AYMAN MOHYELDIN, MSNBC HOST: It was a perfect recipe and a perfect storm of negligence, incompetence, corruption and this is the result.
CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: Ayman Mohyeldin, whose new show starts August 17th right here on MSNBC, you should definitely check that out, I know I will be. Thank you so much.
MOHYELDIN: Absolutely, Chris.
HAYES: That is ALL IN on this Wednesday night.
"THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" starts right now. Good evening, Rachel.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. Much appreciate it.
And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. Happy to have you here.
Today is 90 days until the presidential election on November 3rd.
Today was yet another day with more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases reported in the United States in a single day.
Today was also yet another day in which more than 1,000 Americans died from coronavirus in a single day. According to "The New York Times" count, we are heading into the tenth straight day in which the average daily death rate from coronavirus in our country is over 1,000 dead per day.
I don`t know how a president asks a country to give him four more years in charge when this is how he`s running the country now, but that is what we are doing right now and all of its surreality. And nothing about the gravity of the situation appears to be sinking in for the president. Even today, even still.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This thing is going away. It will go away like things go away.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
MADDOW: It will go away like things go away.
It`s not even a simile, right? He can`t even -- he doesn`t even have another thing to compare it to, some other thing that goes away where you can say this thing is going away, it will go away like X. He doesn`t even have an X in mind. He just says it will go away like things go away.
There`s no reason to believe this will go away. That`s not how contagious viral epidemics work.
In the same interview today, though, the president also said this. This is a direct quote. He said, quote, if you look at children, children are almost -- and I would say definitely, but almost immune from this disease. If you look at children, children are almost, and I would say almost say definitely, almost immune from this disease.
That is not true. And a video of the president making those untrue remarks was actually taken down by Facebook, which is a remarkable thing for Facebook and this president. Facebook released this statement about their decision. Quote, this video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19, which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation.
Harmful COVID misinformation from the president of the United States.
But that harmful COVID misinformation is frequently repeated by the president, because that is how he`s making his public case as president that all American schools should open fully and immediately, because kids are immune, which they`re not. Because this thing will go away, which it won`t.
I mean, this epidemic and the nearly 5 million Americans infected already and the more than 150,000 Americans dead already, apparently that`s not enough. And things are not getting better over time. In the month of July, on average, one American died from COVID every 102 seconds. Over the last seven days, though, with our rising death tolls now, we`ve now got one American dying on average every 80 seconds. Every one minute and 20 seconds, another American is dying from coronavirus.
A particularly worrying finding today, the "Associated Press" analyzed testing data from all over the country and found that as we`ve gotten deeper into this bad summer and deeper into these very bad numbers that we are looking at now in terms of COVID, the amount of testing being done in the United States is actually dropping. The amount of testing done in the United States has quite significantly dropped over the past two weeks. We are not getting better at this thing.
But we are 90 days out from when the American people will have a choice as to whether they want to change who is running the country. Given the worsening epidemic, given everything, frankly, I think it`s reasonable to expect the president`s re-election effort to have a little bit of everything, including the kitchen sink.
There is news, for example, over the past 48 hours that it is Republican Party operatives and Trump world operatives who have been doing the paperwork and submitting all the necessary documents to get troubled celebrity rap star Kanye West onto the ballot in key swing states. Apparently part of Trump`s re-election effort is to try to trick Kanye West fans into voting on the Kanye West line on the ballot instead of voting for Joe Biden.
Sure, hey, that might work. Give it a try. What else you got?
There was also a pointed warning today from a senior prosecutor on the Mueller investigation. Andrew Weissmann, along with law professor Ryan Goodman issuing a pointed warning on the op-ed page of "The New York Times" today about the fact that today marks 90 days before the election and that`s not just a landmark moment in terms of our electoral calendar, it`s also significant policy-wise for the U.S. Justice Department, because it is long-standing Justice Department policy and practice that within 90 days of an election, the Justice Department doesn`t take any publicly observable steps in any case, in any matter, that might have an impact on that next election, on candidates in that election or on political parties in that next election.
Attorney General William Barr in February actually tweaked that Justice Department policy to centralize those decisions in him personally. He now has personal authority as attorney general over all potentially politically sensitive actions by the department ahead of an election.
William Barr has also said publicly that he intends to ignore that general rule about the Justice Department not acting in any way that might influence the next election when it comes to two specific investigations he has ordered and he has been overseeing into the Obama administration. Both of them about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the potential involvement of the Trump campaign in that Russian crime.
