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Transcript: The Rachel Maddow Show, September 2, 2020

Guest: Harold Varmus


MSNBC continues its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that toxicology results from a German Army lab contain, in her words, unequivocal proof that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with a Russian military-grade nerve agent, Novichok.


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

"THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW" starts right now.

Good evening, Rachel.

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

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

It has been kind of a weird news day. The president this afternoon said out loud that his supporters should try to vote twice in the November elections.

Voting twice, of course, is a felony. But the president is overtly, out loud, in public, asking his supporters to try it, to see if they can get away with it.

What do you do with that? I mean, he's not like hinting about it. He's not trying to vaguely create the impression that he might want to do that, even though he doesn't say it. I mean, it would be a scandal on its own right. He's just flat out telling people go try to vote for me twice. Wednesday.

Until relatively recently, we were at least kind of a normal country, you know? Ups and downs for sure. Things you can take issues with, for sure, crisis here and there. But like at least we knew how long the number line was. At least we knew zero to 100.

Now, though, with the presidential behavior like this, the system just kind of breaks. I mean, for example, open your heart, soften your heart a little bit and look at the lead on this tonight from our colleagues at

It's perfect. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this lead whatsoever. But the fact that this has to be written. It's like, just normal news organizations just aren't built with this level of weird. I mean, it's like if you invited friends over for a barbecue and then you're like lifted up the cover of the grill and show them you got a carburetor and a pair of glasses there that you're making for dinner, like it's just -- like all the nouns work until you explain what you are doing and it does not compute.

This is what I mean. Here is this lead from tonight. President Trump suggested today that people in North Carolina should vote twice in the November election, once by mail and one in-person, escalating his attempts to cast confusion and doubt on the validity of the results.

The president said, quote: So, let them send it in and let them go vote, if the system is good as they say it, and obviously, they won't be able to vote. If it is tabulated, they'll be able to vote.

The president said this when asked about the mail-in voting system in North Carolina. He concluded, quote, so that's the way it is, and that's what they should do, he said.

Then NBC News has to -- has to note in the next line: it is illegal to vote more than once in an election.

Yes, it is illegal to do what the president just told you to do. And, in fact, it is illegal to try to get people to do that.

This is a weird day. Today is also the day that the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the United States government will now sanction the International Criminal Court. Not the United States will sanction like people sentenced by the International Criminal Court. This is not sanctions on international criminals.

This is literally the U.S. government putting sanctions on the people who work at that court, putting sanctions on people who work at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, like people who prosecutes more war crimes and stuff, you know, the massacres in Yugoslavian and freaking Nazis and stuff. The U.S. will now sanction the people who prosecute war criminals, the people who administer that court. Those people will now be sanctioned by the U.S. government as if they are terrorists or cartel leaders or themselves criminals of any kind, all because they work at the International Criminal Curt and under the Trump administration, we are waging war on all international institutions which we used to support.

It's just bizarre, almost non-computable behavior by our own government. But apparently, that is the order of the day.

The president is continuing as you know to conduct his reelection campaign mostly on the grounds that America is burning. That American cities are all on fire and burning down and they're terrible hellscapes, which is not what life is like in most American cities. But you'd never know that from his ads.

But beyond whether or not this scare campaign about U.S. cities is true, it's an awkward message, right, because even though the president right now is Donald Trump, while he says all this stuff, this terrible stuff is happening around the country, the president's re-election campaign is now based fundamentally, more than anything else on this premise, that this horrible urban hellscape that we are living in now is the future that's in store for the country once Joe Biden is elected president.

Well, if this hellscape exists now, why is it here while you're president, dude? I mean, again, it's just -- it's just -- it does not compute, right? This is not logical stuff.

The president's campaign right now, they're fundamental messages see how terrible things are, keep me in charge so this won't happen. It's just -- it's literal irrationality at the highest levels of American politics, and on news days like this, it sort of feels like it all froths at the same time.

But it also filters down to local news in weird way. Por ejemplo, the "Portland Press Herald" just posted this online, which I saw this afternoon. It's somebody tweeting at the "Portland Press Herald", can you help me understand the Portland riots. Why haven't you stopped the violence? To which the "Portland Press Herald" respond, well, we're a newspaper in Maine is the main reason.

