Show: The Rachel Maddow Show Date: April 11, 2017 Guest: Adam Entous, Eric Swalwell, Spencer Ackerman
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
A lot going on in the news. Literally, tonight, there`s a bunch of developing stories.
We`re waiting right now on news out of Kansas where counting is under way in what appears to be an unexpectedly close congressional election. I say this is an unexpectedly close race because this is a deep red district in deep red Kansas. This is a district that Donald Trump won by nearly 30 points in November.
This is the sort of race that should be called immediately when polls close. This is something where it shouldn`t be hard at all for the Republican Party to hold onto this seat. This is a seat so partisan that you might expect the Democratic Party wouldn`t even run someone in a district like this.
But the Democrats are running someone, and we`re watching these results come in tonight. Polls close at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. We do not yet have a result. We will be watching that throughout this hour. We`ll be reporting on that story later on this evening.
Also tonight, the White House made itself the center of quite a lot of unflattering attention today as the White House spokesman basically almost talked himself out of a job, with a series of repeated unforced, bizarre misstatements, including about World War II, statements that he continues to try to apologize for into this evening. So, we will get to that tonight as well.
But we have to start with a little breaking news which has just been published by "The Washington Post." And I want to say from the outset that the source of this news is very unusual this is a breaking news story about the Trump campaign and Russia. And this story springs from a very unusual leak. It`s a leak of something that really doesn`t usually leak.
And "The Washington Post" goes out of their way tonight to point out in their reporting that what is the source of this scoop that they`ve got, this is not a typical, you know, people talking to the press sort of leak. This is not something that usually gets leaked to the press. I`ll just quote the way "the Washington Post" describes it.
This is about a FISA warrant. FISA stands for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They have been leaked the contents of a FISA warrant. As "The Washington Post" explains, quote, "The judges who rule on FISA requests, on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requests, those judges oversee the most sensitive national security cases and their warrants are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the world of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence gathering."
Nevertheless, the content of one of those warrants is what appears to have leaked tonight. At least what "The Washington Post" says they have obtained tonight in the Trump Russia story. That is a very unusual thing. FISA warrants don`t leak.
But one has leaked, and it is breaking news tonight. It`s breaking news about somebody who was recently listed in court documents as male number one. You might remember this story that we covered a few nights ago on this show. Male number one, as described in this criminal indictment from a few years ago, was an American energy consultant.
According to this filing by the court, filing by the U.S. government, he was recruited as an unwitting asset for Russian intelligence back in 2013. Quoting from this court filing, "On or about April 8th, 2013, the defendants, who are Russian spies who are being surveilled by the FBI in this case, they discussed efforts to recruit a male working as a consultant in New York City as an intelligent source."
The FBI picked up these conversations between Russian spies who were working out of New York and, according to the indictment, where the U.S. government brought charges against them for being Russian spies, one of the things these guys were caught on tape talking about was their new American intelligence asset who was listed in the indictment as male number 1.
The spies described him as literally an idiot, is the word they used for him. They described him as basically having no idea that he was befriending Russian spies. He wanted to make contacts and get promoted by the energy business.
Eventually, the FBI goes and pays male number 1 a visit. And male number 1 reveals that in the course of this friendly relationship he struck with these Russian spies, he did pass them documents about the energy business, which is what they were trying to get from him in the first place. That`s what the Russians were after.
This is how Russian spies cultivate Americans to betray the United States, right? Start off friendly. Start off with something that seems like a business relationship or an academic relationship. Start off with handing over your own thoughts on specific industries.
Try to get them hand over some documents about those industries. Stay in touch, right? Start a transactional relationship. Maybe it turns into something. Maybe it does not.
This is what Russian spies, what spies from all countries who spy here try to do when they try to recruit Americans.
Well, earlier this month, "BuzzFeed News" reported that male number 1 in that spy ring indictment was actually a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser named Carter Page. It seems like a weird coming together of different news stories, but Carter Page was apparently recruited as an American asset by Russian spies in New York in 2013. And it was a successful recruitment effort. They may have described him as an idiot, but he handed them documents. He handed them information to help them out.
Carter Page met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy who was in fact, later charged by the U.S. government, along with two others for acting as unregistered agent of a foreign government.
Funny thing about that "BuzzFeed" story from last week is that the way "BuzzFeed" confirmed that Carter Page was the intelligence asset in this story, the way they confirmed he was male number 1 is that, quote, "Carter Page confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he is male number 1 in the court filing." He flat out told them and he`d been in contact with this indicted Russian spy, Victor Podobnyy.
