New clues in Skripal poisoning mystery. TRANSCRIPT: 03/29/2018. The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Leo Shane

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: March 29, 2018 Guest: Leo Shane

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: I've known you for a long time, Chris Hayes. I've never before wanted to sculpt you, but I want to preserve for all eternity the look on your face while Shulkin was telling you about his conversation with Trump where Trump did not mention that he was about to fire him talking about policy, said good-bye to him and then had somebody else do it a minute later.

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, "ALL IN": Can you imagine?

MADDOW: I mean, it's one thing to imagine Shulkin experiencing that, it's another thing to see that as a management tactic.

HAYES: Yes, it's really --

MADDOW: I mean --

HAYES: I felt like I got a window into the level of dysfunction we're dealing with here that was pretty astounding.

MADDOW: Honestly, like if you were a manager at a company that found out that a middle manager had behaved that way, you would be like we need to do some house-cleaning around here. You know what I mean?

HAYES: Absolutely, yes.

MADDOW: That's remarkable stuff. Incredible, incredible work. Thanks, Chris.

HAYES: All right. Thank you.

MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Super happy to have you here. Happy Thursday.

Today's news has been full of sorts of surprises. We've got NBC investigative reporter Carol Lee joining us tonight. She's got a big scoop tonight.

We've also got the single best reporter in the country on veteran's issues joining us tonight.

So, a big show tonight. There's a lot going on. One year ago when President Trump fired the U.S. attorneys, all the federal prosecutors across the country, that got a bunch of attention for two reasons.

First was that he did it suddenly and with no warning. And over the years, lots of presidents have decided to replace all the previous U.S. attorneys, but nobody has ever done it this way, with the demand that they all get out of office that day, hand in your keys, get out, no handover plan, no time to wind up any cases or even set up any ongoing management arrangements.

So, it made a lot of news, one, because it was very sudden. It seemed to be maybe an impulsive decision. It did not seem to be a well-planned out thing, which is a serious thing when you're talking about federal law enforcement. That move also made news because some of the U.S. attorneys who got fired were very high-profile people.

For example, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the southern district in New York. He was somebody who was very high-profile, and furthermore, he had been publicly a short of the right to keep his job. The president and the attorney general that said that he'd be able to stay on in the Trump administration as U.S. attorney in the southern district of New York.

So, when Preet Bharara was fired, that was a real point of focus. So, it was a year ago that shocked decision came down to the suddenness of it, it's the high profile U.S. attorney's being pushed out. That's what made all the news.

In the year since those firings happened though, while those things are also still interesting, what's turned out to be super interesting in the long run is that even though it really was a mass firing out of the blue last March, there ended up being a tiny handful of U.S. attorneys that the president decided he would hold on to. None of them was famous at all at the time they've all become a little bit famous since.

They include Rod Rosenstein who at the time was U.S. attorney in Maryland. They didn't get rid of him. He ended up becoming the number two official in the Justice Department, deputy attorney general. In that role, he is the direct supervisor of the Robert Mueller special counsel investigation and so, therefore, Rod Rosenstein has been publicly attacked by the president of the United States.

There was also Dana Boente, who was a U.S. attorney in Virginia. He was brought on to be acting attorney general after the president fired Sally Yates. He then became acting deputy attorney general until Rod Rosenstein was sworn in. He then became a head of the national security division at the Justice Department.

And then mysteriously, Dana Boente was fired or at least he was ousted from the Justice Department with no warning and no explanation. That still remains a mysterious turn of events.

Let me actually just -- let me take this moment to make it publicly, if you have any information that can explain what happened to Dana Boente in terms of his sudden removal from the Justice Department, after they put him in that series of all those highfalutin jobs, that remains an unsolved mystery of the Trump era. If you know anything about that we would love to hear from you, www.sendittorachel.com. That affords you a number of ways where you can confidentially get in touch. Thank you. Public service announcement over.

So, there's Rod Rosenstein, household name now. There's Dana Boente, intriguing mystery man. And you should also know that there's this man, his name is John W. Huber, one of these handful one of this handful of U.S. attorneys who wasn't fired. He was U.S. attorney in Utah when Trump took office, and unlike almost every other federal prosecutor in the country, he still has that job to this day, U.S. attorney for Utah.

