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White House responds to New York Times. TRANSCRIPT: 1/11/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Jim Himes, Jennifer Wexton

JOY REID, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Chris.  Thanks very much.  Big night, thank you.

And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.  Rachel has the night off.  She will be back on Monday.  We begin tonight, of course, with that breaking news from "The New York Times."

Here is the headline again: FBI opened inquiry into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia.

Quote: In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president`s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.  That is according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation. 

The story continues: The inquiry carried explosive implications.  Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president`s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security.

Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow`s influence.  Agents and senior FBI officials had grown suspicious of Mr. Trump`s ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign but held off on opening an investigation into him, the people said, in part because they were uncertain how to proceed with an inquiry of such sensitivity and magnitude. 

But the president`s activities before and after Mr. Comey`s firing in May of 2017, particularly two instances in which Mr. Trump tied the Comey dismissal to the Russia investigation helped prompt the counterintelligence aspect of the inquiry, the people said.  One of these instances was a letter written by Trump with the help of White House aide Steven Miller in the days before he fired Comey, outlining his reasons for doing so.  The existence of that letter was previously reported by "The Times" which noted that then White House counsel Don McGahn intervened and stopped it from being sent. 

The second instance was this interview that the president did with Lester Holt two days after he fired Comey, in which he discussed his reasoning for doing so. 


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I was going to fire Comey.  There`s no good time to do it, by the way.  They --

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR:  Because in your letter, you said I accepted -- accepted their recommendations.  You had already made the decision. 

TRUMP:  Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendations.  He made a recommendation.  He`s highly respected.  Very good guy.  Very smart guy.  The Democrats like him.  The Republicans lime him.  He made a recommendation. 

But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it.  And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story. 


REID:  When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.  Again, this bombshell report from "The New York Times" tonight reporting that law enforcement officials were so concerned by the president`s behavior after he fired Comey that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests. 

"The Times" say this was a controversial decision inside the FBI.  That it`s not clear if the investigation continues.  But that special counsel Robert Mueller did it -- did it -- took it over when he was appointed in May.  As "The Times" reports, the criminal and counterintelligence elements were coupled together into one investigation.  Former law enforcement officials said in interviews in recent weeks.  Because if Mr. Trump had ousted the head of the FBI to impede or even end the Russia investigation, that was both a possible crime and a national security concern. 

"The Times" tonight also reports getting some access to the testimony of the top lawyer at the FBI at the time, FBI general counsel James Baker.  And then from Mr. Baker`s House testimony, quote, not only would it be an issue of obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done.  And that is what would be a threat to national security, Mr. Baker said. 

In his testimony, portions of which were read to "The New York Times."  Wow.  What a story. 

Joining us now is "New York Times" reporter Michael Schmidt, part of the three-person team breaking this story tonight. 

Michael Schmidt, thank you so much for being here. 


REID:  So give us a little bit of the background on this story.  How long have you been working up to it? 

SCHMIDT:  Well, in many ways we`ve been working on it for a year and a half, because since Mueller was appointed, since Comey was fired, we`ve been trying to understand what the FBI and the Justice Department have been examining on the president.  For much of that time, that means we focused on criminal obstruction.  That`s sort of been the collective conscience, the public`s understanding of this to this point.  There is a criminal obstruction investigation into the president. 

But what we`re bridging forth tonight, what we learned is that there is also this counterintelligence aspect of that investigation where they were looking directly at the president`s ties to Russia.  So, what initially began here as what we all thought was just an obstruction investigation was much bigger and had larger national security issues and concerns to it.  Because the folks at the FBI at the time saw this as a potential outgrowth of Russia`s larger meddling within the country. 

As you were pointing out earlier, the FBI`s general counsel at the time, Jim Baker, testifying on Capitol Hill last year in -- in closed-door testimony talking about how they saw this as a national security threat, the firing of Comey as a national security threat because it could be a way of trying to impede the FBI`s ability to understand how Russia meddled in the election, interfered in the election, helped get Donald Trump elected. 

REID:  You know, I think for a lot of people when they hear this story and it is indeed a bombshell, congratulations on the scoop.  The FBI seemed to have been the more reticent of the agencies that were investigating during the 2016 campaign.  They very famously essentially downplayed the idea and didn`t mention the fact that the Trump campaign was under investigation during the campaign. 

Is it your reporting some point after Donald Trump was elected they came to see a national security threat inside the White House that they didn`t see during the campaign? 

SCHMIDT:  I`m not sure if that notion is completely accurate.  I think what was going on at the FBI in the months before the election is that they had four Trump associates under investigation, they were looking at them, it was a counterintelligence investigation, they weren`t sure what the real links were back to Russia, what the real there there was, and they were not going to go public with that investigation. 

