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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 12/19/13

Guests: Steve Clemons, Thomas Cullen

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thanks for you at home for joining us this hour. It`s good to be back. This is a white elephant. White elephants exist in nature. They`re not just a figure of speech. The important thing about a white elephant is it turns out, it`s a very awkward pet. It`s hard to take care of. It`s expensive. Cleaning up after an elephant of any color is a real responsibility. And legend has it, and this is probably apocryphal, but the story is that in Thailand, the royals would give a white elephant as a gift to people who they did not like. So, it`s like a courtly gesture. Here, I`m giving you this very impressive gift! Look. It`s enormous! This enormous thing. It`s for you! It`s a present. But the effect of the present is to cause you a great burden, because, now, you are sad with taking care of this big, awkward, difficult, expensive thing. So even though for us in the political world here, donkeys and elephants are associated with our two political parties, the white elephant as an idiom has nothing at all to do with Republicans, nothing to do with partisanship of any kind. Same goes for this white elephant. This white elephant is a building larger than a football field. It has elaborate state of the art work spaces for 1,500 people. It has as state of the art briefing theater and a military operations center that includes stadium-style tiered seating. In terms of its overall usable office floor space, it is 10,000 square feet larger than the White House. It costs $36 million to build. It has never been used. And it is here. It is located at Camp Leatherneck in southwestern Afghanistan, about 400 miles southwest of Kabul. There is a U.S. base there now, obviously, right? Afghans don`t name places, things like Camp Leatherneck. So, obviously, there is a base for U.S. marines there now. But this time next year, there will not be that base there. There is no plan to have a long-term presence of U.S. Marines at Camp Leatherneck in southwestern Afghanistan. That base is going to go away. Even if everything gets sorted out with the security deal, and a long-term plan to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan forever and ever and ever. Even if that happens, which seems doubtful to me, but even if they got that agreement, there would still be no plan for there to be a base for U.S. Marines at Camp Leatherneck. The Marines are leaving. They have been winding down there for a very long time now. They have to no plans to stay. But we have just finished building this $36 million football field- sized state of the art U.S. Marines headquarter building at Camp Leatherneck. A two-star Marine general tells "The Washington Post" that this facility at Camp Leatherneck I better appointed than any Marine headquarters, anywhere in the world, including the United States. A two- stammer army general tells "The Post" that the operations center, inside this building, is as big as the one at CENTCOM, in Tampa. The operations center there is as big as the one at the supreme allied command headquarters in Europe. And this headquarters building has never been used and it will never be used. The Marines started saying a long time, like as of 2010, that they did not need this thing and they did not want the thing. Rajiv Chandrasekaran at "The Washington Post" has been reporting on this issue for "The Washington Post." It`s an amazing story and it`s been kind of amazing reporting from him, including him recently getting a senior marine officer to tell him that we don`t need it, we are packing up there. The marine officer called it an enormous white elephant that was built for the marines. Built for the Marine Corps by the Army and nobody can explain why. But we`ve got it. And the Army`s own investigation into why it was built, even though it has never been used and it will never be used, that investigation wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. And the Army looking into its own decision on this thing found that there was nothing wrong with that decision. Even though the Marines who it was supposedly built for didn`t want it, asked for it to not be built, and even though it is now built, say they will not use it, the report, the investigation found, quote, "No omission, dereliction of duty or any other violation of law by anyone involved in the decision to construct the building in the first place and to keep building it, even though the Marines said, no, no, please don`t, we won`t use it. That`s not even the best part. That`s not even the most amazing part. The single most amazing detail in all of this is that as all of it`s been sorting itself out, right this investigation, there was another U.S. official investigation, all the press reporting into this. As it`s all been sorting out, the two-star Army general who denied the marine`s request to cancel the building, the man who told the Marines no, who insisted that the headquarters still be built for the Marines, even though the marines didn`t want it and said they wouldn`t use it, the army general who said, none of that matters, keep build it, carry on, that general has now been promoted from being a two-star general to being a three-star general. And his now job as a three-star general is that he is the top inspector general for the whole U.S. Army in charge of identifying waste, fraud, and abuse. Seems insane, right? It just -- this, too, seems insane. These are photos from the newest report of the independent inspector general in Afghanistan, who looks into waste, fraud, and abuse. These pictures show these big