RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. Much appreciated.
Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
A lot of news to get to tonight.
Today was a final somber day of remembrance for former President George H.W. Bush. His body was flown from the nation`s capital back to Texas last night. A large private funeral was held for the former president today at his home church, in Houston, at St. Martin`s Episcopal Church. Thereafter, his body was moved by train, a special train to College Station, Texas, where he was burden today at the Bush family plot at the site of his presidential library, which is in College Station, Texas, at the campus of Texas A&M.
Like yesterday, though, alongside the solemnity of these remembrances for the former president, like yesterday, today also did turn out to be a very busy news day, alongside all of that news about former President Bush. For example, "The New York times" this afternoon published some just incredible double-take, I can`t believe they got this story reporting about two women, one of whom is now an undocumented immigrant, one of whom was an undocumented immigrant until recently. In this "Times" story, both of these women tell "The Times" that they have worked, including one who currently works, as President Trump`s house cleaner at the home that he maintains at his New Jersey golf club which is called Bedminster.
Both of these women say the president`s club, their employer, was fully aware of their immigration status and of the undocumented status of many other people who work at that same club for President Trump. They say that the club was aware that they were undocumented when they were hired and over the course of their employment, including the time when they worked personally and directly for Trump in his home. One of the women told "The Times" today that her supervisor at Trump`s golf club in New Jersey even advised her where she could get new fake immigration documents so she could keep working there as recently as last year, since Trump has been president.
So far, the White House has had no comment on this incredible reporting from "The New York times," but presumably at some point, the White House is going to have to say something, which is part of the reason the next 24 hours might be a little bit of a bumpy ride. It is hard to know how the president himself might respond to this story in "The Times." After all, there are multiple reports from multiple source over a long period of time, that when it comes to policy, anti-immigrant stuff, the demonization of immigrants, railing against illegal immigration and even legal immigration, we have multiple reports over long periods of time that that is the one policy issue that actually personally animates the president. It`s the one policy issue that he thinks is most central to his brand as a politician and as president.
Him repeatedly, even systematically hiring illegal immigrants himself, including to work in his own home, and these two women being strong enough and brave enough and angry enough to endanger themselves about coming out about their immigration status, about having worked for Trump while undocumented, we have no idea how the White House and the president specifically are going to respond to something like this. But given the feelings about -- given the president`s feelings about the centrality of illegal immigration to his own self concept, in terms of what`s important to his political career, this story in "The Times" today, again, no reaction yet from the White House or the president. I think there`s reason to expect that this is the sort of thing that could kind of unleash the kraken a little bit.
And, you know, the next 24 hours were already likely to be a little bit nuts. Some time tomorrow, we`re not sure when, but some time tomorrow, we are expecting Robert Mueller`s office to release a detailed written court filing explaining how Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort has lied to investigators since he plead guilty in September and was supposed to be cooperating with them in their ongoing investigations of the president and his campaign.
Remember, the president`s legal team has been bragging that Manafort was essentially spying on Mueller`s investigation on behalf of Trump and the White House. They have told the press that Manafort was reporting back to Trump in the Trump White House what the special counsel`s office was asking him about and what they appeared to know. That`s according to the president`s legal team.
Well, some time tomorrow, we`re going to get the perspective of Mueller and his prosecutors on that matter, which may be fairly intense. Also tomorrow, by 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Mueller`s prosecutors are facing a deadline to submit to federal court in New York a sentencing document laying out how exactly the president`s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has assisted them in ongoing investigations since he has started cooperating with them and since he himself has plead guilty to felonies.
Now, this document that the Mueller team is expected to submit to the judge in Cohen`s case tomorrow, this is a document that that judge will use in deciding how to sentence Michael Cohen. Cohen is due to be sentenced next week. But tomorrow, Mueller`s prosecutors will submit a document to the judge in Cohen`s case explaining how helpful of he has been as a cooperator. And we expect that document at least partially to be publicly facing. So, that should also be fairly intense.
Also tomorrow, Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos is due to get out of prison after serving his time at the crowbar hotel for lying to federal investigators about his contacts with the Russian government during the Trump campaign. Now I do not anticipate that we`re going get a George Papadopoulos post-release from prison press conference or anything, but I suppose anything is possible. But there are other shoes we`re expecting to drop soon, even in addition to those matters that we know are all going to happen tomorrow.
The case of Maria Butina, for example. She is charged with being a secret agent of the Russian government, operating in this country to influence the 2016 election and the Republican Party, in part through her involvement in the NRA. Today, the judge in the Butina case convened a phone conference with prosecutors and with Butina`s defense team. Almost all of it was conducted under seal at the request of Butina`s lawyers.
But before they locked the doors and kicked the public and the reporters out, we did learn a few more details that would seem to indicate that the Butina case is heading towards some sort of resolution fairly soon, whether it`s a plea deal or some other kind of ending, we don`t know. But today, Maria Butina`s lawyers asked the judge to basically cancel the next public hearing that was scheduled for her case. Her lawyers also said that they would -- they will likely abandon an earlier effort they had been pursuing to subpoena documents and records from the university she`d been attending as part of her defense.
