Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: January 8, 2018
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: And I want to thank you at home for joining us this hour. Happy Monday.
So, this is a little odd. Mike Flynn, Trump national security advisor, currently cooperating with the special counsel investigation into the president and his campaign after he Mike Flynn pled guilty, right, to lying to the FBI about his contact with the Russian government during the transition. OK, a month ago, "The New York Times" reported when Mike Flynn had those contacts with the Russian government he was not acting on his own. In real time, he was communicating with Trump transition officials about the fact that he was talking to the Russians, and he was talking with Trump transition officials specifically about the fact that he was having conversations with the Russians about them taking it easy on the issue of Russian sanctions.
Now, that`s important because the White House has portrayed Mike Flynn contacting the Russians about sanctions as some kind of betrayal, right? Remember, their line was that they had to fire Mike Flynn, they had to obtain his resignation because he lied about his contacts with the Russians to Vice President Mike Pence.
Yes. Who could have known what Mike Flynn was really up to? It was such a betrayal. He lied.
Well, that all fell apart last month when "The New York Times" published direct quotes from e-mails that had reportedly been sent among top transition staff discussing just exactly what Mike Flynn was doing with the Russians.
Quote: On December 29th, a transition advisor K.T. McFarland wrote in an e- mail to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump`s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, quote: which has just thrown the USA election to him.
After learning that President Barack Obama would expel 35 Russian diplomats, the Trump team quickly strategized about how to reassure Russia. The Trump advisers feared that a cycle of retaliation between the U.S. and Russia would keep the spotlight on Moscow`s election meddling which would tarnish Mr. Trump`s victory and potentially hobble his presidency from the start as part of the outreach Ms. McFarland wrote, Mike Flynn would be speaking with the Russian ambassador.
So, that was all reported by the "New York Times" last month. The transition, the Trump transition knew what Mike Flynn was up to when he did the thing he later lied to the FBI about, which has now resulted in him pleading guilty to a felony and becoming a cooperating witness. Mike Flynn, despite all of the implication to the contrary from the White House, Mike Flynn wasn`t acting on his own. The Trump transition was in on it and we know that in part because of K.T. McFarland`s e-mails about it.
OK, K.T. McFarland is probably best known as a former FOX News personality. When Trump hired Mike Flynn to be his national security adviser, Flynn brought on K.T. McFarland as his deputy national security adviser. Not long thereafter, Flynn was forced out of the White House in this big scandal and K.T. McFarland stayed on a little while longer but honestly within a few weeks, she was out as well.
That`s how these things tend to go, right? You are the deputy who`s brought in by somebody who gets in trouble. That person that got in a lot of trouble gets in a lot of trouble and gets ousted, you usually follow them out the door.
That said, the Trump White House soon announced that they had a new gig in mind for K.T. McFarland. Behold, she shall be sent to Singapore.
It`s kind of a weird consolation prize, right? After the national security adviser gets forced out in a giant national security scandal and you`re his deputy, then you get an ambassadorship? It was a weird consolation prize from the start. It started to seem like an even weirder consolation prize when Flynn wasn`t just ousted, he was criminally charged and pled guilty last month.
But then a few days later when "The Times" got those e-mails that showed that K.T. McFarland was totally in on the scandal that cost Mike Flynn his job and ultimately led to his conviction -- well, yes, then, her being sent to Singapore as an ambassador no longer just seemed like a weird idea. Obviously, it started to seem impossible.
K.T. McFarland`s nomination for U.S. envoy to Singapore stalled over Russia concerns. I mean, even Republicans were on board, right, that this thing was not going to be able to go ahead, not under these circumstances.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. BOB CORKER (R-TN), FOREIGN RELATIONS CHAIRMAN: The nomination is frozen for a while until that gets worked out and, you know, she knows -- she has to know that herself.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: She has to know. Obviously, you can`t become an ambassador, right? When you`re right in the middle of an ongoing criminal national security scandal and your name is on some of the most red hot e-mails at the center of it and specifically at the center of what the White House has been lying about when it comes to that scandal. And those e-mails have been handed over to the special counsel, who`s bringing indictments down like thunder bolts on officials from the campaign and the administration -- yes, probably in the midst of that you wouldn`t expect to be confirmed as the ambassador to Singapore, right? You`d think.
Tonight, the Trump administration has just renominated K.T. McFarland to be ambassador to Singapore. Sure, why not? Everybody was kind of in agreement that that was a crazy idea under these circumstances and her nomination wasn`t acted upon and everybody thought it was over. They are bringing her back. Sure, why not confirm her?
