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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, 4/18/22

Guests: Jane Mayer, Anne Applebaum

Summary

A dark money group is targeting dozens of Biden nominees. MSNBC`s continuing coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.>

Transcript

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Thank you.

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

Writer Anne Applebaum is just back from Kyiv where she interviewed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in person. President Zelenskyy announced that Russian forces have begun the massive attack that has been expected for a couple of weeks now, targeting eastern Ukraine, targeting the Donbas. We`re going to speak with Anne Applebaum coming up in just a few minutes.

We`re also going to be talking tonight about a general judge striking down the mask rule, the mask mandate on airline transportation and public transportation. An unusual ruling from a judge in an unusual place to be making that kind of a ruling, but it effectively means that the mask rule for public transportation and domestic airline flights is off. It`s no longer in effect as of tonight. We`re talking more about that in this hour as well.

In politics today, we`ve got another one of those days that feels, I guess, sort of normal to us now. But even just a few years ago, today`s politics headlines would`ve been rejected out of hand that is completely unimaginable and over the top. I mean, we just saw the de facto leader of the Republican Party, former President Donald Trump, give one of his coveted endorsements to a candidate named JD Vance who is running for the United States Senate seat in Ohio this year. That endorsement from Trump was followed immediately, in no surprise, by Mr. Vance launching a huge TV ad campaign touting the Trump endorsement, bragging about how much he agrees with Trump, how close he is the Trump, how much Trump likes him.

But then that of course was followed almost inevitably by a former roommate of Mr. Vance sharing his text messages from 2016 in which Mr. Vance reportedly told people how he thought there was a pretty good chance that Donald Trump was going to be, quote, America`s Hitler.

I`m not saying Trump was trying to be America`s Hitler, or aspires to be, that`s what JD Vance said. This guy really might be America`s Hitler. Oh look, I`ve got his endorsement, let`s put out ads bragging about it. In what world is this real politics? This is our real politics.

We learned that today about Mr. Vance just as "The New York Times" posted the story about how the Trump folks, including at least one Trump lawyer, John Eastman, are continuing, even now, their efforts to try to get various states to retroactively decertify the results of the 2020 presidential election in order to get Trump declared the winner of that election instead in order to get him reinstated into the White House now.

This is not old news. This is not a rerun. Apparently, they`re still working on this now, still, in Wisconsin, in Arizona, in Georgia, in Michigan. They`re trying to get the Electoral College tally in each of those states decertified.

Trump himself is reportedly encouraging it. Well, of course, insisting that everybody in the Republican politics anything to repeat his claims of election is invalid, and that he should be in the White House.

Him wanting that is one thing. The fact the Republicans almost without exception really are going along with it is another. As noted in the times tonight, quote, elected Republicans of almost uniformly embraced Mr. Trump`s claims that the vote was stolen.

And while that is inherently a backward looking thing toward the 2020 election, it`s no 2022. It does sort of tell you how Republicans are wired now when it comes to whether or not they`re going to accept election results in the future, and therefore, whether we are still governing ourselves as Americans, as if we are a democracy. Quote, Democrats and some Republicans have raised deep concerns about the impact of the ongoing decertification efforts. They warned of unintended consequences, including the potential to incite violence in the sort that erupted in January 6 when a mob of Mr. Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, convinced that he could still be declared the winner of the 2020 election. Legal experts worry that the focus on decertifying the last election could pave the way for more aggressive and earlier legislative interventions the next time around.

J. Michael Luttig, a leading conservative lawyer, a former U.S. appeals court judge for whom John Eastman clerked, and whom President George W. Bush considered as a nominee to be chief justice of the United States, tells "The Times" tonight, quote, at the moment, there is no other way to say it. This is the clearest and most present danger to our democracy. Trump and his supporters in Congress and in the states are preparing now to lay the groundwork to overturn the election in 2024, were Trump or his designee to lose the vote for the presidency.

