South Carolina debate TRANSCRIPT: 2/24/20, The Rachel Maddow Show

Guests: Katie Benner, Guy Cecil

  CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: That`s the point.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The wrongness for the people who told you that was Joe Biden is part of what`s on display right now.

HAYES: Right.

Sam Seder, Christina Greer and Rebecca Traister, thank you for joining us.

Don`t forget, at the end of this week, I`m going to be in Charleston, South Carolina, ahead of what could be a make-or-break moment for some of these campaigns.

And now, I can announce, another stop on our "ALL IN" primary state tour and how you can be part of it. This time, we`re headed to Los Angeles California in a lead up to Super Tuesday.

So, if you were in or around Los Angeles, come join the audience next Monday, March 2nd. That`s one week from today. Tickets are free and available now, head to MSNBC.com/allin2020 to get yours today.

That is "ALL IN" for this evening, THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. We missed you terribly last week. Did you have a good time?

HAYES: I did have a wonderful time with my family, and a warm place and then I got sick, but now I`m here.

MADDOW: Well, good. I mean, in the end.

HAYES: All of it was great.

MADDOW: All right. Welcome back. Thanks, my friend.

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

This is going to be a big week in politics and in the news more broadly. We, of course, had the Nevada caucuses this weekend. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont emerging as the big winner in that contest. South Carolina will be this weekend, this Saturday.

Even though we just had a Democratic candidate`s debate last week, boy, was that a doozy. We`re going to have another Democratic candidates` debate tomorrow ahead of South Carolina. There were six candidates on the stage in last week`s crazy car crash of a debate, including Michael Bloomberg there for the first time. Tomorrow night`s debate, there will be an extra guy. There will be seven candidates because even though Tom Steyer did not qualify to be on the debate last week, he has qualified to be on the debate stage in South Carolina this week.

And, sure, why not? Nobody ever said this had to be an orderly process or even a remotely logical one. It`s just how we`re doing it.

Let me just point out something about Tom Steyer and what it means he`s on the debate stage, because it`s a little -- it`s a little topsy-turvy. Mike Bloomberg was in the Nevada debate last week, but he was not on the Nevada ballot. Tom Steyer was not on the debate stage but he was on the ballot. And he actually did OK in Nevada, I mean, I don`t know what his campaign was aiming at, but he did come in fifth place in Nevada. Tom Steyer came in below Elizabeth Warren and above Amy Klobuchar.

That might seem like a surprising result given that Tom Steyer didn`t even qualify for that debate in Nevada, and given that Senator Klobuchar`s campaign has been getting a ton more attention and has more national recognition. That said, we might have the sort of secret to understanding the perhaps surprising fifth place finish in Nevada for Tom Steyer, despite those competitive disadvantages I just explain.

This was the spending by all of the candidates` campaigns in Nevada, leading up to the caucuses this weekend. Klobuchar, less than $1 million, Buttigieg, $1.2 million, Warren $1.5, Biden $1.4. Bernie Sanders in Nevada $1.8 million.

And now, Tom Steyer, whoops, we have to change the scale in order to show what he spent in Nevada, Tom Steyer spent eight times what his nearest opponent spent in Nevada, spent $14.4 million. Not only is that eight times what Senator Sanders spent, it`s more than double what all of the candidates spent combined and that $14.4 million of ad spending in Nevada earned Tom Steyer zero delegates but it did get him fifth place heading into South Carolina.

And again, in South Carolina, Mike Bloomberg will not be on the ballot. Tom Steyer will. Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg will both be in the debate tomorrow night. And, you know, the self-funding billionaire spending advantage in South Carolina will look for Tom Steyer something like it did in Nevada when he goes on to South Carolina. So, who knows what that will mean for his total end of the day results.

But this remains one of the truly weird, unprecedented, hard to model and sometimes absurd features of this Democratic primary process. The outsized spending of the billionaire candidates, how outsized it is compared to what everybody else is doing, sort of renders the financial competition among the other candidates almost quaint.

But tonight, we`re going to throw another twist into that particular crazy straw, because -- I mean, Just look at the spending levels in the normal non-billionaire campaigns. I showed you the spending for Nevada, right? If you keep Tom Steyer out of it for a second, look at everybody else. These were the spending numbers for all the other non-billionaire campaigns in Nevada.

