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Transcript: The Beat with Ari Melber, 1/18/22

Guests: David Frum


Four members of Donald Trump`s troubled legal team are formally subpoenaed by the January 6 Committee. Is there a new sense of rivalry between Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis? Where does the Biden administration go from here?


NICOLLE WALLACE, MSNBC HOST: NBC`s live coverage of the breaking news out of the January 6 Committee continues with my friend and colleague Ari Melber -- Ari.

ARI MELBER, MSNBC HOST: Hi, Nicolle. Thank you so much.

I want to welcome everyone to THE BEAT. I am Ari Melber.

And, as mentioned, we begin with breaking news, a brand-new development breaking late today here, Nicolle Wallace and others covering it on MSNBC.

Four members of Donald Trump`s troubled legal team now formally subpoenaed by the Congressional January 6 Committee. And that includes the lawyer who led it all, Trump ally Rudy Giuliani. The other subpoenas went to names that may be somewhat less familiar, but were a core part of the legal team that remained after more serious lawyers who didn`t want anything to do with the strategy to overturn the election directly had departed, individuals like Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell, and a communications and legal specialist, Boris Epshteyn.

The committee issuing these subpoenas for documents and depositions to people who, according to the committee, essentially -- quote -- "advanced unsupported election theories and lies."

The timeline is strong. They want the documents by February 1, and they want the testimony and depositions by February 8 from all four. This new letter from the committee out late today says that Giuliani actively promoted claims of election fraud on behalf of Trump and was in contact with him regarding these strategies to overturn the election.

Giuliani infamously gave many public statements, press conferences and interviews in his advocacy for Trump. He was at the center of both Trump impeachments. And after the election loss, when it had been completely established that Donald Trump was the loser of the election, when the Supreme Court had not taken cases on the merits, it was Giuliani who remained in public and before state bodies and other local municipal type of meetings, where he continued to promulgate election fraud lies before basically whomever would have him.

The committee also notes that Trump campaign attorney Boris Epshteyn participated in those controversial meetings at the Willard Hotel and allegedly had a call with Trump on the morning of January 6, discussing the options to somehow delay the election certification. And that was after it had become clear that Vice President Pence had displayed an unwillingness to join the plot.

Also, the subpoena for Jenna Ellis, who drafted two legal memos, which asserted things that, again, lawyers have the ability to make all kinds of claims or exploratory arguments. But these were really off the wall. They falsely claimed that somehow the incumbent vice president could cancel or overrule the very election that was going to dislodge him and the president from office.

This was fancy legalese for trying to stop the peaceful transition of power.

Now, we have guests on THE BEAT because of their news value. We interviewed Ms. Ellis at the time about what she was up to. Here`s what she said on THE BEAT. This was after the November 2020 election.


JENNA ELLIS, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN SENIOR LEGAL ADVISER: Our strategy is to make sure that we continue to challenge all of these false and fraudulent results.

MELBER: What is the point of all this?

ELLIS: Well, the point of this, of course, is to get to fair and accurate results, because the election was stolen and President Trump won by a landslide.


MELBER: That was false. That was late November. And it was a precursor to what has earned her and others these subpoenas today.

We begin our coverage with NYU Law Professor Melissa Murray and, with an eye on Washington, political strategist Juanita Tolliver.

Melissa, your thoughts on the focus here on the legal team, including people who definitely played more than one role? The president, like any citizen or any person, has right to counsel and private legal advice, but they were also out in public. They were also spewing, as the committee puts it, lies.

What do you see as the import to the investigation of these individuals newly subpoenaed?

MELISSA MURRAY, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it seems like the inquiry from the select committee is really focused on the way in which these individuals were out in public whipping up this frenzy of electoral fraud that, in turn, led to what we saw on January 6, that crowd that was absolutely frothing at the mouth because they believed that the election had been stolen.

So I imagine that the committee`s inquiry is connected to that sort of behavior. It`s also worth noting, in both of the letters to Sidney Powell and Rudolph Giuliani, the committee also noted that both of those individuals have been suspended or under consideration for suspension from the licensing officials in their states where they are barred.

And that is likely something that will happen for Ms. Ellis and Mr. Epshteyn as well.

MELBER: Yes, as you say, those are professional consequences. It may sound like a long ways from some of the other criminal indictments and other sanctions we have been covering, but it does matter to people`s career, to their standing.

On the political side, Juanita, Rudy Giuliani is more than one thing. He is a lawyer. He is a consultant. He does make money off consulting and politics. He also did a lot of stuff, as far as we can tell, just because he wanted to be in the mix.