[21:05:00]

Were Trump or his designate to lose the vote for the presidency. Not just Trump, but his supporters in Congress and his supporters in the states are preparing now, laying the groundwork now to overturn those election results. So, I mean we`ll have the midterms this year and then for the next election either Trump is going to be the Republican Party nominee or somebody with his blessing will.

And if that person loses, the Republicans are effectively already communicating that they will consider the results of that election to be invalid. They will consider that election to not count and they are preparing for that eventuality now.

In the late 1990s, in the summer of 1997 to be specific, a long-awaited but still startling discovery was made in northern Russia. Soviet Union, of course, had collapsed earlier in the decade by the mid `90s, late `90s historians were starting to get allowed into the old files of the security services and the Soviet government.

By piecing together documents held by the Soviet-era security services in Siberia, Russian historians in the `90s for the first time were able to find a mass burial ground in northern Russia. It dated back 60 years in 1936, 1937, 1938, Joseph Stalin decided he was going to consolidate his power, consolidate his hold on the Soviet Union by executing everybody he thought was in his way. It`s now known as the great purge or the great terror.

And it wasn`t just like Stalin eliminating other political elites he thought might be in line for his job. Stalin ordered the killing of hundreds of thousands of people, by some estimates, more than a million people. And thanks to the records, historians started to get access to right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the mid to late `90s, historians were finally able to pinpoint a previously unknown site inside Russia and northern Russia where as many as 9,000 people had been shot in the great purge and buried. It`s just a huge site, an unmarked site, with hundreds of burial pits, 236 different pits containing more than 9,000 bodies. Every one of them shot all the bodies, just stacked on top of one another in these hundreds of pits.

All buried on site in this place that was unmarked and un-memorialized for 60 years. They didn`t find it until the summer of 1997. And once they found it, they put up these stones, these markers to commemorate it. They turned it into a memorial for the victims of Stalin. They started to hold an annual day of remembrance there.

After about 20 years though, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided that that was enough and he didn`t want any more of that. Putin broadly decided that Stalin had gotten a bad rap, the Soviet Union broadly got a bad rap, Stalin in particular got a bad rap, you know what benefit is there in all this supposed history all these stories that make him seem like such a bad guy that make the Soviet Union seem so flawed. Let`s restore the glory, right?

Sure, millions dead but those people aren`t around to tell their stories anymore. So, why should any of us tell that story, let alone hear it? And so the historian who had first located that site in northern Russia, he was arrested. They charged him with being a pedophile.

The Russian government then announced plans to bring bulldozers into that site. They were going to dig up the bodies and show that this wasn`t a mass burial site of Stalin`s victims. This must have been something else entirely. The victims there must all have been Russians who were killed by foreigners because, of course, there was no gulag, there was no great terror, there was no great purge. Stalin was a stand-up guy, Russia`s history is pristine anybody who says otherwise is obviously a degenerate, a monster.

After the historian who heroically tracked down the records and discovered that site after he was locked up and charged randomly with pedophilia, they did the same thing to the head of the local museum who had effectively been the on-site caretaker for caretaker for the site once it was discovered. He had also been vocal in his opposition to the Russian government coming in and digging it up with bulldozers. He too they did the same thing to him. They arrested him and charged him with being a pedophile.

In both cases, the charges were widely believed to be trumped up and completely false but they were nevertheless loudly trumpeted on Russian state TV and the association they were trying to make was clear. You want to expose something about Russia`s very dark past -- well, obviously you`re a degenerate and a monster. Not even a regular criminal, not even -- not even a regular person who`s just wrong, not even just a regular criminal but a monster who must be destroyed.

That local historian who ran the museum near the burial site, it was like the de facto caretaker for the burial site, he spoke out against bulldozing it -- it was widely understood that the allegations against him were ridiculous and completely false. But they did their job. They got -- they served as a pretext for locking him up he ended up dying in prison, never saw freedom again.

With those guys out of the way, the Russian government has taken down the memorial at the site. They`ve re-designated the whole burial site as a sightseeing locale used to be a heritage site because of the mass murder that happened there, they`ve re-designated it now as a as a national sightseeing locale yeah what a nice forest what a great spot for a picnic what are all these big square pits.

