Trump backs down. TRANSCRIPT: 9/21/2018, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Ben Wittes

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: September 21, 2018 Guest: Ben Wittes

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Ari. Thanks, my friend. Much appreciated.

And thanks to you at home for joining us for the next hour. It is Friday. So that means the news has again a little nuts again.

I feel like there is nothing predictable about American news cycles anymore other than the fact that the cuckoo pops out of the clock reliably every Friday night. That`s one thing you can count on. It`s friday. Things are nuts.

Tonight is no exception. Tonight, the cuckoo has popped out of the clock. And tonight, over the course of this hour, actually, we`re waiting for the next big thing to happen on two very important stories.

I`ll just tell you flat-out, we expect to be covering developments in both of these stories over the course of the evening, potentially into the overnight hours tonight. As I speak right now, it`s 9:00 p.m. Eastern, and this hour is going to be crucial.

Republicans have just issued a threat and a deadline for one hour from now that is aimed at Christine Blasey Ford. That`s the woman who in the past week came in with a -- put forward a serious allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, saying that he attempted to rape here in Montgomery County, Maryland when he was 17 years old. In just under one hour now, Republicans in the Senate say that their lawyers must respond to them and must agree to their conditions for their client, Dr. Ford, to testify or Senate Republicans are going to go ahead without hearing from her at all and they will schedule a vote for Monday morning on Brett Kavanaugh`s Supreme Court nomination regardless of this pending accusation against him from Christine Blasey Ford.

Now Republicans in the Senate had initially demanded that Dr. Ford had to appear before them to testify on Monday or bust. That was the only chance they were going to give her to give testimony to this committee. They have now budged on that a little bit. They`re now saying that it could be Wednesday when she can testify instead of Monday.

But that is all they`re willing to give her, either in terms of time or the chance to prove this very serious allegation that she is making. When Dr. Ford came forward with this allegation against Kavanaugh, both in her initial letter to Dianne Feinstein`s office and then subsequently in the interview that she did with "The Washington Post" last weekend, a key part of the story that she brought forward, a key part of the story she had to tell was that she had essentially corroborating witnesses. She could name people from the time of the incident who had awareness of the party at which the incident allegedly happened. Those people might be able to corroborate details of her recollection. She named somebody who was in the room at the time that she says the assault happened.

In addition to that, crucially, she says there are a number of people who she confided in about the alleged assault after it happened. People she told about this alleged attempted rape before Brett Kavanaugh was ever nominated to the Supreme Court. And that`s key to this case, right?

I mean, Kavanaugh`s not on trial. No criminal charges have been brought against him. So, the Senate is not deciding here whether or not they`re going to put him in jail for this. They`re deciding whether or not they`re going to put him on the Supreme Court while this allegation pends against him. What they need to decide is if this allegation is credible and if it should affect his chances for confirmation.

To that end, the testimony and recollections of other people on the edges of the story are crucial. I mean, Kavanaugh himself denies ever having done this thing. Christine Blasey Ford says he absolutely did do it. But in addition to that, to support her case, she has named a number of other people who she told after the fact, right, before he was ever named as a nominee to the Supreme Court.

As I mentioned, she also named this alleged co-assailant who she was there for the actual incident. She names other people who were in attendance at the party, might be able to corroborate other details of what she recalls. I mean, part of Dr. Ford`s request to the committee is that there`d be a full independent investigation of her claims. First, before senators on the committee hold any sort of hearing on this matter, an investigation that would preferably done -- be done by the FBI that would be standard procedure in a case like this because of the FBI`s role in doing background checks on Senate confirmable nominees.

Background checks on nominees get reopened all the time in the face of new information and new allegations. For some reason, for a reason they have not yet been willing to articulate, the White House and Senate Republicans are insisting in this case that that must not happen here, that the FBI must not be allowed to look into this matter. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee has insisted that only the committee itself should be allowed to investigate this claim, specifically his own staff, who, of course, have publicly committed themselves to the fact that they`ll do anything necessary to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Because the Republicans are insisting that the FBI shouldn`t look into this, because they`re insisting that only this Republican-led committee can do the investigation here with their own staff members, according to Senator Grassley tonight, Ford`s lawyers then requested that, OK, if it is going to be just the committee looking into this, can there at least be testimony from these additional corroborating witnesses. Can these additional corroborating witnesses who Dr. Ford has identified, can they be at least allowed to testify too?

It`s a key part of her claim, right? They`re going to be measuring his denials against her claim. She says her claim is bolstered by corroborating witnesses who can back her up. Tonight, Senate Republicans said no. They are refusing to hear from any other witnesses.

