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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 5/15/17

Guests: Gregg Jaffe, Shane Harris, David Priess, Ned Price

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend.


MADDOW:  And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. 

I feel like things are getting unsubtle.  Things are getting very blunt very fast. 

In the first week of April, on April 3rd, "The Washington Post" broke this very strange story.  Four great "Washington Post" reporters bylined on the story, you can tell it was sourced to the hilt.  They`ve got U.S. officials, officials in European countries, officials in Arab countries, all confirming this strange thing, all confirming that on January 11th and January 12th this year, which was less than a week after the intelligence community put out its damning report about Russia`s attack on our presidential election last year, less than a week after that report came out, there was a two-day long meeting that was held in the Seychelles Islands, which is off the coast of Kenya by Madagascar. 

And it was a meeting in the Seychelles, two days worth of meetings between a representative for Vladimir Putin and an envoy from the Trump administration.  According to "The Post", again, this reporting first week of April, Erik Prince maintained at the time of that meeting that was he authorized to act as an unofficial surrogate for the president-elect.  His hosts at that meeting believed that to be true about him.  He got that meeting and he spent two days in January in an island paradise meeting with a representative for Vladimir Putin. 

What did they meet about?  What did they talk about?  What took two days to get through?  Why did they have to meet in this far away place?  Who knows?  Presumably, they had many matters of mutual concern to discuss. 

But here`s detail that carried forward to today.  The person who set up that mysterious meeting in the Seychelles Islands in January, the person who set up what has basically been reported out as a back channel meeting between the Trump folks and the Putin folks, the guy who set it up, the guy who hosted the meeting was this man, MBZ. 

They call him MBZ, because it`s easy to remember.  His name is Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan.  He`s the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, which is the capital of United Arab Emirates.  So, he`s next in line to the throne in the United Arab Emirates. 

Now, "The Washington Post" reports and pictures confirm that MBZ met multiple times with Vladimir Putin, personally last year.  They further report that MBZ mysteriously flew into the United States in December without notifying the Obama administration.  Now, that`s weird because national leaders like the crowned prince of a U.S. ally would usually notify the U.S. government when they were coming in to this country for any reason. 

But in December, he flew into New York without telling the Obama administration, without telling the U.S. government that he was coming.  They later figured out that he was here because his name turned up on a flight manifest.  But other than that, they had no notification.

It turns out what he was coming to New York for in December was to take a meeting with Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner.  He met with them in December and then the following month in January, he set up and then hosted these two days of meetings between Erik Prince, who said he was there on behalf of Donald Trump, and a Russian emissary who was there on behalf of Vladimir Putin.  That was the host and the organizer of that meeting, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, better known as MBZ. 

Guess where MBZ turned up today. 


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Great honor to have Sheikh Mohammed with us today.  A man that I`ve known, very special, very special person, highly respected, and loves his country, I can tell you that.  Loves his country.  And I think loves the United States which is very important.  Thank you very much for coming. 


REPORTER:  Mr. President, how is the process picking out your FBI director going?

TRUMP:  Thank you. 

Thank you.  Very good.  It`s very good. 

Things moving rapidly.


MADDOW:  Yes, boy, howdy, are moving rapidly. 

The crown prince of Abu Dhabi has a very specific role in the Trump-Russia story, to the extent we know about any back channel meetings after the election between the Trump side and the Putin side, it was organized by and hosted by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and there is he is, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, randomly in the Oval Office today.  OK, hi.  While the president answers questions about firing the FBI director who was leading the investigation into his connections to Russia. 

You know, the day after he fired the FBI director who was leading the investigation into Trump and Russia, the day after that firing, the administration welcomed to Washington the Russian foreign minister so he could throw the firing of the FBI director in the faces of American reporters with a sneer. 


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE:  Welcome to the State Department.

SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER:  Thank you, thank you very much. 

TILLERSON:  I want to -- 

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS:  Does the firing of -- excuse me.

TILLERSON:  I want to welcome Foreign Minister Lavrov to the State Department and express my appreciation for him making the trip to Washington so that we could continue our dialogue and our exchange of views that began in Moscow with the dialogue he hosted on a broad range of topics.  Thank you. 

MITCHELL:  Does the Comey firing cast a shadow over your talks, gentlemen? 

LAVROV:  Was he fired?

MITCHELL:  Yes, he was fired.

