Former Gov Bevin pardoned convicted child rapist. TRANSCRIPT: 12/27/19, The Rachel Maddow Show.

Guests: Dave Philipps, Jeff Merkley, Joe Sonka

 CELINDA LAKE, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER:  They tend to make smaller contributions.  So, there are a lot of things going on here that can make her more subject to ups and downs. 

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST:  I will say that definitely she was going up for a while, came down a little and plateaued, but I think the downward trajectory has been a little overstated as well going back to our stability -- stability theme. 

LAKE:  Right.

HAYES:  Celinda Lake and Cornell Belcher, thank you both for being with me tonight. 

LAKE:  Thank you.

CORNELL BELCHER, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER:  Thank you.

HAYES:  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:  Good evening, Chris.  Have yourself a great weekend.  I see you next week.

HAYES:  You too.

VELSHI:  Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.  Rachel`s got the night off. 

2015, it marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.  And since it`s rare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of everything much less the history altering event with the magnitude of World War II, the anniversary was a very big deal here in the United States.  Frankly, it was a very big deal all over the world.

It was a chance for veterans of the greatest generation to be recognized by their fellow countrymen.  But while most countries use the 70th anniversary of World War II as a chance to honor those who fought in those wars, certain countries had an ulterior motive.  They used the anniversary to show gigantic displays of military power. 

Chine, for example, held one of the largest military parades in modern history.  They showed off their tanks and their missile launchers, much of this in this weird digital blue camo.  They rolled out dozens of weapons known as carrier killers, missiles designed specifically to target U.S. aircraft carriers. 

Another missile they paraded out was given the name of Guam killer because it was supposedly capable of striking the U.S. naval base in Guam.  They even had helicopters spelling out 70 while in formation. 

That year the Russians also held a military parade to honor the 70th anniversary of World War II.  It was the biggest military parade that country had ever seen -- missiles, tanks, thousands upon thousands of troops.  No expense was spared. 

The Chinese may have used helicopters to spell out 70.  The Russians spelled it out with fighter jets. 

The same year the North Koreans also had a giant military parade which I guess is to be expected.  That is what North Korea does.  It`s what the country`s known for, parades featuring thousands of goose stepping soldiers with massive missiles mounted on trucks being rolled through the streets as well as forced displays of excitement from the crowds gathered to watch the whole thing. 

Parades like that have been something we`ve shied away from here in the United States.  That is until President Donald Trump.  When he was planning his inauguration the president-elect told "The Washington Post," quote, we are going to display our military.  That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue.  That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C. for parades.  I mean, we are going to be showing our military. 

And even though the White House did not roll tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue for President Trump`s inauguration, that kind of bizarre quote stuck with one reporter at "The Huffington Post".  She wanted to know if Trump`s inaugural committee had actually tried to use the president`s inauguration as a chance to show-off the country`s tanks and missile launchers, and what she found out was that, yes, that`s exactly what they had done.  According to e-mails she obtained the Trump folks had been, quote, seriously considering adding military vehicles to the inaugural parade. 

Quote: The conversation started as can you send us some pictures of military vehicles we could add to the parade.  A Defense Department official later told his or her colleague, quote, I explained such support would be out of guidelines.  I am extremely reluctant to produce an improvised list of military vehicles, also concern that we as a command need an opportunity to staff this request and to make deliberate decisions about vehicle choice and configuration, paint scheme, uniform for crew members et cetera before we start providing pictures which might be regarded as binding. 

So, the Pentagon was freaking out.  Here they were being asked to produce a military parade and not even to commemorate the end of World War II but to celebrate the new President, Donald Trump. 

And even though the Pentagon eventually relented, they eventually let Trump bring tanks to the nation`s capitol last summer for an event he dubbed Salute to America, it`s worth noting just how much at odds that placed the president with his own military.  One that was just one item in what would become a long list of things in which Trump and his military leaders actually were at odds.  Because for all of Trump`s talk about appointing generals out of central casting to serve in his administration the president has not always seen eye to eye with those military leaders. 

Take President Trump`s handling of North Korea, for example.  After meeting with Kim Jong-un in 2018, Trump abruptly announced that he would suspend military drills with South Korea.  He was canceling them because they were, quote, provocative. 

That announcement was so ought of the blue, so unexpected that it caught the pentagon flat-footed.  In one fell swoop, the president publicly contradicted his own defense secretary`s whole military strategy. 

NATO has proved to be another sore spot.  Several times over the course of 2018, President Trump told top officials that he wanted to withdraw from the military alliance, an alliance seen as one of the most effective deterrents to Russian military aggression.  Those repeated threats sent the president`s national security team including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis scrambling to keep American strategy on track. 

