U.S. Cyber command weighs new tactics. TRANSCRIPT: 12/26/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Greg Miller, Richard Blumenthal

SUKETU MEHTA, NEW YORK UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF JOURNALISM:  So, then, it is a lot residents and, you know, it just -- I really have hope in the India in the long run because democracy has been around for a long time in the country. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST, "ALL IN":  This is really important conversation.  Suketu Mehta and Dexter Filkins, thank you both so much for joining me tonight.  I really appreciate it.

That is "ALL IN" for this evening. 

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts now with Ali Velshi, in for Rachel.  Good evening, Ali.

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST:  Very interesting conversation, Chris.  Thank you.

HAYES:  You bet.

VELSHI:  Have a good night to you.

Thank you to you at home for joining us this hour.  Hope you`re having a good holiday week.  It`s a weird week, isn`t it?  Having a big holiday right smack in the middle of the week?  It messes up your whole sense of time.  If you are someone who has to work through the holidays or maybe you worked a day or two and had a day off and you`re back and your office is weirdly empty, it`s odd. 

I mean, take a look at this.  This was the United States Senate today.  A handful of staffers and one single solitary senator right there, right in the middle.  There to do the senate`s business of the day, a whole whopping 38 seconds of Senate business. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA):  Senate will come to order.  The clerk will read the communication to the Senate. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Washington, D.C., December 26, 2019, to the Senate under the provisions of Rule 1, Paragraph 3 of the standing rules of the Senate, I hereby appoint the Honorable John Kennedy, a senator from the state of the Louisiana, to perform the duties of the chair, signed Chuck Grassley, president pro tempore. 

KENNEDY:  Under the previous order, the Senate stands adjourned until 2:00 p.m. on Monday, December 30th, 2019. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Boom, and that was it.  That was the entire Senate workday.  Senator Kennedy gavels in, orders the reading of a letter that puts him in charge of the Senate for today and then uses that power to immediately adjourn until next week.  Not bad for a day`s work. 

I think my favorite part here, look at this right at the beginning look at the woman right in front of Senator Kennedy, she`s a staffer.  She motions to Senator Kennedy exactly when he`s supposed to bang the gavel presumably so that the Senate is gaveled in at the correct appointed time.  Watch closely. 

She holds her hand up, watch this, there you go, hands up, wait for it, wait for it, okay, bang the gavel. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KENNEDY:  Senate will come to order.  The clerk will read the communication to the Senate. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  All right.  Every workplace has its holiday traditions.  Maybe you and your colleagues do a secret Santa. 

In the Senate, they make one member hoof it back to Washington occasionally to bang the gavel so that the presidents cannot sneak in any appointees while the Senate is out of town.  But one thing was slightly unusual today on Capitol Hill, was that when Senator Kennedy faced his duties and he emerged from the capitol building in his holiday Senate casual wear, reporters were waiting to pepper him with questions because even though the Capitol is sleepily right now, there is no pressing Senate business about to happen today or tomorrow or even next week.  All eyes are nevertheless on the Senate because as soon as it does reconvene, we`re expecting to start learning the contours of the impeachment trial for the president of the United States. 

The biggest unanswered question, the main point of contention between Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Democratic minority leader is whether there will be any witnesses called.  Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has named four top administration officials that he would like to call as witnesses in the Senate trial.  And it Democrats only need four Republicans to join them to get what they want. 

We`re going to have more in just a minute on the one Republican senator who is signaling that she may not be in lock step with Mitch McConnell on this.  But it`s worth putting a spotlight for a second on one Republican -- one reason that Republican senators may be so resistant to calling witnesses.  The house took testimony from several witnesses you`ll recall in its impeachment hearings, and that testimony even from senior Trump appointed officials really, really did not go well for the White House. 

Even if you did not personally find the testimony from those witnesses compelling, even if you didn`t watch much of the testimony at all, just the fact of all these incredibly impressive, impeccably credentialed public servants coming forward to tell the truth about what they witnessed was a powerful rebuke to a White House that has often seemed allergic to truthfulness. 

Take Bill Taylor.  He was tapped by the administration, the Trump administration to be the acting ambassador to Ukraine after the president fired the previous ambassador for ostensibly standing in the way of Trump`s scheme to pressure the Ukrainian government for political dirt.  Once Bill Taylor took up his post in Ukraine and came to learn about the president`s scheme, he famously texted his diplomatic colleagues, quote, I think it`s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign. 