Those investigations William Barr says he`s happy to make sure that those come out and are revealed to the public late this summer before the election. Justice Department rules be damned, he said those investigations, he wants those revealed to the public despite that previous Justice Department rule holding sway.
NBC News, in fact, reports today that one of those investigations that William Barr has demanded, which reportedly goes after the FBI and the CIA and the Obama administration for having had the temerity to investigate Russia for helping Donald Trump, NBC News reports that one of those investigations appears to be coming to a close, which is the exact timing that Bill Barr promised in a recent FOX News interview when he assured everyone don`t worry, that he would make sure that that one, that investigation would come out and be revealed to the public in the late summer before election time.
In their warning today about what the attorney general might be trying to do here ahead of the election, Andrew Weissmann and Ryan Goodman make explicit this warning about what the attorney general seems to be lining up here. But they also pointedly in a way that I actually found sort of moving, kind of put a chill down my spine, they pointedly argue that people who work at the Justice Department, officials and prosecutors at the justice department, shouldn`t go along with it if Bill Barr tries to do it, if he tries to use actions by the Department of Justice to help President Trump get re-elected or to hurt Joe Biden`s chances of getting elected.
Goodman and Weissmann say, quote: What can be done if Mr. Barr seeks to take actions in service of the president`s political ambitions? Justice Department employees meeting their ethical obligations should be well advised not to participate in any such effort.
Quote: There are a variety of ways for Justice Department employees in the Trump era to deal with improper requests. Employees who witness or are asked to participate in such political actions who all swore an oath to the Constitution and must obey department policies, they can refuse. They can report and, if necessary, they can resign. Other models include speaking with Congress under subpoena or resigning and then communicating directly to the public. Reputable organizations are at the ready to advise whistle- blowers about the risks and benefits of pursuing these paths.
I read that today and sort of engrossed in the specific warning they`re giving about what Barr seems to be lining up to do and the way that he`s changed these policies and centralized authority under himself, what he`s warned he`s going to do under these investigations and you get to this point where they are directly addressing the former colleagues at the Justice Department saying, hey, if and when this happens, be a whistle- blower. Don`t go along with this. You have sworn an oath to obey the Constitution and you must obey department policies, including those that say the Justice Department doesn`t do stuff to mess with an election.
That`s very sobering and it`s going to be very personal for a lot of people inside the Justice Department right now who are staring down the barrel the way we all are.
To the extent that this endangered president will throw anything, including the kitchen sink, at this election and at the American people to try to stay in office, everything from a trumped-up Kanye West candidacy to trumped-up by Bill Barr well-timed, what, indictments against the president`s political enemies or perceived enemies, I mean to who knows what?
In this kind of a context where the president is on track to not win a second term, where the president is subsumed in scandal and failure in a way that feels absolutely indelible, when his actions feel increasingly not just unhinged but utterly disconnected from the facts of the ways he is failing and the -- facts of the ways he is failing and the crisis he has put the country in, when anything seems possible in terms of the president trying to reassure his re-election, I think we should also be prepared for the fact that whether there are whistle-blowers in places like the Justice Department, whether there are people who get caught from Trump world trying to put some third-party spoiler candidate on the ballot in order to help the president`s chances, we should be prepared for the fact that however this stuff gets called out, Republicans in the Senate and in Congress will be totally onboard with whatever the president and his allies try to do.
I mean, we saw that today with the Republican-led Judiciary Committee in the Senate. They called up as a witness today the former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. You will remember Sally Yates from those dramatic moments in the transition in the beginning of the Trump administration. She quit the Justice Department in protest over Trump`s Muslim ban.
She`s also the person who as acting attorney general came up in person to the Trump White House right after the inauguration to notify the White House counsel that the new national security advisor, Mike Flynn, was compromised by a hostile foreign power because he was having secret conversations with the Russian government that he was then lying about. He was then subject to blackmail by the Russian government, which is a bad idea when you`re the national security advisor to the president of the United States.
And I think the Republicans` idea in dragging Sally Yates up there today is that they thought, you know, if you just go by what they say about Sally Yates and the Obama administration on like the Fox News Channel or whatever, oh, Sally Yates, she must be terrible. She must be very unsympathetic. It must be very easy to make her look bad in terms of what she did and what the Obama administration did in terms of the -- how they tried to investigate and fend off Russian interference in our country.