LAVROV:  You are kidding.  You are kidding. 



MITCHELL:  That same day, the Russian foreign minister turned up in the Oval Office as well.  U.S. reporters and photographers were not allowed access to that meeting.  We got these photos of that meeting because the Russia foreign minister brought with him a photographer from a Russian state-run news service.  That`s how we found out that they did let a photographer in there just not an American one. 

That`s always how we found out the Russian ambassador was in on that meeting too.  You know, the White House hasn`t said anything about that.  This is the same Russian ambassador who Mike Flynn concealed his meetings with and who Jeff Sessions concealed his meetings with and who Jared Kushner concealed his meetings with. 

I`m not sure we would have known that the president was meeting with him too last week, but the Russian state run news agency photographer let loose in the Oval Office while American reporters and photographers were banned.  That guy ended up confirming the news.  Oh, hey, look, the ambassador is there too. 

The White House later explained the presence of that Russian photographer in the Oval Office by saying this, quote: They tricked us. 

We didn`t know they were bringing a photographer. 

Former National Security Council official Colin Kahl followed up with this, quote: Deadly serious question, was it a good idea to let a Russian photographer and all their equipment into the Oval Office? 

Former deputy director of the CIA responded with this: no, no, it was not a good idea. 

But they did it anyway for some reason.  And that was one day after Trump fired the FBI director who was leading the investigation into the Trump- Russia question.  And that is unsubtle enough. 

But then we learned the very unusual origin of why that meeting happened.  We learned who asked for the president to let those Russian officials into the Oval Office.  We learned who asked for that personally. 


TRUMP:  When I spoke with Putin, he asked me whether or not I would see Lavrov.  Now, should I say no I`m not going to see him?  I said I will see him. 


MADDOW:  Just put this together for a second.  This is not like about the campaign and, like, you know, Carter Page in Moscow in July and the Republican convention and what was going on.  Like, no. 

It`s now mid-May, right?  On April 30th -- this is happening now.  On April 30th, Trump depose on CBS and reverts to his old line that maybe Russia didn`t hack the election, could have been China, could have been anyone.  I`m not so sure. 

Two days after that, he has a personal call with Vladimir Putin, Putin he says asks him directly, hey, I want you to bring Lavrov and Kislyak into the Oval Office.  Answer apparently is, sir, yes, sir, no problem, sir. 

Then the following Monday, we get Sally Yates`s dramatic damming testimony about Trump`s national security adviser Mike Flynn being compromised by the Russians and his unexplained and surreptitious contacts with Russian government officials.  The day after that, the president fires the FBI director who is leading the investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia during the Russian attack.  The day after that, he hosts those Russian officials in the Oval Office. 

Now today, after his Oval Office meeting at lunchtime with a guy who hosted the two days of meetings between emissaries for Trump and Putin in January, now today, "The Washington Post" breaks this.  Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian foreign minister and ambassador. 

The story broke this afternoon by "Washington Post" reporters Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe.  It was then subsequently confirmed by "BuzzFeed News" and then also by "The New York Times", citing not only former U.S. officials, but current U.S. officials which seems important. 

"The Post" says this, quote, President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week.  The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence sharing arrangement considers so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted within the U.S. government.

  Quote: This is code word information, said a U.S. official familiar with the matter, using terminology that refers to one of the highest classification levels used by American spy agencies. 

Trump, quote, relieved more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies. 

The partner had not given the United States permission, meaning the partner country, partnering nation, getting this information.  That country had not given the United States permission to share the material with Russia.  And officials say Trump`s decision to do so endangers cooperation from an ally that has access to the inner workings of the Islamic State. 

After Trump`s meeting, senior White House officials took steps to contain the damage, senior White House officials appeared to recognize quickly that Trump had overstepped and moved to contain the potential fallout. 

Thomas P. Bossert, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, placed calls to the directors of the CIA and the NSA, which are the services most directly involved in the intelligence sharing arrangement with the partner. 

Quote, one of Bossert`s subordinates also called for the problematic portion of Trump`s discussion to be stricken from internal memos and for the full transcript to be limited to a small circle of recipients, all efforts to prevent sensitive details from being disseminated further or leaked. 

Well, we know about it now.  Now, "The Washington Post" tonight has been very careful to not describe the information that Trump described, to not describe exactly what information Trump leaked.  They make clear in their reporting that they know that information, but they`ve been very careful about what they`ve published.

