Show: The Rachel Maddow Show Date: April 3, 2017 Guest: Ali Watson, Michael Leiter
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
"BuzzFeed News" reporter Ali Watkins has a sort of jaw-dropping scoop tonight about the Trump campaign. That story dropped tonight just in the last couple of hours. We`ve got Ali Watkins here tonight to talk about that story. We`ve got her exclusively. You are going to want to hear that.
We`re also going to be joined tonight by Michael Leiter. Michael Leiter is the former director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.
So, big show coming up tonight. A lot to get to this hour.
One of the -- one of the weirder stories in today`s news is the revelation that Jared Kushner, the president`s 36-year-old son-in-law is in Baghdad today. The U.S. secretary of state has not been to Baghdad since the new administration started, but Jared`s there.
That said it`s not totally clear what the secretary of state does in this new administration. I mean, take the president`s special envoy for Middle East peace. That is a person who has been appointed to be the Trump administration`s eyes and ears that point person on Middle East peace, that person does not report to either the president or the secretary of state. That person reports to Jared.
"The New York Times" and "The Financial Times" report in detail today that the preparations for the critical meeting this week with President Xi of China, those preparations are also being led by Jared. Jared has also been put in charge of relations with China more broadly, including preparing for this presidential meeting. He has been put in charge of us relations with Canada and U.S. relations with Mexico, including building the wall. He has been put in charge of all trade deals.
"The Washington Post" reported last week that he is now in charge of, quote, "reimagining the Veterans Administration." He`s also been put in charge of solving the opioid crisis and national broadband policy and criminal justice reform and the rebuilding of the nation`s infrastructure.
Young Mr. Kushner also apparently sits in on National Security Council principals meetings when it comes time to discuss the nuclear threat from North Korea.
And now today, Baghdad. Busy young men. Hopefully, he was adequately prepared for all these enormous responsibilities by his vast life and work experience, which consists entirely of him inheriting his father`s real estate business. He also did have to run the business himself for a time while his dad was in prison.
But he now has this remarkable, remarkable portfolio, maybe an unprecedented portfolio of both international and domestic responsibilities within the administration. And that portfolio is made all the more remarkable by the fact that we now know that his wife, the president`s daughter, will also be getting a senior White House job. We don`t know exactly what her portfolio will be, but we know she`s already sitting in on many of the most high-profile visits by foreign leaders to the United States.
Between her and her husband Jared, their experience and expertise in the world lies in the fields of real estate and jewelry marketing. But the two of them now will be in charge of some of the most important and sensitive stuff in the government of the richest and most powerful nation on earth. Incidentally, I should mention, we also learned a couple of days ago that the administration has now found a new job as well for Laura Trump. Who? Lara. Lara is Eric`s wife.
The Trump reelection campaign already exists as a formal political entity. The firm that runs the digital side of that campaign will now employ Lara, Eric Trump`s wife. I have no idea what her work experience is, but I`m quite sure she`s the absolute best qualified person in America for that job, whatever that job is.
I mean, in the past, we`ve had like you know a first lady who worked on a health policy. Once, we had a president who hired his brother as attorney general. But we have come to think of even those things as exceptions to the rule. We have never thought of ourselves as a country where like Uday and Qusay get to be ministers of whatever, right? We don`t think of ourselves as a ruling family kind of place. But now, now, that`s we are.
And here is a root consequence of that for our new ruling family. This remarkable consolidation of power in the hands of a few under-qualified family members, today, that became not just a remarkable story about the Uzbekistanization of American politics. Today, that -- and no offense meant to Uzbekistan, sorry -- but beyond that becoming just a remarkable thing in its own, today, this new thing that we`ve got as a country, this consolidation of American government power in the nuclear family of the president, today, that potentially started to become a liability for the administration and for the government in terms of the most serious scandal that looms over the new administration.
This is FCI Elkton. FIC stands for Federal Correctional Institution. It`s a low-security federal prison in Lisbon, Ohio. It`s prison for men. There are about 2,000 male prisoners there.
This weekend, that particular prison, FBI Elkton, released a Russian spy. Technically, his release date was not supposed to be until the end of July, but they let him out on Friday with time off for good behavior.
Now, that said, this Russian spy was not released back into the community at large. When he got sprung from federal prison on Friday, the federal prison system released him to immigration and customs authorities because as part of his plea deal when he got sentenced last year, he agreed that after he served his federal prison sentence, he would immediately agree that they would deport him back to Russia.
This guy who was just sprung from prison is now being deported back to Russia. His name is Evgeny Buryakov. Evgeny Buryakov.
