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Trump orders US military out of Syria. TRANSCRIPT: 12/19/18, The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Rukmini Callimachi, Claire McCaskill

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST:  That is "ALL IN" for this evening.

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. 

Good evening, Rachel.

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

HAYES:  You bet.

MADDOW:  And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.

A lot of news, a lot to get to tonight.  The president today, of course, decided to pull a rabbit out of a hat with a surprise announcement that he`s ordering the U.S. military to pull out of Syria entirely, immediately, all at once, right now. 

The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is Bob Corker, is a Republican senator from Tennessee.  Senator Corker spoke to reporters today soon after the president pulled this rabbit out of a hat and made this surprise announcement.  And Senator Corker said as far as he could tell, not only had he and the Foreign Relations Committee and the Congress not been notified about this very big change in U.S. policy, not only had they not been notified about it or consulted about this in any way, he told reporters today that as far as he could tell from his conversations with the Pentagon, the Pentagon does not appear to have been consulted either. 

Senator Corker telling reporters today that as best he could tell, there was nothing that led up to this decision today.  There was no process at all.  The president just kind of got on Twitter and burped it out.

  Senator Corker told reporters, though, that he was on his way over to the White House to meet with the president about this apparent snap decision that he made on his own.  Then a few hours later, Senator Corker spoke with reporters again and told him that his planned meeting with the president got canceled, and it got canceled while Senator Corker was already over there, sitting there at the White House, waiting for that meeting to start. 

By the time White House officials were trying to explain the president`s supposed order this afternoon, they realized that they could not answer even the most basic questions about what this is all about and what the president wants to happen.  I mean, the really, really basic stuff, right?  How many of the troops that are there now are coming home?  When is this happening?  If most of the troops are coming home, but not all of them, which ones will stay behind and why and what will they do and how is that going to work? 

I mean, one of the issues, of course, in a military withdrawal, just as civilians without military experience, you can even grok this, like you can see this, right, is that if you`re withdrawing from a situation where you`ve had a lot of troops there, but it`s not a total withdrawal, you`re leaving some small number of Americans behind, you can see how those Americans left behind are suddenly in a uniquely precarious and simultaneously high-profile position.  They`re sort of in a dangerous spot. 

So these details really matter at a life and death level.  You said everybody is leaving immediately all at once.  Are you sure?  Nobody`s staying behind?  The Pentagon seems to indicate not everyone`s going.  What? 

I mean, if some smaller of Americans is being left behind, when most of the rest are leaving all of a sudden, what are the rest of the troops being left there for.  What is to ensure that they`re not just going to be sitting ducks as the rest of the force leaves?  I know these are sort of hard questions, detailed questions, but this is the sort of thing that becomes immediately super important, at a life or death level for Americans if the president really did just order today the kind of withdrawal that he, surprise, proclaimed on Twitter. 

So, reporters went to the White House today looking to get questions like those answered.  Even just to get the most basic questions answered about this big, sudden U-turn from the president.  Where did this come from, why now, is everybody on board, you got a plan? 

When reporters went to the White House to ask questions about this today, White House staff said they could not answer those questions themselves.  And they referred reporters to the Pentagon.  They said go ask the Defense Department.  Reporters who contacted the Defense Department, however, were told that the Defense Department also could not answer those questions because they frankly had no idea what the president was talking about with this new order. 

So the Pentagon referred reporters back to the White House to try to get those questions answered.  So the White House said, the president announces it, everybody is like, dude, what now, huh?  The White House says we don`t know, ask the Defense Department.  The Defense Department says we don`t know, ask the White House -- which is ridiculous and absurd.  And just for us as citizens, it is remarkable to see our government and our president overtly bungling something this serious.  Something this important, just trying to hum a few bars and hope somebody else figures out what this means and what people are supposed to do here. 

It`s ridiculous. It`s absurd, right?  It feels that way to everybody observing this process, including people who are allies of the president like Republicans on Capitol Hill. 

But if you`re an American military family tonight, if you have a family member serving in Syria tonight, and a couple thousand American families are in that situation, because there are a couple thousand Americans serving in Syria right now, I cannot imagine how unnerving today must have been for you, watching this White House, watching this president just try to blag through this.  I mean, imagine if you have skin in the game in your family here. 

I mean, whether or not you are for or against an ongoing U.S. military presence in Syria, or even if you don`t particularly know one way or the other, this is not the way that U.S. troops and their families expect to have their safety and their lives just blithely batted around like it doesn`t matter and who cares what happens and maybe we`ll just do the whole thing on Twitter and who knows if we`ll follow through, who cares?  Ask the White House for details, no, ask the Pentagon for details.  No, apparently nobody has any details.  The president is just winging this one.  Does he mean it if it`s on Twitter, does it count? 

