IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Watergate lessons for Trump-Russia investigation Transcript 1/5/18 The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Leon Neyfakh, Matt Axelrod

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: January 5, 2018 Guest: Leon Neyfakh, Matt Axelrod

JOY REID, MSNBC HOST: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right this second. Go, Rachel, go.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Joy, I hereby will you some of the sleep that I will get over the next two days because you`ve had none. You`ve had none at all and you`re back to work through the weekend, my friend.

REID: I have a few more pages to read. I won`t be sleeping.


MADDOW: Well done. Good luck.

REID: Thank you.

MADDOW: Thank you very much, friend.

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

So, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not invited to Camp David this weekend. Now, the only reason that is weird is because the president is hosting at Camp David, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, secretary of homeland security, the secretary of education, the head of the CIA, the head of the Office of Management and the Budget, the head of EPA, the deputy head of Transportation Department. Also, all of the congressional leadership on the Republican side and his chief of staff and his top legislation guy and the political director for the White House and the top economic adviser at the White House and guy who does the personnel for the White House and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and that guy with the crazy Wes Welker eyes, Steven Miller.

I mean, everybody you have ever heard of associated with the administration who has not already been fired or indicted, and a bunch of people you haven`t heard of they are all going to spend a frigid weekend together in Camp David. But not Jeff Sessions.

And this is not like some official event. It`s not like a State of the Union thing where they need a designated survivor, where they need to keep somebody somewhere safe in case something bad happens at Camp David. It`s nothing like that. He just isn`t invited.

And at one level, who cares, right? I mean, maybe you feel bad for Jeff Sessions, maybe you think it might be cold up there. It is going to be a really cold weekend. And he is from Alabama, maybe that would be hard for him. But I don`t know.

I mean, if this is a big summit because something important is about to happen, and if it is a deliberate and important decision that Jeff Sessions is conspicuously not there, well, I think there might be at least be reason to brace yourself for this weekend in terms of what might be happening here.

Last night, "The New York Times" reported in a bombshell piece from Michael Schmidt that the president personally ordered the White House counsel to go to the Justice Department this past spring to try to persuade Jeff Sessions to not recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

Now, this is important for a couple of reasons. One is the reported context. According to Michael Schmidt`s reporting in "The New York Times" last night the president explained at the time why it was so important to him that Jeff Sessions not recuse himself. He explained that as being based on his belief reportedly that the attorney general should protect him from the Russia investigation.

Another reason this is potentially important is that under the strict rules that govern the way the White House and the Department of Justice are supposed to have contact with one another, the White House counsel Don McGahn he is actually one of the few White House officials allowed to have direct contact with the Justice Department. But the whole reason those rules exist is to prevent the White House -- any White House from having untoward influence on law enforcement decisions that are made at the Justice Department. There is a reason there is strict rules about not very many people from the White House being allowed to speak to Justice Department officials.

Don McGahn is one of the people who is allowed to speak to the Justice Department under those very strict rules. But if he was sent to the Justice Department by the president specifically to interfere with the Justice Department on a law enforcement matter, specifically to interfere with Jeff Sessions` recusal decision which is part of how the Justice Department administers the rule of law, then that would be a pretty obvious violation of those important rules that govern how the White House and the Justice Department are supposed to communicate with each other so as to avoid White House pressure on law enforcement decisions.

So, if McGahn lobbied Sessions on his recusal, if McGahn did, in fact, do what the White House times -- excuse me, what "The New York Times" reports he did, there is a reasonable legal ethics case that Don McGahn should resign as White House counsel for having done that.

That said, NBC furthered this story today when they reported that the president didn`t just send the White House counsel Don McGahn to the Justice Department to go lobby Jeff Sessions. According to the NBC, the president sent multiple senior White House personnel to the Justice Department to lobby Jeff Sessions that he shouldn`t recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

So both of those things, both the fact that the president reportedly said the reason Sessions shouldn`t recuse is so the president can be protected from that FBI investigation, and the prospect that the -- that the prospect that the White House counsel may have violated the rules about contact with the Justice Department that are supposed to protect these things from White House pressure, both of those may prove a problem for the president and some of his senior advisers in terms of potential criminal liability on obstruction of justice.

I mean, if he was trying to interfere with the recusal decision because he thought that would shield him from the criminal inquiry, that is a problem. But that all happened this spring. And now we have arrived at this weekend, with now reams and reams and months and months of reporting about how angry the president is that the lobbying didn`t work. That Jeff Sessions didn`t recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

So, the president this weekend will be hosting this big Republican and cabinet summit conspicuously without Jeff Sessions in attendance. If this is a prelude to the president firing Jeff Sessions as attorney general, that will be important on its own terms, right? But it would also pretty directly give the president a way to finally end the Russia investigation that has so animated him and vexed him from the beginning of his administration.