Before he became what he is now, which is basically dictator for life, in the late `90s, Vladimir Putin was head of the FSB. He was head of the FSB when Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia in the late `90s. And Yeltsin, like lots of Russian leaders, had a corruption problem. More specifically, the problem Yeltsin had in 1997 was that there was a prosecutor in Russia who was investigating corruption at the highest levels in the Kremlin, including Yeltsin and his family.

And for a time, it seemed like that corruption investigation might be the undoing of Yeltsin and his family and his cronies. Vladimir Putin as head of the FSB took care of that problem for Boris Yeltsin. Putin arranged for a video to be broadcast on television that showed the prosecutor or somebody who maybe kind of looked like the prosecutor in bed with not one but two young very young females.

The video was low enough quality and it was shot from sort of oblique enough angles that you couldn`t necessarily tell with the naked eye who this grown man was with these girls in this bed. But Putin stepped up in his authority as head of the FSB. Vladimir Putin assured the Russian public that he could guarantee that the man in the video was in fact that prosecutor.

And so that was the end of that prosecutor and that was the end of the corruption investigation into Boris Yeltsin and his family. And in gratitude, or at least in payback, Boris Yeltsin decided that he would name as the next prime minister of Russia and then the next president of Russia that FSB guy who helped him out, Vladimir Putin.

That`s how Vladimir Putin rose to power in the first place in Russia. That`s how he got control of the Russian government by generating effectively a false pedophilia claim against just the right guy at just the right moment. That`s how he got into power.

Pedophilia, of course, is the most repulsive of all human behavior. It is so repulsive it is so evil that it makes us see red, right? It is almost literally unthinkable and it therefore understandably can make us stop seeing anybody who`s even accused of it as our fellow human. Anybody abetting it or even abiding it`s basically the same thing. Your brain just instantly goes to monster, right? Understandably, as it is the most repulsive of all human evil.

And when confronted with it, we almost can`t process it. And it is a deep dark thing to recognize that about human nature, right? The capacity of some people for that behavior for that level of evil and our collective massive human revulsion and rejection of that evil.

But recognizing that to decide that you`re going to try to harness that for political gain, that you`re going to make false accusations of that kind systematically to reduce your political opponents to non-human status, that is a horrific abuse of its own, and it has become one of the hallmarks of modern authoritarianism, not only in Russia but especially in Russia under Vladimir Putin. As I said, it`s basically how Putin got his job in the late 1990s.

I`ve recently been reading about the great purge, the great terror, and specifically Putin`s efforts now to erase evidence of it, to erase evidence of past Russian and past Soviet atrocities, it is amazing to me -- it shouldn`t be -- but it is amazing to me that they used false pedophilia charges against gulag historians for that to justify bulldozing that memorial site.

[21:15:11]

But that`s what they did and they`ve done that repeatedly. It`s an -- it`s an obvious and frequent enough political tactic in Putin`s Russia that in 2016, not long after our bizarre 2016 presidential election, "The New York Times" ran a feature on how this particular tactic kept coming up increasingly in Putin`s Russia. You see the headline there, foes of Russia say child pornography is planted to ruin them. The story of a veteran Soviet dissident who had resettled in Cambridge, England, had somebody hack into his computer and put child pornography images on his computer, images he had never seen and then they called the police on him and the police came in and grabbed his computer and sure enough they found all this terrible, terrible, terrible material which again had been planted by a third party which was not him.

A French citizen living in Russia working in a civil society group in Siberia, they did the same thing to him, planted it on him, called the police. They came in. Found the planted evidence, he fled the country.

A Russian environmental activist who had been chased out of Russia for his activism was living in exile Lithuania, he was working for a group that investigated Russian government corruption. They did the same thing to him, planted false evidence, called the authorities, the authorities find the false evidence. He`s ruined.

