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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, 3/19/21

Guests: Michael Cohen, Bee Nguyen, LaTosha Brown, David Ho

Summary

Interview with President Trump`s former personal lawyer and star witness in Cy Vance`s ongoing criminal investigation, Michael Cohen. Interview with Bee Nguyen, a state representative in the Georgia state legislature. Interview with LaTosha Brown, the cofounder of Black Voters Matter. Interview with Dr. David Ho, scientific director and the CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center.

Transcript

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST, "ALL IN": THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW right now with Ali Velshi in for Rachel.

Good evening, Ali.

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST: And happy St. Joseph to you, Chris. Have a good weekend.

HAYES: You bet.

VELSHI: We`ll see you next week.

And thank you at home for joining us this hour. Rachel has the night off, but she`ll be back on Monday. There is a lot of news to get to on a Friday night and a lot of it`s out of the state of Georgia.

At the forefront, of course, is that we are still in a state of national mourning for the victims of Tuesday`s shootings in the Atlanta area. Today, President Biden and Vice President Harris took their first joint trip since taking office to Atlanta. The trip had already been planned as part of their tour promoting the American rescue plan, but they have postponed that part of the itinerary.

Instead, the president and the vice president shifted their plans, deciding instead to meet with leaders of that city`s Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, to discuss Tuesday`s attack and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes across the country.

Now, that meeting was held in private but we`re going to be speaking with one of the community leaders who was in the room a little later in this hour.

We`ve also got encouraging news about the fight to protect voting rights in the state of Georgia that we`re going to get to tonight and we will be speaking with one of the activists leading that fight.

The other major stop, the president and vice president made, in Atlanta today was to the headquarters of the CDC where they announced that they have met their goal of administering 100 million vaccine shots, more than 40 days ahead of schedule. Which is an amazing milestone, but if you are a parent in this country you might actually be more excited by the news that the CDC broke itself later today. This morning, the CDC updated its guidance on physical distancing in schools, going from requiring six feet between each student to three feet. Meaning a lot more kids will be able to head back to the classroom soon.

So as I said, we`ve got a lot to get to on this busy Friday night. But I want to start tonight with something that happened in Georgia a couple of months ago. Now you might remember this moment, it was so odd.

It was a couple of days before Christmas. Elections officials in Georgia were carrying out an audit of the November election. In which Joe Biden had narrowly carried the state. President Trump and his allies had been shouting that there was all this fraud and that the election was a fake, it was stolen.

And so, Georgia`s Republican secretary of state said, okay, we`ll do another audit to check the results again. And suddenly, the president`s chief of staff shows up at the civic center in Cobb County where they`re carrying out this audit. The visit was totally unannounced, totally out of the blue. The only reason we know it happened was that a local reporter with "The Atlanta Journal Constitution" saw Trump`s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, and his phalanx of Secret Service agents swoop into the building, and they snapped a picture of him being intercepted in the hallway by state election officials who did not allow him into the room where the audit was happening.

But we now know that what Mark Meadows did get that day were some very useful phone numbers. While he was there sniffing around for voter fraud in Cobb County, he met and got the cell phone number of the chief elections investigator for the Georgia secretary of state`s office and he gave her number to the president of the United States who promptly called that investigator to tell her that she would definitely find issues with Georgia`s election, that the whole country is counting on her, and that she will be praised when she discovers the evidence that he actually won the Georgia election.

Also that day in Cobb County, Mark Meadows met Georgia`s deputy secretary of state, and it was through her that meadows set up a call a few days later between President Trump and Georgia`s secretary of state. The call on which Trump spent an hour pressuring the secretary of state to, quote, find the votes needed for Trump to win the state, to just recalculate the votes so that Trump would win.

That phone call is the focal point of the criminal investigation opened last month by the Fulton County Georgia district attorney into whether Donald Trump illegally interfered in Georgia`s election. And today, we`re learning a bit more about the widening scope of that investigation.

"Reuters" reports today that Mark Meadows himself could be in hot wear over his role in all of this. "Reuters" pointing out it was meadows` trip that set in motion a series of meetings and conversations in a pressure campaign by Trump, end quote. Meadows was on that infamous call where Trump pressured Georgia officials to find the votes and meadows reportedly, quote, pressed Georgia officials on the call for access to legally private voter information, a request they denied, end quote.