I want to play for you, just as a reminder, a little bit of what he was doing after Trump`s loss.


RUDY GIULIANI, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There was a plan from a centralized place to execute these various acts of voter fraud, the massive fraud.

How is it they all turned around?

QUESTION: Where is our FBI? And have they expressed any interest whatsoever?

GIULIANI: What do we have to do to get the FBI to wake up? Because I`m sending my votes of people in Michigan over to Germany? I`d fire everybody that was involved in this election.


MELBER: Juanita, your thoughts on just the role he plays and now the pressure he is facing in a new investigation? As mentioned, he was central to both of the impeachments.

JUANITA TOLLIVER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: He was central to both of the impeachments.

He was really ready to risk it all for Trump right after the election. We know he had fallen out of Trump`s good graces. And now this was his effort to say, I`m ready and willing to do your bidding to undermine this election.

So, while Trump was calling Raffensperger in Georgia, we know Giuliani was leaving voice-mails to election officials in Arizona and Michigan and Pennsylvania and other states while he was spreading these false -- these baseless lawsuits.

And I think that what strikes me about the letters from the select committee is that they have relevant public information of everything you did, from the live television interviews, from the delegates of state law makers who flew into Washington, to the lawsuits again.

And this was Giuliani doing everything in his power to make sure that Trump understood that he was going to put everything on the line to try to deliver and undo the will of the voters for Trump.

I think that the impact that this has in D.C. is, it shows the select committee is about their business, and they`re not wasting any time. You mentioned the timeline, Ari. They want this within two to three weeks. They want to move this forward. And they`re coming in not with a voluntary request for Giuliani and others to appear, but with the subpoena.

And so that escalation along signifies that they absolutely have information from those other 400 witnesses who have offered them testimony that they`re going to be leaning on to pin this and pin down exactly Giuliani`s role and what other information that he shared in coordinating with Trump.

Even in the clip you just played, Giuliani said, this plan came from a centralized place. And so that perks up people`s ears and should say, oh, is he talking about the president? Is this something that was explicitly orchestrated by the former president?

And getting corroboration of that, I think, is what the select committee is after at this point.

MELBER: Yes. And that really goes to the heat that`s on them.

Both of our experts here stay on this breaking story.

I also want to add in, bring in a White House veteran, David Frum, a writer for "The Atlantic" who has followed a lot of these issues, including the pressure on democracy itself.

David, your reaction, your view of the potential import of the committee going at what is here the legal side of this?

DAVID FRUM, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE ATLANTIC": So far, we have seen people who have been approached by the committee fall into three categories in their attitudes to the committee.

There are people who have fully and willingly cooperated, including, interestingly, probably the president`s own daughter, former president`s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who is -- who does seem to have given, according to this Cheney, cooperation to the committee.

We have seen people like Mark Meadows, who have cooperated in part and refused in part. And then we have seen the Steve Bannons, who have just adopted a scorched-earth, war to the knife, absolutely not approach.

And I think the committee has just added probably four more people to the Bannon category. It`s hard to see any of these people cooperating willingly, partly because they`re not good decision-makers, even at the best of times, and they`re not fully rational actors.

I mean, Sidney Powell certainly doesn`t seem to be. But, also, they are people who probably are at the real nexus of the connection between President Trump, former President Trump`s so-called legal strategy and the violence that ensued. They`re probably closer to it than -- at least Giuliani and Powell -- than most and may know things.

And so they have a lot of reason not to want to cooperate, even to the extent that they are making rational, competent decisions, which is a question mark.

MELBER: Yes, I think, David, you put your finger on the investigative lead here, which is, are there individuals who would be privy to things that even very senior government folks might not, which is whether the violence that was coming congealed into a coordinated plan, or was it, in their view, some kind of accident that they could take advantage of?

Or, if you want to have a more benign view of the case, was it something that just completely came out of the blue to folks and they were horrified by it? Obviously, everyone`s entitled their defense and they can make those arguments.

I want to bring the professor back in to say, where do you see the privilege fitting in? Because while Rudy Giuliani, as I have stressed, plays more than one role, it would seem that attorney-client privilege cannot simply be canceled or pierced by this congressional committee.


MURRAY: I think we can expect that all four of these prospective witnesses will not only be recalcitrant, but will also defend themselves by invoking attorney-client privilege to the teeth here.

