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Transcript: The Beat with Ari Melber, December 28, 2020

Guests: Brittney Cooper, Jeremy O. Harris, Michael Cohen, Libby Casey


Former Trump Attorney General Michael Cohen speaks out. The art of the 2020 pandemic year is celebrated. Playwright Jeremy O. Harris advocates for assistance to the arts. President Trump continues wreaking havoc in what are the final days.



Hi, Ari.

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

Welcome to THE BEAT. I'm Ari Melber. And glad to be back with you.

We begin tonight with this erratic and unpredictable lame-duck president wreaking havoc in what are the final days. Donald Trump, as you may have heard by now, did fold and cave and signed the exact COVID relief bill that had been sitting here for days.

Now, this is the same bill that extends unemployment benefits and provides $600 in direct payments and aid to individuals and with foreign aid. Now, these are things that Donald Trump had singled out and said that, because there was that potential foreign money or other details, those were his, he said, sticking points.

But it's important to know tonight, as we go on the air, that they're in the exact same bill he just signed into law. In the end, the fact is that Donald Trump's antics brought him nothing. It's a self-made crisis that has such real-life impact; 14 million people may miss very vital aid, the unemployment checks that would have been on their way, if not for Trump's delay.

Now, right now, as you can see, Speaker Pelosi has called a vote on the extended expanded payments, that vote under way. We will keep an eye on that and let you know what happens.

Meanwhile, as people were facing real-life problems here, Donald Trump spent the time that he was delaying this very bill by golfing in Florida, Vice President Pence on vacation in Vail.

The backlash to all of that has been bipartisan.


SEN. PAT TOOMEY (R-PA): I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks, but the danger is, he will be advocate -- he will be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT): What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R-IL): But to play this old switcheroo game, which is just kind of like, I don't get the point, unless it's just to create chaos and show power and be upset because he lost the election.


MELBER: Chaos and punishing regular innocent Americans for losing the election. That was a Republican saying there in the end saying that.

And here's a conservative outlet. I'm sure you know it, the tabloid "New York Post," which has been so supportive of Trump for so long, saying, "The Post" says, "Mr. President, stop the insanity," and suggesting, after losing the election, he gives it up to save his legacy.

Let's get right into it.

I'm joined by "Washington Post" reporter Libby Casey and Rutgers University Professor Britney Cooper.

Good to see you both, and happy holidays.



MELBER: Libby, here we are. And there is a type of breakthrough, as covered, but at what cost, I ask you?

CASEY: The only person who seems to think this is a victory for President Trump is Lindsey Graham, who is saying President Trump eked out some concessions, but he didn't. He didn't get anything.

All he did was hold this up. And you're right, Ari. This jeopardized the payments for 14 million Americans, who are hurting so much right now in the worst way, dealing with unemployment. And now the federal government, during a holiday week, is having to try to scramble and get checks cut.

And so President Trump got nothing. All he did was hurt the American people, who are depending on aid. And what he also does is put Republicans in a tough spot right now, because, as you mentioned, the House voting tonight on this $2,000 aid, increasing the payments from $600 to $2,000.

President Trump had said that this $600 was not adequate. He called it ridiculously low. Well, Nancy Pelosi said, great, let's have that vote. Let's bring it to Congress. And let's see how Congress weighs in on this.

Now, House Democrats...


MELBER: Let me bring your point to the House floor.

In fact, I think we have live pictures. We were just monitoring this moments ago. And if we look at the House floor, we have them going forward, and you can see the vote totals here, Libby.

Your view on what it means? For folks catching up here between the holidays, what is Speaker Pelosi doing here? What does this vote do, as we track it?

CASEY: So, the House has passed it. So they had to get a two-thirds majority here. They have eked that through.

And so that is now through the House. The question is what the Senate will do. This puts Senate Republicans in a tough spot, because they now have to go on the record either saying they support this $2,000 check or they don't support the $2,000 check.

And if you're, for example, two Republicans running for Senate in Georgia with a vote in just a handful of days, you're going to have to go on the record about this. And it just makes me think, Ari, with friends like these, who needs enemies? Because President Trump is putting Republicans in a very tough position.

MELBER: Yes, and that goes -- what Libby is saying, Brittney, goes to where the politics meets the reality.

The reality is all of the pressure people are facing, what has been such a tough year and holiday time for so many, and, again, this breaking news coming here, right here, at the top of the show.