When the FBI busted the spy ring that he was part of a couple years ago, in 2015, there were three alleged spies who were named in the criminal indictment. The indictment was brought by prosecutor Preet Bharara`s office in the southern district of New York, funny how his name keeps coming up.
But Evgeny Buryakov was one of the three people named in this ring. He`s the one they caught. They arrested him January 2015 at a supermarket in Riverdale, New York.
But the other two spies who were named in the indictment, they never caught them, because by the time they brought those charges, the other two guys in this spy ring had fled back to Russia already. One of them had been employed as a trade representative for the Russian Federation in the United States. The other one had been an attache at the Russian mission at the United Nations. But the -- and they both went back to Moscow. They both escaped being arrested by the FBI.
But this guy, the third guy who actually got caught, this guy who`s been in prison until this weekend, this guy who they actually nailed -- he didn`t have an official government cover job like the other two did. They were all named in the indictment. The other two had cover jobs working for the Russian government.
His cover job was a non-official cover. His cover job was that he worked at a bank. He was an employee of a Russian bank called VEB. He was the number two official at the New York office of VEB.
And when he was arrested and charged with being a spy and put on trial, his ostensibly employers, this Russian bank, they paid for his legal defense. And that wasn`t all they paid for. On the day that he got arrested at that supermarket in Riverdale, his wife and his two kids reportedly fled their home and went to the rezidentura. They fled to the building that houses the Russian mission in New York.
Associates of Evgeny Buryakov then reportedly ransacked the apartment the family had lived in. Evgeny is in FBI custody. The wife and kids have gone to the Russian mission. Associates of Buryakov tore the apartment apart, sliced up all the furniture, smashed up the wall board, broke the place apart. Apparently, they were looking for anything that Evgeny Buryakov might have left behind, or maybe any listening devices that the FBI might have hidden in his family apartment.
Apparently, the FBI had put both cameras and microphones all over the family apartment. But by the time his associates were tearing the place apart looking for them, the FBI had reportedly taken them all back. And this is like amazing spy movie stuff, right, but think about the practicalities of it.
What if you were the guy who rented that family that apartment? You can imagine how Evgeny Buryakov`s landlord felt about the state of that apartment when he found out that, OK, his tenant is going to prison, the rest of his tenant`s family has fled, and now, he`s got this huge literal mess on his hands, the furniture on the wall board and everything all smashed up and torn apart.
Well, once again, the bank came to the rescue. In addition to financing Evgeny Buryakov`s legal defense, the bank reportedly settled with the landlord for about $45,000 to cover the cost of the damage done to that House when Evgeny`s friends tore the place part after he got arrested by the FBI and charged of being a spy.
And Evgeny Buryakov and all the stories of how he handed off intel to the other Russian spies who were in this ring with him and the drama of his arrest and his family fleeing in the dead of night into the rezidentura, and the bugs that the FBI had placed all over his house, all of this stuff has been fascinating color for one of the more lurid Russian spy scandals in the past few years. But that bank and that spy scandal are turning out to be a very pesky asterisk that keeps getting affixed to lots of things about the new Trump administration, because that bank where Evgeny Buryakov was secretly working as a Russian spy, that -- that is a state-run Russian bank.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is on the supervisory board of that bank. The chairman of that bank started his career by going to KGB school, by going to the college that Russia operates for people who are going to join the successor agency to the KGB. That -- that FSB trained chairman of the bank was handpicked to be chairman of that bank by Vladimir Putin himself last year.
That bank, for a million reasons, should have a flashing red light when it comes to worries about Russian intelligence and Russian influence operations here in the United States, right? And after all, it was a matter of public record that that bank harbored and defended a high-level spy who was working there as cover and then paid for his defense and even paid for cleaning up his apartment after they torn apart looking for the FBI bugs.
That`s why it was astonishing news a week ago today when "The New York Times" reported that Jared -- Jared Kushner -- had not disclosed a meeting that he took during the presidential transition with the chairman of that bank, with the Putin hand-picked FSB trained chairman of the spy bank, who apparently met in person with Jared Kushner in December. Jared Kushner never disclosed that meeting, despite all of the other troubles that have plagued this young administration about their undisclosed contact with Russian officials. For whatever reason, Jared Kushner did not disclose that meeting until it was reported in "The New York Times" a week ago today.
And that alone is sort of problematic enough, right, when it comes to someone with the kind of portfolio, with a broad-ranging domestic and international portfolio that Jared has been assigned by his father-in-law in the new administration. Troubling enough, but now, BuzzFeed news adds their new scoop tonight.