So, that background of Carter Page from that Russian spy story, that`s part of what adds to the strangeness around the Trump campaign and their involvement with Carter Page. In March 2016, candidate Donald Trump was getting pressure in the media, pressure from his Republican rivals for not having apparently any foreign policy advisers on his presidential campaign team.
While he was getting that pressure, including from "The Washington Post" editorial board in an interview, he pulled this random name out of a hat, Carter Page. He volunteered that name. Carter Page, he`s my foreign policy adviser.
"The Washington Post" was pressuring him on this subject at the editorial board meeting and that guy was inexplicably one of the only foreign policy advisers Donald Trump could name. And just a couple years before, he had been recruited as a Russian intelligence asset.
And that is the background that brings us to tonight`s breaking news. According to this remarkable leak to "The Washington Post", "The Washington Post" reports tonight that last summer, the FBI got a FISA court warrant. One of the super secret national security warrants that never leaks. "Washington Post" reports that a FISA warrant was issued last summer to monitor Carter Page`s communications while he was an adviser to the Trump campaign.
I`m quoting from tonight`s article which was just published within the last couple of hours, quote, "The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign." That`s according to law enforcement and other U.S. officials.
Quote, "The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page`s communications after convincing a foreign intelligence surveillance court judge that there was probable cause to believe that Carter Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case, Russia." That`s according to these officials.
Quote, "The government`s application for the surveillance order targeting Carter Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators` basis for believing that he was an agent of the Russian government and that he knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow."
Quote, "Among other things, the application cited contacts that he had with the Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013. Those contacts had earlier surfaced in a federal espionage case brought by the Justice Department against another Russian agent. In addition, the application said Carter Page had other contacts with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed."
Since this 90-day warrant was first issued, it has been renewed more than once by the FISA court, according to these officials who spoke with "The Washington Post".
So, this is -- if what "The Washington Post" has reported turns out to be true, this is a big advance in the story, right? It is worth, though, I can`t stress this enough.
It`s worth keeping in mind that FISA warrants are super secret. First rule of FISA is you don`t talk about FISA. I mean, the existence of the court, the existence of these types of warrants often itself is treated as classified information.
When House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes gave his spate of press conferences last month about what he implied might have been improper surveillance of Trump transition officials, he merely mentioned some of the intelligence he saw same from FISA warrants. Immediately upon him saying that, classification experts started wondering allowed if perhaps Devin Nunes had disclosed classified information just by saying that something he had seen had been obtained through a FISA warrant. He`s under investigation for potentially disclosing classified information.
And now, tonight, somebody has leaked to "The Washington Post" not just the existence of a FISA warrant and the Trump Russia investigation, but a whole lot of information about its contents. That in itself is stunning, even before you get to the part about a campaign adviser to the sitting U.S. president being under FISA court surveillance as a suspected agent of a foreign power, while that foreign power was affecting the U.S. election to try to elect our current president.
Joining us now is Adam Entous. He`s a national security reporter for "The Washington Post." He was on the team of reporters who broke this story tonight.
Mr. Entous, thank you for joining us on short notice tonight. I really appreciate you being here.
ADAM ENTOUS, NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER, WASHINGTON POST (via telephone): No problem. Happy to be here.
MADDOW: So, first of all, let me ask you if you think it is appropriate for me to be putting this emphasis on the nature of this information that`s the basis of your report tonight. It seems to me as a layman, just as an observer here, that we very rarely get a leak, let alone a detailed leak of the contents of a FISA warrant. Is that fair to say?
ENTOUS: You know, I haven`t really looked back to try to get a sense of what other details about FISA warrants have been -- have been leaked. I think in this case, obviously, it`s -- it`s important to kind of understand the context and, like you said, you know, last summer when it looked to the intelligence community like Russia was intervening in the election and you can understand why the FBI, which had launched its investigation, counterintelligence investigation in July would be interested in trying to get to the bottom of any contacts between people both who are working for the campaign and also have Russian contacts.
And like you did notice, you did take note, there was this previous contact between Page and a Russian agent which, obviously, the FBI knew about when he surfaced on the campaign.
MADDOW: The -- one sharp difference between that described interaction that he had with known Russian spies in 2013, again for context there, that was a case that was actually prosecuted by the Justice Department. It was an employee of a Russian bank in New York. And two Russian government employees who were associated with legitimate government outposts here in the United States. The three of them were tried. Two of them were back in Moscow and didn`t actually get physically put on trial here. One of them actually was tried and convicted and just got out of federal prison a few days ago.
