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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 12/18/13

Guests: Nick Acocella

STEVE KORNACKI, GUEST HOST: Good evening and thanks for joining us. I`m Steve Kornacki. Rachel has the night off. A bill has reached the president`s desk. There is no need to adjust your television. I know it`s almost impossible to believe, but the United States Congress tonight has actually done something. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On this vote, the yeas are 64, the nays are 36. The motion to concur in the House amendment to the Senate amendment to House H.J. Res 59 is agreed to. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Earlier tonight, the United States Senate had passed that mouthful of Senate jargon, otherwise known as a budget. As you heard there, the margin was pretty wide, 64 votes yes, to 36 votes against it. It`s the same budget bill, of course, that passed the House last week in a vote that was even more lopsided. The spread there was 332 to 94. And this makes it the first time since 2009 that a budget has actually been agreed to. This is admittedly a pretty low bar. It is small ball bill. It`s not exactly the monumental legislation we`re talking about here. But even at that, the fact that there is any budget deal that shows Congress is being functional in a way that it has not been in a long time. And part of this budget, at least the math behind this budget was made possible by something else that happened this year, when the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire for the wealthiest Americans. Maybe you remember the fiscal cliff deal that President Obama signed to the very beginning of the year. The deal brought a ton of new tax revenue into the federal government by not only allowing those high-end Bush tax cuts to expire but also by raising things like the capital gains attack. So, President Obama started off this year with the deal to end most of the high end Bush tax cuts, something he had been trying to do for a long time. Something he campaigned on in the 2012 election. Now, he is ending the year with a two-year budget deal that will likely avert another government shutdown. So, this is not the most momentous day in the history of the republic. We`re not going to be looking back at this day 50 years from now and saying, where were you in December 18, 2013, when Congress passed the budget? But this is still a significant budget. Those two deals that bookend the year, the one in January and the one today, they are important and they are consequential deals. And yes, this morning, as the Senate was preparing to approve this budget, the Web site, Politico, was busy asking this important question, "Which president had the worst year 5? Was it Obama?" That headline from "Politico" pretty much echoes perfectly what is now apparently the majority view of the Beltway media. "Obama`s worst year," that was the headline in "The New Republic." "Obama had the worst year in Washington," according to "The Washington Post." This was "The Daily Beast", "Worst fifth year ever?" Maybe. The Beltway media has concluded that President Obama had not just a bad year, it`s not just a terrible year, but he`s had the worst year of his entire presidency and quite possibly the worst fifth year that a U.S. president has ever had. OK. So, maybe we can take a breath here for a second. I mean, yes, President Obama has definitely had a challenging year, a trying year, we`re going to get to all of that in just a moment. But let`s first think about how this is being framed. Let`s consider some of the competition here for a minute when it comes to the title of worst fifth year ever for a president. For instance, it was in the fifth year of his presidency back in 1958 that Lyndon Johnson who was besieged by war, by domestic unrest, by a complete collapsed in the incompetence of his leadership that Lyndon Johnson practically lost the New Hampshire Democratic primary to a gadfly senator from Minnesota. It was Lyndon Johnson then just months into his fifth year as president where he had to go on television and make this announcement. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LYNDON JOHNSON, FORMER PRESIDENT: I do not believe that I should devote an hour a day of my time to any personal partisan causes, or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office, the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: That -- that was a bad fifth year for a president. As we consider all that happened during President Obama`s fifth year, we could also think about the fifth year that George W. Bush had. The year five of the Bush presidency was the year of the Harriet Miers debacle, members of President Bush`s own party helped to derail his own shockingly unqualified nominee to the Supreme Court. This was not exactly the sort of news coverage you want to be hearing when you`re in year five of your presidency. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Miers drops out as the Supreme Court nominee. Tonight, reaction to this stunning turn, what happened and what happens next. The votes were not there in the U.S. Senate, and so tonight, the Miers nomination has been withdrawn. The president will choose again, all the while knowing he may be just hours away from the untold political damage, from a grand jury, looking into evidence that some in the White House were out to smear a man who question the underpinnings for war in Iraq. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Did you catch that at the end there? The end of that segment with Brian Williams, year five of the presidency wasn`t only the year of the Harriet Miers debacle. It was also the year that George W. Bush`s own vice president`s top aide was indicted. The Scooter Libby scandal was blowing wide open during President Bush`s fifth year. And there was also something called hurricane Katrina, which was not also a disaster of epic, tragic proportions, but also through his leadership that President Bush never really recovered from. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) WILLIAMS: Today, the president of the United States visited this region, and while he was here, one of the major radio station that was broadcasting chose not to broadcast his remarks, saying at one point nothing he could say could ever help them deal with the dire situation unfolding live in streets of New Orleans, where people were still dying during his visit. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Hurricane Katrina, Scooter Libby, the Iraq war, Harriet Miers -- now, that was a bad fifth year for a president. There was also in the five year, by the way, when something called the Saturday night massacre happened during the Nixon presidency, in terms of devastating year five developments, this probably takes the all-time cake. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANNOUNCER: The tonight show will not be seen tonight so we can bring you the following NBC report. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening. The country tonight is in the middle of what may be the most serious constitutional crisis in its history. The attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson who was appointed attorney general only last May, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, has quit, saying he can`t carry out Mr. Nixon`s instructions. Richardson`s deputy, William Ruckelshaus has been fired. Ruckelshaus refused in a moment of constitutional drama to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. That`s a stunning development and nothing even like it remotely has happened in all of our history. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: I know, I know, that`s not exactly a botched health care rollout there, but that was pretty bad. As was the moment during the fifth presidency when Richard Nixon had to go on national television and say this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT: In all of my years of public life I have never obstructed justice, and I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination, because people have to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I`m not a crook. I have earned everything I`ve got. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Year five of the Nixon presidency was when the Watergate scandal just blew wide open, when all of the dirty criminal details just came gushing out. That year was essentially the beginning of the end for Richard Milhous Nixon. Oh, by the way, it was during his fifth year that this happened. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good evening. Spiro Agnew became a private citizen today. And less than one hour after his resignation as vice president became official, he was convicted of a criminal charge of tax evasion. (END VIDEO CLIP) KORNACKI: Having your vice president resign and then get criminally convicted on the same day, having that be number seven or number eight on your list of problems of president, now, that is the definition of a bad fifth year in office for a president. That`s apparently not quite as bad as the fifth year that President Obama is having, at least according to a certain strain of conventional wisdom. Look, there is no doubt this has been a disappointing year in a lot ways for the president. He failed to get a background checks bill through Congress earlier this year. Immigration reform, it got through the Senate, but it`s been stalled ever since it was in the House. There was the whole government shutdown, the botched health care law. There is also an open question as we approach the end of the year, how the country is ultimately going to interpret all of this. Was this just a failure of President Obama? Was it a failure of Republican intransigence in Congress? Was it a failure of President Obama and Republicans? That`s a question that has not yet been answered and may not be answered until the full mid-term elections, if even then. But right now, this is where things stand heading into the end of the year. President Obama`s approval rating now has reached the lowest level of his presidency. The Republican Party is now as unpopular among all American people as it has ever been. That is the result of year five. It has not gone good or been good for anyone in Washington. What does that mean for what happens now and what happens ahead in year six? Joining us now is Perry Bacon. He`s a veteran political journalist and the political editor for NBC`s TheGrio.com. Perry, it`s a pleasure to have you with us. PERRY BACON, THEGRIO.COM: Thank you, Steve. KORNACKI: Thanks for joining us. So, I really couldn`t help but go back to the archives and we have Spiro Agnew, and we have George W. Bush, and we have Lyndon Johnson, because, you know, I think it`s important to see a little context here and say, you know, there is bad year fives, and then there`s what we`re talking about here for President Obama. And I think maybe one place to start, as you look at year five for the presidency, we highlighted some of the things that didn`t happen. We can get into those in a second. There were also things that did happen and that are in the process of happening this year that maybe aren`t getting a lot of attention when we start talking about how bad it`s been. BACON: Let me name three. You knocked about one. The president pushed for years to get taxes on the wealthy increased. He succeeded in January, the first time since `93 which you had a real tax increase on the rich. He pushed hard to have the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. That happened, Supreme Court did. It was very elated by that. You have this Iran agreement where he talked for years about we wanted to negotiate directly to the countries, one eventually reached some kind of deal where