As I mentioned, this spy ring that got busted by the FBI, three Russian guys. One guy who had what they called non-official cover who ostensibly worked at this bank, the other two guys, their cover jobs were official Russian government positions. One of them worked as a trade representative for Russia, one of them worked at the Russian mission to the U.N. When it came time for these guys to feed their secrets and stolen documents and intel from their spy ring back to Moscow, what would happen is these two guys who had official cover, they would take care of that part of it. Not the guy -- not the guy who worked at the bank because he ostensibly had their relationship with the Russian government.
But the other guys who had official cover, the other guys who had Russian government jobs, they whenever they had anything to transmit home they would go to the rezidentura. They would go to the Russian equivalent of like a SCIP, a secure facility where they could make secret encrypted transmissions of information back to Moscow center, back to spy headquarters in Russia.
And the way the FBI caught them and blew apart this spy ring with these three guys was absolutely genius. The FBI arranged to have somebody feed these guys supposedly sensitive stolen documents and they handed these documents over in binders. And these Russian guys, these spies, they took the binders with this juicy intel. They took the binders into the rezidentura, into the SCIP in New York, and the FBI had hidden microphones inside the binders.
And so, they got to listen to everything these guys said, even when these guys thought they were in the most secure environment and couldn`t be surveilled no matter what. Inside the Russian mission, they thought they were essentially diplomatically on Russian soil. They`re certainly in a diplomatic immunity. They were in a Russian space. They thought they were in a secret environment, but the documents that they had sitting in front of them, the documents themselves were bugged. There were microphones in the binders.
And so, the FBI got hours and hours and hours of tape off those microphones and the binders of these guys talking when they were quite sure nobody could hear them. And one of the things those guys talked about was the other guy in their spy ring who worked in the bank, that`s what they got him.
Another thing these guys talked about were their repeated efforts to recruit Americans for their spying efforts and when this case broke open in 2015, and they released the indictment, a lot of the news coverage at the time was about the fact that these spies apparently wanted to target college girls in New York to be Russian assets, and that had kind of a nice tabloid appeal to it, even though the indictment didn`t indicate that they had too much real success with the college girls effort. Where they did have some success was with male number one.
A quote from the indictment here, quote, "On or about April 8, 2013, the defendants discussed efforts to recruit a male working as a consultant in New York City as an intelligence source."
Now, what I`m going to quote you here is a conversation between the two Russian spies. The guys who got charged but never went to prison because they`d already fled back to Moscow by the time their compatriot got arrested at that supermarket. So, this is the two guys who are now back in Moscow who never got arrested, this was them speaking at the rezidentura, having no idea that they`re being surveilled. They`re speaking to each other in Russian and then this is -- this is the FBI translation of what they said.
The spy number one says, "Male one," that`s the name they get the guy in the indictment, "Male one wrote that he`s sorry. He went to Moscow and forgot to check his inbox. But he wants to meet when he gets back. I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am.
Plus, he writes to me in Russian to practice the language. He flies to Moscow more often than I do. He got hooked on Gazprom, thinking that if they have a project, he could be rise up. Maybe he can, and I do not know, but it`s obviously wants to earn lots of money."
Spy number two says, "Without a doubt." The spy number one says, quote, "He said they have a new project right now, new energy boom. He said it`s about to take off. I do not say anything for now."
The other spy then says, "Yes, first, we`ll spend a couple of borrowed millions", and then the first spy laughs, and then says this, quote, "It`s worth it I like that he takes on everything. For now, his enthusiasm works for me. I also promised him a lot, that I have connections in the trade representation, meaning you, that you could push contracts. I will feed him empty promises."
And then the other spy who is, in fact, working as a Russian trade representative swears, he says, "bleep, no, then he`ll write me, or not even me, maybe he`ll write to our clean one. Meaning, he will write to the trade representatives office and accidentally not talk to a spy. He might talk to a real drag rep. Wouldn`t that be terrible for their recruitment efforts for this guy?"
The first by then says, basically, don`t worry about it. Quote, "I did not say the trade representation I did not even indicate that this is connected to a government agency this is intelligence method to cheat, how else to work with foreigners."
So, this is a conversation surveilled by the FBI through there you know magic microphone in the binders trick. That conversation happened in April 2013. They are talking about an American citizen. They`re talking about recruiting an American asset for their spying.