And, again, that will be very difficult, I think, for the committee to unpack, in part because we don`t actually know what kinds of communications are being offered up. They may have information from these other 400 witnesses. But, again, so much of what is privileged between attorney and client, it may depend on how you characterize the nature of those communications.

Attorney-client privilege obviously does not apply in circumstances where the person`s are communicating about something that is illegal, unless it is the attorney sort of advising potential client or client about something the client has already done.

So, I think there`s a lot of gray area here. And the fact that they have been subpoenaed, I think, is more expressive at this point than anything else.

MELBER: David, where do you come down on that, again, having served in a White House and seen a range of arguments?

Whatever one thinks of these individuals and their culpability, people in government, just like a client, they have the right to a wide airing of views and oddball ideas and experiments. And some of these memos, which, again, the lawyering on them is shoddy -- I have already covered that. But the client may have a so-called right to that private counsel of a bonkers memo.

FRUM: Well, I think one of the things that may come out of this is some -- and some -- this may show up on future law exams -- is, well, what does it mean to be a lawyer? What makes you somebody`s lawyer?

I mean, that a lot of people go on television and say, I`m the lawyer. But was Sidney Powell the president`s lawyer or not? And we had a lot of different stories. Did money ever change hands? Was any of them ever paid by Donald Trump? Is there a retention letter of any kind?

What does it mean? And that`s some of the -- one of the questions that may come out here and bubble up and be kind of interesting 50 years from now on some exam somewhere.


FRUM: When -- how tenuous does the connection between a person and a prospective client have to be there for them to call themselves a lawyer? Does going on TV make it so?

MELBER: It`s a great question, especially in the era of Donald Trump and reality TV.

And, Juanita, I think David is edging towards the formulation of something we hear a lot about in a different cultural context, which is the concept of a studio gangster, someone who claims to be a gangster, but only acts as such in the studio, and thus doesn`t really have the full street affirmation.

And I think, David, if I can improvise off what he`s saying, is proposing the concept of a studio lawyer. If you only play lawyer for TV crap, and don`t actually have a retention letter or an agreement or a meeting, do you really get to afford yourself all the rights of the real lawyers?

TOLLIVER: I think that summarizes Giuliani`s role to a T, Ari.

I think that Giuliani knew that he was in a precarious place with Trump. Again, this was all about him, doing whatever it took, including all of those TV appearances, all of those press conferences, where it was essentially him parading around, to try to further Trump`s lies about the 2020 election.

I also think that looking at, even though the fact that these four witnesses might not cooperate with the select committee, the signal that it sends that these four people, who essentially had their road show of election lawsuits for Trump in the days after the election`s decision, these people, in their proximity to Trump and their level of public availability, their public presence, also highlights just how far this select committee has come and how they`re starting to wrap up as they reach their conclusion.

Because you don`t roll Giuliani out with many people left on the roster who you`re going to subpoena. So I`m curious to see what these subpoenas lead to, including the subpoenas of other sitting members of Congress, potentially.

MELBER: Right. Right, as they go at the big dogs.

I want to thank Juanita, Melissa for kicking us off.

David, I have something else I`m interested to get your views on, so we`re going to come back to you later in the hour.

Let me tell everyone what`s coming up. We have some insiders, including an Obama veteran, on just how President Biden is starting the year and what comes next. He`s got a big press conference tomorrow. We will update you on that.

And why is there a new sense of rivalry between the big Trump and the mini- Trump, Ron DeSantis? We have a special breakdown on that later in the hour.



MELBER: Democrats are pushing voting bills tonight amidst a looming Republican filibuster, and Republicans have the votes to block these bills, teeing up another public loss for Biden.

It is not how the president wanted to begin this year after his spending bill was blocked and his vaccine-or-test mandate got struck down by the Supreme Court.

Biden`s setbacks and the dire mood congealing into something that much of the country appears to now agree on. At this moment, things are not going very well, which made Biden a punchline on the new "SNL."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I`m coming back for all of you I promise, right after I pass the Build Back Better now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Dude, even in the real universe, that thing is not passing.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: It`s true. Spider-Man has his villains. I have Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: What about the other problems facing America, like inflation?



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You have to wear a mask in a restaurant for the 10 feet until you sit down. Then you take it off for the whole meal? Plus, you got to go to the bathroom. Then you got to put it back on?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Is there COVID in the bathroom? How does any of it make sense?


MELBER: That`s the mood.

Now, no one`s saying it`s all the president`s fault. Year three of COVID is driving a dour and exhausted national mood. There are "New York Times" columnists asking what Biden is thinking, questioning this strategy of this staggering presidency.