Portland, Oregon, is this place the president has been scapegoating for protests and unrest. Portland, Maine, home of the "Portland Press Herald" is more than 3,000 miles away from there, but, you know, I'm sure it's their fault.

This is the front page of the "Portland Press Herald" today where, again, you can see our national weirdness coming home to the local news. You see the headline there, defiant pastor tied to outbreaks divides local community. This is a fascinating story.

Until recently, the little town of Millinocket, Maine, up in the shadow of beautiful Mount Katahdin in Maine, they had been basically untouched by the coronavirus, by COVID-19. "The Boston Globe" reports that in the two neighboring counties, there the whole counties there had been a total of about COVID cases over the two counties over the course of six months which is not a lot and in Millinocket itself, there had been no cases at all.

But that area around little Millinocket, Maine, it now has the largest outbreak in that whole state and it appears to be because of a wedding at a local church and a reception that followed at a local inn. This was less than a month ago, it was August 7th. There were reportedly no or very few masks, no social distancing at the event. There were a total of 62 people in attendance at the wedding and the reception.

As of now, at least 30 of the 62 people who attended that wedding and reception have tested positive, 30 of the 62, ages 4 to 78.

But, of course, it didn't stay confined to the wedding guests. The Maine Centers for Disease Control has now identified 143 cases of coronavirus that are traced back to that one wedding. It's the worst outbreak in Maine.

One young person who attended the wedding apparently got infected at the wedding and then went home and infected his or her parent. That parent that apparently infected another child in that same family. That person works at a rehabilitation and living center for seniors in Madison, Maine, and at that senior living center because of that chain of transmission from the wedding, they've now got multiple staff and patients infected.

Another wedding guest was an employee at the York County Jail in Alfred, Maine. Well, as of yesterday, that led initially to -- we learned initially that that led to staff and prisoners being infected at York County jail as of today. "The Press Herald" says the numbers at the jail are up to cases now among employees and prisoners, again traced back to that wedding where the one jail employee attended apparently got infected and then brought it to work.

At the venue itself, the venue that hosted the reception, multiple staff members there have now tested positive at the local schools, the East Millinocket school system now has multiple staff and students who become infected. A teacher was apparently working at the wedding reception and then turned up on site to prepare for the school year and now there are multiple infections at the school again among both staff and students and that means they will not be opening schools in East Millinocket when they thought they would among those infected as the local school superintendent.

An elderly couple who lives in an isolated wood cabin on Lake Cedar in Millinocket, they had been isolating at that cabin for months. Throughout the course of the epidemic thus far, because they were older, they had some health issues, they knew they were high risk, even though they also knew they were living in a low-risk place that had almost no case.

Well, their community in Millinocket ceased to be a low-risk place for them once the virus took hold there after this one super spreader event in town. She was 83 years old. She died at the local hospital. He's a World War II veteran, he was hospitalized two days after his wife died.

The other place that one wedding seems to have resulted in an outbreak is a town called Sanford, Maine, which is not in that same area. It's a ways away. But the guy who officiated the wedding came from Sanford, Maine, he's the local pastor at a Stanford church and he flew himself in. He's a pilot. He flew himself in to conduct that wedding and then flew home.

The main CDC announced this weekend on Saturday that they're now investigating a new outbreak at that pastor's church in Stanford, Maine. They've now got multiple cases at that church now too. That town also now has an outbreak at their local fire department, right?

You see how these things go. Go from zero to 60 really fast. It's a super contagious infectious disease that kills some of the people that it infects. But it's -- it's interesting what happened here. The pastor the guy who officiated the wedding, he goes and performs this wedding in Millinocket. They apparently don't take precautions or at least not enough.

At least one person is now dead. A World War II vet is hospitalized. There is a jail in Maine that has a big outbreak because of this. There's an old folks home that now has a new outbreak in Maine because of this. There's a school in Maine that has a new outbreak because of this.

The pastor's own church now has an outbreak because of this, all derived from this one congregate event where people got together and didn't wear masks. They didn't take precautions. And it turns into a super spreader event that creates the biggest outbreak in Maine.

