Gulf nations cut ties with Qatar. TRANSCRIPT: 03/21/2018. The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Mark Mazzetti, Sarah Chadwick, Jaclyn Corin, Emma Gonzalez

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: March 21, 2018 Guest: Mark Mazzetti, Sarah Chadwick, Jaclyn Corin, Emma Gonzalez

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour as well.

Not long after the United States was attacked by al Qaeda on 9/11, the United States did something that was actually one of al Qaeda`s most specific complaints and demands about the U.S. government. Less than two years after 9/11, the U.S. government pulled American troops and American bases out of Saudi Arabia.

And it is an awkward thing in U.S. foreign policy that hasn`t get talked about all that loudly. People who are part of the George W. Bush administration or supporters of that administration particularly don`t like to talk about the fact that after 9/11, bin Laden got the most specific item on his list of grievances against the United States, got it checked off the list by the George W. Bush administration. It`s awkward, but that that is what happened.

I mean, back during the First Gulf War, when George W. Bush`s dad was president, over half a million American troops, over half a million coalition troops had been -- had been based in Saudi Arabia. Saudi bases were the launching pad for attacks to defend Kuwait against the forces of Saddam Hussein.

After the first Gulf War was over, thousands of U.S. troops stayed on those Saudi bases thereafter. But in 2003, less than two years after 9/11, Saudi government asked and the U.S. government acceded and the U.S. government pulled out of Saudi Arabia, gave up those bases, handed over the keys to the Prince Sultan Air Base, that base that had hosted tens, even hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.

Where the United States decided to move its big new permanent airbase in that part of the world was out of Saudi Arabia after 9/11 and instead into the nation of Qatar. The Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is now the home of CentCom. That`s where U.S. Central Command is based. There are thousands of U.S. troops there at any one time.

And Al Udeid is not in a war zone, but this is the permanent site of U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East, Qatar.

Qatar is a small country. It`s a very rich country and for years now, it has been home to this incredibly important strategic U.S. military headquarters, not just a base, a headquarters.

And since the Trump administration has been in office, one of the unusual and as yet unexplained U-turns taken by this administration and this president in particular has to do with Qatar, almost on a dime basically with no warning, the Trump administration decided that they were going to take a remarkably hostile turn against this country where we`ve got this giant base. They were going to take this sudden dramatic non-previewed surprise turn against Qatar.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: We turn now to the diplomatic crisis erupting in the Middle East. Five nations cutting ties with Qatar accusing that country of supporting terror. And though Qatar is a key U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS, today, President Trump appeared to side with its accusers.

We get more from NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell.

ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, only weeks after the president heralded his success at uniting the Arab world in Saudi Arabia, a growing diplomatic crisis among those same Arab leaders. Back then, the president lavishly praising the emir of Qatar.

But today, the president turning against him, praising the Saudis who in a sudden move are leading an Arab coalition cutting off Qatar by air and sea, including no commercial flights. The Saudis claim Qatar supports Islamic extremists, which Qatar strongly denies.

The president today siding with the Saudis. The crisis critical to the U.S. Qatar, home to a key U.S. base with 8,000 U.S. service members, flying airstrikes against ISIS and missions in Afghanistan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: What was not just unexpected but a little weird about that hard turn by the president against Qatar was that it sort of felt like it came out of nowhere not just for those of us observing from the outside, but even from inside the U.S. government. I mean, it was the policy of the U.S. government to oppose that blockade of Qatar.

Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, had publicly stated the U.S. was against that blockade on Qatar. Rex Tillerson had called for the countries that were blockading Qatar that they shouldn`t do it, but the president just blew that up. It was a surprise to people outside the administration. It was a surprise to people inside the administration.

This is a dramatic "Associated Press" report about what happened at the time. Quote: Aides to President Donald Trump were in deep talks about how to defuse tensions between Qatar and other Arab nations, when the door to the secure room at the White House burst open. The urgent message: Trump had just tweeted about Qatar.

One advisor read the tweet aloud and with that, the policymakers in mid- conference call had no other choice but to rework their plans, to reflect the president`s tweeted assertion that Qatar, host to some 11,000 U.S. troops, was funding terrorism. It was an accusation against a close U.S. ally that had never been voiced so publicly and with such indelicacy.

So, whether or not you care about American policy toward various Middle Eastern countries and who we side with and who we side against, this was just a strange moment in Trump administration year one. What was all that about? What was that big, fast, abrupt turn against Qatar?