Before Nevada, we also saw similar numbers in New Hampshire, again, not considering the billionaires, just looking at the normal candidates. Similar spending numbers in Iowa, right? There was a lot more candidates in the race in Iowa, but the non-billionaire candidates, these are the kinds of numbers they were spending in that -- in that first -- in that first race. You see Sanders and Buttigieg up there around $10 million. Everybody else somewhere below that.

So, this is -- this is the kind of range. You know, Buttigieg spending $1.2 million in Nevada. In New Hampshire, the Joe Biden campaign spent $300,000. Iowa, you know, pick one at random. The Klobuchar campaign, $3.9 million.

This is the kind of scale on which the non-billionaire campaigns have been spending. This is the pace at which they have been dumping money into this race in the first three contests thus far, right? A few hundred thousand dollars here. A million dollars there, $3 million there. Maybe in a huge race, the most expensive spending by non-billionaire candidates might approach $10 million.

Well, tonight, we are going to report that on the Democratic side, somebody is about to get into this contest who is not a billionaire, who`s not a Mike Bloomberg or a Tom Steyer, but they are about to spend $150 million in campaign ads on the Democratic side of the presidential race, $150 million.

We`ve got the ads. They`re going to be running with that money. We`ve got a first peek at the strategy behind it coming up. You are going to want to see that. We have got that exclusively here tonight in just a few minutes.

Meanwhile, today was one of those days when the financial news, the stock market news was big enough news that it jumped off the business pages and became front-page news. Markets both in the United States and around the world tanked today amid fears that the global spread of the coronavirus is reaching epidemic -- excuse me -- reaching pandemic proportions.

Pulitzer Prize wining science journalist Lori Garrett recently wrote about the fact that the United States government is almost uniquely ill suited to take a leading role with something like a global infectious disease crisis right now because without much fanfare and honestly without much objection, President Trump, quote, fired the government`s entire pandemic response chain of command back in 2018 and never replaced them with anyone.

And I think the reason this went largely unremarked upon at the time is because the president has fired and never rehired whole big swaths of the federal government and the turnover rate even in national security positions in this administration is beyond unprecedented. Peter Baker at "The New York Times" this weekend noting tightly that the president in his first term is on his third chief of staff, his fourth national security adviser, his fourth defense secretary, his fifth secretary of homeland security, his secretary deputy national security adviser, and his seventh communications director without even making it a full term in office.

But as the coronavirus threat rises and rises and rises, it`s starting to seem particularly important that one of the national security jobs the president emptied and never bothered to refill is the position at the National Security Council that`s supposed to take point on all global health security matters. There used to be somebody in that job. The president emptied that job two years ago and never filled it.

Don`t worry, though. The president has appointed a coronavirus task force. Today, a leading member of that task force, a Fox News regular and failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate named Ken Cuccinelli. Mr. Cuccinelli went online today to ask if any of his twitter followers could help him get behind the pay wall so he could see some of the maps where the coronavirus is now because he was just Googling around, you know?

Turns out, some of these sites you need to pay to get in. Anybody on Twitter now to get to the maps where the coronavirus is?

He`s on the government`s coronavirus task force. He is like one of the senior people running that for the United States government at the direct appointment of President Trump.

Meanwhile, the crisis in the Justice Department continues apace including some fascinating new "New York Times" reporting that sort of fleshes out what`s been going on in one federal prosecutor`s office that appears to have been compromised? I`m not sure if that`s the right word. It`s certainly been at least partially taken over, and this is reporting that lines up with some previous reporting about this crisis in the rule of law and in the Justice Department. But it honestly also gives us a new window into how bad it really is.

It`s particularly helpful right now because the Roger Stone case, which has occasioned so much of the crisis at the Justice Department, so much of our public window into what`s going wrong at the Justice Department, the Roger Stone case is still banging around inside the federal court system in Washington, D.C. you might have seen over the weekend a headline about the ruling from the judge in the Stone case. This is the judge who sentenced Roger Stone last week.

Over the weekend, yesterday, she issued a short six-page order in which she rejected a motion from Roger Stone`s attorneys that she should recuse herself from any further action in Roger Stone`s case because stone and his attorneys say that she`s biased. They wanted the judge to disqualify herself from the case. Judge Amy Berman Jackson deals with the allegations from Roger Stone and his attorneys in this ruling in what seems to me to be a remarkably restrained and even-handed manner.

But even so, at the end of her ruling, the thing I think necessarily ends on a fairly blunt note. The judge concludes her ruling with this, quote: If parties could move to disqualify every judge who furrows his brow at one side or the other before ruling, the entire court system would come to a standstill. At bottom, given the absence of any factual or legal support for the motion for disqualification, this pleading appears to be nothing more than an attempt to use the court`s docket to disseminate a statement for public consumption that has the words "judge" and "biased" in it.

