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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, August 10, 2020

Guests: Robert Draper, Marc Elias

Summary

A "New York Times Magazine" report reveals President Trump's internal battles with intelligence officials. The Trump administration has turned to weakening the Postal Service in a cynical effort to keep people from voting.

Transcript

KATIE HILL (D-CA), FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: -- could be. Women between the ages of 18 and 40 are sort of our target demographic that we're trying to figure out what are the issues that motivate them most. And I don't think it's one thing you necessarily expect right off the bat, and how do we insure that is useful as a political force moving forward so that we can go on with our agenda? So, I'm excited for that.

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC HOST: Former Congressman Katie Hill, thank you for joining us. It is good to see you again. Katie Hill's new book "She Will Rise" is out tomorrow.

That's ALL IN on this Monday night.

"THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" begins right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Ali. Thank you, my friend. Much appreciated.

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

On the western border of Russia, up at the northern most part of the border, you've got Finland. Below that, you've got Estonia and Latvia. The really big country on the southwestern part of that border between Russia and the Black Sea is the large nation of Ukraine. Lots of news about Ukraine in recent years.

Russia recently took part of that country. Russia is currently occupying other parts of it. But on top of Ukraine, between Ukraine and the Baltic states, is the large and still quite Soviet country of Belarus.

Belarus did become an independent country when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. They established a new form of government. They constituted themselves as the Republic of Belarus. They held an election for president of that republic for the first time in 1994.

In that first election in 1994, they picked this guy, Alexander Lukashenko, to be their first ever president. Again, they picked him in 1994. He is still there today. I say that Belarus is kind of Soviet because Belarus is often described as Europe's last dictatorship. And he is the dictator.

But Belarus is both effectively a dictatorship and also nominally, it's a republic. It's a place that holds elections. And those two things may seem contrary that you would be a dictatorship but also one that holds elections, but in practice, those two things often come together.

I mean, if you think about it, right, basically, by definition, if you're an authoritarian leader, if you're a dictator, you don't believe in like checks and balances in government, right? You don't believe in anybody else in government, anybody else in any position in your country being able to interfere with you just dictating what you want to happen and getting it, by definition, right?

Authoritarian leaders and dictators also don't have to believe in doing a good job in government, right? They don't have to. They don't have to worry about it. Under authoritarian rule, there's no democratic feedback loop from voters and constituents that's going to get in your way of doing whatever you want, right?

I mean, if you are a citizen living under the rule of a dictator or an authoritarian leader, and it turns out you don't have good government, you are dissatisfied with the governing skills of the dictator in your country, and how your country is going under his leadership, and it is always his, not hers, right, what are you going to do if you're a dissatisfied citizen in a country like that? You're going to hold a demonstration? Are you going to petition the leader with your grievances?

Really? Maybe you're going to run for office to try to unseat the guy who you're unhappy with? Yeah, good luck with any of those things in an authoritarian country.

That said, places run by dictators and authoritarians quite often do have some form of elections. But the point of those elections in an authoritarian system is not to, you know, actually set competing candidates and competing political parties and competing governing ideas against each other to let the people decide in a free and fair contest. I mean, the point of holding purportedly democratic elections in authoritarian states is to validate the leader's hold on power, right? To sort of pseudo-authenticate the dictator's position, both to other countries, but also domestically as well, right? You rarify the position of the leader and shut up anyone who complains that he's illegitimately holding office or the people of his country object to his rule.

And so, in a lot of places that are dictatorships or authoritarian states, you do get elections, but there are often are ways to tell that maybe it's not the way we think of an election here, right? So, like in Turkmenistan, you get the president, quote-unquote, re-elected with 97 percent of the vote, and it was Uzbekistan, the president gets 91 percent of the vote. Oh, he's slipping, right?

Bashar al-Assad, the dictator in Syria, announced 98 percent of the people have voted to keep him in power. Really? Tell me more.

The Castro brothers in Cuba, 99 percent of the vote. Kim Jong Il, in North Korea, 99 percent of the vote. Saddam Hussein, 100 percent of the vote.

