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The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 6/23/17 U.S. Kremlin source

Guests: Ellen Nakashima, Ned Price

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: June 23, 2017 Guest: Ellen Nakashima, Ned Price

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.

We got a big show tonight. "The Washington Post" today dropped this huge story. It`s more of a small book really, about the Russian attack on our presidential election last year and how the Obama administration came to recognize that that was happening, what they understood about it and importantly, how they reacted to it once they realized what it was.

In just a moment, we are going to be joined live by one of the reporters who broke that story, and there`s a lot to talk to her about.

This is like -- this story today at "The Washington Post", it`s like ten- front page worthy scoops all in one big story. And among those, among the scoops "The Washington Post" got for this report is that U.S. intelligence agencies somehow have access or had access to a source of intelligence that was very, very, very close to Vladimir Putin. And that is intriguing just on the surface, right, just for the pure spy novel lurid thrill of it. We`ve got somebody close to Putin or something close to Putin.

"The Post" to its credit I think makes clear how extraordinary that is beyond just the wow factor. How unexpected it is to learn that. Ultimately, how important it is to U.S. interests.

"The Post" today notes that Putin is, quote, a former KGB officer who takes extreme precautions to guard against surveillance. He rarely communicates by phone or computer. He always runs sensitive state business from deep within the confines of the Kremlin.

But nevertheless, the U.S. somehow got access to intelligence, got access to information that apparently could only have come from very close to him. According to "The Post", U.S. intelligence agencies sourcing when it came to attributing an author, when it came to attributing blame for the Russian attack, their sourcing came from, quote, deep inside the Russian government. Deep enough inside the Russian government that what they had in -- what they had intelligence about, what they had a report about was the direct personal individual involvement of Vladimir Putin in directing this campaign.

I mean, Putin is a guy who`s so secretive, Russians were not even allowed to know the names of his children until recently, or in fact that he definitely had them. When he got divorced in 2013, half of Russia was like, he was married?

But somehow U.S. intelligence agencies have sourcing inside the Kremlin about his personal involvement in Kremlin covert activities. That`s a big freaking deal. I have no idea what that intelligence source is, but that is a big deal. And it is remarkable, honestly, that "The Washington Post" has been able to report that.

The nature of the source of that intelligence, the danger the source of that intelligence must be in if that source is a human source. I mean, that`s just palpable, right? How do you think Putin reacted to reading this in "The Washington Post" today?

I mean, the sensitivity of the United States having an intelligence source so close to Putin, that is apparently what drove a lot of the extreme secrecy within the U.S. government about what the intelligence agencies knew concerning the Russian attack. "The Post" has some incredible details on that today, including them shutting off all of the monitors, like the TV screens, shutting off all of the monitors around the Situation Room in the White House when senior officials were meeting to discuss these matters.

They hadn`t shut down all the video monitors in the Situation Room for anything since the bin Laden raid, but they did it for this because they considered it to be so sensitive and so secret.

The sensitivity of the source of America`s intelligence on this subject, the prospect that that source might conceivably be a human being who is in personal contact with Putin, that -- I think that drives home for us as Americans just the incredible sensitivity and human dangerousness of some of what our intelligence agencies know, right? It sort of makes you get viscerally why it`s so important that that kind of information shouldn`t ever fall into the hands of anyone who is, say, beholden to Russia for some reason.

So, that is one of the things "The Washington Post" unveiled today. Such a sensitive thing, it`s almost impossible to believe that we get to read about it in the paper.

I should tell you, though, there`s sources for this report, according to them, are, quote, more than three dozen current and former U.S. officials in senior positions in government. So, presumably, they`ve got this nailed down, right? Three -- more than three dozen sources. It`s a remarkable thing they have been able to report out but with that many sources presumably they have nailed it.

In addition to that incredible scoop about the source of this intelligence being so close to Putin, there`s also a bunch of really other specific information that we never really knew before that tells us a lot more as citizens about what happened to us last year. They describe, for example, the FBI and the State Department noticing and getting alarmed about an unusual spike in requests from Russia for temporary visas for officials with technical skills seeking permission to enter the United States for short-term assignments at Russian facilities. I mean, that`s astonishing, right?

