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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 6/12/17 Jeff Sessions-Russia connections

Guests: Michael McFaul

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: June 12, 2017 Guest: Michael McFaul

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I don`t know that you can count on that and also at the same time, though, don`t know how serious to take this because, like Ruddy is now making clear he didn`t necessarily get that firsthand from the White House. And I do think there would be a big uproar. I think there would be demonstrations in the street. And maybe at some point that would push Congress to do something, but it`s not a given.

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: Yes, Lynn Sweet and Heidi Przybyla, thank you both.

Before we go, a quick note, I`ll be signing copies of my new book, "A Colony in a Nation", this week here in New York. I`ll be at the shop at NBC Studios on Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. You can find more information on our Facebook page. Please stop by. I love to see you.

That is "ALL IN" for this evening.

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening, Rachel.


HAYES: Yes, that`s -- it`s in our building, which is convenient.

MADDOW: I could go see you.

HAYES: I would happily sign a book for you.

MADDOW: Well done. Thank you. I`ll try to prevent my entire family from enclosing upon you. Thanks, my dear.

All right. Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Happy Monday.

There are only 100 people who serve in the United States Senate. Like the House, the Senate does all its work through committees. That`s where they hold their hearings. That`s where they work on legislation. That`s where they do oversight and investigations. And, of course, there are a lot of internal politics about who gets on what committee and who gets to be chair of a committee.

In some states, certain committees are very important and give you a lot of home-state advantage if you`re on those committees. You can understand, for example, why a senator from, say, Iowa would want to be on the Agricultural Committee. You could understand why a senator from New York would want to be on the Banking Committee, right? Some states go with some committees.

But some of the committees, no matter where you`re from, everybody wants to be on them, because they are prestigious in all the right ways for everybody in the Senate. And so, even though there are only 100 U.S. senators in total, 26 out of the 100 senators are on the Armed Services Committee. More than one in every four senators is on that committee, because they all want to be on the Armed Services Committee.

I think they decided at one point, you know, rather than make the Armed Services Committee hard to get on to rather than make all the senators compete, they`re just going to let everybody join. Everybody wants to be on that committee, so everybody gets to be on that committee, 26 out of the 100 members of the Senate. A couple months ago, at the end of February, beginning of March, a passel of national security reporters from the "Washington Post", they got in touch with every single senator who serves on the Armed Services Committee in the Senate.

And they asked the one very specific question, they didn`t want like full length interviews. They didn`t want these senators to weigh in on some controversial issue. They didn`t want to talk about. They weren`t asking them how they were going to vote on a bill. It wasn`t anything like that. They actually just approached them all with a yes or no question. They wanted a yes or no answer to one very specific, very granular question.

And the question was this: Senator, you serve on the Armed Services Committee. Did you meet with the Russian ambassador last year? That was the question.

"Washington Post" asked all 26 senators on the Armed Services Committee. They didn`t get a response from all of them. They got a response from 20 of the 26. And every single one of the 208 senators who answered, answered the same way. All 20 of them, 20 out of 20 said no. Thanks for asking, no, I did not meet with the Russian ambassador last year.

And by the time "The Washington Post" was asking this question in the last days of February for publication on the first day of March this year, at that time, one long time member of the Senate Armed Services Committee had just left that committee and in fact, had just left the United States Senate because at the beginning of February, he had just been confirmed as the next attorney general of the United States. His name is Jeff Sessions, former Alabama senator, former Senate Armed Services Committee member, Jeff Sessions.

Now, in the course of his confirmation hearing to become attorney general, he had volunteered to have Minnesota Senator Al Franken that during the course of the presidential campaign where he had been such a high profile supporter of Donald Trump, he said he had not met with any Russians. He volunteered that under oath at his confirmation hearing talking to Senator Al Franken.

He then put it definitively in writing. Some of the questions they asked out loud, some of them they asked in writing at these confirmation hearings. Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont had submitted a question to Jeff Sessions in writing for his hearing. Leahy asked him in writing, quote: Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election either before or after Election Day? Jeff Sessions gave a one-word answer to that question. No.

But then on March 1st, this year, "The Washington Post" published this story, documenting the fact, confirming with multiple sources, despite those unequivocal denials on the record and under oath during his confirmation process, despite Jeff Sessions stating without any caveat that he had never had any meetings with the Russians, there`s "The Washington Post." Reporters Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller all reporting March 1st that, yes, actually, our brand-new Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he did meet with Russia`s ambassador to the United States.