You know, these guys working it hard enough, they could probably get 110 percent of the vote, in the right precincts. But you know, after going through those kind motions, you know, voila, the dictator says to the world and to his own country, look, I have been overwhelmingly democratically re-elected to my post. The people love me.

I'm not pushing myself on anybody. They asked for me to stay. They love me.

This weekend in Belarus, the guy who has been the dictator there for more than 25 years, the first and only president that country has ever had since the collapse of the Soviet Union, he stood for re-election. And there's no reason to think in a real election that he would be re-elected. He has badly botched, for example, his country's coronavirus response, which has led to widespread anger and criticism.

The economy in Belarus is circling the drain. Here's a specific dynamic that applies to Belarus in a very specific way, but it's understandable. His relationship with Putin in Russia has been very, very important to his power. Russia has been propping him up.

But his relationship with Putin and Russia has gotten a little weird recently, now that is in doubt, that has also shook his hold on power in Belarus. But you know, dictators do as dictators do, in the days leading up to the vote, he arrested the senior campaign staff of the main candidate running against him.

Lukashenko had his security forces attack peaceful protesters in the capital city of Minsk, including yanking people off the streets and throwing them in unmarked vans. Ahem. When his government announced this weekend that he had received, oh, say, let's call it 80 percent of the vote in this election, protesters nevertheless flooded the streets. And Lukashenko called out the troops against them, and we have seen disturbing scenes out of the streets, police trucks driving at speed into protesters.

The internet being cut off in parts of the capital, phone service being mostly cut off. The candidates who stood against him in this election, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, she has now disappeared.

The dictator, Lukashenko, says he's facing a revolution that's trying to overthrow him, and that's why all this force is necessary, because he won't allow himself to be overthrown. Well, Lukashenko may or may not be facing a revolution tonight or in the long run in Belarus. But what he is facing is a country that doesn't want him in power anymore and is willing to say so.

In a country under authoritarian rule, even when they hold elections, elections are not supposed to be for that purpose. They're not supposed to be a legitimate means by which people choose the future of their country. In an authoritarian country, under authoritarian rule, elections are just there as window dressing, they're supposed to validate the ruler's hold on power.

In Hong Kong, security forces have now started arresting even very well known, very well connected public figures, including today, arresting a media tycoon named Jimmy Lai. China has apparently looked around the world and decided this year, 2020, is the perfect time to grind out any special freedoms that Hong Kong has enjoyed in years past, despite a Constitution that supposedly protects those freedoms.

Under the draconian and far reaching new security law that China has imposed in Hong Kong, security forces are now just straight up raiding a major newspaper, denouncing it as colluding with foreign powers, security services raided the paper, searched the desks and computers of reporters, seized and arrested the executive in charge of the paper, and why are they doing it? Because they can. Because they have been testing what they can get away with in terms of international opinion, and they find that they can do whatever they want.

I mean, they have been arresting activists and demonstrators and pro-democracy politicians. They have banned a whole bunch of pro-democracy politicians from competing, from participating in the elections that Hong Kong was supposed to have this fall. But then, after banning all the pro-democracy politicians from participating in the elections, they then did away with any worries about what might happen in the election anyway by canceling the election altogether.

They said, yeah, no, we're not going to do an election now. We'll hold it next year instead, maybe, we'll see.

Here at home, President Trump, of course, has recently threatened to delay the election this fall here in the U.S. He does not have the power to delay the election, but he's raising that prospect for a reason. His attorney general, William Barr, is now publicly denouncing American protesters and demonstrators as Bolsheviks. He literally used the word Bolsheviks and fascists and communists all at once. Anything else?

Attorney General William Barr, of course, has recently overseen the deployment of federal agents against American protesters in the streets this summer. With coronavirus infections now topping 5 million in this country, with a quarter of the world's cases in the United States, the 164,000 Americans dead, with front pages like this one, this was the "Sacramento Bee" in California yesterday.

You see those little dots, really hard to see what they are all. Each of those is a coffin pictorial representation of a coffin. 10,000 coffins on the front page, representing 10,000 Californians dead from COVID already and counting.

