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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, December 23, 2020

Guests: Andrea Bernstein, Adam Schiff

Summary

Tonight, Donald Trump pardoned his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who was convicted on multiple felony tax and bank fraud charges, all tied to the millions and millions and millions of dollars he made working for pro-Russian interests abroad before he came onboard to run the Trump campaign in 2016 while it was being assisted by Russian interests, and he pardoned more figures from Russian investigation, friends and family. President Trump threatening to veto the COVID relief bill because of his sudden outrage over all the things his own administration insisted must be in the bill.

Transcript

PAUL DICKINSON, LAWYER FOR IRAQI FAMILIES: It takes the promise that the U.S. government gave to these victims that they were going to continue to fight for them, continue these prosecutions, and it slaps them in the face when they walk away.

The FBI's second largest investigation after 9/11 was the Nisour square shooting. It was an inordinate amount of time, effort, and money spent in this, and it appears that it was for naught. And I think that the families have lost the faith or could lose the faith that they have in the U.S. justice system.

CHRIS HAYES, MSNBC HOST: All right. Paul Dickinson, thank you so much for sharing the story of your clients tonight. I appreciate it.

That is ALL IN on this Wednesday night.

"THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" starts right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: That was an incredible interview and an incredible perspective on that story, Chris. That was -- I mean it was alarming, but it was just incredible to hear. Thanks for doing that.

HAYES: Thank you.

MADDOW: Yeah.

All right. Thanks to you at home for joining us this hour. I am happy to have you here.

When we meet in a parallel universe someday, you and I, where none of this has actually happened and in the years after the Obama presidency, turns out we had a normal president who did normal things on normal timelines in the bounds of until politics. When we meet in that parallel universe, you are going to love the TV show that I had planned and written in its entirety for December 23rd, 2020.

It was a great show, super interesting. Did you know that Washington, D.C. just declared tomorrow to be Anthony Fauci Day? Tomorrow is not only Christmas Eve. It is Dr. Fauci's 80th birthday. The city of Washington, D.C. where he lives declared tomorrow Anthony Fauci day in his honor and thanks for his service to the nation over these decades and through this pandemic. Great story, right?

I got a lot more on that. I got a ton of other stories like that. Ask me another. I will tell you in a parallel universe. But in this universe, alas, we live here now, and we live in the Trump era still.

And tonight in the Trump era, it's night two of everybody check under their seats for a pardon because if you helped the president in his efforts to benefit from and then downplay and then obstruct the investigation into Russia, helping him get elected in 2016, tonight's another night of pardons for all y'all.

Also tonight, the first night of Trump family pardons, the first of what we assume will be more because honestly what's holding him back at this point? So, a lot to get to tonight. Let's have a look at what has just happened with these late-breaking pardons.

The bottom line is that the president is out with a whole big other slate of pardons for his associates, his political supporters, his friends, yes, his family, and also people with whom the president himself is implicated in crimes. Tonight, there are 26 full pardons as well as three commutations.

Let's start with the one that we all expected was probably coming despite the fact that reportedly there's no love lost personally between these two men politically and in terms of the president's own potential legal liability. This is one that we saw coming for the president's own interests.

Tonight, Donald Trump pardoned his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who was convicted on multiple felony tax and bank fraud charges, all tied to the millions and millions and millions of dollars he made working for pro-Russian interests abroad before he came onboard to run the Trump campaign in 2016 while it was being assisted by Russian interests.

Manafort's prosecution and conviction grew out of investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller's team. Mr. Manafort has whole big long sections of the Mueller report devoted just to him. Paul Manafort at one point entered into a cooperation agreement with Mueller's team.

I remember this crisply because I was supposed to have a day off that day, and I was in Los Angeles, and all of a sudden, I found myself being hustled into a TV studio to talk about the fact that the president's criminally charged campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was becoming a cooperator.

Well, he did sign a cooperation agreement, but it wasn't ever anything that came to pass. The agreement broke down when Manafort repeatedly violated that cooperation agreement by repeatedly lying to the prosecutors he was supposed to be helping. So he never did become a cooperator even though he signed that deal.

Among the mysteries that remain unsolved today because of Manafort's continued lying about his interaction with Russian entities during the campaign and what exactly he did on the Trump campaign during the time that Russia was helping, Manafort refused to tell the truth about why, when he was Trump's campaign chairman in 2016, he gave internal Trump campaign polling data and strategic data to a Russian intelligence officer.