It has been kind of a weird day of news. That`s -- the K.T. McFarland story is one example. Here`s another. This was in "The Washington Post" just a few days ago.
It`s about -- do we have that piece? Yes, there we go. It`s about the head of the specific committee in Congress that oversees the State Department, Foreign Affairs Committee. Trump just nominated to a senior position at the State Department the wife of the chairman of that committee that oversees the State Department.
Now, that`s not the end of the world. It`s a little weird, right? But on a ranking of Trump administration norm-busting and ethics flouting, this would not be a championship contender. Yes, it`s weird.
The member of Congress most responsible for overseeing one of your agencies, you give his wife a plum job at that agency? It`s a little weird.
I mean, for these guys it`s like Tuesday. Not a big deal. You know.
So, we have that news a few days ago from "The Washington Post," then today, just days after we got news of Ed Royce`s wife getting a job at the State Department, we got the very surprising news that congressman, Ed Royce, the committee chairman, the one whose wife just got that big State Department appointment, he`s quitting Congress.
Now, Ed Royce is a long-term California Republican congressman. He`s been there for 25 years. He`s chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. And it is a surprise he is quitting.
As recently as this fall he was insisting, he was definitely staying and anybody saying he was going to retire was nuts. But now, all of a sudden, he`s going and right after his wife got that plum job at the major agency that he oversees.
Mr. Royce is the eighth Republican member of Congress who is the chair of a committee who has announced that he or she will not run for re-election. It`s one thing to be a run-of-the-mill member of Congress, but when you chair a committee and you step down, eight of them is a lot. And that`s probably good news for the Democratic Party`s chances in the mid-terms overall, that eight committee chairmen are leaving. But even just beyond just the large numbers of committee chairs who are going, some of these individual ones are strange and this Ed Royce one today was strange and a surprise.
So, like I said, it`s kind of a weird news day. I expect it will continue to be a weird news night. But I`ll see your weirdness thus far today and I will up the ante. In 2008, there was a pretty good-sized Democratic field of candidates who signed on to run for president that year as the very unpopular era of George W. Bush came to a close.
The Democratic primary in 2008 ended, of course, with the super dramatic down to the wire fight for the nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But, you know, if you go back to the beginning of that primary, the candidate who was the most surprising and sometimes the most fun to cover right from the beginning was a man named Mike Gravel. This is him.
I know this looks like we`re using very unflattering footage of him but I have to tell you, he`s the author of this footage. This is his own campaign ad. The ad overall goes on for nearly three minutes.
More than the first minute of it is just what you see here -- Mike Gravel looking into the camera with a sort of run-of-the-mill look on his face. He kind of swallows a few times, smacks his lips. It`s not like he`s fixing you with his gaze, right? Sometimes you hear road noise. Somebody walks by.
But then there is some action. You fast forward to 1:11 in the ad by which point the only thing he`s done is stare into the camera. But he turns, he walks a few steps, he goes and picks up a big rock. He carries the big rock over to the edge of the lake and whoop, boom.
And then the ad keeps going for a long time thereafter. The rock hits the water like 90 seconds in and then like for a whole another minute and a half, it`s just Mike Gravel walking away. Three-minute ad.
Mike Gravel ran for president in 2008. It`s kind of a weird cat. It`s not like he didn`t know ads like that were weird. That was the point of them.
He turned out to be a lot of fun in debates when he could get himself into debates, but never really broke through as a presidential candidate. What his candidacy did do in 2008 was remind everybody that there is a guy in this country named Mike Gravel who once upon a time had a pretty phenomenal and interesting career in U.S. politics.
In 1968, Mike Gravel was elected as a Democratic senator from the state of Alaska. He was sworn in 1969. And when you are a first-term senator -- yes, being a senator`s a very prestigious job, but when you`re just starting out, you don`t get very prestigious assignments.
So, for Mike Gravel, when he was a freshman senator, the one thing he actually got to be in charge of in the Senate, even with his party running the Senate and so they`re in the majority, they get all the chairmanships and everything, the one thing in the Senate that they put him in charge of was a subcommittee on buildings and grounds within the public works committee. It might not have been much, but it was the one thing they let him run.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
THEN-SENATOR MIKE GRAVEL (D), ALASKA: The Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds, it`s the only chairmanship that I have and I treasure it dearly.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was Mike Gravel speaking in 1971 on what turned out to be an extraordinary night. On that night, Mike Gravel managed to make it one of the most important things in the world that he happened to be the chairman of the Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds.
