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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, December 22, 2020

Guest: Alex Padilla


With just 29 days left in office and him not working on much else that has to do with the work of being president, President Trump tonight decided to deliver early Christmas presidents to 20 convicted felons, including people convicted of lying to cover up their contacts with people connected to the Russian attack on the election in 2016, also convicted corrupt Republican member of Congress. California's Governor Gavin Newsom chose California Secretary Alex Padilla to replace Kamala Harris in the United States Senate.


CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: All right. Barbara Boxer and Al Franken, it's great to have you both on tonight. Thank you. A lot going on at this moment. I appreciate it.

That is "ALL IN" on this Tuesday night. Where am I? What happened? That was a lot of news.

RACHEL MADDOW SHOW starts right now. Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Good evening, Chris. Indeed a lot of news, a disorienting amount of news right now.

Thanks to you at home, everybody, for joining us this hour. This is one of these nights. Some day, we will gather up all the news stories, all the segments, all the drafts, scripts and carefully prepared questions for our interview guests and we'll gather those things that got torn up and thrown away one hour before air time because of nights like this, right? Someday we will do a whole show -- we will do a year of shows that's all the stuff we had to throw away because of this president. Those shows will be like a visit to a parallel universe where there isn't a virulent chaos agent running the federal government of the most powerful nation on earth.

But that is what we've got. And while he's still there on nights like this, we throw out what we planned to talk about and we roll with the punches. So, here comes the wave of pardons. That is what is happening starting tonight, and I suppose this is right on time. I mean, with 29 days left until Joe Biden is sworn in as the next president of the United States, over the past 24 hours, the president has met with a dozen-ish Republican members of Congress at the White House plotting their approach to try to sabotage the official counting of the electoral votes in Congress on January 6th, the electoral votes that will officially make Joe Biden the next president.

The latest reporting is that the Republicans meeting with the president, the president and his coconspirators, they think they've got the one Republican senator they'll need to go along with their plans to put these plans in motion. They plan to mess with the vote counting for as many as a half dozen states on January 6th. At a minimum, that would mean it could take beyond January 6th, it could take more than a full day to get the full vote count done in terms of the Electoral College. That's the minimum damage that this scheme could likely cause.

In terms of the maximum damage they could do, watch this space. In one eyebrow raising piece of news about what they're doing, Vice President Mike Pence was also reportedly there in person at that meeting between the president and his coconspirators. Vice President Pence is the one who's supposed to preside over the vote count on January 6th as president of the Senate, which is one of the roles that the vice president plays.

If they really do have pence participating in this sabotage scheme, if they're planning to potentially have pence rule in their favor as they go through the motions of this scheme with him as the presiding officer, if he's ruling in their favor, we don't really know how much they could screw this thing up or at least delay it. But that's apparently what they're working on.

Today, we also had -- this is remarkable. We had the White House chief of staff mark meadows turn up in person with a battery of secret service agents at the Cobb County Civic Center at Cobb County, Georgia. That's where Georgia state officials are auditing signatures on absentee ballot envelopes from the November election.

Now, there's no universe in which a change in that audit is going to change the fact that President Trump lost the election in Georgia. But to have the White House chief of staff show up personally with his Secret Service agents to just ask questions about what's going on with those audits of those signatures, well, that's the kind of thing that's happening now.

CNN today has a hair on fire report from their long-time pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr about senior officials in the U.S. military on greater and greater alert with each passing day, expressing greater concern than they ever have before that the president may be trying to quote, somehow draw the military into his efforts to overthrow the election results. I mean, that's -- that's what's -- that's what's going on at the top of the federal government now, tonight, right? It's sort of all coming together by which I mean it's all spewing apart with all incredible, destructive, centripetal force as this outgoing president doesn't so much melt down as he seems to be starting to explode. And apparently, we've now reached the point in the explosion where we get the indiscriminate pardons.

This is the list of 20 pardons and commutations the president just lit on fire and threw under the doorstep of the country before he runs away. He has pardoned four men who were working as private military contractors in Iraq for Blackwater, Blackwater run by Erik Prince, the brother of Trump education secretary Betsy DeVos.

