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US rejects Iran's claim drone was in its airspace. TRANSCRIPT: 6/20/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Kevin Hunt

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


Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  I could listen to you guys talk all day. 

HAYES:  I could go on all day with Ta-Nehisi.

MADDOW:  This is a plan if either of you ever like need a new gig, I would pay good money to listen to you guys talk at length about lots of different stuff. 

HAYES:  If other people feel an appetite, in WITHpod, in the "Why Is This Happening?" archive, there is an episode of me and Ta-Nehisi. 

MADDOW:  Do it again. 

HAYES:  All right.  We will.

MADDOW:  Thanks, you guys. 

HAYES:  All right.

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

So, it`s been a busy news day.  It has also been a very tense day in the news.  All day long and into tonight, ever since we saw the predawn headlines that Iran`s Revolutionary Guard Corp was taking credit for shooting down an unmanned U.S. military drone near the Strait of Hormuz. 

Now, the Iranian government and the U.S. government both confirmed that Iran downed a U.S. drone.  There are differences.  Iran said the drone violated Iranian airspace, and that`s why they shot it down.  The U.S. government says no, the aircraft was operating in international airspace.  And so, Iran should not have shot it down and it`s therefore a terrible provocation. 

In either case, though, there is no disagreement between the two governments that the thing was shot down.  It is also worth being doubly and triply clear that this was a machine.  This was a remotely piloted machine.  No U.S. personnel were physically involved or physically at risk in the shoot down. 

The Pentagon says the drone was an RQ4A Global Hawk.  I`m not sure that`s what you should use to describe it.  We do know this is a fairly large aircraft.  It`s designed for surveillance.  We think of drones as being -- if you think of commercially available drones, you think of things that can be a size of old fashioned model airplanes.  This is more like the size of an airplane airplane. 

Earlier today, the Defense Department released video that they say shows the American drone being taken out by a surface-to-air missile.  You can sort of see what looks like a trail of smoke after the drone is hit, and as it falls towards the Earth. 

This incident happened last night in terms of East Coast Time.  That means it was just before dawn in Iran, 8-1/2-hour time difference. 

This afternoon, the White House held a bipartisan briefing for top leaders.  They summoned the top Republicans and top Democrats from both the House and the Senate, along with the bipartisan leaders from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees and House and Senate Armed Services Committees, which is a serious kind of briefing.  Despite the obvious tension at home and abroad, I should say, you know, we got the initial reports about what happened very early on this morning. 

The story actually hasn`t developed very much over the course of the day in terms of assertions from either side, in terms of what we heard from our own government.  And we definitely got these clear assertions that that drone was definitely shot down by Iran.  We got Iran`s clear assertion that they did the same thing. 

The president said it was definitely a big mistake by Iran.  We have seen that kind of development in the story.  But beyond that, we don`t know what Iran might do next.  We don`t know what the United States might do next.  We don`t know whether the president intends to respond in some way or frankly who he would task with carrying out any sort of military response, if that`s what he wants to do. 

His last acting defense secretary is supposedly leaving office tomorrow, which presumably means the new acting defense secretary is just starting tomorrow.  Maybe.  In either case, no confirmed official is in charge at the Pentagon, nor has there been one in charge at the Pentagon since General Jim Mattis left more than six months ago. 

So, coming up on the show, I`m very happy to say we`re going to be speaking here in person in studio with Ben Rhodes.  Ben Rhodes has extensive, extensive experience with Iran as a national security and diplomatic matter.  He served as deputy national security adviser under President Obama and Ben Rhodes is going to be joining us here live in just a moment to give us his perspective on all of this, how this story may develop, what we should watch for from our own government and how serious this all is.  So, Ben Rhodes coming up. 

We have also just tonight received the transcript of testimony before the Judiciary Committee in the House from Hope Hicks.  Hope Hicks is the first Trump White House official to have to testify to Congress about the Mueller report since it was partially published.  We now know from the transcript of her testimony which we have just received that Hope Hicks was well-armed in terms of legal firepower when she sat down before the committee yesterday. 

Hope Hicks brought with her into that committee room not one, not two, not three, not four, but five different lawyers.  One of her five lawyers, two of her own and two from the White House and one from the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.  She has never been a Justice Department employee.  It`s not clear what the Justice Department was doing there objecting to her potentially answering questions, but the Justice Department was represented, too. 

And at the start of her testimony, it very quickly became clear what all of those lawyers, what that pyramid of lawyers was there to do.  Right at the start of her testimony, the chairman of the committee, Jerry Nadler, asked Hope Hicks if she would please read from a portion of the Mueller report.  It`s a portion that describes Cory Lewandowski who had been a major figure in the Trump campaign, he was summoned to the White House. 

