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Michael Cohen has Strongly denied claims. TRANSCRIPT: 12/27/2018, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Greg Gordon, Mike Quigley, Eric Lipton

Show: THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW Date: December 27, 2018 Guest: Greg Gordon, Mike Quigley, Eric Lipton

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

"THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" starts now with Joy Reid, in for Rachel.

Good evening, Joy.

JOY REID, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thank you very much.

And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Rachel does have the night off.

But we have a lot to get to tonight, including a bombshell allegation about Donald Trump`s long-time personal attorney Michael Cohen and what newly disclosed cell phone records might tell us about potential collusion with the Russians in the run up to the election in 2016. This new reporting about Michael Cohen has got kind of a CSI feeling to it, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, this is night six of the government shutdown. Congress was back in session today for a hot second, by which I mean less than five minutes. Gavel to gavel, the House of Representatives was in session for 2:4 3. The senate, four minutes exactly, because they`re working.

And as you might imagine, they got about zero done to end the shutdown, which means that substantial parts of the federal government will remain shut down right through this weekend and on into next year. Happy 2019, everybody.

White House essentially declared defeat on the shutdown. Donald Trump vowed to own before he changed his mind and tried not to own it. Releasing a statement that was curious for what it left out, the word "wall", which appear nowhere in it, and also reiterating that the president really, really doesn`t want to shut down, because he just can`t sign a bill that doesn`t, quote, adequately fund border security, which I guess is the new euphemism for really big, really tall wall. We`ll have more on that in the hour.

But first, I want to take you back a moment to January 2017, nearly two years ago. It was just a few days before Donald Trump`s inauguration to become president of the United States. Like an iceberg dead ahead of the Titanic, this unexpected news item appeared on the Trump world horizon. It was late in the evening on a Tuesday night, January 10th, 2017 when "BuzzFeed" published what we now refer to as the Steele dossier, a collection of raw intelligence reports written by former British spy Christopher Steele.

At the time, "BuzzFeed" published the dossier, we didn`t know much about it, other than the claims made in the dossier that were shocking, salacious, and rather impossible to verify. We later learned that the dossier had at first been commissioned by a conservative purveyor for a U.S. political website looking to dig up dirt on Donald Trump. When they decided to stop funding it, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party picked up the bill, and Steele`s search for Trump background info continued.

But in substance, what "BuzzFeed" revealed to the world on that Tuesday night in January was a series of unconfirmed reports detailing the ways in which Russia allegedly cultivated Donald Trump for years and then set out to help him win the presidential election, and the ways in which members of the Trump campaign allegedly cooperated in those Russian intelligence efforts.

The dossier named names, including the president`s long-time personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, whose name appears multiple times in the dossier, as someone who was a key go-between between the Russian effort and the Trump campaign. By this point in January 2017, Michael Cohen had become a fixture on the cable news circuit as a trash-talking outspoken defender of Donald Trump, but the Steele dossier painted him in a much more nefarious light.

On the second to last page of the dossier, on page 34, Christopher Steele wrote a couple of months before the election in August or September of 2016, as the Kremlin was growing more concerned about the negative public fallout from the hacking of the DNC and the dumping of information through WikiLeaks that was meant to be damaging to Hillary Clinton`s campaign, as that fallout was worrying the Kremlin and they were seeking to put a button on the operation, Donald Trump`s personal attorney Michael Cohen spirited away to Prague.

Quote: Trump`s representative Cohen accompanied to Prague in August or September of 2016 with three colleagues for secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers. Continued from the dossier, according to redacted, the agenda comprised of questions on how deniable cash payments were to be made to hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign. And various contingencies for covering up these operations and Moscow`s secret liaison with the Trump team more generally.

That was a shocking set of claims. The president`s lawyer allegedly meeting clandestinely with Russian officials to facilitate deniable cash payments to hackers working to get Trump elected. The lawyers considering ways to cover up Moscow`s secret liaison with the campaign.

There is a lot of unconfirmed explosive stuff in the Steele dossier. The stuff about Michael Cohen is kind of right out of a Bond movie. Michael Cohen denied it all the night the dossier came out, and he has kept on denying it. #fakenews he wrote hours after the dossier posted. I`ve never been to Prague in my life he tweeted, alongside a photograph of his passport.

Cohen also went on TV.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: In the report posted on "BuzzFeed", it claims that Trump`s lawyer Michael Cohen met with Kremlin representatives in Prague of August of 2016. One small little itsy bitsy problem, Michael Cohen has never been to Prague, ever.

