Abrams announces she will not run for President. TRANSCRIPT: 8/13/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Tom Malinowski, Stacey Abrams

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST:  It starts right now.  Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  You should get paid by the minute, my friend. 

VELSHI:  Thank you, friend. 

MADDOW:  The hardest working man in the building.  Thank you very much, Ali.

VELSHI:  All right. 

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

Stacey Abrams is going to be our guest this hour for "The Interview".  I`m so looking forward to talking with her.  Stacey Abrams gave the Democratic response to Trump`s State of the Union this year.  She very, very, very narrowly lost the Georgia governor`s race last fall in a race that was marred by lots and lots of election difficulties and irregularities in the voting process. 

Stacey Abrams is widely seen as one of the most attractive potential vice presidential nominees for the Democratic Party this year.  There has also been a lot of speculation that she might run for president herself.  She is signaling today that she is not going to run for president, but that`s because she has other things in mind.  She`s going to be joining us here live in just a moment. 

We got lots of feedback from viewers last night and today about a story we did on the back half of last night`s show where our guest was a nuclear expert named Joe Cirincione.  The story was about a mysterious explosion that happened Thursday, last week, in Russia.  I know from the feedback that we got from you guys that the news as of last night about that explosion, as we were able to present it here on the show, wasn`t just dramatic news about a big explosion, it was very concerning news.  I could read that in your feedback. 

Well, the story has become considerably more dramatic and more concerning today, so I want to start tonight with a little bit of an update on that.  Now, as I mentioned, the explosion in question happened last week, Thursday, in the far northwest of Russia on the White Sea at a military site.  And after whatever it was that happened there, Russian authorities put out an initial statement admitting that there had been a fatal accident but provided very few details on what had happened.  They said two people had been killed in an explosion that involved a missile at a military testing facility. 

They said two people were dead, both military personnel.  They said four people were injured.  But they went out of their way to tell the public this was definitely nothing to worry about in a wider way.  This was definitely in particular nothing nuclear. 

The defense ministry put out a statement saying, quote, there was no release of toxic materials into the atmosphere and the radiation level is normal.  Ahh, that always makes you feel reassured, right, whenever somebody tells you the radiation level is normal. 

Despite that statement from the defense ministry, a pretty good size city about 20 miles away from that military site, the site of the explosion, posted a statement on their city website announcing that in fact they had detected a spike in local radiation levels.  Again, about 20 miles away, 25 miles away from the blast site.  People in that city saw that notice on their city`s website and raced out to local pharmacies to try to protect themselves.  People bought out local supplies of iodine which potentially can protect your thyroid from absorbing too much ambient radiation which is one of the first and most acute cancer risks that is posed by nuclear fallout. 

The local concerns about there being some radioactive component to that explosion were bolstered by local press reports that the people who responded to the explosion, the first responders seen at the site where the blast happened, they all appeared to be wearing hazmat suits for some reason, so that bolstered those fears about radioactive contamination.  But still, that was sort of circumstantial evidence.  I`m sure nobody quite knew what to think after Russian authorities demanded that that city take down the references on its city website to the spikes in radiation levels they had noted at the municipal level. 

But by Saturday, the nuclear/radioactive element of this disaster was confirmed by the Russian government.  Russia`s state nuclear agency said five of its employees had died in the blast as well. 

So, that announcement contained two important conclusions, right, for the people of northwestern Russia.  Number one, the death toll was not two as they had originally been told.  It was two military personnel and five additional personnel from the nuclear agency.

The other piece of information you get from that, because that statement came from the state nuclear agency, that confirmed that the accident was nuclear in nature.  I mean, you`re not going kill five nuclear scientists in one explosion unless they`re there for a reason, because you`re doing something with nuclear power or nuclear weapons.  That statement from the Russian nuclear agency also admitted in very vague, jargony terms that while yes, the government announced this was a missile explosion, the nuclear agency said that this missile involved a, quote, propulsive system involving isotopes, which was saying this was a nuclear-fueled missile. 

This is what we knew as of last night.  This was the basis for our reporting last night.  You`ve seen people like Joe Cirincione and also Jeffrey Lewis and other nuclear experts and weapons experts here on NBC and in other news outlets talking about this, explaining what kind of test might have gone so wrong that produced this fatal accident. 

