Intel leaders contradict President on Iran. TRANSCRIPT: 2/4/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Charniele Herring, Larry Sabato, Rebecca Ballhaus, David Priess, Lee Gelernt

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST:  I`m congratulating you on accepting the role as Chris Christie`s campaign manager.  That will be fun to watch. 

Have a good time, Chris.  Thank you.

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST:  All right.

VELSHI:  And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. 

Rachel has the night off but she will be back tomorrow. 

We`re going to dive right in tonight into this remarkable standoff that continues in the state of Virginia where the governor has been facing increasingly widespread and adamant calls to resign and who has frankly been expected to resign any minute for three days now.  This all started on Friday when an online right-wing news site published the 1984 medical school yearbook page of then student and now Virginia Democratic Governor Northam alongside some sort of glamour shots of the then 25-year-old Northam was this photo of a person in black face next to a person in a KKK robe and hood, neither person was identified on the page and no explanation for the photo was given. 

Governor Northam first put out a short paper statement apologizing for the photo, quote, the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now. 

Well, when it quickly became clear that wouldn`t cut it, the governor put out a one-minute video apologizing, taking responsibility and pledging to work hard to regain the trust of Virginians.  But the calls for Northam to step down continued apace and from within the Democratic Party.  Several Democratic presidential candidates called on Northam to resign and so did the NAACP, the black caucus in the Virginia legislature had a meeting with Northam late Friday night which apparently did not go so well, because they left that meeting calling on him to step down. 

As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, the question seemed to become not if Ralph Northam would resign but when.  When word came the governor was planning a press conference, early Saturday afternoon, everyone assumed it would be his resignation announcement. 

But suddenly, it wasn`t.  Virginia Governor Ralph Northam stepped to the podium with his wife Pamela and said, actually, the photo wasn`t of him.  That he had studied the photo and racked his brain and talked to his med school friends and used some sort of facial recognition technology of some sort, and the photo was definitely not him, and hence, he would not resign -- which prompted predictably baffled questions from the assembled press. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  If you knew it wasn`t you, why not say that publicly? 

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D), VIRGINIA:  Allen, I didn`t know at the time.  There was so much happening, but, like --

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  Why didn`t you know?  You said you saw the picture and said that can`t be me.  Why not say that first? 

NORTHAM:  Well, because my word is important to me and my first intention, Allen, was to reach out and apologize.  When this broke yesterday afternoon, there were just a lot of people calling and I just felt like I need to talk to them and to put out a statement that this is unacceptable to have a picture such as that in the yearbook on my page.  And so, that`s why I started reaching out to people. 

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  You can do that without saying that is me in that picture, though. 

NORTHAM:  It has taken time for me to make sure that it`s not me, but I`m convinced, I am convinced that I am not in that picture. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Now, Northam`s first go at an apology wasn`t terrible.  He did acknowledge having done something harmful.  He did seem to say the right things and then suddenly, the next day he didn`t.  It`s just weird. 

How could he not have known that a photo on his medical school yearbook page wasn`t of him?  Why would he admit to being in a photo in blackface standing next to someone in a Klan uniform or in a Klan uniform standing next to someone in blackface if neither was him?  If he wasn`t sure it was him or could be him, what does it say about the kinds of things Ralph Northam was up to in 1984? 

If you`re old enough to remember 1984, think about this.  As a matter of fact, Ralph Northam had something to say about what he was up to in 1984 and this is the part of the Saturday press conference, you might have heard about this.  But it`s worth seeing the tape.  This is the part of the Saturday press conference that made you spit out your coffee if you were watching it live. 

To be clear, this that you`re about to hear is not Ralph Northam responding to an allegation or being confronted with evidence of something he did, this is a story that Ralph Northam brought up unprompted explaining why he would not be resigning. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOVENROR NORTHAM:  My belief that I did not wear that costume or attend that party stems in part from my clear memory of other mistakes I made in this same period of my life.  That same year, I did participate in a dance contest in San Antonio, in which I darkened my face as part of a Michael Jackson costume.  I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that. 

I had the shoes.  I had a glove.  And I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks and the reason I used a very little bit is because I don`t know if anybody has ever tried that but you cannot get shoe polish off but it was a dance contest.  I had always liked Michael Jackson.  I actually won the contest because I had learned how to do the moonwalk. 

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER:  You said that the competition in San Antonio was a dance competition? 

GOVENROR NORTHAM:  Yes. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEPORTER:  You danced the moonwalk? 