Liberal Maureen Dowd demanding more from an administration she largely supports, while liberal Jonathan Chait says Biden and Democrats have to rethink COVID safety tradeoffs, like how ongoing school closures impact children and working families, when it`s not year one anymore, and the pandemic sometimes feels like it has no end in sight.

Other Democrats have a different view, insisting the issue is not just those problems, but there`s a vacuum where then those problems and certainly senatorial holdouts tend to get all the outsized attention.


James Carville says Democrats are just too whiny, they should gloat more about Biden`s economic that wins so far.

Now, Chuck Schumer had set MLK Day yesterday as a deadline for the voting rights debate to create public pressure on those holdouts, Manchin and Sinema. Schumer then backed down from that hardball deadline, which spared either, either of those senators the tough vote they were promised yesterday. This was even after Sinema punked Schumer and Biden with that speech timed to undercut the president`s special visit to the Senate.

Now, for his part, Senator Schumer says his delayed vote will still put everyone on record.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): And make no mistake about it. Using Dr. King as an inspiration, Democrats will continue to fight on this issue until we succeed.

And make no mistake about it. Using Dr. King as an inspiration, Democrats will continue to fight on this issue until we succeed.


MELBER: Maybe. But this week, that fight is playing out as another slow- motion loss, with Democrats again having to explain why, even though they are in power, it doesn`t always feel like they`re in charge.

Where do we go from here with a lot of winter left? Eugene Robinson and Chai Komanduri are with us when we`re back in 60 seconds.


MELBER: We`re back with "The Washington Post"`s Eugene Robinson and Obama campaign veteran Chai Komanduri.

I walked through some of it, Chai. Your response to this concern that it looks like Democrats are in power, but not in charge.

CHAI KOMANDURI, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, John McCain liked to gleefully say that it`s always darkest before it`s pitch black. Well, that`s basically where we as Democrats are right now.

It`s really dark. It`s kind of the part of the movie where Rocky`s on the mat. This is the part of the movie where Gary Cooper in "High Noon" is abandoned by the whole town. It is very, very bleak for Democrats.

But the thing that I remind myself and I think a lot of people have to remember is, I remember when the ACA was pronounced dead in D.C. a number of times, most notably after Scott Brown won his victory in Massachusetts. People in D.C. were like, oh, the ACA is dead. And Democrats pulled it together.

Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, all of them pulled it together and made it happen. So I think we`re in very much the same position. There`s still a deal to be had there. It may not be what progressives want.

But I do think that there is still a possibility that we can give Joe Manchin pretty much what he wants on Build Back Better -- I know people hate to hear that, but I think that`s a possibility -- maybe what they want on filibuster reform, maybe reaching out to Romney and Collins to at least allow voting rights to come to a vote, I think those are all possibilities.

And I think it`s a tremendous necessity that we get something done. Doing nothing is an impossibility. It`s something we cannot allow.


And, Gene, I will read a little more from one of those items I quoted, Maureen Dowd saying that Biden fancied himself another master of the Senate. "Unfortunately," she writes, "he was thinking of the Senate of `84. McConnell, the Einstein of obstruction, astonishingly successful in ruining the agenda."

And then she writes: "Schumer is such a pushover, he backed down from his promise of a voting rights showdown by MLK Day because winter weather threatened."


EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, look, this -- I hope Democrats use this week as kind of an exorcism, right, and to get all this sort of -- the sort of evil aura off of them, because this isn`t bleak.


Bleak was 2017, right? That was bleak. That felt bleak for Democrats. Democrats have control of the White House and of the House of Representatives and of the Senate, but it`s a 50/50 Senate. And the problem is not just Manchin and Sinema. It`s the 50 Republicans who will block everything Democrats are trying to do.

And so that is the reality. And trying to wish it to be different isn`t going to get anybody anywhere. So, Democrats need to take stock and to trumpet what they have already done, because Mitch McConnell hasn`t stopped the whole Biden agenda.

There are a lot of things that the administration`s been able to do that they ought to talk about. And, second, they ought to get -- Build Back Better, I think it was a great package. It`s not going through as a huge package. So they can pick off bits and pieces.

Romney is very interested in the child tax credit. His proposal on that is actually probably more progressive than Joe Manchin`s. But there -- if there are ways to get pieces of it passed, that is the only sensible thing to do at this point, because, as a big bill, it just ain`t -- it`s just not happening. I wish it were. It`s not happening.