Also, the scary cageyness and secrecy from the Russian government about whether there`s a threat here to the civilian populations nearby the site of the accident.  I think nobody at this point can say they definitively know for sure, but at least the consensus of the Western speculation is that Putin`s government might have been trying to test the sort of missile that he promised in last year`s State of the Union Address, which he described as a missile that was a nuclear missile, not in the sense that it was armed with a nuclear warhead.  It would be a conventional missile, a cruise missile essentially, but it would be powered by a nuclear reactor, right?

So you can imagine, instead of a conventional rocket like some sort of conventional jet propulsion system, what Putin has been threatening to build, what the U.S. actually tinkered with in the `50s and `60s and then abandoned as a terrible idea, what Putin may have in fact been testing in northwestern Russia here on the White Sea when this went so drastically wrong late last week could be this idea of a missile that has a conventional warhead on it but it is powered by nuclear energy.  It is a missile that is fitted essentially with a flying nuclear reactor, which is the kind of thing that of course would be very bad news for the world if it worked.  But well short of that, there`s about a gazillion different ways that could be very bad news for the world when it fails and, say, blows up at a military testing facility on the White Sea on a Thursday afternoon. 

Well, today, the story got considerably worse than it had been even as of last night.  Today, Russian military officials apparently visited a town that`s even closer to the blast site than this city that had announced it noticed this spike in radiation levels right after the blast.  According to local news reports, residents in this nearby city were told that they should plan to evacuate their city.  But just for a few hours, which is kind of an odd request, right, or an odd demand.  They would have to evacuate their city tonight and into tomorrow for a few hours. 

Even though the explosion was last Thursday?  Why would you have to just stay away for a few hours and now only days after it all happened?  Then, you`re able to come back and everything is fine?  It`s an odd request, an odd demand from the government.  It doesn`t make much sense on the surface. 

It was, nevertheless, made all the more dramatic by the fact they sent a special train into that town to take all the residents away.  So, maybe that`s what they were planning on doing, excuse me, and why that nearby town had to empty out.  Maybe, might have been. 

But if that had initially been their plan, they apparently cancelled it, which is like the one even more unnerving thing you can do in that circumstance.  At the end of the day today, authorities announced never mind.  Yes, they had been planning an evacuation for this little town, but that was now off.  Whatever they were going to do that they wanted to evacuate the town for, they`re no longer going to do it.  Everything is fine now.  Actually you guys can all just stay, never mind. 

Imagine if you live in that town.  The governor of that region is actually insisting that there was never any evacuation planned at all.  Never mind the train we sent in there and all the rest of it, the governor from the local region now telling the press any claims that there was an evacuation planned are, quote, nonsense.  He says actually this is all a, quote, routine measure, nothing out of the ordinary here.  What are you looking at?  Keep moving. 

Similarly, President Vladimir Putin`s spokesman in Moscow, Dmitri Peskov, has been humming that same tune telling reporters today that, quote, security is fully ensured.  Quote, all agencies that are competent in this situation are supporting the complete safety of Russian citizens. 

"The Washington Post" has both a great editorial and some great reporting on this today, including from Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Will Englund who is writing on the crisis from Moscow.  He notes today that a Russian federal agency as of today now admits to the radiation spikes.  They admit that the defense ministry was wrong this weekend when they said there had been no increase in radiation.  They`re admitting in effect that the local city was correct when they said they had noticed a spike in radiation. 

That means they`re implicitly admitting it was wrong for Russian authorities them to take that information off their website since that information was in fact correct.  Today, the government is confirming that in fact radiation levels spiked up to 16 times normal levels. 

But then reporter Will Englund`s dispatch from Moscow ends with this, slightly even more disturbing report.  Quote: A website called Dvina Today reported that ten workers at the regional clinical hospital who had treated the victims of the explosion flew to Moscow on Monday and were taken to the federal medical and biophysical center.  Quote, there was no word on why the doctors from the Arkhangelsk regional hospital had been taken to Moscow. 

That, I believe, was the first report in the Western press that the medical personnel, the doctors and the medical personnel who have been helping the people who were hurt in this blast might themselves be in trouble.  That was the first report in the West.  The essence of that has been confirmed by multiple sources in Russia, including TASS and Interfax and Novaya Gazeta. 

And as of tonight, "The New York Times" is reporting it as well.  Here`s how "The Times" sums it up.  Quote: A regional news site Northern News reported that doctors at a civilian hospital in Arkhangelsk, the largest city in the region, who first treated victims of the accident had not been informed of the radiation danger.  After treating the patients, the doctors at the regional clinical hospital found that their scrubs were causing radiation meters to click. 