Quote: The idea that Europeans and Russian opponents of the Kremlin are all sexual deviants with the taste for pedophilia is a strange but recurring theme in Russian propaganda.

It`s so evil. It`s so like meta-level exploitative and evil and base and cynical, but, of course, they use it, right? Because once you`ve planted that kind of false evidence, once you`ve even made that kind of a false allegation, whether or not you plant the evidence, it`s not like a normal political allegation, even a normal criminal allegation, right, when it`s about that, it activates our animal revulsion.

And if that kind of a charge is made against somebody in politics, it effectively kills that person off as somebody who can participate in the debate and the argument in the fight anymore. They`re effectively declassified as inhuman and monstrous and they`re gone.

Vladimir Putin has been in power years now in Russia, and that particularly sick hallmark of his time in power has been a constant. He has used it against all different kinds of political opponents and it always works.

During the Trump years here, we started to get the conspiracy theory cult version of it on the political right here in America. The QAnon pro-Trump online cult built its whole bizarre central conspiracy theory around these same kinds of false and fantastical claims, that everybody in the world who isn`t Trump is allied in some big satanic pedophilia ring, and someday, Trump will catch them all and bring on mass public executions of all the Democrats and all the celebrities. And then, finally, we`ll be free from the Satanic pedophile conspiracy that runs the world.

That`s the basic idea of the bizarre pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory cult. And on the one hand, it is freakish, right? It is truly bizarre. It is a conspiracy theory cult and you have to be like an extremism anthropologist to understand any of it. On the other hand, it`s been remarkably the Trump era in American conservative politics, and it does have this clear political point, which is why authoritarian movements and dictators do some version of this all over the world.

It`s what some political scientists call eliminationist rhetoric. It`s one thing for you to be competing in a democracy against your political opponents, right, against fellow human beings who have different ideas about governing may the best candidate win. It`s another thing if everybody in the other side of you in politics is inhuman, is a monster, a beast, who you have to protect children from, right, and who must be eliminated if we are ever to have any sort of civilization, right? You don`t compete against a monster in an election. You destroy them, right? You call for their public execution.

And when it comes to power, the idea that you let one of these monsters have power because of something as small and pointless and beside the point is them winning an election -- well, that`s unthinkable. The election is much less important than keeping the monsters at bay.

[21:20:04]

Eliminationist rhetoric.

Playing with these kinds of false accusations, this kind of false accusation in particular, it is lurid and disgusting and shocking and bizarre, but it is also playing with the worst kind of fire in terms of what we are capable of in our understandable human nature, because you know, for people who believe these allegations, even for people who don`t necessarily believe them explicitly but they ambiently absorb that these are the kinds of accusations that are circulating out there about people in politics -- I mean, that can be used to justify almost any level of extreme response, any level of violence even in response.

That`s why it`s a dictator`s tactic. That is why it is a fascist authoritarian tactic to use eliminationist tactics and characterizations like this against your opponents, to make up and use false claims like this, to try to wipe your political opponents off the playing field, to have them no longer considered human, to have them considered not only not competitors but not people fit to share the earth with you.

That is why this spring, it was more than just disgusting and shocking it was disturbing when Republican sitting United States senators and the conservative media decided they were going to play that particular card against Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Judge Jackson`s record as a human being, as a public figure, as a judge includes nothing, nothing, nothing that justified the attacks on her as somehow soft on child predators, as somehow lenient on child sex abuse the way one Fox News on-screen headline put it.

But making those allegations about her as radically unfounded as they were -- well, it tapped that QAnon cult energy on the right. It tapped that eliminationist revulsion we experience as humans when that particular accusation is slung at anyone. It tapped the authoritarian purpose in which you designate your political opponents not just as political competitors, not just as people with whom you disagree, but as inhuman monsters who must be physically destroyed.

And you are seeing that kind of allegation made more broadly and more broadly and more flippantly all the time in Republican politics now we`re seeing it for example in the debate around Florida`s "don`t say gay" bill, right? Everybody who`s opposed to that bill, according to the Florida Republican governor`s office, must themselves be soft on pedophilia, must somehow themselves be implicated in child sex abuse because you don`t want an anti-gay civil rights bill to pass.