For these reasons, defendant`s motion is hereby denied, so ordered. That was the ruling from the judge in roger stone`s case as of yesterday, saying, no, I`m not going to disqualify myself, and, no, I`m not biased, and you are trying to create the public perception that I am. But that`s not enough of a substantial reason for me to be disqualified from this case.

Tomorrow, that same judge intends to hold a sealed hearing, a closed-door hearing on stone`s motion to get himself a new trial. He`s already been convicted on all seven felony counts for which he was charged. The jury was unanimous in their guilty verdict on all seven counts. He`s been sentenced now to roughly 3 1/2 years in prison but he`s still nevertheless trying to have his trial thrown out.

This is actually the second time he`s asked for a new trial by alleging that the jury must have been biased against him and therefore he should get a second trial.

And so after ruling yesterday that, no, she`s not going to recuse herself from the case, tomorrow, that same judge will hear this motion for a new trial in a closed-door session in her courtroom. I mean, the reason this case has evinced this crisis at the Justice Department is because of President Trump and, by extension, Attorney General William Barr wading into it and basically trying to mess around with the resolution of this case rather than letting it be decided independently as a matter of law enforcement. Repeatedly over the past several days, president Trump has moved on from calling the prosecution of roger stone a witch hunt and a hoax to now specifically the president is joining this effort by Roger Stone and his attorneys to attack the jury in this case.

And the president has specifically been going after individual members of the jury as a way to press for Roger Stone`s original trial to be thrown out and for him to be tried again.

Now, unusually -- I think this is -- we`re lucky to have this. But just after Roger Stone was convicted in November, an unusual thing happened. One of the jurors in that case, juror number three, wrote what I thought was actually a very moving op-ed, a sort of essay about the process of having been a juror in the Roger Stone trial that was published in "The Washington Post." it`s about having been on that jury and the juror wrote about how proud he was of how they had conducted themselves as a jury.

One of the things he noted was how careful the court had been throughout Stone`s trial to protect the jury from harassment and intimidation and improper influence. This is what it said in part. Quote: During the first half of November, I made a brief journey with 14 fellow Americans, all of them strangers to me. Together, we were the 12 jurors and two alternates in the Roger Stone trial. We sat through five days of testimony and half a day of closing arguments.

After eight hours of deliberation, we returned guilty verdicts on each of the seven counts we were charged to consider. Like jurors everywhere, none of us asked for this responsibility but each of us accepted it willingly. We served the proposition that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

Interest in this case was high and the court took special steps to prevent us from being harassed or improperly influenced. Each morning, we assembled at a building several blocks away and made our way to the parking garage where federal marshals loaded us into vans for tinted windows for the trip to court. On arrival, we moved through the building via a freight elevator and back corridors.

I believe I speak for my fellow jurors when I say we`re proud of our decision. We listened carefully to the testimony of a series of witnesses and carefully examined every element of every charge and its defense and we unanimously agreed that each had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. After the trial was over, Judge Amy Berman Jackson came to the jury room to thank us for our service. This was the only time any of us had any contact with her outside of the courtroom.

We talked as a group for several minutes. One of my fellow jurors expressed the following sentiment, which sums up my feelings and I believe those of my fellow jurors. I love America, and this experience has made me love it even more.

At the end of our jury service, the marshals drove us back to our meeting point one more time, and the jury went out for lunch as a group. I`m proud of our democratic institutions, their valentine yew was reaffirmed for me because of the process we went through and the respect we accorded it. I`m proud that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. I`m proud that we took Roger Stone`s rights seriously and that we treated the government`s assertions skeptically. I`m proud of my fellow jurors for respecting each other and for challenging each other until we were all convinced beyond a reasonable doubt.

At a time when Americans are increasingly distrustful of their institutions, I`m thankful that our legal system affords a fair and open process by which one`s peers critically examine the facts. To denigrate that process is undemocratic and dangerous.

That was written by juror number three in the Roger Stone trial. It was published in November right after this jury unanimously voted to convict him on seven felony counts. And now after that conviction, after Roger Stone`s sentencing, the president of the United States is the person who is leading the charge to denigrate that process, to single out individual jurors, including by name, to make them into villains and to try to tear down any respect that any American might have for the legal process if it produced an outcome that the president doesn`t like.