You might remember this incident from the Mueller report.  We talked about it a number of times here on the show.  This is the incident where Corey Lewandowski takes dictation from President Trump about a message the president wants him to bring to the attorney general. 

Corey Lewandoski, not a government employee, hasn`t been involved since the campaign.  Nevertheless, the president summons him to the White House and says take this down.  This is what I want you to go tell the attorney general.

So, Jerry Nadler, chairman of the committee, asked Hope Hicks to read that portion of the Mueller report out loud and she does so.  And then this.

Chairman Nadler: Are you familiar with the events described in that excerpt from the special counsel`s report that you just read.  Lawyer: objection. 

Chairman Nadler, and you are objecting on what basis, sir?  Lawyer: the same basic that would call for her knowledge of events that occurred during her time as senior adviser to the White House. 

Chairman Nadler: In other words, you are asserting absolute immunity that she cannot testify as to any knowledge of anything that occurred after the president was inaugurated?  Lawyer: During her time as adviser to the president, she cannot. 

Chairman Nadler: she cannot refer to anything?  Your contention is that as a result of absolute immunity, she cannot state anything about her knowledge of any during the period of time in which she was employed in the White House?  Lawyer: For the purpose of this hearing, yes. 

Chairman: OK.  Question to Ms. Hicks.  When Mr. Lewandowski visited the White House on June 19th, 2017, he was not an employee of the White House and the administration, correct?  Lawyer: Objection. 

Chairman Nadler: That`s a matter of public knowledge.  It has nothing to do with whether or not she was White House staff.  She would know that in any event.  So, we should not be cover by this.

The lawyer: Under the terms of absolute immunity described in Mr. Cipollone`s letter, the letter from the White House counsel, she may not speak about anything that occurred during the time of her employment in the White House as a close adviser to the president. 

Chairman Nadler: anything that occurred during that time?  Lawyer: During her service as close adviser to the president.  Chairman Nadler: So did a war break out between Israel and Egypt during that time period?  Lawyer: Same objection. 

Chairman Nadler: Same objection.  Well, I will ask these questions for the record so you can object for the record.  Question to Ms. Hicks: do you recall if you knew why Mr. Lewandowski was at the White House that day?  Lawyer: Objection.

Chairman Nadler: Were you present for any portion of that meeting?  Lawyer: Objection.  Question: Do you know if anyone else is present for any portion of that meeting?  Objection. 

Have you discussed that meeting with anyone?  Do you know if anyone was present for any portion of the meeting?  Objection.  Have you discussed that with anyone outside the White House.  Objection. 

I know this sounds like slam poetry, but legally, this whole thing probably has a point because Congress not only notes to ask Hope Hicks these questions and other White House staff these types of questions, they think that Hope Hicks and other White House staff will ultimately be legally compelled to answer these questions by a court because a court, they believe, will eventually rule that the basis on which these lawyers, the White House and the Justice Department are objecting here is a made-up basis.  It`s not a real legal basis to prevent a witness from testifying to Congress. 

And so, in pages and pages and pages and pages, for hours and hours and hours of Hope Hicks` testimony, they asked her lots and lots of questions that she does not answer.  And these fleet of lawyers instead objects.  But I think the reason they have gone through this exercise is for a forward- looking reason which is that they are getting the supposed legal basis for these objections on the record, so that they hope a judge in the future will later rule that these objections to her answering all of these questions, those objections are not legally sound.  And after a court has a chance to rule on that, she will ultimately have to answer. 

So, again, I am not a member of the Judiciary Committee and I was not there and I have no inside knowledge.  But that`s what it seems like they were doing here. 

That said, the whole thing is not just objection, objection, objection.  They also do get her on the record on a bunch of stuff.  Here, for example, is Hope Hicks testifying yesterday behind closed doors in the Judiciary Committee about the prospect of getting foreign assistance to help a campaign and should that occasion a call to the FBI. 

Question from committee staff.  To your knowledge, did the campaign ever report any information about contacts of any kind with Russia to any law enforcement official?  Answer: Report to law enforcement when?  During the campaign? 

Question: during the campaign.  Answer: Not to my knowledge. 

Did you receive a defensive, what`s called a defensive FBI briefing or any kind of law enforcement briefing while you were in the campaign?  Answer: I did not, no. 

Are you aware of whether the campaign received such a briefing?  Answer: I`m not aware. 

Question: Do you understand what I mean by defensive FBI briefing?  I do, yes, sir. 

