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Mattis resigns as Secretary of Defense. TRANSCRIPT: 12/20/2018, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Chris Murphy, Jerry Nadler

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: December 20, 2018 Guest: Chris Murphy, Jerry Nadler


Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: You know, some days I know it is hard when there is nothing to talk about and nothing going on. You just need to stretch.

HAYES: Somehow we filled an hour.

MADDOW: I understand you ran a few evergreen segments. Thank you, my friend.

HAYES: Enjoy.

MADDOW: And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. I come to Washington for two days and look what happens. I feel like I have to get out of here before the earth cracks open and swallows this place whole. Was it me?

Today has just been a cascade of what would be generally seen as absolutely apocalyptic news in any other presidency. In the Trump presidency, maybe we just think of this as a slightly rockier than usual Thursday, but any one of the things that happened today would be written into the history of any other modern presidency as one of its worst days, or the start of the end.

But let`s start tonight with the resignation of the Secretary of Defense James Mattis. This is a resignation letter. It`s dated today, December 20th, 2018. It`s on Defense Department letterhead.

Dear Mr. President, I have been privileged to serve as our country`s 26th secretary of defense, which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the department in defense of our citizens and our ideals. One core belief I`ve always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.

While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. We must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances.

NATO`s 29 democracies demonstrated that strength in their commitment to fighting alongside us following the 9/11 attack on America. The defeat ISIS coalition of 74 nations is further proof. Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly intention with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model, gaining veto authority over other nation`s economic, diplomatic and security decisions, to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America, and our allies.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about malign actors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. The end date for my tenure is February 28, 2019.

And it is signed, without salutation, James N. Mattis.

This letter of resignation today was not released by the White House, it was released by the Pentagon. I can`t imagine the White House would have ever released this if the Pentagon didn`t do it, just because there is no lack of clarity here. I mean, this was a resignation in protest against the president and his behavior, at least that`s how this reads to me.

I mean, there`s no hint that Secretary Mattis was fired or that his resignation was because he wanted to spend more time writing symphonies or something. He has resigned in protest over these issues -- treating allies with respect and as he puts it, quote, being clear-eyed about malign actors.

Beyond this blunt letter, though, I think another way you can tell this wasn`t the president firing the defense secretary, is because this happened today in person, man-to-man. The defense secretary, Jim Mattis, apparently went to the White House, met with the president in person today, and he handed him this resignation. Now, in contrast, when President Trump has fired people in his administration, I think, without exception, he has always had someone else do it for him. He does not do that in person.

So, this is the first resignation in protest in the Trump cabinet, and that makes it -- that makes it a first, but on another level this is sort of just another one of those moments. I`m not going to put up the big wall behind me again listing all the high-level departures from this administration, honestly, who has the time? But even if we`re just talking about the cabinet, just the cabinet, we have had the health secretary resign in scandal. We`ve had the EPA head resign in scandal. We`ve just had the interior secretary resign in scandal.

And in terms of resigning in scandal, we`re not going to put him up there yet, because he`s still there, but if you want to say tick tock next to resign in scandal, I think safest bets are on Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, thanks to the new revelations about his role in personally arranging a sweetheart no prosecution deal for an accused prolific serial child rapist. So, Alex Acosta right now still at the Labor Department, but keep your markers on him. And Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has a whole bunch of legal issues hanging off his bumper like a bunch of tin cans after a cheap wedding.

But for now, Acosta and Wilbur Ross are still there. But still, inside the first half term of this president, we have already had three members of the cabinet resign in scandal. We have had the secretary of state fired by the president. And the V.A. secretary fired by the president. And the attorney general fired by the president.

We have had one member of the cabinet, the U.N. secretary, Nikki Haley, apparently resign without real explanation, but there remains some opacity around her departure.

And now, today, we got this first. We got a cabinet secretary resigning in protest of the president`s behavior and beliefs and being overt about that being the reason for his departure. And again, that`s just the cabinet, right? Keep in mind that in the midst of the ever-erupting chaos right now in this town, the president has just fired his second White House chief of staff and is about to bring on his third. And a brand-new White House counsel just started last week. I`m sure he hasn`t been busy at all this past couple of weeks with how the news has been.

The Dow Jones today dropped nearly another 500 points. That brings the stock market to a 14-month low. We are now on the precipice of a bear market.

Tomorrow, I think it is fair to say it is more likely than not that the federal government is going to shutdown indefinitely, even though the Republican Party continues to have unified control over the White House and the House and the Senate. Despite Republicans controlling all the levers of power in Washington right now, they apparently are not on track to pass a bill that will keep the government open, which the president will also see fit to sign. So, the bills the president will sign won`t pass the Senate, and the bills that will pass the Senate, the president won`t sign.

So, one of the things we`re actually going to be trying to figure out tonight is the absence factor. Tomorrow the government will just shutdown right in time for Christmas which will result in the sudden furloughing of tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of workers and the grinding to a halt the big parts of what the federal government does. They will try to pass something in the Senate tomorrow to avert that.