When we came on the air, we were monitoring the floor. Now, as Libby mentions, you have the House passing this. It is not like the rest of the bill, where it's gone through both chambers yet, but the House is a major step.

And, Brittney, the politics are Donald Trump continuing to be willing to blow things up, to the point that "The New York Post," these other Republicans, as well as even stronger voices in private, saying, wow, he's really not about anything other than chaos.

COOPER: Look, we know this. This is a person who lacks empathy, and who, I think, unfortunately, takes real pleasure in making folks live on the edge of chaos, of worry, of despair.

He is upset with the American public because he's been defeated. And so, because of that, he has decided that he has no responsibilities of leadership.

But let me say that I'm actually more incensed with the GOP. It's very rich of them to come out now at this late hour and pretend to be upset with the president that they elected, that they backed, that they allowed to create this kind of chaos for our country over the last four years.

And so they have created the monster that is Donald Trump. And now what is happening is we as a country have to figure out how to last through these last 23 days. The other thing about him creating chaos is that he stays on our minds, which is the thing that he wants, right?

He will take any kind of attention. So, negative attention is perfectly fine with this man, because he wants folks to -- he wants to impose maximum chaos, despair, and destruction before he leaves office.

And the GOP really has to have a soul reckoning about why that kind of leadership or lack of leadership was so attractive to them for the last four years. And they -- and so I don't care that they're in front of the American public and they're in a tough position.

They have put the American people in a tough position for the last four years by allowing this man to get into office, refusing to stand up to him, and then refusing to take care of the American people throughout this pandemic.

And so whatever may befall them befalls them, but what we have got to do is give folks some immediate relief, and I hope that happens.

MELBER: Yes. And you say the Republican Party is responsible for creating, as you put it, this -- quote -- "monster" in Donald Trump.

And I have known you enough and worked with you enough to know that you mean this in the literal negative sense of monster, not in the Nicki Minaj positive sense of monster.

COOPER: Absolutely.

Nicki Minaj kills her verse on "Monster." Donald Trump has never -- has no bars. And all that I hope for him is that he lands behind bars.


COOPER: Nicki has got bars. Trump...


MELBER: Wow. Look at...


MELBER: Brittney came ready to play. I don't know what's in the eggnog, but you're all here, from no bars to behind bars.

And the legal point is valid, because whatever federal immunity the DOJ has recognized for presidents, that ends on January 20. Now, we don't know what's going to happen, but that certainly ends.

The other point in the "New York Post" editorial I wanted to read to you, Libby, was everyone understands -- and we have more on this later on the program -- that the election is over, the results are certified. There's no way to end or reverse that.

But there is a concern that even going forward with this scam has other damages. And so, again, "The New York Post" is not, as I have emphasized, the first to criticize Donald Trump.

But they say here, Mr. President, it's time to end this dark charade -- quote -- "You're cheering for an undemocratic coup."


CASEY: "The New York Post" is giving him advice. Remember, this is his hometown paper. This is also owned by Rupert Murdoch, OK?

So, "The Wall Street Journal" was sort of nudging President Trump along to reality. Now we see "The Post" doing it. Will FOX News get to that point? We're all still watching, because we know how motivated President Trump is by FOX News, how that's a bit of an echo chamber, but also all of the people who watch FOX News and consume this news.

Ari, we're seeing these polls come out that have a shocking number of Republicans in this country believing that something was wrong with this election, that something was rigged, believing these falsehoods.

So, now you can see "The New York Post" saying, look, your legacy is secure. That's what they have said a couple times now to him. Stop what you're doing. And they're really warning him that listening to someone like Michael Flynn, who has called to impose martial law, would be tantamount to treason.

And those words, you're cheering for an undemocratic coup, coming from "The New York Post," certainly has to ring among President Trump's sort of staunchest supporters there in his inner circle.

But are the people playing golf with President Trump today talking about this with him? Is this saturating President Trump's mind? And it's been interesting to see what the bar is for Republicans. When will they admit defeat for the presidency? What will it take to get to that point?

And so now "The New York Post" has reached it. President Trump is looking to this event next week, this usually pro forma event, when Congress certified the electoral results, as the next linchpin.

And he's telling Americans on Twitter to watch for that to be a big day. And so there's a real question of whether we actually get to that date, if it will make a difference.


And what's striking as well is, the election was not close enough for these kind of tricks to get anywhere. Donald Trump was also very late to this. Whether that's because his heart wasn't fully in it, and it's only a scam and a fund-raising mechanism, or if it's because he's just disorganized, a closer election and someone willing to plan this way earlier, you might have had a much bigger constitutional crisis, which I think people need to keep in mind as they make up their own minds about what we want to do coming out of this particular era.