I mean -- how -- so FBI and the state department are alarmed, an unusual spike in requests for Russians with technical skills for short-term projects here right before the election. How did -- I want to know how did they notice that? Do they have algorithms that process requests for visas that tell them when something spooky and spy-like pops up? Or did one person be like, hey, weren`t there three other guys named Sergei who were applying for this same visa? Anyway.

How did they notice that? How did they know about the tech skills of all these Russians who were trying to get into the country for short-term assignments right before the election? So, that`s an incredible detail.

Now, "The Post" also reports somewhat ominously that the Russian attack on our election was not entirely remote controlled. And I don`t know if this relates to the part about all the Russians with tech skills trying to get in on short-term visas, but "The Post" reports today that the Obama administration believed that some of the Russian attack last year, at least some of the people who participated some way in that attack, were Russians who were not in Russia. They were Russians who were physically located here in the United States when they were helping in the attack. So, that obviously previously unreported.

I don`t understand exactly (AUDIO GAP) and how much of a handle the Obama administration and now presumably the Trump administration had on who those Russians are or were.

Again, there`s a ton in this story from "The Washington Post." I`m very much looking forward to talking with Ellen Nakashima about that in just a moment.

It`s not just a collection of granular little scoops like these ones that I`ve been talking about, though. There is an overarching framework to what "The Washington Post" has reported today. And basically, the big question around which they frame all this new reporting, and it`s a question that I think we all have to admit will loom large in history about this time in our country, which is how did Russia get away with this? Not just what did Russia try to do, but how did they get away with it? Especially now that we know that various parts of the U.S. government were able to conclude confidently, not only that the attack was under way while it was under way, but they knew who was doing it. How did they get away with it? How have they continued to get away with it?

I should tell you that NBC News has an exclusive story out just tonight about the Trump administration and how they have done nothing, how they have taken little meaningful action since Trump has been in office to shore up U.S. defenses against Russian hacking, to protect our election`s infrastructure in particular, let alone to retaliate in any way against Russia for having done what they did in our election last year. Depending on how you feel about the Trump campaign and their own special relationship with Russia on this issue, the news that they`re doing nothing to try to prevent it from happening again in the future and they`re doing nothing to respond to Russia having done it last year, that may or may not be surprising to you.

But why did the Obama administration not do more than they did once they realized what was going on? This big report from "The Post" that hints at the U.S. government having a lot of options, if they really did want to go after Russia, if they really did want to retaliate and hit Russia in response to what they did. Specifically there`s some new and very provocative news from this "Washington Post" piece where they describe what sounds like rather epic American capacity for hitting Russia using cyber tactics.

And I`m being a little vague about this because "The Post" is a little vague about this, but this is new. "The Post" is newly reporting that before he left office, President Obama approved a covert measure that, quote, authorized planting cyber weapons inside Russia`s infrastructure, the digital equivalent of bombs that could be detonated if the United States found itself in an escalating exchange with Moscow.

Oh. That work was started under a covert authorization signed by President Obama before he left office. In the five months since he left office, though, that work apparently has continued on the basis of President Obama`s authorization.

Now, "The Post" does not say exactly what kind of damage this new capacity the U.S. is developing, what kind of damage it could inflict on Russia or even what types of Russian infrastructure these things might be targeting. But, you know, even before this previously undisclosed covert program to develop new ways to hit Russia, even before this, the U.S. has previously been clear that whatever the Russians can do to us in terms of cyber attacks, or whatever the North Koreans can do to us or the Chinese or anybody else who devotes massive state resources to developing this capacity, the U.S. has been clear in the past that they believe that our NSA, our cyber command has more firepower in that regard than any other country on earth. And whatever any other country can do to us, we can do to them and much worse.

There`s no lack of confidence within the U.S. government that the United States has the power to inflict devastating consequences on Russia or any other country if we chose to do so by cyber means. Why didn`t they choose to do something like that when the Obama administration recognized what Russia was doing with our election, particularly when they realized it wasn`t some freelance operation, it wasn`t some criminal operation, it was being deployed directly by the Russian government on the orders of the Russian president?

Again, we`re going to talk with Ellen Nakashima from "The Post" about this in just a moment.

But the way "The Post" lays it out, they give basically two types of answers to that question. One of them is domestic to the U.S. and it is sort of exasperating to think about a national security matter like this having domestic political constraints about it, but that`s the way it is. The other one is not domestic, though. It`s a different kind of constraint. That`s the keep you up at night kind of thing.

