Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: May 18, 2017 Guest: Michael Schmidt, Jonathan Landay, Paul Fishman
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend.
CHRIS HAYES, "ALL IN" HOST: You bet.
MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
Top it again, all set to do a very specific show today, A block, B block, C block, all planned out people booked, ready to go, scripts in, we know our report and we`re ready -- and all planned out, new breaking news, throw everything out the window.
This is the new schedule. This is how we work now. You wait long enough into the evening without getting too drunk to pay attention to the news and you`ll find that something breaks and changes your plans.
Monday evening, it was President Trump passing on classified intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office. Tuesday night, it was the existence of a memo from fired FBI Director James Comey, describing a conversation in which he says the president asked him to back off the FBI investigation of former national security adviser Mike Flynn. Last night, it was the appointment of a special counsel to take over the Trump Russia investigation.
Now, it`s the fourth day of the week. So, now, we got a new one. Tonight`s scoop comes courtesy of Michael Schmidt at "The New York Times".
Here`s the story, quote, "President Trump called the FBI Director James Comey weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under FBI investigation. Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau`s investigations he should not contact him directly, but instead should follow proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any enquiries to the Justice Department.
At the time, Mr. Comey was in fact overseeing the FBI`s investigations into links between Mr. Trump`s associates and Russia. These interactions included a dinner in which associates of Mr. Comey say Mr. Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty and a meeting in the Oval Office at which Mr. Trump told him he hoped Mr. Comey would shut down an investigation into Mike Flynn.
The day after the Flynn conversation, Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, asked Mr. Comey to help push back on reports in the news media that Trumps associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. Mr. Comey described all of his encounters with the president and the White House, including the phone call from Mr. Trump, in detailed memos that he wrote at the time and gave to his aides. So, not memo but memos, and not just pressure from the president to the FBI director on the Flynn case, but pressure from the president to the FBI director about investigations into the president himself and then the White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus following that up with additional pressure on the FBI director directly from the White House chief of staff, immediately following one of those apparently inappropriate conversations between the president and the director of the FBI overseeing those investigations.
Ever since we learned on Tuesday night of the existence of the apparent Comey memo, about the conversation in which the president asked him to tank the investigation into Mike Flynn, ever since that bombshell report on Tuesday, we have had supplemental reporting, we`ve been hearing from various Comey associates and former colleagues that the memos thing was for real and not only is it tradition and procedure in the FBI to write down things as they happen to keep a detailed written log of events particularly controversial events, Comey himself we keep hearing was a prolific, prodigious writer of memos, particularly when he was involved in meetings or he was around events, which might come into question later.
We were told, we should expect more of those memos to begin surfacing now that he`s been fired by Donald Trump. We started getting those warnings Tuesday night. Here we are Thursday night and apparently we`ve now got a bead on the next memo.
According to this new reporting tonight for Michael Schmidt at "The New York Times", these newly reported memos describe what James Comey perceived to be a pattern of unsettling behavior from the White House, people who have these memos now or have seen them are describing them to -- among others Michael Schmidt at "The New York Times".
But again, this story that just broken sites us on the front page of "The New York Times" website is that in addition to the alleged direct pressure by the president on Director Comey to kibosh the Mike Flynn-Trump-Russia investigation, apparently, the president -- or reportedly the president called the FBI director and pressured him to put out public word about Trump not personally being under investigation, that was followed up by Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, also personally asking the FBI director to push back on reports in the news media that Trump associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence.
Joining us now is Michael Schmidt. He`s a New York Times reporter who broke this latest story tonight.
Mr. Schmidt, I know we`re getting you on very short notice. This is just posted. Thanks for being with us tonight. inter MICHAEL SCHMIDT, THE NEW YORK TIMES NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER (via telephone): Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: First of all, let me just ask if I have nutted up this part of your story correctly. Did I get anything wrong there?
SCHMIDT: No, no, you got it right. I mean to think that we were excited about in this story that we have one of Mr. Comey`s friends on the record, Ben Wittes, talking about a lunch he had with Comey in March which Comey described all the frustrations that he had. But Comey thought that he had actually gotten the White House to a place where they understood the lanes of the road and he`s sitting there at the end of March, saying, I think that we may have trained them and we think they may understand what they can and cannot do.
MADDOW: Why is Mr. Wittes coming forward now? Again, it`s phenomenal and welcome to have a source actually put his or her name on reporting related to this story because so much, particularly in national security reporting is anonymous these days, even when it is active governments or public officials serving as a as a contacts for reporters.
Do we know what motivated Mr. Wittes to describe his conversations with Mr. Comey? And importantly, do we know if Mr. Comey has sort of green-lit him to do this?