We`ve got this base in Qatar. It`s U.S. policy to support Qatar. It`s a U.S. policy specifically to try to hold off other countries that are giving Qatar a hard time. And then the president just do-whoop, 180, out of the blue, hostile turn. Now, we`re going to support this blockade by Saudi Arabia and UAE against Qatar.

Why was that?

Any number of possibilities have since emerged. It has since emerged for example that Jared Kushner`s family real estate company had repeatedly approached Qatar to try to get hundreds of millions of dollars out of them as financing for the Kushner family real estate business. One approach which the Kushner`s reportedly worked on for a couple of years was to a former prime minister of Qatar, and they thought they were going to get that one.

They reportedly thought they were going to get a half billion dollars from this former Qatari prime minister. But those talks fell early last year and the former prime minister said no.

President Trump`s friend, Tom Barrack, was reportedly familiar with some of those negotiations. He`s since said publicly that Jared`s dad, Charles Kushner, was, quote, crushed when the Qatari former prime minister turned down that request for funds. They thought that was going to be a half billion dollars and then it was nothing.

The Website "The Intercept" then reported on a second meeting after the inauguration April 2017, once again between Jared`s dad and the Qataris, but this time it was with the serving finance minister of Qatar. "The Intercept`s" reporting was that Jared`s dad Charles Kushner had again asked for a big Qatari investment in Kushner family real estate, hundreds of millions of dollars and "The Intercept" reported that the Qataris again said no, turned Kushner down.

Interesting, Charles Kushner just confirmed two days ago to "The Washington Post" that, in fact, that meeting in April 2017 between him and the Qatari finance minister, he just confirmed for the first time that that meeting did actually take place. But he has a different explanation for why that meeting happened and what it was all about. He`s now telling "The Washington Post" that he didn`t go to that meeting to ask the Qataris for money. He went to that meeting to turn them down when they were trying to give him money and he didn`t want it.

Quoting from "The Washington Post" two days ago, Jared Kushner`s father Charles Kushner met with Qatar`s finance minister three months after President Trump`s inauguration. A meeting at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City, at which funding for a financially troubled Kushner family real estate project was discussed. However, Charles Kushner said he turned down possible funding.

He told "The Post", quote: Even if they were they`re ready to wire the money, we wouldn`t have taken it.

It seems a little -- is awkward the right word? Kushner Companies would spend a couple of years trying to get millions of dollars out of Qatar being crushed when they`ve been turned down and then a couple months later, Qatar`s ready to offer them more money and the Kushner Companies takes the meeting just to say no, we don`t want it, we don`t need it.

It`s like -- it seems a little -- seemed strange. But that`s their line. They`re sticking to it and, you know, it is bizarre to have to consider the family real estate interests of a White House adviser when you`re trying to figure out weird American foreign policy decisions.

But these are the times we`re in now. We are in incredibly unusual times and there is incredible practical overlap between the Kushner family business and their efforts to secure foreign financing for their New York City real estate holdings, right? There`s incredible overlap between that, an ongoing international effort, and the countries that Jared Kushner has been dealing with in a foreign policy capacity since he became a White House adviser.

Because of that overlap, it -- however crazy it feels to talk about it, it`s impossible to dismiss out of hand the prospect that maybe the reason the U.S. government took this radical and sudden unexplained turn against Qatar, it`s because Qatar wouldn`t give Jared`s family any money when they asked for it and they wanted it. They thought they were going to get it and then they said no, and then Jared and his family are mad at Qatar and so, then it`s U.S. policy and all of a sudden be against Qatar? It`s impossible but that`s what happened.

I mean, maybe that`s one possibility. Maybe that is one potential explanation. If that`s true, that would be an explanation about money that people inside the Trump administration reportedly wanted but they were denied. Well, now, tonight, there is another potential explanation from reporters David Kirkpatrick and Mark Mazzetti in "The New York Times" tonight, and that explanation is not about money being denied to people in the White House. It`s about money flowing into the White House, foreign money flowing in, in great quantities.

And this new reporting from "The Times" derives from the Robert Mueller investigation. Just a couple of weeks ago, we got these seemingly out of the blue new reports about a new cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation. This was also Mazzetti and Kirkpatrick`s reporting. They introduced America to a new guy, a new figure in the Mueller investigation whose name hadn`t been widely previously known -- George Nader.

But in the ensuing couple of weeks since George Nader first got his name in the paper, we`ve all had to learn a lot about him and it turns out he is linked to some stuff that we had known about before that did seem like it might turn up in Mueller`s enquiries. For example, Mr. Nader was reportedly involved in that meeting that took place during the presidential transition in the Seychelles Islands. This is the meeting involving the founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, who`s the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. He`s also a major Trump donor.

