Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: December 22, 2017 Guest: Joyce Vance
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Happy Friday. Thanks for joining us tonight. You know, it`s not every cable news show that likes to be live on the Friday night before Christmas weekend. But I figure times like this in our country, no taking any chances, right? Anything could happen. So, it`s good to be here. Thanks for being here with us.
In December 2015, so two years ago, "The Wall Street Journal" published this editorial, kind of a scorching editorial about Donald Trump and his business history with the mafia. Now, Trump by then was running for president. Primaries hadn`t started yet on the Republican side, but here was the conservative editorial page of the "Wall Street Journal" writing about, as you see the headline there: Trump and the Goodfellas.
Quote: Donald Trump says he`ll succeed as president because he has succeeded in business. So, it`s appropriate to scour his business record. One area in particular that deserves scrutiny is his business relationship with companies controlled by the mafia.
Then it goes into some of the details. In 1988, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, boss of the Genovese crime family, was among those convicted in a scheme to control and profit from the concrete contracts for numerous buildings in Manhattan, including Trump Plaza.
We asked Trump about these ties on his recent visit to "The Journal". Since the mafia is in the business of stealing, we figured that Mr. Trump would be angry that he had to build essentially a mob tax into the cost of his projects, but he seemed to be a satisfied customer. Atlantic City brought more transactions with wise guys. Trump`s casino license was delayed as he was developing the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in part because of ties to a reputed associate of the Scarfo crime family.
"The Journal" editorial board then says, they asked him about the contractors that he had worked for him in South Jersey. Trump`s answer was, quote, some of them may have been mob-oriented, I don`t know.
"The Journal" concludes the editorial, quote: his see-no-evil, he-had-no- choice explanation worked for him as a businessman. The question is whether this is adequate for someone who wants to be president.
So, conservative "Wall Street Journal" editorial page, that wasn`t an op- ed. That was the editorial board, unsigned editorial, two years ago, December 2015, raising some serious and some specific questions about Trump and the mafia, December 2015. They just did that one. They didn`t go back to that topic.
But now, in a new report for "Esquire Magazine", Sam Tanenhaus reports that "The Wall Street Journal" actually had a follow-up ready to go. They had a second hit on Trump and the mafia to follow that barn-burner of a first one, but apparently they killed it. This new report from San Tanenhaus describes a staff exodus from the editorial pages of the "Wall Street Journal," quote, and the reason, according to several defectors, was the journal`s skidding reversal once the paper`s owner, Rupert Murdoch, realized that Trump could win the election.
Several sources pointed to editorials by one writer who wrote a strong attack on mob dealings and had a second ready to go, but as Trump got closer to clinching the nomination, "The Journal" kept delaying publication, saying that the second piece on Trump and the mafia, quote, needed work. It never ran.
So, that top-down decision at the "Wall Street Journal" to hold fire on Trump, even on substantive concerns about Trump and his ties to organized crime, that appears to have led to a large -- at least reportedly according to "Esquire" magazine this week, that led to a large number of departures, staff departures from the conservative editorial page of that newspaper.
Now, "The Wall Street Journal" is an august and very well-respected national caliber paper. Its editorial page has always been conservative. But its editorial page has recently not just been conservative, it has jumped right into the deepest deep end of the most radical even desperate defenses of Trump. The editorial page of the "Wall Street Journal" has recently called on Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia, called on him to resign. Since that staff exodus from that paper of conservative writers who were troubled about the pro-Trump turn at that paper being directed from the paper`s ownership, the paper has even published calls for President Trump to issue blanket, preemptive pardons for everybody implicated in the Russia scandal.
And, of course, there`s a dividing line between the editorial page of a newspaper and the news division of a newspaper, but it`s hard not to notice that hard news and investigative journalists and particularly national security specialist journalists at the "Wall Street Journal" have also been flying the coop in unusual numbers recently at "The Wall Street Journal".
Just this week, "The Wall Street Journal" lost this guy, you recognize him, from national reporting that has been of intense interest, particularly on the Russia scandal. This is Shane Harris, national security reporter at "The Wall Street Journal". He`s the one who broke that bombshell story about Peter Smith, the Republican activist who actually contacted Russian hackers during the campaign to try to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from the hackers to help the Trump campaign.
You`ll also remember that Peter Smith mysteriously committed suicide not long after talking to Shane Harris for that story.
