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Can the FBI indict POTUS? Transcript 12/4/17 The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Bob Bauer

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: December 4, 2017 Guest: Bob Bauer

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. Much appreciated.

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

You know, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can go one of two ways when it comes to the news gods. Either the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is written off by the news gods as the holidays, right? And news slows down and important or controversial work gets put off until maybe after the New Year when people get around to not being in holiday mode anymore.

In years like that, everybody is allowed to have their own personal and family stress around the holidays. But as for news, not much happens.

Then there`s years like this year, which is basically the other way it can go, the opposite way. It can go where the news gods decide, oh, my god, it`s the holidays already, we have so much to cram into the universe before the end of the year. Double-time news now. That`s the kind of Thanksgiving to Christmas interregnum we are having this year.

And so, there`s any number of stories that broke today that might conceivably count as the biggest story in the country at any one time.

And a lot of the stories that broke today aren`t just big stories today. They`re going to have far-reaching ramifications from here on out. For example, the Supreme Court has ruled tonight that President Trump`s Muslim ban will be allowed to go forward, at least on a temporary basis, while the constitutionality of the ban is litigated.

That is somewhat of a surprise. It may just be a temporary victory for the president on this matter, but it is a ruling in his direction, and it is from the Supreme Court.

In years past, anytime there was a vague theoretical threat of a government shutdown anywhere on the horizon, the news media and the political class in Washington would spend months obsessing about the impending shutdown. As we got closer and closer to the date of the maybe shutdown, it would become something that rang so loudly in the news cycle you couldn`t cover anything else.

Not this year. This year, we really are looking at the government being out of money and shutting down this week, on Friday. But nobody`s quite gotten around to worrying about it yet.

Supposedly, they`re going to have a meeting about it at the White House on Thursday. That will leave them plenty of time to sort it all out.

We also got closer tonight to the biggest changes to the U.S. tax code in 30 years. The Senate passed the Republican tax bill in the dead of night on Friday. Now, Congress has to reconcile the two different versions of that bill that passed in the House and in the Senate. The House had a contentious but ultimately successful vote tonight to advance that process, which means that that gigantic tax bill which will be generational effects in this country, it`s expected to have a major effect on redistributing American wealth even further from the middle class to the rich, that bill tonight took one big step closer to the president`s desk. So, we`re going to have more on that ahead tonight.

The president today also took a triumphant trip to Utah, where he announced that he would be shrinking some national monuments and selling off federal land to the highest bidder. Whoo-hoo.

It was a strange -- I mean, I know this is their policy. It was a strange event. I mean, given the popularity of public lands, particularly in the West, you`d think it would be a hard thing to brag about and hold a triumphant photo-op about. We`re giving away public land. But that is what the Trump White House did today in Utah.

We`re also awaiting the news, the big decision that will likely be announced tomorrow as to whether or not Russia is going to get banned from the Olympics next year. The International Olympic Committee is going to announce its big decision on whether the Russia doping scandal is so bad it should keep the Russian flag and the Russian national anthem out of the next Olympic games, which, of course, are starting in just a couple of months in South Korea, in a part of South Korea that`s not that far from North Korea. I`m just saying.

Also, the U.S. Senate race, which is going to take place one week from tomorrow in Alabama, today the president abandoned all pretense and explicitly endorsed the Republican candidate in that race who has been accused by multiple women of having either sexually harassed or sexually assaulted them when they were teenagers and when now candidate Roy Moore was a grown man in his 30s.

All those stories happened today. Any one of these stories might reasonably have been expected to start the world spinning backwards on its axis at any other time, right? In any other administration, at any other time in modern life. But in this administration, all this stuff is happening at once, and it`s all happening in the context of the most serious criminal and counterintelligence investigation that any U.S. president has ever faced.

And that investigation appears to be barreling toward this president now, sort of like that big round boulder that menaced Harrison Ford in "Indiana Jones."

Tonight, if you go to the Website where they post all the court filings from the special counsel`s office, the Robert Mueller investigation, at the Justice Department Website, you will find that that Website has crashed. It`s been down all day.

If you want to bookmark it anyway, it`s, for special counsel`s office. I`m assuming someday it will come back up.

