The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 12/17/14

Guests: David Sanger, Alan Gomez

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: From the Peruvian Amazon, that was awesome. Well done, Ari. Thanks, man. ARI MELBER, THE CYCLE: Thank you. MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. If you`re a civil servant, if you have a white collar job working for the federal government, this is what you get paid. It`s a little chart they update every January. It shows you what you get paid. It`s the civil service pay scale. And it shows, like in this matrix form basically, how your pay goes up as you move from lower ranking jobs to higher ranking jobs and as you gain more and more experience within each rank. So the lowest rank, the lowest grade for a civil service employee is a grade 1. They call it GS-1. GS stands for general schedule, I think, because this is such a basic part of what it means to work for the government. This is a general schedule. Anyway, a GS-1 is the lowest rank on the totem pole, right? A GS-1 at the very start of their career with no experience as of this year, your pay scale is just under $18,000 a year. That`s kind of the bottom of the barrel. Then the ranking of the civil service jobs goes all the way up from GS-1 to GS-2 to GS-3, all the way up to the top jobs, the very bottom level of the chart there, GS-14 and GS-15. And then depending on your level of experience, once you are at that high-ranking level as a government employee at the very top end with a civil service pay scale if you`re in GS-14 or GS-15 with a lot of experience, you can make over $100,000 a year working in government job. Being at the very top end of this scale, being a GS-14 or GS-15 is kind of a big deal if you work for the federal government. Anna Montes was a GS-14. She`s a big deal. She`s at the very top end of the scale. She had top secret security clearance. She worked at the Defense Intelligence Agency. She was also a spy for another country. And she was a good spy. She was first recruited to spy on the United States for Cuba in 1984. At that point, she`d only had very low ranking U.S. government job. But once she was signed on as a Cuban spy, she not only got hired at this incredibly sensitive agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, but she also rose through the ranks. She briefed the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She briefed the National Security Council. She even briefed other countries` heads of state on matters of her expertise at the Defense Intelligence Agency. She had access to high level information. She had high clearance, and she was a GS-14 and she had been there forever. She had access to tons of high level information and she fed it all to Cuba. When the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies did their assessment of how much spying Ana Montes did, and what she was able to feed to Cuba, they concluded that she was one of the most damaging spies in the history of the United States. Part of the reason she was able to do so much damage is because she was a high ranking government intelligence official. Here she is, for example, with a man you will recognize as the former director of the CIA, George Tenet. There`s George Tenet giving an award for excellent service to a woman who at that moment was serving as a Cuban spy. So, part of it was that she was able to rise through the ranks. That`s part of how she was able to do so much damage. But the other part of it is that she was able to get away with it for so long because she was really good at it. She was a really good spy and did really well at the old fashioned spy movie kind of spy stuff. She was trained on how to beat a lie detector test, for example. Ten years into her spying for Cuba, she reportedly passed a Pentagon polygraph with flying colors, even though she had been an active spy for a decade at that point. So, she was clearly lying about some of the stuff they were asking her about but she passed with flying colors. She used advanced spy cryptography that included writing down long strings of numbers that were secretly broadcast for her on weird frequencies of short wave radio just like you`ve seen in "The Americans", right? She wrote secret messages in cryptological keys on this magic spy paper that dissolved when it touched water. She was so good as a spy that she was even able to fly to Cuba on two separate occasions in disguise. Incidentally, she also got to go to Cuba not in disguise as part of her official government business as a Pentagon intelligence officer, but twice, she went secretly. She put on a wig and used a fake Cuban passport and was able to escape everybody`s notice as she flew to Havana to presumably meet with her handlers. Her name was Ana Montes. She`s now serving 25 years in federal prison. Kendall Myers was also a really good spy. Kendall Myers also had top secret clearance. He worked at the State Department in the State Department`s Intelligence and Research Bureau. He had a decades-long career in the state department. He too rose through the ranks. He, too, had access to lots of high level information that was of great interest to Cuba, and he, too, fed everything that he had to Cuba. American intelligence secrets for nearly 30 years, he was feeding that information to Cuba before he got caught. And again, part of the reason he was able to do so much damage over such a long period is because he had really good training and he was a good spy. He also used the short wave radio trick to pick up the numerological codes for his encrypted messages. He also used the magic dissolving paper apparently. Now, although