Now, again, this is June of `71. In June of `71, first, "The New York Times", then "The Washington Post" and "The Boston Globe" and other newspapers had started publishing pieces of the Pentagon Papers.
There`s a great movie about this out right now called "The Post", which is about "The Washington Post" and their decision about handling the Pentagon Papers and all the legal fights and everything. But in June of 1971, Daniel Ellsberg who had taken these documents from the Pentagon, he was trying everything he could think of to get these documents into the public eye so the American people could read these documents for themselves, they could see for themselves what the government really knew about the Vietnam war.
And part of his strategy was to get these Pentagon documents to newspapers who were starting to publish them piece by piece. But as they were publishing them piece by piece, they kept getting blocked by the court, and they were fighting it out individually, with each new bit of publication, with each new paper in terms of injunctions and threats from the administration.
But newspapers were not the only avenue that Daniel Ellsberg chose for releasing these documents from the Pentagon. He also went to a number of members of Congress under the idea that the speech and debate clause in the Constitution might allow a sympathetic member of Congress to get the Pentagon Papers into the public record by getting them into the congressional record, where constitutionally they probably couldn`t be censored. And the American people could therefore read them.
Now, lots of higher-profile members of the U.S. Senate reportedly turned down Daniel Ellsberg when he came to them with this idea. But Mike Gravel was this young guy, 41 years old, freshman senator. He personally was turning very hard against the war. He tried to stop the draft by filibustering the draft to death.
And he was the one guy who took Ellsberg up on his offer. They came up with this plan. Gravel figured out what he was going to do. He was going to get the Pentagon papers into the congressional records.
They couldn`t be censored, so they could all be released to the public. And he had this plan. His plan was to read the Pentagon Papers on the floor of the Senate.
Terrible plan, as it turns out, because Mike Gravel did not plan it right in terms of the procedural stuff and when he got up there on the floor of the Senate June 29th, 1971, he took to the floor and he was going to read the Pentagon papers but he immediately got shut down because of the absence of a quorum in the Senate chamber. He hadn`t figured on that.
But Mike Gravel had a plan B. After it wasn`t going to work on the floor of the Senate, he got another genius idea about his little subcommittee on buildings and grounds. I`ll quote you from the "New York Times" the day after he did this.
Quote: The Alaska Democrat had hoped to read the documents on the Senate floor in an all-night session, but he was thwarted when a quorum of 51 senators couldn`t be mustered and they were adjourned. Senator Gravel went across the street to the new Senate office building, to the hearing room of the Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee of the Public Works Committee. There he convened a session of the subcommittee of which he is the chairman and there he began the reading.
My favorite detail actually of this whole moment in American history is that Mike Gravel in order to do this technically had to make the case these Pentagon documents he was going to read about the Vietnam War, he had to make the case that they were relevant to his committee. He had to make the case that they had something to do with his subcommittee on buildings and grounds. And so, he had a witness come in, a New York congressman come in and he had the witness testify that he wanted to have a federal building built in his district.
And Mike Gravel told him, yes, sir, I`d love to put a federal building in your district but I can`t because there`s no money, because all the money has gone to this darn war. And you know what? I have some stuff to say here about that war.
And thus, he started reading the Pentagon Papers out loud. And there were journalists on scene who had seen what he was trying do on the Senate floor, they followed him across the street to see what he was going to try to do in his little subcommittee. Nobody knew how this would end up.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: Have your legal experts told you you`re safe from prosecution or injunction as long as you read these in your function as a subcommittee chairman?
GRAVEL: That`s a question yet to be decided.
REPORTER: Senator, do you have any hopes of this --
GRAVEL: What they have told me is that`s a question yet to be decided.
REPORTER: That there is some possibility you could be enjoined legally --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: But Mike Gravel, with all that uncertainty, he nevertheless read. He read for hours.
He intended actually to read a lot longer than he did, but about four hours into it, he became so exhausted that he actually got very emotional and sort of couldn`t hold it together.
Still, though, everything he was able to read became part of the public record. He gave copies of what he read to the journalists who were present in the room and then even though he was exhausted to the point of sobbing, openly weeping in the hearing room, he had the presence of mind at O dark 30 in the morning after these hours, with all of that emotion, he had the presence of mind to ask for unanimous consent that more than 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers should be entered into the congressional record.
He asked for unanimous consent. He was the only member of his little subcommittee who was present in the room. He thereby got unanimous consent. He unanimously approved his own motion.
And that is part of how we have the public record that we do from that incredible moment in American politics. That put 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the public record.
