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Reports say Maria Butina agrees to cooperate. TRANSCRIPT: 12/10/18, The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Erin Banco, Joon Kim

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.  Happy to have you with us. 

So, things are happening kind of fast right now.  Tonight, as you may have heard, we have a new plea deal, what appears to be a new guilty plea and what is reported to be a new cooperation agreement to go along with that guilty plea. 

Now in this case, the plea deal itself is not totally unexpected.  We had seen this coming for maybe the last couple of days, but the reported cooperation deal tonight, that is a for real surprise.  I don`t know exactly what you`re supposed to expect from somebody who`s charged with being a secret foreign agent, operating inside this country on behalf of Russia, but I know that you don`t expect them to agree to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors in this country. 

I mean, for one thing, what`s going to happen to her after she gets sent home to Russia, after she has been cooperating with federal prosecutors here and the FBI?  So, we will have details coming up on that big surprising development tonight in just a moment, including a discussion with a reporter who broke some of the most consequential and surprising news related to that case. 

But as I mentioned, things are sort of happening fast right now.  I think that`s going to continue to be the case for the next couple of days or so.  So let`s just start with checking in on what we are expecting to unfold and in what order. 

First of all, something that we expect as soon as possibly late tonight or at the latest tomorrow, relates to Mike Flynn.  Last week, it feels like a million years ago, but just last week prosecutors in Robert Mueller`s office filed with the court their statement about Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn and how helpful he has been to the special counsel`s office since he agreed to Cooperate just over a year ago. 

That filing in the Flynn case was 13 pages long, you might remember.  About half of it was redacted, all blacked out, so we couldn`t see it.  But, of course, the judge considering Mike Flynn`s sentence can see all of that.  Nothing is redacted to the judge. 

In terms of the parts that we could see, that filing had the special counsel`s office praising Mike Flynn for his substantial assistance with their inquiries.  They said that he had helped with Mueller`s investigation into the Russian attack on our election and the question whether the Trump campaign conspired in that.  But it also said Flynn helped with a couple of other investigations, one of which appears to be outside the purview of the special counsel`s office entirely.  We know nothing about that one other than it is described as a criminal investigation. 

Then there is one other investigation that prosecutors say Mike Flynn has helped with, but that one we`re not allowed to know about -- anything about it at all, including whether it`s a criminal investigation or a counterintelligence investigation or civil matter or what have you. 

So in that filing a week ago, Mueller`s team said Flynn had met with them 19 times, and it said as a consequence of just how helpful he has been to this prosecutors, Mueller`s team said they would be fine with the judge sentencing Mike Flynn to zero jail time.  So, that`s the -- that`s where we`ve been recently in terms of the case of Mike Flynn.  Well, now some time late tonight or at the latest tomorrow, we are expecting a responsive filing from Flynn`s defense team in terms of how he should be sentenced. 

Again, there is not much expense as to what his defense team will be asking for, right?  Prosecutors are already asking the judge to be lenient with him, and we know the defense will ask for that too.  But to extent that those pages after pages of redactions from the Flynn filings, to the extent that those contain important information about how Mike Flynn fits into the overall Russia scandal in the Trump campaign and what it has meant for the president`s national security adviser to be pleading guilty for lying about his foreign contacts and cooperating with prosecutors in their investigation for more than a year, for all of those concerns and the broader questions about Flynn, the next filing in his case should be submitted tonight or tomorrow.  Tomorrow is the deadline. 

So that is one thing that we sort of need to be ready for in terms of broadening our understanding of what`s going on with this scandal.  Then tomorrow afternoon, we`re going to have another piece of this come together.  At 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time tomorrow in Washington, there is going to be a new hearing in the case of Paul Manafort, the president`s campaign chair, who has also plead guilty to felonies and also entered into a cooperation deal with prosecutors. 

Of course, in Paul Manafort`s case, though, the special counsel`s office has just spelled out for the judge in his case all the ways they say Manafort breached his plea agreement by lying to them, each after he agreed to cooperate.  That filing about Manafort was one of the filings that we got on this past -- that we got this past Friday night.  And that one also had a bunch of redactions. 

In the Manafort filing, though, the bits that we could read spelled out how prosecutors say Manafort lied to them about, among other things, Manafort`s ongoing contacts with a Russian business associate who prosecutors have said is linked to Russian intelligence.  Prosecutors also said Manafort lied to them about the extent of his ongoing communications with the Trump White House, including communications with a senior Trump administration official as recently as this year.  Those contacts were secret, and he lied to prosecutors about them.  What`s that about? 