The patients who were hurt in the initial blast had been taken to Moscow.  The rooms where those patients had lain in the regional hospital were sealed after the patients were taken away.  But then also, the doctors who treated those patients were then transferred to Moscow for their own medical evaluations. 

According to "The Times", hospital employees are in a depressed state.  They don`t understand why doctors and nurses who were fulfilling their professional duties were treated in this way.  "The New York Times" quoting regional news sources in Russia there. 

"The Washington Post" editorial on this crisis links to this video reportedly shot nearby the blast site.  As you can tell, it shows a line of ambulances that are purportedly taking the injured away from the contaminated site.  What is a little unnerving towards the end of this footage is if you look closely, when we get a look at the back of some of these ambulances, it appears that the back of these ambulances, the doors where they would put patients in and out, are sealed with some kind of plastic film and it`s being speculated that that may be some sort of effort to try to seal in any radiation that could be emanating from the bodies of the people in the back of those ambulances. 

And so, looking from the outside in, as we are from another country, and as many Russian citizens are, right, trying to permeate this fog of nonsense and misinformation that is coming from their own government on this, for all of us looking from the outside in, I mean, one, there`s big picture concern about what exactly the Russian government was doing when this nuclear accident happened, right?  What exactly they`re trying to build here.  What exactly is it that blew up?  What was it supposed to be? 

Beyond that, though, the pit in your stomach about this is about the extent of the cover-up and what it is that they`re not letting people know about what`s going on.  Each day of the news since the initial blast on Thursday has gotten worse, every revision to what we understand has been more serious, not less.  But the deeper pit in your stomach may not just be about the cover-up but about the cleanup.  What kind of cleanup or salvage effort is under way here? 

I mean, when they sent that special train into the little town nearby the military site, that special train that was supposed to evacuate the town, local civil authorities gave a statement to the Interfax news agency that gave some clues as to what at least the locals had been told was the reason for their temporary evacuation order.  Quote: The leadership of the Nenoksa training range informed us of planned activities of the military authorities.  It was advised that residents of Nenoksa should depart the territory of the village from August 14th.  What planned military activities? 

Well, a local TV outlet reported today, according to "The New York Times," that residents had been told they had to get out ahead of early tomorrow because something was going to happen at that nearby military base where the explosion had happened.  Something was going to happen there between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, tomorrow, and so, people had to be out of there before that window of time when Lord knows what was going to happen at the site of the disaster and nobody could be in a nearby town. 

Quote: The possibility of evacuating the area raised the question of whether authorities see a continuing threat from Thursday`s explosion or if they may be preparing to retrieve the radioactive source, potentially posing new dangers.  Quote: On Saturday, one Russian state news agency said the explosion on the test platform had knocked the scientists who died into the sea, suggesting the reactor or whatever remained of it also wound up in the water.  One authority on radiation safety in Russia telling "The Times" in an interview that the military might have to, quote, fish the damaged reactor from the seabed. 

So maybe that`s what they were planning on doing tomorrow morning between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. local time and they thought it might be really dangerous to the nearby town and so they told everybody to get out but now maybe they`re not doing that?  How are they cleaning up this site?  What is it exactly they have to clean up?  How dangerous is it to people nearby, not to mention to people that are part of this response?  They didn`t tell the doctors there was a radiation hazard when the patients came in from the blast site, and now the doctors themselves are being treated?

One of the things that arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis has been raising a red flag about is the fact that a very specialized ship has been noticed nearby the blast site in the White Sea.  It`s a specialized ship that`s used for collecting and storing liquid nuclear waste.  So, there`s something going on that appears to involve maybe liquid nuclear waste and a potential cleanup effort and a potential but aborted evacuation and the doctors are getting sick. 

I mean, just step back from this for a second.  This is not what we understood last night.  What we understood last night is bad. 

What we understand now is that apparently, Russia is maybe trying to make weaponized flying nuclear reactors and it`s going badly.  They had a catastrophic accident that appears to be related to that weapons program on Thursday.  At least seven people are dead from that accident.  Hospital rooms where the injured were treated have been sealed off at the regional hospital.  There are reports that the medical personnel who interacted with the dead and wounded had to be themselves now had to be medevaced to Moscow because of radiation exposure. 

The local government nearby appears to have been correct about radiation levels spiking even as the Russian government and Russian military initially denied that.  They`re now admitting it`s true.  They were apparently going to try to attempt something in the early morning hours tomorrow that they believe should occasion the evacuation of the closest town to the testing facility but now that evacuation including the special train they sent in for that purpose, all of it has been called off.  The regional governor is reassuring everybody by saying actually none of that ever happened, where did you hear that? 