And this is newly relevant today because Greg Sargent of "The Washington Post" reports today that Democrats in the Senate right now are considering trying to do something like that again. Now, this time, it is not dozens of volumes and thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers, this time, it`s a transcript from the Russia investigation.
This weekend, these billboards went up in Des Moines, Iowa: Senator Grassley release the Fusion GPS transcripts. Iowa, of course, is the home state of Chuck Grassley, who`s the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In August, the head of this firm Fusion GPS gave ten hours of testimony to Chuck Grassley`s Judiciary Committee about his firm`s role producing the so-called dossier, that collection of raw intelligence reports concerning Russia`s interference in the election and their relationship with Trump and the Trump campaign.
Now, as you know, Republicans in Congress who are supposedly leading congressional committee investigations into what Russia did and whether they had help from any Americans, congressional Republicans have largely instead focused their efforts on trying to get the real Russia investigation off-course. In large part, they have focused their efforts on denouncing the dossier with all of their might and denouncing Fusion GPS, the firm that paid for it. Senator Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham right now are trying to get the Justice Department to bring criminal charges against the British intelligence agent who compiled the dossier.
Other congressional Republicans have subpoenaed the bank records from Fusion GPS. Congressional Republicans have forced the FBI to hand over sensitive law enforcement materials from their ongoing investigation that will give Republicans in Congress details of how the FBI checked out claims from the dossier when they were doing their own investigation.
Republicans have just been going hammer and tongs against the dossier and the firm that paid for it. It`s their main effort to create a competing scandal, a diversion from the central questions of the Russia matter.
The problem for them in that strategy is no major thing from the dossier has been conclusively disproven. A lot of people who were mentioned in the dossier have denied that what it says about them is true, but a bunch of what is in the dossier has been proven out over time.
And importantly, the company that commissioned it, the firm that paid for the research and hired Christopher Steele to do, it they say -- and they know more about it than anybody -- they say they stand by what is in that report. All this criticism, months of criticism, Republicans going after it with everything they have, the firm that commissioned that report says we stand by it.
Don`t you want to know on what basis they stand by it? How can they think -- how can they think, with all of these attacks they are still OK with it? Why?
Ultimately, there were three different committees that heard more than 20 hours of testimony about the dossier from the head of Fusion GPS. The first committee that sat them down for more than ten hours was Chuck Grassley`s Senate Judiciary Committee.
Shortly thereafter, in August, a town hall in Mount Ayr, Iowa, Chuck Grassley seemed to indicate to one of his constituents that we the public would get to see the transcript of those ten hours of testimony.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TOWN HALL ATTENDEE: The second thing I`d like to talk on is Senate Judiciary Committee staff members met for 10 hours. I`d like to know what they discovered in that meeting and I would like the transcripts released. Will you do that?
SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Yes. The answer is it will take a vote of the committee to do it. But I presume that they will --
TOWN HALL ATTENDEE: Will you personally vote for the release of the transcripts?
GRASSLEY: I don`t know why I wouldn`t.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was in August.
Since then, Republicans including Chuck Grassley have only intensified their attacks on the dossier, on Chris Steele personally, on Fusion GPS. That has only intensified the public interest as to what is in those transcripts.
Today, Senators Richard Blumenthal and Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrats who are both on Grassley`s committee, sent him a letter insisting that Chairman Grassley make those transcripts public. Fusion GPS has reiterated publicly and emphatically that they want those transcripts released. Democrats on the committee appear now be unified in saying they want the transcripts released. Senators who have seen the transcripts because they`re on the committee, who know what`s on it, have said there wouldn`t be harm caused by releasing it. It wouldn`t interfere with anything in terms of any ongoing investigations.
But for some reason, Senator Grassley won`t do it. Despite what he told his own constituents in August, today, he insisted, no, he will not allowing that transcript to be released.
You know, when it was the Pentagon Papers in 1971, those were secret Defense Department documents that had been spirited out of the Pentagon by somebody who wanted the public to see them. He went to Congress. He went to the press. That is how the public got that information.
The administration went crazy trying to keep that stuff secret, but it got out. In Watergate, it was the White House tapes. Those tapes were the property of the White House. And Nixon did not want to hand them over to Congress.
Congress insisted, though. The courts ultimately forced it. That is how those tapes finally made their way to the public.
In this case, these transcripts, they already belong to Congress. This fight to get the transcripts released is not some fight between branches of government. It`s not some constitutional question. It`s a political question of Democrats who know what`s on those transcripts wanting those transcripts released and Republicans who know what`s on those transcripts wanting them kept under wraps.