If he is just winging it with the life of your son or your daughter or your husband or wife over there in uniform right now, it`s been a spectacle for all of us.  But if you are in a personal situation with regard to that conflict right now, this must have been a very difficult day.  But we`re going to get some expert help on this story coming up in just a few minutes. 

I do have to tell you, the administration and the president appear to have put so little thought and so little planning, if any planning at all, into this announcement today that it literally, as I speak, is not even clear at this point if the Pentagon is planning on this withdrawal.  If the Pentagon is planning on doing whatever it is that the president has supposedly ordered, if they can figure out what that order is, because of that lack of clarity tonight, that alone I think is good reason to expect that this story is going to continue to develop over the course of the evening and into the overnight.  So, as I said, we`re going to get some expert help on that tonight. 

We`ve got a senator from the Armed Services Committee here tonight and we`ve also got a reporter Rukmini Callimachi who will be here with us to try to get some more clarity on this story. 

All right.  And by -- self-conscious about this -- but by counterpoising that story that I just talked about with this next bit of news that we`re about to get to, I do not mean to suggest that the president popped out that surprise out of the blue announcement on Syria today as an effort to change the news cycle to something that is less damaging to him than what he has been going through in recent days.  I`m not trying to suggest that by putting these two stories together here at the top of the show. 

But it is inescapable that the overall news cycle right now is just calamitous for the president in terms of scandals and investigations swirling around him and some of the people closest to him.  It is very bad right now for the president, and with each passing day, including today, it does seem to be continuously devolving.  So, on that front, we need to start with some news with somebody I almost always ignore.  It`s convenient top of to have a whole swat of news that, yes, I don`t cover that. 

But this is the story that broke in "The Washington Post," and as you can see, it is about Roger Stone, who is a longtime friend and adviser to the president.  He worked on behalf of and adjacent to the president`s campaign in 2015 and 2016.  Now, I say I usually ignore stories about him, and I don`t mean that in a mean way. 

I`m conscious of the fact that Mr. Stone likes to see himself on TV and he likes to see himself in print.  He likes press attention of anytime.  He`s open about those.  He talks about that.  He talks about seeking press attention as often as he can. 

There are lots and lots of news stories about him all the time.  Even about his alleged very troubling role in the Russia scandal, but 99.9 percent of the time, those stories essentially boil down to, Roger Stone says thing.  So?  And depending on how long you can bear reading into the story, you eventually get to thing does not appear to be true.  It`s sort of implied with Roger Stone said it. 

So we don`t generally cover those stories on this show.  I`m just not interested.  I mean, I would maybe like to. 

It just makes me itch, it makes me crazy, like we cannot do it.  Anyway, it`s sort of a categorical situation for me.  Stories about Roger Stone, do not do. 

But this tonight in "The Washington Post," this is something real that you actually should know about.  So the lead reporter is Carol Leonnig.  There are four big name "Washington Post" reporters who are co bylined on this story, and this is the lead.  Quote: Special counsel Robert Mueller asked the House Intelligence Committee on Friday, so several days ago, for an official transcript of Trump adviser Roger Stone`s testimony.

Quote: It is the first time Mueller has formally asked the committee to turn over material the panel has gathered in its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. 

Now, what does it mean that Robert Mueller and the special counsel`s office have asked for the official transcript of Roger Stone`s testimony?  Well, according to "The Washington Post" tonight, quote, the move suggests the special counsel is moving too finalize a key part of Mueller`s inquiry into whether anyone in President Trump`s orbit coordinated with the Russians. 

If you want to put a finer point on it, "The Washington Post" just straight up goes there, calling this request from Mueller to obtain this transcript, quote, "a sign that prosecutors could be moving to charge Mr. Stone with a crime.

Quote: Securing an official transcript from the committee would be a necessary step before pursuing an indictment that Stone allegedly lied to lawmakers.  Charges of lying to Congress are relatively rare, but last month, of course, Trump`s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen pled guilty to just such a charge as part of the special counsel`s investigation.  The special counsel could use the threat of a false statement charge to seek cooperation from Mr. Stone as Mueller has done with other Trump advisers, including former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn and Mr. Cohen. 

So, big picture story just broken tonight by "The Washington Post" is that they have learned, "The Post" has learned and NBC News has not confirmed this reporting, but "The Post" says they have learned that the special counsel`s office, Robert Mueller, has made an official request to get an official transcript of Roger Stone`s testimony before the Congress about Russian interference in the election.  So, this is not Roger Stone says thing.  This is an action that has been reportedly taken by the special counsel`s office. 

And here`s the part of this that I definitely didn`t know, and I didn`t understand before I read this story tonight.  To me, this is fascinating.  Maybe everybody knows this stuff.  Maybe the nuts and bolts of how exactly you get charged with a felony for lying to Congress are like stuff that gets talked about at your staff holiday party where you work. 