SCHMIDT: So, Wittes is a friend of Comey. He`s not an extremely close friend. He would have lunch with him every few months, but Wittes saw what happened to Comey, and the fact that the loyalty dinner came out and actually Wittes didn`t know about this specific loyalty dinner. He knew there was a question of whether Comey was going to give his royalty to Trump, and Wittes said, you know what, these conversations with Comey were supposed to be confidential but so much has happened since then, I think the public needs to know about what was going through Jim Comey`s head in March because it`s important pieces of the puzzle.
Comey did not tell witness could do this. This was Wittes` idea. And I sat down with him last Friday in his office and spoke to him a few times since then, and he provided important texture and context to what Comey was looking at.
MADDOW: Michael, in terms of the question that a lot of people are starting to ask now about potential obstruction of justice, or even in less legalistic terms, whether there have been efforts by the White House to either shape or stop the inquiries into potential collision between the Trump campaign and Russia? It is -- it`s very interesting that you`re able to report this piece about how Comey felt like he was able to kind of teach the president what was appropriate and what was inappropriate and was able to sort of correct him when the president inappropriately contacted him and pressured him about that investigation.
You also described though the White House chief of staff Reince Priebus who`s a political pro has having also directly contacted the FBI director and asked him to make essentially public or at least representations to reporters about the Trump Russia investigation outside of his lanes as his lane as the FBI director. Is that something that director Comey put sort of in the same category as an inappropriate communication? Or is that a totally separate matter?
Wittes said that Comey was disgusted by what Priebus had done and that he saw it as part of the inappropriate contacts that were going on between the Justice Department -- between the FBI and the White House, and it troubled him because he said, look, there`s no reason the White House, the DOJ has these guidelines that say, here at the White House, and you want to talk to the FBI about an investigation, you have to go through DOJ and previous was directly appealing to call me at the time is overseeing the Russian investigation.
Though these this was part of these things that piled up in front of Comey, but by the end of March, Comey is thinking, all right, well, we think they may -- they may have figured out what they can and cannot do. The question is that the White House is still not provided a coherent answer for why Comey was fired. There it`s all been conflicting answers, you know everything they`ve said on the record.
So, the question is, is that, did the White House realize by the end of March that they weren`t going to win Comey over? And was that when they realize that Comey was not going to be the person they wanted running the FBI?
MADDOW: Because of course it was implicit in that choices is that it was - - it`s unacceptable and it was never going to happen that they would just leave the investigation alone and expect somebody who couldn`t be pressured on it to continue with it. I mean, if they exerted this pressure, he resisted and then they fired him. The question is what their expectations were in terms of how much they could direct this investigation? And I guess that`s still the -- I guess that`s still the unanswered question here.
SCHMIDT: Well, as I`ve said, this all makes a lot of sense in hindsight. The idea that we thought that a relationship between Jim Comey and Donald Trump was going to work it`s like we should have seen this coming a lot a lot earlier. Donald Trump is someone who prizes loyalty. Jim Comey is someone who prizes independence.
The idea that this was going to work with the backdrop of the Russia investigation, it shouldn`t -- in hindsight, it doesn`t look like it should have been a surprise to us at all.
MADDOW: "New York Times" reporter Michael Schmidt, having broken tonight`s story, Comey said to have become unsettled by interactions with Trump -- Mr. Schmidt, thank you. Congratulations on the story. Thanks for being with us tonight.
SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: Helping us to now understand the import of this, what this adds to our understanding about what`s happened and what might happen next, joining us now is Matt Miller. He`s former Department of Justice spokesman under Attorney General Eric Holder.
Mr. Miller, I did not know we would be asking you back so soon, but thank you for making time for us tonight. I really appreciate it.
MATTHEW MILLER, FORMER DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN UNDER ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Of course.
MADDOW: So, there`s a lot that`s of interest here especially that Michael Schmidt was just talking about in terms of what we`re coming to understand personally about some of the characters involved here and how James Comey felt about his interactions with the president, how his level of comfort or discomfort in terms of what kinds of communications, he was getting from the president directly and from them from the White House.
Kind of putting aside some of those personal considerations, additions to the factual record that we`ve got tonight, according to Michael Schmidt`s reporting, that President Trump asked the FBI director directly when he was going to put out word that Trump was personally not under investigation, we also are told according to this "New York Times" reporting that Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, contacted the FBI director and essentially asked him to make public comments related to the Trump-Russia investigation in terms of whether or not Trump associates were in contact with Russian intelligence.
I`m a layman. I`m not a lawyer. I`ve never worked in the Justice Department and I don`t know much about it.
Are those kinds of contacts materially inappropriate? Are those legally actionable?