He met with the Russian ambassador at a Heritage Foundation meeting that had been held on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention last summer. And in addition to that, they reported that he had a second meeting with the same Russian official, in private, one-on-one, in his Senate office, on September 8th.

And when this "Washington Post" reporting came out on March 1st, Jeff Sessions and the new Trump administration spokesperson at the Justice Department, they insisted that there was nothing fall strange, nothing even unexpected about the fact that Jeff Sessions would be having a one-on-one meeting in private in his Senate office with the Russian ambassador eight weeks before the presidential election. They insisted this had nothing at all to do with the Trump campaign. They insisted this was a normal, totally forgettable meeting, because this is the kind of thing is that senators on the Armed Services Committee do all the time. This was just related to his Armed Services Committee membership. That`s what this is what Armed Services Committee members do.

That was their defense. That`s why it was particularly awkward that the "Washington Post" learned that not a single other member of the enormous Senate Armed Services Committee had taken even a single meeting with the Russian ambassador in the past year, let alone two. Nobody else was doing this. There are a lot of other senators on the Armed Services Committee. Only Jeff Sessions was meeting with the Russians.

So, this has ended up being a problem for Attorney General Jeff Sessions in an ongoing way for a few reasons. The first is that these meetings, these contacts remain unexplained. The Russian attack on the U.S. election to try to help Hillary Clinton, to try to help Donald Trump, that, of course, was well under way by the time of the conventions when the first of Jeff Sessions` first meetings took place with the Russian official.

By the time of his second meeting with that Russian official, though, not only had the Russian attack been going on for months, by that point, it was very big news. The "Washington Post" says that second meeting between Sessions and the Russian official, the one that happened one-on-one in private in Sessions` office. They say that happened on September 8th. That was a Thursday.

The start that have same week, Monday of that same week, "The Washington Post" had run this screaming headline: U.S. investigating potential covert Russian plan to disrupt November elections. That same day, President Obama had met directly with Vladimir Putin and told him -- look at the look on his face. That`s when -- that is the week that Obama met with Putin and told him to knock off these Russian attempt -- elections, these Russian government attempts to affect our elections. Cut it out.

And then just a few days after that, the top Russian government official operating in the United States takes a one-on-one private meeting with the first senator to endorse Donald Trump, who is the most prominent senator involved in the Trump campaign. This was happening when the Russian attack on our elections was a huge news story. I mean, that week, our president had confronted their president about it. It`s on the front page of national papers at that point. That`s when Sessions met with Kislyak.

Did they talk about the Russian attack on the election? I mean, given the news at that moment, it would be weird if they didn`t, right? I mean, any high ranking American meeting with any high ranking Russian at that point presumably would have been talking about the Russian attack on our election. This was an affront, right?

Did they talk about it?

I should mention that there are also numerous unconfirmed reports there may have been a third meeting it between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and that same Russian official. It`s been reported that fired FBI Director James Comey might have discussed that alleged third meeting in closed session with senators on the Intelligence Committee last week after his televised testimony that we all saw in open session on Thursday.

But, you know, the Justice Department and Jeff Sessions himself have insistently and consistently and repeatedly denied that there was any third meeting. And as yet, I mean, truth be told, there has been no public evidence that any third meeting took place. And, you know, as a general principle, until you have compelling evidence to the contrary, you want to take the top law enforcement official at the United States, you want to take him at his word, as to what he did or didn`t do.

And that brings us to the other reason these Russian meetings have been such a big problem for Jeff Sessions. You want to take him at his word but with Jeff Sessions, there`s a problem with that. If these meetings he had with this Russian official were innocuous, were nothing to write home about as the attorney general and his Justice Department have repeatedly claimed, why did he deny for so long that these meetings ever took place?

He denied that he had these meetings out loud under oath at his confirmation hearing. He denied that he had had these meetings in print in his written answers on his confirmation hearing. And when "The Washington Post" first started reporting out these meetings, they went to Attorney General Jeff Sessions for comment and he denied it to them, too.

On March 1st, "The Washington Post" reported these two meetings and they included in their report Sessions` statement in response to their reporting, saying he, quote, never met with any Russian officials, to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation about. It is false.

The allegation was not false. It was true, as Jeff Sessions ultimately had to admit.