Like Dana Boente and Rod Rosenstein, he is basically a respected, fairly non-controversial, definitely non high-profile career prosecutor. But now, John Huber is about to have his time in the spotlight as well.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions last year made a very high-profile, ultimately very consequential announcement about recusal. Not long after he was confirmed as attorney general, it was discovered by investigative reporting that he had not told the truth during his confirmation hearings about his own contacts with the Russian government during the time that he worked on the Trump campaign. After initially issuing a bunch of fierce blanket denials, Jeff Sessions ultimately had to concede that yes he had had those contacts and basically he had lied about them.

And a lot of people expected at that point that he would have to step down as attorney general. But instead what he did was he announced a broad recusal. He announced he would stay as attorney general but he would recuse himself. He would pledge to not involve himself with anything at the Justice Department or the FBI that related to the 2016 campaign, including anything related to the Trump campaign and also the Clinton campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign. The exact language of that refusal is in the press release that we will give to you. I said this, quote: I have now decided to recuse myself from any existing or future investigations of any matter relating in any way through the campaigns for president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Any matter relating in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States. That was Attorney General Jeff Sessions a year ago after he got found out lying about his own contacts with Russian government officials during the campaign, and that that announcement of his refusal is the reason why not Jeff Sessions but Rod Rosenstein oversees the Russia investigation related to the Trump campaign.

But it should be noted that that recusal should have taken him out of involvement in anything involving either of the campaigns, and that's on top of the commitment he made during his confirmation hearing that he would stay away and not involve himself in any investigations that involved Hillary Clinton that were raised as a campaign issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SESSIONS: Mr. Chairman, it was a highly contentious campaign like a lot of people made comments about the issues in that campaign with regard to Secretary Clinton and some of the comments I made, I do believe that that could place my objectivity in question. I've given that thought. I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from any questions involving those kind of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton and that were raised during the campaign, or could be otherwise connected to it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Any questions involving those kinds of investigations that involve Secretary Clinton that were raised during the campaign or could otherwise be connected to it.

OK. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is supposed to be recused from anything at the Justice Department of the FBI that involves either presidential campaign during the last election and any of the Hillary Clinton investigations that the Trump campaign made hay out of during that contest. Broad recusal.

The fact that he is supposed to be recused from any of those matters of course raises questions about his involvement in the firing of the FBI director and the deputy FBI director. Remember both James Comey and Andrew McCabe were ostensibly fired because of their actions related to Hillary Clinton investigations during the campaign.

So, what's Jeff Sessions doing being involved with either one of those firings?

On top of that, there have been these calls from Republican members of Congress fueled by conservative media, demanding that the FBI's handling of any investigations related to Hillary Clinton, the FBI's handling of those matters should itself be reviewed. Republicans in Congress have insisted that the FBI was wrong in the way that it pursued those investigations because Secretary Clinton was somehow let off the hook. So, they want to investigate the FBI for not locking up Hillary Clinton and they want to investigate the FBI because the FBI investigated Russian interference in the election.

They want to investigate the FBI for investigating that they want to investigate the FBI for them getting a court to approve multiple search warrants to surveil a Trump campaign advisor who for years was believed by the FBI to be a Russian foreign agent. Republicans in Congress thinks -- they think that that's the real scandal. That's the real problem that the FBI ever looked into that or pursued that. And so they want the FBI itself investigated on those matters.

Well, Attorney General Jeff Sessions today announced that he has asked Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber to lead that investigation of the FBI. Again, John Huber, one of just a handful of U.S. attorneys who was not ousted by President Trump a year ago when he issued that blanket firing of all federal prosecutors.

Now, apparently, this is not a new probe that is being led by John Huber. U.S. Attorney John Huber has, according to Jeff Sessions, already been conducting this investigation of the FBI for some time, but for some reason, Attorney General Jeff Sessions just decided that he would make it public today. And again, John Huber is a respected prosecutor. He has worked under Democratic and Republican administrations.

Nobody's quite sure why I turned to General Jeff Sessions decided to make this public today. Nobody's quite sure what to make of it overall because this is weird when we're in new territory. We've never really seen anything like this before.

And this announcement today comes just one day after the Justice Department's inspector general announced that he will review that application for that surveillance warrant on Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page and the inspector general announced that he will also conduct a review of the FBI and Justice Department relationship with Christopher Steele the former MI6 agent who wrote the so-called Trump-Russia dossier which has become a point of obsession in the Republican-controlled Congress.

So, why is this happening now and why are we learning about this now? Yes, in the course of two days, we have learned about both of these inquiries and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has gone out of his way to say publicly that he's the one who requested both of these inquiries, both the inspector general review and this other review led by this Utah prosecutor. They're both now public. Sessions says he's the one who set them both in motion, and we now know that they're both happening at the same time.