But the domestic political constraint that "The Post" describes was apparently about Donald Trump making it a touchstone in his campaign that the elections were somehow rigged for Hillary Clinton. When he was saying that the elections are rigged, the whole thing is rigged, he wasn`t saying the Russians were rigging our election. What he was saying is that the U.S. government, right, the Obama administration, or maybe even the Clinton campaign, the Democrats were somehow rigging the election to favor Hillary Clinton.

And because he was campaigning on that, the political consequence of that in terms of this national security issue is that the Obama administration apparently felt constrained in terms of how dramatically they could respond to this attack and how much they could even talk about exactly what they knew the Russians were doing. Because with that stage having been set by Trump, this is all rigged, they want to interfere in this election to help Clinton, with that stage having been set in terms of our domestic politics, the Obama administration believes that whatever they said an whatever they did about the Russian attack on our election would have been called, you know, proof -- proof of what Trump has been saying all along. They have made up this story. This is how they`re going to rig the election and steal the election for Clinton and they`re going to blame it all on this Russia thing.

So, that was the constraint driven by domestic politics. And I think it`s not purely craven, right? The other thing you have to think about when you`re the president of the United States, when your public servants and intelligence agencies serving the good of the people of the United States, that you don`t want to end up in a situation where a significant portion of the country thinks they have got great reason to believe that we didn`t just have an election, right? That it was all rigged. That it was stolen and they should, you know, turn to some other means to install their leader, right? You don`t want to mess with that.

So they tried not to. And they felt constrained in their response to the Russia attack because of that worry. That was the domestic constraint.

The other constraint they apparently felt is something that is like less sort of exasperating about our politics and sort of just more straight ahead scary. According to "The Post`s" report, one of the reasons, the other main reason the Obama administration, quote, ruled out any pre- election retaliation against Moscow is because they feared what Putin might do in response about the election. They feared that Putin, quote, was prepared to go beyond fake news and e-mail dumps.

Quote: The FBI had detected suspected Russian attempts to penetrate election systems in 21 states. And at least one senior White House official assumed that Moscow would try all 50.

Michael Daniel, who was cyber security coordinator at the White House, tells "The Washington Post," that, quote: We turned to other scenarios that the Russians might attempt.

Quoting from "The Post," As brazen as the Russian attacks on the election seemed, Obama and his top advisers feared that things could get far worse. Moscow`s meddling to that point was seen as deeply concerning but unlikely to materially affect the outcome of the election. Far more worrisome to the Obama team was the prospect of a cyber assault on voting systems before and on Election Day.

Worrisome to the Obama team was that prospect. So, part of the reason they didn`t throw everything they had at the Russians, which appears to be a considerable amount of stuff they could have thrown, part of the reason they didn`t do anything to Russia about this before the election was because of how it would play politically here in the United States. This question, an important question of whether Americans would have confidence that our election was not being rigged by the outgoing administration in order to install someone who had been secretary of state in that administration as the next president, right? There was that domestic concern.

But the other part of their reticence to do anything before the election was driven by the fact that they believed, apparently, that Russia could blow up the election if they wanted to. That beyond the bots and the propaganda and the stealing the documents from the Democratic Party and releasing them in a way designed to cause damage, despite -- beyond all of that stuff, which we all know about now, apparently, the Obama administration believed that whatever Russia did with the voter rolls and all those probes of election systems and all the other poking around that we were told that they did in counties in dozens of states before the election, the Obama administration apparently believed that maybe the Russians were capable of melting the whole thing down on Election Day. So Americans couldn`t vote, where the votes couldn`t be counted or the vote could be disappeared or changed in some kind of catastrophic way.

Learning that that fear is what constrained the Obama administration`s reaction, honestly that`s the way we learned as a country today that the Obama administration apparently believed that Russia could do that, that Russia had that capacity. They could have absolutely blown up our election if they had wanted to. And if they had that capacity last year, presumably that means they still have it, for whatever they want to use it?

So, there`s a lot that "The Washington Post" has just broken here. Like I said, it`s like they took ten, one -- ten-page one scoops and they put them all in one big story, with that fascinating framing in terms of how the Obama administration responded.

We`re going to be speaking with reporter Ellen Nakashima from "The Post" about that in just a moment.