Libby Casey and Brittney Cooper, really appreciate both of you kicking off our coverage tonight.

CASEY: Thank you.

COOPER: My pleasure.

MELBER: Thank you both.

When we return in just 30 seconds, we get into this year of reckoning on justice -- a special report on how our culture and music have gotten us through tough times. That's in tonight's program.

Also, Trump insiders speaking out, a former aide saying the White House has turned into a total -- quote -- "crazy town."

But, first, Michael Cohen live back on THE BEAT on Trump's pardons in 30 seconds.


MELBER: We're joined now by Donald Trump's former attorney Michael Cohen, the author of the book "Disloyal," the host of the podcast "Mea Culpa."

He's now asking for early release from his home confinement, making some waves with a new clash with the Justice Department that he has been at cross-purposes with under Bill Barr over the last several years.

Thanks for joining me, Michael.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY/FIXER FOR DONALD TRUMP: Good to see you again. Welcome back, Ari.

MELBER: Glad to be back.

Let's start with that news in your situation and case. Tell us what you're asking for and whether you think you can get a fair shake, at a time when people who have been less critical of the president than you have found themselves bestowed with all kinds of pardon gifts.

COHEN: Right.

So, first of all, what I had filed on this past Wednesday were two writs. One is a writ of habeas corpus and the other is a writ of mandamus, if this is what you're referring to.

What I'm asking for is, in the habeas corpus, which deals directly with me, is that, pursuant to the FIRST STEP Act, which is really the only bipartisan thing Donald Trump accomplished by signing on the executive order, which, again, was bipartisan, they have done absolutely nothing on.

And there's earned time credit. Now, I did the mandamus because I made a promise to guys back at Otisville and others, like my buddies Tony Meatballs and Big Minty, That I wasn't going to stop once I got out, once I was put on home confinement.

The writ of mandamus will affect 153,000 eligible federal inmates in order to, under 18-USC-3632, will be able to receive their earned time credit, based upon programming credit, as well as work credits, so that they, too, could be released to either home confinement or supervised release.

MELBER: Now, let me -- I'm only going to slow you down because we got statutory codes, we have got the FIRST STEP Act, we have Tony Meatballs. It's a lot to track.

But what you're saying, sir, is that you have advocacy that's not only for yourself, but also is for other people who are incarcerated?

COHEN: That's correct. That's on the mandamus.

MELBER: And so this is you, in a way, calling out something that many have observed, and you have lived it personally, Michael, of course, which is that Donald Trump has tried to at times invoke or exploit the justice system for his own political benefit.

There was a lot of talk about clemency, for example, at the Republican Convention. You seem to be suggesting in part of your filing here that they're not doing everything they can to live up to that, that that was more window dressing.

COHEN: How about that they have done absolutely nothing so far?

It was -- remember that President Trump signed the executive order in 2018. Two years have gone by, and they still can't produce a recidivism guide in order to make the determination how many hours equals how many days.

It's really just despicable, and it's just another piece of paper that Donald Trump signed, very much like the kind he used to throw on my desk when he had something that he did, but he didn't really want to do anything with it, other than take credit that he is a prison reform guy and has done more for prison reform than any president since Abraham Lincoln.


Let's get into the pardons, Michael. If someone were watching this period we have lived through, four years ago, if there was a pardon to be given out from Donald Trump to a close aide, whether they did anything or not, I think we would all agree that, at one point in time, you would have been one of those people he would have been musing about pardoning, because you and him did have a close relationship professionally for a long time.

We all lived through how that's changed.

But take a look at other folks who, like you, were senior aides to the president in one capacity or another who have gotten these pardons, Flynn, Manafort, Charles Kushner and the family, Roger Stone, Papadopoulos, Congressman Collins, Duncan Hunter.

When you look at all that -- and we can, I believe, put some of it on the screen -- what do you think of these pardons thus far?

COHEN: I think it's like make it rain, right? That's all he's doing. He's taking political favors and money, right, by people for the sole purpose of giving them pardons.

The man completely usurped the fact there is a pardon office, that there are people who should be receiving a pardon.

Do I think any of these people should be receiving pardons? Absolutely not. I think that Trump has just taken over the entire country. He wants to run it the same way that he ran the Trump Organization, as if he owned the company, as if he owns the United States of America.