"The Wall Street Journal" just lost Shane Harris. "The Journal" this week also lost Paul Sonne who`s the one who broke that remarkable story that we cover just weeks ago about Kaspersky software. That Paul Sonne story is how we learned that before Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn took money from Kaspersky, his own agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, had published multiple reports and even a Pentagon-wide warning saying that Kaspersky was a front for Russian intelligence. That`s how we found out that Mike Flynn knowingly took money from a company that he himself knew was a front from Russian intelligence.
Well, now, both Paul Sonne and Shane Harris are leaving "The Wall Street Journal" as of this week. "The Journal" has also shed Devlin Barrett, who has been a scoop machine on a lot of stories over the years but in particular on this Trump-Russia scandal. "The Wall Street Journal" also lost Adam Entous, who`s the reporter who ended up breaking that big story during the transition, Erik Prince had held a secret back channel meeting in the Seychelles with a guy who had been sent from Vladimir Putin.
So, a big chunk of their editorial staff we now know fled that paper in the wake of its turn towards supporting Trump, and it may or may not be related but we are also watching them lose a ton of reporting firepower from the news side. Honestly, now that we know that they spiked a second follow-up editorial piece on Trump and his mafia ties after that really good first one, I`m sort of desperate to know what was in that piece that they spiked, that they never ran.
Most mafia-related stories about Trump Organization and Donald Trump feature some amount of involvement from this man. This was Felix Sater`s Trump organization business card. You see him listed there, senior adviser to Donald Trump. In the year 2000, Felix Sater was one of a dozen people arrested in a high profile mafia stock scam. This is a really big deal at the time.
It got a lot of attention at the time because it was a gigantic swindle, about a $40 million scam. It was a scam that involved a lot of people. The FBI, federal prosecutors made a lot of arrests in this scam and it ended up involving like every freaking corner of the mafia universe. The indictment in that stock scam where Felix Sater got indicted, it included people from the Gambino crime family and the Gravano crime family and the Genovese crime family, and the Colombo crime family.
In addition to all those different Italian mafia figures, it also involved as "The New York Post" put it at the time, it involved the Borscht boys. So, not just the Italian mafia, but the Russian mafia as well.
So, when Felix Sater was arrested in the year 2000 as part of this good fellows and Borscht boys organized crime roundup around this $40 million stock scheme, the government`s case against him in particular followed a very interesting path. So, Sater got arrested along with all of those mobsters in the year 2000. He did end up pleading guilty in conjunction with that case that they brought against all those mobsters, but they treated him in a very different way.
After he pled guilty, they did not lock him up. In fact, they didn`t even sentence him after his guilty plea for more than 10 years. They arrested him, they secured his cooperation, they got him to plead guilty to something, but then instead of sentencing him for that guilty plea, instead of putting him in prison for that guilty plea, they turned him back out into the wild. They let him go back into New York City so he could become an informant for the government about organized crime.
He did that work for, again, more than ten years. He actually ended up becoming a sidebar minor controversy during the confirmation hearings for Attorney General Loretta Lynch because she had been the prosecutor in Brooklyn who brought that big mob case and who had overseen this case who had overseen this decade-long informant deal with Felix Sater, right?
But for that decade, while prosecutors left him out in the wild, left him out there, collecting information and giving the government information about the workings of the mob, what he was doing during that decade was real estate deals with the Trump Organization. That was his day job while he was a mob informant for the government.
He worked with the Trump Organization on a Trump Tower project for Phoenix, Arizona, that never ended up getting built. He worked with the Trump Organization on a Trump Tower in Ft. Lauderdale that did get built but then foreclosed.
And somewhat famously, Felix Sater, this ex-con mob informant, he also worked on putting together the financing for the Trump SoHo complex in New York City, which incidentally this week dropped the name Trump off the front of the building.
But Trump SoHo opened in 2008. In 2010, we know Felix Sater was still working for the Trump Organization as a senior adviser to Donald Trump. But that`s the problem, because he`s an ex-con, actually served time in prison before the whole stock scandal thing for which he got arrested. In the financial industry and in the real estate business, it can be legally dicey to have somebody who`s a convicted felon involved in any of your business dealings. Felix Sater is a convicted felon and he`s very much involved in the Trump Organization and his business dealings.