And I think there's a -- there's a couple of important things to know about that from today's news. One of them is about Jeff Sessions. One of them is actually about Christopher Steele, but let's do the Jeff Sessions one first.

This morning, this letter was made public from Republican Senator Chuck Grassley and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. It's a letter to the Trump campaign and look, it's bipartisan. I mean, that's a Republican and Democratic senator signing the same thing, peanut butter and chocolate reunited, cats and dogs right in the same goat.

I mean, we never see anything bipartisan anymore. This is like a circus trick at this point, but here it is. Today, they together sent this letter to the Trump campaign re-upping a bipartisan demand that the Trump campaign hand over to the Senate Judiciary Committee documents and communications from the campaign related to Russia.

And there are a few elements of wonder here. One is that this is a bipartisan request. Two, they're alive, a congressional inquiry into the Russia scandal, what?

The request is also quite literally wonderful. It is a cause of wonder, because of its one footnote, it has one footnote in the letter and it acknowledges a spelling difficulty which has caused a lot of people a lot of heartache for the last five months since a man named George Papadopoulos was charged in a special counsel's investigation. Look at the very bottom of this letter from Grassley and Feinstein today this again the whole point of this letter is they're reaping a document request to the Trump campaign about Russia. Hand us documents that contain these key notes related to the Russia investigation, footnote.

While your search terms previously included the word Papadopoulos, we now ask you to include papad asterisk, papad and then anything after that in additional searches. Quote, in an effort to account for possible misspellings.

I think about it, right? If you if you only ask for emails from the Trump campaign that correctly spelled the word Papadopoulos, you might imagine you wouldn't get very many documents handed over so number one they want the search done again including common misspellings of George Papadopoulos' last name.

More substantively, though, they are also asking specifically for communications from two people. Rick Dearborn and went on to be deputy White House chief of staff, in fact he just left as White House deputy chief of staff, and a man named John Mashburn. Rick Dearborn and John Mashburn, I know they both sound like fake names you would invent for a burner hotmail account, but these are real guys.

John Mashburn was the policy director for the Trump campaign, at least for a time. His name is obviously unfamiliar, but I think that's in part because he has rarely if ever surfaced as a relevant name in the high profile scandals that are variously afflicting the Trump campaign and the Trump administration.

The one place Mr. Mashburn does turn up is as a point of contact for the campaign on a murky incident that took place at the Republican National Convention in 2016. We're still to this day, nobody really admits who exactly insisted that the Republican Party's national platform needed to be changed to go softer on Russia. That mystery is where both John Mashburn and Rick Dearborn make an appearance in the in the narrative of this scandal, because they were policy advisors from the campaign who were reportedly consulted on the changes to that platform while it was being negotiated.

So, why today are Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein for the first time inquiring about those two guys? I don't know.

But a couple of hours after they released that letter, bingo, a scoop from investigative reporter Mark Hosenball at "Reuters", and you can see the headline there. Quote, Mueller probing Russia contacts at Republican convention. Quote: Investigators probing whether Donald Trump's presidential campaign colluded with Russia have been questioning witnesses about the events of their Republican National Convention. One issue Mueller's team has been asking witnesses about is how and why Republican Party platform language hostile to Russia was deleted from a section of the party platform.

So, maybe Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein dynamic bipartisan duo believe that Dearborn and Mashburn can shed some light on that for the Senate investigation as well. That's the place where they both turn up in the Russia scandal as best as we can tell.

But here's the thing, Mark Hosenball today also goes on to report that Mueller's investigators have been asking witnesses about several matters that specifically relate to Jeff Sessions. Quote: Mueller's team has been asking a convention related event attended by both Russia's U.S. ambassador and Jeff Sessions. Quote: Investigators have asked detailed questions about conversations that Sessions, then a campaign adviser, had at a campaign event attended by Russia's ambassador to the United States.

Mueller's team has also been asking whether Jeff Sessions had private discussions with the same ambassador on the sidelines of a campaign speech which Trump gave at Washington's Mayflower Hotel in April 2016.

OK. So, if Mark Hosenball's reporting today, this new reporting from "Reuters" is correct, this means a couple of things. First and most importantly, it means that in current inquiries by the special counsels office, when they what they're asking witnesses about now is about the central matter under investigation. It's not just obstruction of justice, they're asking about the question of contacts with and potentially collusion with Russia. That's what they're asking witnesses about and that is supported by the court filings we got earlier this week from Mueller prosecutors where they described having evidence that Trump's campaign chair and deputy campaign chair repeatedly had contact with someone with known active ties to Russian intelligence during their work on the campaign.