That happens in April. April goes by, May goes by. In June, the FBI decides to act. June 13th that same year, the FBI went and paid that American guy a visit, quote, "On or about June 13th, 2013, agent 2 and I interviewed male one. Male one stated that he first met the first Russian spy defendant in January 2013 at an energy symposium in New York City. During this initial meeting, defendant gave him his business card and two email addresses.
Over the following months, male one and the defendant exchanged emails about the energy business and met in person on occasion, with male one providing the defendant with male one`s outlook on the current and future of the energy industry. Male one also provided documents to the defendant about the energy business."
So, forget the college girls thing which didn`t really work out for them. This is what the Russian spies are after, right? This is --this is the start of how they cultivate Americans to betray the United States, right?
Start off friendly. Start with a business relationship or maybe an academic relationship. Start off with, you know, could you just let us know your own thoughts on specific industries or specific things in the U.S. government. Maybe you could help us by showing us some documents from those industries. Let`s stay in touch. Let`s start a transactional relationship. Can I see what you`ve got please?
Yes, I`d love to see those documents. What else do you have? I`d like to see more of that kind of document.
I mean, this is -- this is how they do it, right? And maybe it turns into something, maybe it doesn`t, but you cultivate assets. This is what they do. This is why they`re here instead of working at home in Moscow.
Well, "BuzzFeed News" reports tonight that male one, and that spy ring indictment is the Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page. He was recruited as an American asset by Russian spies in New York City in 2013. He was successfully recruited. He handed them documents and information to help them out and was enthusiastic about their relationship.
That advisor, Carter Page, met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy who was later charged by the U.S. government, alongside two others, for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government.
From Ali Watkins`s story at "BuzzFeed" tonight, quote, "A former campaign adviser for Donald Trump met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013. The advisor Carter Page met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged by the U.S. government alongside to others for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government.
Quote, "A court filing by the U.S. government contains a transcript of a recorded conversation in which Podobnyy speaks with one of the other men busted in the spy ring, Igor Sporyshev, about trying to recruit someone identified as male one. BuzzFeed News has confirmed that male one is Carter Page."
Here`s my favorite part, "BuzzFeed News has confirmed". How did "BuzzFeed News" confirm that Carter Page is male one? According for Ali Watkins` story, quote, "Carter Page confirmed to BuzzFeed News on Monday that he is male one in the court filing and said he had been in contact with Podobnyy."
So, Jared`s in Baghdad, at the invitation of the Joint Chiefs, meeting with the troops, visiting U.S. embassy personnel. There is nothing too sensitive for Jared to be involved in, let alone to be running in this new administration.
He is leading U.S. preparations for the China meeting. He was apparently at the table for the decision on launching the Yemen raid that killed a Navy SEAL, in addition to many civilians. He is in charge of all trade deals.
At a very, very scary time in terms of North Korea`s nuclear capabilities and intentions, Jared is apparently at the National Security Council principals meeting when it comes to North Korea.
But at some point in coming days, he will have to make time in his incredibly busy schedule to testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee about why during the presidential transition, he met with the FSB trained official who Vladimir Putin hand selected to lead a Russian state bank that is currently sanctioned by the U.S. government and that harbored a Russian spy network in this country, that among other things recruited a Trump foreign policy advisor as a Russian intelligence asset just a few years ago.
Amid all the worry and focus and scandal and investigations about the Russian attack on our election last year and contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, amid all that furor, Jared Kushner took that meeting in December with the guy from the Russian bank and he never said a word about it, until a newspaper reported it.
"BuzzFeed" reporter Ali Watkins, who`s the one who unmasks the Trump foreign policy advisor at the center of this Russian spy story, Ali Watkins joins us.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
FREDERICK RYAN, JR., WASHINGTON POST PUBLISHER: We heard you might be announcing your foreign policy advisory team soon if there`s anything you wanted to say ton that.
CANDIDATE DONALD TRUMP: We are going to be doing that soon. We are going to be doing that very soon. I`d say that during the week, we`ll be announcing some names, it`ll always grow.
RYAN: Any that you can start off this morning with us?
TRUMP: Well, you know, I hadn`t thought in terms of doing it, but if you want, I can give you some of the names --
RYAN: We`d be delighted.
TRUMP: I wouldn`t mind. Do you have that list? I`ll be a little more accurate with it.
OK. Ready? Walid Phares, who you probably know, PhD, advisor to the House of Representatives caucus, and counterterrorism expert; Carter Page, PhD.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MADDOW: Carter Page, who`s he? That`s what everybody said at the time when unprompted, then-candidate Donald Trump volunteered him as the number two name on his list of foreign policy advisors, the first time he had ever listed foreign policy advisors for his campaign.