The problem that the FBI runs into is that it seen with the backdrop of the Clinton e-mail investigation, which they handled differently.  So they get accused of treating them differently when they were proceeding with a counterintelligence investigation to figure out how much was there. 

I think that they knew that the decision to either open an investigation into a candidate or into a president himself, Trump, would have been an enormous deal and that they need to meet a particular threshold to do that. 

REID:  Mmm-hmm. 

SCHMIDT:  After the Comey firing, they thought they had enough to do that, to move forward with that monumental decision, regardless of what comes out of the Mueller investigation, it is an historic moment that the FBI opened an investigation into whether the president of the United States was colluding with a foreign power.  Just in and of itself. 

REID:  Yes, that is extraordinary.  As is the two things that in your reporting are the things that cause the FBI to really relax their reservations and go forward.  Two things that Donald Trump himself did, that the president of the United States did.  Talk a little bit about this first thing, which is the letter, and this is the letter that Donald Trump actually wanted to send to Jim Comey, sort of an exit letter to him. 

Can you talk a little bit more about that? 

SCHMIDT:  So the weekend before Comey fires, Trump goes to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey.  He`s there with his kids and Steven miller, his close aide and Trump decides he`s going to fire Comey.  And he and Jared Kushner and miller come up with this letter that Trump is going to send to Comey. 

Trump comes back to Washington, he tells his White House counsel, I`m firing the FBI director and he gives him this letter.  The White House counsel Don McGahn looks at it and says this is not a good idea to be sending.  Trump has references to the Russia investigation in it.  McGahn thinks it`s problematic. 

What happens in the two days that follow is that McGahn has Rod Rosenstein the deputy attorney general and Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, come over to the White House and Rosenstein agrees to write a letter for the president.  You don`t need to send that letter.  We`ll send -- you know, I`ll come up with a letter for you.  You don`t need to mention Russia. 

Rosenstein comes -- the letter from Rosenstein comes back the following day.  It says that Comey mishandled the Clinton e-mail investigation.  It`s sort of a different reason than Trump wanted -- Trump ultimately wants to get rid of Comey.  And that is the letter that is sent.

But Trump was irritated with Rosenstein for not mentioning Russia in the letter.  Trump ultimately when he sends his letter to Comey says, you know, dear, Mr. Comey, you know, thank you so much for telling me three times I was not under investigation in the Russia inquiry, and what happens is the FBI finds out about that in the following days and they`re perplexed as to why it is that Trump wanted to mention Russia in the letter?  What was it that was really driving that? 

The second thing, as you were pointing out earlier, were his comments to Lester Holt, where he appears to say that Russia was on his mind when he fired Comey. 

REID:  And you have in here -- it is extraordinary.  What we`ve been talking about in the obstruction of justice inquiry has generally up until now been about the firing of Comey as a way to obstruct the FBI`s investigation more broadly.  But what you`re reporting here is that the FBI came to see the potential obstruction as in and of itself a national security concern. 

SCHMIDT:  Correct.  That is the testimony that was given last year by the FBI general counsel at the time, Baker.  He`s basically saying, look, there was this very important national security investigation that was going on, and to the extent that trying to get rid of Comey was trying to end that investigation, that would have national security implications in and of itself.  That would hurt our ability to get to the bottom of this, to figure out what did the Russians do and trying to prevent it from happening again.  That was sort of the broader national security concern. 

The interesting thing about that is that we usually think of obstruction of justice as something that happens in the criminal context, where someone is interfering with a witness or lying to investigators in a criminal investigation that`s looking at one or, you know, several individuals.  The difference here is that the potential obstruction could have been on a national security investigation, one that impacted the entire country.  So this is not just on a bank robbery, this is not just on a regular, you know, crime that they were looking at, this was the attack on the election. 

REID:  Yes, absolutely.  Then another piece -- at the end of the piece that is also another extraordinary thing.  A lot of us will remember the Oval Office meeting which Donald Trump invites Russian officials into the Oval Office shortly after he fired Mr. Comey and that, too, became a part of this inquiry. 

SCHMIDT:  Correct.  They don`t learn about that meeting until after it`s disclosed some time later, but that is right after Trump fires Comey, he has the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador into the Oval Office and, you know, he says to them by firing Comey, you know, he relieved a lot of pressure on him in relation to the Russia investigation.  He also calls Comey a nut job. 

And when this comes out, it further unnerves the FBI agents who are saying, well, why is it that he had these foreign adversaries into the Oval Office?  Why would he be so willing to do this and also willing to them that by firing Comey, he alleviated pressure on himself? 

REID:  Yes, extraordinary reporting.  "New York Times" reporter Michael Schmidt, one of three reporters who broke this really blockbuster story tonight. 

Congratulations, Michael.  Really appreciate your time tonight.  Thank you.

SCHMIDT:  Thanks for having me. 

REID:  Thank you very much.  Responses are pouring in to this breaking news, including from the White House. 

