Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: November 30, 2018 Guest: Jon Tester
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Happy weekend, my friend.
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: You too.
MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Happy Friday.
Today in Washington, D.C., the president`s campaign chairman was back in federal court while his legal team was back in court on his behalf. Paul Manafort himself elected not to come to court personally today. He instead stayed home. His new home the last several months now has been the federal jail in Alexandria, Virginia.
After what has just been a remarkable week in the courts this week, which started with prosecutors in the special counsel`s office declaring that Paul Manafort had been lying to them, saying he was in breach of his cooperation agreement, the president`s lawyers then bragging publicly that they`d been using Paul Manafort as a way to gather intelligence on what the special counsel was up to in the Russia investigation. Manafort had been secretly informing the White House about his interactions with prosecutors since he supposedly became their cooperating witness.
After all that this week, what we learned today about Manafort in court is that he`s not actually going to be sentenced until March, March 5th, which means a lot more time at home, his current home, which is jail.
That said, next week, a week from today, the special counsel`s office says that they will turn in to the court in Manafort`s case, they`re going to submit their detailed accounting of how exactly Manafort has been lying to them, how he breached his cooperation agreement with them.
This week, between the Manafort explosion and the Michael Cohen guilty plea about Trump Tower Moscow yesterday, we have already had quite the roll-out this week from the special counsel`s office about what they`ve got and who else should be worried about the evidence that Robert Mueller and his team have assembled. Well, now we know as of this court appearance today that at the end of next week, next Friday from today, we`re going get a big new dose of that as it pertains to Paul Manafort, the president`s jailed campaign chairman.
But here`s the thing. Even before then, on Tuesday, we`re going get yet more because on Tuesday of next week, that`s the deadline for Mueller`s prosecutors to file their memorandum in aid of sentencing for Michael Flynn. Mike Flynn is, of course, the first national security adviser to President Trump. He plead guilty last year to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with the Russian government, contacts in which he discussed the possible lifting of U.S. sanctions against Russia. Next week on Tuesday, we are going to get a whole new narrative from Mueller`s office about Flynn`s crime, his cooperation, or lack thereof, and anything else they want to share because they believe it will be of relevance to what kind of sentence he`s going to ultimately end up getting.
And it sort of couldn`t come at a better time because all of a sudden now, this week, we the public just got a much clearer and frankly, much more worrying view of the crime that Mike Flynn plead to and maybe even why he might have done it. So, I think he was worth sort of focusing on pretty intently. Not only in terms of buttoning up over the course of this week, but what`s about to come next. We know more shoes are going to drop. We know we`re going get a bunch of more information from the special counsel`s office in the next few days.
Focus in on this Flynn thing for just a second. Mike Flynn had some unusual Russia ties during the campaign, right? He had visited Russia at the Russian government`s behest, just as Trump was declaring his run for president. Soon after he got back Russia, he signed up to join Trump`s campaign, which was a surprise. Mike Flynn had been a registered Democrat.
It later emerged that Flynn not only sat with Vladimir Putin at a gala event on that Russia trip, he also led a standing ovation for the Russian president at that gala event. He was also paid by the Russian government to attend that event. They paid all expenses for him and his son, and then they paid him a pretty good fee on top of that. Flynn initially denied it, but it was all later proven out, and then he admitted it.
Then in the presidential transition, after Trump won, Flynn, as the designated national security adviser for the incoming administration, he contacted the Russian government multiple times to talk to them about U.S. government sanctions against Russia, to encourage Russia at one point not to retaliate against new measures that were taken against Russia by the Obama administration in response to Russia messing with our election.
Flynn is the guy who called them and said basically, don`t hit back. Don`t worry. Trump is going to be in there soon. I`m going to be in there soon, and then you won`t have anything to worry about. We`re going take care of all the sanction.
That`s what the FBI and federal prosecutors came to know that Mike Flynn had done. But he lied about it publicly at the time. He denied that he was having any such conversations. And then he apparently lied to the FBI about it when they came calling about it too. That`s what he ended up pleading guilty to. And we`re going to learn more about that on Tuesday, finally, in open court.
But there has always been something kind of hard to figure out about the Flynn case. This has been a real point of focus for critics of the Mueller investigation on the right. And I don`t know how they`re going to answer what we`ve now learned about this situation, but we now have a much better understanding of what happened here, right?
The big question about Flynn, and this in particular has been raised over and over again by critics of the Mueller prosecution. Big question. Why did Mike Flynn lie about this stuff?
I mean, he was the designated incoming national security adviser. It was a little weird. It`s potentially a Logan Act violation for the incoming national security adviser to be calling a foreign government, undermining existing U.S. policy and the existing U.S. president. It`s a little weird. But the Logan Act has never been actually used to prosecute anybody.