If Greg Sargent`s reporting at the "Washington Post" today is right and Democratic senators are considering pushing this to the hilt, potentially pulling a Mike Gravel here, they will have a hard time of it. When Mike Gravel did what he did in 1971, Democrats ran the Senate. So at least he had his little subcommittee chairmanship.
Democrats right now are in the minority in the Senate. None of them run even a teeny tiny little subcommittee on public works that can be convened at midnight with some reporters. But if the Republicans keep saying no, the public can`t see those transcripts, and Democrats decide they want to go to extremes to get this out, to get it into the public record, they have some options. And this is likely about to get weird and a little dramatic. Those ripples will likely spread far and wide.
Watch this space.
MADDOW: Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal today called on Republican Senator Charles Grassley to release the transcript of ten hours of testimony that was given to the Judiciary Committee by the founder of the firm that commissioned the Trump-Russia dossier.
Senator Grassley thus far says he has not moved. His office reiterated today in writing that there`s no plan to release those transcripts anytime soon.
The question newly is, how far are Democrats willing to go in order to get those transcripts on the record?
Greg Sargent of "The Washington Post" reports today that Democrats are considering pulling a Mike Gravel Pentagon Papers style stunt, that they may be thinking about ways that they could read these documents, read this transcript into the public record, thus making it publicly available even as the committee chooses to not formally release it.
Could that conceivably work? Did it actually work when Mike Gravel did it in 1971?
Joining us now is NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Michael, thank you very much for joining us.
I know you are somewhere warm and sunny and this is not what you need to be doing right now. So, thank you for being here.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No, absolutely delighted. I`m on what Attorney General Sessions refers to as an island in the Pacific.
MADDOW: Oh, very good. I know you`re not on executive time, though. I know you`ve been working very hard.
BESCHLOSS: No, no. Indeed.
MADDOW: The Pentagon Papers --
BESCHLOSS: Unlike certain personalities in the White House.
MADDOW: Exactly. So, the Pentagon Papers example with Mike Gravel is dramatic in its own right, and I`d be interested to hear from you in terms of the significance of that event, what Mike Gravel did in 1971, how consequential it was, how much of a risk he was taking by doing that. I know that it was greeted as an intensely controversial act when he did it.
MADDOW: But also, if Democrats are looking at that as a potential model for what they might be able to do with some of these Russia investigation documents that Republicans won`t release, should that actually be seen as a model as something that could be done now?
BESCHLOSS: I think it should be. You know, Gravel, as you`ve said so well, was a maverick. And his whole point was that the Pentagon Papers should not be concealed. He knew what the Founders said.
The Founders said they wanted the United States to be different from England where the mistakes and scandals of the rulers were concealed from the people, you didn`t get access to documents. So, Gravel was saying what better example than the Pentagon Papers, which tells of decades of American action toward Vietnam, a lot of lies, a lot of mistakes.
So, at the moment that Gravel went before his Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee, and you`re right, it`s a really funny story, but that was the only way at that moment it seemed as if there might be an official channel for the Pentagon Papers to become public.
As it happened, shortly after he did that, the Supreme Court ruled 9-3 that the Pentagon Papers had to be released, Nixon administration could not stop them, and the other thing that that shows is how important it is to have a Supreme Court dedicated to civil liberties. That was true in 1971. People like Brennan and Marshall and others. Not so sure that will be true in the future.
MADDOW: Michael, we have been watching this issue about the Fusion GPS transcript since August, since that original testimony when we found out it was 10 hours of testimony, when we know that Fusion`s principals came out and said after the testimony, we stand by the dossier. When we heard them say that they would support releasing the transcript, we sort of realized right away that would be a really interesting transcript to read as people really attack this dossier.
MADDOW: Is there anything that we should understand in terms of presidential history and just modern American history about document releases that attempt specifically to congressional transcripts, right? The Pentagon papers were secret Defense Department documents that had been spirited out of the Pentagon.
BESCHLOSS: Right. The executive branch.
MADDOW: The White House tapes from the Watergate scandal were obviously created in the Oval Office with the president`s knowledge, the question of whether Congress should be able to get them was legitimate constitutional question.
What about when it`s a fight over Congress releasing something of its own?
BESCHLOSS: It is absolutely terrible. You`re absolutely right, because as you say, those are things where executive branch documents.
Here you`ve got a situation where a majority on the Judiciary Committee led by Charles Grassley is saying we`re going to conceal our own transcript of this testimony which Democrats have heard and feel should be released. That`s really the kind of heavy-handedness you that didn`t even see during the Nixon period. And I think one reason why Gravel was able to prevail was because he knew that with a Democratic majority, Democratic senators were not going to go after him for releasing those documents.