But members of Congress, and even senators have been fleeing this town today like shoplifters running from a loud check-out alarm. And so, one of the things we actually have to mathematically factor in here is whether or not, there will still be enough of them around to cast the votes that will keep the government open, provided that they can agree on something that they`d like to vote on.

So, like I said, a lot going on. We are going to need a lot of help tonight figuring out what`s going on here with a lot of these different stories that are evolving. What is going on with the shutdown which frankly is now imminent? What`s happening with the defense secretary resigning in protest, giving the stated reasons for his resignation, given what appears to be the immediate precipitating event here, which appears to have been President Trump`s unilateral Twitter announcement that all U.S. troops will immediately leave Syria?

One of the things we`re going to need expert help on tonight with regard to that story is whether Secretary Mattis resigning -- and resigning in this way, might be expected to cause a greater standoff of some kind between the president and the U.S. military. So, we`re going to get help on that tonight from an excellent Pentagon based reporter who is right here. We`re going to be speaking with her in a moment.

But also we`re going to be talking with a presidential historian who is looking at what ace precedent there is in our history for this kind of thing, and what that might tell us about the prospects for some sort of more dramatic split between the defense department and the president. Does that end up pulling a little bit at the constitutional seams between our military and our civilian government?

And I don`t mean to just jump right on it too abruptly, but one of the things that is now in the foreground and not at all in the background of all of this news is the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, today praising President Trump for his announcement that he would pull U.S. troops out of Syria immediately. Vladimir Putin, of course, thinks that Syria should be Russia`s outpost in the Middle East and everybody else should butt out and leave them to it. Today, at his annual press conference, one a year whether he needs it or not, today, President Putin praised President Trump for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria.

But it was interesting. As soon as he was asked about that decision by President Trump to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, the way he responded was by praising that decision, but then immediately pivoting.

He said, well, basically, you know, we think it`s good news. We`re happy that he is pulling out of Syria. We`ll believe it when we see it, though. The United States has been in Afghanistan for 17 years and they always say they`re withdrawing there. That was his pivot today.

Within hours, "The Wall Street Journal" was first to report that President Trump has also ordered about half the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, about 7,000 troops, home right now, within weeks. Another sudden announcement today on top of the sudden announcement yesterday about the unilateral and complete withdrawal from Syria.

So, we`re going to have a leading member of the Foreign Relations Committee here to talk about that in just a moment. But this all does come in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration also announcing the relaxing of sanctions on a key Russian oligarch who is linked closely with the Kremlin. That oligarch`s company, which is the second largest aluminum company in the world, has been sanctioned by the U.S. government because of Russia`s behavior towards Ukraine, among other issues. That second largest aluminum company in the world will now no longer be sanctioned by the U.S. government. They are being released from those sanctions, which, of course, will be a boon to the Russian economy. That is a huge Russian company.

But the way the sanctions deal was lifted, the oligarch himself, Oleg Deripaska, he`s the same Putin-linked oligarch to whom Trump campaign chair Manafort offered private briefings. Mr. Deripaska will be allowed to divest, essentially, from his aluminum companies so the companies can shed these U.S. sanctions. But the way he`s going to divest from his aluminum companies is by shifting his shares to a Russian state owned bank that is controlled by the Kremlin, and that is a bank called VTB.

And that is the bank that was reportedly the financing agent for Trump Tower Moscow, the Russian real estate deal about which the president`s personal lawyer just pled guilty for lying to Congress about it. The same Russian real estate deal that prosecutors said extended well into the presidential election campaign while the president lied about it and kept secret that he was pursuing that deal. It`s a deal that prosecutors now say could have netted the president`s company hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources.

So, these things are -- these things are all just happening at the same time. The same day the president announces that, surprise, the U.S. is pulling out of Syria and leaving it to Russia after all, he drops sanctions on the Russian oligarch associated with his convicted felon campaign chairman in a deal made possible by the Kremlin-controlled Russian bank that was in line to provide the financing for his secret deal in Russia that he was working on throughout the campaign that could have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars to him.

And then the day after that, the president of Russia says, yes, that`s good about Syria, but you know what, you may want to get out of Afghanistan, too. And within hours, the president announced that, too. And now, the defense secretary has resigned in protest, and -- and -- and, well, the government`s likely going to shut down tomorrow. But on top of that, if you think that the pressure on the president over the Russia issue may be driving any of this, driving the president`s behavior and decisions as president, maybe driving the stress in the White House about the investigation into the Russia matter and what it may turn up and what kind of pressure it may put on the president and his family, today on top of all of it or maybe intrinsic to all of it, today was also the day that they really just made their move in the Justice Department.