In a letter sent to Dr. Ford`s attorneys tonight made public by Senator Grassley`s office, Grassley insists, quote, the committee does not take witness requests from other witnesses. Quote, you said Dr. Ford wants to chance to tell her story in public and under oath. This is the opportunity we have given her. We don`t need to subpoena additional witnesses to do that, end quote.

So, that`s the word tonight from Senate Republicans. That`s how they want to handle this. They have told this woman, who is alleging this serious sexual assault by this nominee that she can take it or leave it. They`ll allow her to testify on Wednesday, alone, no witnesses allowed. It will be her versus Judge Kavanaugh, period.

And then there is the deadline, the deadline from Senator Grassley. If she says no to those terms or if she and her lawyers do not respond by 10:00 p.m. Eastern tonight, Senator Grassley is telling her fine, you`re out. We`re going to vote on it. We`re going to vote on it Monday morning unless we hear from you by 10:00 tonight.

He says, quote: I`m providing notice of a vote to occur Monday in the event that Dr. Ford`s attorneys do not respond or Dr. Ford decides not to testify.

Quote: We cannot continue to delay. Quote: We are unwilling to accommodate your unreasonable demands.

So, that is happening right now, right? This is the new precedent that we`re setting for Americans who might have important information to bring forward about Senate confirmable life-time nominees to important positions in American public life.

We are unwilling to accommodate your unreasonable demands. Take it or leave it. We`re going to vote without you unless we hear from you by 10:00 p.m.

So we are waiting over the course of this hour to see how this is going to resolve. But if you want to know why Republicans might be sort of seeming a little desperate on this right now, trying to just end this as fast as possible, we need to stop talking about this has to be over, if you`re looking for a little insight into why they are just going right to the end here, the polling here may be helpful for understanding that. It seems clear from the polling that they are probably running out of time on this, just as a political matter. Because from the public`s perspective, it kind of looks like Brett Kavanaugh is quite overcooked and getting closer and closer to burnt all the time. "USA Today" has a new poll out today on Kavanaugh as of this afternoon, and it shows that Kavanaugh`s public support just continues to absolutely plummet to historically unseen levels. You can see the headline there right now at "USA Today".

Quote: Poll: Brett Kavanaugh faces unprecedented opposition to Supreme Court nomination. And they`re right. No Supreme Court nominee has ever been confirmed with as much public opposition as Brett Kavanaugh has right now, with as little public support as Kavanaugh has right now.

In this new "USA Today" poll, again, just out this afternoon, Brett Kavanaugh`s underwater by 9 points. Only 31 percent of Americans want him confirmed compared with 40 percent of Americans who want him not to be confirmed. That makes him the most unpopular Supreme Court nominee ever in the history of the "USA Today" poll.

He is minus 9 overall. He is minus 20 with women. That includes all women, right? I mean, if you look just at political independence, people who aren`t registered in either party, he is minus 19 with independence.

And as we have seen in this and other major polls, not only is Brett Kavanaugh`s public support at an unprecedented historic low, it appears to be dropping over time the longer they consider him. So, tick-tock.

I know it`s Friday night, but you may want to keep the news on over the course of this evening because of that, because of what we`re expecting presumably by the end of this hour, but also because there is this other thing. Now, if you`ve been watching this show this week, this is something that you might have seen coming. This is something we`ve been watching percolate all week since Monday night.

Late on Monday night, the White House put forward this order from the president announcing that President Trump had directed a number of documents related to the Russia investigation be declassified and released to the public. And this has been sort of a running theme in the Russia investigation since late last year. The president and pro Trump Republicans in Congress demand, demand that the Justice Department and the FBI hand over internal law enforcement documents and communications from the investigation, from this open, ongoing investigation into the president and his campaign with regard to Russian interference in the election.

Now, these demands that documents and communications from the ongoing investigation be opened up to the public and handed over, these demands clearly serve a couple of different purposes. I mean, first at just a pr level, at a level of public impressions, making these demands helps the White House and pro-Trump Republicans create a story line, particularly in the conservative media that makes it look like law enforcement is doing something suspicious here, that the people who are involved in the Russia investigation have done something maybe wrong, they`ve definitely done something that they`re trying to hide.

Otherwise, why wouldn`t they hand over all these documents from their open investigation, right? #releasethememo, what are they hiding? Right?

So it creates this impression, oh, they`re hiding something. Something must be wrong. They must have done something bad. That`s one.

Also, these demands for law enforcement sensitive and investigative materials from an ongoing investigation, it also just bluntly, plainly on its face, when they get this stuff, it provides information to the president`s defense team. And to other witnesses and potential subjects in the investigation. Any criminal defendant would kill for this, right?