Georgia`s secretary of state, quote, had a duty under state law to protect confidential voter information. Attorneys familiar with Georgia law say that prosecutors could argue that Meadows committed a crime by attempting to interfere with the secretary of state`s performance of that duty.

A person with direct knowledge of the district attorney`s investigation told "Reuters" the office is likely to issue subpoenas for evidence to most or all of the call participants, which would mean that the former White House chief of staff can probably expect a subpoena from Georgia state prosecutors. And that is not just important for Mark Meadows and his potential legal exposure here, it is potentially important because the Fulton County district attorney has hired a racketeering expert for the Trump administration.

Now, proving racketeering in Georgia means proving a pattern of illegal behavior, not just isolated incidents and it generally involves multiple people. If Mark Meadows is repeatedly setting up calls with and pressuring Georgia officials with the purpose of interfering in Georgia`s election, and, and he`s doing this all with Donald Trump, well, you can see why the da and her expert racketeering prosecutor might be taking a hard look at Mr. Meadows.

But, of course, Georgia is just one state where Donald Trump and his associates are in legal jeopardy. There is also his home state of New York. This was the "A.P." headline this week. Quote, Trump`s taxes in hand, Manhattan D.A.`s probe heats up.

Here`s the lead, quote, with former President Donald Trump`s tax returns finally in hand, a team of New York prosecutors led by a newly hired former mob-buster is sending out fresh subpoenas and meeting face to face with key witnesses, scrutinizing Trump`s business practices in granular detail, end quote.

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is investigating any number of potential crimes by Trump, his business and his children, including tax and bank fraud, much of it tied to Trump, or his businesses, allegedly lying about the value of various real estate assets for loan and tax purposes. Cy Vance hired this high-profile former mob prosecutor Mark Pomerantz to lead the team through the records they got from Trump`s accounting firm last month.

Let`s not forget how this New York investigation got started in the first place. It all started with a guy named Michael Cohen. The investigate that led to this point started with an investigation into payments during the 2016 campaign that were designed to keep two women from talking publicly about their alleged affairs with candidate Trump. Those payments were campaign finance felonies and the president`s lawyer Michael Cohen went to prison for them.

The payments that Cohen made to those women, however, were reimbursed by the president`s business as if they were payments to Cohen for legal services. Now, depending on how exactly that was done that could be a crime related to keeping fraudulent business records. If those fake legal expenses were deducted on the firm`s taxes that could also be tax fraud.

Cohen then testified to Congress, you`ll remember that, and he provided some documentation attesting to what he described as a long running scheme by the former president to defraud insurance companies, banks and tax authorities by radically changing the valuation of his various properties to get better loans or better tax deals. And ever since the Manhattan D.A. opened his investigation into all of this, Michael Cohen has been cooperating, even meeting with investigators from prison.

And today, now that Cy Vance has all the president`s financial records, now that he has this hard hitting mob prosecutor going through those records and figuring out what incriminating evidence there might be, today, New York prosecutors brought Michael Cohen in for his eighth interview, and no more Zoom this time. They asked him to come in person.

And there are signs that those prosecutors are working on getting other Trump insiders to cooperate with their investigation as well. In particular signs point to the Trump organization`s longtime chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, "The New York Times" reporting they`re putting pressure on Weisselberg by scrutinizing his children. One son who also works at the Trump Organization and another who works for a company that has loaned money to Trump`s company.

Now, to be clear, neither Allen Weisselberg nor his sons have been accused of any wrongdoing but there are reasons to believe that if the Trump Organization is in legal trouble, the Weisselberg family could be caught up in it.

Now as far as we know, Allen Weisselberg and his sons are not cooperating with prosecutors. But the ex-wife of one of his sons is.

And NBC`s Tom Winter sat down with Jennifer Weisselberg for an exclusive interview today asking her about her former father-in-law.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM WINTER, NBC NEWS: What do you think he could tell investigators?

JENNIFER WEISSELBERG, EX-DAUGHTER-IN-LAW OF TRUMP CFO ALLEN WEISSELBERG: Everything they would ask.

WINTER: Do you think he could be the ultimate tour guide into the Trump orbit?