Iran stops building the nuclear weapons program. That may happen at the end of the year. The last thing is the president really wants to push through liberal judges. And by changing the rules of the Senate, something pretty controversial, he convinced the Senate Democrats to do that, now he can appoint people, judges and executive branch folks, as well, with just 51 votes. That will make a difference in the next three years. KORNACKI: So, when you look at it. You know, the "Politico" thing today saying this is the worst fifth year ever. And we have to be honest, the poll numbers for the president right are down. They haven`t been this low for most of his presidency. What do you chalk it up to? Is it residual frustration from the shutdown? Is this because of the Web site? What do you attribute it to when you see numbers like that? BACON: I think there are two issues. One, the president talked about it during the campaign, he used the phrase "the fever is going to break". He talked about how he thought the Republicans would start working with him and Washington would start working again. And you have to say the evidence is, Americans are frustrated Washington is not going stuff. Immigration reform blocked, gun control legislation blocked, the government shutdown, these are not the president`s own fault. The Republicans are acting the same way they did in 2011 and 2012. But Washington is definitely not moving. You can`t just say the president`s health care rollout was important because this president is one who was until now known for being confident. You may disagree with him, but this is an issue where it appears there was some, just malfeasance and bad government, the kinds of that happened during the Bush era, for the first rear their heads here. And that you saw the polls directly drop during the heath care rollout. That`s the biggest thing from the year where you say, this is the one thing they could have avoided and they did not. KORNACKI: And yet here we are, now, we`re moving from November, the month when everything went wrong with health care, into December, when there are stories about some successes, there are stories about enrollment numbers screening. You know, the system actually starting to work a little bit now. So, it seems like there is still an opportunity to turn that around. But let`s talk about where it may be going, where the Obama presidency, where his relationship with Congress may be going as we look to the year 2014, because we have this budget agreement tonight. We have the Senate passing it. We have the House passing it last week. We also have -- wow, look at this, they came together, we have a budget. We have a disturbing conversation from Paul Ryan on the Sunday shows over the weekend, where he took the issue of the debt ceiling. He basically said, that`s coming up in March, and Republicans are not expecting to just approve another debt ceiling increase without getting something for it. That is the whole recipe for the debt ceiling brinkmanship that brought on so much crisis before. Is that a bluff, or are we just going to be heading back to the kind of governing for the month ahead? BACON: It`s something in between. They`re not -- the Republicans are very weary of having another government shutdown style experience where their poll numbers shut down. And their view is the health care rollout has been so bad this is their issue for 2014. They don`t want to muddy the message too much. So I think that is pretty much a bluff, they will push for some changes, but it was not going to be a 2011 style, the president has to agree to a huge amount of deficit reduction or else. They`re not going to have that same gun at the head. They learned a lesson. The strategists I talked to in the GOP in the GOP say they`re very wary of another situation where their poll numbers tumble. The president, at the end of the day, during some kind of impasse, always has the bully pulpit and you can`t leave. And John Boehner does not have that in the same way. KORNACKI: That`s why I just -- I`m so hesitant. I love talking about history. I love trying to put things into a historical context on the spot. But I`m just imagining a world five, 10, 15 or 20 years from now when let`s say the Affordable Care Act works. Let`s say it was deemed a success, then we will look back on year five of the Obama presidency and we will talk about how this hugely successful part of the social safety net was created in year five. We`ll talk about whether it was the worse ever. So, it can be dangerous to make these historical assessments but they`re very interesting to talk about. And, Perry Bacon, political editor for NBC`s TheGrio.com -- thanks so much for joining us and being a part of that tonight. While we are looking back, one of the most unforgettable stories of 2013 has to be the biggest election this year, one in the commonwealth of Virginia. And today, it officially ended and it ended in a way that makes it even a bigger deal. That is next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: So, I need to get something off my chest about the whole Chris Christie bridge grid saga. I`m going to give you the latest developments in this incredible story. That`s just ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: Six weeks and one day after the polls closed across the commonwealth of Virginia, we finally are ready to declare an uncontested -- a winner in the race for attorney general in that state. This was the last major election of 2013 that was still outstanding until today. And the winner, as you can see, is Democrat Mark Herring. He will become the next attorney general of Virginia. On election night, Herring finished ahead by just 165 votes, out of more than 2 million cast. They started the recount this week in Virginia, and by day two, Herring lead grown to 800 votes. And then today, just this afternoon, on a third day of that