Same thing with Syria.  Last December, the president announced he was withdrawing 2,000 American troops from that country.  That decision relayed in a tweet.  It appeared to be the last straw for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who resigned in protest. 

Trump later backtracked, agreeing to leave some 1,000 troops on the ground, but in October, he decided he had had enough.  He announced he was pulling those remaining troops.  The effect was not just bipartisan backlash but also strong, strong rebukes from American troops on the ground who felt that we as a nation had betrayed our Kurdish allies in that country. 

One soldier told "The Times," quote, they trusted us and we broke that trust.  It`s a stain on the American conscience. 

While it was widely assumed President Trump had the broad backing of his troops, a new poll conducted by the military times shows that half of active duty military personnel now hold an unfavorable view of the president.  While the president may not always see eye to eye with his military leaders or even members of the rank and file, a lot of times those disagreements were over huge policy issues, matters of war and peace. 

But the story of retired Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher is very different.  This is case that the president has been personally involved in despite the wishes of many currently serving in the military.  Chief Gallagher served as the platoon leader of SEAL Team 7.  It was during his final deployment to Mosul, Iraq, in 2017, that his fellow SEALs say they witnessed behavior that caused them to speak out. 

Among other things, those SEALs accused Gallagher of, quote, stabbing a defenseless captive to death, of picking off a school age girl and old man from a sniper`s roost, and of indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine gunfire. 

Gallagher eventually stood trial on charges that he murdered that captive who was an ISIS prisoner, but he was later acquitted after a star witness in the case changed his testimony, later claiming that he himself had killed the prisoner.  Gallagher was found guilty on a single charge for having posed with a photo with the corpse. 

President Trump has taken special interest in this case.  After the Navy demoted Gallagher, the president reversed the demotion.  When the Navy tried to remove Gallagher from the SEALs, the president once again stepped in ordering the Pentagon to stand down.  The Navy secretary was later fired for his handling of the case while just last weekend Gallagher on the right was seen meeting with the president at Mar-a-Lago. 

But tonight, there is another development in this case.  "The New York Times" reporter David Philipps has exclusively obtained Navy interviews with the SEAL team members who accused Gallagher of misconduct in the first place.  "The Times" has published those interviews with the investigators and its TV series, "The Weekly", has now published the video. 

What you`re about to see shows them speaking on camera with investigators about their platoon leader Eddie Gallagher.  And a warning, what you`re about to see and hear is disturbing. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  In the summer of 2019, we get leaked a trove of Navy materials that includes thousands of documents, helmet cam footage, photos, text messages and all these confidential interviews with the SEALs, stuff that no one has ever seen before.

  UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I heard more rumors and stuff like that of Eddie like targeting civilians. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I saw Eddie take a shot at probably a 12-year-old kid. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  What was his official position? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He was platoon chief. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This massive leak gives us insight into a very secretive brotherhood of commandos that otherwise we would never get to see. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The guy got crazier and crazier. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You could tell he was perfectly OK with killing anybody. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I see Eddie playing over with a knife. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is case where some SEALs who are not supposed to take things outside the family turned in their own chief. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The guy was toxic. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We can`t let this continue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  These guys who believe in doing good and had the courage to act, it`s just the things didn`t turn out how they thought. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There were civilians everywhere. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We have a problem. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He`s a psychopath. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The guy`s freaking evil, man. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Gallagher has long proclaimed his innocence.  Gallagher`s lawyer has accused those platoon members of having personal animosity with his client.  He says he plans to file a lawsuit against "The Weekly" and the reporter behind that story. 

NBC News has not spoken with any of the individual SEALs shown in those taped interviews but "The New York Times" has reached out to them and they all decline to comment. 

Joining us now, Dave Philipps, national correspondent for "The New York Times" who`s been doing groundbreaking reporting on the story since it first broke. 

Dave, thank you for being with us tonight.  Dave is featured in this episode of "The Weekly" where you can see those newly published witness interviews. 

Dave, so much of this story has been about Eddie Gallagher but one of the remarkable things you see in those videos is just how many members of this SEAL team came forward.  Now, Gallagher has been exonerated by the Trump administration. 

What does that mean for people like that serving in the armed forces or in the special operation units? 

DAVE PHILIPPS, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  Well, I think that`s an open question.  Certainly a lot of the SEALs who did come forward and testify fear retribution.  Some of them are out of the Navy now, some of them are not.  But certainly there`s been threats of violence and other kinds of intimidation. 