Basically, the implication is that they are trying to not compound the damage that he has reported to have already done by giving this information to the Russians.  And the White House tonight is furiously calling the reporting false, although it should be noted they are not specifically rebutting "The Post`s" actually reporting which is the president described to these Russian officials something that was only known because of another country doing very sensitive intelligence operations that the United States was not supposed disclose to the Russians. 

Why did he tell them that? 

This is going over exactly how you would expect it to go over in Washington.  We`ve even had a peep from a Republican, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker, saying tonight, quote: The chaos that is being created by the lack of discipline is creating an environment that I think makes it -- it creates a worrisome environment. 

He says, quote: Obviously, they are in a downward spiral right now and have got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that is happening. 

A downward spiral.  We do not know what the spiral`s down to.  With we do not know what`s at the bottom of this. 

I`ll say, anecdotally, just discussing this news with people, just people in my life, this is one of the first stories that`s come out where people have responded to this news by telling me they feel afraid about what`s going to happen next. 

In February this year, "The Wall Street Journal" reported that U.S. intelligence officials were with holding sensitive intelligence information from President Trump because they were concerned it could be leaked or compromised if they told it to him.  That was incredibly controversial reporting at the time it came out, almost unbelievable at the time. 

The administration said at the time that there was absolutely no way that was happening.  And I, of course, don`t know whether or not U.S. spies were keeping intelligence from Trump because of leaked concerns as far back as February.  But if tonight`s bombshell from "The Washington Post" is correct, it seems clear that any such concerns would have been very well- founded. 

Joining us now is one of "Washington Post" reporters who broke this story tonight, Greg Jaffe. 

Mr. Jaffe, congratulations on this scoop.  Thanks for being here to help us understand it. 

GREG JAFFE, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Yes, thanks for having me. 

MADDOW:  Obviously, I`m not going to ask you to talk about your sources.  But can you tell us a little bit about when you started chasing this story down, how long after the president`s meeting with these Russian officials did the work on this story start? 

JAFFE:  You know, not that much long after, because the meeting wasn`t that long ago. 


JAFFE:  But, now, we`ve been working on it for the last several days. 

MADDOW:  What is code word information?  You cite a U.S. official familiar with the matter saying that this is code word information.  From the placement of that in your article and the way you describe it, it`s clear that`s supposed to indicate to us that this is -- this is very highly protected information, but for us laymen, just observers trying to figure out this out, can you explain that a little bit? 

JAFFE:  Yes, that`s right. 

And so, very highly protected information they don`t distribute to allies that is even restricted within the U.S. government.  And this information came -- this intelligence came from an ally, and that made it additionally sensitive because they had certain expectations that we would safeguard it, which we didn`t deliver on in this particular case. 

MADDOW:  In terms of those decisions, how did you -- as a news organization, how did you make the sedation as to what was -- where the line was for what was too sensitive to publish?  Was it hard to figure out what you could say about this without compounding the problem of what the president did? 

JAFFE:  You know, I think that`s a decision -- it`s a decision either fortunately or unfortunately that "The Post" has had a lot of experience with over the last decade or so going back to the disclosures and other things.  So, it`s something that happens in collaboration with the government as well, so we don`t publish -- we don`t just gather this information, throw it into the news -- throw it up online and then contact the government.  So, there were ongoing conversations over the course of today about what would compromise information and what needed to be held back. 

So, we held back information about the precise nature of the threat, some of the precise nature of the intelligence, and how it was gathered and the city involved. 

MADDOW:  I noted in your sourcing on this that it was -- you mentioned both former officials and current officials as sources for this information.  Is it fair for us to read into that there are people serving in government now, either in the agencies or in the administration itself who themselves are concerned about this -- about what happened here, even though we`ve got the White House forcefully calling the story false? 

JAFFE:  Yes, yes.  There were a lot of people who were concerned, and I think alarmed by the lack of care with regard to classified information.  In terms of not sticking to talking points, in terms of just kind of winging it once you get into the Oval Office.  And I think that was the nature of the concern that propelled folks to come forward -- 

MADDOW:  The national security -- sorry, the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, tonight that the story is false and his elaboration on that was that the president didn`t disclose any sources and methods.  Can you just -- I wonder if you could just respond to that? 