But then interestingly, after that court hearing wrapped up today. Some of it happened in public. A whole bunch of it happened under seal, and then it ended. After it ended today, the judge in Maria Butina`s case appointed a new federal criminal defender to join Maria Butina`s defense team as, quote, advisory counsel.
So, I don`t know what that means. She`s already got lawyers. I don`t know why, but the judge just gave her an extra defense lawyer to help out her existing team of lawyers. And I don`t know what that means. And we don`t know exactly what`s happening with the Maria Butina case.
But it does seem like it`s coming to an end. Prosecutors and her defense team had indicated to the court a few weeks ago that they might be coming to some sort of resolution. Today`s proceedings make it seem like that is starting to happen, and this comes of course at a time when "The Daily Beast" has just reported that adjacent to the Maria Butina case, her American maybe boyfriend, a Republican activist named Paul Erickson, he himself has received a target letter from federal prosecutors notifying him that prosecutors are also considering charging him with being an agent of a foreign power. That was reported in "The Daily Beast" yesterday.
So, all of these things seem to be sort of wrapping, right, or coming to important benchmark moments. Manafort is going to have a big day tomorrow. Cohen is going to have a big day tomorrow. George Papadopoulos is free tomorrow. The Butina case seems to be wrapping up right now.
In addition to that stuff, as we mentioned on last night`s show, the "A.P." has reported that prosecutors in the Southern District of New York appear to be moving forward quickly now with something related to the Paul Manafort case. The Paul Manafort illegal lobbying in Ukraine case, and the way they`re moving forward with it, it appears to be the part of the Manafort case that may entangle a big famous D.C. law firm and two big D.C. PR firms. Again, federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York now aggressively pursuing that, according to the "A.P."
In addition to that, "The New York Times" reports today a different set of federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia, they are also moving ahead now with a case that relates to the Michael Flynn matter. "The Times" reports today that a senior federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia has empanelled a grand jury and is looking into illegal lobbying associated with the nation of Turkey. And this appears to be some sort of offshoot of the Michael Flynn case.
So, all of this stuff is happening all at once. And actually, in just a couple of minutes, we`re going to be talking another couple of developments that arose today at the Justice Department itself. One potential candidate to be attorney general just floated by the White House.
The other big Justice Department development today is something that is a really big surprise to me. And we`re going to be talking about that story simply in just a couple of minutes. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is going to be here to talk than and some other matters.
But the first major story that we want to jump into tonight comes to us from the great state of North Carolina.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN MCCREADY (D), NORTH CAROLINA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: Hey, folks, I`m Dan McCready. A month ago, I conceded to my opponent Mark Harris in the race for North Carolina`s ninth congressional district, but last week we began to learn about shameful criminal activity bankroll by my opponent to take away North Carolinians` very rights to vote.
I didn`t serve overseas in the Marine Corps just to come back home to watch politicians and career criminals attack our democracy. That`s why today I withdraw my concession to Mark Harris, whose remained completely silent. And I call on Mark Harris to tell us exactly what he knew and when he knew it.
Join me in this fight for the people whose voice were taken from them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That was today. Dan McCready, a Democrat, a moderate, a marine veteran. He ran for Congress this year in North Carolina and the day after the election, he conceded that he lost that congressional race. Now, that day it did look like Dan McCready had lost that race, but I will less than a thousand votes. By rights, he could have asked for a recount in that race at this time, but he didn`t.
Since his concession the day after Election Day, Dan McCready has been silent. He has been publicly silent on the results of that race in North Carolina`s ninth congressional district, but today, as you just saw there in that video that was just released by his campaign, see not only breaking his silence, he is unconceding the race.
I should also tell you that while NBC News had previously called this race for McCready`s Republican opponent Mark Harris, that official NBC call of the race has also now been rescinded. According to NBC News, there is now no call in this race.
You`ve probably seen some of the news about this North Carolina controversy. What has emerged since election night in North Carolina is evidence, pretty broad daylight evidence of what appears to be a blatant criminal scheme in that district to rig the election for Republican Mark Harris. And as Dan McCready mentioned there in his unconcession video, it really does appear like his opponent, Republican Mark Harris might have paid for that criminal scheme.
But here`s the thing that drives me nuts about this North Carolina story. This for me has been the single hardest thing to grasp about this story from the very beginning. When it first emerged that there was something wrong with the result of that congressional race, when we first heard that the bipartisan election board locally was refusing to certify the results of that race and they were saying that something was wrong with it, from the very first moment, as far as I`m concerned, the single craziest thing about this race and what happened in this race is that the scheme here, this criminal scheme here is apparently not a new thing.
In that district, specifically in a couple of counties in that district, this has been going on for a while in basically plain sight. And I will prove it.