In that case, he was described as essentially an unwitting target of those Russian spies. But what you guys are reporting tonight, I`ll just quote here, "The government`s application for the surveillance order targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out the basis for believing he was an agent of the Russian government and that he knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow."
So, that would say he was not someone being used unwittingly but, rather, he knew what he was doing and that he was deliberately acting as a Russian agent.
ENTOUS: Yes. So, as you know, I mean, the bar is relatively high for trying to get one of these FISA warrants. And it requires the investigators to -- and the prosecutors to make a case of probable cause. And so, the officials we spoke to described some of the aspects of that case.
There are other aspects of that case they were making in this document that we are not aware of, and which we vaguely allude to, including other contacts that allegedly Page had with others on the Russian side. And so, there`s still a lot that we do not know about the contents of the warrant. What was -- what case the government had to make to the FISA court in order to get this warrant and, you know, as it says in the story, the warrant was renewed, at least once if not multiple times.
So, typically, they have to -- these cases come up again. The judge takes another look and decides, are we getting anything of value out of this before deciding whether to renew? And we know in this case it was renewed at least once.
MADDOW: And to that point, let me just raise with you, Adam, the statement that Carter Page gave to you when you guys brought him this information, this reporting. Tonight you quote him as saying, "This confirms all of my suspicions about unjustified politically motivated government surveillance. I have nothing to hide."
He`s implying or stating that this is -- this is unfair. There`s no basis for hum to have been the subject of this court order. When you confronted him with this information, was this of news to him? Was he aware that he was under this form of surveillance?
ENTOUS: Just to be, in the sake of full transparency, I wasn`t one of the -- I wasn`t the reporter that made that call. So I`m not sure what his reaction was when he was told. But, you know, you can pretty much tell from his statement that maybe in the back of his mind, he suspected that this might have been going on.
And his statement certainly dovetails with, you know, a talking point, an accusation that`s been leveled by the president himself and by others in the administration about, you know, about surveillance that took place in 2016 or alleged surveillance which took place in 2016, some of which, you know, I think, is pretty clear in the case of Flynn, the former national security adviser, involved incidental collection but might have also included FISA warrant like the one we`re reporting on tonight.
MADDOW: Adam Entous, national security reporter for "The Washington Post", with this remarkable story that`s just posted within the last couple of hours -- Adam, thank you very much for helping us understand this tonight. I appreciate it.
ENTOUS: Pleasure. Thank you.
MADDOW: I also want to bring in to the conversation now, Congressman Eric Swalwell. He`s a Democrat who is on the House Intelligence Committee. He represents a district in northern California where I happen to have grown up.
Congressman Swalwell, thank you very much for joining us. I appreciate you being with us tonight.
REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA (via telephone): Nice to be back with you, Rachel.
MADDOW: So, "The Washington Post" has posted this story tonight, just after 7:00 p.m. tonight, saying that an adviser to the Trump campaign, a man named Carter Page, is the subject of -- or at least was the subject of a FISA court warrant that he was suspected of being a knowing agent of the Russian government and that a FISA judge, FISA court judge ordered this surveillance of him as such.
Can I just get your overall top line reaction to this report tonight?
SWALWELL: Certainly, someone who you would be interested in getting to the bottom of what his ties to Russia were. And you brought up that back in 2013, he was a -- a subject approached for his ties to Russia. He may have been unwitting at that point.
However, he was someone who had done $25 billion of transactions with Russia. And then to go to Russia in 2016, just a month after it was revealed that Russia was involved in an interference campaign in our elections, and to ask the Trump campaign a number of times for permission and to be denied and then to go around J.D. Gordon who he had first asked and then to go to the campaign manager at the time, Corey Lewandowski, that I think would raise a real interest by the FBI and the Department of Justice.
So, I`m not surprised at all that they would seek that, if it`s true.
MADDOW: The Trump administration and Trump campaign officials have taken various lines on Carter Page over the course of this whole saga. Obviously, the only reason his name came up in the first place is because the now president, then candidate, Donald Trump, volunteered him when he was listing off the names of people he wanted to be known as his foreign policy advisers. Carter Page was the second person he named when he brought that up with "The Washington Post" editorial board.