I mean, there are people who worked in that pardon office all year long putting together documents, speaking to prosecutors, making sure that the person who receives the pardon is actually entitled to a pardon. Otherwise, basically, what you're doing is, you're giving the president the ability, like his old Trump Monopoly game, a get-out-of-free-jail card, simply because you're a friend.

And you're right. I would have received one had I agreed not to come out, not to speak truth to power.

MELBER: Do you believe that this list we have looked at is about where this ends, or do you think Donald Trump has more pardon surprises before he leaves office?

COHEN: Oh, I think there's more pardon surprises.

See, what I call this in the book "Disloyal" and on "Mea Culpa" is, this is Trump fatigue. He's wearing the entire country down, so that each and every time that the media keeps talking about this 20 people, this 20 people, another eight people, another 10 people, all of a sudden, by the end, we're all going to be like, please, enough, right? Please just go away.

There's 23 more days. So that's when he will probably try to drop the pardon power for Jared, for Don, Ivanka, Allen Weisselberg, whoever he thinks, right, will possibly get a federal indictment.

But again, something I talked about on your show, Ari, this produces a very significant problem for Donald Trump, in the fact that, once you receive that pardon power -- once you get that pardon, you're no longer able to invoke the Fifth Amendment, right, of your right against self-incrimination because you cannot be charged.

So all of these people may ultimately be his downfall, simply because they will be testifying against him, either before a court or a tribunal.

MELBER: Yes, as you say, that's a legal paradox that lawyers like yourself sometimes warn clients about what's around the corner, depending on what happens.

Of course, you're not there warning him personally about this anymore. But, as you say...

COHEN: You know what, Ari? I wish I was.

MELBER: Go ahead.

COHEN: Ari, I'm sorry to interrupt you, but I wish I was there, because here's what I would be telling him right now.

Why don't you knock off the nonsense with the pardons? Why don't you turn around and think about all of the Americans each and every day that are dying. We're having a like 9/11 event every day based upon this coronavirus.

Why don't you instead -- the way that he came out acting like a fool, right, why don't you invoke, for example, the Production Defense Act, and why don't you -- since we have some of these inoculations, these vaccines that have an 85 percent, 90 percent, 95 percent efficacy rate, why don't we just invoke the Production Defense Act, and make sure all manufacturers are manufacturing it, so that we're not at two million dosages?

We would be at the Dr. Anthony Fauci expert 20 million doses. I mean, I don't understand why we're waiting for companies to come up with their own.


COHEN: If we have a company that produces an efficacy rate of 90 percent, as far as I'm concerned, mandate that everybody manufacture it. Figure out the money later.

MELBER: Yes. Well, and, Michael...

COHEN: But that's what they should be doing.

MELBER: And that's some of the straight talk that, from what we could tell, he's not getting. He's getting even less of it from the people who are still around him.

Michael Cohen on more than one topic tonight, very interesting stuff. Thank you, sir.

COHEN: Always good to see you, Ari.

MELBER: Good to see you too.

I want to tell regular viewers of THE BEAT about something special that we have been working on.

I was off last week. I'm thrilled to be back with you. But we want to take you through a year that has been quite a year, from the coronavirus, to the social justice movements, and, of course, how we all get through this together with grit.

It's a special report. It's brand-new next.


MELBER: At the end of the year, we often reflect on what's happened.

And 2020 has been a year, this global pandemic upending the whole world, police killings reigniting the Black Lives Matter protest movement in the U.S., and, of course, a historic election with record turnout.

Even though we know what we have been living through, it's striking when you just take it all together.


NORAH O'DONNELL, CBS NEWS: Tonight, the CDC is confirming the first case in the U.S. of a new and deadly coronavirus.

NICOLLE WALLACE, MSNBC HOST: Hospitals are swelling with a record number of coronavirus patients. And Americans are dying at the highest rate since the spring.

DAVID MUIR, ABC NEWS: An unarmed black man died after being arrested and pinned to the ground by an officer.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: The ninth straight day of protests ignited by the death of George Floyd.

EUGENE ROBINSON, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: It's happening in all 50 states. It's happening in hundreds of cities.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: I can't breathe~! I can't breathe~! I can't breathe~!

LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: The very first vote in the 2020 presidential race being cast tonight.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Former Vice President Joe Biden has been elected president of the United States.


MELBER: There are many ways we mark all these events. Journalists write the first draft of history as it unfolds, newspapers documenting these landmark events, from BLM protests to the ousting of President Trump.

