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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 5/19/17 Comey to testify

Guests: Devlin Barrett

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: May 19, 2017 Guest: Devlin Barrett

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: That is all in for this evening. The RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening -- Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening -- Chris. Thanks my friend, have a great weekend.

HAYES: You bet. You, too.

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

Two major news stories dropped today as soon as Air Force One was wheels` up for the new President`s first trip abroad since he was inaugurated. As soon as we saw what broke in today`s news it suddenly became newly- interesting to note just how many of the people you have ever heard of who work in this White House were all together on that plane leaving Washington today or who are leaving Washington in the next couple days to join the traveling White House on this giant tour.

Look at all of the people who are going. Look at all of the people who left. Honestly, who`s left at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? If hypothetically somebody comes to the door and knocks tonight. Oh heck, let`s just say the FBI rings the doorbell tonight, who`s there to answer? It`s like Elaine Chao? Like who else is around?

As soon as wheels were up to start this foreign trip, the "New York Times" reported this story. According to the "Times`" reporting, and the White House does not dispute it -- according to the "Times", the official White House record of the President hosting the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office last week, the official White House record not disputed by the White House includes direct quotes from the President telling these Russian officials that thank God the pressure on him about Russia is lifted now because he fired the FBI director.

Quote, "I just fired the head of the FBI. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That`s taken off."

Lots of subsequent headlines about this story and discussion about this story today have been focusing on the fact that the President is also quoted in this official White House account of that meeting calling fired FBI direct James Comey, quote, "crazy, a real nut job".

You know what though? When one of your work colleagues is somebody the President calls "sleepy eyes", when the President says Senator McCain is "no war hero", and Senator Cruz is "lying Ted". I think best maybe not to get too caught up in what names and epithets this particular president flings at people, right. That`s just what he does; that`s how he behaves even now that he`s president of the United States. He calls people all sorts of stuff.

So I realize everybody was very excited about him calling the FBI director a nut job. If I`m the FBI director, I am probably very unhappy about that. I`m sure it hurt feelings. It`s exercising. It`s weird. It`s a display of his temperament.

But beyond the, what he called the FBI director, there is big news in this story. And the news here is, one, that he confirmed again on the record that he fired the FBI director to try to alleviate the pressure of the Russia investigation, right. I mean that admission alone would have been an unthinkable admission for any American president before even just the past two weeks. But he`s now confirmed that that`s why he fired the FBI director.

Number two, this shows that the White House is abandoning its previous effort to cook up a different purported rationale for why the President he fired Comey. Again, I stress that the White House is not disputing to the "New York Times" tonight that what they`re quoting is the official White House account of that meeting. They`re not disputing that it`s accurate quotes.

So they`re now confirming that the President says he fired the FBI director because the FBI director was leaving the Russia investigation into the President.

And not incidentally, the third big piece of news here is that he was bragging about that fact to high-ranking Russian government officials, telling them don`t worry about it. I think the pressure`s off now. I fired the guy.

I mean, that was the quote, right? "I just fired the head of the FBI. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That`s now taken off." Accurate quotes. So that broke.

And then moments after that story broke in the "New York Times", the "Washington Post" updated its front page to this. "White House adviser close to Trump is a person of interest in Russia probe." With this story, the "Washington Post" gets one of those landmark stories that makes people buy the print edition of the newspaper and save it because they think they might be able to sell it for a lot of money someday or because impress their grandkids.

Quote, "The law enforcement investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign has identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest" -- citing people familiar with the matter, reporters Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report that -- this fact, the fact that a senior current White House official is a person of interest now. That means that quote, "The probe is reaching into the highest levels of the U.S. government."

And not just into the highest levels of the government, reaching into the center of the government as well. Quote, "The senior White House adviser under scrutiny by investigators is someone close to the President." Again, in the "Washington Post" they cite sources here at people familiar with the matter.

But after the "Washington Post" published their scoop on this today, NBC News was able to confirm it from reporters Pete Williams and Ken Dilanian, quote, "Two U.S. officials say the activities of a current White House official are now under investigation in the FBI`s Russia collusion probe."

Now, in neither the "Washington Post" reporting on this nor NBC`s reporting do we actually have the name of who the person of interest is. We are told the person is a senior White House adviser who is close to the President, but -- put that list up again. This is at least a partial list of who`s going on the big foreign trip today. That`s a very large chunk of all the people who are known to be senior advisers in this White House.