What do it mean to you, Ms. Hicks?  Answer: It means to have law enforcement to make you aware of potential risks and how best to protect yourself if those risks exist already or they might present themselves at some point in the future. 

Question: on July 27th, 2016, Mr. Trump publicly stated, Russia, if you`re listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.  I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.  Do you recall that statement? 

Answer: I do.  Yes, sir. 

Question: Did you have discussions with Mr. Trump about that statement prior to the statement being made?  Answer: Not prior to, no. 

Question: Did you have any discussions with him about the statement after it was made?  Answer: I did, yes. 

Question: Were you with him at the time he made the statement?  I was, yes, sir.  And when did you discuss it with him?  When we got back on the plane to go to our next location.

And what was that discussion?  The discussion was me informing him that some of the media had taken the expression quite literally and that they were concerned he was encouraging foreign governments to, you know, locate those e-mails, and that was obviously something that the media thought was extremely inappropriate and demanded a response from Mr. Trump and the campaign as to what exactly he meant by that. 

The media felt it was inappropriate. 

Question: And did you have a view on the appropriateness of this statement?  Good follow-up.  Answer: You know, it was my understanding from both the way he made the remark and the discussions afterwards that this was a little bit tongue in cheek.  This was not a comment that was intended as an instructive or a directive to a foreign government.  It was a joke.  And that was the intent based on my conversation with him and that was it. 

Question: And what did he say in the conversation about the statement?  Answer, just what I said.  It was intended on as a lighthearted comment. 

Question: The president said last week told George Stephanopoulos that he would take information about an opponent from a foreign adversary in the next election.  He said, quote, there is nothing wrong with listening.  It`s not an interference.  They have information.  I think I`d take it.  If I thought there was something wrong I would go maybe to the FBI if I thought there was something wrong.  Do you think that was a joke? 

Answer: I don`t know.  I have not discussed that remark with the president.  I didn`t -- I didn`t see the entire interview.  So, I saw the clip you are referencing.  I don`t know if there was additional context.  I don`t think that was a joke based on what I saw. 

Question: All right.  In your experience now you knowing all you do, you`ve reflected on it.  Excuse me, you have reflected on it.  Would you take -- I`m asking you this based on your experience and the expertise you developed.  Would you take foreign oppo information from a foreign government if that were offered when working on a political campaign?  Answer: You know, knowing how much chaos has been sowed result as far as the Steele dossier, no, I would not. 

Question: And again, I`m asking you about your expert opinion.  Would you advise another person to do that if they were in a position to do?  Answer: no, I would not. 

Question: Would you call the FBI if you were offered such information?  Answer, if I thought it was legitimate enough to have our law enforcement dedicated their time to it, sure.  Question: If you felt it was genuine or credible, you would call the FBI, right?  Answer, yes. 

And then a committee staff says: According to Mr. Mueller`s report, there were over 120 contacts between the Trump campaign and individuals associated with the campaign and Russia, that`s Russian individuals, that`s during the campaign. 

So we will see how the Judiciary Committee follows up on this and what they may be able to get Hope Hicks to answer if and when they take the administration to court over what they are saying witnesses can and can`t answer in congressional testimony.  But there is one more episode here, from all the objections, no, she won`t talk about that, no, she won`t talk about this, there are these few things that she does talk about. 

And there`s one more episode here from the campaign which Hope Hicks just testified about that is of interest because this is not the way we previously publicly understood what was going on at a very key moment in the campaign, a very key moment in terms of how the overall campaign worked out, but also a very key moment in terms of Russian interventions in the campaign to benefit Trump.  We learned something from Hope Hicks` testimony about what was going on at that time which was something we did not know before. 

So, again, listen closely here.  There`s a couple of things we knew about, but we didn`t know they went together.  Anyway, you will see what I mean.  Question from committee staff: When did you first become aware of the "Access Hollywood" tape?  Answer: About an hour before it was made public. 

Question: What was your reaction to it?  Honestly, my reaction was it was a Friday afternoon and I was hoping to get home to see my family for the first time in few months, and that wasn`t happening. 

Question, did you have any other reactions?  Answer: Look, I obviously knew that it was going to be a challenge from a communications standpoint. 

Did you discuss it with Mr. Trump?  I did, yes. 

Tell me about the discussions, please?  I made him aware of the e-mails I received from "The Washington Post" which described the tape. and I don`t know if the initial e-mail did this.  But certainly, one of the subsequent e-mails and exchange provided a transcript of the tape.  So, I described those different components to Mr. Trump and tried to evaluate the situation. 

And how did he react to that?  You know, he wanted to be certain before we engage that it was legitimate, and I think we all felt it was important that we request to see the actual tape or listen to the audio before responding. 