Why did Manafort do that? What exactly did he give him? What did he expect that the Russian intelligence officer would do with it? Still an unanswered question.

Contacts with that same Russian intelligence officer were also covered up by another Russia investigation figure, Alex Van Der Zwaan, who Trump pardoned last night. But now, President Trump has gone ahead and pardoned Manafort himself. Let's see if he ends up pardoning the Russian intelligence officer directly. That would be a nice cap to all of this.

One of the reasons that tonight's pardon for Manafort is no surprise is that President Trump publicly ruminated about giving Manafort a pardon, and it wasn't just idle thoughts. I mean, that's the sort of thing that can have its own potentially illegal effect.

The Mueller team in fact concluded that Manafort might have started lying to them, he might have held out on them despite this cooperation agreement that he signed, because Trump was publicly hinting and signaling that Manafort might get a pardon if he was a good boy.

And now tonight, that is just one of Trump's parting gift pardons. Trump has also tonight given a pardon to Jared's dad, Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law. The president's daughter, Ivanka, is married to Jared. Jared's father, Charles, served time in prison after he was convicted on 18 felony counts of tax evasion and illegal campaign contributions as well as witness retaliation charges.

And those related to a scheme in which he videotaped his sister's husband with a prostitute, and then he sent the video of that man with the prostitute to his sister. So he sent his sister a video of her husband with a prostitute.

Charles Kushner had been under campaign finance investigation. He was reportedly angry at his sister for cooperating in that investigation. Hence, the weird taping her husband with a hooker scheme and hence the retaliating against a witness charge.

Charles Kushner was prosecuted for these crimes by a U.S. attorney at the time named Chris Christie. Yes, that Chris Christie. Something Jared Kushner has reportedly been holding a grudge about ever since.

But tonight, Jared's dad gets a full pardon, which I believe is Trump's first foray into pardons for his own family, in this case family by marriage, but could blood relatives be far behind?

Also on tonight's pardon list, Roger Stone. And I know you're thinking, hey, didn't Trump already pardon him? No. First he got Bill Barr to intervene in the prosecution of roger stone to try to get Stone a shorter sentence. Then he commuted the prison sentence that Roger Stone did get. Remember, he was convicted of lying to Congress on the Russia investigation.

But, you know, when you lie to protect Donald Trump in the Russia investigation, a commutation of your prison sentence is apparently not enough of a reward for that kind of loyalty. So in addition to Bill Barr intervening to try to get him a lighter sentence, and in addition to Trump commuting the sentence that he did get, on top of all of that tonight, Roger Stone gets a full pardon, thus essentially erasing his conviction.

Also on tonight's list, Margaret Hunter. Margaret Hunter is not a famous person, but she is the wife of corrupt, convicted former Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter. Duncan Hunter was pardoned by Trump last night. Recall he pled guilty to felony corruption charges for him spending almost unbelievable amounts of campaign cash that was not his to spend. In the midst of that spending spree, Duncan Hunter took time to become just the second member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump for president in 2016.

Last night, he was one of three corrupt Republican ex-congressmen who Trump gave a full pardon. Among them were the first guy in Congress to endorse Donald Trump, Chris Collins, who was a felon. The second guy to endorse Trump for president, Duncan Hunter, who was a felon. They both got their pardons last night.

But Duncan Hunter's wife, who also pled guilty to the same scheme that ensnared him, tonight, she got her pardon as well.

And here's a pardon tonight from Trump that comes a little bit out of left field. Honestly it kind of takes me back. You'll remember that Senator Rand Paul has an equally famous dad. His father is libertarian figurehead Ron Paul.

And you may remember back in the halcyon days of 2024, Ron Paul was running for president, and an underappreciated fact about the Ron Paul presidential campaign in 2012 is that the Ron Paul campaign basically tried to bribe its way to a win in the Iowa caucuses.

It was six days before the Iowa caucuses in 2012, and the Iowa co-chair for the Michele Bachmann campaign suddenly switched teams, made a public announcement just before the Iowa caucuses that even though he'd be sharing the Michele Bachmann effort in Iowa, he now was going to drop her and support Ron Paul instead. It was a weird sort of sidebar moment at the time, but we now know that that Iowa campaign chairman was paid to make that switch from Michele Bachmann to Ron Paul. He was paid more than 70 grand.