Well, tomorrow, tomorrow afternoon, 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time, Manafort`s defense team will appear in court in D.C. for the first time since prosecutors laid out their list of all the ways they say Manafort breached his plea agreement by lying to them.  Manafort apparently denies he told any lies to the prosecutors.  So, that should be very interesting in court tomorrow. 

This will also be the first time Manafort`s lawyers have had to face the judge and Mueller`s prosecutors since President Trump`s lawyers started bragging that Manafort and his defense team have been a secret back channel to the White House, leaking information about the interests and activities of the special counsel`s office to the president for the president to use in his own legal defense. 

Since the president`s lawyer started bragging about that, Manafort`s lawyers haven`t actually had to stare down the prosecutors and the juvenile in this case, but that will happen tomorrow afternoon.  So Flynn`s sentencing filing tonight or tomorrow.  Manafort hear willing be tomorrow afternoon. 

And then on Wednesday, the president`s long about-time personal lawyer Michael Cohen is due to be sentenced.  And, again, Friday night was when we got really interesting filings in the Michael Cohen case.  On Friday night, the special counsel`s office and federal prosecutors in the southern district of New York, they both told the judge in Cohen`s case how helpful Michael Cohen has been to them since he plead guilty.  Basically, the bottom line of those feelings is that the special counsel`s office said yeah, he`s been super helpful to us.  Don`t put him into jail for any extra time on our account. 

At the same time, though, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York told the judge could actually to do years in prison, and he hasn`t helped them much at all.  He has been holding back. 

Well, on Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern, the judge in Cohen`s case will consider all of those arguments and Cohen`s crimes and what he has plead to, and on Wednesday morning, Michael Cohen will have his sentence handed down. 

But wait, there`s more.  Because now tonight we have learned about something else really important that is going to happen that same day after Cohen is sentenced.  It`s going to be just hours after Cohen`s sentencing in a hearing that is set for a D.C. courtroom at 3:15 Eastern Time Wednesday afternoon. 

We learned today that in the case of Maria Butina, she is accused by prosecutors of being a foreign agent, working secretly on behalf of the Russian government in this country, to influence the Republican Party, the conservative movement and potentially the 2016 election, we learned today that Maria Butina`s case is coming to an end.  The prosecutors and defense lawyers telling the judge today that they had reached some kind of resolution for her case.  They also asked the judge to schedule a hearing in which she could change her plea.  Maria Butina had previously pled not guilty.  So wanting to change her plea implies she now intends to plead guilty. 

Then, ABC News was first to report tonight that in conjunction with her guilty plea to a conspiracy charge, Maria Butina will also agree to cooperate, to cooperate with federal, state and local authorities in ongoing investigations.  CNN then soon added the fact or the report that Butina has already started meeting with prosecutors as part of this deal.  If this ABC and CNN reporting is correct, that means that on Wednesday afternoon, the judge will be hearing Maria Butina`s guilty plea, and we presumably will have some public-facing indication of the kind of Cooperation deal she is making in conjunction with that plea. 

I should tell you "The Daily Beast" has just matched that reporting from ABC News and CNN, and in their report, they`re adding some sort of incredible details that they say are quotes from the plea agreement.  And again, NBC News has not confirmed this reporting, but here is two examples of what the daily beast is citing tonight, saying this is from the plea agreement that we will see in court when Maria Butina has her hearing to change her plea. 

Quote: Butina helped arrange a trip to Moscow for NRA leaders in December 2015.  She pushed for those Americans to visit with senior Russian politicians, according to the plea deal.  The Americans on the trip met with Sergey Lavrov, Russia`s minister of foreign affairs, and Dmitry Rogozin, a Putin deputy.  After the trip, Maria Butina sent a message in Russian to the Russian central bank official to whom she allegedly reported as part of this foreign the agent scheme. 

Her message had two translations in the plea agreement.  The first translation about these NRA officials going to Moscow in December 2015 said, quote, we should let them express their gratitude now.  We will put pressure on them quietly later.  The second translation, the alternate translation in the plea agreement according to "The Daily Beast" said, quote, we should allow them to express their gratitude now and then quietly press. 

So, again, that was a trip to meet with Russian government officials in Moscow in December 2015.  It was senior people in the NRA.  We will put pressure on them quietly later.  Let them express their gratitude now. 

That NRA trip in December 2015, that was at the exact same time that Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn was also in Moscow, sitting with Vladimir Putin at a gala dinner the Russian government paid him to attend.  "The Daily Beast" also reports this tonight, quote, according to the plea deal, Butina also helped arrange for a group of Russians to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, which was held on February 2nd, 2017.  So, right after Trump`s inauguration. 