But I think your earlier point is really something to focus on.  What these platoon members accuse their chief of is very serious and very grim, and it`s a terrible story.  But this is also a story of a number of remarkable young men who had to come -- overcome like pretty serious cultural barriers and other obstacles to do the right thing, and they stuck with it, and they have continued to stick with it. 

VELSHI:  The interviews paint a startlingly consistent picture of the alleged inappropriate behavior by Eddie Gallagher separate and apart from the stabbing of that prisoner at the center of this case.  That pattern of behavior, why wasn`t that given -- why wasn`t that sort of a bigger part of the case made against Gallagher who was ultimately convicted of taking a photograph with the body of this prisoner? 

PHILIPPS:  The story that the SEALs tell is that when they started witnessing these crimes they say their chief was committing, they immediately turned him in.  They say first they turned him into their low level platoon commander, then they tried to tell their troop commander, and they worked their way up the chain of command and no one did anything. 

And so by the time a real criminal investigation started, it was almost a year later, and a lot of the physical evidence was gone.  In fact, when these guys came forward, they had no idea that later Navy investigators would find photos of the dead victim with the chief posing with him on the chief`s phone.  So they got lucky, but these guys came forward not because they knew there was a smoking gun.  They just felt that it was a necessary and right thing to do. 

VELSHI:  Gallagher`s lawyer says he plans to sue you personally, saying you left out important context in your reporting.  Are you confident about what you included in your story? 

PHILIPPS:  Yes, we go through a careful and collaborative process at "The New York Times," and we standby our reporting. 

VELSHI:  I mentioned some new polling that shows Donald Trump is losing support with member of the Armed Services.  As someone who reports on that area, give me a bit more context into this because Donald Trump seems to feel that his support of and constant talk about troops should, you know, put him in good stead with them. 

PHILIPPS:  I think the most important thing to remember when talking about the armed forces is that it is full of millions of individuals, and so you have to make a lot of distinctions.  I mean, certainly, Donald Trump still has a lot of approval amongst the demographics in the military that he does in the civilian world.  But you can see a steady slip and that is because the military is very conservative -- and I don`t mean political conservative, but culturally conservative institution.  It likes to plan, it likes to go by regulations and as we know the president is much more of a wild card, and I think they see that as a real liability at a lot of levels. 

VELSHI:  The president`s viability in this case has been a source of great controversial amongst people in the military, many of them who say there`s a system and they like order and the president is sort of intervening in this thing in the middle of it has throne that into disarray. 

PHILIPPPS:  Right.  Like I said, there is a range of opinions within the military.  You wouldn`t be hard-pressed to find SEALs that would say openly, hey, even if he did kill that guy, I`m OK with that.  And you can easily find some that just find it absolutely abhorrent, but the general consensus especially amongst the chain of command, the officers, the people who try to guide this institution, the senior people, they think that their inability to discipline someone who they see as totally unfit to serve is crazy. 

VELSH:  Dave, thank you for your reporting.  David Philips of "The New York Times," and thank you for being with us this evening. 

I want to turn now to Ben Rhodes, former deputy national security adviser to President Obama.

Ben, good to see you.  Thank you for being with us tonight. 

BEN RHODES, FORMER DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Good to be you. 

VELSHI:  President Trump entered office touting his general.  He often talked about Mattis being out of central casting.  Three years in, most of those career military officials have resigned. 

Talk to me about the effect you think Trump has had over the armed forces. 

RHODES:  Well, you know, in a way he`s been something of a wrecking ball.  He`s been completely out of step with them on really core national security issues should the United States remain an engaged active participant in NATO, should the United States continue to standby an ally like South Korea? 

Instead he`s threatened to pull out of NATO, threatened to pull troops out of South Korea.  He`s cozied up to dictators like Kim Jong-un.  He`s cozied up with U.S. adversaries like Vladimir Putin.  He`s pulled troops out of Syria in objection to his military in ways that let Kurds who follow with us be massacred.

And now, what we see very clearly is he`s interfering in the military chain of command on behalf of a war criminal here.  Let`s be clear.  Let`s not mince words.  Someone who committed war crimes. 

And by doing that, he`s sending a message to the military, to all the other types of troops who might stand up and call out behavior like this, he`s saying don`t do that, I might support the people who break our code of conduct that our military depends upon.

VELSHI:  When you were in the Obama administration, what sort of conversations did you have about trust in these institutions, the rule of law in the military?  How did you -- how did you end up negotiating those kinds of -- those kinds of minefields because obviously the president is the commander in chief and there are some who say the president can do whatever he wants with the military, but how do you manage that relationship? 