And the pastor who officiated the service and all of Maine -- everybody reading the local news in Maine, they all learn about this through public reporting, and Maine public health authorities tracking it all down and being very transparent about what they are learning. This pastor who officiated the -- officiated the service where all of these all these outbreaks came from, where all of these infections came from, where all of these institutions are now having to be shut down and all of these people are now at risk and one person is dead already, this pastor learns this weekend that now his home church where he came home to after the wedding is itself being investigated as an outbreak because they've got multiple cases there too. He learns that on Saturday.

And what does he do? Following day, he holds multiple in-person services at his church because he doesn't believe that any of this is happening.

It matters where people get their information and it matters what people are hearing from people who they accept as leaders. See the headline here from the from the "Boston Globe". I want the people of God to enjoy liberty. Pastor at Maine super spreader wedding gives defiant indoor sermon.

Quote: The officiant of a now-infamous wedding in Millinocket gave a defiant sermon during an indoor church service on Sunday, just one day after Maine Centers for Disease Control announced it was investigating a coronavirus outbreak among those affiliated with his church.

Todd Bell, the pastor portrayed the church he leads as being in the front lines of a culture war battling against a socialistic platform that mandates mask wearing and distance learning in schools. I'll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do, bell said during one of two Sunday services. They want us to shut down, go home and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the gospel.

Bell's comments, says "The Globe", echoed political talking points that President Trump and others on the right have used to decry coronavirus restrictions at a rally in New Hampshire on Friday night, for example, the president lamented that Democrats don't believe law-abiding citizens can go to church anymore, you can't go to church anymore.

He says that on Friday. This pastor finds out he's got an outbreak in his church on Saturday, he holds services on Sunday.

The August 7th wedding at which bell officiated in East Millinocket has been linked to 123 coronavirus cases in Maine. It's more since then. It's about 20 more cases since then. It's the largest outbreak in the state of Maine. That outbreak has also led to the death of an 83-year-old woman who did not attend the event.

Bell's sermon on Sunday was fiery and unrepentant. At times, he seemed to delight in the provocation saying, he hoped media outlets would watch the service. On Sunday morning, a 15-person choir assembled on stage at his church maskless and singing.

He has just taken part in an event that bestowed upon the great state of Maine the largest outbreak they've had in the state.

But, you know, who cares? Screw the Democrats.

He told his congregation that masks are pointless. He says there -- he told them, they are like trying to keep a mosquito out of a chain-link fence. He told his congregation that he won't take any vaccine for coronavirus if one is developed because if any such vaccine would be abortion. He says that a vaccine is -- if you take the vaccine, you're supporting abortion which is soapbox crazy talk that we're all accustomed to now from, you know, wherever you find that in your life.

Except, he's kind of the point man and the largest outbreak in his state with 143 cases in county and one dead and a jail and an old folks home and a school and, and, and all the rest.

But you know what, if the people you accept as leaders say this stuff, it matter, it manifests in the world. It turns out it matters what gets said about this stuff from on high.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They don't believe law abiding citizens can go to a church together. You can't go to church anymore. You know how many churches are closed in this country because of the Democrats?


MADDOW: When the president says stuff like this, less than 48 hours later, the guy with an active outbreak in his church decides he's going to hold indoor services at his church, even after he's just led another event that gave it to 140-plus other people. It matters in the real world. It is a matter of life and death that this is what they are spreading.


SEN. MARSHA BLACKBURN (R-TN): They close our churches.

DONALD TRUMP JR., THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION: People of faith are under attack. You're not allowed to go to church.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): Democrats won't let you go to church.

PRES. TRUMP: They don't believe law abiding citizens can go to a church.


MADDOW: Citizeds, he means citizens, but, you know.

If you publicly insist that trying to not spread COVID is a Democratic Party plot to ban church and kill God, the result of that in this country is going to be that you're going to have right wing pastors happily spreading COVID wherever and whenever they can, because that's what they've heard they should do in order to be a hero, because any measures to slow the spread of COVID, that's a Democratic plot. It's anti-patriotic. It's anti-religion. Don't fall for it.