And given that Flynn wasn`t just some average citizen, he really was the incoming national security adviser, it would be a little weird, but it wouldn`t be that weird for him to be making those kinds of calls with Russia. Policy is about to change. Consider that when you`re measuring what your response should be to this latest action from the lame duck outgoing president.
It`s a little weird. It`s not that weird. But for some reason Mike Flynn felt like he was doing something with those calls that could not come out. For some reason, he felt like he was doing something that really needed to be secret.
And it wasn`t just him. That`s how they all were on this issue of Russian sanctions. You might remember K.T. McFarland. She was a Fox News pundit, and then for a hot minute, she became the top deputy at the National Security Council under Mike Flynn.
Thanks to "New York Times" reporting on the internal communications of the Trump transition at the time, we know that K.T. McFarland was in on what Flynn was doing on these calls to Russia. She knew he was talking to the Russian government about lifting sanction.
But nevertheless, she lied about it too. She lied about it famously to the Senate under oath, which scuttled her chances of becoming an ambassador. That`s what they tried to do with her after Flynn had to resign and then he pled guilty.
But, you know, in terms of K.T. McFarland and her lying about this Russian sanctions discussion, reporter Shane Harrison and Devlin Barrett at "The Washington Post" had this remarkable, remarkable piece about her back in September. It didn`t get that much attention at the time, but it now turns out I think to be pretty important.
In that piece in "The Washington Post" in September, we learned that not only did K.T. McFarland lie to the Senate about those conversations with Russia about sanctions. She lied to the FBI about those conversations too.
Quote: A former top White House official K.T. McFarland has revised her statement to investigators about a key event in the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. When FBI agents first visited K.T. McFarland at her Long Island home in the summer of 2016, McFarland denied ever talking to Mike Flynn about any discussion of sanctions between him and the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
For a time, investigators saw her answers as inconsistent, putting her in legal peril as the FBI tried to determine whether she had lied to them. Not long after Flynn`s guilty plea, McFarland was questioned by investigators again about her conversations with Flynn, and in that subsequent conversation with investigators, she walked back her previous denial that sanctions were discussed. Quote: Eventually McFarland and her lawyer convinced the FBI that she hadn`t intentionally misled the bureau, she had rather spoken from memory without the aid of any documents that could have helped her remember the exchanges with Flynn.
Quote: Mueller`s team appears to be satisfied with K.T. McFarland`s revised account, according to people familiar with the probe.
Yes, but here`s the amazing thing -- so, K.T. McFarland told the FBI, no, we didn`t talk to Russia about sanction, even though they did. Then Flynn pleads guilty to lying to the FBI about talking to Russia about sanctions. After Flynn pleads guilty, she goes back and tells -- oh, wait, oh, wait, sanctions? Is that what you were talking about? I am so sorry, I plum forgot, but now I remember, yeah, I think we probably did talk to the Russians about sanction. I`m so sorry.
And the FBI decided not to charge her because they believed her that she just forgot? Here`s the next line in that remarkable story from Shane Harris and Devlin Barrett. Quote, just days after Flynn talked to the Russian ambassador, McFarland said that her memory was clear and that Flynn and the Russian official had never discussed sanctions.
Quote: Early on the morning of January 13th, 2017, McFarland phoned one of the authors of this article, so one of the two reporters. Quote: McFarland insisted in an on-the-record conversation that Flynn and the Russian ambassador had never discussed the sanctions. McFarland said that Flynn, quote, called me right after his call with Kislyak and conveyed the details of their conversation.
So, K.T. McFarland knew that Flynn talked to Russia about sanctions. K.T. McFarland lied publicly about whether the incoming Trump administration was talking to Russia about sanctions. She lied publicly about it. She lied on the record to reporters about it.
She lied to the U.S. Senate about it. She lied to the FBI about it. But then they apparently forgave her when she said oh, it was so long ago, I forgot, maybe.
Mike Flynn also lied about those conversations he had with Russia talking about sanctions. He lied in public. He lied to reporters. He lied to the FBI.
Why were they lying about it? I mean, on its face, they didn`t need to. It would make sense that they`d be talking about sanctions to the Russian government conceivably.
They`re the top two security officials in the National Security Agency for the incoming administration. Obviously, there is going to be a change on the policy. It`s not that weird. But they lied about it.
And the fact that they were lying about it meant that those two senior Trump administration officials, the number one and number two officials at the National Security Council under this new president, they were both compromised by Russia from the very beginning, from the transition. Because, of course, Russia knew the truth, right? Russia was on the other end of the phone.
