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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, August 21, 2020

Guests: Brian Stelter


RNC is going to use a federal building as "central hub" for speeches. Brian Stelter's book addresses codependency between Trump and Fox. Alexei Navalny has apparently been allowed to leave the Russian hospital where he was being held.


CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: That is "ALL IN" on this Friday night.

"THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" starts right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

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

And thanks to you at home for joining us hour. I haven't slept a wink. Anything could happen over the course of the next hour. I'm completely beyond it.

It has been such an -- it's been a big week. There's been a lot. This was the front page in Wilmington, Delaware, today. Wilmington is where Joe Biden lives. It's where he and Senator Kamala Harris accepted the nominations of their party for presidential and vice presidential ticket of the Democratic Party. This is the front page that Wilmington, Delaware woke up to today, "Joe's time".

This was the front page everybody woke up to this morning in the town where Joe Biden was born, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. You can see at the top there, "City native Joe Biden accepts Democratic nomination", proving that the best news is always local news. Look at the subhead there. "Former vice president rises from Green Ridge Streets to lead party."

And then of course look at the rest of the front page. Down in the lower right-hand corner, this is where it started, northeastern Pennsylvania Biden backers hold watch parties to mark key moment.

Then look at this in the lower left. Trump questions Biden's local roots. This is the Scranton paper. He said he's from here? He's not really from here. Don't believe it when he tells you he's from here.

We're about five minutes away from President Trump saying that Joe Biden is from Kenya too. He's not really from Scranton. The president questions Biden's local roots.

So, here's how it looks around the country including in some states that are thought to be in play for the general election. That's the "Arizona Republic" on left. Biden takes Democratic mantle. I will draw on the best of us, sort of quoting from the apex of his acceptance speech last night. On the right, that's the "Denver Post". Biden vows to unite.

On the left-hand side here, there's the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch". They've always got really good tabloids headlines. Character is on the ballot, Democratic National Convention. In accepting nod, Biden pushes for unity with party and nation.

On the right, that's the "Atlanta Journal Constitution." Biden aims to unify his party and nation. Here's another couple. The "Minneapolis Star Tribune" from Minnesota on the left-hand side, battle for the soul of the nation. Biden aims to unify a wounded country. And then the "Detroit Free Press" on the right there from Michigan, Biden: I am ready.

Here's one from Lincoln, Nebraska, "The Lincoln Journal Star". A vow to unite. Biden accepts Democratic nomination, says he will overcome darkness.

And then on the right, that's "The Oregonian" from Portland, Oregon. Biden calls for national unity. Look at that excellent photo that they essentially put right up at the top -- above the fold on the front page. That's Biden and Harris in the middle, arms in the air, both wearing masks, fireworks behind them, the would-be first lady and second gentleman flanking them like they're choreographed Morris dancers in that shot. That's such a good shot on the cover of the Oregonian.

That said, even when you get big, you know, history-making, full-page, above the fold moments like this, news context is still inescapable, and you did see a little bit of this in the papers we just showed from all over. I think it leaps out at you the most, though, from the papers that have really big national reach. Here, for example, in "The New York Times" front page today, and you do get all the way across the top of all the columns. Biden vows to guide U.S. out of darkness.

But then, you know, handily if you're looking for a real-time contemporaneous example of what he might mean by darkness. Ba-boom, left column, there it is right under the Biden story, Bannon faces fraud charge.

Same thing at "The Washington Post". Big banner headline, Biden calls for hopefulness. Amid pandemic and economic woes, Democratic nominee says he will draw on the best of us. But then, boom, look at the left column. Bannon charged in fraud case.

"Wall Street Journal," Biden makes case to oust Trump. Also, left column there -- excuse me -- right underneath the Biden photo there, Biden indicted on fraud charges. There's the "L.A. Times" version, same idea. Biden offers a vision of light, and then the left column, Bannon faces federal fraud charges.

I should tell you actually looking at these front pages today in a couple of papers, the president's campaign manager getting arrested and indicted on federal fraud charges actually got top billing even over what just happened with the Democratic presidential nomination last night. "The Dallas Morning News" on the left there, Bannon charged in fraud scheme. That's right up at the top of the -- next to the title of the paper there. "Tampa Bay Times", Bannon arrested in wall fraud.

Because this is the Trump presidency, this is not the first time, not even the second time, it is the third time that we have seen a campaign manager or campaign chairman from the president's 2016 campaign get arrested. And the timing is just -- I mean, I guess, nothing is too weird at this point. But, you know, this is remarkable confluence of events, right?