We don`t have a name. We don`t know if it`s one of these White House officials, who is on this foreign trip, who is also the person of interest in the Trump-Russia collusion, law enforcement investigation, but somebody apparently is.

Earlier this week, NBC News was first to report that Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort -- the former national security adviser, the former campaign chairman -- Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort were now officially subjects of criminal investigations in which federal grand jury subpoenas have been issued.

And the "Washington Post" tonight reaffirmed that investigators remain quote, "keenly interested in Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort". So Flynn and Manafort are both subjects of criminal investigations, they`re both in the cross hairs but we now know it`s not only them because neither of them can be this new person of interest reported by the "Washington Post" and by NBC because neither Mike Flynn nor Paul Manafort is a current White House official.

So the President flies off on his first foreign trip tonight in the face of confirmed reporting now that his former campaign chairman, his former national security adviser and somebody who is working for him now as a senior adviser in the White House are all the subjects of active law enforcement investigations specifically into whether his campaign colluded in the Russian attack on the United States last year.

These are not normal times.

The "Washington Post" also reports tonight that the FBI is investigating whether any financial crimes were committed by people close to the President. And they report that the FBI`s inquiries are getting to a point where their work may be more public -- may be more visible in public because the FBI, according to the "Washington Post" is getting to a point where we`re going to see more subpoenas and more FBI interviews.

And we don`t always find out about those things immediately when they happen, but oftentimes people who are subject to FBI interviews or subject subpoenas oftentimes those people peep about the fact that has happened. And so prepare for more news days like this.

Now, in terms of what we know substantively about the Russian side, about Russian contacts with the Trump campaign, we`ve also had two new developments on that front that have been lower profile but are going to end up being really important.

The first is Viktor Medvedchuk -- Viktor Medvedchuk. He`s known to be one of Vladimir Putin`s closest friends. Vladimir Putin is godfather to his daughter. He`s one of Putin`s trusted active political fixers. He`s a zillionaire oligarch. He wages his own political power but he has frequently been used by Vladimir Putin as an emissary, even as a courier in sensitive political matters.

Yesterday Reuters named him. Yesterday Reuters reported that Viktor Medvedchuk is one of the Russians who turn up in these 18 previously undisclosed calls and texts and e-mails between Trump associates and Kremlin associates; these 18 previously undisclosed contacts between April and November of last year that are now in the hands of federal investigators.

Viktor Medvedchuk denies any such contacts with the Trump campaign, but Reuters names him as one of the two Russian names that have been seen in those intercepts between the Russians and the campaign. The two Russian names that apparently have been seen according to Reuters that apparently are not classified or being kept from investigators, at least the ones who are able to get this information to Reuters -- the two names that are out there -- Kislyak the ambassador and Medvedchuk.

So as the collusion probe is now reported to reach into the White House -- that`s one new, one very high-ranking, one very close to Putin Russian connection to the Trump campaign that we just learned about yesterday.

The other one we`ve just learned about this week relates to this bank -- VEB. VEB is a Russian state-controlled bank, state-controlled means in this case Vladimir Putin personally sits on the supervisory board for this bank. He is known to personally direct its activities. VEB is a big part of how he financed the Sochi Olympics construction.

The Sochi Olympics construction was fantastically, phenomenally corruptly over-budget. It was the most spent on any Olympics ever. But it was all spent through VEB Bank at Putin`s discretion. VEB is under sanctions by the United States government. A top executive in their New York office just recently got out of federal prison in Ohio after being convicted of basically serving as an undeclared Russian spy while he was pretending to work for this VEB bank branch in New York City.

The charging documents against that just released Russian spy showed that one of the Americans his spy ring tried to recruit in New York to be a Russian agent was Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.

In addition to all of that that we have known about VEB, one of the meetings with the Russian official that presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner didn`t disclose on his application for a security clearance was a meeting that he had with the head of VEB who was personally installed in that position by Vladimir Putin.

So VEB, this Russian bank, this Putin-controlled bank -- it was already on our radar in terms of unaccounted for and in some cases surreptitious meetings between the Russian government and the Trump government.

