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Congress scrambles. TRANSCRIPT: 12/21/2018, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Mazie Hirono, Julie Cohen

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: December 21, 2018 Guest: Mazie Hirono, Julie Cohen


Good evening, Rachel. And I want you to have a great holiday.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thank you very much.

HAYES: Wherever -- wherever you`re doing it, however you`re celebrating, whatever you`re celebrating.

MADDOW: Thank you very much.

Are you getting some family time?

HAYES: I am -- I`m very excited. Christmas with kids it`s like super -- kicks it up a notch.

MADDOW: Well, overall, also, you have like kind of a passel of kids --


HAYES: We`re at 15, so it`s going to be sort of interesting.

MADDOW: I was going to say -- I`m sending you just over some, you know, like bread and food stuffs and basic stuff to get through the day. Good luck, my friend. I`ll see you next weeks. Thanks.

All right. Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Very happy to have you with us.

Let us start with a simple thing. Let us start with a news development that is almost pure in its simplicity and it`s straightforwardness and it`s clear crystal clear implications for what should happen and what likely will happen next as an -- I find this comforting. As a news story, this is just kind of perfect, the way like a pecan pie is perfect or sunrise, right?

All right. Today, this news story I have found has been sort of my order in the midst of chaos you ready to be calmed yourself with me right now? All right.

Right now, the White House chief of staff is John Kelly. He is the second White House chief of staff in less than two years. He replaced the first one, Reince Priebus, but now, Mr. Kelly has also been fired just as Reince Priebus was. And so, now, a third White House chief of staff will be coming in soon. John Kelly is expected to leave his post in January.

You know, when he initially took over his job, you may remember he came over from the Department of Homeland Security, where Trump had appointed him to be homeland security secretary. When he left homeland security and came over to the White House to be chief of staff, he brought with him a young staffer who had worked with him very closely at Homeland Security. His name is Zach Fuentes.

And Zach Fuentes is 36 years old and when John Kelly left Homeland Security, became the new White House chief of staff, he brought Zach Fuentes with him, and he gave Zach Fuentes a really good job. Mr. Fuentes became deputy White House chief of staff, which sounds like a big deal. That is a big job in its own right.

But because of the way Zach Fuentes got the deputy chief of staff job because of his close association with John Kelly, now that John Kelly has been fired, there is a widespread expectation that Deputy Chief of Staff Zach Fuentes will also have to go, too.

See, this is all very simple, right? This is like a placid news story. It`s almost normal. Even when the scandal part kicks in, it`s still kind of a normal scandal. It`s at least a very knowable, very simple scandal.

According to "The New York Times" today, even though there have been these widespread expectations that Zach Fuentes would leave the administration when John Kelly does next month, Mr. Fuentes has apparently been working on an alternate plan. Quote: Mr. Fuentes told colleagues that after his mentor John F. Kelly left his job as chief of staff at the end of the year, he would, quote, hide out at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House for six months.

Why would the deputy White House chief of staff want to hide at the Eisenhower executive office building and specifically for six months? Well, it turns out the timing here is crucial.

According to "The Times, Mr. Fuentes wanted to hide out for six months, quote, remaining on the payroll in a nebulous role, meaning he wouldn`t have much work to do, but then, quote, in July, after his six months of hiding out, he would hit his 15-year benchmark for his service in the Coast Guard, because while Mr. Fuentes has been serving as deputy White House chief of staff, he has also been an active duty coast guard officer. And if this plan of his worked, if he could successfully hide out and stay on the payroll even if he didn`t really have a job for six more months after John Kelly leaves in January, that would put Zach Fuentes on track to hit the 15-year mark at the Coast Guard, and that would allow him to, quote, take advantage of an early retirement program at the Coast Guard.

And it might have worked. He might have been able to like burling to the paneling somewhere and stay on the payroll for six months with nobody noticing that his mentor and his boss was gone and he was no longer doing anything if he could just hit that 15-year benchmark essentially vest into the retirement at the Coast Guard, he could retire at the age of 37, boom, right? Excellent.

There was just one problem though with this plan. Quote: The program referred to as temporary early retirement authority had lapsed for coast guard officers at the end of the 2018 fiscal year, which totally screws up this plan, right? It`s one thing if he`s going to burrow in and hide on the payroll for six months, but without this program, he would have to do that for like five years that would be harder.

So, think of -- put yourself in Mr. Fuentes`s shoes. If this was your scam, if this was your plan, what would you do when confronted with this terrible fly in the ointment, that the early retirement program, you were going to take advantage of, you only needed the bridge six months to that early retirement program is gone.

