Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: October 23, 2017
Guest: Eric Holder
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, ALL IN: That is ALL IN for this evening.
THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. Appreciate it.
HAYES: You bet.
MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour,
We`ve got a very big live interview tonight. Former Attorney General Eric Holder is here with me in studio tonight. This will be his first live TV interview since the election. Eric Holder obviously has a role in history because of his tenure as the nation`s first African-American attorney general, one who made very significant changes and very significant decisions in American law enforcement and justice while he was in the Obama cabinet.
Now that he has been succeeded in office by a man who -- let`s be honest -- is the human antonym of Eric Holder, Eric Holder has been outspoken in private life about defending his and president Obama`s legacy on justice issues. He`s also been outspoken against President Trump and the Trump administration from time to time, when the spirit moves him.
For example, this picture was posted on Twitter by former Attorney General Eric Holder last week after President Trump made false public statements about how President Obama handled his responsibilities as president when it came to fallen service members and their families.
The former attorney general posted that picture and then stated on Twitter, quote: Stop the damn lying. You`re the president. I went to Dover Air Base with 44, meaning with President Obama, and saw him comfort the families of both the fallen military and DEA.
So, former Attorney General Eric Holder has not disappeared from public view by any stretch of the imagination. He has been willing to speak his piece when he is motivated to do so. But he`s been a very interesting sort of question mark in terms of the ongoing legacy of the Obama administration, moving forward into the Trump p era. And I mean that in one very specific way.
Going all the way back to early January, when President Obama was still president, when Donald Trump had been elected but not yet sworn in as president, President Obama and Eric Holder, who are fast friends, they have a very close personal relationship. They let it be known in early January, even before the Trump inauguration, they had a project they were going to do together during the Trump administration.
And that joint work, that project the two of them together, that work has now started. On the one-year anniversary of the election, which is coming up just a couple weeks from now, on November 8th, Barack Obama and Eric Holder are going to be together on that anniversary working on this new plan that they think is the most important thing they can be doing right now in politics.
So, Eric Holder is here tonight to talk about that plan he was working on with former President Obama.
Plus, I`m going to try to get him to talk about all sorts of things going on in the news right now that I have wanted him to weigh in on ever since he left office. So, very excited.
That`s "The Interview" tonight, former Attorney General Eric Holder here in studio with me for his first live television interview since the election.
Before we bring on the former attorney general, though, we do have some breaking news that I want to start with tonight. Part of this was broken by NBC News tonight. Part of it was broken by Voice of America.
We`ve got NBC News`s national security and military reporter standing by.
But what this is about is the deadliest combat incident since President Trump has been in office, the loss of four U.S. Army Special Operations soldiers in Niger on October 4th. Now, our understanding of this story and the loss of these soldiers has evolved on sort of two parallel tracks since we first learned about the ambush that claimed these soldiers` lives.
There`s been these two tracks. Domestically, it has been strange to the point of perplexing and is now a major story of the Trump presidency that the president spent 12 days after these combat casualties occurred, 12 days after we now know a National Security Council statement was drafted for him to issue about those deaths, it took him 12 days to even answer questions about why he hadn`t acknowledged publicly in any way that those deaths had happened. The president`s refusal to discuss the loss of these soldiers or the circumstances in which they were killed has now stretched beyond the initial 12 days to almost three weeks as he continues to refuse direct questions on the subject.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)
PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS: Did you authorize the incident in Niger?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all very much.
REPORTER: Mr. President, what happened in Niger? Can you tell the public what happened in Niger?
HALLIE JACKSON, NBC NEWS: Mr. President, any questions on the ambush?
TRUMP: Thank you.
REPORTER: President Trump, do you regret that Myeshia Johnson was upset by your phone call?
REPORTER: President Trump, is there anything you`d like to say to Myeshia Johnson?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIPS)
MADDOW: Those last questions that the president walked away from, those where -- the reporter mentioned Myeshia Johnson, those questions reflected the emotionally difficult terrain that the president has steered the national conversation to rather than talking about what happened in Niger.
I mean, he`s not just refusing to discuss the Niger ambush and the four soldiers who were lost, he`s chosen instead to volunteer false information about how he and other presidents have contacted military families when service members have been killed in action.
Today, the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, who was killed in the ambush, she appeared on ABC News "This Morning" and gave a remarkably moving testimony as to what she has been through and she and her family has been through. But not incidentally she also this morning became the third person to corroborate consistently the nature of the condolence phone call that President Trump made to her and her family last week after he faced almost two weeks of questions about why he hadn`t said anything about those military deaths.
Myeshia Johnson confirmed that what had been previously described by a family friend and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson has now become a major target of the president and chief of staff for her role in this matter. Myeshia Johnson today, Sergeant La David Johnson`s widow, confirmed today that what the congressman said was true.