JAFFE:  Yes.  Yes.  So, the story I think to be clear doesn`t say the president disclosed sources and methods.  What he disclosed was information about the intelligence that we gathered or that had been gathered by one of our partners with enough detail both about the plot, the location of where it was happening and other things, that, you know, a smart ally or an ally -- a smart adversary with a sophisticated intelligence service could sort of reverse-engineer and figure out where it was coming from and how it was collected potentially. 

So, that was the nature of the concern, and the Russians certainly have a capable intelligence service. 

MADDOW:  So, just to be dumb about this on purpose, just to bottom line this, the concern here is that by having told the Russians about ISIS- related information that was obtained in a specific city which the president actually named, the Russians from that disclosure could conceivably discern who operating in that city was able to get access to ISIS-related information and the Russians conceivably could want disrupt that, could want to expose that, could use that for their own strategic purposes.  It`s essentially exposed the people who gathered that information to Russia, knowing that they are doing it when Russia previously didn`t know they were doing it. 

JAFFE:  Yes, that`s right.  Both the information about where and then the nature of the plotting that was going on is potentially troublesome.  That`s exactly right.  And, you know, in some cases in Syria, our interests overlap with the Russians particularly with regard to ISIS.  In other instances, they diverge.  And so, that`s part of the reason we hold stuff back from them. 

MADDOW:  Greg Jaffe, one of the "Washington Post" reporters who broke this bombshell of a story tonight -- I know this is a busy time for you.  I really appreciate you helping us understand your reporting. 

JAFFE:  Yes, thanks for having me.  I appreciate it. 

MADDOW:  Congratulations. 

All right.  So, it was -- we crossed a Rubicon when we became the first -- when this became the first presidency to have the president under counter intelligence investigation while serving as president.  He then fired the FBI director investigating him. 

We now have information that he thereafter immediately thereafter, the day after, hosted Russian officials in the Oval Office and gave them incredibly sensitive and damaging intelligence information that they were not entitled to have, and he hosted them at the Oval Office at the express personal request of Vladimir Putin, which he says he feels like he couldn`t say no to. 

Hyperbole is dead.  We`ll be right back.


MADDOW:  OK.  Here`s something you should know: with each new weird revelation about the Trump administration and the Trump campaign into the Trump transition and now into the Trump administration, what appear to be not just past unexplained contacts with Russian officials but weird current ones too, including tonight`s bombshell from "The Washington Post" about the president reportedly sharing highly secret, highly sensitive code word intelligence with the Russian ambassador and the Russian foreign minister, with each new revelation about whatever it is that`s apparently still going on with this president and Russia, we as observers and people who, you know, have a job explaining this stuff, we here on this show have been trying to keep increasingly close tabs on how it is we`re actually going to figure out whatever`s going on with this president and Russia. 

We`re been keeping extremely close tabs on the active investigations into this matter.  OK?

So, the most high profile investigations obviously are happening in Congress.  The House and the Senate both leading Trump-Russia investigations in their intelligence committees.  There are also subsidiary investigations in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is what brought us the Sally Yates testimony last week and on the House side, in the oversight committee, which brought at us the revelation a couple of weeks ago that former national security adviser Mike Flynn apparently concealed his payments from foreign sources. 

That led to revelation about yet further investigations.  The independent inspector general at the Defense Department confirming that they are looking into at least the part of this scandal that concerns Mike Flynn.  There have also been multiple requests made to the independent inspector general of the Justice Department to investigating variation various portions of this scandal, although that office will not confirm or deny to us any investigation that they may have underway. 

There`s also, of course, the confirmed FBI counterintelligence investigation into the Russian attack on our election, and the question of whether or not the Trump campaign was in on it.  Now that the president has admitted that he fired the FBI director because of the Trump-Russia investigation, one might also guess that the FBI has now started an obstruction of justice inquiry into the president.  But that too has to have a question mark on it because we do not have word one way or the other from the Justice Department or the FBI about what everybody expects to be an obstruction of justice inquiry is already underway or not. 

There is also reportedly an investigation related to the Trump-Russia inquiry at the Financial Crimes Unit in the Treasury Department.  Senate investigators have requested documents from that unit for their own work, which is how we found out that that unit has those documents. 

So, these are all investigations that are either confirmed to be underway or believed to be underway at this point in time.  But there`s also this possibility: U.S. attorneys. 

