone`s mind off of his own corruption scandal, week one of the Bob McDonnell tour coincided exactly with "The Washington Post" breaking the news on the governor taking another $50,000 cash from a guy who he then offered a seat on a state medical board. Now, week two of the Commonwealth of Opportunity Tour starts with the first major newspaper in Virginia calling for Governor Bob McDonnell to resign. It is the "Daily Progress" newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia, and their editorial calling for Governor McDonnell is resign is brutal. Quote, "Mr. McDonnell`s effectiveness is at an end. Worst, Mr. McDonnell has become an outright liability to the commonwealth and its citizens. The governor has repeatedly demonstrated blindness to importance of the scandal, apparently, because there is no true north in his ethical compass." There have been other calls, of course, for Governor McDonnell to resign before now, but before now it has mostly been Democratic politicians making those noises. Now, though, it is not just a major newspaper in the state of Virginia, it is a major newspaper who endorsed the governor. Quote, "Having endorsed Mr. McDonnell, nearly four years ago, it gives us no pleasure now to urge him to resign." In terms of what Governor McDonnell is doing in the state now, instead of resigning -- well, that`s when it gets really brutal. "His current schedule is heavy on public relations activities -- visiting troops, endorsing adoption, showing up for an anti-crime event. These are worth endeavors, of course, but a governor`s association with good causes should be for the purpose of bringing them additional attention through the stature of his name and office. The ironic truth is that it appears that Bob McDonnell is using these associations with good causes to gain advantage for himself rather than to convey it. He needs the positive publicity more than they do." Aw! That is the "Daily Progress" in Charlottesville, Virginia. Honestly, nobody knows exactly ha happens next in this corruption scandal. But there has been one other big change from the McDonnell side that may indicate that something is about to happen. You should at least know about it if you`re interested in this story. The guy for whom Governor McDonnell and his family took the $50,000 check and $70,000 check and the $15,000 dinner and the other $10,000 check and the $15,000 shopping spree and the loan of a white Ferrari and the lake house and all the rest of it, oh and Rolex watch. I`m sure I`m forgetting other stuff, too. That guy from whom they took all those gifts heads a company that for months now has been known to be under federal investigation. They had to disclose they were under federal investigation to their shareholders. Well, on Friday, that company put out a statement saying -- happy day, they are the not expecting to be charged in conjunction with that federal investigation. Now, at the same time, there has been recent reporting in "The Washington Post" that the guy who heads the company who gave all the loot to Bob McDonnell and his family, the "Washington Post" is reporting he`s returned states evidence, that he`s on the prosecutor`s side in the federal corruption investigation into Governor Bob McDonnell. This is the other shoe midair dropping, OK? Because what`s happening now is that Governor Bob McDonnell`s private spokesman who he hired specifically to handle his scandal is now publicly attacking the governor`s pal. The guy who gave him all the money and the Rolex and the Ferrari and all the rest of it, they`re throwing that guy under the bus. Quote, "Apparently, the U.S. government has given Star Scientific a free pass in return for the testimony of Johnny Williams." Old Johnny Williams, the incredibly generous gift giver, has always been defined throughout this whole scandal as Governor Bob`s dear pal. That was part of the defense, right? I didn`t have to declare all the stuff my friend gave me. He`s just a friend who gives me $50,000 checks and watches and stuff. Through all of this, Bob McDonnell`s supposed innocence was predicated on him being such good pals with his sugar daddy that it couldn`t possibly be corruption. It couldn`t possibly be improper. Now, 180-degree turn, total U-turn. Now all of a sudden, that guy, his best buddy is the one to blame. This is a total and radical change in strategy from governor ultrasound. Does it mean there`s about to be something newsworthy here? An indictment of some kind? An announcement related to this federal investigation of some kind? Nobody knows until that happens. But he has reverse strategy 180 degrees. You know what, hey, it`s only Monday. The Commonwealth of Opportunity Tour lasts all week. Anything could happen. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: I do not know much about golf -- I down know anything about golf. I do not golf. I don`t even like being near golf. However, I do love weird stories that sound like they will start badly but turn out well. This is Jonas Blix, professional golfer. Saturday, during the PGA championship, Mr. Blix was playing well until the 18th hole, which I`m told is the last one. He then he hit his ball into a group of people. On the 18th hole, he hit the ball so badly that it nailed a spectator. It flew into the crowd and hit someone. Bad news. Right? Actually, no. Just weird news. As it turns out, the ball that Jonas hit into that spectator landed in the man`s pants. He hit the ball into the crowd and it popped right into the back pocket of a nice retired doctor who said it didn`t hurt that badly. So the bad news, right, is shot into the crowd. But it has two happy consequences. First is the nice doctor is not hurt. Second, on a count of the badly shot ball taking a detour into the doctor`s pants, that ball could not travel any further in the wrong direction. Mr. Blix, by rule, was allowed to take the next shot from the grass right where Dr. Hole in Pants had been standing. And on that hole, he ended up getting a birdie which does not mean that he hit a bird after he hit the doctor`s pants. No, it means he did something good that got him a nice, low score that I don`t totally understand. So, all in all, good news. I bet that doctor will never wash those pants again. And, if that has whet your appetite for good news today, I have more ahead. On the topic that`s been bad news on this show before, for months it now may be turn into a good news story. And we have that good news story coming up. It will make your night. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: This is Balhaf, specifically, the Balhaf liquefied natural gas terminal. It gets natural gas on land pumped in by a pipeline. And then it shoots it out from the mainland on pipes that stretch out on a long jetty into the Gulf of Aden. See the jetty there? Big tankers pull up alongside the jetty, fill up with natural gas then get on their way to ship it around the world. You may remember that in the year 2000, the USS Cole was bombed when refueling at a port in Yemen. That was the port in Aden in Yemen, which you see on the bottom part of your screen. This port at Balhaf, same country, same bit of coastline, but as you see, Balhaf is 250 miles up the way to the east. On June 2nd, somebody tried to blow up the Balhaf liquefied natural gas terminal. They drove a car bomb up toward the terminal. But thankfully it blew up too early and only the driver, only the suicide bomber was killed. Then, last, Wednesday, Yemen said it had foiled another plot to attack oil and gas facilities in that same area and also further up the coastline in a place called Mukalla, that was on Wednesday. They said plots had been foiled. Now, though, an attack seems to have been successful. Five soldiers reported killed yesterday in Yemen near that Balhaf terminal, after multiple attackers reportedly surprised the Yemeni soldiers at their guard posts. Now, the people who run the Balhaf liquefied natural gas terminal are insisting emphatically the terminal, itself, did not get hit, saying that it hurts their shareholders to imply that the terminal, itself, came under attack. They want everybody to know that it actually was up the road a ways. It was between them and the other nearest oil and gas facility on that same chunk of Yemen`s coast. So, it was almost them in June, but for the faulty suicide bomber, they were saved from it being them last week and now, it was just immediately down the road there this weekend. But they want their shareholders to know that everything is safe. When the U.S. announced it was closing 19 embassies a little more than a week ago, Yemen was one of the 19. For Yemen, they also took the additional step of evacuating basically all American personnel out of that country on military transport aircraft. Well, this weekend, 18 of the 19 U.S. embassies that were shut down more than a week ago, 18 of the 19 of them were opened back up, but not Yemen. Yemen is staying closed because of, quote, "ongoing concerns about a threat stream" indicating the potential for terrorist attacks. Also, meanwhile, here have been at least nine U.S. drone strikes in Yemen over the last two weeks. Nine. And the only thing we know about them is that they have not hit any, quote, "household names." Nine strikes? What in the world is going on in Yemen right now? And why is this all happening right now? Joining us now from Cairo, Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent. Richard, thanks very much for joining us. It`s good to have you here. RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It`s always a pleasure to be with you, Rachel, and I love talking about Yemen. It`s one of the most interesting, fascinating, beautiful and unfortunately troubled countries in this region. That says a lot. This is a troubled region. MADDOW: You have always described to me, Yemen, as one of the most beautiful places on earth and I know how much you love it as a country and you love the capital city of Yemen. What do you understand about the level of threat there? And is it that much more acute than it has been at other troubled times in recent history? ENGEL: Not really. I think the way to understand it is you have to think of Yemen a little bit like Somalia. It is a country that is at war. It is a country that is fighting a civil war. That part of the coastline you just mentioned not far from Aden, the southern area, was actually controlled by al Qaeda two to three years ago. And they ran it like they ran a little state in Afghanistan or Somalia. They were the authority there. And that is obviously a very bad thing. And there was a small war that didn`t get a lot of attention, that was launched by the Yemeni government. The Saudi Arabia, most of it air forces, and backed up with U.S. advisers and drones. This was about two, 2 1/2 years ago. And it was a very bloody campaign. And thousands of Yemeni troops were involved and they drove