RHODES:  Well, the reality is, you know, we obviously defer to the military a lot of these internal matters, about how they police the conduct of their personnel.  If the White House were to get involved that would be an extraordinary situation.  But what we found is, that biggest advocates for things like avoiding civilian casualties, Ali, avoiding the kind of behavior we saw with Gallagher, the biggest advocates were generals, general officers because they understood it was in our national security interests there be rules and norms upheld, because if we alienated civilian populations in places like Iraq, in places like Mosul, where Gallagher was posted, if we lost the trust of those civilians, then we would lose the mission. 

So, it would put our troops at risk if they were committing those types of atrocities.  We also wanted to make sure if our troops ever fell into harm`s way, if they ever fell in enemy hands, that there were international rules how you treat prisoners.  And so, the U.S. is a national security interest in this, never mind the moral and ethical obligation we have to abide by our standards. 

VELSHI:  Ben, I want to ask you about a recent "New York Times" story that claims the Pentagon is looking to draw down some of its troop presence in Africa and it`s part of a broader plan to focus on Russia and China.  The idea being we can`t be in every one of these places in which there`s a power vacuum, sort of terrorists and non-government actors don`t take power .  Tell me about the strategy and what it means to you. 

RHODES:  Well, the U.S. has had a growing presence in Africa to fight al- Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in places like Somalia and Niger for some time.  Frankly, I would like to see the United States government and military be more transparent about these deployments.  Frankly, I thought at the end of our administration, and these deployments have only grown. 

I think what you see here is some fatigue with our military in fighting this forever war against terrorist groups and their affiliates and a desire to focus on bigger threats from geopolitical adversaries like Russia and China.  The thing that does concern me here, Ali, though, is we do know there are still terrorist threats emanating from portions of from Africa and at the same time we have President Trump deploying thousands of U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to protect his friend and ally Mohammed bin Salman. 

So, actually, frankly, I think that if we were looking at ways to right size our presence in Middle East and North Africa, we`d be better off drawing down those troops that deployed in the Persian Gulf than taking away these troops that are on the frontlines against terrorist organizations.

VELSHI:  Is there some danger in getting out of these forever wars or playing police in some of these countries, not the ones you necessarily mentioned but there are still countries where there are entire power vacuums that did lead to al-Qaeda training camps back in the late `90s and 2000s.  Is there some danger that our adversaries fill gaps we leave behind in those places? 

RHODES:  Yes.  But I want to be fair here.  I think you have to accept some of that risk, and this is something that we wrestled with a lot in the Obama administration.  You never can have perfect assurance that the situation is going to be completely secure when you leave.  However, what you also don`t want to do is what happened in Syria where President Trump left in such a precipitous way our allies the Kurds were put at risk and ISIS troops were freed from prisons. 

You want to make sure you`re leaving judiciously in a deliberate matter and you`re making sure that as you leave, you`re training up security forces on the ground who can take your place, and you`re probably leaving some U.S. logistics and intelligence capability to continue to support them.  So, what we have to be careful here is Trump isn`t just pulling up the infrastructure so fast because he wants out of these places in a way that makes us less secure.  And that`s what we`ve seen him do frankly already in Syria. 

VELSHI:  Ben, good to see you.  Thank you for joining us tonight.

Ben Rhodes is a former deputy national security advisor under President Obama. 

When we come back, Senator Susan Collins of Maine is coming under fire from her fellow Republicans over Trump`s impeachment trial.  How will she respond?  We`ll have that next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME):  I am willing to travel the road wherever it leads, whether it`s to the conviction or the acquittal of the president.  But in order to do that, I need more evidence.  I need witnesses and further evidence to guide me to the right destination, to get to the truth. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Senator Susan Collins in 1999 during the Clinton impeachment arguing for witnesses at the Senate trial.  Of course, Democrats are hoping she will feel the same way now about the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.  Democrats only need four Republican senators to come out in support of witnesses to force Mitch McConnell`s hand. 

With 71 percent of Americans in favor of the president letting his top aides testify in the Senate trial and Collins` BFF, Senator Lisa Murkowski, saying she`s disturbed by McConnell`s promise to be in total coordination with the White House on this, a group of Republicans who are critical of President Trump saw their opening and took it. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Key witnesses in the Ukraine scandal must testify in the Senate impeachment trial.  These witnesses include Rudy Giuliani. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden? 

RUDOLPH GIULIANI, TRUMP`S PERSONAL LAWYER:  Of course I did. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mick Mulvaney. 

REPORTER:  What you just described is a quid pro quo. 

