updated 8/13/2013 10:37:11 AM ET 2013-08-13T14:37:11

THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW
August 12, 2013
Guest: Bryan Stevenson


RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Thank you, Chris.

Thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.

Nine months after the presidential elections, Republicans have just
signed into law the most draconian voter suppression law in the country
this afternoon. Before the 2012 elections, Republican-controlled states
all around the country took action to make voting more difficult, like the
cuts in early voting that led to waits of eight hours or more to cost a
ballot in Florida.

Amid huge Democratic pushback and some national uproar over the
changes in the voting laws, efforts in the Republican-controlled states to
make voting harder -- they did get rolled back somewhat. They were subject
to a lot of human cry.

But now -- now, in the relative calm of this late summer in an odd
numbered nonelection year, it is the state of North Carolina that has gone
further than any other state in the country. In the name of supposedly
cracking down on voter fraud, which is never to any significant extent been
proven or even seriously alleged in that state, North Carolina Republicans
will now ban you from voting unless you can show new documentation that you
never had to show before. And that hundreds of thousands of legal voters
in North Carolina do not have.

And, of course, those voters who will not be allowed to vote without
that documentation now, they, of course, are disproportionately minority
and disproportionately registered Democrats. If you live in a state in
North Carolina and your photo ID is your student ID from college, you will
not be able to vote. You will not be able to go to the polls to cast a
ballot anymore. Not after the law that was signed in North Carolina today.

Civics teachers and student groups that have been preregistering 16-
year-olds and 17-year-olds so they can vote as soon as they turn 18, that
is also not going to happen anymore.

So, no more voter registration efforts for young people in North
Carolina. They dramatically cut early voting. They cut all the early
voting on Sundays. You`ve heard of Souls to the Polls efforts.

Early voting Sundays before elections largely from black churches, not
anymore. No more early voting on Sundays. What exactly does that have to
do with voter fraud? Precisely nothing, but it sure will make it harder to
vote in North Carolina, particularly for groups that tend to vote
Democratic.

Something like 70 percent of African-American voters who voted in the
2012 election in North Carolina, 70 percent, voted earlier. So, clearly,
early voting`s got to go. Republican Governor Pat McCrory of North
Carolina signed the voting law changes today. He put out a YouTube video
explaining that it is just the extreme left complaining about this bill.
He says making up scare tactics about this bill and really he`s just all
about protecting the vote in North Carolina, by making it a lot harder to
vote in North Carolina.

Two lawsuits have already been filed today to stop the new law. A
third may be on its way according to reporting from Ari Berman at "The
Nation". The lawsuits are being filed under a little thing we used to call
the Voting Rights Act, which is not what it used to be, since the Supreme
Court gutted it early this summer. Congress made some noise after the
Supreme Court ruling that maybe they might think about shoring the law back
up, but really as you know, Congress is not doing much of anything these
days.

It is times like this when you learn what it really means to be the
attorney general of the United States, and you learn why who is in that job
really matters. At more than a surface level, I mean, presumably by the
time somebody gets confirmed for a job that important, "A", we know they`re
qualified to hold the job and "B," what they value, what they believe in,
what they stand for.

What turns out to be interesting over time, though, is how they act on
those beliefs in that job, how they maneuver within the constraints of the
job and the powers of the job to try to achieve their goals. And so, after
the Trayvon Martin verdict, for example, there`s a Department of Justice
review whether there ought to be federal civil rights charges filed in that
case, but more immediately, there was the attorney general making an
emotional public address using the bully pulpit to say these stand your
ground laws that changed the definition of self-defense, they maybe ought
to be reconsidered, they ought to be looked at to see if maybe they are
causing more harm than good.

On the Voting Rights Act, the sections of that act that had given the
Justice Department the power to say thumbs down or thumbs up to whatever
states wanted to do about their election laws, the Supreme Court took that
away. The attorney general, Eric Holder, then said, OK, justice will then
use the remaining sections of the law to try to uphold the same
protections. He said he would transfer resources. He would concentrate
resources into the other parts of the law that still remain.

So, if they couldn`t use half the protect voting rights law anymore --
well, they`ll use the other half. More than they used to, starting with
Texas and continuing presumably with the other states that had had laws
blocked by the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court ruling but now
feel like they can go ahead.

So, Texas first. Maybe Alabama. Maybe Mississippi. Maybe North
Carolina after today.

Sometimes you use the bully pulpit. Sometimes you have the authority
to weigh in and stop something directly. Sometimes when you lose that
authority, as Justice Department did during the, with the Voting Rights act
case. Sometimes when you lose that authority, you instead decide you`re
going to sue.

