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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, 3/17/21

Guests: Raphael Warnock, Debbie Berkowitz


Investigations are ongoing on the horrific mass shooting at three different sites in the Atlanta metro area in Georgia. Senator Raphael Warnock from the great state of Georgia is interviewed.


REP. VERONICA ESCOBAR (D-TX): It`s unacceptable today, but everyone is working on it, and I have hope.

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, a very difficult set of problems, we should note. You were there up close and viewing it. Thank you for your time tonight.

That is ALL IN on this Wednesday night.

“THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW” starts right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Thanks, my friend. It`s much appreciated.

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

It has been a little over 24 hours since police say a 21-year-old man entered an Atlanta area spa with gun. He killed four people there and injured one other. He then drive half hour, 45 minutes down the road, entered two more spas and shot and killed four other people at those two locations. Eight people dead.

All three of the spas targeted by that suspect were staffed predominantly by people of Asian descent. Seven of the eight victims were women, all but one of the women killed were of Asian descent. The suspect was apprehended and taken into custody late last night. He was charged today with eight counts of murder.

Law enforcement says he has admitted to the shootings. Police say he told them he has a sex addiction and that`s why he says he killed all those women working in those spas, because he wanted to eliminate his temptation for his addiction or something. Police say in talking with the suspect, he gave them no indication that the killings were racially motivated, even if they did predominantly target Asian women.

A police captain in the Cherokee County sheriff`s department, Cherokee County is where the first shooting took place. When he discussed the suspect`s explanation for the shooting, he told reporters it was because the suspect was having a, quote, bad day yesterday. That`s what he said, as if that was an explanation for why the young man apparently decided to murder eight people.

The police captain said exactly, quote, yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did. Those remarks seeming to imply that having a bad day is the explanation we need for what the murderer did. Those remarks were met with an immediate backlash, given the nature of the crime here.

It was shortly thereafter discovered that that same police captain himself had promoted racist, anti-Asian coronavirus slogans online. This is a since-deleted post from that police captain`s Facebook account, saying how much he loves this new T-shirt he got. You can see there the t-shirt says COVID-19, imported virus from China. That`s the guy who said this guy was just having a bad day. No indication of any racial animus.

As to whether this gets charged as a hate crime or under any of the other federal statues, the FBI said today they`re prepared to investigate these murders as a federal matter if information comes to light pointing to a federal civil rights investigation. We shall see.

But regardless of what the suspect says his motivation was, or how police characterize it, regardless of what that kind of investigation may eventually find, it`s impossible to divorce these murders from the backdrop of radically increasing attacks targeting Asian-Americans recently. Hate crimes against Asian-Americans increased by 150 percent in the last year alone.

One nonprofit that tracks these things says there`s been nearly 3,800 incidents involving hate and harassment directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the last year in the United States. Michelle Au is a state senator in Georgia. She`s the first Asian American woman to serve as a senator in that state. She told "The Washington Post" today that last night`s shootings, quote, took place in a landscape where Asian-Americans are increasingly terrified and fearful of their lives and safety because of these escalating threats against our people.

We, of course, we have a woman of black and south Asian descent sitting in one of the highest positions of power in this country. Vice President Kamala Harris is the first female vice president, first black vice president, first south Asian vice president. She spoke earlier on how speculation of the motive of the shooter right now say little bit beside the point in terms of the impact of these killings on the Asian-American community, regardless of what that killer ever does or doesn`t say or explain about these murders. The fact of them speaks for itself.


KAMALA HARRIS, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The investigation is ongoing. We don`t know yet know. We`re not yet clear about the motive. But I do want to say to our Asian-American community that we stand with you and understand how this has frightened and shocked and outraged all people, but knowing the increasing level of hate crime against our Asian-American brothers and sisters, we also want to speak out in solidarity with them and acknowledge that none of us should ever be silent in the face of any form of hate.