WEISSELBERG: Yes.

WINTER: Her ex-husband Barry managing Trump`s ice rinks in New York`s Central Park, and she believed that in 2004 Trump and Melania gave them a big wedding gift, their own apartment overlooking the park.

So you thought that the apartment you were living in was a gift, this is a -- congratulations.

WEISSELBERG: I wrote them a thank you note.

WINTER: And all along it was just a corporate Trump Organization apartment?

WEISSELBERG: I didn`t understand these things. I was a ballet dancer. Come on.

WINTER: In reality, Trump didn`t give them the apartment. He let them live there rent free, paying only for utilities, an arrangement that could raise legal and tax questions about how the Weisselbergs in the Trump Organization accounted for it. When the arrangement was reported last fall, it caught the attention of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance`s office.

How many times have you specifically talked with the Manhattan district attorney`s office?

WEISSELBERG: Multiple times.

WINTER: Okay.

WEISSELBERG: And it`s not over.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: It`s not over.

The former daughter-in-law of the Trump Organization`s longtime chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, she`s cooperating with New York prosecutors.

Michael Cohen worked with Allen Weisselberg at the Trump Organization for years. He says it wasn`t just Donald Trump who authorized the hush money payments for which Cohen went to prison. It was Allen Weisselberg too.

"The New Yorker`s" Jane Mayer reports that Cohen, quote, believes that if prosecutors threaten Weisselberg or his family with indictment, as they did with Cohen himself, he will cooperate. He`s not going to let his boys go to prison, Cohen told me, and I don`t think he wants to spend his golden years in a correctional institute either.

Today, Cohen was with the Manhattan da for his eighth interview. Wouldn`t you have liked to be a fly on the wall for that?

Joining me now, President Trump`s former personal lawyer and star witness in Cy Vance`s ongoing criminal investigation into the former president, Michael Cohen. He is the author of "Disloyal, A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump". He currently hosts the "Mea Culpa" podcast.

Mr. Cohen, thank you for joining us tonight.

MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER TRUMP PERSONAL ATTORNEY: Ali, welcome. Welcome to THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW.

(LAUGHTER)

VELSHI: Thanks. Thank you, sir.

I wasn`t of a fly on the wall but if I were I know you have arrangements with the Manhattan D.A. about things you can talk about publicly and things you can`t. What part can you tell me about what went down today?

COHEN: So, in fact, I do not have any arrangement with anybody. I`ve asked for nothing. They have offered nothing. Other than the fact that whatever information that they seek, if I`m capable of providing that information to them, then I do.

But I`m under no gag orders from them. However, I also believe that the right thing to do is not to provide this specific information as it involves the investigation because I -- legitimately, I don`t want to see - - I don`t want to harm their investigation, nor do I want to see the Trump Organization, Mr. Trump or Allen Weisselberg, aka Mr. Whistleberg (ph), I don`t to see them obtain a benefit from the information that they would glean from this television show.

VELSHI: Let me ask you about Allen Weisselberg. You heard his former daughter-in-law telling Tom Winter that he could be the ultimate tour guide through the system and, of course, a lot of people thought you`d be the ultimate tour guide.

Tell me about Weisselberg and what he may have known that you already know.

COHEN: Right. So, Allen Weisselberg is the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. He is by far the longest serving and acting executive at the Trump Organization. Basically, Fred Trump told Donald to take Allen Weisselberg really because Fred didn`t trust Donald with the money that he was loaning him in order to get into business.

And Allen, then ultimately, who was the bookkeeper, became the CFO, and as I said the longest serving executive at the organization.

Now, I don`t know if I would say that Allen is the road map to the investigation. Truthfully, whatever they have, they have. Would it be better to have the accountant? Always, considering there was not a single dollar in and not a single dollar out of that company that did not cross through Allen Weisselberg`s desk.

So in regard to the financial crimes that are being discussed right now in the investigation, many of which you have seen at my open testimony before the House Oversight Committee, it would certainly be helpful for Allen Weisselberg`s testimony. But it is not fatal to their investigation.

Remember, they just obtained more than a million pages of documents, eight years worth of Mr. Trump`s and the Trump Organization`s tax returns. That`s the -- that`s the real road map there, and many people, including the companies that they brought in, are able to decipher it. Myself included.