Whatever conservative media caricature they had in mind for Sally Yates today, though, it must have been a shock for those Republican senators to encounter the actual Sally Yates in person, because it turns out she is not a straw man that they can easily knock down. Turns out she was not there to help them make their ridiculous case.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): You despise Donald Trump, don`t you?
SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: No, I don`t despise anyone, Senator.
KENNEDY: Isn`t it true that there were a handful of people at the Department of Justice during the Obama administration that despised Donald Trump and did everything in their power to keep him from being president?
YATES: I`m not aware of anyone at the Department of Justice doing anything to try keep Donald Trump from becoming president.
KENNEDY: Were you part of that group? I`m sorry, were you part of that group?
YATES: No, and I`m not aware of anybody doing that.
SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): Ms. Yates, when did you first become aware that the Obama administration was surveilling the Donald Trump campaign?
YATES: The Obama administration was not surveilling the Donald Trump campaign.
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): Can you talk about the national security risks of blackmail?
YATES: This is a classic technique of the Russians. Look, you don`t want anybody within the U.S. government to be compromised with a foreign adversary. But here, our great concern was, was that the Russians knew that General Flynn had not only engaged in these back channel discussions with them but he was misleading, he had lied about it.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): Unbelievably, after you had briefed the White House counsel about Flynn`s vulnerability to blackmail and his dishonesty on January 28th, 2017, President Trump spoke on the phone for nearly an hour with Vladimir Putin while General Flynn sat in the Oval Office with him. Is that a fact?
YATES: That`s what I`ve read. I don`t know that personally, but I have read that.
DURBIN: Well, I`ve read it and seen it. I understand there`s a White House photo showing general Flynn sitting in the Oval Office during that call.
Ms. Yates, in your view, was it appropriate for Michael Flynn to sit in on phone calls with Vladimir Putin after you had provided your briefings to Don McGahn?
YATES: Well, Senator, when I -- in our attempt to brief Don McGahn, I made it very clear to him that we were providing this information so that they could take action. And so certainly, it would be surprising to me that of all things you would have General Flynn sitting in on a phone call with Vladimir Putin.
DURBIN: And what kind of message do you think it sent to Russia for Flynn to be involved in that call?
YATES: It seems like it sends the same kind of message that General Flynn was sending in the phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak, which is don`t worry about the interference.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: You had Mike Flynn sitting in on a phone call involving Vladimir Putin after the Trump administration had been warned that Flynn was compromised by the Russian government, potentially blackmailable by them and lying about his secret communications with the Russians? Yes, that`s what happened. Ain`t that crazy? Yes, that`s crazy.
Sally Yates testifying in the Senate today in what Republican senators plainly hoped would be some sort of terrible gotcha moment that would make President Trump look good and make the Obama administration look bad. It did not go that way.
I think that if that`s what they were after, they picked the wrong witness. But they are trying to gin up Obama administration scandal of some kind to hit Joe Biden with before the election. It`s not going well, but they`re trying it. The Republicans are trying it in Congress.
Attorney General Bill Barr may be trying to gin that up at the Justice Department. I mean, they are trying to run Kanye West as a spoiler to try to help Trump win. They`re trying to slow down the Postal Service so maybe mail-in ballots won`t work. Who knows what else is coming?
But as we hit these last 90 days, particularly ironic in light of the fact that they are trying to gin up scandal around Joe Biden that they can somehow tar him with ahead of this election, particularly ironic given their failed efforts to do that thus far, it is fascinating to see now that something else about president Trump is coming to a surprisingly sharp point right now in these last 90 days. Some of the corruption scandals of the Trump presidency are getting, it turns out, very pointed right now, at a time when nothing else is going right for the president either including his and Republicans` and the attorney general`s failed efforts thus far to gin up some sort of fake scandal around Joe Biden.
The president has serious corruption scandals, and they are starting to follow him home at the worst possible time. One of them, the scandal first revealed in a "New York Times" story a couple of weeks ago about the president telling the U.S. ambassador to the U.K. that he should get the government to move the British open golf tournament to the president`s golf course in Scotland. That scandal it turns out has legs. I mean, as tawdry and petty as that is, it really does appear that the U.S. ambassador did that after the president asked him to do it. And there are increasingly serious concerns about whether or not there might be an ongoing, potentially criminal effort to cover up that scandal, including by firing investigators who have looked into it. We`ve got an exclusive report on that tonight, an exclusive interview ahead with somebody very closely involved in that scandal who has never before spoken publicly about it on TV. That is coming up in a few minutes.