Well, here is apparently what Mr. Fuentes did. Quote: Administration officials say that Mr. Fuentes discussed the early retirement program with officials at the Department of Homeland Security in November.

Quote: Department of Homeland Security officials began pressing Congress to reinstate the early retirement program, and again, it almost worked, just this past month. The Coast Guard, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, they package together a package of small tweaks and changes that they hoped would quietly pass through Congress without any controversy.

These are just little technical matters, just little fixes. You know, put some colons in there that really should be semicolons. We got to go through and clean that up before it`s official law. Well, when it came to the early retirement program, the justification for why the coast guard needed to suddenly revive and reinstate that program was, quote, the need for parity with other armed forces.

Oh, we just need to you know stay equal, I thought of the other armed services are doing here we can`t let this lapse exactly now. The proposed extension of that early retirement program also, also came with what appeared to be a sense of urgency. Quote: They also told the policy writers that there might be an immediate need for the early retirement authority and that it would at most for 10 individuals.

Well, one guy named Zack and then I don`t know, a few up -- maybe just, I don`t know if there`s other guys, maybe him, maybe just him. Apparently, this did not raise any red flags at all with the Republican-controlled Congress. Quote: Representative Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, the retiring chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee accepted the requested changes and this week introduced legislation in the House that would codify them into law.

Psyche. That means he got the retirement program extended. This means Zach is going to get to retire at 37. All he has to do is hide under a desk for six months without anybody noticing he`s on the payroll without a job and then he`s going to get to.

It was on track. Bill Shuster accepted the requested changes this week introduced legislation in the House that would codify them into law. It`s totally going to work until somebody narced out Zach for what he was trying to do.

And so, now, thanks to these meddling "New York Times" reporters asking questions about it, it has all fallen apart. Quote: House lawmakers were preparing to push the package through the chamber on Wednesday, but confronted with questions about the early retirement extension, they decided to pull just that provision to ensure that the rest of the technical changes could become law.

Perhaps my favorite part of all of this is the bullpucky supposed argument about why this changed that the Coast Guard was no big deal and the Coast Guard just needed to extend this little program right away, just for a few officers, just as a technical matter. That argument that they would need to do that was that they needed to have parity with the others -- the other armed services, right, with the other services in the military. Apparently, nobody in Congressman Shuster`s office nor Congressman Shuster himself, nobody Googled that, nobody fact-checked that argument because the Coast Guard reinstating that suite early retirement program turns out would not give them parity with the other services. The U.S. Army in fact ended that exact same program last year and got a whole bunch of headlines for it.

So, when somebody snuck in in the dead of night and said, Coast Guard needs to do this in order to match up with what the Army`s doing, I`m sure that sounded good in theory, but literally just Google it. Just Google it. Google Army early retirement program, and this is what pops up.

Literally these headlines just pop up immediately. Yes, the Army just got rid of that. But apparently, Congressman Shuster`s office didn`t Google it, wasn`t bothered, didn`t see anything wrong with this at all.

So, bottom line, this story in "The New York Times", this scoop from "The Times" is that the White House deputy chief of staff may have been involved in a ham-fisted like county clerk embezzlement style scheme to change U.S. law and the policies of the U.S. Coast Guard just for a minute, just for him, specifically to give himself a sweet early retirement plan and he almost did it, except now he has been caught and this is what counts for beauty right now an American national politics, right, because you can tell this kind of corruption story and like you wouldn`t even need the length of an after-school special.

This one you could just tell as a paid public service announcement, right? In your civics textbook, when you get to the chapter on public corruption subsection self-dealing, this could just be one of those like shaded sidebars in italics. It`s pocket-sized. It`s simple. It`s so tidy. We even know how this one ends.

I mean, I don`t know in this White House if trying to pull off a scam like this amounts to a firing offense. It`s possible in this White House, this is like one of the things you do to prove yourself. You get your bones and then you can move up what you`ve pulled off some sort of scam like this, maybe that`s how they run.

But the Democratic Party is about to take over Congress, which means Republican Congressman Bill Shuster`s House Committee which implicated itself in this scam by almost letting it happen, that committee which is now`s transportation and infrastructure committee, it`s not going to be headed up by Shuster anymore. It`s going to be headed out by a Democratic pit bull named Peter DeFazio, who we contacted for comment today about the story, we have not yet heard back from him but we will let you know if we do.

But if what happened here is in fact a -- you know, pocket-sized platonic ideal of corruption and self dealing from the White House deputy chief of staff, presumably this will be a matter of investigation under that committee when it gets its new leadership in a couple of weeks. Presumably, they will investigate it and fix it and if there is a crime here, they will make a criminal referral for prosecution.