MADDOW: Vice President Kamala Harris today on the horrific mass shooting at three different sites in the Atlanta metro area last night.

As we continue to follow that developing story out of Georgia tonight, I need to tell you in a few minutes on the show we`ll be joined live by the new U.S. senator from Georgia, Rev. Raphael Warnock.

Senator Warnock gave what`s known as a maiden speech in the Senate, when a newly elected senator makes his or her first speech on the floor, it`s a landmark thing for that senator and for the Senate. Lots of senators tend to come out when that happens.

Senator Warnock today started his maiden speech with a prayer for the families of those killed in the Atlanta attacks last night. He said this kind of attack on the Asian community should cause to recommit ourselves to the way of peace, what he described as an active peace that prevents these kinds of tragedies from happening in the first place.

And just from that beginning, which actually he did ad lib ahead of his prepared remarks, you are reminded this is not just any new senator. Maiden speeches are always a big deal. This particular new senator is also the senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from 1960 until he was assassinated in 1968.

Ebenezer Baptist is a congregation of the great civil rights icon John Lewis, who left us last year and for whom the 2021 redrafting of the Voting Rights Act is renamed this year. Reverend Raphael Warnock, Senator Warnock was John Lewis` pastor at Ebenezer Baptist.

And so, no, this was unlike any other maiden speech you`ve ever heard of in the Senate. It is really something to have a pastor with that kind of experience and that kind of talent take the floor of the Senate as if it is a pulpit.

My dear friend, Steve Benen, who works on the show and I`ve worked with now for more than a decade, Steve is somebody who watches the Congress more closely and with more intense focus on the details than any other living person I know who is not themselves a member of the Congress. After Senator Warnock gave this speech today, Steve Benen wrote to me today to say in his lifetime, he has never seen a better maiden speech in the Senate. I`m going to play some of it for you now.

You probably saw quotes already. You may have heard that it happened. You should actually see some of it because I think it`s an amazing thing to see, but it`s also the kind of moment that can potentially move things, that could move the proverbial needle. In this case, on the vote, and on the lie that the last election was stolen and we must, therefore, respond to that lie with some sort of material changes to the right to vote.

Just watch this. If you are -- I`ll just tell you, you will thank me. If you are doing the dishes or doing something else in the background, do yourself a favor, pause me for a minute if you need time to settle down but take a second. Sit down for a second and watch this. I think you`ll be glad you did.


SEN. RAPHAEL WARNOCK (D-GA): I was on a few occasions I was honored to stand with our hero and my parishioner, John Lewis. I was pastor but I`m clear, he was my mentor. On more than one occasion, we boarded buses together after Sunday church services, as part of our Souls to the Polls program, encouraging the Ebenezer Church family and communities of faith to participate in the democratic process.

Now just a few months after Congressman Lewis` death, there are those in the Georgia legislature, some who even dare to praise his name, that are now trying to get rid of Sunday Souls to the Polls, making it a crime for people who pray together to get on a bus together in order to vote together. I think that`s wrong.

Matter of fact, I think that a vote is a kind of prayer for the kind of world we desire for ourselves and for our children. To be sure, we have seen these kind of voter suppression tactics before. They are part of a long and shameful history in Georgia and throughout our nation. But refusing to be denied, Georgia citizens and citizens across our country brave the heat and the cold and the rain, some standing in line for five hours, six hours, ten hours just to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Young people, old people, sick people, working people, already underpaid, forced to lose wages to pay a kind of poll tax while standing in line to vote. And how do some politicians respond?

Well, they`re trying to make it a crime to give people water and a snack as they wait in lines that are obviously being made longer by their draconian actions. Think about that. Think about that. They are the ones making the lines longer, through these draconian actions. And then they want to make it a crime to bring grandma some water while she`s waiting in a line that they`re making longer. Make no mistake, this is democracy in reverse.

Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by the majority of voters in a hard-fought election in which each side got a chance to make its case to the voters. And rather than adjusting their agenda, rather than changing their message, they are busy trying to change the rules. We are witnessing right now a massive and abashed attack on voting rights we haven`t seen since the Jim Crow era. Since the January election, some 250 bills have been introduced by state legislatures all across the country from Georgia to Arizona, from New Hampshire to Florida, using the big lie of voter fraud as a pretext for voter suppression. The same big lie that led to a violent insurrection on this very Capitol, the day after my election.

Within 24 hours, we elected Georgia`s first African-American, Jewish senator and hours later, the Capitol was assaulted. We see in just a few precious hours the tension very much alive in the soul of America and the question before all of us at every moment is what will we do to push us in the right direction?

Surely, there ought to be at least 60 in this chamber who believe, as I do, that the four most powerful words uttered in a democracy are the people have spoken. Therefore, we must ensure that all the people can speak. But if not, we must still pass voting rights.

The right to vote is preservative of all other rights. It is not just another issue alongside other issues. It is foundational. It is a reason why any of us has the privilege of standing here in the first place.

It is about the covenant we have with one another as an American people. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. Above else must be protected.

As I close, and nobody believes a preacher when he says, as I close. Let me say that as a man of faith, I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea, the sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have the right to the shaping of our democracy.

John Lewis understood that and was beaten on a bridge defending it. Amelia Boynton, like so many women not mentioned nearly enough, was gassed on that same bridge. A white woman named Viola Liuzzo was killed. Medgar Evans was murdered in his own driveway.

Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, two Jews and an African-American, standing up for that sacred idea of democracy also paid the ultimate price.

And we in this body would be stopped and stymied by partisan politics? Short-term political gain? Senate procedure?

I say let`s get this done no matter what. I urge my colleagues to pass these two bills, strengthen and lengthen the cords of our democracy, secure our credibility as the premier voice for freedom-loving people and democratic movements all over the world, and win the future for all of our children.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.



MADDOW: The new U.S. senator from the great state of Georgia, Reverend Warnock. You rarely hear applause like that in the United States Senate. His maiden speech today ending in a thunderous round of applause from the senators who gathered to hear him give his first remarks as a U.S. senator.

I mean, if that`s what debate and regulation regularly sounded like in the U.S. Senate, boy, we`d be a different country than we are and a lot more people would run for office than already do.

Senator Warnock is going to join us live here in just a few moments. But that fight for voting rights is the latest battle in a long war for democracy that stretches back to the civil rights movement and long before that, but also one that is now being fought in this new crucible of a violent right-wing attack on the Capitol ten weeks ago today which, at its core, was an objection, a rejection of democracy, a refusal to accept the results of an election in which the voters chose to oust the last president and install a new one. That is the new crucible, in which we are having these voting rights fights right now.

The director of national intelligence today put out an unclassified report of a threat of domestic violent extremism. Here`s the top finding. It says, quote, the intelligence community assesses that domestic violent extremists posed an elevated threat in 2021, enduring extremist motivations pertaining to biases against minority populations and perceived government overreach will almost certainly continue to drive domestic violent extremist radicalization and mobilization to violence.

It says this. Newer sociopolitical developments such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and conspiracy theories condemning violence will spur some domestic violent extremists to try to engage in violence in the United States this year.

The violent breach of the U.S. Capitol, the narratives of fraud in the recent general election, which was the extensible justification for the Capitol attack. I mean, this is the intelligence community reporting that those things will, quote, almost certainly drive domestic violent extremists to commit more violent acts in our country this year, almost certainly. That`s from the intelligence community.

Former President Trump is, nevertheless, still thumping away at this theme. Fox brought him on the air last night to continue to say that he actually won the 2020 election, that there were millions of votes that were frauds. He said our Supreme Court didn`t have the courage to overturn elections that should have been overturned.

He is still preaching this stuff. Still stoking it. It already led to the Capitol attack.