Now, Bill Taylor joined the Foreign Service under President Reagan.  He has served every president since, Republican and Democrat.  He came out of retirement to take this post in Ukraine only -- only after the secretary of state Mike Pompeo assured him that America would not falter in its strong support for Ukraine against Russia. 

And, again, regardless of the details of Bill Taylor`s testimony, which was damning for the president, if you`re Donald Trump and you`re trying not to get impeached, Bill Taylor is not the guy you want testifying against you. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SEAN PATRICK MALONEY (D-NY):  Thank you, gentlemen.  Thank you for being here today. 

Ambassador Taylor, what year did you graduate from West Point? 

WILLIAM TAYLOR, ACTING U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE:  1969.

  MALONEY:  Was it the height of the Vietnam War, wasn`t it, sir? 

TAYLOR:  The height was about that time. 

MALONEY:  What was your class rank at West Point? 

TAYLOR:  I was number 5. 

MALONEY:  How many people in your class? 

TAYLOR:  Eight hundred. 

MALONEY:  Eight hundred cadets, you were number 5? 

TAYLOR:  Yes, sir. 

MALONEY:  So when you`re top 1 percent of your class at West Point, you probably get your pick of assignments, but you picked the infantry. 

TAYLOR:  I did, sir.  Yes, sir. 

MALONEY:  You were rifle company commander. 

TAYLOR:  Sir? 

MALONEY:  Where`d you serve? 

TAYLOR:  In Vietnam. 

MALONEY:  See combat in Vietnam, sir? 

TAYLOR:  I did. 

MALONEY:  Did you earn any accommodations for that service? 

TAYLOR:  I was awarded the Combat Infantryman`s Badge which is my -- my highest -- I`m proudest of.  There was a Bronze Star.  There was an Air Medal with the --

MALONEY:  That`s for valor, isn`t, sir?

TAYLOR:  It is.

MALONEY:  On August 28th, you find yourself in Ukraine with the national security advisor, Mr. Bolton, right? 

TAYLOR:  Yes, sir. 

MALONEY:  And you convey to him your concerns.  He tells you that you should bring it up with the secretary of state. 

TAYLOR:  Yes, sir. 

MALONEY:  Have you ever sent a cable like that?  How many times in your career, 40, 50 years, have you sent a cable directly to the secretary of state? 

TAYLOR:  Once. 

MALONEY:  This time? 

TAYLOR:  Yes, sir. 

MALONEY:  In 50 years? 

TAYLOR:  Rifle company commanders don`t send cables but, yes, sir. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSH:  Bill Taylor testified on the very first day of public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry, and you can see why impeachment investigators wanted Americans to hear from him.  Decades of military and diplomatic experience to his name, served under several Republican presidents, tried to sound the alarm when he thought he saw American foreign policy being undermined on the ground in Ukraine. 

Here`s the thing.  One week from today, Bill Taylor is out of a job.  "The Wall Street Journal" was first to report that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered that Taylor clear out his desk because Pompeo is coming to visit Ukraine on January 3rd.  Quote: Mr. Taylor is planning on leaving the country on January 2nd and had understood that Mr. Pompeo wanted to avoid being photographed with him while visiting Ukraine. 

"The Daily Beast" further reported that Pompeo is in fact going to avoid the American embassy in Kiev all together and just take meetings at his hotel.  Wouldn`t want to go to the embassy and get any Bill Taylor cooties. 

This is the Mike Pompeo who dragged Bill Taylor out of retirement by giving him personal assurances that strong support for Ukraine would remain American policy.  That is the policy Bill Taylor stood up for.  And now, Mike Pompeo won`t even be seen in the same country with him. 

The decisions by Taylor and other impeachment witnesses to go public have not been without consequences.  Not just for the president and for the country but for themselves.  In "The Washington Post", Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe paint a sobering picture how things have gone for government employees who have dared to speak up about the president`s Ukraine extortion scheme. 

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top advisor on Ukraine, at the National Security Council, well, he was on the infamous July 25th call.  He was so alarmed that he alerted the White House lawyers. 

Now, Vindman still works at the White House but as "The Post" puts it, quote, Vindman who was born in Ukraine moved to the United States with his family at age 3 and earned a Purple Heart in the war in Iraq, has been taunted by Trump, cast as disloyal by the president`s allies and falsely accused of plotting with the whistle-blower to undermine the president. 

The former top Russia advisor at the White House, Fiona Hill, also testified in the impeachment hearings about her attempts to block the pressure campaign that she saw being carried out against the new Ukrainian government.  "The Post" reports that Hill, quote, has endured obscene phone calls to her home phone, according to people familiar with the matter and vicious assaults from far right media. 