Now, you may have followed the twists and turns of this over the course of the day today, but rather than go through the ways this story changed over the course of the day and how the Justice Department put out an initial exculpatory story and then had to retract it and later put out the real story after anonymous officials corrected the record about what really happened, after going through what was a very weird day today in terms of the Justice Department letting out this information, where we have ended up is serious, and actually just to sum it up, what I`m going to do is read you the lead that was just posted tonight by the excellent reporter Charlie Savage at "The New York Times" because I think he actually -- he nuts this up pretty perfectly after a twisty day on the story.

Quote: Matthew Whitaker, who was installed as acting attorney by President Trump, has cleared himself to supervise the special counsel`s investigation, rejecting the recommendation of career Justice Department ethics specialists that he recuse himself. The development came soon after the disclosure about the president`s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, had written a memo this spring in which he strongly criticized one of the main lines of inquiry by the special counsel Robert Mueller, whether Mr. Trump had committed obstruction of justice. The disclosure of the memo raised questions about whether Barr would order Mueller to shutdown that component of the inquiry if the Senate confirms Barr as attorney general.

Together, the developments underscored the potential threats to Mr. Mueller`s ability to complete his work without interference at a time when his inquiry appears to be drawing closer to the White House and to the president`s most trusted associates. Charlie Savage then quotes Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, who said today, quote, it is becoming pretty clear that the president is basing his choices for leadership at the Justice Department on candidates criticism of the Mueller investigation. We can all see what`s happening here.

So, buckle up. It has been a day. At the rate things are going, it may be a night as well. We are going to be joined by the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House tonight, as well as make sense and put in context some of these major new developments.

But on the issue of the Russia investigation, after a rip roaring couple of weeks of very dramatic courtroom developments driven by the special counsel, the mask did sort of get ripped off today in terms of how the president intends to try to get at the special counsel`s investigation from inside the Justice Department. Simultaneously, the Russian government has just gotten a huge series of very, very, very expensive gifts from the president in very quick succession, including at least one that was so expensive, it cost him the resignation of his defense secretary tonight.

And so, let`s start there with expert help. Joining us is Courtney Kube, NBC News national security reporter.

Courtney, thank you for being here.


MADDOW: So, what`s going on? How is your day, pretty normal?

KUBE: Yes, holiday shopping.

MADDOW: Is there any question about why Secretary Mattis resigned tonight? Is there any ambiguity if he jumped or was pushed?

KUBE: No. I mean, defense officials are saying he was not pushed out, that this was his decision. And there have really been a series of decisions that have been made by the president recently that have been counter to Secretary Mattis` advice. Throughout the course of Secretary Mattis` time at the Pentagon actually, there have been a lot of decisions, but the ones most recently have been the most egregious for Mattis, and those were choosing General Milley, Mark Milley to be the chairman against Secretary Mattis` advice. That was earlier this month.

MADDOW: Is that such an important issue to him because he was strongly against Milley or he feels it was disrespectful for the president to reject his choice of somebody else?

KUBE: I mean, it was a combination of both. I mean, the president has the authority. It`s his decision who he wants to nominate. But usually they take the secretary of defense`s advice pretty seriously. In this case, Secretary Mattis really wanted General Goldstein, Air Force chief of staff, rather than General Milley. So, that started the month out.

Then there came the surprise Syria announcement, which actually was over the course of the last week or so, this was a discussion. President Trump has wanted to take troops out of Syria for sometime. He didn`t hide that in the spring when he wanted to.

Secretary Mattis, along with others, were able to change his mind on that. Well, they started talking about it again. What was particularly surprising was how it came out and the fact that President Trump decided to take all troops out in search a quick and rapid succession. And then that, of course, comes, you know, 24 hours later, we heard the Pentagon asked for plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.

MADDOW: Within weeks, 7,000 troops.

KUBE: Within weeks. It would be -- it`s not clear. Nothing has been decided, but the fact that they are asking for the series of plans, it sure seems like the president has decided he wants to go down in the number of troops there. When I was in Afghanistan in October, I got a real sense that there is a limited time that they have to keep this 14,000 to 15,000 that are there right now.

It seems like the most likely next course of action would be more of a counterterror force. That would be they`re going after al Qaeda, and ISIS Khurasan and Taliban and whatnot and less of a focus on the training mission which, of course, as we heard in Secretary Mattis` resignation letter tonight, the training mission is the NATO mission.

That`s the partner mission that Secretary Mattis keeps going to the NATO allies and saying, this is why we need to stay in this mission. We need more money. We need to fund the training. So if the U.S. is going to pull out of that as well, you know --

MADDOW: So, I mean, when I was -- when I was reacting like everybody to this news, from Secretary Mattis, immediately read the resignation letter, saw the way he articulated this. But just sort of jotting notes to myself, all right, what are all the things on which we`ve seen Secretary Mattis either explicitly or implicitly disagree with the president on?

I mean, it`s the stuff you mention, but it`s everything from the president talking smack about NATO and talking down NATO, right? The president wanting a military parade in Washington, D.C., ban on transgender soldiers, the Iran deal, that`s weird space force debacle. I mean, just last month he told the president no on sending -- on arming the U.S. troops sent to the border.