What is the range of options available to you? And how do you use it?
How do you still try to make progress when some avenues toward the progress
you want to make are blocked?

On the issue of drugs and criminal justice, the Obama administration
made it a priority to try to reduce the huge disparity in sentencing for
crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. I mean, if cocaine is the problem,
why be so much more lenient for one variety of cocaine and so much more
strict for the other? On that issue, the administration found a lot of
allies in Congress.

The bill to reduce those sentencing disparities between crack cocaine
and powder cocaine, that bill passed by a voice vote in the House in 2010.
It passed the Senate by unanimous consent. Because of that, thousands of
people who had already been sentenced under the bad old guidelines, they
had their sentences retroactively reduced because of that law being passed
by Congress and signed by the president.

The sentence disparity still exists, but it is not nearly as bad as it
used to be. That progress was made with Congress.

There`s this range of options, right? There`s a range of latitude
that you have in the executive branch. That you have as president or the
attorney general.

And this is some of the most interesting maneuvering we get in
American political science. I mean, sometimes you make your case and hope
that others will make change. Like in the stand your ground speeches.

Sometimes you urge Congress to make a change and they do. Sometimes
you sue to force a change through the courts. And sometimes you find a way
to make the change yourself, even when nobody had ever thought it might be
possible.

A really dramatic change was made today by the Attorney General Eric
Holder, saying that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too
long and for no good law enforcement reason. The attorney general
announced today prosecutors will change the way they bring prosecutions for
drug crimes starting now. And the change they`re going to make is they`re
going to not list the quantities other drugs involved when they bring those
charges for some people.

Ever looked at the different amounts of different drugs that can get
you the same sentence? It`s weird. It`s a very weird table of stuff. A
hundred kilograms of marijuana will get you an automatic five years in
federal prison without parole. A hundred kilograms of pot, for a mere 100
grams of heroin, you get the same sentence -- five years in federal prison.
No possibility of parole.

Look at the sentencing for meth -- 100 grams of heroin gets you five
years, all right? But you`ll do the same time for five s of meth. With
LSD, you get five years in prison for a single gram.

All the same sentence for those wildly different amounts of those
wildly different drugs.

The way the criminal code is written now leads to all of these
seemingly arbitrary and sometimes inexplicable results in sentencing
between different types of drugs. For what Eric Holder is saying is no
particular criminal justice purpose.

So the attorney general now is making changes. Both in the cases that
U.S. attorneys choose to prosecute and in the way they prosecute them.
This is not Eric Holder changing the law. He can`t do that. This is him
recognizing that the law comes with all these capricious counterproductive
consequences.

Both the differences in the way we mete out punishment for one drug
versus the other and the enormous amount of times to which we sentence
nonviolent, sometimes low-level offenders.

In order to side step that, Eric Holder told the U.S. attorneys today,
told prosecutors around the country today, that as long as we`re talking
about nonviolent people, people who are not in gangs, people who are not
selling to kids and these other criteria, as long as we are talking about
nonviolent, low level offenders, the way we can side step what is wrong in
the law here is to just not list the amount of the drugs involved in the
charging document. If you do not put the amount in the charging document,
then you do not trigger the mandatory minimum sentence and the sentence
will happen with more discretion than that, with an eye toward frankly
reducing the number of people in prison and how long they are there for.

This is not Eric Holder changing the law. Maybe Congress will get
around to changing the law someday. But in the meantime, this today,
effective immediately, changes the way the law is enforced around the
country, instantly as of today. It kind of seems like this might be a big
deal.

Joining us now is Bryan Stevenson. He`s founder and executive
director of the Equal Justice Initiative and professor at NYU.

Mr. Stevenson, thank you very much for being with us. It`s nice to
have you here.

BRYAN STEVENSON, NYU PROFESSOR: It`s my pleasure. Thank you.

MADDOW: So, can you explain how significant a change this is and how
these changes are going to be implemented?

STEVENSON: Oh, I think it`s a very significant change. You know,
when we passed mandatory minimum laws, everybody thinks that eliminated
discretion. But, in fact, it did -- it took discretion away from judges
and it actually gave it to prosecutors.

And, today, the attorney general said he`s going to exercise that
discretion in a way that actually reduces the number of people being sent
to prison for these long prison sentences for low-level non-violent drug
crimes. And I think it`s a really significant step forward. It`s the kind
of leadership many of us have been calling for, for decades.

The problem of vast imprisonment in this country have largely fueled
by our misguided war on drugs and the way it has sent hundreds of thousands
of people to prison for these low-level drug problems which are not a
threat to public safety a cost billions of dollars. So, I think it`s a
really enormous step forward for the government.