If Jeff Sessions were removed and a new attorney general was installed, that new attorney general wouldn`t be recused from overseeing the Russia investigation, right? So, that new attorney general could take over responsibility for overseeing the Russia investigation from Rod Rosenstein. And in that oversight role overseeing the Russia investigation, a new attorney general appointed by the president could defund, dismantle, otherwise try to stymie the work of special counsel Robert Mueller.

That is why everybody is on the edge of the seat about who got invited to Camp David and who didn`t. That was the glaring exclamation point subtext to the headline you undoubtedly saw today about how much Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, would very much like to be the next attorney general should an opening arise.

Now, that is either EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt thinking that Jeff Sessions is about to get fired as attorney general and he is just saying, "pick me, boss, pick me", or this is a considered effort by the administration which knows Jeff Sessions is about to get fired and they are floating Scott Pruitt`s name as the new A.G. as a trial balloon.

So I know it`s cold. I know it`s dark. It`s January. Looking forward to turning off the news this weekend and curling up with the latest "Slow Burn" podcast. I know you are. I know you are.

But that issue about Jeff Sessions, and whether it means something more than it looks like, that he is not invited to this otherwise big Republican and cabinet summit this weekend with the president is -- it`s just -- it`s worth watching over the next couple days.

And, you know, today, was pretty remarkable -- a pretty remarkable day of news itself. Partisan unity has broken down in some important ways on the two gigantic policy changes the administration announced yesterday, on both the administration`s decision to basically recriminalize pot all over the country, including in states that have legalized it, and in their decision to open up to offshore drilling the entire East Coast and West Coast, including Florida and California and the Carolinas and all of the rest of it. Not just Democrats but lots of elected Republicans, particularly in the affected states, today signaled their opposition to those big announcements from the Trump administration yesterday and said they would fight the Trump administration on both of those matters. There`s not a lot of matters there is partisan disunity anymore, but those two appear to be one that can rile even Republicans who otherwise like President Trump. So, that was big news today.

And from Congress, we actually got a big landmark moment today. After the intelligence community released its assessment a year ago tomorrow which said Russia interfered with the presidential election to try to help Trump and hurt Clinton, after that came out, multiple congressional committees, even in the Republican-led Congress expressed alarm and started full scale investigations into the Russian attack and into the crucial question of whether or not the Russians had American confederates who knew what the Russians were doing or who might have been involved in what the Russians were doing at the time.

Well, that all started basically a year ago with that Intelligence Committee assessment. Today, after multiple committees in the House and the Senate have spent a rancorous year investigating and talking to witnesses, and subpoenaing documents and fighting about the scope of their investigations, all look at these very serious allegations about Russia, today the first time, 364 days since the intelligence committee`s assessment, today for the first time, Congress made a criminal referral to the Justice Department, deriving from its investigation into the Russia matter.

Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham have finally found someone who they think should face criminal charges in the Russian attack on our election. They said today that they would like the Justice Department to consider bringing charges against the one person who actually called the FBI when he found out that Russia was trying to play a role in the election to help Donald Trump.

You know we count more than 19 different people associated with the Russian government who made contact with people associated with the Trump campaign or the Trump organization while Donald Trump was running for president. Several of these 19 different Russians provided -- explicitly provided information that they were there. They were making contact to provide Russian government help for the presidential election to the Trump campaign. But nobody associated with the Trump campaign ever reacted to any one of those overtures by calling the FBI, even after the FBI warned the Trump Organization to be on the lookout for that sort of thing.

There is only one person who we know who actually called the cops when they saw this crime happen. There is one person we know of who observed evidence of Russia maybe trying to interfere in the election to help Trump. There is one person who saw that evidence, recognized it as potentially a very serious crime and 911, called the FBI. The one person who did that is the person who Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley today told the Justice Department to investigate, for potentially maybe having possibly committed a crime.

They released this cover letter, but not a classified document. They said it was attached to it. They are apparently alleging that former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele might have mixed up some dates when describing to investigators when exactly he had off the record conversation with reporters about his intelligence reports, the ones he had handed over to the FBI.

