Show: THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL Date: July 20, 2017 Guest: Ron Klain, Brian Kalt, Ana Marie Cox, Tim O`Brien
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: I do have some good news, though. Lawrence O`Donnell is live right now for THE LAST WORD with Lawrence O`Donnell. And frankly, there`s nobody I`d rather hear from in the world right now than Lawrence O`Donnell, good evening Lawrence.
LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, HOST, THE LAST WORD: And Rachel, at this hour, that may be the best we can do for good news.
MADDOW: Yes --
O`DONNELL: Listen, you just did an amazing job of keeping up with this as it was happening during your hour. None of the information that you`ve spent the last 40 minutes on existed when you started at 9:00 p.m. tonight, and it has been a stunning thing to watch develop.
We keep coming back to that unprecedented. We keep looking back at the Nixon model, and what you see right away is this is far, far beyond the Nixon model already.
There was legal opinion given in the Nixon White House at the time to the president that there were some in the White House Counsel`s office who believed the president does not have the authority to pardon himself.
MADDOW: Yes --
O`DONNELL: It wasn`t even something that Nixon was confident that he could have done. It will be fascinating to see where President Trump comes out on it.
MADDOW: Yes, and I think the sort of the other side of that coin, too, is, you know, there`re -- we consider it to be fairly settled legal reasoning that the president cannot -- I can`t even believe I have to say this.
But we consider it to be fairly settled legal reasoning that the president cannot be criminally indicted. That was a Justice Department determination in the Watergate era.
There are serious legal scholars and people who have White House legal experience who are looking at that now and saying, actually, that opinion wasn`t the world`s greatest opinion.
And if the only way out of this is going to be if all other forms of this - - if all other forms of accountability here are going to be closed off by this president, the question of whether or not the president himself can be indicted maybe should be seen once again as an open question.
Which will put the whole pardon discussion that we`ve just learned about tonight in a completely different light.
O`DONNELL: And, Rachel, the focus you brought to the question of -- in the stories breaking tonight of why is the president`s legal team trying to undermine Robert Mueller?
Why are they trying to bring up issues like conflict of interest which they do not seem to -- on the face of it, they don`t seem like they have anything resembling conflict of interest.
But why are they trying to do it? In your point being the only thing you can do with that information is fire Robert Mueller.
There`s no other thing to do with that kind of information.
MADDOW: Yes, this is not -- there`s no PR battle going on with Robert Mueller. Robert Mueller doesn`t speak to the press, and neither do his investigators.
And everybody who says they know what`s going on in that investigation is guessing about what`s going on in that investigation or getting very specific squibs of reporting that mostly, as far as we can surmise, are obtained by finding out who they`ve been obtaining evidence from.
I mean, they`re not -- Robert Mueller is not out there campaigning for office. You can`t run negative ads against him and make his investigation go away.
The only reason you`d cook up an effort to undermine him is to either retroactively or contemporaneously explain why you`re moving to get rid of him.
It`s going to be a really steep climb if they want to do that. But you can see in the conservative media they`ve been trying to help the White House with that already, and maybe that`s what they`re going to try to do.
O`DONNELL: And the president according to the statute, the president does not have the direct legal authority to fire this special prosecutor.
The Attorney General does, but this Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from this matter, so he can`t. So only the deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who appointed Robert Mueller can fire him.
And so the scenario we would be looking at here, this version of the -- the 21st century version of the Saturday night massacre would be the president ordering Rod Rosenstein to fire Robert Mueller and Rosenstein doing what? Simply refusing?
And if he does refuse, does the president then fire him and then who moves up into the Rosenstein position? And how many people have to move up into it before someone takes that position and says...
MADDOW: And then...
O`DONNELL: I`ll fire him?
MADDOW: Yes, I mean, the number three person there would be Rachel Brand. I mean, I -- and we`ve been sort of looking at that line of succession, thinking about if this goes down Saturday night massacre-style, like how many people do you have to fire until you get to the Robert Bork character who is going to do the -- who is going to do the dirty deed.
And with what happened last night with the president`s attack on Attorney General Jeff Sessions though, I think we learned that there`s a much shorter path here.
Yes, you can -- right now, what they can do if they cook up some dossier about how to -- forgive me dossier. If they cook up some case about Bob Mueller being a terrible person and his probe being somehow tainted and some bad thing, they can do two things with it.
They can put that case to Rod Rosenstein and try to persuade him to fire Bob Mueller. I think that`s unlikely, although, I don`t know.
The other thing they could do is get rid of Jeff Sessions, put a new attorney general in, somehow finagle that appointment through the Senate and get it confirmed, and then once they`ve got a new attorney general, that person won`t be recused.
And then that person can fire Bob Mueller.
O`DONNELL: And that would be a filibuster domination on the Senate floor if we ended up going in that route. And that`s not a fast route, even with a reasonably quick confirmation of an attorney general.
But we actually have to put that down as one of the possible options.
MADDOW: Yes --
O`DONNELL: One of the possible routes tonight that this president could consider. No other president would ever dream of anything like what you just described, but that might be on his option list.
