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Trump went to "extraordinary lengths" to hide details. 1/14/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: David Laufman, Ken Vogel

PHILIPPE REINES, FORMER ADVISER TO HILLARY CLINTON:  I think Mitch McConnell did a huge disservice to his party and some ways, I would say that he has probably contributed a great deal to the death of his party. 

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST:  Does it -- what`s the -- this is an emotional question but I`ll ask it.

REINES:  Yes.

HAYES:  Like, where is your mind about all of this two years later? 

REINES:  It`s how the hell did this happen in the sense of why did some let this happen?  And when I say some, I mean obviously the former FBI director, but it was hiding in plain sight.  And I would like to think that a lot of people, including Jim Comey, though he won`t acknowledge it, but I think a lot of these other players, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, I`d like to think that if they could do it over again, they would do it very differently. 

And I wish that had happened differently.  We would be in a different world where we`re not keeping secrets with the Russians instead of from the Russians. 

HAYES:  Philippe Reines, thanks for joining us. 

REINES:  Thanks.

HAYES:  That is "ALL IN" this evening. 

"THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" starts right now.  Good evening, Rachel. 

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Chris.  Thank you very much, my friend.

HAYES:  You bet.

MADDOW:  Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.  Happy Monday. 

There has been a lot of news today.  There`s been a lot of news in the past couple of days.  This is sort of an important moment, I think, that we are in, in the Trump presidency, potentially in modern American history. 

But in terms of understanding what`s about to happen next, I think we actually need to start with a little modern American history. 

In 1968, when Richard Nixon ran for president, his campaign was directed by one of his long time friends, an attorney named John Mitchell.  When Nixon won that presidential election in 1968, he appointed that same John Mitchell, the guy who had run his campaign to be attorney general, attorney general of the United States.  Now, John Mitchell would eventually be convicted on multiple felonies in conjunction with the Watergate scandal and would serve 19 months in prison. 

Nixon`s second attorney general was a man named Richard Kleindienst.  Richard Kleindienst`s tenure as attorney general ended on the day when Nixon tried to start the Watergate investigation by basically cleaning house at 1,600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  On April 30th, 1973, Nixon tried to essentially cauterize the bleeding wound of Watergate by all at one time, all in one day, getting rid of his White House counsel, his White House chief of staff, his top domestic aide and his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst.  They all quit or got fired all at once, all on that one day. 

And funnily enough, that stunt did not end the Watergate scandal and all four of the men who resigned or were fired from the Nixon administration that day, they all ended up either convicted or pleading guilty to various crimes and in fairly short order. 

But in terms of his attorney generals, after getting attorneys general, you`re supposed to say, after getting rid of Mitchell number one, then getting rid of Kleindienst, number two, Nixon did need yet another attorney general.  That`s how he got attorney general number three Elliot Richardson.  And Elliot Richardson had a remarkable tenure as attorney general. 

I just did that podcast "Bag Man" that was in large part about Elliot Richardson`s role in securing the resignation of Nixon`s vice president, Spiro Agnew, with Agnew facing a 40-count felony indictment for being a total freaking crook, completely separate and apart from Watergate. 

Richardson, as attorney general, and Justice Department prosecutors working under him, they put together just an airtight slam dunk criminal case against Agnew for bribery and extortion.  Elliot Richardson took the lead, basically, in the Agnew case and he used the threat of prosecution, he used the astonishing litany of evidence prosecutors had assembled against Agnew to get Agnew to resign, to get him out of the line of succession.

And then ten days after that, ten days after Richardson got Agnew out of office, Richardson`s tenure as attorney general was over as well, although he at least got to leave with his head held high.  After the previous bad endings of both of Nixon`s first two attorneys general, Elliot Richardson had promised as part of his confirmation hearings that he would appoint an independent special prosecutor to oversee the Watergate investigation, and he promised the Senate during his confirmation hearings that that special prosecutor would have the freedom to pursue the Watergate investigation wherever it led.  He would protect the independence of that prosecutor. 

Well, ten days after the Agnew thing, ten days after Attorney General Elliot Richardson forced the resignation of the vice president, ten days later, Nixon, in fact, told Attorney General Elliot Richardson that he should fire the Watergate special counsel.  Richardson had promised in his confirmation hearings in the Senate that he wouldn`t do that without good cause, that he would protect the Watergate investigation from any sort of intervention like that from the White House or anybody else. 

So when Nixon ordered Richardson that he needed to fire the Watergate prosecutor, Elliot Richardson knew he could not do that because he promised under oath that he would not do that.  And so, Elliot Richardson resigned rather than break his word. 