The president did make remarks in his condolence call that were perceived to be hurtful and insensitive by Sergeant Johnson`s family and by Mrs. Johnson herself, including what she described today as the president clearly not being familiar with her husband`s name.
President Trump still will not discuss the soldiers who were lost or publicly acknowledge their deaths or talk about what happened to them in Niger. But after those remarks in that ABC interview this morning from Sergeant Johnson`s widow, the president did take time on Twitter to angrily tweet his denial of the grieving widow`s account of their conversation.
So, it is still emotionally inconceivable that we are now having more than a week-long discussion about the president mishandling his communications with Gold Star families and making untrue remarks about those interactions and about how other presidents handled those interactions. It is still almost impossible to get your head around, but they are screwing that up, too.
But while that continued for another day today, stretching this into its second week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, made himself available to the pentagon press corps today to actually deliver some information about what happened to these four soldiers in Niger. Between his prepared remarks and the very lengthy list of questions he took from the sharp Pentagon press corps today, General Dunford spoke to the press about this matter today for nearly an hour and he did advance our understanding about what happened.
At a time when even senior U.S. senators from both parties are admitting that they had no idea that the U.S. had troops in Niger, General Dunford clarified today that not only are there something like 800 U.S. troops serving in Niger right now, there are more U.S. troops serving in Niger right now than in any other country in Western Africa.
If senior U.S. senators with national security responsibilities like Lindsey Graham and Chuck Schumer didn`t know that we had any troops in Niger, let alone more than any other country in that part of the world, you could guess that the American public had no idea of that either. But General Dunford made that clear today. He also gave a painful but at least to my mind considerate and at least -- painful but I would say -- painful but considerate and careful response to a particularly troubling issue that has been raised personally by Sergeant La David Johnson`s widow.
We have seen these images of her embracing her husband`s casket, both upon it being returned to the United States and at his funeral this weekend in Florida. Myeshia Johnson explained today that ABC that part of her has doubts that her husband is even in that casket because she says she was denied permission not just to see his face but to see any part of his body.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MYESHIA JOHNSON, SGT. JOHNSON`S WIDOW: I want to know why it took them 48 hours to find my husband. Why couldn`t I see my husband? Every time I asked to see my husband, they wouldn`t let me. They wouldn`t show me a finger, a hand. I know my husband`s body from head to toe, and they won`t let me see anything.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Myeshia Johnson was not only married to Sergeant La David Johnson and is the mother of his children, they were also childhood sweethearts. She first met him when she was 6 years old. So, she knows of what she speaks.
General Dunford was asked, why is it she has not been able to see her husband`s body if she wants to. And he had to answer that -- and again, I think he tried to answer it as sensitively and with as much emotional reticence as you can have around this incredibly fraught and personal issue. He suggested that while protocol might sometimes suggest that family members would be cautioned against looking at their loved ones` remains in a case like this, he said ultimately it is up to the family and so the implication of General Dunford`s remarks today is that if Sergeant Johnson`s widow wants to see, she should be allowed to see. Very difficult issue.
General Dunford also explained today that the Pentagon timeline for the incident includes the as yet unexplained fact that it appears the soldiers who were ambushed on October 4th, they didn`t -- they don`t appear to have placed a call for help, a call for backup, until an hour after the attack started. We don`t exactly know what that means but we know it`s the subject of investigation.
General Dunford also explained today for the first time that an American remotely piloted vehicle, ease pas he put it, an American drone, hadn`t been assigned as surveillance overwatch for the Green Berets` operation that day but once the U.S. military was aware this firefight was under way and this patrol was in trouble, an American drone that was overhead and nearby for some other purpose was retasked to go fly over the scene of this firefight. According to General Dunford, that drone was there within minutes.
So, that was all concrete and new information from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff today, who again spent almost an hour with the Pentagon press corps, taking lots and lots of specific questions, and offering what seemed to be as much information as he could give, even as many of his responses basically was just him asking for patience on the part of reporters until the Pentagon and the FBI investigation can get further along, in terms of fleshing out the facts of what happened.
So, in terms of the story, obviously, there`s this continuing drama and consternation around the president`s continued reticence to talk about this and his emotionally distressing and false remarks around the issue of condolences to military families. That is part of this story. That is happening domestically.
At the Pentagon today, we`ve got General Dunford explaining what can be explained until the investigation goes further along.
But then there`s a third track, which is reporting. And as General Dunford was finishing up his remarks today at the Pentagon, the story of what happened in Niger started to break in a whole new direction. And the first information came from Voice of America news and then later on from NBC News this evening.
