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Transcript: The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, December 22, 2020

Guests: Adam Schiff, Mendy Hickey, Rebekah Jones


Donald Trump just pardoned crooked ex-congressman, war criminals, and Russia scandal felons. The president offered to dramatically increase the COVID aid that's going to Americans after the bill has been passed by the House and the Senate. It took Congress nine months to come to an agreement on a second coronavirus relief bill. And it took less than 24 hours after that bill passed both Chambers of Congress for Donald Trump to threaten to blow it all up. The simple truth of the pandemic's darkest days are most evident now in California where the statewide availability of intensive care units is just 1.4 percent. Rebekah Jones has sued the Florida Department of Law Enforcement alleging in a 19-page complaint that the search warrant officers had was a sham used to, quote, "punish her for speaking out against Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis' mishandling of his state's COVID response."


ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST: Yeah, you can just take tomorrow off because that was two hours' worth of show in one hour. And, you know, there's -- that beginning of the show that you had where you talked about pardons, I think you made a really interesting point that we need to not lose sight of. Pardons are in the Constitution. They are there for a reason. They serve a real purpose and historically, they have. What we saw tonight was not that purpose.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: That's exactly right, and it will raise questions whether it's in Congress or in the courts, it will raise questions as to whether or not the admittedly plenary power of the pardons needs to somehow be circumscribed so it can't be used for plainly corrupt purposes. I mean, if this president is going to tell someone, go murder this political opponent of mine, don't worry, I'll pardon you afterwards, that would presumably bring about call for reform of the pardon, or an effort to stop them from using it.

As he gets closer and closer to that kind of extremism, that kind of line, I think the question about what happens to the pardon power in his wake gets more and more live.

VELSHI: And that proxy is a proxy for really all questions around plenary power and executive power and executive authority, which most of us have just spent the last several years not paying attention to the degree to which executives like to control this power and then we wonder when Congress can't achieve its goals of exercising control and power where it went to -- well, these are the kinds of moments that we have to keep watching for.

MADDOW: That's right. We're living -- we are living through the most extreme circumstances that should have only ever be cited as hypotheticals for what the extent of executive power should be.

VELSHI: That's right.

MADDOW: Now we get to live them in real time. I think that will change the way we think about these things forever.

VELSHI: Rachel, thank you, and we will see you tomorrow unless you have decided that two days of shows today was enough because that was a lot of TV. You have a great night, friend.

MADDOW: Do not tempt me. Thank you, Ali.

VELSHI: All right.

Well, the law and order president strikes again. Donald Trump just pardoned crooked ex-congressman, war criminals, and Russia scandal felons. This is what American justice looks like in the final 29 days of the Trump administration. Trump announced a wave of lame duck pardons this afternoon in what is sure to be just the beginning of a disgraceful final chapter for this disgraceful president.

There's one obvious theme with this wave of pardons. Trump helped his friends and those who remained loyal to him. He issued two Mueller-related pardons to men who stayed quiet, George Papadopoulos and the Trump campaign stooge and Alex Van Der Zwaan, a lawyer who was part of Mueller's focus into illegal foreign lobbying efforts. Both Papadopoulos and Van Der Zwaan pleaded guilty to lying to investigators during the Russia investigation. Neither provided Mueller with any meaningful cooperation. Prosecutors did not get anything interesting for them.

Trump also pardoned two former Republican members of Congress who were the first to endorse him during his 2016 presidential campaign. Former California congressman Duncan Hunter was sentenced early this year to 11 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release related to his misuse of more than $200,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. And former New York Congressman Chris Collins had been serving a 26-month prison sentence since October.

Last year, Collins pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and one count of making a false statement. But those all pale in comparison to the sickening, disgusting, pardon of four convicted war criminals. Donald Trump pardoned four Blackwater contractors who were convicted by a federal jury in 2014 after a lengthy trial that saw some 30 witnesses travel from Iraq to testify against them.

Prosecutors accused the men of illegally unleashing, quote, powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on innocent men, women, and children. According to prosecutors, the four men were among serve Blackwater employees who opened fire in the Nisour Square Traffic Circle in Baghdad. They killed 17 people.

Those 17 people were civilians. They weren't involved in any war. An FBI investigation found that 14 of those deaths were unjustified. The White House said their pardons were supportive by Pete Hegseth, the conservative Fox News host who's an ally of Trump's.