So part of what is important about Mark Hosenball's new reporting is that collusion is clearly still in the mix in terms of what Mueller is looking at. Anybody who was hoping that collusion was a dead letter within the Mueller investigation will likely be alarmed by these reports about what Mueller is asking witnesses about now.

The other thing that's important about Mark Hosenball reporting is, hey, that's the attorney general you're talking about they're the currently serving attorney general of the United States is the subject of active inquiries in the Mueller investigation on multiple fronts while he's still serving as attorney general, which we now know involves him setting up multiple new inquiries into the behavior of the FBI and whether or not the FBI should have been investigating the Russia matter at all and whether they've been too biased in favor of Hillary Clinton. He's the subject of inquiries by the Mueller investigation meanwhile he's siccing these other two investigators on the Russia investigation.

This is a rat's nest and boy does that purported recusal of his seem to be sagging under its own weight these days. So, serious new questions about the attorney-general, but I mentioned there were important new developments that relate to this in the news today about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and also about Christopher Steele. Well. the what about Christopher Steele comes in the form of a sort of alarming brand new scoop tonight from NBC's Richard Engel and that's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: NBC foreign correspondent Richard Engel had this scoop tonight on NBC "Nightly News".

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, new clues that could solve what's been a weeks-long mystery, just how were former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter poisoned with a nerve agent that left them critically ill? We've reconstructed their last-known movements on March 4th in Salisbury, England. At 1:30, they set out from home for drinks at this pub, followed by lunch around the corner. At 3:35, they left the restaurant and soon collapsed on a nearby park bench.

Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon walked us through the crime scene.

HAMISH DE BRETTON-GORDON, CHEMICAL WEAPONS EXPERT: Heading towards the sort of center of town.

ENGEL: He thinks the fast-acting poison was likely smeared on something they touched.

DE BRETTON-GORDON: This stuff if breathed in can kill you instantaneously. If absorbs through the skin, which I think is the case in this particular attack, then within minutes if not hours.

ENGEL: British authorities now say they think the poison was left on scribbles front door. The Kremlin strongly denies it was involved, but Boris Karpichkov, another Russian spy turned double agent, has no doubt his former bosses were responsible.

This is your KGB ID.

BORIS KARPICHKOV, FORMER RUSSIAN DOUBLE AGENT: Basically license to kill.

ENGEL: Karpichkov says just last month, he got a call from a friend still on the inside.

KARPICHKOV: He told me: look, be careful, look around.

ENGEL: His source told him he was one of eight on a hit list. It includes Skripal and Christopher Steele, author of the infamous Trump-Russia dossier.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: NBC's Richard Engel just tonight reporting that Christopher Steel also U.S. investor and whistleblower Bill Browder and at least five other people besides Sergei Skripal apparently turned up on some sort of hit list three weeks before Skripal turned up, slumped on a park bench in Salisbury, England, suffering from the effects of what the British government says is a rare Russian nerve agent. I can tell you for sure that Richard is going to have more on this story and you should stay tuned to anything Richard Engel says over the next couple of days, promise me.

Sergei Skripal was attacked in Britain, along with his 33-year-old daughter. On that front, there's actually a small bit of good news today. Watch this from ITV News in Britain tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: This is on ITV news at ten with Tom Bradby (ph).

TV ANCHOR: Good evening. There were those who said that no one could recover from the nerve agent poisoning that left the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter critically ill. But there was some remarkable news on Yulia Skripal today. She is improving rapidly and is no longer critically ill, though her father still is. If she is well enough to talk and there are suggestions that she is, then this slow-moving investigation might get a new and rapid lease of life.

REPORTER: It has taken weeks of investigation for experts to now be able to say with some confidence that the house where Sergei Skripal lives is the place where the would-b assassins tried to kill him. The highest concentration of nerve agent was found here on the front door, which has now been removed for further tests. The police have built a metal wall around this quiet corner of Salisbury, a crime scene attracting worldwide attention and condemnation.

If the former spy and his daughter Yulia were twin targets for assassination, it now seems the plot at least partially failed.

Sergei Skripal is still critically ill, but his daughter's condition said the hospital today has changed from being critical to stable. While she is by no means well, it is a remarkable turnaround and the hospital say she is improving rapidly.