Alex Jones, the conspiracy monger who operates the Infowars website, devoted much of his broadcast the day after her testimony to smears against Hill.  For Hill, the attacks were a continuation of an astonishing level of hostility she witnessed during the two years she served in the White House. 

Trump loyalists drafted internal enemies list, coworkers were purged, NFC security teams logged hundreds of external threats against Hill and other officials all fueled by a steady stream of far right smears.  For months, Hill arrived at work nearly each day to find venomous messages left on her work phone by a caller from Florida.  The same woman called Hill at home several times frightening her young daughter. 

And remember the whistle-blower who triggered the House investigation?  Well, since being outed by right wing media and several Republican lawmakers he, quote, continues to work on issues relating to Russia and Ukraine.  But when threats against him spike, often seemingly spurred by presidential tweets, he is driven to and from work by armed security officers. 

"The Post" concludes, quote, three years into Trump`s presidency the list of perceived enemies continues to expand.  For decades, the GOP cast itself as the champion of the FBI, CIA, Pentagon and other national security institutions.  But over the past three years, Republicans have repeatedly turned on those agencies casting, quote, unelected bureaucrats as the true villains of the impeachment scandal. 

Joining me now is Greg Miller, national security reporter for "The Washington Post" and the lead author on that piece I have quoted so extensively from.

Greg, good to see you tonight.  Thank you for joining us. 

GREG MILLER, THE WASHINGTON POST:  Thank you.

VELSHI:  You wrote about what has happened to some of the career officials who have been swept up in this impeachment.  What effect is it having on the career civil servants who make the government run? 

MILLER:  I think it`s hard to know the full extent of the damage this is causing, and it may be something we don`t really come to grasp fully for another generation or so.  I mean, recruiting numbers for the State Department have been down the last couple of years.  Morale at the State Department is near all-time lows or at least lows in terms of recent historical standards. 

But, you know, the environment inside the government right now in many of these places is so toxic and so hostile in a way that I just don`t think the broader public fully comprehends what has been unleashed here.  Our purpose to release this story was to document what it was like to live through that first-hand day after day after day. 

VELSHI:  Right, and history has shown us whistle blowers always have a tough time or people who come out against either their companies or the government often have a tough time before history writes them into the noble characters that they are.  But I want to ask you about something you wrote in your piece.  You say, quote, some of the responsibility for the mounting collateral damage falls on career officials and political appointees who took jobs in the administration despite deep objections to the president`s view.  These officials hoped they could steer the unconventional president who has an affinity for autocrats and aversion to traditional allies to reward more conventional views and policies. 

I think there`s a lot of people on those couple of sentences that you`ve written there.  There are a lot of people who joined the government at the beginning of this term who stayed in government having been career people saying we can keep this ship from going off course.  When you say they bear responsibility, what do you mean? 

MILLER:  Well, I think we felt it was important to acknowledge in our story that these are people who made decisions to work for an administration led by a president who`s views and whose conduct many of them actually find abhorrent.  I mean, this is ultimate dilemma of the Trump-led government we are living through now.  I mean, their ability to find people who come out of it -- come in with any level of expertise say Russia or on Korea, or on very highly consequential matters of national security who have views that correspondent to the president it`s really difficult. 

So in case after case after case, you have people coming agreeing to take jobs out of a sense of duty.  And, you know, one of the things we point out in the story is Trump now has turned on these people.  He`s repeatedly called them Never Trumpers when in fact they are the opposite.  They agreed to join this administration and take jobs that others refused to take at some personal cost. 

But their -- them being so out of sync with the president on his policy agenda has created and fed this internal friction that we`re writing about. 

VELSHI:  Your description of what`s going on with Fiona Hill makes it hard to understand how she continues to be able to come in and do her job every day.  Vindman, same thing, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman. 

MILLER:  Yes.

VELSHI:  Howe are they actually able to do their jobs under this sort of pressure and with this sort of isolation? 

MILLER:  I mean, as I keep -- a moment ago, I used the word duty, and I think that is a very meaningful word for people like Lieutenant Colonel Vindman who continues to go to work at the White House each and every day and to do what is supposed to be his job. 

Now, I mean what happens with his work product is an entire other question.  This is somebody who`s there to help manage policy on Ukraine.  And he is there writing reports and analytic papers and things like this that don`t go anywhere near the president.  I think it`s just astonishing he`s been in that job for such a long time, never spoken a word with President Trump, never had any interaction with him except for the president to taunt him and insult him in public. 