MELBER: Yes. And you make that fair point. And we covered some of this last night, saying still Republicans this week are the ones blocking even an up-or-down vote on the voting rights bill. So that`s the truth. That`s the bulk of it. Right?

You can`t only focus on a couple random senators. And yet Sinema, from what we could tell, did a meeting, Manchin and Sinema did a meeting with Biden. There`s all this talk about politics and hardball and LBJ era, and she seems to be getting away with it.

We dug up an example here that Chai Komanduri mentioned from "The Wire," which is a different style of leadership perhaps than Biden, where you need to be not only loved, but feared. Take a look.




UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Omar coming, yo.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Omar coming, yo.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Omar coming, yo. Get out of here, yo. Omar coming.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I said Omar coming.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Come on, let`s go.


MELBER: We will mention, Chai, Barack Obama himself said that was his favorite character, although he never endorsed everything that the fictional character did.

But why do you think of Omar when you think about Biden and these holdouts, Chai?

KOMANDURI: Because he is the person who understands it`s better to be feared than to be loved.

And Omar was somebody who maintained his integrity throughout, maintained his persona throughout, and did what needed to be done to achieve his objectives.

And I think, ultimately, that is what politics is about. The objective is still doable here. It may not be in the form that progressives hoped a year ago, but it is still doable here. And the cost of doing nothing for Democrats is absolutely dire.

Democrats need to have achievements that they can trumpet back to voters. They also need to end what really feels like kind of a Groundhog Day loop of blown legislative deadlines and constant negotiations. This is causing Joe Biden to look weak and ineffective.

And it has to end. And if he can just get something done, something passed, it will really change the way that the administration feels and Democrats feels going into the midterms.

MELBER: So let`s compare that to Obama, first to Chai and then to Gene, because Barack Obama dealt with the seeds of this, a Tea Party that just wanted to stop him at all costs, and had racist leaders in it, just as the Oath Keepers do.

I mean, we have been in this for a while, though people think of the Trump era as so acute. But I`m not sure, Chai -- tell us what you think -- that Barack Obama suffered the same immediate perception, particularly in year one, like, OK, does he have his hand on the wheel? Is he respected?

There seems to be a gap there. And maybe it has to do with the structural underpinnings of their different support within the party. I don`t recall, even with all of the stuff I just mentioned against Obama and the nation, I don`t recall any Democrats going at him the way Sinema did Biden.

KOMANDURI: Well, look, Sinema is sort of an interesting character, to say the least.

I mean, Joe Biden -- I mean, Joe Manchin is someone who we understand. Donald Trump won his state by 70 percent. So his opposition, I think, makes some political sense. Sinema does not.

And I really am very puzzled by her behavior, particularly in a purple state that is going bluer every single day. I mean, what does she want? I mean, maybe she wants more internships at wineries. I mean, Senator Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, I`m sure, know a lot of great wineries that we have out in California.


We have a wonderful wine industry that Sinema is actually very familiar with and has spent some of her downtime here. So, that is a real puzzle. And I think that she is a really unique character in terms of D.C.

As far as Obama and Biden and that comparison goes, I do think, and I`m going to say quite bluntly, there is some ageism going on here on the part of the media and on a part of a lot of people. I think that people look at Joe Biden`s age, just assume certain things about him...


KOMANDURI: ... that they do not assume about younger men like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton.


ROBINSON: Yes, I think there is some ageism going on.

And I recall a lot of stories about Barack Obama and how he was sort of Mr. Spock, he was too cerebral, and not visceral enough, and too intellectual, and not gritty enough to really do politics. He was actually really, really good at politics. And Joe Biden is really good at politics, too. But it`s a 50/50 Senate. You cannot lose a single vote.

And, yes, I have got no idea what`s on Kyrsten Sinema`s mind. She won`t talk to anybody. She made that pronouncement that was sort of in your face, in the president`s face, in a way that there should be repercussions for her in her political career going forward. And I suspect there will, because that won`t be forgotten. That can`t be forgotten.

But in the meantime, in the short term, she has the vote.


ROBINSON: She has one of the votes that is necessary. And that`s just the facts.


ROBINSON: So we have to deal with the facts as they are, and then we will worry later about repercussions for somebody who does what Sinema did, which is just -- that should be unacceptable to a president. And he should remember that, I think, for a long time.

MELBER: Well, and we`re out of time in this segment.

But, Gene, we don`t do ageism on THE BEAT because we like it old-school.