GOVENROR NORTHAM:  That`s right. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEPORTER:  Are you still able to moonwalk? 

PAM NORTHAM, GOVERNOR NORTHAM`S WIFE:  Inappropriate circumstances. 

GOVERNOR NORTHAM:  My wife says inappropriate circumstances. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  I don`t know if there are ever appropriate circumstances for the governor to do the moonwalk on national television, but his wife was right.  These are not them.  And if there`s any chance Ralph Northam come somehow win back the support of Democrats who had abandoned him or those on the fence, that press conference was probably the end of it. 

On Friday, this is before the press conference, Virginia`s U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, former U.S. Senator Mark Warner -- sorry, current Senator Mark Warner said only that Northam should consider how to move forward.  On Saturday, they said they called Northam after watching the press conference and said he should resign. 

Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia and a legend in his state, said on Saturday morning the choice of continuing an office was Ralph Northam`s to make.  By Saturday dinner time, he said it`s difficult for anyone who watched the press conference today to conclude that he has any other choice but to resign. 

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which had already called for Northam to resign on Friday night, on Saturday, turned it up to an 11, saying their confidence in Northam`s ability to govern has been, quote, eviscerated. 

Ralph Northam appeared to have a smooth exit ahead of him on Friday, and then went ahead and scored an own goal on Saturday.  Instead of the apology and taking responsibility, Northam wrecked his own story.  I mean, here are the front pages from the Richmond, Virginia "Times Dispatch" from Saturday, I`m sorry, from Friday to Saturday.  It`s not a good look. 

And we were left with this.  Is he lying?  Is he a racist?  Was he a racist? 

But in a certain way, Democrats in Virginia and beyond may have more or less been feeling like they don`t have to grapple with such questions because in purely political terms, the potential damage that a Ralph Northam implosion could cause appeared limited because the thinking is once Ralph Northam leaves office, however long that takes, his place would be taken by Virginia`s lieutenant governor, a young accomplished African- American Democrat seen as a rising star in the party, Justin Fairfax. 

Justin Fairfax is the reason it`s been particularly easy for Democrats to call for Northam`s ouster, which is why it has the potential to throw the state`s politics into even further chaos.  You see, the same online right- wing news site that published Northam`s yearbook page late last night published what appeared to be an allegation of sexual assault against Justin Fairfax dating to 2004.  It was secondhand and relatively non- specific and might have remained an uncorroborated allegation floating around the right-wing blogosphere but Justin Fairfax then put out a statement saying that the "Washington Post" had looked into this allegation a year ago and had been unable to corroborate it, which prompted "The Washington Post" to publish its own story confirming that it had in fact looked into the allegation and, quote, found no similar complaints of sexual misconduct against him without that or the ability to corroborate the woman`s account in part because she had told no one what had happened, "The Post" did not run a story, end quote. 

Today, the lieutenant governor spoke to reporters for about ten minutes and said the encounter at the 2004 Democratic national convention was consensual and declined to call on Ralph Northam to resign and said he`s in a unique position and wanted to remain circumspect.  And just to make things even messier, Fairfax was asked about allegations from a political PAC that supports him.  The PAC is suggesting that Ralph Northam`s team might be behind this allegation as a way for Northam to shore up his position by making his presumed successor less appealing. 

Asked about whether Northam`s people might have publicized this allegation against him, Justin Fairfax artfully dodged. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER:  The Collective PAC has said that you believe that the governor`s team is spreading misinformation about your team.  Can you comment on that please, sir?

LT. GOV. JUSTIN FAIRFAX (D), VIRGINIA:  The Collective PAC made its statement.  And so --

REPORTER:  Do you believe it? 

FAIRFAX:  I don`t know precisely where this is coming from.  I know we`ve heard different things but here is the thing, does anybody think it`s a coincidence that on the eve of potentially my being elevated, that`s when this uncorroborated smear comes out?  Does anybody believe that`s a coincidence?  I don`t think anybody believes that`s a coincidence. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  So, as of tonight, Ralph Northam is still the governor of Virginia.  Pretty much every prominent Democrat is on the record saying he should go.  This has already been a standoff for three days.  What does it mean the guy everybody had been assuming will be the governor of Virginia any minute is now facing an allegation of a different kind and what happens if the guy who is still governor and who the Democratic Party is united in saying has to go won`t go? 

All right.  Joining us now is Virginia State Delegate Charniele Herring, who also chairs the Democratic Caucus in the Virginia House. 

Delegate Herring, good to have you with us tonight.  Thank you. 