With school reopening efforts going bust all over the country, simply because the spread of the virus is not under control and schools cannot safely open until the spread of the virus is under control, with realistic economic prospects remaining bleak, again, because the spread of the virus is not under control, and that not only affects schools, it affects work and travel and everything with unemployment still above 10 percent, the highest level since the great depression, with the positivity rate in terms of test results in Mississippi up near 21 percent as of now, this far into it, which is astonishing, with Texas' positivity rate above 19 percent today, I mean, even though it seemed like maybe Texas was getting better there for a while, Texas' positivity rate is over 19 percent right now.

For contrast, New York is well under 1 percent now. With current polls, even with many grains of salt about polling, with current polls showing the president losing to his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, in nearly every swing state in the country, with all of that, and with what we have come to learn about this president and what he is not only interested in doing but what he is able to do to the government when he puts his mind to it, there are now real worries about the means by which he's going to try to hold on to power in less than 90 day when the election happens, in the lead up to that election, during our election and after.

Here, for example, is a recent ad, political ad, it's against the president. It's from Priorities USA. I want to show you this ad because I feel like it puts these worries in the starkest possible terms in a way that's sort of easier to show than for moo me to say.

I also tell you, this ad is intense enough, maybe upsetting enough, that if you're watching with kids, you may want to pause me for a second and not have the kiddos s watch this, depending on the particular kiddo. I believe it's worth seeing and worth it, but I'll admit it's not for everyone. So I'm giving you fair warning here, right? You're ready?

It's 30 seconds. I'm going to show it in three, two, one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am your president of law and order.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't resist.

TRUMP: I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers.

Please don't be too nice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Vote this out. That ad is called police state, again, from Priorities USA.

As a general matter, we associate authoritarian leaders and dictators with a government using violence at large scale against citizens of that country, and also curtailing the rights and freedoms of citizens of that country, intimidating them, limiting the means by which anyone might object to it or get recourse for it.

That's a very visible, very scary stuff we think about in terms of authoritarian regimes, what we're watching right now, for example in Belarus. But as a political science matter, it's not as visual, but it is worth noting that as a matter of political science, we are also really used to seeing authoritarian leaders get re-elected. Not because they're popular, right? Not because their beleaguered populations like them and freely choose them, but because authoritarian leaders only care about elections as window dressing. They only care about elections for the purpose of validating the leader's hold on power.

They don't care about real, free, and fair democracy. They don't care about good and fair government. If they were, they wouldn't be authoritarians and dictators, but they get re-elected in part because they're absolutely shameless about what they're willing to apply to an election to make sure they hold on to power. They are willing to use all the powers of the government that they control to insure that they win the next election, to keep themselves in power.

As a general principle, that goes hand in hand with authoritarian leadership, and that's why authoritarianism and elections most often yield to what appear to be re-election results for authoritarian leaders. They bring the powers of the government to bear, to insure that they win the election to keep them in power.

Now, we're going to be talking this hour about the U.S. postal service, of all things, because of the pandemic, it has emerged as a brand-new never before needed choke point in terms of the Trump administration having potential direct influence over the next election and over voting nationwide. I mean, think about the contrast between this and previous elections. In previous elections, every state had basically total control over voting and elections, right? Independently, all 50 states, all doing it their own way, 50 different ways. That's how it's set up in our Constitution. That's how we have basically always done it.

This year, simply because of the pandemic, all over the country, all of us in almost every state, we will all be for the first time relying on one part of the federal government controlled by the Trump administration, to receive and cast our ballots. We have procedurally federalized our elections by running all of our receipt and submission of our ballots through one part of the federal government controlled by the president.

And we don't think of the postal service as a particularly political thing. We don't think of protecting it as critical to our ability to stay a Democratic country, but by circumstance and political eventuality, here we are. Friday night, we reported on nearly two dozen senior postal service leaders being summarily removed from their jobs by the new guy who Trump just put in charge there.

Today, "Politico" reporting that the Trump White House is actively working on ways they can sabotage voting, through their newly tight control over the Postal Service. They are spitballing new ways they may be able to use the power of the government they now run to make sure that Trump keeps hold of power, by sabotaging the vote through the Postal Service. The Postal Service is a new weird part of that power dynamic, simply because of the pandemic and the logistical imperatives it's imposed on us. They're apparently going for it.