If you knew prosecutors were looking into you, or poking around in your business that they might have something on you, you`d kill or die to get a window into what prosecutors had on you while they`re still building the case against you. That`s gold.

For the president`s defense and for the other legal teams caught up in this investigation, I`m sure it is very handy that the White House and congressional Republicans keep forcing into the public eye internal, confidential, classified documents from inside that ongoing investigation. But there is one other level at which those demands function, and you have seen this for months now. It`s -- it`s not subtle. It has been sort of clear from the beginning that these demands to the Justice Department, these demands to the FBI, they hand over all these sensitive and classified materials.

It`s been obvious since they started doing this that part of the aim when they make those demands is that they`re hoping that law enforcement officials will say no, right? This is how we got impeachment articles drawn up against Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, right.

This is how we got the first calls from Congress, not just from the White House, that Rosenstein should be impeach order fired or otherwise removed from office. That Jeff Sessions should be fired or impeached or otherwise removed from office.

These demands allow the president and pro-Trump Republicans in Congress to pound their chests and say look at these terrible officials, at the FBI and the Justice Department. They`re not handing over these documents that we demanded. That`s outrageous. They must be hiding something.

That`s outrageous. These officials are disobeying orders from the president. These officials are disobeying oversight efforts from pro-Trump Republicans in Congress. These officials must be fired.

Well, what if these documents aren`t getting handed over by these Justice Department and FBI officials because these are documents that really shouldn`t be made public? What if handing over those documents would jeopardize national security, would put sources` lives at risk, would jeopardize programs and practices in law enforcement and intelligence collection that are crucial to keeping the country safe? What if it`s just sensitive material from an active law enforcement investigation that would impede that investigation if these materials were made public?

Law enforcement officials don`t just open ongoing investigations willy- nilly. There is a reason this stuff is kept close. And they know that, right? The idea of demanding documents that really can`t be handed over, the biggest idea there is to either force resignations in protest from law enforcement officials and intelligence officials who know that they have to refuse those demands, or just as well, maybe those officials don`t resign in protest. Maybe they stay in their jobs, but they say no, they refuse those demands, which then conveniently creates a pretext for the president to fire those officials for not following his orders or for not going along with oversight demands from his allies in Congress.

When the president on Monday night issued that order from the White House to declassify all these additional documents related to the Russia investigation, Congressman Adam Schiff, top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, warned that that last dynamic was what was going on here. He said, quote, with respect to some of these materials, I have been previously informed by the FBI and Justice Department that they would consider the release of those materials a red line that must not be crossed because releasing those documents and materials would compromise sources and methods.

John McLaughlin, former CIA director, he has been making the same argument this week as Congressman Schiff has. This was his op-ed today in "The Washington Post" about why Trump must not declassify these materials. The last line of the op-ed is this, quote, if the president overrides his professional staff and insists on unredacted declassification, it would force some officials, sworn to protect sources and methods of intelligence and law enforcement, it would force some officials to consider resignation.

John McLaughlin was even more blunt about that on Twitter. He said, quote, this probably qualifies as the president`s most serious assault on the justice system yet. Former CIA director. Wrong on so many levels for justice, law enforcement, intelligence. If he forces it all the way through, it ought to be a resignation issue for someone in justice, period.

And then he ends with this question. Maybe Trump`s intention?

Right. Maybe that`s the idea. People say no, he gets to fire `em. Or they say no, I resign in protest and he says great, been looking forward to replacing you.

Here`s how this has unfolded over the course of the week, right? So Monday night, Trump gives this order to declassify all this stuff. On Tuesday, the president said online that he was basically very excited about these declassifications. He said that they would prove, quote, really bad things were happening at the FBI, ooh. That was Tuesday.

Then on Wednesday, the president admitted that he hadn`t actually read any of these documents that he had ordered to be declassified. He told "The Hill" newspaper that even though he hadn`t actually read any of this stuff, the reason he ordered it all declassified anyway is because he heard from people he trusts that these are documents that really should be declassified, the complete list of people who he heard from, who he trusts on this issue, who apparently advised him to order these declassifications, that complete list was entirely made up of people who host television shows on the Fox News Channel, I kid you not.

So that`s whose advising him on this matter. All week long, we`ve been waiting for the stuff to come out. Internal communications among FBI and Justice Department officials related to the Russia investigation, FBI interviews from the very start of the Russia investigation, portions of the FISA application for his campaign adviser Carter Page, the portions that the Justice Department has already said can`t be safely unredacted. The president has been insisting regardless just do it, unredact all of it.

We`ve been waiting to see if that stuff would come out. We`ve been waiting to see if there would be resignation and protests, or if there would be refusals from the Justice Department or the FBI. We`ve been waiting to see if the president might use those refusals as a pretext for firing senior Justice Department officials who when he wants out of the way anyway.