Ron Paul's campaign manager was a young man named Jesse Benton. He was charged and convicted on conspiracy and other charges for that brazen bribery scheme to win the Iowa caucuses in 2012. Well, tonight it is Jesse Benton and one of his convicted accomplices in that crime who have full pardons, and you don't have to speculate. In his weird way, President Trump has gone out of his way to tell us who arranged this pardon, to tell us in this case that the pardon was supported by none other than Ron Paul's senator son, Rand Paul.

Rand Paul has been, of course, publicly entertaining the idea of becoming the Republican senator who would be needed in the Congress to join with Trump-supporting Republican members of the House to sabotage the electoral vote count that proved -- to formalize the fact that Joe Biden beat Trump in the presidential election. Rand Paul has been publicly ruminating about how he might be the senator to join in that contest, to join in that effort to screw up the electoral vote count. And apparently at that same time, he's been advocating for a pardon for the guy who helped bribe his dad into better political prospects in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.

See, it's all very clean. It's all the best people. And definitely everybody who's telling Donald Trump what he wants to hear right now about how he didn't really lose the election, and there's definitely ways that he could definitely get a second term and this whole Biden won thing is all a ruse, it's definitely not the case that a lot of those people might need pardons or want to arrange them for their friends and family and cronies. Donald Trump is president for 28 more days, but who's counting?

Joining us once again tonight is Andrew Weissmann, former senior member of special counsel Robert Mueller's team. He served as FBI general counsel. He was the former head of the criminal fraud section at the Justice Department.

I should tell you that Mr. Weissmann led the prosecution of Paul Manafort, president's campaign chairman, one of the people who was pardoned tonight by the president.

Andrew Weissmann, I didn't expect to have to have you on speed dial by late 2020, but I probably should have seen this coming.

Thank you for joining us one again tonight, and again on short notice.

ANDREW WEISSMANN, FORMER LEAD PROSECUTOR FOR SPECIAL COUNSEL ROBERT MUELLER: I'm sorry to be here.

MADDOW: Last night, we talked about two figures in the Russia investigation who both lied to investigators about their contacts with people who were connected to the Russian effort to try to help Donald Trump into the White House in 2016. Pardons last night for George Papadopoulos and for Alex Van Der Zwaan. Tonight, a pardon for the president's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

As the person who led that prosecution, I sort of just want to give the floor here to respond a little bit.

WEISSMANN: I think what you're seeing, whether it's the pardon of Paul Manafort or many others that we saw today and yesterday, this is what you get if you give the pardon power to a mob boss. You see exactly what's going on now, and we all know as we're sitting here talking that the next shoe to drop is going to be pardons for his family and for himself.

So the one thing I'd like your viewers to know with respect to Paul Manafort is at least he did do two years in jail because the judge did remand him, because if you remember, he tampered with two witnesses while he was out on bail, which was sort of shocking. So he started servings a jail sentence a while ago. And the other is anticipating what happened here, when he pled guilty in the district court in D.C., we had the forfeiture be both criminal and civil, and that's because you can't pardon your way out of a civil forfeiture. So the tens of millions of dollars that the Justice Department is entitled to, that should still stand. So, you know, there's only so much that the president can do.

MADDOW: That's a fascinating point about the forfeiture because it was tens of millions of dollars that he was forced to forfeit, knowing that he won't get that back knowing that his federal prison time will be wiped away is important.

Let -- you know, a number of people -- I had a bunch of sources and people in the legal word sort of present themselves to me tonight upon this news of the pardon for Paul Manafort. And what everybody wanted me to note, what everybody was sort of informing me even though I know this but it's making me realize maybe I don't understand the importance of it in this case, is the Fifth Amendment issue.

That the pardon removes the stain of a conviction, but a pardoned person -- once a person has been pardoned for specific crimes, they can't escape having to testify about anything that comes within the scope of their pardon in the future. Lots of, like, ex-prosecutors and people who have been big legal muckety-mucks keep telling me this is important when it comes to Paul Manafort. I don't understand why it might be important here moving forward. Can you help me understand that?

WEISSMANN: Absolutely. So, you know, this is the kind of thing when I hear this news, I put on my sort of former Brooklyn prosecutor hat of, okay, what can we do? And there are actually two things that the next attorney general can do with respect to the president because the president has a very, very broad power to pardon. But he cannot pardon in exchange for something. In other words, there cannot be a bribe or a quid pro quo.

So we talked last night about the pardon for this major, major health care fraud defendant. And there you sort of really question how did that happen? And the next attorney general can look into whether Trump or anyone else did this as a quid pro quo. Was there something -- money, for instance, would be the classic case.