But I have to tell you, as we were preparing for that interview here tonight, this other bombshell broke in "The New York Times" on another corruption scandal involving the president. More trouble for the president, another scandal that has dogged him actually now for most of his first term. Here`s the headline in "The Times" tonight. Quote: Trump`s bank was subpoenaed by New York prosecutors in criminal inquiry.
Here`s how it starts. The Manhattan district attorney`s office, which means state prosecutors in New York state, issued the subpoena last year to Deutsche Bank, which has been Mr. Trump`s primary lender since the late 1990s. They are seeking financial records that he and his company provided to Deutsche Bank, according to four people familiar with the inquiry. Because of its long standing and multi-faceted relationship with Mr. Trump, Deutsche Bank has been a frequent target of regulators and lawmakers digging into the president`s opaque finances.
But the subpoena from the Office of the District Attorney appears to be the first instance of a criminal inquiry involving Trump and his dealings with Deutsche. Deutsche lent him and his company more than $2 billion over the past two decades.
Here`s the amazing part, the part that was sort of the jaw-dropping reveal in this story. Quote: Deutsche Bank complied with the subpoena. Oh!
Over a period of months last year, the bank provided the prosecutor`s office with detailed records, including financial statements and other materials that Mr. Trump provided to the bank as he sought loans, according two of the people familiar with the inquiry. The subpoena to Deutsche Bank sought documents on various topics related to Mr. Trump and his company, including any materials that might point to possible fraud, according to two people briefed on the subpoena`s contents.
The bank`s cooperation with the prosecutors` office is significant because other investigations that have sought Trump`s financial records have been stymied by legal challenges by the president and his family. This criminal investigation from New York prosecutors initially appeared to be focused on hush money payments made in 2016 to two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump. But in a court filing this week, prosecutors in the district attorney`s office cited public reports of possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization and suggested they were also investigating possible crimes involving bank fraud and insurance fraud.
So I mean to be clear, this is a big deal that "the New York times" is reporting tonight. This is not about the subpoenas for the president`s financial and tax information that were litigated up to the Supreme Court and are now kicking around in the lower courts by the president and his lawyers, seeking to delay any compliance with these subpoenas. What this is about is a subpoena of Deutsche Bank which has loaned like $2 billion mysteriously to the president over his recent business career.
Subpoenas to Deutsche Bank related to their dealings with the president and these are not subpoenas that the president has successfully fended off and these are tied up in court.
This is a subpoena to Deutsche Bank that the bank has complied with, and they have handed over all of this Trump-related documentation to state prosecutors, who are apparently pursuing a multi-faceted criminal investigation of the president and his business, an investigation that is not bound by the Justice Department`s 90-day rule, such as it is, nor are they bound by the Justice Department`s rules prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president because those rules are federal rules and these are state prosecutors, not federal prosecutors, not answerable to Attorney General William Barr.
Not only is it news that they are pursuing this stuff in the way that they are, it is big news that in pursuing this information about the president, they got it. They got their hands on this stuff from Deutsche Bank. Who knew? None of us knew that before tonight.
Joining us now is the lead reporter on this latest scoop, "New York Times" business investigations editor David Enrich who not incidentally is author of the book "Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump and an Epic Trail of Destruction."
Mr. Enrich, thank you very much for helping us understand this reporting tonight. Congratulations on the scoop.
DAVID ENRICH, BUSINESS INVESTIGATIONS EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Thank you.
MADDOW: So I have tried to summarize this and put it in a little context both in terms of what`s going on in the political moment right now but also how this fits into all of the news we`ve all heard about in recent weeks and months involving people trying to obtain financial records from the president and mostly failing.
Was I right in saying that this is sort of a landmark advance in that story in that deutsche bank has complied with the subpoena and handed over these materials?
ENRICH: Yeah, I think your emphasis was just pitch perfect really. This is not a big deal that the bank was subpoenaed. It`s a big deal that the bank has readily complied with the subpoena.
And talking to people inside the bank over the past couple of days, it`s clear that the bank has spent a lot of time over, you know, almost the past year now really fully cooperating with the district attorney`s investigation and providing a lot of information. That`s especially notable, as you said, because in all these other situations, Trump has to a large degree successfully blocked the bank from basically spilling his innermost financial secrets. And now, it turns out that Vance has a lot of them.