And do you see this manifestation of national politics on the local front pages? I mean, this is the biggest outbreak in Maine. So you're seeing another front page of papers in Maine, but you will see this in states all over, and while that is happening, while we see the power of that nonsense at the top manifest in death on the ground, what has emerged this week is that it may no longer even be the policy of the U.S. government to try to stop the spread of COVID.


SCOTT ATLAS, HOOVER INSTITUTION: We like the fact that there's a lot of cases in low-risk populations because that's exactly how we're going to get herd immunity, population immunity.

These people getting the infection is not really a problem, and in fact, as we said months ago, when you isolate everyone, including all the healthy people, you're prolonging the problem because you're preventing population immunity. Low risk groups getting the infection is not a problem. In fact, it's a -- it's a positive.


MADDOW: It's a positive. The more people who get infected, the better.

That is a man named Scott Atlas. He is not an infectious disease doctor. He's not an epidemiologist. He is a doctor. He's a radiologist. His specialty is in doing MRIs of the spine and the brain, which has nothing to do with coronavirus at all.

He has no public health experience. Again, no infectious disease experience, no epidemiology experience, but he is apparently the new guy running the U.S. coronavirus strategy at the White House. The president reportedly liked seeing him do these hits on Fox News, these contrarian hits, where he proposed this idea that we really ought to just see if we can get everybody infected because that will be better.

And with that as his expertise, being a radiologist who gets invited to go on Fox and say this stuff, now, he has been brought to the White House and he has apparently sidelined the other actual qualified experts who were part of the coronavirus task force.

Since Scott Atlas has been sort of taken over and had the president's ear, the White House and the president have started talking about COVID and the national strategy about COVID in ways that are new and that line up with the stated views of this guy who is kind of a crank on the subject. It didn't get a ton of attention when he said it because there was so much else going on, but when the president said this that I'm about to show you at the RNC last week, he was apparently describing a new national strategy for coronavirus.

This is not the way that he has described it before. This was the middle of his RNC speech -- again didn't get a ton of attention -- but this is not what he and the White House used to say about how we were tackling this epidemic as a country.


TRUMP: We are aggressively sheltering those at highest risk, especially the elderly, while allowing low risk Americans to safely return to work and to school, and we want to see so many of those great states be open by Democrats, we want them to be open. They have to be open. They have to get back to work.


MADDOW: They have to be open. They have to be open. They have to be open. We'll shelter those at higher risk while allowing lower risk Americans to all return to work in school.

We'll protect the most vulnerable -- you're seeing lots of evidence of that, right? But open everything else back up so that everybody who's lower risk gets infected.

This is the herd immunity, the population immunity idea that Dr. Scott Atlas has been snake oil selling on Fox News and Fox News Radio for months before he was brought to the White House to apparently turn this into our new U.S. policy.

And if the president really wants to pursue that, some sort of effort to protect those most at risk but most people encouraged to become infected, if we are now pursuing that -- which is what this doctor has been publicly advocating -- which is apparently what the president is now telling us he wants, it's good for him to start and let us know if this is how he wants us to change tack here because we should brace ourselves for what this means if this is what he's going to do.

As "The Washington Post" points out this week, nobody knows if immunity even works the way that these herd immunity -- herd immunity theorists believe for COVID. Nobody really knows how much immunity is conveyed by being infected with COVID. Nobody also knows how much of the population you'd have to have to actually infect for it to take hold.

Bt if you take these folks at their word, and again, it's sort of seen as kind of a crank approach to this subject, but if you take them at their word and you take a kind of conservative estimate about what it would take, if you conservatively estimate that they'd need, let's say, 65 percent of the whole population to be infected for this herd immunity idea to work, well, in the United States with a population of 328 million people, if you reached a 65 percent threshold for herd immunity, if you let of the country get infected, if you've had a conservatively speaking 1 percent fatality rate, that would mean that you'd have $2.3 million Americans dead.

That's what they're aiming for. Those are the most conservative estimates about what something like this would look like, and that would be the good news result, 2.13 million dead. That's if we only have a 1 percent fatality rate, could be millions more debt if the fatality rate is even slightly higher than that if it's 2 percent or 3 percent.