They knew that these guys had been having conversations about Russia, right? It wasn`t secret from Russia. But it was being kept secret from the American public, the American press, the American Congress, and even the FBI.
And that is called leverage, right? That means Russia compromised them both. Russia was in a position to lord something over the both of them that these two plainly wanted kept a secret because they were lying about it, even under oath and even when talking to federal investigators.
Why did those two want it secret? It remains unknown. I mean, Trump himself on the campaign trail, he attracted plenty of controversy for talking about sanctions, for his seemingly inexplicable insistence that the U.S. should drop the sanctions against Russia.
This, in fact, was the first time Trump talked about sanctions on the campaign trail. It was July 11, 2015.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe I would get along very lies northeasterly with Putin, OK? And I mean where we have the strength. I don`t think you need the sanctions. I think that we would get along very, very well. I really believe that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That`s the first time Trump talked about sanctions on Russia as a soon to be presidential candidate. I don`t think you need the sanctions.
And David Corn and Michael Isikoff`s book "Russian Roulette", they pointed out who exactly asked that question of Trump? Who teed him up at that event in Las Vegas in July of 2015, to pronounce publicly that the U.S. should drop sanctions on Russia? It was this person.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: OK. Let`s go.
MARIA BUTINA: Sorry.
TRUMP: Yes, ma`am?
BUTINA: I`m from Russia.
BUTINA: So my question will be about foreign politics.
BUTINA: If you would be elected as the president, what will be your foreign politics, especially in the relationships with my country? And do you want to continue the politics of sanctions that are damaging of both economy or you have any other ideas?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: That, the person who first asked Trump as a presidential candidate about sanctions on Russia, prompting Trump for the first time to publicly say hey, let`s get rid of sanctions on Russia, that is Maria Butina, who is now famous. She is now in federal custody on charges that she is a secret agent of the Russian government, who was sent here to influence the U.S. election in order to benefit the government of Russia.
It was a weird thing at the time for Trump alone among Republicans and Democrats and everyone to come out and say, we should drop sanctions on Russia, right? It was weird at the time in itself. It is weird in a whole new way now that we know it turns out to have been an alleged secret agent of the Russian government who set him up to publicly do that in the first place.
But while he at least was willing to advocate publicly for dropping the sanctions on Russia, what he was lying about at the time, what he was refusing to acknowledge at the time was that if the U.S. government actually did that, actually did drop sanctions on Russia, that would be a huge personal financial windfall for him, because now we know that Trump and his business at that time were secretly negotiating a gigantic business deal in Moscow. A Trump Tower Moscow that would be financed to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars by a Russian bank, a bank specifically that was under U.S. sanctions.
So if it`s a sanctioned bank, Americans can`t do business involving that bank. Trump took this weird outlier political stance that he wanted to drop sanctions on Russia. He just conveniently didn`t mention his personal involvement in a gigantic real estate scheme that could only go ahead if the U.S. dropped sanctions.
Trump knew that at the time, although he lied about it repeatedly, insisted over and over again that he had no business interests in Russia whatsoever. But Trump knew that he did, and Russia knew that he did.
I mean, the Kremlin we now know was actively involved in discussions with the Trump organization about the financing, about the building project. According to "BuzzFeed", even about Putin`s personal sweetener in the deal, which would be a free $50 million penthouse that he could keep for himself in the deal, free for nothing.
So, Trump knew this was in the works, but was keeping it secret. The Kremlin knew it was in the works. They knew that Trump was keeping it secret. They even helped him keep it secret.
In a call with reporters, the senior Kremlin official, who is apparently managing this project for the Russian government, he put out a statement denying any Kremlin involvement. He said we don`t respond to such business topics. It is not our job.
Asked specifically about reports that Michael Cohen had e-mailed the official`s office in the Kremlin about the project, this Russian official, Dmitry Peskov responded, quote, we left that without a response.
Well, from Michael Cohen`s plea in court yesterday, we know that Peskov`s office actually did reply to him. So that means that the Kremlin was helping cover this thing up too.
Just -- just step back from this a second, right? This means, yes, during the transition, the top two national security aides in the incoming Trump administration were compromised by Russia. Russia had leverage over them because of them lying about their dealings with Russia, but also as presidential candidate, Trump was definitely we now know compromised by Russia. He was lying about his dealings with Russia and Russia knew it, and Russia was helping him to keep the secret, right? So this is bad.
We`ve got a presidential candidate for one thing, offering a $50 million gift. It`s a gift to a foreign leader, secretly. So he`s compromised on that, right? They can expose him for that if they want.