We got word last week that documents related to Michael Flynn were subpoenaed by U.S. attorneys` office in Virginia.  It was also reported on Friday night by "Vanity Fair" magazine that the U.S. attorneys` office in the southern district of New York was investigating the prospect of Russian money laundering through Donald Trump`s real estate empire, and that investigation was underway at the time the Trump administration inexplicably fired all the U.S. attorneys. 

On Friday night, "Vanity Fair" quoted an FBI insider saying, quote: was there money laundering going on, money from these resolution plutocrats that`s been washed through Trump`s real estate and businesses?  That`s gotten over looked but Preet Bharara in the southern district was supposedly looking into that.  All right.  So, we have information tonight on that. 

On March 10th, the president did fire basically all the U.S. attorneys, all the federal prosecutors operating in jurisdictions all across the country.  That was surprising in particular when it came to U.S. attorney Preet Bharara in the southern district of Manhattan because President Trump had gone out of his way to invite Preet Bharara to Trump Tower and to parade him before the press and to go very public with the fact that Bharara had been asked to stay on as U.S. attorney in New York, in the new administration. 

But then, without warning, mid-March he was fired.  All the U.S. attorneys were asked to resign.  Preet Bharara refused to resign and he was fired.  No explanation, no warning, no replacement U.S. attorneys at the ready. 

Why did that happen?  I mean, it is particularly worrying and interesting when it comes to Preet Bharara because of those personal assurances that were made to him, because his jurisdictions includes the headquarters of the Trump organization and because of the subsequent reporting from "Reuters" earlier this year and "Vanity Fair" now that he was working on possible money laundering or other Trump-Russia connections at the time he was fired. 

But now, factor this in, too.  A high-ranking former Justice Department official, Matthew Axelrod, who spent more than 12 years in the Justice Department and was Sally Yates`s deputy at the Justice Department at the time she was fired, he left that day too when they fired her.  Matthew Axelrod operated at the highest levels of the Justice Department towards end of his career, and certainly through the Trump transition.  He was at the very upper echelons of the Justice Department during the transition.  He was involved in the transition. 

And he tells "The National Law Journal" that whatever happened with them firing all the U.S. attorneys in March, that was a radical change in their own plans.  He says, quote: This was an issue that was discussed during the transition.  The transition team recommended to the incoming administration that they not get rid of all the U.S. attorneys all at one time, and that recommendation was adopted.  It`s not clear what changed and led the administration to get rid of everyone all at once. 

That recommendation was adopted.  It`s not clear what changed. 

So, something happened in Trump world between the inauguration, January 20th, and March 10th when they fired them all.  Something happened that made administration throw out their own previous, overt, well-thought-out plan.  To instead decide that they had to fire all those prosecutors, no warning, no plan to replace any of them, got to go, including Bharara.  Everybody out. 

What changed?  That was not their original plan.  Why did they change that plan? 

The administration obviously had a little bit of a meltdown tonight, for the past week really over the Trump-Russia story.  When they started to unravel, coincidentally or not, is also when we started to get detailed reporting on business ties and financial information moving to the center of these investigations.  Documents related to Mike Flynn and his business interest being subpoenaed by U.S. attorneys office in Virginia, reports that the U.S. attorneys` office in Manhattan was pursuing Trump-Russian money laundering inquiries before the administration inexplicably reversed its own course and decided to fire all the U.S. attorneys even though previously just weeks before had said they would not do that. 

Paul Manafort banking records being requested by the FBI.  That story being broken by "The Wall Street Journal" Friday night.  The Senate Intelligence Committee moving toward financial questions in their investigation.  The Senate Intelligence Committee requesting financial records that have been obtained by the Treasury`s Financial Crimes Unit. 

It seems clear that the investigations are moving toward the money.  What is it about this financial turn, this turn toward the money that might be freaking them out so much? 

I have exactly the guy to answer that here next.


MADDOW:  "Wall Street Journal" reported Friday night that criminal investigators at the Treasury Department are sharing their Trump-Russia related financial records with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has requested those records. 

Quote: Financial crimes monitor to share records in Trump-Russia probe. 

Now, what are those records that they are sharing?  I don`t know.  But here was the sit up and take notice description that one source gave "The Wall Street Journal" about them.  Quote: Without these records, the committee wouldn`t able to reach a conclusion on whether there was collusion between Trump associates and Russia during last year`s campaign. 