The ambulances are being shielded off with plastic sheeting.  Everybody at the response site in hazmat suits.  I mean, if a spewing experimental nuclear reactor that just killed seven people has been cast into the sea, who do you call to fix that problem?  And what dangers does it pose as you try to fish it out? 

I mean, we`ll stay on this story, but we`ve only been following it a couple of days and it`s exponentially worse.  And part of continuing to follow it will be trying to figure out if you or anyone in Russia can trust anything that the Russian government says about what is actually happening on its own soil, including about the threat that may be posed here to civilians, certainly including the first responders and the medical personnel and whoever is involved in whatever this cleanup effort now is. 

And I mean, it is -- it is one thing to trust your government in good times when you generally approve of what they are doing, when things are generally going well.  But can you trust them in a crisis?  Do you trust them in a crisis?  If you don`t trust them in a crisis, how much worse can bad times get? 

MADDOW:  The Chinese military, the Peoples Liberation Army just released a new video bragging about their mad skills as an army, showing off their weapons, showing off their long-range sniper skills.  A lot of what`s in this video is designed to show off their capability in terms of war with another nation state, a military-to-military kind of fight.  So, you know, you need missiles and tanks and stuff, but there`s also this stuff that you see on your screen right now. 

In this video, they just released, they appear to be going out of their way to show how the Chinese army could be deployed to devastating effect against civilians, against rioters, protesters, some of that involves using water cannons, a lot of it is, you know, street maneuvers by uniformed soldiers using their shields, using their guns. 

Here in one clip from the video, you can see soldiers in formation.  What they`re actually shouting here is fall back, fall back, fall back.  Why would soldiers and the Chinese army need to shout fall back, fall back in English as they confront people in the streets? 

The only place in China you`d ever have to do anything in English is Hong Kong, where lots of people speak English.  Why are they rolling out this video now? 

As the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have become more persistent and more intense, China has jumped right to the end of the plot, right to the end of the movie, and they have now started overtly threatening to use their gigantic military against the civilian pro-democracy protesters.  You might have seen online over the last two days the intimidating footage of these huge columns of identical hulking Chinese military vehicles flooding from the Chinese mainland toward the Hong Kong border. 

And this isn`t like surreptitious footage that somebody sneaked out.  China is showing off that they are amassing this kind of force.  State-run media outlets are promoting these kinds of images, along with the Chinese army promoting this propaganda video about what it would look like for Chinese soldiers to deploy full force against people in Chinese streets. 

Protesters basically shut down the main airport in Hong Kong yesterday and again today, and it looks like they will be back tomorrow.  The violence by the police versus the pro-democracy protesters over these past few weeks and the past few days in particular has been out loud and terrifying.  We`ve seen blood-curdling footage of police attacking protesters in subway stations and train stations, now at the Hong Kong airport. 

Here at home, President Trump today was asked about the situation in Hong Kong and he responded with one of his patented both-sidisms, saying, quote, I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way.  I`m sure China is heartened to know that the American president is hoping this is all going to work out for them as they threaten overtly to use the People`s Liberation Army in the streets against Chinese unarmed civilians in Hong Kong. 

And so, here`s this new thing that we`ve never really had to contend with before.  While President Trump made those remarks today, while he spoke at the White House about China and the protests in Hong Kong, what China might do to those protesters, the president`s eldest son at that moment was in Indonesia launching a new Trump-branded real estate project.  Of course, for the company the president still owns and still profits from, his eldest son was in Indonesia touting their latest, quote, integrated lifestyle resort and theme park.  Theme park, Trumpland. 

It`s not Trumpland, it`s not like dystopian Disneyland, but there is an amusement park that`s attached to this real estate development, to this new bunch of Trump-branded condos and hotel rooms. 

Here`s the thing.  When we first learned the details of this new Indonesia project the president`s company is building, we first learned those details last spring, we learned as part of that the exciting news that the theme park part of this development, the part that presumably adds most of the value to the prospect of living in these Trump condos or representing these hotel rooms, the adjacent theme park for this development was to be built by the Metallurgical Corporation of China, a state-owned Chinese construction company. 

So, the Chinese government builds the theme park as part of their one belt, one road initiative.  And then they attach the theme park to Trump`s new for-profit hotel and condo development.  And the advancement of that project was being celebrated today literally at the same moment while the president was saying he hopes this unfolding maybe blood bath in Hong Kong works out OK for China. 