Here's the Democrats today announcing they raised more than $70 million for the Biden and Harris campaign during the DNC. They see their convention as having been essentially flawless, everything they wanted from it even though it was the first ever virtual convention.

For the first time today, the two halves of the ticket, Biden and Harris, started doing their first joint interviews. You know, they are proceeding.

And meanwhile, at the exact same time, the president and the White House are having to pretend once again, yes, the president definitely barely knows the newly arrested guy. Definitely isn't somebody who ran his campaign and then serve the as his senior adviser for months in the White House.

Even right now as their opponent is accepting the nomination after this triumphant convention, we have just chaos ahead in terms of the planning for the RNC next week. Here's the president having to do that whole song and dance again. Oh, yes, I barely know the guy.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I haven't been dealing with him for a long period of time as most of the people in this room know. He was involved in our campaign. He worked for Goldman Sachs. He worked for a lot of companies, but he was involved likewise in our campaign and for a small part of the administration very early on. I haven't been dealing with him at all. I haven't dealt with him at all over years now.


MADDOW: You know, when the president's lawyer was arrested, the president said, Michael Cohen was a PR person who did small legal work, very small legal work. When the president's campaign chairman was arrested, Paul Manafort, the president said, quote, I didn't know Manafort well. He wasn't with the campaign long. He was with the campaign, as you know, for a very short period of time.

When -- my guys. When Lev and Igor were arrested back in October, remember that? And all those pictures emerged of all the different times that Lev and Igor, of all people, had been with the president. Remember what he said when they got arrested? The president said about his friends Lev and Igor, quote, I don't know those gentlemen. Why are you in all these pictures with them, then?

When the president's national security adviser pled guilty to felony charges, do you remember the Trump White House, what they said about Mike Flynn when he got charged? They put out a statement saying that Michael Flynn was, quote, a former Obama administration official who did some volunteer work for the campaign. He was national security adviser.

When Roger Stone was arrested for things he did and things he lied about during the presidential campaign, the president tried the same thing. He said, now, you know, Roger didn't work for me in the campaign. Roger Stone didn't work on the campaign except way, way at the beginning, long before anything we're talking about here.

This is -- this is how loyalty works. The loyalty demands are infinite. The loyalty reciprocity, it's, what? You're breaking up. I can't hear -- could you call me back?

Now the president, as he prepares to accept the renomination of his party for president, as the Biden and Harris campaign takes off like a rocket, now the president says his newly arrested campaign chairman is some random guy who worked for Goldman Sachs, who Trump barely remembers him. Did he work at the White House? Who knows? Nobody can remember that far back.

Steve Bannon has pled not guilty to these felony charges. We are now, interestingly, starting to see headlines from him, sourced to him, bragging about how he very much knows the president and is still in contact with the president.

Steve Bannon is thought to be facing a considerable sentence if he is convicted here. I mean theoretically based on the theoretical maximum sentence for these crimes, it's decades in prison. Realistically, it's more like six to nine years that he's facing. If he's under pressure from prosecutors to help them with other crimes he knows about, if he's under pressure from prosecutors to become a cooperating witness like he was in the roger stone trial in order to potentially earn himself lenience on the multiple felony charges he is facing himself, well, then, it's kind of more dramatic than usual for the president to be denying that he couldn't, you know, pick Steve Bannon out of a lineup while Steve Bannon is out there, saying, yes, you could, we've been talking, including recently.

So the prospect that the president has once again to manage somebody who will be under serious federal criminal pressure themselves, thinking about their own life and their own mortality and weighing whether or not to potentially flip on the president, the fact that he is having to consider that again because of all the people around him who have been arrested and charged and pled guilty to felonies since he has been in prison, he's having to deal with that again now as he heads into his convention, and that's just not your normal background noise while the nominating conventions are happening. I mean, if you are running against an incumbent president, the incumbent president doesn't usually do you the favor of having his third straight campaign chief arrested on the day the opposition party formally picks its nominee.

But the world does not stop spinning for politics. Here's another front page this morning that you should see. This is "The Financial Times" actually out of London, which has a global reach. And they interestingly did not lead with Joe Biden accepting the Democratic nomination for president. They led with the apparent assassination attempt against Alexei Navalny.