So like this is how I relax now. This is what accounts as like my happy place. It`s like a relaxing, comforting turn in the news these days. It is like people upload it to Twitter like those pictures, those like little GIFs of like hedgehogs eating kernels of corn, it`s like this is the equivalent of that.

Zone out and think about this for a while, oh, garden variety, potentially criminal public corruption at the highest levels of the White House staff. That feels like a place of rest right now, which is telling about what else is going on right now in the news.

I mean, we expected to be getting on the air tonight without a clear story to tell about whether or not the entire federal government was going to shut down at midnight. We expected to be covering this hour ongoing wrangling and negotiations potentially, even last-minute votes. That is not the circumstances that we are in because around dinner time East Coast Time tonight, the Senate just decided -- yes, we all know this thing`s going to shut down anyway, why fight it, why stay up late, we`re old guys?

So they`re technically will be a partial government shutdown that initiates as of midnight tonight when funding for the government runs out. It`s because there is no deal. There is no $5 billion for the president to build a wall or a moat or steel slats or a decorative pergola on the lamp long southern land border between our country and Mexico. There`s none of that. There`s no deal.

Senate`s gone home. The House will convene tomorrow at midday. It is possible that they will then pass something that could shorten the shutdown, which means there are important questions now to ask and to figure out about how long the shutdown is likely to last, but there are really no questions laughs about whether or not we are going to have a shutdown. We will in fact have one and we`re going to be getting the latest news from Capitol Hill both from a senator involved in the process and from an NBC crack congressional reporter coming up shortly.

I will say though that the whole reason we are going through this ridiculous exercise is so the president won`t be embarrassed when he watches the Fox News Channel and they remind him about his campaign promises in which he said he was going to build a wall. I mean, I will just point out that if that`s going to be the basis on which we shut down the federal government, there is this issue that his campaign promise, remember, was technically that Mexico was going to pay for the wall, right?

If this whole fight right now was about whether Mexico was going to shut down their government rather than pay for the wall, that would be relevant to his previous campaign promises on this. He never promised I`m going to build the wall and U.S. taxpayers are going to pay for it and Democrats are going to vote for that. That wasn`t the campaign promise. That wasn`t even what he said he could do.

But the other part of this is that he`s got a new incoming White House chief of staff. I mean, Zach is on his way to burrowing into the paneling for six months but John Kelly, White House chief of staff, is on his way out, supposedly the new guy who`s going to be running the White House staff as of a few days from now is this guy Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, former South Carolina Republican congressman.

Well, it does not signify the kind of commitment and united front and true belief you need to blindly follow a fairly insane, non-rational policy insistence like the one we`re having right now if you`re going to have a White House chief of staff who`s on record saying this about the whole idea of a wall.


PATTI MERCER, WRHI HOST: Donald Trump says build a wall, deport all illegal immigrants. Rules are rules. You either play and stay or you cheat and you get deported.

What challenges does this plan pose?

REP. MIKE MULVANEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: A bunch, I`ve never been in the box car caucus. You know, ship them home in box cars and let the Lord sort them out. The fence is an easy thing to sell politically. It`s an easy thing for a someone who doesn`t follow the issue very closely to say, oh, that`ll just solve everything, build a fence.

But to just say built the darn fence and have that be the end of an immigration discussion is absurd and almost childish for someone running for president to take that simplistic view. It`s easy to tell people what they want to hear, build the darn fence, vote for me. It is pablum that politicians like to feed people in order to tell people what they want to hear they`re trying to get them to vote for them.

MERCER: It seems to me that Donald Trump is trying to really win the emotion, the emotional support of people.

MULVANEY: But just to appeal to somebody`s emotion and say vote for me because I`m as angry as you are doesn`t really solve the problem.


MADDOW: It was a 2015 interview from incoming White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney that was first posted nationally by Andrew Kaczynski at CNN.

If as the president says he`s going to get not just a shutdown, but a big long shutdown of the federal government over this issue of not getting his wall, I think what`s supposed to happen is that in the middle of that shutdown, he`s going to get his new White House chief of staff who is on record saying emphatically while Donald Trump was running for president on the basis of saying that he wanted to build a wall, Mick Mulvaney is on the record saying that this whole idea of building a fence or a wall that Donald Trump was trying to sell to people on emotional terms, he`s out there on the record calling it pablum, calling it absurd and almost childish for somebody running for president to be proposing something that`s simplistic. He`s the guy who`s going to run the White House and organize everything during what the president is hoping and rooting for as to be a long shutdown specifically over the issue of him not getting his wall.