Wait a minute, am I allowed to look? I don`t want to joke about it, because it`s serious in your life.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP LAYWER: It`s very serious in my life.

HANNITY: This is your passport.

COHEN: Yes, it is.

HANNITY: Let`s go back to yesterday. You got called by?

COHEN: Mr. Trump.

HANNITY: And Mr. Trump asked you?

COHEN: Were you ever in Prague?

HANNITY: And your answer was?

COHEN: Never.

HANNITY: In your whole life?

COHEN: No, I`ve never been in Prague.

HANNITY: And he wanted to see your passport?

COHEN: He said, Michael, I really need to know. I said, Mr. Trump, I have never been to Prague. He said, OK. Do you want to see my passport? I live close to the office.

HANNITY: Right.

COHEN: And he said, yes, do you mind if I see it? Of course not. You`re the president-elect. I`ll be there in about two minutes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REID: So Michael Cohen was and has been insistent on denying this. Two sources, the "Wall Street Journal" and "Mother Jones" said Cohen told them shortly after the election that he has not been to Prague since the early 2000s. Since those reports, he has denied being there at all, ever.

And in terms of what the dossier alleges, he says he was in California at that time in 2016, visiting a college campus with his son. Since the Steele dossier was published in January of 2017, the allegation that Cohen was in Prague, coordinating with the Russians a couple of months before the election, that has remained an entirely unproven allegation, a giant question mark in what we know of the Russian -- in what we know of as the Russia investigation.

Then this past April, the FBI raided Michael Cohen`s offices in an investigation of bank fraud. Four days later, the McClatchy News Service reported that special counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that Michael Cohen was indeed in Prague during the time period alleged in the Steele dossier.

Quote: It`s unclear whether Mueller`s investigators also have evidence that Cohen actually met with a prominent Russian, but investigators have traced evidence that Cohen entered the Czech Republic through Germany, apparently during August or early September of 2016, as Christopher Steele reported, said the two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is confidential.

That was McClatchy reporting in April of this year, that Robert Mueller had evidence that Michael Cohen was in Prague for reasons unknown ahead of the election. The report did not explain what form that evidence was in or how Robert Mueller got it. And since then, no news agency has published a report matching McClatchy`s story, including NBC News. McClatchy, for its part has never retracted its story or changed it in any way. They stood by it, even as they stood alone on it.

Since then, Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including campaign finance violations that he says he made at the direction of the president. That case was brought by federal prosecutors in New York.

Michael Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about his efforts on behalf of Donald Trump to build a Trump Tower Moscow. That charge was brought by the special counsel, by Robert Mueller.

For those crimes, Michael Cohen, the president`s personal lawyer, was sentenced to a total of three years in prison, which he is set to begin serving in March. Before Cohen was sentenced, the special counsel`s office weighed in with the judge, asking him not to be too harsh on Michael Cohen. They argued that, yes, Michael Cohen had committed serious crimes, including withholding information related to the Russia investigation. Not just from the Senate and the House Intelligence Committees, but also from the special counsel`s office.

But Mueller`s office also argued that Michael Cohen had in recent months gone to, quote, significant lengths to assist the special counsel`s investigation. They said -- the information Cohen provided to them was, quote, credible and consistent with other evidence obtained in the special counsel`s ongoing investigation. The special counsel`s office pointed out that Michael Cohen had met with them multiple times and given them, quote, information about Michael Cohen`s own conduct and that of others on core topics under investigation by the special counsel`s office.

Which is very intriguing, but who knows? The special counsel`s office does not leak. We do not know what Cohen told them. We may never know.

Meanwhile, today we got what looks like round two from the McClatchy reporters digging into the allegation about Michael Cohen and Prague. Now remember, in April, McClatchy reported that Robert Mueller had some kind of evidence that Cohen was in Prague in 2016. Today, McClatchy had more to say.

Here is the opening line. Quote: A mobile phone traced to President Donald Trump`s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen briefly sent signals ricocheting off cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016, at the height of the presidential campaign, leaving an electronic record to support claims that Cohen met secretly there with Russian officials. McClatchy sources this information to four people, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of information shared by their foreign intelligence connections.

McClatchy says each of the four sources obtained their information independently from foreign intelligence connections.