We have a sense that the special counsel`s office Website may have been busier than usual over the last few days since Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn went to court on Friday and pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government while he was serving as national security adviser in the Trump White House. But I didn`t notice that the site itself had crashed today until after I was looking for another court filing there, because the special counsel`s office tonight filed this sort of -- I don`t know if it counts as dramatic. It was definitely intriguing and slightly strange, a new filing that they just posted concerning Trump`s campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Now, you`ll remember Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates, they were indicted on multiple felony counts, mostly related to alleged illegal lobbying and money laundering back in October. On the same day that Manafort and Gates were charged, the special counsel`s office also unsealed when had been a previously secret plea agreement they`d arrived at with a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser named George Papadopoulos.

Today, obtained George Papadopoulos` booking photo from the night that he was first arrested this summer after flying back to the U.S. from a trip abroad. Papadopoulos was arrested at Dulles Airport in D.C. before he went through Customs. He was taken into custody by the FBI. His lawyers in Chicago were notified that their client had been picked up. By 1:45 a.m. the next day, they were booking him into a detention center in Alexandria, Virginia. And then by the next morning, Mueller`s prosecutors were telling a federal court that George Papadopoulos had indicated he is willing to cooperate with the government in its ongoing investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

So, that arrest, that booking photo which we`re getting a first look at, that all happened in July. We didn`t find out about any of that until October. And since the day that plea agreement was unsealed about Papadopoulos in October, we`ve heard nothing. There`s been nothing leaked, nothing, about what Papadopoulos was able to hand over. What information he was able to give it Mueller`s investigators.

He was cooperating with them for months while nobody knew it. And there remains the possibility that he went undercover for the Mueller investigation during those several months. Although George Papadopoulos has pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his communications with people linked to the Russian government, Papadopoulos has not yet been sentenced for that crime. Presumably, the court will consider whatever he was able to provide in terms of cooperation and information when they make their sentencing decision.

That said, Manafort and Gates are not in the same boat as him. Manafort and Gates have not pled guilty. They`re both fighting the charges. And most of the court filings we`ve seen related to them since their indictments have been about negotiating the terms of their release. They`re not being held in jail, but the government and their defense lawyers have been negotiating about how these guys will be held until their trial.

Both of them have been mostly confined to their homes. Both have been wearing GPS tracking ankle bracelets. Both of them are required to check in regularly with a court to check in about their whereabouts.

But what happened today is part of a previous agreement that had been agreed to as of last week between Manafort`s lawyers and the prosecutors in Mueller`s office, that agreement appears to now be falling apart for a very intriguing reason. Now, we thought as of the end of last week that Paul Manafort was going to have some of the terms of his confinement relaxed. We thought based on the discussions between the two sides that Manafort, for example, would be allowed to lose the ankle bracelet, he`d be allowed to travel in a limited way within the United States, he wouldn`t have to just stay home all the time anymore.

Part of that agreement was that Manafort had pledged over $10 million in real estate in Florida and New York and Virginia in a way that essentially meant that all those properties would be handed over to the government if Manafort decided to make a run for it and not turn up to court. So, that was the deal we thought that Mueller`s office and Manafort had arranged as of Thursday last week. That`s the deal it looked like they had arranged as of Thursday last week.

But then, Thursday night, the government, Mueller`s office, somehow learned new information about how Paul Manafort was whiling away the hours while effectively on house arrest.

This is what Mueller`s office filed with the court tonight. Quote: "Newly discovered facts cast doubt on Manafort`s willingness to comply with this court`s orders. Quote: The government learned late last week that as of November 30th, 2017, which is Thursday of last week, Manafort and a colleague were ghost-writing an editorial in English regarding his political work for Ukraine. Manafort worked on the draft with a long-time Russian colleague who`s currently based in Russia and assessed to have ties to the Russian intelligence service.

And then because the best things in court filings are always in the footnotes, I jumped down to footnote three, quote, on the evening of November 30th, so Thursday night, the government alerted defense counsel to the defendant`s efforts and were assured that steps would be taken to make sure the op-ed was no longer going to be published.

What? There are a few things that are sort of amazing about this. I mean, number one and perhaps most importantly, the one thing the White House has been super excited about when it comes to the president`s campaign chairman being charged with multiple felonies, the one thing the White House has been excited about when it comes to the Paul Manafort indictment is the charges against him technically aren`t specifically about Russia, right? The charges against Manafort are about him illegally lobbying and money laundering and a bunch of other stuff but it`s not about like Russian intelligence.