All four men were convicted of murder or manslaughter in the deaths of multiple Iraqi civilians in 2007, just a civilian massacre that took place at their hands at a traffic circle in Baghdad. They killed 17 civilians in a massacre that had nothing to do with any military operation or any defensive action. They just killed 17 Iraqi civilians while working for Blackwater. President Trump just pardoned them.

Trump also pardoned three corrupt convicted former Republican members of Congress. One of them, the man on the left, Chris Collins, he was the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Trump's run for president in the 2016 election, which was a difficult thing to do at the time, not least because Congressman Chris Collins apparently had to squeeze that in between his long-running, ambitious, and not that complex insider trading and securities fraud schemes. And then the difficult work of lying to federal investigators about it.

Chris Collins was pardoned by President Trump tonight for all of those crimes, although interestingly, Trump did not pardon Chris Collins' son who was convicted alongside his father for his role in the fraud scheme. Perhaps that was just an oversight. Perhaps that will be in the next wave of Trump pardons.

Trump also pardoned tonight Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter. Congressman Hunter pled guilty to misuse of campaign funds after investigation turned up truly impressive, almost lurid capacity for spending campaign money that did not belong to him, spending it on everything from a commercial airplane ticket for his pet rabbit to weekends away with his many, many mistresses to round after round after round of shots, large enough liquor bills that would put a large sized poorly behaved fraternity to shame, and he was just one corrupt member of Congress spending money that was not his.

But he was a Trump supporting corrupt member of Congress, so despite his guilty plea on corruption charges, Congressman Duncan hunter has now been pardoned.

President Trump also tonight pardoned a man named Steve Stockman, former Republican congressman from Texas. At least as of the time of the announcement of these pardons tonight, Steve Stockman is still in federal prison on a very lengthy sentence.

Stockman, as I mentioned, is a former Texas Republican congressman. He has been in and out of prison and jail a fair number of times in his life, a fact that came up in the weirdest possible way, when not that long ago he sued a Texas political action committee for saying that Steve stockman had been imprisoned multiple times.

The problem with his libel lawsuit was that Congressman Stockman had been in prison multiple times and that's the kind of thing that's easily checked in public records. So, you really shouldn't sue someone for libel -- you know, you shouldn't sue someone for libeling you by saying a thing about you that is both true and easily checked in public records that have accompanying mug shots.

Congressman Steve Stockman is in prison now as of tonight if the pardon hasn't sprung him already because congressman stockman was convicted on 23 -- 23 -- felony counts in 2018, fraud and money laundering. And for him it was not a first offense, as I mentioned.

Here's an interesting thing about Steve Stockman. If you're a RACHEL MADDOW SHOW long-time viewer, this will resonate for you but nobody else will remember this. Keep this in mind about Steve Stockman who's one of the corrupt Republican congressmen who Trump just pardoned.

Do you remember the Trump funder raiser and Republican Party official Elliott Broidy who pled guilty himself in October to crimes involving illegal lobbying for foreign entities. Now, Elliott Broidy himself is not on tonight's pardon list. He's not not getting pardoned yet.

But weirdly, the cross between him and Steve Stockman, who was just pardoned, is that Steve stockman at one point before he went to prison, less than two weeks before he went to prison, Steve Stockman wrote to Elliott Broidy, to tell him that Trump should give him an ambassadorship. Steve Stockman said that he wanted to be ambassador to the United Arab Emirates because he said he had, in his words, quote, many friends there. And he made the ask right before he went to prison on 23 federal felony counts. And now the Trump donor, who he asked that favor of, who he asked to convey the request to President Trump, he is also now a federal convict awaiting his prison time at least until he gets pardoned by President Trump too.

That's the Trump era. That's Steve Stockman tonight, who is now enjoying his pardon. He was a Trump supporter all the while, regardless of whatever else was going on with him and his criminal record. And he's got his pardon tonight too.

President Trump tonight has also pardoned two people convicted in the investigation into Russia interfering in the 2016 presidential election that put Trump in the White House in the first place. George Papadopoulos you see on your left here, he pled guilty to lying to federal investigations about his communications with a person who told him that the Russian government had dirt on Hillary Clinton that it might want to provide to the Trump campaign. He lied to federal investigators about that. He pled guilty to lying to them about that. He served a short prison sentence for that guilty plea. George Papadopoulos has just been pardoned by Trump tonight.