Before we get to her, though, I do want to do something else. I want to share with you something that is a little bit of a scoop that we just got tonight. At the start of this week, you might remember "The New York Times" ran a story about the CIA Director Mike Pompeo. He`s a Trump appointee, former Republican congressman.

Not every CIA director is involved directly in things like the president`s daily brief. Not every CIA director is at the White House every single day. In this administration, though, Mike Pompeo apparently has been.

And what "The Times" was able to report out at the beginning of this week was that when Sally Yates, acting attorney general, came to the White House during the second week -- no, the first week actually of the Trump administration in January to give them that dire historically unprecedented warning that Mike Flynn, the national security advisor, was lying about his contacts with the Russian government, he was compromised by Russia, he was vulnerable to blackmail or coercion by Russia, "The Times" was able to report out at the beginning of this week that that warning by Sally Yates, that wasn`t something that the upper echelons of the Department of Justice concluded and worked on in isolation.

What "The Times" reported at the beginning of this week is that the CIA, CIA officers were also involved in forming that assessment about Mike Flynn, in reviewing the evidence that led to that warning. CIA officers had apparently reviewed the intercepted communications between Mike Flynn and the Russians. They had seen those intercepts directly.

Even so, despite that direct involvement of his agency, despite the CIA being in on what was so worrying about Mike Flynn, Mike Pompeo apparently never talked to the president about it himself. An even beyond that, Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, kept discussing sensitive intelligence matters with Mike Flynn in the room at the White House, even after all of these concerns had been raised about Mike Flynn, including by Mike Pompeo`s own agency.

There are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered about why the White House as a whole was still OK with keeping Mike Flynn in his role as national security advisor for 18 days after they got this dire warning about him and him being compromised by a foreign power. It`s one thing, though, to ask those questions about the president and the White House that he is running. We will get to the bottom of that at some point.

It`s another thing to ask those questions about the guy who`s head of the CIA, right? The CIA, after all, is the holder of very, very, very sensitive, very secret information. Like, oh, by the way, we`ve got an intelligence source right next to Vladimir Putin way inside the Kremlin, right? The CIA holds that information. If they`re being cavalier about somebody who`s been compromised by a foreign power still getting access to tons of top level intelligence, that`s a different level of worry than if it`s some, you know, novice group of brand new people in the White House.

So, "The Times" reported that at the start of this week. Right after that report on Wednesday, Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings, top Democrat in the Oversight Committee, he wrote to the White House, wrote to White House chief of staff Reince Priebus demanding to know how the White House had handled the issue of Mike Flynn`s security clearance after they had been formally notified by the Justice Department that Flynn was a security risk.

We have posted Cummings` letter at Maddowblog.com in case you haven`t seen it. In case you want to see it -- detailed, granular, times, dates, people, places. I think it`s going to be one of those things that kind of ends up being an important reference document, if nothing else, if Mike Flynn and the White House handling him of national security advisor stays at the center of these inquiries into the Russian attack.

In addition to Cummings` very pointed questions about Flynn and why he was still able to listen in on the most sensitive intelligence our government has, in addition to that, in this letter, Elijah Cummings and the Democrats on the oversight committee also raise the question of the security clearance not just for Flynn but also the one that had been issued to Jared Kushner, the president`s son-in-law. Because although Mike Flynn and Jared Kushner are different breeds of cat, they do both have multiple high level contacts with Russian officials that have yet to be explained, that they didn`t publicly disclose until they were forced to by press reports. And importantly, the Russian contacts that both of them had were apparently not included on their applications for their security clearances from this White House.

And so, Congressman Cummings, top Democrat on the oversight committee, raises this question of whether or not Jared Kushner should also be keeping his security clearance, especially since he`s a currently serving official now. I mean, given his meetings with Russians, given what was apparently an effort to keep those meetings secret, given him not disclosing them on a security clearance application. That`s all interesting stuff, right? Congressman Cummings raises really interesting points.

As I say, we`re going to post that letter online tonight so you can read it for yourself. It`s granular, detailed. He makes a very good case.

But you know, he`s just a Democrat and the Oversight Committee in the House, like every committee, is controlled by the Republicans. And honestly, the Republicans on the Oversight Committee do not want to investigate Russia, and they do not want to talk about anybody in the Trump administration having secret meetings with the Russians or maybe not deserving their security clearances. They do not want to talk about any of that.