This week as we learn more about the Trump-Russia collusion investigation landing on a person of interest who`s currently inside the White House at a senior level, this week we also got a new piece of information about that bank and the Trump Organization. This week the "Wall Street Journal" reported just a few days ago that VEB pumped money, tons of money, many millions of dollars into Trump`s business partner in a big Trump-branded Toronto building that had lots of financial difficulties.

So whether it`s the money inquiries, whether it`s the involvement of U.S. attorneys offices around the country, whether it is the known subjects of criminal investigation, whether it`s the naming of a person of interest in the White House, the Trump-Russia collusion inquiry is getting very hot very fast.

We got two named suspects -- excuse me -- two named subjects from the campaign, one unnamed person of interest who`s not named but someone high up in the White House, we are getting more and more information about who`s who on the Russian side of the collusion investigation. And our new president flew away today in the middle of all this which, who knows, maybe a relief to him.

After he was in the air today as all this news was breaking they announced that he`s firing the deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland from Fox News. He`s demoting her to be ambassador to Singapore. We also got news that he`s sending Newt Gingrich to the Vatican with his most recent wife, Callista Gingrich. He has just named Callista Gingrich to be ambassador to the Vatican which I think means Newt moves there.

So, you know, the presidency doesn`t stop just because there`s apparently somebody working as a senior adviser to the President who`s a person of interest in a very serious criminal FBI investigation into foreign influence and U.S. politics. I mean it keeps going.

But there are two things I think we have to be rigorously attentive to now in this news. Number one, as this FBI investigation starts rattling chains this loudly, as they get this close to the President as this investigation gets into the White House, what`s within the President`s power to try to do to shut it down? What could he do to shut this investigation down or to try to blow it off course?

We have actually got some very striking new news on that for you tonight coming up in just a second with somebody who is very much in a position to know how that would work. That`s one. Nail that down. How could anybody derail this investigation now that it`s getting this close to the President?

The other thing we have to nail down right now, nail down tight is whether we`re sure we really get this, whether we really understand what`s being reported and what we know to be true. I mean this is historic stuff. There is ample reason to make sure we`re absolutely getting this freaking right.

To that end, joining us now is Devlin Barrett. He`s national security reporter for the "Washington Post". He and reporter Matt Zapotosky today broke this very big news that the collusion investigation has turned up a person of interest who`s working as a senior White House adviser, somebody quote, "close to the President".

Mr. Barrett -- thank you for joining us on a big day. Congratulations on the scoop.

DEVLIN BARRETT, "WASHINGTON POST": Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: Let me just ask you up the top.

In terms of my describing your story, did I get that right? Did I mess anything up there?

BARRETT: No, I think you got it exactly right. I think the importance of it is that there`s no denying at this point that this is a very complex and fraught situation in which you have DOJ and FBI personnel actively investigating someone at really, you know, the center of American power which is the White House.

MADDOW: What is a person of interest?

BARRETT: A person of interest is kind of a term of art. It`s not -- it doesn`t have any particular legal significance. It`s frankly used more by reporters than it is by law enforcement.

But I think person of interest, it`s another way of saying someone who is under investigation, someone who`s being looked at very seriously in an investigation. And look, this is both a counterintelligence investigation and a criminal investigation. There`s a lot of overlap here of those two topics.

So, you know, my view is that calling them a person of interest is the fairest way to describe the fact someone is being looked at very seriously in this investigation.

MADDOW: Ok. Both you guys at the "Post" and NBC News have now confirmed with multiple sources that there is this person of interest as you say with everything we need to understand about that term. There is a person of interest in this investigation currently working in the White House.

Nobody so far is reporting who that person is.


MADDOW: Now, feel free to tell me to buzz off on this. But just -- I`m curious, is this one of those things where you know who it is, you`ve confirmed who it is, you would consider it to be reportable information, but you`re being asked for security reasons not to say? That comes up sometimes in national security reporting as you know. I`m wondering if it`s something like that or if it`s just that it`s really not reportable information yet.

BARRETT: It does. And if that were an issue -- that`s not the issue here. The issue is that we have more reporting to do and we are working on that reporting. I was working that before I came here. I`ll be working on it after I leave here. There`s more work to do.

But frankly, I think me and my colleagues felt that this much that we knew was important and worth sharing with the public and made a difference and it mattered partly because of the implications of it.