Second, the president may not be able to pardon himself. I'm sure he's going to try to do it. But, you know, the president faces criminal exposure for obstruction of the Mueller investigation, and what we're seeing is the last few days is basically a confession. You know, this is such strong evidence of obstruction. He's carrying out the dangled pardons that you referred to, he is now carrying out in real time.

And one of the things that you can do as a federal prosecutor is you can put Paul Manafort and Roger Stone into the grand jury and ask them questions, and obviously you would wait until January 20th so that the president can't interfere with this. And you can ask them questions about, what were your communications with the White House? Why did you lie for the president? A whole series of questions.

Now, if Paul Manafort or Roger Stone were to assert the Fifth Amendment at that point -- and they may have a colorable argument for it -- you can just immunize them and force them to testify. You'll be no worse off than you are now.

But the idea here is that the president cannot necessarily pardon himself out of the obstruction criminal liability that he faces federally. So that, to me, is something where he may get hoisted on his own petard if you have an aggressive new attorney general in place in the Biden administration.

MADDOW: So even though the pardon power is plenary, if the president is giving out pardons in exchange essentially for bribes or as a way of obstructing justice or some other -- if he's doing it as part of the commission of a crime, then retroactively, he may have trouble with some of these pardons.

WEISSMANN: Yeah, and maybe the easiest way to think about it, that second piece, is the president may not be able to pardon himself. In other words, the president faces clear legal liability, in my view, for obstructing our investigation. And he may try to pardon himself. That issue of whether a president can pardon himself is undecided by the Supreme Court, and everything that he is doing now can be just additional evidence of that obstruction.

And that will tee up for the Supreme Court the issue of whether the president can pardon himself or not. But he's -- President Trump has certainly created the worst possible record going before the Supreme Court to say, here's a really good reason why presidents should be able to pardon themselves, because we're seeing in real time just how outrageous it is in the way that the president is using this.

You made the argument last night, which is what if he told someone to kill somebody, and then he said, I'll pardon you and I'll pardon myself for that murder? That clearly cannot be what the Constitution allowed.

So, essentially, Paul Manafort, roger stone, and a number of other people can be put in the grand jury and asked about the president to beef up a future case against the president.

MADDOW: Wow. Andrew Weissmann, former senior member of special counsel Mueller's team, former senior official at the Justice Department and the FBI -- Andrew, thank you for being here tonight. I hope I don't see you tomorrow.

WEISSMANN: Same. No offense.

(LAUGHTER)

MADDOW: Exactly. None intended, none taken.

I mentioned a moment ago that one of the other people who received a pardon tonight was Jared's dad, Charles Kushner, the father of the president's own son-in-law.

Joining us now is just the person you might want to talk to about this news. Andrea Bernstein is co-host of "The Trump Inc." podcast. She's also the author of "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps and the Marriage of Money and Power."

Boy, did that title become ripe this evening.

Andrea, it's great to see you. Thank you so much for making time to be here tonight.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, CO-HOST, "THE TRUMP INC." PODCAST: Thanks. Good to be here, Rachel.

MADDOW: There's a lot of personal drama around this because this is a Trump family member by marriage, because former Governor Chris Christie, former U.S. attorney Chris Christie was the person who prosecuted Charles Kushner and that had personal and political ramifications through the Trump administration.

But what's your bottom -- what's your top-line reaction to this news tonight? It can't be a huge surprise, but it still feels a little bit like a shock.

BERNSTEIN: Exactly. It does feel like a shock. I mean I think it is partly because this is a family now and it is personal. But I also think that it's easy to forget the nature of the crimes that Charlie Kushner was convicted of. He was convicted of also, just like Paul Manafort, tax fraud and witness tampering, 16 counts, and also lying on campaign finance forms.

And what happened is he was under investigation by Chris Christie's office, and during the investigation, he decided or he feared that his siblings were ganging up on him. So he hired a sex worker to entrap his brother-in-law, videotaped it, and then had it sent to his sister on the eve of her son's engagement party. Her son was Jared Kushner's cousin, with whom he had been raised like a brother. So that is the backstory to that.

And Chris Christie, the prosecutor at the time, said there is nothing worse than undermining the rule of law and the justice system when he was announcing Charlie Kushner's arrest, and ultimately he pleaded guilty to all of these counts. What is disturbing is we're sort of hanging on by a thread here, what people can be charged of, what corrupt cases, what tax fraud cases.