What Voice of America was able to break late this afternoon was thanks to their French language broadcasting service in West Africa. Journalists at the French language version of Voice of America, they were able to interview the mayor of the town where the ambush took place where these American soldiers died. They interviewed the mayor of Tongo-Tongo, which is the name of the town nearest to where this ambush happened.
The mayor`s name is Almou Hassane, according to VOA, and he`s now given VOA an explanation as to how this attack happened. He says -- you can see from the subject there, he says his village set up these U.S. soldiers. Quote: The attackers, the bandits, the terrorists have never lacked accomplices among the local populations. He describes a scenario in which residents of his village intentionally delayed the soldiers while the ambush was being set up by these militant groups.
The mayor said that the village chief, the tribal chief in that village has now been arrested on suspicion of having been involved in setting up the soldiers. That report about the tribal chief from that village getting arrested, that was confirmed in the national assembly in Niger today, when they debated extending a state of emergency in the part of Niger where this attack happened.
Voice of America also interviewed the head of a newspaper in Niger`s capital city who says he`s been briefed on the ambush by Niger`s defense minister. His explanation was this, quote: it turns out this village was a little contaminated by hostile forces. The American unit stayed a little longer than expected because apparently people were aware something was going on, meaning the American forces were purposely delayed in order to give the attackers time to set up the ambush.
According to the newspaper source and other local sources, quote, while the soldiers were still in the village, a fake terror attack was staged nearby. The soldiers rushed to the scene, whereupon 50 or more assailants with vehicles and motorcycles opened fire with Kalashnikovs and heavy weapons.
So, that account based on sources including the mayor of the town where the ambush happened leads to this reporting from VOA. Villagers suspected of luring Green Berets into Niger ambush.
So, that breaks Voice of America this afternoon. Then, this evening, NBC News national security and military reporter, Courtney Kube, along with Karen Lee and Ken Dilanian breaks the Pentagon side of this story. Now, they`re sourcing their report to three U.S. officials who have been briefed on the matter.
Courtney Kube and her colleagues report this. Quote: An emerging theory among U.S. military investigators is that the Army Special Forces soldiers ambushed in Niger were set up by terrorists who were tipped off in advance about a meeting in a village sympathetic to local ISIS affiliates. The American Green Berets and support soldiers had requested a meeting with elders of a village that was seen as supportive of the Islamic State.
Quote: investigators are leaning toward a conclusion that local militants used the meeting in the village of Tongo-Tongo to have a sneak attack. Villagers sought to delay the troops as they tried to leave the village. Once they did depart, militants attacked them with small arms and machine gun fire. Soldiers dismounted from their vehicles and began returning fire. They were soon facing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. The soldiers then got back in their trucks and retreated about a mile before they were ambushed again.
Quote: The attackers had trapped the Americans in a kill zone where they could envelop them in fire. The two separate ambush sites could explain why Sergeant La David Johnson`s body was found more than a mile from the coordinates where the other dead and injured troops were evacuated by helicopter.
So, we`d had earlier reporting that this ambush was the result of a massive intelligence failure on the part of the U.S. military. That is now being investigated both by the military and by the FBI. These new reports suggest some of the specifics about where that failure might have turned fatal.
There is a lot that is hard to get our heads around about this ambush and the loss of these four soldiers. I mean, regardless of the oddities and failures of this particular administration, it`s strange overall that leading senators with defense responsibilities don`t know about U.S. troops serving in danger in a particular country. Eight hundred U.S. troops in Niger, more than any other nation in Western Africa, separate and apart from anything specific in this administration.
It also remains a weird thing that the Pentagon`s Africa Command, AfriCom, is headquartered in Stuttgart, which is not in Africa. I mean, regardless of this administration, preceding anything specific about this presidency, there are hard things to get your head around in terms of American responsibilities and expectations here. It remains hard to get your head around the thing that this deployment technically is probably legally justified by the 9/11 attacks.
That`s probably the legal authority under way this deployment is happening, right? The 9/11 attacks, which actually had more to do with Germany than they did with Niger in terms of where they were planned and launched from.
So, there`s a lot that has nothing to do with the Trump administration that is hard to get your head around around this deployment and this attack and this grievous, grievous loss. But then you add on top of that the particularities of this administration, which hasn`t bothered to appoint a director at the National Security Council with responsibility for Africa, which hasn`t bothered to appoint an assistant secretary of state for Africa, which just inexplicably last month angered and infuriated the neighboring nation of Chad by adding them to the president`s travel ban despite Chad being our most experienced battle-hardened military ally in the region against Boko Haram and other militant groups associated with ISIS and al Qaeda and all the rest of it.
And, of course, at the apex of responsibility here, we still have a commander in chief who will not discuss this incident, even today, will not talk about is it. Thanks to this new reporting from Voice of America and NBC News, we at least do have our first disturbing key insight into how that day may have unfolded and why.