DEL. CHARNIELE HERRING (D), VIRGINIA, DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS CHAIR:  Thank you for having me. 

VELSHI:  Look, it`s been a crazy three days.  What was your first reaction when you saw the photo in Governor Northam`s yearbook? 

HERRING:  I was horrified and it was very painful to look at, but shocked, absolutely shocked. 

VELSHI:  You called for Governor Northam to resign when he said he was in the photo.  You called for him to resign after he said he was not in the photo.  I assume nothing the governor said, the printed statement on Friday night and then his video statement on Friday night and the unusual press conference on Saturday has swayed you. 

HERRING:  Nothing has swayed me.  In fact, it makes me even more sure he needs to resign.  People are waiting to move on, and each day that goes by is painful for Virginians.  It`s painful for the delegates of my caucus and legislature who are fighting for the values that we believe in, and he is serving as a distraction now. 

VELSHI:  Delegate Herring, were you in that meeting on Friday night with the governor? 

HERRING:  No, actually, I was headed out to Northern Virginia, but the governor gave me a call while I was on the road. 

VELSHI:  What did he tell you? 

HERRING:  He apologized, said that was him in the picture and he is sorry.  I asked him, what are your next steps?  He told me I am going to issue a statement and go on the camera to apologize. 

VELSHI:  Was there anything he could have said that would have caused you to not call for his resignation? 

HERRING:  No, because of the painful history of African-Americans in this country and especially here in Virginia, this is the 400th anniversary of the state legislature.  Four hundred years ago, slaves were brought to the shores of the commonwealth of Virginia.  I`ve had a personal experience with a cross burning on my car with my family when I was a child. 

There is nothing he can say to me that would say it would be OK because that history runs so deep with so many African-Americans, and other people of other races.  It`s painful.  And you lose the trust of the people when you have that type of past. 

VELSHI:  Having grown up in Virginia and understood its complex and in many cases racist history, is there anything that can cause you to say that maybe in 1984, it was different than it is today? 

HERRING:  Not a darn thing.  I was alive in `84.  You know, I was in high school, and I remember in 1984, Douglas Wilder was running for governor of the commonwealth.  That`s what I remember in 1984. 

So, things weren`t different.  In fact, that was an historical election.  We were progressing in race relations, although, you know, even my own personal experience, it`s knowing that there`s still racism out there.  So, it wasn`t a different time. 

We`re not talking about the rise of the Klan that happened after the civil war.  We`re talking about 1984, a modern time. 

VELSHI:  Delegate, if Governor Northam stepped down, the next in line would be Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax.  What do you make about this allegation that`s been made against him today? 

HERRING:  It`s too early.  I know that there is an allegation out there.  We`re waiting for the facts to develop. 

Right now, as I know, all I know is that here and now, is we have a governor who has lost the trust of the people of Virginia.  And we are in the middle of our legislative session, and we`ve got important issues to address like sex trafficking, what we`re going to do with our budget, what are we going to do for Virginia taxpayers.  So, that`s what my focus is. 

VELSHI:  Virginia State Delegate Charniele Herring, thank you for being with us tonight. 

HERRING:  Thank you so much. 

VELSHI:  Joining me now is Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

Larry, good to see you.  Great to have you here tonight.

I watched you 72 hours ago when you were first talking about this.  You didn`t hold out a lot of hope on Friday night that the governor was going to make it through this.  But since the governor has change side his story about whether he was in the yearbook party, has anything changed in your evaluation of what he has to do next? 

LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA CENTER FOR POLITICS:  Ali, no, I just -- I just don`t see how he survives.  And I just talked to some people in and around the capital who are very close to this, and I was told and I believe that virtually everyone except the governor has accepted the inevitability that that he will resign.  The debate now, at least with people outside the governor, is when he should do it. 

They`re talking about giving him some space and some time to adjust.  We`re not talking months.  We`re talking about a short period of time.  He may want to get some things through the legislature, or at least put his stamp on the legislature, because it`s in midsession.  It ends February 22nd in this month. 

So, no, I haven`t changed my mind and it`s not because Ralph Northam is a horrible person.  What he did was horrible in 1994.  He`s a good person.  He`s been a good governor. 

But this is -- Governor McAuliffe, his predecessor, under whom he served as lieutenant governor, I think he put it best.  He said, this is no longer about Ralph.  It isn`t.  It`s gone way beyond him.  That`s what`s critical. 

VELSHI:  So, whether he decides he wants to take days or weeks to leave office, if the delegates or if the Democratic Party in Virginia doesn`t see eye to eye with him and sounds like they don`t, what can they do? 