We just got this moments ago from White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.  Quote: This is absurd, she says.  James Comey was fired because he`s a disgraced partisan hack and his deputy Andrew McCabe who was in charge at the time is a known liar, fired from the FBI.  Unlike President Obama who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia.  That`s the first official response from the White House to this news scoop from "The New York Times". 

Joining us now is Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney from the Eastern District of Michigan. 

Barbara, thanks for joining us. 

That response from the White House does not address any of this, oddly enough.  There are a lot of ad hominems in it, but it doesn`t address really what is in this story that is incredibly blockbuster.  What stands out to you as being the most important thing from the standpoint of what Robert Mueller is clearly looking into? 

BARBARA MCQUADE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY:  Yes, the FBI does not open counterintelligence cases lightly and most certainly wouldn`t open a case against the president of the United States lightly whatsoever.  It would have been reviewed at the highest levels and handled very sensitively.  So, the fact that it was open is really pretty astonishing to me. 

You may remember that President Trump repeatedly asked Jim Comey to make public the fact that he was not under investigation.  I`m under a cloud.  You need to say this publicly.  What Jim Comey said was, I didn`t want to make that assurance because if that status changed I would feel obligated to say so to the public. 

And so, for a long time, he wasn`t under investigation, and that fact actually did not surprise me because it would be such an extraordinary thing to name the president as a target of an investigation.  But to hear that it was, in fact, the case, makes me think that not only was it based on things that we know, but that there must be other facts that we don`t know that would have been the predication for opening that investigation. 

REID:  And I think that you`ve nailed it exactly.  I did ask about this and he said it`s not quite true that the FBI was not looking aggressively at the campaign before, but there was, you know, before the campaign, before the campaign was over, the FBI seemed to be the more reticent, they were the more cautious agency in terms of looking into the counterintelligence aspects of what was going on in the Trump campaign. 

But what triggers the FBI, their suspicions existed during the campaign, as Michael Schmidt also reported.  They were concerned about the ties to Russia.  What winds of triggering their suspicions even further is Donald Trump.  Two things he does, a letter he writes in which he insists on including Russia as the cause for firing Comey and then the interview with Lester Holt. 

How extraordinary is that that it is Donald Trump`s own words essential that caused the FBI`s suspicions to increase? 

MCQUADE:  Yes, my guess is they were very reluctant to open the investigation and consider him to be a target of the investigation because there is concern that the government will be perceived in a way that is partisan, and they want to do everything they can to stick to facts and law and not be anyone`s puppet in terms of being used for political gain.  But at some point, you can`t deny facts and the FBI begins to have a responsibility to investigate something that is a threat to national security. 

So, the statements to Lester Holt, the letter and the statement to the Russians about the great relief, pressure being relieved once Jim Comey was fired, all of those things I think probably stared them in the face and made them believe that they could not ignore those facts any longer but they actually had a responsibility to protect the national security of the United States by investigating this fully. 

REID:  I think a lot of people have come to see the obstruction of justice inquiry and the inquiry into what you broadly call Russia gate, the Russian probe as two distinct things.  In your mind now, should we start thinking about the obstruction of justice probe in light of what we`re learning from "The New York Times" as being really part and parcel, that, too, is part of the counterintelligence investigation. 

MCQUADE:  I think so.  I think that at least in the early stages of this, I thought President Trump was seeking to protect Mike Flynn and make some others in his family because the investigation was getting too close.  So his goal was to stand down on that investigation, but if instead that was part of the counterintelligence, part of the tradecraft, whether he was witting or unwitting, I think is not known, but trying to throw the FBI on the scent might have been a very part of that threat to the national security.

And so, I do think that they are more intertwined than we had thought before.  You know, post-9/11, the goal of the FBI is to bring down the wall between criminal investigations and counterintelligence or counterterrorism investigations and to use all of the tools that they have for every case.  So, they no longer really think of it in those terms of black and white.  I know some of the commentators out there who served in the Justice Department before 9/11, like Rudy Giuliani and others, always talk about the wall and the separation, but in the modern era, that wall is gone and those kinds of investigations are intertwined. 

And so, I think that they see it as one big investigation rather than two separate investigations. 

REID:  You saw the response in the White House.  A lot of ad hominems, sort of an angry response.  This inquiry, what`s different about it, this is not about Paul Manafort, there is no connection to anyone else.  This is literally just Donald Trump, just his words, just the letters he wrote, just the interviews he gave. 

How much jeopardy is the president of the United States in tonight? 

MCQUADE:  Well, again, I think it depends on how these facts play out.  You know, in terms of charging decisions or impeachment, I don`t know that a whole lot has changed, but the one thing that this raises with me is the fact that I think there likely are additional facts unknown to the public that cause the FBI to open that counterintelligence investigation into President Trump.  And so, for that reason, I think that maybe the level of his jeopardy has gone up a notch. 