The director of national intelligence says today it will almost certainly lead to more violence. He`s still pushing it. Fox is still pushing it on their air, inviting him on the air to wax ineloquent about it.

And Republicans and the states really are just running with the whole idea that there was some sort of indefinable, unprovable, but definitely bad fraud in the last election. They can`t prove it. They haven`t been able to prosecute anyone for it.

There`s no public evidence of it whatsoever. But they just feel so concerned about it that they are rolling back voting rights more aggressively than they have in more than a generation. No matter that every time their theories and feelings and vague allegations on this stuff, any time those feelings get tested it`s just a disaster for them.

Here`s the latest one which I find quite amazing. It`s out of Arizona this week. After the election, the Republican Party in Arizona filed a lawsuit saying election officials in Arizona`s largest county hadn`t counted their votes properly, if they would just recount the votes in a different way, they would find all the fraud that allowed Joe Biden to falsely appear to win the election in Arizona, when really Donald Trump must have won.

And no matter how many audits the county did to prove that their vote totals were correct and Joe Biden won that county and won the state, the Arizona Republican Party just kept pushing on with this lawsuit. Here is how that lawsuit finally came to an end this week. This is from the judge`s ruling in Arizona this week.

Quote, the plaintiff`s lawsuit was groundless. There was no evidence at all of phantom voters, manipulated vote totals or any other wrongdoing. These were flimsy excuses for a lawsuit. The plaintiff, Arizona Republican Party, the judge said, is gaslighting. It evinces a lack of good faith.

The First Amendment does not give a litigant the right to file and maintain a groundless lawsuit. Arizona law gives political parties a privileged position in the elect oral process on which our self government depends. The public has a right to expect the Arizona Republican Party to conduct itself respectfully when it participates in that process. It has failed to do so in this case.

And so, for filing a groundless lawsuit in bad faith, the judge ordered the Arizona Republican Party to pay the state thousands of dollars in attorneys` fees, to pay the attorneys` fees for the other side, to compensate them for having to defend themselves against the Republican Party`s junk lawsuit.

The judge concludes the ruling, quote, this is the final order. No matters remain pending in this case.

And thus has been the faith, basically every single lawsuit that Republicans have filed, challenging the results of the 2020 election, asserting vague feelings without evidence, about there must have been some fraud, right? Not all these court cases have gotten a scorching judge`s ruling and forced the Republicans to pay the defendant`s legal fees, but that is how it goes sometimes.

Having failed with dozens of efforts like that, to try to throw out or reverse the results of the last election, Republicans in Arizona are now turning to the next best thing, taking up all sorts of bills, trying to stop people from voting in the next one, trying to make it as hard as possible for people to vote in the next election. Arizona is, of course, in good company in this score, biggest story in politics right now. Arizona, Iowa, Georgia, Texas, every state where Republicans are in charge, Republican lawmakers are drafting literally hundreds of bills to restrict voting rights.

Voter suppression bills that, taken together, as Senator Warnock said, would represent the biggest rollback of voting rights since Jim Crow.

You`ll recall that last week on this show, we spoke with LaTosha Brown from the group Black Voters Matter. We talked about her organization and other groups taking out a big ad in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and other papers, calling on the business community in the state of Georgia to talk a stand with voting rights advocates against the new voter suppression legislation that`s being passed by Republicans in the state legislature there.

The ad urged Georgia voters to contact the CEOs of a bunch of big Georgia- based companies to let them know we expect them to stand up and support Georgia voters as we support them. Since then, there have been protests and pickets to try to bolster these demands to try to get the business community to side with voting rights and to use their power and their muscle in the state legislatures to turn back these Republican bills to make voting harder.

And the Georgia Chamber of Commerce has put out statements in recent days. First, generic statements supporting free and fair elections in a general sense. Then the chamber told CNBC that the chamber does oppose certain provisions of the voting bills passed by Republicans in the Georgia legislature, although the chamber wouldn`t say specifically what they opposed.