his wife did not work for the State Department, he also got her in on the spying as well so they essentially worked as a two for the price of one spy couple. That might have helped with some of the weirder ways that they passed information to their handlers. One of the things famously that they did to pass U.S. secrets to their Cuban spy handlers is they did this trick in the grocery store where they would leave information in a grocery store cart and then very sly somehow manage to switch carts with somebody else in the store thus completing the handoff of the information. Kendall Myers and his wife Gwendolyn were good at spying. Nevertheless, they right now are in prison, both of them. His wife may get out some time in the next few years but Kendall Myers will never get out. His sense ten was life without the possibility of parole. Cuba and the Cuban people have had a very atypical modern history, right, in which their development and the cultivation of the talents of their people have been oddly and dysmorphically stilted by this half century of American economic embargo against their country. Cuba`s been a weird country in the history of countries over the last 50 years. But in Cuba`s weird modern history, one of the things Cuba has turned out to be really good at, like good as anybody in the world at is spying. Cuba has an excellent world class spy agency. And they have run world class spying operations around the world and very specifically here. In 1998 an investigation led by the FBI`s Miami`s field office exposed the huge and long running, very sophisticated Cuban spy operation that targeted the Castro regime`s most potent and tireless and aggressive enemies on earth, the anti-Castro Cuban exile groups based in the United States and specifically in South Florida. Spies for the Cuban government infiltrated those groups. It was a spy network. They called it Red Avispa. They called it the Wasp Network. In the mid to 1990s, the FBI figured out that this Wasp Network had infiltrated all the exile groups, and they started to do the very hard and difficult work of wrapping that network up. By 2001, they`d gotten convictions for five members of the Wasp Network. Those convictions for those Cuban spies came down in 2001. Three of the five men who were convicted in that wrap-up of the Wasp Network in 2001, three of the five were still in prison until today. But today, those three from the Wasp Network had their sentences commuted by President Obama and they were sent back to Cuba in a trade. And what the United States got in return for those three guys, those three spies, what we got in exchange for those three guys was our spy who was being held in a Cuban prison. Our spy specifically who provided to the U.S. government the information that led the U.S. government to the Wasp Network and also to Kendall Myers and his wife at the State Department and also to Ana Montes from her highfalutin GS-14 job at the Defense Intelligence Agency. The senior administration official saying tonight that the person who the U.S. just got freed after nearly two decades in Cuba was such a valuable intelligence asset for the United States that his information led not only to the arrests of the people he was traded for today, but also to two other huge and really damaging Cuban spy plots in the United States, both of which ran for years and years and years and years before they were exposed. And that only scratches the surface of the skullduggery that`s gone on between Cuba and the United States over the last 50 years. But that trade that I just described, that trade, that spy for spies trade, that is at the heart of this absolutely epic surprise announcement made by the president of the United States today. I mean, there have been signs that something was going to happen, that maybe something was going on, little signs. Tony Blinken, this guy, when he was up for confirmation for the senior State Department job, which he just got confirmed for this week, one of things he got asked about at his confirmation hearing was about the chatter in Washington that something was about to happen on the issue of Cuba. So, maybe that was a little bit of a sign. Then, on the Hill they were hearing chatter. In October, the Vatican had hosted Cuban officials and American officials to talk about issues of concern. The Vatican, in fact, seemed intensely interested in Cuban/American relations. John Kerry met with the foreign minister from the Vatican where they discussed issues related to Cuba. And now, we learn that all along, over the past several weeks and months, the issue of Canada has been hosting secret meetings between U.S. officials and Cuban officials about what was announced today in this shocker of an announcement. But it has culminated with this. Yesterday, we`re told there was the first direct contact between an American president and a Cuban leader since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Raul Castro spoke directly with President Obama on the phone yesterday, we`re told, for about 45 minutes they talked directly. That itself is historic. Then, today, America`s still unnamed spy in Cuba was flown from Cuba to the United States and the three Cuban spies held by America were flown from the United States back to Cuba. Both countries` presidents addressed their nations simultaneously at noon East Coast Time today. Both presidents thanked their spies for their good work and expressed appreciation and thanks for their spies being brought home. In addition to the spy exchange, an American subcontractor who had worked for USAID, Alan Gross, who`d been held in a Cuban prison for the