Butina e-mailed her purported boyfriend, Republican activist Paul Erickson with a list of Russian attendees for the National Prayer Breakfast.  She told him they were coming to the breakfast to, quote, establish a back channel of communication.  That`s subtle. 

Erickson later e-mailed the list to another person.  Reaction to the delegation`s presence in America will be conveyed directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, he wrote. 

So, we`re going to talk with "The Daily Beast" reporter in just a moment who`s been all over this story.  But this is a big deal, right?  This is the first Russian to plead guilty to a crime that has anything to do with influencing American politics of the 2016 election, so this is a big deal.  But can we also just consider for a second what might be going on here with the NRA, right? 

National Rifle Association, the NRA, is thought of and has long been thought of as a powerhouse in Washington and American politics when it comes to lobbying and influence and especially money in elections.  The NRA does spend a ton of money every election cycle, and especially every presidential year.  But clearly something weird happened with the NRA in 2016.  For some reason, in 2016, the NRA just exploded its previous spending records.  The NRA in 2016 pumped $30 million into getting Donald Trump elected.  And importantly, they made sure that most of that money came out of an arm of the NRA that doesn`t disclose anything about its donors. 

And I know like in the news, there is always large round numbers, right?  $30 million.  Sounds like a lot of money.  A big round number.  What does that mean? 

For context here, in order to understand why I`m saying that`s a really strange amount of money for them to have spent, that $30 million they spent on Trump, that is triple what they spent the last time around in the last presidential election on Mitt Romney.  Almost three times what they spent on Romney. 

Now what`s that about?  Trump is not a more pro-gun Republican candidate than we have seen in other election cycles.  Why did the NRA go off the charts for him in a way they never had for any other candidate in any other election?  And what do we make of that, especially given that we have seen the NRA`s finances apparently fall apart very quickly since then? 

In a court filing this summer, the NRA said its financial position is so dire it may soon, quote, be unable to exist.  The NRA had started a digital TV network to expand its reach and influence.  That digital TV network appears to be imploding as we speak with some of their biggest NRA TV stars getting their shows shut down, even just tonight. 

So what explains this gigantic seesaw, biggest spending ever in 2016 by a mile, and then what appears to be financial ruin, certainly financial atrophy just within a couple of years.  The NRA money in the 2016 campaign just doesn`t make much sense given the history of the NRA and given the campaign.  Then we got this report last week that the NRA`s huge boost in spending in 2016 may not have been just independent expenditures that redounded to Donald Trump`s benefit and the campaign.  There is some pretty compelling evidence there may have been illegal coordination between the Trump campaign and the NRA when it comes to spending those tens of millions of dollars to elect Trump and beat Hillary Clinton. 

A new report in "Mother Jones" magazine showing that evidence, hundreds of pages of federal campaign records appearing to show the NRA and the Trump campaign overtly coordinating their messaging strategy and their ad buying through the same person.  Reporters showed those records to the former chair of the Federal Election Commission, and the ex-chair told "Mother Jones", quote, I don`t think I`ve ever seen a situation where illegal coordination seems more obvious.  It`s so blatant that it doesn`t even seem sloppy.  Everyone involved just thinks there aren`t going to be any consequences. 

And I know like in a way this is kind of a big round number of political scandal, right?  Political campaigns and advocacy groups that aren`t supposed to be coordinating with each other, nevertheless illegally coordinating and illegally working together.  I know you`ve heard that a million times.  It`s like a man bites dog story of federal campaign finance violations. 

But don`t just look at that in isolation.  Put that apparent closeness between the Trump campaign and the NRA, this blatant illegal coordination, about what appears to be blatant illegal coordination, put that together with the NRA inexplicably tripling their spending in order to support Trump, and it does seem like there might be something going on there, especially given that their spending to support Trump was all part of the NRA where they don`t have to say where the money came from. 

I should also mention while I like being snarky about campaign finance violations, willfully violating campaign finance law is starting to become perhaps maybe a more consequential thing these days.  You can ask Michael Cohen about that when he turns up in court on Wednesday for his sentencing.  Among other things, for pleading guilty to felonies involving campaign finance laws. 

But alongside all that weird money stuff, there was also a strange turn that happened in the lead-up to the 2016 campaign in terms of how we understand the NRA and its politics.  It`s a term that seems literally foreign.  In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, there was all of the sudden a weird Russian twist in U.S. gun politics. 