There are so few avenues, and now it seems that sort of the major people committing these crimes are signaling, well, if you do them, no problem because you can somehow get off.

MADDOW: Provided that you know the right people being the key part of this.

BERNSTEIN: Right.

MADDOW: One part of this that I realize I should know and just don't remember is whether there is a Charlie Kushner/Donald Trump connection or whether this is just a favor for Jared. Was there any independent relationship between the two fathers here?

BERNSTEIN: No, not really. I mean they were both real estate moguls in their own worlds, but their paths didn't really cross. Charlie Kushner, the people that he was giving to that he shouldn't have, were Democrats. He was a huge contributor to the Democratic Party, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, especially Jim McGreevy, the former governor of New Jersey.

And he got into trouble because he gave way over the limits, and he wrote checks under people's names, which is sort of 101 of campaign finance law. You can't write a check for somebody else. That is what Jared Kushner's father did.

And as a felon, he wasn't able to sign real estate loans. That's why Jared Kushner at age 26 was the person who took out a billion dollar loan when they bought their skyscraper on 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

I should add that this animosity between Jared Kushner and Chris Christie exists today. I mean, it's a sort of -- a fact that I know you know but maybe you forget at this moment that four years ago Christie had just been fired as director of the transition, and there was so much animosity that all of the briefing books that Christie had prepared, all of the vetting and security information he had gathered was thrown in the dumpster next to Trump tower.

MADDOW: Astonishing. I will tell you tonight Chris Christie said that this case that he prosecuted was quote, one of the most loathsome crimes that I ever prosecuted. So, this is where this lands. Andrea Bernstein, author of "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, the Marriage of Money and Power", Andrea, thank you for being here on short notice when we got this news. I really appreciate having you here.

BERNSTEIN: I don't know whether I should say like Andrew said, I'm not glad to be here, but I'm always glad to speak to you, Rachel

MADDOW: Thank you. It's very kind. Yes, it's gross circumstances, and yet here we are.

All right. We've got much more ahead here tonight. We're also going to be joined by the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff.

Plus, I've got something to give you a heads-up about in terms of what the president is threatening when it comes to COVID that is not getting enough attention I think, but I think I can lay out in the way that makes clear what the risk is and what he's doing right now.

That's all coming up. We've got a lot to get to. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Following the breaking news tonight, the president firing off the confetti cannon of new pardons. Second wave tonight includes full pardons for 26 people, commutations for an additional 3. They include the felon Paul Manafort, the president's campaign chairman, and the president's longtime adviser Roger Stone, both of whom were prosecuted as part of the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

To disambiguate here a little bit, President Trump did already commute Roger Stone's sentence this summer. But tonight in addition to the commutation of his sentence, Roger Stone also got a proper glow-up with a full pardon, thus sort of erasing his conviction. To further disambiguate here, I say that the president's campaign chairman, the felon Paul Manafort, who was just pardoned, he should not be confused with the president's deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, who is also a felon who has not yet been pardoned.

He should also not be confused with the president's campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, who we can't call a felon, but he was arrested and is under federal felony indictment and is awaiting trial. I know it's hard to keep it all clear, all the felons.

These pardons tonight aren't necessarily a surprise although the long list of them, the fact that they include presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner's dad, maybe that's a little bit of a surprise. But overall, it's not hard to see what president Trump is doing here. I mean, look at last night. Twenty-four hours ago, we were talking about how, you know, marbled in among the garden variety criminals were George Papadopoulos and Alex Van Der Zwaan, who were both bit players in the Russia investigation, who lied to investigators about their contacts with people who were part of the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election to try to get Trump into the White House.

I mean, tonight, Trump has blown that out. We have now moved on to the stars of the Russia investigation, Manafort and Stone. It's not exactly subtle here. There are a lot of pardons going on here for a lot of reasons and some of those may be yet subject to future investigation. But what we're seeing is Donald Trump trying to erase every inch of the Mueller investigation, rewarding foot soldiers who sneered at the Justice Department and Robert Mueller and obstructed that investigation and are now being rewarded for their efforts.

Joining us now is the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California.

Mr. Chairman, thanks for being here on a big night. I know we called you on short notice. I really appreciate the time.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): It's not a pleasure to be with you but good to be with you nonetheless.