SABATO:  What they can do is to put pressure, I suppose, psychologically on him.  He`s already had one college withdraw an invitation.  He had already accepted the invitation. 

VELSHI:  I think it was William and Mary. 

SABATO:  That is correct, that is correct.  And there are a number of legislators, I`ve been told, who will not meet with him if he stays in office.  Well, it`s very difficult to be governor if legislators won`t talk to you.  It`s very difficult to be governor if you`re hunkered down in the governor`s mansion like LBJ was at the end of his term or Nixon was during Watergate.  Really tough to govern. 

So, you know, Ralph Northam has the kind of mind that takes a while to adjust, but he`ll figure all this out, then he`ll do the right thing. 

VELSHI:  A number of people have said tonight that with Justin Fairfax, lieutenant governor being second in line and the allegations made against him, a number of people said they don`t want that influencing how they think about what has to happen to Ralph Northam.  But for Democrats in Virginia, it suddenly becomes very important. 

On Friday night, the argument was that Justin Fairfax is ready to go.  This is a young, accomplished man who is in a position to take on the role of the governorship if Ralph Northam has to leave. 

Do you believe now that this allegation of sexual assault is going to damage that plan? 

SABATO:  No, I do not.  It may damage to some degree his popularity.  We`ll have to see how it plays out.  The newspaper that has investigated it pretty thoroughly and many months ago said there is simply no way to corroborate the woman`s story or Justin Fairfax`s story.  Well, you know, we have this principle that a person is innocent until found guilty, and I think that applies even to lieutenant governors. 

So, no, I don`t think it will damage him, if and I know of nothing, and I don`t think there is anything but if additional damaging information or additional accusations came out, the flaw in this theory that this has all been cooked up by Steve Bannon and Breitbart, although I could believe anything, the theory is they are the ones behind this.  Well, the problem with that theory is the person next, next in line behind Fairfax to the governorship is Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, no relationship to Delegate Herring.  So, you still get a Democratic governor. 

VELSHI:  Mark Herring, in fact, was the person who Justin Fairfax lost to when he ran for attorney general and then he became lieutenant governor. 

Larry, always good to see you.  Thank you for joining me. 

SABATO:  Thank you, Ali. 

VELSHI:  Larry Sabato is the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

All right.  Much more to get to tonight, including breaking news that the president`s legal troubles are expanding.  Federal prosecutors have now reportedly subpoenaed documents for the committee that put together Trump`s inauguration and one of the reporters who broke the story joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  If you like baton twirlers, this was the inauguration for you.  Donald Trump`s inauguration in January of 2017.  If you got claustrophobic like I do in big crowds, this was also the inauguration for you apparently, or if you don`t like particularly well-known bands or a big fan of DJ Ravi Drums, in that case, Trump`s inauguration would be irresistible for you. 

But from a basic math perspective, Donald Trump`s inauguration defied all the rules of nature.  It was twice as expensive as President Obama`s inauguration and half as dazzling.  The Trump inaugural fund raised a record-breaking $107 million, most of that was spent, but where the money went and to whom remains an open question.  Despite promises that there would be a full and clean external audit of the inaugural committee finances, it`s not clear that ever happened. 

Back in December, we learned that federal prosecutors were investigating whether the inaugural committee misspent some of the $107 million that it raised from donations.  At that point, the criminal probe by the Manhattan U.S. attorney`s office was in, quote, early stages.  Reportedly, they were looking at whether foreigners illegally funneled donations to President Trump`s inaugural committee and specifically, whether people from Middle East nations, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, used straw donors to disguise their donations to the funds. 

Now, remember, the federal prosecutors in this story are based in Manhattan, in the Southern District of New York.  These are separate and apart from those who work for special counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation.  It`s a different investigation. 

Back in December, the reporting called this criminal investigation in the early stages.  Tonight we have breaking news because that investigation appears to be in full bloom.  Multiple news organizations reporting tonight that federal prosecutors in New York reached out today to President Trump`s inaugural committee.  The committee was served with subpoenas and ordered to turn over documents about its donors, finances and activities, as well as, quote, any benefits handed out, including tickets and photo opportunities with the president, federal disclosure filings, vendor contracts and more. 

This is coming out of the Southern District of New York`s public corruption section, totally different from the Russia investigation.  It`s worth remembering that Donald Trump`s longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen and the Trump Organization`s chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg have both been cooperating with the same federal prosecutors in addition to Rick Gates, a Trump campaign deputy who also worked on the inauguration.  So, it`s not clear where this is coming from but they got a lot of people that might be telling them something about the inauguration. 

