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Meet the Press - January 17, 2016

Meet the Press - January 17, 2016

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, the Democratic showdown. That object in Hillary Clinton's rearview mirror is closer than it appears. She now knows she's in a dead heat with Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire.

HILLARY CLINTON:

If he has a plan, he should roll it out and explain it to people so you can make an informed decision.

CHUCK TODD:

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders join me this morning. Plus, the Republican Donald Trump opening an even bigger lead, while the Trump-Cruz bromance comes to an end.

DONALD TRUMP:

He's got bank loans from Goldman Sachs, he's got bank loans from CitiBank.

CHUCK TODD:

This morning, two Republicans hoping to benefit from the Trump-Cruz fight. Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. And my sit-down with Amal Clooney, the human rights lawyer and wife of George Clooney, trying to rally America to save an island paradise from the threat of ISIS.

AMAL CLOONEY:

If you're a woman lying on a beach in the Maldives, you might want to know that a kilometer away, another woman is being flogged.

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me this morning for insight and analysis are Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, MSNBC's Joy-Ann Reid, President Obama's 2012 deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, and radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt. Welcome to Sunday. It's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, this is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning, and what a Sunday morning it is. It's crunch time. Four presidential candidates are joining us. And with just two weeks to go until the first voting, we have some truly head-snapping developments in both campaigns. In just a few hours, the Democratic candidates will gather in Charleston, South Carolina, for the final debate before Iowa. And it airs right here on NBC. That begins at 9:00 Eastern Time. But there was also big news overseas involving Iran, its nuclear program and a prisoner swap. And for that we go to NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel, live from Vienna.

RICHARD ENGEL:

It has been confirmed that the five American prisoners held by Iran have been freed. Some of them, including The Washington Post reporter leaving Tehran this morning. It was not exactly part of the nuclear deal, but the nuclear deal certainly opened up a dialogue that allowed for this prisoner release to happen.

That nuclear deal was brokered and announced here in Vienna yesterday. It was an enormous breakthrough. This is what people are calling "implementation day" as the terms of the agreement are starting to take effect. After Iran, it has been certified, lived up to its obligations, put checks in place to make it very difficult for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

So what does Iran get from this deal? First of all, it gets access to international markets. It can bank. Iranians can move money into and out of the country. Iran can now sell oil legally. It also unfreezes tens of billions of dollars, effectively an economic of 80 million people is now being welcomed back into the international community. Chuck?

CHUCK TODD:

Richard, thank you very much. Now let's get back to the presidential campaign. In a few minutes, we're going to get to my interviews with two men who hope to grab the establishment lane in the Republican race. Senator Marco Rubio, Florida, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. But we start with the Democrats. And a Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders race that has turned out to be much closer than the experts thought, especially the Clinton campaign.

In fact, we have some brand new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll numbers out this morning. And it does have some good news for the Clinton campaign. Nationally, we still have her with a big lead over Bernie Sanders, 59-34. But in Iowa, the story has been very different. Three polls out this week alone, showing A neck-and-neck race, including our own NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, which had Clinton leading by just three.

Quinnipiac found Sanders actually up by five, and The Des Moines Register had Clinton up by just two. Bottom line, it is too close to call. So with a closer race has come a more aggressive Clinton campaign against Sanders. And so we begin with Hillary Clinton who joins us from Charleston, South Carolina. Good morning Secretary Clinton.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Good morning, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with the Iran deal. Yesterday, in response to it, you immediately said that Iran is still violating UN Security Council resolutions with its ballistic missile program, which should be met with new sanctions, designations, and firm results. So I guess my question is, what do you tell the American public that say, "Okay, you want new sanctions against Iran, they're still violating agreements, and yet, what do we do yesterday? We just handed them $100 billion and we just did a prisoner exchange." Would you have still done that, considering your concerns about their missile program?

HILLARY CLINTON:

Absolutely. Look, I have said for a long time that I'm very proud of the role that I played in getting us to the point where we could negotiate the agreement that puts a lid on Iran's nuclear weapons program. But I've also said that the way we're going to hold them accountable is to have consequences when they do anything that might deviate from the agreement or continue to flaut the kind of sanctions and mandates that the UN Secretary Council has put on, including on missiles.

So I see these as mutually reinforcing, Chuck. I was delighted that the prisoners are on their way home. That's a good sign. We still don't see Bob Levinson coming home. There's more work to be done there. But if the implementation of the agreement which is being done today, is to be successful in the way that I expect, we're going to watch Iran like the proverbial hawk.

And when it comes to the missile program, they are under UN Security Council sanctions. And if they are violating it, which the evidence seems to suggest, they should be held accountable. They need to know that this is a good step forward with respect to the nuclear weapons program. But there are other areas of their behavior that we're going to continue to be focused on.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you still consider Iran a national security threat to the United States?