MADDOW: In terms of what the bank might have given these prosecutors about their dealings with the president, we have seen what a subpoena related to President Trump to Deutsche Bank might look like. That was one of the congressional subpoenas that was litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court, one that is not expected to bear fruit for a long time, certainly not until after the election.
From your and your colleagues` reporting at "The Times", is it your reporting that that subpoena asked for the same list of materials, the same type of documents that you`d expect Deutsche Bank to have given their long- standing lending relationship with the president?
ENRICH: I think there was a lot of overlap between the different subpoenas. I`m not sure the -- Cy Vance`s subpoena, the New York district attorney`s subpoena was nearly as extensive as the congressional subpoenas. In fact that might be part of the answer as to why Trump sued to block Deutsche Bank from complying with the congressional subpoenas but not with this subpoena.
The congressional subpoenas were seeking tons of information about his kids` bank accounts and every transaction that had taken place, about money laundering concerns, things like that. And while I have not seen the district attorney`s subpoena, I have had it described to me. While it requested a lot of detailed information, I`m not sure it was quite as detailed as that.
MADDOW: In terms of what a state prosecutor might do with this information, if in a worst-case scenario the material that Deutsche Bank hands over is damning in terms of the president`s behavior, his company`s behavior, if there is something there that`s troubling, I mean, when we look at the sort of allegations that were made, for example, by Michael Cohen, who claimed bank fraud and insurance fraud by the president`s business interests as part of his testimony to Congress, when we look at the kind of things that have been described in public reporting as potentially criminal behavior by the president, both stand-alone and through his business, it does seem like a lot of that stuff is old and the statutes of limitations might have tolled on all of these things as to whether state prosecutors could bring charges.
How are you thinking about that in terms of your reporting and the potential that the president really could get in trouble here?
ENRICH: Well, it`s really hard to gauge the odds of the president getting in trouble here. We don`t know what evidence the attorney general had received and I`m obviously not a criminal lawyer myself.
But what I do know having spoken to dozens of Deutsche Bank executives over the years reporting for "The Times" and for my book is that there was a widespread knowledge within Deutsche Bank that Trump and his associates, when they came for loan after loan after loan, they were routinely exaggerating and overstating the value of assets and trying to make their accounts look a lot better than they were. So there was a widespread perception within the bank that Trump was, you know, not playing it particularly straight.
And from a prosecutor`s standpoint, what they`re generally going to look for in a bank fraud case is whether there`s intent to mislead. It doesn`t actually matter, I don`t think, whether Trump successfully did mislead, it`s a question of intent. Having spoken to a lot of people inside the bank on this, they certainly perceived the intent was having been to mislead. So, it will be interesting to see how the district attorney handles that information and how they weigh the strength of that from a criminal standpoint. It`s hard for me to make an accurate, safe prediction on that.
MADDOW: I hear you and I feel you on that. As also not a lawyer, I feel like just covering the Trump administration, that I had to learn a lot about criminal fraud and insurance fraud because I covered the trial of his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who went to prison for all of those things. You know, you get a criminal law education just from covering the president and his associates in some way.
But in terms of a window into what a state prosecutor might be doing with these things, we`ll have to wait and see and before that we`ll have to wait for David Enrich`s next reporting, who seems to break all of these stories on this topic.
David Enrich, business investigations editor at "The New York Times", again, the author of "Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump and an Epic Trail of Destruction", which is an excellent book on this whole subject -- David, thanks again for sharing your reporting. Congratulations.
ENRICH: Thanks for having me.
MADDOW: All right.
Tonight, as I mentioned, speaking of the president and corruption scandals and crazy timing, tonight we`re going to be joined by a guest who had an inside view of an entirely different Trump scandal that has been playing out over the past few weeks, one that appears to have a very nasty tale on it of a potentially ongoing cover-up. That guest and the latest on that story coming up.
Stay with us, big show tonight.
MADDOW: So this was the "Ripley`s Believe It or Not" headline on the front page of "The New York times" just a couple of weeks ago. Quote: Trump`s request of an ambassador, get the British Open for me.
"The Times" reported that Trump`s ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, who owns the Jets football team and raised millions of dollars for Trump`s 2016 campaign, Ambassador Woody Johnson, quote, told multiple colleagues in February 2018 that president Trump had asked him to see if the British government could help steer the world famous and lucrative British open golf tournament to the Trump Turnberry resort in Scotland.