And not incidentally, to intimidate any juror on any future case that might have any impingement on the president`s interests to make you think twice about how you might want to rule as a juror in a case like that given what happened to those other jurors who got attacked by the president over and over and over again and wrung out, wrung out on conservative media as somehow the real villains in the case because of the way that jury ruled and because of the fact the president didn`t like it.

It`s jury tampering on a mass national scale, personally carried out by the president of the United States. They go through all of this trouble to protect that jury in the Stone Case. Vans with tinted windows bringing them in through the parking garage, the freight elevator, back corridors. We need to make sure you are not harassed and intimidated. They rule, and then the president just brings down the harassment and intimidation upon them.

Give Roger Stone a new trial. Those jurors, let me name them. They`re bad.

I know there`s a lot going on, but that is a remarkable turn, and it has remarkable consequences for cases going forward indefinitely after the president has done this to the process. And inside the Justice Department, the president`s pressure on the process is even more direct. Katie Benner and Adam Goldman reporting at "The New York Times" on the view inside -- the view from inside the federal prosecutor`s office in Washington, D.C. now that the U.S. attorney there, Jessie Liu, a Trump appointee, has been ousted from that position in part -- at least it`s perceived within that office -- in part because she failed to deliver a criminal prosecution of former FBI Director Andrew McCabe despite the fact that President Trump was demanding such a prosecution.

Benner and Goldman report at "The Times" that the replacement U.S. attorney that Attorney General William Barr installed in place of Jessie Liu made his demand that the sentence recommendation for Roger Stone be made more lenient literally on the first day he was installed in that office. Tim Shea was brought over from William Barr`s office to instead become the new U.S. attorney in D.C. He arrived February 3rd and on that day, February 3rd, he told the prosecutors on Stone`s case they needed to drop the prison recommendation.

Quote: The lawyers on the Stone prosecution team viewed the directive as a last-minute order with no legal basis. That standoff, of course, led to the government giving a new lenient sentence recommendation for the president - - excuse me -- for the president`s friend. It also led to the resignation of the entire trial team.

It led, as "The Times" reports, to what sounds like maybe kind of a fight, at least a, quote, terse and sharp verbal exchange involving one of those prosecutors in the hallway of the U.S. attorney`s office. But "The Times" also confirms that the outside team, the sort of hit squad, if you will, that Attorney General Bill Barr brought in to that U.S. attorney`s office in D.C., they ousted the U.S. attorney and they brought in a team of Barr`s choosing to take over all of these different politically sensitive cases that are all of interest in the president. That team is still in place in that U.S. attorney`s office.

I mean, they fired the lead prosecutor in that office, they fired the U.S. attorney. They put William Barr`s guy in her office, and they installed this team to take over not just the Stone matter but the Flynn matter and apparently the Erik Prince matter and who knows what else.

With everything else going on right now, I mean with the Democrats choosing their nominee via what by all accounts is a totally insane process, with the world health crisis that our government apparently has just today started Googling about, with the president firing the director of national intelligence because U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Russia is trying to get President Trump re-elected in 2020 and the national -- the director of national intelligence -- his office has been briefing members of Congress on that, and so, obviously the national intelligence director had to be fired for that sin.

I mean, with everything else going on, it is a remarkable thing we should not lose track of that on an ongoing basis now, as we speak, what is arguably the most important federal prosecutor`s office in the country, it`s been taken over. They had their chief fired, replaced by somebody who until five minutes ago worked in the attorney general`s front office. And in that U.S. attorney`s office, an external team has been brought in to make sure all the politically sensitive cases are apparently handled in a way that redounds to the president`s pleasure. Think about that.

I mean, there are like 600 lawyers in that prosecutor`s office who are working there right now in what is supposed to be an independent, elite law enforcement institution. But now, they`re all working there under these very changed circumstances, and that is a really strange and potentially very important thing on an ongoing basis and our first peek inside that strange situation thanks -- comes thanks to Katie Benner and Adam Goldman at "The Times."

And Katie Benner joins us next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Quote, in the days before they filed the sentencing recommendation for President Trump`s friend Roger Stone, the prosecutors on the case felt under siege. A new boss, Timothy Shea, had just arrived and had told them on his first day that he wanted a more lenient recommendation for Mr. Stone. The prosecutors grew suspicious that Mr. Shea was helping his longtime friend and boss, Attorney General William Barr, soften the sentencing request to please the president.