Given the fears about the potency of Novichok, the upturn in health is unexpected and reveals more about this little-known chemical weapon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Novichok are something that although they've been around for a long time, they're relatively new, and we don't have as much information about those compounds. So, we don't know if she could -- if the problems could reoccur. But in terms of long-term effects, it's possible that she will have some neurological problems like memory loss, concentration, breathing problems.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: So, Sergei Skripal is still in critical condition in the U.K., but he is described as now stable. His 33-year-old daughter Yulia, according to the British press is conscious. She may be talking and she is no longer considered to be critically ill.

In response to the nerve agent attack on Mr. Skripal and his daughter, we are seeing still an unspooling diplomatic fight. As of today, 27 countries in total have expelled more than 150 Russian officials of various kinds.

Today, the Russians started reciprocal expulsions, kicking out 60 U.S. diplomats from Russia, and closing the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg. Russia insists they may go even further in terms of their retaliation.

But you know what? So does Britain. Britain is insisting they also might not be done with their response to what they see as a chemical weapons attack on their soil. British Prime Minister Theresa May has fairly loudly announced that she's considering further actions against Russia, potentially even looking at what is perceived to be a large problem with Russian money laundering in London and she has been pushing hard on this in public and in parliament.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THERESA MAY, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: And when faced with the evidence, we gave the Russian government the opportunity to provide an explanation. But they did not do so. They provided no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons program in contravention of international law.

No explanation that could suggest they had lost control of their nerve agent and no explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom. Instead, they have treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm contempt and defiance.

Incredibly, they have deployed at least 21 different arguments about it. They have suggested that they never produced Novichok, or that they produced them but then destroyed them. They've tried to claim that their agents are not covered by the Chemical Weapons Convention. They have pointed the finger at other countries, including Slovakia, Sweden and the Czech Republic and even tried to claim that United Kingdom was responsible for a chemical attack on our own citizens.

For nation state like Russia to resort again to peddling such preposterous and contradictory theories is unworthy of their people and their great history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Here's the interesting thing: over the last couple of weeks, our country has taken action against Russia in a pretty significant way. It was belated, there was a lot of foot dragging, but a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. finally implemented some of the sanctions that Congress required against Russia for their attack on our election. The Trump administration announced they would basically sanction the people who have been indicted in Russia by Robert Mueller, which sort of undercuts the president's claim that the Mueller thing is a big witch hunt, right?

But sanctions were announced a couple of weeks ago. And then thereafter, the U.S. did join Britain and all these other countries in expelling a whole bunch of Russians dozens of them and closing down the Seattle consulate.

Russia then retaliated today. They threw 60 American officials, a direct punch back to this action the U.S. government had taken against Russian officials just a few days ago. And that's interesting right given the Russia investigation swirling around this president in his campaign, given his previous obsequious deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But that brings us to NBC News's second big scoop of the night from Carol Lee, Courtney Kube and Kirsten Welker. Headline: Trump tells aides not to talk publicly about Russia policy moves.

Quote: President Donald Trump's national security advisors spent months trying to convince him to sign off on a new plan to supply new U.S. weapons to Ukraine to aid in that country's fight against Russian-backed separatists. Yet when the president finally authorized that policy shift, he told his aides not to publicly tout his decision, according to officials. Trump argued that doing so might agitate Russian President Vladimir Putin.

One White House official telling NBC News, quote: he doesn't want us to bring it up. It's not something he wants to talk about.

So, that's something that happened in December. Policy change made but Trump doesn't want anybody talking about it. It might upset Putin.

Now, that same dynamic is in effect with these other dramatic policy moves that we've seen quite recently. I mean, the White House announced Monday that the U.S. would expel 60 Russian diplomats. That's the largest number since the Cold War. Cold War, it's in response to Moscow's alleged nerve agent attack in the U.K.

But the president did not comment on it and he, quote, insisted that the White House's message include the idea that he still wants to work with Russia. Quoting: NBC News's story tonight, Trump was similarly silent today after Russia announced that it would expel U.S. diplomats and closed the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg.

And NBC News tonight describes a similar dynamic at work around the decision a couple of weeks ago to put those sanctions against Russia in response to their actions in our election. At times, NBC News reports, quote, the president has directed aides not to talk about those sanctions.

There's been a lot of surprises in the news today. This counts is like a surprise in your lifetime of news, right, because this isn't about like a covert action by the U.S. government that they want to keep quiet. Like this isn't stuff that the U.S. government is doing in secret. These are public actions by the U.S. government designed to have a public effect while the president is refusing to verbally acknowledge that he's doing these things.