Does that mean that with those financial records the investigators might be able to figure that out?  What type of information are we talking about here?  And does this type of investigation into this type of information explain why the White House was on the fritz since the investigation reportedly took this turn in this direction. 

Joining us now is "The Wall Street Journal" reporter who broke that story, Shane Harris. 

Mr. Harris, it`s really nice to have you here.  Thank you for your time tonight. 


MADDOW:  So, the money aspect of this story, the part about business ties involving the president and the president`s team, it feels just as an observer of the story, somebody is trying to keep track of it, like there is an increasing focus or at least that investigations are driving in that direction over recent days and weeks. 

Is that your impression? 

HARRIS:  Yes, that is my impression.  I mean, it felt like for the past few weeks the investigators are coming upon potentially more useful leads.  There`s smoke that`s feeling very hot, let`s put it that way. 

But what this financial information interest in it shows is that these investigators have particular questions that they`re trying to answer in terms of Russian money and whether it is or is not flowing into Donald Trump`s company or ones associated with him.  That`s what we understand drove this interest in wanting to get ahold of this information from FinCEN at the Treasury Department. 

And importantly, when senators asked for this information, they wrote in their request, we want to see the same kinds of things the FBI is seeing.  So, you`re seeing the Senate trying to parallel or mirror if you like, the same kind of lines of inquiry that the FBI is pursuing.  And, of course, before Comey was fired, the committee had been hearing from him on a not regular basis but somewhat frequent basis, getting updates about that investigation as well. 

MADDOW:  Shane, does this mean that the Treasury Department, that FinCEN, this financial crimes unit at the Treasury Department, has been investigating the connections between Trump and his business empire and his associates in Russia?  Or does this mean that part of the Treasury Department is just sort of a repository of this kind of information and it`s where you would go to get it if you were an investigator outside the Treasury Department looking for that type of information? 

HARRIS:  Yes, it`s a great question, and it`s really the latter.  So, if FinCEN is not actively going out and investigating this question on its own, it has this information, it`s there for investigative purposes.  Things like bank transaction records, what are called suspicious activity reports, which banks are supposed to file in certain equations, like if money is transferred over a certain dollar threshold, or from a suspicious account, but the FBI has access to that actually.  It has like a technical access.  They can get into those databases. 

So, now, when the Senate`s asking for that, again, it`s trying to get access to the same pool of information that that FinCEN has that the FBI would also have access to. 

MADDOW:  And again, your reporting is that FinCEN, this unit at Treasury that has access to all that type of information, they`ve said, yes, they are making this information available to the Senate? 

HARRIS:  That`s right.  The Senate we`re told the committee worked this out with them on Friday.  There were some bureaucratic tussle over this.  One senator had actually put a hold on a senior Treasury Department official, his nomination.  But we`re told that it`s been worked out in this information is now going to be provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee. 

MADDOW:  Shane Harris, senior writer of national security at the "Wall Street Journal" -- very, very clarifying.  Thank you for helping us understand. 

HARRIS:  Thanks, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  Appreciate it.

All right.  Up next here tonight, somebody who has spent time in the Oval Office briefing the president on classified information and who knows specifically how you`re supposed to handle classified information with foreign leaders.  Very relevant information tonight. 

Stay with us. 


MADDOW:  VRK, very restricted knowledge.  ECI, exceptionally controlled information.  Different terms for different levels of classification.  These kinds of things are less familiar to us as laymen and civilians basically depending on how many spy novels you read. 

You can`t even make them up.  I mean, SCI, sensitive compartmented information, that`s a real one.  Super sensitive don`t tell anyone or I`ll kill you information, SSTDTOIKYI, that`s not a real one.  But if I ever write a spy novel, it will definitely be in there. 

The idea of code word information is a term of art that turns up in this "Washington Post" bombshell tonight on President Trump reportedly revealing highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador when they popped up in the Oval Office last week the day after President Trump fired the FBI director. 

One U.S. official telling "The Washington Post," quote: This is code word information.  The president, quote, revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies. 

Code word information, I know that sounds bad, but I`m still not exactly sure I understand just how bad that is. 

Joining us now is David Priess.  He`s former CIA intelligence officer.  He was a briefer under former President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and he literally wrote the book on presidential intelligence briefings.  It`s called "The President`s Book of Secrets."