In November 2013, in a deposition, Donald Trump repeatedly played down any connections he might have with his senior adviser Felix Sater and he certainly claimed any knowledge of Felix Sater having connections to organized crime.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, BUSINESSMAN: I don`t think he was connected to the mafia. He got into a bar room fight. And in fact, he was supposedly very close to the government of the United States as a witness or something, but I don`t think he was connected to the mafia.
INTERVIEWER: OK. About how many times have you conversed with Mr. Sater?
TRUMP: Over the years?
INTERVIEWER: Over the years.
TRUMP: Not many. If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn`t know what he looked like.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: 2013, Donald Trump proclaiming that his senior adviser, he wouldn`t know what he looked like. That was 2013. By 2015, Donald Trump apparently was refreshed because he came to know him again because we now know that in October 2015, Felix Sater was working with the Trump Organization once again, this time to put together the financing and approvals necessary to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Donald Trump insisted throughout the campaign that he had no current and no pending business deals with Russia. We now know despite those denials he and the Trump Organization were pursuing what would have been one of the biggest real estate deals of his life. Donald Trump himself in October 2015 signed a letter of intent to pursue a Trump Tower in Moscow. This is a project that was spearheaded by Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen and by Felix Sater.
"The New York Times" obtained Felix Sater`s e-mails about the Trump Tower Moscow project this past August. Those emails showed that in addition to the exciting financial prospects for this Trump Tower in Moscow, for some reason, Felix Sater thought it would be a big political payoff too. He believed that that project, that real estate tower in Moscow got off the ground, it would have great political consequences for Donald Trump.
He wrote to Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen, quote: Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin`s team to buy in on this. I will manage this process. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.
Now, what`s the connection between Trump getting elected president and some big real estate deal in Moscow? I don`t know, hard to say. Why on earth would the president of Russia be involved either in a real estate deal or in making Trump president or in something that connects the two? No idea.
I mean, the Trump organization`s defense about its ties to Felix Sater over the years is that sometimes they deny they have any idea who he is. He must have made that business card at the Kinko`s. Do they still have Kinko`s, right? They either say we don`t know who he is.
When they do have to acknowledge their dealings with him, they tend to dismiss him as somebody who brags a lot, maybe he shouldn`t be believed.
To that point, my favorite detail in all the Felix Sater-mob-Russia-Trump reporting is when Felix Sater bragged to Trump Organization lawyer Michael Cohen that he really could get this Trump Tower Moscow thing off the ground, and that he really could get Putin on board, and that he thereby could get Trump elected. And in making these connections and writing it all out in e-mails that we can now read in "The New York Times," he just bragged about how much juice he had to make these kinds of connections and do this kind of stuff in Russia.
He said, quote: Michael, I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putin`s private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I know how to play it. We will get this done.
So, "The New York Times" obtains that e-mail and then doing due diligence, they contact Ivanka Trump to find out if what Felix Sater said about her was true. Her response to "The Times" was that, yes, she in fact had gone to Moscow with Felix Sater.
She said she had taken, quote, a brief tour of Red Square and the Kremlin. And although she took care to insist she was only there, quote, as a tourist, quote, she said it is possible she sat in Mr. Putin`s chair. It`s possible.
Who among us can say whether or not for sure we`ve sat in Putin`s chair? This could be his chair, I don`t know.
So, if you`re interested in the Trump campaign and its connections to Russia, if you`re interested in the scandal, right, and figuring out if there was anything done between the Trump Organization and Russia that might have had some later connection to what happened between Russia and the presidential election, right, if you are trying to figure that stuff out, Felix Sater would be a pretty good guy to talk to. Even if he is a little nutty, he`s right there in the bull`s eye in terms of figuring this story out.
Well, here`s the amazing thing. Two days ago, Wednesday of this week, the House Intelligence Committee finally decided that maybe we should do an interview with Felix Sater while we`re investigating this Russia thing. They scheduled it during the House vote on the tax bill and they scheduled it not in Washington, D.C., which means when it came time finally to talk to this incredibly central, interesting figure with all sorts of long, lurid, fascinating criminal organized crime, Russia, Trump, real estate history, the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee decided that that witness should be interviewed specifically at a time and place where no member of Congress could attend the interview.
They had staff do the interview instead and they had it happen out of state. And we know for sure that no members of Congress went to the interview. Not because they`ll tell us but because we have the roll call vote for the House when they were voting on the tax bill that day and you can see from the time stamp that it happened at 12:55 p.m. That`s when they finalized the vote.