That Seychelles meeting during the transition appeared to be an effort to set up some sort of back-channel communication between the Trump transition and Vladimir Putin`s office. Erik Prince was reportedly there as an emissary from Trump and the head of a Russian investment fund was reportedly there as an emissary from Putin. This new cooperating witness for the Mueller investigation, George Nader, was reportedly involved not just in setting up that meeting, he was reportedly there at that meeting.

So, OK, that`s one way in which he factors in. We`d previously heard about that meeting, that makes sense that a guy involved in setting up that meeting would turn up. But this new reporting about this new character George Nader also brought up a whole bunch of other brand new characters and dynamics and story lines that we`d never heard before, that we`d never heard about certainly related to the Mueller investigation before these last couple of weeks.

George Nader is reportedly an advisor to the crown prince, the de facto ruler of UAE, of United Arab Emirates. Robert Mueller, according to "The New York Times", has been using George Nader as a cooperating witness in his investigation because he`s been looking at the possibility that money has been flowing into Donald Trump`s political operation from UAE, from United Arab Emirates, that`s a whole new idea for this scandal.

George Nader also turns out to be linked to a man named Elliott Broidy, who we see on the right there. He was a colorful figure already on the fringes of Trump world. Mr. Brody once pled guilty to a felony bribery charge in New York, in a very famous scandal, where he paid huge bribes to New York state officials in order to get business for his Wall Street firm those well -- New York officials went to jail, he became a cooperating witness for the government and initially pled guilty to a felony later that was reduced to a misdemeanor, but he was the guy who paid the bribes. That made it a minor scandal when Elliott Broidy turned up as a major Trump donor and then he was named a deputy finance chair the RNC. The bribery guy?

But now in this George Nader era that we`re in, in this new era of George Nader-related reporting here, that same guy, Elliott Broidy turns up as a defense contractor. He`s a defense contractor now? I thought he was a Wall Street briber.

He turns up as a defense contractor now who has recently, very recently received hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from UAE, from United Arab Emirates, arranged by his new friend, George Nader, who he just met at the Trump inauguration. Boy, that`s a quick turnaround. Trump wasn`t inaugurated all that long ago you didn`t know this guy before the inauguration and now he just set you up with hundreds of millions of dollars in defense contracts? How long ago did you plead guilty to that felony?

Why is this Trump fundraiser, this deputy finance chair of the RNC, a guy who headlined a fundraiser for the president, which the president appeared at in person just last week, why is this guy Elliott Brady, all of a sudden getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the UAE, and why is the Robert Mueller investigation investigating money potentially flowing from the UAE into President Trump`s political operation? And why is the Mueller investigation`s latest cooperating witness, a guy who was an advisor to the government of the UAE?

And as the Trump administration takes this inexplicable hard, out of the blue turn against UAE`s archenemy in the Mideast, Qatar, does that have anything to do with this strange new influence of UAE in the Trump administration?

Well, "The New York Times" sort of breaks this open tonight. Quote: A cooperating witness in the special counsel investigation worked for more than a year to turn a top Trump fundraiser into an instrument of influence at the White House for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, citing interviews and hundreds of pages of correspondence between George Nader and Elliott Brady.

"The Times" says what`s revealed here is, quote, an active effort to cultivate President Trump on behalf of Saudi Arabia and UAE, these two oil- rich Arab monarchies. High on the agenda of the two men, George Nader and Elliott Brady was pushing the White House to remove Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and to back a confrontational approach to both Iran and Qatar.

Rex Tillerson, of course, was fired last week and the president has adopted tough approaches to both Iran and Qatar. Quote: Mr. Nader tempted the fundraiser Elliott Broidy with the prospect of more than one billion dollars in contracts for his private security company and he helped deliver deals worth more than $200 million from the United Arab Emirates the times has reportedly seen documents not only supporting these huge contracts which Nader has reportedly arranged in very short order for this Trump fundraiser, they also described a $2.7 million payment from Nader to Broidy through a variety of pass-through companies.

Now, what these two were reportedly working on according to their correspondence was number one, getting rid of Rex Tillerson, check. Number two, taking a hard, hard new line against Qatar, check, despite the fact that we`ve got a base there with thousands of U.S. troops at it. Among other things, "The Times" reports that they also discussed blocking a veteran U.S. diplomat named Anne Patterson from taking a top Pentagon job.