You're not keeping it secret just ixnay on the okkentay (ph) about this, OK? I mean, it's been a weird day, but this is a weird dynamic.

Carol Lee joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Quote: Trump tells aides not to talk publicly about Russia policy moves. That's the headline of this weird new scoop tonight from NBC News national political reporter Carol Lee, along with Courtney Kube and Kristen Welker.

Carol Lee, thank you very much for joining us tonight. Congratulations on this.

CAROL LEE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: So you've got this remarkable reporting tonight that even as the White House has started to take some policy actions against Russia, including sanctions and expelling diplomats, the president is not just keeping silent about these things himself, he is also trying to keep other people in the administration from talking about these things.

Did your -- did your reporting turn up any credible information of why he's doing that?

LEE: Yes, well, officials we talked to basically summed it up to two things. One is, which is interesting, is that the president doesn't want to be seen as appeasing his critics and that includes the media. He does - - so he doesn't, he feels under all this pressure to talk to up on Russia and doesn't want to be seen as giving in to that. You know, that's one reason.

And another is that he just -- he wants to still have better relations with Russia. He still holds out this hope and in his mind if he somehow, you know, speaks negatively about Putin or was really aggressive and what he says publicly then that'll anger Putin and those hopes for a better relationship will not happen.

And one of the interesting things that we learned is that part of what the president's team has started to do is try to motivate him to take these policy actions which were as you mentioned are getting increasingly tougher. And the way that they do that is say, OK, well, if you want to have really good relationships with Russia, Putin responds to strength, so you need to be stronger and you need to be, you know, be tougher on him, and they say that the president's kind of bought into that and gets that argument.

And so, at the same time then, he'll take the steps and his aides are left, you know, not really knowing what to do, whether they should talk about it or not talk about it and oftentimes he'll say he doesn't want to talk about it.

MADDOW: Your reporting today obviously comes in the -- in the wake of the do not congratulate story where the president was reportedly advised in writing by his national security aides that he should not congratulate President Putin. He then called up President Putin and congratulated him right away.

Is there concern that the president's behavior toward Putin on a one-to-one level, the personal level, the way he's talking to him may be undercutting the policy impact of these increasingly tough measures that he's taking as policy?

LEE: There is -- particularly on that congratulatory phone call, you know, we were told that the president may not have seen those notes, but that his aides actually decided not to brief him on that orally because they knew he was just going to do what he wanted to do anyways. And so, there's concern that he's -- you know, he's not being tough enough in his rhetoric and that that somehow diminishes the policies. But in the president's view, you know, he just feels that he doesn't need to be tough rhetorically on Putin.

And in fact, he -- according to his advisors -- was tough on Putin in their phone call in the sense that he had, you know, seen Putin talking about these new nuclear capabilities that Russia had and showing these images of what an attack would look like and got really upset about that and so, you know, aides say he called the leaders of France and Germany and the U.K. and said, you know, what's with this guy, we got to stick together on here, he's clearly pretty dangerous. And, you know, and who knows what how their reaction was but probably something along the lines of like, yes, we've been trying to tell you that.

And so, then he gets on the phone with Putin and he says, you know, look if you want to have an arms race, we can do that but I'll win and he said he boasted about -- you know, I just got this $700 billion dollar defense budget. It's the biggest ever. You know, essentially like you don't want to mess with me and that's a private conversation than what we saw publicly was he said they had a very good call and he hopes to meet with him.

MADDOW: Yes, so and the even if we believe the aides that he was actually secretly being very tough with him even if that's --

LEE: Right.

MADDOW: -- even if that's true, what we know from the president's own words is that what he also said was congratulations, you did great in your fake election and please come visit.

LEE: Yes.

MADDOW: This is -- this is a weird this is a subject for this White House.

Carol Lee, national political reporter for NBC News, thank you very much. Congratulations on this.

LEE: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right. Much more to come tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: From the earliest days of this White House, we have seen an enormous amount of turnover. We have seen a lot of people leave. Most of the people go away quietly. Some of them later profess to love the president still. Maybe, maybe we then get anonymously sourced reports in the press about what might have happened that led to them.

A very, very few of the people fired by this president or who hadn't forced to leave this administration have gone away kicking and screaming, saying publicly they were done wrong, they got a raw deal and they've been pushed out from maligned reasons. That is a rare thing but it just happened, in part, it just happened here tonight and that story's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have no doubt it will be properly implemented, right, David? Better be, David.