As spelled out Maria Butina`s plea agreement in December 2015 in the middle of the presidential campaign, right before the Iowa caucuses, a former NRA president and a future NRA president and a whole delegation of NRA officials and members all got an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow.  The trip was organized by the Right to Bear Arms, purportedly a gun rights group founded by a senior member of Vladimir Putin`s political party.  The head of that group was Aleksandr Torshin, who is a deputy governor of the Russian central bank.  He is a former senior member of the Russian parliament.  He`s a close ally of Vladimir Putin. 

And Torshin`s group, this Right to Bear Arms group, has always been kind of a head scratcher, because Putin and his party don`t actually support gun rights in Russia.  There`s no Second Amendment in Russia, and Alexander Torshin`s group doesn`t actually do anything to promote gun rights in Russia, at all.  What they have done is make lots and lots of connections to the American NRA. 

This Russian government official Aleksandr Torshin and his charismatic female protege, Maria Butina, started attending the NRA`s yearly conferences in the U.S. every year.  Then at the start of the 2016 campaign, Torshin and Butina hosted that NRA delegation in Moscow, December 2015.  Then during the campaign, Butina was flying around the country, showing up at events for various Republican presidential hopefuls during the primaries, including famously a Las Vegas event with Donald Trump where Maria Butina became the very first person to ask Trump his position on U.S. sanctions against Russia.  She was the first person to get him on record opposing those sanctions. 

In May 2016, Butina`s boyfriend, an American Republican activist, Paul Erickson, reached out to a Trump campaign adviser offering to arrange a back channel meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.  He did it by e-mail with the unsubtle subject line, Kremlin connection.  And Paul Erickson didn`t name Aleksandr Torshin in the e-mail but he referred to him as President Putin`s emissary on this overture. 

And that overture for Erickson to set up Putin and Trump, that overture didn`t work, but that same month Torshin himself also reportedly sought a meeting with Donald Trump at an NRA convention.  And that itself didn`t pan out, but Torshin did get to spend some time with Donald Trump Jr.  At a private gala hosted by the NRA. 

And then at the beginning of this year, we learn that the FBI was investigating whether all of this, the NRA`s huge spike in 2016 campaign spending, its weird and sudden and suddenly deepening Russia ties, and this Russian official Aleksandr Torshin`s persistent attempts to connect with Donald Trump or to connect Donald Trump and the Russian government, we learned a the beginning of this year that the FBI was investigating whether all those things might be connected.  "McClatchy" reporting in January, quote, the FBI is investigating whether a top Russian banker with ties to the Kremlin illegally funneled money to the NRA to help Donald Trump win the presidency.  Quote: FBI counterintelligence investigators have focused on the activities of Aleksandr Torshin, the deputy governor of Russia`s central bank, who was known for his close relationships with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the NRA. 

And then, of course, not long thereafter, Maria Butina got arrested, and charged with conspiring against the United States as a secret Russian agent.  Now, prosecutors allege that all of her work insinuating himself into conservative circles and gun rights circles in the U.S. and perhaps even her romantic relationship with this Republican activist Paul Erickson, prosecutors have insinuated that it was all part of a Russian intelligence operation being run by Aleksandr Torshin.  And the affidavits submitted by prosecutors in conjunction with the charges in her case, there is Maria Butina at 3:00 a.m., the night of the election, just after Donald Trump has won the election, e-mailing Aleksandr Torshin in Moscow, quote, I am ready for further orders. 

What was the NRA doing tied up with these guys? 

And now just in the last week, things are moving fast for both Maria Butina and for Aleksandr Torshin.  Last week, Aleksandr Torshin more or less evaporated in Moscow.  The Russian central bank where he had been a deputy governor in a very high profile official announced unexpectedly that he had suddenly retired.  In "Bloomberg News`" rather ominous characterization, quote, the central bank declined to elaborate on its one-sentence statement Friday.  Torshin did not immediately respond to attempts to reach him. 

Happy retirement all of the sudden.  It can`t have anything to do with the fact that the agent you were running in the U.S. is copping a plea and making an agreement with the FBI now, can it?  Because, now, today, we apparently got his alleged agreement, Maria Butina reportedly agreeing to cop a plea and agreeing to cooperate with the FBI and federal prosecutors. 

So here`s my question.  Maria Butina has been in jail since she got arrested.  She has been denied bail.  We have very little window into what`s been going on with her case.  There is a gag order on the case.  We had very little transparency there. 

If she in fact is going to plead, does that mean we`re finally going to figure this out?  If she`s Cooperating, already, if she is going to enter into a formal cooperation deal and plead guilty, will this even this week in court shed light on, OK, what appears to be the related case of Paul Erickson, the Republican activist and NRA member who was her maybe boyfriend who appears to have been her entree into this world. 