Law and order, right? Doesn't matter what you do, if you have friends in the right places or you're loyal to the boss man, Trump will let you get away with anything, and as Rachel said, maybe even murder.

In a few minutes, we're going to be joined by Chairman Adam Schiff with his reaction to the pardon news, but we begin tonight with Neal Katyal, the former acting U.S. solicitor general and Glenn Kirschner, the former federal prosecutor. Both are MSNBC legal analysts.

Gentlemen, thank you for joining us tonight.

Neal, I'm going to start with you. Rachel had made the point that there is a reason we have pardons. And it is a noble reason. And there are times when people are sentenced incorrectly or what seems to be unfairly or that they appear to have paid their time or you're writing some historical injustice. You cannot look at all of these pardons tonight and find that reason in any of them and you particularly cannot find it in the pardoning of these four convicted killers from -- who worked with Blackwater.

NEAL KATYAL, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: That's exactly right, Ali. I mean, what we see tonight is sickening. That's the only word for it.

Every other president when they dole out pardons looks to acceptance of responsibility, acts of mercy, repentance, things like that. For these folks tonight, they just meet the Trump criteria which is are you a political ally of mine, and, you know, the founders knew evil and they knew corruption and they put the pardon power in, even without that, because even despite that, because they knew how important it was to have acts of mercy by the sovereign, but they never anticipated the kind of wholesale lawlessness that we're seeing with Donald Trump.

I mean, the whole idea behind our justice system is that justice is blind. Like, Lady Justice is literally blindfolded on the statue. The idea is whether you're rich or poor, man or women, Democrat or Republican, you get the same kind of justice.

There is nothing more corrosive than the idea that if you get -- if you're the member of the president's political party, you get a pardon and nothing else. I mean, I've never seen anything like this. It is sickening. It may be what happens in Moscow or Pyongyang, but it is not what happens in the United States.

VELSHI: So the problem, Glenn, is not just that it seems morally wrong and wrong in the face of justice, it's what Rachel was saying, that where's the line here because if people who are just recently in prison on relatively short sentences are being -- the signal is very clear here, you do something for Trump, you'll be okay.

Where does that line end? Because this is a guy who last week was talking about martial law with Michael Flynn, also a guy who was -- who has been convicted. You know, that line, it becomes very blurry, if everything Donald Trump asks you to do, he also dangles the idea that you can be pardoned, see, I've done it already.

GLENN KIRSCHNER, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: Ali, it seems like there is no line Donald Trump won't cross. I will say to this old prosecutor, it feels like what he just did was like an indiscriminate drive-by on the rule of law. I mean, he pardons people who are lying to the FBI, as part of the Russia probe. He pardons Republicans who were either steal from their own donors, committing campaign finance violations or engaged in insider training.

But what galls me the most and hits home for me personally, it's the Blackwater pardons of these four Blackwater contractors who slaughtered innocent, unarmed, Iraqi men, women, and young people. That was prosecuted. That case, three times, by my former office, the U.S. attorney's office for the District of Columbia. The lead prosecutor, a gentleman named Tom Pat Martin, T. Patrick Martin, is somebody I tried murder cases with. He poured his heart and soul into fighting for justice for those Iraqi victims.

And, Ali, my office would bring the victims over from Iraq and their surviving family members of the 17 who were murdered over and over and over again for these three trials, and I can tell you that those Iraqi citizens were equal parts heartened that the American criminal justice system cared about their victimization and shocked at all of the time, energy, and effort, we poured into holding those Blackwater killers accountable for what they did.

I consider that one of our proudest achievements at the D.C. U.S. attorney's office, holding those men accountable for the way they ravaged, murdered, victimized, those Iraqi citizens. And now, Donald Trump has killed that justice we achieved in a very real sense. This is perhaps the single greatest affront to victims' rights I saw in my 30 years as a prosecutor.

VELSHI: Neal Katyal, Rachel was talking about this plenary power. It is completely within the power of the president. There's no question about that whatsoever, and the president's got 29 days left. It seems like he's basically just softening us up. He's letting us get this out of our system so he's got other people who can pardon who are closer to him who possibly committed yet more serious crimes.

There's nothing we can do if he does it. The question Rachel asks, which I think is worth considering next is, what do we do next? How do we think about this? Because we had -- this is not something regular people think about all the time.