MADDOW: Is he breaking new ground in the way he is approaching this
problem? Obviously, this is not a change in the law. This is a change in
prosecutorial discretion in terms of how he is directing the nation`s
federal prosecutors to go about their work. Is that a new way to approach
this issue?

STEVENSON: I think it is. I think too few people have appreciated
how much discretion prosecutors have to deal with this problem in a more
sort of immediate way. I mean, I think it`s significant in that respect,
but I also think it`s significant from a leadership prospective.

Everybody in this country has been paralyzed by the politics of fear
and anger. Most people recognize that these kinds of reforms are
critically necessary. But our instincts after 40 years of mass
incarceration make it very hard for politicians to actually pass the laws
that produce the amount of time that people spend in prison.

So, we`ve been looking for leadership, and I think what he`s done
today is significant leadership. I think it has the possibility of being
replicated in states which is where we really need it. I mean, we have to
remember that only 10 percent of the people incarcerated in this country
are in the federal system. Most of our mass imprisonment problem is in the
states.

And this decision won`t directly effect state policy but it can have
an impact on how we think about mass incarceration and also drug policy.
Drug policy has been so misguided for so long, that I`m hoping it inspires
a healthier conversation about how to move forward.

MADDOW: It`s interesting, in the attorney general`s speech explaining
this move today, he talked about reforms toward lessening the prison
population, toward affording prosecutorial and charging discretion in a way
that might lead to shorter sentences or fewer sentences, in a lot of
unexpected places, in a lot of red states. He talked about Texas, for
example, and other Southern Republican-controlled states that have made
reforms to their criminal justice system.

Is that -- obviously that`s politically important for trying to get a
change like this to stick. But is that a sign this is actually becoming
less of a site of partisan combat, this is becoming something that`s
treated sort of more technocratically?

STEVENSON: I think it is. I mean, there are a lot of people on both
sides of the political aisle that have been urging us to be smarter on
crime. We can`t just keep, you know, invoking tough on crime. We`ve got
to be smart on crime.

And a lot of Republicans and Democrats have been making that call and
you have seen states, Texas and South Carolina and states that are
considered conservative implementing policies that are designed to turn
around some of these things. We have to be honest a lot of this is driven
by cost.

You know, we`re spending $80 billion to keep people incarcerated that
are not a threat to public safety. We need those dollars in other parts of
our government. It`s not just kind of moral evolution here. There`s also
a cost dynamic.

But I think this can become an issue that is less politicized than a
lot of the issues that we`ve been dealing with here recently at the policy
and certainly the national policy level.

MADDOW: Bryan, when you look at our overall relationship to other
industrialized countries, other well-off countries around the world and see
how disproportionately we lock up our own population -- do you think there
need to be a root and branch fundamental change in the way we approach
crime and punishment, or do you think we could sort of normalize our level
of imprisonment in this country compared to the rest of the world through
step-by-step changes like this?

I despair of the prospect of us rethinking it in a big way, but I do
feel like it is possible to make significant changes step by step like this
one today.

STEVENSON: Well, I think actually in some ways both things are really
needed. I think you`re right. We can -- I believe we can reduce the
prison population in this country by 50 percent over the next six to eight
years if we engage in the kind of policy initiatives that the attorney
general announced today.

And I think we have to do that. We have the highest rate of
incarceration in the world. We`re decimating community. A black boy born
in 2000 has a 32 percent chance of going to jail or prison. That`s a
shocking and really disturbing reality. We`ve got to make some changes.

But I also think we have to think more fundamentally about crime and
punishment. We`ve been so carried away with finding ways to put as many
people in prison for as long as possible that we`ve got to deal not only
with mandatory minimum sentences but we`ve got to deal with three strikes
laws ,we`ve got to deal with more rational sentencing, more effective
sentencing.

I mean, the federal government actually created the war on drugs.
They are the ones that spent billions of dollars and gave it to the state
to create drug task forces that have really corrupted our criminal justice
priorities. In some states, we`re spending all of our money to get
marijuana possessors in jail, in prison, and under-prosecuting violent
crimes involving rape and murder.

We`ve got to change that around. That`s why I think both of these
things are needed. We`ve got to do reforms, incremental reforms. But
we`ve also got to kind of create a more just, more humane, more rational
system of justice that prioritizes public safety but also prioritizes human
recovery and rehabilitation and healthy communities.

MADDOW: Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Equal
Justice Initiative. Bryan, thank you for being here tonight. It`s nice to
have you here.

STEVENSON: Very happy to be with you.