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Well, certainly we have lowered that threat, because of the nuclear agreement. But they continue to destabilize governments in the Middle East, they continue to support proxies and terrorist groups like Hezbollah. They continue to threaten Israel. There are a lot of concerns. But what I have said for some time now is I'd rather have the nuclear weapons program off to one side and work to make sure they abide by the agreement and then turn our attention to some of these other behaviors that are threatening certainly in the region, and therefore cause concern for us.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let me move to the campaign. You know, to try to figure out why this race has gotten closer in Iowa, why your lead has shrunk in Iowa, we spoke to a number of voters. I want to play three sound bites from Iowa voters about some potential pause they have regarding your candidacy. I'm going to play it and get you to respond on the other side.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MALE O'MALLEY SUPPORTER:

You get the impression from her that she believes maybe the rules just don't apply to her, or the same rules don't apply to her that apply to everybody else.

FEMALE SANDERS SUPPORTER:

She's worked really hard and done some amazing things. I just feel that Bernie Sanders is kind of, has a little bit more fire lit up in people.

FEMALE CLINTON SUPPORTER:

Well, I hear people talking about questioning her honesty. And I don't necessarily do that. But I think that's one thing that people are kind of not sure. And they felt that way about Bill Clinton too. You know, and so I think some of that rubs off.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Madam Secretary, how do you answer that pause? It's just from Democrats, some pause that they have.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Well, first of all Chuck, I always thought this was going to be close. And I can't speak for anybody else. But I've worked as hard as I can to build an organization in Iowa. To be out there, listening and talking with Iowans as they move toward making the first-in-the-nation decision in the caucus on February 1st. And I've also been very consistent over the course of my public life.

If I tell you I'm going to fight for something, I will do my very best to get results. And I think that's why I have such strong support. And I feel very good about where we are. But we're going to just keep working until the very last caucus is decided on February 1st.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, another problem you may be having in Iowa is that you don't ideologically fit. This was in The Des Moines Register poll this week. 43 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers identified as socialist. Only 38 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers identified themselves as a capitalist. You in the last debate said you are a capitalist. Bernie Sanders calls himself a Democratic socialist. If you don't win Iowa, do you think that's the reason?

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Oh, I don't know how people take all this information. But, you know, I support a free-market economy. I support the competitiveness that has created the, you know, greatest economic engine in the history of the world. What I am worried about is that it's not continuing to do what it used to do, which is to give the vast majority of Americans the chance to get ahead and stay ahead.

That's why I've got a very vigorous jobs agenda. That's why I've put raising incomes at the center of my economic policy. And I think what I know will work is to get back to good, old-fashioned job opportunities that will help people get ahead through manufacturing, through infrastructure, through clean energy, through the kinds of plans that I've been putting out. And look, when we have a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat, we do better economically.

We saw that when my husband was president, we've watched President Obama dig us out of the huge ditch that Republican policies put us into. So I'm very confident that I know what will work if we have the right commitment as a nation. And that's what I want to do as president.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you about whether, going with-- in Chicago, right now Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been under fire for what he may have known about a shooting incident. Do you think he still has the credibility to heal the wounds in Chicago between the African American community and law enforcement?

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Look, like everybody else who watched that video on television, I was just outraged by what happened to Laquan McDonald. I was one of the first to call for a complete Department of Justice investigation. And in fact, urged that it include the entire Chicago police department. This is not a problem that is unique to Chicago, unfortunately. And we've got to do a lot more to deal with the systemic racism and the problems that policing has demonstrated. Mayor Emanuel has said that he is committed to complete and total reform, and I think he should be held to that standard.

CHUCK TODD:

But do you think he still has credibility to do this?

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Well, that's going to be up to him and up to the people of Chicago to prove.

CHUCK TODD:

Very quickly, the movie Thirteen Hours, about the incident in Benghazi, I know there's a lot of chatter about the movie itself. But let me ask you, the controversy involves whether or not everything was done that night to rescue Ambassador Stevens. Looking back, do you believe everything was done that night, that could've been done, to save his life?

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Based on everything I know, and based on a Republican-led intelligence committee investigation, a Republican-led armed services committee investigation, the answer to that is yes, that people were scrambling, trying to figure out what could be done if anything. And I can't speak to a movie, but I know people have raised questions about, you know, some of the dramatization.

I testified for more than 11 hours, as you know. I answered every question that I was asked. And my real focus, Chuck, is what do we do to make sure that when we send Americans into harm's way, military or civilian, our diplomats or our soldiers, we take every precaution, to the best of our ability, to what is a unpredictable and dangerous world to make sure that they can discharge their duties and be safe while doing it.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Secretary Clinton, I've got to leave it there. We look forward to seeing you tonight on stage in Charleston for the Democratic debate. That's right here on NBC. Thank you.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON:

Thanks a lot.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it. And just a few minutes ago, I interviewed Bernie Sanders. And I began by asking him about the issue of gun safety.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with one of the issues that is likely to come up tonight at the debate and that is the issue of gun safety. Last night and what the Clinton campaign is referring to as a debate eve conversion, you came out in favor of essentially repealing immunity for gun manufacturers when it comes to be held liable for gun deaths. That is a switch of your positions, what brought you to this conclusion?