KUBE: Yes.

MADDOW: To basically enforce immigration issues.

I mean, is this cumulative? You`re talking about what was particularly important about the Joint Chiefs decision and the Syria decision, and now the Afghanistan decision has happened in the wake of this. I see why those would be key issues for him. But, essentially, is this a pile of things that grew too large or were those qualitatively different issues?

KUBE: So, these are specific security issues. The ban on transgender service members, having a parade, I think these are things that Secretary Mattis had an opinion on but he wasn`t willing to go to bat with him to the point of having to resign.

MADDOW: Having a confrontation over them?

KUBE: Exactly.

MADDOW: Slow walk down --


KUBE: He totally did. There were other ones, too. I mean, there were ones that weren`t as well reported, like when President Trump wanted to pull all dependents off the Korean peninsula. Secretary Mattis just slow rolled that.

But in this case, if you look at Syria, there are 2000 ISIS fighters left in Syria. They`re in a relatively small pocket. In the next couple months, the Syrian Democratic forces in the U.S. could probably have cleaned that out. So, why now?


KUBE: All this -- what this does right now is it leaves them there, and the potential for them to maybe to grow, maybe to be able to start, inspiring attacks outside the region, in the U.S., in Europe, something like that. That`s one of the big concerns.

But then there is also the concern that this is going against the Syrian Democratic forces, the YPG, the Arabs who have been fighting there, who have been consistent strong partner to the U.S. and the coalition and this is abandoning them.

MADDOW: With Mattis leaving the way he`s leaving and leaving over these issues as you are describing them, do you think it`s possible that this may precipitate some wider break or additional resignation or some bigger confrontation or chasm between the White House and Pentagon?

KUBE: So, one of the things I asked about when I heard about this, after the shock wore off. Does this mean we`re going to see general officers resign as well?

MADDOW: That`s exactly --

KUBE: So, imagine if you`re the commander of operation Iraqi -- Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the Iraq and Syria mission. And you`re pulling all of your troops out and you`re building this ally you`re spending time with. You know, imagine if you`re head of CentCom right now, you know?

So, I wouldn`t be surprised. I hadn`t heard about anything. But that`s really the next big thing that I`m looking for is, are we going to see military resignations over this.

MADDOW: Yes, yes.

NBC News national security reporter Courtney Kube, thank you.

First of all, I want to say thank you for being on camera. Thank you also for being such help to me and my producers every damn day that we cover stuff and call you for your help in understanding this stuff. Thank you.

KUBE: The best team. I love you, guys.

MADDOW: Senator Chris Murphy is going to be joining us live in just a moment. Stay with us.



SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: There is chaos now in this administration. This week was one of the most chaotic weeks we`ve ever seen in American government, and amazingly they want to close the week -- President Trump does -- by shutting down the government. Shutting down the government.

Now, we all know that Secretary Mattis had real disagreements with the president on Syria and on the wall. Some have speculated that the president was going to demand that he start building a wall, which he knows he can`t do by law, and maybe that`s one of the reasons he stepped down.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER-DESIGNATE: You have leaders, great leaders who have left the administration in dismay, and the rest of them have left in disgrace. That`s what this administration has been about.

We don`t want to be fearmongers in terms of our country. This great country can withstand just about anything, but it shouldn`t have to. It shouldn`t have to.

So -- yes, I am shaken by the resignation of General Mattis for what it means to our country, for the message it sends to our troops, and for the indication of what his view is of the commander in chief.


MADDOW: Tonight, in reaction to the surprise resignation of the Defense Secretary James Mattis, you heard their remarks from New York Senator Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democrats in the Senate, and from Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the House.

Tonight, in reaction to that Resignation, I will tell you that one of the leading lights on foreign policy in his party, Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, was even more blunt about it. He said this tonight in response. Quote: A secretary of defense quitting over a public disagreement with a president whose foreign policy he believes has gone off the rails is a national security crisis. No way around it.

Joining us now is Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator, I really appreciate you being here tonight.


MADDOW: I imagine that you might have thought that you`d be home by now. But that`s not happening.

MURPHY: Yes, Congress.

MADDOW: I have to -- I want to talk to you about Secretary Mattis` resignation, I want to talk to you about your very blunt remarks on this. I do have to ask you, tomorrow, the Senate is due to convene at noon to vote on a bill that will or won`t keep the government going.

MURPHY: Right.

MADDOW: Are senators all here or haven`t a lot of them left?

MURPHY: Many senators have already left. My friend Brian Schatz landed in Hawaii about an hour ago, he`s getting on a red eye to come back to vote tomorrow by noon.

MADDOW: He got all the way to Hawaii, said hi, and then said aloha, and then turn around?

MURPHY: Turn around and coming back.

