Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: June 2, 2017 Guest: Eric Tucker, Nick Akerman, Barbara McQuade, Timothy O`Brien
ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Rachel is still under the weather.
But we have some big news breaking tonight, so big that we will be hearing from Rachel herself. That`s in a few moments.
It is Friday night and the "A.P." is reporting the Russia probe is widening. Special counsel Robert Mueller including in his Russia inquiry a one separate criminal probe into Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, and that probe could include Trump`s Justice Department if necessary. We have more on that unusual detail in a moment.
But as for Manafort, his foreign political work has, of course, been widely reported. NBC, for example, confirming the prosecutors have reviewed his advocacy for pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine, and that came before he linked up with Trump in 2016. Manafort`s once secret foreign payments from a pro- Putin dictators party surfaced right before he split with the Trump campaign. The "A.P." now reporting that Mueller will include that review of Manafort into this wider Russia probe.
Now, that`s not great news for the White House but it does not automatically undercut their argument that Trump has eliminated his ties to Manafort and that this review might have little to do with the core of the 2016 campaign for president.
The other part of "A.P." report does name check current senior Trump officials, however, including the man who just picked Mueller for this job. Take a look at this tonight. The "A.P." reporting that the special counsel here, Mueller, may expand his inquiry to include the top two DOJ officials, Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein. They sent that now discredited letter recommending that Trump fire Jim Comey for one reason, that Comey was allegedly unfair to Hillary Clinton, which President Trump later said was not the real or only reason he fired Comey.
Rosenstein wrote a memo and both he and Sessions discuss that had firing with Trump, despite Sessions` pledge to recuse himself from the Russia probe. Trump officials suggested that letter caused the firing, but then, Trump, of course, admitted that was not true in an interview with NBC`s Lester Holt.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Did you ask for a recommendation?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What I did is I was going to fire Comey. My decision. It was not --
HOLT: You had made the decision before they came in the room.
TRUMP: I was going to fire Comey. I -- there`s no good time to do it, by the way. They --
HOLT: Because in your letter, you said, I accepted their recommendation. So, you had already made the decision?
TRUMP: Oh, I was going to fire him regardless of recommendation. He made a recommendation.
He is highly respected. A very good guy, very smart guy. The Democrats like him. The Republicans like him. He made a recommendation.
But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And, in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Now, that interview, when you listen to it, it did more than just throw the Justice Department under the bus. It made the Justice Department vulnerable at least to an allegation that it was part of an effort to mislead the whole nation about the first firing of an FBI director without cause in American history. That`s a big deal. And a lot of that is still reverberating.
As you know, within days, Rosenstein responded to that by appointing Mueller as the special counsel and then he gave a very unusual private briefing to that bipartisan gathering of the Senate and then he went quiet. No press releases, no speeches, definitely no media interviews until tonight.
Rod Rosenstein spoke to the media for the first time since this all blew up. He spoke about Russia and he spoke about whether the man he picked to run this inquiry has the authority to potentially him, Rod Rosenstein.
Here`s what Rosenstein tells the "A.P." tonight. Quote: I`ve talked with Director Mueller about this. He is going to make the appropriate decisions and if anything that I did winds up being relevant to his investigation then, as Director Mueller and I discussed, if there`s a need for me to recuse, I will.
A spokesman for Mr. Mueller in the article declined to comment.
But here`s why this matters, even if this is -- to be clear -- a hypothetical point. Mueller has independence but Rosenstein currently oversees him. Rosenstein was involved, and as I was just mentioning, that unusual rollout of a law enforcement firing that at least some people think should be investigated as potential obstruction of justice. But if Mueller goes down that road, can Rosenstein limit his authority? Even if he doesn`t, how do you really clearly and forthrightly investigate your own boss?
Well, tonight, the news here on the record for the first time in an interview, is Rosenstein saying he will get out of the way. He will recuse himself if need be.
Now, maybe the Russia probe will die down and none of this stuff that they`re putting out will be relevant. Maybe Rosenstein wants a secondary kind of a public reason not to talk about any of this again. And by calling up the "A.P." on a Friday night and putting this on the record, maybe he thinks that allows him to then say later, for example, to Congress, that this is a matter under potential investigation and he can`t discuss it. We`ve heard those defenses before.
Or maybe this is the first of many rounds in the shadow boxing over this increasingly sticky probe as Mueller makes clear right now that he has a broad mandate, basically daring his boss to disagree. And Rosenstein is saying apparently the right thing before what? Before what we know is coming. The big days of testimony on Capitol Hill. From James Comey next week and soon after from Sessions and Rosenstein.