To me, this was totally new.  I did not know this before tonight.  Quote: For weeks, the special counsel`s office has had access to an unofficial copy of Mr. Stone`s closed door interview with the committee in September 2017.  Mueller`s request of the official copy suggests that the special counsel could in and out be pursuing an indictment. 

Why is that?  Why does he need the official copy rather than just the unofficial copy that he`s been working from? 

Quote: In general, if prosecutors want to bring a charge of lying to investigators, they must obtain a certified clean copy from the transcriber or clerk who took the statement in order to present it as an exhibit to a grand jury. 

Quote: Because the Roger Stone interview was conducted in executive session, meaning behind closed doors, with House Intelligence Committee, quote, the transcript of his remarks officially belongs to the committee and may not be released to anyone.  Unless authorized by the committee. 

So, basically, Robert Mueller does know at least roughly, unofficially, what Roger Stone`s testimony was, that closed-door testimony that he gave in the fall of 2017.  But you can`t bring an unofficial transcript to the grand jury if you want that grand jury to give you an indictment based, in part, on that evidence.  You need the official record of his remarks if you`re going to bring it to the grand jury for the purposes of indicting him.  I did not know that. 

Getting the official transcript turns out in this case kind of takes a village.  It takes the committee to agree to hand it over.  Quote: According to people with knowledge of the situation, the House Intelligence Committee has not yet turned over the official Stone transcript to special counsel Mueller.  But "The Washington Post" reports tonight that they are going to have to deal with this tomorrow. 

Quote: The committee is expected to discuss the topic at a closed door business session scheduled for Thursday, i.e., tomorrow.  An agenda for the meeting shows the panel`s first item to consider is the, quote, transmission of certain executive session materials too the executive branch.  So executive session materials, that means materials from a closed door session.  They have to discuss tomorrow, first order of business, whether they are going to transmit that transcript, those materials, to the executive branch, which, according to "The Washington Post," is the special counsel`s office. 

And since the special counsel`s office already has the unofficial transcript, presumably the only reason they need the official one is, because -- so most news about this adviser to the president, this long-time friend of the president, Roger Stone, you can just file in a folder marked news about Roger Stone, right?  You don`t need to get any more specific about it. 

But this tonight from "The Washington Post," if they`re right in this report, this would seem to indicate that the special counsel is taking the last procedural steps they need to in order to perhaps bring charges here. 

Now, the fact that Congressman Devin Nunes is going to be convening that closed-door intelligence committee meeting to decide whether or not Robert Mueller can have that congressman, as Congressman Adam Schiff of California waits to take over Nunes job as the new Democratic chairman in a couple weeks, that adds some real kinetic force to the story and obviously some very angular politics.  If Mueller doesn`t get that transcript tomorrow, he`ll get it as soon as Schiff is there. 

So, this story tonight from "The Washington Post" suggests that there is something else likely coming from the special counsel here.  And you don`t know it until you see it when it comes to the special counsel, but that`s what this strongly suggests.  Now, keep in mind, we have already seen what appears to be a draft plea agreement from the special counsel for what appears to have been a guilty plea negotiation that apparently fell apart, involving the Obama birth certificate conspiracy guy, whose name is Jerome Corsi. 

From that draft plea agreement for Jerome Corsi, it would appear that Mr. Corsi`s own potential criminal exposure is related to some of the same communications during the campaign that have brought scrutiny to Roger Stone, communications involving WikiLeaks and WikiLeaks` distribution of e- mails and documents that were stolen by the Russian military, by Russian military intelligence from Democrats and from the Clinton campaign, to be weaponized against her campaign on behalf of Donald Trump. 

Since we saw that draft plea agreement related to Jerome Corsi, we haven`t seen any further action in the courts that appears directly related to him, but presumably with that draft plea agreement, having been rejected by Corsi and what we`re now seeing with regard to Roger Stone and the request to this transcript, it all feels like that is coming to a fine point. 

But there is more that you should know about, including more that happened today.  This is something that happened today that I don`t think has received a lot of attention.  For me, this was a reward for always following my court documents rule, which is always read to the very end, often times the best stuff is at the very end. 

This is something didn`t get a lot of attention today.  It is pretty clearly a new thing, another new thing that is coming down the pike, potentially from federal prosecutors and you probably have not heard about this today. 

But I will tell you about it, next.  Stay with us.


MADDOW:  Last week, it feels like a million years ago, doesn`t it?  But it was just last week that accused Russian agent Maria Butina pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in federal court in Washington, D.C., just a remarkable turn in that case.  She becomes the first Russian national to plead guilty in conjunction with charges related to Russian influence on U.S. politics. 

But after she pled guilty, you may not have heard about this, but a very unusual thing, a super, super unusual thing happened in her case over the weekend.  It was a mistake.  A document that was apparently supposed to be sealed, it was supposed to be completely shielded from public view was accidently posted online by the court in an unredacted form. 