That said, of course, there's no substitute for the Justice Department being used that way, too, right? Having the Justice Department working for the president's political aims, that's priceless. Clearing and protecting friends and coconspirators of the president, people who would lie to law enforcement or cover him to keep him from getting in trouble. The Justice Department directing criminal investigations and prosecutions of the president's political enemies and his perceived opponents.

I mean, that has the president was coming into office was seen as the sort of holy grail of what he might try to grab hold of in terms of corrupting the U.S. government to his own purposes and to bolster his own hold on power. Well, you know, you talk about these things as worst case scenarios. Then they happen, then you have to live with them and figure out a way out of it.

We have now seen one by one, even the most supposedly independent federal prosecutor's offices pressured and in some cases taken over by Attorney General Bill Barr with direct consequences with prosecutions with people like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone and his various lawyers.

Right now, we're steaming toward the election with a public promise from Attorney General Barr that he will reveal the results of an investigation targeting senior officials in the Obama administration, and that public reveal he says will happen before the election in which President Trump, of course, will face off against the Obama administration's vice president, Joe Biden. William Barr promising that the results of that criminal investigation he has ordered and he is supervising into Obama administration officials, that will be out before the election.

Use the power of the government you control to hold on to power. That is the game. That's how they do it. That's the basic principle.

And behold -- into this life that we are now living and that understanding of the circumstances in which the president is trying to hold on to power, behold. Here comes Robert Draper at "The New York Times" magazine with next, maybe the biggest shoe to drop along these lines. He tells the story, the astonishingly mostly untold story of how the intelligence agencies are falling to it now, too.

Robert Draper's long new piece at "The New York Times" magazine is, I think, due out sort of over the course of the next week. "The New York Times" put it on their front page for a hot minute this weekend and took it down. Now it's hard to find. I don't understand that at all.

But this piece is making news now, far and wide, for good reason. Robert Draper speaks with 40 sources for this story, including multiple sources who he says have served in the intelligence community under this president. Draper reports last summer, last July, the national intelligence estimate rendered as one of its key judgments, key judgment number two, quote, that in the 2020 election, Russia favored the current president, Donald Trump.

Quote, the intelligence provided to the NIE's authors indicated that in the lead-up to 2020, Russia worked in support of the Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, as well. But the lead author of the NIE explained to colleagues, quote, that this reflected not a genuine preference for Bernie Sanders but rather an effort to weaken the Democratic party and ultimately help the current U.S. President, Donald Trump.

Interesting details, key judgments in the national intelligence estimate as of July last year.

Now, that's in place as of July last year. That's what the national intelligence estimate had concluded in part. Draper reports, though, that the president was, quote, displeased with this assessment, and that resulted in the then director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, being told to change that assessment.

Quote, I can confirm that one of my staffers who was aware of the controversy requested that I modify that assessment, Dan Coats tells Robert Draper, but I said no. No, we need to stick to what the analysts have said. Dan coats says he was told to change that assessment July of last year. Days later, Robert Draper's reporting, quote, not long after he was approached about the change to the NIE, Dan Coats was fired as director of national intelligence. Or rather, the president announced by tweet that Dan Coats would be leaving much sooner than he expected to.

So they forced coats out, then the next guy arrives. The next person installed in the director of national intelligence job is Joseph Maguire. When he's installed in the job, the NIE still wasn't finalized. And apparently, the White House still wanted that assessment about Russia to be changed. And then, in September of last year, with Maguire in post, because Dan Coats had been fired, in fact, that assessment was changed.

Quote: No longer did key judgment number two clearly state that Russia favored the current president, according to an individual who compared the two versions of the NIE side-by-side. Instead the new version concluded Russian leaders probably assessed chances to improve relations with the U.S. will diminish under a different U.S. president.

Such a change a former senior intelligence official said, would amount to a distinction without a difference and a way to make sure that Joseph Maguire doesn't get fired. But the distinction was in fact both real and important. A document intended to explain Russia's playbook for the upcoming elections no longer included an explanation of what Russia's immediate goal was, omitting that crucial detail would later allow the White House to question the credibility of the testimony of intelligence and law enforcement officials who informed lawmakers of Russia's interest in Trump's re-election in a closed door congressional committee briefing early this year.