MADDOW: Let me just first ask your top-line reaction to this new wave of pardons tonight. I wanted to hear from you specifically about Manafort and Stone. But I sort of want to give you the floor for a second to tell me what you think about these two nights of now 40-plus pardons that we've had from the president, including multiple people who lied or were otherwise implicated in the Russia attack on the election.

SCHIFF: You know, well, let me start by amending something you said. He's not trying to make all those convicted by Mueller go away. Only those who cooperated with Mueller don't pass. So he's not going to pardon Michael Cohen, for example. But the people who held out and refused to cooperate, the Manaforts, the Stones that lied to cover up for him, they will get a pass.

So it's worse than trying to make the investigation go away. It's merely about paying back those who lied for him, those who refused to cooperate for him. It's a direct assault on the rule of law. It's also the worst form of cronyism and self-interest at work.

But I have to tell you, Rachel, that while I probably should be most offended by the convictions in the Russia investigation, I'm most offended by the pardons in the Iraq war crimes because here you have the absolute worst of America followed by the best of America, then tragically followed by the worst of America again, the worst in private contractors murdering innocent civilians in Iraq, hard to imagine a worst act of any citizen of this country.

Then you have the best. You have hardworking people trying to bring these defendants to justice, trying the case multiple times, going to every effort. That's the best of America. You know, adherence to the rule of law, the sanctity of life wherever it is.

But now, we have the worst of America all over again with the president giving a pardon to these people who committed full-blooded murder of men, women, and children. So that, to me, is the most offensive of all these pardons.

One other thought, Rachel, is he's pardoning people just like him in a way. He's pardoning people who lie and have no compunction about it. He's pardoning people like in Iowa who cheat an election. He's pardoning family members.

He's pardoning people he can relate to because they're like him. And of course I think as you indicated, there's more of that to come.

MADDOW: I was intrigued by a case made in sort of detail tonight by Andrew Weissmann, who of course is best known for his work with the Mueller investigation but has held senior roles at the FBI and the Justice Department, including serving as general counsel of the FBI. And he said not long ago on this show that basically a president, while the pardon power is plenary, it's in the Constitution, he can pardon people, it's not -- you know, nobody would argue it's not within his powers.

He can't do so as part of committing another crime. He can't do so for a corrupt purpose.

If it turns out that the president gave out any of these pardons in exchange for a thing of value, in exchange for some kind of bribe, or if somebody in his administration was paid to recommend these pardons to the president since it seems like none of these appear to have gone through the pardon attorney process at the Justice Department. If it turns out that the president explicitly rewarded people with a pardon specifically because they lied to investigators in order to obstruct an inquiry that pointed at criminal behavior by the president, is any of that something that can be corrected or litigated in the future? Is the president able to do that at will?

SCHIFF: No, he's not, and I agree with Mr. Weissmann. You can't give a pardon as part of a corrupt criminal scheme. You can't give a pardon as part of a bribe, for example. I will make illegal campaign contributions if you will pardon me.

So if that was the case, if there was explicit enough an agreement, you could prosecute Donald Trump when he left office. You know, I guess the more difficult legal question is does it have the effect of nullifying the pardon? It may not, but it still may expose the president to prosecution. It may expose the recipient of the pardon for prosecution for other crimes, including that drug (ph) scheme.

But, you know, the practical realities of the difficulty of proof don't make that, I think, very likely. In the Protecting Our Democracy Act that I introduced some months ago, in fact, we make explicit what we believe is already existing law, and that is that a president can be prosecuted for giving a pardon as part of a bribery scheme.

MADDOW: Congressman Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee in the House -- sir, thank you for talking to us tonight. I know this is a really busy time and this was late-breaking news. Thanks for helping us understand it.

SCHIFF: Thanks, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right. As I mentioned earlier, there is something going on with the chaos that now surrounds the issue of whether or not there's going to be any COVID relief, something that the president is doing that I think needs some attention, and I think I can lay it out in a way that makes it clear and simple. And I'm going to do that for you next. A bit of a heads-up coming.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: 'Twas the night before the night before Christmas, and until the next round of party favor pardons arrive, this was the headline tonight at politico.com: Complete clusterf -- Trump leaves Washington in limbo. No one in the White House or on Capitol Hill appears to know what Trump's plan is or even if there is one.

The quote there, complete clusterf -- is from a House Republican staffer, a congressional staffer on the Republican side. Ah, the holiday season. Ah, leadership.