And in an immediate sense, that elevated the deputy attorney general who it turns out had also made a very similar promise to the Senate so he too resigned from office when Nixon told him to fire the Watergate special prosecutor.  He too resigned rather than break the word he had given to the Senate under oath that that prosecutor would have independence and would be protected. 

Nixon eventually did get the Watergate special prosecutor fired.  But, boy, did it cost him, right?  It cost him an attorney general.  It cost him a deputy attorney general.  It caused such a huge national uproar at the time that he was worse off when it came to Watergate than he was before he pulled that stunt. 

I mean, now the Congress and public were demanding a new special prosecutor be appointed to take the place of the guy who Nixon had to go way out of his way to fire, and Nixon now need to get a new attorney general, a fourth attorney general confirmed by the Senate. 

And what do you think Congress in that instance wanted to talk to that nominee about?  Right?  Given the circumstances in which he was named to that office, what do you think Congress wanted to get assurances from that nominee about? 

When Nixon was looking around for somebody who he could get confirmed to be his fourth attorney general at a time when the country was in uproar and ignominious endings of all three of his previous attorneys general, meant that nobody trusted him any further than they could throw him at that point.  When it came to nominees for that position, Nixon was not exactly going to get a lot of deference from the Senate.  How could he possibly get anyone confirmed being that he was the one picking the nominee?

When he was trying to figure out who he was going to nominate for that gig, he made a choice that was probably the only kind of choice that could have worked in those circumstances.  He picked a serving U.S. senator for the job.  By that time in 1973, it had been true for a long time, it may still be true today, that all things being equal, senators are unusually likely to confirm presidential nominees who are already serving as U.S. senators.

And that is just because senators like each other.  Senators like themselves.  They think very highly of themselves and of the club of 100 to which they belong. 

I think more so in the past, but still to a certainly extent today, senators tend to defer to one another and cut each other some slack in a type of old school collegiality, that sort of equal parts creepy, depending on which part of the telescope you`re looking into.  So, if you are a president in trouble, if you are a president in trouble who really needs to get somebody through the Senate and it is a tall order for you to get anyone through the Senate, when in doubt, pick a senator, any senator that will give you a better shot than any non-senator. 

And that is what Nixon did when he needed a fourth attorney general in 1973.  He picked a man named William Saxbe.  Bill Saxbe, he was a Republican senator from Ohio.  In addition to being a senator, he was kind of seen as a little bit of a maverick and he`s kind of salty guy who people did seem to like.  At least it seems that way when people have written about him as a historical figure. 

For example, I do not know what a washboard fiddle is.  I know what a washboard musical instrument is and I know what a fiddle as a musical instrument.  But I don`t know what a washboard fiddle is.  But that gets a mention in his "Washington Post" obituary from when he died in the summer of 2010. 

Quote, in Washington, Mr. Saxbe and his wife enjoyed dinner parties that were know for ending late night singing accompanied by Mr. Saxbe on the washboard fiddle, an instrument who`s multiple parts included a pair of symbols and a tambourine.  Oh. 

He was notably quippy.  He famously told reporters about arriving in Washington as a first term senator, quote, the first six months, I kept wondering how I got here.  After that I started wondering how all of them did -- talking about his fellow senators. 

In the end, Senator Bill Saxbe apparently decided that Washington was boring.  That being a senator was just way too boring for him, and he didn`t want to do it any longer than he had to.  So, he announced before his first term was over that he would only be a one-term senator, he was not going it run for reelection. 

So, Bill Saxbe was on his way out the door already.  He was already serving as a lame duck senator with really nothing to lose, when Nixon decided that he, Bill Saxbe, would be his choice for attorney general.  The successor to Elliot Richardson would be this Republican Ohio senator, Bill Saxbe, and whether or not Nixon and the Nixon White House had anticipated it, the fact that Saxbe was a senator, the fact that he was a lame duck senator who was leaving town and didn`t owe anybody anything, the fact that the senator is in a committee considering his nomination, had a general level of comfort and familiarity with him as a person and a colleague, it meant that Saxbe`s confirmation hearings to be attorney general didn`t have to be too much about him. 

Senators were pretty fine with him, right, they knew him.  They were fine.  Bill Saxbe.  OK. 