MILLER: They are violations of Department of Justice policies. The Department of Justice strictly prohibits any kind of contact like this between people at the FBI and the White House. And the way the rules are laid out, those contacts can only happen from the attorney general or the deputy attorney general to the White House.
And I will say, that`s the format but the substance of those of those contacts that -- you would never have in a well-run Justice Department that`s properly independent from the White House, you would never answer these kinds of questions from the White House, you would never expect to get those questions.
The Justice Department I worked in, the White House never would have called. The Obama White House never would have called us and asked us to stop an investigation or ask us the status of an investigation into the president`s associates. And if they got those -- if they asked those questions, we would have told them they were absolutely inappropriate.
MADDOW: In terms of the way that at least according to this reporting, Director Comey handled this, it seems like -- according to these reports, according to his associates, according to people who say they`ve seen these memos or heard about these memos -- the way he dealt with these violations of DOJ policy, these inappropriate contacts from the White House, what appears to be inappropriate pressure from the White House to shut down or make inappropriate public comments about various investigations, the way he dealt with that was apparently by documenting it, writing it all down, making -- and making sure that other people knew this stuff was going on.
Should he have been going public with his concern? Should he have reported as concerns to the attorney general or the deputy attorney general? Should he have -- is there something else that he reasonably should have been doing at the time if he was so disturbed by this inappropriate contact from the White House?
MILLER: Yes. So, I think, you know, as the story says, he was trying to in his words train the White House not to do this anymore. But I think, yes, he should have reported those contacts to the deputy attorney general or to the attorney general. And you know what, maybe he did.
It`s actually one of the things that that -- though the big unanswered questions, leaving aside the president`s conduct, when you look at Rod Rosenstein`s conduct in writing that memo that gave the president the excuse to fire Jim Comey, if Rod Rosenstein actually did know about these contacts from the White House that were inappropriately pressuring Jim Comey on the Russia investigation, it is a big, big black mark on Rod Rosenstein`s integrity and it shows that, you know, he knew that the president was concerned about Comey`s handling of this investigation and that was one of the reasons why fired him.
But I think the question you ask is one of the core questions that needs to be asked of the deputy attorney general.
MADDOW: Matt Miller, former Department of Justice spokesman, helping us understand the importance of this new reporting tonight -- Matt, thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
MADDOW: All right. Again, this late-breaking story tonight because it`s always late-breaking stories now from "The New York Times", reporting from reporter Michael Schmidt that President Trump asked the FBI director directly when federal authorities were going to put out word that Trump himself was not personally under investigation, Michael Schmidt also reporting that Reince Priebus the White House chief of staff pressured the FBI director to make public comments or at least comments to reporters about the Trump Russia investigation and whether or not Trump associates had been in contact with Russian intelligence.
Apparently, there is more than one Comey memo about what was in inappropriate contact from the White House pressuring the FBI on this investigation before Comey was fired.
Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: In 1980, the host of the Summer Olympics that year was Moscow. And the United States and the coalition of whole bunch of other countries decided to boycott those Olympics. The Soviets were furious that they faced that international boycott.
But as their Olympics got closer and closer, they proved why the rest of the world didn`t want any part of it. As the Olympics got closer and closer that summer, the Soviet Union ramped up their efforts to round up government opponents, domestic dissidents, cultural figures who didn`t fit with the Soviet program. One of the most famous dissidents that they rounded up in the immediate lead to those Olympics that summer was named Vasyl Stus.
Vasyl Stus is not famous in the West, but he is famous where he`s from. Still, he was a poet and human rights activist. And in May 1980, a head of the Summer Olympics that year, they arrested Vasyl Stus for anti-Soviet activities and they put him on trial.
And the fact that they put him on trial makes it sound like a judicial proceedings, right? It makes it sound like there was a rule of law, but that`s not what it was. In that trial, he was, for example, appointed a lawyer who worked for the government.
Here`s how "The New York Times" years later described how that worked out. Quote: Mr. Stus exercising one of his few rights as a dissident defendant tried to refuse representation by his state appointed lawyer. His state appointed lawyer, however, insisted on speaking at the trial anyway when the lawyer rose and spoke at the trial he declared his client guilty and said he deserved to be punished for everything he was charged with, and the court obliged.
And in the spring of 1980, Vasyl Stus was sentenced to ten years in prison. In 1985, halfway into a sentence, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, but he died before the awarding of the prize that he was nominated for. He died in prison at that work camp at the ripe old age of 47.
By the following year, they actually closed down that part of the gulag. They closed down that particular work camp because so many notable political prisoners though and cultural figures and well-known dissidents like Vasyl Stus had been in prison there, and died there. It`s interesting. Even though, they closed it down in `87, human rights activists actually lobbied that that place should not be bulldozed. They lobbied that it should be kept open for posterity as a museum. So, people would not forget what the Soviets did there.