If you saw a similar profile in courage by White House and or Blumenthal and others, it might not end up so well.
MADDOW: I was looking back at the contemporaneous coverage the day after Gravel did this thing. We got the initial coverage, sort of breathless coverage from reporters about what they`d done. The day after that was all about how all of his fellow senators were absolutely vexed by his controversial behavior and they were quite flummoxed by what he had done.
You saw that --
BESCHLOSS: And it`s one argument you and I can make about historical judgment. Oftentimes, things will look different in history decades later. And one great example of that, and I`m so glad you mentioned it tonight, is the whole Gravel episode.
MADDOW: Yes, NBC presidential historian Michael Beschloss, thank you, my friend. It`s great to have you here tonight. Thank you.
BESCHLOSS: Be well. Thank you, my friend.
MADDOW: All right. Much more to come. As I said, it`s kind of a strange news night. I`m told things have been getting weirder even since we have been on the air. We`ll have -- I think we`ll have this for you when we come back.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: -- Admiral Ronnie Jackson. Admiral Jackson is a highly decorated naval officer, more than 22 years of service. He`s also the official physician to the president of the United States. He`s been in that job since 2013.
Now, one of the fun responsibilities of that important job is that Admiral Jackson is the man who is responsible both for performing the president`s annual physical and for releasing the results to the public. This means that Admiral Jackson is about to do President Trump`s first physical since he`s been in office. We`re told that it is scheduled for this week, for Friday.
Now, usually the presidential physical is kind of a non-event, almost like a human interest story about the presidency. The most exciting stuff is like, oh, President Obama is struggling to stay off the cigarettes, right? You got little bits and bobs but usually not that important.
This year, though, because we`re talking about this administration, people keep asking the White House if the president`s physical is also going to include a mental exam of some sort. That is not a thing that presidents usually get. And the White House is suggesting that we should not expect Trump to have any sort of mental fitness exam on Friday alongside the rest of his physical.
But this president is the oldest person ever sworn in as president. God bless him. He`s also the only presidential candidate in modern times to have not released extensive medical records before he was elected -- although it was fun to meet his doctor. Remember him?
You should know, though, that Admiral Jackson will be the one who presumably will release information to the public after this physical happens, but it is the president himself who gets to decide how much of his own medical information to let out. The president does have medical privacy rights just like anybody else. And he presumably can withhold any information he does not want people to know.
That said, in terms of tests of this president where he actually has to be there in person, there might be a much more stressful test coming up for him way sooner than the White House was expecting. And that story`s next.
MADDOW: NBC News was first out with this scoop today. Initial talks under way about Trump interview in Mueller-Russia probe.
NBC`s Kristen Welker, Carol Lee, Julia Ainsley and Hallie Jackson reporting, quote: anticipating that special counsel Robert Mueller will ask to interview President Trump, the president`s legal team is discussing a range of potential options for the format, including written responses to questions in lieu of a formal sit-down.
Trump`s legal team is also seeking clarification on whether the president would be interviewed directly by Mueller, as well as the legal standard for when a president can be interviewed, the location of a possible interview, the topics and the duration. The president`s team is also seeking potential compromises that could avoid an interview altogether.
So that was NBC News this morning. The Trump legal team is expecting special counsel Robert Mueller to ask to interview the president himself and apparently they are scrambling with ways to avoid that, like offering that he would write his answers at home like a take home exam.
Then, this afternoon, "The Washington Post" followed up with its own reporting on this same story. "Washington Post" reported the Trump legal team is not just preparing for the possibility that the special counsel will ask for an interview, but that Mueller, quote, has told president Trump`s legal team that his office is likely to seek an interview with the president.
"The Post" further reported today that Robert Mueller himself, quote, raised the issue of interviewing Trump during a late December meeting with the president`s lawyers. The special counsel`s team could interview Trump soon on some limited portion of questions, possibly within the next several weeks, according to a person close to the president.
The person said, quote, this is moving faster than anyone really realizes.
NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams reports tonight that if Robert Mueller does ask to interview the president, if he subpoenas the president to ask him questions, legally, the president probably can`t say no. But he could plead the Fifth. He could invoke his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. No president has ever done that. But we`ve said no president has ever done that a lot over the last couple of years.
It`s also an open question whether Trump`s lawyers could force the special counsel`s office to accept certain conditions like only answering questions in writing because their client is the president. There`s not a whole lot of historical precedent for stuff like this. We`ve never as a country been in quite this situation before, even though presidents have faced questioning in criminal investigations.