recount, Republican Mark Obenshain raised the white flag and conceded the election. Obenshain`s lawyer had previously raised the possibility that he might press on even after the recount, but that was before the recount began, quintupling his deficit in the race. We don`t have the final numbers to report yet like we said, that recount is still ongoing. But because it moved the results so dramatically and so lopsidedly in the Democrat candidate`s favor, the Republican candidate is now admitting defeat. So, we get to dust off that election night music one last time for 2013 and we get to tell that Mark Herring is the projected race in the race for attorney general of Virginia. And now I know, you may be thinking, the attorney general race in Virginia, two candidates people may not have heard of, a lower tier race in just one state. Really is not that big of deal, is it? Except maybe for die hard political junkies. Well, not so fast because this one is big, it means a lot. For one thing, it gives Democrats in Virginia control of all the state-wide elected offices there for the first time since 1969. Both of Virginia`s U.S. senators are Democrats. And now comes January, the Virginia attorney general, the Virginia lieutenant governor and the Virginia governor will also be Democrats. This has not happened for 44 years. And this was in a state that was basically just a Republican bastion, just a generation ago -- a state that is now the premiere swing state in America. The Democrats just locked down a monopoly in the elected offices. This is also a case of Democrats defying history. You have to go back all the way to 1973, 40 years ago, to find the last time before now that Virginia has picked a governor from the party that occupies the White House. That`s why, at the start of this year, conventional wisdom said that Republican Ken Cuccinelli was going to win the governor`s race. All of that history said it will be a Republican year in Virginia. And then, Democrats chose a very unpopular candidate, Terry McAuliffe, as their nominee. But now that is Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe. There is really not a modern precedent for what`s happened in Virginia, calling into question the basic assumptions in politics in this era. Back in 2008, when Barack Obama became the first to win Virginia since LBJ in `64, he did it by assembling an ascendant overlapping, intertwined coalition. He won with liberal professionals and black voters, city dwellers, Latinos, college students, union workers. That coalition, that Obama coalition carried him in Virginia and it carried him across the nation. It was a new day in politics, we said, a new day of that new Obama coalition. But then, the very next year, that coalition vanished. The generation that helped to sweep Barack Obama into power did not show up in the 2009 election, instead, Virginia gave the Republicans a clean statewide sweep. The governor, the attorney general, all of them elected in 2009, all of them Republicans just a year after Obama carried the state. And in 2010, the same thing happened again. This time, the national red tide washed over Virginia. The Republicans came to the 2010 mid-terms with five of Virginia`s 11 congressional seats. They emerged with eight of them. Democratic voters, that Obama coalition did not show up. It crashed again in 2010. This didn`t happen just in Virginia either. But it became a truism in politics, that the Obama coalition, all those young voters, those non-white voters, inspired to turn out for the first time ever in many cases. Those voters would show up when Obama was on the ballot. They`d be there for him in 2008, they`d be there for him in 2012. But take Obama off the ballot and they disappear. That`s why going into the election this year in Virginia, all the conventional wisdom the Democrats had, at the top of the ticket, a horrible terrible candidate in Terry McAuliffe, they were running with control of the White House. So, that says they should never win in Virginia. And President Obama was not going to be on the ballot. So the Obama coalition was not going to show up. So, of course, Ken Cuccinelli was going to be the governor, no matter how extreme his position. And, of course, Republicans were just going to sweep all those other offices in Virginia. That`s what the political world expected. That was supposed to be the story of American politics in this age. But now, here we are at the end of the year, bringing you the news tonight that Democrats have officially swept Virginia, that the Obama coalition did show up, even without Obama on the ballot. Those voters showed up and produced this crazy, never saw it coming, Democratic sweep of the old dominion. African-American voters turned in large numbers in this election in Virginia. African-American women in particular. Their votes deny the socially conservative Republican slate to victory that just by the odds was supposed to be theirs. The conventional wisdom said the Obama coalition was not going to show up but it did. And as of today, we know that they have chosen to put a Democrat in every single statewide office, partly that happened because Virginia itself is changing. It`s changing enough that Democrats now have a change even in off-off years. But if Virginia is a bellwether state, and it is, definitely, absolutely a bellwether state, and this can`t be happy holiday news for Republicans because the question has been whether Democrats could win big, could win at all without Barack Obama on the ballot. And that means 2014, that means 2016, that means every election going forward, because Barack Obama is not going to be on the ballot again. Could Democrats win without Barack Obama? That was the question at the start of this year. And the answer to that may now be: go ask Virginia. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: Remember when President Obama picked former Utah Republican Governor Jon Huntsman to be his ambassador to China? Governor Huntsman was widely regarded as a good choice -- smart, experience, fluent in the language. Also, Jon Huntsman was widely regarded as a potential threat to President Obama`s reelection. That is what is known as a win-win for the president. Today, we have a new pick to be ambassador to China, and maybe, just maybe, other of the president`s well calculated attempts to win twice. Stay tuned. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: So, I`m known around this building for a few things, one, obviously is my incredible sense of fashion. That is a joke. I still need help tying ties. Another thing I`m known for is how I easily I get lost. I told the story a bunch of times in first day here, I got off the subway, I ran up the stairs ,I was all excited, I took a few turns, came out on the street and found myself looking straight at that, the FOX News Channel. I get lost trying to get to this building. I get lost trying to get around this building. It is just part of my reputation, I guess. The other thing I am known for in this part, though, is how do I put this -- my very obsessive, maybe unhealthy interest in the bizarre political world of one state, New Jersey. And yes, for the past few weeks, there has been an utterly bizarre, utterly fascinating, totally, completely, thoroughly Jersey story playing out. And it`s also a national story. It`s a threat to Chris Christie`s image. It`s a story where every revelation seems to raise ten new questions. I know you have heard about it. How those lanes on the George Washington Bridge were mysteriously ordered closed a few months ago. How the closure utterly paralyzed the town whose Democratic mayor hadn`t endorsed Christie`s reelection campaign. How the closures were the idea of Christie appointee. How Democrats say it was all a plot to punish that Democratic mayor for not playing ball. How two Christie appointees have now resigned. How they and others were probably be under oath soon. How there is more, maybe a lot more that we`re still going to learn more about this, and how the million dollar question -- was this a political payback plot that Chris Christie himself had any knowledge of, how that question hung over it. Rachel has talked about it on this show, so is Chris Hayes, so have a lot of my other colleagues here -- maybe all of them at this point, all of them except me. The one guy more than anyone else here at MSNBC who should be talking about this incredible, only in New Jersey story. Well, we`re going to talk about it today. But there is a reason I waited this long, I need to explain it first. Basically, I need to provide you with some disclosure here and this is not going to be your run-of-the-mill disclosure statement. The one of the guys who was at the heart of all of this, the guy who ordered the lanes closed, the guy who Democrats say was trying to punish the mayor who did not support Chris Christie -- well, I know that guy. His name is David Wildstein and he`s played a pretty big role in my professional life. I used to work for him. He gave me my first big break. You could say I owe my career to him. I`m going to explain this to you. It was the summer of 2002. I just graduated from college. I`ve gone to L.A. with some friends. I failed miserably. And I was back in Massachusetts. I wanted to get into political journalism. I was also broke. I also had no leads. I used the cliche about how the rejection letters were piling up, but I wasn`t even getting rejection letters to every news outlet I reached out to, I just didn`t exist. And then, one day, when I was close to giving up, I saw a listing for a site in New Hampshire, to cover the primary up there in 2004. There were a million political news sites out there. But remember, this was 2002, the idea was exotic. The listing came with an AOL address, I was curious, I was excited, I was desperate. I wrote a long e-mail and poured out my heart, pretty much, explaining how interested I was in politics, how badly I wanted to write about it for a career. How much this opportunity would mean to me. The ad was vague. I didn`t know who was on the other end of the e- mail. The response came a few days later, the New Hampshire job was filled. But they had another site. It was their main site, it was in New Jersey. There was an opening there. They asked if I was interested. Well, I was a Massachusetts kid and knew nothing about Jersey, but you bet I was interested. The email was signed by someone named Wally Edge (ph). Which sounded like a funny name, and it turned out there was a reason for that. The site, it was called politicsnj.com was an anonymously owned Web site. Wally Edge was the owner`s pseudonym. He`d taken it from a former New Jersey governor from a long time ago named Walter Edge. The site was about two years old back then. It had really taken off in political circles. The guy who ran it had great sources, unmatched institutional knowledge. The newspapers were barely playing the online game back then. He was way ahead of them. And now, he wanted to go mainstream. He wanted a real reporter, someone with a real name to put on the site to do real reporting, to be accountable in real life. I had my interview with Wally online. It`s something I`m always going to remember. I was staying with my aunt and uncle. My little cousin helped me set up AOL instant messenger, so I could talk to this mysterious guy. He quizzed about politics, and I guess I did well enough because he offered me the job. It paid almost nothing, there were no benefits, and I didn`t hesitate to say yes. And something I never regretted. For the next three years, I lived and breathed New Jersey politics. I lived and breathed New Jersey and loved it. I didn`t cover it out of the statehouse like most reporters. I covered the county bosses, I covered the turf wars, I covered the machine battles, that`s