MADDOW: Yes, and to do -- I mean, I don`t -- I think there`s a lot of over-reading today into the personal relationship between Trump and Sessions and what the (INAUDIBLE) from the president towards Sessions might be all about.
I think even if he was desperately head-over-heels in love with Jeff Sessions, he would be trying to get Jeff Sessions out of there either by firing him or forcing him to resign.
If only because that gives him one more path toward ending this Russia investigation. I don`t know what set the president off, whether it is just generally the turn toward financial questions, whether it`s specifically the turn toward his kids, whether it is the involvement of business interests, whether it`s Paul Manafort`s finances, whether it`s this news in "The Washington Post" tonight that Mueller may be able to get access to several years of Trump`s tax returns.
I don`t know what the trigger is, but something has triggered the president so that he is considering remarkably unprecedentedly radical choices for how to get this thing over with.
Unprecedented including Watergate.
O`DONNELL: Desperately, head-over-heels in love with Jeff Sessions is the country song waiting to be written, Rachel, on your vacation this Summer, maybe write that country song.
MADDOW: I am going to call John Moreland right now and commission him.
O`DONNELL: Thank you, Rachel --
MADDOW: Thank you, Lawrence --
O`DONNELL: Thanks for doing overtime with us tonight, I appreciate it --
MADDOW: Absolutely, appreciate it.
O`DONNELL: We`re joined now by phone by Rosalind Helderman; one of the reporters who broke this story about the president considering pardons for himself, for his family, for his staff.
Broke that story tonight in "The Washington Post". Rosalind, thank you very much for joining us tonight, we`ve all been studying every word of this story.
Pardons is just one component of it, we`re going to come back to that. But tell us some of the other discoveries you`ve been reporting in this story tonight.
ROSALIND HELDERMAN, WASHINGTON POST (via telephone): Well, sure. The pardons discussion we understand, is part of sort of a broader conversation going on with the president and his team about ways that they could limit or curtail the Mueller investigation.
There is great unhappiness on the part of the president that the investigation appears to be expanding rapidly, day-by-day, and particularly appears to now be looking at his finances.
The written order establishing the special counsel -- excuse me -- the special counsel gave him authority to look at collusion with Russia and at matters that arise or arose directly out of that probe.
And so there`s conversation about, are all of these other things really things that should be considered matters that arose directly from the Russia probe.
O`DONNELL: Yes, and the probe, as we`ve seen with special prosecutors in the past, they can stumble upon anything. They can be looking at some Russian connection and looking at some bank statement and then discover something that has nothing to do with the campaign, and that would -- that would fall under something that arises directly from the investigation.
HELDERMAN: Well, sure, and of course, who is the arbiter of whether or not they`re exceeding their mandate, their written order?
It`s the same process you were just discussing. The attorney general or in this case because he`s recused himself, the deputy attorney general.
So it does seem as though part of this is a conversation about sort of making a public case as opposed to sort of a legal case.
We`re also told that there is a lot of conversation about possible conflicts on the part of Mueller and members of his team.
A new one that we reported this evening as apparently there`s discussion of Bob Mueller`s membership at, of all things, the Trump National Golf Course in northern Virginia where he was a member until 2011.
And some variety -- we`re told by White House advisors, dispute over his membership fees at that club. Now, I should say a spokesman for Bob Mueller has told us that no such dispute occurred.
So we`re going to have to learn a little bit more about that. But this active effort to find ways to undercut the probe by saying it`s grown too large beyond its scope, and by looking at conflicts by Mueller and his team.
O`DONNELL: Rosalind, I want to go back to that golf membership, which seems so trivial when you mention it. But there`s something really important in it in your story, which really jumped out at me.
And that is that a spokesperson for the special prosecutor specifically responded to that one point and said that one point is completely untrue.
And so when we say that the special prosecutor doesn`t comment in any way, that`s 99 percent true because the special prosecutor did comment tonight about this dispute with the Donald Trump golf club being untrue.
HELDERMAN: Yes, you make a good point. I mean, clearly there was something about that particular topic, and I guess because it has to do with him personally, that they felt like they could or should respond to.
O`DONNELL: And there`s -- you also talk about in the piece Mark Corallo, who was the spokesperson for the Trump legal team who just quit that job, quitting within 24 hours of this interview that Donald Trump did with the "New York Times" that the legal team knew nothing about.
That was very much about the work that the legal team is working on. And that -- and you report that that interview with the "New York Times" came after a meeting with the legal team run by the new member of the team, Ty Cobb, the new lawyer on the team.
And in that meeting, Ty Cobb believed that he got an agreement for a new kind of discipline from the president who was in the meeting and everyone else involved, a new kind of discipline about public comments about this.
And then within 24 hours of that, the president is doing this wild interview with the "New York Times" which others in the White House didn`t know about, legal team didn`t know about.
And right after that, we see Mark Corallo, the spokesperson for the legal team, quits. It`s hard to think that, that interview with the "New York Times" and being blindsided like that is unrelated to Mark Corallo quitting.