The president did, in fact, leave Washington tonight. And if you listen to people who know these things, there's a not unreasonable chance that he's never coming back. Nobody's making any promises that President Trump will ever return from Mar-a-Lago after the holidays. Absolutely no one is expecting him to be there for the inauguration of his successor on January 20th, so it's possible that this was the last time we will see him in Washington. Could be.

It's not quite Nixon getting into the helicopter with the big two-handed "V" for vamoose and the terrible, awkward smile that didn't reach his eyes, but this maybe is as close as we're going to get. We shall see.

Not knowing where the president of the United States is going to be for the next 28 days, not knowing even the basics of like what White House staff do now -- do they keep going to the White House? The president's not there. Maybe should the Biden transition people move in early if the Trump folks aren't using the same anymore?

I mean, these are not the kinds of ambiguities you train for in American news and politics, but that is where we are. And actually on the calendar, there's something really important to keep in mind. As you know, the president decided to throw a wrench into a hot running engine last night when he suddenly started paying attention to the fact that there was a COVID relief bill, that his own administration, his own people had been negotiating with Congress on his behalf.

After the White House told Republicans in Congress explicitly that the president was ready to sign the bill, the president got a wild hair. The wind blew his fur the wrong way or something, and he decided, no, he will not sign it. And now he's demanding changes to the bill that has already passed Congress, changes to the bill that his own administration and all the Republicans in Congress had been busy fighting against all this time. He now wants those things.

This is the headline tonight in "The Washington Post": Trump's last-minute outburst throws pandemic relief efforts into chaos.

And it is chaos. He's threatening to veto the bill because of his sudden outrage over all the things his own administration insisted must be in the bill. It's chaos. But that is what our time on earth is like now.

And here is an underappreciated truth about how this particular bit of chaos may land. Look at this for a second. Here's where we are on the calendar, right? You are here. This is where we are today.

The COVID relief bill is likely to land at the White House tomorrow. It's a big, complex thing. It includes all the COVID stuff plus funding to keep the government from shutting down, a whole bunch of stuff. It should get to the president tomorrow, at least to the White House tomorrow.

Now, when that bill gets to the White House tomorrow, a few different things could happen. If the president decides to sign the bill -- this was all theater and tantrum, and he didn't really care, then fine. Bill passes into law. Relief checks go out. Government stays funded.

Or let's say the bill gets to the White House tomorrow and the president vetoes the thing. Also, I mean, not fine, but at least we can say what whether happen next. The House and the Senate will see if they have enough votes to override the veto. If so, the House and Senate will convene, override the veto. The bill will become law. The COVID relief checks will go out. The government will be funded.

But there is a third option. Under the United States Constitution, the president has ten days to sign a bill or veto it, ten days not counting Sundays. If the president doesn't act within those ten days, the bill does not become law. It's called a pocket veto.

Presidents constitutionally can block bills from becoming law that way, by just letting it sit there for ten days while they do nothing. But presidents don't really do that anymore. It hasn't been done during the whole 21st century. President Trump has never done it in his term. President Obama didn't do it in two terms. George W. Bush didn't do it in two terms.

But what if that's what Trump's going to do? Put the calendar back up there. If President Trump decides that that's what he's going to do, that he's not going to do anything, if the COVID relief bill comes to his desk tomorrow and he's like, neener, neener, I'm in Florida, I'm mad, I don't care.

If he just decides to let it sit there for the full ten days the constitution gives him, ten days skipping Sundays like the Constitution says, then do the math and look what happens. That brings us to January 4th.

January 4th is one day after this Congress will have come to an end. Anything not passed into law by the end of this Congress doesn't become law, goes back to zero, start over. So, yeah, chaos when it comes to COVID relief.

If President Trump gets the bill brought to him tomorrow as expected but then he does nothing, not only would he thereby kill all COVID relief, but he would kill it in a way that the House and the Senate could not override, and we'd be back with a new Congress next year who would have to start at zero.

And meanwhile, there would be no unemployment money, no stimulus, no eviction protection, no money for the states for vaccination efforts, none of it -- none of any of the rest of it, and no money to keep the government funded. We would have an indefinite government shutdown on our hands.

And in order to achieve all that, all president chaos would have to do is go golfing, enjoy tweeting, have some snacks, do nothing. Because that ten-day clock starting tomorrow will run out after the Congress is already gone. What could possibly go wrong?

The president has also tonight actually vetoed the defense bill, the bill that funds the military. He's been threatening to do this for a long time.