Now, the key question here is not just whether these guys have been, you know, able to get what they want out of the Trump administration. All sorts of people get all sorts of things that they want for all sorts of reasons that are more or less legal, right? But if we`re talking about a foreign government paying for those outcomes, that`s very blatantly illegal, and if that`s the case, if a foreign government has been paying off Trump administration or top Republican Party officials to get what they want from the U.S. government, you would need somebody close to that scheme, right, you need somebody close to the inside of that kind of an operation to help prosecutors follow the money.

Well, the other news that David Kirkpatrick and Mark Mazzetti break in "The New York Times" tonight is that not only has George Nader become a cooperating witness for Robert Mueller`s investigation, according to "The New York Times" tonight, Mueller`s prosecutors have just called him back for an additional round of testimony. Nader was apparently overseas when they called him back.

George Nader`s lawyer confirm to us today that Nader has been back and forth between the United States and United Arab Emirates recently, even has he`s been cooperating with Mueller. Mueller`s prosecutors reportedly called him back from overseas for a second round of testimony as of last week and they add this crucially, quote: Mr. Nader has been granted immunity in a deal for his cooperation with the special counsel.

I believe this is the first time we`ve had any reporting about Mueller`s investigators offering immunity to anyone in exchange for something other than a guilty plea.

Joining us now is "New York Times" Washington investigative correspondent Mark Mazzetti, one of the reporters bylined on this scoop.

Mr. Mazzetti, thank you very much for your time tonight.

MARK MAZZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, NEW YORK TIMES: Thank you.

MADDOW: So, you and your colleagues at the times introduced me to the concept of George Nader in the first place. I feel like it`s been a couple of weeks where we`ve had a big influx of reporting about him and we`re still trying to understand what role he may be playing in this investigation being carried out at the special counsel`s office. Let me ask you if I screwed anything up in that summary and what you think is most important about this new reporting.

MAZZETTI: No, it`s pretty thorough set up. I think that what we report tonight -- one of the most interesting things is this sort of year-long campaign of influence that was going on with George Nader and Elliott Broidy, to steer the Trump administration on critical issues of foreign policy in the Middle East, on Rex Tillerson, on Qatar, on Iran, basically how the Saudi Arabian government and the Emirati government used these two guys to try to influence the Trump administration.

And in turn, the correspondent shows that Broidy, who`s the deputy RNC finance chairman, got very rich with hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts with these governments.

MADDOW: Now, what`s illegal here? Obviously, influence in Washington is something that people pay a lot of money to pursue through a lot of different means. If as seems clear in your reporting, at least this seems clear in the materials that you say that you`ve reviewed, if this was money that may have come from the government of United Arab Emirates through this advisor to that government, Mr. Nader being paid to people close to the Trump administration, is that necessarily illegal?

MAZZETTI: Right. Well, the laws about foreign lobbying and the influence of foreign governments are fairly murky and as we`re learning from the Paul Manafort saga, not often enforced. You know, you have to register as a foreign agent if you`re taking money on behalf of a foreign government, and you`re directly lobbying. But there`s all sorts of ways around these rules.

Elliott Broidy did not register as a foreign agent for his work and he says in a statement to us that he was not lobbying on behalf of these governments. He was acting as a patriot and he believed in these issues, so he did not need to register.

Now, there is clearly a real gray area on these laws and what we`re also learning, of course, from the Manafort episode is that the government may take a greater interest in this and maybe in fact the Mueller investigation may take a greater interest in this.

MADDOW: Last question for you, Mark. You report that Mr. Nader has been offered immunity in a deal for his cooperation with the special counsel. As far as I know, that`s the first time that we`ve heard of anybody being offered immunity in this investigation other than people who pled guilty in federal court, and it was formerly worked out as part of their plea deal.

Are we clear that Mr. Nader hasn`t been charged? Is it possible that there`s a sealed indictment against him that he`s got some other legal entanglement here with the Mueller investigation? Or is this just a straight cooperation for immunity deal?

MAZZETTI: We believe it`s straight cooperation. We believe that he is a witness, not a target of the investigation. As we reported, he`s being called back for more questioning. He is a -- I don`t want to say a central figure but he seems to be an important witness in this investigation, not only for questions about what happened before the election, before President Trump was elected, but what`s been going on in the first year of the administration in terms of how foreign governments were trying to influence the White House in steering foreign-policy.

MADDOW: "New York Times" Washington investigative correspondent Mark Mazzetti -- Mark, thank you for joining us on short notice. I know this just broke tonight. Thanks for rushing to the studio to talk to us about it.