Was he upset?  Yes, I think everybody was in like a little bit of shock.  And did he ask you how did he seek your advice on how to respond?  Yes.  There were quite a few of us and there was a group discussion given that this unfolded at a debate prep session. 

Question: Do you remember who you discussed the tape with?  Answer, who else was present there?  Yes, at that time.  Sure.  Reince Priebus, Chris Christie, Jeff Sessions, Steven Miller, Jason Miller, Steve Bannon, David Bossie, Kellyanne Conway, later Jared Kushner.  I think that`s it. 

Question, do you recall reaching out to Michael Cohen about the tape?  Answer, my recollection of reaching out to Michael took place the following day and it wasn`t about the tape, meaning it wasn`t about the "Access Hollywood" tape. 

She says, quote, it was about -- this is going to get confusing, but the day after the "Access Hollywood" tape, there were rumors going around and I`m not sure where.  I heard it from the spokesperson Katrina Pierson who was sort of like -- she had a lot of contacts, grassroots.  She had called to tell me that or sent me a message about rumors of a tape involving Mr. Trump in Moscow with, you know, can I say this?  The transcript notes discussion off record and she comes back on record. 

Trump in Moscow with, you know, Russian hookers, participating in some lewd activities. 

And so, obviously I didn`t -- I felt this was exactly how it had been described to me which was a rumor, nonetheless I wanted to make sure I stayed on top of it before it developed further to try to contain it from spiraling out of control and the person that made me aware of the rumor said TMZ might be the person who has access to this tape. 

I knew Michael Cohen had a good relationship with Harvey Levin who works at TMZ, so I reached out to see if he heard of this and if Harvey contacted him and if he could be in touch with me. 

Committee staff: Do you recall anything with WikiLeaks at this time?  Yes.  And what happened in that connection, Ms. Hicks?  I believe the same day the "Access Hollywood" tape was released, they released e-mails from John Podesta`s account. 

Question: Do you have any information about how those came to be released at that time?  Answer: No. 

OK, any other reason you reached Mr. Cohen besides the Harvey Levin connection?  Answer: No.  I know what Michael said about reaching out with him to spin reporters.  Number one, I wouldn`t reach out to Michael for help spinning reporters at that point in time. And number two, you know, there was no spinning that tape. 

So, this is not long before the election, right?  This is October, right, before the election.  The "Access Hollywood" tape comes out.  The whole campaign like threatens to blow up.  We know from subsequent accounts that senior people on the Trump campaign were telling Trump to dropout of the race and resign.  I mean, they are threatening to quit themselves. 

But now from Hope Hicks, we know that the very next day after the tape comes out, as the campaign is spiraling maybe to death because of the "Access Hollywood` tape and its impact, the next day, the Trump campaign goes into a totally different damage control on a totally different matter entirely because they hear that there is a tape of Russian hookers and lewd activities of Trump in Moscow. 

Number one, that means that the campaign and presumably the candidate were not for the first time being told about the rumored existence of the Trump hooker pee tape when James Comey sat the president down during the transition and very gingerly told him about it.  James Comey has written about that interaction with the president during the transition. 

He has described it as if the president appeared to be very shocked to hear about this tape, right?  He was outraged to hear the rumors of this tape.  Remember, I`m a germophobe.  That`s ridiculous. 

But now we know that Trump and his campaign heard about that supposed tape and were trying to track it down themselves, at least since the previous October and they had tasked Michael Cohen with handling that.  So, it was feign surprise from President Trump to James Comey when Comey thought he was telling Trump about that tape for the first time in January during the transition. 

Secondly, we now know that the campaign`s reaction when they hear about this tape, this supposed tape, was that they should call Michael Cohen.  He`s the guy who can handle this.  When they got this news that there might be a Russian hooker`s tape from Trump in Moscow, right, at that moment they are already having probably the biggest freak out of the campaign, understandably about the "Access Hollywood" tape where the president brags about sexually assaulting women and getting away with it. 

But while that is unspooling, within that 24-hour period, they stop on a dime and call Michael.  Call Michael.  We`ve got a situation.  We got to get a handle on this. 

How did Hope Hicks put it in the transcript?  She says, quote, I wanted to make sure I stayed on top of it before it developed to contain it from spiraling out of control. 

Of course, we now know from the Mueller report that Michael Cohen, in fact, followed up on the rumored tape or tapes of Trump in Moscow.  Since we know he received a text message from a Russian businessman that said this, quote: stop flow of tapes from Russia, but not sure if there is anything else, just so you know. 