Or maybe, I don`t know, maybe it`s a combination of all those dynamics. But after weeks of letters about espionage, anonymous leaks and complaints about those underlying leaks, tonight, what we have are -- at least one major player speaking out under his own name in the light of day.
Joining us now, I`m happy to say, is Eric Tucker, the Justice Department reporter for the "A.P." who broke this story.
Thanks for joining tonight.
ERIC TUCKER, ASSOCIATED PRESS, BROKE STORY ON EXPANDING INQUIRY: Thank you for having me, Ari. I appreciate it.
MELBER: You broke this story. It is significant for many reasons. Can you tell us more about how it came together and how it was that Rod Rosenstein basically gave you this first on the record interview about this hot topic?
TUCKER: So actually, Rod spoke with a colleague of mine, Sadie Gorman, and it was a conversation -- a sort of a wide reaching conversation about some of his priorities as the deputy attorney general. And during the course of that conversation he was asked about the scope and the purview of special counsel Mueller`s mandate, and he acknowledged very honesty that Bob Mueller has a very broad that could include anything that he potentially did, it can include anything that the attorney general did, and he said as you indicated a few minutes ago, that if there is anything that Rod Rosenstein himself did, that it`s considered to be relevant to the investigation, he said he`ll go ahead and recuse himself.
MELBER: Eric, that is different than the view of some people inside the Trump White House who publicly opposed any special counsel and certainly have taken the position, that whatever the Russia probe is, it should not go into the firing of James Comey.
TUCKER: Right. So when you look at the one page mandate that was issued several weeks ago by the Justice Department, it clearly gives a fairly sweeping mandate to Bob Mueller and I think everybody who knows Bob Mueller anticipates that he`s going to pull all the relevant strings he wants to.
Clearly, at the sort of focal point of this investigation is potential collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign but that also looks at any potential associates of President Trump which would include his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and it could certainly include allegations of perjury, obstruction of justice, or anything of that sort.
MELBER: In this "A.P." interview, did you get into Jim Comey`s coming testimony?
MELBER: Let me ask you about the Manafort piece of it. What do you see is significant about that? Because, you know, for our viewers, a lot of folks have tracked different people connected to Trump at different times under review. What does that say to you based on your reporting and your wider knowledge that this is now under Mueller`s purview?
TUCKER: Well, it`s interesting because as you noted, the Manafort investigation long predates the campaign, it long predates the collusion investigation, it is truly operating on a separate track of a criminal financial fraud type investigation. And so, clearly, as they`re building up their team, as they`re developing their resources, as they`re gathering steam as part of this investigation, they`re looking at all these different sort of outstanding threads and trying to figure out what are the potential ties or connections that unite all of them under a single person and a single leadership. So, in a lot of ways, it`s actually not that surprising.
MELBER: When you look toward James Comey`s expected testimony this Thursday, for you, what is the biggest question you would have for him or want to hear from him on?
TUCKER: So, I think we`re going to hear about his encounters with President Trump in the weeks and months that predated his firing. One thing that`s really important, interesting about Jim Comey, is he is known to have kept actual memos, formal written memos that he would write up after exchanges or encounters that made him uncomfortable. And we know, for instance, that did he this in February after an Oval Office meeting in which he says that President Trump asked him if he would consider ending the investigation into Michael Flynn who was, of course, President Trump`s first national security adviser.
I think the Senate is going to be very interested in that and I think Director Comey -- former Director Comey is going to have a lot of interest in recounting that from start to finish.
MELBER: Eric Tucker, Justice Department reporter and part of that team that broke the story for the "A.P." tonight -- thank you.
TUCKER: Thank you.
MELBER: We turn now to Nick Akerman, a former Watergate special prosecutor, with quite a bit of experience in these kinds of cases which are not the normal kind of case.
What jumps out to you about this reporting?
NICK AKERMAN, FORMER WATERGATE PROSECUTOR: I think it is not surprising. I would have expected the Manafort piece would be part of this. I would have expected that Rod Rosenstein would be considered at least a witness in this case. He was part of the whole process that created that pretext for Trump to fire Comey in the first instance.
They used his memo as an excuse as to why they were firing Comey, when in fact, Trump later admitted that was not the actual reason for firing him. In fact, it was the Russian investigation that he wanted to get rid of. So, in a way, they were using Rosenstein and using his memo as pretext in order to fire Comey and keep it away from the Russian investigation. So just on that basis alone, Rod Rosenstein is a key witness in this case.
MELBER: So, when you say Rod Rosenstein is a witness and Mueller`s Russian investigation, you`re saying he is a witness to how President Trump fired Jim Comey and why?