MICK MULVANEY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF:  There`s going to be political influence in foreign policy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mike Pompeo. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Rudy Giuliani delivered Ukraine files to Mike Pompeo. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And John Bolton.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  A lawyer for John Bolton says he has new information on these meetings with Ukraine. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Call Senator Collins and tell her these witnesses must testify. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Paging Susan Collins. 

What should be noted she`s up for re-election in 2020.  She`s not the only one with a new ad in her honor.  Senators Romney, Murkowski, Lamar Alexander and Collins all got tailored made, these witnesses must testify ads for Christmas.  I`m guessing that wasn`t on their Christmas list this year. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  Think of this holiday break as one big cliffhanger in the ongoing saga of the impeachment of Donald Trump.  When will Speaker Pelosi send the articles of impeachment to the Senate?  Don`t know.  Will there be witnesses?  I don`t know.  Will -- what about those documents that Chuck Schumer wants?  Same thing, I don`t know. 

Here is something we do know, as of today, care of Joe Biden. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EDITORIAL BOARD:  Do you stand by your earlier statements that you wouldn`t comply if you were subpoenaed to testify in an impeachment trial before the Senate? 

JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Correct.  And the reason I wouldn`t is because it`s all designed to deal with Trump doing what he`s done his whole life, trying to take the focus off him.  This guy violated the Constitution.  He said it in the driveway of the White House. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Good to know. 

All right.  Joining us now, Senator Jeff Merkley from the great state of Oregon.

Senator, good to see you.  Thanks for being with us tonight.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D-OR):  Good to see you, Ali.

VELSHI:  Democrats only need four Republican Senate votes to force McConnell`s hand to allow them to call witnesses in the Senate trial.  This week, we heard Lisa Murkowski of Alaska suggest she`s not in lock step with McConnell.  She particularly took exception to the fact that McConnell said he`s working hand in glove with the White House, and now we see these ads taking aim at Susan Collins. 

You worked side by seed side with both of them in the Senate.  Do you think it`s likely other or both of them could vote with Democrats on this? 

MERKLEY:  I think it is possible.  All sorts of developments are going to occur here.  This ad campaign, it`s not a big buy, but it`s making a big point.  And that point is that we in the Senate, all of us, Democrats, Republicans, set aside our party identities.  We have a responsibility under the Constitution to conduct a full and fair trial, and that is -- that is very important that we do that.  Not just for this moment but for the precedent it sets for the future of our country. 

VELSHI:  And I`d like to remind people that you will all take a separate oath for the impeachment trial separate and apart from the oath you`ve taken when you were sworn in as senators. 

Now, on Monday, the president tweeted his endorsement for Susan Collins in her reelection bid which is coming up in 2020.  Five days later now, and Collins has not reacted to Donald Trump`s endorsement or campaign has not provided any comment about Donald Trump`s endorsement. 

Tell me about the fine line that Susan Collins and others like her are walking here. 

MERKLEY:  Well, this is a situation where -- where senators are aware of the impact of the views of their base, and if their base believes strongly that the process should end quickly, they`re feeling the weight of that.  But they`re also recognizing that they not only took an oath to the Constitution but they`re going to be taking an oath that says they will be an impartial juror.  This responsibility to look fully at the facts and participate in the analysis, this is something that no senator should be able to set aside. 

A senator who says I`m not going to be impartial shouldn`t take an oath that says you`re going to be impartial.  In fact, they shouldn`t even participate in the trial if that is their position.  And, of course, this is real concern that Mitch McConnell has been very clear in saying he`s not going to be impartial.  That`s a big problem for our country.  It`s not the right role for our senator to take. 

VELSHI:  Your fellow senator, Richard Blumenthal, was talking to him last night and he said he hopes that Lisa Murkowski`s courage in splitting with McConnell o that particular matter could, quote, be contagious.  Do you agree?  Do you think that Murkowski`s courage in saying this could catch on and who do you think is most likely going to catch on with? 

MERKLEY:  Well, I do think that it opens the door for others to say I like the position she took.  A few weeks ago she said you should be able to reach the same conclusion as you would if the president was of the opposite party.  That`s the way I`m looking at this.  That`s what it means to be impartial. 

What if you had the same evidence and information and the president was in this case a Democrat?  How would I look at it?  I need to be able to reach the same conclusion in either case. 

Lisa was right when she said that a few weeks ago.  She`s certainly right now in supporting a fair and full trial, a process that seeks justice is going to involve key witnesses, and I think that ad really pointed to the fact there are folks really central to this story who know a whole lot and the president prevented them from testifying in the house, but an indictment which is conducted by the house through the impeachment process is different than a trial that reaches a verdict. 