You know that the president pardons a bunch of people, maybe sometimes he pardons people, he or she will pardon people close to them. We've never seen anything like this. Do we need to rethink this plenary power that's given to the president?

KATYAL: I mean, this is the million-dollar question with Donald Trump every time. Our Founders gave the president a lot of strong powers because the president needs to act with secrecy and dispatch and mercy so there's grand reasons why you want to have a pardon power as there are for other presidential powers. The worry is they never anticipated someone, frankly, as crooked and lawless as Donald Trump.

And so, you have a president who uses these powers willy-nilly, whether it's a pardon or secrecy or other things and now then the pressure is, well maybe we need to restrict the power wholesale because we don't want another president to do this. But that also has costs, Ali, behind it. And so, that's why every president, I mean, even Nixon, for heaven's sake, you know, was a little more careful in the use of his powers than what you have tonight with Donald Trump.

And, you know, the other thing about Trump that's so odd is that, you know, one of the other duties you have as a president is the duty to take care the laws be faithfully executed. That's language in the Constitution itself. You take an oath to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States.

When you look to the people that he's pardoning, I mean, Trump's got some sort of thing for people who lie to the FBI. I mean, first it was Michael Flynn who lied twice to the FBI.


KATYAL: And pled guilty.

Now we have Representative Collins tonight who lied about securities fraud to the FBI. He gets a pardon. We have Papadopoulos and Van Der Zwaan, these two Mueller probe people who lied to the federal investigators. They get pardons tonight.

I mean, Trump has some sort of reverence for people who lie to the FBI. I, again, that is something so fundamentally corrosive when the president, the nation's chief law enforcement person, the president who's supposed to uphold the Constitution and the laws, is essentially rewarding those who spit on it.

VELSHI: Glenn, according to "The New York Times," a tabulation by the Harvard law school professor Jack Goldsmith found that of the 45 pardons or commutations Mr. Trump has granted up until Tuesday, today, 88 percent aided someone with a personal tie to the president or furthered his political aims.

Your sense of that?

KIRSCHNER: It feels corrupt. It feels abusive. It feels wrong.

But as Neal says, how do you constrain a power granted to the president by the Constitution that at least in the Constitution is unconstrained? My recommendation is you never know until you try, so we should consider legislation that doesn't run afoul of the Constitution but does try to at least channel the discretion in some way.

I know it's hard to do, but the other thing that I hope beginning in January a law-abiding attorney general will consider is opening grand jury investigations to investigate these pardons, to see whether they were the product of corruption. And if so, then we have to take it incrementally.

VELSHI: There's much work to be done. Gentlemen, thank you for helping us kick it off tonight.

Neal Katyal and Glenn Kirschner, we appreciate your time.

When news of these pardons surfaced and who exactly was pardoned, the man who led the impeachment trail against Donald Trump released a fiery statement. The head of the House Intelligence Committee, Chairman Adam Schiff, joins me after this break.


VELSHI: More on the breaking news of the night. Trump's audacious pre-Christmas pardons and commutations come as he explores how to reward friends and allies in the last month of his administration. More acts of clemency are expected.

This is just the beginning. You know that. I know that. Trump has told advisers that he wants to be liberal with pardons and plans to sign many more before leaving office.

The one bright spot in this mess tonight is that Trump has yet to pardon figures who we all expect him to pardon in his last 29 days, including his adult children, his son-in-law, and maybe himself.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California. He's the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman Schiff, your reaction, please, first to this news of these pardons this evening.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): They're grotesque. They're morally repugnant and they're exactly what you expect of Donald Trump.

He has pardoned people who murdered innocent civilians, men, women, and children; corrupt Republican elected officials who were early endorsers of his. He has pardoned people who lied to cover for him or for themselves as part of a probe into another nation's attack on our democracy.

Once again, this is what you get when you elect a corrupt president or corrupt man as president, you get corruption. And, you know, it's like the adage, garbage in/garbage out. It's what we've come to expect of this president and this administration. None of these people deserve any form of clemency.

VELSHI: I want to read your statement that you put out because there's something very important in here legally that I think is useful for people to understand. You said: Trump has valued loyalty above all else, above the rule of law, above our democracy and certainly above justice.

If you lie to cover up for the president, you get a pardon. If you're a corrupt politician who endorsed Trump, you get a pardon. If you murder civilians while at war, you get a pardon. And it goes to show if you elect a corrupt man as president of the United States, you get corruption and lots of it.