MAZZETTI: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right. Lots going on tonight and we`ve got a bunch more people here tonight for what has been a busy day of news. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: NBC News justice correspondent Pete Williams just taped an extensive interview with the FBI Director Chris Wray, which is fascinating on a whole bunch of levels. What you might have seen on "Nightly News" is that Chris Wray tells Pete that President Trump has never personally pressured him about the Russia investigation. It seems very important to have him on the record about that.

Director Way also goes on at length about what he sees as the important, non-partisan nature of the FBI and the crucial independence of the FBI. That also seems important right now to have him on the record about that, especially after the firing of the FBI`s deputy director following months of pressure and taunting of him by the president.

We`re going to post those comments from Chris Wray online tonight at MaddowBlog.com, if you want to -- if you want to see that.

We don`t hear from the FBI director all that often, except when he`s doing congressional testimony. So, just that one level it`s very interesting there and put that stuff in his own words.

But in addition to him talking about those big foundational issues for the FBI, at this remarkable time for the bureau at the White House and the president himself attacking the FBI regularly, Chris Wray also has had some very blunt, very specific remarks about something the FBI and the Homeland Security Department jointly announced and warned about just a few days ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETE WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: You and the Department of Homeland Security put out a report last week detailing Russian efforts to hack into infrastructure, power plants, utilities, the power grid, water systems. What do you think the Russians were up to there? Were they trying to say, see what we can do so you don`t try it with us? So, what was happening there?

CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: Well, the cyber attack that you`re referring to, Pete, I think first, I would say it was the real deal. It`s something we take very seriously. I don`t know that I want to -- and we`re very confident in our attribution of it to the Russian government.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The director the FBI calling the Russian government hacking into American power plants the real deal, saying that the FBI is taking it very seriously.

The FBI and Homeland Security issued this urgent technical alert about that Russian attack on U.S. power plants. It described Russian government entities hacking into U.S. power plants so Russia could basically have the ability to turn the American electric grid on and off at will. That alert was issued less than a week ago.

And as you saw Director Wray say there, the attribution from the FBI here is that this is a Russian government attack and that attribution is rock- solid. We are very confident in our attribution of it to the Russian government. Because of the timing, because that was such a recent alert from FBI and homeland security, because of how serious the thing this is that they gave us this alert about and because of that rock-solid attribution of it to the Russian government, it is notable, it is of interest that when President Trump made his surprise congratulatory phone call to the Russian president yesterday, apparently, that didn`t come up at all.

We also know, thank to this -- thanks to this freaking unbelievable reporting from "The Washington Post" last night that in Trump`s briefing materials for that call to Putin, his national security advisers included one instruction in all capital letters, do not congratulate. Nevertheless, he persisted. He offered his congratulations anyway.

And we`re also told that before this call with Putin, Trump was directed by his national security advisers to make sure that he condemned Putin for that poisoning in the U.K., that poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter with a powerful Russian nerve agent on the streets of Britain, an attack that the U.K. and the European Union and the U.S. government have all concluded was carried out by the Russian government.

The White House admits that President Trump also didn`t follow that instruction. He just didn`t bring that up at all.

So, we had that remarkable reporting last night from "The Washington Post" and a couple of things have happened since then. "Washington Post" reporter Carol Leonnig broke that astounding story. She told us on the program last night that there was basically a panic in the White House after the call between Trump and Putin. She called it an OMG moment of what are we going to say about this call. White House trying to come up with ways to explain what happened, to justify what happened, to clean up after it.

Well, one of the things that has happened since that reporting broke last night is that we have apparently now seen some of the fruits of the cleanup effort. The White House today put out a very brief readout about a call between President Trump and Emmanuel Macron, the president of France.

Look at this, this is the whole readout. Quote, President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President Emmanuel Macron of France. The president`s reiterated their solidarity with the U.K. in the wake of Russia`s use of chemical weapons against private citizens on British soil, and they agreed on the need to take action to hold Russia accountable.

So, he talked to Russia yesterday, didn`t say anything about the poisoning. But then today, he talked to France, and he said, hey, France, we got to make sure we`re going to be super tough on Russia about that poisoning, right? French president like, it wasn`t me. Hey, tough guy!

The other thing that has happened today after this remarkable do not congratulate reporting is it reported freaked out about it in the White House, not just about the president`s behavior but about who leaked it, who leaked this very specific detail about the president`s briefing materials, about what the president was told to say in that conversation with Putin who told reporters about what was on the president`s note cards. I mean, honestly that`s not the kind of material that circulates all that widely. There aren`t all that many people who have access to not just the content of the president`s briefing materials but like the font size and capitalization of the words in those materials.