Right, because Vice President Pence came to the Republican Caucus yesterday and told the Republican senators that the president was going to sign this continuing resolution. So we all left last night, thinking that the job had been done temporarily. Now, we are going to vote tomorrow on a continuing resolution with $5 billion for a wall that will not have the votes to pass in the Senate. The government will shutdown and it will be - - McConnell and Ryan`s decision is what to do next.

MADDOW: You say that with confidence, the bill with the $5 billion for the wall, that it definitely won`t pass.

MURPHY: It can`t pass. I don`t know it will get a single Democratic vote. And the president and the Republicans in the House have known that for a long time, which is why Mitch McConnell moved this continuing resolution -- a clean continuing resolution earlier this week.

MADDOW: So, is there an effort to put together something else that might be able to attract Democratic votes, or this is it, this is the one idea they have, and you`re telling me right now there`s no way it will pass?

MURPHY: So, this certainly won`t pass. We have always been open to having a conversation about a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that would get tough on the border and solve all of the other lingering problems in the system. Or a budget agreement that has some additional money for a border security, but certainly not money for a wall that no one in this country wants, not least of which the people that actually live along the border.

But that conversation would have been nice to have been had last week or a few days ago. It`s just absolutely insane, cruel and hurtful to all the people who rely on the federal government and those jobs to be having the conversation literally with hours to go before shutdown.

MADDOW: You would put the percentage of likelihood of a shutdown at 100 percent?

MURPHY: Ninety-five percent. I think it`s tough to pull a rabbit out of the hat given where we are right now.

MADDOW: Let me ask you about the surprise resignation of Secretary Mattis. It was a surprise to me, although I, like everybody, have read all the news and been aware of the issues on which he disagrees with the president. This seems to, reporting seems to indicate Courtney Kube, our Pentagon reporter this does seem to be in reaction to the announcement on Twitter about the pull out from Syria.

Were you surprised by this, and why do you think this is such a serious matter that you actually called it a national security crisis?

MURPHY: I`m certainly surprised by it, in part, because Mattis has weathered all sorts of substantial disagreements and reckless behavior from this president. So it does beg the question if he was willing to go out there and defend the Muslim ban or sending troops to the border as an election year stunt, why was this the thing that broke the camel`s back?

That being said, it is a national security crisis because this was one of the last people close to the president on national security matters who was willing to tell him no when he was doing something truly reckless. Two, it exposes this enormous rift between the Department of Defense, its personnel, and the president of the United States. I still haven`t found the last secretary of defense to resign in protest.

MADDOW: Right. Some have been fired, but resigning in protest over a president`s -- well, yes.

MURPHY: And in public protest, right? Sending a letter which very clearly delineates the places where the president`s national security has gone off the rails. And then finally, and not insignificantly, we`ve left an ally in the lurch. I wasn`t somebody who supported sending the 2,000 troops there. But once you`ve made the commitment to protect the Kurds, once the Turks have told you that they are maybe a week away from going after the Kurds, it sends a bone chilling message to our other allies around the world to leave with no plan for what to do instead.

MADDOW: Why do you think the president did it now? Obviously, the president -- I mean, to be absolutely fair about this, he talked about wanting to get troops home from all sorts of places all over the world. He talked about not understanding the rationale for lots and lots of overseas deployments.

And so, he`s been, in general, been inclined to talk about bringing people home. Why do you think this announcement was made by this president right now?

MURPHY: Yes, who knows, right? It may be the mental state of the president.

It also may have to do with the impending offensive from the Turks. Remember, many of us were very worried that 2000 troops was simply insufficient to stop a Turkish force from doing what they said they wanted to do for a long time, which is wipe out what they perceive to be a terrorist group. They`re not a terrorist group, the Kurds, but that`s what the Turks perceive.

Apparently, the president had a conversation with the leader of Turkey, Erdogan, where he was given notice that this offensive was coming. It may not be coincidence that he`s pulling the troops out after having been given this notice.

MADDOW: That`s a crazy dynamic. A president of a foreign country says we are planning on attacking your allies where you have 2,000 troops. The response of the United States is, we better get out of the way then?

MURPHY: And why have been there the last two years. I mean, the whole rationale given to us we are putting these troops in in part to send that message to Turkey not to do this and make good on a promise we made to the Kurds when we asked them to take on ISIS, that we would take care of them on the back end. And so, right at the moment when the check is coming due from the Kurds, it`s a very curious and very dangerous moment to walk ought.

Again, I`m not somebody that thought it was a good idea in the first place, but once you`ve made that commitment, you`ve got to follow through on that commitment in some way, shape or form.

MADDOW: Do you find it unnerving the president of Russia praising the decision today in the way that he did?

MURPHY: Of course. Of course, we have handed over American foreign policy to the Kremlin in a number of different ways. This is just one element of that. I will say, to back out from all of this, I have always believed that the ultimate resolution of this was going to be Bashar al-Assad winning, and the Iranians and the Russians being back in control of that country. And we have been faking it in Syria for a very long time, pretending as if we were going to be able to create some alignment in which America was going to have our interests at the center piece of policy out of Damascus.