HELDERMAN: Yes, I mean, it seems like there`s a certain amount of restructuring that`s going on in the legal time. I mean, you`ve got that timeline right, and it may well be there`s some connection between those events.
So we`ve got Corallo resigning tonight. There`s also reporting this evening that Marc Kasowitz`s role is going to be -- he, of course is the president`s private attorney, who`s been seen sort of as the chief responder on Russia.
That his role is going to be reduced, though he will still be there. There`s also Jay Sekulow, who is sort of the public face of the team.
He goes on television, and John Dowd, who is kind of more of a veteran Washington hand, who is going to be doing more of the work behind the scenes.
O`DONNELL: Rosalind, I notice that some of your sources, unnamed sources on this within the Trump world, talking about the president`s inquiries about his pardon authority.
And specifically pardoning himself, pardoning his family, pardoning his staff. Some of them seem to be trying to suggest to you and to suggest to "The Washington Post" in the article, that this is almost kind of an academic inquiry.
It`s not really about anything specific that`s happening to anyone in the family or the staff or the president now. What was your sense of what they were trying to convey about the level of seriousness of this inquiry?
HELDERMAN: Yes, I think what you just described is a fair read of our reporting. Our understanding is that there is no immediate rush to try to pardon himself or any particular belief at the moment that that`s going to become necessary or is necessary.
That rather this is a conversation about legal options of what the law allows. Under what conditions can a president pardon someone?
Can he pardon a member of staff? Can he pardon a member of his family? Can he in fact -- does the law allow for it to pardon himself?
O`DONNELL: And Rosalind, when these White House sources are talking about this, are they -- do they seem aware that no president in history has ever asked about his authority to pardon his family, himself, and his staff --
HELDERMAN: Well, I don`t know that we know --
O`DONNELL: At the same time?
HELDERMAN: No president has ever asked about that authority. No president has ever attempted to exercise such authority before. You know, and I certainly seem aware that these are matters that are -- legal precedent and are unsettled.
Particularly on the question of whether a president can pardon himself. There`s quite a lot of legal dispute and literature on that topic, and no real settled question from the legal community.
And of course, part of that is because it has, as you said, not been tested before.
O`DONNELL: Rosalind Helderman, you will have all of us pondering all of those questions now for the next hour and certainly for the next 24 hours and longer.
Thank you very much for joining us tonight on this important night of reporting for you and "The Washington Post", we really appreciate it.
HELDERMAN: Thank you so much.
O`DONNELL: We`re joined now by Ron Klain; former chief of staff to Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore, former senior aide to President Obama.
He`s also a former chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he was the chief to staff to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Also with us, Indira Lakshmanan; Washington columnist for the "Boston Globe". She`s also with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.
Ron, this is a fact. No president in history has ever inquired about pardoning his family --
RON KLAIN, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO JOE BIDEN & AL GORE: Yes --
O`DONNELL: Pardoning himself --
KLAIN: Yes --
O`DONNELL: And pardoning his staff at the same time.
KLAIN: Yes, Lawrence, I mean, we have been talking about this many nights, and everything that`s happened so far, hiring lawyers, discussions about the Fifth Amendment, these are things that both innocent and guilty people do.
But article 2, section 2 of our constitution says that the pardon power exists for people who committed offenses against the United States.
And if the president is sitting in the Oval Office contemplating pardoning himself, pardoning members of his family, he`s considering doing that for people who are guilty, people who have committed offenses against the United States.
We need to stop and take stock of why the question of pardons is on the table right now.
O`DONNELL: And Indira, the Supreme Court held that the acceptance of a pardon, the acceptance of a pardon from the president is legally considered an admission of guilt.
That is something that President Trump no doubt does not know. It is something that President Nixon knew well.
And in fact, the issuance of a pardon by the president in order for it to take effect, it must actually be formally accepted by the recipient.
And when the recipient formally accepts it, that is an admission of guilt.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST, BOSTON GLOBE: Well, I want to preface my remarks by saying that of course I`m not a lawyer.
And I know that constitutional scholars have all day been debating this. I say all day because it`s only now just come out that this is something that the president has been asking his legal advisors about.
As you say, it does not have historical precedent. I mean, the closest thing we have is Gerald Ford, you know, preemptively pardoning Richard Nixon for any crimes that might have been committed, that were committed or might have been committed while he was in office.
So we don`t have anything like this, a president looking at pardoning himself. But I just want to go back and look at the real particulars of why President Trump might be worried.
And that really goes back to this incredible reporting that we are seeing coming out not only from Rosalind at "The Washington Post" and her colleagues, but also the "New York Times" and "Bloomberg" have done some incredible digging today that has pulled out, you know, the financial background of what Robert Mueller`s team might be looking into.
Remember, it was Donald Trump Jr. himself who said several years ago, we have lots of dealings with the Russians. You know, the Russians have brought lots of money to us, to the Trump Organization.
He said this on the record in a public meeting with investors. And so, you know, reporters have been tracking this down, and there is a lot to track.