al Qaeda mostly out of this area. I went with Yemeni troops when they were trying to show people that they had taken the territory back. I was astonished at the amount of damage. Buildings chewed up, whole towns that looked like they`d been destroyed, a lot of people who`ve been killed in this fighting. Al Qaeda had been doing crucifixions in the area. It was a little state run by al Qaeda. Those militants who were there weren`t entirely defeated. They did what was described by many as a tactical withdrawal and they left for other parts of the country. They went to Mahreb (ph), they went to Job (ph), they went to other parts of the rural areas. And they have established their own safe havens there. And that is what we`re seeing mostly being attacked right now by the drone strikes. These groups are still around. They are reconstituting their forces. And they`re quite aggressive. And I wouldn`t put it past them to try and carry out attacks. Carry out attacks against oil facilities, carry out attacks against embassies, carry out attacks against a lot of different facilities. MADDOW: Richard, one of the things that we are hearing in Washington is part of the decision about where to pull back, where to extract U.S. personnel and close down facilities, is not just about the threat level, but it`s about whether or not those people and those facilities can be defended and the places where we feel like we can`t physically can`t defend things in case of attack are more likely to be shut down than places where we have better physical and security planning. Is that part of what`s going on in Yemen? That it is just an isolated, difficult place to defend if things do go wrong? ENGEL: Yes. This is the Benghazi effect. You know, anything that`s considered a remote outpost that is hard to protect gets shut down first. Yemen, like in all of these countries, we`re mostly dependent on local forces, and the Yemeni government doesn`t have a tremendous capacity. It doesn`t have a lot of air lift. It doesn`t have a lot of troops who can be called in to move from place to place. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is not a big group. Al Qaeda in Yemen as it`s also known. But it`s very well-armed. It`s dug in. It knows how to fight in its terrain. It`s chosen the places where it wants to fight and it`s quite effective at launching hit-and-run attacks. Why, whether the U.S. has been overreacting by closing so many facilities around the world, now they`re re-opened except the one in Yemen, there`s been a lot of debate about that. But I think it`s fair to say that the threat in Yemen is particularly, is particularly high right now. And you have to also understand, these drone attacks, which al Qaeda sees as a part of an ongoing war against it that`s going back two, three years, are a bit of a source of pride for al Qaeda there. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, its leader came out overnight and saying, we`re still here. There`s been a lot of drone attacks and we plan to liberate prisons and give a very bold statement. And because of that, Yemen has now actually put extra security on its prison facilities. So, the story at least in Yemen is not over yet. MADDOW: It`s not over yet and feels like each additional -- each new thing that we learn just makes clear how little we understand about the overall picture. At least about what`s going to happen next. Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent -- Richard, thank you for staying us into the middle of the night to be with us. I really appreciate it, man. ENGEL: My pleasure. MADDOW: Thank you. All right. In the history of this show, only once have I been moved to bang my head on the desk in response to something said to me by a guest, only once in five years. And the guest who so moved me to bang my head on this desk has just now made some serious news, which might make you bang your head on the desk, too. That story is coming up. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: This is a good news story but it starts in kind of a weird news place. The good news I`ll get to in a second. The weird news to start is that the American Civil War is not over, literally, in the sense that we are still paying for it. President Obama explained as much this weekend. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Think about it. We lost the last veteran of the First World War two years ago. But we still care for the children of our World War I veterans. To this day, we still help care for children of men who fought in the Spanish-American War, even the daughter of a Civil War veteran. So when we -- (APPLAUSE) So when we talk about fulfilling our promises to all who serve, we`re not just talking about a few years. We`re talking about decades. For as long as you and your families walk this earth. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: For as long as you and your families walk this earth. President Obama speaking with veterans this weekend. A daughter of a U.S. Civil War veteran is still, today, receiving veterans benefits that her dad earned by serving in the Civil War. Wow. For this president, who has ended one of the wars he inherited and who says he will end the other, the longest war in our history next year, for President Obama, the issue of making good on our promises to veterans has been a huge deal for his administration and frankly, it has also been a huge problem that has not only been bad for most of this administration, it has been getting worse for a very long time. By the V.A.