Well, today the president said never mind. The president today withdrew his demand that all these documents get declassified, and instead said he would not push it anymore. He said he hopes the inspector general might look into it.

According to multiple reports today, the president arrived at this decision today that he was going to cave, no longer demand the declassification of these documents, he arrived at this decision today after discussions with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who personally went to the White House to explain to the president the dangerousness of what he was doing in trying make these materials public.

If the point of this whole declassification showdown as set up by Fox News hosts, if the whole point of it was to force a confrontation with Rod Rosenstein, to push Rod Rosenstein into saying no, to push him into refusing the president`s demands so the president could then fire him in response, when Rod Rosenstein personally went to the White House to talk to the president about this matter, the president appears to have blinked when it came to that confrontation.

Rosenstein apparently told him, no, you can`t let this stuff out. And the president, I think the script they thought he was going to follow at Fox News was he would then stand up and say well, you`re fired. Instead the president said, OK, then I`ll withdraw my request.

If the president is still looking for a pretext to fire Rod Rosenstein, who, of course, oversees the Robert Mueller investigation, so if he was going to fire Rosenstein, he could install somebody else in that job to try to make the Mueller investigation go away. More on that later.

If that was the goal here, the declassification gambit does not seem to have worked. The president does not seem to have had the -- let`s call it wherewithal to go ahead with that plan. That was this morning.

And then this happened. Hours after the president climbed down on that declassification thing, "the New York Times" decided to do this. Quote, Rod Rosenstein suggested secretly recording Trump and discussed 25th amendment. Quote, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested last year that he secretly record President Trump in the White House to expose the chaos consuming the administration and he discussed recruiting cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office for being unfit.

This article today from Adam Goldman and Michael Schmidt at "The New York Times" has led to exactly what you would expect, gleeful insistent calls on the right, including from some of the president`s closest advisers a the Fox News Channel, that this is it. Forget all of the other efforts we`ve come up with to try the fire Rod Rosenstein, these other efforts that failed. Forget all the other efforts that failed to create a pretext to fire Rod Rosenstein. You can fire him now, Mr. President.

Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. You want to get rid of the Mueller investigation? You`ve got to get rid of Rod Rosenstein. Here is your way the do it. Cite this "New York Times" piece and fire him now.

Rosenstein was going to wire you, or wire himself, wire other officials going in to spy on you in the White House. Rosenstein was going to organize the cabinet to utilize the 25th Amendment to oust you from office? He was?

Since "The New York Times" posted the story this afternoon, their reporters are definitely standing by what they have published, but both NBC News and "the Washington Post" have published their own versions of this story, which fundamentally contradicts the whole point of "The New York Times" reporting.

"The Times" is insisting that Rod Rosenstein seriously proposed wearing a wire, surreptitiously recording the president inside the White House as part of a serious plot to prove the president`s incompetence and get him out of office. "The Times" says their sources for that information were people who were briefed on the fact that Rod Rosenstein had said that to other officials and sources who were briefed on a memo that another FBI official, fired deputy director Andrew McCabe supposedly wrote about this proposal from Rod Rosenstein. Those are their sources.

NBC News and "The Washington post," however, say as of this afternoon that each of these news organization has a source that was actually in the room when Rod Rosenstein supposedly made this proposal, and their source, who, again, was in the room, says that when this happened, Rod Rosenstein was quite obviously being sarcastic. That`s the NBC headline. Rosenstein joked about secretly recording Trump, Justice Department officials say, and you can see that the sub headline there, which according to NBC source, the actual quote, well, what do you want me to do, Andy? Wear a wire?

That sarcastic quote attributed to Rod Rosenstein by someone in the room when he said it. "The New York Times" does not have a source who was in the room when Rosenstein said it, but nevertheless they have provided President Trump this headline and this fully cooked, fully baked "New York Times"-approved headline inviting the president to fire Rod Rosenstein and thereby end the Mueller investigation, on the basis of what Rod Rosenstein purportedly said he wanted to do to get the president out of office, never mind the fact that people in the room say he was apparently kidding.

So I said we are waiting for a few shoes to drop tonight. If the president does fire Rod Rosenstein, regardless of the pretext he decides to use, it`s not exactly clear what would immediately happen to oversight of the Mueller investigation? We`ll talk a little bit about tonight with people who very much understand how that would work. If the president does fire Rod Rosenstein, we do definitely expect one thing to happen outside the Justice Department, which is that we would expect nationwide widespread street protests in very short order.