It would also set in motion Maguire's own departure in spites of the efforts to protect him. Joseph Maguire, who was installed as director of national intelligence after Dan Coats gets fired. Dan Coats says no, I won't change that assessment in the NIE, he's out. Maguire gets put in. Maguire okays the change, this change to the intelligence, dropping this clear statement that Russia was working to re-elect Trump.

Joseph Maguire was also the intelligence director who refused to forward to Congress the whistleblower complaint from a CIA analyst about the president and Ukraine, that complaint that ultimately led to kicking off the president's impeachment. And this is remarkable. Ultimately, from Draper's reporting, it appears to have been the same day that Joseph Maguire testified about that whistleblower thing in the morning. Public testimony he indignantly stood up for his own integrity saying in all of his years in government service, his integrity had never before been questioned.

In the morning, he went up to Capitol Hill and gave a soliloquy to Congress about sitting on the whistleblower complaint, and no one should question his integrity. That's what he did in the morning. That afternoon, what did he do? He went back to his office and voted to approve the national intelligence estimate that took out all the worst stuff about Russia, all the stuff the White House wanted taken out.

And then, after doing both of those things to benefit the president, Joseph Maguire got fired anyway. The president fired him anyway, because a deputy in Maguire's office who was put in charge of protecting our elections against foreign interference, she briefed Congress and told them the truth about what Russia was doing in 2020 and why. And so the president fired Maguire anyway.

Robert Draper also reports that then Homeland Security Secretary Brigitte Nielsen was abraded by the White House when she warned foreign diplomats from multiple countries including Russia that they shouldn't interfere in the 2018 midterms. The president yelled at her for issuing that warning to other countries, including Russia.

Draper also reports that the 2018 cyberattack that shut down the Internet Research Agency in Russia in 2018 and stopped them from interfering in the 2018 midterms, Draper reports that was something that President Trump had nothing to do with, and he did not order it.

But this is just a remarkable story, particularly given the moment that we are in. The president bending the intelligence agencies to say what he wants said. To present what appears to be intelligence information, but to present it in a way that looks the best for him and omits things that look really bad for him at his insistence.

In Robert Draper's reporting, not one but two directors of national intelligence have been fired shortly after they told too much of the truth about Russia trying to keep him in power. In Dan Coats' case, he would not change that estimate in the national intelligence estimate. In Maguire's case, his deputy told the truth about what Russia is doing to re-elect Trump in 2020. In both cases, soon thereafter, they had to unexpectedly get out.

In Maguire's case, he kowtowed to President Trump in other ways, but it doesn't matter. Draper says, quote, the options faced by the intelligence community during Trump's presidency have been stark. Avoid infuriating the president that compromised the agencies' ostensible independence, or assert that independence and find yourself replaced with a more sycophantic alternative. Or bend and compromise the agency's independence and find yourself replaced anyway.

Leaders with authoritarian tendencies and designs do tend to get re-elected. Whether or not they can get elected in the first place is one thing. Once they have got the reins of power, they will use the reins of that power to hold on and not leave.

Authoritarian leaders tend to get re-elected because they're willing to improperly abuse the power of the government they control to keep themselves in power. That is true as a general principle. There's no reason to believe that any country is immune from that.

We believed heading into this presidency that the most potent, the most grave parts of our government, the really serious parts of our government, right, the parts of our government where abuse of those elements of our government could be catastrophic for our democracy, we came in to all of this thinking those institutions had enough internal strength, they had a strong enough internal culture, they had enough internal protections, they had enough strong-minded and brave career professionals in them that efforts to corrupt them would fail, right? That they could never be rotted on purpose and turned toward the political designs of a president with authoritarian intentions.

That's what we thought we had. Turns out, this was not an idle test. This is our country now.

And Robert Draper joins us live here next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Joining us now is Robert Draper, writer at large for "The New York Times" magazine. He's the author of several books, including most recently, "To Start A War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq".

Robert Draper has published this landmark piece of reporting in "The Times Magazines". It's called "Unwanted Truths: Inside Trump's Battles with U.S. Intelligence Agencies".