`s own count, the wait time for veterans applying for disability benefits has been getting worse. The wait time has been getting longer, year by year. In 2009, the average wait time, 161 days, the next year, 165 days. The next year, 188 days. Last year, 262 days. That`s the wait time to even hear back, even if the answer is no. Veterans waiting way too long to get the benefits that we promised to them and that they earned. Increased wait times in this unacceptable ginormous backlog have always been coupled with repeated assurances from the V.A., itself, that it`s going to get better, that they have a plan. That they are going to someday turn the tide. It has been getting so long and been getting worse for so long that it has been hard not to feel cynical about those assurances. Now, though, some overdo but much better news delivered by the commander-in-chief, himself. Watch. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: Today, I can report that we are not where we need to be, but we`re making progress. We are making progress. (APPLAUSE) So after years when the backlog kept growing, finally the backlog is shrinking. In the last five months alone, it`s down nearly 20 percent. We`re turning the tide. (END VIDE OCLIP) MADDOW: (AUDIO GA) too big. The backlog is still way too big, but the backlog, at least, is going the right direction. At the very least, President Obama is on the record claiming good news. This has been a bad news and getting worse news story forever, it feels like, but after years of just saying it would get better, now the commander in chief says it is getting better. It has started. I mean, the great assault here, right, the champagne should probably remain on ice, leave the noise makers and party hats in storage, but let there be cautious optimism. If they really are turning this thing around, it will be cause for real celebration and we have complained on this show about this backlog problem so angrily for so many months and years now, if they really are turning it around, the real celebration will in part be healthier. Watch this space. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: There`s an important election tomorrow, one of New Jersey`s U.S. Senate seat has been vacant since Senator Frank Lautenberg died in June. New Jersey`s governor could have appointed somebody to serve out the rest of the senator`s term, but he didn`t. He appointed someone temporarily and called a special election. The primary for that election is tomorrow. All the attention so far has been on the Democratic side, where Newark Mayor Cory Booker is out ahead of a strong Democratic field. On the Democratic side, it`s a contest between four qualified candidates, two well-regarded members of Congress, the speaker of the state assembly, and the mayor of the state`s largest city, Mr. Booker, who is way out ahead. He leads by something like 35 percent in the polls. His stature, his perceived promise in national politics is just overwhelming the people he`s competing against. But it is quality competition on the Democratic side, a strong field. On the Republican side, it`s different. The current Republican front- runner is Steve Lonegan, the ex-mayor of Bogota, New Jersey. The latest news from his campaign is having to take down this tweet identifying what they say are the most Africa-like parts of Newark, because -- geez, man. Come on. The campaign took it down and then did the honorable thing. They found a young staffer to blame it on. For whatever reason, maybe because it is August, the just under the surface cross-current of crazy in our national Republican Party seems to be surfacing everywhere right now. For example, it just took over the whole Republican Party in the otherwise fairly reasonable state of Oregon. On the surface, this is just a story about turnover in the top ranks of the Oregon Republican Party. They elected a new chair in February. Five months later, there were petitions to have her turfed out and then she was going to be recalled. Then just before she was going to be recalled at a party meeting this weekend she resigned. So, on short notice, they picked this guy, this guy who had run twice for Congress as a Republican. But this is not just any guy who has run twice for Congress as a Republican and lost. This is Art Robinson. This is the Art Robinson. This is public schools are a form of socialist child abuse Art Robinson. This is nuclear waste should be used as insulation in your home Art Robinson -- or as we like to think of him around here, our own Art Robinson. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: You have advocated that radioactive waste should be dissolved in water and, quote, "widely dispersed in the oceans." ART ROBINSON: The statements that you have just made are untrue. MADDOW: Wait. I was quoting you. ROBINSON: What you`ve done is take tiny excerpts from a vast amount of writing I`ve done on this scientific subject. MADDOW: Did you write this? I`m quoting from your newsletter. There`s no ellipses here. "All we need to do with nuclear waste is dilute it to a low radiation level and sprinkle it over the ocean or even over America after hor-mesis is better understood and verified with respect in more diseases." ROBINSON: I wrote thousands and thousands of words on the subject. You have picked a few words and twisted them into an untruth. MADDOW: Can I ask you