Russia has also compromised him because he is lying about this ongoing business pursuit in Russia and Russia`s plan to provide him hundreds of millions of dollars for that real estate project if he gets those sanctions lifted. He is lying about that. He is not mentioning his personal stake in the sanction issue when he is talking about sanction. So Russia has him compromised on that too.
I mean, the secret Moscow deal is damning enough. It`s damning enough that a criminal cover-up effort is launched that includes the president`s lawyer, at least him, lying to Congress under oath about the deal.
Congressman Jim Himes from the intelligence committee was here last night and told us it might not just be Michael Cohen who was in on the cover-up. There were not a lot of inconsistent 70s the issue of Trump tower Moscow, meaning a lot of people under oath before the intelligence committee told the same story as Michael Cohen, and Michael Cohen just plead guilty to a felony because his story was a lie.
If other people were telling the same lie about the secret Moscow deal, if other people were organized so that they would all tell the same lie, all of those people will not only be in trouble themselves and soon since the transcripts of their testimony are going to Mueller as soon as the Democrats are sworn in, but if there was anybody who coached or orchestrated that cover-up so they`d all say the same thing, well, that`s a heck of a lot worse, right? Who was in a position to do that?
Well, now here`s how this whole thing fits together, which is bad. In the criminal information filed alongside Michael Cohen`s guilty plea yesterday, the special counsel`s office says that the Trump Tower Moscow Project involved direct contact with the Kremlin. It involved plans for Trump Organization personnel, including potentially Trump himself to visit Moscow and meet with senior government officials, very senior Russian government officials.
The criminal information also says the project also involved more consultations with Trump himself than had previously been admitted to. But it also says that the project went along for months longer than had previously been admitted to. It went all the way into the summer of 2016 after Trump had wrapped up the Republican primaries and become the presumptive Republican nominee.
So it went on for months longer than they previously admitted. But the way the special counsel tells it in the Cohen court filings, it did come to a rather dramatic and specific halt on a specific date, on June 14th, 2016. The two Trump organization guys, Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, who were working on the Trump Tower Moscow project, they met in the lobby of Trump Tower on June 14th, 2016.
And on that date, Cohen told Sater I`m not going to Moscow. June 14th, that date is in Mueller`s filing, along with Cohen`s guilty plea. June 14th, 2016, which is the day that "The Washington Post" published the first national news story exposing the fact that Russian government hackers had broken into the Democratic Party`s headquarters and started to steal stuff.
Felix Sater himself affirmed to NBC News last night that that story, the story about Russian government hackers being exposed for their role in trying to get into our elections, that was the reason they stopped working on the Trump Tower project that day. The secret project they`d been working on for many, many, many months including direct contact with the Kremlin and planned travel to Moscow stopped that day.
Why? What was the connection between those two things? What`s the connection between Russia basically burglarizing the presidential election to help Trump and the big real estate deal Trump was secretly working on in Russia during the campaign? Why does one have to stop when the other one gets exposed?
Well, what if they`re both the same project? The person in Kremlin who was working with the Trump Organization to facilitate the Moscow real estate deal is Dmitry Peskov, on the right there with Vladimir Putin. Peskov goes so far as to personally lie to the press to keep the Moscow deal a secret, to keep Trump`s secret for him while Trump is lying about to it the American public.
Peskov is also suspected of having a major role, perhaps even the chief executive role in the campaign to interfere in the elections to help Clinton and -- excuse me, to hurt Clinton and help her opponent.
I mean, if the big picture Russian dream here is to have their very own president of the USA, if their dream is to compromise an American presidential candidate so that candidate is beholden to them and then install that compromised candidate as president, then the Trump Tower Moscow project which compromises Trump and the election interference campaign, which is designed to install him, those are the same op. Compromise your guy and then install your compromised guy. World domination in two easy steps.
Of course, in order for the Moscow deal to even seem viable, though you would need to free up the financing that would make the whole thing possible, and this Russian state-controlled bank, VTB, is committed to financing the project. That`s whose going to finance the thing. So the thing you need is for them to be allowed to finance the project. And in order for them to finance the project, they need to not be sanctioned.
So, you need your compromised U.S. presidential candidate, and then ultimately his administration to get that done for you, to get rid of the sanction. Right? That`s the gear that makes the whole wheel spin.
And so, Trump publicly advocates that when prompted by someone who is now in custody as an alleged Russian agent. Mike Flynn and K.T. McFarland secretly start working on it, including with the Russian government, and then they lie about it publicly and to the press and to the Congress and even to the FBI.
Sanctions advocacy isn`t such a terrible thing for them to be doing. It`s a stand-alone thing. But if it was part of this kind of scheme, then, yeah, maybe that would explain why they were being so surreptitious about it.