REID:  Yes, I don`t think I have ever heard the words associated with a president of the United States that a major law enforcement agency, the FBI, is investigating whether the president of the United States while president had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.  That`s an extraordinary sentence to have associated with an American president. 

Barbara McQuade, former U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Michigan, thank you so much for your time tonight. 

MCQUADE:  Thank you, Joy. 

REID:  Much more to come on this breaking story tonight.  In just a moment, we will talk live with one of the top members of the House Intelligence Committee. 

Stay right there.  We`ll be right back. 


REID:  We are continuing to digest this new reporting tonight from "The New York Times." I will just read you top of the story once again. 

Quote: In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president`s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation."

So, that is a counterintelligence investigation opened by the FBI into whether the president himself was basically a Russian asset.  According to "The Times," the question of whether the president of the United States obstructed justice by firing the FBI Director James Comey was itself seen as a national security concern not just as a criminal matter. 

Quote: If the president had fired Mr. Comey to stop the Russia investigation, the action would have been a national security issue because it naturally would have hurt the bureau`s effort to learn how Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and whether any Americans were involved, according to James A. Baker, who served as FBI general counsel until late 2017.

Quote: He privately testified in October before House investigators who were examining the FBI`s handling of the full Russia inquiry.  That testimony has not been publicly released but in a portion of it that was read to "The Times". James Baker said, not only would it be an issue of obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security.

Joining us now is Congressman Jim Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. 

Congressman Himes, so great to have you here tonight. 


REID:  Your reaction, first, to this reporting. 

HIMES:  Well, it`s extraordinary.  I mean, this is one of those historical moments where, you know, we`ve been so accustomed to, you know, 20 weeks of headlines in one day that, you know, we now learned that apparently the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president of the United States. 

On the other hand, you know, I`m not hugely surprised.  I remember that day and I remember just, you know, this icy feeling of, oh, my god, this is somehow some really awful stuff starts.  But, remember, the reason I`m not entirely surprised is that what we have come to learn over the period of a year, a year and a half, the FBI would have known about a lot of that stuff. 

What do I mean?  I mean the don Jr.  Meeting at Trump Tower where Don Jr. is like, hey, give me dirt on Clinton to Russians.  The fact that Paul Manafort, that Michael Cohen, that Papadopoulos, that Michael Flynn all lied, all lied about their contacts with Russia.  That according to press reports Jared Kushner asked the Russian ambassador if they could set up private communication lines in the Russian embassy. 

Some of that stuff, maybe all of that stuff, the FBI knew when the president of the United States fired Jim Comey to take pressure -- the pressure of the Russia investigation off of him.  And, oh, by the way, there may be stuff that they knew and still know that we know nothing about.  So when you add that all together as massively consequential as this fact is, it`s not terribly surprising. 

REID:  Yes.  A lot of this testimony -- a lot of this story hinges on the private testimony of James Baker, who was the FBI general counsel that he gave to House Oversight and House Judiciary.  Have you, sir, seen that testimony or is that testimony you expect your committee to get hold of? 

HIMES:  Well, I have not as a member of the Intelligence Committee seen that testimony.  It was -- it was other committees in the Congress.  You know, I think we`re still at a point, Joy, where the answer here -- and the answer becomes all the more important given what we learned from "The New York Times."  The answer here is we both need to preserve the Mueller investigation and then to make sure that every aspect of the Mueller investigation becomes public. 

Whatever -- whatever`s in there, if it exonerates the president or indicts the president, it needs to be made public.  If you sort of step away from your feelings about Donald Trump, a federal police force deciding to investigate the president of the United States, you know, if you`re on the left you say, well, of course, Donald Trump deserves it and certainly that`s where the evidence lies.  But if you`re part of the 30 percent of the American population that still believes the president that this is a big witch hunt, you think -- well, of course, it`s a deep state, the FBI and the Department of Justice have run amok. 

Every aspect of the Mueller investigation and all of what will be extraordinarily well-documented deliberations within the FBI around this investigation, you know, for the purpose of the stability of our political system, the public is going to need -- and history is going to need to be able to scrutinize and understand the decisions that were made. 

REID:  Yes, and we know that the house intelligence committee is a very different committee now than when it was run by Republicans for very clearly different purposes.  Can you see your way clear to wanting to talk to some of the key people mentioned in this reporting who are privy to one of the two things that caused the FBI to ratchet up its inquiry?  One of whom would be don McGahn, the White House counsel, and the other would be Rod Rosenstein, who is on his way apparently out as deputy attorney general. 

HIMES:  Of course we will.  And, again, I think all of the House committees, Intelligence, Oversight, Judiciary, we`re all way behind the Mueller investigation because, of course, under Republican control, certainly the intelligence committee on which I served, under the chairmanship of Devin Nunes became the pr firm and defense attorney for the president of the United States.  So we are way behind with an investigation that was cut short, in which we didn`t follow up on testimony. 