Joining us now is Courtney Kube, NBC`s national security and military reporter who`s the lead reporter on this scoop tonight.
Courtney, thank you for being here.
COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY AND MILITARY REPORTER: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: So, can you tell us where this story came from? Obviously, you can`t reveal sources that you`re not naming in your piece. But when you describe this as a theory that investigators are leaning toward, how hard are they leaning on that and do we know the basis for them doing so?
KUBE: So, it`s been a rumor, candidly, for -- you know, since a couple of days after the attack and after Sergeant Johnson`s body was found. There had been rumors that there was just something fishy here. And whether it was that they were lured to this meeting and it was a setup or the elders or the villagers or whomever it was, the thing -- the sticking point that U.S. military and defense officials who I spoke with and intelligence officials, the sticking point was always, how is it possible that this large number of militants were able to mass without the U.S. knowing?
And so, I think they started from there and moved on. And then just in the past two or three days, officials who we`ve spoken with have started calling in the more prevailing theory, that there was something here that the U.S. would -- these soldiers were set up for. We don`t know the extent yet. We don`t know if it was villagers or just the elders or exactly what.
But that`s something that is still under investigation here, Rachel. In the more prevailing theory, that there was something here the U.S. -- these soldiers were set up for. We don`t know the extent yet. We don`t know if it was villagers or just the elders or exactly what. But that`s something that, you know, is still under investigation here, Rachel.
MADDOW: Soldiers in far-flung parts of the world, particularly when they are far from support services and search and rescue resources and things like that, we know that their lives in many ways depend on both intelligence, but also copacetic working relationships with local forces and support forces. We`ve heard this previously described as a massive intelligence failure on the part of the U.S. It certainly seems like they walked into something blind that there ought to have been some intel about, there ought to have been some way to have some foresight about.
Do we know anything about the way the Pentagon and the FBI are pursuing the investigation into that part of it?
KUBE: So we know that -- right now, they still believe this was some sort of an ISIS affiliate. One they`re looking at is ISISGS, which stands for ISIS Greater Sahel. They are trying to make a name for themselves and become an actual ISIS affiliate. That, of course, is still under investigation, exactly who was behind this.
One thing that is clear that defense officials do not deny, is that this was an ISIS-sympathetic area. That means there were fighters there, there were villagers there who whether they actually believed in the ISIS ideology or they just are doing what they have to do to survive -- you know, remember, this is a very tribal area. So much of what these guys -- these villagers may have been doing, it could have been nothing more than an allegiance to the area and a sense of how to survive. We just don`t know. That`s something that`s still under investigation.
You know, the FBI -- we forget that, you know, this is a U.S. military mission. But the FBI often does help with investigations like this. Think of what they`re good at. They`re good at getting the bad guy, finding out who the bad guy is, and that`s one of the main reasons they`re involved in this.
They also have some sort of role in forensics here. I don`t really know the extent of it. But that`s one -- those are two of the areas that the FBI investigators are helping with.
MADDOW: Courtney Kube, NBC national security and military reporter, lead reporter on this scoop tonight for NBC News. Courtney, thanks for helping us understand it. Really appreciate your time.
KUBE: Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. Former Attorney General Eric Holder joins us live for "The Interview" in just a moment. Stay with us.
MADDOW: It was 2010. I was in Alaska. Lisa Murkowski was an incumbent senator who`d lost the primary for her own seat and then went on to win it anyway by running as a write-in candidate in the general election, which is nuts for a Senate race.
And in the middle of that nuttiness, I went up to Alaska to cover that race. And there unexpectedly on the street in Anchorage, that`s where I learned that any political conversation with a stranger at any point might suddenly veer into untrue nonsense about Eric Holder. You just have to be ready for it at any time.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Good luck, you guys.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Eric Holder -- we disagree with that.
MADDOW: She what?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wrote in to confirm Eric Holder.
MADDOW: Why are you against is that?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He`s the most anti-gun attorney general this country has ever had.
MADDOW: What`s he done against guns?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, at this point -- well, what hasn`t he done against guns? Let`s ask that question. Let`s look at what his voting record before-hand. And I`m sure you guys --
MADDOW: Eric Holder wasn`t an elected official.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, just -- all I`m asking is look at what his record is with Obama, then. Look at what he`s --
MADDOW: What`s he done on guns that you`re upset about, though? Just so, I mean --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I honestly, I`m not -- I don`t know enough about that to answer that truthfully.
MADDOW: Can I just ask why are you upset about Eric Holder?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Because he`s anti-gun.
MADDOW: What has he done that`s anti-gun?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don`t have all the facts but I know that he is anti-gun.
MADDOW: There`s no specific thing he`s done that you guys are upset about?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just look at his press releases, that`s all I say, look at his press releases, look where he`s coming from.