But the shutdown is going to happen. Our closest allies around the world spent the day reeling in response to these surprise protests resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis last night. The United States Supreme Court today, a five to four ruling brushed back President Trump on one of his policy changes that was designed to make it impossible for anyone to seek asylum in this country. On a normal day, the big headline about that Supreme Court ruling would be that Chief Justice John Roberts joined the more liberal judges on the court to come up with that 5-4 majority.

But today, the real headline out of that ruling other than the ruling itself is that liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had to cast that vote just before she went into the hospital for surgery today. She is 85 years old. We will have more on that coming up.

But on days like this one it feels like the foundations are all shaky, I firmly believe we can take comfort in the little things, right? Like a nutshell bowl, case study style, self-dealing, self-enrichment, public corruption scam, old school style, involving the deputy White House chief of staff. That makes sense, right? I know how that ends.

In terms of order and the rule of law and things proceeding one foot in front of the other, in terms of how our government operates, you should also know that even if the government does shut down for an extended period starting tonight, law enforcement doesn`t shut down. At the federal level, law enforcement is considered a critical and essential function, you should also know that as a specific matter, the special counsel`s office within the Justice Department, Robert Mueller and his prosecutors, their office will also not shut down in a federal government shutdown.

It`s been a whole bunch of interesting court filings related to the Mueller probe today. I will tell you we`re going to get to that a little bit later on this hour, too, including the lifting of the gag order in the Maria Butina case. I am cynically obsessed with that case and that element of it. We will have more on that, coming up.

But the Mueller organization - and Mueller organization -- the Mueller investigation the special counsel`s office again will not shut down in the shutdown. Let us also take comfort in buffeting times like this, and the clarifying, orderly science of good reporting and the clear explication of even complex processes. And so, tonight, we`re going to try to figure out a lot of the most complex stuff that`s going on, including -- starting with a live report from Capitol Hill on what is now the impending, I believe it`s the third government shutdown of the Donald Trump presidency. We`re going to go live to Capitol Hill try to understand how long this shutdown is likely to last right after this.


MADDOW: You are about to hear the phrase "wall of cheese", fair warning. As we hurdle toward tonight`s shutdown of the federal government of the United States, with Congress on the White House under unified Republican control nevertheless unable to find a way to keep the government funded and open, Republicans in the House Rules Committee scheduled an emergency meeting tonight -- and you might expect that in circumstances like this, right? This is the time for emergency meetings when we are heading toward a government shutdown, except their emergency meeting ahead of tonight`s shutdown was an emergency meeting all hands on deck about cheese, specifically they met to consider a bill called the Curd Act. C-U-R-D.

I you want to know the specifics? The Curd Act would apparently allow certain types of cheese to be labeled as natural even if they contain artificial ingredients or synthetic substances. That`s the Curd Act.

But if you want to know why this Curd Act was the cause for a cheese emergency meeting in Congress while the government was in the process of shutting down tonight -- well, in that instance, you have a friend in Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern.


REP. JIM MCGOVERN (D-MA), RANKING MEMBER, RULES COMMITTEE: This is an emergency meeting that that we`re having here and I`ve seen some surreal things around this place, but this is really something. Vital parts of our government are about to shut down in just a few hours, and the Republicans have called an emergency meeting on cheese. I mean, has anybody considered how ridiculous this is or how bad the optics are as the American people are watching what`s going on here?

By all means, if you think the most important thing we have to discuss right now is cheese, I`ll let you have at it.

REP. PETE SESSIONS (R-TX), CHAIRMAN, RULES COMMITTEE: This committee has the awesome responsibility of taking legislation that is important to this body. This passed the United States Senate. This is important to small business. This is important, an important product, an important distinction and an important bill for many small businesses notwithstanding in Wisconsin or perhaps other places that produce cheese. And for us to think that this is not an important small business issue, consumer issue is just as important and it would be to the people that are trying to have the important provisions made here as even the largest bill.

MCGOVERN: My point is that, you know, our government is about to shut down at midnight tonight, and the Senate did do its work. The fact that we`re having an emergency meeting not on that but on cheese, I just find to be, you know -- it`d be funny if it wasn`t so tragic.

SESSIONS: I`ve got a newspaper that I would like to enter into the record, I`m not doing that at this time, with information about exactly how important this wall is and over the last 60 days, they`ve had some hundred thousand people literally approaching the border and we are being overrun on our southern border.

MCGOVERN: There`s no wall in this, right?

SESSIONS: You were talking about -- you were talking about the silly things --


SESSIONS: OK. I`m taking up off the wall. It is important -- no, I`m not talking about the wall. Cheese, it`s important. This committee handles important things and I`m delighted that we`re here. Anybody else have anything to add?