ROBINSON: Yes, we do. We do like it old-school.

MELBER: Yes, we do.


MELBER: Chai -- did you get that joke, Chai?

KOMANDURI: I do. I`m very familiar with the term old-school. It`s something that...


KOMANDURI: I understand...



ROBINSON: Just a bunch of -- just a few O.G.s here just solving the problems of the world.

MELBER: You said it, O.G.s solving problems. We should only be so lucky to aspire to what Gene just put forward as a goal.

My thanks to two O.G.s, Eugene Robinson and Chai Komanduri.

I will tell everyone coming up, turmoil in MAGA world, as the mini-Trump turns on Trump. We will explain.



MELBER: Let me tell you a little story.

About a decade ago, there was an unknown 33-year-old Florida man with no particular claim to a right-wing populist following. He had a history degree from Yale, where he graduated with honors, and a law degree from Harvard, where he graduated with honors, strong academic credentials, but not exactly the most celebrated background for the world of anti-elite marches and QAnon gatherings.

But the young man proved to be adept at political positioning. He won a House race, entering Congress in 2013. And after finding it hard to break out within the standard GOP elite politics, the little known Florida congressman, as "The New York Times" put it, found he could get more attention from the party, from the public and from the president of the time by hitching himself to Trumpism.


GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): Let me just say, Mr. President, welcome home to Florida.

I really appreciate the kind words from the president.

But let me tell you about the president.

And I want to thank him for his support. I want to thank him for entrusting me.


MELBER: All of that love, you heard there.

DeSantis began very deliberately modeling his entire identity after Trump, with nearly identical campaign flags, and his own speech patterns began to echo Trump, as this edit from the recount shows.


DONALD TRUMP, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Everybody here would do it. Judges are a priority.

R. DESANTIS: And, honestly, we have businesses that have been locked down and lives destroyed for over a year.

TRUMP: Many, many ballots, and they put them all together and then they just dump them.

R. DESANTIS: No COVID vaccine passports.

TRUMP: Made in China and Russia.


R. DESANTIS: Made in China and shipped here.

Why would we want so many important things...

TRUMP: Can we take them?

R. DESANTIS: ... to us be at the whim of China?


MELBER: A lot of communication is nonverbal.

DeSantis rode the suddenly larger profile there that he was building into a very big victory as a young governor of Florida. Now, some mock DeSantis for being, as you just saw, such an echo, so blatantly sycophantic.

But this Harvard graduate was pretty in on the joke. He even had his own trolling campaign ads, taking his own Trump fandom to self-parodying extremes.


CASEY DESANTIS, WIFE OF RON DESANTIS: Ron loves playing with the kids.

R. DESANTIS: Build the wall.

C. DESANTIS: He reads stories.

R. DESANTIS: Then Mr. Trump said, "You`re fired." I love that part.

C. DESANTIS: He`s teaching Madison to talk.

R. DESANTIS: Make America great again.


MELBER: Just because something looks kind of dumb doesn`t mean the person doing it is dumb.

The person doing it might think a lot of other people are dumb. DeSantis knows he echoed Trump to that point of self-parody, as he gestured there. But he may have more moves on him than Republicans who only echo Trump politically or crawl back to apologize if they`re ever caught off-script, as Ted Cruz recently was, because, as COVID continues to dominate our national lives and public pandemic anger is haunting Biden, just as it did Trump, DeSantis has picked up this as the issue to begin his break with.


He`s going more anti-lockdown, more anti-safety rules, more anti-booster than Trump ever has. And the former president has noticed.


MARIA BARTIROMO, FOX NEWS: Have you gotten the booster?

R. DESANTIS: So, I have done whatever I did, the normal shot.

TRUMP: I watched a couple of politicians be interviewed. And one of the questions was, did you get the booster? Because they had the vaccine. And they -- oh, oh. They`re answering it like -- in other words, the answer is yes, but they don`t want to say it, because they`re gutless.


MELBER: Gutless.

Now, there`s no automatic reason, from a policy view, that opposing certain safety rules should be right or left. And there are policy tradeoffs here that are legitimate. And we have covered them.

But in today`s Republican Party, DeSantis has found the rare issue where he can say he`s going to Trump`s right. He recently hit Trump along these very lines. He said that, if he had a regret from during the Trump administration -- and we just showed you how tight they were -- his regret was failing to push back harder on Trump and opposing the first stay-at- home guidance in March 2020, he says.