AKERMAN: And because it all the resulted in an obstruction of justice. If you look at the entire pattern of what occurred from the time that the Trump White House was warned about Michael Flynn, and the fact that he was subject to bribery and blackmail by the Russians, the fact that Trump sat on that for 18 days until the press finally put the heat on him, and then at that point he fires him. The next day, he meets with Comey and asks Comey to back off the investigation.
And then, when Comey asks for more resources to put into this investigation, and announces that there`s an investigation before the U.S. Senate, what does Trump do? He fires him.
MELBER: You`re a prosecutor. You know if you`re going to make a case, you need a statute and you need a target. So, when you say there`s an obstruction case, who is the target?
AKERMAN: The target would be the president of the United States and anybody else that was involved in that decision to fire Jim Comey. It could be Jared Kushner who admitted that he was involved in the decision to fire Jim Comey. The statute is Section 1503 of Title 18, an endeavor to obstruct justice, which includes FBI investigations.
Clearly, the only issue here is, what was the president`s intent in firing Comey? He is basically admitted on national television to Lester Holt that he wanted to get rid of the Russian investigation. So, all of this comes back to the Russian investigation, what did the Trump campaign have to do with the WikiLeaks that related to the break-in with the computers at the Clinton campaign. And two, to what extent did the campaign, the Trump campaign, collude with the Russian government with almost to the data mining and the micro-targeting of voters in order to suppress the vote Hillary Clinton, and to increase the vote for Donald Trump.
MELBER: Mr. Akerman, when you were a Nixon Watergate special prosecutor, when you worked on that team, the view of the Justice Department then as now was that you can`t indict the sitting president for this kind of crime. So, when you reference that statute, if Mueller is looking at liability -- criminal liability in this kind of case, does he have to find someone in your view someone other than the president?
AKERMAN: Well, I think his investigation has to include everybody. Certainly, Donald Trump was part of the Trump campaign. He has to find out what the facts are.
Now, it may be that he`ll come up and conclude at the end which appears likely will happen that Donald Trump was engaged in an obstruction of justice. I don`t believe at this point in time he could ask the grand jury to return an indictment on a sitting a president.
MELBER: Right, legally.
AKERMAN: Legally. But that doesn`t mean there aren`t other coconspirators that were involved in that decision, for the exact same reason, to ditch that FBI investigation. If that`s so, those people can be indicted and they can be brought to justice. In the same way that it was done with the Watergate investigation, there`s no reason why all of these facts relating to the president of the United States can`t be turned over to the House and then be part of any kind of impeachment proceeding. If, in fact, that`s where the evidence leads.
Look, we have not at this point seen the memo that Jim Comey has written. We don`t know exactly what his testimony is going to be. Everything we`ve heard has been secondhand.
AKERMAN: But if you take all of that, and you take into account what the president himself has admitted, it just doesn`t paint a pretty picture at this point.
MELBER: Right. And that is why although the "A.P." was very careful in its wording, that Mueller is talking about, or reportedly his aides are speaking about what he may do, and what he may include, I think it`s fair to say from your experience, if it may include the attorney general, that is a significant deal. Although as we always note, we have to wait for the evidence to come in.
Mr. Akerman, as always, appreciate --
AKERMAN: Thank you for having me.
MELBER: I really appreciate it.
Former assistant U.S. attorney in New York, as well as a former Watergate special prosecutor.
Now, when all these things do come together at the end of a week like this, it does make me wonder what Rachel Maddow would make of this. She joins us next and I`ll ask her.
MELBER: Welcome back to another Friday night of what seems like extraordinary news from the Trump-Russia inquiry, beginning with "Reuters" reporting that special counsel Robert Mueller is taking over the grand jury inquiry into Michael Flynn and the lobbying Flynn did for Turkey without registering as the agent of a foreign government, which is required under law. The "A.P." then, with that report that Mueller could expand the probe to include Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for their roles in the firing of the FBI director, if Mueller wants to go in that direction, the deputy A.G. as we were just discussing says Mueller has room to run.
The "A.P." reporting Mueller also taking over the criminal probe involving the former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. The Manafort probe, of course, predates the whole Trump campaign and goes back to 2014 with the downfall of a kleptocratic pro-Putin president of Ukraine who rose to political power with the help from Manafort. Now, as of tonight, all of that going back years before the Trump campaign has been rolled up into Robert Mueller`s apparently widening, perhaps bottomless portfolio.
And we are now joined by a journalist who has been connecting that investigation into Manafort and Ukrainian payments with the Trump-Russia probe for quite a while now. As you know, she is also the host of this show, the ultimate dot connector, Rachel Maddow.