MADDOW: No, sir, no, I am not talking about the wall of cheese. I could see how you could have -- went at the wall -- we are talking about cheese and that wall. It`s -- I could see how you could think we were going for the wall cheese, but this isn`t a -- this isn`t -- this is not the wall of cheese -- this is cheese, and I just wanted you to prove otherwise.

This is our life now. This is what it looked like in Congress has we hurdled toward tonight`s shutdown of the federal government and merry cheese-mas.

Joining us now for the latest on why the government is being shut down on the Friday before Christmas and how long it`s going to be shut down for is NBC News Capitol Hill reporter, Frank Thorp.

Frank, thank you for your time tonight. I imagine you`ve had sort of a weird day

FRANK THORP, NBC NEWS CAPITOL HILL REPORTER: Yes, and I had some cheese pizza for dinner. So this is great.

MADDOW: Well, I appreciate you getting into the spirit of things. I`m actually half cheese myself. So I feel that.

So, tell me about the certainty with which we are proceeding now. I feel like following this from afar today, I feel like I thought there was going to be a lot of drama heading into the evening hours and right up until midnight, we weren`t going to know what happened. It seems pretty clear that we`re definitely going to have a shutdown at midnight, the only question is what happens after about 12 hours when Congress comes back to try to undo it.

THORP: Right. I mean the certainty is that we know that this partial government shutdown is going to happen. The uncertainty is what`s going to happen after that happens. I mean, you know, you and I have talked to during now this will be our third shutdown and this is seems to be -- a little bit different in that there seems to be a lack of urgency here.

I mean, I know that it`s a little bit different in that 75 percent of the government is already funded, this is only going to affect 25 percent of the government, and it`s also happening over what`s effectively a holiday weekend. So I think lawmakers are kind of looking at this saying, OK, well you know the effects of this partial shutdown aren`t going to be as drastic as something that, you know, maybe we saw in the past. But there really was -- it was -- it was weird today because it was a situation where it felt like there was a total lack of urgency.

It felt like a lot of things happened but nothing happened at all. I mean, it started with President Trump saying that Senate Republicans should go nuclear on the filibuster which McConnell said no on and then it ended with Vice President Pence, Jared Kushner and Mick Mulvaney shuttling back and forth in the Capitol trying to discuss what they can do going forward. They left the Capitol and we really don`t have an idea of where they want to go with this.

I mean, we`re -- like you said, we`re going to be back here -- the Senate is going to be back here, the House is going to be back here at noon tomorrow. But in reality, we`ve kind of just taken a really big circle and ended up exactly where we were at the beginning, because now talk so that whether or not they could maybe consider the seven appropriations bills that the appropriations committee put together, these are bills that have been sitting there for weeks. This is what senators on both sides of the aisle open saying hey just go ahead and take care of this just use these bills that it has $1.6 billion for President Trump`s border wall.

There`s also discussions with Republicans who are saying that maybe they might be able to make some kind of deal with Democrats where they could maybe give some kind of DACA relief for border funding. But the thing is, is that -- I mean, Democrats have been holding firm here on whether or not they`re going to accept any kind of deal that actually gives on having to fund the border wall. So we`re in a situation where the government shuts down -- there`s this partial government shutdown at midnight tonight, they come back tomorrow at noon, senators have been told to go home, that they`re going to have 24 hours to come back if they need to, the House members have been told the same.

And to be perfectly honest, I talked to a very smart House Republican leadership aide earlier today who said, listen, if the government shuts down, I don`t see it too coming back until January 3rd. So, we are basically right back where we were weeks to go in terms of these negotiations.

MADDOW: And if the negotiations are on as substantive a matter as the stuff that you just described there, talking about going back through all the appropriations bills, talking about the wall funding and what`s there potentially talking about a trade around DACA, if they`re going to have those real types of substantive negotiations, I have to ask who`s going to do that? I mean, isn`t part of the issue here now that a lot of members are gone?

THORP: Yes, a lot of members are gone and a lot of members have been told, hey, you can go home. We`ll give you notice before you come back. I mean, as we approach Christmas, a lot of these members aren`t going to be coming back for a Christmas holiday.


THORP: They`re going to be trying to spend that with their families. The thing is that what we saw tonight is actually really where the power centers are in terms of these negotiations. You have Jared Kushner and Vice President Pence, Mick Mulvaney, shuttling back and forth between these groups, which is -- it`s basically Speaker Ryan, but then on the House side, it`s also -- you know, it`s also Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan. They`re meeting individually with those two as well, and then also you have meetings with McConnell, you have meetings with Schumer.