And so we need to have those folks come before the Senate, and I think a lot of our Republican colleagues feel that`s the right thing to do. 

VELSHI:  Senator, good to see you as always.  Thank you for joining me. 

MERKLEY:  Ali, it`s great to see you.

VELSHI:  Senator Jeff Merkley of the great state of Oregon. 

All right, coming up, 2020 is just around the corner and Democratic presidential candidates are feeling the pressure.  Who`s strategy is about to pay off for them in primary season?  We`ll give you some clues, just ahead. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN:  We can overcome four years of Donald Trump at home and abroad with some significant difficulty, but if we give him another four years, we give him another four years, I think he will permanently alter the character of this nation. 

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  We have a president who thinks he`s going to get re-elected because he`s dividing -- trying to divide us up.  We are going to defeat Trump because we are doing exactly the opposite.  We`re bringing people together as Americans. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  All right, with the Christmas holiday season behind them and the New Year approaching, many of the leading 2020 Democratic candidates were out in force today campaigning across the early states.  Riding a wave of positive press and fresh momentum in the polls, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders held three events today in New Hampshire, a state in which he defeated Hillary Clinton easily in 2016, and where he currently leads the pack heading into the New Year. 

Meanwhile, in Iowa, the national front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden sat down with "The Des Moines Register" editorial board where he confirmed he would not comply with a Senate subpoena if called as a witness in the Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump, saying testifying would only create a diversion from the real issues at hand. 

Also in Iowa, Senator Amy Klobuchar who held four events in the state today, completed her goal of visiting all the Hawkeye State`s 99 counties before the end of the year. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  If you believe a president sets more than policy for this country but also the tone, the civility for this country, and if you believe a president should not just stand her ground, yes, but also seek common ground -- well, I`m Amy Klobuchar and I`m running for president. 

(APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Klobuchar from Minnesota is banking on a strong finish in her neighboring state of Iowa where South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg currently leads the polls ahead of Biden, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. 

Warren spent the day in California visiting a day care center as part of the Service Employees International Union`s campaign to walk a day in the shoes of workers across the country.  But that news was overshadowed by her campaign announcing in a fund-raising pitch to supporters that it would fall short of its third quarter fund-raising total when the next fund- raising deadline closes in a next few days.  The Warren campaign says it has raised $17 million to date in the fourth quarter.  About two thirds of it -- two thirds of what the previous three months haul was. 

Warren`s last minute appeal is just one of many Democratic pitches ahead of next week`s deadline as candidates look to project strength ahead of the Iowa caucuses which are now just 38 days away. 

Joining me now, PBS "NewsHour" White House correspondent and I so love adding this part to your title now, one of the moderators at the last Democratic primary debate, Yamiche Alcindor. 

Yamiche, great to see you.  Thank you for joining us tonight. 

A lot has been made, Yamiche, of the fact that Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders sit at the top of national polls today almost exactly where they were a year ago when the race started.  This is kind of -- it`s an amazing development given all the people who have come into the race and some who have dropped out.  What do you make of it? 

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, PBS NEWSHOUR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, it`s an incredible thing that a year into this primary with so many candidates coming out on the Democratic side that Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are really struggling and really struggling for that number one spot.  And what you see there is the fact they have people who feel very passionately about their campaigns. 

As someone who covered Bernie Sanders in 2016 the people who really liked Bernie Sanders really liked Bernie Sanders and they don`t want to change that idea.  They don`t want to have a second pick.  There`s been a lot of the talk of the fact some of his voters might go to Elizabeth Warren.  But some of Bernie people I talked to, they`re really Bernie people.

Then we go to Joe Biden.  The people who liked Joe Biden, especially those older African-American voters that are so critical to Democratic base, they`re loyal to Joe Biden and I`ve heard from voters myself would say, what I see in Joe Biden is really a loyalty to Barack Obama.  It`s not just he was Barack Obama`s vice president but he`s really a reflection of Barack Obama`s decision making because he stayed for all eight years. 

So what Joe Biden has is a loyal group of people continuing to think about Barack Obama as they pledge their support for Joe Biden. 

VELSHI:  There are a -- Joe Biden is so far ahead of everybody else in terms of African-American supporters.  That`s going to play a major role not just in the South Carolina primary but in the election as a whole. 

What do you make of the fact he`s that far ahead and others are continuing to struggle despite being ahead in polls in this state or that, Joe Biden - - Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, they continue to struggle with that audience. 