You know, it is not unheard of for congressional investigators to make a criminal referral to the Justice Department, right, if the course of their congressional investigation, they turn up some information that law enforcement doesn`t have, it`s not unheard of for Congress to notify the relevant law enforcement agent, hey, we turned up something that looks like you may want to prosecute. That has happened for example in serious ethics cases for members of Congress -- ethics committees doing intense investigation of a member of Congress who is accused of some serious ethics violation. In the course of their investigation, they turn up serious evidence of criminal wrongdoing by that member of Congress, wrongdoing that was not otherwise known to or being pursued by the relevant law enforcement agency.

In cases like that, the Ethics Committee would finish their report, their ethics committee report on the member`s behavior but might make a criminal referral to the appropriate law enforcement agency if they turned up something serious that law enforcement wasn`t otherwise onto.

That`s not what happened here. In this case, Senator Chuck Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham do not appear to have turned up any new information concerning former MI-6 spy Christopher Steele. The reason the so-called criminal referral to the Justice Department about him today is in part classified is because what these two just sent to the Justice Department about Christopher Steele is information they got from the Justice Department about Christopher Steele.

They didn`t turn up anything in their congressional investigation that the Justice Department didn`t already know about. What they did today was they gave the Justice Department back their own information that they had obtained from the Justice Department about Christopher Steele, saying, hey, have you seen this? No, seriously this stuff you gave us, have you seen it? We`re sending it back to you.

That is not the way these things usually go. I mean, for obvious reasons, that`s not the way these things usually go. But they did put out a very strongly worded press release about it. They got lots and lots of headlines about how they want this guy criminally prosecuted, you know, the dossier guy. You know, it`s incredible.

Once upon a time -- it is incredible -- once upon a time, this White House was actually concerned that the Republican-led Congress and its congressional investigations into the Russia matter might be something the White House had to worry about. That the White House should try to shut down, right? We know from "New York Times" reporting this fall that the president directly contacted Senator Richard Burr on the Intelligence Committee and Senator Roy Blunt on the Intelligence Committee and Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate. The president directly contacting those members of the Senate, pressuring them to drop the congressional Russia investigations.

We sure he needed to bother? I mean, waste received more attention are the president`s efforts to stop not the congressional investigation but the FBI investigation, right? The president lobbying Jeff Sessions do not recuse himself. The president telling the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, to press the FBI to stop their Russia investigation.

The president telling the FBI Director James Comey that he needed to remove the cloud of the Russia investigation over the Trump presidency. He needed to lay off the investigation into Mike Flynn. He needed to be loyal to the president. The president firing James Comey when Comey didn`t agree to any of that.

Once Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel we know the president also pressured Republican Senator Thom Tillis to drop his legislative efforts to protect Robert Mueller from being fired by the president. All right, that has received a lot more attention, the president trying to shut down the FBI investigation.

But if the president had once upon a time been worried that the investigations in Congress also might pose a real threat to him in terms of exposing what really happened with Russia I think those worries it`s safe to say have probably been resolved. Because one year on, basically what these Republican-led committees in Congress have turned their investigations into are full-time battering ram efforts to protect the president from the FBI, to protect the president from the ongoing criminal investigation, to discredit Robert Mueller, the special counsel, to discredit the whole FBI as best they can.

When James Comey documented the fact that the president had pressured him to drop the Russia investigation before he was fired. Republicans in Congress went after the memos that Comey wrote up to document the president`s behavior, saying those memos might have been classified, or they should have been classified. And when Comey talked about them, he leaked classified information or you know, at least he leaked government property.

When the FBI and the Justice Department brought it to the White House`s attention, that the Trump national security adviser had been secretly talking to the Russian government and lying about it, Republicans in Congress joined the White House to try to make the scandal there, the fact that the FBI knew about what Mike Flynn had done. They wiretapped us. There`s been unmasking.

Republicans in Congress have tried to say the real scandal is not what Russia did in our elections or the questions of whether or not they had help. The real scandal is Uranium One or the Clinton Foundation, yes, that`s the real Russia scandal. Republicans supposedly investigating the Russia scandal have instead decided that the real scandal that they really want to look into is that some people inside the FBI or who have worked on special counsel team are people who privately expressed political opinions of wide-ranging ideological interest during the campaign, which is something that FBI agents are absolutely allowed to do.

It has been Republicans in Congress who have aggressively pursued the story line that Christopher Steele`s intelligence reports on Trump and Russia and Russia`s intervention in the election, those intelligence reports in themselves are somehow terrible. It`s bad that they exist. And when Christopher Steele handed them over to the FBI because he was concerned that he had stumbled upon evidence of a monstrous ongoing crime, well, then, that somehow tainted the FBI as well.