To this day, you can plan a tourist visit to gulag firm 36, where they locked up and killed the poets and where Vasyl Stus died as Nobel literature nominee.
And Vasyl Stus is not a very famous figure in the West, but he is famous at home. Apparently, there are lots of streets named after him all over Ukraine.
But the other person linked to him who has remained very famous in that part of the world since that human rights atrocity he was involved in is the guy who served as Vasyl Stus` purported lawyer at that trial, the guy who was assigned by the Soviet government to represent this dissident in court. Vasyl Stus knew him and he knew what that meant. He tried to refuse his services. He wouldn`t let the guy act as his lawyer but that lawyer stood up anyway to damn his supposed client in court, to say he ought to be locked up and have the key thrown away, and the that`s what the court did.
That lawyer, the guy who played that scary role in that human rights atrocity, he`s still alive, and he has also ended up being very famous in that part of the world to this day. And what he is most famous for is he`s basically like Vladimir Putin`s best friend, very close friend, closest known associate.
Now, we have we have a lot of pictures and video of them together where they seem very, very close. They`ve definitely vacationed together. They`ve definitely hosted each other at their various mansions.
They definitely go see a sporting event together. We know that Vladimir Putin is godfather to Viktor Medvedchuk daughter. That`s who Putin is hoisting and hugging in these pictures, through no fault of the young girl herself.
And as in all these cases, whenever you hear about one of these guys who`s very personally close to Vladimir Putin the next sentence you always read about that was how wealthy they are, right? He`s another one of these oligarchs mysteriously, madly wealthy.
In Viktor Medvedchuk case, he`s a lifelong politician. He`s a public servant, but nevertheless, he lived very, very well at any number of his multiple lavish estates. Who knows what his source of income is?
Medvedchuk is described in recent news reports as essentially Putin`s political fixer. His emissary when it comes to difficult negotiations over things like Eastern Ukraine. He`s even been a courier for Putin. He hand delivers Putin`s written communications to other people when Putin wants to negotiate with various political settings at arm`s length. Viktor Medvedchuk, he`s famous in his part of the world for his known closeness and close working relationship and close personal relationship with Vladimir Putin.
And "Reuters" now reports that Viktor Medvedchuk also spent some of last year in high-level communication with the Donald Trump for president campaign.
It`s been a lot of breaking news in the last few days but this "Reuters" story that`s just out actually tells us quite a lot that we didn`t already know. The new "Reuters" reporting is that federal investigators are now reviewing 18 previously undisclosed interactions between, quote, Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties and various advisers to Donald Trump`s campaign.
Again, this is -- this is not, you know, further exploration of Trump Russia contacts that have been reported and confirmed before, you know, what the things that have been disclosed before. These are all new ones that have never been reported before now, 18 new contacts between Trump associates the Trump campaign and people close to the Kremlin.
Now, on the Trump campaign side, "Reuters" says most of the names of the various Trump campaign advisers who are involved in these communications most of the names are masked because they are U.S. persons. U.S. persons are not supposed to have their names revealed in international surveillance unless their name needs to be unmasked for you to understand the importance of the communication. Michael Flynn`s name is apparently the only Trump- related name that is unmasked on the American side of these communications, but these calls and electronic messages apparently do involve other Trump campaign aides besides him.
On the other side, on the Russian side, again these are -- their -- these are 18 different communications, 18 calls, emails and text messages. Six of them involve the Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. But that leaves another text, emails, phone calls.
And the names of the other Russians besides Ambassador Kislyak who were communicating with the Trump campaign last year, those names are all apparently being withheld as classified, all but one. The only other name that is being disclosed beside Ambassador Kislyak is Viktor Medvedchuk, who is again this Ukrainian oligarch who is not just seen as Putin`s close personal friends, he`s also his political emissary for all sorts of difficult political matters. He`s also somebody who has a personal history in terms of human rights that will curl your hair.
What is that guy doing talking last year to members of the Trump campaign, during the Russian attack on the presidential election?
And as far as I read this -- I mean, from "Reuters" is reporting, I think we can surmise that this Medvedchuk contacts was not between Medvedchuk and Mike Flynn. I think we can surmise from "Reuters`" reporting that Medvedchuk was speaking to somebody other than Mike Flynn who is also associated with Trump. I`m kind of reading between the lines to get at that but we will check that in just a second because we got "Reuters`" lead reporter on this story here in just a moment.
But the implication of this reporting is twofold. Number one, we`ve now got a named Russian contact, an oligarch with very close ties to Putin who is apparently in direct contact with the Trump campaign between April and November of last year which is when Russia was attacking the U.S. presidential election. I mean, we`d previously known about a lot of different people having contacts with a Russian ambassador right few other Russian possibilities in terms of meetings and things, particularly after the election.