The president asked him to use his position as ambassador to line the president`s pockets, to line up business for the president`s company, to pressure a foreign government into giving money to the U.S. president.
And then the ambassador did it. Woody Johnson apparently went ahead, says "The New York Times". He did raise the issue with a senior British government official. Hey, do you think you could move the British Open to my boss`s property? He wants you to.
I mean, that`s how you draw public corruption in crayon so even toddlers can understand it even while they`re distracted with other things, right? I mean, he uses the presidency, he uses the U.S. government, he directs employees at the State Department to get himself money, from a foreign government to boost his business, to pay himself.
Now, President Trump denied that "The New York Times" reporting but it was quickly confirmed by other outlets, including NBC News. Since then the story has had this sort of very interesting trailing loose thread that is still begging to be pulled. Sources told CNN that the effort to get the British Open moved to Trump`s club is, quote, a focus of a yet-to-be released report from the Office of Inspector General at the State Department. Quote, staff from the office of inspector general traveled to London more than once over the past year to interview embassy workers and then Woody Johnson himself.
"The Times" noted that the inspector general submitted the findings of his investigation this past February and, quote, it`s not clear why the review has not yet been made public.
So where is that report? If there was in fact an investigation into this brazen attempt confirmed by multiple news organizations for the president to line his own pockets, why have its findings been sitting unseen somewhere inside the State Department for six months?
Also, the existence of that investigation into what happened here around the British Open and the president`s golf resort, it puts a whole new angle on the president having blatantly and without explanation fired that inspector general at the State Department, the one who reportedly investigated this scandal.
I mean, we know the president fired the inspector general in the middle of multiple investigations of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But this also appears to have been the same I.G. who investigated this debacle with the president`s British golf club.
This week, House Committees issued subpoenas to four top staffers to Mike Pompeo, accusing them of stonewalling their investigation into why the I.G. was fired. Today, the acting inspector general at the State Department, the guy who took over for the inspector general once Trump fired the other guy, today, the acting guy, the guy who they put into that guy`s place, suddenly quit, with no warning after less than three months on the job.
Asked about this latest abrupt departure, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave reporters this quote about that. He said, quote, he left to go back home. This happens. I don`t have anything more to add to that.
Really? Y`all fired the inspector general who was investigating both you and the president, and then the guy who you put in there to replace the guy you fired left without any notice abruptly after less than three months on the job because he needed to go home? How far was home?
But while we are waiting for this -- the reports of this investigation into the president`s actions here, whether we`re waiting for the reports of this elusive investigation to see the light of day, there is another way that we can hopefully learn more about what happened here, and that may be by talking to witnesses. People who saw what happened firsthand, even potentially tried to stop it.
Central to the original "New York Times" reporting on this was when Woody Johnson came back to London after a White House meeting with President Trump and started telling people that the president wanted him to press the British government to move that golf tournament to the president`s club, Woody Johnson`s deputy at the embassy, a 30-year career civil servant, pushed back.
Quote: The ambassador`s deputy, Lewis A. Lukens, advised him not to do it, warning it would be an unethical use of the presidency for private gain. After Ambassador Johnson went ahead and do it anyway, quote, the episode left Mr. Lukens and other diplomats deeply unsettled. Mr. Lukens who served as the acting ambassador before Woody Johnson arrived in 2017 emailed officials at the State Department to tell them what had happened.
Now, Mr. Lukens, I will note, is not in that job anymore. Ambassador Woody Johnson ultimately forced him out. "The Times" says it was because Mr. Lukens said something nice about President Obama once. I mean, that`s not the explanation I expected in a story like this.
But I`ll also tell you that tonight, we get to ask Lew Lukens what happened, because Lew Lukens, that career diplomat central to that story, is going to join us for his first on-camera interview about all of this live here next.
MADDOW: This is an interview that I have been looking forward to for a very long time. I did not know that we were going to be able to get it. When I found out that we got it, I -- anyway, I feel honored to have this interview tonight and I hope that you will watch it.
For 30 years, our next guest served in the Foreign Service, including stints as the U.S. ambassador to Senegal. For seven months, he served as the acting U.S. ambassador to the U.K. at the beginning of the Trump administration. But it was in 2018 in his role as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in London, the number two position at the U.S. embassy in Britain, that Lewis Lukens learned of a remarkable request, a jaw-dropping request, something absolutely unthinkable from any other presidential administration.