You know, it`s not just the sale of Donald Trump`s Palm Beach mansion back in 2008 for more than double of what he had paid for it back in 2004 for $95 million that he sold it.
It`s not just the fact that in 2013, the Miss Universe pageant was brought to Moscow by an oligarch who paid $20 million, a third of those fees went to Donald Trump.
It`s not -- you know, there`re -- it goes on and on, the connections between Donald Trump`s family and the Russians. And those are the things that according to all of that investigative reporting, that Robert Mueller`s team is looking into.
O`DONNELL: We`re joined by phone now by Professor Brian Kalt; he`s a professor of law at Michigan State University and a constitutional law expert.
Professor Kalt, "The Washington Post" turned to you as an authority on pardons. You`re cited extensively in their reporting tonight. And so to this question, can the president pardon himself?
BRIAN KALT, PROFESSOR OF LAW, MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, he can certainly try because there`s no authority one way or the other.
It`s never been tried as you`ve mentioned. President Nixon did ask his personal lawyer whether he could do it, and his personal lawyer said he thought he could.
The Department of Justice thought otherwise. He could try. But there are good arguments that he can, there are better arguments, I think, that he can`t.
So I can`t tell you what a court would do, but I can tell you what I think they should do in such a case and that is say that the president cannot pardon himself.
O`DONNELL: Professor Kalt, how would that get to a court? Suppose tomorrow President Trump pardons himself. Who goes to what court with what standing to ask for that to be reviewed?
KALT: I don`t think anyone would go to court at the time that the pardon is issued. What would have to happen is, if he pardoned himself or purported to pardon himself, then a prosecutor, federal prosecutor, would have to attempt to prosecute him despite the pardon.
There`s some question as to whether you can prosecute a president while he`s in office, so this might have to wait until he`s not in office anymore.
At the point at which the prosecutor still tries to prosecute him, president or ex-president at that point goes into court and says, you can`t prosecute me, I have a pardon, and at that point, the court will decide.
O`DONNELL: Professor Kalt, I for one believe there`s never really been any suspense about will he pardon Jared Kushner? Will he pardon his family members? Of course, he will.
What does that mean? If tomorrow, the president issued a pardon for his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, does that mean that the special prosecutor is no longer allowed to investigate Jared Kushner?
KALT: Not at all. And in fact, if Jared Kushner has been pardoned, then that makes it much harder for him to plead the Fifth because he`s not in danger of incriminating himself if he`s been pardoned.
O`DONNELL: So in that sense, it can actually be more risky in one sense for Jared Kushner in terms of what he`d have to testify to.
But at best he would then end up as an unindicted co-conspirator in other - - in certain cases possibly because he could not be indicted.
KALT: Yes, well he couldn`t be federally indicted. There`s always the possibility of state prosecution.
O`DONNELL: Yes, the president`s pardon extends only to federal charges.
O`DONNELL: Professor Brian Kalt, thank you very much for joining us tonight and on this important night, really appreciate you being here.
KALT: Thanks for having me.
O`DONNELL: We are joined now by Tim O`Brien, he`s the executive editor of "Bloomberg View" and the author of "Trump Nation: The Art of the Donald".
Also with us, Ana Marie Cox; contributor to the "New York Times Magazine" and the host of the podcast, "With Friends Like These".
Tim, you at "Bloomberg" today had very important reporting about where this investigation is going, and it feels in the reporting we`re getting from "The Washington Post" tonight about the exploration of pardons, that the kind of reporting you revealed in --
ANA MARIE COX, CONTRIBUTOR TO THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: I think I can - -
O`DONNELL: "Bloomberg" today may be what`s driving the president to these pardon inquiries.
TIM O`BRIEN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, BLOOMBERG VIEW: I think he`s been clearly worried all along that Robert Mueller would go down the money trail.
And I think -- I think the president doesn`t have the kind of concern about collusion charges that he does about a very thorough exploration of his finances.
And I think that has been top of mind for him all along. And, you know, in the "Times" interview yesterday, he essentially threw this gauntlet down at Mueller and said, don`t look at my family`s finances.
And we now know from "Bloomberg`s" reporting today that, in fact, Mueller is robustly looking at the family business dealings, including relationships and transactions with Russian individuals who could or could not be cut-outs for other interests. It`s a very big mess.
O`DONNELL: And that`s part of what Indira was referring to in her masterful summary of where all of these investigative threads stand tonight.
Ron, we have so many legal questions that keep coming up. The issue of a pardon to Jared Kushner now then exposes Jared Kushner to a certain kind of line of inquiry because he would lose his First -- his Fifth Amendment rights.
KLAIN: Yes, I think that if the president goes and issues these pardons, he moves the action from the courts back to Capitol Hill, where Jared Kushner, anyone else he pardons would no longer be able to assert a Fifth Amendment defense, and so would have to answer Congress` questions.
That`s why I`ve always thought this pardon discussion was going to happen much later in the process. The fact that it`s so top of mind now is very telling about how President Trump feels that the water is rising very quickly.