But in terms of during the elections, while the attack was happening, who were they talking to in Russia? This is a new name and he`s kind of a big deal the other implication of this new reporting is that apparently, the Trump folks still have not told us about what their contacts were with Russia last year. I mean, how is it that we are this far into this scandal and suddenly, all of a sudden, there`s another 18 previously undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that they never thought to mentioned before now, and we`re only finding out from this new "Reuters" reporting.
That has been a consistent problem for the president in dealing with this story, in this scandal. They keep denying things that then turn out to be true. They keep saying we know everything there is to be known, and then more comes out. They started off by denying there had been any contacts whatsoever, not even one, between anybody in the Trump campaign and any Russian official.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHRIS WALLACE, FOX NEWS HOST: I`m asking you a direct question: was there any contact in any way between Trump or his associates and the Kremlin or cutouts they had?
MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I joined this campaign in the summer and I can tell you that all the contact by the Trump campaign and associates was with the American people.
WALLACE: Sir, I`m just trying to get an answer.
PENCE: Yes. I -- of course, not. Why would there be any contacts?
JOHN DICKERSON, CBS NEWS: Did any advisor or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who are trying to meddle in the election?
PENCE: Oh, of course not.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Of course not. That was scolded faced soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence speaking on January 15th, denying -- of course not, of course not -- that there had been any contact whatsoever between the Trump campaign and the Russians while the Russians were attacking the presidential election to benefit the Trump campaign.
Mike Pence was blunt in his response to those questions. He looked very earnest, even scolding, you know, disgusted by the question when he gave those answers. But you know what? Those answers were not true.
When he said there was no contact, there were multiple contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials while the Russians were attacking the U.S. presidential election. We know that now. We know that from bombshell free press reporting like "The New York Times" on February 14th, when they reported that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Trumps presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.
American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the election. Following day, CNN added its own reporting, saying that high-level advisors close to Trump were in, quote, constant communication with Russian officials during the election season.
Mike Pence had flat-out denied that there had been any contacts. The administration initially tried to quash those reports. We`re learning tonight, they even asked the FBI director to help quash those reports, but those reports have been borne out over and over and over again by subsequent reporting and the White House itself has ultimately had to admit that, yes, there were multiple contacts between Russian officials and not just people on the campaign, but people who eventually ended up serving in high-level positions in the new government, people like Jared Kushner, people like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, people like national security advisor Mike Flynn.
They`ve admitted that there were all those contacts after they said there were no contacts. The White House has never explained -- Vice President Mike Pence has never explained why they so bluntly asserted that there were no contact between the Trump campaign and Russian officials when they later had to admit that there were and kind of a lot of them. They never made that right.
And now, that`s getting worse not just because we`re now learning about even to this day another 18 contacts with Russian officials that we hadn`t had disclosed before "Reuters" reported it in the last hours. Now, now, it`s getting worse because when it comes from Mike Flynn, they have absolutely no way to account for their false public statement specifically about him, and this is not about whether or not Mike Flynn tells the truth. This is about the White House. This is about the vice president in his public statements that are very clearly not true on this matter, and they have not yet either cleaned them up or explains why they were false in the first place.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS HOST: Michael Flynn has filed with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent for making more than $500,000 as a lobbyist essentially for Turkey. Your reaction to that, considering that doesn`t that mean, Mr. Vice President, that even if he didn`t lie to you about what the Russian ambassador said or didn`t say , that you would have had to fire him anyway?
PENCE: Let me say hearing that story today was the first I heard of it, and I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn`s resignation.
BAIER: You`re disappointed by the story.
PENCE: The first I heard of it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was March 9th. Vice President claiming first I heard of it. He had never before -- never before that day heard anything about Mike Flynn having done any lobbying work for Turkey, was blindsided by this news almost done founded by hearing it. Where is this coming from?
After election day, there have been multiple press reports documenting that Mike Flynn was doing paid work for Turkey. November 18th, the Congress, Congressman Elijah Cummings from the Oversight Committee sent to the head of the Trump transition a letter about what appeared to be Mike Flynn`s paid work for the government of Turkey. it had previously been reported in March, not once but twice during the transition, Mike Flynn and his lawyers notified the Trump transition formally that he had been doing paid lobbying work for the government of Turkey.
Now, in today`s "New York Times", that story got considerably worse with reporting that not only was Mike Flynn`s work for Turkey, the subject of lots of press reports and the subject of a congressional letter of notification to the head of the transition, and it`s something that he told and his lawyers told to the transition. According to the latest report on Flynn in "The New York Times", the transition wasn`t just multiplied notified that he was doing paid lobbying work for Turkey. They were notified twice that he was under federal investigation for doing paid lobbying work for the government of Turkey.