But also because what it said about the investigation, you know. A lot of the argument over this investigation has been oh it`s really nothing or it`s the biggest thing in the world. And I think anything we can do to help define what is and isn`t in play is probably valuable hopefully to readers.

MADDOW: You also report that this investigation is moving in perhaps to a more public phase, not a deliberately public phase but with more FBI interviews, more subpoenas coming, that the public may become more aware about the contours of the investigation.

Do we know anything -- do we know anything about FBI interviews with White House officials yet other than the Mike Flynn FBI interview that we know about that took place right after the inauguration?

BARRETT: Well, right. That`s the most obviously one. And that`s been reported, you know, plenty at this point. We have not gained any information about interviews of White House officials. We`ve been told that interviews of people, not necessarily White House officials, but there have been interviews done with Americans and various people related to this broad category of the Russian influence investigation.

But, you know, that`s not really a thing that has been observable to the outside world. The people who are describing this to us are saying you`re likely to start observing more of it because we need to start talking to people who may talk themselves to the public or may frankly be seen talking to us.

And, you know, there`s a whole issue involved in this process where you can only learn so much through intelligence gathering and record gathering before you have to start actually talking to people face to face.

MADDOW: Yes, and seeing stuff happen before your own eyes.

BARRETT: That`s right.

MADDOW: Devlin Barrett, national security reporter for the "Washington Post". Obviously this is very, very impressive, historic reporting. Lots of kids in this country who are like looking at you realizing they want to be you when they grow up. So I hope you can enjoy it even though you`re working butt off right now.

BARRETT: Thank you -- Rachel.

MADDOW: Thank you.

All right. There is more new in this story today. Stay with us.


MADDOW: So there`s these two big pieces of reporting right. We got the news from the "Washington Post" that we just discussed with Devlin Barrett about the Trump-Russia collusion investigation now having a person of interest in the White House, a person working there in a senior adviser role that`s described as close to the President.

Almost simultaneously to that report, we got news today from the "New York Times", that the official White House record of the President hosting two Russian officials in the Oval Office last week, that record includes quotes from the President like this. Quote, "I just fired the head of the FBI. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That`s taken off." Both these stories breaking late today.

That second one, the "New York Times" one -- what is particularly notable about that is that that now fully confirms without a doubt that the President has been trying to stymie the Russia investigation. He admits it. He`s been trying to relieve the pressure of the Russia investigation by messing with it in various ways. I mean the President is now on the record twice admitting that his firing of the FBI director was about his unhappiness and his worry about the Trump investigation.

But, you know what, that is not the only thing he`s done to try to stop the Russia investigation. I mean when you stack up all the things this White House has done to try to stop that investigation or distract that investigation or pervert it in some way, it`s a substantial stack of stuff.

I mean there was the strange interaction between White House staff and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who is supposed to be leading one of the key congressional Russia investigations. A Mike Flynn hire at the National Security Council reportedly was involved in feeding classified information to the House Intelligence Chairman to help him try to knock that Russia investigation off course.

The intelligence chairman is now under ethics investigation for that stunt. But that White House stunt did succeed in delaying for weeks what was ultimately that explosive testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. The White House-Devin Nunes stunt did delay the Yates testimony for a while.

But remember, the White House also just tried to block her from testifying. They tried to tell her she wasn`t allowed to testify. It was only when her lawyers brushed the White House back on that White House effort to stop her from testifying that then they appear to have tried Plan B when Devin Nunes pulled this stunt and canceled their hearing.

Since then we have learned that the President also told the FBI director directly to shut down the Trump-Russia investigation into Mike Flynn. The White House is denying it but the ousted FBI director says he documented it when it happened at the time.

Also, at one point, the White House also drafted the House and Senate Intelligence chairmen to call reporters, to talk down particularly damaging Trump-Russia reporting about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence sources -- reporting that turned out to be corroborated over and over and over again by multiple other sources even though the White House enlisted these guys running the Russia investigations to please try to shut it down.

We also now know that the President himself and the White House chief of staff pressured the FBI director to make public statements about the Trump- Russia investigation to make the administration look better than they do on this subject. He refused to do that and then, of course, he did get fired. The President fired him.

And then the next day he admitted first to the Russian officials and then the next day to Lester Holt that he did it, that he did fire James Comey because of Russia. This president, this White House has tried very hard, they`ve tried lots of different ways to head off the Trump-Russia investigation even before it got as dire as it got today with this.