That`s been the one saving grace for the White House about Trump`s campaign chairman being indicted.

So, the fact he`s been spending his post-indictment time on bail with an ankle bracelet on working with a Russian based in Russia who has ties to Russian intelligence, that is not awesome for the White House. So, that`s incredible.

Also, there`s the argument from Mueller`s office as to what is technically wrong with Manafort doing this. In the case of Manafort and Gates, the court has issued a gag order. The court has been very explicit with both the prosecution and the defense, telling them they`re not allowed to make any public statements, any public representations about this case. All of their argumentation on the matter of this case against Manafort and this case against Gates, all of the argumentation must happen in the courtroom and in the courtroom only.

That gag order happened after Manafort`s lawyer walked out of court the morning of the indictment and made a big rambling statement to reporters about how innocent his client was, after that gag order.

If there`s a gag order in your case, you can`t talk to reporters about your case. You also cannot publish op-ed columns about your case.

But this is from the filing tonight. Quote: Even if the ghost-written op- ed were entirely accurate, fair and balanced, it would be a violation of this court`s November 8th gag order if it had been published. The editorial clearly was undertaken to influence the public`s opinion of defendant Manafort, or else there would be no reason to seek its publication.

And even though Mueller`s office notes that they very charitably did not publish the draft of Manafort`s op-ed that he was working on under an assumed name that they somehow obtained, they also throw a little lightning bolt in there suggesting it would be bad enough if this op-ed were fair and balanced but in this case, quote, it compounds the problem that the proposed piece is not a dispassionate recitation of the facts.

So, it`s amazing that the Trump campaign chairman is working with a Russian intelligence source right now while he`s out on bail. Really?

You don`t know like, I don`t know, a Frenchman you could work -- I don`t know. It`s -- that`s amazing. It`s fascinating that Manafort was allegedly trying to violate the gag order in his case by ghost-writing this thing, like no one would ever know it was him. But thirdly, lastly, how did the government find this out?

They were negotiating with him to relax the conditions of his release, the conditions of his confinement as of Thursday. By Thursday they were like wait a minute, what`s this op-ed? They say in this filing that as soon as they found out on Thursday that Manafort was doing this, they contacted Manafort`s lawyers that night and said do not allow that to be published.

Here`s my question. How`d they find out that Manafort was working on this? Particularly if he was doing it under an assumed name?

Remember, unlike George Papadopoulos, Manafort doesn`t appear to be cooperating with the Mueller investigation. He has pled not guilty. There`s nothing in the court filings that suggests he`s cooperating with Mueller`s investigators. He`s out on bond while he fights in case.

We contacted a few former prosecutors tonight to ask if it might be possible that the government could still be surveilling Paul Manafort while he`s out on bond with the ankle bracelet on and everything. We don`t know at all if that`s how they learned of Manafort`s ghost-writing activities. Former prosecutors tell us that it would be an unusual circumstance if the government still had Paul Manafort on surveillance while he`s out on bond, but there`s no reason to think it would be illegal.

I`ll also say that there`s also a possibility that the government was surveilling Paul Manafort`s Russian friend with the ties to Russian intelligence and so, maybe this information ended up in the government`s lap because of surveillance on this Russian source in Russia tied to Russian intelligence and they figured out that Paul Manafort was the one who was working with him. Don`t know. But that`s happening while the dude is out on bail.

So, the bail arrangements for the president`s campaign chairman appear to be in jeopardy tonight. There does not appear to be any indication that this is going to result in them, you know, yanking him out of his house and putting him in jail until he`s on trial. But I do think the prosecutors seem furious about this development, and, boy, do I want to know how they learned about it.

Since national security adviser Mike Flynn`s guilty plea was announced on Friday, the behavior of the president`s lawyers has swung from -- swung from hard to believe to hard to handle. Starting with hard to believe, the president issued a statement on Twitter this weekend that stated bluntly that he`d known that Mike Flynn had lied to the FBI before he fired him. That led to a lot of discussion as to whether or not the president had just accidentally confessed to obstructing justice when it came to the crime of Mike Flynn lying to the FBI.