First, he said he wanted to make sure the U.S. military would still have bases named after figures in the confederacy. Then it was something to do with him being mad at Twitter and social media companies. It has been an evolving series of explanations. Who knows what the real reason is?

But this is the bill that funds the military and pays the troops, and he has vetoed it tonight. And remember that the next time somebody tells you that liberals saying "defund the police" was the political end of liberals because that was such terrible politics, well, here's a rejoinder for you. Here's the president defunding the military. Is he over now because of this? Because of how much Americans revere the military?

I mean, he's defunding the military tonight while reportedly musing about how he can try to get an aircraft carrier named after himself. He's defunding the military tonight while at the same time he's vaguely threatening military action against Iran again. What's he going to do? Go fight Iran himself?

He's defunding the military tonight while he's also been having White House discussions with people advocating that he invoke martial law and put the country under military control because somehow that will reverse the election results and he can stay president forever. It is a near certainty that the House and Senate will override President Trump tonight vetoing the bill that funds the military. They said in advance that they would override it. They're planning to reconvene next week on the 28th and 29th to pass that override.

But the president really did just veto funding for the troops -- Merry Christmas -- while he is playing with fire by entertaining talk of martial law at the White House, which is nuts.

And even though the U.S. military itself is never going to play those reindeer games, no matter what he tweets, with all this talk about martial law, the president is effectively signaling to his devotees that he thinks that would be a cool idea and that might fix things for him. So if any of his devotees have ideas for how they could do something extreme enough that might create a plausible pretext for really putting the military in the streets, well, the president is now signaling to all of them that that would be handy to him. That might help him.

As the president continues to plot with House Republicans to sabotage the counting of the electoral votes in Washington on January 6th, the president is now telling his supporters that he also wants them in the streets in Washington on January 6th, saying on Twitter, quote, be there, will be wild.

Here's the headline in "The Washington Post" today. Trump supporters plan D.C. rally on day Congress certifies election results. Quote, conversations about the gathering have taken off on chat forums used by far right groups. The Proud Boys, members of armed right wing groups, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists have all pledged to attend on January 6th.

Several online posts appear to show far right demonstrators workshopping ways to smuggle guns into D.C. where carrying without a permit is prohibited and guns are banned at all protests.

Other posts include talk of violence. On event website, a flyer for the demonstration says, the president is calling on us to come back to Washington on January 6 for a big protest. Be there, will be wild.

Will be wild -- that's what he wants.

The president threw down 20 pardons and commutations last night, another 26 pardons late tonight. He has left Washington. Nobody knows literally if he is coming back.

He's telling his followers to go on the streets when he and his co-conspirators try to sabotage the Electoral College vote count. He wants supporters in the streets, outside the Capitol while trying to pull off his sabotage inside the Capitol at the same time. He has maybe jeopardized any relief bill for COVID at all and he's blocked funding for the U.S. military.

And it's just Wednesday. He's got 28 more days to wreck this kind of mayhem. Somewhere in the world as we speak, America's most devoted enemies are watching, and they're really, really, really enjoying what they're seeing.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: This is not exactly a correction. It's more of an addendum. I mentioned just a moment ago that president Trump has left the White House tonight, perhaps forever. Nobody knows if he will ever come back. He has gone to Florida and literally nobody knows if he's coming back to the White House at any point in the future.

But while I said that, I should have also mentioned this. While the president is in Mar-a-Lago in South Florida tonight and tomorrow and maybe from here on out, the White House has gone out of their way to release a formal public schedule for him for tomorrow.

So you should -- I don't want to be incomplete on the record, I want to show you officially is what the White House says will be the president's schedule for tomorrow while he's at his house in Mar-a-Lago. I'm not editing anything out here, I'm just going to quote did in its entirety. Ready?

OK, there's nothing on it but this -- it says, quote: As the holiday season approaches, President Trump will continue to work tirelessly for the American people. His schedule includes many meetings and calls.

Many meetings and many calls. What, you think just anybody can be president?

Happy holidays.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: I want to wish you happy holidays. If you are a resident of the Washington, D.C. area, I want to wish you a happy Anthony Fauci Day tomorrow. It is Anthony Fauci's 80th birthday and the district has declared it Fauci Day tomorrow in his honor, which seems just right.

That does it for us tonight.

Now, it's time for "THE LAST WORD" with the great Ali Velshi in for Lawrence O'Donnell tonight.

Good evening, Ali.

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

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