The involvement of this Chinese-run company in the Trump development was first reported by "Agence France Presse" and "The New York Times" and the "A.P." last year.  Literally today at this press conference involving the president`s son, the Indonesian partner in the deal suddenly announced at the press conference with no warning that no, no, no, they have decided not to use the Chinese company to build the thing after all. 

But it`s actually not clear from the way he said it if that just means they`re not having the Chinese construction company build it or maybe it just means a Chinese bank isn`t financing the whole development anymore.  Nobody has actually been able to confirm whether Chinese state-run firms or banks are out of the Trump deal.  The Indonesian guy just blurted out that`s happening, that`s a big change and we don`t know.  So, yes, maybe, maybe not, unclear.  Nobody in the Trump White House seems much to mind either way. 

But that`s a new place that we`re in as a country.  Not just for the president and for his family and for his ongoing business interests but for us as a country, right?  We are here in a new place at a fraught time. 

The biggest rising power in the world, the most populous nation on earth right now as we speak is facing the biggest political confrontation their government has had since Tiananmen Square which resulted in a massacre in the streets a generation ago, right?  These pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are a very big deal. 

Simultaneously, the physically largest country on earth, our Cold War nemesis, the country that interfered in our last election to try to install Donald Trump in the White House, they are now also facing their biggest internal protests against their government since the protests back in 2011, 2012 that seemed to have driven Vladimir Putin absolutely around the bend.  Again, those are pro-democracy protests against the Putin government.  Pro- democracy protests in the streets of Moscow, pro-democracy protests in the streets of Hong Kong. 

In Russia, these major protests rattling the government have been ramping up over the last few weeks.  They are now coinciding with a brand new Russia crisis in which citizens of that country are being rattled like rocks in a tin can by what is apparently a new and terrifying nuclear accident of unknown scope.  It`s being called the worst known nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. 

And Russia`s citizens have every reason to believe that their government is lying to them and covering up what actually happened with lives at stake and lives already lost.  So, here`s my question, right?  In a normal time in normal circumstances, what would our country do here that would be best for us and best for the world?  What could we do? 

I mean, I set this apart from normal circumstances in our government.  I mean, this administration, this president personally, you don`t have to get me started in terms of him and Russia, right?  But I mean, even just looking at him and China alone, he and his family literally today celebrating a business deal that will mean the president will personally benefit potentially to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.  We think maybe from Chinese government investment while he at that moment is commenting at the White House on China`s threat to use military force against his own civilian population. 

What does a U.S. president have to say about that while they`re stuffing his pockets at the same time?  I mean, when we`ve got that kind of problem at the top of our government, what is the material consequence for us as Americans and for our country in moments like this?  What does that do not just to our standing in the world, our sense of who we are, but our ability for our country to do what`s right, the ability for our country to maneuver at fraught times like this, even to do just what`s best for us, to stand up for what we want to be standing up for, to act in a way that we think is most beneficial to our own interests?  What should we be able to do at times like this under normal circumstances, and can we salvage any of that with a multiply critically compromised president at the head of the federal government? 

I know just the person to ask.  That`s next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Of the 64 Democrats who took a seat for the first time in Congress this year, only one of them previously served as assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration.  He was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor working on missions around the world.  He is now Congressman Tom Malinowski of New Jersey.  He serves on the foreign affairs committee and he joins us now in studio. 

Congressman, sir, thanks very much for being here.  It`s really good to have you here. 

REP. TOM MALINOWSKI (D-NJ):  Good to be here. 

MADDOW:  So, I laid out in the opening segment there a couple of things that are rattling me that I think are also rattling the Russian and Chinese governments for two very different reasons. 

Do you feel the contrast between how our government is able to maneuver at times like this, fraught times like this with these big, important countries in the world now compared to how we might have been able to maneuver on these issues before President Trump?

MALINOWSKI:  When we had a normal government. 

MADDOW:  Yes. 

MALINOWSKI:  Yes.  I`m trying to remember that.  So, look, it`s the first time I can remember that we`ve had a president who has gone out of his way to signal to a dictatorship, in this case China, that he just doesn`t care what they do to their own people.  And I think that has consequences that could be very, very dangerous. 

And if there is a real crackdown in Hong Kong, we`ll have to respond, so it`s dangerous to us as well.  You know, there`s a debate in the world right now between these powerful authoritarian governments, Russia and China in particular, that are trying to build a new system in which if you have power, you can do what you want.  And the United States has traditionally stood against that. 