Here is story for you. As far as I`m concerned, the greatest radio show in the modern history of American radio shows is called "This American Life." It is hosted by Ira Glass. If you do not listen to it as a podcast or via your computer, you have probably heard it on your local radio station.
And two years ago at Christmastime, December 23rd, in 2016, "This American Life" did a little story about North Carolina in which they appeared to have stumbled upon this criminal election rigging scheme in this specific district in this specific part of North Carolina. And again, this wasn`t about this current election we`ve just been through where there is all this controversy now and all this national news and today the unconcession.
Their story on "This American Life" about what was going on in North Carolina, this was a couple of years ago.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
IRA GLASS, "THIS AMERICAN LIFE" HOST: It`s "This American Life". I`m Ira Glass. Our program today, "Just What I Wanted". We`ve arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two. He`s making a list, checking it nice. Going to find out who voted twice.
So this fall, what certain Republicans thought they would discover under the tree was proof of voter fraud.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MADDOW: So that`s Ira Glass that is likely a familiar voice to you. He`s the host of "This American Life." You can hear the Christmas theme of "This American Life" because this was just before Christmas two years ago in 2016.
And "This American Life" sent a producer down to North Carolina in December 2016. And it wasn`t about the presidential election. They sent this producer to North Carolina in the wake of the governor`s election in North Carolina in 2016, which was a super, super, super close race.
In 2016, the incumbent Republican governor of North Carolina was Pat McCrory. He was running for reelection, but in 2016, he lost his seat. A Democrat named Roy Cooper won the governorship instead. But it was super, super close.
For a long time, the Republican incumbent Pat McCrory wouldn`t concede he had lost the governor`s race. And in the aftermath of that election in 2016, the North Carolina Republican Party set out to basically try to prove that the Democrats must have cheated, that incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory couldn`t have lost the election if it looked like the Democrats had won, it must be because they had somehow rigged it.
And that`s where "This American Life" producer Zoe Chace picked up the story, because North Carolina Republicans went to a specific county in the southeastern part of the state and they lodged a formal complaint saying that the Democrats in that county had rigged the election, and that`s why pat McCrory lost the governorship. So this radio producer Zoe Chace goes to the hearing in that county where the Republicans are lodging this complaint, and then she`s there with tape recorders running while the whole thing completely boomerangs. Check this out.
(BEGIN ADUIO CLIP)
ZOE CHACE, THIS AMERICAN LIFE: A few hours in, the complaint starts to fall apart in this kind of mortifying way. It happens when the person who actually filed the complaint takes the stand.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you doing, sir?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Doing find, Mr. Michael.
CHACE: McCrae Dowless. He takes the stand looking like he is not quite ready for this. He doesn`t have a suit. He`s got a beard, a skinny guy, big wind breaker. And once he`s up there being questioned by one of the Democrats on the board of elections, he seems amazingly unfamiliar with his own case.
UNIDENTIIFED MALE: You allege that there was a scheme that was taking place in Bladen county, is that correct? That`s the words that you used, blatant scheme. What did you mean by that?
MCRAE DOWLESS: Scheme?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You used the words "resulting from a blatant scheme".
DOWLESS: You`re saying I used the words or the attorney that wrote that up used the words?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it`s got your signature at the end.
DOWLESS: It`s got my signature on it. But as far as writing that personal -- writing that up, I didn`t do that. The attorney did. The attorney was the one who draw the protest up.
CHACE: He tries to remember who that attorney is, like what his name is.
DOWLESS: I can`t think of the gentleman`s name. Steve -- I can`t remember his last. They.
CHACE: His attorneys seem embarrassed. It is embarrassing when a client who supposedly lodging a complaint is not familiar with the complaint. They try to object. It doesn`t work. McCrae just ignores his lawyers and keeps talking over them.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MADDOW: I told you, right? This is the greatest radio show in the history of radio shows.
So, this is the story that "This American Life" is following. Republicans in the wake of them losing the governorship, they`re trying to lodge complaints, they`re saying to say Democrats must have stolen that election. Here is why the Republican governor isn`t conceding. Democrats had a scheme, we`re sure of it.
There must be some kind of problem, right? The Democrats must have done something wrong. So they get this local guy in Bladen County, North Carolina, to stand up on behalf of Republicans and lodge this complaint. And it falls apart. And his complaint goes nowhere and it is a really big embarrassment in that moment.
But here is the boomerang. Here`s how it ends.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
CHACE: The complaint is dismissed, 3-2. Dreams of the perfect Republican Christmas gift melt away. I can`t say for sure, but in talking to reporters, election board members, activists, it seems that no one in North Carolina was able to find a single case of true voter fraud where someone deliberately impersonates someone else, casts a ballot in their name, real fraud, except possibly one case, one.
And that one comes out in a very strange twist during the same hearing, just not where the Republicans were looking. One of the board members starts asking McCrae, their incumbent Republican soil and water supervisor, about whether his side had committed voter fraud.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you keep saying GOTV. Does that mean --
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get out the vote. Get out the vote.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You get paper.