In an interview with the FBI and Mueller`s prosecutors, that Russian businessman who told Cohen he stopped the flow of tapes from Russia, according to Mueller`s report, he told the FBI in a subsequent interview that when he said tapes, he was referring to compromising tapes of Trump rumored to be held by persons associated with the Russian real estate conglomerate Crocus Group, which had helped host the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Russia. 

So, that Russian businessman, the one who told Michael Cohen the same month that the "Access Hollywood" tape came out when Cohen had been tasked by the campaign with handling that, that same Russian businessman who said he stopped the flow of tapes from Russia, that same businessman was involved in the Trump Tower Moscow real estate project, which the president was trying to set up during the campaign that he was keeping secret, right?  This guy was working on Trump Tower Moscow secretly with the Trump campaign while the president was denying any business dealings in Russia. 

And then from Russia, he was also apparently helping Michael Cohen out with a hooker tape freak out which the campaign tasked Michael Cohen with fixing.  We learned today that the House Intelligence Committee wants that Russian businessman`s testimony as well.  They are seeking testimony from him and they are going get testimony from Felix Sater tomorrow.  He was Michael Cohen`s partner on Trump Tower Moscow. 

I mean, they got one Trump administration witness, they had one so far since Mueller`s report was completed, right?  One witness who yesterday sat down with five lawyers and objected to basically everything she was asked and they still got all of that out of her.  This is going to get more interesting overtime.  Not less. 

Stay with us. 


MADDOW:  Ben Rhodes was President Obama`s deputy national security adviser.  He served in the White House for Barack Obama`s entire presidency.  He was known to be very close to the president. 

He worked on some of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the Obama presidency.  He led back channel negotiations with Cuba.  He worked on the Osama bin Laden raid. 

When the Obama White House began secret discussions about a potential nuclear deal with Iran, for them to curtail their nuclear program, Ben Rhodes was one of the few people on the inside working those negotiations from the American side.  President Obama, of course, signed that agreement in Vienna in July 2015, a historic achievement taking a nuclear Iran off the table for the foreseeable future. 

Since President Trump took the United States out of that Iran deal unilaterally since he started to undo all of that work as he fast as he could, Ben Rhodes, now a former government official, has spoken out, saying the president has created a destabilizing situation for the Middle East and for the world. 

With today`s news about Iran shooting down a drone, a U.S. drone near the Strait of Hormuz, with the president now openly flirting with the potential war with Iran, honestly, Ben Rhodes is a brain I want to hear from on this right now.

Joining us now, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser under President Obama. 

Ben, thanks for being here.


MADDOW:  What is your top level take on how serious the situation is with Iran right now, today, after these reports about this drone shoot down? 

RHODES:  Unfortunately, I think it`s incredibly serious.  And, Rachel, like you said, this was very predictable, right?  When Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement, since then, all he has done is stack provocation on provocation for months.  More sanctions, designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, which his own administration, the Defense department reportedly didn`t want him to do because they thought that Iran would hit back on some fashion.  The threats from Bolton towards Iran.

And so, what ends up happening is the cumulative effect of those threats pushes the Iranians to respond in kind.  And now, what we are seeing potentially with the fires on the tankers and with the shoot down of this drone, is the Iranian hardliner saying, we have taken enough and we`re going to begin to push back.  And you saw that with the announcement that they`re going to start re-accumulating stockpile of nuclear material. 

So, the dangerous moment we are in, Rachel, is the Trump administration is escalating and now the Iranians are escalating and we are counting on those two actors to find an off-ramp. 


RHODES:  And that`s a very destabilizing moment. 

MADDOW:  I feel like as a lay observer of national security things, somebody with no expertise on the matter, but somebody who just watches it from the outside, when John Bolton became national security adviser, when Mike Pompeo became secretary of state, we were all able to assert these were among the hardest hard liners in U.S. government and U.S. national security circles ever in terms of the issue of Iran.  I never thought specifically about either why that might be, why they might be such hard liners on Iran, or what that might mean they want to do. 

It`s hard to believe that what they want is a land war with Iran, that the United States invading.  It`s hard to see what value they would see in shooting missiles at Iran. 

Do you understand from their point what they might see as the desired outcome here? 

RHODES:  Bolton in particular has been outspoken and calling not just a military strike on Iran, but regime change in Iran.  You cannot get regime change through a missile strike.  That is a significant military action.  That is a war in my opinion. 

If you look at what happened since Bolton was appointed, after he was appointed that we pulled out of the Iran deal.  It was after Jim Mattis resigned as secretary of defense six months ago that we saw this escalation really take off and we know from reports that Mattis was a apparently break at the Situation Room table in saying we shouldn`t pull out of the Iran nuclear deal.  We should be cautious in how we approach this. 