So I think, Joy, the steps are going to be let`s watch what Mueller comes out with.  Mueller, of course, is focused primarily on whether there was criminal activity.  It is the role of the Congress to not necessarily look at criminal activity and think about indictments, but to actually get the broader and the bigger picture, you know, what, in fact, was Russia doing?  What are the flaws in our system that allow for a campaign to have multiple contacts with Russia?  Why did they lie about it? 

So, you know, we`re behind, but now that the house is under a Democratic majority, it will for the first time start acting as a responsible check and a balance on this out of control president.  And by the way, as we saw from Sarah Sanders` statement today attacking Barack Obama of all things on this night, pretty much an out of control and unhinged White House. 

REID:  Yes, it was quite a response.  I do have to ask you, and I understand that it is very important to try to determine what Russia did to our elections.  I think a lot of Americans care deeply about that.  But there is never in my memory, I`ve been paying attention to politics a long time, been a sentence like this written about an American president.  That a major law enforcement, federal law enforcement agency, the FBI was investigating whether the president of the United States had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests. 

There are a lot of Americans who are going to want to know whether or not, in your view, sir, this constitutes grounds to open an impeachment inquiry.  This is an incredibly serious allegation to be investigated at this serious a level.  Should there at least be inquiry into whether or not these constitute potential high crimes and misdemeanors?

HIMES:  Well, Joy, again, we`ve got to wait for the facts to emerge.  We can`t make judgment based on articles in "The New York Times." 

What you said is true.  Just the fact that what we know happened happened is beyond extraordinary, and, of course, that`s the world we live in right now.  You know, I`m expecting a declaration of a national emergency around a fake crisis that doesn`t exist.  You know, with emergency powers the president can do some remarkable things.  We are in a very, very different world. 

You ask about impeachment, joy.  Here`s my fear.  Here`s my fear.  The Constitution of the United States provides for impeachment for cases where the president has committed high crimes and misdemeanors.  My fear is, and Americans need to grapple with this, I am not sure given today`s politics, given the extent to which the president has done everything he can and his people, by the way and his supporters in the Congress of the United States, having done everything they can to delegitimize Mueller, to delegitimize the FBI and the Department of Justice.  I fear that there may not be anything, anything that Mueller could report that would cause enough Republican senators to decide that the president should be impeached, and that is, along with everything else we`ve been talking about tonight, a truly scary thought. 

REID:  Yes, indeed.  As we exit -- I`m going to let you go, sir.  But I have to ask you -- just from what you know as of now, what you`ve learned about the president of the United States so far.  Do you trust Donald Trump with the national security of the United States? 

HIMES:  I absolutely do not.  You know, I mean, I don`t know -- I don`t even know where to begin, right?  You know, the national security of the United States has a lot to do with competent foreign policy.  The president of the United States tweeted out that we were taking everybody, all of our troops out of Syria in 30 days.  The secretary of state and the national security adviser are saying something completely different. 

So we don`t even have a foreign policy at this point that is consistent out of the White House.  This president, of course, over the last two years has demonstrated that he has one concern and one concern only, and that is how much of a big man he is and how respected and how much he wins as a person.  It has nothing to do with the safety of the country.  It has nothing to do with the national security of the United States.  It has to do whether he goes to bed that night feeling like he won over crying Chuck and Nancy Pelosi or, you know, what the networks are saying about him on TV. 

REID:  Congressman Jim Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, thank you so much for your time tonight. 

HIMES:  Thank you, Joy. 

REID:  Thank you.  Much more to come tonight. 

In just a moment, we`re going to talk with the former assistant director of the FBI`s counterintelligence division. 

And in a few hours, the shutdown will be the longest one in history officially.  We`ll talk with a brand-new member of Congress. 

So much to get to.  Stay with us.  


REID:  We are about to get some expert help unpacking this bombshell new reporting from "The New York Times," painting a devastating picture of the eight days between when Donald Trump fired James Comey and the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.  We now know that time included the FBI deciding to open a counterintelligence investigation into Donald Trump himself, to determine whether the president of the United States was secretly working on behalf of Russia. 

Quote: The decision to investigate Mr. Trump himself was an aggressive move by FBI officials who were confronting the chaotic aftermath of the firing of Mr. Comey and enduring the president`s verbal assaults on the Russia investigation as a witch hunt.

Quote: A vigorous debate was taking shape amongst some former law enforcement officials outside the case over whether FBI investigators overreacted in opening the counterintelligence inquiry during a tumultuous period at the Justice Department.

Joining us now is Frank Figliuzzi, NBC contributor, national security contributor and a former assistant director of the FBI`s counterintelligence department. 

Frank, thanks so much for being here. 