So, a Democrat on the committee writing a letter is -- even if it`s a good letter raising good points, it`s just -- it`s just a Democrat on a committee writing a letter.

And that brings us to our teeny tiny little scoop tonight, which is this. I`m going to skip right to the signature page at the end. It`s actually important part here. This is a letter that we have obtained tonight. As you see on the right side there, it`s signed by a couple of Democrats. Right side on the bottom is Sheldon Whitehouse, senator from Rhode Island. Right side on the top, that`s Dianne Feinstein, senator from California.

But looky-loo on the left, those are Republicans. Lindsey Graham, Senator from South Carolina, Republican, chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. And above him, Chuck Grassley, Republican, senator from Iowa, chair of the Judiciary Committee.

And what all four of them, including the chair and the ranking member and the chairs and ranking member -- and the chair and the ranking member from the relevant subcommittees, what they are signing there is a bipartisan letter written to the acting director of the FBI and to the White House, to Marcia Lee Kelly, deputy assistant to the president and director of White House Management and Office of Administration.

Dear Ms. Kelly, dear Acting Director McCabe, quote: We are writing to request information related to Jared Kushner`s security clearance.

And they lay it all out about Kushner not disclosing his meetings with foreign officials, including Russian officials, his application for top security clearance, not including those meetings.

Question one: what is the status of Mr. Kushner`s security clearance? What is the nature of his clearance? What level of information has he been cleared to receive? What are the dates on which major decisions concerning his security clearance were made?

Number two, check this one. Did President Trump or any other official in the White House intervene in or overrule any decision concerning Mr. Kushner`s background investigation? Any determination that he was eligible for a clearance or at any other point in his security clearance process?

And it goes on from there. Question three, four, five, six, seven, eight. They have CC`ed their letter to Jared`s lawyer. They say they want their answer by July 6th.

But, again, bipartisan leadership of the Judiciary Committee, including Republican Chairman Chuck Grassley demanding that the White House hand over information on Kushner`s security clearance, including the question of whether or not President Trump or any other White House official intervened in the decision to grant it to him, and to conduct his background investigation.

Again, we will post this online tonight, as the news continues to unspool this Friday evening.

Ellen Nakashima from "The Washington Post" joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: It was Wednesday this week when Homeland Security officials testified that they knew of 21 states that got some of their election systems targeted by the Russian attack last year. At that hearing on Wednesday, there was a keen moment that made me gulp but that didn`t get much pickup. It`s real quick, check this out.

It`s Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins -- watch what she asks here and then watch the response from the FBI guy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Is there any evidence that the Russians have implanted malware or back doors or other computer techniques to allow them easier access next time to our election systems?

BILL PRIESTAP, FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR OF COUNTERINTELLIGENCE DIVISION: I`m sorry, Senator, I just can`t comment on that because of our pending investigations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: No comment on that? You can`t just say, no, we don`t believe so?

She`s asking, did the Russians put malware or backdoors or anything else in our computer systems, our election systems that will allow them easier access next time? No comment.

We are all delighted that whatever the Russians were doing messing around in the voting systems of more than 20 states last year, at least they didn`t blow things up on election day as far as we can tell. But could they? Could they have last year? I mean were they putting malware in there so they could do it in the future if they want to? That was on Wednesday.

Now, today, there`s this from "The Washington Post." This opus which among many other things lays out the concern by the Obama administration that if they had retaliated against Russia for the Russian attack before our election, Russia might do something to our election that`s far worse than what they have done already. They were worried about that because apparently they believed that the Russians could have blown up our election if they wanted to.

Joining us now is Ellen Nakashima. She`s national security reporter for "The Washington Post", one of the reporters who wrote this blockbuster piece today at "The Post."

Ms. Nakashima, congratulations on this opus today, this real achievement. Thanks for being here.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA, THE WASHINGTON POST NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Thank you.

MADDOW: So, one key piece of your reporting, and this is a complex piece, is that the Obama administration was very worried as to what the Russians might do in response if there was a strong American pushback, a strong American response to the attack before the election.

Is it clear that the Obama administration had a clear understanding of the Russians` capabilities, about what the Russians could do if they really wanted to?