And I guess the court realized or prosecutors realized what they had done ultimately and quickly took it down.  But while that document was up for that short period of time, report Spencer Hsu at "The Washington Post" was able to grab it and screen shot it, at least the first page of it, of this document.  Again, that was supposed to be sealed. 

But let me just read you what it said.  You can see it at the top, under seal.  That means we`re not supposed to see it.  I should tell you, the title is motion for leave to file under seal.  And this is just the few first sentences of what that filing says. 

Quote: The United States of America by and through its attorney, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia its motion for authorization of transportation in the above referenced base.  That`s not a legal term of art in this case, they literally mean transportation.  Quote: The motion discusses appending criminal investigation and matters occurring between the parties that should not appear in the public record. 

Although the fact of defendant Maria Butina`s cooperation is now public, the details of her transportation to and from the jail are not.  The disclosure of such information would pose a risk to the defendant`s safety and the safety of the community.  Once disclosed, such information could be used by individuals or entities who might seek to harm or intimidate the defendant to defend her from continuing to cooperate with law enforcement. 

Now, in this document, we don`t actually get the details of her transportation, we just get the government`s argument that those details should not be made public.  But now get this -- quote: In addition, the proposed order references defendant Butina`s possible transportation to a grand jury.  The fact of her testimony before a grand jury is protected under Rule 6 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure and should remain confidential. 

She`s testifying to a grand jury?  So, again, this was not supposed to be posted in a way the public could see it, but it was.  And "Washington Post" reporter Spencer Hsu was able to grab it, and we learned that one of the things that happened since Maria Butina pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors is that already she`s not just talking to prosecutors, already, they`ve got her being transported from jail to testify in person before a grand jury in what the prosecutors described as ongoing criminal investigations. 

Remember, she was charged as basically undeclared secret agent of the Russian government operating in this country to influence our politics, specifically the Republican Party through the NRA, what might she know about, might she have evidence about that they`ve got her providing evidence to the grand jury about?  I don`t know. 

But since that document was posted by accident, and then quickly unposted this weekend, there`s been a little more back and forth in the Butina case.  Specifically, her defense lawyers argued to the judge that the gag order should be lifted on her case, and the gag order basically says that judges -- excuse me, that the judge has told the defense counsel and the prosecutors that they`re not allowed to speak publicly or to the press about what`s going on in Butina`s case, and Butina`s lawyers said drop the gag order, we would like to speak about this publicly. 

Today, prosecutors responded to that and they said from their perspective, no, they want the judge to keep the gag order in place.  Now, on the surface, this is just an argument about a procedural matter.  On the surface, though, the prosecutor`s argument doesn`t really make much sense. 

If you think about it, the purpose of a gag order, the purpose of a judge saying, no, people involved in this case are not allowed to talk about this outside of the courtroom, no comments to the press, no comments to the public, the reason for a gag order is mostly to avoid creating some sort of prejudicial public environment around a case, prejudicial environment about the guilt or innocence of a defendant in a case where that person is going to go to trial before a jury.  So, a gag order can prevent the jury pool for that jury trial from being tainted, because the jury will have heard public comments about the case. 

For Maria Butina, though, she just pled guilty.  So she`s not going on trial.  There`s not going to be a jury that has to be selected to rule on Maria Butina`s guilt or innocence.  She pled guilty. 

So why would you still need the gag order, what`s the justification for it?  That`s what we just got from the prosecutors in her case tonight, and this is interesting.  First of all, they say there`s a chance that Maria Butina`s plea deal might fall apart, in which case they would end up putting her on trial.  Quote, although the government has no reason to expect the defendant will breach the plea agreement, in the event she does, the government will be free from its obligations under the agreement, and she will be subject to prosecution for any other crimes.

Quote: In other words, there is a chance, however small, that the government could proceed to trial on the indictment or some portion thereof.  Given that possibility, the courts desire to preserve a potential jury pool continues through sentencing.  And they continue, one other option here, Judge, similarly, quote, the defendant can withdraw her plea before sentencing if she demonstrates to the court that she has a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.  Quote: while the government again has no reason to believe the defendant will attempt to withdraw her plea prior to sentencing, the contemplation of that possibility counsels towards leaving the gag order in place prior to sentencing.

So they`re raising these possibilities.  Maybe her plea agreement is going to fall apart, and there will be a trial, in which case there could be a trial here.  So, but then here`s the money.  Here`s the whoop, heads up from the federal prosecutors who are handling the Butina case to say, hey, there`s something else going on here.  And, again, her case is being handled by the U.S. attorney in D.C., specifically by the national security division in that office.  Here`s their closing argument to the judge. 