And unlike Cruz or the other Mine Me copycats, DeSantis isn`t afraid to buck Trump on politics. He hasn`t surrendered to the idea that, if Donald Trump runs again, then DeSantis and no other Republican should ever be able to run for president.


FMR. GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R-SC): I would not run if President Trump ran and I would talk to him about it.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): If Donald Trump is going to run for president in 2024, he will be the Republican nominee. And, of course, I would support him in that.

SEN. TIM SCOTT (R-SC): We will support our nominee. And if President Trump chooses to run, there`s a very good chance that he will be our nominee.

QUESTION: Currently, you are leading pretty much every poll for the Republican nomination for president.

R. DESANTIS: I just do my job. Republicans, they want to see people actually lead and get things done and fight back.


MELBER: He`s fighting by not sounding like all those other Republicans we just showed you. And that was just a sampling.

Now, this bothers Trump, who`s been reportedly telling friends and allies that DeSantis just lacks charisma or personality. Trump`s also held back, though, on any public attacks yet or nicknames.

His longest serving adviser is testing some out, though, maligning DeSantis as a Yale Harvard phony, who`s not smart or honest and owes his career to Trump. That`s from Roger Stone, when DeSantis cast himself as a mini-Trump. That`s how he got elected.

And now, in Trump world, many see DeSantis as a Mini Me who does not know his place. And Trump may feel like echoing the dis track energy of Aubrey Graham, who once said, maybe I`m confused, because I thought we was enemies. The big you is like a Mini Me. Like, big you, man, I`m a legend in my city streets.

Well, now both these men are clashing in those Florida streets, with signs that DeSantis does not want to be a Mini Me anymore. He wants the title, the crown. And he may play loose with the facts, the history and the science to get there.

This is a story at the heart of the future of the Republican Party. And we turn to someone who knows so many of these individuals.

David Frum was a speechwriter in the White House of George W. Bush. He`s the author of "Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy."

David, your thoughts on this clash and what it means.

FRUM: Well, this is about to be a fantastic political science experiment in figuring out who actually runs a modern American party and specifically the Republican Party.

If this choice were left up to everyone who makes a significant donation to the Republican Party, there`s just no question that Ron DeSantis would take this thing in a walk. If it were decided by a majority of Republican governors and senators, again, Ron DeSantis would win in a walk, because, although he`s Mini Me, as you said, or has positioned himself that way, he also, as you said, is a fundamentally rational and predictable actor.

Everybody in the Republican Party knows what the DeSantis will do and what he won`t do. They know what he believes and what he only pretends to believe.

Donald Trump is anything but a rational, predictable actor. And the people -- the big donors to the party, the members of the Senate, the governors, they have had enough of him. And they saw him not win the popular vote in 2016 and not win the popular vote in 2020. And they`re afraid he would not win the popular vote again in 2024, and that it might matter in 2024, as it did in 2020, and not in 2016.

But we`re going to see who decides. Who governs? Who runs this party, the rank-and-file, who love Donald Trump, the big donors, the elected officials, who don`t trust him?


And, David, I`m not going to try to make you out to be any particular type of elite or insider, but you have served in the White House. You know a lot of these folks.

Some smart people want you to think they`re less smart than they are.

What do you think about the way DeSantis, who I went through his credentials, has not only people in Florida, but plenty of observers or liberals or whatever, thinking that he is some -- quote, unquote -- "dumb anti-science nut," when it`s not clear that he always was?


FRUM: Well, what we`re about to have a test is between two types of phony.

Donald Trump is an authentic American phony. Donald Trump was born to enormous wealth and privilege. And although he messed up in school, he got more chances to go to more schools than most people who had the same lack of work ethic as Donald -- as the young Donald Trump did.

Ron DeSantis is a phony American phony. You can see how phony it is. Everyone -- you can see the sweat, you can see the effort, you can see the invention of the planning. So we`re going to have a contest between an authentic phony and a phony phony, and we will see what works.

But this is going to be, above all, a test, not of the two men, but of what`s behind them behind. DeSantis will be the money, the organized party. Behind DeSantis until the last minute will be FOX News. Remember, FOX News in 2016 was behind Chris Christie as long as it possibly could be and actually tried to -- this is what destroyed Megyn Kelly`s career on FOX News, that she was sent out there to be the Donald Trump killer in one of those FOX News-sponsored debates.

And, instead, Trump broke her and broke the network. But they wanted -- they wanted Chris Christie in 2016. And they are going to want Ron DeSantis in 2024. We will see who gets what they want.