How are you?
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST (via telephone): Hey, Ari. I am -- you probably can tell from my voice, I am still not exactly myself. I am still recovering from this thing. But I am super happy that I am able to be with you guys tonight.
And this is, I mean, talk about dot connecting, this is a -- I feel like this is one of those moments when we`ve been bushwhacking through the forest for a long time and, all of a sudden, we just came out into a clearing and we can see where we are. It`s really sort of a landmark moment in terms of this investigation, I think.
MELBER: Yes. When you see this confirmation that the special counsel is now overseeing the Manafort inquiry, what do you think that means?
MADDOW: You know, it -- you covered it very well, I thought, in the A block, in terms of what we understand about why this came about and what it might mean, whether it is expected or not. I mean, I -- for me, it raises a few different things. First of all, I think it raises some factual questions which are knowable things, which eventually we will get answered.
And it`s really practical stuff, but I think it could be consequential. And that is, OK, well, does this mean then that the resources of that FBI inquiry which we`ve been talking about on the show since the second week of May, I think that is the first time we talked about this as being related to the Trump-Russia collusion. If that FBI sot of kleptocracy investigation into the Ukraine has been going on for years, it`s a big investigation. They`ve got FBI agents stationed in Kiev.
You know, it is a large scale international kleptocracy and fraud investigation. A practical question: does that mean the resources of that investigation and the agents assigned to it now get moved over into Mueller`s inquiry? They get folded into Mueller`s inquiry.
It is the same thing with the reports that the Mike Flynn foreign payments from Turkey investigation which has been headed up out of the eastern district of Virginia, there are now reports that that is also going to be taken over by Mueller, practical answerable questions about that. Does that mean that the investigators and the prosecutors who have been working on that, including that specialist espionage investigator who has been leading that investigation into Flynn in Virginia, do all those people get folded into what Mueller is doing? How big an investigation? How well resourced an investigation? And what caliber people --
MADDOW: Are you still there?
MELBER: I`m here. Are you still there? I just heard some dialing.
MELBER: You know, that`s live television for you. Go ahead.
MADDOW: Yes, all right.
MADDOW: OK. Let`s hope that`s done. I think --
MELBER: I hear you.
MADDOW: OK. So, practical consequences as to whether or not those prosecutions, the resources of those other prosecutions and investigations are getting folded in because those are -- to a certain degree, you know, the FBI Kiev one is a big mature investigation. I think we will get the answers about that. I think one way or another, we`ll find out if, you know, that espionage prosecutor from the Flynn thing that was working for Mueller, we`ll find out if those FBI agents in Kiev now answer to Mueller. That would be interesting.
I think there are also factual questions that it raises that we maybe won`t get answers to. I mean, the remit from Mueller says he can investigate Trump-Russia collusion and things that arise from that investigation. Well, if he`s taking over the Flynn payments, Flynn foreign payments investigation, and he is taking over the Ukrainian kleptocracy investigation, does that imply that he believes those things are related to the Trump campaign and the Russian attack on the 2016 election?
MELBER: Right, that they`re linked.
MELBER: The other thing I want to ask you, sort of part political, part legal, which is -- there`s this refrain that, you know, nothing seems to matter in this Trump era, or government lies don`t matter. But with all of this coming out, I wonder whether you think there is some potential accountability for false statements about Russia or Jim Comey`s firing that could haunt this White House.
MADDOW: Yes. I mean, we`ll find out. It is now being described sort of matter of factually that Mueller is not just looking into, you know, the Trump campaign Russia collusion. He is also looking into obstruction of justice, perjury, intimidating witnesses, and all that stuff, that`s being stated as a matter of fact by observers here and by people who are familiar with this stuff.
But we don`t have any confirmation of that from Mueller. So, we`ll have -- I sort of want to wait on that until I hear it from the horse`s mouth. We can surmise if that`s true. But I do think there is one really, really important and so far overlooked consequence of the Manafort thing being folded into Mueller, which is that, Ari, we were -- we were first to report that Jeff Sessions as attorney general was refusing to state whether or not he considered himself to be recused from any matters involving Paul Manafort.
If this in fact is true, and all Manafort matters are now being handled by Mueller, that takes away the worry that any, you know, Trump Justice Department interference might get in the way of the Manafort part of this investigation. And that to me seems like a really important advance here.
MELBER: That`s a great point. Because I work here, Rachel, I happen to know that you are resting up and coming back soon.
MELBER: But while you`re out, are you going bonkers not covering all this news this week?
MADDOW: Yes, Ari, I am.