MADDOW: I will tell you in the 1990s before I was involved in media
and everything, I worked in criminal justice issues for a very long time.
And I will tell you that the scale of American imprisonment was one of
those things that seemed absolutely impenetrable as a political issue.
Something that would never get better, that would only get worse over the
course of my lifetime to the point where it became the dominant thing in
American politics and in American society.

It just seemed like it was a mountain that could never be climbed.
And it is not a mountain. It turns out it`s a mesa and we`re coming down
the other side of it and this thing is changing. Nothing is inevitable in
American politics.

We`ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: Embattled governor ultrasound, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, is
in the middle of a two week/22-stop Commonwealth of Opportunity Tour.

I think the governor hopes the tour will give the commonwealth the
opportunity to stop wondering whether he`s going to resign or be indicted
or both. And also which order might be best if both of those things end up
happening.

Unfortunately, for his efforts at taking everyone`s mind off of his
own corruption scandal, week one of the Bob McDonnell tour coincided
exactly with "The Washington Post" breaking the news on the governor taking
another $50,000 cash from a guy who he then offered a seat on a state
medical board.

Now, week two of the Commonwealth of Opportunity Tour starts with the
first major newspaper in Virginia calling for Governor Bob McDonnell to
resign. It is the "Daily Progress" newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia,
and their editorial calling for Governor McDonnell is resign is brutal.

Quote, "Mr. McDonnell`s effectiveness is at an end. Worst, Mr.
McDonnell has become an outright liability to the commonwealth and its
citizens. The governor has repeatedly demonstrated blindness to importance
of the scandal, apparently, because there is no true north in his ethical
compass."

There have been other calls, of course, for Governor McDonnell to
resign before now, but before now it has mostly been Democratic politicians
making those noises. Now, though, it is not just a major newspaper in the
state of Virginia, it is a major newspaper who endorsed the governor.

Quote, "Having endorsed Mr. McDonnell, nearly four years ago, it gives
us no pleasure now to urge him to resign." In terms of what Governor
McDonnell is doing in the state now, instead of resigning -- well, that`s
when it gets really brutal. "His current schedule is heavy on public
relations activities -- visiting troops, endorsing adoption, showing up for
an anti-crime event. These are worth endeavors, of course, but a
governor`s association with good causes should be for the purpose of
bringing them additional attention through the stature of his name and
office. The ironic truth is that it appears that Bob McDonnell is using
these associations with good causes to gain advantage for himself rather
than to convey it. He needs the positive publicity more than they do."

Aw! That is the "Daily Progress" in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Honestly, nobody knows exactly ha happens next in this corruption
scandal. But there has been one other big change from the McDonnell side
that may indicate that something is about to happen. You should at least
know about it if you`re interested in this story.

The guy for whom Governor McDonnell and his family took the $50,000
check and $70,000 check and the $15,000 dinner and the other $10,000 check
and the $15,000 shopping spree and the loan of a white Ferrari and the lake
house and all the rest of it, oh and Rolex watch. I`m sure I`m forgetting
other stuff, too. That guy from whom they took all those gifts heads a
company that for months now has been known to be under federal
investigation. They had to disclose they were under federal investigation
to their shareholders.

Well, on Friday, that company put out a statement saying -- happy day,
they are the not expecting to be charged in conjunction with that federal
investigation.

Now, at the same time, there has been recent reporting in "The
Washington Post" that the guy who heads the company who gave all the loot
to Bob McDonnell and his family, the "Washington Post" is reporting he`s
returned states evidence, that he`s on the prosecutor`s side in the federal
corruption investigation into Governor Bob McDonnell.

This is the other shoe midair dropping, OK? Because what`s happening
now is that Governor Bob McDonnell`s private spokesman who he hired
specifically to handle his scandal is now publicly attacking the governor`s
pal. The guy who gave him all the money and the Rolex and the Ferrari and
all the rest of it, they`re throwing that guy under the bus.

Quote, "Apparently, the U.S. government has given Star Scientific a
free pass in return for the testimony of Johnny Williams." Old Johnny
Williams, the incredibly generous gift giver, has always been defined
throughout this whole scandal as Governor Bob`s dear pal.

That was part of the defense, right? I didn`t have to declare all the
stuff my friend gave me. He`s just a friend who gives me $50,000 checks
and watches and stuff.

Through all of this, Bob McDonnell`s supposed innocence was predicated
on him being such good pals with his sugar daddy that it couldn`t possibly
be corruption. It couldn`t possibly be improper.

Now, 180-degree turn, total U-turn. Now all of a sudden, that guy,
his best buddy is the one to blame.