Alexei Navalny is the most powerful and effective opposition leader that Vladimir Putin has had to face over his more than 20 years in power in Russia. As we have seen happen to so many of Putin's opponents and rivals, this week late Wednesday night, we got these first terrifying reports in the West that Navalny appears to have been poisoned. A flight from Siberia back to Moscow was diverted for an emergency landing after he fell seriously and suddenly ill. He was taken off by ambulance, brought to a hospital in Siberia.

His personal doctor and his family want him treated outside of Russia. The Russian hospital he's being treated at has refused to release him even though a very good German hospital has offered to take him and treat him. A fully equipped medevac aircraft was sent to Siberia from Germany to go collect him.

Here's the latest per "The New York Times" tonight. You see the headline there, which looks good. After day of delays, Russian doctors clear Navalny for transfer to Germany. The headline looks good, but as always, the devil is in the details. You see the sub head there. The decision came after a German medical team examined the prominent opposition leader and decided it was safe for him to travel. But Navalny's evacuation was further delayed until Saturday.

Here's from that story that's in "The Times" tonight. Quote, Navalny's personal doctor tells "The Times" in an interview that she believes Russian authorities have tried to delay his departure out of Russia long enough for the poison in his system to diminish and become difficult or impossible to identify. The standoff had dragged on throughout the day Friday, today, with Navalny remaining in a coma and the evacuation plane sitting at the airport. That's still the status as far as we know as of right now.

President Trump, of course, has been asked about this crisis since he has expressed so much admiration for Vladimir Putin over the course of his presidency and because this seems to fit the long-established pattern now of Vladimir Putin killing or trying to kill his political opponents and his critics. President Trump wouldn't give any response about it when he was asked about. He said nothing about this since it's happened, since Navalny has slipped into a coma, since there's been this standoff and delay while Russia won't let his comatose body be shipped out to somewhere to identify what they used to try to kill him.

That plane is still sitting on the tarmac. They still won't let him go. I mean as far as the United States goes, this apparently is fine now. It's just astonishing. I mean, it's gut-wrenching. This is consequential geopolitically, and even after everything we have seen from this president, particularly when it comes to Russia, it's still just fundamentally shocking.

To have this week end with this, right, this week for the Democratic convention started with the intelligence committee reporting full stop, black and white, no equivocation, that the president's campaign chairman, one of the ones who was arrested and charged and convicted, Paul Manafort, was in repeated, sustained, and secret contact with a Russian intelligence officer throughout the duration of the Trump campaign while Russia was running this intelligence operation to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.

The week ends with Putin suspected to have poisoned yet another opposition figure in his country, and President Trump remaining absolutely silent about it even as the rest of the western world tries to come together to force Russia to at least let other people try to keep this guy alive. President Trump has nothing to say.

We are continuing to watch the Navalny saga unfold as our own president sits this one out, lets other countries try to help maybe. We'll keep you posted tonight if we learn that they've actually got his comatose body moved onto that plane so he can try to get to a European hospital.

Today in New York and in Seattle and San Diego and a few other cities, there were marches for the dead. Trump lies, people die. Marches for the dead, to mourn the more than 170,000 Americans killed by COVID thus far.

We don't know how the administration is going to try to spin the botched American response to the pandemic at their convention next week or if they might just try to ignore it. Vice President Mike Pence did a bizarre interview on CNN today in which he literally said -- he literally said, quote, we think there is a miracle around the corner. That's still apparently their plan. Meanwhile the country actually needs a real plan.

The country is still in chaos. Individual families, individual towns, every state in the country is still facing chaos in terms of how we're going to handle this in the immediate going forward, particularly when it comes to schools. With no national plan that makes any sense, up to and including, you know, every school district, every college just muddling through on its own, trying to make their own decisions, right? Restart the schools and the colleges that have made decisions thus far to try to restart school as normal or just with extra precautions, those decisions right now, as of late August, are falling apart almost everywhere they are being tried.

And while lots of places had initial plans, initial plans are turning out not to be adequate to the challenge because the virus is still so widespread and spreading so freely in our country, and you can't safely open congregate facilities of any kind as long as you've got widespread community transmission.

That principle holds. That principle holds for nursing homes. That principle holds for schools. That principle holds for anywhere, even large workplace environments where people are in congregate. It's going to make its way into places where there is congregate living or congregate working and it's going to spread quickly in those environments and you're not going to be able to keep them open.

But still, everybody is making this up as they go along. Everybody's making their own decisions as school after school and college after college goes through this and fails and has to try to come up with a plan Z. This, for example, was a front page editorial today in the University of Notre Dame student newspaper. At Notre Dame, the administration tried to go ahead with in-person classes, and they have had outbreaks since.