Big companies based in Georgia like Coca-Cola and Home Depot then told "The Washington Post" that they were aligned with the chamber of commerce on this issue. Home depot then called "The Washington Post" back to clarify that they aren`t actually opposed to the new voting rollbacks that the Republicans are currently moving through the state.

Voting rights advocates are not having this. The New Georgia Project, which is a group founded by Stacey Abrams, saying now these platitudes from Georgia-based companies should make every Georgia voter furious. They don`t want platitudes. They want legitimate and muscular support to turn back these bills that are otherwise going to pass and dramatically roll back voting rights in Georgia and other states.

This is a live issue right now. Georgia big business community is clearly feeling the pressure over whether or not they`re going to take a stance on voter suppression bills, advocates keeping the pressure on. Republicans in the legislature, nevertheless, steam rolling ahead with this stuff.

And we`re seeing versions of that happen in every state where people are starting to fight back about what Republicans are doing to voting rights in every Republican-controlled state in the country.

But there is something that could be done nationally. To bolster voting rights in Georgia, to stop voting rights rollbacks in Georgia, and in Iowa, and in Texas, and everywhere Republicans are trying to rip up voting rights. It`s the bill that passed the house as HR-1, the for the people act. The same bill introduced formally in the United States Senate today as S-1, Senate Bill One.

The Brennan Center studies voting rights and legislation like this at NYU. They`ve put out a new report on what HR-1 and S-1 would do. Check this out. Quote: As of February 19th, more than 253 bills restricting voting access has been carried over, prefiled or introduced in 43 states and the number is rising. The Brennan Center has analyzed each of the restrictive voting bills pending in the states and concludes that the For the People Act, HR- 1, S-1, would thwart virtually every single one of those bills in the states.

This bill would put a national for on voting rights that states could not bring their rules below, voting rights advanced and guaranteed full stop nationwide. HR-1 passed the House, already now is S-1. Bill formally introduced today in the Senate. The co-lead sponsor of the bill is senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

There`s 50 Democrats in the Senate, 49 of the 50 Democrats are signed on as co-sponsors of this bill. The only one who isn`t is West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. Even if he nevertheless would vote for it, which would assure 50 votes for the bill, Republicans, of course, will use the filibuster rule to block the thing from passing.

And Senator Manchin has been sort of confused and confusing on that issue. He`s saying sometimes that he`s open to reforming the filibuster in some ways, other times that he`s not at all open to that.

President Biden used to oppose changing the filibuster rule but said last night actually he thinks it should be changed. Senator Chuck Schumer, top Democrat in the Senate said as he said here on the show Monday night, that this bill to protect voting rights must pass no matter what happens with the filibuster, however they need to reform it, change it or move around it in this bill. He said for this bill, for voting rights, quote, failure is not an option. That has been his mantra on this bill.

Senator Warnock today in this maiden speech for the ages said essentially the same thing but in language that, in his way, sounded a little bit more like prayer. He said surely there ought to be at least 60 people in this chamber who believe as I do that the four most powerful words uttered in democracy are the people have spoken. Therefore, we must ensure that all of the people can speak.

But if not, if there aren`t those 60 votes, we must still pass voting rights. It`s preservative of all other rights. It`s not just another issue alongside other issues. It is foundational. It is the reason why any of us has the privilege of standing here in the first place.

It is about the covenant we have with one another as an American people. It, above all else, must be protected.

Yes. But how? What`s the path? Senator Raphael Warnock joins us next.



SEN. RAPHAEL WARNOCK (D-GA): At the time of my birth, Georgia`s two senators were Richard B. Russell and Herman E. Talmadge, both arch- segregationists and unabashed adversaries of civil rights movement.