And our user-generated and creative Internet has plenty of different takes, some of them funny, like how it started vs. how it's going. That's a trend where people take opposing images to depict their life, like this meme from celebrity chef Guy Fieri of him laughing and then his kitchen literally up in flames, how it's going.

Some use the trend to post inspirational photos of how they have come. Take future first lady Jill Biden getting in on it. She posted an old photo of her and a young Joe Biden and them now on the trail victorious.

People also used the Reese Witherspoon trend to depict the trying nature of this year. She posted a smiling picture of herself as Elle Wood "Legal Blonde" in January, and, you can see, she becomes Reese from "Wild" looking like she's struggling to even stay afloat, something many of us can relate to over all of these months.

And even as we have new technology and new ways to mark or process what's going on, many people do return to the long-running and analog human instincts for storytelling and culture to understand what's been going on.

There's a place for news. We think that. There's even a place for Twitter. But I got to tell you, it's no accident that, when times get hardest, many turn to artists.

Past generations faced turmoil, chaos, and remarkable pain through the art and culture of their times. We have art from the civil rights movement. We have art that reckoned with the existential stress during World War II, and we have music, which we used to gather our experiences, the soundtrack of our very lives and struggles, and many songs do keep playing because they continue to echo in our lives, like Neil Young confronting American racism in "Southern Man," which famously drew the outrage rebuttal from Lynyrd Skynyrd, insisting, wait a minute.

And he said the South was not as racist as suggested with "Sweet Home Alabama."

That debate there is painfully relevant right now, just as Neil Young's "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" grew famously out of the fall of the Soviet Union, but took on Republican policies in the U.S. as well.

That may resonate in a year where Donald Trump ended the year mimicking so many authoritarian election plots more familiar to foreign strongmen.

Now, what art and music may be emerging from this tough year we just lived through? Well, many people have already begun to wonder what will grow out of our collective adversity.


LEE DANIELS, DIRECTOR: I think some of the best work that we have ever had, that we're capable of, will come from this darkness.

AL PACINO, ACTOR: When it's personal, because that's really art.

KATY PERRY, MUSICIAN: A lot of artists are working from a place of pain. And from sometimes great pain comes great art.



And that brings us to something potentially uplifting right now, this year in music.

There are many places we can start, from artists who came of age in this era, scoring their first hits, to some of those more seasoned rebels I just mentioned.

Let's actually start with one of them, singer Neil Young continuing his political bent by taking on Donald Trump directly with "Lookin' For a Leader" this year in August.


NEIL YOUNG, MUSICIAN (singing): America has a leader building walls around our house. Don't all black lives matter? And we got to vote him out.


MELBER: Young continues, "America's beautiful, but she has an ugly side. Just like his big new fence, the president's going down. America's moving forward. You can feel it in every town."

That could have been wishful thinking, but Young, of course, has been proven right. America did move past Trump. He did go down, after more artists than usual weighed in on this race.

Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks urging people to remember what we're fighting for in a new song, "Peace Can Come If You Try Harder," she said. Don't forget it, while Public Enemy was more explicit, deriding Trump as a dictator, rapping, "Vote this joke out or die trying."

Other artists looked at this year and weighed in on the pandemic, Bon Jovi singing, "Tonight, they're shutting down the boards, they're boarding up the schools, one last paycheck coming through," mixing in some public health messaging, adding, "Moms and babies blowing kisses may be saving someone's life."

U2's Bono hit similar themes, in toning saying, "I can't reach, but I can ring," suggesting that emotion can make up for a lack of being together.


BONO, MUSICIAN (singing): When you sing, there is no distance, so let your love be known.


MELBER: Now, when the lockdowns first began, of course, the clear priority for just about everyone was recognizing COVID posed a danger to people's lives.

That was the public safety priority, but everything then changed.

And a warning: What you're about to see is disturbing.


GEORGE FLOYD, DIED IN POLICE CUSTODY: I can't breathe. Please, a knee on my neck. I can't breathe, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, get up and get in the car, man.

FLOYD: I will.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get up and get in the car.

FLOYD: I can't move.


MELBER: That graphic killing on tape of George Floyd reignited those protests, reminding so many Americans that, for unarmed black citizens, that's everyday life. That was the public safety danger.

And it did not abate at all even during a pandemic, people taking to the streets. And artists began narrating this practically in real time.