This is the headline from the student paper, don't make us write obituaries. Quote, the university administration has largely blamed the COVID outbreak on students attending off campus parties. While this isn't entirely misplaced, it's used to deflect responsibility from the very administration that insisted they were prepared for us to return to campus. Clearly they were not. Flaws in testing, contact tracing, and isolation and quarantine accommodations have since proven inefficient.

At Notre Dame, the almost two-week gap between the return to campus and the implementation of surveillance testing scheduled to begin today represents a gross oversight on the part of the administration and has put the health and safety of the tri-campus and south bend, Indiana, communities in serious danger. Experts warned this was likely, but university president, Father John Jenkins, insisted it was worth the risk.

The paper continues, quote, the blame for this doesn't lie with just one party. We as students, faculty, staff and administrators need to share responsibility for the outbreak on our hands. We longed to return to South Bend while in quarantine last semester, but now we're at risk of hurting the community we have come to know and love. We implore members of the tri-campus community to do everything within their power to approach this virus in an appropriate and serious manner. Otherwise, we fear the worst is yet to come.

Don't make us write a tri-campus employees obituary. Don't make us write an administrator's obituary. Don't make us write a custodian's obituary. Don't make us write a dining hall worker's obituary.

Don't make us write a professor's obituary. Don't make us write a classmate's obituary. Don't make us write a roommate's obituary. Don't make us write yours.

Notre Dame student paper, front page editorial today.

Like I said, I don't know what the White House and the president are going to do with the issue of COVID next week at their convention. How do you run for re-election when 170,000 Americans have died under your watch while you have supervised the most incompetent, failed response on the planet to a global pandemic that countries with far fewer resources, supposedly far less advanced countries have handled miles better than you have? How does the richest and supposedly most capable country on earth blow this worse than any other country on earth with 170,000 dead Americans to show for it, possibly as many as 200,000 dead Americans by the time Americans go to vote on whether you get four more years? How do you do that?

How do you do that at your convention? Do you just pretend it hasn't happened? Do you assume we won't know the record, and you can make up some news story about what happened that isn't real?

I do not know what they're going to do with any of this. But honestly, very little is known about what's going to happen with the RNC, and it starts Monday. I mean, there were these months of confusion around which city the RNC would be held in.

Republican Party officials and Trump campaign officials have now picked a physical location that will act as some kind of hub. That's the word they're using, a hub for all of next week's prime-time speeches. They are going to have a physical hub, a physical center for what they're doing in the RNC, but it's not in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the entire convention was originally slated to be held and where the bulk of the actual party business and the roll call, for example, will still be conducted next week. They're not doing it there.

Nor are they doing it in Jacksonville, Florida, where the president said he was going to move the RNC because he didn't like that North Carolina wanted them to take steps to try to mitigate the spread of COVID at the event. They're not doing it at Charlotte or at Jacksonville. Instead, they're going to do a physical RNC in Washington, D.C.

Think about that. The Republican Party holding its nominating convention in D.C. what, the Republican Party is going to make a huge bid for D.C. votes for Donald Trump in the general election? Hillary Clinton got like 90 percent of the vote in D.C. in 2016. You think you're going to take a bite out of that?

Yes, the RNC is going to be in Washington, D.C. after all of this. Specifically they're going to use this building. It's called the Andrew Mellon Auditorium, and that's going to be their central hub for the convention speeches next week.

And it's a big, fancy, ornate building. It's also federal property, which means theoretically under federal ethics rules, it should be off limits for partisan political activities like hosting a major party convention. That's supposed to be illegal, but, eh, it's the Trump era. What does law mean?

On top of that, though, the Trump campaign has picked the one federal property in all of Washington, D.C. which is physically closest to the President's Trump hotel. The two locations are literally around the block from one another. If you map it on Google maps, it takes the little stick man four minutes to go from one to the other. Like it's on the other corner. It's the closest auditorium that they could conceivably use against federal ethic laws while convincing people the Trump Hotel is the best place to stay for convenient access to the RNC.

And this -- this makes it easy for the Trump Organization to maximize its profit from this whole event, but if you really want to go whole hog, why not hike the rates at the Trump Hotel for the week of the RNC?

Oh, they did that. "Daily Beast" was first to report that the Trump International Hotel jacked up its prices for the convention dates once the president started mulling the idea of just holding the thing in D.C. across the street from his hotel. Room rates spiked by more than 60 percent at the Trump Hotel for those dates as soon as the president started musing openly that he could do the RNC in Washington.