DOWLESS: Get out the vote.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what exactly was it that she got paid to do?
CHACE: Here`s what tumbles out of McCrae under the board`s questioning. He had some people working for him getting out the vote, volunteers, McCrae calls them. The volunteers, though, were allegedly getting paid for each ballot they turned in. That is illegal.
One of the voters who signed an affidavit said that get out the vote workers came by and had her family request absentee ballots, but then they never received their absentee ballots in the mail like they were supposed to. Then when the family went to vote on election day, they were told they`d already voted.
In essence, McCrae is getting accused of paying people to obtain absentee ballots, fill them out and cast their votes on someone else`s behalf. That for sure is illegal. McCrae says he didn`t do anything wrong. An election board member then calls for further criminal investigation, what appears to be Republican voter fraud.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will be making a motion that any and all information that this board has in its possession shall be forwarded to the United States attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MADDOW: This guy gets up there, gets on the microphone, supposedly to lodge a complaint against the Democrats, then admits he has no idea what that complaint even is. But while he is up there, he admits into the microphone that he`s been paying people to obtain other people`s absentee ballots to fill them out and cast those votes on other people`s behalf for money. Oh, is that wrong?
That is what this public radio show, "This American Life" discovered two years ago in 2016 when they went down to North Carolina to look at the aftermath of that hotly contested governor`s race. A guy in southeastern North Carolina, Bladen County, North Carolina, blatantly confessing at a board of elections meeting that he had been criminally trying to rig the election for the Republicans. What? What?
He not only confessed out loud at that hearing, he confessed on national radio that he was running an organized criminal scheme to steal votes and stuff the ballot box on behalf of Republican candidates in that county.
That guy who was caught on tape in that public radio "This American Life" story two years ago, that is the same exact guy who was in the middle of this now national scandal over what appears to be the exact same vote stealing and ballot stuffing criminal scheme that he ran exactly the same way in this congressional race, the one that Dan McCready has just unconceded. Because in this congressional election this year, that same guy, the confessed election criminal in North Carolina, he was hired by the Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina`s ninth district, Mark Harris. Harris hired him both to win the primary and then to win the general election.
This guy was paid by Mark Harris` campaign consultants. He also appears to have been paid directly by the local county Republican Party, and that is all after that guy got up at the local elections board and confessed two years ago that, yes, he pays people to turn in other people`s votes. That, yes, he runs a criminal scheme to rig elections in Bladen County.
And Harris hired him and the local county Republican Party hired him. After this guy admitted that he runs those kinds of schemes, after it aired on national radio and after he was supposedly referred for prosecution for doing this. So this is what makes me crazy about this story. If the guy was referred for prosecution, how come he was not prosecuted before now? How come he was free to try to rig this election too?
This is the part where I mention that one of the people he has frequently worked for in previous election is the local sheriff, running the same scheme for the local sheriff, including this year. In terms of whether there ought to have been a federal prosecution of this guy, there is a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Interestingly, the Trump administration intervened to move him up in the line of succession at the Department of Justice not long ago. I don`t know what that U.S. attorney ever did with the criminal referral he supposedly got at least several years ago about this guy confessing to rigging elections in Bladen County, North Carolina, but I can tell you right now that one of the people who that U.S. attorney employees in his office as an assistant U.S. attorney is Mark Harris` son, the son of the Republican candidate, who until recently appeared to have won this congressional seat, in part by putting on his payroll this guy who has been openly confessing for a couple of years now that his job, what he gets paid to do is rigging elections in that part of the state for Republicans.
As of tonight, California incumbent Republican Congressman David Valadao has just conceded his congressional race. He`s lost a seat to a Democrat in California named T.J. Cox. With Valadao`s concession tonight, that puts the number of Democratic pickups in the midterm elections at an even 40 seats.
But tonight with Democrat Dan McCready rescinding his concession, and with the criminal scheme that unfolded in the middle of his election now unraveling in plain sight, at last, it`s not at all clear what`s going to happen in North Carolina`s ninth district, nor it is clear why the guy who did it been prosecuted for or stopped from doing this in the past despite the fact that it was all exposed well before this debacle.
Democratic candidate in North Carolina`s ninth district Dan McCready today unconceded this race. His race is now the last outstanding congressional race in this country. I don`t know how it`s ever going to get resolved. But Dan McCready joins us for his first national interview since the election, next.
MADDOW: It does not happen all that often when we see an election called for one candidate and then uncalled, but that is what happened tonight in a North Carolina congressional race. It`s now the last uncalled race in the country.
After days of statistical analysis and outright descriptions of what sure sounds like blatant criminal election fraud on behalf of the Republican candidate Mark Harris, NBC News tonight says it can no longer call this race for Harris. Instead, NBC now says there`s no call in this race at all. Too much uncertainty about what happened there.