And it`s an interesting personnel and palace intrigue story as to who might have called a reporter to exclaim over what had just happened and how the president defied this advice from his national security advisors, but the bigger plot point here is not just who leaked it, who did it, but why? I mean, it is a small circle of people close to the president who would have had access to those specific briefing materials. From within that small circle this looks like somebody leaked it to basically alert the public about what the president actually just did in that call. This looks like somebody close to the president pulling the fire alarm.

Have we ever seen anything like that before in American governance?

I have just the person to ask, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: The reason we know that the president ignored his national security advisors` explicit warning not to congratulate Russian President Vladimir Putin on his quote election this weekend is because somebody very close to Trump, somebody with access to his briefing papers for that call apparently leaked that fact to the press.

Why did a presidential advisor do that, we don`t know. I think we can answer the question though of whether we have seen anything like that before, in terms of an American president having his advisors basically pull the fire alarm on him on a matter of national security, basically alerting the American public to a national security problem that derives from the president. Has that ever happened before?

Joining us now is Michael Beschloss NBC News presidential historian.

Mr. Beschloss, nice to see you. Thank you for your time tonight.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: My pleasure, Rachel, always.

MADDOW: So, are there parallels? Have we ever seen anything like this before, a president diverging pretty extremely from his national security team and it then being aired publicly in the newspaper?

BESCHLOSS: Occasionally, a president will go a little bit off message and occasionally as we well know, you know, people around a president might leak something. But a call of this kind of importance and to leak it so quickly and to basically say everyone had agreed that the president would call up Putin then and not congratulate him on this horrible rigged election, and he did exactly that congratulated him. So, something this extreme we haven`t seen before.

MADDOW: If people around Trump, if there`s at least one person in the White House and a national security role who is basically to pull the fire alarm here, to alert the public to his actions, is there anything that we can extrapolate from to understand what kind of effect that might have on a president and his decision-making process?

BESCHLOSS: I think it might make him more suspicious of those around him and even less willing to take advice from people who may disagree. But the other thing is that whoever you know pull the fire alarm, that`s a perfect metaphor, Rachel, is worried that this is a president who is so pro-Russian that he can barely even see that, you know, this is someone who departed from the tradition of earlier presidents.

You know, Sarah Huckabee Sanders trying to defend that said, we don`t get to dictate how other countries operate. Well, that would have been really news to an awful lot of presidents who tried to nudge other countries in the direction of democracy, especially Russia.

MADDOW: Yes, would have even been news to the vice president of the United States right now, who right now is in Venezuela chastising them or -- right now is chastising Venezuela about their departures from democratic norms.

Michael --

BESCHLOSS: You were so right.

MADDOW: The presidents make alliances of a convenience with all sorts of jerks and despots. They all do it for various reasons, strategic or personal or short-sighted or long-sighted.

The Putin love affair for Trump seems different, but big picture, is it possible that this is just the latest iteration of what lots of presidents have done with lots of bad guys over the years? Is there something that is qualitatively different in terms of him cultivating a guy and overlooking the scary or despotic things about that guy, but it`s really in the national interest?

BESCHLOSS: Qualitatively different. I mean, even when you had for instance, you know, presidents like FDR dealing with someone like Joseph Stalin with whom he didn`t exactly all the time disagree, he wasn`t always in lockstep saying that Stalin was wonderful all the time, Donald Trump never criticizes Putin and we`re -- you know, we always have to ask, why is this happening? You know some people are saying maybe Putin has something and the Russians have something on Trump. I think it may be something else.

You know, this is a month when two other leaders became leaders for life. One is Vladimir Putin and that so-called election and the other was President Xi in China. And one of the ideas that Donald Trump talks about is America first with this idea that maybe the Chinese will have a sphere of influence, the Russians will have their sphere. We`ll have ours.

He joked about being president for life, Donald Trump did, said it was a joke. I think we always have to be suspicious that maybe in his mind, this is not such a joke.

MADDOW: That is dark and probably necessary to hear.

Michael Beschloss, NBC news presidential historian -- thank you for that very scary big-picture discussion, my friend. Thanks.

BESCHLOSS: My pleasure. Be well.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: You know how I never have more than one person on at a time on the show? As a general rule, one of the time, single-file. It`s one of the things that we do here that is a little weird for the cable news business but that`s our general rule.

That little rule of ours is out the window. Next, we`ve got three people here all at the same time, but we`re breaking the rule because you really, really, really, really want to meet these people. In fact I`m almost a hundred percent sure that you already admire the heck out of them and they`re here live next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: On March 10th, former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama sent a handwritten letter to the survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 people. The Website Mic got a copy of the Obama`s letter and it is very moving.