ALCINDOR:  It is.  And the thing I`ve heard from a lot of voters is that people really want someone who`s stable, and they`re also, frankly, very, very nervous about Donald Trump.  There are a lot of people who think that President Trump being an incumbent president, that he has the upper hand in this race, and as a result, they want someone they feel comfortable with, someone they feel like can go all the way. 

And when you talk to Joe Biden supporters and I would also say Bernie Sanders supporters, they feel like their candidates are people have been known to the American public, who have shown they can be in office for a long time and as a result they`re sticking with them.  And when you see someone like Pete Buttigieg, doing so in Iowa how these caucuses are in early primary states are going to shake out, that`s going to tell people whether me how a person is they can put their trust in. 

If Pete Buttigieg wins Iowa, and best both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who have much more name recognition going into this race, to put it lightly, that tells voters in other places including the Super Tuesday states, hey, maybe you can look at Pete Buttigieg. 

But right now, I think a lot of voters are frankly scared of President Trump.  And as a result they`re looking to someone they feel like would be comfortable with other Democratic voters.  And as a result, they`re picking people like Bernie Sanders and Joe Buttigieg because they think they had the experience and the message to really go all the way. 

VELSHI:  Elizabeth Warren has suffered a little bit in polling recently and it seems like that`s affecting her fundraising.  They`ve announced she`s raised $17 million so far this quarter that ends in a few days. 

Talk to me about what you think is happening with Elizabeth Warren right now. 

ALCINDOR:  Well, there was a time where Elizabeth Warren was on the rise, but I think what we saw with Elizabeth Warren is frankly what we saw with other candidates, including Senator Kamala Harris and Beto O`Rourke and other people on the rise for a bit but then could not capitalize on that momentum to then push them forward and raise the kind of fund raising that would put them in a different lead. 

I think what you`ve seen in Elizabeth Warren is someone who people you`re interested in, and I`ve seen a lot people say, hey, she`s very fiery, I could see her on stage with President Trump, but at the same time she hasn`t been able to use that to say, OK, here are the people I can take away from Joe Biden when there`s a lot of talk of the fact but reel both of their campaigns tell me and their aides tell me they`ve always been looking at Joe Bidens voters and saying these are the people we need to win over. 

And Elizabeth Warren, frankly, has not been able to capitalize and take away voters from Joe Biden.  And as a result she hasn`t been able to go much farther than her short rise. 

VELSHI:  Yamiche, always great to see you.  Thank you for joining us tonight. 

PBS "NewsHour" White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor.

All right.  A lot more to come on MSNBC tonight, including outrage and an FBI investigation over what one ex-governor did on his way out of office. 

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  It`s been less than three weeks since the state of Kentucky inaugurated its new Democratic governor.  But the Republican governor has not gone quietly.  Former Governor Matt Bevin never did anything quietly.  He brought his unique combination of unpopular policies, off-putting behavior, and just plane weirdness to the office.

The first thing Bevin did upon taking office was to shutdown Kentucky`s well-functioning, popular Obamacare health insurance marketplace, then he set about trying to kick thousands of Kentuckians off Medicaid, going so far as to sue individual Medicaid recipients by name.  He accused his local paper of being part of an America-hating global conspiracy.  He opposed mandatory vaccines saying he had taken his kids to a chickenpox party to expose them to the virus instead. 

And he spent much of his term making sworn enemies out of Kentucky`s teachers.  When they went on strike to demand better pay and resources, Bevin accused them of being responsible for children being sexually assaulted and shot.  That will get them back to the negotiating table. 

So, when Matt Bevin lost his reelection bid last month, a lot of Kentuckians breathed a sigh of relief.  But it turns out he wasn`t quite finished.  The day after Bevin left office, reporter Joe Sonka and his colleagues at "The Louisville Courier Journal", were first to report that Bevin had issued hundreds of pardons on his way out of the door, including several that appear highly questionable to put it mildly.  "The Courier Journal" noted that one pardon went to a man who had served two years of a 19-year sentence for reckless homicide and other charges in a home invasion.  And that convict`s family had raised tens of thousands of dollars for Matt Bevin`s campaign.  Two other men who were convicted in that home invasion didn`t get pardons and they`re still in prison. 

The heinous nature of some of the crimes themselves sparked national outrage over several of the pardons.  But the pardon that has generated the most shock and disgust is the pardon of a man who had just started a 23- year sentence for repeated rape of a 9-year-old girl.  "The New York Times" contacted the victim`s mother who described how she learned that her daughter`s convicted rapist was being set free.  Quote: She had been at home making dinner and a milk shake when she got a call from the commonwealth`s attorney`s office.  I just picked up the blender and threw it against the wall she said in a phone interview.  I still have to scrub the ice cream off my walls. 