The Democratic candidate who tonight took back his earlier concession in that race is Dan McCready. As of tonight, Dan McCready still is a candidate for U.S. Congress from North Carolina`s ninth district.
Mr. McCready joins us tonight for his first national interview since the election.
Mr. McCready, thanks very much for being with us. I really appreciate it.
DAN MCCREADY, DEM CANDIDATE IN DISPUTED NORTH CAROLINA RACE: Thanks for having me on, Rachel.
MADDOW: I wonder if it took you a little bit of psychological work to kind of gear back up to the fact that you were still in this race. You conceded the day after the election.
MCCREADY: You know, it totally did. I was at Disneyworld with my four little kids and my wife Laura a couple of weeks ago. I was as surprised as anyone to see the North Carolina State Elections Board refuse to certify the election results in an unprecedented bipartisan 9-0 decision.
And over the last week have just been floored as evidence and affidavits about fraud and irregularities and criminal activity have just been rolling in, not just day by day, but hour by hour.
MADDOW: And in terms of that evidence, I had to decide how to tell the story tonight and whether to go through it point by point in terms of what really appear to be these blatant statistical anomalies, there`s been interviews of people who said they were involved in this scheme. A lot of them saying they didn`t realize it was criminal scheme that they were being put up to. You can also look at it in terms of the affidavits that were filed by people who seemed to have witnessed the scheme and almost had confessions from people involved in it.
At the moment, there is a lot of different ways to approach it. It seems to me from the outside like bottom line, what happened here is that this is a professional operator. There is a specific operator who works in Bladen County and maybe a couple of other counties in your congressional district who has made it his life`s work, who has made it his work for a number of election cycles now that for hire, he`ll stuff the ballot box. He`ll rig the absentee ballot system and make sure that your opponents` ballots never make into it the ballot box, and to make sure that a lot of suspiciously high number of ballots for you do get in there.
It seems like this was sort of voter fraud for hire. Is that how you see it?
MCCREADY: You know, I think it`s even worse, Rachel. He`s not just an operator. He is a criminal. He`s a felon.
And I think it`s -- it is amazing that my opponent Mark Harris went out and hired a convicted felon who was under investigation for absentee ballot fraud, to do his absentee ballot program. And apparently he got what he paid for because Mark Harris didn`t just hire this felon, he actually recommended his services to other.
MADDOW: In terms of Mr. Harris, you -- before today, before you announced that you were rescinding your concession, you had not been making public comments about the results of the race. Mr. Harris has not made any comments either, including about these pointed allegations like the one you just made that this wasn`t sort of externality in your election but rather this is a criminal scheme that he knowingly bought and paid for.
What are do you expect from your opponent right now? What do you think that Mark Harris should do now that you`ve said you`re back in this race?
MCCREADY: Mark Harris needs to come clean, Rachel. It`s unacceptable to the people of North Carolina who have had their voices taken from them. You know, your vote is your voice. You know, it is our most sacred right as Americans is our right to vote.
I started my career in the Marine Corps where I served overseas. And, you know, could never have imagined that I would come back home to North Carolina only to see our very democracy, our very right to vote under attack here in North Carolina by criminals and politicians. And so, it`s unacceptable that Mark Harris has been completely silent since this whole thing happened.
And I call on him to end the silence. I call on him to tell the American people, to tell folks in North Carolina exactly what he knew and when he knew it.
MADDOW: Last question for McCready. Do you expect that there will be a new election called in this race, that you essentially will do a rerun of this election to try to correct this result and get a true tally?
MCCREADY: Well, that will be up to the -- to the state board of elections. I think it`s critical that they`ve taken a really courageous step. You know, it took a lot of courage, Rachel, for the Republicans on that board to join the Democrats and independents on that board and unanimously -- unanimously fail to certify this race and also in a bipartisan manner start an investigation.
And that investigation is so important. It`s important that it be a full and a thorough investigation. And should this be a tainted election, then we absolutely should have a new election.
MADDOW: Dan McCready, candidate for U.S. Congress in North Carolina`s ninth district who has just today unconceded the election -- Mr. McCready, thanks for keeping us apprised. I have a feeling this roller coaster sort of just started. So, we`re looking forward to talking to you again as this proceeds. Thank you.
MCCREADY: Thanks so much, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right. Again, ultimately, at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the House of Representatives to decide whether to seat each and every member of the House of Representatives. Whatever is decided in North Carolina, whether they`re going to go ahead with the new election or resolve this in some other way, it will come down to the new Democratic majority House of Representatives who they decide to seat in this race, if anyone. And North Carolina has to know that heading forward that they can`t leave it the way it is right now.
All right. Much more ahead here tonight. Stay with us.
MADDOW: On Halloween, 2016, a week before the election, Franklin Foer published this investigative piece at Slate.com about a series of mysterious contacts that happened during the presidential campaign between a computer server at the Trump Organization in New York and servers at a Russian bank called Alfa Bank. It`s a mysterious piece. No indication what those communications meant.