Now that it`s this dire, how might they try to stop it now? Answerable question, it turns out. FBI investigations, right, are now being led by the special counsel Robert Mueller -- special in special counsel means his role is outside the normal hierarchy, outside the normal chain of command of government employees.

That said, there are ways that the President could try to kibosh Robert Mueller`s special counsel investigation. For example, Reuters reports tonight that the Trump administration is exploring whether they might use ethics rules to undermine Mueller`s investigation by claiming that there`s some conflict of interest involving his former law firm that he quit in order to take this job. That would be an indirect way to go after Mueller`s investigation. Or they could go right at him directly.

Under the special counsel regulations, Robert Mueller as special counsel technically answers to the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. And, you know, if Rod Rosenstein is going to try to stymie the investigation, there are ways he can do that.

Let`s assume for the moment that Rod Rosenstein is a good actor, not a bad actor here. He`s going to let Mueller do his thing. He wouldn`t have appointed him otherwise. Let`s assume that Rod Rosenstein doesn`t personally want to mess up the Russia investigation and he`s going to let Mueller do his thing.

Even if Rosenstein is a good actor here, could the President still mess it up? Yes, he could. The President could order the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to fire Robert Mueller. If the Deputy Attorney General refused the President could fire him.

The President could order the Deputy Attorney General to restrict the scope of the Mueller investigation. If the Deputy Attorney General refused to do that the President could fire him for that.

The President could order the Deputy Attorney General to impede the resources that Mueller needs for his investigation. And again if the Deputy AG refused to do that the President could fire him.

I mean in any of those instances there would be all sorts of interesting follow-on questions about what would happen thereafter, right. And if those orders to the Deputy AG didn`t work and he fired the Deputy AG for refusing then who ends up -- I mean there are all sorts of interesting follow-on questions.

But even if none of those things happen, none of those things that all go through, Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy AG -- there`s also at least one nuclear option which could be way more direct if the President really wanted to kill this thing.

The regulations that make it possible to have a special counsel are Justice Department regulations. It`s not a law passed by Congress, Justice Department regulations. Trump could just order the Justice Department to rescind those regulations so there`s no longer any such thing as a special counsel within the Department of Justice. He could direct the Department of Justice to get rid of those regulations and then Mueller would just go poof, right.

What do you mean you`re special counsel? There`s no such thing as a special counsel? Couldn`t he do that? If you don`t think that he`d do something that radical or you didn`t think he could do something that radical. Now that this is the friend of the "Washington Post", don`t you think he might do something that radical? Again -- answerable question with an answer.

And hold on. That`s coming up?


[21:33:22] MADDOW: Former acting solicitor general of the United States, Neal Katyal, convened a working group at the Justice Department in 1999 and that working group wrote the regulations for the special counsel. Special counsel regulations are the rules that govern the process, the oversight and ultimately the prospects for what is now Robert Mueller`s special counsel investigation into the Trump-Russia affair.

When Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to lead that investigation, Neal Katyal praised the pick of Robert Mueller for that job. He also, though, sounded a little bit of alarmed that as the guy who wrote the regulations he knows that there are ways for a president to try to interfere with a special counsel investigation, even for a president to try to shut it down.

I would like to hear more about that.

Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general of the United States, thank you for coming back to talk with us. I really appreciate it.


MADDOW: So we now got this new round of reporting about the seriousness of the FBI investigation, the closeness to the president in terms of this person of interest being named by the "Washington Post" as a senior adviser. If the president is freaked out by this new reporting, if he was reviewing his options to try to kibosh or screw up this investigation, what would be his best bet?

KATYAL: So the first thing to say, Rachel, and just following on Devlin, your first guest, is, you know, I can`t -- I have to start by just saying, you know, we think of checks and balances and so on as being courts, and so on, and constitutional lawyers, but the real story this week is the press and people like Devlin and the "New York Times" doing that kind of reporting which is just I think what our founders envisioned in the First Amendment and checks and balances really truly working.

[21:30:06] And that`s actually the answer to this question which is sure, there are all sorts of ways a president can stymie a special counsel but the regulations were drafted with a lot of input from, you know, Eric Holder, Janet Reno, the bipartisan group on the Hill, to try and say sunlight is the best way to try and avoid a president who`s going to try and interfere. So all those options that you mentioned like firing Mueller or ordering the deputy attorney general to fire Mueller, all of those are things that would have to be forced out into the sunlight and the president would then have to justify what he`s doing. And so that`s the idea behind the special counsel regulations.