"The Wall Street Journal" says that among the documents that prosecutors want is anything regarding donations to the committee made by or on behalf of foreign nationals. 

Joining me now is Rebecca Ballhaus, one of the "Wall Street Journal" reporters who has been on this story. 

Rebecca, thank you for joining us on such short notice and thank you for your reporting on this. 

REBECCA BALLHAUS, WALL STREET JOURNAL REPORTER (via telephone):  Thanks for having me. 

VELSHI:  First of all, the Southern District of New York is looking for these documents.  Do you have any indication whether the committee is willing to hand them over? 

BALLHAUS:  It seems that they are.  The committee put out a statement earlier tonight saying they just received the subpoena and were reviewing it but it was their intention to cooperate. 

VELSHI:  The subpoena coming from the Southern District of New York makes people wonder whether it`s related to or if there is any overlap with Robert Mueller`s office and investigation.  Do you know about that? 

BALLHAUS:  Well, we know that Mueller has at one point been looking into donations for the inaugural fund, specifically for foreign nationals.  It`s not clear to us whether that`s ongoing or whether that`s been referred to the Manhattan U.S. attorney`s office.  We do know that this investigation into the inaugural fund grew out of the previous investigation into Michael Cohen and his business dealings.  Among the records that were seized in the April raid of his properties was a tape of him having a conversation with an adviser to the inaugural about her concerns that some of the money was being misspent.  So, we know those are the origins of the investigation. 

VELSHI:  Let me ask you this, Rebecca: what are they looking at?  Because there are a few questions, that one looks at this inauguration, the fact that it was really expensive but didn`t seem to look like something that was as expensive as it would be.  So, is it money that`s being funneled places and a question of just following that money or is the bigger concern whether foreign officials, foreign governments could have been using this as a way to influence Donald Trump or gain favor with Donald Trump? 

BALLHAUS:  Well, our takeaway from the subpoena that we reviewed tonight is that their investigation appears to be really broad and they seem to be looking at every part of this.  They ask for documents related to, as you mentioned, any foreign nationals that donated or any discussions of possible donations from foreign nationals, but they also ask for records related to any direct payments from donors to vendors, which would have allowed donors to effectively flout disclosure rules. 

Rick Gates, which was the deputy chairman on the inaugural committee, was asking several vendors in the weeks leading up to the inauguration if they would be willing to accept payment directly from donors.  The other thing they are asking for is any records related to one donor in particular, a Los Angeles based financier.  He is actually a longtime Democratic donor who in December, 2016, donated $900,000 to the Trump Inaugural Committee.  He`s also someone that once registered as a foreign agent on behalf of Sri Lanka. 

Now, it`s not illegal to accept donations from foreign agents, only foreign nationals.  This is interesting this is the only donor they specifically single out in tonight`s subpoena. 

VELSHI:  We do know, though, of one person who in the past said they donated money, they were a straw donor.  They were representing a foreign national who wanted tickets to inaugural events.  We do know that some of that activity took place. 

BALLHAUS:  That`s right.  We saw last year in August, Sam Patton pleaded guilty and part of that guilty plea said that he had used the U.S. citizen to serve as a straw purchase so that a prominent Ukrainian oligarch could attend the inauguration.  So, that`s at least one part that started to come out. 

VELSHI:  All right.  An interesting development in the story.  Rebecca, thanks for your reporting on this.  Rebecca Ballhaus is a reporter for the "Wall Street Journal."  We`ll stay on top of this story.

Still ahead tonight, why some of the intelligence professionals responsible for briefing the president say he`s endangering the nation by ignoring them. 

Stay with us. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  Diego Garcia is a small atoll in the Indian Ocean, just 12 square miles in size, about 500 miles south of the equator.  Due east of Kenya, southwest of the southern tip of India.  It`s a British territory, a beautiful one at that.  The Brits let America keep a military outpost there.  It`s an air base and naval support facility. 

It is far-flung as these go.  It takes two days of travel on multiple planes to get our troops all the way to Diego Garcia.  The Navy says its facility at Diego Garcia provides logistical support to our forces deployed around the Indian Ocean and in the Persian Gulf.  And that`s about it. 

The Navy is not all that outspoken about the operations on tiny little Diego Garcia.  This is the entire description of their setup on the atoll on their official website.  That`s it. 

Diego Garcia has been called the Navy`s best kept secret and today we found just how tight that secret is apparently kept because not even the president seems to know what is going on over there. 