Well, now, "BuzzFeed News" reports that among the many other things that Carter Page turns out to be, he was also recruited in 2013 as apparently an unwitting American source for a Russian spy ring that was operating out of New York City.
Joining us now is Ali Watkins. She`s a national security correspondent for "BuzzFeed News", broke this story tonight.
Thank you for being here. Congratulations on scoop.
ALI WATKINS, BUZZFEED NEWS: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: Can I ask you about one detail of this that strikes me is really weird?
MADDOW: So, when we found out that you guys had this scoop today, we were like scrambling. We`re like, oh, that`s the VEB case. Let`s go back and look at that indictment. This must mean male one -- why like we`re putting it together as we`re getting this news from you guys. And I just out of curiosity, I was like I wonder if that guy still in prison in Ohio? I Googled him in the federal prisoner record, federal prisoner locator thing and was shocked to find out that he had just been released on Friday.
WATKINS: Total coincidence.
MADDOW: OK, total coincidence.
WATKINS: Yes, I mean, I called around to try and see where he had ended up or what had happened to him, try and get an interview. And the law firm was like, he actually gets out and you know, 48 hours. And I was like, wow, that`s really strange.
So, total coincidence sort of a weird ones.
MADDOW: And we expect that he`s probably back in Moscow right now. It was as a condition of his plea deal.
WATKINS: Condition of his deal. He was here on an expired visa and it was, you know, he had to go back to Moscow and leave U.S. soil. So I -- they wouldn`t confirm whether he had left or not yet, I don`t think they necessarily knew, but the intention is for him to go back.
MADDOW: In terms of Carter Page and his appearance in this spy saga, do we know anything about what he handed over, what he gave these Russian spies who were trying to cultivate him?
WATKINS: Well, there`s a couple things that we know. Page was not in the government at that time, and there`s nothing to indicate that there was anything sensitive, and there would be really -- it`s hard to imagine him having a lot of access to send some information at that time. He was not in Trump`s orbit. As I said, he was the private sector employees.
MADDOW: It`s 2013. So, nobody was in Trump`s political orbit at the time, right?
WATKINS: Yes, true, but he -- I mean, he didn`t have access to anything sensitive governmentally. So, that it does not appear that he handed over anything sensitive.
MADDOW: That`s not unusual though for this far as we understand, at least the way that prosecutors explained it at the time and the way the FBI explained at the time in terms of sort of Russian trade cap around these sort of things. When they cultivate assets, they start small, right? They don`t necessarily start with people even think they have access to sensitive information. They just start a relationship that results in their being the turnover of documents get that sort of that pump primed and then try to cultivate people for the long term.
WATKINS: Yes, absolutely. I mean if it`s something as little as kind of making that connection, it`s a long game. You know, you can check in with someone five, 10 years and say, hey, what`s going on with this? It`s certainly a long game. It`s a good example of how it starts.
MADDOW: Why did Carter Page confirm this to you and what was his asked -- what was his affect toward the -- toward this information in it becoming public?
WATKINS: He was very forthcoming with it. I mean, I had been doing a lot of reporting on it, so knew that it was him in the document. And when I asked him about it you`ve said, yes, I`m male one, I`m paraphrasing, but he confirmed that he`s the anonymous male in the document.
MADDOW: So, you were able to figure this out before you got the confirmation from him. Obviously, the icing on the cake is him saying, yes, it`s me.
MADDOW: Reason I want to be super clear about that is because we just heard then-candidate Donald Trump there naming him as one of his foreign policy advisors. In fact, naming is the second person he came up with on the initial list of foreign policy advisors. Isn`t this the sort of thing that should have kind of turned up in vetting?
WATKINS: I mean, that`s the question moving forward, right, is what did the Trump administration know and when did they know it essentially? Again, you know, really want to be clear here -- this was three years before Page had any kind of connection to the campaign. Again, it doesn`t appear there was anything sensitive. But it is questions.
I mean, clearly, this was a known fact in certain corners of the bureau, in certain corners in New York, and as I said, Page was very forthcoming with it. So, I think that is the question tomorrow is, what did the Trump administration know and when did they know it?
MADDOW: And even if Page was himself an unwitting cultivated asset, we know that he knows it happened to him because the FBI went and told him that`s what happened to him when they interview at the time?
WATKINS: Yes, yes.
MADDOW: So, have he been vetted, even just being directly asked, have you ever been in contact with a foreign intelligence service he would have had to say yes.
WATKINS: Presumably, yes, if you want to answer truthfully.