And also, you know, as you and Rachel were talking about at the beginning, the fact in that "New York Times" interview yesterday, he talked so much about firing Sessions, removing Sessions.
Shows that what`s on mind is the path to firing Bob Mueller. You always have to understand that Trump thinks in retrospect. And in retrospect, when he was talking yesterday about removing Sessions, it`s clear that he and his team were talking about ways to get at Mueller.
And the only way really to get at Mueller is to get rid of Jeff Sessions.
O`DONNELL: The -- I want to go back over the specific wording of this special prosecutor`s authorization. This special counsel is appointed to investigate, quote, "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump."
Now, that seems clear and limited enough, and it is very limited. It continues after a semi-colon to say, "and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." Ron, interpret that for us in practice.
KLAIN: Well, in practice, both clauses are a little broader than they seem even because the question is was there a quid and a quo here, right?
And the quo was a relationship about the election. But the quid could well have been payments to the Trump family years ago. Did the Russians buy the Trumps` loyalties in these real estate dealings that Indira was talking about, in these business transactions, in the things that Trump`s sons have boasted about in the past.
And so I don`t think it`s a surprise that Bob Mueller is looking at the business dealings between the Trump family and the Russian government and its allies and other oligarchs because that would have been the basis under which this untoward relationship was developed.
O`DONNELL: Ana Marie, I just want to go to that second half of the authorization to the special prosecutor. Because this is typical language in all authorizations for special prosecutors.
The part where it says, "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." And that is what got Bill Clinton impeached in the House of Representatives.
It`s that second half, the clause that had nothing to do with the actual whitewater investigation that began the special prosecutor.
We ended up with Monica Lewinsky and a perjury charge and all sorts of testimony about sex because that stuff arose, as it were, while Kenneth Starr was investigating completely unrelated matters.
COX: Yes, that is exactly what happened. And you know, we can debate whether or not that was a proper use of that office. Here the matters seem to be a little more closely related.
I want to -- I don`t want to throw cold water on what`s happening right now in our discussion, but I am just going to do a little light-misting of some lukewarm water on this because I want to point out that you should never -- you cannot go broke underestimating Trump`s ignorance or self-regard.
And there might be a lot of that happening here. Like when I hear him -- when I hear about him asking if he can pardon himself, I hear it sort of in the same voice of a child asking like, what if I were king?
You know, could I stay up past my bedtime? I think that there`s some amount here of him just sort of exploring what he thinks of as these fantastic powers.
And I also want to point out that even if there isn`t as much there as we might think there may be or hope there may be, this is a really important story for people who aren`t captivated by the Russia story because this is what Trump is spending his time on.
He is not governing. He is not doing the work that he promised to do. He is not doing anything to help or hurt Obamacare. He is not taking care of the millions of people who believed him when he said that he would be negotiating better deals for them.
And I think this is how this story is going to play out for people who may have either supported Trump or been tempted to support him or think that he may not be guilty of the things that we`re talking about.
He is not -- he is not acting in the people`s, you know, service. He is not governing us, and well, and we may be thankful for that on some level.
But his attention is completely consumed by this, and it`s because he thinks of himself first. It`s this towering self-regard.
O`DONNELL: It`s such a great point. How many Trump voters voted for him to spend his entire time defending himself and his family and their business interests from federal investigators in the White House.
Tim O`Brien, you know Donald Trump, you have studied him closer than any of the rest of us have, written a book about him.
Give me your reading. When you -- when you read this "Washington Post" report tonight about this president is asking about pardons for family, asking about --
O`BRIEN: Himself --
O`DONNELL: Pardons for himself, asking about pardons for staff, your reading tonight of how serious Donald Trump is on that?
O`BRIEN: This is Donald Trump in full self-preservation mode, no doubt about it. We`ve talked about this before when I`ve been here with you.
I`ve always thought when push comes to shove, he wouldn`t hesitate to fire Bob Mueller. I think we saw shades of this early on in Comey, and I think -- I think there is self-regard here at work.
It always is with Trump. The two easiest ways for understanding what motivates him is either self-aggrandizement or self-preservation.
This is about self-preservation. This is a serious investigation. He`s afraid of it, and he`s marshaling his troops.
O`DONNELL: Former Attorney General Eric Holder put out a statement tonight saying, "there is no basis to question the integrity of Mueller or those serving with him in the special counsel`s office and no conflicts either."
And Ron Klain, some of the conflicts that are being identified by the Trump lawyers are political contributions made by some of these people.
And I don`t think you can find very many U.S. attorneys who don`t have some political contributions on their record.
KLAIN: Yes, Lawrence, obviously as private citizens, these individuals before they -- you know, were in the government or between government stints, are entitled to make campaign contributions.
Even federal employees can make campaign contributions. That doesn`t impugn their integrity. The people Bob Mueller is hiring are the `A` team of quality public servants.
And any effort to dispatch them is going to go nowhere. And for the American, we aren`t just spectators. We are citizens.
And whether or not there`s smoke or fire here, Donald Trump is trying to -- is trying to remove the Fire Department that`s going to put this out, and that should outrage all of us as American citizens.