Alex Van Der Zwaan has also been pardoned tonight. He's the son-in-law of a powerful Russian oligarch. He pled guilty to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with a Russian intelligence officer to whom the Trump campaign secretly gave internal polling and strategy documents during the campaign. There has still been no public explanation of why the Trump campaign chairman was giving internal, sensitive polling and strategic documents about the ongoing campaign to a Russian intelligence officer during the campaign while Russia was interfering in the campaign to help Trump.

But Alex Van Der Zwaan when questioned about that by investigators lied to investigators about his contacts with that Russian intelligence officer. And now he's just been pardoned. Did I mention he's the son-in-law of a powerful and prominent Russian oligarch?

The pardons for Alex Van Der Zwaan and George Papadopoulos come, of course, after President Trump has already pardoned his national security adviser Mike Flynn. Since his pardon, Mr. Flynn has advocated that the president should impose martial law across the country and somehow use military power to undo the election in which the president just lost to Joe Biden. Mr. Flynn required a pardon because he pled guilty twice to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with the Russian government when he was talking to them during the last presidential transition about the U.S. government putting sanctions on Russia for their effort to interfere in the campaign to put Trump in the White House.

President Trump also already before tonight commuted the sentence of Roger Stone who was convicted of among other things of lying about his efforts to leverage the Russian intelligence operation that targeted the Clinton campaign in 2016 for maximum benefit to Donald Trump and his campaign.

The pardon power is in the Constitution. It is black letter clear power afforded to the executive in the Constitution. It's what they call a plan of power. It is a power so absolute and so daunting in its scope that the American federal government, we only entrust that power to a single individual who is trustworthy and responsible enough to hold the awesome responsibilities of president of the United States.

Turns out that power can also be used by someone like Donald Trump. And if he gets ahold of that you power, it turns out he will use it for exactly what you think he will.

He is there for 29 more days. The part of the Trump era devolution and debasement of the office that includes the indiscriminate shower of pardons, that part tonight has begun, on the night, I should say, when the president is also now threatening to veto the COVID relief bill. Because if you're going to set the place on fire, sure, why not. Make sure all the kids and pets and old folks are home and the doors are locked from the outside before you throw in the match.

Joining us now is Michael Schmidt. He's Washington correspondent for "The New York Times." He shares a byline on "The Times" reporting on these pardons tonight.

Mr. Schmidt, Mike, it's really nice to see you. Thanks for joining us on such a busy night.


MADDOW: Mike, do you -- let me just ask you, is this sort of a developing story? Do you have any more reporting on the discussions that went into tonight's pardons, why President Trump is issuing them now? We do note that he went through the somewhat unusual step of listing alongside is description of the name and the description of each person being pardoned, he listed people who supported that pardon, as if to sort of implicate them in his own decision to use this presidential powers to pardon them.

Do we have any further understanding as to how he came to this list and why now?

SCHMIDT: What we're trying to understand at this hour is that how many of these pardons came through the typical Justice Department process for recommending them. The Justice Department, if many years, has had this system to ensure that pardons are doled out for reasons of grace and mercy. They've had the system to ensure that there's a uniform process to it.

We know that Trump has ignored that process in his past pardons, that he has gone off and done things on his own. He's allowed Kim Kardashian into the Oval Office to lobby him for pardons. And at first glance when looking at these pardons tonight, it's clear that many of them don't even meet the basic criteria to receive a typical Justice Department recommendation for a pardon.

So, that means that they operated essentially outside the system, that anyone could have gone to the White House and lobbied the president, Jared Kushner or anyone else in the West Wing for these directly. And it's that type of lobbying that people say is concerning because it allows the process to not be about grace and mercy. It allows it to be about connections and lobbying.

MADDOW: And, Mike, do we know anything about whether this big raft of pardons, if this is at all tied to the timing of Attorney General Barr's departure? His last day at the Department of Justice is tomorrow. He's certainly put distance between himself and some of the outlandish requests and demands from the president in recent days.

The pardon power being used by the president in this way, as you say perhaps not through any of the systematized processes of the department, are these the pardons that Barr is okay with? And so, these are the ones that happened while he's still there? Do we know if there's any connection with the end of his tenure?