Senator Talmadge`s father, Eugene Talmadge, former governor of our state, had famously declared the South loves the Negro in his place, but his place is at the backdoor. When once asked how he and his supporters might keep black people away from the polls, he picked up a scrap of paper and wrote a single word on it: pistols.

Led by a preacher and patriot named King, Americans of all races stood up. History vindicated the movement that sought to bring us closer to our ideals, to lengthen and strengthen the cords of our democracy. And I now hold a seat, a Senate seat where Herman E. Talmadge sat.


MADDOW: Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock today in his maiden speech on the Senate floor.

The senator made a forceful argument for why the Senate should pass the For the People Act, Senate Bill One, to try to beat back an avalanche of Republican-led voter suppression bills in his home state, in Georgia, and in 42 other states that are pursuing these voter restrictions now. The question, of course, is how they can do it.

Joining us now is Senator Raphael Warnock from the great state of Georgia.

Senator, thank you so much for being here tonight. It`s an honor to have this time with you.

WARNOCK: Thank you. It`s great to be here with you, Rachel.

MADDOW: You, I believe, have an unfair advantage in your job as a senator, at least when it comes to maiden speeches, because you are accustomed to holding the attention, the rapt attention of your congregants at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

I do have to ask, though, if you were surprised by the thunderous applause that you got at the end of that speech, which some people are saying is the best maiden speech they`ve ever seen in the United States Senate?

WARNOCK: Well, I`m deeply honored by the response of my colleagues. And, you know, it`s always a dangerous thing to put a pastor behind a lectern. And for those of us who have been worshipping and holding our services now for a year in a virtual space, you know, I had -- I actually had something of a congregation.

But what I`m really looking forward to is the legislative response of those who were in the chamber today and our Republican colleagues as well. We have to pass voting rights. It is urgent. And it is the very foundation upon which we can seek to do all of the other important things that need to be done.

MADDOW: Tell me how you see that happening in practical terms. Obviously, you reckoned with that a little bit today in your speech, talking about the Senate filibuster rule and how this Senate procedure can`t be used on the - - we can`t restrict Senate -- we can`t restrict minority rules, minority rights in society with a rule designed to protect minority rights in the Senate.

How do you -- how do you see it practically going? How do you imagine a victory here?

WARNOCK: Well, listen, Rachel, I know there`s a big debate, obviously, going on about the filibuster. And we will have to confront that issue head on. But my argument today was this: voting rights is bigger than the filibuster issue, and whether we get rid of the filibuster or not, we have to pass voting rights. We have to give the people their own voice in their own democracy.

And so, we will see what path that takes. And it`s interesting, you know. Folks asked, you know, people like me, well, should you get rid of the filibuster or not? It seems to me that the onus really is on those in the chamber who have not yet decided to support voting rights, because they could vote it up. They could vote for it.

And that`s the case that I was trying to make, because I think really that what`s at stake is the viability and the health and the credibility of our democracy -- that sacred idea of one person, one vote. That`s what`s under assault in Georgia and some 43 other states.

And as we stood up as Americans in the 1960s and passed federal legislation to say that we`re one country and that this is the foundation upon which this country is built, we are a democratic republic. We have to do that right now.

And there is a path to do it. And to do otherwise would be a terrible dereliction of our duty.

If we don`t protect our democracy in the United States Senate, what is the body of the Senate for?

MADDOW: I don`t know very much right now about what the working life of a U.S. senator is like. I think it changes with every Senate a little bit. I think it has changed a lot with COVID. And I think things had to have changed a little bit after the trauma of what happened on January 6th.

But are you in a position where you can take one-on-one with your colleagues who may not be in the same place as you on this issue? Where you can talk with Senator Manchin, for example, the only Democrat not signed on as a co-sponsor to the For the People Act? Are you in a position to talk to any of your fellow Southern senators who are Republicans, who may be willing to have a conversation with you as a fellow Southerner about this?

WARNOCK: Sure. We`re having conversations all the time.