And what else? Well, we also now know that the two Trump Organization guys who themselves specifically were the ones working on Trump Tower Moscow, Felix Sater and Michael Cohen, they ended up themselves, the two of them involved in one more scheme right before Mike Flynn was fired, right at the start of the Trump administration. They were involved in a scheme to cook up yet another plan to get rid of Russian sanctions.
Do you remember this story? Felix Sater and Michael Cohen involved in the supposed secret Ukrainian peace deal scheme, which was really just a proposal to give Ukraine over to Russia and then drop the Russian sanctions anyway.
What were Felix Sater and Michael Cohen doing working on something like that? Do Felix Sater and Michael Cohen scream international diplomacy and peacemaking to you?
Those guys wouldn`t even say that about themselves, but, yes, it was those guys working on this plan to drop Russian sanctions, because those guys were the ones who were making the Trump Moscow project happen too. And to make that come true, it would need financing from that Russian state owned bank controlled by Putin, and that couldn`t happen until U.S. sanctions on Russia were dropped.
It`s not the real estate start working on dropping sanctions on Russia. It`s part of their deal. Because sanctions and a huge financial deal for Trump and lying publicly about the deal for Trump and lying about contacts with the Russian government, it`s all one thing. And it may have even all been run by the same guy, Dmitry Peskov, in the Russian government.
And so, on Tuesday, Mike Flynn will be in court. And we will learn what Robert Mueller has come to know in his dealings with Flynn since Flynn pled to lying to the FBI about sanctions a year ago. Right before Mike Flynn comes to court, we have finally learned the answer to the biggest mystery about the case against him, why he bothered to lie about those sanctions discussions in the first place.
It wouldn`t have needed to be surreptitious if it was just about sanctions alone. But Mike Flynn and his deputy K.T. McFarland and the president himself we now know they were all compromised by Russia at the time. Because of what they were lying about that Russia knew the truth about and what Russia knew the truth about is what turns out to be a fairly simple plan -- compromise the candidate with promises of a secret deal, install the candidate, and then leverage the candidate to lift sanctions and free Russia to do what it wants.
Now, over this past week, we suddenly can see the full plan and how it was supposed to work. The question is whether it might still work now that it`s out in the open, or whether they`re caught and it`s therefore over.
MADDOW: The strangest thing happened today in the 2018 election, which you will recall took place well over three weeks ago, but today the "A.P." retracted a call in a congressional race in North Carolina. This is a race that had been called for the Republican, a race in which the Democrat in fact conceded the day after the election, but the state elections board in North Carolina has refused to certify the results of this congressional race. They now say they`re going to investigate serious irregularities in that race, particularly having to do with mail-in ballots in one county, and it does appear that there may have been some sort of heist here.
The Republican candidate appeared to have won that race by just 905 votes, but with the board now saying there really was something wrong with the election, there were serious irregularities, there is now even talk about a fairly radical potential remedy here. The board does have the power to order a whole new election if they decide that is the only way to fix this.
So, this is not over. This North Carolina story and that race has taken a very weird turn. It means that we still can`t say that the elections in the House are done with this year.
At the moment, it looks like Democrats picked up a total of 40 seats in the midterm elections, but who knows? With this thing in North Carolina, maybe it will turn out to be 41. We can`t say yet. Watch this brand-new weird space in North Carolina all of the sudden.
But on a Senate side, the contests are now over. We can`t put a cap on the House yet. We can put a cap on the Senate. The Republicans, of course, gained a couple of seats in the Senate in the midterm elections this year, but they didn`t gain as many seats as a lot of people expected, and that`s because Democrats managed to pull off wins in a couple of pretty red, pretty Trump-friendly places.
For my money, the most surprising Democratic Senate victory, and the one that almost certainly causes President Trump the most personal heartburn was the reelection of Democrat Jon Tester in Montana. Donald Trump in 2016 won Montana by 20 points.
So, Jon Tester was already at the top of the Republicans for Senate seats to flip this year. On top of that, the president developed kind of a personal vendetta against Senator Tester. He apparently blamed him for failure of his nomination of his personal physician to be the secretary of Veterans Affairs.
Remember the Ronny Jackson thing? I mean, most people think of the Ronny Jackson nomination as a huge White House debacle. The president apparently thinks of it as a mean trick that Jon Tester played on him.
President Trump made four trips to Montana to campaign for Tester`s Republican opponent. That`s actually more trips to Montana than any other sitting president has taken ever. But Jon Tester won on election night and he won by three points. So he returns to the Senate as a rare breed of Democrat, one who cannot only win and win reelection, he can win convincingly in a very, very pro-Trump state, even when the president is giving it his all.