Since we`ve been without a secretary of defense for six months, which never happened before, this has taken off, and John Bolton literally has the controls of the plane and is flying it.  What we know about John Bolton is he is committed to regime change in Iran. 

MADDOW:  We have no defense secretary.  As you said, he won`t have a defense secretary for a long time.  We have a new acting one who maybe taking over tomorrow. 

That sort of vacuum within U.S. leadership obviously is felt specifically in terms of the absence of Mattis, the type of role that you are describing.  Given that sort of like Q&A in American chain of command and the way these decisions are making, how do you think the U.S. government is going to proceed?  Not how they should proceed, but what do you think this administration is going to do next? 

RHODES:   Well, it`s very simple, right?  Usually, you have a debate around the table.  This is really John Bolton and Mike Pompeo I think wanting to take us into some type of a military confrontation with Iran, and Donald Trump as the guy we are counting on to be the break because he knows politically that runs against what he said, he was not going to get us into more wars. 

A normal administration, Rachel, would be saying, yes, if they did shoot it down a U.S. drone, it was in Iranian airspace, and that remains to be determined, by the way, because I don`t know that we can trust the administration on this.  But you would take this to the international community and get other nations to join with you in condemning this and seeking some type of sanction on the Iranians. 

My concern is, if you think you can start a military confrontation with Iran and it won`t escalate, you don`t know about the mindset of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian regime.  They can retaliate in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Israel, in Lebanon, across that region, potentially terrorist attacks and beyond. 

This is not a simple war.  This is a bigger, more sophisticated country than Iraq or Afghanistan was, and look at how those wars went.  So, I think we have to be taking this moment seriously. 

And I hope that I`m wrong.  I hope that this doesn`t lead to a war.  But I think the risk of it is such that people need to be making more noise.  And some Democrats are doing now in Congress, I like to see more saying, this would be illegal, this would be potentially catastrophic and I`d like to see them saying, you are not authorized to do this and we want a resolution to prevent a war with Iran. 

MADDOW:  Ben Rhodes is deputy national security adviser under President Obama, intimately involved in their negotiation and high level diplomacy over the Iran nuclear deal and other matters.  Thanks for helping us to understand this.  I feel like we will be calling us a lot in the next few days.  Thanks.

RHODES:  Thanks, Rachel.  Good to see you.

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


MADDOW:  As for two headlines flashing by in rapid succession.  First one from the "A.P.": U.S. air quality slipping after years of improvement.  The air quality in the U.S. has been getting better for years, thanks to better regulations and enforcement.  It was getting better for years until these past couple of years whereupon the Trump administration has been setting regulations on fire and dousing them in banned chemical pesticides that killed condors and now, the air quality in the United States is getting worse. 

So, that was one headline from the "A.P."  Can we put that back up on the screen?  Right?

Then, right after we got that headline, it gave birth to its own twin.  New headline also from the "A.P.": EPA gives coal plants a reprieve. 

Yesterday, the coal lobbyist who Trump put in charge of the EPA signed new legislation to roll back the Obama era legislation that had tightened up standards on polluting old fashioned coal burning power plants.  He signed that new rule as his own agency`s data were released that showed how the Trump administration has turned around American air quality so it`s now in decline.  Trump`s own EPA says the further decline they are expecting from this rule change they signed yesterday should probably be expected to kill around 1,400 Americans every year that it`s in effect -- 1,400 extra dead Americans because of new air pollution that they are purposely causing. 

As I mentioned, the Trump administration`s EPA chief is a coal industry lobbyist.  Maybe you can spot the pattern here.  Trump`s handpicked EPA director, coal lobbyist.  Trump`s secretary of health and human services, a pharmaceutical lobbyist.  Trump`s secretary of the interior, oil industry lobbyist.

And as of tomorrow, Trump`s Defense Department will be run by a defense industry lobbyist.  So much swamp draining.  I mean, literally on the day Trump had to replace the aerospace executive he had running the Pentagon with the defense industry lobbyist who will run the Pentagon instead, I mean, it would be hard on that day, that very day for the president to launch his reelection campaign on the promise that he has been busy taking on the lobbyists, right? 


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  We stared down the unholy alliance of lobbyists and donors and special interests who made a living bleeding our country dry.  That`s what we have done. 


MADDOW:  We`re stared down those lobbyists.  We started them down.  Staring contest was actually very easy. 

Nobody actually seemed tense.  Didn`t seem like it would escalate at all.  We gave them jobs and they went out for Diet Cokes afterwards.  We stared them down. 