Much more ahead tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: I told you we were going to be watching for breaking news over the course of this evening, and over the course of this hour, we now have that. As I mentioned at the top of the show, Senate Republicans have told attorneys for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford that they had until 10:00 p.m. tonight to accept the terms that Senate Republicans were offering for her to testify to the Senate judiciary committee with no other witnesses other than Judge Brett Kavanaugh on Wednesday of next week. They said she had by 10:00 to respond to that or they were going to proceed without hearing from her at all, and they were going the take a vote on Judge Kavanaugh on Monday morning without hearing about this allegation.

Well, we`ve now got a response, which we knew would come in this hour. Can I have the second page of that there, please? Thanks, Tom.

We`ve just gotten the response from Dr. Blasey Ford`s attorneys. I haven`t read it. Would you like to read it with me?

All right. I`m assuming there is no swear words or anything I should avoid here. I`m reading it raw for the first time. Ready? Here we go.

We`re writing to respond to your e-mails from earlier today. We are stunned to see that the Judiciary Committee noticed Judge Kavanaugh`s -- noticed Judge Kavanaugh`s vote from Monday morning in midst of our ongoing discussions regarding the terms and conditions under which Dr. Christine Blasey Ford could testify before the committee.

Incredibly, you did so well before the 10:00 p.m. deadline you had arbitrarily imposed just hours before. The imposition of aggressive and artificial deadlines regarding the date and conditions of any hearing has created tremendous and unwarranted anxiety and stress on Dr. Ford. Your cavalier treatment of a sexual assault survivor who has been doing her best to cooperate with the committee is completely inappropriate.

Yesterday we had what we thought was a productive dialogue about the conditions Dr. Ford would find acceptable to be able to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her allegations of sexual assault involving Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Rather than continuing that dialogue, Senator Grassley today conveyed a counterproposal through the media, insisting that she appear for a hearing on a date I had explicitly told you was not feasible for her.

Hours after those media accounts first appeared, you sent a response to the proposals that we had conveyed in good faith yesterday. You rejected a number of the proposals that are important to Dr. Ford to ensure that the process would be a fair one, including subpoenaing ,Mark Judge to testify.

Mark Judge, of course, is the person who Dr. Ford has named as essentially an alleged co-assailant in this attack. Dr. Ford has said that Mark Judge who was a classmate of Brett Kavanaugh`s was in the room and essentially helping to participate in the attack when it allegedly happened.

So, again, that line, you rejected a number of the proposals that are important to Dr. Ford to ensure that the process would be a fair one, including subpoenaing Mark Judge to testify.

Instead, I don`t spent much of her e-mail making points that distorted the requests we had made and the sequence of events. It would be fruitless to review each of those statements as it is now abundantly clear that regardless of the assurances Senator Grassley has made, you have been tasked with pressuring Dr. Ford to agree to conditions you find advantageous to the nominee, and also with denying Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee any input about how this hearing would proceed. When we urge you`d to include them, meaning Democrats in our discussions today, you rejected that request outright, accusing them, Democrats, of being the source of leaks.

Even more disturbing, while you took almost a full day to consider our proposal, you demanded a response to your approximately this evening. By e-mail sent today at 4:01 p.m., we advise you`d Dr. Ford had travelled to meet with the FBI for several hours about the death threats she has been receiving, and we would need until tomorrow to confer with her and to be able to provide you with a well-considered response. Rather than allowing her the time she needs to respond to the take it or leave it demands you conveyed, you sent us an e-mail at 5:47 p.m., which you again gave to the media first, insisting we accept your invitation for a Wednesday hearing by 10:00 p.m. tonight.

I now have learned that Senator Grassley has scheduled the committee`s vote on Brett Kavanaugh for this Monday.

The 10:00 p.m. deadline is arbitrary. Its sole purpose is to bully Dr. Ford and to deprive her of the ability the make a considered decision that has life-altering implications for her and her family. She has already been forced out of her home and continues to be subject to harassment, hate mail, and death threats. Our modest request is that she be given an additional day to make her decision.

And then it is signed by attorney representing Christine Blasey Ford.

They`re asking for one additional day to make her decision. Again, you are learning this. You are reading this as I am reading this. We`re going to see what we can do to figure out what the response to this is going to be, either from the Judiciary Committee or if there is anything further coming from Dr. Ford`s side, from her legal representation.

This just in. We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: So, "The New York Times" published this enormously controversial article this afternoon. They reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation at a meeting last year, he suggested to other Justice Department and FBI officials that he could secretly record President Trump inside the White House. "The Times" also reported that Rosenstein had also discussed potentially invoking the 25th Amendment to get the cabinet to remove the president from office.

Now, Rod Rosenstein put out an initial statement in response to that article, saying that the article was not true, that it was -- that its claims had no basis in reality, and he said, quote, I never pursue -- excuse me. He said, based on my personal dealings with the president, there is no basis to invoke 25th Amendment. That was the first statement. That was earlier today.