Quote: Listings for rooms at the Trump international hotel in D.C. showrooms for one adult on the night of the presidential address starting at $795 and running as high as $2,000.

They're making sure this is going to be a boon for the president personally in terms of his financial stake in this. On top of that, there's this very interesting little wrinkle, which is what they're going to call this thing. I mentioned earlier that there is still an actual Republican National Convention happening physically in Charlotte, North Carolina. Contractually, the delegate meeting in Charlotte is locked in, and that technically is the actual convention. That's what's being run by the Republican National Convention Committee.

What that means, because that's hundreds of miles away, is that what's happening in D.C. will be something completely different. It's a whole separate event being put on by the Trump campaign, which means technically it can't be called the Republican National Convention, what they're going to do in D.C. it's going to have to be referred to as something else entirely different. We still don't know what the name of it will be even though we are three days out. Yes, it's not like people who are planning on broadcasting this need to like plan what to call it or anything.

We don't know who's speaking. We don't know what time things are on. We don't know if they're going to break the rules in D.C. and try to put more than 50 people into any one inside venue, like we literally don't know the name of it.

It's Friday night. It starts Monday. Maybe.

But this is -- I mean, part and parcel of what is going to be an interesting four days. It's expects to culminate in the president giving his acceptance speech not at the Mellon Auditorium but on the south lawn of the White House, which poses exactly the same ethics concerns as them using any other federal property. I should also note that they are planning on that being an outdoor event, which poses some interesting logistical questions. It's not like a fireworks display outdoors after the speeches are over, which is what the Democrats did. They're planning on him giving the speech outdoors on the South Lawn, which means if there's weather, you know, what do they do?

It's also possible, we know from other outdoor remarks by the president at the White House that if there's any protests nearby -- and I don't know if there will be -- but if there are protests nearby, you may be able to hear those over the president speaking.

I should also mention -- I mentioned the possibility of inclement weather. There's not just the normal weather possibilities next week for, you know, August in D.C. there's also a non-zero chance that we could be looking at two hurricanes hitting the southeastern United States simultaneously in the middle of next week's Republican convention.

But I'm sure we'll be fine. I'm sure they've thought of everything. I'm sure there are plans in place to handle it all and backup plans for the backup plans if anything goes wrong. You know these guys.

Lots more to come tonight. Stay with us.


MADDOW: The book comes out on Tuesday, and I'm just going to tell you right now this is not my normal thing. You are watching me on MSNBC. I'm about to talk to someone from CNN, and what we are going to be talking about is Fox News.

I do not do the cable news wars. This is not usually my thing. But I think this is important, and I have read the book, and I want you to know some of what is in it.

As we head into the Republican convention and this president trying to get re-elected, if you don't pay a lot of attention to Fox News and particularly if you don't know some of what's in Brian Stelter's new book, what you are missing is a little bit of a Rosetta stone for stuff about this presidency that doesn't otherwise make sense to normal humans.

I'm just going to jump in here and show you what I mean. Quote, while the network gives the Trump administration a huge boost, it also creates tension within the White House. Trump's obsession with the opinion shows on Fox causes chaos when he latches on to impossible and down right illegal policy ideas.

White House staffers watch "Hannity", Sean Hannity's show, because they need to know what the boss is hearing and what mood he's going to be in. They try to get certainly officials booked on certain shows when the knowledge that Trump can be easily manipulated by what he sees on the air.

Hannity is just one member of this crazy cable news cabinet. While he deserved credit for getting longtime Fox News commentator John Bolton hired as national security adviser, Tucker Carlson got the credit when John Bolton eventually fell out of favor with Trump. The firing of Jeff Sessions, Jeanine Pirro was in Trump's ear for that one. The resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Lou Dobbs was central in that. Pat Cipollone leading the president's legal team, Laura Ingraham was instrumental in that.

But the average news consumer doesn't understand how wedded Trump and Fox are. The average voter doesn't know how many of Trump's actions and inactions are dictated by the network. Frankly, the average political journalist doesn't watch Fox often enough to really get it either. Guilty as charged.

Stelter says, quote, I frequently read stories by White House correspondents that describe unvetted White House hires and unhinged policy decisions and unglued tweets but leave out the cause, Fox's influence. The decisions that most seriously damaged his presidency could arguably be traced to his TV habits. For example, as Media Matters has noted, Trump's hatred for Ukraine seems to have originated with Sean Hannity's show telling him that Clinton colluded with that country in 2016. The end result for the president, impeachment.