That bumbled into a sort of laugh out loud covering your tracks moment when the president`s personal lawyer on the Russia scandal John Dowd said, no, no, no, no, that wasn`t the president saying that, that was me dressed up like him using his thumbs on his phone but that was me. It wasn`t him.

We`re going to get some expert advice a little later on tonight as to whether or not that really might have been a confession to obstruction of justice from the president, and whether it matters if we believe his lawyer or not that it was him and not the president saying that.

But on obstruction of justice, today may end up going down as a landmark day in this scandal, because today is the day of the president`s lawyers effectively stopped arguing against the allegation that the president obstructed justice and instead they pivoted today and started making a public case that it`s OK if the president obstructed justice because he`s the president and he can do that. As president, he`s immune from any accountability for that particular crime.

The president`s lawyer John Dowd telling today, quote: The president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer. That was published by "Axios" this morning.

And then this evening, Jeffrey Toobin at "The New Yorker" published this concerning his discussions with another one of Trump`s lawyers, Jay Sekulow. Quote: In several conversations with me, Sekulow emphasized that collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, even if it did take place, would not be illegal. Quote: For something to be a crime there has to be a statute you claim is being violated, Sekulow told me. There is not a statute that refers to criminal collusion. There is no crime of collusion.

There`s a lot going on right now in the news. There`s a lot going on right now just in the Mueller investigation and in the Russia scandal to the point where the Mueller investigation Website has crashed.

But with everything else that`s going on, today will always be the day that the lawyers for the president of the United States abandoned their argument that the president didn`t obstruct justice and instead started to argue that it`s OK that the president obstructed justice. It will also always be the day at that time lawyers for the president of the United States abandoned the argument that the president and his campaign didn`t collude with Russia and instead started making the overt argument out loud on the record that it doesn`t matter if the president`s campaign colluded with Russia because it`s OK if they did. Collusion`s awesome. Who says it`s a crime? Can`t we all just get along, with our foreign masters?

So, clearly, something has changed in terms of the way that the White House is thinking about the president`s liability in this scandal. They have now done a 180 in terms of both their defense of the president on collusion and on obstruction of justice. And it`s possible that that weird U-turn just means the president needs fresh lawyers. But they are pursuing a fresh take on this scandal.

And there remain two big live problems for the administration that they haven`t come up with answers for yet, and I`ll leave you with this. The first of the two big live problems they`ve got, which they`ve got no explanation for, the first one is the problem of the vice president. The White House continues to maintain that Vice President Mike Pence made false statements repeated false statements assuring the American public that Flynn hadn`t talked about sanctions with Russia.

They`ve continued to assure us that the only reason Mike Pence made those false statements was because he didn`t know. Mike Flynn had lied to him about that. How could he have known?

Well, now, based on the court filings surrounding Mike Flynn`s guilty plea, we know that the government has evidence that that story about Mike Pence is untenable. It wasn`t just Mike Flynn who knew that he was discussing sanctions with Russia. It was multiple members of the Trump transition team. The Trump transition team was run by Mike Pence.

So, the story can no longer be that Flynn, bad apple, rogue actor, lied to the vice president and that`s why the vice president told those unwitting lies to the American public. That is over. That can no longer be their rational contention.

The story now has to be that not just Mike Flynn but the entire transition team that Mike Pence was overseeing all conspired together to lie to Mike Pence, and then agreed to keep the lie going for weeks and weeks as the vice president kept unwittingly repeating the lie to the American public. It`s either that or the vice president was lying on purpose, telling the American people something that he also knew was not true.

The old story is now dead. The vice president needs a new explanation for his behavior. That is one thing that the White House hasn`t got around to fixing yet.

The other problem the White House has now that they have no explanation for is why Mike Flynn lied to the FBI at all about what he had said to Russia. And that is going to be a mystery that they either solve right away or that takes them right to the very, very, very end.

More ahead. Stay with us.


MADDOW: "The New York Times" is reporting tonight that the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, has just sent a message to the FBI`s 35,000 agents and support staff. It`s a memo defending them and apparently trying to boost their morale after the president this weekend described the FBI`s reputation as, quote, in tatters. Worst in history.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has reportedly written to his staff to tell them he was, quote, inspired by example after example of professionalism and dedication to justice demonstrated around the bureau. It is truly an honor to represent you.