NAKASHIMA: So, in fact, the White House did undertake a pretty in-depth review of what the vulnerabilities of the electoral system were last summer, and they had the top sort of voting system elections expert in the country heading up that team.

And what they found was because there`s something like 3,000 voting jurisdictions in the country, almost each one with its different type of election system or voting system, it would in fact actually be quite difficult for anyone to come in and hack a voting machine and change the results across the country. Or even change the results in any large area. It would be because of the heterogeneity of systems, it would be a little - - it would be quite difficult.

So, with that, they turned to other scenarios that they thought might actually be more plausible, such as mucking with the voter registration systems. And as you heard this week, there were efforts to target at least 21 states. They were not successful in actually getting in and compromising many of these systems. In fact one of my sources at the Department of Homeland Security said there was hard evidence of only one state in which a voter registration system was compromised and that was in Illinois.

But be that as it may, the White House was very concerned that they could still do some -- they could still do damage by going in and, let`s say, deleting a voter`s name, flipping two digits in his address so that when he came to the polls, his voter registration didn`t match up and he might be turned away. That sort of thing could cause confusion and ultimately could, you know, cause doubts about the integrity of the outcome.

MADDOW: And presumably, if they could do that on a large scale, again, it`s hard to do anything industrial scale in our election system because it is so heterogeneous, but if they could do it on some replicable scale, in some mechanized way, presumably that kind of confusion could materially affect things.

NAKASHIMA: Right.

MADDOW: But again, that was just a hypothetical worry for them.

NAKASHIMA: And take this as a test run. The Russians were probing and probing and we know they`re going to come back and try again. And so, they could keep improving their skills and their sophistication.

MADDOW: Can I ask you also about the very dramatic opening to this piece today at "The Washington Post," the description about the intense secrecy around this information that the U.S. government had. The CIA treating as intensely, intensely secret the information that they had last summer about what was going on with the attack and the authorship of it, basically who could be blamed for it.

Was that secrecy driven in part -- or driven entirely because of the source of the intelligence, how they knew? The way that you guys wrote the story today, it makes it seem like there may be very sensitive intelligence sources close to Putin, whether or not they`re U.S. intelligence sources, and that the CIA was willing to go to very extreme lengths to keep those sources protected.

NAKASHIMA: Look, this was very highly classified information, and I -- for that matter, I also don`t want to get into -- I can`t go much beyond what we say in the story as to the sources because we don`t want to -- we were asked to withhold some of that information to protect the sources and methods of that.

But yes, it was very sensitive, very highly classified and so was restricted initially in fact to just the president and three senior aides.

MADDOW: Ellen, one last question for you on this. I have to -- because there is so much new in this reporting today that we haven`t seen and so much of it is stuff that it`s hard to believe we`re getting reporting on, not just that initial sourcing question that I just asked you there but also the matter of the president signing this covert authority to develop the capacity to hurt Russia through cyber technology means, through cyber warfare means I guess you`re supposed to say, has the -- since you published today, has there been pushback? Has there been anger? Are the intelligence agencies upset with this much being known?

Obviously, the question about what people talk to reporters about is a very hot issue in Washington.

NAKASHIMA: We`ve had no pushback, heard nothing from any of the intelligence agencies about that. You know, we -- before we ran the story, we check with the agencies, we included their no comments. I think we got no comments from the FBI, NSA, CIA, the White House on that.

MADDOW: Ellen Nakashima, national security reporter for "The Washington Post," part of this reporting team that did this epic piece today on what happened last year and how our government dealt with it. Thanks for being with us tonight, congratulations.

NAKASHIMA: Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: Thanks.

All right. We`ve got more to come tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Today, Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada became the fifth Republican in the Senate to come out against the Republican bill to kill Obamacare. That`s important because Dean Heller is number five to say no and if only three of them say no, the bill dies. And now, after Heller on top of those five who say no, two more Republican senators, Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Rob Portman of Ohio, they`re also now saying they have grave concerns about the bill, although neither of them is coming out and saying they`re a no.

Again, Republicans can only lose up to two senators on this thing or it will fail. We`re now looking at five to seven Republican senators who are either no or gravely concerned.

So, as you might imagine, in that environment, with the math that tight, the pressure is turning up, and that means people are turning up. In Maine today, protesters showed up at three of Senator Susan Collins` local offices, her home state offices, urging her to say no, to oppose the bill.