MADDOW: Can I just ask you one specific point on that, just trying to game this out, I`m trying to -- I`m trying to be able to imagine things before they happen which I have failed at all year long. If the president did direct the deputy attorney general to do something related to this investigation and the deputy attorney general said no, the president responded by firing him, would those responsibilities of the deputy attorney general then fall to somebody else below him in the Department of Justice hierarchy or would the Senate need to confirm a new deputy attorney general for Robert Mueller to report to, essentially, as special counsel?

KATYAL: They wouldn`t need to confirm. That is, it would go to the associate attorney general and then to the solicitor general. There`s an actual defined succession order and the rules for special counsels and the very first paragraph kind of buy into that -- that rule of succession. I think what you`d likely see, though, is the president if he wanted to interfere doing things like what you just mentioned, things like try to use the ethics rules which are now being reported on this week that the White House is looking at the ethics rules to say, oh Mueller, you came from the same law firm as Jared Kushner as a client and other people in the investigation, and so you`re going to be barred from it.

And, you know, apart from the irony of this White House suddenly discovering the ethics code and the -- you know, and kind of following the niceties of law for the first time, I think, you know, that`s one of these things which we as lawyers say be careful what you wish for because if that does happen and they, too, try and evoke that ethics rule instead of seeking a waiver which you`d ordinarily do I think the result would be two special counsels, not one. There`d be one from Mueller for most of the investigations and then the second one for these people who were at Mueller`s old law firm. And I can`t imagine that`s a good thing for the White House.

MADDOW: No, exactly. Both of them in power to investigate as they saw fit. Let me ask you about other issue that you raised today in an op-ed in "The Washington Post" which I had not thought of at all before I read your piece on this. You suggested that one way the investigation could be impeded is if Congress screwed it up on purpose, basically. If a committee decided to start granting immunity to witnesses, giving -- telling witnesses you`ll be immuned from prosecution, come tell us what you know, thus interfering with the ability to prosecute that witness or to otherwise sort of make use of them for the inquiry that Mueller would be leading with the FBI.

Is that -- first of all, did I get that right? And it would take, like a two-thirds -- will take a two-thirds vote of any committee to grant that immunity. So it would have to be a pretty big effort by any committee to do that.

KATYAL: Yes. So it doesn`t need to be nefarious. You got it right, except for that. So, you know, you could have a Congress that`s just trying to search for truth and say, look, we`ve got to give immunity to someone because they`re taking the Fifth, like a lot of corporate executives do when they`re called on to the Hill. And we actually have precedent for this. This happened in Oliver North, that is Oliver North was given that immunity for his congressional testimony, not for criminal prosecution, and then the independent counsel later prosecuted him and Oliver North`s convictions were thrown out because they found those convictions tainted because they said, look, Oliver North testified, gave this evidence before the committee and maybe the prosecutors used it, maybe they didn`t.

I think, you know, what this underscores is, you know, if I`m the president right now, the first thing I`m doing is lawyering up. And, you know, he can`t rely on the government lawyer who after all have an obligation to the public. He`s got to get his own set of lawyers and I suspect that`s true about the White House more generally, and the White House senior staff. And so I think we`re going to be seeing all sorts of complicated moves between the White House and private lawyers, as well as Congress.

MADDOW: Wow. Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general in the Obama administration, now professor of law at Georgetown University, really clarifying. Thank you for coming back and talking to us about it.

KATYAL: Thank you.

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


[21:43:08] MADDOW: 2011 there was somebody snooping in the United States in a bad way. He was snooping specifically on people who had moved here or who were visiting here from Syria, people who were actively protesting here in the United States against the Syrian regime. This person films and reported protesters and activists and then sent those tapes back to the Syrian government. Just ugly stuff.

But the good news is they caught the guy and in 2012 he was sentenced to federal prison for acting as an unregistered agent of the Syrian government. The Syrian government was an active partner in this crime. This is right at the outset of the Syrian civil war, right? And they had this spy in America, spying on people protesting against the Assad regime. They sent him a laptop to allow him to communicate with the Syrian government. They paid for his travel to Syria so he could feed this intel personally to the Syrian Mukhabarat. They put him in a private meeting with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But again eventually he got caught, he got caught here and he got put in prison for it here.