That was never going to be the case. And so while I don`t like Putin crowing about a victory in Syria, I also know that he was going to have a big -- and is going to have a big say in the future role of what happens in Syria.

MADDOW: We all have to worry about how much of a say he has and what our government does on all sorts of issues.

Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, I`m sorry that you are at work this week and still here, but I understand. Keep us apprised over the next 24 hours. I know it`s going to be dramatic.

MURPHY: Will do.

MADDOW: All right. Much more to get to tonight. Stay with us.


MADDOW: Late last night, we got the news that the president`s nominee for attorney general, Bill Barr, sent an unsolicited 20-page memo to the Justice Department a few months ago railing against what`s believed to be a key portion of the special counsel`s investigation. The obstruction of justice part of what we believe that Robert Mueller is looking into when it comes to the president. Of course, if he was confirmed as attorney general, Bill Barr would become the overseer of the Mueller investigation in all of its parts.

This memo declaring that he thinks that part of the investigation is a terrible idea means, at base, Mr. Barr has prejudged that element of the case. Makes it a little hard to imagine him being put in charge of overseeing the investigation since that would imply the president could very well have put him in that job specifically so that he would undermine, at least, that part of the investigation.

Then we got news this morning about the former cable TV pundit, former U.S. attorney who is currently keeping the attorney general seat warm as acting attorney general, the news is that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, he did consult ethics officials at the Justice Department over whether he needs to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller probe while he`s acting attorney general because of the many times he has argued publicly against it. Now, this story evolved a little bit over the course of today, what it eventually turns out to be in terms of our best understanding of the reporting is that Mr. Whitaker consulted with ethics officials at the Justice Department. They advised him that on this matter, he should likely recuse to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. He then decided that he would not ask them for a formal advisory opinion as to whether or not he should recuse, and then he decided that he would not recuse.

Just in the last few hours, the Justice Department sent a letter over to Congress explaining some of this. The explanation came in the form of this letter tonight from Assistant Attorney General Steven Boyd at the Justice Department from their office of legislative affairs. It says the acting attorney general received briefings on the applicable ethics rules and regulations from senior Department of Justice ethics officials. The acting attorney general met with and provided relevant information to the department senior career ethics officials in the office of the deputy attorney general.

The office of deputy attorney general ethics official advised that Mr. Whitaker`s supervision of the investigation should be reviewed. Ethics officials concluded that after considering all the relevant facts, there wasn`t a personal or political relationship between the Acting Attorney General Whitaker and any person requiring recusal under one section of the ethics rules.

However, Mr. Whitaker made public comments prior to rejoining that could constitute specifically other than those described in the ethics roles which raise an appearance of impartiality issue. Having been so advised, he then decided that he would not recuse.

So this letter to Congress tonight from the Justice Department spells out a little bit about what happened here. But the bottom line, as far as we understand it, is that the president`s choice for acting attorney general, despite advice to recuse, has decided that he won`t. And the president`s likely nominee to be attorney general is already on the record saying that he, basically, objects to a core issue within the Mueller investigation. This seems like sort of dramatic turn of events.

Congressman Jerry Nadler is the top Democrat right now on the Judiciary Committee, and he will be the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee when the new Congress convenes in the new year.

Congressman Nadler joins us live now.

Sir, thank you very much for being here.


MADDOW: So, I feel like this story about Acting Attorney General Whitaker changed a lot over the course of the day. The early headlines suggested that he had been told by ethics officials that he did not need to recuse. That later appeared to be contradicted by anonymous Justice Department officials who went to reporters today to say, no, he actually said he did not want an opinion after he`d been advised that he should recuse.

What do you make of this?

NADLER: What I make of this is the professionals, the career people at the department obviously told him that there is an appearance of impropriety problem here and he must recuse. He didn`t want to do that. I assume the president didn`t want him to do that. He`s there -- remember, the president got rid of sessions specifically because he recused himself. He didn`t want someone else who would recuse himself. So that they came up with a political -- political people came up with an explanation, and they had to try to explain the earlier instructions, and this is what they came up with.

Now, the fact is that we have always suspected that he was put there as a hatchet man to undermine the Mueller investigation. Chairman Cummings, chairman to be Cummings of the Oversight and Investigation Committee and I had a telephone conversation with Whitaker a few weeks ago in which he did agree to come in and testify before our joint -- a joint hearing of our committees in January. He`s been backtracking on that.

We are sending him a letter tomorrow demanding that he come in in January as he had promised he would.

MADDOW: He agreed to you overtly and now is rescinding the promise?

NADLER: He didn`t rescind, but they cannot find a date. They cannot find a time. They`re backtracking on it.