This is a total and radical change in strategy from governor
ultrasound. Does it mean there`s about to be something newsworthy here?
An indictment of some kind? An announcement related to this federal
investigation of some kind? Nobody knows until that happens. But he has
reverse strategy 180 degrees.

You know what, hey, it`s only Monday. The Commonwealth of Opportunity
Tour lasts all week. Anything could happen.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: I do not know much about golf -- I down know anything about
golf. I do not golf. I don`t even like being near golf. However, I do
love weird stories that sound like they will start badly but turn out well.

This is Jonas Blix, professional golfer. Saturday, during the PGA
championship, Mr. Blix was playing well until the 18th hole, which I`m told
is the last one. He then he hit his ball into a group of people. On the
18th hole, he hit the ball so badly that it nailed a spectator. It flew
into the crowd and hit someone.

Bad news. Right? Actually, no. Just weird news. As it turns out,
the ball that Jonas hit into that spectator landed in the man`s pants. He
hit the ball into the crowd and it popped right into the back pocket of a
nice retired doctor who said it didn`t hurt that badly.

So the bad news, right, is shot into the crowd. But it has two happy
consequences. First is the nice doctor is not hurt. Second, on a count of
the badly shot ball taking a detour into the doctor`s pants, that ball
could not travel any further in the wrong direction.

Mr. Blix, by rule, was allowed to take the next shot from the grass
right where Dr. Hole in Pants had been standing. And on that hole, he
ended up getting a birdie which does not mean that he hit a bird after he
hit the doctor`s pants. No, it means he did something good that got him a
nice, low score that I don`t totally understand.

So, all in all, good news. I bet that doctor will never wash those
pants again.

And, if that has whet your appetite for good news today, I have more
ahead. On the topic that`s been bad news on this show before, for months
it now may be turn into a good news story. And we have that good news
story coming up. It will make your night.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: This is Balhaf, specifically, the Balhaf liquefied natural
gas terminal. It gets natural gas on land pumped in by a pipeline. And
then it shoots it out from the mainland on pipes that stretch out on a long
jetty into the Gulf of Aden. See the jetty there?

Big tankers pull up alongside the jetty, fill up with natural gas then
get on their way to ship it around the world. You may remember that in the
year 2000, the USS Cole was bombed when refueling at a port in Yemen. That
was the port in Aden in Yemen, which you see on the bottom part of your
screen.

This port at Balhaf, same country, same bit of coastline, but as you
see, Balhaf is 250 miles up the way to the east. On June 2nd, somebody
tried to blow up the Balhaf liquefied natural gas terminal. They drove a
car bomb up toward the terminal. But thankfully it blew up too early and
only the driver, only the suicide bomber was killed.

Then, last, Wednesday, Yemen said it had foiled another plot to attack
oil and gas facilities in that same area and also further up the coastline
in a place called Mukalla, that was on Wednesday. They said plots had been
foiled.

Now, though, an attack seems to have been successful. Five soldiers
reported killed yesterday in Yemen near that Balhaf terminal, after
multiple attackers reportedly surprised the Yemeni soldiers at their guard
posts.

Now, the people who run the Balhaf liquefied natural gas terminal are
insisting emphatically the terminal, itself, did not get hit, saying that
it hurts their shareholders to imply that the terminal, itself, came under
attack. They want everybody to know that it actually was up the road a
ways. It was between them and the other nearest oil and gas facility on
that same chunk of Yemen`s coast.

So, it was almost them in June, but for the faulty suicide bomber,
they were saved from it being them last week and now, it was just
immediately down the road there this weekend. But they want their
shareholders to know that everything is safe. When the U.S. announced it
was closing 19 embassies a little more than a week ago, Yemen was one of
the 19. For Yemen, they also took the additional step of evacuating
basically all American personnel out of that country on military transport
aircraft.

Well, this weekend, 18 of the 19 U.S. embassies that were shut down
more than a week ago, 18 of the 19 of them were opened back up, but not
Yemen. Yemen is staying closed because of, quote, "ongoing concerns about
a threat stream" indicating the potential for terrorist attacks.

Also, meanwhile, here have been at least nine U.S. drone strikes in
Yemen over the last two weeks. Nine. And the only thing we know about
them is that they have not hit any, quote, "household names."

Nine strikes? What in the world is going on in Yemen right now? And
why is this all happening right now?

Joining us now from Cairo, Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign
correspondent.

Richard, thanks very much for joining us. It`s good to have you here.

RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: It`s always a
pleasure to be with you, Rachel, and I love talking about Yemen. It`s one
of the most interesting, fascinating, beautiful and unfortunately troubled
countries in this region. That says a lot. This is a troubled region.