We`ve had reports from "The Daily Beast" several days ago that he has received a target letter that federal prosecutors are considering charging him as a foreign agent, as an agent of the Russian government operating in this country.  Will the Erickson Case finally become clear if Maria Butina is pleading and cooperating? 

Then there`s the question of whether her plea will ultimately give us a window into what freaking happened with the NRA in the middle of this election interference scandal.  Could the resolution of Maria Butina`s case finally give us a window into what has been going on here?  If the FBI has been investigating, among other things, the possibility that the NRA was used as a large scale conduit for Russian money into the effort to elect Trump president, will the Maria Butina case give us a window into that investigation and its potential conclusions? 

A reporter who has been tracking this who may have some insight joins us next. 


MADDOW:  For all of the Russian nationals who have been indicted in this country since Russia interfered in the 2016 election to try to elect Donald Trump president, Maria Butina would seem to be the first Russian who is going to plead guilty to it, if the reporting tonight on her deal with prosecutors holds up. 

Prosecutors have alleged that Maria Butina was acting as a secret agent of the Russian government in this country when she made contacts and set up meetings and foreign trips and lines of communication between Russian officials and American activists associated with the NRA and the National Prayer Breakfast. 

"The Daily Beast" has recently reported that her purported American boyfriend has himself received a letter from prosecutors alerting him that prosecutors were also considering charging him as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia.  Up until recently, he reportedly was still visiting Maria Butina in the Alexandria, Virginia jail where she has been held without bail since this summer. 

You could win prizes for this as a spy novel, right?  The maybe girlfriend, the gun rights group, the prayer breakfast, the Moscow trip, the target letter.  But the real question tonight is what prosecutors might be able to win if this plea agreement goes through. 

Joining us now is Erin Banco.  She is a report with "The Daily Beast".  She has been breaking news on this beat for a while now. 

Ms. Banco, I really appreciate you being here.  Thanks for your time. 


MADDOW:  So, we`re seeing multiple reports now that Maria Butina has not only agreed to a guilty plea, but has agreed to cooperation.  Are you guys able to be specific at "The Daily Beast" in terms of what you understand the scope of her cooperation deal to be, what types of prosecutors and what types of investigations she is agreeing to cooperate in? 

BANCO:  Sure.  So my colleague Betsy Woodruff and I have been following the Erickson/Butina story for quite a while now.  And Betsy had a story come out today.  But, no, we do not know the full extent of this cooperation agreement.  That`s a big unknown for us and for everyone else. 

The question is who has Butina talked to prosecutors about.  Has she talked to prosecutors about her now long-time boyfriend Paul Erickson?  Has she spoken to prosecutors about leaders in the NRA?  Those are all questions we have not answered yet.  And so, we do not know the full scope of that cooperation agreement. 

But it is very possible, according to our sourcing, that Butina has spoken at length to prosecutors about at least Erickson. 

MADDOW:  Now, you and Betsy Woodruff at "Daily Beast" broke the news that Erickson had received this target letter in which federal prosecutors informed him that they were considering charges against him, and it wasn`t like, you know, lying to investigators charges.  Charges that wasn`t an obstruction charge.  They were considering charging him, according to your reporting, with himself acting as a secret foreign agent on behalf of the Russian federation in this country. 

What`s your understanding of the status right now with Erickson himself? 

BANCO:  So, that target letter we reported I believe last week or a couple of days ago.  Yes, so we don`t know what the state currently is with Paul Erickson.  And to be clear, a target letter does not necessarily mean that he will be charged. 

MADDOW:  Sure. 

BANCO:  But we do not know whether or not those conversations with prosecutors have developed, and that sort of all has hinged on whether or not Butina has cooperated against him in this agreement.  That`s something, again, about we do not know. 

We do know that according to our sourcing, Butina and Erickson are still together.  He regularly visits her in jail.  And so to that extent, I can`t imagine that would be an easy conversation to have with a significant other. 

But, again, no, we do not know the current status of Erickson and that target letter.  However, we do know that as far back as May, Erickson was meeting with FBI agents about an unrelated probe in South Dakota, although we have sourcing that says that that probe is sort of overlapping with the current probe that Erickson is facing in D.C.  We know that people in his orbit have been questioned about not only his sort of shady, nefarious business dealing in South Dakota, but also his relationship with Butina and his sort of operations with her on the campaign. 