You don`t need to charge him on 20 issues. All you need is one. And believe me, they have more than one.

So my recommendation for Allen, as I had stated to Jane Mayer, if -- unless you want to spend some time in a camp like I did and you want to put your boys at risk, I`m pretty sure that he`ll be providing information to the district attorney.

And look, when you have somebody like Mark Pomerantz who is a seasoned veteran when it comes to this type of litigation, and he`s been on both sides of the fence. He`s been a tough-nosed prosecutor and he`s been a hard-nosed defender, he knows the game better than anybody. And I can`t imagine who they`re going to bring in order to challenge his capabilities.

VELSHI: So, Pomerantz knows the game better than anyone, you know what was going on in the Trump administration -- the Trump Organization better than anyone, you and Allen Weisselberg.

Do you have confidence that Pomerantz has the information that he needs and a good understanding of what this takes? Because it does sound like they`ve got more than a million pages of documents. You said they have what they have. Do you think they have what they need, and that Pomerantz knows what to do with it?

COHEN: Oh, I`m certain about that. You know, as I`ve always said, you know, paper doesn`t lie. Individuals do. So no matter what Donald Trump is going to try to claim, the pages don`t lie. You also have Mazars. You have the accounting firm that was doing it.

Now, again, does it make the chain of information easier to understand when you have all of the individuals that participated?

Right. So, for example, you brought up the Stormy Daniels payment. As I made crystal clear during my statement prior to incarceration before Judge William H. Pauley, which sadly went mostly ignored, one of the things that I said is that I did this at the direction of and for the benefit of Donald J. Trump.

But what I also included is the fact that Allen Weisselberg was a party to my conversations with Mr. Trump, hence the recording that was ultimately put out on CNN when Rudy Giuliani claimed certain things that were, of course, not true. I mean, what do you expect? It`s Rudy.

So, Allen Weisselberg was a party to that. The more people that -- if you can get everybody that was involved, it`s certainly better.

VELSHI: Yeah.

COHEN: But it`s not the end all, be all.

You know, one of the things, Ali, also, a lot of people on social media, they reach out to me and say, oh, if you have the goods, you know, drop it, give it, spill it. I know there are a lot of people out there, especially that watch this show and watch you, that are interested in me sitting here and spilling all of the information.

And please understand when I say that I can`t do that or I can do it, I just choose not to simply because it doesn`t help the -- it doesn`t help the district attorney and it doesn`t help the investigation in order to hold those people responsible for their own dirty deeds.

And that`s one of the reasons why I have now spent eight sessions, eight different sessions going back over a year and a half, closer to two years, when the district attorney first came to Otisville to interview me. After eight times, you can rest assured, they`re not asking me to come in once again for a ninth time simply because they find me funny or because they just have nothing to do. Each and every time, they`re drilling down more and more and more. And ultimately --

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: Why did you go in person this time?

COHEN: -- you`re going to start see very soon -- yeah, you`re going to see very soon in my opinion indictments start flying.

VELSHI: So why did you need to go in person this time? What was different?

COHEN: Well, like I said, there`s over a million documents, and rest assured, there`s one thing I can tell you about Cy Vance and Mark Pomerantz and the entire district attorney team -- they are well-organized. They are disciplined. They are methodical in their questioning, in their documentation.

I mean, there was more paper there, all tabulated and three ring books. You know, itemized for questions that they wanted to pose by me. There was more than you would possibly even imagine. It was like a paper vault of information.

And, you know, there`s a lot of documentation, and, look, right now, I`m on home confinement so I certainly have a lot of free time to head downtown, you know, to sit with them.

And like I said, one of the reasons that I`m doing this is if this -- I will not be the villain of Donald Trump`s story. They need to all be held responsible for their own dirty deeds. I don`t want to be responsible for their actions.

VELSHI: Are you -- you -- you said you have no arrangement with anybody. Might we see you at a trial or might you be testifying before a grand jury at some point?

COHEN: Well, look, I have not been asked at this point in time. However, one would have to imagine that by the time I finish meeting with them, we will definitely be into the double digits, so do I anticipate being called as a witness? The answer is most probably yes.