(APPLAUSE)

We'll never have to use those words. We'll never have to use those words on our David.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: We'll never have to use those words on our David. Our David, your David, the collective David, we will never use those words, you're fired, on our David.

Yesterday, somebody used those words on our David. But tonight, our David told Chris Hayes that those words didn't end up coming from the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HAYES: When is the last time you spoke to him?

DAVID SHULKIN, FORMER VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: I spoke to the president yesterday.

HAYES: What was that conversation like?

SHULKIN: We spoke about the progress that I was making, what I needed to do from a policy perspective to make sure that we are fixing the issues in V.A. Very focused. He was very inquisitive about the things that we were working on, making sure that we were focused on the job at hand.

HAYES: Wait, that's before you were fired?

SHULKIN: That's correct.

HAYES: You spoke to him, he made no mention of the fact that he was about to terminate you?

SHULKIN: That's correct.

HAYES: And then you found out via tweet?

SHULKIN: Yes, right before that, the Chief of Staff Kelly gave me a call, which I appreciated, he gave me a heads-up. And so -- but that was much after the phone call.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The president speaking to him pleasantly, talking with him about policy, expressing no problems of what he's doing, hangs up. Can you -- can you call that guy and fire him?

Joining us now is a person you should read any time there is veterans news in the country. Leo Shane is deputy editor of "Military Times".

Mr. Shane, thank you for being here tonight. I really appreciate your time.

LEO SHANE, DEPUTY EDITOR, MILITARY TIMES: Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: So, David Shulkin has gone out with a bang. He says the reason he was fired is because he was opposed to abolishing the V.A. and so people used personal scandals about him and used other means to push him out, but that was the real reason. Does he make a compelling case?

SHANE: Well, I -- look, we've heard multiple reasons at this point. The president in Ohio today said that he forced the secretary out because he was upset about wait times, even though we've heard multiple times from the president in recent months that he's excited about the progress and it feels like there's been a lot of reforms at V.A.

So, look, this issue of privatization and health care overhaul at V.A. has been one that's been floating since Trump came into office and has been one that Shulkin has had to fight against his entire term there. What we've seen over the last few months is a real internal power struggle here. You know, some folks disagreeing over this policy, how much of V.A. care should go outside of V.A., how much taxpayer funds should go into the private sector.

You know, Shulkin was not seen as a moderate on this in the beginning, but in recent months has really has really become one and the veterans groups all see him as someone who stood up as a stalwart against real massive privatization efforts.

MADDOW: He says he's going to continue to speak out now as a private citizen against privatization.

Obviously, as you mentioned there, veterans groups are very opposed to privatization even though they want improvements in the V.A. And they want full funding and support for the V.A. They've been pretty strong, almost all of them, against these efforts toward privatization, almost nobody admits that they are trying to privatize or basically abolish V.A. health care. But clearly there's -- the saga of Shulkin, including the way he's going out, is by saying that this is a real and present threat to the V.A., that this is something that's being actively worked for.

Is it your sense that there's actual support for that in Congress that could make it happen?

SHANE: Well, it comes down to what's your definition of privatization. You know, there's a couple of different proposals in Congress right now that would dramatically increase the amount of veterans who go to private sector for care and send a lot of taxpayer dollars out. But we've seen Democrats and Republicans say, look, there needs to be more of a partnership. There's not enough capacity at V.A. and it doesn't make sense to have veterans go to go to V.A. hospitals for routine care if it's a lot more convenient to go to the private sector.

But -- the question is where does that line come down and this is where the fight becomes. You know, what Secretary Shulkin was backing and has said he was backing is some sort of plan that still leaves V.A. at the center of this care and there's forces within the White House who have said, look, that's not enough. Veterans should be able to choose what they want, and this is what the veteran groups are really concerned about.

Can people make that informed decision? What does it really mean? How far could this go and doesn't end up just siphoning all sorts of dollars away from V.A., to the point where you know V.A. can't exist anymore?

MADDOW: Right. Do you end up starving the V.A. in order to pursue this exemption.

Let me ask you about Dr. Ronny Jackson, who's the president president's nominee to be the next secretary. From everything I've read, everybody I've talked to, he is beloved by people who know him. He's like the most universally liked public figure in Washington. People who've worked in the White House think he's a great doctor, but he clearly has no experience running any large organization of any kind and there's been this kind of crushing perception today that he's not capable of doing this job.