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS:

Well, not really. You know, I understand that Secretary Clinton and her campaign understands that, you know, they're losing ground. We started this campaign off at three percent in the polls and now we're closing in in Iowa. But we're doing really well in New Hampshire. So I think in the next two weeks, you're going to see a lot of nonsense being thrown around. Look, I have a D minus--

CHUCK TODD:

This is nonsense? I mean, you did change your position on this though. Isn't that correct?

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS:

What I said, Chuck, what I said several months ago, having a D-minus voting record from the N.R.A., having voted to ban assault weapons way back in 1988, yeah, that was a piece of legislation that I wanted to relook at. And what that legislation had among other things is a prohibition on armor-piercing ammunition designed to kill police officers.

It had language in it for a child-lock safety for our kids, important provisions. There were things in it that I did not like and I was willing to rethink. We have rethought. There's a bill apparently being introduced, I like that bill, it makes some good changes, and we will be supportive of it.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Another thing that's going to come up on the issue of gun safety is the issue of a waiting period. The Clinton campaign is hitting you for supporting only a three-day waiting period, or instant background checks, and not being in favor of something longer, like a five-day or a seven-day window. And the reason this is being brought up--

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS:

Well look.

CHUCK TODD:

--is that if Dylann Roof, the man who killed those nine folks in Charleston last year, if there had been a longer waiting period, he might have been prevented from buying a gun.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS:

Look, what we saw here in Charleston is a tragedy of unspeakable dimensions. A guy sits in prayer with people, then he takes out a gun and shoots nine people. I hope we don't have to politicize that issue. I believe very strongly in an instant background check. I think we have to expand it. I think we have other make sure 100 percent that we keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have that, people with criminal backgrounds, people who are mentally unstable.

That has been my view from day one. But, you know, Chuck, I think the reason that the Clinton campaign is getting defensive is they see that we have the momentum, they see that the issues that we are talking about, a disappearing middle class, and almost all new income and wealth going to the top one percent, a corrupt campaign finance system where people like Secretary Clinton can raise millions of dollars through super PACs.

Those are kind of the issues that they don't want to discuss. So tonight, we're going to be discussing a lot of issues. And the main issue for me is why the rich get richer, almost everybody else gets poorer, and the fact that we have got to stand up to the billionaire class and change those dynamics.

CHUCK TODD:

So you're not in favor of a longer background check, a five, seven-day background check?

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS:

We are willing to look at anything that makes sense that keeps guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. But I'm not going to be defensive on that issue. I lost an election in 1988, probably lost an election because I had the courage back then to say that assault weapons should not be sold in America.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you quickly about the Iran deal. Is Iran still an enemy of the United States, even what's going on, the diplomatic relations?

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS:

Well, you know, it's funny. If you think back to, I think it was 2007, during the campaign in which Secretary Clinton ran against Barack Obama, she was critical of him. A question was asked to Obama and said, "Would you sit down and talk to the Iranians?" And he said, "Yeah, I would." Point being that you talk to your adversaries. You don't run away from that.

Secretary Clinton I think called him naïve. Turns out that Obama was right. So clearly, we have many, many issues and many concerns with Iran. But clearly also, we want to improve our relationships with this very powerful country. I think the agreement to make certain that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon was a huge step forward. The fact that we had this prisoner release today was a good, important step forward. So I hope that we can continue to go forward to improve relations with Iran.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Senator Sanders, I will leave it there. We look forward to seeing you, Secretary Clinton, and Martin O'Malley on stage tonight right here on NBC. Thank you, sir.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

It's going to be a humdinger of a debate. You just heard Senator Sanders there, I think he mentioned Hillary Clinton in almost every single answer. We'll be back in a moment with the Republicans. Trump and Cruz are finally going at it and nobody may be happier about that development than my next two guests, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. They join me right after this.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz definitely ended their mutual non-aggression pact this weekend with a flurry of chargers and counter-charges. And while Cruz and Trump fight it out at the top, many Republicans are desperate for someone to emerge as the establishment candidate. Now, they're not the only ones beating each other up. So yesterday I spoke with two candidates vying for that role: Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and former Florida governor, Jeb Bush. Let me begin with Rubio. In Thursday's Republican debate, he took on Cruz directly, accusing him of serially changing his positions.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MARCO RUBIO:

Ted Cruz, you used to say you supported doubling the number of green cards, now you say that you're against it. You used to support a 500 percent increase in the number of guest workers, now you say that you're against it. You used to support legalizing people that were here illegally, now you say you're against it. You used to say that you were in favor of birthright citizenship, now you say that you are against it.

And by the way, it's not just on immigration, you used to support TPA, now you say you're against it. I saw you on the Senate floor flip your vote on crop insurance because they told you it would help you in Iowa, and last week, we all saw you flip your vote on ethanol in Iowa for the same reason.

That is not consistent conservatism, that is political calculation.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

So last night I began by asking Rubio whether he wasn't also guilty of changing his positions many times, particularly on immigration.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MARCO RUBIO:

If circumstances change or you learn something along the way, it's reasonable to say, "Maybe a different approach will work better." So for example, on immigration it is clear no comprehensive solution to immigration is going to pass.