SCHMIDT: My guess is there probably isn't because it doesn't appear like the Justice Department was involved in many of these. This has been a very White House driven process. This has been the type of thing that the president, because he has gotten rid of the typical way that pardons are looked at, it has allowed people to come in and to treat this as if they were lobbying for a company or lobbying for a bill.

And the president obviously really entertains that. He likes it when people come up to him, whether it's at a campaign event or at one of his golf clubs to ask him about this type of thing, to ask him about a pardon. It's something that the president can create instantaneous loyalty when he does.

And because of that, if you look at the past numbers that he has granted, the pardons he has granted, of the 45 he granted up until today, 40 of the 45, 88 percent, were either tied to one of his allies, someone who had special access to him, or was tied to someone that politically benefitted him personally.

MADDOW: That piece of reporting and in fact perhaps even that sound bite of you saying that right here this night on the night of these pardons will be, I promise you, used in a congressional hearing at some point in the future when someone considers whether or not they can reform the pardon process so it cannot be used as a spoil system and essentially a bribery system by a sitting president because that is just -- that is just stunning.

Michael Schmidt from "The New York Times," Washington correspondent for "The Times" who's been following this breaking news all evening -- Mr. Schmidt, thank you very much for your time this evening. I really appreciate it.

SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: All right. I want to bring into the conversation now, Andrew Weissmann. He's a former senior member of special counsel Robert Mueller's team. He served as FBI general counsel. He's the former head of the criminal fraud section at the Justice Department.

I should also tell you that Mr. Weissmann prosecuted Alex Van Der Zwaan, one of the people pardoned tonight by the president.

Mr. Van Der Zwaan had pled guilty to lying to the FBI as part of the Mueller investigation.

Andrew Weissmann, thank you so much for joining us. It's a really busy news night. Appreciate you being here on short notice.


MADDOW: Let me ask first your reaction to this wave of pardons tonight. And now, of course, specifically, I want to know if you will like you can give us any reaction to the pardon of Mr. Van Der Zwaan, in particular. Feel free to correct me if anything I said about his case was wrong or misconstrued.

WEISSMANN: Sure. Well, my initial reaction is very similar to what Mike just said, which is you're seeing here a spate of pardons for corrupt politicians and corrupt law enforcement figures. And that just from a messaging in terms of what you're trying to tell the American people is really remarkable. I mean, these are not people you normally think are formally deserving of a pardon. And that's why there normally is a process by which you dole out pardons to only the most worthy.

And these by and large are rich, white men who are connected to the president in some way. And so, you're really seeing corruption of and abuse of the pardon power when you look at the types of crimes and the types of people who are getting these pardons, and when you think about all of the much more meritorious applications that are languishing at the Department of Justice under this administration. So, that's my big picture.

With Alex Van Der Zwaan and George Papadopoulos, I think one thing that's important to note is while the president has sort of diminished their crimes by saying they're only process crimes, under the law, there is no such thing as a, quote, process crime. And lying to investigators, obstructing an investigation, that goes to the very heart of the ability to find out what happened.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson when she sentenced Paul Manafort noted, don't tell me that the Mueller investigation didn't get to bottom of collusion when you have obstructed that investigation by lying. So, these kinds of crimes of lying and obstructing, which roger stone did, Michael Flynn did, George Papadopoulos did, Alex Van Der Zwaan did and others, are all ways that you thwart an investigation. And it really means, if you look a step back, that the president is really rewarding those people and saying, you know what? Don't worry about appointing a special counsel because the president always has a -- no pun intended -- trump card of pardoning people so that they don't have to cooperate with any investigation into the presidency.

MADDOW: Right. This sets a precedent in scandal special counsels and for special prosecutors, absolutely. It also, as you noted and as I've noted goes right at the heart of the original crime that led to the both counterintelligence and criminal investigation as to a foreign adversarial power interfering in our election, everybody who got caught up in that investigation who lied to obstruct it and who tried to conceal the nature of their communications with people connected to the Russian government is finding themselves to be excused in that, which says a lot about that crime and its likelihood of being repeated in our country.

Andrew, I have to ask you. I didn't run through the full list of all the people who had been pardoned. I highlighted the Blackwater contractors and corrupt Republican congressmen and people related to the Russia investigation. Were there any other names on the pardon list tonight that you feel like the public should have greater understanding of?