REID:  I just want to start by asking you, what jumps out to you given what you`ve done -- given what you`ve done for a living in this reporting? 

FIGLIUZZI:  So there`s a couple of takeaways here.  I think it`s important to talk about what this reporting says and what it doesn`t say.  What it says, if accurate, is that the impetus of the special counsel inquiry or what turned into the special counsel inquiry was not necessarily just figuring out the degree to which the Russians influenced the campaign, but rather now we`re faced with kind of a worst case scenario that we`ve all been talking about, which is the possibility that the president had somehow been co-opted and was in the pocket of the Russians. 

So, let`s understand what that -- what that means.  It means that the FBI had at a minimum a threshold to open a preliminary inquiry, which we call reasonable suspicion as a threshold, but it then went to a special counsel, which likely means it went to a full investigation.  That threshold is specific and articulable facts that someone is or may be an agent of a foreign power. 

That would not be done in a vacuum.  That would have gone across the street to Department of Justice.  It would have been approved.  And then, of course, we know that the DOJ said, you know what, we need a special counsel inquiry.  So, now, we`re seeing what the real origin of this was. 

Now, here`s what it doesn`t say, Joy.  It doesn`t say that they proved it.  It doesn`t say that that aspect of the case is still running.  And we don`t know whether it was a P.I., preliminary inquiry, or a full. 

So there are some unanswered questions here, but it is really sobering to think that maybe if this reporting is right that Donald J. Trump, that name was in the header, in the subject title of a counterintelligence investigation. 

REID:  You know, and, Frank, there have been several instances of things that Donald Trump has done that have really raised the alarms and put people`s hair on fire about what he`s doing and why.  You know, mouthing Russian talking points on the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the performance in Helsinki and the solicitousness with which he deals with Vladimir Putin in general.  But in this reporting in "The New York Times," they point out one thing that Donald Trump did that caused the FBI to feel more confident and validated in taking what was an extraordinary step, as you just said, in opening this preliminary inquiry into the president of the United States.

  And that was the visit by Russia officials who were let into the oval office shortly after the firing of Mr. Comey, in which Donald Trump -- there`s a picture of it right there.  Where there were not Americans in the room, I guess, that were monitoring what was being said, in which he supposedly told these men from the Soviet Union -- sorry, from Russia, I just fired the head of the FBI.  He was crazy, a real nut job, according to a document summarizing the meeting.  I faced great pressure because of Russia.  That`s taken off. 

What do you make of that?  Does that make you rethink that Oval Office meeting? 

FIGLIUZZI:  Well, I want to -- I keep pointing out, and this is a mantra that I know you`ve heard me repeat, which is that there is so much more to this iceberg that we`re not seeing.  And I want the American people to know, because they`re going to hear inevitability from the White House that this is all part of a deep state, this is all part of an FBI that was out of control.  But I want the American people to understand that the FBI is privy to all kinds of intelligence, highly classified intelligence.

And that if you`re going to open a case, as "The New York Times" reports, on the president of the United States, you are going to have more than just unstable behavior and public behavior.  You are going to have something that gives you at least a reasonable suspicion, if not specific and articulable facts. 

What does that mean without getting into actual classified?  It means they`ve got intercepted communications.  It means they`re privy to what -- how these Russians were talking about the president or to the president.  So, when we hear that a case was opened on the president, I`m -- based on my 25 years of experience in having run the counterintelligence division, I`m telling you there is more than just the crazy public behavior to this. 

REID:  Wow.  Frank Figliuzzi, former assistant director of the FBI`s counterintelligence division.  Thank you so much for making some time to be here tonight.  Thank you. 

FIGLIUZZI:  Thank you, Joy. 

REID:  Thank you.  Wow, what a Friday night. 

Much more to get to, much more to get to when we come back.


REID:  Today is day 21 of the government shutdown.  Members of Congress were at work this week, however.  Democrats have been using the time to pass bills that would re-open the government one piece at a time. 

On the menu this afternoon was the Department of the Interior and the EPA.  Every Democrat in attendance voted aye along with ten of their Republican colleagues.  That bill, however, is doomed in the Senate because Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said he will not hold a vote on any bill that the president will not sign, which is to say any bill without money for Donald Trump`s wall. 

The House also passed a bill today that guarantees federal workers will receive backed pay once the shutdown ends.  That one will go straight to the president`s desk and he is expected to sign it.  When that money will get paid however is anyone`s guest because for that to happen, the shutdown would have to end. 

Meanwhile, much of the work we count on the government to do is being dialed back and left undone.  Tonight, the FDA is curtailing food inspections.  Cleanups at federal superfund sites have been suspended. 

Work at federal immigration courts has stopped, making already terrible backlogs worse.  Funding for the entire federal court system is about to run out.  And the Federal Reserve may not be able to forecast our economy. 