MADDOW: You have always described to me, Yemen, as one of the most
beautiful places on earth and I know how much you love it as a country and
you love the capital city of Yemen. What do you understand about the level
of threat there? And is it that much more acute than it has been at other
troubled times in recent history?

ENGEL: Not really. I think the way to understand it is you have to
think of Yemen a little bit like Somalia. It is a country that is at war.
It is a country that is fighting a civil war. That part of the coastline
you just mentioned not far from Aden, the southern area, was actually
controlled by al Qaeda two to three years ago.

And they ran it like they ran a little state in Afghanistan or
Somalia. They were the authority there. And that is obviously a very bad
thing. And there was a small war that didn`t get a lot of attention, that
was launched by the Yemeni government. The Saudi Arabia, most of it air
forces, and backed up with U.S. advisers and drones.

This was about two, 2 1/2 years ago. And it was a very bloody
campaign. And thousands of Yemeni troops were involved and they drove al
Qaeda mostly out of this area.

I went with Yemeni troops when they were trying to show people that
they had taken the territory back. I was astonished at the amount of
damage. Buildings chewed up, whole towns that looked like they`d been
destroyed, a lot of people who`ve been killed in this fighting. Al Qaeda
had been doing crucifixions in the area. It was a little state run by al
Qaeda.

Those militants who were there weren`t entirely defeated. They did
what was described by many as a tactical withdrawal and they left for other
parts of the country. They went to Mahreb (ph), they went to Job (ph),
they went to other parts of the rural areas. And they have established
their own safe havens there. And that is what we`re seeing mostly being
attacked right now by the drone strikes.

These groups are still around. They are reconstituting their forces.
And they`re quite aggressive. And I wouldn`t put it past them to try and
carry out attacks. Carry out attacks against oil facilities, carry out
attacks against embassies, carry out attacks against a lot of different
facilities.

MADDOW: Richard, one of the things that we are hearing in Washington
is part of the decision about where to pull back, where to extract U.S.
personnel and close down facilities, is not just about the threat level,
but it`s about whether or not those people and those facilities can be
defended and the places where we feel like we can`t physically can`t defend
things in case of attack are more likely to be shut down than places where
we have better physical and security planning.

Is that part of what`s going on in Yemen? That it is just an
isolated, difficult place to defend if things do go wrong?

ENGEL: Yes. This is the Benghazi effect. You know, anything that`s
considered a remote outpost that is hard to protect gets shut down first.

Yemen, like in all of these countries, we`re mostly dependent on local
forces, and the Yemeni government doesn`t have a tremendous capacity. It
doesn`t have a lot of air lift. It doesn`t have a lot of troops who can be
called in to move from place to place.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is not a big group. Al Qaeda in
Yemen as it`s also known. But it`s very well-armed. It`s dug in. It
knows how to fight in its terrain. It`s chosen the places where it wants
to fight and it`s quite effective at launching hit-and-run attacks.

Why, whether the U.S. has been overreacting by closing so many
facilities around the world, now they`re re-opened except the one in Yemen,
there`s been a lot of debate about that. But I think it`s fair to say that
the threat in Yemen is particularly, is particularly high right now. And
you have to also understand, these drone attacks, which al Qaeda sees as a
part of an ongoing war against it that`s going back two, three years, are a
bit of a source of pride for al Qaeda there.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, its leader came out overnight and
saying, we`re still here. There`s been a lot of drone attacks and we plan
to liberate prisons and give a very bold statement. And because of that,
Yemen has now actually put extra security on its prison facilities. So,
the story at least in Yemen is not over yet.

MADDOW: It`s not over yet and feels like each additional -- each new
thing that we learn just makes clear how little we understand about the
overall picture. At least about what`s going to happen next.

Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent -- Richard, thank
you for staying us into the middle of the night to be with us. I really
appreciate it, man.

ENGEL: My pleasure.

MADDOW: Thank you.

All right. In the history of this show, only once have I been moved
to bang my head on the desk in response to something said to me by a guest,
only once in five years. And the guest who so moved me to bang my head on
this desk has just now made some serious news, which might make you bang
your head on the desk, too. That story is coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: This is a good news story but it starts in kind of a weird
news place. The good news I`ll get to in a second. The weird news to
start is that the American Civil War is not over, literally, in the sense
that we are still paying for it.

President Obama explained as much this weekend.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Think about it. We
lost the last veteran of the First World War two years ago. But we still
care for the children of our World War I veterans. To this day, we still
help care for children of men who fought in the Spanish-American War, even
the daughter of a Civil War veteran. So when we --

(APPLAUSE)

So when we talk about fulfilling our promises to all who serve, we`re
not just talking about a few years. We`re talking about decades. For as
long as you and your families walk this earth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: For as long as you and your families walk this earth.
President Obama speaking with veterans this weekend.