But now, Rod Rosenstein has just released a new statement, a second statement also responding to that story. It is a single sentence. I will read to it you now. He says, quote, I never pursued or authorized recording the president, and any suggestion that I have ever advocated for the removal of the president is absolutely false.

Now the reason I`m shuffling papers a little bit and picking up the wrong thing here and there is because this news continues to break. Just within the last couple of minutes, "The Washington Post" has said that that statement, the one I just read to you where Rosenstein says, I never pursued or authorized recording the president, I`ve never advocated for the removal of the president, "The Washington Post" has new reporting about that, saying, quote, that statement from Rosenstein came after White House officials pressured the Justice Department to issue a more forceful denial of "The Times`" reporting.

The president asked advisers on Friday if he should fire Rosenstein, and some of those around Trump sought to sway him not to make any decision Friday night.

Joining us now is Chuck Rosenberg, MSNBC contributor, former U.S. attorney, former senior FBI and Justice Department official. Mr. Rosenberg, it is nice to you here tonight. Thanks for being here.

CHUCK ROSENBERG, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: My pleasure, Rachel. Thank you for having me.

MADDOW: So, this is obviously still a developing story. We`re watching really two big developing stories right now. The continuing confrontations/impasse in the Senate over the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh and whether the Senate will hear allegations from a woman who says that he sexually assaulted her when he was a teenager, we`re watching that develop over the course of this evening. Simultaneously, we have watched and now into tonight the development of this story about Rod Rosenstein.

What`s your reaction to that base level reporting from "The New York Times" today that Rod Rosenstein, according to "The Times" suggested that he might wear a wire into the White House to record the president or that -- and/or that the cabinet essentially might be organized to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove the president?

ROSENBERG: Yes, I`ve been thinking about this a lot since that story broke, Rachel, and I think I have -- I think I have narrowed it down to what I think are two plausible explanations. The first is in healthy organizations, any organization, MSNBC, you know, tech companies, engineering firms, the Department of Justice and the FBI, when you have a difficult problem, when you have something that`s really perplexing, you bring all your people together and you encourage them to speak openly and freely and put all of your ideas on the table.

And that means from the mundane to the thoughtful to the crazy, and you talk it through, and hopefully by the end of the day, you eliminate the crazy and you select something else.

So, is it possible they talked about this and then eliminated it as a possibility? It`s possible. I think the more likely explanation, however, is that it was just plain old sarcasm.

Remember, at this time, a very fine director of the FBI, Jim Comey had just been fired. The department is reeling. The FBI is reeling. And so, I can`t imagine that it occurred to them that they would do something absolutely unprecedented, wire up the deputy attorney general and send him in to talk to the president.

It doesn`t make sense to me for a whole bunch of reasons, including by the way, it would make Rod Rosenstein arguably a witness in that very case. Once he wears a wire against the president, he`s a witness.

MADDOW: Chuck, part of the reason that this story from "The New York Times" is so controversial is because other news organizations, including NBC News and the "Washington Post", have said that they have a source who was inside the meeting where this was reportedly said by Rod Rosenstein, and in both news organizations report that as you say, as you suggested there, when Rod Rosenstein made comments about potentially wearing a wire into the White House, he was clearly being sarcastic.

"he New York Times" is reporting it as the if this was a substantive, serious proposal that Mr. Rosenstein may have even wanted the pursue. Other news organizations say actually suggested that he was kidding. That`s one of the reasons this is controversial.

The other reason this is so controversial is because it`s playing from the president`s back and forth with the conservative media that they`ve been trying to come up with some great public pretext for firing Rod Rosenstein for quite some time, and it appears like "The New York Times" is sort of handing him that, by putting words in Rosenstein`s mouth that would be so controversial, the president could conceivably cite them as justification for firing him.

What do you make of that side of this story?

ROSENBERG: Yes, that worries me, Rachel. But there is a certain irony here. The president speaks repeatedly of the fake news and tells Americans, I think sadly, to distrust the news, particularly organs like "The New York Times." And now, perhaps when it benefits him, when he needs to cite to it as a reason to take this action against Rod Rosenstein, suddenly, it`s a trustworthy paper. It`s the old gray lady.

But it worries me very much. I think what Mr. Rosenstein put out tonight, that he neither authorized nor pursued the recording of the president buttresses the notion that they at least discussed it, that the words were spoken, even if sarcastically, even if it was crazy idea which they all eventually took off the table.

But I sure hope he doesn`t fire Rod Rosenstein. I`ve had my disagreements with Mr. Rosenstein. I`ve said some of them publicly on your show, but right now, I think he`s doing us a service standing between the White House and Bob Mueller.