WEISSMANN: Yes, yes, there is. At the very end there is something that doesn't fit. You're looking at corrupt politicians, corrupt law enforcement, people connected to the Mueller investigation all getting pardons. But the last person on the list is somebody named Philip Esformes.

He is the largest -- single largest Medicare fraud defendant ever. He was convicted after going to trial. He was sentenced to 20 years. He had to pay tens of millions of dollars back for a fraud that involved assisted living, nursing homes, rampant Medicare fraud to the tune of $1 billion with a B.

He operated out of Florida. And you really have to ask yourself what is going on here. This is an administration that is actually taken health care fraud cases quite seriously, and so, the anomaly here is, why Esformes? What is the connection because there's nothing at all about his case that would in any way suggest he should get a pardon? There are many, many, many federal defendants who are far less culpable than he is who are in jail.

MADDOW: This may be one of those cases where it helps that the president has handily put down in his official statement about the pardons a list of people who he says have supported the pardon to the extent that we want to tug on those strings and find out whether there may be any corrupt trail leading toward this otherwise unexplained pardon. He has given us some leads on that one as well, which we will dutifully chase.

Andrew Weissmann, former senior member of Robert Mueller's team, senior roles in the Justice Department and the FBI, Andrew, thank you for being here tonight. Invaluable to have your perspective.

WEISSMANN: You're welcome.

MADDOW: All right. We've got a lot more to get to tonight. As I mentioned, we're sort of threw everything out tonight with this breaking news.

But I want to tell you the newest member of the United States Senate, who was chosen today to replace Senator Kamala Harris who is now going to be Vice President Kamala Harris, the newest member of the U.S. Senate, a man picked for that seat is going to be doing his first national interview with us tonight this hour. So, that's still ahead with us.

We're going to be speaking with Senator Amy Klobuchar ahead. We got Michael Beschloss on deck.

Lots to come. Stay with us.


MADDOW: Well, following the breaking news tonight that with just 29 days left in office and him not working on much else that has to do with the work of being president, President Trump tonight decided to deliver early Christmas presidents to 20 convicted felons, including people convicted of lying to cover up their contacts with people connected to the Russian attack on the election in 2016, also convicted corrupt Republican member of Congress. He issued 15 full pardons tonight and commuted the sentences of another five people.

We've been hearing for weeks that pardons might be coming. What we did not see tonight is pardons for the president's adult children that had been reported as a potential point of interest for the president, his son-in-law Jared Kushner also not pardoned tonight. Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer who reported last night is under active criminal investigation in the Southern District of New York. Nor did the president tonight make an effort to try to pardon himself. Nobody quite knows what the impact of that would be.

The president has issued these 20 pardons tonight alongside issuing a veto threat saying he's going to veto the COVID relief bill, or at least threatening that. With the amount of time he's been putting in at work these days, part of the surprise there is the fact he apparently even knows there was a COVID relief bill.

Joining us now is Amy Klobuchar, Senator from Minnesota. She sits on the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us on such a bizarre night. I appreciate you making time.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR (D-MN): Of course, Rachel. I thought this would be a nice holiday interview with my tree and here we are. And I just -- hearing these stories, it is literally, he is trying to burn the house of justice down on his way out the door.

He's saying screw you to the FBI, screw you to these line prosecutors. These are the hardest cases to make against sitting congressmen. They did this. They put them away for good reason.

And all of these cases, they are disparate, right? They don't really have an organizing principle. But what they have in common is what Mike Schmidt pointed out earlier in your show and that is that 88 percent of these pardons are somehow related to Donald Trump or his political goals. And it is corruption through and through.

MADDOW: One of the things that strikes me tonight, especially with the pardons for people related to the Russia investigation is that these were people -- there was a real effort by Russia as a hostile adversarial power to try to intervene in the election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. These are people who lied about their contacts to people connected with the Russian effort.

And we have seen that also happened in his previous pardon for Mike Flynn and commutation of the sentence for Roger Stone. We all expect I think that Paul Manafort at some point will get sprung from prison with a Trump pardon in hand as well. And we saw Republican senators in the impeachment proceeding say the president shouldn't be held accountable for his role, trying to instigate foreign interference for Ukraine for the 2020 election.