The U.S. Department of Justice has a special office that deals with cases like that, that specifically authorizes prosecutions that relate to espionage and sabotage and things like that.

The counterintelligence prosecutor who litigated that spying for Syria case in Virginia is a prosecutor named Brandon Van Grack. He`s a veteran Justice Department prosecutor who`s basically an espionage specialist. He is still there at DOJ. And now Brandon Van Grack is reportedly the guy in charge of the grand jury inquiry into former National Security adviser Michael Flynn, specifically on the matter of his foreign business contacts, his ties to a Turkish businessman who paid him to represent foreign interests while he was also working for the Trump campaign.

Here`s my question. What is an espionage prosecutor really? Right?

[21:45:05] We`ve now got as of tonight solid reporting that three top Trump advisers are subjects or persons of interest in criminal inquiries. There`s the unnamed senior White House adviser close to the president, who`s described by "The Washington Post" tonight as a person of interest in the collusion inquiry. There`s the former campaign chair Paul Manafort and there`s the former National Security adviser Michael Flynn.

We know about the three of them being in the bull`s eye in these criminal investigations. But for Michael Flynn, what does it mean that there`s an espionage prosecutor who`s working his part of this? Does that mean it`s way more serious? Does this mean it`s qualitatively different?

I`m going to ask somebody who knows, next.


MADDOW: In March, President Trump took it upon himself to fire en masse and without warning 46 sitting U.S. attorneys across the country. Almost all of them. They had previously decided they were not going to fire them all at once, but then for some reason they did. We still don`t know why.

One of the U.S. attorneys who got fired is Barbara McQuade who served as the U.S. attorney in the eastern district of Michigan. She was there for eight years. Her tenure there was high-profile. It included the prosecution of the so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who was ultimately sentenced to life in prison.

Miss McQuade has extensive experience prosecuting cases involving terrorism financing and also foreign agents. Just the person we need to talk to. Former U.S. attorney Barbara McQuade joins us tonight on a Friday night.

[21:50:03] Ma`am, thank you very much for joining us. I really appreciate you making time to be here.


MADDOW: There is, we are told, an espionage prosecutor who is taking a lead on this probe of Michael Flynn`s business dealings. This has all been reported in the press in terms of how that investigation is going on. I wondered if you could tell us what it means to -- for somebody to be called an espionage prosecutor, and what that tells us about that case.

MCQUADE: Well, at the Justice Department, there is a division called the National Security Division. And within that division, there is a section called the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section. That is the group who are the experts in counterintelligence investigations. And counterintelligence just means playing defense against foreign spies.

MADDOW: And in terms of there being somebody at main justice who does that, we`re told that this -- this effort around Michael Flynn is not being run out of main justice. It`s being run out of the U.S. attorney`s office, in his case in the eastern district of Virginia. Is an espionage prosecution or something where you`ve got a prosecutor with expertise in those matters -- is that the sort of thing where the Justice Department might second a prosecutor from main justice to come out and work with the U.S. attorney`s office, a sort of a specialist on a case like that?

MCQUADE: Yes. It makes sense to me that they would pair like that. The case needs to be brought in a district where there is venue, where some of the aspects of the crime occurred. So eastern Virginia may be a place if the Flynn Intel Group is located there, for example. That could be why venue is there. And it is very common for an assistant U.S. attorney who is out of that office to pair with an expert from the National Security Division. In fact, the U.S. attorney`s manual requires approval and consultation depending on the statutes that you`re using from the National Security Division.

MADDOW: As we have been trying to keep up both with the news about Mike Flynn and also Paul Manafort, one of the things that keeps coming up is the question of registering as a foreign agent. And the way that gets described often in the press in a discussion about these things is that that`s not that big a deal. That violating that requirement to register as a foreign agent isn`t really a serious legal matter.

One of the reasons I want to talk to you, though, is that in Michigan it really looks like you did prosecute unregistered foreign agents. They don`t seem like minor matters. I wonder if you could just address that, the way that`s described in the press versus how it seems to you from a prosecutor`s perspective.