On a rainy afternoon in Ohio today, Senator Rob Portman`s constituents laid down on the wet sidewalks in protest of the bill. That was outside of four of his district offices in Ohio. Protesters also showed up at the airport in Washington, D.C., yesterday thinking that might be an interesting bottleneck spot to try to catch senators on their way home so they could tell them to vote no on the bill.

In Pennsylvania, where Senator Pat Toomey says he so far supports the bill, Toomey`s constituents held a series of 24-hour long vigils throughout the state. They stayed outside his offices through the night and into the morning.

This afternoon, constituents showed up at Senator Jeff Flake`s office in Phoenix, Arizona, in the scorching heat. They were chanting for the senator`s staff to please get him on the phone so he could -- phone him, phone him, so he could tell them which way he plans to vote.

This is from outside one of Senator Tom Cotton`s offices in Arkansas today that posted Tom Cotton, we`re outside your office. Talk to us about the bill that will take away 300,000 Arkansas` health care.

Senator Cotton has so far been silent on whether he supports the bill or not. There`s a lot of that, and a lot of silence and reviewing and considering and having concerns going on among Republican senators, but time for that is running out.

Republican leadership in the Senate says they want to vote next week. Do they have the votes? Do they not? A lot of that will depend on what happens, I think, in their home offices or their home state offices and on their phone lines over the next five days.

Watch this space.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: If you live overseas, depending on what country you`re from, if you want to visit the United States, you might need a visa to do so. You have to explain to the U.S. government why you want to come here before you get permission to come here.

And the visas are really oddly specific. You can apply, for example, as a religious worker. You can apply as a temporary agriculture worker. You can apply as a treaty trader. Also, what`s a treaty trader?

Whatever the case, you pick up the type of visa that you need. The U.S. consulate looks at your application, decides whether or not to let you into the United States. Last year, before our presidential election, the people in the U.S. government whose job it is to look over all those visa applications, they reportedly noticed something new. They noticed a big uptick in a certain visa request from a certain country.

This is from today`s blockbuster story in "The Washington Post." Quote: Officials at the State Department and the FBI became alarmed by an unusual spike in requests from Russia for temporary visas for officials with technical skills, seeking permission to enter the U.S. for short-term assignments at Russian facilities.

That surge of requests for that super specific visa caught the attention of the FBI, who apparently put the kibosh on it. Quote, At the FBI`s behest, the State Department delayed approving those visas until after the election.

What`s that all about?

Joining us now is Ned Price. He`s a former spokesman and senior analyst at the CIA. He was a spokesman and senior director at the National Security Council under President Obama.

Ned, it`s nice to see you. Thank you for being here.

NED PRICE, FORMER NSC SPOKESMAN & SENIOR DIRECTOR: Good to see you, too.

MADDOW: One of the things that "The Washington Post" reports here is that there was this uptick in visas. They also report that the U.S. government believes that some of the Russians who participated in the attack were here on U.S. soil when they were doing that work.

Does that make sense to you in terms of what we understand about the attack, why Russians would need to physically be here for what we think of as an attack that happens, you know, in the cloud, in the Internet?

PRICE: Well, to my mind it does, Rachael. This detail about an uptick in visas that "The Post" reported, it`s a reminder that in some ways, perhaps in small ways, but in some ways, nevertheless, spies are just like us. In order to travel overseas for work, they have to apply for visas. In this case, they probably applied for diplomatic visas.

And they did so under the theory of traveling under official cover, what`s called official cover. That is the most common usage of cover. That is to say, cover legends that intelligence services around the world use.

Now, not always do intelligence officers travel under official cover. Sometimes, they go under what`s called non-official cover. And the Russians are pretty adept at this. You may recall that in 2010, the FBI rounded up ten so-called Russian illegals. That is to say Russians who had illegally assumed American identities and had been living here in some cases for decades collecting intelligence in an effort to send it back to Moscow.

In this case, though, it sounds like the individuals came here under official cover requesting diplomatic visas. Of course, they`re not going to say, I`m a Russian intelligence officer. They may say, for example, I`m with the ministry of defense or the ministry of foreign affairs, but in doing so, it made it much easier for the FBI to spot this uptick and to deny the visas, at least until the election was over.