where the real action was. That`s what the real action. It`s for the real decisions that matter were made. Every state is unique, but they don`t play politics anywhere else the way they do in Jersey. I never went to grad school but I like to tell people I got a master`s degree in practical politics in those three years. When I started that job, Wally helped to tell who people were. He helped fill in back stories. He suggested angles to pursue, all on instant messenger, of course. Mostly he gave me autonomy, I knew what I needed to cover, I learned how I wanted to cover it and I did it and he didn`t interfere. And basically it worked. I learned a ton. I made more than my share of mistakes but I did a lot of work I`m proud of, too. We got the credibility that Wally wanted when he hired me. I even ended up co-hosting a show on New Jersey politics. There you see a clip of it, like from 2004 or something. When I started, Wally offered to share his real identity with me, but I refused. I figured that everyone was going to be asking me who Wally Edge was and I wanted to be able to honestly tell people I had no idea. It was only when I was leaving that site after three years, I finally gave in. So, we met at a steakhouse in north Jersey. Actually, it`s a steakhouse that`s not far from the George Washington Bridge. And he introduced himself. I always figured he was an older guy, I thought he was a retired reporter maybe in his 70s. That was my guess, everyone I talked to before that had guess, too, there were all sorts of theories on who Wally Edge was. But when he introduced himself to me in person that was the first time I had ever heard the name David Wildstein. I had no idea who he was. He was in his mid-40s. He`s a life long political junky. He`d even been a mayor of the town in New Jersey, in Livingston. It`s Chris Christie`s hometown. He`d been a major there in his 20s. We had dinner. It was nice. We shook hands, soon off I was off to my next job at "Roll Call" down in Washington. That was in 2005, eight years ago. I went on to D.C., I went to a few other places. I finally landed here. Wally ended up selling the site, and going back into politics, taking that job with the Port Authority, the job where he gave the order to close those bridge lanes. We stayed in touch periodically in all those years. When I got hired here at MSNBC, I sent him a note. I told him I`d never forget he took a chance on me when no one else would, the job that`s been an incredible opportunity and I`d always appreciated it. That`s exactly how I will always feel, that`s exactly I will always feel. This is why I have been torn as this story exploded. It`s an incredible story, a riveting story, a story I`m just as anxious to explore, to ask questions about, to get answers about. But before I can get answers, I need to first get everything you just heard off my chest. I haven`t spoken with David Wildstein about this story, and I have read and seen everything you`ve read and seen about what he did and what the implications of his action could be. It`s been weird to see somebody I know in the middle of something like this, but as they say in New Jersey, it is what it is. So, I wanted to honor the fact this guy played an important role in my life, and how I got to where I am today, that`s never going to change. But this is also a big story, and now, I want to talk about it. OK. So, the story has hit the 100-day mark like round numbers in this news biz, it`s been 100 days without an explanation for the bridge shut that caused that massive traffic jam. But it was yesterday when this mess really hit its mark. Yesterday, the press coverage o the story went national. And so did the investigation, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation launched a federal investigation into the bridge controversy. And the Department of Transportation launched their own, with several local investigations on their way, the principal officials who have already resigned have retained legal representation, which to be fair make sense considering the subpoenas asked that they give their testimony under oath. With the assistance of their lawyers, the witnesses have been given an extension until next Monday to answer the state subpoenas. Meanwhile, the local press is not letting up. New Jersey`s largest newspaper "The Star Ledger" editorializing today that quote, "These guys knew they were up to no good. There is no other reason they would have tried to hide it." Even though this is my first chance to talk about it, the story is already huge with big political consequences. To discuss it further, we have joining us now Nick Acocella. He`s the editor and publisher of Politifax New Jersey. It`s a weekly insider news report on New Jersey politics. Further, full disclosure, Nick, I used to live in Hoboken. You were my neighbor there, fully got it off my chest. I want to talk to you more than anything else to talk to you about this tonight because you know New Jersey and the players and the personalities in this better than anyone. And I`ll start with -- I think people know the basics here. The question everybody is asking as they look at this, lane closures, a mayor who wouldn`t endorse Chris Christie`s re-election, a nightmare traffic in this mayor`s town, a nightmare for this mayor -- is there any reason to suspect that this is something that Chris Christie was aware of it? NICK ACOCELLA, POLITIFAX NEW JERSEY: I have seen no evidence for it. And nobody has seen evidence of it. There has been a lot of speculation. My guess is that he didn`t, because you can say a lot of things about Chris Christie, and they probably have all been said. But he is not stupid. And this was really stupid, this was (INAUDIBLE). I mean, this was two guys trying to figure out how they would retaliate for what, we don`t know, because we don`t know what Mayor Sokolich did. I mean, did he once promise to endorse