"Washington Post" story comes out March 1st. The next day, March 2nd, Jeff Sessions gives a hastily convened press conference at which he announces that he will be recusing himself from overseeing anything at the Justice Department that has anything to do with the presidential campaign.

Now, that recusal is often described, often reported as Jeff Sessions having recused himself from overseeing anything that has to do with the Russia investigation. And in part, that is true. I mean, Russian attack on our election, the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded in it, investigations into that, that is part of what Jeff Sessions is recused from.

But if you look at his actual recusal which he issued in print, he didn`t just recuse himself from anything having to do with Russia. He recused himself from any investigation that has anything to do with the whole 2016 election campaign.

So, that recusal was announced on March 2nd. And that ended up being really, really important. And at question, a couple months later when Trump administration decided that they were going to fire the FBI Director James Comey. Now, you might remember that the administration had a little orchestrated song and dance around the way they fired James Comey, right?

They published a memo from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. They published a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that went along with the memo and they also published the you`re fired letter, the dismissal letter from President Trump to James Comey, telling him he was out of a job.

For the first 24 hours or so after they fired the FBI director, the Rosenstein memo and the sessions letter created a -- I think it`s fair to call it -- a pretext for the White House to argue that Comey wasn`t being fired because he was overseeing the Russia investigation. Comey was being fired because of how he handled his public disclosures around the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation right before the election, during the campaign. That was the pretext they created for why Comey was fired. They did that in writing with that memo and that letter. They did it in statements from White House officials even speaking from the podium in the White House briefing room.

The president himself, of course, blew that pretext up very soon and explained yes, that wasn`t the reason. Actually, he had been thinking of the Russia investigation when he decided to fire James Comey.

In either case though, Jeff Sessions has a continuing problem here, right? If the president, in fact, fired Comey because of his oversight of the Russia investigation is, Attorney General Jeff Sessions should not have been involved in that, right? He was supposedly recused from that.

So, if you`re recused from the Trump Russia investigation, under no understanding of a recusal would you be allowed to fire the person running it, and still say you`re recused, right? But, you know what, even if the president hadn`t fired Comey because of the Russia investigation, even if he fired him because of the Hillary Clinton e-mail thing during the campaign, like it said in that letter from Rod Rosenstein and like it said in that letter from Jeff Sessions, and like the White House explain the whole first day and a half that they tried to explain it, even if that were true, that too would be a problem for Attorney General Jeff Sessions because he also should have been recused from that.

His recusal said he would not oversee anything at the Justice Department that had anything to do with the 2016 campaign. Both the reason James Comey was fired, Russia, and the fake pretext they came up with for why James Comey was fired, Clinton e-mails, both of those are squarely in the bounds of Jeff Sessions` recusal. He`s supposed to be recused from thinking that had anything to do with the campaign. Therefore, in either case, he should have had nothing to do with firing James Comey.

If the FBI director was fired for either of those reasons, the attorney general should have been recused from that and arguably he should also have been recused from the process of hiring Comey`s replacement. But Jeff Sessions absolutely has been involved in the process of selecting James Comey`s replacement. He`s been doing the interviewing. He was involved in that firing decision, too.

And you know what? We still don`t know the exactly how many times Jeff Sessions met with Russian officials during the campaign. Nor do we have any explanation from Jeff Sessions as to what happened at those meetings, particularly because they happened in the midst of the Russia attack on that election in which Jeff Sessions had such a prominent role. Nor do we have any explanation about why he lied about and concealed those meetings repeatedly and for so long.

And when it comes to that private September 8th meeting in his Senate office one-on-one with the Russian ambassador, if he tries to say that all the Armed Services committee members do that kind of thing all the time, then you have permission to jeer and throw spitballs at your TV screen or at least to laugh out loud at him on your TV screen, because none of the other Armed Services Committee members were meeting with the Russians. It was just Jeff Sessions, for whatever reason.

Senator Sessions will have to answer questions about at least some of this stuff tomorrow. His testimony starts at 2:30 Eastern Time. He`ll be in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. You know, when we closed out this show on Friday night, I told you that Jeff Sessions was due to be testifying tomorrow morning in the House and then in the Senate in a couple of subcommittees that oversee the funding of the Justice Department. He ended up canceling both of those appearances in favor of what will now be an open session of the intelligence committee tomorrow afternoon.