MADDOW: I will. But what press release like about -- about what?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anything --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was in Alaska in 2010. Eric Holder, the nation`s first African-American attorney general, had only been serving in that role since the previous year. But by 2010, he was the object of ornate fantasies by people who really were invested in hating him, even for things he hadn`t done.
Eric Holder served as attorney general from 2009 to 2015, whereupon the Republican-controlled Senate finally consented to swear in Loretta Lynch as his successor. Eric Holder served for 12 years in the Justice Department`s Public Integrity Unit before coming a superior court judge in D.C., and then becoming the U.S. attorney in D.C., and then becoming deputy attorney general and then becoming attorney general.
Since leaving office as A.G., he has returned to private practice of law firm Covington and Burling. Tonight, he`s here for his first live TV interview since President Trump was sworn in to office.
Mr. Attorney General, thank you for being here.
ERIC HOLDER, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: Good to be here.
MADDOW: Have you seen that clip before?
HOLDER: I have seen that clip. I`ve actually saved it. I saw it in YouTube, and it`s one of my -- you know, watch later save -- I watch it every now and again.
MADDOW: I wonder if now that you are no longer the lightning rod you once were, do you miss that at all? I mean, do you get any sort of perverse satisfaction from the inchoate hatred that you attracted?
HOLDER: No, not really. You know, that -- it was something that kind of baffled me, because I never understood, you know, like that piece you showed, what was the nature of -- and the depth of the negative feelings that I generated in people on the other side. I never quite understood that.
MADDOW: In your time as attorney general all those years, it didn`t become more clear?
HOLDER: No. No. Never really did.
I mean, you know, I said things in support of the program of the president, but there seemed to be a special animus that, you know, political Washington and then, you know, people like that had for me. And, you know, I`m not totally sure what that was all about.
MADDOW: There have been -- by the time you were sworn in, there had been 82 attorneys general --
HOLDER: Yes, 81. I was the 82nd.
MADDOW: Eighty second. So, 80 of them, 79 of them, had been white men.
MADDOW: Alberto Gonzalez had a term as attorney general that didn`t end well.
Janet Reno was the only who served as -- had served as attorney general before you, and you were the first African-American man to serve. The only have vitriol that I have seen directed of public official that was so divorce from that public officials record, other than to a president, was against Janet Reno.
MADDOW: And my theory about that has always been that the nation`s top law enforcement officer is someone who evokes a different kind of emotional reaction out of particularly a paranoid slice of the public.
MADDOW: And it`s therefore just hard place to be first --
MADDOW: -- to break any sort of barrier.
HOLDER: The attorney general sits at the conjunction of law and policy and the Justice Department is in so many parts of so many people`s lives, you know, from national security thing to civil rights, voting, that you are a presence in a way that other cabinet members are not. And I thought that`s at least one of the reasons why perhaps, you know, I could engender those kinds of negative feelings. Most people saw me as a representative of the Obama administration.
And for some. You know, for some. And I`m not saying this is for all, but for some, I think there were probably some, you know, some racial issues.
MADDOW: In terms of the Justice Department as a national security agency, which in many ways it is, I`ve always wondered if -- if it fits the line of national security policymaking in the sense that it`s less partisan than other types of domestic policy. What I mean by that is, in my job, I`m often looking back into some time in the last couple of generations looking for historical context for things that are happening now. And if officials that I`m talking to are national security figures, and national security advisors or defense secretary, I often have to look up what their party affiliation is --
MADDOW: -- because in the national security environment, it`s just often not that important and there`s a certain continuity and inertia in national security policy that transcends partisan winds. Is that also true at Justice?
HOLDER: Yes. And Justice Department officials have gotten in trouble -- attorney generals who gotten in trouble when they have forgotten that the Justice Department really is different from other cabinet agencies. I remember Senator Leahy said to me during confirmation, you`re not the secretary of justice, you are the attorney general of the United States and there has to be a wall between the Justice Department and the White House, even though you`re a part of the administration.
Put up kind of an interesting thing between me and a president who I was a friend with. There were certain things we couldn`t discuss, certain things we didn`t discuss. But I think that`s an appropriate way for an attorney general to think of himself or herself, and it`s an appropriate way for the Justice Department to be run.
MADDOW: Is there more discontinuity between the Justice Department under Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department under President Obama than there has been be under previous administrations?
HOLDER: Yes, I`m looking from outside but it sure seems that way to me. There have been statements that this attorney general has made, Attorney General Sessions has made, the interactions that he`s had with the White House, that are inconsistent with I think the way in which I conducted myself as attorney general and, frankly, the way in which I think my predecessors -- many of my predecessors conducted themselves. Certainly, the berating that he reportedly took by the president is totally inconsistent with my experience. Again, I think inconsistent with all the previous attorneys general that I`m aware of.