In an attempt to ease the strain, David Metcalf, Mr. Shea`s chief of staff, clasped his hand on the shoulder of one of those prosecutors, Aaron Zelinsky, as they passed in a hallway. But the gesture prompted a terse and sharp verbal exchange. As word of the spat spread throughout the office, unfounded rumors swirled that the altercation had been physical.

As the president declared on Twitter that the government was treating his friend Mr. Stone too harshly, Attorney General William Barr quickly intervened to recommend a lighter sentence for Mr. Stone. Within a day, Mr. Zelinsky and three other prosecutors quit the stone case.

Joining us now is reporter Katie Benner, who covers the Justice Department for "The New York Times" and who shared a byline with Adam Goldman on that scoop.

Ms. Benner, I really appreciate you making time to be here. Thank you.

KATIE BENNER, JUSTICE DEPARTMENT REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Absolutely.

MADDOW: To be clear, something happened in the hallway that other people thought might have been a fistfight, but it wasn`t?

BENNER: Yes, and I think that just sort of goes to show how tense things were because, generally, in an office full of attorneys, nobody is really worried about physical altercations.

MADDOW: Yes. I have to ask just in broad strokes, I am completely obsessed with what`s going on in the U.S. attorney`s office in D.C., and I can only follow it through reporting like yours and from what we`re able to see in the public record. But in your time covering the Justice Department, how unusual would you say this situation is that you`re reporting on now at that U.S. attorney`s office?

BENNER: I think it`s hard to overstate how unusual things are. And for your viewers, let`s take a step back. It`s a very important U.S. attorney`s office. It`s huge because it covers both federal cases for the district but also serves cases in the District of Columbia. So you have a very interesting mix of some of the biggest national cases and really important local cases.

And it also sees a lot of political cases because of its location in the country. So, it`s an extremely important district, and it`s always been treated kind of with kid gloves. You didn`t want political interference in this office in particular because of how sensitive some of the work has been.

So, to have a situation where not only do you have the president making public remarks about the quality of the work there and asking for specific outcomes, and then to have a situation where the attorney general acts and takes action just after those public comments are made, I think caused a stir not just in that office but in prosecutors` offices -- federal prosecutors office all over the country as people wondered what is this a signal of.

MADDOW: The other part of this, not only Jessie Liu being replaced, not only for the president calling for specific outcomes and then the attorney general seeming to act if not at the direction of the president, at least in a way that is congruent with the president`s expressed wishes, but there is also this remarkable reporting that in an ongoing way, there is an external team of prosecutors, of lawyers that have been brought in at the attorney general`s request who are still there, who are still working in an ongoing way on a number of politically sensitive cases.

Do you have any sense of the scope of what their remit is or how many of these D.C. U.S. attorney`s offices cases they might have their fingers in?

BENNER: First, we should note this isn`t the first time this has happened under the Trump administration. We have to stretch back in time to when Jeff Sessions was the attorney general. We also saw very politically sensitive matters, including this call amongst congressional Republicans to relitigate investigations into Hillary Clinton.

The Justice Department struggled with what to do with those cases and what to do with those calls for action. They felt that they needed to be addressed, that they couldn`t out of hand say to the president and to his supporters on the Hill, hey, we`re going to ignore this altogether. So they found other ways to deal with it, for example, by farming out that research and farming out that investigation to U.S. attorneys offices far away, for example in Utah.

We see the same thing happening now with Rudy Giuliani where it`s like we have to deal with the fact that the president`s own personal lawyer wants us to take sensitive information and look at it even though we think it could be wrong. We cannot, out of hand, reject that.

So, once they ever going to have a different office in Pennsylvania look at it and assess it. And for example, the Utah case is still ongoing. It`s never been closed. But as far as w can tell from our reporting, nothing is going to happen there.

So we have a situation where for the entirety of the Trump administration, the department has struggled to figure out what to do with the president`s desires and demands transmitted by the president himself on Twitter and then through his allies on the Hill, which takes us to the U.S. attorney`s office in D.C. -- Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Erik Prince -- these are very, very, very important cases to the president for various reasons. He has publicly said he would like specific outcomes in them.

He has said that he believes that, for example, Stone did nothing wrong, that Flynn did nothing wrong, and that these outcomes need to be changed. And so, you have a situation where it is -- we don`t know why. There are different ways to look at it. You could say Barr has decided to bring in, for example, an outside prosecutor from the U.S. attorney`s office in St. Louis to oversee Flynn and to sort of relook at the Flynn case and see if mistakes were made.