My favorite part of all of this reporting today, though, is what appears to be the brass ring proposal from the president`s team. Quoting from NBC News: In addition to the possibility of suggesting the president submit written responses in place of an interview, a second person familiar with the president`s legal strategy said another possibility being contemplated was -- get this -- an affidavit signed by the president affirming he is innocent of any wrongdoing and denying any collusion.
Why don`t other criminal defendants think about that? I mean, why wouldn`t that be enough for a special counsel?
I, Donald Trump, didn`t do nothing, signed Donald Trump. He can even get it notarized, so it would be official.
I`m sure that would set this to rest, right? Needless to say, basically, nobody NBC News spoke with today thought Robert Mueller might go for the affidavit idea.
Joining us now is Carol Lee. She`s a national political reporter for NBC News. She`s one of the reporters who broke this story today.
Carol, it`s really nice to have you with us tonight. Thanks for being here.
CAROL LEE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: It`s great to be with you, Rachel. Thank you.
MADDOW: So, we`re getting your reporting first. We found a couple other news outlets do further reporting on this today, seeming to be focusing in on the timeline, the question of whether or not this is something that`s coming up imminently or whether this is something that`s being discussed as a hypothetical.
MADDOW: What`s your understanding of that now?
LEE: Well, our understanding is it`s still kind of fluid for all the reasons you just laid out. But, you know, you could see some sort of interview or some kind of discussion between the president and the special counsel`s office in coming weeks but, you know, President Trump`s legal team still has a lot of questions just in terms of what that would look like, how long it would take, where it would be, what the format would be, all of those kinds of questions and like you were talking about, they have these different ideas for how to kind of get around from having the president actually have to sit down and have a face to face conversation with either Robert Mueller or, you know, people who are working for him.
MADDOW: I know that there is always some flexibility around the logistics of these things. I know when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had to speak with investigators it was an interesting thing they negotiated where there wouldn`t be a transcript and then we remember the videotaped deposition of President Clinton.
MADDOW: And there`s been lots of different things negotiated here.
Now that we`re seeing in the press these sort of negotiating gambits from the Trump legal team`s side, it made me wonder sort of how much leverage they`ve got in this particular situation with this special counsel, with this type of investigation. Is this a situation in which Robert Mueller could lay down the law and say, yes, that`s fine if that`s what you want to do but this is how it`s going to go?
LEE: Yes, it`s a great question. Technically yes, he definitely could. And so, in that sense, you know, the Trump lawyers are putting forward their ideal in sort of what they see as negotiations, as their first opening bid. And then they`ll go from there.
But yes, certainly, one of the things that Trump`s legal team really wants to avoid is any kind of grand jury subpoena. That`s just -- they do not want to go there. And so, to try to avoid that, you get some sort of negotiation or agreement on an interview or a discussion or whatever you want to call it between the president and Mueller`s team.
And so, if they`re able to do that, then they can avoid the sort of spectacle that was -- wound up being what happened with Bill Clinton, which then led to perjury and then impeachment and they really don`t want to go down that road. And, you know, their strategy has been cooperate, cooperate, cooperate, and then it will just, you know, move along very quickly and in a very -- you know? Sort of speedy manner. And so, that`s the kind of game that they`re playing.
MADDOW: Do we believe that if these interviews are going to happen or if this interview is going to happen sometime in the foreseeable future, that that would indicate basically the end of Mueller`s investigative work? I mean, theoretically, when you look at these things from the outside and you`re a non-lawyer, you think that you save the biggest fish for last? And so, when these types of interviews start getting lined up, you sort of realize maybe this thing is coming to an end?
That`s just my perspective from watching a lot of TV about lawyers. Is that how it works in the real world too?
LEE: Well, that`s certainly the line Trump`s legal team is putting forward, that this means it`s wrapping up rather quickly. But we just don`t know. And, you know, most people that you talk to think that this is going to go on for some time.
And then we`ve talked to folks who say that this could be -- they`ll have an initial discussion with the president and then maybe come back for more later, that they`ll negotiate certain narrow topics in this go-around and then do something at a later time. So, we kind of don`t know. As you were talking, you started talking about when we started talking about this, it`s just unchartered territory. So, we don`t know exactly how this is going to play out and it could go any number of ways.
MADDOW: One last quick question for you, Carol. Do you know if vice president pence has been having similar discussions with the Mueller team?
LEE: That is an excellent question, and we hope to find that out.