MADDOW: Is that just a matter of personality and Washington personal drama or do you think that there is national consequence or risk associated with that strange thing that we saw unfold with the president berating his attorney general.
HOLDER: I think -- that actually worries me because I think it betrays a lack of understanding on the part of the president about what the role of the attorney general has to be. You can`t go at the A.G. in that way, if you truly understand the independent role that he should play within the administration.
There are going to be things that an attorney general is going to do that the president is not going to agree with, and a president really is just going to kind of suck it up and say that the A.G. has the responsibility to enforce the laws. He`s got national security responsibilities, and he is an independent actor in a way that other cabinet officials are not.
MADDOW: Unless the president doesn`t treat him that way.
HOLDER: Unless the president doesn`t treat him in that way. And history has shown us that when that wall is too low, that`s when Justice Departments get in trouble, during the Nixon years, during the Bush years, when you have White House contacts with the Justice Department and channels that are not approved.
MADDOW: What`s the corrective for that when it goes bad?
HOLDER: Resignations, investigations, public outcries. You know, there are really no formal things that can be done -- I mean, ultimately, I suppose, impeachment of an attorney general, something along those lines. But it`s really a question of, you know, having a vibrant press focused on these issues and the American people keeping track of what`s going on between DOJ and the White House.
MADDOW: Stay right there. We`ll be right back with former Attorney General Eric Holder.
MADDOW: Back again with us for the interview is former Attorney General Eric Holder. Thank you again for doing this.
You mentioned a moment ago that there were boundaries between you and the president in terms of things that you ought not talk about.
MADDOW: Where were those boundaries tested the most between you and President Obama? Where was it most difficult to keep the appropriate amount of distance?
HOLDER: Well, see, that`s the thing. It wasn`t difficult with Barack Obama. He`s a lot of things and among them, he`s a really good lawyer who understands the value of having an independent Justice Department.
Now, there were things that I would want to share with him because I knew he was going to be reading about them in the newspapers the next day, Monday or something like that. The DOMA decision, for instance, the decision not to defend DOMA that I made. I thought, all right, this was one he can`t read about in the newspapers. And so, on the Sunday of the Super Bowl party, I told him, this is where we were going to go, this is the decision that I had made.
And he said to me, well, I`m really glad, you know, I didn`t know how to approach you, because this is where I wanted my Justice Department to be. I didn`t think it was appropriate to share that with you, but I`m glad you made that decision.
MADDOW: So, you presented it to him as a fait accompli and he said I`m glad --
MADDOW: -- I wanted to suggest to you to this, but didn`t feel it was appropriate.
HOLDER: Exactly. And so, that is an example of the kind of relationship that should exist between an attorney general and a president. There were a long range of, you know, law enforcement issues that I never shared with him, where an indictment was going to be brought and he would simply -- and people in the White House would simply read about it in the newspaper the next day.
MADDOW: When President Obama has -- excuse me -- when President Trump has publicly and repeatedly expressed anger toward his attorney general, specifically for having recused himself on matters related to the campaign, including the Russia investigation, those public expressions of the president to me seem unprecedented because anybody facing investigation, expressing regret over somebody not being in a position to move the investigation one way or the other just seems strange.
How did that strike to you?
HOLDER: Unprecedented, unwise and ultimately not helpful to the president. You know, it could be argued that it betrays a mindset of concern. It might be said to evince some consciousness of guilt or some concern that those who are acting independently might do something to him that is negative in nature and that if his appointed attorney general was still in charge, he might not be in as bad a position. So, that is -- I`m sure his lawyers would have been apoplectic about having that kind of interaction between the president and the attorney general.
MADDOW: What about these recent reports that the president has apparently been meeting with potential nominees for U.S. attorney positions? You were former -- you were U.S. attorney in D.C., the D.C. U.S. attorney is one of the people who President Obama report -- President Trump, excuse me, reportedly met before he nominated her.
HOLDER: Unprecedented her. The way it was done in the Obama administration and the Clinton administration as well, and I think the Bush administrations, the highest level person that you spoke to as an incoming U.S. attorney general, as an incoming U.S. attorney was, in fact, the attorney general. That was it. Nobody went to talk to the White House --
MADDOW: And why is that? Why was that -- why was it structured that way?
HOLDER: To again ensure that independence, so that a U.S. attorney would understand that your boss is the attorney general of the United States. You`re not supposed to have any contacts -- a U.S. attorney is not supposed to have any contacts with the White House, except through the Justice Department.
And the choices -- at least has been reported, of the people who he spoke to I think are interesting. Two U.S. attorneys in New York, a U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. attorney general in Florida who`s gotten -- where Mar-a-Lago is. And that gives me some concern that he has decided to have these interactions with United States attorneys who might possibly be in a position to get at him.