If I`m asked, then I will do it simply because of my respect for Mr. Vance, as well as for Mr. Pomerantz and for the investigation that they are now conducting.

So the answer is, if I`m asked, I will do it.

No different than when I was asked to appear before the Congress, whether it was the House Oversight or the Senate Select Committees, all of them, the House Judiciary, if they asked me to come in, I was coming in. I don`t need to be forced in with a subpoena. All they need to do is ask.

VELSHI: Michael, thank you for taking time to join us today. We appreciate it.

President Trump`s former personal lawyer and star witness in Cy Vance`s ongoing criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump, Michael Cohen. He`s the author of "Disloyal, A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to Donald J. Trump", and he`s the host of the "Mea Culpa" podcast.

All right. Much more to get to here tonight. President Biden and Vice President Harris made their first joint trip in office today, a trip that turned out to be very different than they planned. We`ll have detains on that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: In a straight line, they waited. This is the Asian-American Pacific Islander delegation of the Georgia state legislature waiting to meet with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Atlanta today. It was another deeply painful day in Atlanta, still reeling from the violence on Tuesday when a gunman allegedly killed eight people at three spas, predominantly staffed by people of Asian descent.

The last four victims were identified today, all of them were Asian women. Three of them were shot in the head. The fourth succumbed to gunshot wounds to the chest. One of the victims identified today, Hyun Jung Grant was a single mother of two. She`s an elementary schoolteacher in Korea before she immigrated to the United States.

Donations have poured in for her two sons, more than a million dollars in donations in 24 hours. Tens of thousands of dollars raised for the families of the other victims as well.

The president and vice president`s visit to Atlanta today was long scheduled. It was initially meant to be an opportunity to tout the accomplishments of their COVID relief bill.

Instead, they landed in Atlanta today to console the city and the nation still stunned by these heinous murders committed during a time of outsized violence and harassment toward Asian-Americans in this country.

The vice president and the president both spoke this evening after meeting with the Asian-American Pacific islander delegation of the Georgia state legislature and other members of the Asian community. They were about an hour late to their scheduled remarks. It appears because that meeting went long and you can get a sense of why when the president kicked off his remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSEPH R. BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you, good afternoon. Sorry we`re a little late but we had an opportunity to meet with leaders of the AAPI community downstairs and it was heart wrenching to listen to them.

Too many Asian-Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying, waking up each morning the past year failing, their safety and the safety of their loved ones are at stake. They`ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed. They`ve been verbally assaulted, physically assaulted, killed. They spent a year of living in fear for their lives, just to walk down the street.

The conversation we had today with the AAPI leaders, and that we`re hearing all across the country, is that hate and violence often hide in plain sight. And it`s often met with silence. That`s been true throughout our history. But that has to change because our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: Joining us now is Bee Nguyen. She`s a state representative in the Georgia state legislature. She is part of the Asian American Pacific Island delegation that met with President Biden and Vice President Harris this afternoon.

Representative Nguyen, thank you for being with us today, and our condolences to the community in Atlanta that is still reeling from these shootings earlier this week. What do we know now about the shootings and what connection they may have to this spate of anti-Asian violence we`ve been seeing in the country in recent days?

STATE REP. BEE NGUYEN (D), GEORGIA: Well, we now finally know the names of all victims, and it did take a few days for us to learn the last four names of the victims. And of those eight people who are killed six are Asian women. We know it is the same suspect in custody and we know that he denies that there are any racial implications but we also know he targeted these three places. He drove from the first location almost 40 minutes to the second location, and on the way to those locations, he passed other adult businesses that are not Asian. He chose to target those three specific spas.

We`ve also learned a little bit more about the victims and their families and today for the first time during that meeting with the president and vice president, we did hear a statement from the victims` families that were read directly for the president and vice president to hear.

VELSHI: I think it`s important that you bring that up. In fact, we heard in one case today from the son of one of the victims, Hyun Grant, her son Randy had this to say. Let`s listen together.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can`t say that this isn`t racially motivated. You don`t kill eight people on a bad day. Let alone one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How often would she tell you she loved you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Every night, before she goes to bed. She calls me or my brother.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: It`s heartbreaking to see these two boys who have lost their mother.