And we will be able to watch it on TV. You will notice as soon as he starts testifying that this is the same committee that heard from James Comey in open session and then in classified session on Thursday. This is the same committee whose staffers and investigators apparently took a long meeting today with the former secretary of homeland security, Jeh Johnson. This is the same committee whose on-site classified facility, their SCIF was apparently the site of a meeting with NSA Director Mike Rogers tonight.

Mike Rogers testified over and over again last week before that committee that he wouldn`t say in open session whether or not the president had asked him to intervene into the FBI`s ongoing criminal investigation of Mike Flynn. It was interesting. The Director of National Intelligence who is testifying at the same committee, he kept saying he wouldn`t testify about that either, but he didn`t really have a reason why he wouldn`t testify. Now, remember, he famously said I`m not sure I have a legal basis for not testifying.

Admiral Rogers, head of the NSA, at least he had a reason. He said his discussions with the president were classified for some reason. And he said that gave him a reason not to talk about it in open session. But that excuse not to talk about it in open session also means that those senators would have expected to get his real answers in closed session at that SCIF where they met with him late this afternoon and into this evening on Capitol Hill.

There are only 100 people in the whole United States Senate. And after their -- Rogers, Coats, McCabe, Rosenstein hearing last week on Wednesday, followed the next day on Thursday by their open session with James Comey, followed immediately Thursday afternoon by their classified session with James Comey, followed today by their extensive interview with Homeland Security Secretary from the Obama administration, Jeh Johnson followed by tonight, their classified session with Mike Rogers, tomorrow those same senators from the Intelligence Committee are going to get Jeff Sessions in person in open session.

I don`t personally know -- I don`t have a personal relationship with any of the senators on the Intelligence Committee. If you do by chance, send them health food. Send them vitamins. Some of those creepy green juices or something.

Everybody makes fun of Congress and their easy work schedule. But right now, at least those senators are really earning their keep. And we`ll see a lot of that tomorrow.

But we`ll be right back tonight.


MADDOW: This is dated November 12th, 2016, which is the first weekend after the presidential election this past year. November 12th, quote: A prediction: Donald Trump will make novel and unusual use of the president`s pardon power. OK.

Just a few weeks after that prediction, the person who made that prediction showed up again. This time as the lawyer for Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn. So, here he is, the same guy who predicted novel and unusual use of the president`s pardon power, here he is just weeks later asking for immunity from prosecution for his client, Mike Flynn.

Ever since Mike Flynn asked for immunity from prosecution and his lawyer promised that he had a story to tell, ever since then there has been this real live possibility lurking out there that the president could stop attempting to interfere around the edges of the Mike Flynn investigation and instead just pardon Mike Flynn. Presidents can do that. A president has the power to wipe away a conviction. A president can grant a pardon even to someone never charged with anything whether a president should do that, that`s a different question but a president certainly can.

The president also has the power technically to fire a special counsel -- to fire a special counsel who is leading an investigation into the president`s campaign or and his associates or even into the president himself. And whether or not that is a wise decision apparently on the president`s side, they are now mulling that, as well.


CHRIS RUDDY, NEWSMAX EDITOR-IN-CHIEF: I think he`s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he`s weighing that option. I think it`s pretty clear by what one of his lawyers said on television recently. I personally think it would be a very significant mistake even though I don`t think there`s a justification, and even though -- I mean, here you have a situation --

JUDY WOODRUFF, PBS NEWSHOUR ANCHOR: You don`t think there`s a justification for?

RUDDY: For a special counsel in this case, but also -- I mean, Robert Mueller, there`s real conflict. He comes from a law firm that represents members of the Trump family. He interviewed a few days before he was appointed special counsel with the president who was looking at him potentially to become the next FBI director. That hasn`t been published but it`s true.

And I think it would be strange that he would have a confidential conversation and then a few days later become the prosecutor of the person he may be investigating. I think that Mueller should have not taken the position if he was under consideration and had a private meeting with the president and was privy maybe to some of his thoughts about that investigation or other matters before the bureau.


MADDOW: That`s Chris Ruddy who is a friend of the president speaking with Judy Woodruff on PBS tonight. We reported on Friday night citing NPR that Robert Mueller had been interviewed by the White House to potentially come back in as FBI director again after they had fired James Comey. Silly me on Friday night, I thought that it would make it harder for the White House to slime Bob Mueller somewhere down the line, right? Since they themselves considered hiring him for the top job.