So we`re sending a letter tomorrow morning demanding that they set up a date and a time in January. And if not, being the majority, we`ll have ways of compelling that. And obviously, this is among the major questions we have to look at because the number one priority is to protect the integrity of the Mueller investigation.

MADDOW: If he is defying ethics advice from the career ethics officials at the Justice Department -- and those are serious, folks, and they`re not partisans, and they`re not people who make decisions on the basis of political whims. If he is defying that advice and sort of trying to evade that advice by not asking them for a formal opinion, taking an indication from them they are advising him to recuse and therefore saying I don`t want you to give me an opinion about it, is that improper? Is that something that he should be held accountable for by your committee and oversight?

NADLER: It is something he should be held accountable for. It is very improper because we have ethics officials and we have rules for this purpose, to prevent conflicts of interest and to assure the American public that they get dispassionate justice, especially in the Justice Department.

MADDOW: Uh-huh. In terms of the president`s, I guess nominee designate to be the new attorney general, we also got what to me was very surprising news about him having declared his position on an important part of what we believe the Mueller investigation is looking into. I`d like to get your reaction to that news about Bill Barr right after the break, if you don`t mind.

See, that was a little cable news trick.


MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back with Jerry Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. We`ll be right back.


MADDOW: Joining us once again is Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York. He`s the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a House congressman.

Thank you for staying with us.

NADLER: Pleasure.

MADDOW: It has been a remarkable day. The surprise resignation of the defense secretary tonight has obviously taken I think the whole world by surprise. We also -- the early part of the day today was dominated by revelations out of the Justice Department, which, of course, you will be -- you will have oversight responsibility for as chairman judiciary. The president`s apparent nominee to run the Justice Department post-Jeff Sessions and post -- Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker has written a 20-page memo criticizing aspects of the Mueller investigation, or what he believes are aspects --

NADLER: Criticizing the scope of the investigation, saying that they should not be looking into the question of obstruction of justice because the president has ever right to, under the Constitution, to fire Comey, to do various other things which he did, but legally that`s nonsense. Of course, he has the right to fire the FBI director and do various other things, but not for improper motives.

MADDOW: Uh-huh.

NADLER: Not for corrupt motives, not for the motive of shutting an investigation against himself. That`s obstruction of justice.

MADDOW: The president has appointed Mr. Barr or will nominate, we are told, Mr. Barr to the attorney general position. Senator Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate said he should pick a nominee. That this memo is disqualifying on its -- on substantive grounds because of the arguments made here.

Do you agree?

NADLER: I totally agree. He`s making the argument that you can`t -- essentially that you can`t investigate any president for obstruction of justice, that no president can conduct obstruction of justice as long as what he does for the obstruction of justice are legal acts, like firing -- like firing Comey or firing the special prosecutor by Nixon. It doesn`t matter, as long as it`s a legal act to do, he can`t be guilty of obstruction of justice which is a nonsensical argument and takes the whole question off the table. If you had that argument, Richard Nixon would have been fine.

And he`s totally prejudiced the investigation. He can`t be the one who will decide whether Mueller is allowed to prosecute for obstruction of justice. He can`t be the one who is allowed to decide whether Mueller`s report is made public or given to Congress because he`s totally prejudiced.

But then again, anybody the president will appoint at this point, I assume, will be appointed for the purpose of shutting down or prejudicing that investigation. And that was proven by the fact that he got rid of Sessions whose only sin from his point of view, was that he recused himself.

MADDOW: What can be done to protect the investigation, given what seems more bare today in terms of recognizing the president`s intention to try to get at the investigation, to try to get at the special counsel from inside the Justice Department? Obviously, legislation has gone nowhere.

NADLER: Legislation has gone nowhere. We can try again, which we will. That`s number one.

Number two, the attorney general should not be -- the attorney general nominee should not be confirmed because he`s someone who was put there for the purpose of shutting down or damaging the investigation. Number three, if necessary, there are actions we can take. For example, if Mueller should issue a report and give it to the attorney general and the attorney general, instead of giving it to Congress or making public decides to pocket it, we can subpoena it. Or we can simply invite Mueller to come testify and ask in front of the committee, what was in your report?

MADDOW: If the southern district of New York or, indeed, the special counsel`s office or any other empowered prosecutor anywhere in the country decides to test the office of legal counsel, advice that the president can`t be indicted, let`s say the Southern District of New York decided that the president should be charged with the same felonies that Michael Cohen pled guilty to because the prosecutors laid out evidence in his charging documents that suggested that the president was equally involved, as much involved in those felonies as Michael Cohen was.

What do you -- how would that be adjudicated? What would be your view on a U.S. attorney trying to do that?

NADLER: Well, my view would be that the U.S. attorney would be doing the right thing. I think that the OLC decision that the president cannot be indicted no matter what he does is a deeply un-American decision. We rebelled against the king of England because we said no one should be above the law.

Most Americans we know shouldn`t be allowed the law. Not the king. Not the president. The framers, if you read the debate of the constitutional convention were worried the office of the president should not become a king.