There is some sense of callousness, particularly in one of the cases of one of the police departments that were handling this, saying that he -- the shooter had a bad day. That has resulted in a very, very strong reaction, not just from Asian-Americans, from everybody to say how do people get away with being told they were having a bad day when they killed this many people?

NGUYEN: And in addition to him having a bad day, the idea that somebody who is suffering from mental health crisis can`t also simultaneously be racist or misogynistic. That doesn`t make sense to me.

You can suffer from mental health issues and still be racist and his act of violence, as you stated before, he shot three of the women in the head at close range. I mean, that is an act of hate. It`s gruesome, and it is brutal.

And so to hear it characterized of somebody having a bad day is just a repetition that we`ve seen in the past when there are attempts to justify the actions of the perpetrator versus learning the victim itself. We see that currently in police brutality when there are attempts to justify why law enforcement might shoot somebody. He shouldn`t have resisted arrest. We hear that a lot.

And so it`s a painful reminder that our country is unwilling, unable to admit that there is deep racism, systemic racism, misogyny and gender based violence. To hear the president and the vice president acknowledge that is a stark contrast to the last administration.

VELSHI: Yeah, doesn`t feel like much but it`s a big deal when you get used to not hearing these sorts of encouragements or words of condolence from the president.

Thank you very much, Bee Nguyen, I appreciate you taking time to be with us tonight.

Bee Nguyen is a state representative in the Georgia state legislature.

Well, despite the very sad news out of Georgia this week, there`s some encouraging news to report about Republican efforts to roll back voting rights there. It seems that pressure might be working and some of those efforts may not succeed. That`s next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: Despite widespread opposition from voting rights groups and business groups, Republican lawmakers in Georgia continue to run full steam ahead to pass a slew of so-called election integrity bills, aka voter suppression bills before the end of their legislative session at the end of this month. Many of those bills make it harder to vote by limiting early and absentee voting and the availability of ballot drop boxes, others will add more voter ID requirements and cut back on voting on Sundays, which is important in Georgia, a day black churches hold something called Souls to the Polls events to mobilize voters after church.

Last week, Rachel spoke with LaTosha Brown, the cofounder of Black Voters Matter, after her organization placed this ad in "The Atlanta Journal Constitution" name checking the executives of businesses headquartered in Georgia like Coca-Cola, Delta and Home Depot asking them to, quote, stand up and support Georgia voters.

Well, now it appears those efforts may already be paying off. Late last night, Republicans in the state signaled that they will back down from at least some of those draconian proposals. They will no longer seek to end Sunday early voting or no excuse absentee voting.

Today, voting right activists in the states -- in the state also received a boost when the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which is the most powerful business lobby in Georgia released this statement laying out their concerns for the Republicans` proposals. Quote: We will continue to work with legislators to take steps to maximize voter participation, remove obstacles and maintain election integrity. Like many in our community our interests in these issues began long ago and reflect our collective belief that every eligible Georgia voter, regardless of background or political views should engage in the voting process.

Changes to that election process could come, by the way, as early as Monday when the Republican led legislature is expected to meet and potentially vote on some of these bills and while Republicans appear to be retreating from their opposition to Sunday, and absentee voting, many of the other proposed restrictions remain.

Joining us now is LaTosha Brown. She`s the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, the group that has been campaigning to get Georgia based companies to come out against the wave of state legislation aimed at restricting voter access.

LaTosha, thank you for being with us.

This is kind of remarkable because you were able to go out there and say, and I saw it on social media, it spread very quickly to these companies to say you have employees, and you have customers who live in the state of Georgia, you cannot contribute to or otherwise support Republican candidates who are trying to undermine their right to vote. And you have at least found some success in this.

LATOSHA BROWN, BLACK VOTERS MATTER COFOUNDER: Absolutely. I think that`s what happens when a community comes together, that fundamentally what we have seen is we`ve seen organizations, nonprofit groups and activists come together, we`ve seen groups like NAACP, Georgia Stand Up, our organization, New Georgia Project, we`ve also seen labor unions like SEIU that have raised their voice and we`ve seen some corporate leadership like Salesforce that came out with a strong and direct statement around saying that as a community we are not going to stand for voter suppression.

You know, it`s been disappointing to see companies like Delta that quite frankly is a home grown company in Georgia and they have not had as much a strong statement to come out.