about something else you`ve written in your newsletter and you can tell me that I`m taking it out context? ROBINSON: You can ask anything you want. You`re running the camera. MADDOW: You positive in print, in your own publications. There was no editor. You weren`t taken out of context. ROBINSON: Here we go again. MADDOW: That AIDS was a government conspiracy. That it wasn`t real. That the government -- ROBINSON: I absolutely deny that. I never, ever in my life made a statement like that. You are lying. I never made statement like that and I know it. You are lying. The statement you just made is an outright lie. MADDOW: Quoting from Mr. Robinson`s newsletter. Quote, "Only government" -- ROBINSON: No way. You are lying. MADDOW: Look. It`s on the screen. Yay. ROBINSON: I have never in my life -- MADDOW: "Only government reclassification of more and more disease types as AIDS cases has kept the numbers of victims at politically necessary levels." You wrote it. I`m quoting it. Do you no longer believe it? ROBINSON: No. You -- madam, I`m not going to discuss -- what happened to hor-mesis? We were in that. (LAUGHTER) (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: The new chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, America. Every party has its kooks, though, right? And maybe the New Jersey Senate primary election and the Oregon Republican Party chairmanship seem far flung. But even if you`d look at the most mainstream network TV center of the universe Republican politics right now, even there, whoop, there it is. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, BUSINESSMAN: We`ve resonated with a lot of people. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you don`t still question that he was born in the United States, do you? TRUMP: I have no idea. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even at this point? TRUMP: Well, I don`t know. Was there in a birth certificate? You tell me. You know, some people say that was not his birth certificate. I`m saying I don`t know. Nobody knows. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Happy Sunday morning. Congratulations, ABC. Yes, you did that. Over on "Meet the Press", there was Republican Congressman Steve King, debating Latina Republican strategist Ana Navarro and questioning whether she understands English. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: I`ve seen the drug smugglers. I`ve spent time on the border. I`ve ridden with the border patrol. I sat on the fence at night. I sat in a ranch house and the border patrol come to me in civilian clothes and they tell me narrative after narrative -- ANA NAVARRO, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Frankly, I think he`s being helpful to the immigration debate because it is emboldening other Republicans to speak out strongly against him, people like John Boehner, like Eric Cantor, like Paul Ryan. We`re not going to stand anymore for the Republican Party being defined by somebody like Steve King. KING: Well, I would say this. First of all, I spoke only of drug smugglers. And if Ana understands the language, she should know that. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: If Ana understands the language. Also make the Sunday talk show circuit this weekend was Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert who is mostly known for his immigration insights like this one. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. LOUIE GOHMERT (R), TEXAS: We know al Qaeda has camps over with the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border. We know that people are now being trained to come in and act like Hispanic when they`re radical Islamists. We know these things are happening. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: The radical Islamists being trained to come in and act like the Hispanic. So it might be comforting to think that these are just the Donald Trumps and Steve Kings and Louie Gohmerts of the world that no serious person with power and standing in politics would make these arguments -- sadly, no. Because you`re hearing the same arguments in some cases from guys like the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican Congressman Buck McKeon. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. BUCK MCKEON (R), CALIFORNIA: I think you probably would agree with me. There are people that think that they can`t tell the difference between a Hispanic person and an Arab person. And if you get an Arab that`s trained, that`s coming into this country to be a terrorism -- a terrorist, they can mingle in and they can get in here and, you know, then they can do damage. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: They can mingle in? What exactly is the argument here? Latinos crossing the border, won`t be able to tell if there`s an Arab secretly trying to cross the border with them because they all look alike and they might accidentally help bring an Arab over here mingled in? Is that the argument? Seriously? Louie Gohmert, Steve King, Donald Trump, that guy running in New Jersey, Art Robinson, OK, this guy`s chair of the homeland -- excuse me -- chair of the Armed Services Committee in the House. Thanks to the Republican Party. They should start tying a bell around these guys or something so we can tell when they`re coming. That does it for us tonight. Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL." Have a great night. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END