McClatchy goes on to report that, quote, during the same period of late August or early September, electronic eavesdropping by an Eastern European Intelligence Agency picked up a conversation among Russians, one of whom remarked that Cohen was in Prague. Two people familiar with the incident said. McClatchy reports that these foreign electronic intelligence intercepts were shared with Robert Mueller.

Now, again today, Michael Cohen very definitively denied this reporting, saying that he has never been to Prague. When asked if he has ever been to the Czech Republic, Cohen responded no, capital N, capital O. In another denial, Cohen added, quote, Mueller knows everything.

So, the reporting from McClatchy changed in that McClatchy now cites multiple anonymous sourcing describing the electronic intercepts that show Cohen`s phone pinging in Prague. The reporting has changed. The denials from Cohen have not. To be clear, neither NBC News nor other organizations have confirmed this latest dispatch from McClatchy just as they and we did not confirm the McClatchy story from April.

We do have a ton of questions about this. Who are the sources for this new report? Are they the same as the sources from the earlier story? And why are we just finding about this now?

Joining us now is Greg Gordon, investigative reporter for McClatchy News who broke the story tonight as well as the first reporting on the topic in April.

Mr. Gordon, thank you so much for joining us tonight.

GREG GORDON, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, MCCLATCHY: It`s a pleasure to be here, Joy.

REID: So, let`s start at the end of this. You saw that Michael Cohen today who hasn`t talked a lot since his sentencing again denied ever having been not just in Prague, but this the Czech Republic at all. What is your response to that, having reported on this?

GORDON: Well, Bob Mueller is in a pinch because he has an acting attorney general who now oversees his investigation and has harshly criticized it. He has the nominee to be the permanent attorney general in Bill Barr who has harshly criticized the investigation. So one would think that bob Mueller wouldn`t want too much about his investigation getting out in the public.

Former prosecutors have said that this is actually a standard practice for a prosecutor to --

REID: But Cohen doesn`t have to say anything. Cohen could say nothing.

GORDON: He could say nothing.

REID: But he is saying he was definitively not in Prague, he was not in Prague ever.

GORDON: And all I can say to that is we`ll see how this sorts out because Michael Cohen, as we all know, has been convicted of lying about his dealings with the Trump hotel in Russia. He`s been convicted of being deceitful in a number of ways. And so, his credibility is not high. We`re going to have to -- we have to follow what our sources that we trust and have developed over this two-year period have told us.

REID: Let`s talk about the source. Obviously, you`re not going to tell me who your sources are. But let`s talk about what they have told you. If there are intercepts that put Michael Cohen`s cell phone in Prague, one would think those would be fairly specific. But reporting by McClatchy is they were either in August or September. How would they not be more specific if these are actual intercepts that show the phone pings?

GORDON: I think they are more specific, but unfortunately, we weren`t able to pry that out of our sources who are getting information from foreign intelligence agencies. This is a counterintelligence investigation. It`s closely held.

REID: Did your sources see the intercepts for themselves or are they passing along information from other people?

GORDON: The sources have -- some of the sources have government sources, and some of the sources are people who have told us that they have trusted intelligence type sources that they get information from. We don`t know the specifics, but we have used these sources on many subjects, and they have been very accurate.

REID: You know that sounds a lot like a Steele dossier. I read the Steele dossier today. The reality is if your sources didn`t see the intercepts themselves, did they let you see them?

GORDON: Did they let us see --

REID: Have you seen the intercepts?

GORDON: No.

REID: So what we have, then, is sources have been used before, and they`re saying they were told that these intercepts exist.

GORDON: That is true.

REID: Have they -- what kind of evidence did they provide you for you to feel confident that this was something you`re willing to put McClatchy`s name on?

GORDON: Well, for one thing, we got numbers. We have four sources who told us about this. And for another, we have read the beginning of our story to some of these sources, make absolutely certain we`ve gone over and over and over it. We worked on this story really for months.

REID: Did your sources to come to you and say hey, we have this new information, or did you go to them asking?

GORDON: Well, it`s been a dialogue for a long time. And my partner, Peter Stone did some of this sleuthing, but we both are well acquainted with the sources. And we -- I would say we developed -- some of this came from foreign sources, and those people, one of those people talked to us over a long period of time before he provided a drop of information.

REID: And I mean, I guess the reason that I`m asking is we know that there is a possibility that sometimes sources have motives for putting things out, and one of those motives might be to get McClatchy to run a story like this, even if it isn`t true. Is there any concern at all that people might have had a motivation to get you to run a story, that sort of at Prague situation, where it didn`t happen but they wanted it printed?