Quote: The court also has a duty to protect any potential future defendants` rights to a fair trial.  As this court noted in its order, the gag rule imposes a restriction on dissemination of information that will interfere with the fair trial in connection with a pending or imminent criminal litigation.  They have italicized the word imminent and note that they had added the emphasis themselves.  The gag order imposes a restriction on dissemination of information that will interfere with a fair trial in connection with pending or imminent criminal litigation. 

Quote: Keeping the gag order in place through sentencing would safeguard the rights of any potential defendants who may later be charged in connection with this matter, especially if any other person is charged as a result of the defendant`s cooperation.

And so respectfully submitted, leave the gag order in place, judge, because here comes some more defendants.  I mean, between that briefly unsealed document about her going to testify to the grand jury and this document we got tonight from the prosecutors in her case, what this would appear to indicate because the prosecution side in the Maria Butina case is that the Maria Butina case is not only about her being indicted.  That in their words, quote, imminently other criminal litigation involving other defendants may soon be charged in connection with this matter.

So that all happened today.  "The Washington Post" reports tonight that Roger Stone, the special counsel`s office has asked requested an official transcript of Roger Stone`s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, which is something that they would not need, since they have an unofficial transcript anyway.  They would only need the official transcript, legal experts say, if they need to take that document to the grand jury for the purposes of securing an indictment.  So that seems to be final stages on a long-time adviser to the president, Roger Stone. 

Similarly in the Butina case, the prosecutors are talking about the imminent possibility of other defendants related to this case, particularly those who may be charged as a result of the defendant`s cooperation.  That all happened today.  And that doesn`t even get into the fact that also today, something was filed in the Michael Cohen case, which was filed under seal, and they didn`t screw it up, and in his case, the court noted that the file was, quote, placed in vault.

Which means today we all learned that there`s a vault at the federal courthouse in New York that`s hearing the Cohen case, and they have some Cohen stuff in the vault.  Even though he`s already been sentenced to three years in federal prison for his role in this matter thus far, there are yet more sealed documents being filed with the court in conjunction with Michael Cohen, too, including one filed today.  We have no idea what it is, but we know they locked it up as soon as they got it. 

So, stay sober.  Keep your laces tied.  We apparently are still really in the middle of this.

We`ll be right back.


MADDOW:  The Pentagon seemed caught off guard.  As of this morning, officials in the Pentagon were reportedly scrambling to try to talk the president out of doing this.  When the president tweeted the announcement anyway, the White House referred reporters to the Pentagon to get details on the withdrawal plan, but the Pentagon didn`t have any details.  The Pentagon referred all questions back to the White House, and they said, didn`t we tell you to go ask the Pentagon? 

At the State Department, they just decided they didn`t want to talk about it at all.  The State Department abruptly canceled its scheduled press briefing today right after Trump made this announcement about pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria. 

NBC News national security reporter Courtney Kube asked a senior administration official today what the president means specifically by making this announcement, when does this mean U.S. troops are leaving?  This was the response she got.  Quote: It`s not that I`m not telling you, it`s that I don`t know quite frankly, helpful senior administration official. 

So we don`t know if the surprise withdrawal is a thing that`s actually going to happen.  We certainly don`t know when it`s going to happen, if it is.  But why did this happen all of a sudden?  Why did this just get announced? 

And I ask that because on its face, the explanation the president gave is an explanation that`s not true.  I mean, the president today said, ISIS is gone, ISIS has been defeated, that`s why we can leave. 

Well, the inspector general at the Defense Department just last month released a report on the current strength of ISIS.  As of last month, the Pentagon estimate for ISIS fighters was 20,000 to 30,000 fighters just in Iraq and Syria.  So, it`s not that the U.S. government has determined that ISIS is defeated, they`re gone, therefore it`s time to go.  That`s the explanation the president gave today, but that`s it, that`s not true.  So what was it? 

"The Wall Street Journal" and others have suggested that this happened today at the request of a foreign leader, at the request of the president of Turkey.  Which is rich, right?  I mean, the day after Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn gets dragged all over a federal courtroom for, in the judge`s words, basically betraying his country, selling out his country by working as a paid foreign agent for Turkey, two days after the Turkish government contract got indicted for that scheme, the day after prosecutors described Mike Flynn in open court as an unindicted co- conspirator in that alleged crime, amid all these questions now circling around the Flynn case about why the Trump transition didn`t care and went ahead and installed Flynn as national security adviser anyway, even after they were formally and repeatedly warned about Flynn being investigated as an unregistered paid foreign agent for Turkey, that`s the day the president of Turkey says hey, Trump, pull out of Syria now, and the president of our country says yes, sir, I`ll announce it right now, sir? 

I mean, the on the surface explanation from the president is not true.  The other possible explanations for this, the ones being reported today in the news, are really dark.  Just when it comes to Turkey, just one of the countries that would want us out of Syria.  Of course, the other countries that would want us out of Syria are the Syrian government, right, Iran, Russia.  Russia for its part says that they are delighted by this blurted out new policy from President Trump today. 