On the one hand, it could feel very much to prosecutors in that office like their work is being undermined and like they are being politicized in a way that makes them very upset. And in another way, you could say, or is this the Justice Department basically going through the motions to do something because they feel that they must, but that it won`t really change the outcome.

And it feels like ever since Jeff Sessions was the attorney general, we have been asking ourselves this question.

MADDOW: Yes, and I put myself -- I mean I`m not even a lawyer let alone a federal prosecutor. I just try to imagine myself working on one of those cases or working alongside prosecutors in those cases now having this outside team taking up permanent residence inside that incredibly sensitive office.

Katie Benner, it`s remarkable reporting. Thank you so much for being here. Really appreciate it.

BENNER: Thanks.

MADDOW: Katie Benner covers the Justice Department for "The New York Times".

Again, her shared byline on that scoop is Adam Goldman. Remarkable stuff.

All right. Up next, an exclusive about -- an exclusive look at who is about to spend $150 million in campaign ads on the Democratic side of the presidential race. It is not one of the two billionaires you can name off the top of your head.

That`s next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: -- Monday between Nevada and South Carolina, a new memo on the state of the Democratic presidential primary race from the Amy Klobuchar campaign. It hypes a new $4.2 million Klobuchar ad buy in the Super Tuesday states. I mean, Klobuchar`s campaign has only spent $10 million on TV and radio ads total to date.

So that`s not an insignificant sum. Think about that. They`ve only spent $10 million so far for the whole campaign, but now they just bought over $4 million to spend in one fell swoop. They are going for it, 4.2, big buy, right?

Priorities USA is the largest Democratic super PAC. It was founded in 2011 by former Obama advisers to help him in his re-election race against Mitt Romney. Priorities USA is neutral in the Democratic primary. They are not picking a Democratic candidate.

This year, they say their pre-convention budget for ads in this race is $150 million. What? Pre-convention, before there`s a nominee, they`re planning on spending $150 million. The super PAC will roll out two new TV ads, its first of the 2020 cycle, starting tomorrow in four battleground states, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Price tag, $30 million in air time.

Now, we`ve been given an exclusive look at these ads tonight. Both of them target President Trump, both will begin airing in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania starting tomorrow.

I`m going to show you them both. Here`s the first of those ads featuring the topic most on the minds of Democratic voters according to the entrance polls in the first three voting states. The topic is health care.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMY RASLEVICH, PITTSBURGH, PA: In 2017, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It feels like a tidal wave. You have no idea what your future is going to be.

Now, Donald Trump wants to eliminate protections for pre-existing conditions like mine. It would make it impossible for people like me to find affordable health care. I will always be a breast cancer survivor. If Donald Trump had his way, I would no longer have health insurance coverage.

AD ANNOUNCER: Priorities USA Action is responsible for the content of this advertising.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: That`s the first ad. And, again, remember this is the super PAC, the Democratic super PAC that is planning to spend $150 million running ads before the convention, before the Democratic Party even has a nominee. That`s one of the two ads.

The second ad isn`t on health care or a specific issue like that. It focuses more on the president himself. Here`s that one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have the right to do whatever I want as president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The government shutdown, now officially the longest in American history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Trump threatening the future of healthcare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The president`s budget includes a cut of $845 billion to Medicare.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: President Trump apparently has a lot on his mind, at least according to his Twitter account.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Concerns that the new missiles could reach the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And ISIS is seizing this chaotic moment to regroup.

TRUMP: I have the right to do whatever I want as president.

AD ANNOUNCER: Priorities USA Action is responsible for the content of this advertising.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Again, those two TV ads will run in four battleground states starting in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin tomorrow at an initial cost of $30 million in ad time, which is a small but significant chunk of the super PAC`s $150 million pre-convention budget to help Democratic candidates take on President Trump.

Joining us now is the chairman of Priorities USA, Guy Cecil.

Guy, thank you very much for joining us tonight. I appreciate you being here.

GUY CECIL, CHAIRMAN, PRIORITIES USA: Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: So I wanted to talk to you about this tonight because I feel like the shear scale of what you`re able to do at your very well funded super PAC makes you a very interesting player in this race. We`ve got two billionaires in the race among the candidates who are spending hand over fist. Even your spending at the super PAC will be dwarfed by what Mayor Bloomberg spending.

But what you`re planning on spending is so much larger than any of the non- billionaire candidates. How do you see your work fitting into the overall Democratic project of beating President Trump?

CECIL: Well, I think there were two major factors that really led us to make the decision to go in now. The first is really just taking a look at modern presidential history where so many incumbent presidents, both Democratic and Republican, use the primary of the opposition party to define the contours of the race, to attack their likely opponents, and to really do damage.