Take Anderson .Paak, who elaborated on this, who elaborated on this exact issue of police hypocrisy, singing, "We thought it was a lockdown. They opened up fire. Dubbing it all "a goddamn lie," he continues, "Sicker than the COVID, how they did him on the ground."

.Paak continuing the political debate we have heard from marches to newsrooms, this double standard about peaceful protests. In the same song, he mocks the talk of civil unrest when people sleep so sound. "Like, you don't hear the screams when we catching beatdowns, staying quiet when they killing, but you speak loud."

In just a few lines, that 2020 song pierces a lot of the double-talk around police brutality and peaceful protests.

Other artists weighing in with just the direct pain.

Tee Grizzley addressing the police plaintively: "What if that was my brother? What if that was my dad?"

And then there's the famous, but tragic refrain "I can't breathe" that was memorably spoken by Eric Garner before police strangled him to death in 2014. It was, of course, spoking by Floyd this year.

Words matter, and some artists quoting those sad and simply dying words, of course, as more powerful than any lyric they might write. H.E.R. titled her song from June of this year "I Can't Breathe." It's now up for a Grammy for song of the year.


H.E.R., MUSICIAN (singing): What is a gun to a man that surrenders? What's it going to take for someone to defend her? If we all agree that we're equal as people, then why can't we see what is evil?

I can't breathe. You're taking my life from me. I can't breathe. Will anyone fight for me?


MELBER: "I can't breathe," a human cry for help for basic survival, and a reality lived throughout America in 2020, like so many other years, echoing an art that demands we actually take action, so that's not the reality anymore.

Just as other art this year strove to take the reality of Donald Trump's words and deeds to spur action, consider how the rapper Meek Mill flipped one of Donald Trump's infamous appeals to black voters. This was back in 2016.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What do you have to lose? You're living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs; 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?


MELBER: A big question, and that became the opening to a 2020 song, using Donald Trump's words against him while championing an alternative to Trumpism and police violence.


TRUMP: You have no jobs; 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

MEEK MILL, RAPPER: Reporting live from the other side of America.

I seen my mom and dad separate, ain't talking divorce. Said daddy was living by the fire, and he died by the torch. Check, check. I need a lawyer, money for commissary, and nobody ain't sending that.


MELBER: An especially powerful and personal rebuttal to Trump from someone who lived some of these inequities.

Meek Mill recounted this in songs, as well as in a recent interview here on THE BEAT.

He faced racial discrimination in court and a harsh prison sentence that was for -- get this -- riding a motorbike. It was ultimately overturned. He's been using his platform to push reform, as well as take on politicians like Trump.

Meanwhile, this year, another anthem that first actually dropped in '16. Opposing Trump's campaign got a whole new life this year. "F. Donald Trump" went higher on the billboard charts around Donald Trump's 2020 loss than it ever had previously, life imitating art as people were playing it, you just heard there, in celebration.

And that song's lyrics also anticipated, in a way, the diverse coalition that would stop Trump. The artist YG and the late Nipsey Hussle also invoke the late Tupac Shakur to proclaim: "It wouldn't be the U.S. without Mexicans. If it's time to team up, let's begin. Black love and brown pride in the set again."

And the artists conclude -- quote -- "White people feel the same as my next of kin."

You know, those who weren't listening closely might have missed the unity in what was also an aggressive anthem, those rappers torching Donald Trump while embrace diversity -- quote -- "black, brown, and white."

Now, other artists were making new music in 2020 with an eye on the future, the band OneRepublic uncorking a hopeful ballad, "Better Days," about overcoming the pandemic. They even crowdsource what you're seeing on the screen, homemade videos from real people around the world. They also donated the song's proceeds to COVID relief for good measure.

And having walked through just some of the art that helps us understand what we have been living through this year, when it comes to all of this, as well as the hope for a better year to come, well, tonight, we give the artists the last word.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (singing): Oh, I know that there will be better days. Oh, that sunshine about to come my way.

May we never ever shed another tear for today, because, oh, I know that there will be better days.




KINZINGER: This is a scam, though.

I mean, to explain to people that somehow Congress can overthrow the certified results of every state, that we can change an election outcome, when there was not a single court case that had any legs.

There is no impetus to overthrow an election, even if you want to, and there's no ability to overthrow an election, even if you want to.

They're raising money on this scam. It is a scam.


MELBER: Republican lawmaker warning MAGA fans that Donald Trump is trying to scam them.

I'm joined by Jelani Cobb, staff writer for "The New Yorker" and a Columbia Journalism School professor.