But what can we know at this point as to -- whether this is really happening?  And why this is really happening?  But also what it`s likely to do, if this does actually become real policy and not just something the president tweeted and then everyone ignored? 

Joining us now is Rukmini Callimachi, foreign correspondent for "The New York Times".  She`s been covering al Qaeda and ISIS. 

Rukmini, it`s really nice to have you here tonight.  Thanks very much for your time. 


MADDOW:  So I know that you have -- you have reported both in Syria and Iraq, I know you were just in Iraq a couple of weeks ago. 


MADDOW:  Bottom line, what do you think the impact would be in Syria, in Syria, and specifically with regard to ISIS, if the president`s announcement is real, if they do follow through with this sort of precipitous withdrawal plan? 

CALLIMACHI:  Let me quote what senior Western coalition officials told me today when I reached out to them to ask this very question.  They described the president`s announcement as, quote, catastrophic, quote, a disaster, quote, reckless.  This is how they view this announcement. 

The Kurds, when I last traveled with them, which was back in 2015, were not able to move an inch without U.S. support.  They would take building after building, but only after U.S. air support had helped them bomb that location.  If the U.S. was not there, they would not have been able to advance.  And even with U.S. support, we have seen that ISIS has been able to mount counterattack after counterattack and sometimes take back territory that has been declared freed. 

So, it`s naive to think that this in any way is going to not have an impact on the fight against ISIS. 

MADDOW:  So big picture here, we should just be clear for people who haven`t been following this or that have lost track over this eight-year- long civil war.  That there`s a couple thousand U.S. troops in Syria.  Their stated mission there is to fight ISIS. 

The way that U.S. troops are fighting ISIS in Syria is in partnership with the Kurds, and partnership with Kurdish fighters who are believed by the U.S. military to be the most effective anti-ISIS force on the ground.  And if the U.S. forces are going to leave is devastation for the Kurds. 


MADDOW:  And that, of course, raises the issue of why this is happening.  There are multiple news organizations that are reporting tonight that the origin of this decision from the president, it didn`t come from sort of inner agency process in the U.S. government, certainly didn`t come from the U.S. military or people working on this as policy.  It appears to have come in a suggestion from the Turkish president. 

What`s the relationship between the Turkish government, the Turkish president and the Kurds?  Why might this have been in his interest? 

CALLIMACHI:  The Turkish state has viewed the Kurds as an existential threat.  The group that`s currently fighting ISIS is a conglomeration of Kurdish entities, one is the YPG.  The YPG is just another name for the PKK, which is an entity that has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey.  They have carried out attacks in Turkey. 

And so for a long time now, we have seen that the Turkey views this entity as its number one enemy really in the region. 

MADDOW:  Rukmini Callimachi, foreign correspondent for "The New York Times" covering al Qaeda and ISIS -- Rukmini, I really appreciate your making time to be with us tonight.  Thank you very much for this. 

CALLIMACHI:  Thank you, Rachel. 

MADDOW:  I should tell you that Nancy Pelosi put out a statement tonight on the withdrawal of troops from Syria.  I`ll just read you a piece that`s important and relevant to this discussion. 

Quote: All Americans should be concerned that this hasty announcement was made after sentencing and criminal proceedings began against the president`s former national security adviser Michael Flynn who admitted that he was a registered agent for a country with clear interest in the Syrian conflict. 

The clear interests in the Syrian conflict as just laid out there by Rukmini. 

All right.  Senator Claire McCaskill is here for the interview tonight.  Very excited to have her here. 

Stay with us.


MADDOW:  She`s been a county prosecutor, a state representative, her state`s auditor.  She`s been a U.S. senator now for 12 years. 

She is perhaps the only Democratic senator under the age of 70 who is not apparently about to announce that she`s running for president.  She has always been someone, personal privilege here, she`s always been someone who I could imagine very easily in the job of president.  I have thought that for years. 

But apparently she`s not running.  She is, though, leaving Washington, and so I came down here today from New York to make sure I could talk to her before she went back home. 

Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, thank you so much for doing this. 

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI:  It`s great to be here.  This is a perfect last live interview as far as I`m concerned. 

MADDOW:  So, this is the last interview you`re doing as a senator.

MCCASKILL:  Last live interview as a senator.

MADDOW:  I thought about bringing a beer and telling you it was okay to swear. 

MCCASKILL:  Shotgun it? 

MADDOW:  But I have a feeling I don`t need to loosen you up that much.  You seem like you`re kind of psyched to be --

MCCASKILL:  Probably not.  I`m ready. 

MADDOW:  I want to ask -- I have a bunch of stuff to ask you about leaving the Senate.  I do have to ask you a news question, particularly because your role on the Armed Services Committee.  What is your reaction to the surprise announcement of the president today on Syria? 