And last question. In your view, as long as COVID is such a big part of daily life and there`s anger associated with it, does that also maintain it as a fault line in GOP politics, the way DeSantis is using it?

FRUM: Well, DeSantis has one win on COVID, which is, he opened the schools in Florida early. And that looks like a right decision that a lot of people are going to be grateful for.

But he`s also -- as Donald Trump figured out, he got offside. He`s been too extreme on the anti-vax. Trump doesn`t worry about the Republican nomination. He worries about the election. So he is talking to the people who made Glenn Youngkin governor of Virginia, the rational Republicans who live in suburbs and, of course, are vaccinated.

Ron DeSantis, with a harder nomination fight, is talking to some of the weirder people in the party. But he does have the school issue behind them. And that is going to be a win, that he`s going to say, I opened the schools in Florida early, when, in the blue states, they kept the schools closed with enormous harm to millions of schoolchildren.

MELBER: All really interesting insights, as always.

David Frum, thanks for being here.

FRUM: Thank you.

MELBER: Coming up, we have a news update on public safety. Stay with us.



MELBER: And an update tonight on public safety, facts and the science as we have it.

This pandemic and the Omicron surge the United States is changing the face of year three. About one in five Americans have been infected, and new projections today from the AP show a new model of a wave where Omicron deaths increase in the coming weeks from 50,000 to 300,000 Americans dying by the time this all subsides in mid-March.

The context is that, while medical experts agree the Omicron variant is in many ways less severe, we still have an unvaccinated problem in this country. Now, the projection also deals with the sheer surge. Consider that 47 states have spiking cases. you can see where COVID is spreading. The map is basically a version of us telling you everywhere.

Now, there are places, as you see in the Upper Northeast, like New York, New Jersey and Maryland, that have a decline. People are going to the hospital everywhere, 156,000 patients a day. You see that here. It`s more than fatigue. Think about how you felt and how people and leaders were acting in earlier spikes.

And now think about the fact that we are at an all-time high for people going to the hospital. And that is creating a strain. We have been reporting on that with everything from our experts, to shots of nurses and others speaking out.

I can tell you, when you look nationally, hospitals are over 80 percent full. In Oklahoma City, there are four hospitals who say they have no ICU beds left, staffers at a breaking point. And federal health officials are again cautioning that, while it`s OK to be tired, and there are valid debates about all of this -- I have emphasized that a lot with you hear in the news -- the authorities want you to understand this is not over yet.


DR. VIVEK MURTHY, U.S. SURGEON GENERAL: The challenge is that nothing -- the entire country is not moving at the same pace.

The Omicron wave started later in other parts of the country. So we shouldn`t expect a national peak in the next coming days. The next few weeks will be tough.


MELBER: As for the places where it has lapsed, like the Northeast, here`s what Dr. Fauci says.


DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BIDEN: It is an open question as to whether or not Omicron is going to be the live virus vaccination that everyone is hoping for, because you have such a great deal of variability with new variants.

I would hope that that`s the case. But that would only be the case if you don`t get another variant that eludes the immune response.


MELBER: You may notice something that a lot of these projections have in common.

The people who study this the most and who are the most credible, according to the experts, often speak with the highest references to uncertainty. If someone tells you they have this figured out, they know when it`s ending, they know what`s best, they might not be a government-approved doctor, Fauci and others telling us, we know something, but we don`t know it all.

As for the policy side, where there`s plenty of challenges and legitimate debates, well, the Biden administration reaching a incremental breakthrough on something that had been at work, the Web site for free at-home rapid test going live.

In fact, you can go to, what you see there,, and get up to four free tests.

I`m going to fit in a break, and when we come back, we are going to hand the mic to Stevie Wonder on voting rights.



MELBER: Music icon Stevie Wonder has been joining this push for voting rights. And he has been at it a long time.

In fact, he came out with a very strong powerful message here for today`s senators.


STEVIE WONDER, MUSICIAN: Any senator who cannot support the protection of voting rights in the United States of America cannot say that they support the Constitution.

If you care and support our rights, do the hard work. You can`t please everybody, but you can protect all of us.

And to keep it all the way real, the filibuster is not working for democracy. Why won`t you?


MELBER: That`s a fair question. Songs in the key of my life or songs in the key of civil rights?

As we reported last night, Stevie Wonder has been at this a long time, including his iconic song "Happy Birthday," which was itself a piece of activism calling for the holiday we now celebrate, happy birthday, Dr. Martin Luther King.

That`s our final word tonight.