That middle part there, he has pardoned people who are loyal to him. He has pardoned people who are corrupt. And he has pardoned people who were adjudicated by a court in a lengthy trial to have murdered innocent people.

The combination of this stuff -- when you said grotesque, I don't think you've got a fundamental problem with the concept that the president has pardon power and that power is absolute. It's the way this has all come together.

SCHIFF: Well, you know, I've always maintained it's not absolute. He can't pardon himself constitutionally. I don't believe that's permissible.

He can't bestow a pardon as part of a bribery scheme. He can be prosecuted for that. But apart from those narrow limitations, it's very broad. It underscores why it's so important to elect people of good character because these powers are immense, because the Founders did expect they would be used and utilized for good purposes, not for ill.

But we need to try to constrain them as much as we can. The Protecting Our Democracy Act that I introduced along with my fellow chairs months ago tries to put some limits on the abuse of this power, but, frankly, there's not much of a remedy for a president who is this corrupt.

VELSHI: So, on June 8th of 2018, NBC's Peter Alexander asked this question to Donald Trump as he was getting on to Marine One.

Let's just play this for a moment and let's talk about it on the other side.


PETER ALEXANDER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: On the pardon power, do you believe that you are above the law --


ALEXANDER: -- if you can pardon yourself?

TRUMP: I'm not above the law. I never want anybody to be above the law. But the pardons are a very positive thing for a president. I think you see the way I am using them. And yes, I do have an absolute right to pardon myself.


VELSHI: OK. So, in case anybody didn't hear this, the pardons are a very positive thing for a president, and, yes, I do have an absolute right to pardon myself.

What do we do in this instance, how do we deal with that? He thinks he does.

SCHIFF: Well, the way it would be tested is if he attempted to give himself a pardon and even the language of the Constitution that talks about granting a pardon. The words themselves don't lend themselves to an interpretation where you can grant yourself something.

But should he try and pronounce the words but later be indicted, let's say, by the Southern District of New York in that campaign fraud scheme in which he is identified as individual number 1, well, then his defense would raise this purported pardon to defend himself and it would be litigated through the courts and I think ultimately he would lose, because the consequence of a president who can pardon themselves is just too much of a body blow to the rest of the Constitution. You don't interpret one provision as negating all others.

If a president can instruct people to violate the law, if he can instruct them to impose martial law and seize voting machines and do all kinds of other crazy and desperate things, and say if you violate the law in doing so, I will pardon you then I'll pardon myself, you are no longer a nation of laws.

And I don't think any court would interpret the pardon power to negate the requirement that he'd faithfully execute the laws. But that's how it would be tested.

VELSHI: Congressman, I want to ask you about another topic because we got about 12 different breaking news topics tonight, including the fact that we were -- the president was supposed to be signing this bill that took months to arrive at. You in the House had finished in this bill on October 1st, finally got a deal with the Senate, $600 payments to individuals.

The president apparently doesn't like that idea. He's calling for $2,000 payments to individuals and $4,000 to a married couple.

We don't know what this means. We don't know whether that means he's not signing the bill or got to get back to the drawing board. But Nancy Pelosi has said bring it, we're ready to do $2,000 a person and vote on this on Thursday.

What are you hearing about this?

SCHIFF: Well, look, we wanted larger checks all along. We wanted larger package all along. We recognize the immense need in the country. People are lining up in food lines miles long.

But, you know, the Republicans wouldn't go along with it. Mitch McConnell wouldn't take it up. Kevin McCarthy wouldn't support it. And Donald Trump was missing in action.

He delegated to Mnuchin to be his negotiator. Well, we hammered out a deal, the most that we could get out of Mitch McConnell.

And now after it's passed, the president suddenly takes an interest? You know, it's just appalling because people are counting on that money right now, but we will take up a bill by unanimous consent, the speaker has announced, that will put them to the test. You want larger checks, so do we. Let's see the proof that you're serious about this, this is not just some gimmick.

VELSHI: I never asked you a question that you've been stumped on, but I don't know if you have any idea as to what's going on in the president's head, what this is all about, because you're right, he did have Steve Mnuchin there involved in the negotiations the whole time. None of this came as a secret to the president or surprise to the president.

What on earth do you think is happening?

SCHIFF: Well, I think the president is in a downward mental spiral in these last few weeks of his presidency. He's desperately worried about his liability, his debt, his exposure to the criminal laws when he leaves office.