Then after that election, that same Russian bank, Alfa Bank, they hired a new lawyer to represent them in the ongoing controversy about that server thing. They specifically hired the guy who had led the Trump transition team at the Justice Department. They hired him to oversee a new internal report that cleared them of any wrongdoing when it came to those mysterious contacts between their bank and the Trump organization during the campaign.
When that lawyer, Brian Benczkowski, was finished overseeing that internal report for Alfa Bank, President Trump then nominated him to be head of the criminal division at the Justice Department. Oh. At his confirmation hearing, Senator Amy Klobuchar asked him about that work for Alfa Bank.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: Do you think that they were aware of your work with the Trump transition team Alfa Bank?
BRIAN BENCZKOWSKI, DOJ OFFICIAL: I don`t know. It`s a matter of public record that I was the head of the DOJ transition in December and January, but I don`t know.
KLOBUCHAR: And were you given any indication that your work with the transition team was one of the reasons you were asked to represent them?
BENCZKOWSKI: Not from my partner. My partner asked me to represent them to the best of my knowledge because I established an expertise in conducting and turning over, seeing internal investigations on behalf of corporate clients.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Brian Benczkowski was confirmed narrowly by the Senate. He does now run the criminal division at the Justice Department.
But now today, fascinating new revelation about him. At his confirmation hearings, he got asked about this stuff a lot. He committed that he would recuse himself on anything related to Alfa Bank specifically, since they had been his client.
But even though he was asked repeatedly by Democratic senators, he would not commit that he would recuse himself on the Robert Mueller investigation more broadly, tonight Russia investigation more broadly. Well, now, as of today, a watchdog group called American Oversight just released a bunch of documents they got through a Freedom of Information Act request, and those documents turned up something quite unexpected.
It turns out that Brian Benczkowski, head of the criminal division at the Justice Department, he has recused himself from the whole Russia investigation, from everything related to Robert Mueller. He would not tell senators that that`s what he was going to do, but now that he is in there, he has recused everything related to Mueller.
Now, is that because the Mueller investigation turns out to have a lot of Alfa Bank in it and he can`t be anywhere near anything with Alfa Bank? Or maybe it`s just because Brian Benczkowski had a change of heart and decided even though he wouldn`t do it in this kind of recusal at his confirmation hearing, once he got the Justice Department, he realized, oh, yes, maybe I ought.
I mean, this news day, again, this is a surprise. It also comes as a number of top Democrats in Congress are increasing the pressure to find out what`s going on with the new Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, who was just installed in that job by President Trump. Is he too recused from overseeing the Mueller investigation after he repeatedly questioned it as a TV pundit?
I mean, now, as of today, we know that the Justice Department is willing to spell out what`s going on with the head of the criminal division in his recusal on this matter, Brian Benczkowski. So why are they not spelling it out with regard to Matt Whitaker?
It also comes as the White House had to has floated William Barr as a new potential appointee to be attorney general. William Barr served as A.G. under George H.W. Bush for just over a year in the early `90s. So you can sort of look at him that way, look at it as sort of an establishment Republican pick.
Another way to look at William Barr is that he was the guy in the Iran/Contra scandal at the time who basically pushed for blanket pardons for everyone in the George H.W. Bush administration who was involved in that scandal. So, take your pick how you want to see that pick.
Senator Amy Klobuchar joins us live, next.
MADDOW: Joining us now for the interview is Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. She is a key Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and somebody who lots of people want to run for president in 2020. There, I just put it right out there.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D), MINNESOTA: There you go.
MADDOW: There I go.
Senator, thank you for being here.
KLOBUCHAR: Thank you, Rachel.
MADDOW: Let me ask you about some of this Justice Department stuff we`ve just been learning about.
MADDOW: So, a new name has been floated as potential attorney general nominee, William Barr, who served in what role as A.G. for a short time during the George H.W. Bush administration. We`ve also got some interesting information out of the Justice Department today about recusal in the Mueller investigation. I want to ask you about that too.
But what`s your reaction to the William Barr trial balloon?
KLOBUCHAR: Well, first of all, we don`t know if that`s who he is going to put in place. I haven`t worked with him. I do think he is worthy of consideration. I am concerned he has said some negative things about the special counsel`s office and some of the prosecutors he had in place, but that`s all I know right now.
But, again, what we want to see is a nominee. So we`d like them to put someone forward so we can quickly start interviewing them, get their documents, figure out what`s going on, because right now, we have someone who is a walking conflict of interest in Mr. Whitaker who shouldn`t be there to begin with.
MADDOW: With Whitaker, obviously, there is controversy over the fact that he`s serving as the acting attorney general of the United States in an indefinite capacity without ever having come before the Senate. There`s also --
KLOBUCHAR: Yes. That`s one problem.
MADDOW: That`s one problem.
KLOBUCHAR: Let`s keep going.