I mean, these are all these meetings started with Schumer actually at the beginning. So -- I mean, it`s really whether or not those, there`s basically six groups that really need to kind of sign off on this. You have House Republican leadership, House Democratic leadership, Senate Republican leadership, Senate Democratic leadership and then it`s the conservatives in the House. You have Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan.

President Trump needs them on board. He needs them not to go on Fox News at night and say this is a bad deal for him to sign on to this deal and move forward.

MADDOW: Yes, the idea that this is all going to get on -- this is all going to get undone and tidied up over the next -- in the next short term, it just feels almost impossible. But at some point, somebody will have to find a rabbit in that hat and pull it out of there.

NBC Capitol Hill reporter Frank Thorp, I know it has been a long and weird day. Thanks for your time tonight. Appreciate it.

THORP: Thanks.

MADDOW: So, we`re going to be watching the shutdown unfold tonight and possibly all weekend and really who knows for how long?

To the extent that this fight is in the Senate, one of the most interesting combatants in the Senate on this issue is Senator Mazie Hirono and she`s going to join us live from the Capitol, next.


MADDOW: Yesterday, we learned that a senior Justice Department ethics officials told Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker that he should recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation based on his past comments attacking that investigation. We learned at the same time that Mr. Whitaker decided to not take that ethics advice, and he instead cleared himself to oversee that investigation, despite the advice of ethics officials.

Well, tonight, we have a new headline which gives us some insight into what President Trump may be expecting Matt Whitaker to do with regard to the Mueller investigation. This is from CNN tonight. Quote: Trump lashed out at Whitaker after explosive Cohen revelations.

Quote: At least twice in the past weeks, President Donald Trump has vented to his acting attorney general, angered by federal prosecutors who referenced the president`s actions in crimes his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to. Trump was frustrated, sources said, that federal prosecutors who Matt Whitaker oversees as acting attorney general, filed charges that made Trump look bad. None of the sources suggested that the president directed Whitaker to stop the investigation. But rather he lashed out at what he felt was an unfair situation.

The first known incident took place after Michael Cohen pled guilty November 29th to lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow. The president made his displeasure clear to Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker after that happened. Then, Trump again voiced his anger at Whitaker after federal prosecutors in Manhattan officially implicated the president himself in the criminal campaign finance hush money scheme that Cohen pled guilty to, to buy the silence of women ahead of the 2016 vote. Trump pressed Whitaker on why more wasn`t being done to control prosecutors in New York who brought the charges in the first place.

So, again this is brand-new reporting from CNN, raising serious issues about the Mueller investigation and the president`s efforts to quash it. This arising as we know that the Mueller investigation and law enforcement generally will not be shut down during the federal government shutdown. But this is all now happening against the incredibly dramatic backdrop of a Friday before Christmas federal government shutdown.

Senator Mazie Hirono is a Democrat who is on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thank you very much for being with us tonight.

SEN. MAZIE HIRONO (D), HAWAII: Good evening, Rachel.

MADDOW: I am sorry you are still at work right now, first of all.


HIRONO: So are you.

MADDOW: Yes, well, thanks, but, you know, they usually give (ph) me this hour.

I have to ask you what`s your understanding of what is going to happen with the shutdown right now?

HIRONO: It`s going to happen, because the president at the 11th hour listening Fox News decided that he is going to listen to the, whatever, called the right wing loud mouths who accused him of being a coward or whatever it was at the last moment after the Senate had already acted to keep government running fully, expecting the House to follow suit. At the last moment, he throws a wrench into the works and says, I won`t sign it unless I get $5 billion for my wall.

But, of course, you folks have been playing the tape wherein he says yes, yes, if there is a government shutdown, I will take full responsibility for it. And, of course, he is not doing that. He is blaming everybody else, which is par for the course for this president.

MADDOW: And the blame for a shutdown is of course part of the way that we keep score in this, the way that we ascribe blame both in the moment and in history as part of the way that we figure out whether this was good politically or bad politically. But as we head toward it, as it is really about to happen, I think what most people are thinking right now is, is there a way out?

I mean, for the president to have staked this shutdown not just on generally getting more of what he wants on immigration, or even generally getting more of what he wants on the wall, but specifically $5 billion for the wall or bust, that kind of very specific line, when we know he`s not going to get it, makes it very hard for me to imagine how or when the shutdown will end?

HIRONO: The ball is in the president`s court because he knows full well that he`s not getting $5 billion for his wall from the Senate or at this point even from the House. And so, he`s got to grow up. He`s got to face certain realities and take responsibility, which we know that he has a very hard time doing.