There were seven members of the House who weren`t present and didn`t vote on the tax bill but none are members of the Intelligence Committee. All the Intelligence Committee members were there in person for that tax vote so they weren`t in New York interviewing Felix Sater.
Then, there was a second vote at 6:47 p.m. For that vote, there were a total of 11 members of the House who didn`t cast a vote. It was the seven who missed in the morning plus four more. None of the people who missed that vote were members of the Intelligence Committee either. All Intelligence Committee members were present and voted then too.
That means none of them, Republican or Democrat, were in New York interviewing Felix Sater. They were all in Washington. No members of Congress get to interview Felix.
How come he gets that privilege? Why do that particular interview with that particular witness in a way that no member of Congress could go to?
It turns out he is not the only one and the next one`s even better. That`s next.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: So, it`s the Friday before Christmas. My whole family`s at home watching together I think right now. Hi, you guys. Save me some leftovers.
Sister-in-law is cooking solstice dinner which I think involves wild boar and I`m hoping for leftovers.
Anyway, not everybody has to work the Friday before Christmas. Some people do which is fine. Here`s a surprising group that had to work today though, the staff of the House Intelligence Committee.
So, we learned today, we had to deduce today that the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee which is supposed to be investigating Trump and Russia, they interviewed a character named Felix Sater two days ago. He`s a key figure linking the Trump business empire to Russia. He`s also got interesting organized crime ties that might make him a particularly juicy target for aggressive interrogation.
For some reason, the House Intelligence Committee decided they would do their interview with Felix Sater in New York with no members of Congress present two days ago. Well, now, we`ve learned that today, the House Intelligence Committee did another out of state interview, today, on the Friday before Christmas in New York. They interviewed a woman who has served as assistant to Donald Trump and a senior vice president at the Trump Organization for three decades.
Every e-mail, every phone call, every meeting, every piece of paper that has gone to or come from Donald Trump for 30 years has gone through the hands of Rhona Graff. That`s what you call a key witness if you`re interested in the behavior meetings, ties, contacts, and communications of Donald Trump over the years.
Republicans in the House Intelligence Committee decided that she would be interviewed today also in New York City in a way that was maximally impossible for any actual members of Congress to attend. We don`t know if any members of Congress made it to New York for the Rhona Graff interview today. We think some of them might. We`re pretty sure most of them at least didn`t.
So, the House Intelligence Committee is supposed to be how Congress is investigating the Russia scandal. It is getting a little weird over there, right? These last-minute, no members interviews with incredibly key sensitive central witnesses, the news this week broken by Politico.com that Republicans on that committee have formed a secret Republican-only working group that`s using the materials obtained by the committee supposedly for its Russia investigation to instead run their own working group which is designed to indict the FBI.
Republicans on the committee also this week announced more plans to call yet more senior FBI officials before their committee, not apparently because they want to ask them tough questions about Russia, but apparently because they want to make the FBI itself a scandal. And the reason I say it seems like that`s their intention is because of Republicans increasingly strident anti-FBI criticism in public statements. But also because of their strategy of bringing in these FBI officials and then selectively leaking information about these officials` closed door testimony to sympathetic media athletes. That has led to some predictably sneering coverage this week, designed to make these FBI officials look bad, coverage in places like the Fox News Channel and "The Washington Examiner".
But that strategy by the Republicans has also led to some unintended consequences like this today from Byron York at "The Washington Examiner". Mr. York describes the Republican members of Congress who are leaking this information to him as frustrated. You see that there in the headline. Clearly, these Republicans are not getting what they want from senior FBI officials when they`re hauling them in for testimony.
But even though Byron York is I think at least somewhat sympathetic to the intentions of his Republican congressional sources who are leaking stuff to him from these close door interviews, Byron York is also a real reporter. He`s an actual reporter who faithfully conveys information that he has obtained. And in this case, the information that his Republican sources have given him is not information that is necessarily going to help their cause.
From Byron York`s piece today, quote: The dossier portion of the interview began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe being asked if he thought the Trump Russia dossier met the standard of credibility the FBI required to open an investigation. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said he believed it did.
Later in the story, according to Byron York, McCabe was asked again if he stood by the veracity of the dossier. McCabe, quote, said he did.