MADDOW: And what`s the correction?
HOLDER: You know, to hopefully have good people in these positions who will, in spite of the fact they had these meetings with the president, will understand what the nature of their jobs is --
MADDOW: That`s the correction? The hope they`re good people?
HOLDER: Yes. You know, there`s -- I don`t think there`s anything that is, you know, legally inappropriate with what the president did. But with so many things that he does, it`s just not the way things are done. It is not the tradition, traditionally way in which things are done within the Justice Department that zealously, jealously guards its independence.
MADDOW: Do those norms and mores and to certain extent rules that were previously seen as being inviolate, which we can tell because they weren`t violated before this, should those things be codified and sort of harden in a way that we`ve never expected to have to do? I mean, this president is testing the bounds of what`s acceptable behavior and changing the rules by his behavior.
HOLDER: I think that might be one of the inevitable and perhaps positive things that comes out of this, you know, to put on paper certain things that in the past we just did by tradition, by good practice. We have seen that if you have a president who has made the determination that he is not going to be beholden to tradition and to, you know, tried and true practices that maybe we have to put on paper, right? The U.S. attorney candidates meet only with the attorney general and you put that in some form or fashion or rules within the Justice Department.
MADDOW: Those guidelines that are always --
MADDOW: -- well-understood, they may have to become hard fences.
HOLDER: Right, yes.
MADDOW: We`ll be right back with former Attorney General Eric Holder.
MADDOW: We`re back with former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Thank you again.
MADDOW: Are you ever going to run for office?
HOLDER: I don`t know. You know, I`m focused on this National Democratic Redistricting Committee. That`s the focus of my political activities at this point. I want to make sure that we repeal these attacks on our democracy, try to end political gerrymandering to the extent that we can.
You know, we`ll see. I`m not saying no at this point. But that`s not the focus of what I`m concentrating on now.
MADDOW: You`re not working on the redistricting project because it`s part of a larger project in terms of you getting back into political life and electorally?
HOLDER: No. No. I think and I`m not being hyperbolic here. I think our democracy is under attack. If you look at gerrymandering in the way in which we have a system where politicians are picking their voters as opposed to citizens picking their representatives. If you look at the way in which these voter suppression laws have been passed, we`re coming to be a country that is inconsistent with our founding ideals in the notion of one man one vote is really under attack. And so, I`m bound and determined to do all that I can to reverse that which has happened, especially over the last decade.
MADDOW: I think you and President Obama surprised a lot of people in early January when you announced that you were going to be working on this project together on redistricting, in part because redistricting and gerrymandering is an old political problem. It`s not novel and each party has used it to their own advantage in different ways and different times, and they`ve been -- people have sort of been better or worse at it in different parts of the country, and in different eras.
Are you working and President Obama working on this because you want Democrats to compete better at this time, at the old project of redistricting and gerrymandering? Or are you trying to illuminate it in general, in a good government kind of way?
HOLDER: Yes. I mean, I`d say a couple of things. First, Princeton did a study and said that what the Republicans did in 2011 when they do the lines was the worst partisan gerrymandering over the last 50 years. What we are engaged in, and this sounds kind of inconsistent, is a partisan attempt at good government.
All I want to have done in 2021 after the census is that the lines be drawn in a fair way and make this a battle between Republican ideas, Democratic ideas, liberal ideas, progressive ideas, and conservative ideas. If that is the case, if that`s the contests that we have, I think Democrats will do just fine.
But what I do not want to have happened is for this to be a successful effort and then have Democrats in 2021 do what Republicans did in 2011. That is not what this project is all about.
MADDOW: So, you feel like Republicans kind of ran the table on this during the Obama administration when they did their red map project in 2010, that sets them up in a way that was --
MADDOW: -- tilted the playing field. What you want is to tilt it back and then fix the system?
HOLDER: Yes, tilt it back but get it to just fair. Not to tilt it back and to favor Democrats. Just to get it to a place where the lines are drawn in such a way that people truly have a choice, have more competitive districts at the congressional level, to have representation at the state level that`s consistent with the wishes of the voters.
I mean, if you look at Wisconsin, for instance, it`s about a 50/50 state. Republicans control two thirds of the state assembly and when you control for everything else, it`s really just a function of the way in which the lines were drawn in 2011.
MADDOW: So, I know that in this project you`re working on ballot initiatives in some places where they`re going to try to do nonpartisan redistricting, they`re working on, obviously, public consciousness and awareness around these things, you`re working on litigation strategy. You`re also working on supporting individual Democratic candidates in state legislatures whose election would be key in terms of what control over redistricting would look like there.