MADDOW: I am -- I am watching NBC instead -- I am watching MSNBC instead of helping make MSNBC coverage. You have been doing an amazing job, as has all the producing staff there at TRMS. But I am desperate to get back into this, because I just keep thinking it`s going to die down and we keep getting these landmark moments.
MELBER: I`m familiar with the amazing job they do --
MELBER: -- because they`re here every day and every night.
Rachel Maddow, thank you so much for calling. I hope you get well soon and you`re back at this chair and at this desk where you are, of course, missed.
MADDOW: I will be -- I will be back soon, Ari. Thank you so much. You`re doing an awesome job, my friend. Thanks.
MELBER: Thank you, Rachel. Thank you so much.
MELBER: Still ahead, the White House now says it`s looking into something that could prevent former FBI Director Jim Comey from doing that big testimony next week. That`s still ahead.
Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TV ANCHOR: Today, after a long legal battle, seven of the president`s secret tapes were given to Judge Sirica. The president`s lawyers asked that all or parts of three of the tapes be withheld from the grand jury on grounds of executive privilege.
Here`s more from Carl Stern (ph).
CARL STERN, REPORTER: After four months of legal squabbling, the presidential tape-recordings were finally delivered today to the Chief Judge John Sirica.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Executive privilege. It is what Nixon tried to use in 1973 to stop those infamous tapes you saw on the screen from getting out. It didn`t work and we all know how that rest of that story went. Executive privilege is, though, an established modern right of presidents to protect certain deliberations in government and to resist subpoenas or testimony requests for staff about things that reach too far into the president`s purview.
But it is not absolute. You can`t typically use the privilege to cover up a crime, like the Nixon tapes about Watergate. And the limits of executive privilege are obviously back in the news because of this countdown to Thursday when Jim Comey is supposed to testify.
Now, he no longer works for this administration. That`s one reason he`s testifying. But Washington has lately been obsessed with whether Trump might follow other presidents and take a broad reading of this privilege to try to limit what Comey says. And today the White House indicated it is reviewing the option, according to Bloomberg News, and in fairness to this White House, it`s really the job of any decent White House lawyer to review if privilege claims are legally possible for such sensitive testimony and then consider whether they`re in the public interest.
But here`s the thing about presidents. They love their executive powers and they push them way past the breaking point, because a privilege for secrets only works for secrets. Not for essentially public matters or, you know, things you`ve been tweeting all about.
President Obama even learned the limits of executive privilege the hard way when a court rejected his attempt to use it for some Justice Department materials. The judge said that his own officials had already publicized too much of that stuff to then claim it was a secret. And that was if case where the Obama officials had disclosed materials in, we could say, a measured way -- a contrast to the loud, even chaotic presentation by President Trump about his dealings with Jim Comey.
President Trump himself blabbing about it on Twitter, talking it up in TV interviews, even allegedly to the Russians in the Oval Office. That`s according to sources in Trump`s own administration who spoke to the "New York Times."
So, joining us now to give us a deeper tutorial is Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney.
Great to have you back with us.
BARBARA MCQUADE, FORMER UNITED STATES ATTORNEY FOR EASTERN DISTRICT OF MICHIGAN: Thanks. Glad to be here, Ari.
MELBER: How much does Donald Trump`s style of public rhetoric affect his potential claims to executive privilege regarding Jim Comey?
MCQUADE: Well, he may have doomed any claim of executive privilege on this matter with his public comments. You can`t assert privilege if you`ve already talked about it in the public sphere.
We`ve seen tweets where he said, Jim Comey better home there are no tapes of our conversation. He told Lester Holt he was thinking about the Russia thing when he fired Jim Comey. In the very letter that he wrote to Jim Comey firing him, he said, thank you for telling me on three separate occasions that I`m not the subject of investigation.
So, I think those public comments may constituent waiver of the privilege.
MELBER: And if the White House were to assert it, how would it go down?
MCQUADE: Well, it`s interesting because this is scenario that`s a little different from the usual. Usually, as you mentioned the Obama example, it`s the White House that wants to prevent documents or a member of its administration from testifying. Here we have, I presume, a willing witness in Jim Comey who would like the come forward and tell his story.
So, if the Trump White House were to assert the privilege, it is not clear whether they have the power to do so with a willing witness. You know, this is an area of the law that is not very well developed.
MCQUADE: Because usually when these matters occur, some compromise is worked out. So, it will be interesting to see whether they can assert with it a willing witness like Jim Comey.
MELBER: Yes, and you mentioned compromise, which is a sort of an inter branch thing with the Congress. Here`s a new letter out tonight, just this hour from some Democrats in Congress saying: We write to the White House to remind you, any such assertion of privilege is almost certainly baseless. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to counsel the president accordingly.