last five years, Alan Gross was also flown home today. This was officially announced as a release on humanitarian grounds. And, indeed, Mr. Gross was thought to be in worrying decline in terms of his health although he was elated to be released today and returned to his family. In addition to Alan Gross being released on humanitarian grounds, the Cuban government also today agreed to release 53 other prisoners, 53 other prisoners who Cuba calls run of the mill prisoners but the United States considered to be political prisoners. So, that big trading of the spies and all those prisoner releases, those were the transactional details at the heart today of this big breakthrough announcement. The U.S. cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. Today, our diplomatic relations were restored by order of the president of the United States. The United States will now move to open an embassy in Cuba for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. Cuba will open an embassy here. Travel restrictions will be somewhat relaxed. Cuban-Americans will be able to send more money home. Our government and the Cuban government will start talking about a host of diplomatic issues, including terrorism, and whether or not Cuba should be kept on the list of state sponsors of terror. For more than 50 years, the United States has been trying to bring about regime change in Cuba with this weird unilateral isolation policy that we dreamed up. We isolated them diplomatically from us even though the rest of the world didn`t. We isolated them economically from us with the super-strict economic embargo which banned Americans from traveling there, spending any money there and doing business with any Cuban companies. But we did that alone. The rest of the world didn`t participate in what we were doing. And so, it`s always been sort of a strange policy. It`s been kind of like us covering our own eyes and saying that we`re invisible. The rest of the world did not go along with this isolation plan. It was just us. And we`re not the whole world. And so, maybe it is because we tried to do it alone. Maybe it`s because isolation tactics don`t tend to be a particularly effective tool for bringing about regime change. But for whatever reason, trying this for more than 50 years didn`t work to make Cuba not communist any more or to get the Castro brothers out of power. It didn`t work. Now, today, the economic embargo remains intact. The Obama administration signaled today that they`ll do everything they can administratively to push against it and they`d like to see it ended, but the reason they can`t end it directly is because Congress enshrined the economic embargo into U.S. law in 1996 right after Cuba shot down two small planes, two Cessna aircraft that were piloted by members of one of those anti-Castro exile groups based in Florida. After those planes were shot down in `96, the Helms-Burton Act made the economic embargo against Cuba something that the president couldn`t dissolve on his own. It would take an act of Congress to get rid of the economic embargo. And, you know, is Congress going to do that? Is this Congress going to do anything? I mean, substantively, this Congress is deeply split on this issue. It was a bipartisan and bicameral group of lawmakers who flew to Cuba to bring Alan Gross home. You see there at the end of the table, Chris Van Hollen. He`s Alan Gross` congressman from Maryland. Alan Gross apparently once went door to door canvassing for Van Hollen when Mr. Van Hollen first ran for Congress. So, he was there today. He was joined by Vermont Senator Pat Leahy who has been deeply involved in trying to get Alan Gross freed. They were also joined, though, by Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. Jeff Flake is a very conservative Republican, but he says he supports what President Obama did today. Not just to free Alan Gross but everything else the president did to try to reset our relationship with Cuba. Other Republicans as well, as Democratic Senator Bob Menendez who himself is Cuban-American, they were harshly critical of the policy change today, including Cuban-American Republican Senator Marco Rubio from Florida saying today that he would do everything in his power to try to thwart President Obama`s actions and stop him from implementing these new changes. It`s not clear what Marco Rubio can do, if anything, but he says he`s going to do everything he can. As this fight happens, though, and as members of Congress figure out where they stand on this, there does remain this problem at heart of the argument that the embargo should stay, right, that the only way to defeat the Castro brothers and bring about regime change in Cuba and make Cuba not a communist country any more is to keep that embargo, right? The problem at the heart of that argument is that if the embargo was such a good way to get those outcomes, why hasn`t it worked in the 54 years that we have been trying it? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And the most significant changes in our policy in more than 50 years, we will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests. To those who oppose the steps I`m announcing today, let me say that I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy. The question is how we uphold that commitment. I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. Moreover, it does not serve America`s interests or the Cuban people to try to push Cuba towards collapse. Even if that worked, and it hasn`t for 50 years, we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: The embargo and the diplomatic isolation of Cuba is a policy that our country embarked on at the end of the 1950s in the beginning of the 1960s. And we did it basically because of the Soviet Union, because Cuba`s revolution was a communist revolution, because the Soviet Union was who Cuba allied themselves with against us. And we desperately didn`t want Cuba to be that kind of society and that kind of geopolitical threat just 90 miles off the American coast. That`s why we did it. It didn`t work. The Castros are still there now. Cuba is still communist even if the Soviet Union doesn`t exist any more and hasn`t for decades. Today, President Obama announced a change in course. Out of all the things we have done over the years to try and change Cuba, is this finally the thing that might work? Joining us is NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Mr. Beschloss, it`s nice to see you. Thanks for being here. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: My pleasure, Rachel, always. MADDOW: Let me ask you the big picture question first. I guess how big a deal do you see this as? I mean, can you put it in context for us in terms of other important foreign policy 180s announced by an American president? BESCHLOSS: Look at all those names of all those presidents you`ve got on your wall there on your screen. None of them did this, and it was Barack Obama who did. This is not at the level of Richard Nixon going to China, which after all was an immense world power with -- you know, the fact that Nixon went to China, and ultimately that led to the restoration of relations. Look where we`d be today if Nixon had not done that in 1972. The island of Cuba is not exactly central to international relations in that way, but Cuba has been a thorn in our side for half a century. During the Cold War, there was an argument, as you said, that since Castro was defying the Monroe Doctrine, that at least as an expression of our displeasure, the embargo had some root in reality. But it hasn`t worked in recent years. It`s almost been a symbol of America`s inability to do something to get rid of the Castro brothers. So, you know, by making this change, if it works, if it leads to freedom, Barack Obama can consider this a feather in his cap. MADDOW: In terms of America`s desires for Cuba and our -- not just historic but ongoing displeasure with their form of government, with the way they treat their own people, with their geopolitical alliances, obviously, the embargo and diplomatic isolation were part of that. BESCHLOSS: Sure. MADDOW: What else did the U.S. try to do over the years to change that? Obviously, a lot of things that they`ve done, that different presidents have tried have been covert. BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. Well, to begin with in April of 1961 as the president said this morning John Kennedy authorized the CIA-backed invasion of Cuba by exiles. It didn`t work. Over a thousand prisoners were locked up. We Americans had to ransom them. And then John Kennedy`s operation released Operation Mongoose, which was paramilitary raids and sabotage, and efforts to poison the Cuban sugar crop and so forth and also led to assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, the president may or may not have known about at this time. And Castro interpreted all this as the prelude to an American full- fledged invasion of Cuba and so, he went to Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union and said, do something to stop these Americans. So, Khrushchev said, fine, I`ll put some nuclear missiles in that will stop them. And that led, of course, to missile crisis. MADDOW: In terms of -- in terms of what might have happened and why it took so long, did any presidents before Obama try to take this different route, try to take a route of ending the embargo, lessening the isolation and hoping that more exposure to the world might bring about the kind of change that these other kinds of force weren`t able to do? BESCHLOSS: Sure, Jimmy Carter made some moves and I think Bill Clinton would have liked to and toward the end of his administration did some things, but the time was not right. And I think there was a domestic political feeling in this country that any president who did that would suffer politically, that if a Democratic president did that, you were basically saying good-bye to the state of Florida and its electoral votes for a generation. What we`ve now seen in recent years is that the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida, it`s not as large a group, it`s older and it`s not as dominant as it used to be. So, I think that you have to assume that President Obama calculated that in doing this, he was not taking that risk. MADDOW: NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss, great perspective, Michael. Thanks. It`s great to see you. BESCHLOSS: Interesting day. Thank you, Rachel. MADDOW: Yes, amazing day. We`ve got more on this historic day in America`s foreign relations ahead, as well as one other huge news story that broke late tonight -- totally unrelated to this but a very big deal. And that`s next. Please stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: So, quick update for you. That list you keep on your refrigerator, the list you have of countries that the United States does not formally talk to. Here was the list. These are the countries on Earth with whom we do not have diplomatic relations -- Iran, Bhutan, North Korea and Cuba. That`s pretty much the list. I mean, yes, there are countries with strained relationships or suspended visas or we sent the ambassador home because we were mad or something. But as far as no diplomatic relationships, no embassy, that`s the list. And now today, if you want to take out a sharpie and update the list on your fridge, today that list has been slashed by 25 percent. And that`s what`s known as a big news day. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: We have another story tonight, a rapidly developing story about one of the last remaining countries on the Earth now that the U.S. does not have diplomatic ties with, the nation of North Korea. For months now the North Korean regime has been furious about, of all things, a movie a new movie scheduled to premiere in American theaters on Christmas Day. It`s a movie called "The Interview." It starts James Franco and Seth Rogen. It`s a comedy about journalists who get an interview with North Korea`s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, but they`re then recruited by the CIA to assassinate him when they meet him. Ever since details of that money in the works started to surface, North Korea has objected loudly. Late last month, somebody hacked into the computer systems at Sony Pictures and stole reams of data and emails from people who work at Sony. The more embarrassing portions of those emails got sent to news groups around the world and they appeared in print. It was very embarrassing for Sony Pictures. And it ended up getting this whole string of apologies from bold-faced names about the content of those private exchanges that had been revealed by this illegal hack. As damaging as that illegal was for Sony, as uncomfortable as it was to have their private correspondence stolen and published like that, there was still the unsettling fact of the break-in to their servers and the question of who carried out that hack. And what else they might be capable of. And since then, the story has gotten even more unsettling. The attack on Sony did not stop with the theft from their servers and the releasing of all those private documents. Yesterday, a group calling itself the Guardians of Peace released a new batch of material apparently stolen from Sony, and along with those stolen files, they included a threat to theaters that might be thinking about screening Sony`s new movie about North Korea. And I`m not going to quote from their threat because I don`t feel like amplifying it, but it does include a direct mention of the 9/11 attacks as a way to scare people away from going to see that movie. President Obama addressed the threat today in an interview with David Muir from ABC News. Watch. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DAVID MUIR, ABC NEWS: I know you met with your national security team in the last 24 hours, as you often do heading into the holiday. Do you consider this a legitimate threat and how concerned are you? OBAMA: Well, the cyber attack is very serious. We`re investigating it, and we`re taking it seriously. You know, we`ll be vigilant. If we see something that we think is serious and credible, then we`ll alert the public, but for now, my recommendation would be that people go to the movies. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: My recommendation would be that people go to the movies. President Obama responding today to this anonymous threat of a 9/11-style attack on American movie theaters. But people will not be going out on Christmas to American movie theaters to see this movie that North Korea does not like. The top five theater chains in the United States announced today that they would not show the film. This afternoon, Sony announced they have canceled the movie`s Christmas Day release. They called it off. Maybe Sony will release the movie some day in some form, we don`t know. But that leaves us with the very real question of who made this threat of a 9/11-style attack on American movie theaters. Was it North Korea, which does object to this Sony movie but also does a lot of meaningless saber-rattling all the time? Was it some other group? Was it a hacker group with some ax to grind that we don`t understand and that we just don`t know about yet? I mean, the threat sounds scary, but how seriously should we take it? Late today, we got the news of at least who the White House believes did the hack into Sony`s computers, U.S. officials are telling reporters tonight that the North Korean government was, quote, "centrally involved in the attack on Sony`s computer systems." One official telling "The New York Times," quote, "This is of a different nature than past attacks." What started as a cyberattack and has now turned into the threat of the safety of Americans if that Sony movie made it into theaters. That same official says there`s no specific credible information that an attack is imminent. We can report that a senior administration official has told NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, that there will be some sort of response from the threat that they believe comes from the government of North Korea. It`s not clear what the options are but the U.S. cannot let this go unanswered. We`ve also just in the last couple of minutes had a new statement from the White House tonight attributed to the National Security Council spokeswoman which says that the U.S. government has offered Sony pictures support and assistance in response to the attack. The FBI has the lead for the investigation. The United States is investigating attribution and will provide an update at the appropriate time. The U.S. government is working tirelessly to bring the perpetrators of this attack to justice and we`re considering a range of options in weighing that response." Again, that just out from the National Security Council just in the last couple of minutes. Joining us now is David Sanger, national security correspondent