MCQUADE: There is a federal offense that makes it a crime to act as a foreign agent without first notifying the attorney general. So if you tell the attorney general, you can act as a lobbyist or do business on behalf of a foreign government. But when you fail to disclose and when you`re acting under the direction or control of a foreign government, then it becomes a crime. So if you are being tasked or asked to do things or take action on behalf of a government, and the United States government doesn`t know about it, then it becomes a 10-year felony.

MADDOW: Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Michigan. One of these people who was inexplicably fired with no notice after having been told to stay put. I know -- I`m sure it`s been a real rollercoaster over the last few months for you. Thank you for being with us tonight, ma`am. I really appreciate it.

MCQUADE: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: Thanks.

All right. We have a bit of a mystery tonight. It concerns the former FBI director and somebody is really getting it wrong, and that story is next.


[21:55:50] MADDOW: I said at the top of the show tonight that this is a time when we really need to make sure we nail this all down and get this all right. To that end, here is where there is something wrong.

There is one part of James Comey`s firing as FBI director that doesn`t make sense. In the immediate aftermath of his firing last Tuesday, "The New York Times" reported that just days before the president canned him, James Comey had been trying to expand and add resources to the Russia investigation. Quote, "Days before he was fired as FBI director, Comey asked the Justice Department for more prosecutors and other personnel to accelerate the bureau`s investigation into Russia`s interference in the presidential election."

Comey`s, quote, "appeal" described by four congressional officials was made to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. That "New York Times" story was first. It was subsequently corroborated by multiple news organizations. "The Wall Street Journal" that same night, quote, "Mr. Comey last week sought more resources to support the bureau`s investigation. He requested additional personnel from Rod Rosenstein. Sources, people familiar with the matter."

The AP also got that story citing U.S. officials. "The Washington Post" also backed up the story citing several people familiar with the discussion. NBC got it, quoting -- getting this quote from a congressional aide. Quote, "What he wanted was basically more prosecutors, more support from the DOJ for writing subpoenas and warrants."

So that quickly became a really important controversial part of the narrative as to why the president might have fired James Comey. Fired him right after he asked to expand and accelerate that investigation. But right from the beginning, the Justice Department insisted that it was not true. Justice department said instantly that the claim he asked for more resources was totally false, totally false, 100 percent false. There was absolutely no request. Then the acting FBI director Andrew McCabe said the same thing the next day under oath. He said he was, quote, "not aware of that request."

And now today another very high level, very blunt, broad denial from somebody who, you know, it`s kind of hard to question on a matter like this, honestly. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, briefed all members of the House today in a classified setting. We later got a written version of his remarks. They ended with this, quote, "I want to address the media claims that the FBI asked for additional resources for the investigation of Russian interference in the election. I`m not aware of any such requests. Moreover, I consulted my staff and acting FBI director Andrew McCabe, and none of them recalls such a request."

It`s really emphatic. So you`ve got the Department of Justice spokesperson, the acting head of the FBI, the deputy attorney general, all forcibly and consistently and some of them under oath saying no, that did not happen. Comey didn`t ask for more resources for investigation right before he was fired. That`s on the one side. Meanwhile, "The New York Times," NBC News, "The Wall Street Journal," the Associated Press, CNN, and Politico are on the other side, all seemingly very comfortable with their reporting that, yes, Comey did make that request.

These two things cannot co-exist. I mean, when these news reports first surfaced, Democratic Senators Pat Leahy and Jeanne Shaheen wrote to Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, seeking details of any request for increased resources made by the FBI to the Department of Justice in order to complete its investigation into Russian interference. They sent that letter eight days ago on May 11th. Senators` offices tell us tonight they have yet to receive any response to that letter.

Senator Shaheen`s office tells us tonight that the multiple apparently well-sourced press reports and the Justice Department`s blunt denial, those two things, those two things being in conflict make it all the more necessary for Mr. Rosenstein to respond to our letter.

Tonight we also spoke with the Department of Justice. We sort of put it to them, hey, maybe you guys have been splitting hairs. Maybe you have been kind of cute about this. Maybe Director Comey had requested more prosecutors and that doesn`t fall under the umbrella of resources. You sure you don`t want -- but we were again given an emphatic no. We specifically asked them, is the Department of Justice saying no requests were made for anything, period.

This is the response that we got. Quote, "None, period. No gray area." One person who would be really great to hear from on this is James Comey.