VELSHI:  For your piece, you also spoke with Steve Bannon, the president`s former chief strategist, who`s called for the, quote, deconstruction of the administrative state. 

Do you get a sense that there`s an actual plan at work in the Trump administration to undermine what they call the deep state or the administrative state? 

MILLER:  You know, that`s a great question and I think that -- I would say it probably goes too far say there`s an actual coherent plan under way and it`s because you have all these different agendas.  We spoke with Bannon in part because when he came in as one of President Trump`s principal advisors early on in the White House, this was his declared war on the establishment.  He wanted the mass removals of public officials from all ranks of government. 

President Trump never really has a lot of hostility towards the government, towards the CIA and FBI, but he doesn`t think in those sort of ideological terms the way Bannon does, and so, Bannon ended up being purged at one point. 

What I think is most startling now is the fact that much of the Republican Party has now embraced this aspect of Trumpism where it`s not -- it`s no longer as it was early in the Trump presidency.  You had him attacking these institutions, and then you would have Republican defenders out there like now deceased Senator John McCain.  I mean, the entire Republican Party has embraced this idea of talking these institutions to protect Trump`s presidency, and that has really thrown things off balance in our democracy. 

VELSHI:  Remarkable story, great reporting.  Thank you, Greg.

Greg Miller is national security reporter for "The Washington Post."  Thank you for your time tonight. 

We mentioned earlier that all eyes are now on the Senate as the New Year approaches because that of course is where the president`s impeachment trial will ultimately be held.  Senate Democrats are going to get the Trump administration witnesses they want for that trial, they need four Republicans to join them in the rule making phase of this, not to oust the president.  Now, they are said to be looking particularly to Republican senators like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine who have bucked their party in the past and now, Senator Murkowski has set the political world abuzz with her comments in a new interview. 

While sharply critical of how House Democrats have run the impeachment, she also says she`s, quote, disturbed by comments from Mitch McConnell that Republicans are working hand in glove with the White House on the impeachment trial.  And she made a point of touting her independence. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI (R-AK):  One of the things that I enjoy about my friend Senator Collins is she`s a very independent woman.  She has been in the Congress for -- for many years and very smart.  She makes her mind up independently as do I.  If it means that I am viewed as one who looks openly and critically at every issue in front of me rather than acting as a rubber stamp for my party or my president, I`m totally good with that.  I am totally, totally good with that. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Joining us now, Jonathan Allen, NBC News national political reporter. 

Jon, good to see you.  Thank you for being with us. 

Let`s put in this in perspective, let`s just step back a few feet.  I think there are a lot of Democrats who think, wow, that must mean she`s on the edge.  And if she supports Democrats in a fair trial in the Senate, then Susan Collins and Cory Gardner and Mitt Romney might do the same. 

How much weight should we honestly give these comments by Murkowski? 

JONATHAN ALLEN, NBC NEWS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER:  Lisa Murkowski has given herself space to go in either direction.  I think what she`s given is a bit of warning to the leader Mitch McConnell that she doesn`t like him coordinating so closely with the White House and certainly not adverting how closely he`s working with the White House.  I don`t think she wants this to look like a rushed process that hasn`t been given due consideration. 

And at the same time it`s not clear McConnell has 51 votes for any particular process right now and there are some senators it appears who at least wants to give some consideration to the idea of having more information presented to them.  Not just the senators you spoke about.  You know, we haven`t heard anything from Richard Burr, the Senate intelligence chairman who`s going to be retiring.  He hasn`t said anything about this at all.  He`s obviously who obviously had some deep concerns about what happened with Russia, somebody who has had concerns about the president`s relationship with Russia.  It`ll be interesting to see what he has to say. 

Rob Portman, the senator from Ohio, has said that he doesn`t think it`s impeachable for the president to have sought investigations into a political rival but it`s bad.  I don`t know what on God`s green earth he thinks is impeachable if not seeking investigations into a rival.  But he is a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, and one the other questions here is whether the president violated the law by freezing the aid as part of that scheme.  So, it`ll be interesting to hear from him.  Nobody`s asked him about that that I can see what his feelings are on that. 

So there are a lot of senators who have sort of reserved their fire, and again Mitch McConnell has not shown he has 51 votes for any process so far. 