MADDOW: There is also his conflicts of interest, as you mentioned.
KLOBUCHAR: Yes, $1.2 million in which he spent a lot time going on TV going after Hillary Clinton, yes.
MADDOW: Also, he appears to be part of a fraudulent busted by the FTC scam that is currently -- reportedly currently being investigated by the FBI, including his personal role in intimidating people who night have otherwise complained about him.
KLOBUCHAR: OK, that`s another one.
And then you have which is very relevant to this, the fact that he said that he thought the investigation was crossing a red line, the fact that he said you could starve the investigation so it would have no money, and then the final thing, at one point he said publicly that he didn`t see connections at all that the special counsel had developed between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Yet tomorrow, as you so well-pointed out, we are going to have kind of a lollapalooza day where we have got the special counsel`s office explaining to us about Manafort and what we think should happen there and why they didn`t think they should accept the plea. You`ve got Papadopoulos coming out of jail. You`ve got Flynn -- that situation where they`ve issued a report explaining why they thought he shouldn`t go to jail, because of the fact that he has come forward with information.
And all of this is going on at the same time that we may be --
MADDOW: Both Flynn and Cohen are going to be sentenced next week.
KLOBUCHAR: Exactly. It`s all these pieces of a puzzle coming together. But if they take out the corners of the puzzle, you don`t have the puzzle. And that means keeping Mueller going, making sure the investigation gets completed, allowing for a report, if there is going to be a report, and then, of course, allowing for oversight from someone who has not conflicted out, and that would be Rosenstein.
MADDOW: So we`ve been talking about the problem with Whitaker and the Mueller investigation ever since Whitaker was first named to this job. The thing that has not evolved at all since he was installed in this job is that we still, as far as I can tell, have zero transparency into whether or not he is overseeing the Mueller investigation or not there. There`s some public source reporting, which suggests that he has been back channeling information to the White House or he has had some advance notice of things before they became public knowledge, but the Justice Department itself has not told us whether he has recused, whether he`s met with ethics investigators or ethics officials at the Justice Department, or what his role is in overseeing this.
Is that just the secrecy of the investigative process? Is there something that`s proper about that secrecy?
KLOBUCHAR: No, I don`t think so at all because he`s supposed to be giving us information. We have asked as members of the Judiciary Committee have very specifically asked the Justice Department to give us information about these conflicts, about if he is recusing himself, what the extent of that recusal is. And we`re also asking for a briefing directly from them, if they`re not going give us a document.
And, of course, we`ve been asking the same thing about Benczkowski.
MADDOW: Yes. And Benczkowski today, thanks a Freedom of Information Act request --
KLOBUCHAR: Thanks to your great reporting.
MADDOW: Well, I mean, I just show-off whatever people dig up.
But in this case, we now actually do have an overt statement from the Justice Department that Benczkowski, around whom there were concerns about his own involvement in the Russia investigation, he is recused from everything having to do with Mueller. That`s very interesting news.
If the Justice Department felt compelled to make that kind of declaration about Benczkowski, does that indicate that they will eventually have to tell us the same kind of information about Whitaker?
KLOBUCHAR: Of course. I mean, this guy is serving as the acting attorney general, and may for the foreseeable future here even though we know we have some I think lawsuits with merit about the fact that we didn`t have any ability to confirm him, problem under the Constitution, and that number two, they used the wrong statute in putting him in. They should have used this secession statute that would have meant that, in fact, Rosenstein should have taken over as the next in line after Sessions was asked to resign or you might say fired.
MADDOW: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, will you stay?
KLOBUCHAR: Will I stay on your show? Yes, I will stay on your show. I thought you meant stay on this investigation which I am committed to do as a member of the Judiciary Committee. We have a lot going on there. Yes, I will.
MADDOW: I will ask you to stay in much more esoteric ways if you want.
KLOBUCHAR: I know, I`m excited. Yes.
MADDOW: Just through the commercial.
All right. We`ll be right back with Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
MADDOW: Joining us once again for the interview, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Senator, thank you for coming in and talking I`m really happy to have you here. I also find you to be one of the most people I enjoy talking to on television about politics and that has been through since I first met you.
KLOBUCHAR: Thank you. I think I was on your show early on. I would go on every Halloween.
MADDOW: I think in part because I am biased and because I enjoy you as a person but also as a political analyst, I feel like you have exactly the right profile of somebody who ought to run for president with the expectation that you would do very well both in the primary and in the general election.
And I know you`ve been asked a lot about this lately, but how are you approaching this decision? How are you thinking about whether or not you should run for president?
KLOBUCHAR: Well, first of all, I just got off an election and I led a ticket where we as you know had two U.S. Senate seats, one governor`s race, statehouse and a bunch of congressional races in a state that Donald Trump almost won. It was about a little over a point difference. And so, that was my first obligation. So, I have to get that done.
MADDOW: You won by 24 points.
KLOBUCHAR: I did. But I had a ticket that I had to get through.