There is language in the Constitution giving certain immunities, congressman cannot be arrested going to and from -- Congress cannot be held accountable for what they say on the floor and so forth. If the framers had wanted to make the president immune from indictment, they would have said so in the Constitution, as they say in these other cases. So it places the president above the law. And that`s wrong. No one should be above the law.

MADDOW: So you take issue with those OLC memos. They are controlling policy at the Justice Department.

NADLER: They are.

MADDOW: Do you intend to interrogate that?

NADLER: What we can do about it is another question. I would certainly, we`re going to introduce -- there is another question, by the way. If a president committed a crime and you can`t indict him because he`s president, he may be immune because of the statute of limitations may run. So one thing we`re going to do is introduce legislation that the statute of limitations does not run for anything with respect to a president while the president is president. So he can`t escape prosecution just by being president.

MADDOW: That is a law I cannot imagine President Donald Trump signing.

NADLER: I cannot either, but it is something we ought to do, even for after this. I`d like to get rid of this OLC doctrine altogether.

You asked if they decided to prosecute him nonetheless, then the president presumably would raise the defense in court that a president is unindictable and the courts would decide that question.

MADDOW: Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee -- sir, thank you. Much appreciated.

NADLER: Thank you.

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


MADDOW: Tonight, we`ve got the dramatic news that Defense Secretary James Mattis has not only resigned, he has resigned in protest of the president`s behavior and beliefs on the treatment of U.S. allies, and whether or not the president is clear clear-eyed toward malign actors as -- like China or Russia as suggested by Secretary Mattis.

Now, one of the things that is remarkable about this, that`s the first member of the president`s cabinet, in fact, the first senior person within the Trump administration to resign in protest of President Trump. But Secretary Mattis has gone out of his way to make sure that he knows and that we all know that this was not a firing, this was a resignation and he has published his resignation letter tonight, so we all know the grounds on which he left.

Joining us now is presidential historian Michael Beschloss, NBC`s own presidential historian.

Michael, thank you for being here.


MADDOW: So, defense secretaries and presidents sometimes go their separate ways. Has this happened this way before?

BESCHLOSS: No, this is a historical event. We`ve had secretaries of state resigned in protest.


BESCHLOSS: William Jennings Bryant, 1915, thought Wilson was too war-like, Cyrus Vance in 1980 disagreed with Carter`s Iran hostage rescue military mission. But we have never seen a secretary of defense say, I am seriously concerned about the president`s ideas and his national security policy, so much so that I cannot be a part of this any more.

MADDOW: I was struck by just seeing the letter, just as an artifact, right, thinking about talking to you about this as a historian. We have what`s a Photostat of the letter at this point, released by the Pentagon, not released by the White House, which to me is an act by this man who is still the secretary of defense, he says he would like to remain in office until the end of February. And he`s making sure his agency puts this out - -


MADDOW: -- not trusting the White House to release it or put out their own statement about it. To me, that puts a harder angle, what he wants to be the public reception of this decision.

BESCHLOSS: Totally. And especially because the president in his tweet said he`ll be retiring, and Mattis wanted to make it very clear that this is no retirement. This is something much more important.

MADDOW: In terms of the knock-on effects here, one of the prized and worryingly fragile things about our constitutional inheritance is the relationship between our professional military and the civilian leaders who control what they do.


MADDOW: And that is a precious balance that we have in this country. You look at any other country inn the world to see how it goes a different way, nobody does it quite like we do.


MADDOW: Do you -- when presidents and secretaries of defense have had trouble in the past, has it ever precipitated larger troubles between the defense department and the White House, between civilian leadership and the military?

BESCHLOSS: A little bit. You know, at the end of Nixon, just before he resigned, James Schlesinger, secretary of defense famously gave an order quietly that if Nixon does anything strange, like mobilize the 101st Airborne to save himself, you have to come to me for a counter order.

MADDOW: Did Nixon know he had done that?

BESCHLOSS: Only found it out later on and was really angry.


BESCHLOSS: Little things like that.

MADDOW: Little things like call me if he calls the 101st Airborne.

BESCHLOSS: Exactly. You know, my operators are on 24 hours a day. But what scares me is we do not know what things James Mattis has prevented Trump from doing over the last two years, and we as Americans have to demand that who ever replaces him is not a lapdog and the model of the Justice Department is not very reassuring here. Donald Trump may want a secretary of defense who`s going to be compliant and easy to dominate. That would be a very scary thing for our democracy.

MADDOW: Michael Beschloss, NBC News presidential historian, we don`t bring you in like awesome day --


BESCHLOSS: Everyone says that, I`m so nervous, what is it now.

Wonderful to see you.

MADDOW: Thank you, my friend. Thank you.

All right. That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow. I swear tomorrow will be way more normal.

But now it`s time for "THE LAST WORD" with Ali Velshi, sitting for Lawrence tonight.

Good evening, Ali.