Among the scoop embedded here is news that the White House pressured the director of national intelligence to change an intelligence community conclusion that Russia wanted President Trump re-elected in 2020. The intelligence director at the time, Dan Coats, said no. He was then fired.

His successor change signed off on the change, but he was fired after one of his deputies briefed Congress that, in fact, Russia is working to re-elect President Trump this year.

Mr. Draper, I thank you for this reporting and for joining us here tonight to help us understand it. Thanks very much for your time.

ROBERT DRAPER, MAGAZINE WRITER AT LARGE, THE NEW YORK TIMES: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

MADDOW: I have said a lot of words about the even more words that you have reported here and that you have printed. Let me ask if I got anything wrong or if you think I'm looking at anything the wrong way around.

DRAPERE: Sure, thank you for asking because I wanted to issue two clarifications. The first and most important is that I'm not aware that Joe Maguire had anything to do with the alteration of a national intelligence estimate. This all took place in his first couple weeks on the job when his hands were very much full with the Ukraine whistleblower incident, this as you correctly pointed out.

So this really, (INAUDIBLE) matter, when the NIE was approved on September 26th, he was testifying on the Hill all day long, so he wasn't able to chair that meeting. So that's the first thing.

The second thing is that, you know, I don't want the story to give anyone the impression that the intelligence community as a whole has been bent to the will of Donald Trump. There are still plenty of analysts and case officers who are doing very, very good work. The problem is that the people above them have been in the line of fire with the Trump administration and have begun to water things down, such that the intelligence products do not have the integrity that they once did.

It does not mean they're not saying black is white and up is down, but they're saying things in a more equivocating fashion. We saw this most recently just this past Friday, with an official released the election security report saying for the first time that, yes, it did appear Russia favored Trump, but essentially in the same breath, saying that China and Iran favor Biden, as if it were a jump ball or something. That's the kind of equivocation you did not see before the Trump presidency.

MADDOW: I feel like -- thank you for those clarifications and for drilling down on those things in that way. I feel like when I read at the beginning of your piece that Dan Coats was pressured to change the national intelligence estimate around Russia's intentions for the 2020 election, and he said no, felt like, wow, that's really big news about Dan Coats, to find out that happened just before he was fired is itself a scoop.

But then, to find out that the national intelligence estimate was in fact watered down, sort of in the way that the White House wanted, under Joe Maguire. It does seem like the sort of bending to the White House's will equivocating on things that aren't equivocal, casting things in a way that is designed not to upset the president or put things in ways that he likes, it does feel like it's not just pressure but it's effective pressure that's actually working on the IC.

DRAPER: For sure, and you know, I should also point out, Rachel, that the matter of Russia and election security has been a sore subject since before Trump's presidency, and everyone knew in the NSC, in the West Wing, and certainly in the intelligence community that to bring up the very matter of Russia interfering in 2016, it's likely interference patterns through the midterms and 2020, and most of all, if they were Trump, would be to call into question the legitimacy of his presidency. That's how he would receive this.

So because it was such an unpleasant thing, as I report out, then Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and then National Security Adviser John Bolton went to considerable lengths to keep this completely off the agenda. When it would get on the agenda, for example, when there was a single NSC meeting relating to Russia and election security, Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, didn't get five minutes into it before Trump started interrupting her and asking her questions about the wall along the Mexican border.

So, this has been a distasteful subject to him. People around him have known that and they have adjusted themselves, unfortunately, accordingly.

MADDOW: As they have adjusted themselves, it's not only maybe at least for a short term sort of lubricated their own relationship with the president to keep themselves in office among other things for however many more days they can sustain it, but it has compromised what the intelligence community has concluded or said about these things. I guess I found myself wondering, because you talk to so many people for this piece, both people directly involved and smart observers, Dan Coats going on the record with you, by name about what he went through and what happened here is a remarkable achievement in terms of the reporting here. It made me wonder if you got the impression through all of this reporting and all these conversations that there is a way out of this, that there is -- that there isn't a no way out set of options for intelligence officials, particularly people at the higher end of the intelligence community.

Is there a way to do their work with integrity, without bending it to the president's will in ways that aren't compromising and don't ultimately kind of screw over the president for short-term political survival?