MADDOW: Oh, I like the way you say that. It makes me think you might be about to figure it out.
Carol Lee, national political reporter for NBC News, really appreciate it. Really interesting reporting. Thank you.
LEE: Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: -- the coast of Shanghai, something extraordinary is happening, extraordinary in a bad way.
Three days ago, a really big oil tanker called the Sanchi collided with another ship about 160 miles off the coast of Shanghai three days ago. It has been on fire ever since. And as you can probably guess just by looking at that plume of black smoke, this is a big problem.
Apparently, when that much oil is blazing away, there`s not that much you can do about it. But wait, wait for the fire to go out, or, gulp, wait for the tanker to explode. The Sanchi was carrying nearly a million barrels of oil. Experts say it is more than likely that tanker is going to blow. If the thing blows up, the explosion would presumably destroy the tanker entirely and sink it, which at a million barrels of oil would be a spill three times bigger than the Exxon Valdez was in 1989. And that was one of the largest environmental disasters in the history of the world.
So, for the moment, they`re in this nightmare holding pattern, watching it burn, waiting to see if they`ve got another, you know, Exxon Valdez on steroids on our hands.
That`s exactly the doomsday scenario U.S. government officials had in mind when they created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. It`s basically an oil spill emergency slush fund. It was created in the wake of the Exxon Valdez -- an immediate source of federal funding to respond to oil spills in a timely manner. This oil spill liability trust fund is primarily financed by a nine-cent per barrel tax on companies that sell oil in the United States. Or I should say it was primarily financed that way.
That tax was just killed. That tax was allowed to expire as part of the tax bill Republicans passed right before Christmas. So, that tax and the thing it funds were killed off last week. That had generated $500 million a year. It was a main source of revenue for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.
Proceeds of that tax were specifically put aside for a rainy day when history repeats itself and there`s another Exxon Valdez or another Deepwater Horizon. Break glass in the case of an emergency. Slush fund for oil spill disasters. And the Republicans just killed it.
And at the same time the Trump administration has also just hacksawed the safety regulations that are supposed to prevent oil spills in the first place, saying they want to overhaul how federal officials monitor safety procedures on offshore drilling operations. The Trump administration has just moved to kibosh two safety rules that were put in place, specifically after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. They want to get rid of those rules on the grounds that they are overly burdensome to the industry.
These things they just got rid of were the rules that were supposed to prevent another Deepwater Horizon-style blowout. Why would we need those rules?
But that`s how they are approaching their new gigantic policy change, which will open up virtually the entire Western and Eastern Seaboards of the United States to be fair game for offshore drilling. Forty-seven potential offshore drilling leases, which could trigger a feeding frenzy of drilling off of both coasts. We`re talking about nearly all U.S. coastal waters, including waters off the coast of California that have been protected for decades, more than a billion acres in the Arctic and along the Eastern Seaboard.
Governors from both parties have lined up against that offshore drilling proposal, literally. Look at this map of the governors up and down, from border to border, who are opposed to this drilling, Democratic and Republican governors.
But screw the governors. The administration`s doing right by their friends in the oil industry. Upping the drilling, killing the safety rules, and getting rid of the tax that funds the cleanup efforts, which means no more emergency funds for the next time disaster strikes and we`ve got millions of gallons of oil exploding into the waters off like North Carolina.
This is a pretty sweet time to be in the oil industry. Pretty much everything is going your way right now.
Let`s keep an eye on whether that tanker explodes, though, huh?
MADDOW: Friday night, we did an update on this peculiar phenomenon in the Trump administration which has White House staffers fleeing the White House and quitting in unprecedented numbers. A lot of people have left and they`re not even at the one-year mark.
It turns out, though, there is a new person to add to that long list. When you look at the vice president`s part of the White House, one of the things to note is that there`s not a ton of staff who works for the vice president. Even so, Mike Pence has already lost four very senior people. He`s lost his chief of staff, his press secretary, then last week, we learned he lost his domestic policy director and he lost his chief counsel.
Well, now the addition is that his wife, Second Lady Karen Pence, she has lost her chief of staff as well. Now, I should tell you out of contemporaneous reporting that has been done on Mike Pence in his long career as a public servant, we can`t find anybody who has ever described him or his wife as terrible people to work for. We don`t know, but that`s not at all how people publicly describe them.
But even still, in this White House, a place that has a huge amount of turnover, there is an unusually large amount of turnover specifically on the vice president`s side. They can`t keep anybody, even in their highest jobs. Why is that?
That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."
Good evening, Lawrence.
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