sort of dinosaur- looking infrastructure things, right? They are huge, state of the art incinerators that are designed to have just enormous capacity. Each one of these two machines is supposed to be able to incinerate 40 tons of trash per day, 40 tons per day, and there`s two of them side by side. You want to know what they`re actually doing with their trash at the base where these two incinerators are? Yes, it`s just an open air burn pit. They`re just burning stuff in a hole. This is at a base called Sharana (ph). It`s pretty much due south of Kabul, pretty close to the Pakistani border. And these two 40 tons per day capacity brand-new incinerators, these mega machines were installed at that base earlier this year. They have never, ever, ever been used. Apparently, there was some sort of electrical problem with them at first, which made them dangerous to operate, and then the load area was misconfigured when they were installed, so even though there were these huge machines with all this capacity, there was no way to get any trash fed into the machines, and really no way to even get ash out of them, had they been able to operate and burn up the trash in the first place. So, they exist, they`re very nice looking, as incinerators go, but they do not work and they never have worked. And the contractors who built them were paid in full, while the base kept doing what it had always done, which was burning all of its trash and all of its waste in an open pit. Since the incinerators were installed, U.S. forces have left that base in eastern Afghanistan. They handed it over to the Afghan security forces. According to the special inspector general`s report, those incinerators may have already been deconstructed by the Afghans, presumably for scrap. So, no actual incineration ever happened there. But selling these so- called incinerators for scrap metal was one way that money was made here. And, of course, the Colorado contractor who built the incinerators that were never used, they made money, too. They were paid their full fee of $5 million from those machines, even though no one ever tested to see if the machines work before the contractor got paid. And that happened this year, 2013. We are supposed to be leaving Afghanistan next year. Why are we waiting that long? Six more American service members were killed in Afghanistan this week in a helicopter crash. Is there a material difference between us leaving now and us leaving next year that is worthy of the trade-off of those six lives lost this week? Even if you don`t consider the $36 million headquarters that will never be used at Camp Leatherneck and the $5 million incinerators that were never used until they were broken down for scrap at Sharana, even if you think the only purpose for money is to set it on fire to warm yourself that way, wouldn`t just the human risk of keeping soldiers there in harm`s way be enough to justify at least a debate about why we are still there? The Afghans have debated it. They convened a huge loya jirga in Kabul last month, to debate the wisdom of the continued U.S. troop presence in their country, and how long they want it to last. They`re debating it there. Why shouldn`t we also debate it here? Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon last month proposed just that in an amendment to the big defense bill that congress has to pass every year. His amendment would not have even required, it would have just suggested, it would have expressed a preference that there be a congressional debate some time in the next six months about the length of the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, excuse me, in Afghanistan. And Senator Merkley proposed that as an amendment to the big must-past defense bill. Well, that big, must-pass defense bill is, in fact, passing the United States Senate tonight. But it does not include Jeff Merkley`s amendment about Afghanistan. So, there`s no reason to expect any congressional debate on Afghanistan, even as we head into yet another year of is already the longest war in American history. The defense bill also will not include the aggressive changes to the way the military prosecutes sexual assault among service members, which had been proposed this year. Something a lot of people had both hoped and expected would get done through this legislation. That will not be in the bill either. On the bright side, though, the defense bill passed in the Senate tonight also did not start a new war. Senators tried. Senators tried and threatened and then ultimately failed to attach an amendment to that defense bill that would have imposed new sanctions on Iran. If they had succeeded, that would have blown up the diplomatic channel that we have just opened with Iran over its nuclear program. And you know what? If you close the only promising diplomatic channel that there is with Iran, that makes the use of military force by us or by somebody else about 99 percent more likely. I mean, think about it, if you have an intractable conflict with somebody that just must be resolved, if, for example, Iran were saying, we`re getting a nuclear weapon and we and the rest of the world were saying, no, you aren`t, that this is an issue that has to be resolved one way or the other, right? That is an intractable thing. There`s no compromise on half a bomb, right? It`s either you or me. If you have an intractable conflict with somebody and you agree to settle it by not talking anymore, how else are you going to settle it? But to review, we didn`t get, let`s debate Afghanistan amendment, we didn`t get the anti-sexual assault amendment, and we didn`t get the Iran sanctions let`s start a war amendment. Well, guess which one of those three might get passed anyway? Yes, of