With the president`s new torrent of public statements over the last few days attacking the Justice Department and attacking the FBI, it is possible the president is not just trying to court public opinion on this matter. It is possible and I think it`s reasonable for the country to prepare for the possibility that the president is really flexing his muscles in the direction of the special counsel investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. It`s possible that the president is laying the sort of public relations groundwork for going beyond just criticizing the Russia investigation to instead threatening it -- threatening the succession of firings at the Justice Department and the FBI that would make it possible for the president to end this investigation.

Here`s my question: Is there a game plan for how to put up a fight against that if that is what he is gearing up to do? And this possibility seems to be coming up again. It seems to be at least coming up in discussion again, at the same time that the president`s lawyers are now making brand new legal arguments that it would be OK for the president and his campaign to have colluded with Russia and it would be OK for the president himself to have obstructed justice.

One lawyer for the president telling "The New Yorker`s" Jeffrey Toobin tonight that even if there had been collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, that`s not illegal, so it`s OK. Another lawyer for the president, John Dowd, who represents the president on Russia matters making a much more sweeping case to today, telling them the president is the chief law enforcement officer in the country and, therefore, by definition he cannot obstruct justice.

There are a lot of people who have a contrary opinion on that, obviously. The question is whether or not this is some sort of signal that this is where the president is going with his defense?

Joining us now is Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Barack Obama.

Mr. Bauer, it`s a real pleasure to have you here tonight. Thank you for your time.


MADDOW: Let me ask you about the last matter first. These claims from the president`s attorneys today that, A, collusion isn`t a crime and, B, the president cannot obstruct justice because he`s the president. Are either of those reasonable claims to your mind?

BAUER: Well, the first, collusion is not a crime, is not a reasonable claim. The second, that the president is immune from prosecution, I think is wrong but some have argued it and it`s not settled.

But certainly the first is a fantasy. There certainly is a statute that prohibits an American political campaign from essentially establishing a political alliance with a foreign government to win a presidential election, and the suggestion that that`s not a crime I think is simply flatly wrong. In the second case I understand where they`re going. I think in the end, they`re going to be entirely unsuccessful in persuading the public or the courts that a president is above the law.

MADDOW: When -- presidents have faced scandal and investigation in the past, have any presidents been able to successfully claim that obstruction of justice per se is a category of crime that doesn`t apply to the commander-in-chief?

BAUER: No, none that I can recall. And in fact, it`s instructive that at a particular moment in the Watergate investigation when President Nixon was trying to assure the public that he was going to see to the bottom of it, that he was going to have the matter fully investigated and crimes uncovered appropriately prosecuted, he made a point of saying that he understood that it was a nice of laws, not of men and women, and that the law would have to prevail.

He took a position, Richard Nixon did, nonetheless, very different from the one we`re hearing from the president through his lawyers right now.

MADDOW: In terms of the president`s own statements over the last few days, and I don`t mean this in a snarky way, but I do just as a way of my approach to the news, I try to discount the president`s literal comments more than I would with previous presidents because I think a lot of what he says is designed to have an effect on the news media rather than to reflect any sort of -- rather than to predict his own behavior.

So, with that caveat in terms of how I approach this, I also have some concerns reading the president`s escalating criticism of the FBI and the Justice Department that he may be laying some sort of public relations groundwork to try to end the Mueller investigation. What do you think about his options for doing that and whether people who don`t want that to happen should be preparing for that eventuality?

BAUER: I`m confident that those who don`t want it to happen are preparing for that eventuality. There have been comments off the Hill and certainly in the wider community that this would be a red line he could not cross.

I also agree with you that that is a strategic option it was reasonable to assume for some time that the president and his lawyers were contemplating. He`s made various claims about the Mueller investigation. After all, he said the entire subject matter of the Mueller investigation, the Russia investigation, was a hoax. He suggested that the Mueller team is politicized in some way. He`s now talking about what he says is the worst FBI in history.

So, I think yes, the president and his allies are definitely keeping that option open. Now, bear in mind, they may still hope they don`t have to go in that direction, and we`ve heard from some of his lawyers, they think the investigation may be completed by the end of the year, it will wrap up without damage to the president. But if they start to falter in that conviction, I think this is definitely an option that they would consider.