We are seeing it used more aggressively, more widely, more flippantly in Republican politics all the time. But to see it used inside the United States Senate, in the mouths of United States senators at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, how did that happen.

Well, the investigative reporter Jane Mayer who works at "The New Yorker" magazine has actually tracked that down. She has found the group that originated that disgusting and totally false line of attack. She has traced them to the building in which they work. She has traced to a certain degree that`s doable the money that appears to support them, and she has tracked down their overall aim which is to use these tactics and others to try to stop not just a Supreme Court nominee, to try to stop a nominee here and there to whom they`ve decided they`re going to try to affix this particular label.

But they are going to try to stop every single nominee of the Biden administration at every level using any accusation no matter how much damage it does along the way. Jane Mayer`s new investigation at "The New Yorker" is just posted. It`s titled the slime machine targeting dozens of Biden nominees in an escalation of partisan warfare a little-known dark money group is trying to thwart the president`s entire slate.

The group is claiming credit for having dirtied up Judge Jackson during her confirmation with these false claims, even though she was still confirmed. They`re also claiming credit for actually stopping the nominations of multiple Biden nominees with plans for more to come. Jane Mayer has figured out who they are and how they`re doing it. She joins us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[21:29:13]

MADDOW: There`s a website out there that you might have come across called Bidennoms.com. When I first found out there was this Biden noms website, I, of course, thought it was about the snacks that President Biden is nomming on. It was like an ice cream tribute site.

But it`s actually, Bidennoms.com is about Biden nominees for government posts. It`s the website of a right-wing group called the American Accountability Foundation, and it`s not shy about what the group is setting out to do. They say Bidennoms.com, quote, personnel is policy. We are working to ensure that leaders within the federal government reflect the values and concerns of the American people, not the liberal coastal elites and their woke allies in corporate America.

And then just like they`re sort of hunting trophies, the site has headshot after headshot of headshot after headshot of Biden nominee.

[21:30:03]

Some of them famous ones for sure but some of them you`ve definitely never heard of. They`re trying the thing that`s unique about this group is that they`re not sort of trying to keep one person who they don`t like or two people who they don`t like out of the job. They`re trying to keep every single Biden nominee out of the job or at least to dirty them all up along the way.

Everybody Biden nominated who`s going through the confirmation process. They`re going after them simply because Biden nominated them, all of them. Now, opposition research isn`t new. It`s a sort of gross part of how Washington operates, but it has always been thus. This group though is different and investigative reporter Jane Mayer at "The New Yorker" has been busy sort of finding them out.

Quote: The American Accountability Foundation`s approach represents a new escalation in partisan warfare, rather than attack a single candidate or nominee, the group aims to thwart the entire Biden slate, meaning every Biden nominee full stop. They claim to have successfully derailed nominations like Biden`s nominee for comptroller of the currency by ginning up a fake narrative that she was somehow a communist, an actual communist.

Also, the nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin for position at the Federal Reserve board -- they claimed falsely that a delay in her disclosure of a stock trade was because she had somehow abused her position as a previous government -- government employee to obtain some sort of secret financial benefit for herself. It was completely false.

There`s mudslinging but then there`s this -- what`s different about this is the wholesale approach to every nominee of the Biden administration and the willingness to levy these attacks not only sort of separate from the facts but separate in many cases from common decency, at a wholesale level.

Joining us now is Jane Mayer. She`s chief Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker". She`s also the author of "Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right".

Ms. Mayer, it`s a pleasure to have you here. Thank you for making time.

JANE MAYER, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORKER: Well, great to be with you. Welcome back.

And that was a fantastic introduction. I had never heard the phrase eliminationist rhetoric before, but it`s perfect in describing what this group tries to do.