Now, it turns out they`re floating the idea that they will use the fact that they thought about hiring him for that top job as a reason to fire him as special counsel. That possibility again being discussed tonight on PBS with Judy Woodruff. But it was first raised by one of the president`s lawyers this weekend.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS HOST: And finally, will the president promise not to interfere, not attempt at any time to order the deputy attorney general to fire Robert Mueller?

JAYE SEKULOW, TRUMP LAWYER: Look, the president, the president of the United States as we all know is a unitary executive. But the president is going to seek the advice of his counsel and inside the government as well as outside. And I`m not going to speculate what heal or will not do.


MADDOW: I`m not going to speculate. He might, he could. That`s Jay Sekulow, who learned this weekend is now working as a private lawyer for the president in dealing with the Russia investigation.

If Jay Sekulow looks familiar to you, he is actually a quite famous and accomplished attorney for the religious right. He started off working for like the televangelist side of the religious right. He now does religious liberty and religious civil rights cases for a very conservative law firm. He`s a very accomplished attorney in that field.

But defending a sitting president on constitutional issues like this, that is very far removed from the kind of law he has done his whole career.

That`s also the case with the president`s other personal lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, who again is an accomplished lawyer. In his case, he`s an accomplished civil litigator. His work for Donald Trump in private life is ranged from fighting sexual harassment allegations against Trump to making sure Trump`s divorce records stay sealed. But he has no constitutional law background. He has no background even as a criminal attorney.

These lawyers are not bad lawyers. They are accomplished in their own ways, but hiring them for this kind of defense is a little bit like hiring a really good house painter to paint your portrait or like hiring an excellent barbecue pit master because you need somebody to run your raw vegan juice bar. It`s a mismatch of skills and the task at hand.

Five months in, we can now tell at least the first year of this presidency is going to be largely consumed by the legal fight over what may be the very existence of this presidency. And as these investigations continue at full speed and continue to expand with, for example, the attorney general getting sworn in and testifying before Congress tomorrow, it`s starting to get important that the people who the president has hired to be his lawyers here, they`ve never done anything even remotely like this before.

Hold that thought.



WOODRUFF: There are some Republicans out there saying that Robert Mueller shouldn`t be doing this job. Is President Trump prepared to let the special counsel pursue his investigation?

RUDDY: Well, I think he`s considering perhaps terminating the special counsel. I think he`s weighing that option.


MADDOW: That`s a man named Chris Ruddy who is a friend of the president`s, telling Judy Woodruff on PBS tonight that President Trump is thinking about firing the special counsel Bob Mueller who is, of course, in charge of the Russia investigation right now, and who is thought to be looking at the possibility of obstruction of justice by the executive branch, possibly by the president himself in the course of that investigation.

This discussion now being floated on the eve of the attorney general`s testimony in open session tomorrow to the United States Senate. This is the first time that he will have testified since he recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation or anything else that relates to the 2016 campaign.

Joining us now is Matt Miller. He`s a former chief spokesman for the Justice Department.

Mr. Miller, thanks very much for joining us. Appreciate your time tonight.


MADDOW: So, could the -- could the president really fire Bob Mueller? Could he fire the special counsel?

MILLER: Yes, absolutely. He could do it one of two ways. One, he could repeal the regulations under which Mueller was appointed and directly fire him.

And the second way is probably the more likely way and has historical precedent. He could order or ask the Attorney General Jeff Sessions or the deputy attorney general to fire Mueller. That`s, of course, what happened in Watergate. You saw the top two officials at the department resign rather than fire the special prosecutor. I think there`s a big outstanding question whether we would see that same level of principle at DOJ now.

MADDOW: Am I right in what I remember about the special counsel regulations? Again, it`s not a statute. It`s not a law, just regulations at the Justice Department that created this position. Am I right in remembering that those regulations say that if the special counsel is fired, it has to be for good cause, it has to be for some sort of egregious violation of Justice Department policy or other very bad behavior?

MILLER: Yes, that`s right. But, of course, those regulations are under the president`s purview. All of that authority, the regulations and everything under them, extend from the president`s constitutional authority.

So, he could repeal the regulations. He could interpret the regulations to find some cause for firing him. Obviously, that would be controversial. I think you would see -- you know, I would hope you would see mass resignations at the Justice Department not just in the leadership but in the career ranks if that would happen. And, hopefully, you would see outrage in Congress.

But I think, you know, that is an open question, certainly the second part of that.