VELSHI:  We saw Senator Murkowski break with her party on the vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh, but she didn`t manage to bring any of her Republican colleagues along with her.  Does she break the dam if she decides to do things like this, either give interviews or suggest without a fair process, she may not be on-side with Mitch McConnell or are all these senators we just talked about making their own mind for their own decisions? 

ALLEN:  I think they`re making up their own mind.  What I would look at her comments as rather than her being persuasive with other senators, it is more likely that she`s giving voice to concerns some other senators have but do not want to be out front on because they may get whacked by their own voters in their own states.  That is she`s out there perhaps providing a providing a little bit of cover for that view publicly. 

VELSHI:  And in fact the vote to call witnesses is cover for any senator who doesn`t want to look -- look like they were not impartial or not independent because it`s not a vote to remove the president.  It`s simply a vote to determine the rules the Senate will use for the impeachment trial. 

ALLEN:  That`s right, Ali.  But, you know, there`s a danger to the president in having witnesses which is they may actually have to give testimony that is damaging to him.  You know, obviously, we don`t know what those witnesses will say.  Democrats believe that John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney and some of the other witnesses they would like to talk to if they go into the Senate and if they are under oath, that if they give honest testimony, they will in fact give damaging information to the president. 

So we`ll have to see how that plays out.  But certainly the possibility exists that more information would come out and that that would change votes in the Senate.  I think it`s very hard to get to the place where you would see 20 Republican senators voting against the president and voting to remove him from office. 

VELSHI:  Jon, good to see you, my friend.  Thank you for being with us.  Jon Allen is NBC News national political reporter. 

ALLEN:  You too, Ali.

VELSHI:  OK, we`ve got much more ahead tonight.  We`re going to be talking with a key senator who will be a juror in the president`s trial, and a look what this administration may actually be doing to prevent another Russian attack on U.S. elections. 

We`ll be right back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  The warning came in person, face-to-face at a private meeting in late 2016.  A few months before the 2016 election on the side lines of the G-20 summit in China, President Obama directly confronted Russian President Vladimir Putin about the recent hack of the Democratic Party. 

Following that private meeting, Obama ended the G-20 with a public warning, reminding reporters at a press conference that when it comes to cyber capability, quote, we`ve got more capacity than anybody both offensively and defensively.  It was a message Obama would return to after the November election when he was asked why his administration had not done more to deter Russian meddling. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Whatever they do to us, we can potentially do to them.  We obviously have offensive capabilities as well as defensive capabilities.  Our goal continues to be to send a clear message to Russia or others not to do this to us because we can do stuff to you. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  We can do stuff to you.  That was the message from President Obama in December 2016.  In its final days, the Obama administration would levy sanctions on Russian individuals, excel 35 suspected Russian spies and seize two Russian owned compounds in New York and Maryland.  But U.S. offensive cyberattacks against Russia would not come until almost two years later in the run up to the 2018 congressional elections. 

First, U.S. cyber command located and gave individualized warnings to Russian trolls and hackers in the run up to the midterm elections about the personal consequences of spreading disinformation.  Then on Election Day 2018, the U.S. conducted its only known major offensive cyber action against Russia to date, knocking out Internet access at the Russian troll farm that had waged an influence campaign on social media back during the presidential election.  Well, now, "The Washington Post" reports that U.S. Cyber Command is considering new tactics to deploy against Russia in the event that Russia tries to interfere in the 2020 election. 

Quote: Military cyber officials are developing information warfare tactics that could be deployed against senior Russian officials and oligarchs if Moscow tries to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections. 

Quote: One option being explored by U.S. cyber command would target strategic leadership and Russian elites though probably not President Vladimir Putin, which would be considered too provocative.  The idea would be to show that the target`s sensitive personal data could be hit if the interference did not stop.  Another possibility would involve disinformation and exploiting rivalries within the Russian government and power elites. 

The prospect of new offensive cyber retaliation against Russia today received the support of one senator who spoke out in favor of the idea.  That senator joins us next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK0

VELSHI:  After "The Washington Post" reported today that the United States is considering new offensive cyber capabilities to deter potential Russian interference into the 2020 election.  The idea received the backing of at least one member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

Speaking at an event in Connecticut today promoting new security election funding, Senator Richard Blumenthal says he`s onboard with the new strategy. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-CT):  We are contemplating and I will support more offensive measures against the Russians, and we ought to focus on Russian operatives at the highest level, including Vladimir Putin himself.  There`s no reason why Vladimir Putin`s security in cyber should be immune from our attack if he is launching offensives against our country. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Joining us now, Connecticut senior senator, member of the Armed Services Committee, Richard Blumenthal. 