I mean, we saw this dating back to Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. We saw it certainly with President Obama and Mitt Romney, and it`s certainly what President Trump is doing today. He`s already advertising on television and online in battleground states around the country. I think the second piece is that really about the message. I think your opening is really important because what it demonstrates is just because you have the most money or a lot of money doesn`t necessarily mean people are buying the message. You know, there`s so much focus on the economy, and we`ve seen Donald Trump`s approval rating on the economy increase. But underneath that, what we`re finding is that the support for the economy or at least Trump`s economy is a mile wide and an inch deep.

I mean, one out of every four Pennsylvanians say they struggle to pay their bills, 40 percent of Americans say they couldn`t find $400 for an unexpected expense. In fact, in our latest poll, 63 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida said that they didn`t believe Donald Trump`s economic policies were helping them at all.

So, we think it`s important to let people know while this primary is understandably getting a lot of attention that the president`s impulsiveness, his arrogance, and his ego aren`t just about Twitter. They actually are doing harm to working people and middle class families around the country, and that battle needs to begin now because Donald Trump`s campaign has already started the general election.

MADDOW: Why are you focusing on Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin? Obviously those scream out as likely swing states this year, but how did you pick those four?

CECIL: Well, obviously, those are the four closest states. They were certainly among the closest in the 2016 election. They`re the closest by our own data and models.

We certainly could expand those buys into other states. We intend actually to also be involved in a handful of Senate races around the country. But we thought it was important right now to begin making the case in the four closest presidential election states this year.

MADDOW: Guy, I`d like to hold you if I could. I know in addition to spending a lot of money on TV ads, you`ve also made Electoral College projections including turnout models for the general election. I`d like to talk to you about that if you wouldn`t mind sticking with us.

CECIL: Sounds great.

MADDOW: All right. Guy Cecil joining us from South Carolina tonight. We`ll be right back with him after this. Stay with us.

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(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CECIL: We regularly do Electoral College projections. They have been based on about 100,000 interviews every month. This is the current Electoral College projection which has us at 278 and has Trump at 260. It has --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That`s a pretty narrow margin.

CECIL: It`s a one-state margin. Yes.

If our projection among white working class voters is off by two points, we lose the election. If our projection of turnout among people of color is off by four points, we lose the election.

The data doesn`t tell us we`re going to win. The data tells us we have a chance to win.

The idea that the race is lost or everything is terrible, there`s nothing in the data that suggests that that`s the case. I understand the electability. We want to elect somebody that`s electable. How about everybody votes for who they think will be the best president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Guy Cecil is chairman of the largest Democratic super PAC as featured on the Showtime political series, "The Circus".

Those slides you saw him mention, they show the four states that his PAC considers to be pure toss-ups this fall. You see them in the middle there. We just discussed, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin.

Priorities USA currently projects that if the election were held today, the Democratic nominee would win Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania but lose Florida. That still would be enough for the Democrat to win the White House.

That said, it all depends on whether the PAC`s turnout model is accurate, and boy is that a hard thing to predict.

Joining us once again is Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, a significant player in this election.

Guy, thanks again.

Tell me about the turnout models and your level of confidence in them. I mean, I don`t -- I`m no data scientist when it comes to these things but I have noticed and "The New York Times" is actually front-paging tonight the news that in the first handful of nominating contests that we`ve had, we haven`t seen a dramatic increase in turnout. There was a little bit of a tick up in New Hampshire, but it`s not turning out to be a wow turnout election, at least thus far in the Democratic primaries.

CECIL: Yes. Well, I think it`s important to keep these projections in context, right? They`re not a prediction of what`s going to happen in November. It just gives you a simple state of the race.

I think the most important thing about the projections are the fact that this race is close. It is close when you look at any potential Democratic nominee, and that`s the message we`re trying to get across to every Democrat that`s focused on the primary, that we expect higher turnout on the Democratic side, but we also expect higher turnout on the Republican side, which I think gets under-covered as people think about what the November election is going to look like.

And, frankly, that`s the strategy of the Trump campaign, right? Their strategy is twofold. Number one, we`re going to do everything we can to identify non-voters that would support the president, and then we`re going to engage in a massive amount of voter suppression around the country to depress Democratic turnout.

So, the projection is not a prediction, but it`s a reminder that we expect this election to come down to simply one or two states` worth of electoral votes and that we need to focus on the general election now even while the Democratic primary is going on.