And so, a year ago tomorrow, when the intelligence community put out its assessment about what Russia did, there really was a moments of bipartisan near unanimity that this was very bad news about what Russia had done, and maybe we as a country should get to the bottom of it, make sure understand what happened. We should find out if there are Americans who are in on the attack who need to be brought to justice. Just one year ago, people pretty much agreed on that, even some Republicans, enough to start all these Republican-led investigations at least.

But now at the one-year mark, it is remarkable to see how far most Republicans in Congress have swung toward aggressively trying to stop the criminal and counterintelligence investigation into what happened.

Not only are they not using their own investigations to figure this out, but they are using their power in Congress to try to stop the external investigation that`s happening at the special counsel`s office.

If we are being honest, though, and clear-eyed about this, I think it`s also worth recognizing how successful their efforts have been to stop this investigation. I mean, not just to stop their own investigations in Congress, which they have largely done, but to use their power in Congress to stop the criminal investigations into these matters happening first at the FBI and then in the special counsel`s office.

It`s one thing to see the Republicans in the White House push. It`s another thing to see it work, to see the Justice Department and the FBI roll over and give them what they want. So, just -- just take stock of this for a second with this weird gambit today, where they are referring Christopher Steele for criminal charges. Whether or not that effort results in there being criminal charges about him, you can pretty much guarantee that means he will not be coming to the United States of America to give any public testimony about what he found when he did his investigation into Trump and Russia.

Republicans have also succeed in blocking the public release of hours and hours and hours of sworn closed door testimony about Christopher Steele`s findings when they prevented the release of those transcripts of testimony from Fusion GPS, who hired Christopher Steele to do his work. They`ve also succeeded in harassing Fusion GPS potentially to their existential limit. Today, they forced Fusion`s bank to hand over financial records relating to the firm, all financial records relating to the firm which may very well destroy them as a firm.

After Paul Ryan intervened on his behalf, crusading Trump partisan, Congressman Devin Nunes who heads up the Intelligence Committee, succeeded today in forcing the FBI to hand over, quote, FBI investigative documents that are considered law enforcement sensitive and are rarely released or shared outside the bureau.

The FBI had resisted handing over those documents because they`re relevant to their ongoing investigation, their law sensitive. But now, Justice Department doesn`t feel that strongly about it anymore. They caved. They`re handing them over in the middle of the investigation.

They`re also handing over high ranking FBI officials who will now be questioned by Nunes and his committee, even though those same officials have said for them to testify at this point about what they know would interfere with the FBI`s ongoing criminal investigation. Those officials include one of the five top FBI leaders who were briefed by James Comey contemporaneously about the president reportedly telling him to shut down the FBI`s Russia investigation.

One of those guys the Republicans are getting to testify now even though he says his testimony will interfere with the ongoing investigation. Another one of those guys who Comey has a contemporaneous witness, another one of the five is FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who has been under sustained Republican attack for most of the last year. Over the holiday break, it was announced that he will be retiring from the FBI. He is 49 years old.

Another one of the five corroborating witnesses for James Comey in terms of his interactions with the president is FBI counsel James Baker. It was recently announced without explanation that he will be reassigned at the bureau from that high ranking position. That`s three of the five, plus the way they`ve gone over Comey.

Republicans in Congress are also about to obtain hundreds if not thousands of more -- of personal -- hundreds if not thousands more personal texts from FBI and DOJ officials between FBI and DOJ officials who are in a relationship, having an affair. Once those texts are released to Republicans in Congress, they will no doubt leak them to the press for maximum partisan and humiliating effect.

They`re getting those texts, those personal texts because the FBI is handing them over to the Republicans in Congress, having already given several hundred to reporters. This is the FBI`s own agents, they`re handing over their personal texts.

And the to cap it all off, over the last 24 hours, the FBI and Justice Department had confirmed that whatever else they are giving up in response to all the Republican pressure on the Russia investigation, the FBI and the Justice Department have just confirmed they are actively looking into Uranium One and the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton`s emails again.

It`s been one year. In that year, Republicans have turned from ostensibly wanting to get to the bottom of what Russia did to now doing everything they can to stop that investigation. But if we`re being clear-eyed about this, it`s also worth noting that the FBI and Justice Department are now in a very different position than they used to be in. They have gone from resisting that Republican pressure and that White House pressure to handing over their agents, handing over the officials, handing over sensitive documents, and agreeing that, yes, maybe they should be looking into whether somebody ought to lock her up.