for "The New York Times". Mr. Sanger, thanks very much for being with us. DAVID SANGER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Good to be back with you, Rachel. MADDOW: So, in terms of the attribution first, what can you tell us about the administration`s investigation into this, how confident that they are that it is the North Korean government and how confident we should be in that assessment? SANGER: It`s a very good question because attribution is always a very difficult thing to do. I mean, you think about this summer when President Obama was told that it was Russia that was behind the attacks on JPMorgan Chase, which were less severe than this one. And it turns out now there are a lot of people that have doubts about that. And we still haven`t quite gotten to the bottom of those attacks in recent months on the White House and State Department unclassified computer systems. But in the case of North Korea, there is much more confidence in the intelligence officials and other officials I`m talking to and that my colleague Nicole Perlroth has been talking to what were the basis of that article that you just mentioned. And the reasons for that could be varied. Now, partly, it may be that they`re looking at what North Korean said about this movie, that it was an act of war, that it wouldn`t go unanswered and so forth, though the North did say a week ago that they weren`t responsible for the attacks. They couldn`t rule out they said that people who were sympathetic, patriotic hackers, whatever, have done this. But many American officials now seem to think they can trace it right back to North Korea. And what they`re not discussing is how they know that. But we do know from a variety of sources over many years of reporting on this, that the U.S. has put implants in systems in adversary countries, including North Korea. So, they may be able to see the attack massing or at least gone back and seen it. We don`t know that for a fact. MADDOW: In terms of the magnitude of the threat -- obviously, the cyber breach itself is a significant one and Sony as a corporation has been significantly hurt by this breach and itself is a display of a type of force. To the extent that this is seen as a different type of threat, though, a qualitatively different threat because there`s the threat of physical violence on U.S. soil and that it may be coming from the same place -- I mean, if it is North Korea, I mean, I can quote a lot of North Korean threats from memory. They threatened to turn the Sea of Japan into a nuclear sea of fire. The way they saber-rattle is quite exquisite. Is there a degree of skepticism about the -- I guess about how likely they could -- how likely it could be that they could carry out this threat even though it is a very serious one? SANGER: I didn`t hear a whole lot of real concern about the threat on the theaters. But I think what people have missed in all of the news about, you know, e-mails that called actresses spoiled brats or revealed the salaries of studio executive, which have all been embarrassing to Sony, the real significance, Rachel, of this attack was it was the first one on American soil on a large scale that appeared to be state-sponsored and was destructive. In other words, it wiped clean these computers. Now, those are called infrastructure attacks, and we`ve only seen a couple in recent history. There was an attack attributed to Iran against Saudi Aramco a few years ago. There was an attack from North Korea with great similarities to the Sony attack that hit banks and media companies in South Korea. And then the largest cyber attack that we know of, Olympic Games, with Stuxnet, which was a U.S./Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program that sort of revealed itself in 2010. But we haven`t seen one on American soil. And I think what really shook people was that this attack not only happened, but it was repetitive. North Koreans or whoever it was kept getting back into the system to put these threats up on Sony computers. MADDOW: David Sanger, national security correspondent for "The New York Times", this is -- this is a scary story. It is also absolutely fascinating material. SANGER: It is. MADDOW: Thanks for helping us understand it. Appreciate it. SANGER: Thank you. MADDOW: Thank you. All right. We`ve got much more ahead on this very news night. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: This is just one of those news days that you can`t quite believe is one day. In the last 24 hours, this Congress ended. It`s the least productive Congress in the history of the United States of America. Also, New York state, home of the Marcellus shale, banned fracking as a state. The Russian economy basically slid into a collapse. Sony Pictures, as we were just discussing, pulled its new comedy about North Korea after anonymous hackers who might be North Korea threatened to blow up movie theaters that were showing it. Also, three more people were indicted with poisoning the water supply with a chemical leak in West Virginia this year. And Vermont gave up on extending a single-payer health care system. And that Tea Party in Gilbert, Arizona, that had voted to redact high school biology textbooks, they decided they`re not going to redact high school biology textbooks any more. And President Obama announced 20 presidential pardons or commutations of people`s sentences. Most of them are low level drug crimes plus one moonshiner. Oh, then also the president announced that we`re normalizing relations with Cuba for the first time in 53 years. That`s the last 24 hours. Today`s the day when we scheduled a few evergreen interviews and segments that really could run any time since we figured surely there would be no news today. Congress went home, president is ready to go on vacation, there was no major anything planned in terms of news events for today. We thought ahead looking in the calendar, we`re going to have to make something up there. And then boom, this president decides again for the umpteenth time just since the election that he`s going to go all Larry the Cable Guy and just get `er done to everybody`s surprise. What`s gotten into the guy and why? Part of that story is next. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: In 2008, a young presidential candidate named Barack Obama traveled to Miami to try to win the all-important Florida presidential vote. George W. Bush won Florida by 5 points in 2004. You might also remember that he famously won Florida by a squeaker in 2000. At least that`s what the Supreme Court said. So, in 2008 Barack Obama knew that Florida was key. And in the run- up to the presidential election that year, this first time young candidate for president, he went to Florida, he went to the Cuban stronghold of Miami and he said something that everybody in Washington thought would derail his presidential campaign. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) OBAMA: I know what the easy thing to do for American politician is when he or she comes down to Miami. Every four years they come down, they talk tough then they go back to Washington and nothing changes in Cuba. (APPLAUSE) That`s what John McCain did the other day. He joined the parade of politicians who made the same empty promises year after year, decade after decade, instead of offering a strategy, a strategy for change. He chose to distort my position and embrace George Bush`s and continue a policy that`s done nothing to advance the freedom of the Cuban people. (END VIDEO CLIP) MADDOW: Barack Obama went to Miami in 2008 and said at that speech that he would be open to meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro. He said decades of isolation had failed as a policy. He said he would get rid of that policy and he would do something radically different. And this was seen by the Beltway at the time as the equivalent of a presidential candidate going to Iowa and denouncing both corn and pigs. Barack Obama`s opponent in that election, John McCain, promptly tried to nail Barack Obama with that position that he took in Florida. John McCain put out a Web ad, look, with Barack Obama and Fidel Castro side by side, like Obama was running with Fidel instead of running rather with Joe Biden. For decades, winning the Cuban vote in Florida meant aligning yourself against the Castro regime as much as you possibly could. But then, then, what happened is Barack Obama won Florida -- twice. And in 2012, the exit polls had him breaking even or even winning the Cuban- American vote in Florida despite taking the "I`ll meet with Castro" position. The Beltway common wisdom about the politics of this issue has been getting stale for a while now. As you probably know, the largest concentration of Cubans anywhere on the planet other than Cuba is in Miami/Dade County in South Florida. Look at this. The last poll this year of Cuban Americans in Miami/Dade County found that a majority of them want the embargo to be lifted against Cuba. Yes, older Cuban-Americans still want the embargo in place, people aged 65 and older. But among younger people aged 18 to 29, look at that. It`s not even close. Cuban Americans oppose the embargo by a margin of 62-8. The policy that the president overturned today is a very old policy. The common wisdom about what it means politically is just about as old. Realistically, how should we expect this to go over? Joining us is Alan Gomez. He`s a reporter at "USA Today", with a long history of covering Cuban-American relations. Alan, nice to see you. Thanks for being here. ALAN GOMEZ, USA TODAY: Thanks for having me. MADDOW: How does Miami feel about this today and how can you tell? (LAUGHTER) GOMEZ: Well, I mean it sort of depends who you talk to. MADDOW: Yes. GOMEZ: I think a lot of what you were leading up to there is absolutely accurate. When you talk to the older Cubans, the ones who are -- that were at least teenagers if not adults when they left Cuba -- I mean, this was a really stunning blow. This was a very disappointing moment. They feel as if they`ve been fighting this fight for 40, 50 years and all of a sudden, the president just stabbed them in the back. So, for them, it`s very difficult. They`re ones that spent time in political prisons in Cuba. They`re the ones that had their property taken away. So, they have that personal connection, that personal firsthand view of what this Castro government did to them. So, for them, yes, this is absolutely a horrendous day in their fight. But as you were mentioning, you talk to younger Cubans, you talk to those that maybe grew up here in Miami or left a very long time ago and have been able to put it past them. And they kind of take that step back, look at it objectively, and make that calculus, hey, this hasn`t worked in 50 years. Let`s try something different. So, it`s a mix reaction. The loudest ones who were against what the president did today, but quietly in corners around the city, you definitely heard a lot of people who supported what the president did. MADDOW: You know, we highlighted from that poll the fact -- the question about the embargo itself. If you look at the polling actually on restoring diplomatic relations, which actually is what the president did today, the polling on that is even more popular. The president`s move to restore