MADDOW: On that point, and I don`t want to get too far into hypotheticals, but it has been suggested that if the president did find a way to fire Robert Mueller himself, that the investigation might be able to continue even without him in place, that there`s enough work done in the special counsel`s office already that essentially the FBI as an organization could absorb the work of the special counsel`s office and proceed with these matters. Do you think that`s fair?

BAUER: He certainly could begin to fire each and every single senior official in the department who remained to oversee the investigation. So let`s assume for example he decides to get rid of the special counsel, he finds some way he`s confident he can do that, and then the question is, who`s overseeing the investigation?

And he could then proceed to fire each and every professional in that department who`s prepared to step forward and honestly with integrity oversee the investigation. Now, that would provoke an absolute extraordinary set of circumstances in American legal and political history, at which point I think we`d have to assume that Congress would intervene.

There will come a point where he simply cannot fire enough professionals to bring an end to this and to keep the Congress from intervening.

MADDOW: Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to president Obama. Mr. Bauer, thank you for being here tonight.

BAUER: Certainly. It`s a pleasure. Thank you.

MADDOW: All right. We got much more to come. Busy news night today. Stay with us.


MADDOW: Morristown, New Jersey. It was cloudy. But Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen`s constituents had an urgent holiday greeting for him nevertheless. And they didn`t mind delivering it to him from the cold sidewalk outside his office.


CROWD (singing): If this evil tax bill taxes, raising tax paid by the masses, most of us will just get poorer, and our future more unsure --


MADDOW: It is easier in New Jersey to rhyme unsure and poorer than it is in some other states but you`ve got to get local in your pronunciation and in your caroling plans.

Congressman Frelinghuysen`s constituents with their festive anti-tax bill tunes. Also, their repeal and replace Rodney signs, promising to turf him out of Congress if he votes yes ultimately on the Republican tax bill that passed the Senate late Friday night.

Protesters gathered outside Congressman Leonard Lance`s office in Westfield, New Jersey, as well. His constituents making an unflattering comparison between him and King George, the guy who taxed the tea.

And it wasn`t just New Jersey. I think we`ve got some footage from Cleveland, Ohio. Senator Rob Portman`s constituents paying his staffers a visit, along with their less than subtle leaflets explaining what they thought about Senator Portman`s yes vote.

Senator John McCain`s constituents camped outside his Arizona office for 43 hours straight to protest the tax bill. After the Senate passed the bill in the dead of night with McCain`s vote, they chanted "Shame on McCain" and shame on his Arizona colleague Jeff Flake as well.

There were also protests on the ground in Denton, Texas, and in White Plains, New York. And in -- a lot of people in White Plains. High point, North Carolina, had protests.

This was Chicago tonight, hundreds of people out on the streets in Chicago protesting the tax bill tonight. You can see it`s windy.

In Berks County, Pennsylvania, this weekend which went to Trump in 2016 by ten points, Berks County, Pennsylvania, 1,600 people gave up their Sunday night to rally against the tax bill.

This thing does still have a ways to go before it hits the president`s desk. The house and the Senate have to reconcile their two competing versions of the bill. That`s not just a procedural thing. It does mean that to a certain exterminate the policy and procedural fights over what exactly is in this bill, those fights aren`t yet over.

So, right now, in the meantime the people who are against the substance of this bill, this bill that`s due to add a trillion and a half dollars to the deficit, people who don`t want to see a gigantic tax bill that makes people in the lower end of the economic spectrum pay more in taxes. So, the wealthy and corporations can pay less. People who are opposed to this bill are applying pressure everywhere and anywhere they can, trying to convince their representatives to stop this thing.

It`s not over. Prepare for the volume to continue to go up on this.


MADDOW: No one was sure what would happen next after the Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn pled guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government during the transition. This sort of thing is totally unprecedented. No idea what`s going to happen next, no idea how the White House would react.

But even given the fact that I think nobody could have tried to predict anything, I can guarantee you that nobody expected for sure that the way the White House would react would be to present two competing versions of the simple central story of whether or not the president knew that Flynn did what he just pled guilty to. Did the president know that Flynn lied to the FBI?

The White House has two competing contradictory stories about that that they`ve put out since Friday. And so far, we can`t tell which of them is correct, if either of them is.