We shouldn`t be surprised by the pushback that evolved over the course of the past year. We maybe should be surprised that it`s working.


MADDOW: One of the first people that took a really aggressive attack at trying to get to the bottom of the Watergate scandal is this man whose name is Wright Patman, a Democratic congressman from Texas. When five men broke in to Democratic Party headquarters in June 1972, Wright Patman had been serving in the House of Representatives for more than four decades.

He was chair of the House Banking Committee. He decided the way he would approach the Watergate burglary would be to, say it with me: follow the money. Why did the burglars have so much money on them when they got caught? And even more, why did they have such large amounts of seemingly political money in their bank accounts?

Well, it turned out that the money had come from President Richard Nixon`s reelection campaign. And so, Wright Patman asked his committee, banking committee, to approve subpoenas for several Nixon officials and campaign aides. It makes sense.

But the White House flummoxed him. The White House successfully pressured enough members of that committee they even with a Democratic majority in that committee, they could not get a majority vote for those subpoenas. And with the country yawning about this snooze fest sideshow Watergate break-in thing, Richard Nixon, soon thereafter went on to win a second term by one of the most lopsided margin in the country`s history.

Wright Patman had failed. The Watergate investigation came to a promising place but then politically it got stopped. You know what? The scandal came roaring back in the president`s second term and the truth did come out. And within two years, Nixon`s attempt to interfere with Wright Patman`s investigation, that ended up being included in the articles of impeachment against Nixon.

That story, the story of Wright Patman`s early failed attempt to investigate Richard Nixon, that`s one of the stories told on the podcast called "Slow Burn" which tries to listeners a sense of not just what happened in the Watergate scandal, but what it was like to live through the scandal in the moment when nobody knew what would happen next when it wasn`t clear that Nixon would ever be busted for what he did.

When nobody knew how it would end, how did it feel like to follow the scandal in real-time. If you`re not listening to "Slow Burn" yet, you should be, because everybody now is already listening to it.

As we hit the one-year mark since the intelligence community assessment that Russia attacked our election in 2016, I`ve been wondering if Watergate can give us any good perspective on what it`s like to be in the middle of a sprawling scandal, and a sprawling investigation when the push back trying to thwart the investigation seems like it might be winning the day.

Joining us now is Leon Neyfakh. He is the host of "Slow Burn".

Mr. Neyfakh, thank you so much for being here.


MADDOW: Congratulations on the success of this effort and on its ambition. I think you guys are set out to do something really hard and you`re doing a great job.

NEYFAKH: Thank you.

MADDOW: The idea of the investigation being successfully thwarted by skillful political players.


MADDOW: You used the story of Wright Patman I think to tell that very effectively and especially it`s very effective because it`s very much lost to history. Are there other examples of that from the Watergate era?

NEYFAKH: Well, I mean, of course, the big effort to stymie the federal prosecutor was when Nixon fired him.

MADDOW: Archibald Cox --

NEYFAKH: But that, of course, didn`t work out, either. In the end, it didn`t work out.

Initially it seemed possible that the office would be closed when Nixon fired Cox, there was confusion as to whether the investigators who worked for Cox would continue the work or not. There were FBI agents who swarmed the federal prosecutors office and sealed it off and it looked on TV like this was the end. The evidence would be taken away, who knows what`s going to happen to it.

But the public pressure was so intense that Nixon had to capitulate and say, OK, we`ll install a new federal prosecutor and I`ll give you the tapes you want and, of course, that was sort of the beginning of the end.

MADDOW: One of the things that I find about a lot of news stories, not just gigantic like Watergate, is that the further you get down the road in time, the harder it is to remember what people`s partisan affiliation was. So, like Wright Patman, he was a Democrat so it matters there was a Democratic majority on that committee. Nixon, yes, I remember that he was Republican, but you start to lose track of those affiliations over time.

In the moment while Watergate was winding its way through the end of the first term for Nixon and the start of the second term, how strong were the partisan affiliations in terms of people who were standing by him or people who were suspicious of what happened?

NEYFAKH: Yes. So, there`s not like a straightforward answer to that because there definitely were Republican partisans who stood with Nixon because he was their political ally. But there were moderate Republicans who didn`t feel that obligation. And so, for instance, after the Saturday Night Massacre, there were plenty of Republicans who said this is unacceptable. There were a few who said it was. In fact, there was one who spoke to the House of Representatives, he was a congressman from Tennessee, I believe, he stood there and said, don`t let this become a legislative lynch mob and he took out a noose that he brought with him and held it up.