MADDOW: Yes, the difference here, the prospects of mass resignations particularly at the career level of the Justice Department is that this White House might delight in that as might some of their supporters.

MILLER: Right.

MADDOW: Matt, speaking of controversy, the attorney general is going to -- surprise -- testify tomorrow in the Senate Intelligence Committee. There have been some reports he`s signaled he will refuse to discuss his conversations with the president which, of course will be a big part of what the senators want to ask him about tomorrow.

Would that be an executive privilege claim that he would be making there?

MILLER: Yes, it would be. I think there are two big areas he`s going to get questioned about. Obviously, you`ve covered the conversations with the Russian ambassador. It seems likely he will answer questions about that.

But then the second area is his involvement with the firing of Jim Comey. I think there are two big sets of questions about that. One, are his conversations with the president and he could decline to answer those by citing executive privilege saying I don`t discuss conversations with the president. And two, are any conversations he had with Jim Comey or anyone else at the Justice Departments.

We know from Comey`s testimony that Comey said he was concerned about being left in a room alone with the president. What did Jeff Session dozen about that? Well, how did he follow up with Comey? We know Comey`s side of the story. We need to hear Jeff Sessions`.

And if it comes, I mean, if it turns out that Jeff Sessions knew in any way that Comey was being fired because the president was unhappy with the Russia investigation, for him to have signed off on that is really the biggest scandal at the Department of Justice since John Mitchell went to jail. I think the answers are probably bad. That`s my suspicion.

I think that`s why you`ll see him cite executive privilege to avoid answering the first set and maybe cite an ongoing investigation to avoid answering the second set of questions.

MADDOW: Matthew Miller, former chief spokesman for the Justice Department. I really appreciate your time tonight. I didn`t know we were going to have another big week of being glued to congressional testimony, but happy to have you here to understand what`s going to happen. Thanks, Matt.

MILLER: Thank you.

MADDOW: All right. Appreciate it.

Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.


MADDOW: Today in Russia, the country`s most prominent critic of Vladimir Putin, the most high profile opposition leader in the country, Alexei Navalny, was arrested again. This time sentenced to 30 days detention. Alexei Navalny had been on his way to anti-government, anti-corruption protests that he helped organize today. He walked out of his apartment to head into downtown Moscow to go to this rally.

He was scooped up by police right at the front door of his apartment building. His wife tweeted out this photo of him being taken into custody. The arrest of Alexei Navalny did not stop anti-corruption protesters from turning out in force today, in central Moscow and across the country, as well, in hundreds of sites across the country.

Lots of people turned out. Thousands of people turned out in cities all across Russia. Riot police also turned out in force. Hundreds of people were arrested at multiple sites, including a lot of young people who reporters said -- police appeared to just pluck out of the crowd at random no matter what those individuals were doing at the moment.

It`s unclear exactly how riot police targeted the people who they did arrest. It`s also unclear how many people they took in. One Russian website that independently tracks arrest is reporting about 750 people were arrested today in Moscow. And even more than that, 900 people were arrested in St. Petersburg.

These protests today all over Russia were some of the biggest since the huge nationwide protests in 2012 that so unnerved Vladimir Putin.

While we here in the states focus on the Russian attacks on our election and the question of whether or not there were any American confederates in those attacks, this is the way Putin is wielding his power at home. As we continue to watch these protests struggle and their leaders get attacked and people get arrested, I do have an ongoing question as to whether or not these folks trying to oppose Putin actually have a legitimate hope of making a dent at home.

Joining us now is Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Ambassador McFaul, I really appreciate your time tonight. Thanks for being here.


MADDOW: This is not the first time I`ve asked to you join us on a night when there`s been people out in the streets in Russia in multiple cities, people facing arrest. The most prominent leaders among them certainly being arrested and sentenced to jail-time.

What do you think about that last question I asked about whether or not there`s any hope that they`ll ever change things for their own government?

MCFAUL: Well, you know, we political scientists and U.S. government officials were pretty bad at predicting revolutionary breakthroughs. Before they happen, they seem impossible. After they happen, they seem inevitable.

But, you know, my own reading of the situation here is that these are happening with greater frequency now. This is not the first major demonstration this year. I have been on your show, Rachel, already this year to talk about this. This seemed bigger to me.

And remember, these are illegal, so people are going, knowing they`re going to be arrested and they`re still showing up.

MADDOW: The people who are being arrested, whether it`s these -- you know, young people looks like a lot of teenagers got arrested today, a lot of the footage that we saw.