O`DONNELL: All right, we`re going to take a quick --
COX: And I --
O`DONNELL: Go ahead quickly, go ahead.
COX: I think Donald Trump has made contributions to Democrats. We should never forget that every time he says something like that.
O`DONNELL: What a conflict of interest this president has. Thank you for that, that`s a very important point, Ana, I was going to -- I was going to miss that, thank you for that. We`re going to take a quick break, everyone please stay with us, we`ll be right back.
LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC ANCHOR: Thank you for that. That`s a very important point, Ana. I was going to miss that. thank you for that. we`re going to take a quick break. everyone please stay with us. we`ll be right back.
O`DONNELL: Conservative Columnist George F. Will wrote something very relevant to the crisis we find ourselves in tonight. He said the misdeeds of the administration strike at what conservatives cherish most, the institutions and procedures that guarantee limited government and prevent ordered liberty from degenerating into the licentious abuse of unchecked power. In his column, George Will expresses worry about an administration, quote, sabotaging the process of democratic choice, but if conservatives do not talk straight now, no one will listen when next they discourse on the subject of limited government in a lawful society. That is not a George Will column this week.
This is from his column in The Washington Post on June 18th, 1973, 44 years ago, when Washington was in the middle of dealing with the Nixon Administration scandal called Watergate, which began as a burglary to steal files from the Democratic National Committee and ended with 48 members of the Nixon Administration being convicted of Federal crimes. President Nixon resigned before being impeached and a month later was pardoned by President Gerald Ford for all crimes he may have committed in his presidency. George F. Will is a Pulitzer price winning journalist.
George, it`s great to have you on what feels like a historic night, and I just want to point out something. I know you`ll like that Gerry Ford lost and in his subsequently campaign, many analysts believe the pardon of Richard Nixon had something to do with it. And for the rest of his life, Gerry Ford I`m told, ford carried in his pocket the phrasing from the United States Supreme Court saying how the acceptance of a pardon is an admission of guilt. And he always wondered why people didn`t understand that he was the one who got Richard Nixon to admit guilt by accepting that pardon.
GEORGE F. WILL, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. I became a Columnist, Lawrence, in January 1973 at the tender age of 32, just at the moment when the Judge [00:00:46] severe sentences had the intended effect of causing James McCord to crack and the Watergate scandal to begin and cover-up begin to unravel. The mantra at that time, as you remember, was follow the money. That`s why the hair went up on the back of my neck when Mr. Trump said the other day it would be a violation -- he didn`t say of what, but he said it would be a violation were Mr. Mueller to concern himself with the affairs of the Trump family.
Now, we`ve known for some while that Mr. Trump has an almost Sicilian sense of family. What we don`t know is how to get what is worrying him. But the mind inescapably is drawn back to the tax returns is. What he did when he refused to comply with a clearly established norm of Presidential campaign in not release his tax returns was to advertise he`s hiding something.
We don`t know what, but clearly he was hiding something. The suspicion, the rumors swirled around this is that after his fourth bankruptcy, he was having trouble getting people to lend him money. It`s not hard to see why. Therefore, follow the money in this case is going to lead Mr. Mueller in that direction. And Mr. Trump can talk about this being a violation, but part of the problem with independent counsels like this is there really are no effective parameters.
O`DONNELL: One of the elements of the reporting in The Washington Post tonight is that the president is deeply troubled by the idea that he apparently has just discovered that the special prosecutor will indeed have access to his tax returns if that`s where the special prosecutor`s investigation goes.
WILL: Well, that`s right because we know that Mr. Trump had to be advised during the campaign that there would be some cost to this, not releasing. Now, Mr. Trump may have had a shrewder understanding of this than whoever it was that gave him that advice because i don`t think he did pay a price for this. The price may, however, be about to be recorded
O`DONNELL: George, there`s a question of what next. when we think about this phrase, constitutional crisis, that gets used sometimes too lightly, sometimes not in these situations, we are imagining some version of the Saturday night massacre where eventually the president finds someone who he can elevate to the deputy attorney general, acting Deputy Attorney General spot to fire the special prosecutor, since that`s where the legal authority to fire exists. All attention would then turn -- it has already turned, but then would completely turn to the House of Representatives, to the senate, because the only check at that point becomes the constitutional process of an impeachment investigation.
This becomes a republican question. The question becomes what do the republicans do? And in your 1973 column, you talked about Nixon being the republicans` responsibility. You used that word responsibility, in that they gave him their nomination.
They made him their candidate. They put him in the white house. And now everything that Nixon was up to and being investigated for, it would be the responsibility of republicans to make sure he was properly investigated. That responsibility would once again fall to republicans since they control the house and the senate.
WILL: Yes. Let`s look at where Mr. Trump and the republican party are in their close relationship to one another. On august 15th, there`s a Senate primary in Alabama. The man appointed, senator strange, appointed to the seat vacated by Mr. Sessions, has a primary opponent named Mo Brooks, who is a tea party, Ted Cruz-supporting conservative. A pack run by -- run on behalf of majority leader Mitch McConnell is running severe ads against mo brooks, faulting him for being insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump during the primary and associating him in this ad with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. That`s how far in the republicans are at this point in their senate leadership in supporting Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump meanwhile has evidently been, or at least his minions in the Whitehouse, his operatives in the Whitehouse have been entertain and cultivating potential people to run in primaries against incumbent Arizona Senator Jeff Flake.