NEYFAKH: So there was a little bit on both sides. One thing that`s interesting is that Cox, unlike Mueller, has not faced any of these -- had not face any of these attacks on the grounds that he was, you know, a Democrat or that he was a Kennedy guy, even though his whole biography was working for Kennedy and he was a Harvard law professor and he was this total cartoon of like East Coast elite guy. And yet, Nixon`s White House didn`t go after him on that basis.

MADDOW: And they were so attuned to that as a source of political attack, I mean, Nixon --

NEYFAKH: You would think.


MADDOW: -- the cultural politics was about decrying the elites and liberals.

NEYFAKH: It`s shocking that they didn`t go after that goal. And I think - - I`ve been asking people why do you think they didn`t? The answer I have gotten is just partisanship was different back then.

Republicans respected Archibald Cox. He had been the solicitor general. Who cared if he worked for Kennedy? This was someone with a pristine reputation and that was enough to win him the credibility he needed from Republicans.

MADDOW: The other thing that I feel like is very striking to me at this one-year mark since the intelligence community assessment came out is the attacks on the FBI as an institution, the efforts by Republicans almost writ large within Congress to say the FBI is a bad institution, that it`s corrupt, that it`s biased, it should be purged along partisan lines.

How do -- how do you compare that in terms of the FBI`s role with Watergate?

NEYFAKH: I mean, there was -- there were no such attacks on the FBI by Nixon. I mean, the -- you know, in so far is there was anger from the Nixon White House towards Cox, sure. There was plenty of that even though it didn`t blow up publicly very much, if you listen to the Nixon tapes, he said all sorts of things about Cox privately.

But no, the FBI, as far as I know, did not sustain any kind of attacks like this.

MADDOW: Leon Neyfakh is the host of "Slate`s" podcast about Watergate which is called "Slow Burn", I am obviously a fan and I`m really appreciative of you taking the time to be here.

NEYFAKH: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: Will you come back?

NEYFAKH: Please.


All right. Much more. Stay with us.


MADDOW: -- got a ton of response from our viewers. Lots of people contacted about this story, including a heads up about a possible monkey wrench in the story itself which I will get to in a second.

One of the first and basically still unexplained legal controversies of the Trump administration started back in March when the president fired all the U.S. attorneys from with no warning, with no successors lined up, no time to plan for the hand-off of ongoing work in the prosecutor`s offices, we still don`t know what that was all about last March.

But then this week was their next big surprise move on these crucial and powerful federal prosecutor positions. Thursday marked 300 days since they initially fired them all with no warning, no explanation. But on the eve of the 300-day milestone, on Wednesday of this week, they suddenly appointed 17 new ones all at once. And there are a few intriguing things here about the timing of all this and whether they had to make all the appointments by yesterday as a specific deadline, and why they again made a huge decision about tons of federal prosecutors as a gigantic surprise with no warning and no time to plan.

But there are also questions about who they are putting in these important jobs and why. Back in October, we learned that President Trump had been personally interviewing candidates for the federal prosecutor jobs in jurisdictions where his family and his business and his campaign have key interests. Two of those key districts are places where they suddenly announced new appointees on Wednesday, the southern and eastern districts of New York, Manhattan and Brooklyn, home base for the Trump Organization and Jared Kushner`s family real estate empire.

Well, this week, home state Senator Kirsten Gillibrand threw a penalty flag on one of those appointments, in the southern district of New York which is home to Trump Tower and Trump Organization and not incidentally basically every bank and financial institution Trump has ever done business through. The previous prosecutor in the southern district of northern was Preet Bharara. He famously had been assured by Trump that he could keep that job, but then he too was suddenly fired in March along with the rest of them.

Well, on Wednesday, Trump installed a new U.S. attorney in that jurisdiction to replace Bharara, him and 16 other people and 16 other jurisdictions. The guy he put the southern district of New York someone a member of the Trump transition team. He`s someone who is a law partner of Trump`s close friend Rudy Giuliani.

Well, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand released a statement yesterday in opposition to that appointment of Rudy Giuliani`s law partner to that crucial district. And that may be a real problem for the administration here. Home state senators traditionally get a say in appointments in their state for judges and prosecutors.

If Kirsten Gillibrand doesn`t want that U.S. attorney in the southern district of Manhattan, that would usually mean that that appointment doesn`t happen. Now, in the eastern district of New York, that`s the prosecutor`s office that has recently reportedly been subpoenaing bank records related to presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner. New York Senator Chuck Schumer says that he supports the new Trump appointee to run that office. But so far, Senator Gillibrand hasn`t weighed in on that one.