What his confirmation hearings ended up being about instead was exactly one thing, over and over again, for the duration of his confirmation hearings in December 1973, all they wanted to talk about was one thing. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It`s in one of those quaint senator ceremonies, Saxbe was introduced to the Senate Judiciary Committee by his fellow Ohio Republican senator.  Questions concentrated entirely on whether Saxbe would allow special Watergate prosecutor Jaworski complete independence. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Questions concentrated almost entirely on whether the special Watergate prosecutor would get complete independence. 

They have nothing else to chew on really when it came to Senator William Saxbe as a nominee to be the next attorney general of the United States.  With nothing else to chew on about him, his confirmation hearing centered basically entirely on whether or not he would let the Watergate investigation proceed unimpeded. 

At the influential legal blog Lawfare today, there`s a great treatment how the confirmation hearings went for Bill Saxbe and also how confirmation hearings have gone for Elliot Richardson before him, because both Richardson and Saxbe were confirmed in the midst of not only major presidential scandal, they were confirmed in the midst of an ongoing Justice Department investigation that was chasing the current president like his own tail was on fire. 

And so, what is the precedent there?  What could we learn from the way those two men were confirmed to A.G.?  We`ve posted a link to our own blog, MaddowBlog.com, if you want to see it.  Lawfare has also very helpfully posted the transcripts of those confirmation hearings as PDF files, so you actually can read them.  You can see what the senators did in the early 70s in the midst of Watergate to try to make sure the Watergate investigation would be protected from Nixon, that the Justice Department would let the Watergate investigation proceed unimpeded despite whatever pressure was coming from the White House, including the president who was nominating both men to be the top law enforcement official in the country. 

With Bill Saxbe`s nomination in December 1973 specifically, a kind of amazing and singular thing happened, because when Saxbe got up there to be the fourth attorney general for Nixon, Democrats on the Senate committee that was considering him, they not only sought assurances from Saxbe that he would let the Watergate prosecutor proceed without interference, that he would provide the resources he needed, get out of his way, make sure he was protected.  In addition to that, the Democratic senators on that committee, considering whether he would be the next attorney general, they also did something kind of nuts. 

They brought the Watergate special prosecutor into the hearing room, and swore him in and made him sit down next to Bill Saxbe the attorney general nominee so the two of them were sitting there side by side.  They both had to swear under oath that they both understood about the special prosecutor`s independence.  They both had the same understanding of it, they both respected it. 

I mean, that`s weird, right?  I mean, the prosecutor was not being confirmed by the Senate in that moment but they made him sit down and get sworn in right there with the guy who was being confirmed.  I mean, this attorney general nominee, they made him swear he wouldn`t interfere with the Watergate investigation but remarkably, they made the Watergate prosecutor sit down next to him and swear that he understood that as well. 

I had not realized this had happened before this Lawfare piece today.  It`s kind of an amazing bit of political theater but also accountability.  And like I said, we`ve got the transcripts from the proceedings. 

Here is Democratic senator at the time, Robert Byrd.  Quote, I am desirous of asking questions in one area today, that being the area involving the special prosecutor.  I`ve asked the chairman to request that Mr. Jaworski, the special prosecutor, come to the hearing room.  I think it is imperative the committee to get your assurance, Mr. Saxbe, of a strong commitment to Mr. Jaworski.  I also think it`s important to Mr. Jaworski that he not only be able to read that commitment in the record, but that he also be present when that commitment is made. 

And at that point, the chairman of the committee stops the proceedings and then points out in fact, quote, Mr. Jaworski is in the room, and Senator Robert Byrd asks Jaworski, the Watergate prosecutor, to come down and join the process. 

Quote: Now, Mr. Chairman, would I be asking too much?  The chairman says: Let us have order, please, because obviously there`s a big hubbub now, right?  What`s going on here?  Who`s the other guy at the confirmation hearing being sworn in?

Senator Byrd says, would I be asking too much, Mr. Chairman, to request that Mr. Jaworski come forward and take a seat at the table.  Chairman: Mr. Jaworski, sit at the table please, sir. 

Senator Byrd: Mr. Chairman, I`m embarrassed to ask whether or not both witnesses should be sworn?  Would there be any objection?

Mr. Jaworski: None whatsoever on my part, Senator.  The chairman: Stand up, please, do you both swear that you will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you god?  Senator Saxbe, I do.  Mr. Jaworski, I do.

So, tomorrow, William Barr is going to start his confirmation hearings to be President Trump`s next attorney general.  If senators want to follow the precedent about what the U.S. Senate did the last time they were confirming a new attorney general in circumstances like this, the parallel here -- I mean, would be them inviting Robert Mueller to the hearing room and then asking him to come down and sit down next it Bill Barr, having them both sworn in so they could talk mutually commitment to Mueller`s independence for finishing the Russia inquiry?  I mean, that`s -- if we were going to match this up with current day, that would be what happened here. 