Since then, the administration has tried to say that Carter Page was somebody they`ve never met, had nothing to do with him, persona non grata and really shouldn`t be associated with him whatsoever.
What do you make of that dynamic within the administration about this investigation?
SWALWELL: That dynamic, to me, is an administration that is trying to run away from someone that at one time was close to them. And the way that Carter Page has behaved, you know, from his interviews with Chris Hayes and also Anderson Cooper is also the behavior of somebody who seems to want to cover up prior ties. I mean, he can`t even answer how many people were in the room each time he`s been with Donald Trump.
And as a former prosecutor, I found that a lot of times, the behavior that people demonstrate after an investigation takes place tells you a lot about whether you are investigating the right person.
MADDOW: Congressman, one last question for you. I have to ask if the House intelligence investigation into these matters is live. Obviously, the chairman of your committee has recused himself from these matters while he`s investigated for potentially leaking classified information. There is a new person on the Republican side, Congressman Mike Conaway of Texas, who is going to be supposedly helming this part of the investigation.
Should we expect there will be more public hearings, that this investigation will go on?
SWALWELL: We`re in the best place we`ve been in since the chairman, Chairman Nunes, went to the White House the day after Director Comey and Rogers` hearings.
So, we`re back on track. We`ve agreed to an extensive witness list when we get back to Washington in about a week and a half. We`ll start interviewing those witnesses.
And it is my hope we have that public hearing we promised the American people with former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former Directors Clapper and Brennan. And that would be I think an important step to showing that we`re getting to the bottom of what happened, whether any U.S. persons were involved and, most importantly, how we`re going to make sure we`re never in this mess again.
MADDOW: Congressman Eric Swalwell of California, member of the House Intelligence Committee -- thank you, sir. Appreciate your time tonight.
SWALWELL: My pleasure.
MADDOW: Again, we`re reacting to this breaking news from "The Washington Post" tonight. The headline is "FBI obtained FISA warrant to monitor former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page." The FBI and the Justice Department convinced the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court, secret court, last summer to issue a warrant, which is a hard thing to get from the FISA court, targeting the communications of Donald Trump`s foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
This is the first time we`ve had confirmation of that kind of -- that part of the investigation by a long shot. "Washington Post" just posting this tonight just after 7:00 p.m.
Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: One of the first close U.S. allies that was offended and yelled at and reportedly hung up on by the new administration, by the new president, was the prime minister of Australia.
You might remember President Trump was in a conversation with the prime minister of Australia. Things turned heated for a reason that was never quite clear and President Trump reportedly hung up on him in the middle of their first conversation.
The prime minister of Australia has a name. His name is Malcolm Turnbull. It`s not that hard, Turnbull. Malcolm Turnbull, that`s his name.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president had a very cordial conversation with Prime Minister Trumble (ph).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: His name is not Trumble. It`s Turnbull. Just those two syllables, Turnbull.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: While he has respect for the Australian people and respect for Prime Minister Trumble --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: This is not actually that hard, but the White House spokes -- it`s Turnbull.
But right away, from the very beginning, it was clear the White House spokesman could not manage this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: Prime Minister Trumble. In respect for Prime Minister Trumble.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: His name is not Trumble. His name is Turnbull. There were these early little signs that maybe even the kind of easy stuff like this was going to be a problem because it turns out it`s not even just names, it`s when you spell stuff out, too. Literally acronyms are even hard. Even short acronyms.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: He received an intelligence briefing and the PBD every day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: The president receives a PDB every day, not a PBD. It`s the president`s daily brief, not the -- president`s daily briefly, really, PDB. President`s daily brief, PDB.
But the White House spokesman cannot manage that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: He receives an intelligence briefing and the PBD every day. He received the PBD. He received the PBD. He does get the PBD every day.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: It`s not the PBD. It`s the PDB. It`s the president`s daily brief. It stands for a thing.
And then he was trying to talk about the terrorist attack in Orlando. It happened in Orlando. Orlando is a totally different place than Atlanta, which is what he kept saying instead.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
SPICER: What do we say to the family that loses somebody of a terrorist, to whether it`s Atlanta or San Bernardino or the Boston bomber?
I don`t think you have to look any farther than the families that were -- of the Boston marathon, in Atlanta, in San Bernardino.