"Time" magazine is out with this remarkable piece laying out in painstaking detail how the president has been ignoring his intelligence briefings.  Senior intelligence officials tell "Time" magazine the president is endangering American security with what they say is a stubborn disregard for their assessments. 

One of those episodes of stubborn disregard involved our naval outpost on Diego Garcia.  Quote, after briefing in preparation for a meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May, the subject turned to the British Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia.  The island is home to an airbase and U.S. naval support facility that are central to America`s ability to protect power in the region, including in the war in Afghanistan, end quote. 

Well, after that briefing, the president wasn`t interested in the troops on the base or the war in Afghanistan.  He did pose two probing questions, however, they were, quote, are the people nice and are the beaches good? 

This expose from "Time" magazine, the intelligence community sounding the alarm about how the president is not only uninformed but uninterested in details critical to our national security.  It is frankly kind of a terrifying portrait, but perhaps it is not a complete surprised when paired with this.  Over the weekend, the news outlet "Axios" got hold of the president`s private schedules.  They show that in that last three months, the president has spent 60 percent of his time in, quote, unstructured executive time, which is code for watching cable news and talking with his supporters on the phone, which is extraordinary on its face. 

It`s almost mind-boggling to see in black and white that the president spends most of his time not doing his job.  Also, just as remarkable is that we have these schedules in the first place.  The president`s private schedules are called private for a reason.  They are not supposed to be leaked to the public.  Since the president took office, there have been a stunning number of leaks from this White House from intelligence professionals in particular sounding the alarm about the threat that the president poses to national security. 

There were the leaked transcripts of his private calls with foreign leaders and the anonymous op-ed about the White House staffers trying to protect the country from the president`s worst impulses.  Then there was the report about the president`s unsecured cell phone and the leak about the FBI investigation into whether he`s actually secretly a foreign agent.  More recently, there were reports about the handling of a security clearance for the president`s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and how the president went to great lengths to hide his conversations with Vladimir Putin. 

Those are not the kind of details that we the public are supposed to know.  High-level intelligence is meant to stay a secret.  What are we supposed to do with this information? 

Joining me now, David Priess.  He`s the chief operating officer of Lawfare.  He`s also a former intelligence officer and briefer under former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. 

Mr. Priess, it`s great to have you with us.  Thanks, sir. 

DAVID PRIESS, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, LAWFARE:  Thanks, Ali. 

VELSHI:  You used to be a keeper of classified intelligence.  Let`s just start with the idea that we have this information.  What do you make of these high level secrets spilling out into the press?  The schedule and all of those other things I just articulated. 

PRIESS:  It`s surprising because the level of trust and loyalty the White House gets, not to mention others in the executive branch, is usually enough to prevent this.  But let`s be honest, most of those things you cited were not top secret classified information.  Something like the president`s schedule is unclassified.  It may be sensitive but the kind of leak freaking about classified information getting out isn`t about this.  These are things that are just the way the president does business. 

VELSHI:  Right.

PRIESS:  They are shocking and it`s the kind of thing we don`t see in most administrations but it`s not the same as information leaking out from the intelligence agencies about sensitive collection overseas.  Thankfully, we`re not seeing waves of that. 

VELSHI:  Got it.  Look, here is something interesting, the idea that the intelligence briefers are concerned about how he consumes information or doesn`t consume information or doesn`t pay attention to it dovetails with what we saw last week with the intelligence chiefs at their yearly testimony before Congress.  Suggesting things that are not in keeping with what the president thinks of as national security priorities. 

So, on one hand, is he at odds with the intelligence community or is he just not in touch with what the intelligence community is trying to tell him? 

PRIESS:  Hey, both can be true.  Clearly, this is a unique president in terms of how he approaches intelligence. 

General Mike Hayden said it really well.  This is the first president that the intelligence community had to deal with whose instinctive departure point is not the truth.  He goes from his belief first.  That`s a real challenge for an intelligence briefer because the cardinal rule of intelligence briefings is you tell the president what he needs to know, not what he wants to hear.  But you tell him what he needs to know.

And if that conflicts with a belief, that`s a challenging briefing.  But let`s be honest, he`s still be having at least some of these intelligence briefings.  Two years ago if you asked intelligence professionals if the president would still be sitting down with people whose only mission is to tell him the truth whether he wants to hear it or not, most people would have said there is no way Trump is going to be putting up with that and yet, something is working.  There is something about these briefings that gets through to him.  We don`t know what it is. 