So, this is potentially an issue for the Trump administration with these crucial, crucial districts that may really interests that are near and dear to the president personally. Home state senators not backing a nominee for U.S. attorney in their state usually is supposed to be a big deal.

In addition to those concerns, though, we also, as I mentioned, got a heads up about another potential monkey wrench in the story or at least something wrong with the Justice Department explanation of what they just did here. It was spotted by somebody in a position to see it when no one else could and understand it when no one else would. This is an important thing we think we caught here and our eagle-eyed guest who saw it and can explain it joins us next.

Stay with us.


MADDOW: OK, check this out. Wednesday, Justice Department announced the appointment of 17 interim U.S. attorneys, 17 new federal prosecutors in districts all over the country including some big important powerful ones.

This is the next big surprise move about prosecutors that the Trump administration has made since they surprise fired or just about all of them in March, 46 of them. So, out of blue, no warning, all on one day this week, here comes 17 replacements.

Now, the Justice Department explained all of the appointments all had to happen on Wednesday all at once for a very specific reason. This is from their press release, quote: Some of those acting United States attorney will also have served the maximum amount of time permitted under the Vacancies Reform Act, which is 300 days.

So, that explains the sudden rush of 17 new prosecutors. That deadline arrived. They announced the 17 new people were in right under the wire at day 299, on Wednesday.

Quote: The appointments announced by the attorney general today filled the vacancies. Well, we and everybody else in creation noted that 300 day deadline and figured, oh, OK, that`s the rush. That`s why it happened.

Maybe not. A veteran Justice Department official looking at this same story that everybody reported the same way suggested that this is actually worth a closer look.

Joining us now for the interview is Matthew Axelrod. He`s a former senior official at the Department of Justice.

Mr. Axelrod, thank you very much for the heads up that you gave us about the story and thanks for being here to help us understand.


MADDOW: So, it makes sense to me in terms of way the Justice Department has explained this. They fired all the U.S. attorneys at once, 300 days ago. The federal Vacancies Reform Act says that you can put the first deputy in those offices in charge of the office for 300 days but then you need to appoint somebody new. It seems to me like they hit the deadline, and so, it was time to rush a whole bunch of new nominees in there.

What`s wrong with the understanding?

AXELROD: Yes, what`s wrong with that, Rachel, is that the first -- you got the first part right, which is under the Vacancies Reform Act when they fired the U.S. attorneys, the existing number two officials in the office ascended and became the acting U.S. attorneys in the districts. And there is a fixed time period after which the Vacancies Reform Act doesn`t work any more and their authority ends.

But what normally happens is the attorney general uses a separate authority to appoint those same people to continue serving just under a separate statutory authority. Here, what happened instead, is that with some of the people the attorney general did that, which is the normal course. And for some of the people in, I think, ten of the districts, the attorney general did something different, which was to bring in new people to serve under the second statute, to use as interim U.S. attorneys.

MADDOW: So, what`s the advantage to the Justice Department to doing it the way that you just described?

AXELROD: Yes, and look, I should -- I should say there is nothing improper or illegal or unethical. I mean, the attorney general has the authority to do it this way.

MADDOW: Right.

AXELROD: I think the thing that was unusual was how it was messaged by the Department of Justice. I think to answer your question, Rachel, the Vacancies Reform Act, the only personal under the Vacancies Reform Act who can become the boss, who can become the U.S. attorney, is the person currently serving as the number two in the office. Under the separate statutory authority, the attorney general has the authority to bring in people from outside the Justice Department.

And that`s what happened in at least some of the examples here, and in the districts you mentioned in the southern and eastern districts, the attorney general has appointed people who were not presently working at the Department of Justice to come in and be the United States attorney.

MADDOW: OK. And that is why I`m particularly interested in this. Because me and everybody else in the country who doesn`t know what we`re talking about on these issues, we`ve been very focused on the southern and eastern districts in New York in particular because of the particular interests of the president and his family and ongoing investigations, et cetera. We don`t need to go into it in detail.

But in the southern district in New York, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is calling foul basically on the appointee and specifically the fact that the president personally met with that appointee before making this nomination. I mean, these 17 people who were just announced, they are going to need Senate confirmation.

Is doing it this which the way you`re describing by the Justice Department, is it going to help them end run around objections from senators? Is it going to make their confirmation something that takes place in a later date or tougher or easier in the long run?