Here`s what Robert Byrd said to the Watergate prosecutor as soon as he got Jaworski sworn in.  This is Senator Byrd, he says, quote: Mr. Jaworski, permit me to say by word of explanation, I asked the chairman to inquire only within the hour if you could present yourself here today.  It`s also very important in my estimation that you have the complete support of the attorney general and you positively know you have the support of the attorney general in your effort, which will require continuing courage.  It is for these reasons that I have asked the chairman that you appear for the committee at this time.  I apologize to you for the request which came to you today without warning. 

Jaworski replies: Not at all, Senator.  I`m glad you asked me to come. 

Byrd goes on to say, quote: We are about to confirm an attorney general of the United States at the most critical time in our country`s history. 

And with the nominee for that position, the nominee for attorney general, Bill Saxbe, and the Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski sitting side by side at the witness table, Senator Byrd then proceeded to go line by line through the regulations that created the office of the Watergate special prosecutor and governed the way he was supposed to investigate and line by line, paragraph by paragraph, as part of the process of confirming him as attorney general, Bill Saxbe and the Watergate special prosecutor both affirmed overtly, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, they understood, they had no reservations about, no compunctions whatsoever about the independence of the Watergate prosecution and the fact that the president`s nominees at the Justice Department including the attorney general could not tell that prosecutor what to do. 

And I will not go through every line and every paragraph, although I suggest you read it.  It`s amazing.  Let ne just give -- me just give you one example.  There`s one part of the Watergate prosecutor regulations that affirms overtly that the prosecutor can`t just investigate the president and his campaign.  Special prosecutor can also investigate White House staff and other members of the administration. 

So, Byrd starts by quoting that bit to the Watergate prosecutor and to the attorney general nominee.  He quotes from the regulation.  The special prosecutor will have full authority for investigating and prosecuting allegations involving members of the White House staff or presidential appointees.  Mr. Jaworski, will you pursue that with full vigor and without fear or favor? 

Jaworski: Senator Byrd, we have been pursuing that without exception and we intend to continue to do so. 

Senator Byrd: Mr. Saxbe, your intent to fully support Mr. Jaworski and his fulfilling of his duties under this clause?  Saxbe: it is.  Senator Byrd: and you will not attempt in any way to interfere with his efforts in regard to the investigation and prosecution along any of these lines. 

Saxbe: No, it has been my intention at all times that Mr. Jaworski shall operate independent and the only time I will see him is when he wants something from me.  That`s interesting. 

Even though they get these like line by line, unequivocal assurances under oath that the special prosecutor will be allowed to proceed independently and both the attorney general and the special prosecutor understand that, there`s still times when Senator Robert Byrd decides that this nominee for attorney general -- yes, he`s saying all the right things but not being effusive enough in his assurances.  He really wants to know that he feels it.  He wants him to spell it out even more. 

Senator Byrd, do you subscribe to that, Senator Saxbe?  Do you subscribe to that, you will not interfere with the special prosecutor`s decisions or actions?  Saxbe: That`s correct.  Senator Byrd: Do you subscribe to that?  Saxbe: My understanding is he`ll operate completely independent and the only time he`ll have contact with me is when he wants something I can provide him. 

Senator Byrd: And you will not countermand or interfere with the special prosecutor`s decisions or actions.  Saxbe: That is correct.  Senator Byrd: You say that is correct, that means you will not.  Saxbe: I will not. 

Senator Byrd: You have no intention whatsoever in any manner, shape or form of attempting to require the special prosecutor to conform or consult with you about his duties except when he determines that he should consult you?  Saxbe: That is correct.  The last thing I want to do is become involved in this investigation. 

So in terms of like historical precedent and the way the Senate has handled this in the past, that is the model, that is the way the Senate handled it the last time they confirmed a nominee for attorney general in circumstances that even remotely approached what we are looking at right now.  And, no, I do not expect that tomorrow there will be a big surprise murmur in the hearing room when the Senate unexpectedly calls Robert Mueller out of the audience in that hearing room and they ask to swear him in and he sits down next to William Barr.

But William Barr has released his opening statement for tomorrow in which he insists he is a great friend of Robert Mueller, and he has great respect for Robert Mueller, and they are close and have known for 30 years.  Quote: On my watch, Bob will be allowed to complete his work.  That is the assertion tomorrow from William Barr as he is nominated to be Trump`s next attorney general. 