MADDOW:  One last quick question for you, Erin.  We have also been following the saga of Aleksandr Torshin who is the Russian official who seems to be sort of the hub here.  The way prosecutors laid out the case against Butina when they charged her, it`s -- I mean, reading it from a layman`s perspective, you sort of red as maybe him being kind of her handler, if this was a Russian scheme to insert her into U.S. conservative politics in order to achieve things that the Russian federation wanted in our politics, that Torshin was essentially advising her, if not supervising that operation. 

Now we`ve got this very quiet news from the Kremlin last week that Torshin has been retired with no explanation and has since sort of disappeared.  Do you have any understanding of how Torshin fits into this case? 

BANCO:  Well, I think there is a lot more still to come on Torshin, and I think we`ll see a lot more detail come out about him once we get the full scope of this cooperation agreement.  But one thing to look and to question here is the M.O. and the motive of Aleksandr Torshin and his relationship with Butina and how they support of worked together here over the past couple of years.  Did he want to push the rolling back of sanctions?  What kind of policies did he want to see changed under a Trump administration? 

So these are all questions that we should be looking at here once this cooperation agreement comes out. 

MADDOW:  Right.  Not to mention the reported -- the alleged ties of his to international organized crime. 

BANCO:  Exactly. 

MADDOW:  Which have been a problem for him in multiple jurisdictions. 

Erin Banco, national security reporter with "The Daily Beast", your reporting on this has been stun.  You and Betsy have been way I ahead of a lot of people following the story.  Congratulations and thanks for being here tonight.

BANCO:  Thank you.

MADDOW:  All right.  Much more ahead tonight.  Stay with us. 


MADDOW:  This is from the transcript. 

Congressman Elijah Cummings, quote: Director Comey, can you elaborate on what the threat is that makes the Russia investigation so vital? 

Comey: The aim of the Russia effort in 2016 was to destabilize, undermine, damage our democracy.  That was their overwhelming goal.  And so, you have a foreign nation that is attacking the United States of America in an effort to undermine that which is essentially us, our democratic process. 

So that is a very serious threat.  And understanding whether any Americans were part of that effort is incredibly important because of the threat that those Americans by virtue of their alliance with the Russians would pose to our country. 

Quote: Given the stakes of our election and the nature of our democracy, it is hard to imagine anything more important than understanding and thwarting that threat. 

Congressman Cummings: If someone were to impede or primarily halt the special counsel`s Russia investigation, how severe would the implications be to our national security in your opinion? 

Comey: Well, in my opinion, it would undermine our national security by not holding accountable people who might have been involved with either the Russians or people who work with them first.  And second, it would send an absolutely appalling message about the rule of law in this country of ours. 

Quote: The reason it`s a big deal is you have an adversary nation attacking America.  If Americans in our country are assisting them, it is aiding and abetting the enemy in attacking our country.  We take it seriously when people were helping German saboteurs infiltrate Long Island during World War II.  We took it seriously when scientists were selling secrets to the Soviets about our nuclear capabilities.  I take it just as seriously if there are Americans assisting in this attack on our democracy.  It is of the same type. 

It`s pretty stern, even sort of soaring language from the former director of the FBI, going to the heart of this whole scandal, right?  American democracy and the attempt in 2016 to undermine it, to bend it and to break it.  The crucial question of whether there were Americans who benefitted from that, who helped Russia attack us. 

We got that transcript this weekend from testimony that former FBI Director James Comey gave behind closed doors to the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees.  He testified on Friday behind closed doors.  We got the transcript this weekend.  That`s pretty much what I did this weekend was cozy up with that. 

But that kind of language from him, that`s pretty stirring stuff coming from the director of the FBI, and even if he is the former director of the FBI.  But that kind of language is even more intense when it comes from a sitting, meaning active federal prosecutor who really does appear now to have the president in his sights. 

Hold that thought.  That`s next.


MADDOW:  After federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York on Friday evening laid out for federal court that the president`s former lawyer had committed felonies intended to influence the 2016 election, and that he had committed those felonies at the direction of the president, aka individual 1, that dramatic assertion from prosecutors from the Southern District of New York on Friday night led to some dramatic new reporting from "The New York Times" this weekend.  As "The Times" reports, quote, while the prevailing view at the Justice Department is that a sitting president cannot be indicted, that does not mean a president cannot be charged after leaving office. 

The prosecutors in New York have examined the statute of limitations on the campaign finance violations with which Cohen is charged, and they believe charges could be brought against Mr. Trump if he is not reelected.  That`s according to a person briefed on the matter.  This led Congressman Adam Schiff, the head of the Intelligence Committee, to comment publicly this weekend that the president may be expecting significant jail time immediately upon leaving office. 