AXELROD: Yes. I think that`s a good question, and I think we`ll have to wait and see how it all plays out. I think that`s one of the risks of doing it this way, is that home state senators might be upset. And it turns out at least in New York, one of them appears to be upset, because I think it sounds like Senator Gillibrand perceives this as an end run around her traditional authority to have input into the selection.

Now, none of these people have been nominated yet. But I think you can expect that particularly in the -- you know the southern and eastern districts within and the district of New Jersey where people left law firm partnerships to take these jobs that they`re expecting, that they will eventually be the nominee.

MADDOW: And everybody, again, outside this system who has been watching those jurisdictions in particular, I think has reason to watch the process by which this was -- by which these folks got these jobs, but also the way that it was explained by the Justice Department.

And I think you`ve done at least -- you`ve done me a great service helping me understand the subtleties about what they did here and I hope for our viewers as well.

Mr. Axelrod, thank you for being here. I really appreciate it.

AXELROD: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: Matthew Axelrod is a former senior Justice Department official.

We will be right back.


MADDOW: Don`t we have "The Blob"? We have "The Blob"? Have you seen the movie "The Blob"? Do we have it?


MADDOW: Thank you. I was, like -- I was expecting a blob.

Friday night sometimes the blob comes slow. "The Blob" was a 1958 sci-fi horror film. It`s an alien life form that crushes to earth, consumes everything in its path. Run, don`t walk from the blob.

The blob has become kind of the way that we have tried to understand personnel policy at the Trump administration. And I don`t mean in the sense that it`s -- they`re like gelatinous or terrifying. I just mean that they cause people to flee.

One of the unusual things about this life we are living through right now, truly unprecedented, is that we got a brand new administration in power in Washington, they haven`t even hit the one-year mark yet, but they shed people like a shaking dog sheds rain. I mean, it`s just an unprecedented pace, administration officials flee. They run, don`t walk from the administration. They joined not that long ago. And we have tried to keep track as it happens.

It turns out it`s hard. Today, a senior position at the Treasury that was filled by Shannon McGahn, wife of White House counsel Don McGahn, that became vacate when she left the position at Treasury. She worked for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Today is her last today.

Vice President Mike Pence also today lost his domestic policy director. He also lost his chief lawyer, lost two senior staffers in a day.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly`s senior -- senior adviser is also out. The White House says they found some other job for him at a foreign aid agency. But he`s out of the White House.

And now, the head of the NSA and Cyber Command says that he is out as well. He`ll be gone as of the spring. And literally, those are just the people we learned about today. I mean, if you are trying to keep track of the departures list from the Trump administration, it has become kind of an auction year`s challenge.

Health and Human Services secretary, chief of staff, deputy chief of staff , another deputy chief of staff, a director of public liaison, a communications director for the office of public liaison, a press secretary, an assistant press secretary, two communications directors, a rapid response director, a national security adviser, two deputy national security advisers, an adviser to the National Security Council, a director of intelligence programs at the National Security Council, the deputy chief of staff of the National Security Council, a director of strategic planning at the National Security Council, a senior director for Middle East at the National Security Council, a chief White House strategist, remember him?

A deputy assistant to the president and strategist and acting U.S. attorney general and FBI director, dozens of U.S. attorneys and National Economic Council deputy director, and domestic policy council deputy director, the chief of staff to the vice president, the press secretary to the vice president, the director of the Office of Government Ethics, and Carl, special adviser to the president of regulatory reform.

And then today you can add counselor to the secretary of the treasury, vice president`s director of domestic policy, chief counsel to the vice president, senior advisor to the White House chief of staff, and the director of the NSA. They`re not at a year yet.

It`s the blob. Run, don`t walk.



MADDOW: Started off the show tonight by talking about the conspicuous fact that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not going to Camp David along with most of the rest of the cabinet and all the congressional leadership and the president and the vice president this weekend. That`s interesting both for Jeff Sessions` feelings and for the prospect the president is looking to get rid of him and how consequential that would be for, among other things, the Russia investigation.

Two Republican members of Congress this week called for Jeff Sessions to resign. Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Mark Meadows of North Carolina. Well, tonight, we`ve just got a third. Chris Stewart, congressman from Utah, is now the third Republican member of Congress calling for Jeff Sessions to resign. And the attorney general not invited to the sleepover at Camp David this weekend, now growing calls for resignation of congressmen.

Watch this space.

That does it for us tonight. We`ll see you again Monday.

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD" with Katy Tur, in for Lawrence this evening.

Good evening, Katy.



Copy: Content and programming copyright 2018 MSNBC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Copyright 2018 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.