What is Jon Tester`s experience telling his party what the next two years ought to look like, and what does Jon Tester make of his own fate at this point in the very weird electoral cycle he has just been through? Senator Jon Tester joins us for his first national interview since the midterms, here in person, next.
MADDOW: Joining us now for the interview is Democratic Senator Jon Tester from Montana. He just won a third term in the Senate. He`s one of only two Democratic senators to get reelected in a state the president took by double-digits in 2016.
Senator, thank you so much for being here tonight.
SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA: It`s good to be with you, Rachel. Thank you.
MADDOW: I never thought I`d get you here in New York.
TESTER: Caught me in a weak moment.
MADDOW: A lot of people are talking about you behind your back, probably some of them to your face too about your victory. I don`t know if your victory was the most surprising Democratic victory, but a lot of people were betting against you because of your state and how strongly they supported Trump.
MADDOW: What -- how do you understand why you won?
TESTER: Well, they wanted to nationalize the race, and we wanted to talk about issues that impacted Montana. And so, we were able to talk about things from cost of health care, to access to public lands, to how we deal with our veterans, to the cost of higher education, and I think Montanans connected up with that.
And then the president came four times. Every time he came, he did a political rally. We actually encouraged the president, and that is a fact, we encouraged the president to go around and see some of the challenges we have in rural America, because Montana`s not like New York City.
And he didn`t do that. He just had the rallies. And I think it helped me. And the end result of that is this is the first election that I`ve won by over 50 percent.
And I think it was a number of things. Number one, realization by the people that this race was being highly politicized and we were taking our eyes off the issues and the fact that we were talking about the issues.
And the last thing is that I was a Montanan. I still farm. I was raised there, work there, raise my kids there, was educated there -- the whole works. And I think people could relate with that.
MADDOW: In terms of the president trying to make an example of you, the president said publicly that he had secret information about you that would not only destroy you now, but would make sure that you`d never win another election ever. Apparently, he is still keeping that powder dry.
MADDOW: He also seemed to concoct a story in which the Ronny Jackson nomination for secretary of veterans affairs was only a problem because you made it a problem.
What did you make of those -- I mean, those things sort of seem from outer space in terms of the way the president went after you, but how did you handle both of those things and what did you make of the president coming at you in that way?
TESTER: Well, I mean, I was raised where you tell the truth. I mean, the worst whipping I ever got was when I lied to my parents, and that`s a fact. You can do a lot of things, but you didn`t lie.
And when the accusations came in on Ronny Jackson, I didn`t hide them. I asked him, and he ended up pulling his name from the hopper. The president didn`t like that.
But I don`t know that the president fully understands that the president has a role of advising and consent, and it`s our job to make sure that the best people get in these positions that we have to confirm. And when I had 25 people, all military, some retired, some active duty come in, I`m not going to sweep it under the carpet. I`m going to ask the questions.
Those questions, by the way, would have been asked in committee if I didn`t ask them ahead of time anyways. So I felt like I was being very straight up with the nominee. And what ended up is he pulled his name from consideration and is currently under investigation by the Department of Defense inspector general.
I had nothing wrong with Ronny Jackson. I met him. We got along fine. But the truth is I have to know the facts so I have good information to vote on. You can make good decisions if you have good information.
So it was incumbent upon me to ask the tough questions, and I did it. He didn`t like it. But that`s my job, as a United States senator from Montana, ranking member on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
MADDOW: As the ranking member on the Veterans Affairs Committee, I feel like veterans issues are their own thing. They are separate and apart from every other domestic policy issue that we can consider as a country for a few different reasons.
Number one, because there is a lot of flag-waving and chest-pounding by politicians who all say the same thing about how veterans are a priority. Nobody says anything different about veterans in terms of it being an important thing. Nobody argues that it isn`t. So then is there an issue of getting beyond a surface level discussion on it.
The other reason is that there is a history, even a very recent history of there being no partisan lines in terms of the technocratic good government needed to make things better for veterans.
Do you think that still holds, or has that actually been spoiled or hurt in some way during the Trump administration by what has been a lot of drama, a lot of intrigue, a lot of seems like surreptitious behavior around prospects of privatizing the V.A.?
TESTER: Well, I think there`s some push out there for that, and I can tell you that I think the chairman, Johnny Isakson, and myself, and other members on the committee are in lockstep that you don`t want to privatize the V.A. And we have worked hard to make sure that doesn`t happen and we`ve held the V.A. accountable to make sure it doesn`t happen.
But I will tell you there is a -- there is a current in this administration that wants to privatize the V.A. and I can tell you that if you talk to a veteran -- does the V.A. have some problems? You bet. And we need to make sure those veterans are taken care of and those problems are solved.