This isn`t a partisan issue, this is a democracy issue and so as a community, as the ecosystem we believe that we have to push and put pressure, that these bills, these are not bills that we need in our state of Georgia. It will actually send out back, not take us forward.

VELSHI: So let`s talk about this a little more. That`s where the rubber hits the road with companies like Delta. What is it that looks like success to you? What is it that you want a company like Delta to do that will influence Republicans in the state legislature to pull back on yet more of the things they`re trying to do to cut off people`s ability to vote?

BROWN: No, Delta has a tremendous amount of political capital and influence. You know, it is a company that we own, that we love, that it actually has, is based right here in the state of Georgia, right, in Atlanta. And so we expect that we would not have look warm statement saying this is what I support, but that they would come out strong, just as Salesforce led the way and say that we are against this, this is not what we`re going to stand for and move forward in our state.

When I think about the bills that happened, in many ways the Republicans, it`s like a Jedi mind trick on some level you`re saying you came up with bad legislation that we know is rooted in racism, it was rooted in the big lie and now we`re saying, we`re not going to do it that bad. We`ll offer this much voter suppression.

They should be unequivocal around a couple things, one that they`re completely against these bills, two, that they`re going to divest in those elected officials, those Republicans and those elected officials who stand and continue to push voter suppression and three that they`re going to also support HR-1 and the federal legislation to make sure that all voters in the country have some expanded protection.

VELSHI: LaTosha Brown, we thank you for joining us again to give us an update on the situation and congratulations on the work you are doing to protect the rights of Americans to continue to vote freely. LaTosha Brown is the co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Thank you for joining us tonight.

Still ahead here tonight, some very positive news in the fight against COVID. Some developments that should have everybody concerned, one of the world`s foremost virus researchers Dr. David Ho joins us next. You`re not going to want to miss this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: While most of President Biden and Vice President Harris`s itinerary in Georgia was shaped by this week`s horrific killings, one of their stops today was a trip to the Centers for Disease Control. The president met with scientists there and thanked CDC staffers for their work, he declared, quote, science is back.

And it shows. The Biden administration is celebrating a major milestone today. Before he took office, Biden promised 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. Well, he`s been president for 59 days now and in that time there has been more than 100 million shots administered, with 41 days to spare. That`s a BFD as someone once said.

With the current average of 2 million shots each day, Biden might be able to reach the 150 million shots he articulated in January he hoped to achieve, quote, with the grace of God.

Here we are a year into this pandemic and we can see the science is working and now our government is working too. Science and government together resulted in another major update today, the CDC released revised guidance for social distancing in schools. Now kids are allowed to sit three feet apart in classrooms rather than six feet, as long as everybody`s wearing masks. So this is a game changer.

But when it comes to reopening things like businesses and restaurants, the Biden administration is in a race against the clock as both vaccines and new variants proliferate across this country. There`s been a wealth of reopening announcements in the Northeast. Connecticut today reopened its restaurants, most other businesses as well, to full capacity. Each one can serve as many patrons as their respective four walls can hold.

New Jersey and New York for their part opened indoor dining today to 50 percent capacity and on Monday, New York City is set to resume indoor fitness classes at 33 percent capacity so that people can finally work out the stress of the past year by breathing all over each other while a teacher shouts instructions at them over a catchy beat.

To put those reopenings in context, New York state and New Jersey have more recent cases per capita than any other state, and there is a new variant brewing in New York city.

Researchers sounded the alarm about this variant B.1.526 almost a month ago based on samples collected in New York City in November. That variant now accounts for nearly 40 percent of all the cases sequenced in local labs recently.

Officials think this could indicate the New York variant might be more contagious than other strains and perhaps better able to work around antibodies and that seems scary.

So I know just the person to talk to.

Joining us now is Dr. David Ho. He`s a scientific director and the CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. Dr. Ho is one of the world`s most influential virus researchers. He`s a legend in the fact against HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and for the past year, he`s been putting his considerable expertise to work on a treatment for COVID-19.

And now, he`s out with a new study of the New York City COVID variant. He and other researchers conclude that this variant`s, quote, unique set of spike mutations may pose an antigenic challenge for current interventions. Dr. Ho, thank you for being here to help us understand the new challenges we`re facing now.