He is worried about being labeled a loser and leaving behind the power and the perks of his office, and I think we can expect his conduct to continue to degenerate. Even the lies that he's telling and the one he told today about, you know, the Democrats throwing out, you know, tons of ballots or whatever it was, even his lies are becoming more unhinged and larger in scope and more a graver departure from reality.

So I think we're going to continue to see the degradation of Donald Trump. It's going to be a rocky few weeks until he's gone. It can't come fast enough.

VELSHI: Twenty-nine days, but I guess that's the problem with normalizing little lies, right? They started with how big the inauguration crowd was and now he lies about -- about having won the election and election fraud.

Thank you for joining us, sir.

Adam Schiff is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a Democratic representative from California. We always appreciate your time.

All right. Up next, more on the breaking news coming out of the White House tonight. The president's overtime offer to dramatically increase the COVID aid that's going to Americans after the bill has been passed by the House and the Senate.

What's going on? We're going to ask White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor who joins us next.


VELSHI: All right. It took Congress nine months to come to an agreement on a second coronavirus relief bill. And it took less than 24 hours after that bill passed both Chambers of Congress for Donald Trump to threaten to blow it all up.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am asking congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000 or $4,000 for a couple.

I'm also asking congress to immediately get rid of the wasteful and unnecessary items from this legislation and to send me a suitable bill or else the next administration will have to deliver a COVID relief package and maybe that administration will be me and we will get it done.


VELSHI: All right. So the Treasury Secretary who represented the president in the negotiations had actually said that the checks for those $600 checks are going to go out this week. That's obviously not going to happen because the president hasn't signed this bill.

Joining us now is Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for the "PBS Newshour" and an MSNBC political analyst. Except right now, Yamiche, we're not drawing on your high level, remarkable, journalistic capabilities and interpretation skills. We need very basic translation of what on earth happened here because Democrats have been trying for months to get more than that $600 for the last 3 days all I've had are Democrats on TV saying that this is insult. It's a slap in the face. It's ridiculous.

They never said what the president would accept. They got to $600 bucks and now the president is torpedoing this. what's going on as far as you understand?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: What's going on is that the president of the United States checked out of COVID relief negotiations for months. For months he let the White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and the Treasury Secretary take the lead and say that they were the representatives of the White House at the table with Democratic leaders including, of course, Nancy Pelosi.

Then the president, it seems, woke up today and said, actually, I want to be part of these negotiations except that the bill has already been passed. By the way, it was passed by veto-proof majorities.

We're also seeing in this video that it seems as though the president doesn't understand what this bill is. Not only, of course, is it the COVID relief package and those checks that people so badly need, it's also that it's coupled with the omnibus bill which is government funding which is --


ALCINDOR: -- supposed to run out and it's going to run out in seven days.

So he's saying there's all the stuff that's not related to COVID when, in fact, it is two bills that was meshed into one. The president seems not to be paying attention because he was too busy, of course, talking about his own political future trying to spread disinformation and thinking about trying to steal back an election that he lost several weeks ago.

VELSHI: Which to be clear, he also did in this video. He released this video on Twitter much of which was devoted to voter fraud and the same things he'd been talking about.

So this was just one part of the president's announcement today.

ALCINDOR: That's right. I started watching that video that's about 13 minutes long. What you see is really the president repeating again and again these false claims. These claims that have been thrown out by Republican and Democratically nominated judges. These claims that have gotten him nowhere in the past few weeks. These claims that the Supreme Court threw out and said this is nothing. There's no evidence here.

But the president it seemed is just trying to check back into what he's actually doing in his job. I'm also wondering if the president is ever going to check back in when it comes to the Russia hack that's been happening. Because the president other than trying to tamp it down hasn't really given us a clear vision of how he's going to respond to Russia.

But here we are with this COVID relief bill with the president just waking up and saying, hey, by the way, while I was kind of off doing my own thing -- some critics would say kind of being a mad president, acting like a mad king -- I need to actually be focused on the legislation coming in front of my desk.

So it's no telling what actually happens now. As you noted and as Chairman Schiff told you, Democrats are happy to up the numbers. But it was Republicans, including Republican --


ALCINDOR: -- senators didn't want to have extra money here.