DRAPER: Well, yes and no. If there are subjects that are not deemed politically sensitive, if the president has no interest in them, really doesn't care about them one way or another, then those people in the intelligence community working on those particular subjects are free to go about their business. When it has to do with something that is a hot button issue for the president, Russia is certainly right up there, but also, we saw in late January 2019, when then Director Coats gave his annual worldwide threats testimony, it routinely just went over all of the foreign policy threats that this nation faces, but in so doing implicitly was issuing a stinging rebuttal to President Trump's supposed foreign policy accomplishments by saying in fact that Russia is interfering in our elections, and North Korea absolutely does not intend to relinquish its nuclear capability.

These kind of things that Coats got in hot water for. The president brought him into the Oval Office and demanded to know why he was saying these things, and Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel have said, those are the facts, those are the facts we have been talking about in NSC every day.

So, those are the kinds of subjects where the top intelligence officials and for that matter, the people who give the daily brief to the president, find themselves walking into the propeller, as it were.

MADDOW: Robert Draper, author of this blockbuster piece of new reporting at "The New York Times" magazine, "Unwanted Truths: Inside Trump's Battles with U.S. Intelligence Agencies", walking into the propeller is an absolutely apt metaphor for what you have described here. Just remarkable reporting.

Thanks for helping us understand it, sir.

DRAPER: Thank you so much, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right, much more to get to here tonight. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: On Friday night, we had late breaking news that President Trump's new hand-picked head of the Postal Service had without warning removed from their jobs nearly two dozen top execs at the postal service, which has the effect of centralizing power over mail delivery under Trump's new appointee there. That sudden shakeup came on the same day that Democrats in Congress asked the inspector general to investigate the dramatic last-minute changes, the new head of the post office has made to deliberately slow down the mail.

This, of course, is all happening right before the first national election that will be conducted mostly by mail because of the pandemic.

But now today, we have further reporting that the president and his team at the White House are busy dreaming up what else they can do to undermine voting this fall beyond just having Trump's hand-picked mega donor break the postal service on purpose. Remarkable reporting from "Politico" today.

"Politico" reports, quote, around the time Trump started musing about delaying the election, aides started pondering to look at possible executive actions he could take to curb mail-in voting, everything from directing the postal service to not deliver certain ballots, to stopping local officials from counting them after election day.

Quote: Trump has mused to aides about executive orders if any he could sign to curve voting by mail. Some conservative allies have suggested Trump could try to stop local officials from counting remote ballots after Election Day and direct the Postal Service to not deliver certain ballots to voters using an emergency declaration.

Not so much a re-election campaign, which implies the goal is to earn more votes than their opponents, more of a playbook to use the levers of power and the apparatus of government to keep the leader in power no matter what happens.

Oh, a pandemic requires most people vote by mail? Then we'll set about controlling and disrupting the mail, because we can.

That said, can they? The president and his allies will not be able to do this without a fight. The Democratic Party's foremost litigator on these issues joins us live here, next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Marc Elias is a big deal lawyer in Democratic Party politics. He has argued and won four cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He's represented dozens of senators and governors and presidents and presidential candidates.

He and his team are currently litigating three dozen voting rights cases ahead of a November election. By necessity for this pandemic election, a lot of their work right now is aimed specifically at safe guarding people's ability to vote through the mail.

Well, today, Marc Elias issued a warning that the U.S. mail service -- mail system, excuse me, is not ready for November. And he says that is partly by design. Quote: The Trump administration has turned to weakening the Postal Service in a cynical effort to keep people from voting. Voters can't be forced to cross their fingers and hope that their ballots will account.

Our job between now and Election Day is to make sure we keep up the fight for voting rights, including making sure that all ballots cast by mail are counted.

Joining us now is Marc Elias, he's the founder of Democracy Docket.

Mr. Elias, I really appreciate you taking the time. Thanks.

MARC ELIAS, FOUNDER, DEMOCRACY DOCKET: Happy to be here.

MADDOW: Is the stuff that is going on around the Postal Service, including this reporting today from "Politico" that the president and his advisers are thinking about executive orders to try to stop the counting of mail -- votes cast through the mail. Is this just one in a long line of things like this that you have been fighting for years, or does this feel qualitatively more worrying than the unusual stuff?