This is a shot across the bow of all Republicans, noting that Mr. Trump, whose attachment to the Republican Party is new and tenuous, is trying to affect a kind of purge almost. now, the last time a president tried a purge, it was in 1938 when FDR, as the peak of his powers, tried to purge Senate Democrats mostly from the south, who wouldn`t go along with his court packing plan. And FDR failed totally to remove those people.
So institutional loyalties evidently kick in at some point, and the republicans might be nearing that point where they say, are we loyal? Do we have any institutional loyalty to the senate and the house, or are we totally beholden to Mr. Trump?
O`DONNELL: George F. Will, the author of many durable columns, including one from 1973 that could not be more relevant to us tonight. Thank you very much for joining us tonight, really appreciate it.
WILL: Glad to be with you.
O`DONNELL: Our panel is back with more coverage of this breaking news event right after this quick break.
O`DONNELL: We`re back with our continuing coverage of the breaking news tonight of a report in the Washington Post that the President is considering pardons for his family, for his staff, and of course for himself. And Ron Klain, I want to go to the question of how the Special Prosecutor would get to the President`s tax returns and what would the President`s lawyers by now have told him about the Special Prosecutor`s route to his tax returns?
RON KLAIN, MSNC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the Special Prosecutor`s route to the tax returns is very easy. He has to go to a court. He has to show a reasonable leaf that a crime has been committed, and he has to show that the tax returns are relevant to that.
Now, they don`t have to inform Donald Trump that they`ve done that, and it`s quite possible -- and I would imagine true -- that Donald Trump`s lawyers have told him this incredibly confounding fact that for all they know, Bob Mueller could already have his tax returns and that certainly he can go get them any day from a court, and Trump would never know that he had them. And I can`t imagine anything that would more rile Donald Trump than knowing that`s true.
O`DONNELL: Tim O`Brien, you have a pretty good sense now -- I think we all do and we listened to Ron and other legal analysts about what the Trump lawyers are presenting to Donald Trump. And I think you could certify for us that what`s being presented to him by his lawyers is the worst stuff that`s ever been presented to him by lawyers in his life. that in the past it`s been, you know, here`s the way it`s looking in terms of bankruptcies and possible fraud investigations and civil fraud investigations, that sort of thing. This is a whole other level.
TIM O`BRIEN, NOVELIST: He`s never been exposed to anything like this. And I think the thing looming over all of this is once all of the money flows are accounted for and the various transactions are analyzed, there is this large issue of whether or not Donald Trump`s business relationships whether it was Bay Rock or any one else involved individuals who are cutouts for the Russian Government or Russian financial interests whether Trump knew it or not.
O`DONNELL: What is Bay Rock quickly?
O`BRIEN: Bay Rock is a development firm that existed in Trump tower, two floors beneath the Trump organization. They partnered with trump on a number of projects including the Trump Soho. a primary, principal partner in Bay Rock was Felix Seder, a career criminal, a Russian immigrant to the United States who had organized crime ties in Russia and the United States.
Trump did business with him for years and he remains in the Trump orbit. He showed up earlier this year with Trump`s personal Attorney, Michael Cohen, proposing a peace plan for the Ukraine to Michael Flynn in the Whitehouse.
O`DONNELL: Ana Marie Cox, you were talking about the childish nature of Donald Trump, which seems to be an absolutely flawless analytical mode for looking at Donald Trump. and we now have reporting from Politico that Ty Cobb, the new lawyer on the case for Donald Trump, one of the more experienced ones, convened a meeting of all of the Trump defense counsel and the client, the President himself in which he tried to impose a new kind of discipline in dealing with this matter, including not talking about it publicly.
And so 24 hours later, the President invites three reporters from the New York Times into The oval office. He does not tell his press staff. He does not tell anyone that he`s doing this, and it seems to be done in direct and childish defiance of Ty Cobb and the legal team and what they had just told him to do the day before.
Ana Marie Cox, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: I don`t know about defiance. I do think like almost any one of Trump`s actions has some element of arrogance, entitlement, and ignorance, right, more than anything else. Those three things, I think, explain every single thing he does. I also think he has a deep, deep need for attention.
That`s what you see at work in this New York Times interview and in almost like sort of a fascinating way, he wants to like be a part of the conversation with the failing New York Times, right? Like you sort of see this like - he seems to like to like to rope them into his delusions. And I again just want to say like I think we need to be careful in reading too much into this.
I mean I think we can psychoanalyze Trump all we want and it`s fascinating. But I don`t know how much bad behavior Mueller is going to find. And even worse than that, looking at the behavior of the House of Representatives, the Republicans there, and of Trump supporters, I don`t know what Mueller would have to find in order to disillusion them.