MADDOW: A lot of young people. These people are being arrested, also the named leaders who are getting arrested. How much danger are they in?

MCFAUL: Well, first of all, your point about the youthful figures that, you know, the faces I saw were really shocking because even going back all the way to 1990, `91, when those demonstrations did lead to a revolutionary breakthrough and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the youth were not a part of that.

So, this is different. This is fundamentally different than either 2011 and 2012 or going back 20 years earlier. With respect to fear, of course, people should be fearful.

You`ve had Vladimir Kara-Murza on your show. He`s testimony what can happen. Other people have died. Mr. Navalny is threatened often with these, you know, this green stuff that they throw in his face. And people should be worried about their security without a question, especially Mr. Navalny.

MADDOW: Has there been a softening of the United States government`s role in trying to protect those dissenters and trying to keep Russia sort of on the straight and narrow when it comes to the way they treat political dissidents in protest?

MCFAUL: Well, I was heartened to see that there was a statement by the Trump administration today condemning these arrests. That`s a good sign.

I also know of other individuals looking for asylum in this country. They are seeking that. That`s a good sign.

What I don`t know is what the president himself thinks. President Trump. I`ve never heard him talk about democracy and human rights in any country abroad, let alone Russia. And at the end of the day, that`s what`s going to really matter in terms of signaling for support or signaling to Putin not to do the most -- you know, the most dramatic difficult violent measures against these protesters.

MADDOW: Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, a thorn in the side to President Putin while he was there, which he never let you forget for a moment -- thanks for being with us tonight. Appreciate you being here.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

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


MADDOW: Having just been out sick for an extended period when I was out for those ten days or whatever, take it from me, there is really good television on at like 2:00 in the afternoon.

Tomorrow, for example, there is a new episode of "General Hospital." It`s the 13,826th episode of "General Hospital." Woo!

There`s also the show called "Wild Russia," which is not about like them attacking our election or anything. It`s a show about crazy wildlife creatures that live in Russia.

But, you know, tomorrow, there`s going to be competition and not just from cable news as you are used to seeing it. Tomorrow, there will be the attorney general of the United States testifying at the U.S. Senate about the Russia investigation and his role in it, or lack thereof.

And you know what? There is one thing that`s not really being talked about in advance of that big important surprise hearing tomorrow but I think it is super important and he really better get asked about it. And that is our closing segment tonight and that`s next.


MADDOW: OK. There were elements of the transition, the Obama administration to Trump administration transition. That did not go well.

For example, on the big day when the president-elect and all his top people went to the Obama White House for the first time, we now know that at that meeting, President Obama warned Mr. Trump that he should not hire Mike Flynn for any important job. Incoming president ignored that and how did that work out?

There was also that embarrassing report that senior Trump folks at that day, at that visit that day kept walking around the White House, asking various Obama White House staff if they were staying on at their jobs, as in, it will be good to be working with you in a few weeks. And the Obama White House staff had to gently inform all the Trump people, no, no, we`re leaving. We`re all leaving. You guys actually need your own people to run this place, right away. You`re hiring for that already, aren`t you?

So, there were some weird things about the transition, which overall was not run very well. But, you know, it wasn`t all bad. Some things in the transition proceeded kind of normally. I will admit to being surprised, pleasantly surprised to hear it at the time. But when interviewed the outgoing Obama attorney general, Loretta Lynch, one of the things she told me in that interview was that actually the transition at the Justice Department proceed kind of normally.

She said there was a normal qualified Trump landing team. There was a professional and thorough preparation by the outgoing Obama folks. She said they met in a timely way. The Obama folks handed over all their stuff. They had discussions. They made policy decisions about how the Justice Department was going to handle important aspects of the transition.

I mean, I`m sure it wasn`t perfect, but at least at DOJ, by all accounts, the transition was not nutty. It was -- it was reasonable. It was OK.

And that is how we learned that one of the decisions the incoming administration made, the incoming Trump administration made was about U.S. attorneys, about federal prosecutors. The transition team recommended explicitly that even if the new president, even if President Trump wanted to replace all the U.S. attorneys, which all presidents have a right to do, even if he wanted to do that, the transition team recommended and the Trump people accepted the recommendation and agreed that Trump would not fire them all at once.