I mean, that`s one way to capture a federal agency, right?  Put a lobbyist from the industry that that agency is supposed to regulate or oversee, put a lobbyist from the industry in the top job of the agency. 

But in the Trump era, it turns out there is now another side to this story about one agency that is trying to if not take itself back, it is trying it insulate itself from this Trump-driven wince.  It is fascinating.  You have not heard this story and that`s coming up next. 

Stay with us. 


MADDOW:  This is a story that`s been happening kind of under the radar, but I think it`s worth knowing about it.  It cuts against a lot of what we think is going on in Washington right now.  It`s about a single federal agency where the Trump administration has undertaken some really aggressive methods to undermine the work of that agency. 

I don`t know how much you know about the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  One thing to know about it is that it does a lot of important research, independent data collection and analysis.  They publish peer-reviewed scientific papers all the time. 

Unfortunately for the Trump administration, independent data collection and analysis and research at USDA has recently produced some findings the administration really didn`t like.  Like the Republicans` new tax law would help rich farmers, but would actually lower farm output overall and raise taxes on lower income farms. 

Also that the president`s trade wars are hurting American farmers.  Also, they found unsurprisingly that climate change is a really big problem for American agriculture and needs to be urgently addressed and these are the thing that is the Trump administration did not want to hear.  And the way the Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue decided to respond to these politically unpalatable scientific findings out of his department is that he tried to make the scientists in his department go away. 

Over the last several months, Trump`s agriculture secretary has announced a series of new plans to basically trying to bring the scientists in that department to heel.  He started by saying he would take the Agriculture Department`s research division which currently operates independently separate from the whole political side of the department.  He decided to bring those independent researchers instead directly under the control of his office. 

He also directed all the scientists at the Agriculture Department to start labeling published research as preliminary, to put that disclaimer on all the published work as if it was not actually finished or maybe it wasn`t super solid. 

Then he announced that, you know what, let`s just send the scientists 1,000 miles away.  But only the scientists doing the work we don`t like, like the ones working on climate change and trade policy and food stamps and stuff like that, congratulations.  All of you, you all get to uproot your families immediately and move to Kansas City.  We are moving all of your jobs to Kansas City right now.  You`re all going.  Unless you would like to quit, that is.  In which case we can replace you with people we like better or not replace you at all. 

The USDA chief scientist from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations told Congress that a relocation like that would set USDA research back five to 10 years because of the special employees the agency would lose.  That`s one thing to know. 

The Trump administration has been waging a sort of quiet war on government scientists, particularly at this one agency because they have been producing quality work that nevertheless makes the Trump administration`s policies look bad. 

But the other thing you should know is we are seeing an unusual fight back by the scientist who is are being squeezed out by this operation inside this one agency.  The scientists inside the Agriculture Department have recently scrambled to unionize.  They have formed a union in part so they can try to fight back against these decisions from the agriculture secretary.  They have rallied to drum up support for their cause.  They have lined up support among members of Congress to try to help them block what the Trump administration is trying to do. 

In some ways, you might look at this and think this is a fruitless last stand.  I mean, as of a week ago, Sonny Perdue said they are moving ahead to ship the scientists across the country, hopefully to make them all quit.  But it`s interesting, one of the other things to know about what`s going on is that there is a handful of instances now in which we have seen the Trump administration, we`ve seen agency`s secretary propose something that their own staffers were totally opposed to, but because of pressure, because of backlash, because of criticism, they had to back off from the worst stuff they tried to do. 

That plan to try to force scientists to label their research as preliminary, that plan was killed because of an angry backlash against it.  That plan to move all the scientists into the secretary`s office so they would have to answer to him instead of being independent of the political side of the agency, that plan too had to get called off because of an angry backlash and angry response.  Just today, a plan to cut off a job corps problem that trains under privileged youth, that plan got bipartisan opposition in Congress, in addition to opposition from staff inside the agency, and now, the USDA has backed off that, too.  They are keeping that. 

And so, the scientists, the career nonpolitical staffers inside this agency are trying these unique tactics to try to basically keep their agency intact, try to basically save the important work of their agency.  And again, this is not Democrats versus Republicans, this is the people who do the important work the country needs from this agency, they`re trying to save themselves and their jobs and the function of what they do from what Trump is trying to do to make it go away. 

And they are trying desperate tactics, but so far they have been having some success.  It`s really interesting.  It`s an undertold about what`s happening in Washington right now.  But one of the scientists who has been involved in leading that fight joins us live next. 

Stay with us. 