MADDOW: Well, thank you. That`s nice to say. But I -- I mean when I was watching the Judge Jackson confirmation hearings and Senator Hawley and Senator Blackburn and conservative media started going down this line with her, it was shocking because the allegation they were making against her saying that she was you know soft on sexual abuse of children was so divorced from the facts and was felt so wrong.

But it also does dovetail with these other political tactics that we see in dictatorships and that we sort of started to see in the Trump era of the Republican Party, and it really had me wondering who cooked this up because I didn`t think Josh Hawley made it up himself.

It seems like you`ve discovered that this group was the origin story for that false attack.

MAYER: Yeah, Hawley had some little helping hands, and it was this group, the American Accountability Foundation, which believe it or not is a tax- exempt organization. You can give money to it and get a tax deduction, while it smears everybody in sight and it does -- you know, sort of phony research basically and a pretty sloppy job if you really look into it.

Most of the mud that it slunk has dissolved when you take a really close look. But the problem is for a lot of the lesser-known nominees, people aren`t really looking very carefully.

What caught my eye about it was that I was writing a little bit about the nomination of Sarah Bloom Raskin to become the vice chairman of the Fed for supervision. She`s incredibly well-qualified. I mean, and very well-liked, liked by the banking world also and had been confirmed twice before to very senior positions at the Fed and at the Treasury Department, with bipartisan unanimous support.

And suddenly, there were these allegations that were pretext basically, that had nothing to do with reality, that was kind of a made-up story claiming that she had an ethical problem, and they didn`t really go after her for what I think is the real beef that they had with her which was that she had said a few things about climate change and how it posed a risk to the economy.

So I started looking at this group trying to figure out who are these people and, of course, it turned out that a lot of the senators were getting their research from this group and the senators were getting their money from the fossil fuel industry and they needed a pretext to take her down in order to stop the Fed from including climate change is one of the things that it might consider as an important economic risk.

[21:35:03]

So, anyway, I started trying to find out who these people were.

MADDOW: You also write about the expensive lengths to which this group appears to have gone to come up with these smears for some other nominees, including a woman who`s put forward to be comptroller of the currency, the one who is denounced as a communist. When you describe them like sending people all over the world to try to -- to try to dig stuff up that they could mischaracterize and take out of context and use against her and then senators sort of as senators avidly digested it and threw it at her during that hearing, it raises this question of where they`re getting all the funding to do this.

And, Jane, you`ve been so good at untangling how dark money works. What were you able to find out about where the funding for this group comes from and who`s doing it?

MAYER: Well, surprisingly, it -- the financial trail goes back to Donald Trump. He has a leadership PAC with hundreds of -- over million dollars in it and one of those million dollars went from his leadership PAC to the Conservative Partnership Institute, which is a an organization on Capitol Hill it`s kind of like an island of Elba for the Trump administration. You`ve got Mark Meadows working there and a number of other people from the Trump world up there, Cleta Mitchell.

And it spawned this other little sort of group which is the American Accountability Foundation. So it`s it really is an offshoot of the of the Trump world and being funded in part by the Trump world.

MADDOW: Jane Mayer, chief Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine untangling these nuts one at a time for us -- thank you, Jane. I appreciate your reporting. Thanks for talking to us about it tonight.

MAYER: Thanks for having me.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: For weeks now, the world`s been preparing for a huge new Russian offensive in Eastern Ukraine. Tonight, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky gave a video address to his country and he announced that that long feared massive Russian attack has started. The new ground offensive follows a barrage of hundreds of Russian missile strikes and artillery strikes all across the entire nation of Ukraine today but particularly in the east. We now expect that things will get much, much worse in the east.

In the besieged southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, outnumbered Ukrainian troops there have taken shelter in this giant steel mill. The Soviet Union actually rebuilt this steel plant in Mariupol to withstand bombings and blockades after it was destroyed by the Nazis during World War II.

This plant is massive. It also has a system of underground tunnels where the Ukrainians say as many as 2,000 civilians are taking shelter right now along with the Ukrainian troops that are mounting their last stand to try to keep that city under the Ukrainian flag.