Let me be really clear. This is a moral moment. This is a defining moment in America. And this is a fight for the soul of our democracy and all of us have a dog in that fight.

If we find ourselves in a situation where politicians don`t even have to have the majority to do whatever it is they want to do, then the future of all of our children is imperiled. And so, we have to stand up in this moment. I believe history will judge us based on what we do.

The reason I`m able to sit here right now, in addition to the fights of the martyrs that I listed today, John Lewis, who stood up and risked his life, Medgar Evers, who lost his life, and so many others, over the last 10 years in Georgia, we`ve been fighting for voting rights with the kind of laser- like focus.

My own church has been a plaintiff suing the state of Georgia for its voter suppression tactics. And then the people of Georgia rose up in an historic way in November and January, and they sent the first African-American senator, the first Jewish senator to the United States Senate.

And a couple of weeks ago, we passed COVID relief for Americans, checks in people`s pockets, shots in their arm.

Why were we able to do it?

Because the will of the people could be successfully made manifest in the outcome of the vote.

Well, what happens if increasingly, there`s a disconnect between who and what the people want and what happens in Washington? That`s what`s been going on.

The American people are being crowded out and squeezed out of their own democracy, and I`m going to do everything in my power as a United States senator to give the people their voice back.

MADDOW: Senator Raphael Warnock of the great state of Georgia -- sir, thank you for making time to be here tonight. I know this is a big day at the start of your Senate career. And it`s an honor to have you here. Thank you.

WARNOCK: Thank you.

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


MADDOW: Yesterday, the great state of Wyoming became the sixth state to drop its mask mandate as a mitigation factor against COVID-19. Add the sixth that just drop that mask rules to 11 other states that never required masks to begin with and that means that we`re up to 17 states in this country where there`s not rules saying you have to wear mask, despite all the clear scientific evidence that masks and mask mandates do keep COVID transmission down.

But there may be something coming that`s going to upend all of that, but I`m sort of surprise this isn`t getting more national attention. But you should note this is about to happen. At least I think this is about to happen.

On President Biden`s first full day in office, he issued an executive order to OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety, that Biden day one executive order told OSHA they needed to look at whether we need new rules to keep people safe from COVID while they`re at work. Specifically President Biden asked OSHA to study whether there should be a new rule that requires all Americans to wear masks while in the workplace. Any rule on that would be a rule that would apply everywhere to workplaces in every state regardless of any state rules or lack thereof that might say otherwise. OSHA rules are enforceable.

I mean to be clear here, if OSHA says there`s a need for a new safety rule about COVID which requires masks in the workplace, OSHA has the power to enforce that rule at workplaces nationwide, even in places like Wyoming and Texas.

Well, that executive order to study this issue and come up with a response had an explicit deadline. Biden gave OSHA until March 15th to make a decision. March 15th was Monday of this week. So where is it?

A new report from Bloomberg law says that OSHA has decided to issue a temporary emergency rule requiring masks and that they have told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that that new rule is coming. We reached out to the Department of Labor which OSHA is a part of to get their comment, they told us something but not much. They told us OSHA has been working diligently as appropriate to consider what standards may be necessary and is taking the time to get this right. Which is something I`m going to start saying when I miss a deadline, I`m taking the time to get it right.

But that deadline has passed and it doesn`t necessarily mean that nothing`s going to happen but at the same time the clock is ticking here states are one by one removing their mask mandates. People are having to work in unmasked unprotected environments that`s all happening now in the present tense, and a big fight between the federal government saying actually masks are required in all workplaces and red state governors saying, oh no, they`re not. That is potentially an epic and dramatic American political fight.

But a move like that may also save a ton of American lives if the federal government actually decides to join that fight. So we were supposed to know if that was going to happen by Monday. Where are they?

Watch this space.