So I have a couple of questions.  First of all, if individual 1 in the Cohen case were not the president of the United States, is it clear from these court filings, is it clear from the past practices of the Southern District of New York that this is a case in which a person thus described would usually expect to be charged if they weren`t president of the United States? 

Also, though, what about that statute of limitations thing?  If the president can`t be charged, can`t be indicted simply because he is president, does that hit pause on the statute of limitations for the time period while he is still in office?  Can you let the statute of limitations run out while you`re enjoying your immunity?  Is that a settled matter?  Is that a matter of dispute within the Justice Department? 

And I ask that this case specifically, because whenever anybody asks of matters of dispute, people often hive off the Southern District of New York, as if it were its own little Justice Department.  All right.  People say it`s not the Southern District of New York.  It`s the sovereign district of New York. 

I mean, obviously, Southern District of New York is part of the Justice Department, but it`s also considered in legal circles to have almost legendary independence, particularly on big consequential cases to do with terrorism or high-end white collar crime or public corruption cases.  Is the Southern District of New York so independent that they might conceivably arrive at their own independent decision about whether or not they want to try to indict a sitting president, regardless of whether or not the rest of the Justice Department feels constrain odd about that point? 

And if as "The New York Times" reports, if they are considering indicting the president, even if it is just the day he leaves office, here`s a sort of mind-bending question that we may have to start taking seriously.  If they`re going to indict the president and they`re considering indicting him as soon as he leaves office, is it possible that they need to, like, bring him that information now while he`s still serving as president?  When would they start talking to him about these charges and any potential plea agreement or cooperation deal he might want to strike?  Would he have to negotiate while he`s president if only because the biggest thing he`ll have to trade away to these prosecutors is his possible resignation?

I mean, it seems like a very dramatic thing to have to consider.  But the way they laid out these charges in Michael Cohen`s case on Friday really makes it seem like the president is in their sights. 

Joining us now is somebody I`m honored to have here.  Joon Kim is the former acting attorney in the Southern District of New York. 

Mr. Kim, thank you for being here tonight. 


MADDOW:  So, "The New York Times" is reporting in the Michael Cohen case, the president`s involvement in the felonies with which they have charged him, to which he`s pled guilty, have led them to look at the statute of limitations and look at some of the other logistical concerns about potentially bringing charges against the president himself.  Does that seem farfetched to you? 

KIM:  I mean, as you know, there is an Office of Legal Counsel memo out there originally from 1973 and then reconfirmed in 2000 I believe where the Justice Department has decided or has a memo that says sitting president cannot be indicted by a prosecutor.  As much as the Southern District of New York takes pride in being independent and making its decisions based on the facts and the law, not being influenced on anything other than that, they are still part of the Department of Justice.  I would think they are - - would follow the guidance that`s provided by the Office of Legal Counsel. 

Now, your question is does that mean they`re going to think about statute of limitations?  I would think that`s something you would have to think about.  If there is a reason you can`t -- if you`re considering bringing a charge against anyone, just hypothetically, and there is a reason you can`t for a certain period of time, you have to think about what that does to the statute of limitations.  That`s a legitimate question. 

MADDOW:  In normal cases, is there a way to sort of hit pause on the statute of limitations so that for what -- again, for whatever reason, not necessarily specific to the president, if you can`t charge somebody who you might otherwise charge, the statute of limitations doesn`t run out while you`ve got that interregnum? 

KIM:  There are a few statutory provisions, for example, if you`re a fugitive.  There is also a statute that says, if you`re -- during a time, a fraud against the government, the statute of limitations for that holds.  There is also a somewhat limited concept of equitable tolling. 

But, you know, this is where we are in I think uncharted territory.  There is not a lot of precedent in terms of -- or any precedent that I`m aware in terms of what does -- does the statute of limitations against a sitting president toll during his presidency.  I don`t believe there is a clear answer to that out there.  There is no statute that says it will toll --

MADDOW:  Uh-huh. 

KIM:  -- during that period, presumably Congress could do that.  You could enact a law that says generically, you know, while a sitting president is in office that the statute of limitations of any crime will toll.  But there isn`t anything like that.  So I would think the only tolling that one could rely on is an equitable tolling. 

MADDOW:  So that would be -- so you`re essentially saying in non-legalese, you`re saying this isn`t a settled matter.  So if this is going to become a factor in terms of the president`s personal legal liability, it will be new ground that the southern district has to look at. 

Looking at the Michael Cohen Southern District filing on Friday night, the president is described as individual 1 in that filing.  When you look at that filing, and I don`t -- again, campaign finance cases are not the most common cases, you know.  We don`t see a lot of prosecutions for this.  And so nothing about this is entirely typical. 