GORDON: Well, that`s not the kind of dialogue we`ve had that would create that kind of suspicion, because the people we`ve been working with, but you always have to be wary of disinformation. What I would say about disinformation, just think about the dossier of Michael Cohen.

REID: Uh-huh.

GORDON: Because this whole Cohen episode, the reason it`s got so much attention is that it goes -- Mueller has not yet charged anybody with collusion or any crime.

REID: Right.

GORDON: Equating to collusion.

And so what this -- what this meeting or purported meeting in progress could mean is the first strong evidence of some sort of collusion.

We`re a long way from there. We don`t even know beyond the fact that his cell phone appeared to show up in the Prague area, we don`t even know if there was a meeting. But this is coupled with some intelligence from an Eastern European Intelligence Agency that picked up this conversation. Michael Cohen is in Prague from a Russian official, we believe a senior Russian official.

REID: I guess my other question to you is there anything you were able to see for yourselves that corroborated what these four sources were telling you, anything -- the intercepts that would give you some further evidence beyond that?

GORDON: I wish we had. We held out for a while for that, and there came a time when we thought we had a critical mass. It is a competitive business.

REID: It is indeed. Greg Gordon, thanks very much for your time. Please come back to us, especially if you get more. If you get the intercepts, come back to the show.

GORDON: Happy to do it.

REID: Thank you very much.

All right. Here is another curious part of the reporting about Michael Cohen. One place he has denied the allegation about any meeting in Prague or being in Prague, or having been in the Czech Republic is in dealing with the Senate Intelligence Committee. He told the Senate Intel Committee in September that he, quote, had nothing to do with any Russian involvement in the electoral process, unquote. He told them, quote, I have never in my life been to Prague or anywhere in the Czech Republic, unquote.

Here is the thing. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty last month to lying to Congress about Trump Tower Moscow, including in a statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee. If the special counsel did have evidence that Michael Cohen lied about being in Prague, if that were true, then why would the special counsel not charge him with that part as well?

Joining us now is Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan. Great to have you with us.

BARBARA MCQUADE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Thanks, Joy. Glad to be here.

REID: So, Barbara, this is a conundrum. Either Michael Cohen has been to Prague or he hasn`t, right? It seems like a pretty definitive cut and dry question. He even up to today is denying he had ever been there. He told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had never been there.

In your view as a prosecutor, if the Mueller team, if the Mueller prosecutors had evidence that that was a lie, does it surprise you that he isn`t charged with lying, at least lying to the Senate.

MCQUADE: Well, not necessarily. I think your skepticism is well-placed. I think it does seem to be contradictory, especially when Michael Cohen is cooperating and went out of his what I today to tweet that he`s never been to Prague or the Czech Republic, as you pointed out. It seems the easier thing to do would be to just say nothing if that was the case.

But it`s not necessarily the case that Robert Mueller would charge him, even if this reporting is true. That is that his phone pinged off a tower, there was an intercept that occurred in Prague that puts his phone there, because that doesn`t necessarily mean that they`ve got a solid case for a false statement. For a false statement you have to prove that it`s true.

And so, the ping alone is certainly one indication. It could be that the sources are telling the truth but that they`re being played, as you asked, you know, an eastern intelligence agency has reported, well, maybe it`s to their advantage to put information, misinformation out there about what is going on with Russia. So, not clear yet, but I think that if this piece of it is true, then certainly something Robert Mueller would want to build upon.

REID: Right. You know, I`m old enough to remember when Michael Cohen definitively said that he had never paid Stormy Daniels a dime and Donald Trump had nothing do with her, right? That was a pretty bold-faced lie. That wasn`t true. And he walked that back.

Now, he has been sentenced now to because of the dishonesty, et cetera. If Michael Cohen, like you said, he didn`t have to say anything, but if he went out today and again said he had never been in Prague and it turned out he had, couldn`t he be opening himself up to more charges, to a longer sentence?

MCQUADE: Absolutely, especially because he has been attempting to cooperate both with Robert Mueller and with the Southern District of New York. But you may remember the Southern District of New York was quite dissatisfied with his Cooperation and said that he was holding back and refused to agree to a traditional cooperation agreement, which means you`ve agreed to cooperate about everything, to be fully forthcoming about every matter known to you.

So, it does seem he is holding back on some things. Is it about this? Is he protecting families involves in criminal activity? Difficult to know exactly what that is.