Whether you talk about San Bernardino, Atlanta --
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: When he says Atlanta over and over again, there isn`t a terrorist attack in Atlanta that he`s talking about. He`s trying to talk about Orlando. But it keeps coming out Atlanta over and over and over again. He later cleared that up but not before the --
And now, today, it`s World War II 101, as failed by the spokesman for the president of the United States. I know you heard about this today, but if you actually heard the thing itself, because this isn`t just mispronouncing something. This is the full-blown blossoming of something that appears to be a thought.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: What makes you think that, at this point, he`s going to pull back in his support for President Assad and for the Syrian government right now?
SPICER: I think a couple things. You look -- we didn`t use chemical weapons in World War II. You had a -- you know, someone as despicable as Hitler who didn`t even sink to using chemical weapons.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: I`m not going to go ahead and spell out the history here of Hitler gassing millions of people to death in World War II. Obviously, you know that history. Everybody knows that history. Seven-year-olds are too young probably to watch this show but 7-year-olds know that history, right?
But this is our White House now. That was the statement today.
Do you care to clarify, sir? Were you talking about someone, something other than Hitler maybe? Do you want to clear this up?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CECILIA VEGA, ABC NEWS: I just want to give you the opportunity to clarify something you said that seems to be gaining some traction. Quote, "Hitler didn`t even sink the level of using chemical weapons." What do you mean by that?
SPICER: I think when you come to sarin gas, there was no -- he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there was clearly -- I understand -- thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. There was not, in the -- he brought them into the Holocaust center. I understand that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: The Holocaust centers? He brought them into the Holocaust centers?
And when he was not using gas on his own people? By which you mean the people Hitler gassed by the millions weren`t his own people? Whose people?
I mean, this is an attempt at historical reference gone very, very, very wrong, clearly. But what it`s about in the present, what this historical presence is about now is also a problem here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Ashad is doing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: The same way who? What?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: The same way that Ashad is doing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Ashad. That`s one of his attempts today to say Bashar al Assad. That was one of his tries. Here`s another try.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: No, I don`t see a future Syria that has Bassad al Aschar (ph) as the leader of that government.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Bassad al Aschar. His name is Bashar al Assad.
The White House spokesman later went on CNN. Still couldn`t manage that part of it. Still.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: There`s no way that I can see a stable and peaceful Syria with Bashar al Assad in charge.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Bashar al Assad. You`ve mispronounced his name a few times. But it`s Bashar al-Assad.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Bashad al Assir was the attempt there.
Talking is hard. Everybody gets tripped up sometimes. But this is the person whose job it is to speak for the White House. And he can`t even do it in print, let alone out loud. Seriously.
After initially stating that Hitler didn`t use chemical weapons, that Hitler, OK, OK, well, at least he didn`t gas his own people, that Hitler only did the gassing of whoever he gassed in the Holocaust centers. After that happened out loud, look at this -- this is how they tried to clean it up in print.
The White House put out this written clarifying statement at 2:47 p.m. from the press secretary. "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on innocent people."
When you say innocent people, do you -- OK, no, let`s try that again. So, then a few minutes later, this is nine minutes later. From the press secretary: "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust, however, I was trying to draw a contrast of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers."
OK. You want to leave it there? You sure that`s where you want to leave it?
Nope, sorry. No, another written clarification ten minutes letter. This one time stamped 3:06 p.m. from the press secretary. "In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centers. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable."
That makes three difference written tries in 19 minutes. Anything else? Are we done with this now?
Oh, no. Not done. Not done it turns out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: I needed to make sure that I clarified and not in any way shape or form any more of a distraction from the president`s decisive action in Syria and the attempts he`s making to destabilize the region.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: The attempts that he`s making to what?
The White House spokesman today not wanting to distract from President Trump`s efforts to destabilize the region.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SPICER: Any more of a distraction from the president`s decisive action in Syria and the attempts that he`s making to destabilize the region.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Talking is hard. Some people are better at talking than others. I talk for a living on TV, for example. I`m not great at it. I know for sure that I could not last five minutes as a spokesperson for the White House. Never. Couldn`t do it. Most people couldn`t do that.
But some people can. Why is he doing it? Just a transfixing series of blunders today from the White House on an incredibly serious subject. And it`s only made worse by the fact that it`s actually not just the freaking spokesman.
Today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was at a G7 meeting in Italy. You might remember this group used to be called the G8 before they kicked Russia out for invading Ukraine and the G8 became the G7. Rex Tillerson flew from the G7 to Moscow. supposedly to take this very hard-line with Russia.