But the president`s personal lawyer John Dowd tells the "Washington Post" that yes, Trump knew. The president knew back in late January before he fired him that Mike Flynn had lied to the FBI. Dowd says the president probably knew that because his White House counsel Don McGahn had told him that. That`s one version.

Then there`s the competing version, which appears to also be from the White House. A person cited by the "Washington Post" as being "familiar with Don McGahn`s account" says White House counsel Don McGahn didn`t tell the president about Flynn lying to the FBI and Don McGahn himself didn`t know that was the case.

I expect conflicting stories, competing stories. I don`t expect them to both come from the White House. But we don`t know which is true, if either of them is. For now, we can sort of put that unsortable mess into a gray box off to the side.

What`s clear is this: The president saying in typed and correctly spelled words that he fired Mike Flynn because he`d lied not just to Vice President Mike Pence but to the FBI. The president has always said he fired Mike Flynn because he lied to the vice president. He had wronged the vice president.

Well, this weekend, the president also said that in addition to that, he fired Flynn because Flynn lied to the FBI.

So, the words themselves in this tweet from the president would seem to say quite literally that the president knew Flynn lied to the FBI before and when he fired him. The president`s lawyers appear to be squabbling and jockeying around this point in a way that really can`t be sorted out at the moment. But we do have this black-and-white stadium from the president and we have this one root question. We know Flynn lied to the FBI because he admitted that in court last week.

Does it matter when the president knew that was true and how he found out? Is the president himself on the hook if he knew at one time versus another?

Joining us now is Carol Leonnig. She`s a reporter for the "Washington Post" who`s been covering this story intensively.

Ms. Leonnig, it`s very nice to have you here tonight. Thank you for being here.


MADDOW: I am reading this as I said as conflicting accounts from various people associated with this investigation as to what the president knew, who told him, and when he knew it.

Is that how you see, it that there are a few different conflicting stories as to how much the president was in the loop here?

LEONNIG: Yes. And actually, I think there are sort of three gradations of accounts, not all of them coming from the White House. One from the Justice Department, the acting -- at that point the Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, the White House counsel, Don McGahn, and then the president`s personal lawyer John Dowd.

There are small gradations of difference between all three, and it`s confusing but it ultimately all goes to whether or not the president was aware that his national security adviser was in criminal trouble. Was he a person who had given false misleading information to the FBI?

And Sally Yates has testified that she didn`t describe this problem that Mr. Flynn might have as a result of his interview with the FBI agents. Mr. McGahn according to a person familiar with his account has said he surely thought that the account that Flynn had given the FBI was not complete and inaccurate based on what the acting attorney general told him. And Mr. Dowd has said that the president knew from his lawyer Mr. McGahn that it was likely that Mr. Flynn had given an inaccurate account. Sorry. Inaccurate account.

MADDOW: An inaccurate account. Got it.

So, it depends on the credibility of each of these people who are telling each of these stories, I suppose. And the credibility, our assessment of their credibility can be informed by how much they might be on the hook or in trouble if they were not telling the truth about these matters.

From your understanding about how this is -- how this factors into the overall investigation, is it your sense that we`ll ever know for real that there will be corroboration, there will be statements under oath that this is something about which there is evidence that Mueller`s prosecutors will be looking at? Is this potentially a criminal matter that we may see turn up in court filings?

LEONNIG: Well, it`s surely true based on our interviews with people who have gone through the Mueller probe, meaning literally the interview process in his office and been questioned by his prosecutors and FBI agents recently. It`s surely true that people have been asked questions that go to the heart of this issue, when the president fired FBI Director Jim Comey who was then leading the investigation, in charge of it essentially, was he doing that motivated by a desire to kill this investigation that had wrapped up Flynn and possibly was looking deeper into Trump`s actual campaign and connections with Russia? Was that his motive to obstruct a probe? So, it`s surely true that Mueller is looking at that.

However, this tweet storm, this event with the president tweeting something that was drafted by his lawyer John Dowd, is not the beginning and the end of this investigation. It is not the single piece of information upon which an obstruction charge could hinge. It`s just too infinitesimally unimportant ultimately.