He learned that President Trump had asked the U.S. ambassador to Britain, Woody Johnson, to try to get the British government to move the British open golf tournament to the president`s own golf resort in Scotland. According to "The New York Times," Mr. Lukens advised the ambassador, quote, that he should not do this, that it would violate ethical guidelines at the State Department.
When the ambassador raised the issue again a month later asking, "Who should I talk to in the British government?", Mr. Lukens replied, quote, "No one".
But then Ambassador Johnson reportedly went ahead and did it. He raised the issue with the British government anyway. He delivered this request from the president to a senior British government official.
And that scandal, that Grade A example of base level corruption in government is a matter that`s now believed to be included in an investigatory report by the Office of the Inspector General at the State Department. That report, however, has never been released.
Well, I`m pleased to say that joining us now for the interview, his first since "The New York Times" story broke, is former ambassador and now retired career Foreign Service Officer Lewis Lukens. Mr. Lukens currently serves as a senior partner with Signum Global Advisers.
Ambassador Lukens, it`s a real honor to have you with us tonight. Thank you so much for making the time.
LEWIS LUKENS, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF MISSION AT U.S. EMBASSY IN LONDON: Thank you. It`s a pleasure to be with you.
MADDOW: I`ve been summing up the way I understand this story based just on public reporting mostly from "The Times" but also a few other outlets. I just want to ask if anything that I`ve said strikes you as wrong or if I`m looking at any of this the wrong way around or putting the emphasis in the wrong part of this story?
LUKENS: No, the reporting has been very accurate on this. "The New York Times" story really got it right. Just as you described just now in your recap, the ambassador came back from a meeting at the White House the very next morning he came and talked to me. He said the president wants me to do this, who should I talk to, how should I go about doing it? I said, you can`t, you shouldn`t do it, it`s unethical, probably illegal.
A couple of weeks later, he asked again. I gave him the same answer.
And then he went and had a meeting with the British minister responsible for Scotland and made the request or made the suggestion at least after which I was informed of that. I wasn`t in the meeting but I was informed directly after by someone who was. And I, you know, let Washington know but I also kept detailed notes on my own of what was happening at the time.
MADDOW: Can you spell this out? I realize this may be elementary and seem very obvious to you, but just for the benefit of me and for our viewers, can you spell out why you told Ambassador Johnson that he really shouldn`t do this, why it would be unethical and in your words potentially illegal?
LUKENS: Look, it`s a clear example of trying to use U.S. government resources in the position of the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James to line the president`s pocket, to promote his personal business and his -- support his financial -- personal financial interests.
So, it`s -- you know, you don`t have to take a three-hour course in ethics to understand that that`s a violation of the oath of the Constitution that we take as diplomats and the ambassador took before he came to London to protect and serve the American people and the American Constitution, not the president`s financial -- personal financial interests.
MADDOW: Now, the president since "The Times" report, he`s denied that this request was ever communicated to British officials. Can you explain how you know that his denial is not true, how you know that in fact this request was communicated to the British government?
LUKENS: Well, look, I mean, the officer from the embassy who was in the meeting with the ambassador that came back to the embassy after that meeting and he came directly to my office and he said you`re not going to believe what the ambassador just did. He just asked about having the golf tournament moved to Turnberry, Scotland. So there`s no reason that he would have said that or reported that to me immediately had the ambassador not actually done that.
MADDOW: Wow. You`ve said that you contacted the State Department to let them know what happened and to let them know that this -- that you believed to be improper, potentially illegal, had actually gone ahead. It wasn`t just proposed, it was something that had been acted on by the ambassador.
How did State Department officials respond to you after you communicated this back home to Washington?
LUKENS: Well, I was a little disappointed, to be honest. There`s a sense in the State Department and the leadership levels of the State Department that ambassadors like Woody Johnson were friends of the president and, therefore, there was not much to be gained from trying to push back on some of their behavior.
So there`s very much a sense of, look, he`s the president`s friend. He`s known the president since the early 1970s. There`s not much we can do about that.
Without having leadership in the State Department and having secretary of state willing to address some of these issues and certainly the president not willing to address them, I think there was a feeling amongst the senior career people and even some of the senior political appointees that it`s just not worth going down that road.