This is totally -- should have been totally you a voidable, but he is a person who at the last minute came in after the Senate already voted to keep government running and for the House to follow suit -- he just jumps right in and says, I need $5 billion.

This is crazy. And who is going to be hurt? It is all the people who will be furloughed. It is a partial furlough, but there are going to be a lot of people who are having to work, the essential people, workers, and they will not be getting paid. I have signed on to a bill that would provide for retroactive pay for all of those who are going to have to work during the shutdown and also for all of those who are furloughed through no fault of their own, and this on the eve, as you say, of a holiday.

And apparently, President Trump could care less about the damage that he`s doing and the harm he`s bringing onto our country. But you know what? This is all about peace.

He has had a rough couple of days. First of all, he pulls us out of Syria, giving a tremendous Christmas president to Putin and to Iran. So, he is getting whacked for that from the right -- and all this without consulting with Secretary Mattis. Then you have the Mattis resignation, you have him throwing in the wrench to create a government shutdown.

So, I see a president who under even normal circumstances for him, he is very unreliable, but he is in meltdown mode. And I tell you, the only wall that`s real is the one that`s closing in on him.

MADDOW: And on that point, and in terms of the other things that are going on atmospherically around this, I did mention that CNN reporting tonight that the president reportedly has been -- I mean, reading between the lines, calling and yelling a of the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, pressuring him on why he`s not reining in prosecutors who are moving forward on various investigations and prosecutions related to the president and his inner circle.

What`s your reaction to that?

HIRONO: The president will lash out at anybody that he thinks is not protecting him adequately. And the president is already being looked at for obstruction of justice. And now, is he actually wanting the attorney general to go in there and also obstruct justice by doing certain things and getting involved and prosecutions?

I find it appalling. But, again, it is par for the course for this president. He only wants people who will do his bidding. So, that`s not just Acting Attorney General Whitaker, but right -- following on his heels is the nominee, Barr, who also, in my view, auditions for this position by writing this very long missive that question certain parts of the Mueller investigation.

MADDOW: Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii who is at work at the Senate tonight as we head towards the shutdown -- thank you very much for your time tonight, Senator.

HIRONO: Thank you.

MADDOW: I know it`s been a long day.

All right. We have much more ahead tonight. Do stay with us.



NINA TOTENBERG, NPR: The question that probably -- oh I don`t know, 70 percent of America wants to know the answer to, that would be the 70 percent who offered you there body parts and organs. How`s your health?


TOTENBERG: And those ribs you busted?

GINSBURG: Almost repaired.

TOTENBERG: That`s good.


MADDOW: Nina Totenberg went on to ask her, have you gone back to your trainer? And Justice Ginsburg told her, yes, that she went back immediately after the fall when she broke her ribs. She went back but initially, she could only do legs but she was back to her full routine. That was as of five days ago. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking with NPR`s Nina Totenberg talking about being on the mend after breaking three ribs last month.

What we didn`t know at that event, again five days ago, was that Justice Ginsburg was about to go in for fairly serious surgery today. This morning here in New York City, doctors removed a portion of her left lung containing two cancerous growths, two nodules.

Tonight, according to a spokesperson for the court, Justice Ginsburg is resting comfortably and will remain in the hospital for a few days. Doctors say the nodules were cancerous, but with this surgery, there is no evidence of cancer now anywhere else in her body. The court also says there`s no further treatment plan.

Justice Ginsburg is 85 years old. She has already survived about with colon cancer and a bout with pancreatic cancer, and she had a stent put in her right coronary artery, and now this.

For everything she`s been through though, she has never missed a single day of oral arguments in her 25-plus years on the court. The next scheduled day for oral arguments is January 7th. As best as we can tell, Justice Ginsburg`s plan is to be back in the saddle for those arguments, too.

Joining us now is Julie Cohen. She along with her colleague Betsy West directed the smash hit documentary film "RBG".

Ms. Cohen, thank you very much for being here.

JULIE COHEN, CO-DIRECTOR, "RBG" DOCUMENTARY: Good to be here, although not under the best circumstances.

MADDOW: No, I have to ask you and it`s OK if you don`t want to talk about this in detail. But do you have anything that you can tell us in terms of people close to the justice and anything about her current status right now?

COHEN: Well, I did ask for an update from a close family member late this afternoon who said, you know, she`s -- did well right through the surgery and that the doctor told her afterward that they have every reason to be optimistic. So, optimism is kind of a hallmark of Justice Ginsburg`s life. She`ll take everything optimistically and it`s served her well.