But if you talk to most veterans that are in the V.A. system, they like it. They want to keep it. They want it expanded. They want it made so it meets the need of every veteran that is out there.
And I think that`s the direction Congress needs to go. We need to listen to the people who have served. We need to listen to those veteran service organizations out there, and we need to act appropriately.
We`re in a debate right now on Blue Water Veterans from the Vietnam era. My belief is taking care of our veterans is a cost of war. And if you`re going to make a finding, make it in favor of the veteran, don`t make it in favor of anything else other than that, because those are the folks that sacrificed.
We`ve had some pushback from the administration on that. Hopefully, we can get that behind us and get that issue done in this lame duck.
MADDOW: On one other veterans issues, there has also been concern and apparently now an investigation as to whether there has been undue influence in policy-making by a sort of troika, a triad of the president`s friends essentially who he seems to have tapped in some sort of secret policy role for the agency.
What`s your take on that?
TESTER: I can`t tell you how many times I`ve asked the current secretary, Secretary Wilkie, if he has met with these folks, and he really hasn`t. He has not.
I can tell you if they want to be in a position of giving -- giving information about how the V.A. needs to be run, then they need to be in a position where we can hold them accountable for that.
TESTER: You don`t want a bunch of folks out there working under the ground, you know, really undermining the folks that are in the V.A. that are working hard --
MADDOW: And who have to answer questions about how it`s being run, yes.
TESTER: Exactly right, who have come in front of our committee and have their feet held to the fire.
So, it`s a -- look, input is input, but the truth is if these guys are -- these three folks are putting out information and ideas within the administration`s head about how the V.A. needs to be run, then come up. Write a paper. Give it to us. Let`s see what you got and we`ll tell you what we think of it.
MADDOW: Or get nominated to a job like you`re supposed to.
TESTER: Exactly right.
MADDOW: We`re going to take a quick break. When we come back, I am going to ask you questions about running for president. So the commercial break will give you time to figure out how to evade them.
We`ll be right back with Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Stay with us.
MADDOW: We`re back again with Senator Jon Tester, Democratic senator from Montana, who was just reelected in a state that President Trump won by 20 points in 2016.
Senator, I want to be honest with you about part of the reason why I wanted to talk to you and I wanted to get the first interview with you after the election. I`ve had you on the show a few different times, not a ton. You have a reputation as a red state Democrat, and I think people think of you generally as a moderate, I think.
Would you describe yourself as a moderate?
TESTER: I would.
MADDOW: I think that you are a moderate -- I think you are also practical. I think you are also well-read on the issues you have fought on in the senate, and I think you are unafraid. When you pick a fight, I feel like you know what you`re talking about. It gives you both confidence and gravitas, and it means you usually win when you fight on something.
Even when you pick hard fights, and that isn`t ideological at all. It`s how I see as --
TESTER: Thank you.
MADDOW: -- as a combatant.
TESTER: Thank you.
MADDOW: That makes me want to know if you would want to run for president, because I think that -- A, I think you`d be a good president, but I think you would have a good shot at winning the presidency if you were the Democratic Party`s general election nominee.
TESTER: You`re very kind and I`m incredibly flattered. But to be honest with you -- I mean, I am a farmer at heart. By the way, my brother is watching this program right now, and they`re loving this question.
MADDOW: Oh, good. Because your brother wants you to run?
TESTER: Oh, yes.
But the truth is that I`m a farmer at heart. I love the legislative branch. I mean that. And we just went through a very difficult race. I mean, this was not an easy race to win, and elections take a lot out of you.
And to be honest, even if I wanted to do it, and I really don`t, I`m not sure that mentally or physically, I`m in any kind of shape to run the kind of race that needs to be run to win the president of the United States.
Would I love to be the most powerful man in the world? Who wouldn`t? But on the other side of that coin, I`ve watched people who have filled that position. I`ve watched them get older by the day. I`ve watched the issues weigh heavily upon them.
We need somebody good as president of the United States, there is no doubt about it. If we`re going to keep this country a leader of the free world, we need somebody who understands what makes this country tick, and it didn`t happen by accident, by the way. The greatest generation put us in a position so I could be a U.S. senator from Big Sandy, Montana.
And we need people that will look at the next generations in the same way. We`re not investing in education. We`re not investing in infrastructure.
So, bottom line is we have to have a good person as president of the United States. I`m not sure have I the time or the energy to be able to do it.
MADDOW: Well, let me talk to you on the energy front. I mean, you can apparently win when you`re running as the oldest person to ever run as a major party candidate when you subsist entirely on a diet of fast food and not reading. So, to the extent you don`t have time or energy, that`s false. It`s been disproven.
TESTER: I see, OK. That`s good.