It does feel like one of the legacies of the Trump presidency is going to be that other countries feel like wading into our elections and messing with our politics and our election processes is something that even their henchman won't have to pay for.

KLOBUCHAR: And that's what's unbelievable about this. As we sit here today knowing that the secretary of say it has been very clear that Russia engaged in a major, major hack of our country just now, and he is literally sending the message, this president, by pardoning these people that were involved and, of course, dozens of people were indicted in that Russian investigation involving our election.

He's sending the message, go at it now. Help is on the way in that we have a new president. And that's part of why our existing president is acting this way. But it really concerns me in terms of the message this sends to the Justice Department and what's happening.

And, Joe Biden, one of his big jobs is going to have to rebuild the morale of that department and rebuild the trust. But in the meantime, as you have pointed out, we have days and days to go of this. And I am -- it just cries out for whatever reform we can make in the future but also to hold this Republican Party accountable if they continue to allow him to do this.

MADDOW: Senator, let me also ask you about the other breaking news story that we are following tonight, which is that the president is threatening to veto the COVID relief bill. It took nine months to get this bill for all of its shortcomings and all of its failures. It's the only help the American people have had against the devastation of COVID for nine months, and now he's saying he's going to veto it.

There's some nuance to it, with him saying that he wants a larger size payment to the American people, which is something Democrats argued for every step of the process. House Democrats say, OK, well, if that's what he wants, we'll provide him with that.

I wonder what you make of this very last minute scramble of what we thought was going to proceed here with this relief bill?

KLOBUCHAR: I kept thinking tonight, well, these pardons are an attack on our very democracy. This is an attack on every American, people who are struggling to get by right now, out of work, whose unemployment is going to basically end the day after Christmas if this doesn't pass. People who are out of work, people who need the help, the vaccine distribution, Rachel, is in this, $30 billion.

These vaccines are not going to just parachute into a small town in the middle of Minnesota. We need the help for the states to get the vaccines out. And he is literally undermining our entire effort on testing and vaccine distribution.

This was a hard fought negotiation. Of course, you're right Democrats were pushing for more funds for the individual payments. But in the end, this was a negotiation and he knows very well we're reaching the end here with the unemployment, with our small businesses, can't take it anymore.

One Yelp study early in the year showed we were having 800 small businesses close a day. And there's over $300 billion to help small businesses in this bill. It is the second biggest stimulus in the history of America. And for him to turn this down, obviously, we have the votes to override his veto in the houses. We have those votes.

But he should not be doing this right now when his own treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, was involved in the negotiations from beginning to end. He is literally trying to burn this country down on his way out, as I said at the beginning. And all we can do is push and make it very clear as we go into these Senate races in Georgia, Rachel, which party has peoples' back and which party is in the White House.

MADDOW: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota sits on the Judiciary Committee, thanks -- thanks for being here tonight. Even though this was a hurly-burly night of news, it's still very nice to see your tree.

KLOBUCHAR: It's good to see you and I'm so glad that Susan's doing better. So --

MADDOW: Thank you. And same to you about John. Thank you.

KLOBUCHAR: Thank you.

MADDOW: All right. Take care.

We've got much more ahead on another norm-shattering night from this president who's breaking everything he can on the way out the door. We've got contact from experts tonight. We're going to be talking with the newest U.S. senator in this country who will be taking the seat of Kamala Harris, his first national interview since being tapped for that seat today by California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Stay with us.


MADDOW: I mentioned at the top of the show that Chris Collins, one of the convicted corrupt members of Congress pardoned by President Trump tonight was the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump in 2016. That is true.

Do you want to know who the second sitting member of Congress was to endorse Donald Trump in 2016? It was Congressman Duncan Hunter, who is one of the other corrupt, convicted Republican congressmen who got a pardon tonight FROM Donald Trump.

Shocking but admirably consistent.

Joining us now is NBC News presidential historian, Michael Beschloss.

Michael, I've been dying to talk to you since this news broke. Thank you so much for making time.


MADDOW: So, a lot of pardons have followed presidents out of office like toilet pauper stuck to their shoe. There have been a lot of controversial presidential pardons, particularly on Christmastime and New Year's, right, when they're leaving? Has there been a plethora of all these pardons all at once all of people who are connected to the president's political fortunes or to covering up a scandal which he's at the center?