VELSHI: So I want -- I mean we've had tweets from everybody on the Democratic side. This one from Nancy Pelosi is probably clearer. She said, "Republicans repeatedly refused to say what amount the president wanted for direct checks. At last, the president has agreed to $2,000. Democrats are ready to bring this to the floor this week by unanimous consent. Let's do it."

She subsequently suggested that this could happen on Thursday, that they will vote on it, they will pass it. They're all for this idea.

So now where does this put Senate Republicans because Mitch McConnell was in on these discussions. As you said, Mark Meadows was in on the discussions, the chief of staff, the Treasury Secretary. So what happens now?

You got Democrats and the president apparently both wanting bigger checks and Republicans who've been recalcitrant on this since October who didn't want to do that.

ALCINDOR: Exactly. And now what you have is Senate Republicans having to go back and decide whether or not they want to give more checks. They at all steps of this said that they didn't want the checks to be "too big", quote/unquote. They said that they were worried that Americans were going to -- at least based on my sourcing -- that Americans were going to take those checks and not want to work. That they were going to be too much support for the American people.

Of course -- we're, of course, in the middle of a pandemic where people are struggling to survive, struggling to not be evicted from their homes. But Republicans had said they didn't want people to get too much support.

Now it's going to be up to Mitch McConnell to decide whether or not he can rally the votes in the senate to get this passed. We also saw AOC and other members of the squad saying, hey, our bill has $2,000 for Americans, we'd be happy to have the president support that and get this passed.

But now Republicans are in a tough position to figure out whether or not they're going to back the president as they have been on so many other issues when it comes to President Trump.

VELSHI: But the interesting part is for a long time when asked why they won't do this, Mitch McConnell kept on talking about an unnamed contingent in his Republican senatorial congress -- caucus -- who would not accept larger numbers. They would not accept the consequences of an increase in debt. They would not accept the moral implications of apparently giving people money for staying home.

That sounded like a pretty firm position by some particularly conservative members of the Republican caucus. Are they movable?

ALCINDOR: I -- it's now anyone's guess. It sounds like they're not movable. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it pretty clear that senators, Republican senators didn't want to do this. Didn't want to up the checks. We saw Senator Ron Johnson talk about the deficit.

Now, of course, Republicans have not been talking about the deficit for years and years now under the Trump administration where they cut taxes and increased the deficit. But somehow they all kind of rediscovered their interest in the deficit when it came to handing out checks, badly-needed checks to Americans.

I'm just not seeing where this is going to actually go and how Republicans are going to pass this except for the fact that the president has a little bit more political capital. He is still fund-raising boatloads of money to try to steal back the election so there are Republicans who still see the president as a major player in the Republican Party.

So maybe he can use that sort of political capital to try to get them to get higher checks and maybe that will be the thing that President Trump will do that maybe makes people feel like, ok, President Trump at least in his last waning days was trying to do something for the American people.

VELSHI: This is some weird stuff, Yamiche. This is just some weird stuff. We will continue to cover it all week. Thank you as always, for giving us a little clarity on a thing that is just kind of muddy.

Yamiche Alcindor is the White House correspondent for "PBS Newshour" and an MSNBC political analyst.

All right. Coming up next, while the president is triggering chaos tonight on so many fronts, the COVID crisis in this country continues unabated. We're going to talk to a nurse in California about what it's like on the front lines.



JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: And here's the simple truth. Our darkest days in the battle against COVID are ahead of us, not behind us.


VELSHI: The simple truth of the pandemic's darkest days are most evident now in California where the statewide availability of intensive care units is just 1.4 percent. In southern California ICU bed availability is at 0 percent.

This hospital in San Bernardino County, California is overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. The staff at St. Mary's Medical Center had to convert any space they could find into COVID pods. Patients lined the walls of the hospital's lobby, waiting rooms, lobbies, even its entrance.

Look at this. This is what the rest of the country could soon look like after the holiday season when another surge is expected.

Here's Mendy Hickey, a nurse at St. Mary's Medical Center.


MENDY HICKEY, NURSE, ST. MARY'S MEDICAL CENTER: This time is the most crucial it's been the entire year. In the spring, it was not that bad here. We had COVID cases, but it wasn't like you saw pictures of New York.

Today we have 140 COVID patients in a 213-bed hospital. We had this built on Friday in anticipation of the surge continuing to peak which on Sunday it got there.

Our ICU is overwhelmed with patients. So we're going to double bunk them in here.