MADDOW: OK? I know you butcher your own meat so, at least you`ve got that on buckets of KFC.
TESTER: There you go.
MADDOW: But, I mean, one of the main sort of -- one of the main things that`s happening I think in terms of the polarization of the country is that there is a divide between rural America and suburban and urban America that is increasingly starting to take on a partisan cast. And you defy that. And you seem to both understand it and defy it.
TESTER: It -- I don`t think it`s going to be remedied by a president of the United States. I think it`s going to be remedied by the leadership in the House and the Senate and the president of the United States. It`s about what`s understanding what those issues are in rural America that are important and the challenges of distance. I think -- if you`re from rural America, you understand it because you live it every day.
And, by the way, I would say on the other side, just to be fair, they don`t understand the challenges of New York City or Los Angeles, or Miami, or Houston, Texas, I don`t. But I think that Democrats need to do a better job of listening and understanding what the challenges are out there, and just let me just give you a few. Infrastructure, a state like Montana, agriculture is the number one industry.
The president has got this trade war going on right now. We`re seeing wheat prices drop. We put tariffs on soybeans and sorghum. And those crop acreage will go to wheat (ph), we`re going to be in trouble. I mean, big time, unless we get this figured out. Democrats should be talking about that.
Infrastructure in rural America, poverty on Indian reservations, we can start talking about those kinds of things. The cost of higher education, which by the way is probably as big a problem here in New York City as it is in Montana, if we don`t get this figured out, we`re not going to have the next generation of entrepreneurs. And we`re not going to have the kind of well-trained work force we need to be able to move this economy forward.
Democrats need to start talking about that. And we need to start showing up in rural America and talking about these things. And I think if we do, I think you`ll see a different outcome in this election.
I think we`ve -- look, when I was growing up in the 1960s, the county where I live, and I could be wrong on this, but it was pretty blue and it`s not blue anymore. And part of it is that I don`t think we`ve told people what Democrats have done for rural America when we have done good things.
MADDOW: Whether it`s you telling your party to do that or whether it`s you showing your party that it can be done, I think that you`re going to have a big role to play in the future of the party, specifically in the future of 2020. So if you feel tired after your race, I would encourage you, sir, to take a spa day while you`re here in New York, get some rest because your country needs you.
TESTER: Spas and (INAUDIBLE)
MADDOW: Yes, I can see. I`ll make an appointment. Thank you, sir. It`s really good to have you.
TESTER: Thank you. Good to be with you, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right. Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana.
We`ll be right back.
MADDOW: It hit at about 8:30 a.m. local time, magnitude 7.0. All day, we`ve been watching video from Anchorage, Alaska, from surveillance videos or people pulling out their phones to record what they were going through. It`s incredibly dramatic footage because this quake was so big and it went on for so long.
The good news is that it appears that nobody was seriously hurt, which is remarkable when you see the kind of damage that was caused in some places. The bad news is that it remains an open question how serious and widespread the infrastructure damage has been. Some damage is obvious, as you can see here. Some of it that will be harder to see and hard to fix.
Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski described today that really Alaska specific challenges we`re looking at now in terms of how hard this hit and where.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R), ALASKA: This was located in the very heart of the population center for Alaska. Anchorage is the regional hub for most of the goods that come to state of Alaska, 85 percent of the goods whether it`s your bread, your milk, your lettuce or your building supplies come up by barge, by container ships. And they come into the port and then they`re put on rail and then they`re put on the road or they`re put on aircraft and distributed from there.
So, if -- if this has -- if we`ve sustained damage here, this could not only be impact to the south central region, but it could reach beyond the area as well. So, we`re very concerned about that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Hitting Anchorage means hitting a lot of the population of Alaska. Not just today but in terms of getting supplies ahead. There`s also the fact the ground is well frozen now. Any repairs that will involve digging is going to be an issue for months.
State of emergency has been declared for the area around Anchorage. The governor has issued a disaster declaration. State officials and emergency crews made the most of roughly six hours of daylight that they had to assess the damage and begin repairs. That effort will continue for a long time to come.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: That`s going to do it for us tonight except for one teeny tiny little best new thing in the world. My wonderful mom and pop celebrate their 50th anniversary today. My mom was fresh off the boat from Newfoundland and she wore a white mini dress. My dad was a captain in the Air Force and he wore his uniform.
No, you can`t see the wedding picture. That`s private. But it was in this state in 1968 at the chapel at the Presidio in San Francisco. And today marks a half century for them since then. Fifty years for better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health.
Happy 50th mom and dad, you`re amazing.
And with that, now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD" tonight with Ari Melber, sitting in for Lawrence.
Good evening, Ari.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END