But they're aiming at those over two million dead Americans because a Fox News radiologist says so, and he's apparently outmaneuvered the other experts at the White House and has made this the new U.S. policy. And this is reportedly why the CDC just recommended in the past week, all of a sudden, that fewer Americans should get tested.

This doctor's theory and the fact that he's got the president's ear is reportedly why the CDC now says if you've been expose, you shouldn't necessarily get tested. This new theory the president is spellbound by that says more infected Americans are better, the more people get infected, the better we are.

So that means they want to test less people even after you've been exposed. If you haven't been tested after you've been exposed, you don't know you're positive, then you're more likely to spread it to more other people. Under this theory, that's a good thing, the more people infected the better. This is madness.

And it has taken hold at the top of the U.S. government and the president is now propounding this as his big idea for how we should deal with COVID from here on out, and any Democrats or anybody else in the country that doesn't want this that wants to stop people from getting infected, they're just trying to shut down your churches. They're just against God. They're just trying to lock you in your home for some sort of nefarious conspiracy. That's where we're at on coronavirus now 60 days before this election.

The former head of the National Institutes of Health joins us to talk about this, next.


MADDOW: In 1989, the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine went to these guys, Dr. Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, a pair of virologists from the University of California who made groundbreaking discoveries about the origins of cancer in the human body. Their research led to all sorts of innovations in cancer detection and cancer prevention.

Just four years later, President Bill Clinton appointed one of those two scientists, Dr. Harold Varmus, to lead the National Institutes of Health. He was the first ever Nobel laureate to hold that position.

When he was in that post, Dr. Varmus oversaw a massive expansion of the NIH's budget. He oversaw the NIH becoming a world leader in research on everything from AIDS to malaria to stem cells.

President Obama named Dr. Varmus to the president's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Dr. Varmus was appointed director of the National Cancer Institute where he served until 2015. He's had just an unbelievably distinguished and accomplished scientific and medical career.

And when that's your background, you do not expect to see Dr. Varmus' name on top of an op-ed like this one. You see the headline there, quote: It has come to this, ignore the CDC.

Dr. Varmus and Rajiv Shah writing in "The New York Times" this week, quote: We were startled and dismayed last week to learn that the CDC in a perplexing series of statements had altered its testing guidelines to reduce the testing of asymptomatic people for the coronavirus. These changes will undermine efforts to end the pandemic, slow the return to normal economic educational and social activities and increase the loss of lives.

Now, in the face of a dysfunctional CDC, it is up to states, other institutions and individuals to ac.

This is an up is down, black is white sort of previously unimaginable thing to hear from somebody who has operated at the highest levels of American public health. Dr. Varmus, right, he's the former head of the NIH. But that is how bad things are.

And I should tell you, today, Dr. Varmus was one of 81 Nobel laureates in science and medicine who issued a joint statement endorsing Joe Biden to be the next president of the United States.

Joining us now, I'm honored to say, is Dr. Harold Varmus.

Dr. Varmus, I'm really, really pleased that you're able to make time to be with us tonight. Thank you.

DR. HAROLD VARMUS, FORMER NIH DIRECTOR: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Rachel.

MADDOW: Let me start by asking you about my characterization of that op-ed. It struck me to see your name next to that sentiment, that argument, and indeed that headline was jarring to me because of what I know about your history in health and medicine, in science and medicine. Tell me about the decision-making process to do that, to go that far?

VARMUS: Well, let me say, first of all, Rachel I didn't write the headline. The headline was useful because it attracted a lot of reader. But I don't want to be bashing the CDC overall. The CDC is a great institution that's served the nation well for many, years but they made a mistake in advocating that we test asymptomatic people less frequently. That's the opposite of what we need for reasons you just laid out very persuasively when you talked about the mysterious Dr. Atlas, we need to test people and to diminish transmission of the virus.

And what I tried to do in that piece, along with Dr. Shah was to explain first of all that the testing of asymptomatic people is critical to control of the pandemic that we have a lot of new tools to do that, we can do it cheaper, we can do it effectively. We don't need to have the most correct advice from the CDC at the moment, although frankly, I'm very disturbed by the idea that people who are not as fully familiar with the arguments as many of us are, are confused, justifiably confused by having different levels of advice from different components of what appears to be the public health system in the country.