MADDOW: So, we`re great to get to be a top foreign policy advisor to a presidential campaign. Ahh!
Congratulations on this. I really appreciate it.
WATKINS: Yes, absolutely. Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: It was fun to follow in your footsteps as we saw it you reported here. It`s incredible stuff.
Ali Watkins, national security correspondent for "BuzzFeed News."
Much more ahead tonight. We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: Sitting in on the president`s meeting today with the Egyptian president was the deputy national security advisor K.T. McFarland. As the number two official on the National Security Council, it might make sense that K.T. McFarland was in on that meeting, except for the news that she is on her way out.
Reportedly, K.T. McFarland is not going to be national deputy national security adviser for long. She`s off to be ambassador to Singapore. Ambassador to Singapore of all places -- you know, ambassador to Singapore is a great gig if you can get it, unless, of course, your current gig that you have to give up to take it is being deputy national security adviser. I mean, no offense whatsoever to Singapore, but that`s like being promoted from being COO to being deputy undersecretary of pencil sharpening at the suburban satellite office.
Quote, "A source granted anonymity to speak freely about the situation says Ms. McFarland preferred to stay on in some capacity and government in Washington, such as a possible role at State." State as in the State Department in Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C. Not State as in the lovely city-state of Singapore which is 10,000 miles away from D.C. It`s quite an exile.
Regardless of whether that exile actually befalls K.T. McFarland, staffing from the National Security Council has been a real issue for this administration. Besides Michael Flynn being fired as national security advisor just 24 days -- after just 24 days on the job and another deputy national security advisor position getting unfilled as soon as it got filled.
There was also last week`s reporting that two National Security Council staffers were involved in the sharing of classified intelligence reports with the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. They shared those reports reportedly on the White House grounds in the middle of the night for reasons that still haven`t been explained and that the White House is now only partially talked to but not really.
One of those National Security Council staffers has been named as 30-year- old Ezra Cohen-Watnick. He was elevated to a very fancy job. He was elevated to be senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, while Michael Flynn was still there. I have to tell you, we have now reviewed the resumes of what we believe to be the nine people who held that job prior to Ezra Cohen-Watnick getting it in this administration, we have found that none of the prior people who held that job had fewer than twelve years intelligence and military experience.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick only graduated from college in 2008. He has vastly less experience than every person who has ever had that job before on the National Security Council. What was he doing there in that job, what`s he still doing there?
When Mike Flynn was fired, H.R. McMaster came on as his replacement. H.R. McMaster as a National Security Adviser tried to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick out of that intelligence job. But he was blocked in that effort by White House advisers Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was told he had to keep this guy on. Why?
Ezra Cohen-Watnick is being cited today by conservative news outlets as a source for allegations that former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice asked for names of U.S. persons associated with the Trump campaign to be unmasked in U.S. intelligence reports. Now, there`s nothing illegal or improper or even unexpected about a national security advisor unmasking those names. There`s also no allegation that Susan Rice leaked those names if she did have them unmasked, nor is there any allegation that she made any of those intelligence documents public.
But by making those allegations about Susan Rice, the National Security Council under Trump and H.R. McMaster itself appears to be operating at a political level now to try to shape a conservative-friendly alternative to the Trump-Russia scandal, one that stars the Obama administration as the villains instead of Vladimir Putin.
However you feel about that story itself, what does this mean in national security terms? National Security Council is there for a reason. Is it weird that this is what the National Security Council is being used for right now? Is it dangerous?
Hold that thought.
MADDOW: Today, "The New York Times" reports that North Korea is trying to market the kind of lithium that would help you make a hydrogen bomb. Today, "The Financial Times" reports that the Chinese president`s meeting with our president later on this week is expected to be a very high stakes event and that while the Chinese government is bringing the full force of their diplomatic power to bear on that meeting, the person who`s heading up preparation for that meeting on behalf of the United States is the president`s 36-year-old son-in-law.
Choose your adventure right now in terms of national security things you might want to worry about. But right now, there`s something strange going on with national security and how it`s handled in Washington. Right now, the National Security Council in the new administration, among other things, they`re caught right in the middle of what appears to be an effort to manage and politically shape the scandal around the Russian attack on our election last year and the Trump campaign`s potential contact with Russia.
We all expected there would be a political effort to shape the response to that scandal or even to shape the way the intelligence about those matters is received, circulated and politicized. I`m not sure anybody thought that would be run out of a National Security Council though. How weird is that? How worrying is it in terms of the opportunity cost for the other kinds of stuff the National Security Council ought to be worried about right now?