It reads: To the students of Parkland, we wanted to let you know how inspired we have been by the resilience, resolve and solidarity that you have all shown in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Not only have you supported and comforted each other, but you`ve helped awaken the conscience of the nation, and challenge decision makers to make the safety of our children the country`s top priority. Throughout our history, young people like you have led the way in making America better.

There may be setbacks. You may sometimes feel like progress is too slow and coming, but we have no doubt you`re going to make an enormous difference in the days and years to come and we will be there for you. And it`s signed Barack and Michelle Obama.

Mr. and Mrs. Obama wrote that letter to Parkland just ahead of school walkouts around the country for gun reform, now. In just a few days, on Saturday, more than half a million Americans are expected at a rally against gun violence in Washington, D.C., with another 800 satellite demonstrations planned not just around the country but around the world, from Boise, Idaho, to Munich, Germany.

Students of Parkland came up with the idea and they have been the driving force behind it -- this March for Our Lives this week.

Joining us now are three students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High who have been forces of nature in terms of making the March for Our Lives a national movement. Emma Gonzalez, Jaclyn Corin and Sarah Chadwick.

Thank you all so much for being here.

I`m really honored to meet you all three of you.

EMMA GONZALEZ, JACLYN CORIN AND SARAH CHADWICK, STUDENTS, STONEMAN DOUGLAS: Thank you for having us.

MADDOW: So let me ask you first about that compliment from the president and -- the former president the former first lady and I know that you`ve heard it from not just them but a lot of people feel like you`re sort of not just impressive, you`re sort of the hope. I wonder if that feels more than just good. I wonder if that feels stressful,

CORIN: Yes it would -- his letter was much appreciated. He`s shown so much respect that a lot of current politicians have not shown. So, it was much appreciated.

And we all have hope because we`ve so we`ve seen it from kids younger than us also, and I think I think our generation is going to be the change because we`ve grown up with this and we`re not going to let the future generations grow up with it also.

CHADWICK: And at the same time, it`s really stressful because we all -- we have all this pressure on our shoulders to make a change and we`re only teenagers. And we shouldn`t have to be the ones who have to make this change. It should be the politicians who are in power right now. But unfortunately, it`s fallen down to our shoulders.

But now that we do have this responsibility, we`re going to make sure that we get it done.

MADDOW: But it`s interesting though, the reason that that pressure is on you guys is because you earned it in a way, not -- it`s not an -- it`s not an automatic thing that kids who are survivors of some tragedy like what happened at your school are expected to then become leaders of a national movement around it. You guys made that happen yourselves in the way that you decided to respond and I guess I want some insight into how that happened and why your school is the place where it -- where it came out that way.

GONZALEZ: It kind of started with David. He really pushed for speaking with Fox, speaking with anyone who would listen, anyone who`s actually at the school. He just kept the door open enough for the rest of us to show up and he gave people`s names. And Cameron showed up and Alex showed up and everyone who`s a part of the movement now was like there.

Everybody decided, we know how this is going to end up. We know that the politician is going to say thoughts and prayers. They`re going to say those words and that`s all they`re going to do and that`s not what we want to happen this time around.

We want this to stop. We`ve seen this before. It`s time to break the pattern.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And if there are people who think that they`re mentally ill people who are, quote/unquote, crazy who don`t deserve to have guns and maybe those people who are claiming that thoughts and prayers are the only things that can solve this and yet also claim that the Second Amendment is the most important thing to them rather than children`s lives -- well, maybe they should get a background check.

CORIN: And Parkland is a community with an immense amount of togetherness like communities like Orlando and Las Vegas, it wasn`t a centralized location that had happened and all the people couldn`t relate to each other and join together for a common goal. But that`s something that Marjory Stoneman Douglas did have, and we can also think our education -- we`ve grown up with amazing teachers and amazing faculty that we had the ability to use the voices that they helped create to make the change.

MADDOW: There have been some unexpected changes -- I say unexpected from the big perspective in terms of policy, since you guys started this movement. There were changes in Florida law, signed into law by a governor who previously who`ve been bragging about his A-plus rating from the NRA. In the omnibus bill that`s going forward at the federal level right now, there are very, very modest but real gun reforms that are included in that bill, including the CDC being allowed to study gun violence as a public health matter.

And these are things that people have been fighting about for a long time and it felt impossible and with a Republican-controlled Congress and a Republican president, it felt doubly impossible. Now, those things seem to be happening.

And so, does that give you satisfaction? Does that give you a sense of what you want to do next? Do you know how this sustains and how it moves forward?