Senator, good to see you.  Thank you for joining me tonight. 

BLUMENTHAL:  Thank you.  Thanks for having me. 

VELSHI:  Senator, you say the best defense is a good offense.  But just to be clear, you`re saying the U.S. should be prepared to engage in offensive cyberattacks against Russia in what event?  In the event that Russia attacks the 2020 elections like it did in 2016? 

BLUMENTHAL:  I have long advocated that we need to be capable of deterring that kind of maligned behavior against us, identifying it and calling it out, but also making sure that the Russians know that they will pay a price or as President Obama said, that we can do bad stuff to them.  And I`m particularly concerned about election security because already as our intelligence community has said publicly, the Russians are attacking us.  And what`s encouraging about the report in "The Washington Post" is it reflects a view on the part of Cyber Com, that`s distinct (ph) from the Trump administration, that we do need to be more capable and possibly on the offense. 

VELSHI:  "The Washington Post" report that you just quoted, or that you referred to, reports that Cyber Com is not currently exploring the idea of targeting Vladimir Putin personally because, in the words of "The Post", it would be too provocative. 

You say that he should be targeted.  Tell me why.

BLUMENTHAL:  I think that we ought to have that capability.  I would await a strategic decision based on all the factors, including whether or not the Russians continue their attack on us before making any decision of that kind.  But in general, I support the approach of using the Internet to advocate for democracy just as Vladimir Putin is trying to sow discord among the Western democracies.  And I welcome Cyber Com acknowledging that the Russians are in fact attacking while President Trump says he believes Vladimir Putin, that they are not doing so. 

VELSHI:  Senator, you said previously at hearings on this topic that you wished the U.S. public could be aware of some of Cyber Com, America`s cyber capabilities, and you`ve lamented how little the American public actually knows about U.S. cyber successes. 

What do you mean by that? 

BLUMENTHAL:  That`s a really profoundly important question.  You know, as a United States senator, my colleagues and I go to all classified briefings.  And after many of them are done, I say to the briefers who are among the highest level in our military, I wish the American public could hear what you just told us.  Our adversaries know what you have just said in your briefing, they know we know, we know they know. 

The ones in the dark are the American people.  And they need to be aware of the threat the Russians pose to us.  This kind of transparency is more important than ever, knowing what the threats are so that we can encourage a public awareness and support for action against the Russians and now other countries because as our cyber intelligence community and others have warned, it`s not just the Russians, it is Iranians and Chinese who are also on the offensive trying to sow discord and disarray through disinformation, propaganda and also hacking into our elections.

And that was the reason I raised it today in talking about the $450 million that we have allocated over the resistance of our many of our Republican colleagues to election security around the country, less than we should, less than the House advocated in its proposal.  They have only a billion dollars, we have only $450 million, but we need to be on guard and aware. 

VELSHI:  Senator, I want to turn to impeachment.  Your colleague, Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski in an interview suggested she might not be a vote that Republicans can count on in a the establishment of rules or the Senate trial for President Trump.  You said today that, quote, her encouragement should be contagious. 

Do you think it`s going to be? 

BLUMENTHAL:  I think it may be because I think it reflects strong misgivings among my Republican colleagues with the charade and rigged show trial that McConnell apparently has planned.  He wants to put the defendant, Donald Trump, in charge of his own trial.  And that is an anathema, a growing point of the resistance to more and more Americans. 

These comments by Senator Murkowski reflect the polls which show overwhelming support for witnesses and documents, they reflect what my Republican colleagues are hearing at home, I would guess, because I`m hearing it here in Connecticut.  And what it reflects as well is an untenable position.  They`re saying we need more informational evidence, but they are saying they won`t permit it to be shown. 

And they`re ultimately, Ali, is a court of appeals here.  Not the court of law, it`s the court of popular opinion.  And I think they will be judged harshly by history as well as politically in elections if they resist this kind of fair and full proceeding with witnesses and documents. 

VELSHI:  Senator, it`s good to see you tonight.  Thank you for taking time to join us. 

BLUMENTHAL:  Thank you. 

VELSHI:  Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. 

Still ahead, the president suggests that he`s open to pardoning two members of his orbit with significant legal troubles.  Stay with us.  That`s next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  OK, this is not the type of legal filing you like to see from your lawyer, particularly around the holidays.  Quote, Mr. Parnas` apparent inability -- Mr. Parnas` apparent ability to fund his defense has diminished.  It thus would constitute significant hardship for Mr. Parnas to continue to be represented by two attorneys in this matter. 