And at the time, all of those notifications about Mike Flynn were going into the transition. The head of the transition was Mike Pence, but weeks and months later, he was still trying to say, golly, you know I never heard any of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BAIER: You`re disappointed by the story.
PENCE: The first I heard of it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: First I heard of it. Vice President Mike Pence has made a number of blunt, direct, false statements related to the Trump-Russia investigation, both during the transition and since he has been vice president. When controversy started to swirl around Mike Flynn because of his foreign contacts, Mike Pence bluntly asserted that the Trump transition had not applied for a security clearance for Mike Flynn`s son they had actually applied for a security clearance for Mike Flynn`s son.
After the president fired the FBI director, Mike Pence bluntly asserted that the decision to fire James Comey was based on a recommendation from the deputy attorney general. The president himself and reportedly the deputy attorney general himself now today both made clear that that was not the reason James Comey was fired.
Mike Pence has also bluntly, boldly asserted that James Comey was not fired for anything having anything to do with the Trump-Russia investigation. The president himself now admits that what he was thinking when he made the decision to fire Jim Comey is that he was thinking about how much he hated that Trump-Russia investigation.
Mike Pence has bluntly asserted that there were no Trump campaign contacts with the Russian government. That is not true. He has bluntly asserted that he had no idea that Mike Flynn had a paid relationship with any foreign country`s government. That would seem to be impossible given his role in the transition and the number of times and the number of ways that transition was formally notified, including in writing of those ties.
And, of course, Mike Pence has the starring role in the big unanswered question about Mike Flynn`s time in the White House, which is why they let him stay on as national security adviser. For 18 days after the Justice Department came to the White House and told them that Mike Flynn was compromised by the Russians and was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, why did he stay on for another 18 days thereafter?
The White House story is that -- well, actually there is no story for that. In the end, they said he had to go because he had lied to Mike Pence but why does a lie to Mike Pence take days to flower as if he consequences for something as serious as a foreign government having its tentacles that far into the upper reaches of the national security chain of command at the top of the U.S. government?
Mike Pence apparently formed a political action committee this week. Maybe he`s looking at his boss`s troubles in the Russia scandal and starting to imagine himself becoming president. Mike Pence has his own troubles when it comes to this scandal, and as long as reporters like the ones who work at "Reuters" keep turning up 18 new previously undisclosed Russian contacts during the campaign that the White House hadn`t come clean about before even now, it seems like those troubles are probably going to get bigger and not smaller over time.
MADDOW: We`re talking tonight about the new "Reuters" reporting on 18 new previously undisclosed contacts during the presidential campaign between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Eighteen calls, texts, emails all previously undisclosed by the campaign or the White House and apparently undisclosed in previous reporting, but all now reportedly being reviewed by federal investigators. "Reuters" is the outfit that has ferreted out this story and the lead reporter on their story is Jonathan Landay. He`s their national security correspondent.
Mr. Landay, thank you very much for being here and helping us understand your reporting tonight.
JONATHAN LANDAY, REUTERS, DC NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: My pleasure.
MADDOW: So, these are 18 calls, texts, emails that have been intercepted somehow. What can you tell us about the people who are involved in either side of these communications?
LANDAY: What we know is that there are -- there word Trump aides and associates campaign aides and associates who are in touch with either Russian officials or people with ties to the Kremlin. The names of those individuals as you pointed out on all sides are mostly been masked are unobtainable. We`re unobtainable by us, but we did succeed in understanding that one of the people who was involved on at least on the Trump campaign side was retired General Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.
On the other side, as you also pointed out, was Viktor Medvedchuk, although I have to point out he denied being in touch with anyone on the Trump campaign, and it should be pointed out that -- as you pointed out I should say -- that Mr. Medvedchuk is very close to Mr. Putin. In fact, Mr. Putin is the godfather to one of Mr. Medvedchuk`s daughters.
MADDOW: In terms of that denial for Mr. Medvedchuk and thank you for referencing, there`s -- I mean, he`s an interesting character. He`s obviously not a famous name in this country, but in terms of what we know about him, he`s a highly ranked politician. He was chief staff to the Ukrainian president for a while. He does have these very visible ties to President Putin and actually Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as well.
He`s denying that he had any contact with Trump associates or with the Trump campaign. Do you believe that his denial is credible or doesn`t seem clear to you that that he -- that he does appear in these communications and that he may have been involved in this somehow?
LANDAY: Well, I have to go with -- you know, what he told us at an email that he totally denied having any contacts. I mean, the only thing you can point out is that obviously he`s Ukrainian and there were a very senior people in the Trump campaign, including Paul Manafort who served as a Mr. Trump`s campaign manager for a period of time who have ties to Ukraine. That`s about all I can say in terms of this denial.