MADDOW: Do you expect that if the president did move to fire him, whether it was tonight author weekend or any time in coming days, that there would be a serious reaction within the law enforcement and intelligence community?

ROSENBERG: I think there would be a dramatic reaction. I think folks know that Bob Mueller is a fine and decent and honest and thorough special counsel, and that the men and women working for him are sticking to the facts and the law. And getting rid of Rod Rosenstein would be -- would bring us I think one step closer to either eliminating the special counsel`s role or circumscribing it in a way that would make it very difficult for Bob Mueller and his team to do their jobs.

MADDOW: Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney, former senior FBI official -- Chuck, thank you for being with us on a Friday night. Much appreciated.

ROSENBERG: Thank you, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right. A bit of a whiplash inducing news night. More to come. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: We are continuing to follow two fast developing, big, important news stories tonight. It`s just one of those Fridays.

On the one hand, there is a standoff in the Senate over the Senate confirmation proceedings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh who is nominated to the Supreme Court. As we just reported moments ago, the Senate Republicans, the Senate Republican chairman of the House Judiciary -- excuse me, the Senate Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley, had issued a 10:00 p.m. Eastern deadline to attorneys representing Christine Blasey Ford, telling her essentially that they needed to -- telling Christine Blasey Ford and her attorneys tonight that they need to respond by 10:00 p.m. Eastern. As to whether or not she would accede to Senate Republicans` demands about the circumstances under which they wanted her to testify next week on Wednesday, no other witnesses besides her and Brett Kavanaugh.

And if she either did not respond by 10:00 p.m. tonight, or if she rejected any of those terms, they said that they were going to forget this whole issue, not pursue this allegation at all, and just hold a vote Monday morning on Brett Kavanaugh without ever hearing from Christine Blasey Ford.

We`ve now had a response from Christine Blasey Ford`s attorneys asking for one more day for her to consider this decision. So far no response, although we`re watching for it from Senator Grassley`s office, or from the rest of the committee. That`s on the one hand.

The other story that we`re watching unfold tonight pertains to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. He has come under withering criticism from President Trump and from the conservative media, which has increasingly -- with increasing insistence told President Trump that he must fire Rod Rosenstein, presumably as a way to try to undo Rosenstein`s oversight of the Mueller investigation and install somebody else who would either end that probe or circumscribe it, as Chuck Rosenberg was just describing here on this air.

"The New York Times" today reported that Rod Rosenstein in meetings with other Justice Department and FBI officials had suggested wearing a wire into the White House to record the president and had suggested liaising with members of the cabinet to talk about using the 25th amendment to remove President Trump from office.

This reporting is contested. Both NBC News and the "Washington Post" are citing a source who was in the meeting when Rosenstein reportedly said this, saying it was quite clear that Rosenstein made the "do you want me to wear a wire" comment in gist. He was being sarcastic.

Rosenstein himself has put out a statement tonight saying he never authorized or suggested doing that and he does not believe the 25th Amendment should be used to remove the president nor has he ever suggested removing the president.

This all comes as "The Washington Post" has just reported moments ago that the president has been asking advisers tonight if he should fire Rod Rosenstein.

As I said, it`s all happening all at once.

Joining us now is Ben Wittes, who is the editor-in-chief of Lawfare blog.

Mr. Wittes, thanks for joining us tonight as we try to stay up with the breaking news. Really appreciate it.

BEN WITTES, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, LAWFARE BLOG: It`s hard to keep up with it.

MADDOW: It is.

Let me ask you first about Brett Kavanaugh. The situation that we are in right now is not unprecedented in the sense that there have been other nominees where sensitive, serious allegations have arisen late in the confirmation process and the Senate has had to decide what to do with sort of late breaking allegations that they didn`t consider earlier in the process.

What do you think about what`s happening right now with this impasse between Christine Blasey Ford`s attorneys and the committee. And how do you think ultimately this should resolve?

WITTES: Well, so I can see a number of possible ways it could resolve, but one of them that is not acceptable is to not actually investigate the allegations, which is what the chairman is at this point threatening to do. His terms include you show up on Monday or we`re going to have a vote and we won`t talk to any of the other possible witnesses.

Now, I mean, I can see a lot of room for argument around the edges about what the appropriate process is, but it`s very hard for me to see that the appropriate process, if you`re actually interested in learning the truth, would involve voting without investigating or hearing from the two principles without hearing from anybody else who might know what happened or something about what happened. And so I say this hesitantly, but I honestly can`t see any signs of good faith here.