course, that`s right. It`s behind door number "let`s have a war". "Foreign Policy" magazine was the first to break the news that a bipartisan group of senators has plans to pass a stand-alone measure, so, not related to the defense bill, a stand-alone measure, to blow up diplomacy with Iran. They`re calling it to Nuclear Weapon-Free Iran Act of 2013, and it is a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran. Now, to be clear, Iran is already under sanctions, and years and years of difficult and increasingly impossible to live under sanctions. That is at least part of what got them to the negotiating table. Where we literally are, right now, today, right now, we are literally at this moment negotiating with Iran at a negotiating table -- talking with them about ending their nuclear program. The talks so far have led to progress. They have stopped enrichment already. It is a six-month experiment. There are daily inspections in Iranian nuclear facilities by international inspectors now, to make sure that they are keeping to their side of the bargain. It is happening already. It is underway. If the U.S. Congress passes more sanctions now or passes more sanctions now that would go into effect in the future at some specific date, or that would have some trigger attached to what we are negotiating with them about already, Iran has already said, explicitly, in no uncertain terms, that if the U.S. Congress did that, that would mean, no more talking. Diplomacy is over. In the very direct words of the Iranian foreign minister, when he was asked what Iran would do if the U.S. Congress passed a new round of sanctions, he answered very directly. He said, quote, "The entire deal then is dead." So this is not a secret. He said this in an interview with "Time" magazine, which isn`t even all that hard to get. If the Congress passes a new sanctions bill right now, diplomatic channels, which are working, will close. And if we`re not going to resolve the issue of Iran`s nuclear program by diplomacy, then how exactly are we going to solve it? The lead senator proposing the new sanctions is Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is a Democrat. And if his bill came to a vote, conventional wisdom has long been that it would pass with flying colors, because obviously every Republican would vote for it, and, all of these Democrats would vote for it, at least. Senator Menendez, Senator Schumer, Senator Cardin, Senator Casey, Senator Coon, Senator Blumenthal, Senator Begich, Senator Pryor, Senator Landrieu, Senator Gillibrand, Senator Warner, Senator Hagan, Senator Donnelly, they`re all co-sponsors, they`re all Democrats. You add those Democrats to the Republicans and you know what? You want to pass that thing, no problem. Conventional wisdom has been that whatever else Republicans and Democrats disagree on, no matter how intractably divided Democrats and Republicans are on partisan lines, on other issues -- when it comes to the war with Iran, well, conventional wisdom has been that not only would the war with Iran bill pass, it might even pass with a veto-proof majority. But a funny thing happened on the way to our next big land war in Asia. A big unexpected group of senators today decided to yank back on the reins. Now, Bob Menendez is not the most famous senator in the country, but Bob Menendez is very, very senior in the Senate and he is very powerful. He is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Here`s the thing, though. There are only 16 standing committees in the U.S. Senate. So, 16 committees, 16 chairs. Senator Menendez is the chair of one the committees. Today, an amazing thing happened. When the chairs of ten other committees wrote to Harry Reid today and told him, no. No, don`t do it. Don`t do what Bob Menendez is asking you to do. Do not call for a vote on this bill. And some of these senators, as you can see, are not exactly Dennis Kucinich, right? These include some real Iran hawks. But these 10 committee chairman, Democratic senators, who chair committees in the Senate, wrote to Reid today saying, do not do it. The sanctions bill is a mistake, and we, 10 of your 16 chairmen, want to be asked about this thing, if you are even thinking about doing anything on this, it`s a really bad move. From the letter, quote, "At this time, when negotiations are ongoing, we believe that the new sanctions would be would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail." And those in Iran? Yes, also those here, too. The White House today said that they don`t believe that these sanctions should be enacted or will be enacted. And if they are right about the will be enacted part of it, if they are right that this is not going to happen, that Bob Menendez is going to fail here, then today, we may have just avoided the start of our next war with the country that forms the oil-rich landmass between one country on its left called Iraq and another country on its right called Afghanistan. Joining us now is Steve Clemens. He`s a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He`s also Washington editor at large for "The Atlantic" magazine. Steve, it`s great to see you. Thanks for being here. STEVE CLEMONS, THE ATLANTIC: Great to be with you, Rachel. MADDOW: So, why do you think we saw this last-second, last thing we`re going to do before Christmas pushed today for a stand-alone new effort at sanctions? CLEMONS: Well, there`s enormous pressure, and it`s primarily from domestic political sources in the United States that see a zero-sum game in the Middle East and are seeing extraordinary pressure on certain senators. Many Republican senators, but, of course, you know, on the Democratic side, as you said, is leading are people like Chuck Schumer, but