But don't go around pretending that you never do, and certainly don't go around pretending and telling everyone like Ted Cruz does that he is the only consistent conservative running for president. The fact of the matter is that Ted has shown a propensity throughout his career in the U.S. Senate to take one position in front of one audience and then change his position in front of another.

So he raises money in New York and then criticizes New York values. On the policy issues he used to be in favor of legalizing people that are here illegally, and he said so in front of one audience. But then he portrays this sort of notion that he's the harshest and hardest when it comes to that issue.

That's not been his record. And if you recall, that was in response to an attack from him in the debate, and I think it's important to point out that on the issue he was attacking me on, his record used to be something very different than what he makes it sound like.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you by the way quickly on the 11 million, are you still for finding a way for them to legally stay in the United States?

MARCO RUBIO:

Yeah, look. If you're a criminal alien, no, you can't stay. If you're someone that hasn't been here for a very long time, you can't stay.

CHUCK TODD:

Wait a minute. Define criminal alien--

MARCO RUBIO:

I do believe we have to have a reasonable solution--

CHUCK TODD:

De-- define criminal alien. Isn't anybody who's here--

MARCO RUBIO:

A felon. A felon--

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, so not-- 'cause some people argue--

MARCO RUBIO:

Well I know some people have said that before but I believe--

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, all right--

MARCO RUBIO:

--the opposite. But-- no, but I've said that before, Todd. That's been convinced. I mean, a felon, someone who's committed a crime, a non-immigration-related-- and that's what I've talked about in the past. So I do believe-- I don't think you're gonna round up and deport 12 million people.

Here's what I've said, though. It is very clear now more than ever that we are not going to be able to do anything on people that are illegally until we first prove to people that illegal immigration is under control and America is safe. And ISIS poses a very unique threat unlike anything we have faced in the past.

CHUCK TODD:

Very quickly, you brought up Ted Cruz and his use of the phrase, "New York values." What does that phrase mean to you?

MARCO RUBIO:

I've never used that phrase. I think we're all Americans. I'm campaigning on behalf of American values. And I don't seek to divide people against each other, that's the problem we have with our current president. I think the bigger problem is Ted has raised a lot of money out of New York.

He didn't say that when he was there raising money. He said that in one state and then said something different in another. And time and again, it's proven the sort of level of political calculation that voters are only starting to find out about now as the campaign gets deeper and more heated.

CHUCK TODD:

And finally, last question. Let me talk about the global news of the day having to do with Iran. Do you think these Americans would be coming home if it wasn't for the Iran nuclear deal?

MARCO RUBIO:

I don't think these Americans should have ever been in prison. They didn't do anything wrong. They are hostages. And so now we have a president that has traded hostages in exchange for prisoners who did commit a crime and were convicted after due process and a trial and everything of that sort.

And what the President's now doing, not just with this but what he did with the Castro brothers and what he did with Bergdahl, is he's put a price on the head of every American abroad. Our enemies now know that if you can capture an American, you can get something meaningful in exchange for it.

I'm glad they're coming home. And by the way, the case of Bob Levinson remains unresolved. The Iranians, I believe, know where he is, and they are not cooperating. And it's an outrage. We need to continue to remember about him. But that said, at the end of the day when I am President, I will repeal the deal with Iran.

It will end when I am President, and we're going to reimpose sanctions. And if Iran tries to build a nuclear weapon program, we will stop it.

CHUCK TODD:

So under President Rubio, you would not have negotiated any sort of prisoner exchange for those four American hostages.

MARCO RUBIO:

When I become President of the United States, our adversaries around the world will know that America is no longer under the command of someone weak like Barack Obama. And it will be like Ronald Reagan where as soon as he took office, the hostages were released from Iran. We would impose additional sanctions, not just this Congressional sanctions now that would have been--

CHUCK TODD:

You wouldn't have given Iran anything--

MARCO RUBIO:

more additional sanctions on Iran.

CHUCK TODD:

You wouldn't have given Iran anything even if it meant--

MARCO RUBIO:

We would have gotten them home--

CHUCK TODD:

--that Iran--

MARCO RUBIO:

We would have gotten them home.

CHUCK TODD:

Without giving them anything.

MARCO RUBIO:

Well, we would have given them sanctions, crippling sanctions. In fact, there would have never even been a discussion on these deals until they were released. Iran needs more from us than we need from them. We need to remind ourselves of that.

And at the end of the day, these are people that view these sorts of things as weakness. That's why this week they captured our sailors. They tried to humiliate them on video, putting their hands behind their back and putting them on their knees and videotaping them apologizing. That doesn't happen when I'm President because they will know that we now have a strong President unlike the weak one that we have now.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Marco Rubio traveling in Iowa. Stay safe on the trail. Thanks for coming on, sir.

MARCO RUBIO:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now is the former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, from the snowy state of New Hampshire this weekend. Governor, welcome back to Meet the Press.