KLOBUCHAR: Someone said it wasn`t just on my shoulders, it was my back. And it was really important to win those races. So, we did that, and I hope some of my colleagues around the country.
So now I am looking at this. But I think things you have to consider when you look at this daunting decision is, first of all, do you want to be president, you have to think about who can win. There`s a lot of good people that are going to be running. And then you have to think about this geographic fact that in the last election, the Midwest got left behind on our side. We did not do well.
I`m talking not about 2018, where we picked up a number of great governorship in Wisconsin, Kansas, with Laura Kelly, and different place. But it is what happened in the last presidential.
So, I think it`s important to have voices from the Midwest. I think it`s important to have people that can win in counties and areas that Donald Trump did well in. I will say that I won I think 72 counties in Minnesota that he had won. And I think a lot of this is going not just where it is comfortable but also where it`s uncomfortable.
And then, of course, there`s a singular focus on getting our own optimistic economic agenda across in a time when you have tweets every morning and new rabbit holes to go down. I think it`s really important that whatever candidates are running, focus on an optimistic economic agenda for this country. At the same time, we protect our democracy, and the last time I checked Democrats can do two things at once.
MADDOW: And it sounds like you want Democrats to do that. I don`t hear you saying I`m the best Democrat to do that. But from the way you`re talking about it, I mean, if that`s going to be the agenda, if that`s the way to win both geographically and in terms of the message, then why shouldn`t it be you?
KLOBUCHAR: Well, I`m considering it. I learned the hard way in my U.S. Senate race when Mark Dayton had decided not to run at the last moment, he was an incumbent senator, and I immediately was asked about it, and unfortunately, my husband found out on TV that I was considering doing it or on the radio, and I`m trying to spare my family. That`s why I think I`d have to have a discussion with them as well as a number of people I`ve been working with over the years.
MADDOW: OK. Well, if you want me to talk to them, I`ll do so, Senator.
KLOBUCHAR: All right. Well, it`s great. Thanks.
MADDOW: Senator, I have one last question that I want to ask you about that is on a policy matter.
MADDOW: And I want to ask you this as a former prosecutor and also a senator on the Judiciary Committee.
MADDOW: And it concerns an issue that`s a -- it`s really a crime issue but it now relates to a Trump cabinet secretary as well. It`s the Jeffrey Epstein case.
KLOBUCHAR: Oh, in Florida, yes.
MADDOW: Yes. So, there`s this Florida case involving Jeffrey Epstein. The current Labor Secretary Alex Acosta was the U.S. attorney when that case came forward in Florida, and he -- "The Miami Herald" has just done this incredible expose. He gave Jeffrey Epstein a plea deal that resulted in having federal immunity after a 53-page federal indictment has been drawn up against him on child rape, and child molestation, all these things.
If a plea deal that gave him federal immunity, gave all this potential conspirators immunity as well. And the guy ended up pleading to two state charges, doing 13 months in a private wing of the county jail with his own guards and he got to go home 12 hours a day for six days a week.
Senator Ben Sasse is the one Republican senator who said this is an issue the Justice Department should explain that deal especially given the U.S. attorney who did it is now a cabinet secretary. How -- is this an appropriate inquiry for the Senate? Should the Justice Department have to explain itself? And why is Ben Sasse the only Republican who seems to care about it?
KLOBUCHAR: I`m glad that he cares and, of course, I care very much as someone that has worked on these kinds of cases and done a lot in the area of human trafficking and sex trafficking.
From what I`ve learned with "The Miami Herald" reporting and other stories is that this is not just like a he said/she said story. This is 50 she saids and one he said when it comes to Mr. Epstein, who was convicted, but as you pointed out, served such a short sentence. So that was strange.
The other thing that`s strange is the victims were not even told about the sentence. In my state, you have all kinds of requirements. You don`t seal an agreement like this in nearly any case because you want to consult with the victims before you put the sentence out there. It`s law in most cases.
So I think there is a very good reason to figure out what went on here and why the U.S. attorney at the time, and this was back during the last Bush administration in 2007, George W. Bush, why this happened. And I think it`s a meritorious review, and I`m glad Senator Sasse and a number of us on the Democratic side agree that we should be looking into this.
MADDOW: Senator Amy Klobuchar, one of the most pragmatic senators in the U.S. --
KLOBUCHAR: Well, that`s because --
MADDOW: -- in U.S. Congress.
KLOBUCHAR: -- common ground is the only way you can get to higher ground.
MADDOW: Listen to you.
KLOBUCHAR: That`s what we need to do as a country. Well, we just haven`t been doing that lately, except the George H.W. Bush funeral. We did it for two hours and that was good.
MADDOW: Senator Klobuchar, thank you for being here.
KLOBUCHAR: OK. Thank you.
MADDOW: When you make a decision, you let me know.
KLOBUCHAR: All right. Thank you.
MADDOW: That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL".
Lawrence, I`m sorry I ate a minute.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END