MADDOW:  A week ago today, Trump`s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stood before his employees at the Agriculture Department to announce that he was moving ahead with a plan to uproot hundreds of agency scientists and ship them 1,000 miles away to Kansas City.  This was the response in the room.  Those folks turning their backs are not standing up because they are stretching their legs.  They are turning their backs on the secretary of the agency. 

For the last several months, the research scientists in the nation`s agriculture department have been raising the alarm every way they know how that the Trump administration is trying to gut the agency`s scientific research, specifically targeting scientists whose research results the Trump administration finds politically unpalatable.  The scientists have now unionized.  They have protested.  They have tried to lineup support for their cause in Congress. 

This is a fight that has been happening a little bit under the radar.  It`s worth knowing about.  These scientists are engaged in the interesting and unusual effort to as they see it, try to save their agency`s work from an administration that is trying to disappear them. 

Joining us is Kevin Hunt.  He`s geographer of USDA`s Economic Research Service.  He`s one of the scientists who`s been told he needs to move to Kansas City right now if he wants to keep his job.  I should tell you, he is also the acting vice president of the newly formed union at USDA that is among other things fighting the relocation. 

Mr. Hunt, I really appreciate you being here.  Thanks very much for your time. 

KEVIN HUNT, GEOGRAPHER AT USDA ECONOMIC RESEARCH SERVICE:  Thank you, Rachel.  I`m glad to be here under the hard circumstances for myself and my family, my union family.  It`s a really hard situation that we are dealing with this week. 

MADDOW:  This relocation order, I realize that you have been told you need to move to Kansas City if you want to keep your job -- you and many dozens of colleagues.

Do you believe this is an effort to make and you your colleagues quit so that they can either replace you with people you find more likeable, given the administration`s politics or not replace you at all to reduce the amount of science that the agency does? 

HUNT:  I do believe that that`s what will happen if this goes through, because most of us can`t make this move.  There is just too little time for us to decide.  It`s a really hard decision to make in 30 days that we have to make it in.  Kansas city is not close.  We can`t even really visit it. 

a really hard decision to  a really hard decision to make in 30 days that we have to make it in.  Kansas City is not close.  We can`t even really visit it.  We have to do it on our own dime if we were. 

It`s definitely part of that presidential budget that was proposed where it would reduce our staff by 50 percent.  So, essentially that could occur after we are assigned to these new locations.  That could happen. 

MADDOW:  In terms of what`s likely to happen next here, I have been trying to describe the things you have been doing to fight this and let people know it`s happening and the protests with the secretary, the forming of the union in which you are now serving.  I understand you have been getting support in Congress.  There may be some legislative support to try to block this effort by the agency. 

HUNT:  Yes, the House has put through the appropriations process a bill that would stop this move and so that`s what we find so concerning about the timing here, is if we are all supposed to be located at this new facility, the last day of the physical year, then why -- what`s the rush?  It obviously has to do with the appropriations process. 

MADDOW:  When you say the appropriations process has recommended that your agency in particular within USDA, that your -- as far as I understand, the budget for your entity should be cut by half and the staffing should be cut by half. 

Has the secretary explained to you that the way they intend to meet those types of budget cuts is by attrition?  Are they being overt about the fact that the move is intended to push you guys out? 

HUNT:  No, they act like they`re going to -- you know, who can`t make it will be replaced in Kansas City and advertised it as a great opportunity for the city.  But the reality is, we are from the whole country. 

I`m actually from Columbia, Missouri.  I grew up there.  I went to the university there.  I went to a land-grant university. 

And most of my colleagues are from all over the country because we came here to work on national policy.  And research that we are doing, you know, scientific-based research. 

MADDOW:  Kevin Hunt, geographer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, vice president of the scientist`s new union there, keep us apprised.  I know this is moving fast and it`s a very urgent matter for you and your colleagues.  We are interested in the story and we`d like to keep our viewers up on it.  Thanks for being here tonight. 

HUNT:  Thank you.  Thank you.

MADDOW:  Thanks.

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


MADDOW:  OK, one heads up for you in terms of tomorrow`s news.  We have been covering the story on the show about the state of Missouri where the Republican-controlled state government is trying aggressively to shut down the last abortion provider in the state.  They`re trying to make Missouri the first state in America that does not have any legal abortion providers.  First time that happened since Roe V. Wade in 1973. 

Tomorrow, there`s going to be a crucial court hearing in state court in Missouri about whether or not that last clinic can stay open.  The doctors at that clinic are fighting tooth and nail to try to stay open as the state government shuts them down.  Tomorrow, a state judge is due to weigh in on that in a substantive way, so we`ll be watching that closely. 

That does it for us tonight, though.  We will see you again tomorrow. 


Good evening, Lawrence. 

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