There are ways that senators could test that tomorrow if they decide to be as aggressive as history tells us other senators have been in these types of circumstances.  I should note that the folks at Lawfare who wrote up the Bill Saxbe confirmation process as a potential precedent for tomorrow, flagging the fact that senators also swore in the Watergate prosecutor to make sure he knew he could act independently of Saxbe, those authors tonight are suggesting that even if Mueller doesn`t testify tomorrow, he might reasonably be asked by the committee, considering William Barr`s nomination, he might reasonably be asked if since he`s been special counsel, if his investigation has been impeded in any way thus far, whether Trump`s Justice Department has blocked any steps that Mueller`s prosecutors have wanted to take.  Congress might reasonably ask the special counsel that question to inform their decision making around William Barr.  We shall see. 

But, of course, this is all happening at a time when things feel like they are at a roiling boil.  I mean, also in the Senate tomorrow, same day that they are going to be considering William Barr as potential nominee to be attorney general, same day, the Senate is going to be voting on whether or not they want to reject the Trump administration`s effort to relieve sanctions on companies associated with a Russian oligarch who`s known to be close to Vladimir Putin, and who for some reason was being offered private briefings by the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.  The Trump administration made a decision just before Christmas that they would lift sanctions on companies associated with that oligarch.  Senate Democrats intend to force a vote on the sanctions issue tomorrow.  If they defeat that administration decision with this vote tomorrow, those sanctions will not be lifted. 

That is potentially going to be a very dramatic thing and that`s happening on top of the confirmation hearings for the new attorney general nominee tomorrow.  We`ll have more on that coming up later on tomorrow night. 

And, of course, this is all happening against the backdrop of the jaw dropping reporting this weekend from "The New York times" and "The Washington Post."  "The New York Times" reporting on Friday night that the president was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation, into whether or not he was acting as an agent of the Russian government while he has been president of the United States.  It was hot on the heels of that Fiday night reporting when the "Washington Post" reported on Saturday that the president has concealed the content of his communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  He`s concealed the content of those communications from his own National Security Council, his own State Department and other senior White House staff. 

And I mean, in the movie version of this moment in American history, it doesn`t matter who`s in charge of the Senate.  It`s inconceivable that the United States Senate would confirm somebody to be the new attorney general in this environment after that person has publicly described the Mueller investigation as fatally misconceived, which is what William Barr has said about the Mueller investigation.  But his confirmation hearing will start tomorrow. 

And tonight, next here on this show, we are about to hear from a former, very senior Justice Department official, who helped oversee the Russia investigation at its earliest stages, at a time when the earliest stages of that investigation are the subject of renewed national fascination and horror.  He`s going to be with us here in studio next. 

Stay with us.  We`ll be right back. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Senator Saxbe, the question being exploited is whether Mr. Jaworski will have full authority to investigate and prosecute all Watergate affairs without any interference from you, will he? 

SEN. WILLIAM SAXBE, ATTORNEY GENERAL DESIGNATE:  And the answer is an unqualified yes. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What would you do, Mr. Jaworski, if the new attorney general, not the attorney general designate, tried to interfere in any way with your pursuit of the investigation? 

LEON JAWORSKI, SPECIAL PROSECUTOR:  I`d march him down to this congressional committee if he and I couldn`t work it out among ourselves.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  The U.S. Department of Justice is not all one big thing.  The Justice Department is divided into offices and divisions, civil rights division, criminal division, antitrust division, tax division.  There`s also the national security division which itself contains a section on counterintelligence and they work on all kinds of frightening and delicate and critical cases. 

In December 2014, they got a new boss, a man named David Laufman.  And among the ways David Laufman put his stamp on the counterintelligence section was when he decided that people acting in this country as paid agents of foreign countries without registering as such, that was a real matter of national security and he would orient the division to start doing more about that. 

And that`s interesting as a matter of national security law and Justice Department priorities.  Unregistered foreign agents is something sort of being kicked upstairs in terms of who cares about it, and how much the department focuses on it.  It`s interesting. 

But then came the election of 2016 and suddenly it mattered to all of us, a very great deal to know who had been secretly working for another government.  Some of the cases we think of as beginning with the special counsel grew from work that began under David Laufman.  As the head of counterintelligence at DOJ, David Laufman had an oversight role in the Russia investigation before the special counsel took over. 

Well, "The New York Times" reports that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president himself early in his administration after he fired James Comey, that counterintelligence investigation in blunt terms looking to assess whether the president was working on behalf of a foreign government. 