That's the part of the dysfunction that's very troubling. And I've tried to explain in that piece why the testing of asymptomatic people is so important unlike many other diseases this one is transmitted by people who have no symptoms, and we can prioritize testing. We can't test everybody every day. It would be the extreme.

But we can do some sensible things. We can say the following people should be tested immediately or within a few days of having contact with the person known to be infected. We know some people are greater risk of transmitting the virus, for example, if they go to a sporting event or go to a large party or go to work under conditions where they have to be close to their fellow workers.

So, we're trying to just establish a sensible way to understand the way this virus is transmitted and diminish that by urging that that states and cities and institutions, including colleges and workplaces where people mingle closely.

MADDOW: Dr. Varmus you described it as a as a mistake by the CDC and I hear you when you talk about the sort of confusing nature of the conflicting levels of advice coming out of the CDC and in your piece you describe it as dysfunctional.

Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you tonight is that I am worried that this wasn't necessarily a mistake or something that was bungled by the CDC. With Dr. Atlas having this role at the White House, with the president's change in language about what the U.S. goal is around this, I'm worried that they are deliberately trying to reduce the number of people tested so that we don't find outbreaks, so that there is more spread because they have now become beholden to this idea that the more spread, the better, that we can build up enough immunity, that that will somehow save us from having to do anything to really confine this virus because they don't like -- they don't like what you have to do in order to try to limit its spread.

If this is deliberate, if this is -- if this is a herd immunity idea, how dangerous is that?

VARMUS: Well, it's dangerous, and I and I resonate with your concerns and I share some of them but frankly in the piece that we wrote rather than speculate about how the decisions got made. What we were trying to do was to look at what was replaced -- what was put in place on the CDC website and try to explain to people why this is the wrong thing.

And within the context of 1,200 words, you can't do it -- you can't explore the skill uncertain line of -- of a decision that led to this change, and all I can do is regret the change and try to change people's minds about what we ought to be doing.

MADDOW: Dr. Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize-winning scientist, former director of the National Institutes of Health -- sir, it is really an honor to have this much time with you. Thank you so much for making time to be here. Thanks for your service.

VARMUS: My pleasure. Nice to talk to you, Rachel.

MADDOW: All right. Lots to come tonight. As I -- as I opened up the show tonight, today has been a weird day in the news. Today has been a weird day in the news on COVID. It's been a weird day in the news on presidential politics. It's also been a weird day in the news when it comes to our greatest international adversary.

That story is ahead. Stay with us.


MADDOW: One of the most effective political ads of the year so far if you ask me, it's an ad that was launched during the conventions over the past two weeks. It's an absolutely incredible ad. But I think it sort of got squeezed out of the news cycle because of everything else going on around the convention.

So I don't know if you have seen this before, but you should see it. Watch.


BILL OWENS, GOLD STAR FATHER: My son was the first person to die in combat under Donald Trump. Just five days into his presidency, Trump ordered Ryan's SEAL team into Yemen, not from the Situation Room with all the intelligence assembled, but sitting across a dinner table from Steve Bannon. There was no vital interest in play, just Donald Trump playing big man going to war.

And when it went horribly wrong --

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): When you lose a $75 million airplane and more importantly, American life is lost and wounded, I don't believe that you can call it a success.

OWENS: -- Donald Trump demeaned my son's sacrifice to play to the crowd. For nearly four years, Trump has assailed our country's core values. When Russia put bounties on our troops' heads, Trump defended Putin instead of our military.

TRUMP: I think it's a hoax.

OWENS: He kneecapped the Postal Service to undermine our right to vote.

TRUMP: This election will be the most rigged election in history.

OWENS: He's misled us throughout the pandemic.

TRUMP: Yeah. No, I don't take responsibility at all.

OWENS: Two hundred thousand Americans will have died before we vote. They and Ryan have one thing in common, it didn't have to be but for Donald Trump. If you hear one thing, let it be this -- don't trust Donald Trump with your kids' life or your own.