Here`s a terrifying headline for you, airline safety is eroding as shutdown drags on.  The Miami Airport is shutting down an entire terminal because they do not have enough TSA agents to staff it.  Look at this from "The Washington Post," shutdown threatens national security, FBI agents group warns, day 21 and counting. 

Joining us now is Democratic Congressman Jennifer Wexton.  Congressman Wexton representing Virginia`s tenth congressional district, a state with lots and lots of federal workers.  She`s a brand-new members of Congress, having beaten a Republican incumbent. 

Congresswoman Wexton, thanks so much for being here tonight. 


REID:  So we`ve heard about the protests all over the country, the people who are saying they can`t even afford to get to work and are asking to sleep in the parking lot so they can come to work if they`re essential employees.  Can you just tell us a little bit about what`s going on in your district?  What are you hearing from your constituents? 

WEXTON:  Well, my district is in northern Virginia, we`re just outside of Washington, D.C. and we have tens of thousands of federal workers and contractors who interface with them daily, and I`m getting hundreds of e- mails, phone calls, social media outreach from constituents who are really worried about how they`re going to make ends meet.  I`ve heard from constituents who don`t know if they`re going to be able to make their mortgage payment, who don`t know if they`re going to be able to pay their childcare, who are looking into taking out loans from their credit union or asking for forbearance for their student loans. 

And a lot of these are people who are working every single day because they`re ordered and forced to go to work without pay.  We need to do better. 

REID:  And what are your constituents asking you to do because Donald Trump claims that the constituents that you`re just talking about, that they went a wall, too, and that`s what they want you to do.  Is that what they`re asking you to do? 

WEXTON:  My constituents for the most part are not in favor of the wall, but they want us to sit down and come to an agreement and get the government open again.  They`re tired of being used as pawns, being used as bargaining chips in a political battle that has nothing to do with their day-to-day lives and their jobs. 

REID:  And would you under any circumstances be willing to vote for money for a wall that we should add that Mexico was supposed to pay for in order to re-open the government? 

WEXTON:  Well, we in the Democratic Caucus, you know, we have passed what were Republican bills to re-open the government, you know?  We passed the big spending bill and then we broke it down and decoupled each department in case there was any hope of getting them passed one at a time to re-open various parts of the government, and these are bills that combine -- contain over $1 billion for border security, for smart border security, things like fencing in some areas, for things like sensors, for making sure that we have the right number of customs and border protection agents and things that are actually going to help stop contraband from coming into this country. 

REID:  Speaker Pelosi said, though, not any money for the wall, not any money for even beaded curtains.  Do you agree with her? 

WEXTON:  Well, you know, we need to be smart on border security.  The people of the tenth district sent me here not just to represent them but also to spend the money wisely, you know, their tax dollars.  And spending billions of dollars on a wall that`s not going to solve a problem is not a good use of our funds.  So, there are many other things that we can do that everybody agrees are a much better way to stop contraband and illegal immigration from coming into our country, and I`d rather that we -- that we focus on those solutions rather than giving in to Donald Trump`s temper tantrum. 

REID:  Yes, Donald Trump hasn`t exactly shown a lot of compassion towards the people who are really suffering and starting to suffer now that they`re missing paychecks.  What do you make of this guidance to federal workers that they should become dog walkers and personal shoppers and sell their belongings at a garage sale? 

WEXTON:  You know, I have constituents who are doing just that.  I mean, they shouldn`t have to.  Some of whom are working every day to make ends meet.  You know, I had a constituent who went to a restaurant to talk to the manager about getting a job waiting tables and was told, I`m not going to hire you because you`ll be leaving in a few weeks. 

So, it`s not like people can just get a job in retail or waiting tables or something like that to make ends meet, but a lot of these folks are security professionals, you know, they are professionals in the federal government who took their jobs because they believe in the missions of the agencies that they serve and they deserve so much better than this and we need to give them better than this. 

REID:  Yes, indeed.  Congresswoman Jennifer Wexton of Virginia, thank you so much.  Appreciate your time tonight. 

WEXTON:  Thank you, Joy. 

REID:  Thank you. 

Still ahead tonight, a very different member of Congress and the reason he`s becoming such a problem for the Republican Party.  We`ll be right back.   


REID:  For many, many years now, Steve King has been the unrestrained id of the Republican Party.  The Iowa congressman says demeaning things about immigrants.  He retweets white nationalists and neo Nazi groups and is cheered on by them.  He endorses neo Nazi candidates in other countries, including once tweeting "culture and demographics are our destiny.  We can`t restore our civilization with somebody else`s babies." 

Congressman King has for the most part gone unrebuked by his own party for all of this, even as he has moved from the fringe closer to his party`s mainstream. 

But apparently now the GOP has decided Steve King is keeping it a little too real after he told "The New York Times," quote: White nationalist, white supremacist, western civilization, how did that language become offensive?  Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?