MADDOW: One of the things that we`ve been sort of trying to track over time here is whether or not the White House explanation and story for what`s happened here makes sense, given the other corroboratable facts that we know in the world.
The vice president has obviously denied at one point that there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. He denied that he had any knowledge of Mike Flynn having contacts with foreign governments. He -- the lie to advise President Mike Pence about Mike Flynn`s discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador was the purported reason why Mike Flynn was fired when he was fired.
Is there any reason that we can -- any reason to think that either Vice President Pence or President Trump knew about any of these communications that you`ve been able to document?
LANDAY: But we heard nothing from any of our sources that there was any evidence within the contacts that we are reported on, any evidence that -- of either collusion or that President Trump was aware of these contacts, authorized these contacts, knew of the contents. So, I -- you know, I have to kind of leave it there -- leave it there.
But it`s interesting, you know, the 18 that you -- that we`ve been focused on all took place according to our sources between April of 2016 and Election Day. But we also report and they included six telephone calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States. We know that one of the people on the Trump side was Michael Flynn but we also reported that there were contacts after the election between the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, and Michael Flynn after the election, that these dealt with the setting up of a possible direct channel between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Trump, soon to be President Trump. And that this channel could have bypassed the U.S. national security bureaucracy because both sides viewed it as hostile.
And let`s not forget that the Department of Defense and the U.S. intelligence community were extremely opposed to the exploration by then Secretary of State John Kerry of cooperation with Russia in Syria against the Islamic State, and then, of course, you know Russia naturally is going to be hostile to the U.S. national security bureaucracy.
And so, you know none of this suggests wrongdoing, but as you have done, you put it against the backdrop of what we`ve -- of what`s been going on. A, that the White House initially denied any contacts and then we found out that they had -- then they had to admit to four, and it`s all taking place at least the that we know of, against the backdrop of what the us intelligence community says is this Russian influence campaign of hacking false news propaganda that was designed to influence the election in a way that favored President Trump and over his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.
MADDOW: Jonathan Landay, national security correspondent for "Reuters" -- really appreciate your time with us here on this tonight, sir. Thank you very much.
LANDAY: My pleasure.
MADDOW: And I just want to tell you that we were not faking the lightning behind Jonathan Landay`s head for dramatic purposes while he was talking about the setting up of the secret back channel between Vladimir Putin and President-elect Trump back to the election. I didn`t fake that lightning. That was God.
We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: On Friday, March 10th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cleared out all the U.S. attorneys, all the federal prosecutors, with no warning. With just a couple of exceptions, he canned them all, all at once.
The deputy to Acting Attorney General Sally Yates later explained that mass firing of the U.S. attorney`s with no warning, that had not been the original plan. He says, quote: 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.
Mystery, right? Why did the administration suddenly decide to can all the federal prosecutors with zero notice effective immediately, after deciding and saying they definitely wouldn`t do it that way? Why did they do that U-turn?
We have been trying to figure that out. We started with Matthew Axelrod`s claim after he left DOJ about what he saw during the transition. We have found that the record on this matter absolutely backs him up. Three days before the inauguration, a Justice Department spokesperson said that the U.S. attorney`s have just been told that they should expect to stay in place for the time being.
Senator Dianne Feinstein says she was told by the White House counsel in January that the transition to new U.S. attorneys would be done in an orderly fashion to preserve continuity. She asked if they were all going to be fired all at once, and she was told no. They were then fired all at once.
U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade of the eastern district of Michigan, she tells us she remembers a January conference call with the Justice Department in which the U.S. attorneys were all asked overtly to please hold over in their jobs to ensure an orderly transition.
Another U.S. attorney tells us that he too remembers that call. Paul Fishman, New Jersey, says the call was run by the director of the executive office Department of Justice. He says it was the week of the inauguration. He says the message was basically: please stay put while we figure out who to replace you.
It all lines up with what we have heard from the Obama side of the transition and with the reporting about the Trump side of the transition. We also queried three different members of the Trump transition team at the Justice Department and none of them would talk to us, but neither did any of them dispute Mr. Axelrod`s accounts if that had been the Trump administration`s plan before they U-turned for some reason.
So, we have sort of nailed this part now. The administration overtly, deliberately planned to keep the U.S. attorneys on and not fire them all at once -- and then they fired them all at once.
What remains unexplained now that we have nailed down what the administration`s definite intention was that they expressed in multiple times and multiple ways in multiple settings what remains to be figured out is what changed, what caused them to know we`re not going to do it that way anymore, get them all out and get them out now? What caused that?