When he threatened North Korea and said he had a bigger button than Kim Jong-un, it was about a Fox segment about Kim's nuclear button. When he told Iran to never threaten the United States again, it was because of a Fox segment about Iran's saber rattling. Trump granted pardons because of Fox. He attacked Google because of Fox. He raged against migrant, quote, caravans because of Fox.

He accused public servants of public treason because of Fox. And he got the facts wrong again and again because of mistakes and misreporting by the network. When Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, Trump sent condolences but got the death toll wrong because of Fox. And then came the coronavirus.

In Brian Stelter's new book, which is called "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth," it's out on Tuesday. Stelter details some, to me, newly disturbing news about part of what has gone wrong in our nation's botched COVID response.

Here's some more. He says, quote: There are dozens of reasons why the United States lagged so far behind other countries in preparations for the pandemic. Some are cultural. Some are economic. Some are political.

But there's no doubt one of the reasons is the Trump/Fox feedback loop. When the virus was silently spreading across the U.S., some of Fox's biggest stars denied and downplayed the threat posed by the virus. Trump echoed them, and they echoed back.

The thing that's going to end this is the warmer weather, Fox personality Greg Gutfeld said on February 24th. Thank God for global warming, Jesse Watters wise cracked. It's going to disappear. Trump said on February 27th, one day it's like a miracle, it will disappear.

Most Americans knew that Trump was untrustworthy, but the Fox base still trusted him. They also trusted Mr. Hannity, who dismissed coronavirus hysteria. They also trusted Laura Ingraham, who called Democrats the pandemic party and also Watters, who said, quote, I'm not afraid of the coronavirus, and no one else should be that afraid either.

Fox's long tenured medical analyst, Dr. Marc Siegel, told Hannity on March 6th, quote, at worst, worst, worst-case scenario, it could be the flu. Quote, this was shockingly irresponsible stuff, and Fox executives knew it because by the beginning of March, they were taking precautions that belied Siegel's just the flu statement. The network canceled a big event for hundreds of advertisers, instituted deep cleanings of the office and began to put a work from home regime in place.

Yet Fox's stars kept sending mixed messages to millions of viewers. This went on and on until March 13th when "Fox & Friends" co-host Ainsley Earhardt claimed it's actually the safest time to fly and guest Jerry Falwell Jr. said, people were overreacting to the virus.

As ICU admissions surged and the death toll rose, Fox's most vociferous critics said the network had blood on its hands. Four out of five Fox viewers for over the age of 55 and the demographic most at risk, Fox staffers privately admitted that the "don't worry" tone of the talking heads was harmful.

Plus, Fox's coverage had spillover effects because of the network's influence in the Trump White House and throughout the federal government. It's impossible to know how many Americans died -- excuse me. It's impossible to know how many Americans who died as a result of COVID would have survived in the government have acted more swiftly in February and March. But it's obvious that Fox's fingerprints were all over the government's response.

Quote, hazardous to our viewers, dangerous, unforgivable, those are some of the words Fox News staffers used to describe the network's early coverage in the U.S.

As hospitals in New York City filled up with acutely sick patients, a new conspiracy theory was hatched. Lunatics claimed that the hospitals were actually empty and they stalked the entrances and parking lots with their cell phone cameras to come up with proof. Look, they said, there aren't many cars in the parking lot.

One doctor at hard hit Elmhurst Hospital in Queens heard this secondhand. They think the hospital is empty, she said, positively stunned. The doctor wondered, where are they getting this stuff?

The answer in part was Fox. The network often mainstreamed ideas from the far right fringe and that's exactly what contributor Sara Carter did on March 29th during a segment on a Sunday night fox talk show. Quote: You can see it on Twitter, she said. People are saying film your hospital. People are driving by their hospitals and they're not seeing -- in the ones that I'm seeing -- they're not seeing anybody in the parking lots. They're not seeing anybody drive up. So people are wondering what's going on inside the hospital.

On February 10th, Trump told Trish Regan, the 8:00 p.m. host on Fox Business that he believed China would have it under control fairly soon. You know, in April, supposedly it dies with the hotter weather, and that's a beautiful date to look forward to.

Stelter says, quote: In the pantheon of infamous presidential falsehoods, in April supposedly it dies with the hotter weather may be the saddest in history. If the virus had faded away in April, hundreds of thousands of people around the world might still be alive understood it. But Trump repeated his fantasy in a phone call to Geraldo Rivera in February 13. He said, quote: We think and we hope, based on all signs, that the problem goes away in April, because heat kills this virus. We think.