But if individual 1 were not president of the United States, didn`t have this potential immunity from indictment and prosecution, would you expect that somebody described the way that individual one is described in that document would themselves end up getting charged in conjunction with this case? 

KIM:  It`s hard to generalize.  People describe in court submissions in that manner are generally referred to as unindicted conspirators.  I mean, I think it was pretty clear and I think even before the sentencing submission at the time of his guilty plea, Michael Cohen volunteered he had made those payments at the direction --

MADDOW:  He had conspired with someone else and was directed. 

KIM:  I believe he volunteered that with his plea allocations.  So, although the sentencing submission said that as well from the government`s mouth, or in their submission, it was something that had been out there before.  It`s one thing to accept a guilty plea from someone prepared to plead guilty to a crime, and it`s another to charge someone else with aiding or abetting or conspiring to commit that crime. 

There`s a number of different things that a prosecutor would have to consider first.  The proof -- is there enough proof to charge the other people? 

MADDOW:  Would the prosecution make a contention to a judge without having proof to support to assertion? 

KIM:  Well, this was a contention made to the court based on his submission.  So, the language I believe that he`s now admitted that he did so at the direction of individual one.  It certainly read like they have other corroborative evidence, but you don`t know for sure. 

And with respect to any prosecution decision, the decision needs to be made individual by individual.  So first there will have to be a determination whether there`s sufficient proof and also determination whether this is prosecution we should be doing because prosecutors have discretion.  And so, there`s no easy answer or clear answer to is anyone described in this way in a court submission, do they always end up being charged.  I think there`s no clear answer. 

MADDOW:  In this case, it`s possible but not definitive. 

Joon Kim is the former acting U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York -- Mr. Kim, it is an honor to have you here.  Thank you very much for being here.  I really appreciate it.

KIM:  Appreciate it.  Good to be here.

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


MADDOW:  Here`s one to keep an eye on.  In the spring of 2017, the president was having a hard time finding a good lawyer.  At the time, his chief lawyer was a guy named Marc Kasowitz, who`d been a lawyer for the Trump real estate business for years.  He represented Trump on everything from fraud cases on Trump University to Trump divorce records. 

He wasn`t well versed at all, though, on anything remotely close to the Russia investigation.  So in the spring of 2017, the president was in the market for new representation.  He reached out to four top law firms looking for representation.  They all reportedly turned him down. 

But now, thanks to Michael Isikoff at Yahoo News, we know the president also reached out to another lawyer at the same time, a new lawyer, another lawyer who`s all of a sudden very famous again right now.  According to Isikoff`s reporting, the president reached out to William Barr who had been an attorney general under President George H.W. Bush.  Barr reportedly caught Trump`s eye when he wrote an op-ed defending the firing of James Comey. 

Barr was apparently not interested in becoming Trump`s Russia lawyer at the time.  He reportedly said he had other obligations, he`d think about it, never came to be.  Rudy Giuliani eventually took the gig. 

But now that reporting from Isikoff raises a whole bunch of new questions, because now, of course, Donald Trump has nominated that same guy, William Barr, to be attorney general of the United States.  So that White House meeting where Trump asked him to be his Russia defense lawyer, it now has some legal experts calling for William Barr to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation if in fact he is confirmed as attorney general.  Yes, another one.  As I say stick a pin in that one, this one is going to become important in days ahead. 

Stay with us.


MADDOW:  A little bit of further breaking news following onto our top story this evening.  Betsy Woodruff, who`s a great reporter at "The Daily Beast" who`s done of the seminal reporting on the Maria Butina case, she`s just reported online tonight.  She just posted at Twitter that in the Maria Butina case, quote, in case there`s any confusion, Maria Butina has agreed to fully cooperate, no holds barred. 

Again, this latest reporting following -- from Betsy Woodruff at "Daily Beast", following the news that we had first from ABC News today and then corroborated by some other news organizations that Maria Butina apparently is going to become the first Russian national who will plead guilty in the Russia scandal.  That news tonight followed by the revelation that she apparently is going to plead guilty in conjunction with a plea agreement that will result in her cooperating, in Betsy Woodruff`s words, fully cooperating with prosecutors from this point forward. 

That`s a remarkable turn.  Anytime somebody flips in this case after initially pleading not guilty, that`s a big deal when you are an accused Russian agent agreeing to flip and cooperate with the FBI and federal prosecutors, that`s a whole different kind of big deal. 

That does it for us tonight.  See you again tomorrow. 


Good evening, Lawrence. 

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