But before he got on the plane to Russia, he managed to pry this out of his own mouth: Why should U.S. taxpayers care about Ukraine? Quote, "With one offhand remark, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left European diplomats befuddled at a gathering in Italy." Quote, "Why should U.S. taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?" Tillerson asked.
Yeah, who cares about Ukraine? American people clearly do not care about Ukraine. Now I`m off to tell Russia what a hard line we`re taking with them after they invaded Ukraine because that`s so important to us.
Maybe the White House spokesman can walk that one through its paces, clarify it. Spell it, maybe.
Even on the most serious issues on Earth, this White House, this administration can make itself the center of attention just by sheer virtue of how disastrously, distractingly inept they can be at even the simplest things.
But if that makes you less funny ha-ha and more funny sick, there is a little bit of a cure. There`s a cure for that despair. It`s called democracy. And we are having a little outbreak of it tonight. And that story is next.
MADDOW: March 21st, Pennsylvania held a special election for a state representative seat. And special elections are always a little weird. They can have low turnout. They can be very unpredictable.
But this race last month in Pennsylvania was particularly weird because it was a really, really Democratic district but no Democrat was on the ballot. The Democratic candidate for that state rep seat got thrown off the ballot in a technicality. So, the only name on the ballot in that election was a Republican.
And then remarkably, that Republican, who was the only name on the ballot, she lost. She lost anyway. The Democrat won that race in Pennsylvania last month even though he had to run as a write-in candidate.
Now, that was a very Democrat -- look at that. Democrat got 73 percent as a write-in. The Republican was on the ballot. She only got 7 percent. That was a very Democratic district, right?
So maybe that fluky result was not all that strange, but it does sort of fit what`s starting to look like a national pattern. There have been about a dozen elections around the country, legislative elections all over the country. House -- state house races, state senate races, including that one I just described where the Democrat won hugely, even though he wasn`t even on the ballot.
In 10 of the 13 races that have happened thus far since the presidential election, the Democratic candidate has done better than you might expect compared to how the presidential race went in November. It`s not universal. There are a couple of exceptions.
But in general, Democratic candidates running all over the country are doing better than you might otherwise expect if you just look at the results of how the presidential election compared to how the presidential race went in November.
But after all of those dozen or so elections that have happened for these legislative seats around the country, today was the first big one. Today was the first special election for a seat in Congress. And this congressional seat is one that`s basically structurally impossible for Democrats to win.
If you just look at the numbers in this district, this is a district that Donald Trump won by 27 points in November. The Republican incumbent congressman there was Mike Pompeo. Mike Pompeo did even better than Donald Trump did. He won re-election to that seat by 31 points in November. This is a deep red district in a deep red state. It`s literally the headquarters of Koch Industries, of the Koch brothers fame.
This has a Republican congressional district for decades. And when the administration decided they would elevate Mike Pompeo from the House to make him head of the CIA, I`m sure they thought one thing they never would have to worry about, one thing they`d never have to lift a finger to do anything about was keeping his House seat in Republican hands. And they must have been especially cheered when they heard about the candidates who got slated from Mike Pompeo`s seat, because Democrats decided to run a first time candidate, a local lawyer who has never run for anything before. He doesn`t particularly have any longstanding political connections in the state.
Against him, the Republicans ran his polar opposite. They decided to run the Kansas state treasurer who has been elected statewide in Kansas twice already. So, I mean, that`s like an overkill matchup, right? This is a congressional election that`s Mt. Everest basically for Democrats. This is just an impossible pick-up for the Democratic Party.
Nationally, the Democrats House Campaign Committee, they declined to get involved in this thing. The Democratic candidate who`s running for this seat in Kansas asked the national party for $20,000 -- excuse me, asked the Democratic Party for $20,000 too send out a mailer. The Democratic Party said no.
But then, last week, there were these shocking sort of murky news reports out of Kansas that an internal Republican poll in this race, not a public poll, an internal Republican poll, showed that the Republican running in the special election, that the Kansas state treasurer, the guy who ought to be running away with this, was actually only leading by low single digits. And that caused a panic.
I mean, in a special election where Republicans generally outperform anyway because special elections always have a low turnout. In a Republican district this red with these candidates run, this should be a 25-point, 30- point winning for the Republicans without anybody even trying.
But then that internal Republican poll got publicized last week. Low single digit lead? Really?
And the Republican Party started to panic, not just in Kansas but nationally. But the vice president of the United States and the president of the United States did robocalls in the district. As we reported last night, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas flew into Kansas and did an in-person campaign rally last night at a private aviation hangar.