But I think one thing that is kind of interesting, is this corroborates information that is in the Steele dossier. And I know there are many people who have criticized the Steele dossier and tried to discredit it, but today all of the allegations in it, I don`t know that anything has been disproven, and a number of facts have been proven to be true. Many of them have been documented in the Manafort indictment, in the Flynn indictments, and the indictment against the Russian hackers.

So, it does cause me to wonder whether this is or is not true. In light of the fact we learn more facts, it seems to match up with what is in the Steele dossier. And this is more information, this meeting in Prague that is in that dossier. So, I think it remains to be seen whether this is true.

REID: It`d be very interesting. Flynn, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen all mentioned the Steele dossier. But Cohen was singled out as the linchpin of the contact. So, whatever he knows, whatever he is telling has got to be pretty high level.

Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney of Michigan, thank you very much for your time and I appreciate it.

MCQUADE: Thanks, Joy.

REID: Thank you.

And much to get to here tonight. We are going to talk with a key Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee who just one week from tonight will be in the majority. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REID: Allow me to direct your attention to the calendar. Those of you who have lost what day it is, and that can happen when you`ve been binging on Christmas cookies and eggnog and cocktails. Today is December 27th. One week from today is January 3rd, and that`s important, because on January 3rd, the new Congress is sworn in and Democrats take back control of the House and all those powerful committees, including the House Intelligence Committee, which in addition to having extensive subpoena powers has vowed to be as determined when it comes to reopening their investigation into the Trump campaign and administration as the previous Republican majority on the committee was to provide Trump cover.

Joining us now is Congressman Mike Quigley, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for your time tonight.

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Thank you, Joy.

REID: So let`s talk. We just spoke with a reporter from "McClatchy" whose story tonight is providing what they`re saying are four sources who put Michael Cohen or at least his cell phone in Prague when he says he`s never been there. Adam Schiff has indicated he`d like to call Michael Cohen again.

What do you think? Should Michael Cohen come back and testify either in open session or closed session specifically about whether he was in Prague?

QUIGLEY: Well, today`s reporting certainly gives us additional information that he might have been in Prague, but it`s not perfectly clear. It`s not that difficult. Mr. Cohen, you are always welcome to come back and clear the air. I take you at your word that you want to resolve all this. But if Mueller knows all, according to your announcement today, I think the American public has a right to know.

So come back and share all this information, because these investigations have very different purposes. Mr. Mueller has to determine who to bring to justice. Our job is to find out what the Russians did, who conspired with them, if anyone, and how to protect and inform the American public.

We can`t get to that problem. We can`t solve that problem unless everyone, including Mr. Cohen and others like Mr. Flynn, come back and clear the air.

REID: What about Christopher Steele? Because a lot of what the dossier alleges is a pretty straight forward attempt to cultivate Donald Trump before he is running for president, really for years, to dangle business opportunities in front of him, to get him to be cooperative, and he becomes cooperative, right? And then the attempt to help him become president is quite extensive. It involves multiple members of his campaign, whether it`s Carter Page or whether it`s Paul Manafort or it`s Mike Flynn or Cohen.

It`s so complicated, but Christopher Steele seems to be the guy that has the narrative. Would you consider recalling him or calling him in front of your committee?

QUIGLEY: Well, I think we have to understand what this document was. It was early on without complete information, and he didn`t have the benefit of a team such as the special counsel. I believe that the Steele document is a well done document. I believe it`s largely accurate. I just believe it was a snapshot taken at the time, and it`s incomplete.

We need the special counsel and the House and Senate. In some respects, working together, communicating and cooperating so that we get a complete picture.

So I think Mr. Steele can add something to that if he`s willing to cooperate. I certainly understand why he would hesitate given the way he was treated by my Republican colleagues, but I think it would allow the American public to get a little more information about what took place. More important than all that, though, as you suggest, we`re starting next week afresh with the abilities to subpoena documents and people and have them not refuse to answer questions, as was allowed when the Republicans controlled the investigation in the House.

REID: Right. We know that one of the through lines in a lot of these investigations has to do with money, money laundering, questions hanging over some of the people who have pleaded guilty. You`ve been to Cyprus, which is supposedly one of the locations where money might have passed through.

What do you want to investigate when it comes to that aspect of these investigations?