About a year ago, in February 2018, David Laufman left the Justice Department.  He left on his own terms.  He left under his own steam.  I have met him a couple of times since then and spoke with him on this show, so I know how careful he is, and how closely he keeps his own counsel.

But when the "Washington Post" this weekend on Saturday reported hot on the heels of that "New York Times" reporting about the counterintelligence thing, when the "Washington Post" reported on Saturday that the president has repeatedly gone to extraordinary lengths to hide details of his conversations with Vladimir Putin, when "The Post" published that this weekend, David Laufman did something I did not expect, he said out loud and for the whole world, quote: now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aide of their country. 

I did not expect that and it put a shiver down my spine. 

Joining us for the interview tonight is David Laufman, former chief of the Justice Department`s counterintelligence and expert control section. 

Mr. Laufman, appreciate you making the trip.  Thank you for being here. 

DAVID LAUFMAN, FORMER CHIEF OF DOJ`S COUNTERINTELLIGENCE & EXPORT CONTROL SECTION:  Good to see you. 

MADDOW:  What about that "Washington Post" story prompted you to write that tweet? 

LAUFMAN:  You know, it was a tipping point for me, Rachel, among all the data points that we`re familiar with now through the public actions of the special counsel, other investigative reporting.  I spent 25 years in public service, mostly in the national security space and I feel I have a moral obligation to speak up when I see action taken by the president or the members of the administration that in my judgment undermine the national security of the United States, the notion that the president of the United States would be trying to conceal details of conversations with a leader of our principle foreign adversary was positively chilling. 

MADDOW:  You say it was chilling learning that in "The Washington Post," what "The Washington Post" reported this weekend.  And did you know that before you read it in "The Post" this weekend? 

LAUFMAN:  I can`t remember what I, you know, was certain about, with respect to the president`s personal meetings with foreign leaders, that`s not the sort of information that would normally come to the component I led in the Department of Justice.  There may have been some understanding in other department agencies, other departmental agencies. 

MADDOW:  When you describe the president as acting in a way that the counter to the national security interest of the United States, those of us who don`t think of this in legalistic terms, those of us who are civilians trying to make sense of this moment in history and trying to think about our own responsibility which you`re calling us to think about here, are you -- do you mean in blunt terms that the continuing existence of this presidency is a threat to the national security of the United States?  Do you think the president is that kind of a threat? 

LAUFMAN:  I think there`s a culmination of things we can point to in the public record now, the unbelievable acquiescence to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki that was shocking to those of us who worked in the national security, all of our lives, all of many things that you read at the charging documents, people associated with the president, all of those point to a reasonable inference that -- and it`s a painful anguishing thing to acknowledge that the president of the United States is a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.

And that is why in my own small way, and I`m just one voice among many, I felt the need to issue a kind of small cry or call to action in the tweet that I issued last night, hoping that it will impel members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, members of this administration, and American citizens in their own communities who can mobilize and express their views to bring about additional accountability for this administration in matters that are detrimental to our country`s interests, and it`s not just in the typical classic national security field.  It`s not just about our ability to project military strength abroad or promote relations with our allies or adversaries.  National security begins at home and the position this administration has taken on domestic public policy issues, the divisiveness it has struck with respect to dividing us as a people, undermining the cohesiveness as a people, that weakens us as a nation and that makes us more vulnerable to our enemies. 

MADDOW:  What is the kind of thing that you`re calling on regular Americans to do?  Obviously, members of Congress have special responsibilities in a case like this, the Constitution gives them those responsibilities, but regular citizens, how are you asking people to step up? 

LAUFMAN:  I think regular citizens can operate within the contours of their civic associations, homeowners associations, civic associations, nonprofit organizations, to mobilize and communicate with members of Congress, social media, they have unbelievable platforms now for expressing themselves, polling data makes a difference.  It is truly a call to arms in a nonlethal violent sense to express as a people what we think about what is going on at the highest levels of government, and now is the time to do that. 

MADDOW:  David Laufman is the former chief of the Justice Department`s Counterintelligence and Expert Control Session -- I have a couple of other matters I would like to ask you about.  Can you stay with us? 

LAUFMAN:  You bet. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Joining us once again is David Laufman, former senior official in the National Security Division at the Justice Department.  He ran the counterintelligence section of the Justice Department until February of last year.  Mr. Laufman, thank you again. 

So, "The New York Times" reported on Friday night that a counterintelligence investigation was opened into the president, basically the question of whether he as president was acting on behalf of a foreign power, acting on behalf of the Russian government.  Can -- as the person who was head of counter intelligence of the Justice Department at the time, can you confirm whether that is true? 