He said, quote, It's a problem in China, but it hasn't been spreading very much. His friends at Fox indulged this.

Trump talked like the threat had passed when he had merely closed the side door of the house while leaving all the other doors and windows wide open. Why? Perhaps because he was busy with his post-impeachment purge. He put Richard Grenell, former Fox commentator-turned-ambassador to Germany, in charge of the government's spy agencies.

He welcomed back his surrogate daughter, Hope Hicks, who was bored of her job running PR at Fox Corporation and missed her family on the East Coast. She made a 360-degree spin through the revolving door, going from Trump to Fox and back to Trump. All this occurred in mid and late February when different strains of the virus were spreading fast and Washington state, California, and New York.

Quote: Hundreds of Americans were sick and didn't even know it yet because U.S. agencies were only testing a few dozen people a day. The president and his favorite channel were telling them not to worry.

I mean, it turns your stomach to read that and to relive some of that, right, when we are here at over 176,000 deaths in this country. And, again, I don't do cable news wars, and I'm not trying to pick a sort of internecine fight, but the thing that Brian Stelter reports in his new book that is maybe the most galling, that makes you want to tear all your hair out is maybe even worse than that. And that's next.

Stay with us.


MADDOW: This is from page 9 of the new book "Hoax," which is out on Tuesday of next week. Being the president's shadow chief of staff, as Mr. Hannity was known around the White House, could be a thrill, but it was also a serious burden. He counseled President Trump at all hours of the day. One of Hannity's confidants said the president treated him like his wife, Melania, like a wife in a sexless marriage.

Hannity chose this life so no one felt sorry for him, but the stress took its toll. Hannity would tell you off, off, off the record, that Trump is a bat bleep -- excuse me, Trump is a bat bleep crazy person, one of his associates said. Another colleague concurred. Hannity has said to me more than once, quote, he's crazy.

Further into the book, quote, Charlottesville turned the whispers about Trump's fitness for office into full blown shouts on other TV channels. At Fox, people were still whispering and only off the air. I really do think he's lost it, one Fox executive remarked to me on August 19th, 2017. This person wasn't speaking colloquially, they genuinely question the president's sanity.

And they weren't alone at Fox. The following month after a drink or two, a prominent Fox anchor admitted their concerns about the president's mental health and well-being. Quote, he is not well, they said to me, in the same concerned tone people use when talking about their grandfather.

For some journalists, including at Fox, the president's mental health was a running line of speculation. Narcissistic personal at disorder was the most comforting explanation because the other possibilities were far more frightening, words like delusional and dementia were invoked in private.

That's from the new book by CNN's chief media correspondent Brian Stelter. The book is called "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth." The book comes out August 25th. Brian is also the anchor of "Reliable Sources" on CNN.

Mr. Stelter, thank you for being here. I really appreciate you making the time.

BRIAN STELTER, AUTHOR, "HOAX": Thank you. Good to be here.

MADDOW: So you know enough about me to know that I don't like the cable news wars. It's not my thing.

STELTER: You don't. It's true.

MADDOW: I don't -- I don't play those reindeer games, but I feel like this is important as news. I feel like you have written a kind of Rosetta stone here, explaining -- particularly to people who don't watch Fox -- a bunch of what has gone on with this presidency that otherwise doesn't make sense.

Is that a fair way to look at it? Is that what in part -- partly what you were trying to do here?

STELTER: That's why I did it. That's why I did it.

So many sources inside Fox News were pouring their hearts out to me, and this was just in my normal course of work covering media. They said the channel they used to love and respect had gone off the rails because President Trump slowly but surely took control of the channel.

Roger Ailes was fired. He died. No one took over. There's a lack of leadership, and that lack of leadership was most devastating when the pandemic hit American shores.

It's as if the president was lulled into a false sense of complacency by Fox. He pretended like the threat was over, and so did the network. And like I said in the book, we'll never know exactly how many lives were lost as a result. But it is terrifying to think that the president is so misled by this single network.

MADDOW: You detail a number of policy pronouncements by the president, actions by the president, wild accusations and provocations from the president that appear to have come directly from, in many cases, chyrons, the on-screen text put up by specific Fox programs.


MADDOW: They -- you describe them as sort of a shadow cable news government that appears to select policies for him knowingly. They may have been shocked at the beginning how much influence they had, but they know they have it now. They're using it knowingly while privately maintaining, many of your sources to you, that they believe the president is unwell, is mentally not there and not capable of holding down the job.