Joining us right now is Michael Leiter. He`s former director of the National Counterterrorism Center under President Bush and Obama in that role. He worked closely with the National Security Council staff.
Michael, it`s nice to see you. Thank you for being here.
MICHAEL LEITER, FORMER U.S. NATL. COUNTERTERRORISM CENTER DIRECTOR: Good to be here, Rachel.
MADDOW: Let me ask you a big picture. When I have talked to other national security professionals, particularly people have had big jobs on national security like you have, they do not seem to be widely alarmed at the Trump administration`s national security capacity. There does seem to be faith in people like Defense Secretary Mattis and the National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and others.
Is that your overall view?
LEITER: Well, it`s certainly my view that there`s a great deal of confidence about some people in certain positions. As you said, Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, Mike Pompeo, I think people have confidence in as well. These are people who understand the issues, are mature, have worked within the national security establishment, and generally, people think they`ve got good solid judgment and will seek out expertise.
I think the big question and the reason why I`m not as confident or sanguine as some others is that the struggles we see within the administration suggest those individuals, while important to their departments and agencies, aren`t actually central players at the White House in national security decision-making and aren`t shaping policy and aren`t helping the president set his priorities. So, it`s great if you have a strong team, but if you`re not talking to that team, if you`re not using that team`s expertise, then it really doesn`t matter who`s on the bench.
MADDOW: The news that the General McMaster may have wanted to fire this young man who`s been named senior director for intelligence the national security council -- I find it unusual that he`s in that job. I know nothing about him personally at all. I don`t mean to talk about him in personal terms. I`m just comparing his resume and his -- the length of service and experience compared to other kinds of people who`ve had that job.
It`s strange to me that he`s in that job. It`s very strange to me and worrying to me that General McMaster wanted to get rid of him and the White House told him he couldn`t. What is your take on that?
LEITER: Well, I think anytime if you`ve run a business, you`ve run a government organization, you`ve run a show. You want to be able to choose your team. And if the boss says, "I don`t have confidence in that individual", and someone says, "I don`t care, he`s staying", that`s worrisome.
And it`s worrisome when, again, you point to H.R. McMaster being one of the adults in the room but he can`t choose his own team, it makes I think many of us question the degree of influence he has with the president.
I think the individual -- I don`t know him either. He`s certainly on the junior side of this. He hasn`t had the wealth of experience in multitude of agencies in the field 20-plus years of intelligence experience, and I fear that some of that youthful indiscretion, if I can use that phrase, may well have led him down a path with Chairman Nunes, which honestly just throws up smoke and keeps anyone from getting to the real issues that you identified, and it`s diverting us from the important national security issues that we face around the globe.
MADDOW: And the diversion factor there, the thing that`s most interesting to me is not sort of how diverted are we, and are we able to refocus on the important issues. The thing that actually worries me just as a person who`s interested in these matters and I`ve got no expertise in this field at all, but I`m worried that the National Security Council, somebody who`s operating as a senior director for intelligence with the National Security Council, is involved in political smoke-making, is involved in political diversions.
I mean, I worry about that both in terms of the other stuff the National Security Council has to do. I also worry about it in terms of whether or not the National Security Council is a place from which political mischief could be made. Could they stick their -- could they stick their hands into the middle of an ongoing investigation? Do they have access to kind of stuff where they could do real harm?
LEITER: Well, first I would say, there is some history the National Security Council putting its nose or its hands into place it shouldn`t be, and I don`t want to suggest that we`ve gone this far. But just think about Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North during Iran Contra, and the National Security Council being operational without the legal restrictions that the other agencies were working with in.
MADDOW: Good point.
LEITER: And there is some risk when you had inexperienced staffers on the National Security Council who may not fully appreciate what they should and should not be doing, because it could implicate the investigations by the FBI.
All that being said, the basic idea, the reason we ended up in this sort of Alice in Wonderland world was because it starts with a tweet from the president, saying I just saw something on TV, there is illegal unconstitutionally political motivated surveillance. That`s a big deal, Rachel.
MADDOW: That`s a big allegation.
LEITER: That`s a big allegation. And in any other world, the president would have actually turned to his national security advisor and said, I just saw this, this seems sort of crazy. But get me the director of the FBI and CIA and DNI and National Security Agency, I want to figure out if there`s any truth to this. And it would start there, and it would be handed off to a staffer on the National Security Council to look at and investigate and they`d know what was going on.
What we have here was a present tweeting. That tweeting then leading to his request to Congress to investigate the executive branch where he could have figured it out in a ten-minute meeting. And then, you`ve got the National Security Council feeding information back to Congress.