MADDOW: Remarkable ad that was produced during the conventions by the veterans group Vote Vets.

I'll tell you, we've reached out to that gold star father Bill Owens for comment on that ad. We, of course, would love to speak to him at some point about this, but as of now, it doesn't seem like he's doing any public statements other than that remarkable ad that we just showed you. Certainly, that should be enough.

But meanwhile, the organization that produced that with Bill Owens, Vote Vets, they really have been punching above their weight in this election cycle, both in terms of this kind of content they have been able to bring to the fore, but also some very well-timed stuff, including this I'm going to show you today which they put out time to coincide with the president doing an event in front of a battleship today.


AD ANNOUNCER: Donald Trump is panicking, finding any excuse to show up in military communities. He knows if elections were held today, he'd lose the military vote in a landslide. Sixty percent of active duty officers disapprove of his presidency, because Donald Trump disrespects those who serve.

TRUMP: He's not a war hero. I like people that weren't captured, OK?

AD ANNOUNCER: Our troops are in more danger today because of Donald Trump's betrayals. He abandoned our Kurdish allies in Syria, playing into Russia's hand. He wouldn't stand up for our troops when Putin put bounties on their heads in Afghanistan.

His weakness emboldens the enemy. Now, Russia is directly engaging U.S. troops, slamming into our patrols in Syria, intercepting our bombers, and flying their bombers dangerously close to American airspace.

Trump's refusal to defend America's national security is dangerous. His refusal to stand up for our troops is humiliating. His threat to deploy active duty troops against American citizens is unconstitutional.

So when it comes to the military vote for the next commander-in-chief, Trump's not leading. He's losing.


MADDOW: New ad out today from, again, Vote Vets, which has been doing just these very effective, very hard-hitting, very pungent anti-Trump ads over the course of this whole cycle.

And that point that they are making from a veteran's perspective about how America -- Trump's refusal to defend America's national security is dangerous, his refusal to stand up for our troops is humiliating, that the United States is being hurt by Trump being so subservient and weak when it comes to Russia, that is a very live issue not only in politics right now but in the news.

Today, ABC News was first to report on the Trump administration blocking the release of a -- of a Homeland Security intelligence bulletin that was meant to warn law enforcement agencies around the country about Russia interfering to help Trump win the November election by promoting false propaganda that's circulating first in Russian propaganda outlets about Joe Biden supposedly being in poor mental health.

That bulletin about Russia promoting that line against Biden to interfere in our elections that bulletin was done in July. It was set to be released to federal state and local law enforcement agencies, but the Trump administration pulled it at the very last minute and wouldn't let it get out. Two months later, that intelligence warning still has not gone out.

The Trump campaign, of course, meanwhile, has been pushing that exact line against Joe Biden, even as Russian propaganda outlets have been pushing it too, even as that's part of the Russian interference effort. They are dovetailing their own efforts with that.

The only thing the Trump administration has done is stopped the U.S. public from being warned that that is part of a Russian government operation.

And, you know, this Trump sort of subservience to Russia in instances like this obviously it serves his interests. But it has an impact on the country as a whole and it has a very, very important and pointed relevance -- point of relevance to what's happening right now with Russia in the world and with Russia in their behavior toward us.

Russia, as of today, is now being blamed for yet another nerve agent attempted assassination of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. We're also in the past week seeing direct physical confrontations between Russian and U.S. troops.

The president has so far been silent on both of these matters. This isn't just a political issue for the election. This is live for the news right now.

Former U.S. Russia ambassador Michael McFaul is going to join us live next to talk about it. Stay with us.


MADDOW: Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that toxicology results from a German Army lab contain in her words unequivocal proof that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was poisoned with a Russian military-grade nerve agent, Novichok. The same type of nerve agent used in a 2018 attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K.

Alexei Navalny remains in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator in a hospital in Berlin. He's said by doctors there to be in critical but stable condition.

But this announcement today from the German government, this definitive conclusion that Russia effectively was behind the attack that once again they used a Russian military poison that would tell the world for sure that it was them, that conclusion today drew forceful responses from the leaders of the U.K. and the European Union and NATO and other European countries. Here in the U.S., not so much. The president still hasn't said a word about this at all.