That`s a comprehensive strategy that I feel like does get at all the different elements that make this sort of make or break this as a strategy. What I don`t get is why this effort is going to succeed. I feel like I`ve heard so much Democratic hot air on we got to work in the states, we got to work in redistricting. I feel like there`s been so many projects launched that were going to do this and then never really seemed to.
Why does yours going to have traction?
HOLDER: Well, I think ours is organized, first off. It is also the only thing that`s within the Democratic Party that has at its sole responsibility, this whole notion of redistricting. And then I think the other reality is we`re in the Trump era. And I think people have seen over the past decade what partisan gerrymandering on the Republican side has meant, where you have state legislatures that passed these crazy gun laws, these anti-choice laws, these voter suppression laws that are not necessarily supported by the people in those states.
We have seen a dysfunctional Congress where people come to Congress, especially on the Republican side, and because of gerrymandering, you`re in a safe seat and more worried about being challenged by a person on the right. You`re worried about being primaried opposed to general election.
And that means that you have dysfunction in Washington because people don`t necessarily have to talk to one another and compromise. In fact, that`s a bad thing for somebody who is in a gerrymandered district.
So I think that dissatisfaction with the dysfunction, the concern about what Trump, the Trump administration has been doing, and the way in which this thing is constructed within the party and the support, frankly, that we have gotten and having --
MADDOW: Raised more than $10 million the first half of the year on this.
HOLDER: Yes, and having the former president of the United States support this. I think this can be successful.
MADDOW: I have one last question for you. Will you stay right there?
MADDOW: We`ll be right back with Eric Holder, former attorney general.
MADDOW: We`re back with former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Again, General Holder, thank you for being here.
Last question for you.
MADDOW: You have known Robert Mueller for a long time. You knew James Comey for a very long time. You know a lot of people who have become prime movers and central characters in the Russia investigation going forward.
Do you have confidence that the Russia investigation will end conclusively with us knowing what happened and with some sort of justice being done?
HOLDER: Well, I have confidence that there will be a condition collusive investigation done by Bob Mueller.
The question ultimately becomes what does he do with the investigation that he completes? Does he bring indictments? Does he do a report like Ken Starr did and send it to the House? I`m not sure what happens there, and how much of what he does will be able to be shared.
He`ll be using a grand jury and there are rules that prevent the sharing of what happens in front of a grand jury to the general public, though you can get a court to say that that`s OK.
My hope would be that he will do a thorough investigation, decide on whatever avenue is appropriate. But at the end of the day share that information with the American people. The American people deserve to know what happened with regard to Russia, whether there was collusion, who was involved -- we I think deserve that.
MADDOW: Are you confident that, A, he has the resources he needs to get the job done? And, B, that he`s proceeding in a way that is actually digging up what there is to dig up? I asked that in part because it`s unclear to me whether or not, for example, the CIA under Mike Pompeo is being fulsome with the FBI investigators, whether the Justice Department under Attorney General Sessions is being as cooperative as they can be.
Do you -- do you think he has all the resources he needs, all the tools he needs?
HOLDER: Based on the hiring decisions that he`s made -- I know a great number of those people. Those are topnotch people. He`s got an A-team surrounding him.
And I also know Bob Mueller. He`s an ex-Marine. He`s a guy who focuses on, you know, what the aim of a project is and doesn`t get deterred, doesn`t -- he`s resistant to pressure.
I`m confident that they`re going to do a thorough, complete investigation and a fair investigation. People should understand that this is a guy who was a Republican appointee in, you know, the first Bush administration, an assistant attorney general. And so, this can`t be characterized as some kind of partisan witch hunt. He`s going to do a job and find -- make a determination based on the facts and the law.
MADDOW: Having been on the sharp end of the congressional investigations during your time as A.G., do you also have faith in the congressional investigations that are happening now on Russia?
HOLDER: I`ve got to tell you that my faith in the congressional investigations is waning. I think I had some degree of hope about what they were doing, especially on the Senate side. I mean, I still have some degree of hope that Warner and Burr might do a good I don`t know there.
But the House is just a mishmash. I mean, you`ve got, you know, Nunes who recused and not recused, you know, doing his own investigation.
I think to the extent Congress is going to do anything meaningful, it will probably have to come out of the Senate.
MADDOW: Former Attorney General Eric Holder, now back in private life, but working on this very public campaign with President Obama on Democratic redistricting, which sounds very technical, but you make a good case for its centrality.
HOLDER: We`re going to make it sexy.
MADDOW: Let the record show.
Mr. Attorney General --
HOLDER: All right.
MADDOW: Thank you very much for your time.
HOLDER: Good to be here.
MADDOW: That does it for us tonight. We`ll see you again tomorrow. Let the headlines say that when I asked him if he was running for anything, he didn`t say no.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".
Good evening, Lawrence.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END
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