It is beyond the hall of mirrors. It has simply confused the issue. And again, it is diverting us from those real issues.
And I think equally important, it makes our allies worried. The fact is whether you`re talking about North Korea or China being more aggressive, all these issues are ones we have to focus on and our allies need our focus. And if we`re focused internally, they don`t believe that we have the time and attention to do that.
MADDOW: And it`s one thing to have political hacks do that kind of work. It is another thing to have national security staff of the United States government at the highest level working on that stuff instead.
Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center -- thank you. It`s nice to see again.
LEITER: Good to see you.
MADDOW: Thank you.
All right. Lots more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Happy Monday. Hope you have a nice weekend. This weekend was better for some people than it was for others.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVE BRYAN, TV ANCHOR: If Tulare Congressman Devin Nunes thought the -- thought he would find peace and contentment at home in California, well, it wasn`t exactly a homecoming celebration for him in Fresno. Right down to an anthem which you may not recognize.
REPORTER: Mixing anger with humor, protesters greeted San Joaquin Valley Congressman Devin Nunes with a rendition of the Russian national anthem. But Nunes snuck into a back door of the banquet hall where he changed the subject, speaking to an agricultural group about water issues in the valley.
REPORTER: But outside, several hundred demonstrators, some of them holding signs with Russian insignia, are upset about how their congressman has handled the investigation into possible collusion with Russia to influence the presidential election outcome.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This whole congressional investigative is just evolved into a joke. He needs to recuse himself or to take it seriously. We want to find out what happened with Russia.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: That was what Congressman Devin Nunes came home to this weekend in Fresno, California. His angry constituents singing, "listen or we`ll throw you out", playing in the Russian national anthem as his homecoming soundtrack.
Constituents are making for tough homecomings for a lot of members of Congress right now, both Democrat and Republican, and that is turning out to be a surprisingly big and interesting factor in the very big fight that Democrats just picked in Washington, and that story is next.
MADDOW: In Denver, Colorado, this weekend, people rallied to call in the state`s two senators to vote no on Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. Democratic Colorado Senator Michael Bennet says he won`t support the filibuster against Gorsuch and Republican Senator Cory Gardner, he`s a yes vote for Gorsuch all the way. So, we`ll see if either Michael Bennet or Cory Gardner pays a price for that stance on Gorsuch in Gorsuch`s home state of Colorado.
But, you know, even without Michael Bennet, Democrats do have the votes to mount their filibuster against Neil Gorsuch, to stop him from being confirmed with the court unless he can get 60 votes. That showdown is going to happen later this week. It`s going to be a huge drama as the Republicans decide how they`re going to respond to that.
Today, every Democrat on the Judiciary Committee voted against Neil Gorsuch`s nomination, but that was just a signal of the bigger fight that will come over this in the next few days.
Here`s one thing to stick a flag in though in this in this news today and as you`re looking towards the rest of the week -- while Democrats on the Judiciary Committee were taking this unified stand against Judge Gorsuch today, they did something else I got a lot less attention. In addition to advancing Judge Gorsuch`s nomination today, the Judiciary Committee also voted to advance the nomination of this man.
His name is Rod Rosenstein. The White House has nominated him to be the number two official at the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Now, who`s the number two at the Justice Department is particularly important in skin bowl terms right now because the Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any investigations into the Trump campaign`s contacts with Russia. That means any Justice Department investigation of such things would be overseen by Rod Rosenstein if he`s confirmed, unless he chooses to a point and outside special prosecutor instead of overseeing things himself. That would be his call as well.
During Rod Rosenstein confirmation hearings last month, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut asked which of those avenues Rod Rosenstein would likely take. Would he oversee these investigations himself or appoint an outside prosecutor? Rosenstein refused to answer.
Today, Senator Blumenthal became the only member of the Judiciary Committee to vote against Rod Rosenstein for this crucial job. Every Democrat except for Blumenthal voted to advance his nomination. The vote on Rosenstein was 19-1.
So, stick a flag in this one. I mean, Democrats have to choose their battles obviously. They will win nothing if they can`t stick together. They are mostly choosing to fight on Gorsuch but not entirely. They are not choosing the fight on the number two job under Jeff Sessions who will run the Russian investigations.
We may look back on this as a momentous strategic decision by the Democrats. Stick a flag in this one. Note this one for the record.
That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".
Good evening, Lawrence.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2017 MSNBC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright 2017 ASC Services II Media, LLC. All materials herein are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of ASC Services II Media, LLC. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content.