ELIAS: Well, I think it's qualitatively more worrying for two reasons. First of all, for the reasons you set out earlier, which is that Donald Trump has a minimum authoritarian impulses and seems willing to violate every norm that any other president would abide by.

The second, of course, is that we're going to have more voting by mail in 2020 than we ever had before. So all of the flaws in the process will show up bigger, and all of the ballots that are at risk will grow in size.

MADDOW: The Postal Service is not a typical battleground. It is not a typical sort of arena in which he fight these things out. I mean, obviously, absentee ballots are a thing and overseas mail-in ballots are a thing and we have always conducted some portion of the vote by mail.

There are few states that have been doing mostly vote by mail for a long time now. But the idea that a national election would have a choke point in this one part of the federal government where we see the president trying to exert new control, it does feel new. As a tactical matter, as a litigator who fights these things, is this a new thing? Is this something new you and your colleagues have to learn in terms of what levers there are to make sure the post office does things right?

ELIAS: Yeah. This is entirely new. I mean, in that respect, you know, I'm flabbergasted that we are in a circumstance in which Donald Trump first replaced the postmaster general with a political crony. And now is taking step after step after step, including Friday night massacre of 23 employees.

Before that, there have already been resignations and replacements of the nonpartisan staff. And every day we get another indication that, as you say, the Postal Service is being weaponized to be a choke point against vote by mail. That is unprecedented in our history. Make no mistake about it, we have had the Postal Service deliver ballots through wars, through a civil war, through Great Depression and never ever before have we seen a president or a political party try to weaponize it to systematically keep voters from voting.

MADDOW: Americans in some ways like to make fun of the Postal Service or complain about the mail and things like that. But by and large people love the Postal Service and think about it as something that is not only rooted in the Constitution, but something that is sort of a miracle. You could put a stamp on something and it gets across the country almost always in a surprisingly quick amount of time.

I think people also have a soft spot for their letter carriers and the people involved in this. They are integrated into American life in our infrastructure of daily life that I think people have a soft spot for. Given that and given the kind of stakes you are describing, is there something that regular citizens can do to kind of to help in terms of protecting the postal service and to help in protecting this type of voting that we're all basically being forced into because of the epidemic?

ELIAS: Yes. So I say two things. First of all, as you point out, the Post Office is quite popular in red states and in blue states. In fact, it is even popular in some respects and more necessary in rural areas that tend to vote Republican. So one thing a lot of people come on your show and say, call Congress or put pressure on Republican elected officials.

This really is an area where putting pressure on Republican elected officials can make a difference because their constituents very oftentimes in red districts really, really rely on the mail service. So that's one thing.

The second is, you know, everyone who wants to vote by mail should and should have confidence in it. But they need to make sure they vote by mail early because what we're likely to see is not a stopping of the post office or a halting of vote by mail but rather we're seeing systemic delays. The Trump administration is taking efforts to make the mail move slower during ballots.

So, people should make sure they are registered, they apply for their ballot early. Vote it right away. Get it in. Don't wait until the last minute because getting those ballots in on time is going to be really very important for November.

MADDOW: Marc Elias, Democratic lawyer on elections and voting rights, the founder of Democracy Docket -- Marc, thank you so much for helping us and for your clarity on this tonight. Thanks a lot.

ELIAS: Thank you.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Here's one way to test if you are a rule of law dork, a bit of a civics dork maybe. Behold, the YouTube page belonging to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. That does it thrill the way it thrills me.

That page will light up tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. Eastern for an audio only live stream in the Mike Flynn case. Flynn, of course, was the first Trump national security adviser when he lied to the FBI about his contact with the Russian government. He pled guilty twice to having lied to the FBI about that.

But tomorrow is the Appeals Court case over whether Attorney General Bill Barr and the Trump Justice Department will be allowed to somewhat inexplicably drop that prosecution even though the judge in that case says he will not be a rubber stamp for them doing so and he wants to look into why exactly they're dropping that case.

Well, tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m., we'll all be able to listen in as ten judges hear that appeal in the Mike Flynn case. It should be fascinating.

All right. That does it for us tonight. See you again tomorrow.

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

Good evening, Lawrence. Welcome back.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.END

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