Show you just a couple of the reactions today. "Axios" reporting that one longtime Republican lobbyist gave a two-word prediction for Jackson's chances of being confirmed. His two words were Harriet Miers.

A former V.A. official tells "Politico" his first reaction to the Ronny Jackson appointment was, quote, OMG, and then that's still my reaction. The same official says, quote, the replacement has no experience. V.A. is the hardest department to manage.

AMVET said today, we think the White House is a tall order ahead of it, showing this doctors qualified to lead a $200 billion agency.

"The New York Times" reports privately, several White House aides acknowledged that Jackson's lack of managerial experience could be problematic.

Even John Brennan, former CIA director, said, quote: I personally know and greatly respect Dr. Jackson. Terrific doctor, terrific navy officer, however, he has neither the experience nor the credentials to run the very large and complex V.A. This is a terribly misguided nomination that will hurt both a good man and our veterans.

It's kind of a survey of how that nomination is being received for a guy who everybody loves.

SHANE: Yes, not a great vote of confidence for him right there.

MADDOW: No. What do you think his chances are?

SHANE: Look, I -- you know, I actually just came from a veteran's event up here. There's big hill vets event here in D.C. and a lot of the veterans groups just don't know anything about this guy. I mean, they're not even at the point of condemning him because they're completely unfamiliar with him. He's a blank slate.

So, you know, as we look ahead to the confirmation process, they're certainly going to be very tough questioning from Democrats about his views on privatization, on health care, his familiarity with benefits, his familiarity with the memorial services and the hundreds of other things that V.A. does. But right now, it's tough to handicap because we don't -- we don't even know what people can be opposed to with him because we just don't know anything about him.

We know that -- we know that by all accounts, he is a very good White House physician, and several presidents and their staffs liked him in that role. So, you know, it's a big question mark to see what is he going to say and how can he survive the confirmation process and what when he faces these tough questions, when he's getting grilled on what this privatization mean, how many -- you know, how many taxpayer dollars should go outside for health care, what do you know about education benefits for veterans, is he going to -- is he going to wilt or is he going to come with stellar answers?

MADDOW: Leo Shane, reporter for the "Military Times", really appreciate your time tonight, Leo. I'd wanted to talk to you about this. As I soon as -- soon as I heard, it went down. Thanks for being here tonight.

SHANE: Anytime. Have me back any time.

MADDOW: I will do. Thanks. We'll be right back. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: One last thing about the firing of the V.A. secretary. He says he was fired because he's standing in the way of a stealth effort to privatize the V.A. His critics say, no, no, he was fired because of a travel scandal.

Here's how we know he wasn't fired because of a travel scandal. There's an ABC News scoop today about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, specifically about a $40,000 trip he took to Morocco late last year. ABC News breaks the news today that part of the reason that trip cost so much, cost you the taxpayer so much is because it wasn't just Scott Pruitt flying international first class to Morocco, it was first-class tickets for himself, for his head of security, for a staffer of his, all on the taxpayers' dime. And that sounds like that should be the most scandalous part of the Scott Pruitt $40,000 random Morocco trip story. But keep reading.

According to ABC News, the reason Pruitt went all the way to Morocco in the first place was to pitch the potential benefit of liquefied natural gas imports on Morocco's economy.

Scott Pruitt is not the energy secretary. He's the EPA administrator. Convincing other countries to import our liquefied natural gas is so far out of his lane, he's basically driving on the wrong side of the road. We don't know why he did that.

What we do know is that the time Scott Pruitt was waxing poetic about the virtues of America's liquid natural gas exports, there was only one active liquid natural gas plant in the entire United States for exports. It was owned by a company called Cheniere Energy.

And now we know that Scott Pruitt at the time was living in Cheniere Energy's lobbyists house. For much of the first -- his first year in Washington, Pruitt occupied prime real estate in a townhouse near the capital that is co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist. A lobbyist's firm specifically lobbies on issues related to the export of liquefied natural gas.

So, today, we learned that he was living in the energy lobbyist's house while he was traveling abroad to Morocco first class on your dime to go pitch liquefied natural gas imports, totally outside the remit of his job. I wonder what he's paying in rent. I wonder if his rent check was maybe paid for by that trip to Morocco.

That's a travel scandal. That's what you get fired for. That's not what David Shulkin got fired for. Not if Scott Pruitt is still there.

That does it for us tonight.

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

Good evening, Lawrence.

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