So, whatever Republicans are trying to get out of these senior FBI officials, getting it on the record from them that the Christopher Steele dossier about Russia interfering in the election to help Trump and Trump being cultivated by Russia for years and there being tons of connects between Trump and Russia during the campaign, I mean, getting it on the record that the FBI thinks that dossier is of sufficient credibility to meet FBI standards for opening an investigation, that is counterproductive for what the Republicans are trying to do.
And this follows the other unintentionally damning leak that we got from Andrew McCabe`s testimony this week where CNN was able to report something very important about the president and his potential criminal liability for obstruction of justice. You know, FBI Director James Comey, as you remember, he says the president pressured him about the Mike Flynn investigation before he fired him as FBI director. James Comey has said under oath that he informed other FBI officials at the time of that pressure that he was receiving from President Trump.
Well, this week under oath in Congress, the FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, confirmed that. He confirmed that, yes, James Comey told him at the time about those conversations with Donald Trump and what Donald Trump had said about the Flynn investigation.
So, the Republicans in Congress are now going hammer and tongs against the FBI. If the president is going to be in trouble for obstructing justice, it will be because he tried to block an FBI investigation. If him doing so is ever going to be proven in a court or laid out compellingly in articles of impeachment, it will be because of James Comey`s testimony against the president and the corroborating testimony of other FBI officials who he spoke to at the time that the president was obstructing justice to document the fact that the president was obstructing justice.
One of those FBI officials to whom James Comey spoke at the time did document and memorialize the president`s behavior was FBI Director Andrew McCabe who has this week been subjected to nearly 17 hours of closed door congressional testimony. And it`s not just the House Republicans going after him. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley says he wants FBI director Andrew McCabe to be fired.
He`s one of Comey`s corroborating witnesses. Another one of Comey`s corroborating witnesses, another one of the senior FBI officials who Comey told contemporaneously about the behavior of the president was this man, top lawyer at the FBI, James Baker.
Today, "The Washington Post" reports James Baker has mysteriously been reassigned at the FBI. We don`t know the circumstances of his reassignment. We do know that shortly after this was reported in "The Washington Post," Republican members of Congress leaked to politico.com that FBI counsel James Baker had committed the grave sin of communicating with "Mother Jones" reporter David Corn in 2016.
David Corn was the first reporter to describe the existence of the Christopher Steele Trump Russia dossier. David Corn also says in unequivocal terms that this FBI official, James Baker, was not his source for the dossier story.
Honestly, I`m not even sure Republicans care about that. I think they just care that he talked to a reporter. Isn`t that impeachable? Certainly, it`s corrupt or liberal or something. I mean --
You step back from these individual attacks they`re making against the FBI and various FBI officials against Comey, against Mueller, against McCabe, and now against Baker, what Republicans are doing is work their way down the list of all the FBI witnesses who could corroborate James Comey and the president`s alleged obstruction of justice, right?
We know they`re going after Comey directly. We know there are five or six of these witnesses, senior officials at the FBI who Comey told. As of right now, they`re trying to destroy two of them, going after McCabe and Baker. But who doesn`t think they`re just going to keep going down that list? Right?
Everybody is focused on whether or not the president is going to fire Robert Mueller. But what the Republicans are trying to do right now is instead destroy the credibility of all the evidence that Robert Mueller could use against the president for obstruction of justice, and they`re doing it by trying to destroy the careers and reputations of the witnesses that Mueller could call.
If it destroys the FBI in the process, apparently they think so be it. Merry Christmas.
More ahead. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Fired FBI Director James Comey in May, we learned that he had been keeping notes on his conversations with the president. When Comey says the president was pushing him to back off the investigation into Michael Flynn. One of the people James Comey told about those conversations with the president was Andrew McCabe who Republicans are now pushing to have fired as the deputy director of the FBI. Another person James Comey told was the FBI`s top lawyer, James Baker.
We have now learned that James Baker, a potential corroborating witness for James Comey, top lawyer at the FBI, has been reassigned for some reason.
Is this a normal course of business Justice Department kind of thing? Is there reason to worry that the Republicans are looking at that list of Comey`s corroborating witnesses and seeing them more as a checklist of things to do rather than just as a roster of senior FBI officials.
Joining us now is Joyce Vance, former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama.
Joyce, it`s really nice to see you tonight. Thanks for being with us.
JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: First, let me ask you, what`s the job of the FBI counsel, the top lawyer at the FBI? How big a job is that and how well-respected is James Baker in that role?
VANCE: So, the general counsel job at the FBI, this is the chief lawyer for the bureau, the person who`s in charge of making decisions about the legality of FBI activity, also handles situations where agents get sued or where the agency has to deal with other legal issues.
And, Jim Baker, when he was selected to come in and to be Jim Comey`s general counsel, was a widely lauded pick. People were very happy to see him coming to take this job. He had been in and out of the bureau and the department during his career and was widely respected.
MADDOW: He`s being universally described as widely respected and also somebody who`s been involved in a number of very high profile national security matters at the FBI over the years. That makes the somewhat wooly circumstances around his reassignment including where he`s being reassigned to a matter of some intrigue. Would it be an usual, absent the other intrigue around the political pressure on the FBI right now and the Russia investigation, would it be intriguing in normal terms when somebody like a Jim Baker was reassigned, or is that the sort of job that turns over when we get new FBI directors?
VANCE: It is the kind of job that turns over, and in the absence of this investigation, it seems unlikely that anyone would be questioning this reassignment. When Bob Mueller left the bureau and was replaced by Jim Comey, Director Comey brought in his own lawyer as his general counsel.
This is not unusual. The relationship between the two is very close. The director has to be able to rely on the general counsel, so it`s important that they be a good fit and have compatible working styles, much like a chief of staff position.
MADDOW: OK. After we learned from "The Washington Post" that Mr. Baker was being reassigned and again we don`t know where he`s being reassigned to, we then got word from Politico.com tonight. Apparently, Republican sources leaking to Politico.com that Mr. Baker is known to have corresponded, communicated somehow with our friend David Corn who is a reporter at "Mother Jones" magazine, long-time investigative reporter, notably for the Russia scandal, he is the person the American reporter who first reported before the election on the existence of Christopher Steele`s Trump Russia dossier, which Republicans are putting a lot of work in to trying to turn into a scandal.
I`m not sure if we understand enough about these leaks, what`s motivating them or what the context is for why these communications have been obtained, but would it be wrong, unethical somehow, for a general counsel at the FBI to communicate with a reporter for any reason?
VANCE: There are all sorts of legitimate reasons that the general counsel might have had a conversation with David Corn. It could have been on another matter. It could have been a request from the office of legal affairs that he explain to Mr. Corn the proceedings in some case or some type of FBI process.
I know we won`t hear any comment from David on that other than his statement that Mr. Baker was not his source. It seems like that should be good enough to end the inquiry here without any other idea that anything improper took place.
MADDOW: Yes. This is -- this is one of those things where eventually we`re going to get this story and a lot of these blanks are going to get filled in and it will still be intriguing story. But right now, with this mad libs narrative that we`ve got in terms of what happened here, it`s raising more questions than I feel comfortable with.
Joyce Vance, former Alabama U.S. attorney, thank you very much for being with us tonight. I really appreciate it.
MADDOW: And I will just reiterate something that Joyce Vance just said there. David Corn, as I said, a national treasure of an investigative reporter, he says unequivocally tonight and it`s unusual for him to comment on his sources, he says tonight that in no uncertain terms, this FBI official, Jim Baker, was not his source for the dossier story. Republicans are implying that with this leak tonight to politico.com. David Corn says that`s absolutely not the case.
Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: Baseball is a unique sport. One of my favorite movies is "The Rookie", you know? You know, that journeyman making it to the big leagues. When we go to the locker room and tell a young man, sometimes not a young man, that they`re being called up to the big leagues, to see the emotion on their face was quite something.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That is Scott Pruitt, who`s the head of the EPA in the Trump administration. And he is a man who is serious about baseball.
He went to the University of Kentucky on a baseball scholarship, played second base. He was a switch hitter. 2003, he and a friend bought a controlling stake in Oklahoma City`s Minor League Triple A team, the Oklahoma City Red Hawks. That stake reportedly cost Scott Pruitt $6.8 million cash.
Where did he get the cash?
A local banker from Oklahoma is reportedly a good friend of Scott Pruitt`s, such a good friend that he helped him put up all that money. And then when Scott Pruitt got to the EPA, he called that old friend from Tulsa and basically reenacted that scene from the rookie, you, young man, you are headed to the big leagues.