A daughter of a U.S. Civil War veteran is still, today, receiving
veterans benefits that her dad earned by serving in the Civil War. Wow.

For this president, who has ended one of the wars he inherited and who
says he will end the other, the longest war in our history next year, for
President Obama, the issue of making good on our promises to veterans has
been a huge deal for his administration and frankly, it has also been a
huge problem that has not only been bad for most of this administration, it
has been getting worse for a very long time.

By the V.A.`s own count, the wait time for veterans applying for
disability benefits has been getting worse. The wait time has been getting
longer, year by year. In 2009, the average wait time, 161 days, the next
year, 165 days. The next year, 188 days. Last year, 262 days. That`s the
wait time to even hear back, even if the answer is no.

Veterans waiting way too long to get the benefits that we promised to
them and that they earned. Increased wait times in this unacceptable
ginormous backlog have always been coupled with repeated assurances from
the V.A., itself, that it`s going to get better, that they have a plan.
That they are going to someday turn the tide.

It has been getting so long and been getting worse for so long that it
has been hard not to feel cynical about those assurances. Now, though,
some overdo but much better news delivered by the commander-in-chief,
himself.

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OBAMA: Today, I can report that we are not where we need to be, but
we`re making progress. We are making progress.

(APPLAUSE)

So after years when the backlog kept growing, finally the backlog is
shrinking. In the last five months alone, it`s down nearly 20 percent.
We`re turning the tide.

(END VIDE OCLIP)

MADDOW: (AUDIO GA) too big. The backlog is still way too big, but
the backlog, at least, is going the right direction. At the very least,
President Obama is on the record claiming good news. This has been a bad
news and getting worse news story forever, it feels like, but after years
of just saying it would get better, now the commander in chief says it is
getting better. It has started.

I mean, the great assault here, right, the champagne should probably
remain on ice, leave the noise makers and party hats in storage, but let
there be cautious optimism. If they really are turning this thing around,
it will be cause for real celebration and we have complained on this show
about this backlog problem so angrily for so many months and years now, if
they really are turning it around, the real celebration will in part be
healthier.

Watch this space.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MADDOW: There`s an important election tomorrow, one of New Jersey`s
U.S. Senate seat has been vacant since Senator Frank Lautenberg died in
June. New Jersey`s governor could have appointed somebody to serve out the
rest of the senator`s term, but he didn`t. He appointed someone
temporarily and called a special election. The primary for that election
is tomorrow.

All the attention so far has been on the Democratic side, where Newark
Mayor Cory Booker is out ahead of a strong Democratic field. On the
Democratic side, it`s a contest between four qualified candidates, two
well-regarded members of Congress, the speaker of the state assembly, and
the mayor of the state`s largest city, Mr. Booker, who is way out ahead.
He leads by something like 35 percent in the polls. His stature, his
perceived promise in national politics is just overwhelming the people he`s
competing against. But it is quality competition on the Democratic side, a
strong field.

On the Republican side, it`s different. The current Republican front-
runner is Steve Lonegan, the ex-mayor of Bogota, New Jersey. The latest
news from his campaign is having to take down this tweet identifying what
they say are the most Africa-like parts of Newark, because -- geez, man.
Come on. The campaign took it down and then did the honorable thing. They
found a young staffer to blame it on.

For whatever reason, maybe because it is August, the just under the
surface cross-current of crazy in our national Republican Party seems to be
surfacing everywhere right now. For example, it just took over the whole
Republican Party in the otherwise fairly reasonable state of Oregon.

On the surface, this is just a story about turnover in the top ranks
of the Oregon Republican Party. They elected a new chair in February.
Five months later, there were petitions to have her turfed out and then she
was going to be recalled. Then just before she was going to be recalled at
a party meeting this weekend she resigned.

So, on short notice, they picked this guy, this guy who had run twice
for Congress as a Republican. But this is not just any guy who has run
twice for Congress as a Republican and lost.

This is Art Robinson. This is the Art Robinson. This is public
schools are a form of socialist child abuse Art Robinson. This is nuclear
waste should be used as insulation in your home Art Robinson -- or as we
like to think of him around here, our own Art Robinson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: You have advocated that radioactive waste should be dissolved
in water and, quote, "widely dispersed in the oceans."

ART ROBINSON: The statements that you have just made are untrue.

MADDOW: Wait. I was quoting you.