If you`re sitting in the White House counsel`s office, is there room for what you mentioned as compromise for some effort to try to go at things that the president maybe hasn`t already exposed? Some narrower versions of his conversations with Comey about national security in Russia?
MCQUADE: That might be an effective strategy in this case, because another reason that the privilege might not be as effective here, you mentioned, it`s not absolute. There could be a finding that it is in the best interests of justice to have Jim Comey testify.
So, if I were advising the president, I would try to narrow the areas of testimony. You can talk about these things but not these other things, perhaps.
MELBER: And, finally, our viewers who watch a lot of this stuff are familiar with watching Jim Comey bob and weave. He takes certain questions and then he doesn`t take others.
In your view, what are the actual DOJ rules on him when he comes forward?
MCQUADE: Well, I don`t think he can really talk about the substance of the Russia investigation. That is an ongoing pending investigation. He should not talk about that. And also, anything that is classified material, he could not talk about.
But his conversations with the president, whether he was asked to give his pledge, his loyalty to the president, whether he was asked to drop the investigation, I think those matters are all fair game.
MELBER: Right. And which is, as we were just discussing on the show, something that may or may not come up in the underlying inquiry, which is a big deal.
Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney, thanks for your time.
MCQUADE: Thanks for having me.
MELBER: Still ahead, we`re going to hear directly from presidential historian Michael Beschloss on the importance and the wider historical context of this breaking news about where this special counsel inquiry could go, as well as some new questions on meetings between Jared Kushner and a prominent Russian banker.
MELBER: Welcome back.
You know, one of the reasons that tonight story in the "A.P." is such a big deal is that you have the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, basically speaking out on the record for the first time since Jim Comey was fired, something he was still intimately involved with, and then on top of that, he confirms basically in conjunction with Mueller`s investigation, the guy he appointed, that the inquiry, quote, could expand into Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein`s own rules in that decision to form - - fire former FBI Director Jim Comey.
Now, there have been many who question about just how wide the scope of this inquiry is. How much rope would Mueller be given and whether the deputy A.G. or Congress or the president would at some point reel him in. Now, Rosenstein made it pretty clear if wasn`t already that Mueller is on his own. And if that means the deputy attorney general has to step aside and recuse, he`ll do it.
This is important historically because there`s always been a distinction between investigating one item of government misconduct versus the actual management of an entire presidential administration. Think about investigating the Watergate burglary versus the wider investigation of that cover-up. Well, the investigations of the Iran Contra foreign policy deal versus wider investigations over whether there were deliberate efforts to mislead Congress or lie to the American people.
So, we`re no longer talking about the speculations and the what-ifs. We`re reporting really on what is being said right out of DOJ. And this investigation basically saying, we are looking at certain people and history shows when a special counsel or a prosecutor looks at people, it means something.
It doesn`t tell us the end but it does tell us we are an important part, perhaps an early chapter of this history. We might be able to benefit from a history lesson. I`m happy to say tonight we have just the guy -- NBC presidential historian, Michael Beschloss.
As always, great to see you, Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Thanks. Great to see you, Ari.
Thank you. Without prejudging anything we know tonight, we discussed the reporting, and where this goes, we don`t know. I wonder with historical lens, that`s why you`re here, what does history say about what has happened when there are wider inquiries into the running of an administration?
BESCHLOSS: Well, what has happened is if there was an offense, it will likely be found out. That`s one reason why Richard Nixon went after Archibald Cox. Because Archibald Cox expanded his investigation into various abuses of power which in the end included the obstruction of justice for which Nixon was driven out of office.
And so, for Donald Trump to find out if he`s finding out tonight, that this investigation is going to go beyond, you know, the original focus of it, that`s not great news for him.
MELBER: So interesting you say that, because you`re referring to, in the Watergate time line, which many observed took so much longer, it appears that both publicly, but as you just said, within government, the understanding of how wide the scope was came later. So, do you infer anything as a matter of best practices, or abundance of caution, all the legal mumbo jumbo that comes out of there, that Mueller is drawing some lessons from that history?
BESCHLOSS: I think that`s right. This has really sped up because as you said, the Watergate process took a lot longer. But we`ve got at least, you know, shadows on the wall of investigations of collusion with the Russians and perhaps financial crimes, perhaps obstruction of justice and perhaps some connection among all of those things.
And, you know, to leap from chapter 1 to chapter 16, if and we`re a long way from that, but if Mueller finds that there is a connection, for instance, between collusion and taking money in some way, and obstruction, you know, that could lead the way that Richard Nixon led. We`re a long way from having evidence of any of this. But the Constitution says that the grounds for impeachment are treason and bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors.