As Russia starts up this new assault, the U.S. and other Western allies are ramping up efforts to try and support the Ukrainian military. For the first time ever, the U.S. is sending heavy artillery to Ukraine, 18 howitzers, 40,000 artillery rounds which at the current price would be a week`s worth of artillery for the Ukrainian military. If you have never seen before, it`s basically just a big modern cannon. The U.S. also says they are about to start training Ukrainians on how to use these new howitzers, which, of course, is important.

And addition to the artillery, the U.S. is sending 11 new helicopters, 300 drones that are called switchblade drones, 208 APCs, armored personnel carriers, ten counter artillery radars.

These latest shipments from the U.S. are a real escalation in terms of what the United States is sending. This is a qualitatively new weapon of shipment from the United States. But Ukraine says they still need more.

In an interview a few days ago with Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg from "The Atlantic Magazine" at his presidential compound in Kyiv, President Zelenskyy told Applebaum and Goldberg, quote, when some leaders ask me what weapons I need, I need a moment to calm myself because I already told them the week before. It`s Groundhog Day. I feel like Bill Murray.

Also, despite the extent to which Ukraine has been able to hold off the Russian invasion, thus far, Zelenskyy told "The Atlantic", quote, the optimism that many Americans and Europeans and even some Ukrainians are currently expressing about the war is unjustified. If the Russians are not expelled from Ukraine`s eastern provinces, Zelenskyy said, they can return to the center of Ukraine and even to Kyiv. It is possible. Now is not yet the time of victory.

Applebaum and Goldberg continue, quote, Ukraine can win and by win, Zelenskyy means continue to exist as a sovereign if permanently besieged state, only if Ukraine`s allies in Washington and across Europe move with alacrity to sufficiently arm the country. He said, quote, we have a very small window of opportunity.

Again, Anne Applebaum and her colleague conducted that interview with President Zelenskyy at his office in Kyiv just days ago.

[21:45:02]

She is just back from Kyiv and she joins us here live next.

Stay with us.

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MADDOW: Quote, on or off camera, Zelenskyy conducts himself with a deliberate lack of pretense. In a part of the world where leadership usually implies stiff posture in a pompous manner and where signaling military authority requires, at a minimum, highly visible epaulettes, he instead evokes sympathy and feelings of trust, precisely because he sounds -- in the words of Ukrainian acquaintance -- like one of us.

[21:50:07]

That is from Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg writing in "The Atlantic" magazine they were just in Kyiv to interview Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in person. Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize winner, staff writer at "The Atlantic". She`s the author most recently of "Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism".

Ms. Applebaum, thank you so much for being here. I appreciate your time.

ANNE APPLEBAUM, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: I want to ask you what you thought was most striking and most memorable about your discussion with President Zelenskyy at this time. I want to tell you first though that what has stuck with me and has kind of made me feel queasy since reading your interview is his assertion that the optimism about Ukraine`s chances of holding out, the optimism that Russia might somehow not win this war is unjustified. Hearing that from him has really sort of turned my head and changed the way I`ve been feeling about this.

I wanted to ask if what you made of that and if you felt the same way?

APPLEBAUM: Now that`s obviously the most important point of the interview and it`s of course why he`s doing interviews now because there`s a real gap between the impression that we have here and the feeling that we`re really doing something, we`re helping, we`re making a big difference. And the impression they have there which is that nothing is happening fast enough, weapons aren`t arriving fast enough, and they`re not pushing back fast enough is quite large.

You know, they`re trying to -- you know, the point of you know, his comment about Bill Murray, you know, I feel like it`s Groundhog Day, I keep saying the same things over and over again, is that they`ve been asking for harder weapons, larger weapons, more modern weapons for the last several weeks. They know where they are. They know which -- where they`re stored, they say they have planes they can come and get them, but they need -- you know, they simply need the bureaucracy to move a lot faster. And that`s obviously the most important point in the interview.