MADDOW: In terms of judge Kavanaugh`s nomination overall, you have suggested that he should consider withdrawing from consideration. We are starting to see in some Republican senators, Susan Collins tonight making remarks suggesting that she disagrees with Senator Grassley`s approach here, that there`s no reason why Monday should be the only day that Dr. Ford can come in or Wednesday should be the only day, that there`s no reason to push these things.

We are seeing I think a real softening around the edges in people being able to predict how this is going to end. Why did you suggest that judge Kavanaugh should consider withdrawing, and do you think he will?

WITTES: So I don`t -- I assume he will not. I assume that he like most people in this circumstance will want to, you know, defend his reputation. And, you know, most people facing the possibility of confirmation to the Supreme Court don`t easily walk away from it.

And so, I assume he will not follow my advice. But I want -- I want to be clear about what that advance was. It was not to walk away but to walk away if he cannot defend himself in a fashion that is dispositive factually, that is completely convincing without attacking her.

And I think that`s a -- it`s hard for me to imagine the circumstances in which he could do that effectively, but I think if he can do that, he certainly should. If he can`t do that, I think it is better for him, better for her, and better for the institution of the court not to have somebody confirmed with a big asterisk by his name, that, you know, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people will scratch their heads every time they see his name on an opinion from now until 30 years from now.

MADDOW: Ben, I can`t let you go without asking you about the other major story that we`re following tonight. Do you believe that Rod Rosenstein`s job is in jeopardy tonight? And if the president does act to remove Rod Rosenstein as deputy attorney general, what do you think the response will be within the legal community and the Justice Department?

WITTES: Yes, so let me be -- first of all, Chuck Rosenberg said a lot of the things that I would say in response to this, so I can be brief. But Rod Rosenstein`s job has been in peril for many months. Every day, you know, the president can have a temper tantrum and remove him. And there have been a number of days where I thought that was happening.

I actually don`t think that it is likely to happen tonight, but I have no basis for that. It`s just a kind of gut instinct.

Look, I do think this story puts him in a very difficult position, and his inability to deny it completely. He denies kind of around it. He denies the tone of certain things. He denies most of it.

But he doesn`t deny that he had a conversation or multiple conversations about the 25th Amendment. And he doesn`t deny that at least the subject of wearing a wire came up. And that does put him in a very difficult position with respect to the president.

I continue to think that the president, you know, is something of a barking dog that doesn`t actually bite very much about these things with the singular exception of Jim Comey. And so, you know, he actually doesn`t need a pretext to remove Rod Rosenstein. He could have done it yesterday, the day before, the week before.

And he hasn`t done it because -- I don`t mean to taunt him into trying. He hasn`t done it because he actually doesn`t have a lot of guts about this sort of thing. It`s a terrible idea. He absolutely shouldn`t do it.

And Rosenstein, for all my differences with him, is playing a very important role right now, and a very -- you know one we should all value as a society. And so, I continue to hope that the president will continue to lack the guts to actually do this thing that he keeps threatening both with Rosenstein and with Sessions. And every day that he doesn`t do it is a good day for the day to day function of the rule of law.

MADDOW: Ben Wittes, editor and chief of the Lawfare blog, Ben, thank you very much for your time tonight. Busy, busy night.

WITTES: Thank you.

MADDOW: Much appreciated.

All right. More ahead. Stay with us.

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MADDOW: Sutton Lake is in Wilmington, North Carolina. It started out as a cooling pond for the Sutton power plant, which is owned by Duke Energy. There are three large coal ash dumps right nearby Sutton Lake. The lake of the coal ash dumps and the coal ash landfill are all very close together.

Coal ash is dangerous. It contains mercury and arsenic, toxic heavy metals. It`s very important to keep all that coal ash away from the lake and the fish and the humans who go there, let alone the adjacent river.

Well, today, flood waters breached the dam at Sutton Lake. Lake water then flooded one of the three large coal ash dumps that lines the lakeshore. Duke Energy, which owns that plant, says they don`t believe the breach, quote, poses a significant threat to nearby communities. But they say, quote, they cannot rule out coal ash might be escaping from the flooded dump and now washing into the river. You can`t rule it out. Open question.

Tonight, we have some footage that may answer dog energy`s open question. This was shot by the Waterkeeper Alliance. They tell us based on their decades of experience in the region that this appears to be coal ash pouring into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.

Coal ash is toxic not just to people but to all life forms and they were able to rescue that baby turtle.

Here on the way to downtown Wilmington, you can actually see this oily film on the water. We do not know what that is, but it is floating down the Cape Fear River tonight in North Carolina, towards the banks of Wilmington, North Carolina, which is about nine miles away. I do not what is going to wash up in Wilmington by Monday.

Watch this space.

And that does it for us tonight. See you again on Monday.

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

Good evening, Lawrence. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END

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