HICKEY: Normally these patients would be in the ICU upstairs, but all of those beds are full. We created an additional ten bed outside of the ICU. Those are all full. We have (INAUDIBLE) other patients holding in the operating room.

And then we can hold up to 24 more patients in this area. It is completely full right now. As soon as one goes out, another one comes in.

If so many people come in and keep coming in like this, it worries me that we're not going to be able to keep you or any of your loved ones safe any longer.


VELSHI: Joining us now is the nurse you just heard, Mendy Hickey. She's the quality director for St. Mary's Medical Center in Apple Valley, California.

Mendy, first of all, thank you for being with us. I cannot imagine how you are operating on an ongoing basis like this.

I saw your notes in which you said some people wait seven to ten days for a bed. They're people who have COVID. They're people who need ICUs and hospitals not for COVID. To know that there is no ICU availability in southern California, it boggles the mind.

HICKEY: Yes, it's scary. It really is.

VELSHI: How are you -- how are you handling this yourself? I mean, and I ask you this really, it's a question for every nurse and every doctor and every health care provider in the country. This has got to take a toll on you.

HICKEY: It is emotionally and physically draining. Going in every day, seeing how heartbroken the staff is for the patients in the hospital, how frustrated they are with the situation that's going on, it's really hard to see, it's hard to take.

Yes. It is. So, you know, there are days that I just need to take a walk outside for a little bit before I go back into the hospital and keep things going and put a smile on my face and support the staff and let them know that we're going to get through it together but yes, it is -- it's rough.

VELSHI: What do you have in terms of PPE? We know that that's been a problem. The problem's different now. Right now, you just don't even have beds and the people to work with them, but do you have the equipment you need?

HICKEY: We do, actually. So in the spring the struggle was this new onset of COVID-19, you know, we were struggling for supplies like the rest of the nation.

Now we're stocked up on supplies but are struggling for staff like the rest of the nation. So we have an overwhelming amount of patients.

VELSHI: One of the things that you're dealing with -- sorry, Mendy. I'm sorry. We just had a little technical glitch. Please, go ahead.

HICKEY: So nurses are going out as well as the rest of the hospital staff with COVID as well. So we already have more patients than we normally take care of and then we're dealing with less staff than we usually have. So staffing is the biggest challenge right now. Equipment, honestly --


HICKEY: -- we're part of Providence Health System which has been a blessing to us because they've been instrumental in helping to make sure that we have the ventilators we need, we have the respiratory equipment and all of that. So that's secure in place right now.

VELSHI: Yes, back in April and May and June, there were some areas of the country that didn't have surges and so there were people traveling around the country and relocating to help.

That's a problem that we've got now with a shortage of people. What do you want people to know? You're dealing with patients. What do you want the public to understand about this spike and what they need to do about it.

HICKEY: I really -- I think there's a lack of understanding that COVID sees no person, no color, no political party. It really is a very strange virus and it definitely acts different with every person that it comes in contact with.

And so while you hear your neighbor got it maybe and they weren't very sick, so you think it might not be that bad for, you know, yourself, that's not necessarily true.

Everyone needs to take it really seriously. Wear a mask. Social distance. Be smart about things, where you're going, who you're going to be around. And definitely wash your hands. That's the biggest thing that I can really get across to folks.

It's -- I know here, locally, you know, we had some cases in the spring but it wasn't that many. It's like I said on the video, you know, you see these videos from New York City and we were just like, oh, my gosh --

VELSHI: Right.

HICKEY: -- that would never here. I can't even imagine it.

Well, we're living it now, you know. And so I think there's been such a big span of time from the beginning until now that there are folks here in the area that really just think like, oh, it's not that big of a deal. And it is definitely overwhelming our hospital, yes.

VELSHI: Yes, and I think your point is really valid. For many, many Americans it doesn't end up being a big deal and that's fantastic, but you get to see all of them for whom it's a really big deal and could end up being fatal.

And I think that's the problem, that if you're not exposed to what you see every day, I don't know how ten months and people still don't really believe this is serious, but you are a testament to the fact that it is serious.

Thank you for all the work that you do, to nurses and doctors and hospitals around this country that are keeping us healthy and we'll get through this soon.

Mendy Hickey is the head of quality control. She's a, quality director for St. Mary's Medical Center in Apple Valley. She's a registered nurse.

Coming up, the very latest on the chilling raid in Florida that was carried out against a whistleblower who was trying to keep the residents of that state informed about the COVID crisis there.