MELBER: Historically why did so many presidents shy away from rushing to use the pardon power, even when they were upset about investigations?
BESCHLOSS: They have shrunk from using the pardon power because it looks terrible and also, it is essentially a confession of guilt. When Richard Nixon was pardoned by Gerald Ford, you know, some people said, why didn`t Ford make Nixon issue a greater statement of contrition. And Nixon said, I think this was not enough, but Nixon said by accepting a pardon, I was accepting guilt.
NBC presidential his historian, Michael Beschloss, as always -- appreciate your time.
BESCHLOSS: And I hope we don`t come to seeing a pardon.
MELBER: Well, and I think -- I mean, that`s one of the questions, is a lot of these things involve following norms. And I think one of the questions is, what stamina do norms have right now? We don`t know.
BESCHLOSS: And that`s why we all have to hold those in power accountable.
MELBER: Michael Beschloss, thank you as always.
BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Ari.
MELBER: Up next, some new questions about why Jared Kushner had that secret meeting with the Russian secret banker.
Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KIER SIMMONS, NBC NEWS: You`re the subject of intense scrutiny in America because of your meeting with Donald Trump`s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
SERGEY GORKOV, CHAIRMAN, VNESHECONOMBANK: I will not -- have any comments about that. So, now have a session about Blockchain.
SIMMONS: I know you do, but the thing is there is some confusion about what exactly happened.
GORKOV: Sorry. Sorry.
SIMMONS: Were you talking about business or were you talking about politics?
GORKOV: No comments, please.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: Sergey Gorkov, the CEO of the Russian state controlled VEB Bank continues to avoid questions from reporters about what he discussed during that secret meeting with Jared Kushner back in December, a meeting now also of interest of federal investigators.
Now, remember, this was the second known meeting with Russian officials that Kushner failed to disclose. Back in early December, the president`s son-in-law met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at which he reportedly proposed setting up that controversial secret backchannel with the Kremlin, even possibly using Russian diplomatic facilities to do it.
Now, as to why Kushner met with Gorkov later that month, we do not know. The public explanations before offered by both sides still don`t actually match. The White House saying it was a diplomatic meeting while VEB Bank said it was a business meeting with Kushner because of his role as the head of his family`s real estate empire.
Either explanations brings up its own problems, a diplomatic meeting with the Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence days after Kushner was reported to be seeking what we now know was called a potential secret Kremlin backchannel, or if it were a business meeting with the CEO of the Russian bank, under sanctions at a time when Kushner was looking for investors to help pay off some ballooning debts. Over a billion dollars the Kushner`s company has borrowed to buy that flagship real estate property, 666 Fifth Avenue, in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. And it must be paid back over the next two years.
Now, for months, there is a journalist who has been saying investigators must look at Kushner`s real estate troubles as at least a potential reason, an avenue of inquiry for why Kushner was taking these apparently risky meetings.
Joining me now is that journalist, Tim O`Brien. He is the executive editor of "Bloomberg View". He is the author of "Trump Nation: The Art of Being Donald", which led him to be sued unsuccessfully at the time by Donald Trump.
Thank you for being here.
TIMOTHY O`BRIEN, AUTHOR, "TRUMPNATION: THE ART OF BEING THE DONALD": It`s great to be here, Ari.
MELBER: Given everything that has come out, how you view this all now?
O`BRIEN: The 666 fifth? Well, I think it`s hanging over the White House now like a specter. It`s brought the investigation full force into the Oval Office. It possibly implicates one of those powerful people in the office, the president`s son-in-law.
And I think it`s added a new element to this. It`s moved beyond simply a political collusion investigation. Did the Kremlin collude with the Trump campaign to tip the campaign into Trump`s favor? Into was there trading of financial favors possibly in exchange for policy decisions?
MELBER: Right. So, you have reporting on this. This is interesting, because when I was thought the primaries covering candidate Donald Trump, many of his supporters said they loved that he wouldn`t owe anyone, that he was independently wealthy, that he would be different than politicians for sale.
O`BRIEN: That he`d drain the swamp.
MELBER: And drain the swamp. But drain the swamp`s policy. They were more saying that his ledger and the people he would bring in, he wouldn`t owe anyone.
Your reporting seems to suggest the opposite.
O`BRIEN: Well, clearly, the reporting is built on the shoulders of a lot of other great reporters.
O`BRIEN: "The New York Times," "The Washington Post" and "Bloomberg News". But when you connect these dots, you have a property on Fifth Avenue. It`s a skyscraper. It`s a jewel in the Kushner real estate crown that`s staggering under unmanageable debt.