Joining us now is former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul.

Professor McFaul, thanks very much for joining us. It's nice to see you.

MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Good to see you. Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MADDOW: So you've called on President Trump to join other world leaders in condemning the poisoning of Navalny. He obviously has not done so he's not talked about it at all.

How -- how would it matter if he did. What -- how -- what difference would it make if he did?

MCFAUL: Well, it goes to the point that you were just making earlier that he is weak before Putin. He doesn't push back on anything and so Putin thinks he can do anything, whether it's running into our soldiers in Syria or perhaps putting bounties on our soldiers' heads in Afghanistan and now perhaps we don't know the facts.

I want to underscore we don't know all the details about what happened to Mr. Navalny, but he doesn't do anything and it means that we're not leading the free world, Rachel. So look at all those statements you just played. We are not even trying to catch up to them, we are behind, and that lack of unity in the democratic world makes America weaker across the board not just with respect to Russia but with respect to all of our adversaries around the world.

MADDOW: We have frequently seen the president exhibit this like profound weakness and subservience and just meekness around the issue of Russia, even when other people in his own government won't go along with it.

In this case, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seems to be going along with it. He did a press conference today on the day that Merkel said that Germans confirmed that it was a Novichok poisoning. He did it press conference they didn't say a word about it.

That said, we did get a National Security Council, a short series of tweets condemning it and saying that the U.S. will work with allies to hold Russia accountable. I mean, it -- I was happy to see that statement from the National Security Council, but that's kind of strange, right, to not have the president or the secretary of state talking about it at all and to step instead to have this kind of subtle, unsigned statement from an amorphous body.

MCFAUL: Correct, because those words of that person and you probably can't even name that person, right? I can't -- means nothing compared to the words of the president of the United States.

And I want to underscore, this is not just a one-off. President Trump has said nothing about the democratic protests in Belarus. He said nothing about the foreign influence that Russia is doing right now in our democratic elections. In other words, he's not defending the sovereignty of the United States of America.

And I think this is hard for people to understand, like if the Chinese ships came into the San Francisco Bay, we would expect our government to tell us about that threat because it would be physical, we could see it, you could do video of it. But because it's a digital threat, we don't see it, but it's the same thing. Putin is violating our sovereignty. We should be pushing back on that.

MADDOW: This reporting today which is initially from ABC News and a number of other news organizations, including NBC, have now confirmed that the Homeland Security Department had an intelligence briefing ready to go, warning not just generally that Russia is interfering in the election but specifically if you see story lines out there about Joe Biden having mental health issues, those are things that are being launched by the Russian government in Russian propaganda outlets, laundered through their social media avatars and they're trying to use that and insert that storyline into the U.S. election in order to hurt Biden's campaign. They had that intelligence briefing ready to go. The Trump administration has stopped it from going out.

Does it matter to be to the American people to not be sort of inoculated in that way against that form of interference?

MCFAUL: Of course, it does. It's outrageous that they are done denying the American voters this information.

And, Rachel, I want to remind you, you and I talked about this in the fall of 2016 when we or at least I on your show was critical of the Obama administration for not putting out more information about the threats at that time because the voters need to know what the Russians are doing, if they're trying to influence our vote at least letting them know that they're doing it might help them to make more balanced decisions about what they do in November.

I just think it's absolutely outrageous. It's not enough to debrief the intelligence committees. They need to be briefing the American people about these activities.

MADDOW: Former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul -- Professor McFaul, it's always good to have you here. Thank you so much for your time.

MCFAUL: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

MADDOW: All right. More to come tonight. Do stay with us.


MADDOW: That is going to do it for us tonight.

I will tell you this, since we have been on the air tonight, we got the very sad news that Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver has died. He was 75 years old. He died with COVID-19.

He was a -time all-star, 12 years in the major leagues, U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He served in the -- he pitched in the major leagues 1967 to 1986. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992. He's named 99 percent on of the ballots that were cast that year.

Tom Seaver has passed away at the age of 75. Sad news.

All right. That is going to do it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.


Good evening, Lawrence.


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