VELSHI:  It may --

PRIESS:  We hope something does. 

VELSHI:  Well, it may be everybody is adapting to the way he consumes.  You said that presidents have consumed briefings differently. 

PRIESS:  Oh, yes. 

VELSHI:  Some read that the presidential daily briefing that is given to them and asked questions based of it.  Some are briefed in person daily. 

PRIESS:  Right.

VELSHI:  What do we know about Donald Trump and how he consumes and how that compares to other presidents? 

PRIESS:  Yes, it`s funny.  Donald Trump in his pattern of receiving intelligence briefings is most like two presidents that he probably would not like being compared to.  And that`s Bill Clinton and Barack Obama because both of them received in person intelligence briefings from intelligence officers for their daily intelligence but didn`t get it daily.  They got it a couple times a week on average. 

But there is a key difference, is we have no evidence Donald Trump is reading the daily brief on the days he`s not getting briefings or engaging with security staff about it, whereas both Presidents Clinton and Obama and all previous presidents spent a lot of time either reading the presidents` daily brief, if they didn`t take oral briefings and talking about it with their national security advisors and other senior officials.  We`re missing that in the Trump case.  We haven`t seen any reporting that`s the case and, in fact, almost exactly a year ago, "The Washington Post" reported that in fact, the president was not reading the presidents` daily brief on those days when he wasn`t getting the in person briefings. 

VELSHI:  It`s remarkable. 

David, thank you for sharing insight into this.  David Priess, the chief operating officer of Lawfare, a former intelligence officer and daily briefer at the CIA.  Appreciate your time tonight. 

PRIESS:  You`re welcome. 

VELSHI:  Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  President Trump described his border wall in a number of different ways.  He called it a fence.  He`s characterized it as artistically designed steel slats.  One time, he referred to it as peaches.

But regardless of how the president might describe it, Americans do not support it.  According to a new Gallup poll out today, 60 percent say they oppose major construction of border walls along the U.S. Mexico border.  That number has actually ticked up from 57 percent just a few months ago. 

Trump is losing the P.R. war on this one and as he gears up for his State of the Union tomorrow evening, here is another number worth noting.  The vast majority of Americans, 81 percent, say they favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the country.  Public opinion is not on the side of the Trump administration, at least when it comes to immigration policy and that`s before Democrats in the House have even started putting the Trump immigration policies under a microscope like they are about to starting this week.  This Thursday. 

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing entitled examining the failures of the Trump administration`s inhumane family separation policy.  It was announced today that the House Judiciary Committee will also hold a hearing on the family separation policy. 

In a blistering statement, Democrats on that committee said that, quote: There has been little oversight of the role that the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Health and Human Services played in creating and implementing an abhorrent policy that resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents at the border.  It is clear that the departments were either incompetent or grossly negligent in the policies implemented.  It is time for a full accounting of this shameful policy. 

Today`s announcement comes in the wake of a chilling court filing submitted late Friday by the Trump administration.  According to that filing, the administration now questions whether it is even possible to find all the migrant children who have been separated from their parents or guardians at the U.S.-Mexico border.  In addition, the administration does not dispute an inspector general report which says thousands more migrant children may have been separated beyond the 2,700 children who were removed under the Trump administration zero tolerance policy in 2018.  In a court document, a top official with Health and Human Services says even many tracking down the separated children were, quote, within the realm of the possible, her office does not have the resources to do it. 

Perhaps even more jarring, the Trump administration further argued that removing these children from sponsor homes to rejoin their parents would, quote, present grave welfare concerns, saying that such a move, quote, would destabilize the permanency of their existing home environment and could be traumatic to the children. 

Lee Gelernt, the ACLU`s lead attorney in the suit said in a statement, quote, the Trump administration`s response is a shocking concession that it can`t easily find thousands of children it ripped from parents and doesn`t even think it`s worth the time to locate each of them. 

Joining us now, ACLU attorney, Lee Gelernt.  In addition to being the lead attorney in the case, he`s also the deputy director of ACLU`s Immigrant`s Rights Project. 

Lee, thanks for joining us.  Good to see you. 

LEE GELERNT, ACLU IMMIGRANT`S RIGHTS PROJECT DEPUTY DIRECTOR:  Thanks for having me. 

VELSHI:  One of most stunning parts of this filing is that the administration all but admits that thousands more children may be separated at the border.  I find it hard to believe in 2019, all we are able to do that the government says they can`t track these kids down, they can`t rejoin them, reunite them with their families.  The parents have been in many cases expelled. 

How do you make sense of this? 