He`s saying all U.S. troops out immediately.  It`s clear from the Pentagon and Senator Corker, there appears to have been no process leading up to this at all.  What`s your take on it? 

MCCASKILL:  Wildly irresponsible, very dangerous.  This is one of the most complicated places in the world. 

The cross currents in Syria are so significant.  We have the Kurds, who have made our victories possible.  They have fought shoulder to shoulder, they have died on the battlefield, with American military to defeat ISIS. 

And we are leaving them twisting in the wind by leaving.  We were the balance, even though there were only 2,000 people, it was a balance that kept Turkey kind of at bay, and also was a caution to Iran and to Russia, and to Assad.  It`s not so much that he`s pulling, it`s the way he`s doing it, with complete disregard for the complexities that are involved, without talking to our allies, without having a plan, without trusting the military leaders that have been telling him for months don`t do something rash here, but because his politics need something rash right now. 

MADDOW:  Uh-huh. 

MCCASKILL:  That`s why he`s doing this.  That`s what is most disturbing that he is making these irresponsible and impulsive decisions in the context of our military involvement around the world.  Pretty scary stuff. 

MADDOW:  You`re suggesting this is a wag the dog decision to change the news cycle? 

MCCASKILL:  And to -- I think he`s getting heat from his base that he folded on the wall and I think he`s preoccupied with his rallies and what he told everyone, that Mexico would build it, he would get a wall.  And he also said, I`m going to bring people home from all these entanglements around the world. 

So I think he`s saying, oh, I`m in trouble because I folded on the wall, so I`ll do this thing that I promised I would do, damn the consequences.  I need to somehow repair my political image in terms of being strong and decisive.  That`s what is so disappointing about this, because he puts a lot at risk.  And the men and women who died there deserve better. 

MADDOW:  The president acting in those terms to me, that would make sense if what we had seen was the president pushing this issue at the White House, raise thing issue, telling people that wanted to do this, he`s every once in a while he talks about this.  But as far as we can tell, there was no process leading up to this.  He just did blurt it out, leaving the State Department absolutely flummoxed, the Pentagon absolutely flummoxed.  Even senior administration officials who were put out to explain, they had no idea what he was talking about. 

What I am particularly worried about is this reporting that this idea of the president came directly from the president of Turkey, with whom he spoke with just several days ago.  What you were just talking about with the Kurds, the president of Turkey would like nothing more than to have the United States military out of the way so he can mow down the Kurds, because they`re so threatening to him and his domestic needs. 

I mean, I`m worried about the prospect that the president has made this decision at the behest of a foreign government.  I don`t know how we figure out whether that`s true or what the consequences should be if that happened. 

MCCASKILL:  Well, I think the way to kind of look at it, he`s surrounded himself with people to advise him.  And either they`re being indicted or they`re being ignored.  So, what is the point of attracting people with any kind of working knowledge of the subject matter, especially in something as complex as what`s going on in the Middle East, particularly in Syria? 

If you were going to completely ignore them, including the hawk of all hawks when it comes to Iran, Bolton.  I mean, Bolton just said a few weeks ago we would never -- we`re not going to let Iran have that kind of power in Syria. 

MADDOW:  He said we will not leave, the U.S. military presence in Syria won`t end as long as Iran still has troops on the border.  Well, Iran still has troops on the border and that`s no longer --

MCCASKILL:  Never mind. 

MADDOW:  You talking about stuff like this, even the really hard stuff, I can see your wheels turning and you get really into it and I`m simultaneously sensing your relief at getting out of here.  Are you happy you`re no longer going to be a senator?  Or are you --

MCCASKILL:  OK, let`s be honest, I`m a really competitive person.  I hate to lose.  It sucks.  And I lost.  And I don`t like losing. 

Having said that, I see people who stay here too long.  The place has gotten pretty dysfunctional.  I think I can move the needle on things I care about and I don`t have to be in this town.  I think there`s ways I can influence things and I`m looking forward to doing some of that work on the other side when I`m not busy worrying about the pressures of running in a really tough state. 

For someone who believes in the values that I hold, I couldn`t ever make my friends in the progressive base completely happy.  I certainly couldn`t make the right happy, and it`s tough.  It`s tough because you want to hold true to your principles but you want to be pragmatic enough if you can get things done.  That`s why I worry about a little bit of my party that we don`t get so enamored with purity that we lose the fact that if independent voters in this country do not vote for Democrats, we will not win the presidency, and we will not win states in the Midwest. 

MADDOW:  I want to talk to you a little bit about that and your own presidential decision making process and all this when we come back. 

We`re with Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.  This is her last live interview as a United States senator. 

We`ll be right back with her after this.