But the second important point about Zelenskyy is that it`s very clear that he`s someone who also sees us as one of his re-establishment or really the establishment in the first place of a different and more modern and more accurate image of Ukraine of his country. He`s somebody who lives very much in our world. I mean, he -- you know, he makes pop culture references that you and I would recognize. It wasn`t just Bill Murray, it was Beatles songs. It was other things.

He sees himself as a democrat leading a democracy. He`s a -- he`s a -- he`s the Jewish leader of a mostly Christian country, but that`s not a problem because he believes in a kind of civic patriotism, not in ethnic nationalism, something very like what Americans believe in. And he wants to transmit that as well.

And I think he does it successfully because it`s true, because he feels it, he believes it, he`s saying things that that aren`t false. And you can tell simply by his matter and by his -- by the way he speaks.

MADDOW: And it`s -- I think it`s really helpful for you to cast this in terms of why he`s doing interviews and what -- the what the point is of the way he`s talking about things and who he`s talking to. I think that`s an important lens for us to keep in mind when we`re looking at these things.

With that in mind, are you persuaded by his argument that enough weapons shipped quickly enough could make a determinative difference, could actually stop Russia from winning this war and taking over Ukraine?

APPLEBAUM: Yes, I believe we`re really -- you know, we`re at a very important balancing moment. You know, the Ukrainians did chase the Russians out of the northern part of their country. They did resist the first attack on Kyiv. They did use extraordinarily creative tactics.

They showed that they mean to fight, they want to fight, not just professional soldiers but really the whole population, of all kinds of people who I know or have heard of or friends of friends of mine who you would not think of as soldiers have joined the territorial army, all kinds of people are doing you know whether it`s volunteer jobs or computer jobs working on behalf of the country. And I think they`ve shown they, you know, they care a lot about maintaining their existence.

You know, Rachel, there`s something you said a few minutes ago that really struck a bell, you know, rang a bell in my head, when you talked about this existentialist rhetoric and this eliminationist rhetoric, sorry. This is the kind of rhetoric that the Russians use about the Ukrainians and Ukrainians know it.

And so, they also believe that they`re fighting for their country. They know that when the Russians take over territory, they don`t just take over buildings and land, they`re also murdering people. They`re deporting people. They`re raping women.

And so, for them, it`s a -- you know, it`s an existential battle in which every centimeter of territory matters. And for us in Washington or in -- you know, in Paris or London, it doesn`t mean quite the same thing. And so, the speed of weapons delivered does really matter.

[21:55:01]

MADDOW: Anne Applebaum, staff writer at "The Atlantic", the author of "Twilight of Democracy", most recently -- Anne, thank you for making that trip and for writing this up with your colleague and thanks for helping us understand it tonight. I appreciate it.

APPLEBAUM: Thanks.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: As of right now, airline passengers no longer have to wear masks on Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Southwest, United, or JetBlue. Those airlines tonight have all announced that masks are now optional on board planes.

That list is likely to grow however, because today a federal judge in Florida, a Trump appointee, struck down the CDC`s mask mandate for planes, and trains, and other public transportation.

Now, this ruling as unusual for a couple of reasons. The first is that it comes from a single judge who hasn`t actually heard any courtroom arguments about this case. She decided that previously scheduled oral arguments said to happen next week we`re, unnecessary. She canceled the oral arguments and just issued the ruling on written briefs alone.

The second reason this ruling is a bit of a surprise is that the judge decided this would be enforced nationally rather than applying it only to the plaintiffs, which you know, keep that in mind next time you hear conservatives solemnly intone about how much they dislike judicial activism.

But as of this moment, the CDC`s mask requirement is not in effect. TSA is not enforcing it. Airlines are starting to follow suit, same thing on Amtrak trains and local subways. The White House says the Justice Department is deciding whether they want to appeal, to try and get the mask requirement reinstated, we have no word on that yet, but we shall let you know. Watch this space.

That is going to do it for us for tonight. I`ll see you again tomorrow night.

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

Good evening, Lawrence.