CHADWICK: It`s a baby step towards the right direction. I mean, obviously, we`re pushing for stricter gun reform and in these bills we haven`t really seen that, but we`re really thankful that we have gone what we`ve gone done, because it`s only been a little over a month. And this is as much as we`ve seen politicians do after a tragedy like this in this amount of time.

And so, we`re really thankful for that, we`re really thankful for the baby steps we`re taking, but it`s honestly not enough in our opinion, and we`re going to keep fighting until we get what we want.

CORIN: Yes, and we do want to address the fact that Rick Scott did defy the lobby group that he is endorsed by with the new bill, but that might have not happened if he wasn`t running for reelection, and we need to address that, because people just do it to get reelected and just to sit in their chair and do nothing again for an entire term. So, we do understand that it is a step in the right direction but it`s not enough right now.

MADDOW: What`s it been like to be personally the focus of so much negative attention, so much the backlash? I opened up by talking about this admiration expressed for you by the former president and first lady, certainly a lot of the conversation I know on this show and on this network which leans more to the left of another then say Fox News has been about being impressed by your activism, what you`ve been able to accomplish.

But I know that there`s also been a lot of negative personal attacks. Emma, in particular, I know that you`ve really been singled out. How have you guys been coping with that?

I mean, it`s not really hard to cope with it. It`s not really a question of coping. It`s a question of -- that was kind of funny, let`s move on, or maybe I can make a joke about that, maybe somebody else will laugh, you know?

Like it`s not -- we don`t really take it personally, most of us don`t really take it personally because like, at the end of the day, it`s a stupid comment. We don`t need to dignify it with a response and when we do want to dignify it with a response, we`re going to make it funny.

And, you know, that`s the best way we can deal with this stuff.

CORIN: And it`s comical because they criticize us as individuals rather than what we`re actually preaching, because they can`t see a fault in what we`re saying. So, they have to direct us go after us directly. Yes.

MADDOW: Has it created any tensions among you guys? Obviously, you`re a fluid group and there`s a lot of different leaders from your school. But as this thing has gone forward over this course of these weeks, you all have to decide what you`re going to do individually. You three are here together, everybody`s pursued this in their own ways.

Has it created tensions or do you guys have sort of a tacit agreement amongst yourselves as to how you stay together?

GONZALEZ: I don`t think there`s really any tension other than like, you ate my muffin?

High school like every day in the workplace, there`s going to be little spits/spats or whatever. But at the end of the day, we`re all going to end up cuddling on the couch watching the office, trying to calm down from anything that happened recently, you know?

CHADWICK: And even though we`re like everywhere all the time like a lot of us never we`re never all together in the same city, which I think it`s been like really like mind-blowing, because we`re either like in Washington or New York or L.A. or Parkland, and we do somehow we manage to keep in touch with each other really well, and we do organize with each other really well even though like we`re apart for so long and like some of us haven`t seen some members of our group in like weeks.

MADDOW: Yes.

CHADWICK: So, it`s been crazy but we`re still in touch when we still organized.

MADDOW: Well, I wish you guys success. I wish you resilience. I wish you the continuing and lifelong ability to laugh at people who use opinions you don`t care about.

Anyway, thank you. Thank you for what you`ve done.

CHADWICK: Thank you so much.

MADDOW: Thank you for coming in tonight. Good luck. Good luck this weekend.

All right. They`re right here. I`m kind of star struck.

All right. Sarah Chadwick, Jaclyn Corin and Emma Gonzalez right here, they`re here with me.

All right. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: One simple piece of political news tonight to leave you with before we go. It has been a week in a day since a Democratic candidate named Conor Lamb appeared to flip a Republican congressional seat in Pennsylvania, in a district that had gone for Trump by 20 points. So, it`d be a big deal for a Democrat to flip that seat. Conor Lamb finished ahead by just over 600 votes on election night and then in the official count once everything was counted, he was up by just over 800 votes.

Still, the Republican in that race refused to concede until tonight. Conor Lamb just tweeted: just got off the phone with my opponent Rick Saccone who congratulated me and graciously conceded last Tuesday`s election. I congratulate Mr. Saccone for a close, hard-fought race and wish him the best.

Conor Lamb will be sworn in next month as Pennsylvania`s newest member of Congress. He`ll serve out the year after winning this special election. Already, he and Rick Saccone are campaigning already for what will come next in a newly drawn congressional district in Pennsylvania. This has been the race of the year thus far in the House and we might get a rematch.

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

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."

Good evening, Lawrence.

END

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