MADDOW: And this is not something that she knew was coming for a long while, although it wasn`t immediate. I mean, the fall in which she injured -- she broke her ribs was in early November.

COHEN: That`s right.

MADDOW: And it seems like -- and correct me if I got the timing wrong here -- but it seems like in assessing her after that injury, that`s when they recognized that she had these nodules that needed to be checked. And so, they didn`t put her in for surgery immediately, she went through these few weeks but now she -- you know, I have a colleague who was actually on the shuttle flight with her from D.C. to New York yesterday, and who said she was fine and working the whole time gave no indication that anything was up five days ago with Nina Totenberg, no indication that anything`s up. She had to know she was going in for this surgery, though.

COHEN: She had to know. That`s right. It`s been a little while.

I mean, take note of the timing here, she waited until the Friday before a long holiday to go in for surgery presumably with the thought that like oh I should get this medical stuff out of the way like over Christmas, New Year`s, so that I can be back on a bench on January 7th. That`s a sort of standard for her through her previous bouts with cancer.


COHEN: She had a pattern, something that she actually -- a lesson that she took from Justice O`Connor who had done the same thing with her breast cancer, get chemo on Friday, so you got the weekend to rest up and then hopefully you`re back for arguments on Monday. It`s a pretty tough way to approach I`m a huge medical problem like this.

MADDOW: Well, but I mean talk about being conscious of the country meeting you.

I just have to ask you in your experience in terms of working on the film and every all the interactions that you ever had with her, all of which have been since she`s been in her 80s, what do you -- what do you see in terms of her stamina? I mean, I`ve never I`ve never met her. Obviously, she`s a person who`s very small in stature, but she`s never missed a day having been through all of these things. We know that she works out with the trainer all the time.

What did you see in terms of her energy level, her stamina?

COHEN: The energy level is really like nothing I`ve ever seen in my life. The inclination and the enthusiasm to work, to talk, to experience to keep going is just huge. We would have days of shooting where, you know, we`re filming parts of an interview, we`re then filming some very safe footage then you know going with her to an opera to film some of that. She wants to after that, you know, go out to dinner with friends and her marshals and then go back to her hotel and we you know read up and make some changes --

MADDOW: To work for hours.

COHEN: It`s like -- you know, her trainer Brian Johnson calls her a cyborg. You know, I think he`s not kidding around when he when he says that. There are elements of that.

MADDOW: Well, if she is, in fact, a cyborg and he`s on to something that means that we should set her up with a multiple life time set of spare parts at this place.

COHEN: Absolutely.

MADDOW: Yes. Well, thoughts and prayers for her right now in her recovery.

Julie Cohen, one of the directors to the documentary "RBG" -- thanks for helping us get some insight into this. Much appreciated.

COHEN: Great to be here.

MADDOW: Thanks a lot.

All right. Still ahead, a mystery developments in a Russian meddling case that is not one of the Robert Mueller cases, but this happened today. I`m slightly obsessed with it. That story is next.


MADDOW: We reported a couple of days ago about a court fight between defense lawyers for accused Russian agent Maria Butina and the prosecutors in her case. The defense lawyers asked the court to lift a gag order that the judge had imposed in her case because Butina had pled guilty.

They said, listen, she`s pled guilty, there`s no reason to ban everybody in the case from making public statements now since there isn`t going to be a jury trial in her case. She`s pled guilty. There`s not going to be a trial. There`s no potential jurors out there that`s going to be tainted by any public comments they might hear about this matter.

Prosecutors argued the opposite. They said actually, judge, keep the gag order in place. We know that Butina has pled guilty, so there`s not going to be a trial for her, but then prosecutors intriguingly raised the prospect of the need to protect trials for any potential future defendants.

Prosecutors specifically referenced to pending or imminent criminal litigation related to the Butina matter. And I italicized the word imminent, we think, for emphasize. Quote, keeping the 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.

Tell me more about these other potential defendants related to the Butina case who may be charged particularly on the basis of her cooperation. Tell me more.

That was Wednesday. That fight between the government and the prosecutors, the government saying it isn`t just about her being indicted. The defense saying please lift the gag order, it`s just about her.

Well, today, the judge made her decision. She lifted the gag order in the Maria Butina case, which means a couple of things. It means we`re probably going to hear more public information from people associated with this case, including presumably the lawyers. But it also raises interesting questions about whether there are potential other defendants related to her case that aren`t her or not.

Watch this case.


MADDOW: Where does the time go? It is officially shut down the clock, which means I shall hand you over to the tender mercies of Katy Tur, who is in for Lawrence tonight on "THE LAST WORD."

Good evening, Katy.