I suspect that President Trump sympathizes with the other team because he would like to live in a world in which the powerful can do what they want.  The rest of our government is still trying to conduct our normal foreign policy, and they`re living in fear of, you know, what I call the tweet of Damocles.  The State Department could say the right thing about Hong Kong or Russia or any issue and any moment of the day he could say something on Twitter that completely undermines the message. 

MADDOW:  I raise the issue about the president having some ambiguous business ties in Indonesia of all places.  It`s newsworthy today because his eldest son was in Indonesia today celebrating that business deal.  And there have been reports over the past year that that business deal may involve either Chinese financing from Chinese state-supported banks or Chinese construction firms being involved in it. 

Obviously, I don`t think that`s the sort of entanglement that`s dictating the entire U.S. government`s behavior toward China or even the president`s full range of behavior toward China.  But if the president does have or is perceived to have that kind of personal compromise where he -- they do have their hand in his pocket, where they are potentially going to be giving him a lot of money, how does that affect our ability to maneuver?  How does that affect the relationship between the president and the rest of the government?  How do we handle that? 

MALINOWSKI:  So, here`s a problem.  I don`t think there`s a conspiracy here, it just makes us look like we`re no better than anybody else.  And the Chinese love that, Putin loves that. 

They love to be able to say look at the Americans.  They`re just like us.  They`re just as corrupt as we are.  They have no right to criticize what we do. 

We used to stand against things like corruption.  And we used to be the cop on the beat, right?  And now, the cop is not only off the beat, we`re on the take.  And that`s just -- it makes me feel ashamed. 

And it certainly undermines our ability to fight for these standards, whether it`s corruption, whether it`s taking away the freedom of the people of Hong Kong or maybe the Chinese stealing our intellectual property -- violations of standards that affect our prosperity, our security.  We can`t do those things. 

MADDOW:  Congressman Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, House Foreign Affairs Committee, former senior member of the State Department -- sir, thanks very much for coming in.  It`s very good to have you here. 

MALINOWSKI:  Of course, thank you so much. 

MADDOW:  Thanks a lot.

All right.  Stacey Abrams is going to be joining us here next.  Stay with us. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Last year, the great state of Georgia turned out to elect a new governor.  The state`s two largest counties, lines to vote stretched for hours.  Some in spots, voting machines crashed and stopped working.  In other precincts the machines worked, there just weren`t enough of them. 

The lines got so long in Fulton County that polls had to stay open well into the night to give everyone a chance to vote.  Volunteers started handing out pizza to try to persuade people to stay in line well into the night. 

Those are the people lucky enough to get to vote at all.  In the years leading up to that 2018 election, Georgia`s Republican secretary of state purged hundreds of thousands of people off the voter rolls, to be their names off the rolls, unregistered them essentially.  On top of that 53,000 new voter registration applications were put on hold by that Republican secretary of state.  They were basically stuck in a drawer, 70 percent of those were from African-American voters. 

The guy who did all that, the guy who was in charge of running that election, the Georgia secretary of state, was also the Republican nominee for governor in the election that he was overseeing last November.  His name is Brian Kemp.  He was then Georgia`s secretary of state.  He became the Republican candidate for governor last year. 

He did all of that stuff to the voters of Georgia just in time for his own election effort.  His Democratic opponent was the former Democratic leader of the state legislature, Stacey Abrams, who was vying to become the nation`s first black woman governor and who attracted national attention for her strong run against Kemp, for her good chance at winning, and frankly for his charisma and political skills. 

Stacey Abrams said her opponent was using his authority over the election to tilt it in his favor, to enact policies that disproportionately made it harder for Democratic-leaning black and minority voters to cast their ballots.  He called Kemp an architect of voter suppression. 

But in the end Kemp won, narrowly.  He became Georgia`s new governor by about 50,000 votes.  That was a margin just shy of triggering a mandatory recount. 

But that election was really just not normal.  And when Kemp proclaimed himself the victor in that election, Stacey Abrams did give a sort of concession speech, but she didn`t really concede and that felt different, too. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STACEY ABRAMS, FORMER GEORGIA STATE HOUSE MINORITY LEADER:  To watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people`s Democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.  So, let`s be clear.  This is not a speech of concession.  Because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. 