particularly Robert Menendez, and they want to kill the deal. And I have been told tonight that the president of the United States, Barack Obama, has communicated to these senators that he will veto this if it were to pass, which is new news, and I think very important. I`ve heard from another very senior administration official who is arguing that Bob Menendez, if he gets the way he wants to go, is going to trip us into a war. So, the stakes, as you`ve defined them, are very, very high. And this is not just another crank at the wheel on sanctions. This is a very important historic moment in U.S. diplomatic history, to systemically change the relationship of the United States with another key nation that has been problematic for us for three decades. This is a Nixon goes to China moment. And it would be like the U.S. Senate handicapping and kind of cutting the legs out from underneath Richard Nixon in normalizing China. That`s how big this is. MADDOW: Because of the domestic pressures, and it`s groups like AIPAC leading the way. They`ve been seen as the lead push on this in terms of an outside group, but also other groups as well. In terms of that domestic political pressure, and the way that Democratic senators as well as Republicans are susceptible to it. If Bob Menendez could get Harry Reid to allow a vote on this. And if the senate could vote on it, do you think there`s a chance that it could pass with a veto-proof majority? Could the White House get their bluff called on vetoing it? CLEMONS: I think that`s a possibility, but I think that the White House is demonstrating that it will go to all measures that it can, and the personal involvement of the president, at many levels, to prevent that from happening and to communicate to people how serious that will be, because that will lock us in to a track that will lead to us a hard conflict with Iran. We`re not going to see a leadership in Iran better than we have now, to test possibility of a different course. You know, the White House has basically said, we will impose sanctions within a day if negotiations fail. That this isn`t buying, you know, hook, line, and sinker everything we see in Iran, where we haven`t talked to them for 30 years. But fundamentally, they are saying, if this were not to come together, the administration itself supports new sanctions to try to take Iran forward. So, I think that the issue here is not one of earnestness by many of the senators involved. It`s designed to sabotage what the White House is doing, which is extraordinary. And I think the White House is really demonstrating, and I heard people like the State Department, deputy spokesmen and others today, with almost ferocious, you know, turf protecting on this, and saying, we`re not going to yield an inch. There will not be an inch yielded in this battle, first with Bob Menendez, and they`re not going to lose this historic possibility with Iran. MADDOW: Steve Clemons, senior fellow at the New America Foundation, Washington editor at large for "The Atlantic" magazine -- Steve, thanks for helping us understand this. This is high stakes stuff. I really appreciate you being here. CLEMONS: Thank you, Rachel. MADDOW: I will say that the last point that Steve was making about the timing to me is the big reveal here, right? If you took them on face value of what they`re trying to do, they`re saying, what if Iran cheats with this deal. We`re passing this sanctions bill that says if they cheated, these sanctions would go into effect. You know what, if they cheated, they could then pass a sanctions bill then. There`s not -- they`d get 100 votes in the U.S. Senate for it if they wanted to do it then. By doing it now, the only point is to stop diplomacy and make it more likely we`re going to war with Iran. It`s the only reason to do this. A vote for this thing is a vote to go to war with Iran. That`s why they`re going to lose the fight. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Will Bob McDonnell be the first-ever Virginia governor to be criminally indicted while still in office? Today, we got an answer to that question, and it turns out it`s a fascinating answer. That story is ahead. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: It is surely less a Christmas thing than it is a here come the Olympics and I don`t want protests thing, but Russian President Vladimir Putin today went further down the road of high-profile pardons and amnesty for Russia`s most famous political prisoners. Yesterday, we got the unexpected news about the Arctic 30, the Greenpeace 30 protesters who were arrested for protesting Russian oil drilling at the Arctic. They were held for months. They were threatened with up to 15 years in prison. They will now not have to face trial. They are free and clear under an amnesty. Then came news at the members of the feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, would also be released. They`ve been in jail since last year, as punishment for this protest inside a Russian church. Then today, in his annual news conference, he gives just one a year, Mr. Putin today announced that he will also finally free from prison a man who was once seen as his chief political antagonist. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was an oil billionaire. He was the richest man in Russia. When Vladimir Putin had him arrested in 2003. But charges were about fraud and tax evasion, but the arrest was widely understood to be Vladimir Putin`s patented means of ridding himself of a political problem. Khodorkovsky was a vocal critic of Putin. He was very vocal about what he was official corruption in Russia. He questioned state policies. He funded opposition parties. And so, got to go. Got to go. Got to go away for more than ten years. But now, he will be freed. And that news comes on the same day as our own president released a very different list of pardons and commutations. President Obama has been really reluctant to use the pardon power that every president has. Mark Knoller from CBS today tweeted a good list of the other numbers of pardons that other presidents have had, compared with President Obama. Even if you exclude the presidents who were only one-termers like Poppy Bush, or, say, FDR, who served a million terms, even if you only compare President Obama to other two-term presidents, he`s way behind in terms of the pace of him pardoning people. He has pardoned very, very few people. But that pace picked up a little bit today, with the announcement of 13 pardons for people who completed their sentences a long time ago. The president today also took the very, very rare step of commuting the sentences of eight other people who are in prison right now. He ended their prison sentences earlier, because of the president`s decision today, they will be getting out. Most of them will be getting out 120 days from now, in mid-April. In the case of the commuted sentences, every single one of those prisoners who is now going to be freed was jailed on charges related to crack cocaine. Congress and the administration changed federal law in 2011, so crack would no longer have these hugely disproportionate penalties when compared to other drugs, including other forms of cocaine. That change in 2011 meant that those disparities and sentencing would stop for new drug cases going forward. But it left in place the old sentences, the existing prison sentences that had been handed down under the old guidelines. And those, of course, apply to thousands of people. Well, today, our normally pardon-shy president fixed that problem for eight specific people, in a gesture that is hugely consequential for those eight specific people and their families, but at this point, it`s basically just a symbolic gesture for the thousands of other people who are trapped in their same situation. The president explained today in a statement that he feels the eight people who he ordered freed from prison were, quote, "sentenced under an unfair system." But then he said this. Quote, "Three years ago, I signed the Bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, which dramatically narrowed the disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine offenses. This law begins to right a decades-old injustice. But for thousands of inmates, it came too late. If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayers` dollars each year." There are more than 8,000 prisoners in the same boat as the eight people who are ordered freed today by President Obama today, people who would not still be in jail if the laws when they were sentenced as they are now. Now, President Obama could conceivably free every single one of those 8,100 people the way he freed those eight people today, or more reasonably, Congress could pass pending bipartisan legislation that would make the law apply retroactively in a systemic way to crack and powder cocaine sentences. That would make manifest in real people`s lives the change that Congress voted for in a bipartisan way back in 2011. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: In political terms, one of the things that`s happening this holiday season that Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell`s term in office is coming to a close. He has spent his final month in office being fairly festive. He put out a proclamation that the month of December is Christmas Tree Month! That`s smart. He attended a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Tada! He unveiled a, oh, what`s that? A portrait of me? You shouldn`t have! All in the line of duty for governor ultrasound. None of these things, though, have distracted anybody from the big legal storm cloud that has overshadowed his final year as governor. It turns out, though, that the legal gods just recently have presented one very, very special Christmas gift to governor ultrasound -- a very special present, almost a festive present. Stay tuned. This story is next and it is mind-blowing. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: So looks like Bob McDonnell is not going to become the first sitting governor in Virginia history to be criminally indicted while in office. And that is because it looks like Bob McDonnell is going to be criminally indicted probably as soon as he leaves office. In a bombshell report on the front page of "The Washington Post" today, Rosalind Helderman, Carol Leonnig and Sari Horwitz reports that the U.S. attorney in Virginia had planned to ask a federal grand jury to indict Governor McDonnell on Monday of this week. But the governor`s attorneys wasn`t to Washington, they went directly to the federal Justice Department, to essentially appeal the case, and asked for Bob McDonnell`s indictment to wait. After all, he`s only in office until January 11th. Can`t this indictment wait until after then? Apparently, according to "The Washington Post," the answer was, yes! And so now the expected criminal indictment that Bob McDonnell was told was coming this past Monday is on hold, until at least January, maybe February, at which point he will no long run be governor and he will thus avoid a one-man entry in the Virginia history books as that state`s first indicted serving governor. For basically his whole last year in office, Governor McDonnell has been dealing with this scandal. First ignoring it, then trying to laugh it off, then eventually apologizing for it, and then saying he hoped it would be over soon. The accusations center around the governor and his family