There`s been no explanation for that whatsoever, but we are getting closer to that. Hold that thought.
MADDOW: Joining us now is Paul Fishman. He`s the former U.S. attorney from New Jersey. He`s now a law professor at Seton Hall.
Mr. Fishman, thank you for your time tonight.
PAUL FISHMAN, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: So, I am trying to figure out a thing. What did the Trump transition and the early Trump administration tell you about your fate as a U.S. attorney or the fate of U.S. attorneys generally in the new administration?
FISHMAN: Well, we never spoke directly to the new administration but we were -- we knew those conversations were taking place. We had heard that the transition team was recommending that we really permitted to stay in place to assure an orderly transition. And then, as you just said, before you went to commercial on the Tuesday for the inauguration, a conference call is convene with all the United States attorneys to let us know that we would not in fact be asked to leave precipitously, that we`d be asked that we be permitted to stay until, of course, we wanted to leave on our own or we assumed when some succession plan was put into effect.
MADDOW: So, they told you that on January 17th. Justice Breyer (ph) actually confirmed to us tonight --
MADDOW: -- that they did hold that conference call and give you that direction.
Was there subsequent direction met that advice or that plan had changed?
FISHMAN: No, nothing at all. And obviously, before that time, some number of my colleagues had left on their own and some continued to go. I myself was planning to leave probably about now, the end of the spring.
But -- and in fact on the two days before we were fired on, March 8th, I think it was, Attorney General Sessions convene a conference call with all the United States attorneys to talk about a new -- a new emphasis he was going to place on violent crime enforcement. No indication at all in that call that any of us were about to go.
MADDOW: You`re on a call the day before you were fired --
FISHMAN: Two days.
MADDOW: Two days before you were fired --
FISHMAN: On Wednesday, March 8th.
MADDOW: With the attorney general himself where he`s talking about the next thing -- the way he wants you to change your prosecutorial approach.
FISHMAN: Basically to revamp our approach to violent crime and to change the way we were looking at it, which, of course, I actually think what we were doing already anyway because it was smart crime enforcement that we`ve been practicing our districts focusing on the worst of the worst.
But he did have that call. No indication at all on that call that we were about to go.
MADDOW: When you were told that you`re being fired -- were you given any option in terms of the terms under which you would leave and how quickly you would leave?
FISHMAN: No, not at all. I actually was on a plane coming back from speaking at a white-collar crime conference in Florida as the United States attorney for New Jersey. I got on a plane in Miami 2:00 on Friday, and when I landed, I had texts and emails from my friends saying, are you OK? Is it true?
I didn`t actually know what they were talking about for a good minute or so until I saw the links that were attached and then when I checked my phone, I actually have a voicemail from Dana Boente who at that point was the acting deputy attorney general.
MADDOW: Was there any provision made for -- you know, winding things down in an orderly fashion for assuring continuity? I mean, I`m thinking -- I don`t know this stuff but I you know preservation of documents and files and things?
FISHMAN: There are procedures for that for preserving things. I think in everybody`s offices, there are records rules about what we keep and where we keep it and so forth, and a lot of we have is an electronic format, obviously.
But there`s sort of two pieces to this. One is the investigations piece, right, where every office has a lot of investigations that are going on at a particular moment in time and some number of people know about certain things and other people don`t, and so, it`s always better if the U.S. attorney when he or she is leaving has a sort of really detailed conversation with the first assistant and the criminal chief about each of those cases.
But there`s also a very big external component to the job of U.S. attorney. I spent a lot of my time over the last seven and a half years dealing with police groups, the NAACP, LGBT groups, immigrant groups, the Arab and Muslim community, Hispanic groups, try to build relationships because as the chief federal law enforcement officer in New Jersey, it was my responsibility to make sure that all of those people understood what the federal government did, that we had great working relationships with our law enforcement partners.
And all of those other groups that I was talking about understood that our job was to protect them, and to make sure that they understood what their relationships with law enforcement could and should be. Those relationships did not transition the way that I would have liked because I would have like --
MADDOW: Cut off midstream.
MADDOW: Paul Fishman, former U.S. attorney from New Jersey, now law professor at Seton Hall -- can I put you on the spot and ask you to please come back and talk to me more about this process? I know you`re never going to talk to us about any of the investigations you`re involved in.
MADDOW: But this process to me is it is a real question mark and there`s - - and I`d love to talk to you tomorrow.
FISHMAN: I`m happy to do that or to talk about special counsel or --
MADDOW: All right.
FISHMAN: Or some of the topic of the day. Great.
MADDOW: Paul Fishman, thank you very much.
FISHMAN: Thanks a lot.
MADDOW: Former U.S. attorney in New Jersey.
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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