You`re saying the quiet part out loud again, Congressman. 

And I`m not sure exactly why this time is different, but this particular quote has unleashed quite a torrent of criticism for Steve King from his fellow Republicans, including support for his new 2020 primary challenger.  Tim Scott, the Senate`s only black Republican writes in "The Washington Post," quote: Some in our party wonder why Republicans are constantly accused of racism.  It is because of our silence when things like this are said.

So why does the Republican Party suddenly seem to be waking up to Steve King?  Why now?  And is it too late now that Donald Trump is in the White House and the GOP has become more Steve King`s party than ever? 

Joining us now is Jason Johnson, politics editor for 

Great to have you with us. 

And, Jason, I don`t know where you were when Steve King said the thing in Cleveland where he said that subgroups have never --


REID:  -- contributed anything to civilization, only, you know, Western European civilization. 


REID:  But that didn`t cause a torrent of outrage.  Why now? 

JOHNSON:  Because they just lost.  I mean, that`s the only reason Republicans care.  Oh, we got shellacked in November, now all of a sudden we care we`ve got bigots in our party. 

Look, Steve King is a white nationalist.  He`s not just a racist.  I always say this.  This is important.  He is a white nationalist. 

That means he really doesn`t believe that anyone who is not a white Christian should have an active role in how the government, the economy or education works.  He`s made that clear.  His constituents have obviously re-elected him. 

He is not an outlier in the Republican Party.  His views pretty much are in line with the president of the United States.  And now, we`re going to pretend and be concerned about it, but he`s not going to go anywhere because you have too many people in the party who agree with him. 

REID:  You know, one of the things I think people forget is that long before Donald Trump said he was going to build a wall that Mexico is supposed to pay for, Steve King wanted to build a wall for the exact same reason.  I wonder if that has gone down the memory hole with the GOP as well? 

JOHNSON:  Well, all of it has.  The guy has a long, long history of this.  But, Joy, what I find really important because we saw the president do this, I`m a nationalist as opposed to a globalist.  Steve King is like I`m a nationalist. 

All of this playing with linguistics is this way to sort of mainstream this idea of white nationalism.  When Steve King says I`m a nationalist, it`s like R. Kelly saying I like kids.  We know what you`re talking about, right?  You`re not fooling anyone at this particular point.

And I think it`s important for anybody who is concerned about the health of this democracy, let alone people who live in Iowa, has to recognize that white nationalists are basically terrorist sympathizers.  The only way you can get rid of all the black and brown and tan people in this country is to treat them with violence, to refuse to give them an opportunity to participate in the American experiment. 

So, anyone who says, well, I don`t really remember what Steve said or maybe it`s bad now or Ben Shapiro coming out and saying, well, this crosses a line.  You`ve been letting him and people like him cross a line in the party for years and now you have to view it as a national security issue, not just a political damage issue. 

REID:  But I wonder, too, if once, you know, members of the Republican Party have opened up the door on Steve King whether or not then you can then push the door back closed.  You have Ron DeSantis who ran for governor, now the governor of Florida, who ran on monkey it up.  You have Brian Kemp with extensive suppression of African-American voters. 

You have the newly elected senator or re-elected senator from Mississippi who talked about going to a public hanging.  It kind of goes on and on and ends in the White House with Donald Trump, Charlottesville and on and on.  Can Republicans shut the door again and not talk about all of the other people? 

JOHNSON:  Well, they can not talk about it, joy, but, again, once you put that hood on, it`s hard to pull off.  It fits really, really tight and it seems to help you with voters sometimes.  Look, the issue for the Republican Party is not getting rid of their bigots, right?  I don`t think you can do that.  Democrats can`t get rid of all of their bigots. 

The issue for the Republican Party is, how much are we going to allow our bigots to have influence on our policy?  You can`t do anything about Steve King.  I don`t think he should be removed because obviously he reflects the attitude of his voters, but a man who is a white nationalist is fundamentally at odds with how America is supposed to operate. 

So he should be removed from committees.  She should be removed from positions where his bigotry, which is anti-American, can have an influence on policy.  That is the line that Republicans need to cross.  All of this whether we talk about him, whether we primary him, they`re just going to look for somebody who has the same nasty belief system but knows how to say it in nicer terms.  That`s what Republicans have been saying about Trump for the last two years. 

REID:  It`s all about manners.  Good manners.


REID:  Jason Johnson, politics editor at, always good to talk to you, man.  Thank You for being here.

JOHNSON:  Thanks so much.

REID:  Appreciate it.  That does it for us tonight. 

I`ll be back here tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. Eastern hosting my very own show, "A.M. JOY," and, oh, do we have a lot to discuss.  And not to worry, Rachel will be back here on Monday. 

And now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD."  My friend Ali Velshi is in for Lawrence Tonight. 

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