diplomatic relations is an even more popular move among Cuban- Americans. I wonder because this basically is something the president has done and then something he`s recommending that the country do further, this action that he`s taken today is something that`s less controversial. Restoring diplomatic relations will be an interesting thing but even more people like that. As Congress starts to fight about whether or not they`re going to try to block this, whether or not they`re going to do what President Obama wants and act on legislation to repeal the embargo, what do you expect the Cuban-American influence to be on that debate in Washington? GOMEZ: Well, I can tell you it will be extremely -- they`re not going to let -- (a), they`re not really going to embrace the idea of changing the embargo. They won`t reduce that in any way. Actually, what they`re going to try to do is stop what the president has done. It costs money to change what we have in Havana from a Cuban intersection to a full embassy. It costs money to do a lot of the things that he`s doing. So, much like we`ve seen with the immigration debate, with the Affordable Care Act, they`re going to try to use the power of the purse to try to limit what the president can do. And so, that`s I think what we`re going to be seeing in the next couple of months, because this is a process that takes a while. The president`s actions aren`t going to just start immediately. We`re not just going to suddenly have an embassy tomorrow. So, it`s going to take some time and they`re going to have time to try to block it. I think that`s one of the things we`re going to see. MADDOW: Alan Gomez, reporter at "USA Today" -- Alan, thanks very much for beings here on this huge day. I really appreciate it. GOMEZ: Thank you. MADDOW: It will be interesting to see if the politics change on what the president did today, has a practical impact on people`s lives. Obviously, this is going to have a practical impact in Cuba and ordinary Cubans living in Cuba, it`s going to have an impact on Cuban-Americans, particularly those who still have family back on the island. As the practical impact starts to be felt, it will be interesting to see if that also moves people`s politics on this issue, generationally or otherwise. Fascinating stuff. We`ll be right back. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: So, if you`re the pope, every day is sort of a big day. But today was a bigger than usual big pope day. Today, both President Obama and Raul Castro of Cuba credited the intervention of Pope Francis -- Castro called him Pope Francisco -- for bringing the U.S. and Cuba to the table for today`s spy swap and prisoner release and this reversal of five decades of isolationist U.S. policy towards Cuba. So, that`s sort of a big deal. And when he wasn`t busy for being credited for that diplomatic miracle today, Pope Francis today was also busy having a rather epic 78th birthday. He got a very nice looking papal cake. And some visiting Argentinian priests also gave him some mate to drink, out of the fancy cup out of which they drink mate, which always look like a tike mug to me. What else do you get for your birthday when you`re not just the pope but the Argentinian pope? You also get tango. Hundreds of tango dancers descended on St. Peter`s Square today to dance the tango in honor of the pope`s birthday. The pope is apparently a lifelong fan of tango. He says he used to dance tango with his girlfriend when he was a young man. Yes, the pope had a girlfriend. But, today, people came from all over the world to tango in his honor in Rome. Mass tango birthday surprise, solving U.S.-Cuban relations, free mate, free cake -- big day. Even for a pope, that`s a big day. (COMMERCIAL BREAK) MADDOW: Lorna Feijoo, principal, Boston Ballet. Lorena Feijoo, principal at the San Francisco Ballet. Hayna Gutierrez Cuban, principal at the Classical Ballet of Miami. Nelson Madrigal, principal at the Boston Ballet. Joan Boada, principal at the San Francisco Ballet. Cervilio Amador, principal at the Cincinnati Ballet. Carlos Guerra, principal at the Miami City Ballet. Isanusi Garcia, principal at the Miami City Ballet. Rolanda Sarabia, principal at the Miami City Ballet. One of things that Cuba is brilliant at is ballet. A Cuban-American ballerina named Lourdes Lopez took over the job at the Miami City Ballet a few years ago, she put out word that dancers who found their way from Cuba to her doorstep would be welcomed for an audition with that company. There`s no shortage of amazing Cuban dancers in American ballet, Miami City and elsewhere. The ballet world, also the world of professional baseball, the world of soccer, the world of music, the cultural and sports life of Cuba is so rich that America has been immeasurably enriched by the contribution of Cuba`s artists and athletes who have found ways to defect to here. Right now, defectors if they get here, they then need to get a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to unblock themselves as a foreign asset so they can be paid to do their work in this country, in ballet, in baseball, in everything. That`s all about to change. It`s all at least about to start to change. Some of it is in Congress` hands now after President Obama`s big announcement today. So, Congress, fair warning: prepare to start getting lobbied by some very intimidatingly fit Cubans who can bend over backwards, literally, and on tiptoe, if they need to, in order to make their point. Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL". Good evening, Lawrence. I`m sorry. I took your 30 seconds. 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