As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that.  Stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quite the voices of the people, I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW:  The day she gave that speech, Stacey Abrams announced a new effort to fight voter suppression in Georgia, and I will say the day she gave that speech honestly, a thousand questions bloomed all over the Democratic landscape in this country about what this remarkable Stacey Abrams woman was going to do next, what specifically she would run for next. 

Well, Stacey Abrams joins us live, next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW:  Stacey Abrams was the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor last year.  She came very close to winning.  Democrats tapped her to give the Democratic response to Trump`s State of the Union Address this year. 

The possibility of her mounting her own run for president in 2020 has been widely discussed in Democratic circles over the past year.  Today, Stacey Abrams announced that she is launching a new campaign to fight voter suppression in 20 states, in the Midwest and in the Southeast.  It`s called Fair Fight 2020. 

Stacey Abrams joins us now for the interview. 

Ms. Abrams, it`s really nice to have you here again.  Thanks very much for joining us. 

ABRAMS:  Thank you for having me. 

MADDOW:  So, I want to talk first about the prospect of you running for president, because I know that that`s what a lot of people -- what`s on a lot of people`s minds.  Looking at you here tonight, I want to talk to you in detail about this new effort you`ve launched.  I take it that this means you`re not going to be mounting a bid for president yourself? 

ABRAMS:  That is correct. 

MADDOW:  Why is that?

ABRAMS:  My best value add to this campaign, to this primary is making certain that whomever the nominee is, that we have a fair fight in 2020, and that`s what I`m going to focus on. 

MADDOW:  "The New York Times" today said that you made your decision in recent days.  As she determined she was comfortable with the current crop of Democratic candidates. 

Can you talk at all about your decision-making process and how recently you made this decision and what it is about the Democratic field or what your feelings are about the Democratic field? 

ABRAMS:  It sounds very presumptuous that I was comfortable with the field, but here`s what I`d say.  Part of my responsibility as a citizen and as someone who has the opportunity to stand for the highest office is to make certain that I`m the right person and it`s the right time.  But it`s also to make sure that I`m doing the best that I can do to ensure that we have someone that beats Donald Trump and that we win back the Senate. 

And as I looked at the candidates, as I watched the debates, I think we have a robust crop of candidates who have thoughtful ideas and plans for how we move our country forward.  And so, for me, the decision was, how can I best be of service? 

We began working on Fair Fight 2020 and you can learn all about the program at fairfight2020.org.  We began working on this months ago, because I also wanted to help in the three states that have statewide elections in the South, but also looking forward to how we help other states stand up these voter protection programs early.  And as I weighed the balance of me trying to mount a campaign, which I think I could do, or focusing on making sure that every American who`s eligible to vote can vote in November of 2020, the choice for me was simple.  And I decided to go the direction of launching Fair Fight 2020. 

MADDOW:  I was interested by the focus on states in the Midwest, but also specifically states in the Southeast.  And having talked to you in the past about not just Georgia but about national politics and having followed your career avidly since you`ve been a national figure, I feel like one of the things that you have contributed to in Democratic thought right now is this idea that any Democratic plan, any Democratic strategy for winning the White House has to include the South and the idea that the Southeast is some sort of red bloc that is impenetrable to the Democratic Party is not only outdated but is a fatal misconception at this point in terms of how Democrats can put together a national plan to win. 

Am I fair to put that on you in terms of your perception of how this works? 

ABRAMS:  That`s absolutely right.  We know that Georgia is a battleground state in 2020.  We`re a battleground state because we came within 1.4 percent of winning, but we did so by tripling voters of color, Latino and Asian Pacific islanders, and increasing by 40 percent African-American turnout. 

Georgia as a state has the highest percentage of African-American votes of any presidential battleground state.  If you look across the South and Southwest, we know that Latinos, Asian-Pacific islanders, that Native Americans are all voices that have been silenced and suppressed by Republican action in the last 20 years.  And when you combine that with the African-American vote in the South, we have an opportunity to join those in the Midwest and in the Northeast in declaring that the United States is ready to elect a leader who actually believes in all of these people. 

MADDOW:  I feel like your experience in Georgia, both with the New Georgia Project and then later in your gubernatorial run, I feel like is both an inspiring story for Democrats and also a cautionary one, because the organizing effort that you were involved in against voter suppression efforts and then specifically to try to get yourself elected did produce this massive increase in minority voter registration and in minority voter enthusiasm and turnout. 