I discussed this matter fully with Mr. Parnas who, given my location out of district and his circumstances, consents to my withdrawal from this criminal matter. 

That was the lawyer from Giuliani associate Lev Parnas requesting to bow out of Parnas` criminal case due to his clients financial constraints.  And while Lev will have to fight for his freedom while down one very high priced lawyer, he`s not the only one in the president`s orbit to find themselves in legal trouble this holiday season. 

There`s also Lev`s alleged partner in crime, Igor Fruman.  Both men are charged with funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign money to various Republican campaigns and super PACs.  But the looks of it, Lev and Igor were near constant companions to President Trump`s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who is now reportedly under federal investigation himself for a wide range of political crimes. 

Giuliani is, of course, Trump`s current personal lawyer.  The last guy to hold that title is serving time in prison in part for arranging hush money payments to two women right before the presidential election.  Also behind bars, the president`s campaign manager, Paul Manafort.  He`s currently serving 7-1/2 years from charges stemming from the Mueller investigation. 

That investigation also reeled in the president`s deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, as well as Trump ally Roger Stone, and the president`s former national security advisor Mike Flynn.  The last two men, Roger Stone and Mike Flynn, are awaiting sentencing next year.  And the president`s recent comments are any indication, they may be in for some good news. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER:  Roger Stone, are you going to pardon him, sir?  He`s been convicted of felonies. 

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Am I going to pardon him?  Well, I haven`t thought of it.  I think it`s very tough what they did to Roger Stone compare to what they do to other people on their side. 

I`ve known Roger over the years, he`s a nice guy.  A lot of people like him.  And he got very -- he got hit very hard as did General Flynn as did a lot of other people.  They got hit very, very hard, and now they`re finding out it was all a big hoax. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  It was a big hoax.  We already know President Trump has demonstrated a willingness to use his pardon power on unorthodox recipients.  Joe Arpaio anyone? 

Is this a sign that he`s willing to do it again? 

Joining us now, Joyce Vance, former U.S. attorney. 

Joyce, what a pleasure to see you again.  Thank you for joining us. 

JOYCE VANCE, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY:  Good to be with you. 

VELSHI:  Joyce, is there anything you`re looking for in the coming weeks as a sign the president may be getting ready to pardon either Roger Stone or Mike Flynn, both of whom are awaiting sentencing? 

VANCE:  You know, he has the legal ability to pardon them but I think what we`re looking at here is more of a political question.  Typically presidents issue pardons late in their term often on the last day to avoid any political fallout and these pardons would potentially be so explosive I think we`ll see them in the last week or last day of a Trump term whatever that might be if he does go ahead with the pardons. 

VELSHI:  Trump`s deputy campaign chair whose evidence was used against Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, got sentenced to 45 days behind bars.  Not much of a sentence but the prosecutors have said that he should face no jail time given his cooperation with the government.  What do you read into that, into the harsher ruling prosecutors were looking for as it relates to Roger Stone and Mike Flynn? 

VANCE:  Well, you know, one of the problems that judges have in these cases is that there are sentencing guidelines that set an advisory range that judges use when they calculate a sentence.  Their advisory, they`re not binding.  And for white collar crimes, particularly with first time offenders, not violent, those guidelines can be very low. 

But what judges will often try to do is make sure that defendants who have committed similar crimes are sentence uniformly, maybe not exactly but at least something that comports with their sense of justice.  So when you have people who have cooperated, you really do give them a lower sentence to signify that the assistance they`ve given the government, but here the judge wanted to make the point that Gates deserved to spend at least some time in prison because of his complicity. 

VELSHI:  As we mentioned at the beginning of this segment, one of the lawyers for Lev Parnas has been asked to be withdrawn from the case.  Talk to me whether that hurts Parnas as he gets ready for his trial? 

VANCE:  I don`t think that that really does.  It`s not unusual to see a lawyer withdraw particularly the further a defendant gets away from criminal behavior and maybe the gravy train dries up a little bit.  He can`t afford as much in the way of high prized legal counsel.  Here, Parnas has just gone through this effort to modify the terms of his bond, and one of the things that the prosecution came in and said, was that he had access to a lot of cash, citing this million dollar loan that he had received from friends of one of the Russian oligarchs. 

So I think maybe this is an effort by Parnas to punch back a little bit saying, no, I don`t really have as much access to ready cash as the government seems to think I do. 

VELSHI:  Joyce, always great to see.  Thank you for joining us again this evening. 

Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance. 

Up next tonight, the strange tale of Mr. Banana gets a new twist. 

Stay with us. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RACHEL MADDOW, TRMS HOST:  So this company has built this mammoth social media operation that is mostly pushing out nonsense content or click baity stupid content that is working to attract clicks.  But they`re now starting to integrate into that content pro-Russian happy talk fake history material and some oddly sort of -- sort of subtle anti-U.S. stuff like this video which suggests that the United States is one of the top ten countries in the world that`s most likely to not exist anymore within the next 20 years, because the United States is going to disappear. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Last week, Rachel brought you this amazing story first reported by Lisa Kaplan at "Lawfare" about a mysterious company called TheSoul.  TheSoul is an online video publisher run by Russian nationals out of Cyprus.  Over the last few years, the sole has rocketed to the top tier of online video publishers.  According to one analyst, it has the third most used of any entertainment creator on YouTube and Facebook just behind Disney and Warner Media.  And it got there by publishing everything from innocuous five minute craft videos to videos with vaguely anti-American sentiments like the one Rachel just mentioned to pro-Russian revisionist history narrated by a talking banana in sunglasses. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MR. BANANA:  The second leader after Lenin`s death was Joseph Stalin.  He started to recover the country after the revolution.  Joseph reformed the country.  He took the wealth from rich people and property in the middle class and united all these people with poor ones in the collective farm and collective property.  Russian Robin Hood. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Now, that was the story of TheSoul, a juggernaut of online video.  Now, we have an update to bring you on that story. 

After the reporting from "Lawfare" and this show, TheSoul decided to remove several of its more political videos including the one we just played for you.

TheSoul posted a statement on its website objecting to the idea they`re foreign propaganda while also promising to clean things up a bit. 

The statement reads in part, quote: TheSoul Publishing`s content is entertaining, fun and amusing.  However, we acknowledge on occasion has also been factually incorrect.  We have taken down the content in question and are currently reviewing our internal fact-checking process across all of our channels.  In addition, we made an editorial decision to no longer post any historical focused content. 

It`s not clear what this means for TheSoul`s broader library of content going forward or what it might mean for Mr. Banana. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MR. BANANA:  History of Russia like you`ve never heard it before.  Mr. Banana wants to know what you think about when you hear the word Russia?  Do you think of a bear with a bottle of vodka and a balalaika in his paw?  Or maybe you think about President Putin and the Red Square in Moscow. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  It`s something of a tradition on Christmas Eve for the American president to call the men and women in our armed forces stationed overseas.  Listen to this exchange between President Trump and a marine general stationed in Afghanistan this Christmas Eve. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We`ve been here about seven months, (INAUDIBLE) staying on mission and we`re honored to (INAUDIBLE) out there.  Sir, a question for today is, how are you going to spend your holiday out here coming today, tomorrow and hopefully into the weekend, sir? 

TRUMP:  Well, I`m a place called Mar-a-Lago.  We call it the southern White House because I really pretty much work -- that`s what I like to do is work. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Ooh, you`re spending Christmas in a war zone.  I`m in a place called Mar-a-Lago. 

But the real head scratcher from that Christmas Eve phone call is that the president`s claim that he really just likes to work while he`s at Mar-a- Lago. 

Take the president`s Christmas week schedule.  Sunday morning, 10:08 a.m., the presidential motorcade arrived at Trump`s golf club and did not leave until nearly 2:30.  Tuesday, Christmas Eve, the president arrived at his golf club until 10:13 a.m. and stayed until just after 4:00 p.m. 

The president was back at Trump International Golf Club again today, arriving just after 10:00 a.m., leaving right around 2:30.  I`m sensing a pattern. 

Now, we should say we don`t know for sure whether he was actually on the links playing golf the entire time he was at the golf club, but with a little help from "Huffington Post", we`re able to quantify broadly just how much golf this president lays or should I say just how much work he`s been doing throughout his presidency.  By their math, as of Saturday, President Trump had racked up a $118 million tab, tax player dollars, playing golf or visiting the courses he owns.  The estimated cost takes into account expenses like security and flying in Air Force One.  That`s the equivalent of 296 years` worth of the presidential salary, $400,000 a year, that President Trump so proudly does not take.  Meaning he`s burned through that presidential salary 296 times over playing golf, golfing, working, potato, potato. 

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

Now it`s time for "The Last Word."   Ayman Mohyeldin is in for Lawrence tonight.

Good morning or good evening, Ayman.  It`s all mixed up.

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