JEB BUSH:

Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Hey, I want to start with something you said to Kathleen Parker 2 days before Thursday's debate. You said to her, I'm referring to Donald Trump, "I'm going after him. The problem is there is too much low-hanging fruit." And then you go on to tick off that you're going to go after highlight Trump's multiple bankruptcies, his company's massive layoffs, people quote, getting stiffed, including a widow by the name of Vera Coking, whose house Trump attempted to replace in the mid-90's with a parking lot referring to some eminent domain issues. It was pretty detailed game plan here.; Governor, I don't remember hearing that on Thursday night. What happened?

JEB BUSH:

Well, we talked about the 45 percent tariff that he-- has been advocating that would create a global depression and lay people off and create hardship-- retaliated by Chinese-- the Chinese and makin' sure that we couldn't sell our Boeing planes that-- that are being made a mile away from where the debate took place. I had my chance, and I was the only person that-- goes after Trump on these issues. He's not a conservative.

And-- should the opportunity come up in the next debate to talk about bankruptcies, I'll do it. Four times he went bankrupt and he claims, well, he was just using the law. But a lot of people got wiped out because of that. And the eminent domain issue is really-- a symbol of-- conservative-ism. Conservatives believe that we should use eminent domain for public use, not for private purpose.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, there's been an outside group, I think it's Club For Growth, that has been hammering Donald Trump I think on this on the airways and both Iowa and New Hampshire. None of this stuff sticks. How does this guy have Teflon? I mean, you've gone after him hard… I could argue that you've gone after him more than any other candidate on that stage. You're on the air with a TV ad hitting him. But he's got a Teflon about him? What do you make of it?

JEB BUSH:

Well, there's a lot of anxiety. People are so angry with Washington and so frustrated about their own lives. I saw-- a survey that 63 percent of people can't afford a car repair of 500 bucks. And more than half of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. And the big guy comes in and-- and offers the moon and the stars, and-- people are-- are latched onto that.

But the reality is that he's not offering anything to lift people up. And I think the cumulative effect of pointing that out-- respectfully, look-- the guy's entertaining, for sure. But his ideas aren't gonna help people. And he doesn't have the skills to bring people together.

And he has no proven leadership skills in the public domain. So my path is to say I do. I've got a proven record. I don't run away from the fire. I don't blame other people. I don't disparage people. I try to unite around a common purpose. I got to do that as governor. And the ideas that I'm laying out would help America. And that's-- that's my path.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, right when you announced in July, you said the following, you argued that, "finding a way to re-weave the web of civility before progress on substantive issues can be made. You essentially said that has to be second, third fourth priority, because after you get civility then you can deal with all these other issues. Obviously, this is not a civil time in this Republican primary debate. And I guess I'm wondering, do you just have the wrong temperament for what Republican primary voters are looking for in 2016?

JEB BUSH:

No, look, I-- I'm talking about Washington D.C. The reason why people are angry in the Republican primary is there's no civility in Washington. The president's first impulse is to push someone away and down to make himself look bigger and-- and-- and higher. And we have to have a president that begins to solve problems.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, about a month ago when it came to Donald Trump, there was leaks from your campaign, that you were looking for a way to say, "You know what, I can't support him if he becomes the nominee." You've since backed off on some of your harsher criticism of him. Is that a fair way to read this - that you decided, "Nope, I can support him if he's the nominee, even if I'm not happy about it."?

JEB BUSH:

Look, the-- the-- the prospects of Hillary Clinton were-- or Bernie Sanders to be the president of the United States is-- is pretty chilling to me. I-- I'm-- I'm gonna win this nomination. That's my focus. That's what I'm trying to do. But anybody'd be better than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. So-- I am critical-- I am-- I am critical of—

CHUCK TODD:

You're in on Trump, if it's him?

JEB BUSH:

I-- he's not gonna win the nomination. And I am-- I am t-- I'm gonna continue to be critical of him when he doesn't advocate conservative principles. He's running for the conservative party's nomination. He should be a conservative, and he hasn't shown it.

CHUCK TODD:

Is there a point when you think it's important for more mainstream conservatives to unite around one candidate at some point to stop a Ted Cruz or Donald Trump because you don't think they can win?

JEB BUSH:

The point is that-- we're running for the presidency right now. And-- New Hampshire and Iowa and South Carolina and Nevada are gonna shape the election in March. We're on every ballot. We have-- we have the resources to go to distance. And I'm gonna do it.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, we have a lot to chew over, don't we? When we come back we'll do just that. It's a New York state of mind for the front runners on the republican side. Ted Cruz apologizes, not really, for his New York values comment. And Donald Trump is hitting back, and hitting back, and hitting back. And later, human rights attorney Amal Clooney, who also happens to be George Clooney's wife, on the small island paradise that has become a breeding ground for ISIS.

(BEGIN TAPE)

AMAL CLOONEY:

If you're a woman lying on the beach in the Maldives you might want to know that a kilometer away another woman is being flogged.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

My sit down with Amal Clooney during her trip to Washington - all that coming up.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. You just heard Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders trying to frame tonight's showdown at the NBC Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, where the two frontrunners and Martin O'Malley will go at it with just two weeks until Iowa.