That story is next. It doesn`t end in a home run for the EPA, I will warn you, but that story is next.
MADDOW: (AUDIO GAP) administration announced a new special task force to improve the process of cleaning up our nation`s hundreds of toxically polluted super sites, the most polluted places in America. The guy the EPA tapped to lead that super fund task force was this man. His name is Albert Kelly. He`s a banker from Tulsa.
He had precisely zero experience in pollution cleanup or environmental issues at all. But he was long-time friends with the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, old friend of Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma. His banker, in fact.
Kelly had loaned Pruitt money to buy a Minor League Oklahoma baseball team and then he loaned money to the people who bought the team from Scott Pruitt a few years later. So, Scott Pruitt picked him to overhaul super fund sites and their cleanup in the United States. He hired his old friend at a salary of $172,000 a year.
And that salary really turned out to be a handy thing for Albert Kelly. Turned out to be a good thing for him that he landed that high paying gig at the EPA because not long after he was announced as the head of the EPA`s super fund task force, federal banking regulators announced that Mr. Kelly would need to pay a $125,000 fine and he would be banned for life from ever working in the banking industry again.
We don`t know what Albert Kelly did to get himself banned for life from banking. I didn`t even know that was a thing. When he agreed to pay the fine, he didn`t admit or deny wrongdoing, but yes, banned for life from banking. And then onto the EPA to oversee cleanup for the country. Wow.
So, in July, his task force released -- it was announced in May. They released their final report in July. Task force released their final report on America`s super fund sites. They included 42 specific and detailed recommendations for America`s super fund sites. Now, an environmental advocacy group called PEER immediately filed a Freedom of Information Act request because they wanted to see what led to this task force report.
They wanted like how did you come up with these recommendations? They asked for research materials, agendas from the meetings. Minutes from their meetings, any notes, any drafts of the report, the routine stuff that you FOIA when you want to find out how, you know, detailed government recommendations came to exist.
The EPA did not respond with any materials, after that FOIA request was filed. So, then PEER sued. And this week, almost six months later, they did not get the documents they were looking for but they did get a response from the EPA, and it`s amazing.
"Associated Press" reporting, quote, a lawyer for EPA has written to peer to say that the task force had no agenda for its meetings, kept no minutes and used no reference materials. Pruitt`s plan for cleaning up toxic sites immaculately conceived without the usual trappings of human parentage, says the executive director of PEER. No minutes, no notes, no reference materials, no meeting agendas, no drafts.
That`s how things are being run at the EPA right now. The Oklahoma banker who just got banned for life from banking is in charge of coming up with the way that we`re going to clean up toxic pollution in this country and he says his 107-member task force produced literally not a letter of paper work in developing its plan, which, by the way, Scott Pruitt accepted every word of when he got their report. He accepted all 42 detailed recommendations and said he would start implementing it immediately.
Meanwhile, the actual qualified scientists and professionals and experts of the EPA are now leaving by the hundreds. "The New York Times" and "ProPublica" reporting today that more than 700 people have left the EPA since President Trump took office, and that number sounds staggering on its own but wait for the next line. Quote: that puts the administration nearly a quarter of the way toward its goal of shrinking the agency to levels last seen during the Reagan administration. Of the employees that have left, more than 200 scientists, additional 96 are environmental protection specialists, a broad category that includes scientists and others in experiencing in investigating and analyzing the pollution levels.
So, all the qualified people are leaving, but the Trump administration is bringing in new people whose qualifications are a disgraced former banker from Tulsa. I mean, this is a feature and not a bug, right? This is not story of the Trump administration screwing up at the EPA. This is a story of the Trump administration doing exactly what they intend to do at the EPA.
Shrinking the federal government long been a pillar of Republican ideology. They`re always talking about whole agencies that shouldn`t exist, right? They threaten to eliminate large swaths of government all the time.
But this is them -- this is them doing it. This is what it looks like when they do it.
Joining us now is Michael Beschloss, NBC presidential historian.
Michael, it`s great to see you. Thank you for being here.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: My pleasure, Rachel. Always.
MADDOW: Republicans always talk about emptying out agencies. Are there other times in modern history we see so many people, so many experts, so many top tier people leave one agency all at once?
BESCHLOSS: Nothing like this. This is stretching the boundaries of that idea. But under Ronald Reagan, you saw a little bit of this.