MADDOW: The federal agency charged with keeping Americans safe in the workplace, OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, missed a deadline this week that could be a very big deal. A deadline of Monday given to them by executive order from President Biden, telling them they needed to decide whether or not there should be a new workplace safety rule in this country, requiring people to wear masks to protect themselves from COVID while they`re at work.

If OSHA does issue a rule like that, that would be a BFD, as someone once said. It could put the federal government in conflict with 17 states across the country that have dropped their mask mandates statewide. It could also save a lot of lives. But that`s all if OSHA decides to step in here and do this.

Joining us now is Debbie Berkowitz. She`s a former senior policy adviser for OSHA under President Obama. She`s now director of the Worker Health and Safety Program at the National Employment Law Project, and she`s sort of our OSHA whisperer over the last year of the pandemic.

Ms. Berkowitz, thank you for being here tonight. Thanks for taking the time.


MADDOW: First of all, have I misconstrued any of this? Am I looking at any of this the wrong way around? And am I right to be a little weirded out that this deadline has come and gone and we haven`t heard anything?

BERKOWITZ: You`re right, but also I just have to say having been a senior official at OSHA, it`s a relatively small agency. This was a herculean task to get out this rule in like eight weeks. If it`s a couple of weeks late, you want to make sure they get it right, right? This is not only the single largest public health crisis in our nation, COVID, but it`s the single largest occupational health crisis.

We know that workplace exposures have been a significant driver of this pandemic and in order to, you know, mitigate the spread of COVID out into the communities, we need to mitigate the spread at work and that way our economy will reopen. So they need to get it right.

Hopefully, we will see that rule, if it`s a couple of weeks late, that`s okay. Any longer, then we need to worry a little bit.

MADDOW: And this is different than the CDC recommending mask use to all Americans and CDC officials and people like Dr. Fauci saying this is what the government`s best scientific advice is. OSHA can enforce these things, right? They did actually just get a pot of new money in the COVID relief bill to sort of bolster their ability to enforce something like this.

This would be a big change in terms of workplaces actually being required to follow this rule if they do it, right?

BERKOWITZ: Right. And you covered this really well, Rachel. And deep gratitude to you to cover workplace safety issues.

There`s been no requirements in most states. Virginia passed requirements, California, Oregon, Washington, but most states have no requirements to protect workers on COVID and there are no current standards that require anything.

And, you know, there are many mask rules in the workplace right now. There are a lot of chemicals. There are a lot of dusts that they have to wear masks whether it`s construction, agriculture. This is not sort of new but this would be the first time that there would be actual requirements. Otherwise there`s guidance that employers could have ignored.

I also want to make it clear there`s no OSHA police out there. It would take OSHA 165 years to get into every workplace just once. What this rule would do is give workers a sense of what they need to protect themselves and employers a road map.

MADDOW: Debbie Berkowitz, director of the National Employment Law Project`s Worker Health and Safety Program, a senior policy for OSHA under President Obama, thank you for helping us understand this tonight. When we finally hear from OSHA on this, I`m going to come back to you to help us understand what it means.

BERKOWITZ: Thank you so much.

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


MADDOW: Heads up about the news tomorrow morning. A congressional hearing tomorrow on threats and violence against Asian-Americans. This is a hearing that was scheduled well before a white man in Georgia allegedly went on a killing spree that killed eight people last night, six of them women of Asian descent. So. the hearing`s timeliness on the violence on Asian American community is coincidental but this should be a big deal tomorrow given what`s just happened. That happens at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.

And at noon tomorrow, finally, a vote to confirm a new health secretary, President Biden`s picked Xavier Becerra to be the nation`s new health secretary back during the transition. You might think because of the pandemic this is being considered a rush order, but Republicans have been holding up his nomination all of this time. Xavier Beccerra`s confirmation vote will happen finally happen at noon tomorrow, on day 57 of the Biden administration.

So, lots to watch for early in the day tomorrow. We`ll see you here tomorrow night.


Good evening, Lawrence.