QUIGLEY: I think money laundering is extraordinarily important. I think there are other countries involved. This is a tough investigation. It`s hard to subpoena a Russian oligarch, but I do think it`s a critical element to this. We`re well aware of Deutsche Bank`s role in financing the Trump financial world for the decade before it became president, and also quite aware of the fact that they were fined $600 million in New York for, wait for it, money laundering illegally for the Russians.

So it`s ripe territory. But as to your point, I think the 30,000-foot level issues that relate to that, was the president compromised due to his financial dealings, either with the Russians or as we might suggest, the Saudis or other countries.

And beyond that, and even more important perhaps is it`s fair for the American public to ask the question. Whose interest was the president looking out for as a candidate and then the president? Was it his own? Was it Russian oligarchs? Was it President Putin or oh, by the way, the American public? I think that issue still stands today, and it`s more important than ever.

REID: Congressman Mike Quigley, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee -- thank you so much for joining us tonight.

QUIGLEY: Thank you. And happy New Year to everyone.

REID: Happy New Year. Thank you.

Well, political geeks, get ready. We have a story just for you, next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: As the end of the year comes around, one thing we truly get excited about around here in Maddow-land is, wait for it, the final tallies of political spending.

For example, year-end financial filings are giving us a peek into how much money hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his family spent in 2018. As major Trump supporter, the Mercers, who are also the big money behind Breitbart News and the new defunct Cambridge Analytica pumped more than $25 million into the 2016 election. Bloomberg News reports today that the Mercers are stepping back from some of that. A mere 2-point -- spending a mere $2.9 million on federal elections this year. That`s like a 2/3 spending cut.

Also hot off the financial presses, the numbers from the Mercer Family Foundation. The advocacy group MapLight got the Mercer Foundation`s tax filings for the 2017 fiscal year, and MapLight`s big takeaway is all the big money the Mercer Foundation continues to spend on modern day deniers of climate change. They count more than $4 million last year.

You can see in the filings that the Mercers donated $800,000 to the climate change deniers at the Heartland Institute, $170,000 to the CO2 coalition, where they shrug off rising sea levels and cheer the rising CO2.

That kind of spending is nothing new for the Mercers, or frankly for any number of supporters for big industry that do the most to pollute the planet. They`ve been pushing for a long time against environmental regulations so those pesky regulations won`t eat into their profits. What is new is that now that side of the "protect the environment" or "pad the profits" ledger has a White House that`s willing, basically, even eager to sign on to that agenda. That story is next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

REID: Chlorpyrifos is a broad spectrum pesticide. As a molecule, it looks a little something like this. You got science.

It`s essentially a nerve agent in the same class of chemicals as sarin gas. It can cause nausea and dizziness and confusion. In high doses, it can cause vomiting, convulsions, respiratory arrest, even death.

The people who make this pesticide say that in normal low-level doses, it`s perfectly safe. Some agricultural experts say the science is not conclusive. Part of why it`s so hard to draw a conclusion is the pesticide is too toxic to be tested on humans. It`s already banned for most household uses.

But chlorpyrifos is all over American farms. More than 40,000 U.S. farms use it on dozens of different crops.

So, a few years ago, the EPA decided to study whether it was still safe to dump all that pesticide into the air and on to our food. And what the EPA found was kind of alarming. They looked at the research that was done at Columbia University, and this was the headline from the Columbia study. Common pesticide disturbs the brains of children.

The EPA came to a similar conclusion. They found that exposure to chlorpyrifos had significant long-term consequences, like declines in learning and memory, especially on people who work on farms where the pesticide is used. So, the EPA suggested banning the use of chlorpyrifos on all food crops, full stop.

But that ban never happened because Donald Trump became president. He picked Scott Pruitt to run the EPA. And one of the first things, the very first thing Scott Pruitt did as head of that agency was to kill that ban of that pesticide, with the potential to disturb the brains of children. He said there was not enough science to justify a blanket ban, despite what the experts at the EPA had found before he got there.

If the Trump administration had not quashed that ban, we would be entering our second year in this country without a drop of that chemical touching our crops. Instead, the pesticide hoses are still on, and "The New York Times" has done some remarkable reporting on what that looks like for Americans on the ground.

Quote: in May of 2015, Vicenta Rivera was one of the first to feel it, a pesticide drift of chlorpyrifos has been sprayed on a nearby grove of mandarin oranges. There was a strong odor, a taste in the back of the truth, numb lips, itchy skin and watery eyes. The headache set in quickly.

A 37-year-old mother of three remembers the smell, the dizziness, the overwhelming feeling of nausea. Other workers thought she was faking it, trying to be funny when she hit the ground and started convulsing.