She said her family had only begun to recover from the trial which wrapped up last year.  Matt Bevin justified some of his pardons as acts of Christian forgiveness.  But the pardon of a man convicted of raping a 9- year-old Bevin said he had a very different reason for that one.  And I have to warn you what the governor said is a little graphic but this is really what he said. 

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

MATT BEVIN, FORMER KENTUCKY GOVERNOR:  He was accused of sexually assaulting repeatedly for over the course of almost two years, well over a year every single Wednesday I believe it was, repeatedly sexually assaulting her and her sister.  This girl claimed.  These girls both were examined medically, they were examined physically, there was zero evidence, zero, both their hymens were intact, this is perhaps more specific than people would want.  But trust me if you had been repeatedly sexually violated as a small child by an adult, there are going to be repercussions of that physically and medically.  There was zero evidence of that. 

(END AUDIO CLIP)

VELSHI:  Bevin`s theory of the case has been roundly rejected by experts as flatly incorrect, legally, medically and anatomically.  And Bevin may no longer be the governor, but this week, "The Courier Journal" reported that the FBI is asking questions about the last minute pardons. 

Joining us now is Joe Sonka, politics reporter with "The Louisville Courier Journal". 

Joe, thanks very much for your time tonight.  Thanks for being with us.  What do we know about this last part, the FBI investigation into these pardons that Matt Bevin handed out? 

JOE SONKA, POLITICS REPORTER, LOUISVILLE COURIER JOURNAL:  We do know that the FBI contacted a state legislator who asked questions about Bevin`s pardons.  We don`t know if they started an official investigation or they`re just calling around asking questions, but we do know there is interest from at least one state legislator who said he was contacted. 

VELSHI:  This pardon of the rapist, put it in context for us.  Is that Matt Bevin being Matt Bevin?  Or is this nuts even for Matt Bevin? 

SONKA:  Well, there are about a dozen or so controversial pardons out of the 670 pardons or commutations that he issued from the time that he lost the election to the time he left office.  For this one and a few others, he says that the person convicted of the crime is innocent.  He says he`s poured through all the pages of documents.  He`s learned about the case and he believes that the jury was wrong. 

And in some cases, he believes there was wrongdoing by the prosecutors or law enforcement in those cases.  Particularly the Micah Schoettle case in northern Kentucky, in Kenton County, he says the jury`s wrong and there`s no way that this person committed this crime against a 9-year-old girl. 

VELSHI:  It seems like Bevin doesn`t have a lot of support on this.  Republicans in Kentucky, including Mitch McConnell, the state`s senior senator, have come out against some of these pardons.  Talk to me about what that means politically? 

SONKA:  Well, it was really Mitch McConnell that kind of broke the tide and all of the Republicans started coming out against it after he said -- he called the pardons completely inappropriate.  It was a few hours later, maybe less than an hour later that the Republican presidents of the state Senate issued a statement calling the pardons a perversion of justice and called for a federal investigation.  And that statement was signed off by almost his entire Republican caucus. 

So -- and you see Republican prosecutors around the state, the one in Kent County, Rob Sanders has come out and he said he started an investigation into Bevin over the pardon over of Micah Schoettle of the 9-year-old girl who was raped.  And also, the Republican prosecutor in Knox County where Bevin pardoned a few people that were convicted in that county, he`s also harshly criticized Bevin.  He`s a Republican prosecutor, too. 

In fact, there was a joint statement from all county prosecutors, commonwealth attorneys who put out a statement blasting Bevin over the pardons. 

VELSHI:  Joe Sonka is a politics reporter with "The Louisville Courier Journal" -- thank you so much for joining us tonight. 

SONKA:  Thank you. 

VELSHI:  We`ll be right back. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI:  This year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 17 states enacted some form of restriction on a woman`s right to abortion.  The tally includes new outright bans of varying severity that would go into effect in 12 states if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.  Now, there`s another side in this fight.  This year, nine states took some kind of step to protect or expand access to abortion shoring up now what could otherwise soon be lost. 

On Monday night, Rachel and her team will bring you a special in-depth look at the anti-abortion movement and the people who were working to defend women`s rights now against long odds and in places where you might not expect it.  This special report happens here on this network Monday at 9:00 p.m. with Rachel Maddow. 

That does it for us tonight.  Now it`s time for "THE LAST WORD".  Ayman Mohyeldin is in, again, for Lawrence tonight -- Ayman. 

                                                                                                                  THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END