For instance, 1982, the EPA had an administrator who got into a scandal over the super fund, just like what you were talking about a moment ago. Congress asked her for documents. She would not give them. She was declared in contempt of Congress and she was forced to resign and her name was Ann Gorsuch and her son has just been appointed by President Trump to the Supreme Court.
MADDOW: You made that part up, right?
BESCHLOSS: No. That`s a -- as they say in Texas, has the added advantage of being true.
MADDOW: Yes. That`s -- yes. OK. Yes.
Under -- is there a president -- despite the rhetoric, is there a president when`s actually done it? Is there a clear winner in terms of under which president we have seen the most departures? Have presidents succeed in shutting down agencies either by dicta or by attrition?
BESCHLOSS: They haven`t. This is sort of a Republican dream, especially since Ronald Reagan who tried to do it at the beginning and really began to lose interest.
But, you know, it goes back to the 19th century. Congress passed all these civil service laws because they were worried that the presidents would turn into dictators because they could appoint people once they became president from the top of an agency all the way down.
Andrew Johnson violated one of those laws in 1867, 1868. He was impeached. He was almost thrown out of office for that.
In any case, in recent years, you have seen examples of Republican presidents, especially Reagan, Nixon tried to shut down, for instance Lyndon Johnson`s old war on poverty, but the difference of Donald Trump is yet again another new Trump innovation this year and that is this idea of as we`re seeing in the EPA scaring out people with enormous expertise and experience, making them want to leave and then not refilling these positions so that you impair what the EPA is supposed to do.
We`re seeing the same thing at the State Department where as you have talked about a number of times, you know, those top positions are not getting filled and the idea presumably is so that there will not be diplomats there to make deals that Donald Trump doesn`t want made.
MADDOW: All right. It`s a very good point. It`s a materially different thing to have a hiring freeze or to cut people`s pay or to make their environment miserable so they start to leave. It is another thing to make sure that the people you`re pushing out most capable, most institutional memory, most expertise --
BESCHLOSS: I`ve lost you just for a moment, the sound.
MADDOW: Oh. Well, trust me. I was just telling you that you`re great. Michael --
BESCHLOSS: There you are. I could just answer whatever question I feel like since I didn`t hear what you said.
MADDOW: I was going to ask you to opine on how great you are. So --
BESCHLOSS: Thank you. That I can`t opine. I only talk about true subjects.
MADDOW: Thank you, Michael.
BESCHLOSS: Could I say one thing?
BESCHLOSS: This is a big difference, no president has done this in the way that we`re watching Donald Trump do this. We have to stay tuned. He is also talking about doing it at the FBI. That having been said, happy holidays, Rachel.
MADDOW: I hear you, my friend. Thank you.
BESCHLOSS: Be well. See you soon.
MADDOW: Michael Beschloss, NBC`s presidential historian.
All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Another one is leaving. Deputy White House chief of staff Rick Dearborn is the newest one leaving. He`s second deputy White House chief of director to quit.
We also got word today that deputy director of the national economic council is leaving too, and the deputy director of the domestic policy council, and probably somebody else by the time I finish this sentence.
To keep this current, I now need to tell you that the Donald Trump administration has lost, ready? Health and Human Services secretary, chief of staff, a deputy chief of staff, another deputy chief of staff, a director of public liaison, a communications director for the office of public liaison -- it was Omarosa.
Press Secretary, assistant press secretary, two communications directors, rapid response director, national security adviser, two deputy national security advisers, the adviser to the National Security Council, director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council, deputy chief of staff at the National Security Council, director of strategic at the National Security Council, a Middle East adviser, chief White House strategist, national security aide, acting U.S. attorney general, FBI director, dozens of U.S. attorneys, national economic council, deputy director, domestic policy counsel, deputy director, chief of staff to the vice president, secretary to the vice president, director of the office of government ethics, and special adviser to the president on regulatory reform. Hi, Carl.
At least 31 pretty high ranking staffers so far. That represents a 30 percent turnover rate at the White House. President Obama was single digits by this point but 30 percent. We still haven`t reached the one-year mark. That does it for us tonight. See you again next week. Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD". Ali Velshi is in for Lawrence tonight. Ali, I`m sorry. My list went long.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2017 MSNBC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright 2017 ASC Services II Media, LLC. All materials herein are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of ASC Services II Media, LLC. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content.