taking a really quite impressive pile of cash and prizes from a wealthy Virginia businessman, a businessman whose company, the governor and his wife, had a financial stake in. The governor is alleged to have promised and provided special treatment to that businessman in exchange for a whole lot of really nice stuff, more than $165,000 in loans and gifts, a lakefront home vacation, thousands of dollars of trips on a private jet, Bob McDonnell got to drive the CEO`s white Ferrari. Bob McDonnell got a gold Rolex engrave "71st governor of Virginia." There was a New York City shopping spree, including a $10,000 Oscar Dela Renta suede jacket, a Louis Vuitton handbag, two pairs of designer shoes and a nice designer dress for the first lady. There was a $10,000 catered chicken dinner for the governor`s daughter`s wedding; $7,000 worth of golf equipment and golf games for the governor and the boys. And lots, lots more, including multiple five-figure checks, made out to various McDonnell`s, under various auspices, all from the same businessman. All in all, we know of at least $165,000 in cash and prices that the governor and his family took from this one wealthy Virginia businessman, just during the one term that Bob McDonnell has been governor. For months, federal prosecutors have been looking into whether Governor McDonnell took official action or implied that he might take official action to benefit the company in exchange for all that stuff. And for the entirety of that months-long investigation into that lucrative friendship between governor give me a Rolex and the man who gave him a Rolex, Bob McDonnell has maintained that he did not give any preferential treatment to the company and that the pile of loot that he received was essentially just a pile of gifts from a friend who he`s not friends with anymore. That said, Governor McDonnell`s wife did travel around the state and the country, touting the company`s products. Governor McDonnell and his wife hosted a product launch event for the company at the governor`s mansion. They also arranged meetings for their businessman donor friend, with top state health officials, so he could lobby for research funds from the state. And then the governor collected his Rolex. We have known for much of the year that federal prosecutors were looking into the governor and the first lady`s actions, but the big unknown has been when the decision was going to be made. When word was going to come down about whether prosecutors intended to file federal charges in the case. The first reporting was that a decision would be made some time in early September, just a few weeks before the Virginia elections, where voters were going to pick a successor to Bob McDonnell. When that September date passed, a new round of reporting suggested that charges would be filed some time between the election and Thanksgiving. And then Thanksgiving went and passed with no word. For weeks now, there`s been practically no information about when prosecutors would make their Bob McDonnell decision. But then late last night, "Washington Post," in probe of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, prosecutors agreed to delay decision on charges. The Justice Department apparently overturning the U.S. attorney`s decision that he wanted to charge him this week, but apparently they did not overturn the decision to charge him at all. Now, the Justice Department is not commenting on "The Washington Post`s" reporting and the Justice Department would not make someone available to talk with us tonight about this case. But it is thought to be unusual for the Justice Department to overrule a U.S. attorney like this. And if they are delaying the indictment out of deference to Governor Bob McDonnell`s standing as a public official, why is that? The alleged crimes here, violations of the Hobbs Act, the alleged crimes here, they are public official corruption crimes. Of all the crimes, wouldn`t that be the kind of crime where you would not defer to the guy`s stature as a public official? Isn`t the whole point that he has abused the office? Why keep him in it if that`s what he`s done to it? Joining us now is Thomas Cullen. He`s a former federal prosecutor in Virginia. He`s now a partner with the law firm of Woods Rogers. Mr. Cullen, thanks very much for being here to help understand what`s going on here. THOMAS CULLEN, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Thanks for having me, Rachel. MADDOW: Let me just ask first if I explained there in a way that makes sense. Did I get anything wrong or fuzzy there about the legal case? CULLEN: No, I think you covered all your bases. I think it`s important to remember that these allegation and most of the information that`s out there comes from "The Washington Post." They`ve been out front on this story and done a remarkable job. But, again, these are allegations, the department hasn`t had the opportunity to speak and certainly Governor McDonnell, who`s presumed innocent, hasn`t had that opportunity either. So, we need to be careful when we talk about these things. But, you know, one thing I think is important, Rachel, is that this process, essentially, Governor McDonnell`s attorneys going to main justice, to the DAG`s office, the deputy attorney general, James Cole, asking for an audience, and ultimately prevailing upon them to hold off on filing charges for a certain period of time -- if that, indeed, is the case, is not all that unusual. In public corruption investigations like is one, attorneys for the targets, particularly sitting governors, have the right to petition the deputy attorney general, the assistant attorney general, the criminal division, for an audience, to talk about the charges. If what "The Post" wrote today is true, and I have no reason to doubt that, it appears that John Brownlee, a former U.S. attorney, a very good attorney, Governor McDonnell`s lead attorney, was able to make a pretty persuasive argument that to indict the governor now, just three weeks before the gubernatorial transition, would be hugely disruptive to that process. Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe just this week is announcing cabinet appointments. And on Monday, interestingly, the day that "The Post" said the U.S. attorney, the acting U.S. attorney, informed the governor`s attorneys that he was going to be indicted, that was the day the governor presented his budget to the general assembly. So I think for all those reasons, the department was receptive to the argument, you can wait a little while if you`re going to do this, buy some time, and let`s continue a dialogue about potentially how to resolve this case without an indictment. MADDOW: In the -- if the argument is that it would be disruptive for the political process in Virginia, the other side of that is the argument for why you would ever bring charges in a case like this in the first place, right? I mean, the federal government intervenes in a case like this. It`s a federal charge, in order to essentially ensure the integrity of public office, so that people are punished and incidentally, humiliated and ruined when they abuse their office in such a way that causes them to violate the Hobbs Act and potentially go to prison. So, if the idea is to deter, the reason you prosecute these things to deter other public officials from doing it, wouldn`t -- isn`t that a good counterargument against the threat of disruption to the political process? CULLEN: Rachel, certainly that`s a good argument. It`s one argument. I think the flip side here, and a good comparison would be the case in Illinois several years ago, with a sitting governor, Rod Blagojevich, was investigated by the U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald in Chicago. And what that case centered on was Governor Blagojevich actively, essentially selling a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. That corruption was ongoing, real time, 24/7. Whereas in this case, again, these are allegations, but if they`re true, the corruption that could have occurred ended almost a year ago. So, from a prosecutor`s perspective, they`re no worse off waiting two, three weeks, maybe a month, and filing charges and the public interest is protected. MADDOW: I understand the argument. I totally disagree with it. I think the public interest in this case is about nailing people for public corruption and it helps if you ruin their career in the process. But, apparently, they`ve made their decision. We`ll see if "Washington Post" reporting has been borne out. But this far, they`ve been Johnny on the spot on this case. It`s fascinating stuff. Thomas Cullen, former federal prosecutor in Virginia, it`s really helpful to have you here. Thank you very much. CULLEN: Thank you, Rachel. Happy holidays. MADDOW: Thanks. You too. All right. Just ahead, the miraculous power of stealth altruism. It is the best new thing in the world and it`s really good tonight. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Today`s the 19th of December. We`re less than a week out from Christmas, and usually that would mean that the news cycle had basically ground to a halt, especially the politics news cycle. But not today, because today the senate has decided to stay up all night, again! Or rather, the Republicans in the Senate have decided that the Democrats should stay up all night again. Republicans announced today that they`re letting almost all of their members go home. But if the Democrats want to, say, pass a defense bill, pass any of their nominees, do any of the other things they say they want to do before Christmas, well, then, the Democrats can stay in Washington alone and they can try to get those things done with no Republicans there. The plan, at least according to reporting from "The Hill" newspaper tonight, is to have the defense bill vote by 11:15 p.m., and then to stay overnight until 4:00 a.m. tomorrow to vote on a homeland security deputy secretary nominee. Then, they`ll stay through until 9:00 a.m. to vote on the new IRS commissioner. Then, at 11:00 a.m., they`ll have a vote on a new judge. Stay straight through until 6:00 p.m. Saturday in order to vote for Janet Yellen to be the chair of the Fed. All of the votes, all of the nominees will pass. The votes are there for all of them, and everybody on both sides knows it. Because of it they could take all the votes in a matter of minutes, and then everybody could go home all at once. But Republicans are insisting that only they will go home and they will refuse to waive any of the waiting time so the Democrats will have to stay to get this stuff done. Republicans are trying really hard to annoy the Democrats as hard as they can with this maneuver. So far, though, the Democrats seem to be taking it in stride. One Democratic senator, leaving a meeting room just off the Senate floor today told "The Hill", quote, "We had a go team meeting." And then they scheduled all the votes. All of which they will win. Mitch McConnell`s approach here is basically governing by neener- neener. But while he is trying to make life as miserable as possible for his colleagues, it is hard to overstate the importance of the fact that on the substance, on every single one of these matters of policy and personnel, Mitch McConnell and the Republicans are losing. They`re losing every single fight now. Mitch McConnell knows to be obnoxious and annoy people and hurt their family lives, but he does not know how to outmaneuver the Democrats on policy, on anything, at least so far. Watch the space. They`re going to be up all night again tonight. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: OK. Best new thing in the world today. It starts like bad news, I will admit. It ends great. In April, there was a hugely controversial auction in Paris. The auction house acquired and was selling 70 items, 70 artifacts that one time belonged to the Hopi people. The Hopi are the Native American tribe who live in the northeast part of Arizona, thought to be one of the oldest cultures in what is now the United States. Hopi villages date back to 16th century. The Hopi were staunchly against the sale of their tribal artifacts at this auction, not just because they their property taken from them but because these particular objects to them are sacred. Center pieces of the Hopi religion. These items were mask-like objects that the Hopi believe are imbued with spirits. Their whole religion revolves around the physical objects which they regard as living things. The idea of their being sold was just intolerable to them. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NORMAN HOHAMIE, HOPI TRIBAL COUNCIL: The feeling is numbness. Why could somebody not really look at this whole picture and understand what they`re doing. And it is something I thought in my lifetime I would never see. REPORTER: The religious objects are so special that tribal leaders asked us not to show them. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And in order to understand that, you have to be Hopi. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: What the reporter says there about how she was asked not to show the objects. That is a direct plea from the tribe to the media. Please do not show these utterly venerated religious objects to the world. Ask people to refrain from showing images of them as a measure of respect shown to us and our religion as would be shown to any other religion. And so, we will shot show any pictures of the objects here tonight. But back in April, that Paris auction house ignored all the pleas and appropriate tests and diplomatic maneuvers by the United States to try stop the sale and return these objects to the Hopi people. That auction house just went ahead and sold 70 sacred items to who knows who, from who knows where? They made a tidy profit, big enough for other auction houses to take notice. And so, just last week, it looked like it was all going to happen again. Another French auction house had gotten its hands on 24 more of these sacred mask-like objects. They were planning on auctioning them off. Hopi took the auction house to court, trying to block the sale. They fought it hard as they could. But on December 6th, they lost. A judge ruled against them saying there was nothing in French law that could stop the sale of the artifacts. And so, the auction was set for December 9th. On December 9th, the auction began. And as auctions go it went well. Turns out an anonymous bidder had wired money ahead of time and was validated as legitimate bidder, and that bidder, bidding by phone, winning item after item, after item. The owner of the auction house reportedly expressed some annoyance that this one bidder was winning so many of the artifacts. They want to cultivate a collector class, right? The auction house reportedly said, "Leave some for the others." Meanwhile, members of the Hopi tribe were watching the auction on line, heartbroken after losing their battle in court. The best hope was that the items would not sell. That would at least leave them some other opportunity some day to try to get them back. But that bidder on the phone kept buying up item after item after item always being the highest bidder. The cultural director for the Hopi told "The New York Times" when he turned out his lights at 2:00 a.m., he felt he was saying good-bye to the spirits embodied in the headdresses. But when he turned on his lights the next day, the news was very different, because it turns out the anonymous bidder who was gobbling up the pieces at the auction, who had successfully bid on 21 of 24 sacred artifacts on the block turns out to be a U.S. based philanthropic group called the Annenberg Foundation, which was working in concert with a lawyer for the Hopi people and U.S. embassy, and it was a secret spy operation basically. They secretly purchased almost every single one of the sacred items as many as they could win at auction for the sole purpose of returning the objects to the Hopi people. They never had any intention of keeping them. But they thought it had to be secret, because if anybody got wind they were in high demand and one organization was trying to buy the whole collection, that would have driven up the prices. So they kept their plan under wraps. They did not tell the tribe about it. And they pulled it off. The foundation had never done anything like that before. But it worked. The Annenberg Foundation succeeded in rescuing 21 of 24 sacred objects. They spent more than $500,000 of the foundation`s money to do it. Of the three that they did not get, turns out that one of the three was bought by somebody else who had planned to give it back to the tribe. So, yes, the Hopi tribe did lose two of the 24 of these religious beings that they stood to lose, these objects they believe are spiritual objects and living things. They lost two. But they seem very, very thrilled to have 22 of them saved much to their surprise. Cloak and dagger, super top secret altruism, that is the best new thing in the world. Now, it`s time for the Lawrence O`Donnell show -- "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL". Sorry. Have a great night. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END