Happy holidays. Thanks for being here.

And your thoughts on that warning.


Well, it's interesting, because, for a really long time, Donald Trump -- in lots of different contexts, Donald Trump has been able to avoid the kind of laws of political gravity, first really starting in 2016 with some of the things he was able to get away with that would traditionally have doomed a presidential candidate.

But, even now, after losing an election -- and you know as well as I do that, typically, the losing candidate is dropped like a hot rock. And he's maintained this appeal, this strength, really, negotiating from a position of strength with the Republican Party.

And you're starting to see what might be the beginning of the kind of traditional rules of politics taking effect, that -- the idea that being so closely attached to a person who lost in the Electoral College might actually have consequences.

And, for that matter, this is not something you were likely to see very much of prior to the election. And still, obviously, you don't see nearly as much of this as there should be. Whatever the number of Republicans that were in the House who actually supported this idea that the election had been stolen or that Trump was somehow or another supposed to be inaugurated on January 20.

MELBER: I'm curious what you think, Jelani, because, when we have these conversations, there's the insider view, which can be very Beltway. Here's the horse-trading, here's what's in the bill, here's what the claimed policy position.

Something that you, I think, have educated a lot of our viewers on over these years that's very apt for Trumpism, but applies big picture as well, is how often the biggest thing is not what is being directly said or claimed, but what's the wider structural work going on.

We have talked about that in the context of American racism and voter suppression. Here, I think there's another thing going on, which is Republicans finding ways, some of them, to acknowledge that grift and scamming, a word that the congressman used repeatedly, is a core feature of Trumpism, which is different than any discussion about ideology.

COBB: Sure. And it's also true. I mean, it is inarguably true. Like, these are the things we have seen. These are not kind of allegations or suspicions.

We have seen just the number of people who were using his hotels as a means of currying favor with the administration, all kinds of blatant corruption that would typically have been considered risque for American -- mainstream American politics.

And if there are going to be any kind of serious discussions about where the Republican Party goes from here, they're going to have to confront that legacy.

Now, that's not as simple as it seems, because just as Trump has now made an enemy of FOX News and assails them, and people are wondering whether he will be disruptive to their base, the Republicans have to wonder about that, too. Like, what happens now when you have Donald Trump no longer in office just throwing grenades around, with not discriminating about the target of whether they're Republican or Democrat?


Jelani Cobb, all interesting points here during a busy holiday week.

Thank you for being here. My holiday wishes to you.

We're going to fit in a break.

When we come back, I have a pop quiz. Who holds the record for the most Tony nominations ever? My next guest, "Slave Play" playwright Jeremy O. Harris, new -- next.


MELBER: This new COVID relief bill does offer Americans some assistance, finally, after President Trump had delayed the relief for millions of Americans for really no reason.

But this kind of funding is, of course, just focused on tackling the financial emergency so people can make ends meet right now. There are still much broader challenges for the types of industries that have really been shut down by the pandemic and ensuing recession.

That ranges from things like hospitality to concerts, which are basically no more, to theater. Broadway and local theaters have been closed completely since the virus hit in March, which impacts actors and artists, as well as thousands of theater workers, builders, stagehands, people in labor.

And that has some calling now for something really interesting I want to get to, an FDR-style program to get laborers back on the job. Its advocates including Jeremy O. Harris, who just broke the record for the most Tony nominations ever this year.

He's calling on Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to carry out FDR's progressive legacy, which we discussed in this new interview.

Here's a clip airing for the first time now.


JEREMY O. HARRIS, PLAYWRIGHT: I have just been beating the doors down on anyone I can to, like, write to their senators, tweet at their senators, tweet at Kamala and Joe to get a meeting to talk about the beauty and gift that was the New Deal's Federal Theatre Project.

In all these conversations with the Green New Deal, there's been a lot of uplifting what FDR did, but very little uplifting of what he did for the arts and culture section after the Great Depression, which was saying that America's soul was in our arts, right, and saying that arts laborers, people who work in the arts were specifically and horrifically sidelined during the Great Depression, and that we needed to gift that community some actual bit of a lifeline during that time.

And that's what he did. So, he created this Federal Theatre Project that put theater-makers around the country back to work again. Over 10,000 professionals who were working in theater were a part of this. And it funded some of the most dynamic and complex theater that anyone has ever seen in America.

There was "Living Newspaper" that took newspaper clippings from the day and made theater about those in different cities around the country on the day that it happened. Some of the first black theater companies in America were made with funds from the Federal Theatre Project.