ROBINSON: What you`ve done is take tiny excerpts from a vast amount
of writing I`ve done on this scientific subject.

MADDOW: Did you write this? I`m quoting from your newsletter.
There`s no ellipses here. "All we need to do with nuclear waste is dilute
it to a low radiation level and sprinkle it over the ocean or even over
America after hor-mesis is better understood and verified with respect in
more diseases."

ROBINSON: I wrote thousands and thousands of words on the subject.
You have picked a few words and twisted them into an untruth.

MADDOW: Can I ask you about something else you`ve written in your
newsletter and you can tell me that I`m taking it out context?

ROBINSON: You can ask anything you want. You`re running the camera.

MADDOW: You positive in print, in your own publications. There was
no editor. You weren`t taken out of context.

ROBINSON: Here we go again.

MADDOW: That AIDS was a government conspiracy. That it wasn`t real.
That the government --

ROBINSON: I absolutely deny that. I never, ever in my life made a
statement like that. You are lying. I never made statement like that and
I know it.

You are lying. The statement you just made is an outright lie.

MADDOW: Quoting from Mr. Robinson`s newsletter. Quote, "Only
government" --

ROBINSON: No way. You are lying.

MADDOW: Look. It`s on the screen. Yay.

ROBINSON: I have never in my life --

MADDOW: "Only government reclassification of more and more disease
types as AIDS cases has kept the numbers of victims at politically
necessary levels." You wrote it. I`m quoting it. Do you no longer
believe it?

ROBINSON: No. You -- madam, I`m not going to discuss -- what
happened to hor-mesis? We were in that.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The new chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, America.
Every party has its kooks, though, right? And maybe the New Jersey Senate
primary election and the Oregon Republican Party chairmanship seem far
flung. But even if you`d look at the most mainstream network TV center of
the universe Republican politics right now, even there, whoop, there it is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, BUSINESSMAN: We`ve resonated with a lot of people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But you don`t still question that he was born in
the United States, do you?

TRUMP: I have no idea.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even at this point?

TRUMP: Well, I don`t know. Was there in a birth certificate? You
tell me.

You know, some people say that was not his birth certificate. I`m
saying I don`t know. Nobody knows.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: Happy Sunday morning. Congratulations, ABC. Yes, you did
that.

Over on "Meet the Press", there was Republican Congressman Steve King,
debating Latina Republican strategist Ana Navarro and questioning whether
she understands English.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: I`ve seen the drug smugglers. I`ve spent
time on the border. I`ve ridden with the border patrol. I sat on the
fence at night. I sat in a ranch house and the border patrol come to me in
civilian clothes and they tell me narrative after narrative --

ANA NAVARRO, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Frankly, I think he`s being
helpful to the immigration debate because it is emboldening other
Republicans to speak out strongly against him, people like John Boehner,
like Eric Cantor, like Paul Ryan.

We`re not going to stand anymore for the Republican Party being
defined by somebody like Steve King.

KING: Well, I would say this. First of all, I spoke only of drug
smugglers. And if Ana understands the language, she should know that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: If Ana understands the language. Also make the Sunday talk
show circuit this weekend was Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert who is mostly
known for his immigration insights like this one.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. LOUIE GOHMERT (R), TEXAS: We know al Qaeda has camps over with
the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border. We know that
people are now being trained to come in and act like Hispanic when they`re
radical Islamists. We know these things are happening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: The radical Islamists being trained to come in and act like
the Hispanic.

So it might be comforting to think that these are just the Donald
Trumps and Steve Kings and Louie Gohmerts of the world that no serious
person with power and standing in politics would make these arguments --
sadly, no. Because you`re hearing the same arguments in some cases from
guys like the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Republican
Congressman Buck McKeon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. BUCK MCKEON (R), CALIFORNIA: I think you probably would agree
with me. There are people that think that they can`t tell the difference
between a Hispanic person and an Arab person. And if you get an Arab
that`s trained, that`s coming into this country to be a terrorism -- a
terrorist, they can mingle in and they can get in here and, you know, then
they can do damage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MADDOW: They can mingle in? What exactly is the argument here?
Latinos crossing the border, won`t be able to tell if there`s an Arab
secretly trying to cross the border with them because they all look alike
and they might accidentally help bring an Arab over here mingled in? Is
that the argument? Seriously?

Louie Gohmert, Steve King, Donald Trump, that guy running in New
Jersey, Art Robinson, OK, this guy`s chair of the homeland -- excuse me --
chair of the Armed Services Committee in the House. Thanks to the
Republican Party.

They should start tying a bell around these guys or something so we
can tell when they`re coming.

That does it for us tonight.

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

Have a great night.

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

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