But to see that have such huge bites taken out of it by the Republican- controlled state government in Georgia, indeed by your ultimate Republican competitor in the gubernatorial race, to see him just scrap tens of thousands of registration forms from mostly black voters, it felt like -- well, you know, how much do you have to do before you can actually get numbers sufficient to put you over the line if they`re going to have tactics like that? 

ABRAMS:  And that`s exactly why Fair Fight 2020 is so critical.  We are launching now in 20 battleground states, and that`s not just battleground for the presidency, it`s the Senate.  And it`s also down ballot races like state legislative races, those chambers that are going to draw the maps after the census. 

We know that they have been hard at work at suppressing the vote, at dismantling democracy, and it is our responsibility to not just wait to see what happens, but to actually fight back.  We`re going to educate staff and fund, do the training for making sure that in every one of these states, we have voter protection teams that are ready to go long before we have a nominee.  But we`re also going to make sure they`re ready for not only the tactics we know were employed in Georgia, and in North Dakota, and Florida and Texas, but also in Wisconsin. 

What`s happening Michigan as they try to roll back progress.  We know that we also face foreign influence that is being denied by the White House, by the would-be dictator of Donald Trump but also that Moscow Mitch is stopping voter rights legislation, and election security legislation. 

But we also know they just lifted a consent decree that`s kept Republicans and the RNC from going into local communities and intimidating voters by having off duty officers tell people that they are monitoring their votes.  For the first time since 1981, the RNC will be allowed to cheat and lie and go into polling places and places and scare voters, particularly voters of color. 

Fair Fight 2020 is designed to anticipate all of those challenges, but not just worry about them, work against them.  And that`s what we learned from 2018.  We cannot wait for the cavalry to come.  We have to be the army and we have to stand up now. 

MADDOW:  Stacey Abrams, Georgia Democratic candidate for governor, now the founder of Fair Fight 2020 -- Ms. Abrams, it`s great to have you here.  The next time you are swinging through the Northeast, I hope you will come here and do another interview.  We would love to keep -- stay apprised on these efforts and whatever you`re going to do next.  Thank you. 

ABRAMS:  Thank you so much. 

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

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MADDOW:  This is a map of Donald Trump`s Electoral College win in 2016, and don`t ask him about it.  It makes him mad, makes him say all sorts of crazy stuff.  But famously, he did lose the popular vote by millions of votes.  Despite the fact that he lost the popular vote, he got to victory in the Electoral College with a string of narrow wins in a few key states, including that crucial 80,000 votes combined from the trio of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

The narrowness of that victory, don`t ask him about it, it makes him crazy, but the narrowness of that victory makes a new round of state level polling quite intriguing for looking ahead to 2020.  Here`s the map begun showing the states that Trump won in 2016.  Those states of course are marked in red. 

Here`s the state where is new polling shows him under water with more people saying they disapprove of his performance than approve of it, including in all of those red states that he won.  This polling comes from a firm called Civiqs, it was created with help from the founder of the progressive site "Daily Kos", right?

But you can see Trump is underwater in a whole bunch of states that he won last time.  He`s down in Arizona and in North Carolina, both by nine points.  In Georgia, where Stacey Abrams is from, he`s down by five points.  In Iowa, he`s under water in terms of his approval rating by four points.  In Florida by three, in Utah by three. 

He`s underwater in Utah?  You know how hard it is for a Republican presidential candidate to lose in Utah?

Check out the states that were so crucial in 2016.  Trump is underwater in Michigan right now by 11, Pennsylvania by 12, Wisconsin by 10. 

And, of course, these are early days, nobody has a crystal ball, but when you see reports about the Trump campaign, scrambling to defend their 2016 map, it is the polling like this, showing him underwater in all of these places he needs to win that show you why they might be desperate to do that. 

We`ll be right back.  Stay with us. 

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MADDOW:  That`s going to do it for us tonight. 

One last thing before we go.  This time last night, I said we expected opening statements today in the trial of former Obama White House counsel Greg Craig.  He, of course, is the only Democratic administration official who has been caught up in a prosecution deriving from the Mueller investigation. 

We did expect those opening statements today but there was a surprise in the courtroom today, and the judge essentially decided, told the courtroom today that she needed to start over with jury selection, that it had been handled in a way that might cause problems later on in the trial, and she was going to scrap the jury selection process they had gone through and start over.  So that`s going to put a few more days delay into that process, and that means maybe we`ll get opening statements in the Craig trial by Friday. 

Anyway, we`ll keep you posted.  See you again tomorrow. 

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

Good evening, Lawrence. 

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