And Jared Kushner begins having talks with Chinese financiers in the summer of 2016. And those progressed through the end of 2016 and early 2017 until reporting came out that he may get a favorable deal from the Chinese. And the deal I think blew up because of that.
During the same time period, he is also meeting with the Russians. And he meets with a Russian banker during the same period. Now, we don`t me what they discussed. But for some reason, the Russian ambassador to the United States decided to broker a meeting between the president`s son-in-law and the head of a major Russian bank.
MELBER: Would VEB Bank be the kind of institution that would put money into the Fifth Avenue property?
O`BRIEN: Well, the bank is very close to the Kremlin. It`s board of overseers includes Dmitry Medvedev, the former president of Russia. Sergey Gorkov trained at an espionage school in Russia. So, it`s very closely embedded in the Russian government itself.
MELBER: So you`re saying it might for foreign policy reasons, not for business reasons.
O`BRIEN: Maybe for both. I think what you`re seeing here is a possibility that the Russians said we can put some money to work in the United States. And in exchange, get sanctions lifted on both our banking system and the country itself.
MELBER: Tim O`Brien, it is fascinating. A thread to keep pulling on. Thanks for being here.
O`BRIEN: Thanks, Ari.
MELBER: I appreciate it.
We -- still ahead, some news on what the White House is doing on domestic policy while a lot of attention has been elsewhere.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You can`t let Trump and his allies be a diversion. They are a threat. And they have been effective up until now. So, Twitter is a perfect example. You`re going to drive up the numbers. You`ve got more people chasing rabbits down rabbit holes. You`ve got all kinds of stuff happening. Why?
To divert attention. It`s the circus, right? It`s what a classic authoritarian does. It`s not just about influencing your institutions, your values. They want to influence your reality.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MELBER: That was Hillary Clinton this week criticizing overreactions to Donald Trump`s tweets. And this week`s reality did feature some substance to be sure -- news on the Trump Russia inquiries and climate change policy. The Trump campaign tonight is now pitching a new chance they say to hold a political rally about it outside the White House. Some are calling that a distraction. After all, why do you need a weekend rally for something the president already did?
But the administration also did another significant thing this week that many have overlooked. It involves your rights and your health care. The context came from that executive order. This was from last month originally, with President Trump signing what he called the religious liberty executive order, telling federal agencies to work out a new rule, quote, to address conscience-based objections to the preventative care mandate.
That was build as a way to help religious organizations like, say, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have refused to cover contraception for their employees` health care. Now, this week reports the administration is about to finish that rule. Right now behind the scenes, it`s been pitching it as a way to exempt those religious groups from having to cover contraception. The stated goal being to, quote, respect employers` rights to religious freedom, even when the decisions involve their employees.
Now, a draft of that rule has leaked, and this new rule as interpreted gives away the game. Because it gives away the fact that this rule isn`t really about employers` rights, whatever you think of that argument. It`s actually much broader. It is about preventing access to health care writ large. In this case, obviously, health care for women.
The Trump administration is writing that they plan to, quote, expand exemptions for religious beliefs, and this is key, moral convictions. Moral convictions. That is new broad language that can suggest any employer can now opt out of the federal requirement to cover contraception.
Here is how one law professor explained it to Vox. Quote: it`s a very, very, very broad exception for everybody. If you don`t want to provide it, you don`t have to provide it.
So, any company or organization that you work for could argue under this reading that they have a, quote, moral problem with contraception or moral problem with, say, you or anyone in your family not getting pregnant. And the Trump administration then would be able to let them off the hook for what is a mandate under law currently to cover your contraception.
The proposed rule as it reads under this argument could potentially deny contraception to hundreds of thousands of people in this country, of women in this country. Quote: These interim final rules will result in some enrollees in plans of exempt entities not receiving coverage or payments for contraception.
Oh, and one more thing. The rule will take effect as soon as it`s published in the federal register, which could happen literally any day. In this case, it`s not what they say on Twitter or in the Rose Garden. It is about what they do.
And that does it for tonight. I also hope you will consider joining me for a special edition of my show "THE POINT" this Sunday at 5:00 p.m. Eastern. I have an exclusive with a woman who was editor-in-chief of Jared Kushner`s newspaper. She says he`s never had a, quote, realistic view of his own capabilities. And also we have a report on Russia with the director of the FBI Special Agents Association.
Now, it is time for "THE LAST WORD." Joy Reid is in for Lawrence tonight.
And, Joy, as we say around the building, Rachel says hi.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END