MADDOW: Ambassador Lukens, I have a couple of other things I`d like to ask you about, particularly on that leadership point that you are raising right there. Would you mind sticking with us, I have to take a quick break and come back in just a moment?
LUKENS: Yeah, sure.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back with Ambassador Lewis Lukens.
Again, this is his first interview since "The New York Times" story broke about this scandal of the president asking the U.S. ambassador have the British government move a golf tournament to his personal golf resort.
Ambassador Lukens is back right after this.
Stay with us.
MADDOW: Back with us now live is former ambassador and retired foreign career officer, Lewis Lukens. He was number two official at the U.S. embassy in Britain when the asked president the U.S. ambassador there to have the British government move a golf tournament to the president`s own Scottish golf club.
Ambassador Lukens, thank you again for being with us here tonight. I really appreciate your time.
LUKENS: Thank you.
MADDOW: Part of what I`m trying to figure out here is if there has been, in addition to the scandal at the route of this, if there has been a cover- up effort to try to keep this scandal from coming to light.
Do you know if, in fact, the State Department inspector general investigated this matter?
LUKENS: The inspector general team was in London for about three to four weeks last October, and as I understand it, they didn`t talk to me when they came out there. But from colleagues at the embassy, my understanding is that this issue was raised with them as well as several other allegations that CNN and others have reported on. They spent about a month at the embassy talking to staff, talking to leadership in the embassy and then went back to Washington and they normally would do is wrote their report, which was then sent to the embassy for their final approval of it and commentary on it.
At that point, the report sort of screeched to a halt and has not gone anywhere since. It should have been released by now under the normal time frame. It`s been an awfully long time and it`s a little surprising that it hasn`t come out yet.
And I don`t know whether or not that is part of the issues to do with the firing of inspector general and the abrupt departure of his deputy, now the acting inspector general this week. But it`s certainly a good question to wonder is, is there something going on there that`s presenting the release of this inspection? And if so, what exactly is the reason for the delay?
MADDOW: We understand from public reporting that that report was classified or otherwise marked in such a way that would prevent its public release in May. May, of course, is also when that inspector general was fired abruptly by the -- by the administration.
From your understanding, your long-time in the Foreign Service, your long experience as an ambassador and serving other high roles in the State Department, is there -- is there a way that that report could be surfaced, could be brought to the light of day even if senior leadership at the department, political appointees at the department are trying to suppress it?
And is there anybody else who should be investigating this other than the I.G. if, in fact, that report has been successfully submarined?
LUKENS: Well, first of all, it`s very unusual that a report like that would be classified or withheld for any reason. There are sometimes classified annexed reports that deal with things like classified communications or very sensitive issues. But the general thrust of the report and the analysis of the post leadership and morale, and how the ambassador is doing is never classified in these investigative reports.
So that -- that, in itself, is a red flag if the report was classified. As far as who else could sort of police the police in the sense of who would inspect the inspectors to see what`s going on there, really is no one. I mean, the president has decimated the inspector general corps across governments and really sort of hindered their ability to do the function that they`re meant to do, providing independent oversight of government functions.
MADDOW: If what happened here is as blatant an act of public corruption as you have described and as you warned, in your own words, Ambassador Johnson about as potential unethical, potentially illegal act by the president and by the ambassador, what should be the consequences of that?
LUKENS: Well, I mean, first of all, I don`t think there will be any consequences. This administration, to my mind, has shown the disdain for ethics and sort of long-standing traditions of not mixing personal business with the public person and public employees.
Look, I mean, at the end of the day, the ethics rules and guidelines were violated. It is not for me to say what the consequences should be. The inspector general report hopefully will come out and then the public and maybe the Congress can take a look at it and make up their minds.
MADDOW: Lewis Lukens, former acting ambassador at the U.K., currently a senior partner with Signum Global Advisers -- Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for your time tonight. Thank you for being willing to speak so candidly about this. I`m sure it`s not an easy decision, but it`s a great public service, sir. Thank you.
LUKENS: Thank you very much, Rachel.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Hey, thank you for being with us tonight. I have to say I`m a little bit stunned still. I think we just made some very serious news with that interview with the ambassador.
I`m talking to the control room right now and we`re doing what we can to get that posted online at MaddowBlog.com and then on Twitter as soon as we can just so we can circulate that news that the ambassador just made. We`ll do our best to get that as quickly as we can tonight. And we`ll be back with more tomorrow.
But for now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."
Good evening, Lawrence.
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