There have to be other pieces of evidence if someone was going to bring an obstruction charge. And just to remind everybody, Don McGahn, the person at the center in a way of this story, the person who`s receiving information from the attorney general, warning, warning, Michael Flynn has provided an account that is not correct to the vice president, that person was just interviewed by Bob Mueller`s team on Thursday of last week and again this week, is supposed to be interviewed again for another day.

So, he has been surely asked a lot of these same questions. That`s more important than what the president tweeted on Saturday.

MADDOW: And, Carol, to that last point in terms of McGahn being -- who was sort of in the middle of his interview it sounds like with Mueller`s investigators when starting on Thursday, they broke on Friday for when the Flynn investigation -- sorry, when the Flynn plea agreement was announced and they`ve maybe picked up that interview already this week or will later on this week. Is it a crime for somebody to tell a lie to Mueller`s investigators in one of these interview settings?

LEONNIG: It absolutely is something that could be prosecuted and charged. If you are lying, if you give inconsistent statements -- I mean, a prosecutor has to make a decision about how important this lie is and what you`re trying to cover up and whether or not you are intending to conceal. But it`s certainly something that`s prosecutable.

MADDOW: And that threat has a way of focusing the mind I`m sure. As general -- yes, go ahead.

LEONNIG: There are two people who have been charged with it already, and we`re not many months down the road.

MADDOW: Exactly. Carol Leonnig, a reporter for the "Washington Post" -- thank you for your clarity and your time. Nice to see you.

LEONNIG: You too, Rachel. Thanks, Rachel.

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


MADDOW: I played piano badly. I played violin very badly. I then started playing all of the other instruments in the orchestra trying to find one I could play. I tried the stand-up -- the bass. The cello. The viola. I did figure out the viola clef, but I was terrible.

The only thing I was good at was the timpani. And I think the reason I was good at the timpani is because I really enjoyed hitting things with sticks. I had no idea that in my future life -- we wouldn`t get timpani but I would get to do this every six months.

That`s coming up next.


MADDOW: It`s only ten seconds. Just watch. Trust me. Just watch. Ten seconds.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Smoking sucks the air right out of your lungs. And you`re going to need them for the rest of your life. Don`t smoke. It kills.


MADDOW: Takes you back, doesn`t it? Always classy.

Here at THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW, our homage to "The More You Know" is you know more now -- stories that don`t make sense at first but then down the road -- hey. Come back. Do it again. Do it the other way. Do it backwards. Good. Run back that way. There you go.

Thank you.

Sorry. Hey look. Now you know how the story ended.

Thank you, Michaela. Sorry I made you do it twice.

Tonight`s edition begins in August. ABC News in August released a little intriguing morsel of news we didn`t know what to make of at that time. Peter Strzok, a top investigator on Robert Mueller`s team at the special counsel`s office, had left the team under mysterious circumstances.

Now, Peter Strzok was a big deal. He`d been chief of the FBI`s counterespionage section. And when Mueller was appointed special counsel, he recruited Strzok out of the counterespionage section to help lead the special counsel`s probe into Russian meddling in the election.

So, ABC`s big scoop in August was that just weeks after Mueller had recruited him to the special counsel`s office, Strzok was mysteriously gone. And he wasn`t just gone back to counterespionage. He was gone to human resources.

And no disrespect to our brilliant friends in HR who I`m not disrespecting by saying this, but I don`t think that was his first choice.

So what happened? Why did Peter Strzok leave the Mueller investigation and get busted down to HR instead?

Well, this weekend we got our answer. "The New York Times" reporting that Mueller had removed Strzok from his team, quote, after the Justice department`s inspector general started examining whether he had sent text messages that expressed anti-Trump political views during the campaign, text messages in which Strzok and a colleague reacted to news events like presidential debates in ways that could appear critical of Mr. Trump.

Then, "The Washington Post" filled in the blanks on the aforementioned colleague. Turned out to be another FBI lawyer who was working for a deputy director, Andrew McCabe. A lawyer who had also been part of Mueller`s investigation. The two were, quote, involved in a romantic relationship.

Strzok was removed from Mueller`s team immediately upon discovery of the texts. His female colleague had already left Mueller`s team two weeks earlier. And so, we`ve got lots of intrigue around this subject but now we also have an answer to what happened back in August.

Thank you, Michaela.

That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.


Good evening, Lawrence.




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