Polls closed tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time in Kansas, which means we are watching the results trickle in. Even the fact they couldn`t just call it at poll closing for the Republican, that itself is news in this kind of a race. And this is just one race. We`ll see how it turns out.
But sometimes, these individual races have a national message. 1974 was a famous one. Six months before the Watergate scandal forced President Nixon to resign, the congressional district in Michigan that had been Gerald Ford`s congressional district, what "The New York Times" describe as one of the most Republican bastions in the country, that district went to a Democrat in a special election for the first time since 1910.
And that wasn`t a forever change. Doesn`t mean that was a bellwether for what that district was going to be like forever, but it did signal the political temperature in the country at that moment. And that can happen in off-year elections, particularly when the country is going through a real upheaval in terms of public opinion.
In 2005, Ohio, a Democrat named Paul Hackett did not win a congressional special election in Ohio`s second district but Paul Hackett that year got way closer than anybody thought he could to a Republican incumbent in that district. He lost but that margin being so unexpectedly close, him not winning that race but unexpectedly closing that gap, that, too, was an early warning sign that something was afoot in the country. That something was about to happen.
And in fact, in the next midterm election in 2006, Democrats swept the House, took the Senate. So, it`s these Kansas results that we`re watching coming in tonight. Again, if you look at the numbers, this is an unwinnable race for any Democrat. But we`re watching these numbers come in.
And whether or not this Democrat, James Thompson pulls out this, people will be closely watching, even then, the margin, in what ought to be a 30- point landslide safe seat for the Republicans. It`s the same dynamic people will be watching this time next week in another supposedly red district in Georgia when Tom Price`s congressional seat comes up in a special election.
These special elections are local. They are about these particular candidates and these particular congressional districts, these particular states. But they are also a way to take the nation`s temperature. And right now, that appears to be hot, at least on the Democratic side.
MADDOW: When Defense Secretary Jim Mattis put out a statement yesterday saying the missile strike on the Syrian air base last week destroyed 20 percent of the operational aircraft in Syria`s air force, we noted that that was actually the fourth different and distinct description of the damage that that strike ostensibly did. So far, the administration has said that one strike destroyed 20 planes at that one base.
They`ve also said it destroyed 20 percent of the planes in one wing of the Syrian air force. They`ve also said it destroyed 20 percent of the planes that are actually operational in the Syrian air force, and they`ve said that it destroyed 20 percent of all the planes in the whole Syrian air force. They`ve given all the different descriptions.
So, today, Secretary Mattis gave this life briefing to reporters. Finally, that afforded an opportunity to clarify this point.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: In your statement yesterday you said, the cruise missile strikes took out 20 percent of Syrians operational aircraft. There was some confusion over that statement, can you clarify and explain how much of a blow it was to Syria`s overall capability?
JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I thought it was about 20 percent. I think it`s around 20 aircraft were taken out, which probably equates to about that, although I probably should not have used the 20 percent. We`re trying to provide information as it comes in and this is one of the challenges of trying to get it accurate, but get it out as quickly as we can give you some fidelity. But it`s around 20 aircraft and that damage to the Syrian air force is pretty severe, as you can tell.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: As you can tell.
This is weird, right? I mean, it`s just -- even though 20 percent of Syria`s operational aircraft was actually written down in a formal statement four days after the air strike, apparently that was just a guess rushed out and they didn`t really know -- 20 planes, 20 percent, the damage was severe, OK, as you can tell.
Here`s the thing, we can`t tell, that`s why we ask these questions and why we expect answers that are true. But that data point about how much damage was done by the missile strike last week, that is illustrative of a broader swath of chaos we are getting in the administration on this subject.
In "The Guardian" newspaper today, Spencer Ackerman, who is a great reporter took on the unenviable task of trying to figure out what exactly the administration`s policy is on Syria right now. Quote, "Confused by Donald Trump`s policy on Syria? That just means you`ve been listening to what his administration has been saying in the last few days."
For the record, Spencer identifies five different Syria policies in less than two weeks. Over the course of two weeks, we`ve gone from the policy being that Assad can stay. To then being Assad must go, to then the policy being that the only issue for the United States is chemical weapons, to then the policy being that the United States will attack ISIS first and then Assad can stay or go, depending on whether Russia agrees, to then, the U.S. will respond militarily, not just to chemical weapons, but the U.S. will respond military also to barrel bombs, which are conventional weapons, which the Syrian military uses every day.