As soon as this program is over I'm jumping on a plane to join my colleagues, Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell, as part of the NBC News team. Our coverage starts on MSNBC and NBCNews.com at 8 Eastern tonight. And just before the debates starts tune in to your local NBC station a few minutes before 9 o'clock and we'll have more coverage.

We'll be back with the Republican race in just a moment.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

(BEGIN TAPE)

TED CRUZ:

Well, you're right, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio have all demanded an apology, and I'm happy to apologize. I apologize to the millions of New Yorkers who have been let down by liberal politicians in that state.

DONALD TRUMP:

A lot of people do not like Ted, to put it mildly. And I kept saying, "Am I the only person that thinks he's a nice guy?" So as it turned out, you know, he finally went off the wagon a little bit and went a little crazy.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. The two frontrunners, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are no longer playing nice. The panel is here. Steve Schmidt, Republican strategist and former senior advisor to John McCain in '08, Joy-Ann Reid, MSNBC national correspondent, and author of Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide. Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for President Obama in 2012, and influential talk radio host, Hugh Hewitt, host of The Hugh Hewitt Show. All right, let's start Trump versus Cruz. Hugh, is this the fight the establish has been waiting for?

HUGH HEWITT:

Well, it has certainly got Jeb Bush's attention. I heard Jeb tell you the "big guy from New York." The last time a big guy from New York took aim at a would-be president who was born outside the country was July 11th, 1804, when Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. It was not good for either man's career. And I don't know that their fight is good for either man's career.

CHUCK TODD:

Steve?

STEVE SCHMIDT:

Look, right now you look at Trump's strength across the country in the national polls, and all of these establishment candidates, Kasich, Rubio, Bush, Christie, they need Ted Cruz to beat Donald Trump in Iowa. If Ted Cruz doesn't win the state of Iowa, Donald Trump is gone. He's going to win New Hampshire and it's going to be very, very tough to catch as this race moves south and moves into the bigger states.

JOY-ANN REID:

Yeah, I think the problem is for the establishment wing of the parties. The lane is closing very quickly. I think even if you saw all of the establishment candidates sort of consolidate around one person, our polling and other polling is showing that in a three-way race between Trump, Cruz, and fill in the establishment candidate X, Trump still wins. In a two-way race against any of the establishment candidates, even Rubio, who's probably the favorite he still wins.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me pause you there, Joy. Let me put up the numbers.

JOY-ANN REID:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

You're helping produce. I love it. Let me put those numbers up. That three-way race that showed Trump, Cruz, Rubio. And then we did these two-way pairings, as you were talking about. Here's what you need to know. Cruz versus Trump, Cruz wins. Trump versus Rubio, Trump wins. What does that tell you to me? Establishment can't win.

JOY-ANN REID:

That's right. I don't think there's enough strength. And, I mean, not being the Republican at the table. there are other people who are more knowledgeable. But it doesn't seem that there's much of a lane there. The energy in the party is for the outsider candidates. And I think for the establishment, Cruz is almost a bad a scenario because he spent his entire senate career essentially blowing up his home team's court.

CHUCK TODD:

Who do Democrats want to run against here? Trump or Cruz?

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

Well, I think there's pathways on both, let me just say that. But back to the polling for a second, I do think it's interesting that if you look at some of these polls, as many as half of both Cruz and Trump support say that they're open to persuasion to other candidates. But it's sort of soft support that these two have. So what they're doing to each other could provide an opening to somebody--

HUGH HEWITT:

This is what I think is, I disagree with Steve because I think the knight fight is bleeding the vote.Ted Cruz is going to win Iowa. Donald Trump is going to win New Hampshire. But with Donald with the momentum as you said in the green room. And I think that does allow consolidation to happen. I think we're going to Cleveland, we're going to have an open convention, because it's just too much fun to stop. It really is.

CHUCK TODD:

Steve, we're going to Cleveland. But if Donald Trump wins Iowa, couldn't he be the nominee before Hillary Clinton?

STEVE SCHMIDT:

I think he'll absolutely be the nominee before Hillary Clinton. Look, winning early matters in these contests. This is a momentum business. And past is prologue here. You win Iowa, you win New Hampshire, it puts you in good position going into South Carolina, ultimately to Florida, ultimately to the SEC primary on March 1st.

So if Donald Trump wins in Iowa, give me the scenario by which anyone catches him in New Hampshire and South Carolina. At the end of the day, a person who gets the most votes, they win. And I think the chances of an open convention, brokered convention, I think are very, very minimal.

JOY-ANN REID:

And I think when the son and brother of former president just conceded that you're the big man in the race, I think that that is a concession that you cannot walk back--

CHUCK TODD:

Can we--you brought it up too, I have to say, that was--

HUGH HEWITT:

It was a big line. It was the takeaway of the morning.

CHUCK TODD:

It was a little surprisingly differential.