And that freedom of financing and funds gave way to so much radicality that 100 percent shifted the way that the rest of the Western world saw our work, as theater artists and as...



HARRIS: ... artists, but also fundamentally changed the way and the direction of the American work that was happening.

It's going to, at best, be 18 months of no work for American theater laborers, 18 months. No other -- literally, no other community of laborers is going to see as long of a pause on knowing when you are going to pay your rent, how you are going to get the next meal for your kids than theater laborers.


HARRIS: Film has been able to figure out a way to go back, because they have better lobbyists than us.

MELBER: Right.

HARRIS: They have more high-profile lobbyists.

I'm one of the most high-profile lobbyists of the American theater right now. And I'm coming to anyone who will hear me and saying, we need the Federal Theatre Project.


MELBER: Really important issue there to a lot of people's lives.

Now, Harris' Broadway debut is called "Slave Play." It tackles race, sexuality, and therapy in really bracing ways. And that has suddenly made this 31-year-old artist an influential voice in culture and politics.

He is pushing student debt relief. In our new interview, he calls out Republicans who Harris thinks are full of empty rhetoric about hard work.


HARRIS: And I wrote a letter that -- taking the idea of the AOC had that once we got Biden and Harris in, we can lobby them for whatever we want.

I wrote a letter lobbying them for the things I think are really important. And some of those things are a complete debt forgiveness. and I don't say this to the Republicans out there who might watch it and be like, you should have worked hard for it.

Well, guess what? I worked really hard and got into grad school, and they paid me to go, so I don't have debt. But I have a lot of friends who do.

I want reparations now, because I think that that's very important. And for our country to move past this horrible schism that happened and this horrible scar in our psyche, our sort of national psyche, we have to rectify the brunt of national -- of chattel slavery, and then universal health care for all, because one debt I didn't pay off until this year was the debt that happened after I was hit and run by a car and had to take an ambulance to Cedar Sinai in Chicago -- I mean, in L.A.

And I got a $25,000 ambulance fee that I couldn't afford to pay until after I had a play on Broadway.


Was the ambulance a Maserati?

HARRIS: I mean, it must have been, or maybe a Tesla. Who knows.

MELBER: Twenty-five K, that's...


HARRIS: I don't know what Elon was up to then.


MELBER: And we didn't just talk health care and politics here. This interview, as you can see, is part of our ongoing "Mavericks" series, where we have deep conversations with artists.

And Harris broke down his artistic inspiration, why he's so eager to take professional risks, even at a pretty young age, how live theater can still work in our digital culture, as well as his views on race, Drake and Rihanna, and how success can breed resentment.


HARRIS: There are enough reasons why people could decide they hate me. Twelve Tonys is, like, enough.


HARRIS: Broadway should be a place that inspires you to have conversations for weeks and weeks and days and days afterwards.

We have to love our neighbor, but our neighbor has a history or could have had a history of wanting us dead. What does that even mean?

Deeply tangible about the way in which black people are able to experience race in the South. And what is the weight of that history and that identity?

MELBER: How much of this is about your choice to lean in and really be an avatar of theater right now?

HARRIS: This is what we want Broadway to feel like and look like for our audience. We don't want it to feel easy.

I see theater as a community-based project, uplifting a community with storytelling. Making isn't just what you put out into the world. It's also what you bring in. I nerd out about things "Streetcar Named Desire" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Alice Childress plays.

I love Drake, but I sometimes have questions.


MELBER: He sometimes has questions?

Don't we all, Jeremy? Don't we all?

Now, this new interview is out right now. I was just showing you some excerpts. You can see the entire thing on, our full conversation. You can also find our other installments, like our recent interview with David Byrne.

This is all part of our exclusive digital series. It's up, "Maverick With Ari Melber" at

I have to tell you, we really do love these cultural conversations. And I think, as you just saw, they can be referenced -- they can really reference politics and our lives and everything we're going through.

I have one other thing I want to tell you about before I sign off, which is, you can follow me on Instagram @NevuaryRadio. And what you see on your screen is another great cultural leader and artist, Erick Sermon.

If you go to @NevuaryRadio on Instagram -- N-E-V-U-A-R-Y Radio -- you see it right there -- we're going to be going live on Instagram in about an hour. And that means you can weigh in with your own questions and ideas of anything you want me to know as well, Erick Sermon and me tonight @NevuaryRadio.

That does it for us.

"THE REIDOUT" is up next.


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