LAUFMAN:  I`m not going to confirm or deny whether the investigation was undertaken predicate on the president. 

MADDOW:  OK.  If such an investigation hypothetically were true, is that something that is being blown out of proportion.  It is been shorthanded by people like me and all over the country who read that "New York Times" headline as the president being under investigation as to whether or not he was an agent of a foreign power, agent of a foreign government, which is unbelievably serious.  Is this something that is a more mundane or smaller potatoes sort of prospect than we are short-handing it as? 

LAUFMAN:  There`s nothing mundane about the notion that the FBI initiated a counterintelligence investigation focused on president of the United States and whether the president of the United States was a threat to U.S. national security.  That would be certainly without any historical precedent in one of the most sensitive investigations in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

MADDOW:  When counter intelligence investigations are opened and again there may be no precedent for it ever happening at this high level in terms of the subject of the investigation, do they always end in a way that is definable, they always have -- within the Justice Department, do you always know how these things come to a conclusion?  Do counterintelligence investigations have to end with either arrests, because they`re turning to criminal investigations or with the neutralization of a national security threat?  How do they proceed? 

LAUFMAN:  It follows all different kind of paths.  Sometimes, these counterintelligence investigations go on for months or years without ever migrating into a criminal investigation and the FBI is, you know, surveilling foreign intelligence officers to learn more about what they`re doing in the United States and gathering intelligence.  That in and of itself has significant value. 

When an opportunity arises however to morph into counterintelligence investigation into a criminal investigation, then prosecutors work closely with FBI counterintelligence, with agents, expertise is brought to bear to gather evidence that is going to be admissible in a court in the event of a criminal proceeding.  Thought is given how to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods, in the event of criminal litigation, and so, a partnership develops between prosecutors and agents to help propel that investigation forward toward the prospect of charging defendants. 

MADDOW:  When a counterintelligence investigation wraps, presumably there is an intelligence product that is the result, if it`s about a national security threat, if this is not necessarily going to result in criminal charges but this is something that has consequences for American national security, the ultimate consumer of American intelligence is the president himself.  If there were consequences or if there were things that became evident through the investigation and it had national security consequences, who do you brief on that if the president is the problem? 

LAUFMAN:  Well, that`s a question we have never confronted probably in the history of our country, so it presents a lot of complexity and awkwardness to say the least, with respect to who is privy to information. 

MADDOW:  Right. 

LAUFMAN:  Regarding the very existence of that investigation, information gathered during the course of that investigation, you know, assuming these reports are true, it`s like walking on a million egg shells to propel that thing forward and make sure that other responsible decision makers are able to guide that investigation forward and bring it to a conclusion. 

MADDOW:  And to be confirming a new attorney general nominee in the midst of this is a remarkable moment in itself. 

David Laufman former chief of the Justice Department`s Counterintelligence and Expert Control Section, thank you, sir. 

LAUFMAN:  Good to be with you. 

MADDOW:  Appreciate it. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Because Republicans control the U.S. Senate, Democrats do not get to decide what does and doesn`t get voted on in the Senate, usually.  But tomorrow, they do.  Tomorrow, Democrats in the Senate will have a rare chance to force a vote. 

Specifically, tomorrow, Democrats in the Senate will mount an effort to block the Trump administration from dropping sanctions on companies associated with this guy, a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin whose name is Oleg Deripaska.  Late last month, the Trump administration announced that they would lift sanctions that were previously imposed on Deripaska`s companies.  They were imposed in the first place because of Russian interference in our election.  But then, right before Christmas, when they thought nobody was paying attention, they decided that Deripaska`s companies would be let off the hook. 

Now, Congress technically has the power to stop the administration from doing this with a simple majority in both the House and the Senate.  And I know what you`re thinking, Senate Republicans always do whatever Trump wants, but Russian sanctions as an issue have been sort of, they`ve had a little partisan heterogeneity. 

In 2017, under Republican control and over objections from the Trump White House, Congress overwhelmingly passed a Russian sanctions bill, for interfering in our 2016 election, overwhelmingly, 98-2 in the Senate, 419-3 in the House.  In that law, Congress gave themselves 30 days to weigh in on any Russia sanctions decisions that the Trump administration makes.  That law also included this tiny provision which said explicitly that either the majority or the minority, the Democrats can call up a vote, disapproving of any sanctions decision by the administration.  So, basically, Congress does get a veto and the Democrats have a power to get them to use the veto. 