HUGH HEWITT:

It's unconscious, in fact, with admission against interest, that there's a big guy in the race that you cannot bring down.

CHUCK TODD:And he wasn't the big guy.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

That's how he feels.

HUGH HEWITT:

Yeah, that's how he feels.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

You know, and it's shining through everything he says and does. He feels like Trump has taken all the oxygen. He's untouchable. And while Jeb has good ideas and, you know, has been effective as a governor, he can't understand why Trump is winning.

CHUCK TODD:

Steve, you cut your teeth being a guy that knew how to push a negative message. And I say this as a compliment, not-- so you have Rubio trying to paint Cruz as a flip-flopper. Is that possible? I mean, Ted Cruz is a guy that I don't think if you watch his-- Are people going to think he's some sort of establishment, finger-in-the-wind politician? That's going to be tough to sell, isn't it?

STEVE SCHMIDT:

No. I think it's very tough to sell. And I also think it misses the point about what this race is about. So you have an exasperated Jeb Bush this morning wondering how is it that the big guy is ahead in the race, as if, well, he's ahead because he sucked up all the oxygen. And that's not the case. His base, blue collar, downscale economically, non-college educated, no real wage growth in 25 years.

These people and Republicans in general believe that Barack Obama has won, he has changed America, and that he did it over a complicit, feckless, corrupt Republican Congress, who when Donald Trump says, "Make America great again," that is a powerful message for that Republican electorate.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

I do think, on Cruz however, these arguments that Rubio is making, they happen to have the virtue of being true on Ted Cruz. I don't think it's going to hurt him in the primaries, but if he becomes the general election candidate, he will get decimated--

JOY-ANN REID:

The flip-flopping has also occurred in Rubio's own career. I mean what Marco Rubio's raison d'etre in Washington was to get immigration reform done, he's been walking back from that for various reasons--

CHUCK TODD:

He's opened himself up to that very recently.

JOY-ANN REID:

--and he keeps changing the reason why.

HUGH HEWITT:

But Team Cruz is very happy with what happened over the last 48 hours. They read this as consolidated Iowa. I've never run a national campaign, I didn't stay at a Holiday Inn last night. But team Cruz is very happy. So is team Rubio. I think there's a lot more--

CHUCK TODD:

But Hugh let me ask you, very quickly I want to show you this Cruz campaign that's pushing out this hit on Donald Trump. It's Donald Trump praising Hillary Clinton. I'm going to just play a quick piece of it. I think we have it here.

(BEGIN TAPE)

DONALD TRUMP:

Hillary Clinton I think is a terrific woman. I mean, I'm a little biased, because I've known her for years. I live in New York, she lives in New York, I know her very well and I know her husband very well.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, Jeb Bush tried this with Donald Trump six months ago and it didn't work. With Ted Cruz doing it, can it work?

HUGH HEWITT:

Yes. Ted Cruz is messaging into the Iowa caucuses, and it's--

CHUCK TODD:

You think he can message this better?

HUGH HEWITT:

Yes, I believe that.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

And i also think it is a time to-- this is the time to be doing it. This is how you want to close a race.

STEVE SCHMIDT:

This isn't news to anybody. In fact, it allows Donald Trump to sell a virtue, which is honesty. That hey, I was in business. And when I was in business, I needed to be friends with everybody. It's what people tend to believe. And he's not penalized for these relationships, he's credited with the honesty in describing the relationship.

JOY-ANN REID:

And by the way, the people who are supporting Donald Trump are not necessarily the doctrinaire hard-core conservatives. Those people are with Ted Cruz. I don't think he pays a penalty with them.

CHUCK TODD:

And by the way, some of them probably voted for Bill Clinton back in the '90s, some of these Trump supporters.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. We're going to take a pause here. We've got the big take on the Democratic race from you guys in just a few minutes. But up next, something a little bit different. My sit-down with Amal Clooney. She's a human rights lawyer, also has a famous last name because she's the wife of George Clooney. And we talked about her efforts to win freedom for a key political prisoner right after this.

***COMMERCIAL BREAK***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Amal Clooney was a prominent international human rights lawyer long before she acquired a famous name from her husband, Hollywood actor George Clooney. This week, NBC News followed her in Washington as she met with lawmakers to discuss the plight of her client, Mohamed Nasheed, the former president, Democratically elected, of the Maldives, islands in the Indian Ocean.

The Maldives are known as an idyllic vacation destination, but they now have become a top recruiting ground for ISIS. Now this former president Nasheed was thrown into prison in what he describes as simply a coup. And he was sentenced to 13 years there. Then yesterday, suddenly the government announced it would allow Nasheed to travel to the United Kingdom for back surgery.

Though, it's not at all clear that will happen now. And it may have been simply a PR stunt, timed for Amal Clooney's trip to Washington. I sat down with her earlier this week and began by asking what she was hoping to accomplish on this trip to Washington.

AMAL CLOONEY:

You have an increasing authoritarian regime where protesters are being rounded up and arrested, where lawyers are being attacked, TV stations are being closed down, and every opposition leader in the country is now either behind bars or being persecuted by the government. So my client is one of them.