BESCHLOSS: Well, nothing quite like this. Clinton pardoned Marc Rich. George H.W. Bush pardoned Casper Weinberger and five others involved in Iran Contra Christmas eve of 1992. Guess who his attorney general was, Bill Barr, same one we've got now at least for a few more hours.

But the point is that the founders really let us down. They had this pardon power. The idea was that a president would get pardons, people for reasons of mercy or maybe to correct a mistake in the judicial process.

What they didn't protect us against was something that one delegate to the constitutional convention George Mason worried about which was even got a president who pardons who may be involved in crimes that the president is involved in. Well, look what we have tonight. We've got at least two people who were perhaps involved in Russian interference in the 2016 election, who shut their mouths, lied to the government. And they've got pardons tonight. And you've also got pardons just as you've said for political corruption or people involved with Blackwater, a company led by the brother of the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.

So, what they were assuming the founders did was that the way to solve all this is elect only good people as president. They never imagined that we would have a president elected who was anything as immoral -- amoral and selfish as Donald Trump.

MADDOW: The standard in modern presidential politics for amoral and selfish heretofore was Richard Nixon. I was interested to see you tweet today that there were plenty of figures who ended up being plenty dangerous to Richard Nixon in the Watergate crime and the Watergate cover-up who wanted a pardon from him who are thought that might be a way out, sort of a win/win solution both for them and for Nixon in terms of them not being able to sort of not implicate them if he would help them out with their own problems.

Why didn't Nixon give the kind of relief through the pardon process for the Watergate scandal that Trump has used to try to get himself out of the Russia scandal?

BESCHLOSS: Nixon didn't give out pardons to people like his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, or his other aide, John Ehrlichman. And they were begging for them literally as the helicopter engines were roaring to take Nixon off the White House lawn for the last time.

He didn't do it because he knew it would look like they had been silent in exchange for the promise of a pardon. That was something that Nixon was shy about. That is totally on display tonight.

Donald Trump is a lot less ashamed than Richard Nixon was. And you know, that was our previous standard. We've now got a new one.

MADDOW: NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss -- Michael, thank you for joining us tonight. If it has not arrived already, a really nice bottle of scotch is on its way to you as a thank you.

BESCHLOSS: I just got it. I drank the whole thing in one sitting when I heard about the pardons but I'll wait until Christmas Eve. Thank you so much.

MADDOW: Very good. I'll refresh it with another one once we're past COVID and we can drink it together in person. Thank you, my friend.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you, be well.

MADDOW: All right. We've got lots more news tonight. Stay with us.


MADDOW: What a night, right? What a news night. Now imagine you have just gotten the new job as the United States senator today and this is what you are walking into.

Today, California's Governor Gavin Newsom chose California Secretary Alex Padilla to replace Kamala Harris in the United States Senate. When she leaves the Senate to go become vice president in January. In the 1990s, Alex Padilla, child of immigrants from Mexico, had grown up in Southern California, he was on his way to an engineering career with a degree from MIT. He was going to be an aerospace engineer.

But he instead found himself diverted, galvanized to instead enter public service and politics because his home state of California took a dark anti-immigrant turn and passed a draconian prop 187 which targeted California immigrants in ways that foreshadowed the politics of cruelty that we're living through now in the era of Donald Trump and Stephen Miller.

In the era of Prop 187, its aftermath, Alex Padilla won a seat on the L.A. City Council when he was just 26 years old. He represented the neighborhood where he'd grown up, where his dad worked as a short-order cook, his mother worked as a house cleaner.

Within a couple years, Alex Padilla had become the youngest ever L.A. City Council president. He went on to serve as a state senator, won statewide office as California's secretary of state. And as of today, in a state that's now solidly blue, and were Latinos comprise about 40 percent of the state's population, Alex Padilla learned today he'll become California's first ever Latino U.S. senator.

I'm very pleased to say that he joins us now for his first national TV interview since being tapped for that Senate seat today.

Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being here. It's a real honor that you took this time to be with us tonight.

ALEX PADILLA (D-CA), SENATOR DESIGNATE: Oh, thank you, Rachel, for this opportunity. A big, emotional, day for the Padilla family, as you can imagine. But a lot of work to do. What better way to start than right here with you, Rachel.