MADDOW: And this is reported as something that was concerning to both the FBI and the State Department in terms of the way these things normally work. Are you surprised to hear or unsurprised to hear that the FBI would have noticed this uptick, the State Department might have recognized there`s some strange surge in those kind of applications? Is that the kind of national security monitoring that those of us outside the business should expect?

PRICE: I think it`s certainly in our interest and Americans should expect that the appropriate authorities are closely monitoring Russia`s entering this country, especially on diplomatic visas, because the thing is, the Russian intelligence services are singular in terms of their sophistication and their hostility. So if we see an uptick like that, especially before the election, when we have a growing body of intelligence indicating to Vladimir Putin`s plan to delve (ph) in our election, that surely should send off red flags.

If it didn`t send off red flags, our national security community would be derelict. But as "The Post" reported today, they were on top of it. They flagged this trend and they stopped it before it could become more of a problem.

MADDOW: Ned Price, former spokesman, senior analyst with CIA, former spokesman and senior director of National Security Council -- Ned, thank you for being here on a Friday night and helping us understand this. Really appreciate it.

PRICE: Thank you.

MADDOW: All right. You know, I read as many spy novels as the next guy, but some of this stuff, I had no idea this is the way it worked. I feel like I got -- I feel like a got a lot smarter today just reading this one thing in "The Washington Post."

All right. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: You are going to have a good weekend, I think. I mean, to the extent I am capable of forecasting your weekend through the TV screen, I hereby insistently forecast that you are going to have a good weekend, or at least you should definitely try to because I also hereby forecast that you`re going to have a nervous Monday. I`m not -- at least a nervous start to Monday.

I`m not quite sure why this isn`t on the news radar yet. I know there`s a lot else going on. But what`s going to happen on Monday morning ought to be on your news radar. It`s going to happen fairly early on Monday morning. It`s a reason to set your alarm. It`s going to give a lot of people shpilkes that day.

My best warning about it and how to prepare is our closing story tonight, and that`s next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Good evening.

Justice Lewis Powell, a courtly Southerner, surprised almost everyone today by announcing his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. His decision touched off a flurry of speculation on who the president will appoint as a replacement and how that will affect the direction of the court and, of course, the country.

As NBC law correspondent Carl Stern reports tonight, what makes the retirement of the 79-year-old justice so significant is the special role that he played on the court.

REPORTER: Since Lewis Powell put on the robe 15 years ago, it was often his vote that made the difference. Whether voting conservative as President Nixon hoped when he appointed him, or liberal, Powell has been the so-called swing vote.

The court didn`t change much when Ronald Reagan named Sandra Day O`Connor to replace conservative Potter Stewart, and Antonin Scalia had roughly the same philosophy as the person he replaced, Warren Burger.

But Powell`s departure gives President Reagan his first big chance to shift the court solidly toward the right if the Senate approves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell unexpectedly announced his retirement in 1987. He did so on the final day of the Supreme Court`s term that year. And his retirement gave President Reagan a chance to shift the Supreme Court solidly to the right. And President Reagan tried to do that. He nominated an ultra conservative named Robert Bork, and famously that did not pan out. Bork didn`t get the seat.

Justice Powell`s seat ultimately went to a more moderate justice named Anthony Kennedy. And not only did Anthony Kennedy take over Lewis Powell`s seat, he also continued the tradition of that seat being the swing seat, the swing vote on the court.

Justice Powell`s announcement that he was retiring happened 30 years ago this upcoming Monday, June 26th, 1987. And it just so happens that this coming Monday is also the final day of this current Supreme Court term. And end of the term is sometimes when retiring justices like to make that announcement that they`re going.

So, heading into Monday, there`s some shpilkes 30 years after Justice Powell`s announcement, his replacement, Justice Kennedy, the current swing voter on the court. Maybe if he`s going to retire, that might conceivably be the day he`d announce it. That would leave President Trump, of course, with yet another pick for the Supreme Court and an opportunity to shift the court significantly to the right if he can confirm someone significantly more conservative than Kennedy.

Justice Kennedy is 80 years old. The top Republican senator on the Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley has been hinting he expects someone on the court to retire this summer. So, Monday could be interesting. Set your alarm.

That does it for us tonight. Have an excellent weekend. We`ll see you again on Monday.

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD" with Ari Melber, sitting in for Lawrence tonight.

Good evening, Ari.

END

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