I mean, nobody pressured them or lobbied them on this. But they talked about it overtly. The Obama folks, the outgoing folks overtly made a recommendation, and the Trump folks overtly made a decision about it. The decision the Trump people committed to was the new president would not can the U.S. attorneys all in one fell swoop. And then after they made that commitment, they made that policy decision, something happened apparently, because then they did end up firing all the U.S. attorneys all at once. It was just a 180-degree U-turn from the policy they agreed they would pursue. Just a few weeks later, why did they change their minds?

We don`t know. We still don`t know. And now given everything else that has happened in this administration, particularly around the Russia investigation and these questions of possible obstruction of justice by the president or other members of the administration, now, that mass firing of the U.S. attorneys back in March, it sticks out more than ever. And tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time, the attorney general who did the firings, he is going to be testifying in Congress for the first time since the firings.

And as we`ve been talking about, it seems clear he`s going to get asked about his own contacts with Russian officials and his not initially disclosing those contacts. He is likely to be asked about his recusal from things related to the Trump campaign. He is going to be asked about his role in firing the FBI director. He is likely to be asked about all of that.

But there is also the U.S. attorney firings, which he was right in the middle of, and which still make absolutely no sense. There`s no explanation for them. Preet Bharara was the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Manhattan. The highest profile attorney in the country by a long measure.

Preet Bharara had been assured personally by the president and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, that he wouldn`t be fired, that they`d want him to stay on in the new administration. So that will be one question for Jeff Sessions. Why did Preet Bharara get fired after you guys repeatedly told him that he would be retained?

Here is question two for Jeff Sessions on that front. It has been reported since then that before he was fired, Preet Bharara`s office was investigating the possibility of money laundering involving either Trump personally or the Trump Organization. So, that`s a second question for Jeff Sessions. Was he aware of any investigation involving the president or the Trump Organization or any member of the Trump family by any U.S. attorney`s office, including Preet Bharara`s office in New York when this sudden decision was made to fire all the U.S. attorneys?

I mean, other presidents have removed all the U.S. attorneys. Presidents have a right to do that. Presidents have done that before. But it has never been the case that they were all fired en masse on a Friday all at once. They were all told with no warning that they needed to be out that day. There has never before been a mass firing of U.S. attorneys with no warning, no time to plan for any transition out of office. That has never happened.

So, that`s a third question for Jeff Sessions tomorrow. Why the unprecedented, never-before-seen rush to get all of those prosecutors all at once that day?

Remember also that the Trump administration had no replacements ready for any of these jobs. It has been more than 13 weeks. It`s been more than three months since they were all fired, and just today, the Trump administration made the first nominations of anybody to replace them. Why did they rush so fast to force these people out with no warning, no time to prep anything, and with apparently for months no idea who they would even put forward to replace them?

Why the change? Did something come up? What happened?

Because it seems like something came up. Multiple U.S. attorneys have told us even just on this show that as late as two days before the mass firings, they were on the phone with Attorney General Jeff Sessions while he was giving them instructions about how he wanted to change their priorities and prosecutions around violent crime. Rationally, that`s not something he would not bother doing if he knew all the people he was speaking to were about to get canned and forced to leave office less than 48 hours later. What came up?

And there is this fact that this was a total reversal in policy at the Trump Justice Department. They had explicitly agreed to a plan for dealing with the U.S. attorneys` offices that explicitly rejected the idea of firing them all at once. And then a few weeks later, they fired them all at once.

So, Mr. Attorney General, what can you tell us about that dramatic change in policy at justice? Did you make that change? Did the president tell you to make it? Was there a reason? What happened there?

There is going to be a lot to ask Jeff Sessions about in his first testimony since he supposedly recused himself from overseeing anything having to do with the Trump campaign, including the Russia affair. But there is this sleeper issue here that is still the unexplained, unprecedented, sudden reversal of course, and firing all those prosecutors.

Not that long ago, an attorney general lost his job because of the firing of a handful of U.S. attorneys for improper reasons. This time, it was dozens of them fired a week after Sessions was exposed in "The Washington Post" for his undisclosed meetings with Russian officials and just a couple of days after the Trump national security adviser retroactively registered himself as a foreign agent. What happened? What happened?

Tomorrow, Jeff Sessions under oath, the first time we will have any chance of learning the answer to that question, if they ask it of him.

Watch this space.

That does it for us tonight. I`ll see you again tomorrow.

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL", to whom I owe one minute and seven seconds.

Lawrence, I`m sorry.