When the invisible but toxic cloud of chlorpyrifos arrived, Lucia Montero thought she smelled grease or burned oil, believing it was the tractor, she turned off the engine. Then came the burning, the itching the nausea. Ms. Montero called a supervisor on the phone who told her to get her crew out of the field. But by then several were vomiting, two or three fainted.

"The New York Times" just dropped this incredible body of work today documenting how the Trump administration is unwinding environmental regulations at a breakneck pace. They documented the effects of those rollbacks, the effects they`re having on real people in painstaking detail. And it`s not just plumes of pesticides in the California orange fields.

Joining us now is Eric Lipton, investigative reporter for "The New York Times" and one of the reporters responsible for this excellent endeavor.

Eric, great to have you with us.

ERIC LIPTON, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Thank you so much.

REID: So that was just a little bit of your reporting on the Trump administration not to ban this pesticide, our new spelling word of the day, chlorpyrifos. But that`s just sort of tip of the iceberg of what you all have found in terms of what they`re doing in terms of the environment, can you give us a few of the highlights or maybe the low-lights?

LIPTON: Sure. We`ve read so much about proposals for changes in environmental rules. What we found when we went and looked across the United States was that there are real impacts that are happening.

For example, in North Dakota, there was a proposal by the Department of Interior to limit the flaring and leaks of natural gas when there is oil and drilling going on. And in North Dakota, there has been a massive increase in the amount of flaring on an Indian reservation there that would have been subject to an interior department rule that limited that flaring and those leaks, be the Trump administration basically eliminated all of those limits on flaring, and I went and visited that reservation in November, and you thought the hillsides were on fire.

I mean, the flares were burning everywhere you looked, hundreds of flares burning. Thirty percent of the natural gas that they produce there is being burned. It`s enough to power 600,000 homes per month. It`s just being burned into the air.

At times, there are chemicals that are leaking that are carcinogens going into the air. It`s an incredible scene. It`s quite terrifying, in fact, but this is something that`s no longer being regulated by the Department of the Interior.

REID: And we know that the Trump administration, that Donald Trump came in touting coal. He was going to somehow bring back this 19th and 20th century product and make it, you know, profitable again. Talk a little bit about what the administration has been doing on coal in terms of the environment, and has that in fact brought back the industry?

LIPTON: I mean, if is there a single industry that the administration has attempted to help out, it`s the coal industry. And of the areas that we looked in both Texas and in West Virginia, we found examples. There is a regulation that is supposed to reduce the toxic metals being released in the rivers in the United States. It was a single biggest source of toxic pollutants going in the rivers that rule has been delayed. Eighty different power plants in the United States are supposed to be upgrading their waste treatment programs. Most have now stopped the design works on those improvements because of this delay the EPA put.

In Texas, I visited a power plant that was going have to upgrade its air pollution control system to produce sulfur dioxide which is contributed to perhaps 170 deaths a year can be attributed to this plant because of the enormous amount of sulfur dioxide it`s emitting each year. It`s one the largest sources in the United States.

The EPA under Obama said that plant is going to have to install what`s called the scrubber to reduce that sulfur dioxide. The Trump EPA says no longer necessary. Don`t worry about it. There are nine plants that were going to have to install scrubbers in Texas. Those are no longer going to have to happen. That`s another change.

But the thing is, both of those things were supposed to help the coal industry, but then the energy department reported just a couple of weeks ago coal production in the United States declined more in the last year than it has in decades. So, the United States continues to turn away from coal, even though Trump said that he is ending the war on coal.

REID: Wow. Great reporting. Eric Lipton, investigative reporter for "The New York Times." I recommend everyone read it. It`s sobering reading, but thank you so much for doing that work. Appreciate it.

LIPTON: Thank you.

REID: Thank you.

When we come back, former President Barack Obama on the verge of making history again in a whole new way, and while this is bound to be salt in the wound for one Donald Trump. That`s ahead.

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REID: Here`s a piece of presidential trivia for you. The Gallup polling company has asked Americans this question, what man have you heard or read about living today in any part of the world do you admire most? Gallup reported today that this year the honor went to none other than Barack Obama.

Obama has been the man Americans admire most in the world for 11 years in a row. Meaning if he wins next year, he will tie Dwight Eisenhower for the most times being named the most admired man.