MADDOW: As the Democratic primary is going on, one of the things that I think Democrats and observers of the process sort of struggled with and kicked around a lot was the massive size of the Democratic field. And they`re obviously going through the winnowing process right now and there`s fewer Democrats running than were even running as of this time a couple of weeks ago.

Do -- is there any way that you can tell or is there any way that you guys approach this at Priorities USA in terms of understanding the constructiveness of the Democratic process, understanding whether or not the Democratic primary process is likely to build a nominee who is both unifying and has the best shot of beating President Trump?

CECIL: Well, as you might imagine, I get a lot of questions about electability.

MADDOW: Mm-hmm.

CECIL: Which I think is just the worst possible word at this point in the English language. That`s why I said in that clip, maybe we should all just vote for the president that we like or the nominee that we like or that we want to see be the president.

I think these primaries are important because they test our potential nominee. I mean, if you look at what Barack Obama went through against Hillary Clinton, that contested primary was important. The Obama campaign themselves say it was an important part of building the muscles necessary to build an operation necessary to win the general election.

And so, I haven`t been afraid of a contested Democratic primary, but I do think we`re getting to the point now where we need to see the field winnow. The purpose of being in this race is not simply to pick who`s going to be on the debate stage. It`s to pick who our nominee is going to be.

And really, there are only a small handful of people that actually have a believable path to get the delegates needed to be the nominee.

MADDOW: But to be clear, Priorities USA will be neutral throughout the primary and whoever the nominee is, the full force of what you`re doing will support them and their efforts against the president.

CECIL: We -- look, any of the nominees, any of the Democrats, rather, that are on the stage tomorrow night would be a hell of a lot better than the guy that sits in the Oval Office today. And our mission at priorities is to support whomever the nominee is, whether it is Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders or anybody else, we`re going to do everything we can to make sure that we defeat Donald Trump in November.

MADDOW: Guy Cecil, Priorities USA chairman -- guy, thanks very much for joining us tonight and giving us a sneak preview of your strategy and what`s coming up. Really appreciate it.

CECIL: Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: All right. We`ve got more news ahead tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: -- took its biggest plunge in two years. The Dow Jones fell 1,000 points today. Fears about the global spread of the coronavirus are being blamed.

The reaction of our own government to that crisis is not calming anyone`s nerves on Wall Street or anywhere else, like when "The Washington Post" reported late last week that the State Department decided to overall scientists and experts at the Centers for Disease Control when they flew 14 Americans infected with the virus from abroad back to the U.S. on a plane full of other people who didn`t have the virus.

President Trump quickly explained that he had no idea this was happening. Nobody told him. Quote, Trump was angry that he wasn`t consulted first, complaining that the decision could damage his administration`s handling of the response. Hmm.

Tonight, a Republican congressman from Alabama expressed surprise and anger about a Trump administration plan to put people infected with the virus at a military base in Alabama. Alabama Congressman Mike Rogers telling local reporters the administration, quote, didn`t ask, just informed, didn`t ask the local leaders, didn`t make sure the local hospitals were prepared. It was really poorly handled.

That Alabama plan has now apparently been shelved.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned at the top of show, a top official on the White House`s coronavirus task force was on Twitter today essentially trying to get help finding his car keys. Ken Cuccinelli, deputy secretary of homeland security, tweeting today, quote, has the Johns Hopkins map of the coronavirus stopped working for other people or just me?

Hours later, Cuccinelli tweeted again, this time to say he figured out a way through. Hooray. He said the site had crashed because like him, so many people wanted to take a peek. He`s on the government`s task force for --

Meanwhile the coronavirus task force scheduled a closed briefing with senators for tomorrow morning. We`re not sure where Ken Cuccinelli and the other task force members will be getting their information, but hopefully their Twitter friends can help them in case they lose any of their passwords or something.

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MADDOW: That is going to do it for us tonight. Remember, one thing to watch for in tomorrow`s news is what is scheduled for now to be a sealed, closed- door court hearing in the Roger Stone trial.

You might have seen or heard about the president attacking the jurors from the Roger Stone trial, which is nice. So the jury that voted unanimously to convict him on seven felonies, we think this hearing tomorrow is on Stone`s request for a new trial on the basis of a supposedly biased juror who the president has been publicly attacking. It`s a remarkably dark turn for the rule of law but we`ve had a lot of those lately. We don`t know if that court hearing will ultimately be unsealed but we`ll be watching for that early tomorrow afternoon.

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

Good evening, Lawrence.

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