And this is setting up what may be a high stakes vote.  We will have more on that coming up.  Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), SENATE MINORITY LEADER:  Just days ago, it was revealed that former campaign chairman Paul Manafort provided Trump campaign polling data to a close associate of Mr. Deripaska.  The timing at the time when these things are coming forward, to undo the sanctions on Rusal, very suspect.  Very suspect.  There should not be sanctions relief for President Putin`s trusted agent before the conclusion of special counsel Mueller`s investigation. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, today urging all senators to join him in opposing the administration`s plan to lift sanctions on the Russian oligarch who is right at the beating heart of Robert Mueller`s investigation.  That vote it looks like will be tomorrow. 

Joining us is Ken Vogel from "The New York Times." 

Mr. Vogel, I know you have been covering this very, very closely.  Thanks for being with us. 

KEN VOGEL, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Pleasure. 

MADDOW:  So, when we last left the story, the treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, was in the House, briefing members of the house about the administration`s justification for lifting these sanctions on these companies associated with Deripaska.  We heard from a lot of Democrats after,  including Nancy Pelosi saying it was a terrible briefing and he wasn`t persuasive at all. 

Are the same dynamics at work in the Senate? 

VOGEL:  I think so.  Certainly, there`s a potential for that.  And my sources tell me that Mnuchin is headed to the Hill tomorrow, to brief senators, Republican senators ahead of this potential vote tomorrow afternoon.  And if you just look at Republican orthodoxy on Russia and on foreign policy towards the region, you have seen over the years that there have been, there has been a lot of support for Russian sanctions. 

So, here you have senators, Republican senators, essentially being asked to choose between their traditional position, being tough on Russia, and embarrassing the administration, because that`s what this would be if the Senate ends up blocking the move to lift sanctions here.  That would be an embarrassment for the Trump administration and for the president himself. 

MADDOW:  I was interested in the turn in the Democrats` argument, especially from Senator Schumer today, saying, listen, this isn`t the time, like if you want to talk about Deripaska, we can talk about Deripaska, but why would we lift sanctions on him in the middle of the Mueller investigation?  Let`s wait until we have clarity on him. 

Given that sort of -- I guess humility of that argument, I`m wondering if some Republicans might feel actually comfortable crossing over on this.  Do you have any sense on what`s going to happen with the vote? 

VOGEL:  I mean, certainly, Republicans have been asked about this rank and file Republicans in the Senate.  We haven`t gotten a lot of visibility into how they`ll come down on this.  The majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been mostly silent on this. 

But as you pointed out in your setup there, this was something -- this bill that set up this vote, it was a Russia sanctions specific bill, or dealt with Russia sanctions in particular, but also other sanctions against sort of maligned actors, set up the potential for the minority in the Senate to bring this up, and that bill had overwhelming support from Republicans.  So, it`s tough to see how they wouldn`t have to do some real significant intellectual gymnastics to get to the place they feel comfortable allowing the sanctions to be lifted.  Certainly, that`s the argument that Democrats are making.  They`re saying if you vote against a move to block the sanctions, you`re essentially voting for Vladimir Putin. 

MADDOW:  Ken Vogel, a reporter for "The New York Times," I honestly have no idea how that vote is going to go tomorrow.  I was surprised to read the fine print and realized Democrats could force it.  But that`s going to be fascinating to see. 

Thanks for your time tonight, Ken.  Much appreciated. 

VOGEL:  Thank you, Rachel. 

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Last week, Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa wondered aloud to "The New York Times", what`s so wrong with words white nationalist and white supremacist?  Why did those become such a bad thing? 

That`s where thing is kind of a par for the course for Steve King.  He has been saying stuff like this forever.  What`s new here in our time is that Steve King may actually face some consequences for this latest iteration of his long time publicly held philosophy.

The Democratic-controlled House tomorrow is expected to vote in a resolution that`s been put forward by Majority Whip James Clyburn.  It`s a resolution expressing disapproval of Steve King for these remarks.  It`s not the same thing as him being formally censured, but it is a resolution expressing disapproval in him.

The amazing thing is that it`s not just Democrats.  House Republican leaders have announced tonight that Steve King has been kicked off of all the committees he sat on or might have expected to sit on in this Congress.  They are doing committee assignments now.  The committees are not totally flesh out in the House but Steve King will get zero committee assignments.

Congressman King called that move by his own party, quote, a political decision that ignores the truth.  Whether or not it is a political decision, it is the kind of political decision they were never willing to engage in before all of the other times he said stuff like this, but seems like something has changed.

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

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL". 

Good evening, Lawrence. 

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