MADDOW:  Joining us once again is Senator Claire McCaskill for her last live interview as a senator.  I`ve never done that before.  That was rude.

Obama, JFK, and Warren J. Harding were the only U.S. presidents who have ever gone to White House directly from the Senate and yet for some reason like every senator under the age of 80 is a potential Democratic presidential candidate this year.  Do you think -- having been 12 years in the senate, do you think it makes sense that that is a good place from which to pick a Democratic bench? 

MCCASKILL:  Well, there`s certainly smart, capable people there.  Having said that, the American voter right now is -- in case you haven`t noticed, they`re really not very high on Washington. 

MADDOW:  Yes. 

MCCASKILL:  This is not their favorite spot and Congress is not seen as like the folks they want to rely on. 

So I do think anybody that is of Washington has an extra high bar to make it through this process.  I think somebody who feels different, who is inspirational, who can convince people they can change something and that frankly because of what we`ve got going on in the Oval Office, who shows character and stability, I think that`s what those voters that decide presidentials, those ones in the middle, that`s what they gravitate towards. 

MADDOW:  Did you ever seriously think about running? 


MADDOW:  Why not? 

MCCASKILL:  Well, I was really fortunate to be close to the Obama campaign.  I was kind of in it, so to speak, and I saw it and, wow, really hard and really not fun, and really flawed process.  And it just really kind of cured me of wanting to be in that kind of fray. 

I still want to try to get things done, and I`m proud of what I`ve gotten done here, but I`m not really interested in running for elected office again. 

MADDOW:  How much did it bug you when jerky liberals like me gave you a hard time for being more conservative than the rest of the Democratic Party on some issues?  Did it actually --

MCCASKILL:  You mean when you brought the life-size cutout of Blanche Lincoln? 

MADDOW:  Yes, and I put her in a big envelope --


MCCASKILL:  Come on, Rachel. 


MADDOW:  But is that like off the duck`s back? 

MCCASKILL:  No, it`s off the duck`s back.  I get it. 

But, you know, here`s the thing.  On lots of issues I was really solid that are progressive issues.


MCCASKILL:  Women`s reproductive freedoms, health care issues, not perfect on environment but certainly better than the vast majority of people who hold elected office in my state.  And at the end of the day, I`m really somebody who enjoys getting things done. 

And screaming pure progressive politics on one side of the room does not get people to the middle and actually accomplish things.  We only accomplish things, the tough stuff only gets fixed if we take tough votes and we compromise. 

MADDOW:  But is it constructive to have criticism both from the right and the left especially for somebody who`s really like a die hard moderate like you, like you are ideological idiosyncratic, right?  You`re mix of progressive and modern. 


MADDOW:  Is it always hurtful to get that pressure?  Is it constructive? 

MCCASKILL:  I think it`s tine.  You know, I would never -- I`m so lucky that I`ve been able to be a public servant and in politics for 38 years in elected office in a state like Missouri.  I feel fortunate.  And people are passionate and I love it when they are passionate. 

MADDOW:  But it sometimes drives you crazy, admit it. 

MCCASKILL:  Well, sometimes it`s counterproductive. 

MADDOW:  OK, that`s what I want to hear. 

MCCASKILL:  Like this year, there were some folks in Missouri that were chewing on me because I wasn`t loud enough on certain issues --

MADDOW:  Loud enough on lefty issues. 

MCCASKILL:  Lefty issues, and I was trying to explain to them like there`s some issues like the macaroni and cheese issues, like dignity of a job, and real wage increases and real affordable health care issues that are important to working people in urban areas and in rural areas, and those are the issues I need to focus on. 

MADDOW:  You wanted to put that in the center. 

MCCASKILL:  I wanted that to be the center because that`s where I knew most people would agree.  And I did all those town halls out in rural area, that`s where everybody`s head would nod. 

And I think that`s the way forward in this country to actually solve some of these problems.  You know, we can talk about free college until the cows come home, but you`re not going it get 60 votes in the Senate for free college.  That`s not going to happen. 

MADDOW:  You`ll get it someday if you start talking about it now. 

MCCASKILL:  It`s fine to start talking about it now, but the point is to win in 2020, we better be talking about things that everybody relates to, that everybody is worried about and really those economic issues that are keeping people awake at night. 

MADDOW:  Now you get to do whatever you want. 

MCCASKILL:  I can do whatever I want, and my mouth`s has gotten me in some trouble and I figure I can take it to new heights now. 

MADDOW:  Yes.  I`m looking forward to that, Senator.

MCCASKILL:  Thank you.

MADDOW:  Congratulations and thanks for being a public servant for all these years and thanks for being so much fun to talk to along with being so serious about your work. 

MCCASKILL:  You bet.  My pleasure.

MADDOW:  Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

That does for us tonight.  We`ll see you again tomorrow. 


Good evening, Lawrence. 

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