Rebekah Jones has filed a suit against the state. She'll get tonight's LAST WORD.


VELSHI: Rebekah Jones has been put through the wringer. The former Florida Department of Health employee built her state's coronavirus tracking Web site. And then she says she was fired for refusing to manipulate COVID data on that site.

Earlier this month Rebekah's home was raided by armed state police officers. The officers' weapons you can see here were drawn, and they seized the computer and cellphone Rebekah used to update her own coronavirus dashboard.

Now Rebekah Jones is fighting back. She sued the Florida Department of Law Enforcement alleging in a 19-page complaint that the search warrant officers had was a sham used to, quote, "punish her for speaking out against Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis' mishandling of his state's COVID response."

In other words, Rebekah says she was punished for telling the truth. Her lawsuit states that, quote, "The Florida Department of Law Enforcement seeking to ingratiate itself to DeSantis sought to silence plaintiff's online speech by confiscating her computer and to discover her confidential sources and other information by seizing her cellphone."

Joining us now Rebekah Jones. She's a former manager of data and surveillance for COVID-19 at the Florida Department of Health. Rebekah, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us tonight.

Your complaint raises an interesting First Amendment issue. One of the -- I want to read a line from it in which it says on December 3, 2020 the day the judge signed the search warrant the "South Florida Sun Sentinel" published the most detailed expose yet of the concealment, manipulation, falsification and delay in reporting COVID-19 data under the DeSantis regime. It was easier to contrive an excuse to raid the home of a solo publisher like plaintiff than to raid the offices of a major newspaper or TV network."

Tell me about that. You're making the case that they were able to silence you, so they tried to.

REBEKAH JONES, FORMER FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH EMPLOYEE: Yes, I think my lawyers kind of laid it out that it's not just about taking my equipment which shut me down for all of the day before I was able to get new stuff, but it's also about finding out who's been talking to me.

A lot of the press that's been generated in this state over the last seven months now has come through me. People trust me, inside the state at all agencies they give me reports, they give me tips, they tell me where to look. And I've been a part of those investigative pieces.

And yes, the morning that the warrant was signed the first warrant that that judge has ever signed, the big "Sun Sentinel" piece came out.

And it also sends a really threatening message to other would-be whistle blowers that, hey, if you're thinking about speaking out, you know, we'll come with guns into your home. We'll take all of your equipment. And we'll point guns at your children.

And I'm not going to just lie down and accept that that's something that people like me have to suffer through just for really doing what the bare minimum of what any person would do in that situation.

VELSHI: Yes, you've made the best case I've yet seen for having a camera inside your house because the police were not entirely forthcoming about what actually went down in your house.

I cannot get over the story. You and I have talked before. I don't know your politics at all. But I cannot get over the story where you are out there providing a service first as a government employee and then not.

And they just apparently didn't like it. I mean, what allegation is there of a law that you broke that would have justified armed officers of the law coming into your house and dealing with your entire family with their guns drawn like you're a criminal?

JONES: None. Supposedly there was a message sent from an internal system that the user name and password for was made public by that agency in seven different places on its Web site.

That said, essentially, you know, speak up and tell the truth before a lot more people are killed. And that was the message that they were looking for evidence of at my house, and that's it.

VELSHI: It's kind of amazing because this is -- what you are trying to bring to everybody's attention and you're still trying to bring to everybody's attention is the thing that you were talking about, the way in which Ron DeSantis has mismanaged COVID in Florida is ongoing. It is still causing people to get sick. It is still causing deaths, and you were a source of information to people.

Are you back up and running at the rate that you were before they intercepted you?

JONES: I was back up and running the next day, but it did take a few days to get everything on my new system setup, download everything from the cloud that I had backed up and running again.

But we are back up and running. The COVID monitor is -- never took a break. And we are nearing half a million K-12 cases in students and staff in this country as we update case data from last week.

VELSHI: Unbelievable that they raided your house for giving people those statistics. That as you're looking at the monitor right now -- 1,318,356 cases in Florida; 21,052 deaths.

Rebekah, thank you for joining us again. It is always a pleasure to talk to you. Rebekah Jones was the former manager of data and surveillance for COVID-19 at the Florida Department of Health.

And that is tonight's LAST WORD.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Well, good evening once again.

Day 1,433 of the Trump administration, 29 days until the inauguration of Joe Biden as our 46th president.


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