I`m not sure if there is something. The kinds of things that he`s going to find, connections with the Russians perhaps, you know, funny stuff with taxes, are the kinds of things that I`ve already heard Trump voters dismiss as something that they almost already expect to be there, and they don`t mind. The kinds of things that are going are going to bother Trump voters are when he does not follow through on promises, which by the way he is doing now.
I made a joke earlier he wasn`t doing anything to help or hurt Obamacare. I meant him personally. What`s obviously happening behind the scenes is sabotage of Obamacare which is going to affect trump voters. That`s the kind of thing his voters may turn on him about. It`s not going to be unfortunately about this deep, deep perhaps corruption. It`s going to be the ways he has betrayed them more personally.
O`DONNELL: Indira Lakshmanan, I`ve got some language from the 1915 Supreme Court ruling that referred pardons. And I think we`re going to be seeing this language quoted in the Boston Globe, your newspaper and many others over the next few day processes. 1915 Supreme Court said that a pardon carries an imputation of guilt. Carries a imputation of guilt, the same ruling said acceptance of a pardon is, quote, a confession of guilt. . And the more that sinks in with the president it will be interesting to see where it goes.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN, COLUMNIST: Well I Do take the advisers quoted in the Washington Post at the word when they say at this point he is exploring it. He wants to know the options. And I think that`s probably true.
He does want to know as Ana Marie said, what are his powers I`m king what can I do with the many powers? But I think at this point, you know, the answer is for us as journalists it`s the same thing Federal investigators have. And I think, you know, journalist have the same duty that the people on Robert Mueller team have which is follow the money and there is a lot of money to follow here.
And every bit of it an interesting thread to look down and that`s what`s brought to us tonight`s stories. And another thing to look at is the eighth person, now turns out to be part of a meeting between the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and the Russian lawyer and all these other people turns out to be guy called Ike Kavaldze, who is Russian under Federal Investigation for setting up hundreds of false bank accounts and thousands of false corporations in Delaware with the purpose of laundering money for shady Russians.
Okay? So -- and he happens to be an associate of the Agalarovs, who is the same oligarch who brought the Miss Universe to Moscow for Donald Trump in 2013 and the son who set up this meeting. So there`s so many connections back to each other. Plus the woman, who is the key lawyer in the meeting, is the woman who represented a company, a Cyprus investment vehicle that just a couple months ago settled with Federal Investigators here in the United States. So, you know, there are many ways -- many things to look at as Tim pointed out earlier. Bloomberg was looking at the case of so who, the deal was trump was involved in with Russian investors. The journalism in the end are going to out whatever there is to be found here.
O`DONNELL: Ron, the Trump voter will be irrelevant to Robert Mueller. The trump voter can keep Donald Trump alive politically, although there is not enough of them to actually get him another term. But talk about the issue of obstruction of justice, which seems based on what we`ve watched this year, to be the closest thing we can see, publicly, in the evidence as a possible charge that the president could face.
KLEIN: Yes, absolutely. Look, even on the day Richard Nixon was removed there were still 24 percent of the people in the country supporting him. So I have no doubt there will be die hard Trumpers like Ana Marie is talking about who will be with him.
But that`s not the test here. That not the measure. The measure is -- is he fulfilling miss his oath of office to the constitution? By obstructing justice he isn`t. What we`ve seen is that Donald Trump fired everyone who tried to investigate him or question him.
Go back to Preet Bhara. Go back to Sally Yates, Jim Comey. I would want to take the over under on the tenure of his new FBI Director who hasn`t even confirmed yet. So, you know, this is what Tim was alluding to before.
This is a person who thinks he is above the law, beneath the law, to the side of the law. He is not following the law. But the institutions hopefully will win out, will grind on and will bring justice to bear here.
O`DONNELL: And Tim, most of Donald Trump`s legal problems have been civil. They`ve been cases in which like with Trump University after defrauding students for many years and claiming he was going to fight in all the way, he just gives up, surrenders, hands them $25 million and makes it go away. You cannot reach a civil money settlement to make any of this go away.
O`BRIEN:: Which is why I think he is pursuing the extra judicial actions. I think he`s deeply frustrated he can`t pick up a wand and make Robert Mueller disappear. And so in lieu of that it appears they`re going to try to smear Mueller and his reputation.
And they`re going to try to find any powers neck in the Executive Branch that will extricate themselves from this. But they`re in a very tough position.
O`DONNELL: But the closest thing the President has to the magic wand is the pardon power. That is the only, as Ron knows, the only absolute power the President has. This is a president who believed that all of his powers were absolute, legislative he can make it happen easily, the only thing that`s absolute power is the pardon. That`s what he is thinking tonight.
O`DONNELL: And we are tonight exactly at the 6-month mark in the Trump presidency. Yes. It has been only six months. And in only six months the President of the United States is now exploring pardons for himself, his family and his staff. Ana Marie Cox, Indira Lakshmanan, Tim O`Brien, Ron Klein, thank you all for joining us tonight. That is the Last Word. The 11th hour with Brian Williams is next.