Mr. Priess, it`s really nice to see you again.  Thank you for being here. 


MADDOW:  So, I`m in fair to middling consumer of spy novels, and I know absolutely nothing in terms of what the real work is of an intelligence agency other than what I glean from people like you and fiction. 

When an official says this is code word information that was given to Russia, stuff we wouldn`t even give to our allies, can you explain to us in layman`s terms exactly what that means? 

PRIESS:  Sure.  There are levels of classification and that determine the type of classified information that`s there.  It starts with confidential information abbreviated with a "C", which Hillary Clinton had trouble with her e-mails meaning classified.  Then there`s secret, or "S," then there`s "TS" or top secret, and that is the highest general level of classification. 

Beyond classification gets to code word information, which is even people who have a top secret clearance can`t see all the different compartments of information.  It is kept restricted for smaller circles to look at.  And those are given special names, the code words, and those are put into specialized compartments, so that not everybody gets to see them. 

Back in the day, we often called them the secret squirrel compartments.  So, there`s another one for your novel. 

MADDOW:  Secret squirrel compartments, nuts.  Let me ask you about this remarkable reporting from the "Washington Post", that there were high ranking foreign officials from Russia, which is its own thing.  You can`t really describe them in terms of being -- our relationship with them is not like any other intelligence relationship we have with anybody else in the world. 

If this had been done properly, if there had been a proper decision made according to channels, to allow the Russians in on some intelligence information that they didn`t have before that meeting, something about ISIS or something else about terrorism, how -- what`s the right way to handle that?  Have you ever seen anything like that handled in previous administrations? 

PRIESS:  Yes.  There are two ways, someone through regular interactions of the intelligence communities of various countries, passing information after a very thorough process of vetting whether it`s appropriate to pass that information in order to achieve a mutual goal.  That`s not what we`re talking about here.  Here, we`re talking about the president of the United States personally deciding to give top secret information possibly code word information to another government. 

There is precedent for this, in fact.  George W. Bush had several occasions where he would invite foreign leaders into his president`s daily brief, the most sensitive daily briefing the president gets.  Now, there was a difference.  In those cases which President Bush was doing to bring foreign leaders to his circle of trust to make them feel important and to, in a sense, show them what the big leagues were like.  That`s what his national security adviser told me, to show them what the big leagues were like. 

But in that case, President Bush asked the intelligence community to do it.  Andy Card, his chief of staff told me he did not say we`re doing this.  He asked the intelligence community, can we do this? 

In one case, they even brought in Vladimir Putin at the ranch in Crawford, George W. Bush sat down for his PDB session.  He brought in Vladimir Putin.  The sources that I talked to said, they prepared a very special book that day.  One of them called them a work of art.  And in that case, you go through the process before talking about the sensitive information with the foreign leader. 

This reporting suggests that that process did not happen, that this was just done on a whim by the president.  That makes this quite different. 

MADDOW:  David, let me just underscore what you just said to make sure I get this.  In the past, for example, example with George W. Bush and Putin, they brought him in, let him sit on a PDB, didn`t tell him it was a special one, but the intelligence community was advised we need a specialty one essentially because we`re going to have a foreign leader, prepare something that is safe, that he can safely hear, that won`t violate any of our -- any -- restrictions we might have in any of this information. 

The intelligence community set about carefully doing that and it was presented in that context as a well-thought-out package.  That`s what you`re saying?

PRIESS:  You`ve got that right.  My sources said that it was a no kidding classified intelligence briefing, but they scrambled to get information that would be appropriate to have in a session with a Russian leader there.  So, it was classified.  It was sensitive information, but it was information that could be provided to the Russians that would not open up new sources and methods. 

That is a line they didn`t want to cross, and that`s a line that the president did not want to cross.  That`s why he asked in advance and gave plenty of time for this briefing to be put together. 

MADDOW:  Remarkable.  David Priess, former intelligence and officer and briefer, author of "The President`s Book of Secrets" -- thank you.  Really appreciate that, David.  Thank you.

PRIESS:  You`re welcome. 

MADDOW:  All right.  Much more ahead tonight.  Stay with us. 


MADDOW:  There is a piece of this bombshell reporting tonight from "The Washington Post" that I don`t get.  I know it`s important, but I don`t get it. 