Christie and then renege? Or did they just not -- (CROSSTALK) KORNACKI: This is the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey. ACOCELLA: We don`t know. We don`t know. KORNACKI: And that is one thing I think, is there any indication that the mayor of Fort Lee is going to be subpoenaed and is going to testify? (CROSSTALK) ACOCELLA: While it was happening, he wrote a letter to Bill Baroni, who was Wildstein`s senior -- KORNACKI: This is the other Christie appointee -- v ACOCELLA: Appointee at the Port Authority and he wrote a letter saying this is nothing but retaliation. And then he later recanted that letter. But nobody specified what they were retaliating against. And I`ve seen no indications that the assembly transportation committee is going to call them. We`ll see what the national transportation -- federal transportation committee is going to do. I don`t know. I`m very curious about what his role in this was. KORNACKI: And when you say that you don`t suspect, you suspect that Christie was not aware of it and it was something cooked up by Wildstein and by Baroni, I think the question this raises, giving the grief this caused Chris Christie right now, when you look at Chris Christie`s reaction to this, he is not out there throwing him under the bus, he is basically taking their side in this. If he didn`t know about it and it is causing him that much grief, tell me what it is about Chris Christie that can do this. ACOCELLA: I watched Chris Christie perform before he was U.S. attorney and launched his career. I first met him when he was -- he couldn`t get elected freeholder in Morris County. He doesn`t throw people under the bus who are his friends. He`ll run you over and back up over you if you`re his enemy, but he will not -- but he doesn`t throw his loyalists under the bus. You know, wait for this to play out. What is he going to say? He can`t say they were rogue operators, which I suspect they were. He is going to let it play out. KORNACKI: So what do you suspect will happen? We talked about how each of these two appointees, my former boss, and Bill Baroni, have lawyers now. There are subpoenas for them to testify under oath. I don`t know who else is going to be called to testify under oath. Do you expect in the next few weeks when this testimony takes place, we are going to learn a lot more about it? ACOCELLA: We`re going to learn a lot more when we have the whole story. I`m not really sure. You know what testimony is like. People dance around things. They take the narrowest path to answering questions. I mean, Ed Foye, the executive director of the -- KORNACKI: This is the guy from the New York side. ACOCELLA: The New York side, he`s appointed by Governor Cuomo, he has hinted there may be a criminal act to do what they did. If that is the case they have to be very careful. I don`t know, I`m not a lawyer, I`m not going to judge that. But it was dangerous, it was dumb. And if it was criminal, boy, they have big problems on their hands. KORNACKI: All right. Nick Acocella, from Politifax New Jersey -- thanks for making the trip across -- did you take the George Washington Bridge? ACOCELLA: No, you can`t take George Washington Bridge, there is a big gate across, the George Washington Gate Bridge. KORNACKI: There it is, the oldest suffix in American politics. ACOCELLA: Right. (CROSSTALK) KORNACKI: There are high stakes and American politics involved with President Obama`s pick to be ambassador to China. We`re going to get to them, stay tuned. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: This is Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana. He has held his seat since 1978. He announced last year that he is finished with the Senate and he`s not going to be running for re-election in 2014. Max Baucus has long been a more conservative thorn in the liberal side of the Democratic Caucus, but he is a Democrat, nonetheless, having control of that chamber. So, to observers to grand political chess board that is the Senate math of the United States, Baucus` retirement has been considered a huge opportunity for Republicans to pick up a seat on the way towards regaining control of Congress`s upper chamber. Republicans are going to need a net gain of six seats if they`re going to take back the Senate next year, and Montana is one of seven states that went from Mitt Romney in 2012 election but that also have a Democratic senator whose seat is up in 2014. To illustrate why Baucus` retirement was such a boost to Republicans, just look at this poll from last month. The leading Republican candidate for the open seat was ahead of his two leading Democratic rivals, the current lieutenant governor and former current lieutenant governor by 15 and 17 points. Now, this is still Max Baucus. But as for this afternoon, he is suddenly President Obama`s choice to be the United States ambassador to China. It`s a hugely consequential position. You can recall that former Utah governor and Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman was President Obama`s pick at the beginning of the first term for this job. The selection of Huntsman was widely understood not only as a quality appointment but as a political move, because Huntsman was seen as a potential rival to Obama in 2012, and would have to overcome his service with Obama and the Obama administration with Republican primary voters and that was something when Huntsman ran was never able to do. So, consider this about the pick of Max Baucus for ambassador to China, assuming that he is confirmed for the post and that he leaves the Senate sometime before 2014 elections. His seat in the Senate is going to be filled by the appointment of Montana`s governor. And that governor is a Democrat. His name is Steve Bullock. And the Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is almost certainly going to tap another Democrat to take Baucus` place, which means that the Republican Senate candidate in Montana is not running for an open seat in 2014 instead up against an incumbent. It doesn`t necessarily mean that Democrats are going to hold the Montana Senate seat in 2014, not at all. But it does complicate the Republican`s task there. If Republicans fail to pick up what until this afternoon everyone thought was a gimme for them in Montana, their odds of controlling the Senate go from difficult to plausible to really, really long. Safe to assume that none of this was a mystery off to the Obama administration when they offered Max Baucus his new job. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) KORNACKI: The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, start in exactly 50 days. The Olympic torch leading up to them has already been an extravagant two-month affair. By the time it lights the caldron in Sochi, 14,000 will have carried it on its way. People have carried the flame on foot. They have carried it on horseback. They have carried it on snowmobile, on water, by water. It`s been the longest, most ambitious torch relay ever. But it has not been without some problems. Look at this former Russian bobsledder carrying the flame, the torch drips flames, and his jacket catches on fire. Now, don`t worry, he was not injured there. That`s why we can show it to you. The very same thing happened to two other torch bearers. This is how we learned that there may be a shortage in Russia of non-fire dripping torches. Also, some times the flame never supposed to go out, some times it has gone out. People had to relight it on the fly. Fortunately, there is apparently no shortage of lighters in Russia. Torch relay has been a frustration in Russia. Like any host country they want everything about their Olympics to go seamlessly. More than want, Russia needs everything to go seamlessly because this is a country that could use a dose of good PR right now on the global stage. That need could explain the most recent news out of Russia. Regular RACHEL MADDOW show viewers will remember that end of the summer, this Greenpeace ship was on a mission to oppose oil drilling beneath, in -- the sea above the Arctic Circle -- excuse me -- when this happened. A handful of Greenpeace activists from the ship tried to board the big new Russian oil platform. The Russians responded by turning fire hoses on the protesters, trying to knock them off the rig. And the Russian coast guard arrives. They opened fire. They shot at the protesters. No one was killed or injured. But the Russians held everyone at gun point, and started taking the Greenpeace activists into custody. These are the Russian coast guard officers, in military uniforms, and balaclavas, brandishing guns and also a knife. They all happened at the Russian oil rig. The next day, the Russians boarded the Greenpeace ship. From a helicopter, they rappelled down on to the boat wearing those balaclavas, guns in hand. They arrested all 30 people on the ship. They brought them back to land. They threw them all in jail in Russia and they threatened them with charges of piracy and hooliganism. It`s the charges that could lead to seven to 15 years in Russian prison. After a few weeks, the Russians released the activists on bail. But they were still going to stand trial. They were still looking at serious, hard prison time, until today. At 4:00 p.m. today, when the Russian parliament passed amnesty bill that extend amnesty to those charged with hooliganism, which means that the Greenpeace activists, the Arctic 30 they are called, they will likely be freed. The amnesty bill is also likely to free punk rock protest group Pussy Riot. In 2012, they staged a protest performance against Vladimir Putin. And three members were arrested. They were charged with hooliganism. And two of them have been serving their sentences since then, but maybe not for long after today. This is the kind of gesture a country makes when it knows the world is watching when it wants to make a good impression on the world. To make it so that their worst problems are their torch problems, I mean, that`s the idea of what Russia is trying to do here. Exempt there is another problem that Russia hasn`t addressed. It didn`t address today. It`s a big persistent political problem. The Russian government is radically anti-gay. It`s basically against the law in Russia to be openly gay. President Putin has done nothing to change that in the run-up to the Olympics despite a loud international outcry. And so, enter the Obama administration. Yesterday, the White House announced its delegation to the Sochi Olympics. It does not include the president, does not include the first lady, does not include the vice president or any former president or any real high profile political figure of any sort. It does however include the former secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. Some one who is not even currently in the cabinet or any elected position. It also includes the U.S. ambassador to Russia, a presidential assistant, a deputy secretary of state, a handful of former U.S. Olympians, including two athletes who are openly game. There`s tennis star Billie Jean King, and ice hockey Olympian Caitlin Cahow. We`re not sending any high profile politicians to the games but we are two sending two openly gay athletes. That is the statement that America`s government, that our government, has decided that it wants to make. In a lot of ways, this is a new experience for Russia. This is a proud country at many times in its history has been happy to ignore, to defy, to thumb its nose at conventions of the rest of the world. That can change a little bit when you invite the planet over for a couple weeks. That does it. Rachel is going to be back here tomorrow night. You can see more of me on my show "UP". That`s this weekend on MSNBC, starting 8:00 a.m. Eastern Time. And 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