GELERNT:  Yes, I don`t think you can make sense of it.  I think you`re absolutely right.  It`s stunning.  I think it`s stunning in a lot of respects. 

First of all, we`re a year into this litigation and now we find out not from the government but from an internal report that there may have been thousands, thousands of other kids separated.  The government is conceding that they are not sure where the kids are and probably most stunningly, they are saying it`s not worth trying to find them, and that it could be bad for the kids to reunite them with their parents.  I mean, that`s untenable. 

VELSHI:  That`s a very strange argument, right? 

GELERNT:  Yes. 

VELSHI:  The argument that it`s in the children`s best interest they are not returned to their parents and remain in sponsor homes.  Courts in America have not usually held that. 

GELERNT:  No, absolutely not.  I mean, the government is acting as if these are parents who put their kids up for adoption decades ago and now want to reinsert themselves in the lives of these children.  These were children who were ripped from their parents` arms literally within the last year, 18 months, and now the government is saying, well, maybe the children don`t really want to see the parents anymore.

I mean, it`s a stunning argument.  For the United States government to say, well, we don`t want to dedicate the resources to try to reunite these families we separated, and that it`s probably not worth it -- I mean, that`s a remarkable statement. 

VELSHI:  We just got an announcement we`re going to send 3,500 more troops to the border.  That could be money used to reunite these children. 

GELERNT:  Absolutely right.  I mean, we need to get our priorities right.  And this Thursday, the Energy and Commerce Committee is going to be holding hearings on family separation.  That`s an important first hearing on family separation. 

As you mentioned, there`s going to be other hearings, but this one on Thursday, I think, is critical that the members of Congress really press HHS and say, why isn`t it worth it?  Why can`t you find these kids?  Why in America are we not going to try to find these children? 

VELSHI:  And I believe you`re going to be testifying on Thursday at that hearing. 

GELERNT:  I will be.  I will be. 

VELSHI:  You`ll be back in court on February 21st.  What does success look like to you? 

GELERNT:  I think success looks like the judge saying, look, these children were separated under the same basic practice.  They`re part of this case, and now let`s figure out a plan for finding these children, and if we have -- if there`s going to be that long a period where we can`t find them, then let`s at least start prioritizing.  The kids that were sent to foster care, let`s make them the first priority and move through it, but by no means can we just throw up our hands and say, we`re not going to look for these children, that`s it. 

(CROSSTALK)

GELERNT:  Yes, yes. 

VELSHI:  Lee, thanks for doing what you`re doing. 

Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants Rights Project, I appreciate you tonight. 

GELERNT:  Thank you.  Thanks. 

VELSHI:  All right.  Still to come, the latest in our favorite legal mystery. 

Stay with us. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  Oh, to be a fly on the wall of Judge Amy Berman`s courtroom today.  That`s where special counsel Robert Mueller`s prosecutor spent 4-1/2 hours presenting secret evidence supporting their claim that the president`s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, lied to investigators and breached his plea deal.  And being a fly on the wall is pretty much the only way any of us would know what this secret evidence was because they went to great lengths to keep everything secret. 

They cleared the courtroom, shooed out the journalists.  They even covered the windows on the doors to keep out any nosy lip readers.  Paul Manafort was there, according to his attorney, but we don`t know much more than that. 

And we won`t know until a redacted transcript is released.  Both sides have until Wednesday to say what they wanted redacted.  Judge Jackson pushed back Manafort`s sentencing until March 13th and scheduled another hearing for February 13th.  Maybe next time they`ll hold the hearing beneath the cloak of invisibility.  So, on Manafort, we will all have to wait a little longer.

But here`s something nice and definitive that`s happening this week.  Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee will hold a full committee meeting to, among other things, vote on sending official transcripts of congressional testimony to Robert Mueller.  This is important, because official transcripts are what Robert Mueller needs to indict any more witnesses for lying to Congress.  That`s the way you prove someone is lying to Congress.  That`s Wednesday.  Mark your calendar. 

As Rachel would say, watch this space.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  One last bit of news if you`ve been watching for and perhaps about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this one is for you.  Justice Ginsburg made her first public appearance since undergoing lung surgery to remove cancerous nodules in December.  "The Washington Post` says she attended a production of "Notorious RBG in Song" in Washington, D.C.

Welcome back, Justice Ginsburg. 

That does it for us tonight.  Rachel will be back tomorrow.  I`ll see you tomorrow at 1:00 and 3:00 Eastern for my own shows. 

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

Good evening, Lawrence.

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