Here to help with that is Ned Price.  He is a former spokesman and senior analyst for the CIA, as well as spokesman and senior director of the National Security Council under President Obama. 

Mr. Price, thank you for helping us -- 


MADDOW:  So, the piece of it that I can tell is important but I -- if I wanted, if I tried to restate it back to you, I couldn`t, it`s this issue of sharing of information.  "The Washington Post" is reporting that the president didn`t share sources and methods.  He didn`t give away, you know, the location of one of our spies or something. 

He gave the Russians intelligence from which they could probably discern the origin. 

PRICE:  Right. 

MADDOW:  And that violates a sharing agreement we had that got us access to that information in the first place.  What -- how is that sharing arrangement work and why is this violated? 

PRICE:  Well, that`s exactly, simply put.  Look, there is a core assumption that undergirds our intelligence relationships the world over -- our information sharing relationships with friends, with allies, and frankly at times even with adversaries.  And that is we will share with you if you share with us with a reciprocal understanding that we will safeguard each other`s information.  And there is not to be onward passage of that information without explicit consent of the country that gave us that piece of information. 

So, if the details today in "the Washington Post" report are true, President Trump betrayed that core premise, that core assumption under which all of our intelligence relationships are forged.  And, of course, it will infuriate this purportedly close ally. 

But that`s, in a way, small potatoes.  What is a much graver threat I think to the United States and to our people is that countries around the world, countries that perhaps have a better presence in places like Syria or have more expertise in groups like ISIL or core al Qaeda, they will think once, they will think twice, or maybe they will stop sharing information with us to begin with if they cannot be confident that we can safeguard their information. 

Look, I cannot tell you how many as a CIA analyst how many plots we learned of and ultimately thwarted because of valuable information from what we called foreign liaison services. 

MADDOW:  In terms of the danger to the foreign liaison service that is involved here, what we`re told by "The Washington Post" is that President Trump named a specific city in which this information about a forthcoming or planned ISIS attack was being planned.  Presumably, I mean, "The Washington Post" is not going to give up sources here, but what that means by telling the Russians that, including the name of the city, the Russians will be able to and will be able to share with their own allies information about intelligence operatives acting in those cities, which they might previously not have known about. 

Now, will Russia want to disrupt those intelligence operations? 

PRICE:  Well, first, let`s underscore the point that in a way "The Washington Post" showed more discretion than president Trump. 

MADDOW:  By a mile. 

PRICE:  By not printing those details.  But yes, absolutely. 

Look, if you had to choose the worst intelligence service in the world with which to share top secret code information, it would be the Russians.  They have a singular combination of sophistication and hostility towards us, and especially in Syria.  You have to remember that their bedfellows in Syria are the Assad regime and Iran, both of which are extremely adversarial to us. 

And I think the danger is that perhaps with those allies and the Syrian context, they will seek to reverse-engineer what President Trump revealed to them about, you know, this classified assessment, knowing these key details, the city, the nature of this threat, the operatives involved.  They could go back, search their holdings and determine just exactly how our intelligence partner arrived at this information. 

MADDOW:  Wow.  Well, I understand it better now.  I sort of which I didn`t. 

Ned Price is a former spokesman and senior analyst for the CIA, former spokesman and senior director at the National Security Council -- Ned, thank you very much.  Appreciate it. 

PRICE:  Thank you so much.

MADDOW:  Dark times. 

All right.  We`ll be right back.  Stay with us. 


MADDOW:  Just coming up to the top of the hour and there is something I want to make note of here.  At about 7:30 p.m. Eastern tonight, the White House correspondent for "BuzzFeed News" tweeted this, about what was happening at the White House. 

Quote: White House communications staffers just put the TVs on super loud after we could hear yelling coming from the room with Bannon, Spicer, and Sanders.  That would be Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon. 

So, that was reported earlier tonight.  By this time of night, we would have expected the White House to announce something called a lid.  They would say there is a lid, which is effectively the White House`s way of telling reporters: don`t expect any further news from the White House tonight. 

It is very late at night for them not to have declared that there is a lid.  But they have as yet right now not explained that.  I don`t know if that means there will be news from the White House tonight, but clearly, it`s been a weird night there already. 

That does it for us for now. 

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD."  Ari Melber in for Lawrence O`Donnell. 

Good evening, Ari.


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