That -- that doesn't just feel dangerous. It feels like an incredibly salient political decision.

STELTER: It's nothing close to journalism, you know, and there are real journalists at Fox who are very uncomfortable with this, who are disturbed by this situation, but they don't have the power. The primetime stars have the power. The "Fox & Friends" people in the morning have the power. They are the ones talking to Trump, and they are the ones turning around and telling their friends in Hannity's words, Trump is a run-on sentence, you know, in the words of an executive at Fox, he is not well.

You know, there are -- it's such a disconnect between the on-air rhetoric and off-air reality, and that is what's propping up this presidency. It is hard to imagine the president at 40 percent approval were it not for these people on Fox who, I'm sorry Rachel, I don't like to talk this way, they're lying about him every day.

They are talking about a president that doesn't actually exist, someone who stopped the virus when it was coming in from China. We all know that's not true. But these talking points are repeated over and over again in a form of propaganda we've never had in this country before.

MADDOW: We're covering the 2020 conventions now. I remember on the first night of convention coverage this week, I talked about how the Democrats in 2016 had so much drama at the beginning of their convention with the Russians dumping all of the stolen emails and the chair of the party resigning right at the outset of the convention.


MADDOW: One of the things you write about in "Hoax" is how at the 2016 convention on the Republican side, Roger Ailes was fired from Fox, and your book in large part, as a media book, is about how losing that rudder, whatever you thought of Roger Ailes from a million different angles --


MADDOW: -- it's something that has never been replaced at the network.

What do you see as the future there? I don't feel like you have a -- you're giving us a clear sense of where Trump and Fox go together from here on out.

STELTER: Well, the last five years have been unpredictable. No one thought that Trump was going to get elected and no one at Fox expected it.

So, you know, there was a situation where he gradually took control of the network because there was no other leader, and now folks inside Fox, including at the very top, the Murdochs, they're concerned about what happens if he loses. Will he try to launch his own network?

I think the only way our information ecosystem can get more poisoned, Rachel, is if Trump has his own TV network and tries to compete with Fox, and tries to go even deeper down the rabbit hole, down that kind of QAnon world. That's a fear inside Fox Corporation, that Trump is going to become a competitor.

I think there's a view that being the opposition is better. Than being against Obama is easier than being for Trump. They'd rather be anti-Democrat than pro-Trump.

And that's why I think it's important to understand Fox, whether you want Fox defeated, whether you want it successful, whether you want it to have lots of competitors, you need to know how it actually operates.

This is an anti-Democrat channel. That's what it's really all about. That's why they weren't showing the convention when you were last night, at least in the 9:00 p.m. hour.

MADDOW: And we will be showing the Republican convention next week.

Brian Stelter, the author of the new book, "Hoax" --

STELTER: Now, isn't that interesting? Differences, these are not symmetrical.

MADDOW: Yes. Exactly. And you actually make a very good point in the book that there is no mirror image story of Fox, which I'm greatly appreciated.

STELTER: There is not, there is not.

MADDOW: The book is called "Hoax", again, "Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth." It is out on Tuesday.

Brian, thanks for being here and giving us a preview. Good luck, my friend. It's nice to see you.

STELTER: Thank you. You too.

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


MADDOW: I said at the top of the hour that we could keep you updated on any change in the status of the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Navalny, we're told, remains in a coma following a suspected poisoning two days ago. That, of course, is a fate that has befallen many opponents and critics of Vladimir Putin.

But look at this. Just in the past few minutes since we've been on the air, Navalny has apparently been allowed to leave the Russian hospital where he was being held. This is video we just got in that apparently shows him being transferred from that hospital to a local airport where he's expected to be taken tonight to Germany for treatment.

A spokeswoman for Navalny says in this picture, you can see the stretcher holding Navalny. See at the top of the stairs there? That's apparently him being loaded onto that plane to fly to a hospital in Germany.

That is what we know right now. Still no word from the U.S. president on this crisis. Stay with us.


MADDOW: I'm going to go paddle a canoe around in circles for a couple of days to try to get my head on straight. But I will be back with you again on Monday night. Our coverage of the Republican National convention, which should be fascinating, begins Monday night at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. I'll be there along with the whole gang.

Now it's time for "THE LAST WORD" where Ali Velshi is in for Lawrence O'Donnell tonight.

Good evening, Ali.


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