MADDOW: You and I are exactly the same age. We're both California kids. You went off to MIT. I went off to Stanford.

We were both in the same boat at the same time when California did take that very dark anti-immigrant turn with Prop 187, and I know that changed the course of your life and your trajectory in terms of why you wanted to go into public service. We're both old enough now that that was a long time ago, that was 20-plus years ago.

Why did you stay in public service all these years?

PADILLA: You know, we can still argue, we're still young. I still feel young.

One turning point that was for me, I'll confess, getting involved with government and politics was the last thing I imagined I'd be doing with my life. But, you know, to reflect on that moment, years and years of watching my parents who came here from Mexico as you mentioned work so hard to struggle, to sacrifice, that my brother, sister and I can get a good education. That was a key to a better life.

And I was blessed with the opportunity to go to one of the best engineering schools in the country, if not the world, and I come home to the political rhetoric of the state is hurting and it's the fault of people like your parents and family like yours.

I was insulted. I was enraged. And I knew I had to do something about it.

That's when I jumped in with both feet, knowing that we needed to engage more people into the political process so that communities like mine could no longer be the targets because we contribute so much to our communities and to the country.

So, I've never lost that fire in the belly. The same lens that when I started in Los Angeles City Council to make sure that all communities got their fair share of attention and resources from city government. The same mentality that it took to the California legislature, trying to put, build more equity into health care, education, economic opportunity and more, for the last six years being on the front lines of creating an inclusive democracy, and I'm proud of all that we've done in California.

And so, now thanks to Governor Newsom, I get to bring that experience and that fire in the belly to the U.S. Senate.

MADDOW: Your record as California secretary of state comes with some impressive metrics. I know that you campaigned for the job in the first instance by promising to get a million more California residents registered to vote. Your record is that you've registered more than 4 million Californians to vote. Underpromising and overdelivering is always a good strategy in politics.

But I wanted to ask you, I know -- I know that you've known Senator Harris for a long time before she was elected to this seat you'll now be filling. She was California's attorney general.

I want to ask your reaction, give you a chance to respond to the criticism and sort of consternation today, as much as -- a lot of people in California, Democratic politics in particular really like you and really are happy to know you have this job. They're sad and they're frustrated that there will no longer be any African-American women in the Senate. There had been a real effort to try to convince Governor Newsom, specifically, to put a black woman in that job so that that number wouldn't go back down to zero.

I just wanted to give you a chance to respond to those concerns tonight.

PADILLA: Yeah, no, look, I definitely acknowledge it and respect it. The fact of the matter is we are making history with this appointment. California now has a population that's nearly 40 percent Latino. There's never been a Latino U.S. senator representing the Golden State.

But, you know, I've learned over the course of my time in government and politics the way to make progress is by building bridges and building relationships and building coalitions. That's how I've always tried to lead and govern and that's not going to change.

You know, it's -- California's a rich, beautiful diversity that's a strength but from time to time they create a challenge like this. And so, you know, if you look at California's leadership in its totality, continues to be diverse, reflects the California population.

I wish every state in the nation had leadership that reflected its population.

MADDOW: When you get to Washington, are you expecting -- when you get to Washington, are you expecting things to be as much of a mess that night as they are tonight as we stare down the -- the veto threat from the president and this raft of pardons.

PADILLA: God, I certainly hope not. Look, even though Trump's days are numbered, like millions of Americans, can't wait for January 20th, I think the remnants of Trump are going to linger and we're going to have to commit ourselves to the long haul to restore the norms not just of civility and decency but transparency and accountability because the American people deserve no less.

MADDOW: Alex Padilla, California secretary of state, and as of today, California's next United States senator, making history. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for your time tonight. Congratulations to you and your family. Give your regards to your dad for us. It's an exciting moment for California. Thank you.

PADILLA: I will. I will. Thank you. Stay safe.

MADDOW: All right. Take care. We'll be right back.


MADDOW: Man, what a night. That's going to do it for us for the moment. We'll see you again tomorrow or until something else calamitous happens.

But now, it's time for "THE LAST WORD," where Ali Velshi is in for Lawrence tonight.

Good evening, Ali. You have a full plate tonight, my friend.


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