Gallup says there are only two presidents to date who did not win the honor while in office. One is Gerald Ford, although to be fair he was only in office two years and Gallup did not do the polling of one of them. The other president who has yet to top the list is Donald Trump. But he has two more years left to try.

Meanwhile, there is something else this week that counts as unprecedented and that is next.

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REID: Yesterday, Donald Trump flew to the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq to visit the U.S. troops stationed there. That part, that part there`s precedent for. There`s both a long-standing tradition of presidents making some time over the holidays to visit the troops and expectation that at some point in their time in office, the presidents will make a trip like this one, to meet with our troops abroad.

What seems unprecedented is how this particular president spoke while he was there.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want to have strong borders in the United States, and Democrats don`t want to let us have strong borders, only for one reason. You know why? Because I want it.

You know when you think about it, you`re fighting for borders in other countries, and they don`t want to fight, the Democrats for the border of our country. It doesn`t make a lot of sense.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

REID: The Democrats, the Democrats, the Democrats.

Now, I`m no presidential historian but why understanding is typically when the president makes this kind of visit, they call for unity and talk about the indomitable greatness of the American spirit or laud the troops for their current mission, they don`t do a campaign speech. But again, I`m not a presidential historian.

Joining us now is somehow who is, NBC presidential historian and author of the great new book "Presidents of War", Michael Beschloss.

Michael, always great to have you with us.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, NBC NEWS PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Thank you, Joy.

REID: What did you make of that address that Donald Trump gave in front of U.S. troops in Iraq?

BESCHLOSS: I thought it was obscene, because, you know, just as you were saying, president goes to speak to Americans whose lives are in jeopardy, the tradition is you keep it nonpolitical, you try to unite the group. You try to say I`m your commander in chief, I`m behind you. You do not talk politics.

And for him to start talking about in a nasty way about Democrats and Nancy Pelosi and we`ve been played for suckers in the past, that`s fine if you want to say those things at a Trump rally at a stadium in the United States, because people go to a Trump rally voluntarily and if they hear things they do not like, they can leave. These are young Americans for the most part who have chosen to serve their country, if the president says something they privately disagree with, they don`t have the right to jeer him or get up and leave the way the rest of us do if we`re here in the United States. I thought it was disgraceful.

REID: You know, there was a photograph he was posing with people in MAGA hats. You know, the idea the military representing and defending all Americans of all political stripes, it`s like a thing. It is weird to sort of have them drafted into the Republican Party`s politics.

BESCHLOSS: That`s the whole thing when he obviously does not understand or does not care about. And I think what`s important for all of us is to keep on remembering this is not the way we do things. We live in a democracy.

Our military is nonpolitical. This is not a dictatorship. This is not an authoritarian system. You`ll go to countries that have systems like that, you have a leader going on and making a big political speech and those in the military are expected to applaud. That`s not the way we do it in the United States.

REID: And I mean Donald Trump has no history of personal valor and one wonders where --

BESCHLOSS: Not that I`ve noticed.

REID: Yes, you know, he got five drafted deferments.

BESCHLOSS: Bone spurs.

REID: Yes, it`s a weird dynamic in the military.

But I want to talk about another thing that I`m sure, this week the Gallup poll, it`s been going on for a very long time. Donald Trump has not topped it yet as president. What do you make of the fact that the admiration for President Obama is unbroken for 11 years and Donald Trump has been lagging there?

BESCHLOSS: Well, right now, Barack Obama is the anti-Donald Trump. His wife, the first lady, Michelle Obama`s book is number one. His book is extremely popular.

It reminds me a little of a more pronounced version of what we saw at the end of Lyndon Johnson`s time and LBJ was getting really unpopular over Vietnam. The Gallup most popular man in their poll was Dwight Eisenhower the former president, not LBJ. It was a way of some people essentially going sort of like this to LBJ. And I assume to some extent that`s going on with Donald Trump.

REID: Yes. Very interesting. Three African-Americans at the top of the poll when you count First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey is number two on the list of women, and President Obama, that`s got to be unprecedented too.

BESCHLOSS: Fascinating and assuring.

REID: Yes. NBC presidential historian and author of "Presidents of War", Michael Beschloss, always, always a treat and honor to talk with you. Thank you very much.

BESCHLOSS: Same with me. Thank you, Joy. Happy holidays.

REID: Happy holidays. Thank you.

That does it for us tonight and we will see you again tomorrow.

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD". Ari Melber is in for Lawrence tonight.

Good evening, Ari.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END