So, that was five different policies in less than two weeks, and then after that, today, they even walked back the barrel bombs thing. So, apparently, we`re on to policy number six. What is the policy, what is the policy under which hundreds of American troops are now serving in Syria? What`s that missile strike about last week? Spin the chore wheels, so who answers, you never know what answer you`ll get depending on who explains it.
Then, today on top of all of that, we got this strange, unsourced document that was distributed anonymously by somebody at the White House. It`s a document that claims to be declassified summary of the intelligence community`s assessment of that chemical weapons attack in Syria, but it is unsigned. It references no specific intelligence agencies and it frankly just looks like somebody typed something up on Microsoft Word and said this is a declassified summary. OK.
It accuses Russia of trying to cover up the chemical weapons attack for the Assad regime last week, which is very big deal accusation. It would be good to know if that really is the official White House position on this. Is it the position of the president and commander-in-chief that Russia is implicated in chemical weapons attack? Or is this unsigned, unsourced document being freelanced to reporters by a particular White House official who doesn`t actually speak for anybody else?
And as this continues to not make any sense at all, A, American troops are in harm`s way in Syria, B, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow right now. What is he going to say? And will it be binding?
Hold that thought.
MADDOW: Back when he was the CEO of Exxon and making multi, multi, multi, multibillion dollars deals with Russia, Rex Tillerson was busy getting the Russian Order of Friendship medal pinned on him by Vladimir Putin himself. Now, today, he`s back in Syria as the American secretary of state, trailing questions about how this first official visit is going to go.
Joining us now is Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for "The Guardian" newspaper, who`s been covering this with alacrity and with increasing frustration.
Is that fair to say?
SPENCER ACKERMAN, THE GUARDIAN U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: I feel like I`m now a human shrugging emoticon.
MADDOW: You wrote this piece essentially that I feel like must have started as notes to yourself trying to determine what U.S. policy is toward Syria right now -- tracking the evolution of five different positions over the course of two weeks.
ACKERMAN: It was like a "True Detective" season one white board. It`s so difficult to figure out, A, if there is a coherent policy and the principal figures don`t quite understand it; B, if there`s a coherent policy and the principal figures within it don`t agree with it and are trying to undermine/redefine it, or if this is getting made up on the fly.
MADDOW: Rex Tillerson has this unusual history in Russia as Exxon CEO. Is it clear to you, even just looking at him that he has in mind a policy on Syria, whether or not it tracks with Nikki Haley or Sean Spicer or Donald Trump or anybody else. Is it clear to you that he has a policy or a position, or is trying to do something?
ACKERMAN: Absolutely not. Few people in this administration, this is saying so much, have contradicted themselves so thoroughly and so quickly as Rex Tillerson. On March 30th, Tillerson basically gave the green light for U.S. policy to say that Assad can stay, which we had every reason to believe was going to be Trump`s policy given that it`s everything Trump had said from 2013 up until that point.
And now, suddenly, after the chemical attack, it seemed like that really did have quite an impression on either the president himself or, apparently, his daughter, which may have driven quite a great deal of this.
Tillerson then comes around and reverses himself entirely not just on the subject of Assad now having to leave. He said that there was a process underway to get rid of Assad, meaning at that point, hours before this missile strike, was the U.S. talking about an actual military campaign to oust Assad, and now, thoroughly going even beyond where he had been before as bewildering as that is, to try and convince the Russians that they have to get rid of Assad, which, basically, had been the policy, quite frustrated amongst --
MADDOW: The Obama administration.
ACKERMAN: -- of the Obama administration of John Kerry, and now, we`re all waiting to see what`s going to happen, if he`s even going to meet with Putin in Moscow.
And really significant today, as all of this drift sets in, about what U.S. policy actually is. You saw the defense chief, secretary of -- I`m sorry, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the head of Central Command, General Votel, come out and define this strike, this whole policy in the most minimal terms, that this is re-establishing a deterrent and a cost for Assad using chemical weapons in the future.
MADDOW: Uh-huh. And meanwhile, hundreds of U.S. troops laboring and risking their lives in Syria in the middle of this, not knowing what the policy is or what missile strikes into the country in which they`re serving are designed to do.
Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for "The Guardian" -- this is a mess. Thank you for helping us to try to untangle it. Good to see you, my friend.
ACKERMAN: Thank you, Rachel. Always.
MADDOW: All right. That does it for us tonight. We`ll see you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".
Good evening, Lawrence.
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