I just said what was in your study. I don`t understand it so I`m going to read you another piece from your study and I`d love you to explain to us what this and I love you to explain what this means. You say, phylogenetic analyses of the sequences in the database further reveal that this B.1.526 variant is scattered in Northeast of the United States and its unique set of spike mutations posed an antigenic challenge for current interventions.

What does that mean in language I can understand?

DR. DAVID HO, DIRECTOR AND CEO AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY AIDS RESESARCH CENTER: Thank you for having me on the program, Ali.

We`ve been doing studies to look for the variants from U.K., South Africa, Brazil, here in New York City. And we indeed found a few such variants in our midst. But in the course of doing that, we identified homegrown variants, which is now referred to as B.1.526.

And by the antigenic challenge, I mean, if you look at the spike protein, the protein that sits on the outside of the virus particle and responsible to the virus binding to the cell, there`s one major mutation there that`s share would the South African variant as well as the Brazilian variant. Previously we`ve characterized those variants and know mutation would hinder some action of some of the antibody treatments we already have and also would lower the ability of the serum from vaccinated individuals to neutralize the virus, and hence that has the potential to compromise vaccine efficacy.

VELSHI: And, of course, people like me think, wow, more fatal is the worst thing that can happen with a virus. But in fact potentially more contagious or able to neutralize could ultimately be more dangerous. So this is matter you think people have to take very, very seriously.

HO: Yes. As a virologist who`s been studying these variants for a number of months and uncovering these new variants we are quite concerned because we`ve seen it rising in prevalence from the last few months from initial identification in November to a few cases in December. And then gradually increasing from a few percentage now up to 40 percent. So the dominance its exhibiting suggests it may be more transmissible.

And then more recently we have looked at B.1.526 versus the B.1.1.7 from the United Kingdom. And in New York City, we see that New York variant is outcompeting the U.K. variant. Whereas in places like Florida, the U.K. variant is now dominant.

So, it suggests here in New York, we have evidence that this new variant is more transmissible simply by comparison with the U.K. variant.

VELSHI: Are we -- are we dealing with it the right way? Is the idea we`re still trying to get everybody vaccinated and everybody should still stay with their masks and maintain social distancing? Is that the best way to deal with this new variant, or are we going to need to come up with variations on the vaccines?

HO: I think we need to double down on what we`ve been doing, continue to carry out mitigation measures with masking and social distancing. And I think it is vital that we rollout the vaccine as quickly as possible as the new administration is doing, because if we could block the spread of the virus we`ll block further mutations from accumulating in this virus. And that`s how the new variants appear. And so, doubling down on these measures is what we need.

VELSHI: Dr. Ho, are you alarmed by changes you`re seeing in the northeast in terms of restrictions we talked about being lifted in Connecticut, New Jersey and New York?

HO: You know, I cannot speak about places outside of New York City because that`s our focus. We do know that this new variant is rising exponentially. And it`s telling us it`s more transmissible. And yet we -- the mitigation measures are being relaxed. So I am a bit concerned about that.

VELSHI: Dr. Ho, thank you for the work you`re doing on this and the work you`ve done on AIDS in the past. Dr. David Ho is a scientific director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center. We appreciate your time tonight.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: While President Biden is trying to outrun COVID-19 with an all out focus on vaccine distribution, the previous president is coping with a coronavirus outbreak at his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago. NBC News has confirmed Trump`s Mar-a-Lago club is in partial shutdown after at least one person there tested positive. According it one staffer, members got a phone call earlier today to let them know and some employees are currently under quarantine.

"The A.P." was the first to report this story. And "The Palm Beach Post" has a little detail, reporting that the partial closure affects the resort`s beach club and its al carte dining room. No word on the whereabouts of the former first family.

That does it for us tonight. Rachel will be back again on Monday, but I will see you tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m. Eastern for my show "VELSHI". I`ll be joined by Congresswoman Judy Chu, Congressman Andy Kim and Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi. We`ll tackle the wave of anti-Asian violence, the latest Capitol Hill arrests and the warning of U.S. intelligence of more danger to come from right wing extremists. Those stories and more on "VELSHI" tomorrow morning from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. Eastern.

Now, it`s time for "THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL."

Good evening, my friend.