And he was subjected to a political show trial, as is now being recognized by the UN and others. Since I've been in Washington, I've been meeting around the administration and with members of Congress to discuss the imposition of targeted sanctions against members of the regime.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you a basic question that many in America, when they hear stories like this, it's tragic, but then they say, "Why is this America's problem?"

AMAL CLOONEY:

I understand the question. I mean, Maldives is not usually the top of anyone's political agenda. And it may be on the short list of holiday destinations. I think there are two reasons. First of all, U.S. values are at stake. You know, we just had the president's State of the Union address. And he said American leadership in the 21st century means rallying the world around causes that are right.

And he gave an example, the U.S. supporting Ukraine's fight for democracy. And that's what we're asking for too in this case. Maldivians have the right to democracy, and their democracy is under threat at the moment. There's another reason that is also not very well known. Just last month, the European parliament issued a report saying that at the moment, the Maldives has the highest per capita rate of recruitment to ISIS in the world. And this is really shocking. So the figures that have been released by the State Department say 200 fighters have gone from the Maldives to Iraq or Syria.

CHUCK TODD:

Is this a country that you feel as if it is enabling ISIS and is serving as a breeding ground for ISIS?

AMAL CLOONEY:

The president has made speeches saying that there's only room for Islam in the Maldives and Sharia punishment should be imposed. You've had fighters who've gone to ISIS come back to the country and not be prosecuted. Also last year, you had a rally on the streets of Malé where people were waving ISIS flags and the police did not crack down on those and no arrests took place. So you certainly have a regime that could be doing a lot more to minimize the terrorist threat.

CHUCK TODD:

Because of your last name, you were attacked by one of the, at the time, vice presidents that helped in the coup. He said, chalked you up to being just part of the Hollywood fictional world that is trying to make up things about the Maldives.

AMAL CLOONEY:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

And then what happened to this gentleman?

AMAL CLOONEY:

So his attack was that I didn't let facts get in the way when I was saying that Nasheed had been subjected to an unfair trial and that there were political prisoners in the country. What has happened since then is that he himself was arrested, follow, you know, because the president is now increasingly paranoid I think and is going after members of his own party, having dealt with the opposition in its entirety.

He announced it from the jail cell and penned a very different op-ed to the one that attacked me and said, "What are these lawyers talking about?" That he now says, and I believe this is a direct quote, "I join the swelling ranks of political prisoners in the Maldives, including President Nasheed." And he also adds, you know, "Any casual observer of the judicial system in the Maldives knows that it's impossible to get a fair trial here."

CHUCK TODD:

Is this a case where your connection to celebrity, is it an asset or a liability in something like this?

AMAL CLOONEY:

I think that it's easy to dismiss criticism on that basis, like the, you know, I think the kind of attacks that I got from that vice president just smacks of desperation and is easy to dispose of. So it's not something that's worrying. I think on the other hand, if in representing this client and trying to just secure his release and the release of other political prisoners, if people are made aware of the situation in the Maldives, I think that's a good thing.

Because there are thousands of tourists going every year. And I think if people know what's going on, they might find that they don't want to support that regime either, you know? If you're a woman lying on the beach in the Maldives, you might want to know that a kilometer away, another woman is being flogged. And you might want to find your own way to protest that.

CHUCK TODD:

Next time you're around, give us a call.

AMAL CLOONEY:

Thank you so much.

CHUCK TODD:

Amal Clooney, thanks for coming.

AMAL CLOONEY:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

We should note that the Maldives government still insists that Mohamed Nasheed return after his surgery in the United Kingdom. And that, as of now, he has not left the country. When we come back, our endgame segment. How much should Hillary Clinton be concerned about the surging Bernie Sanders?

* * *COMMERCIAL BREAK* * *

CHUCK TODD:

Endgame time. The panel is here. We turn to the Democrats. Stephanie Cutter, there is a feeling among some Democrats of déjà vu all over again, from Hillary Clinton and Iowa - we spent the week talking to Iowa voters about the hesitance, Iowa Democrats, but the hesitance for Clinton. Here's a little compilation.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MARISOL AGUERO:

She comes from a wealthy, privileged family. And so for me, it's a bit, do you understand really what individuals like us, who are underrepresented, who may have come from low-income families, are you really going to understand our standpoint and really defend us?

HARLAN QUICK:

Her tie-in to Wall Street and connections there, which are very good for running a government, they may be as exciting for people that view Wall Street as a negative.

JAY HELTON:

And I don't want to harp on the email thing, but that's kind of a barometer. You know, first of all, there's this kind of denial, and then, "Oh, well, yeah," and then, "Oh, well, we paid the guy." And, I mean, it's not like you're getting the whole story all the time, up front, right now.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

It's not one thing. It's like a little. That's what we found out. It's a little bit of something. But they found something and they can't figure it out.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

Well, we've always known this. You know, there's not much about Hillary Clinton that people don't know. And people have very strong opinions. But let's not mistake this. She still has very strong support on the ground in Iowa. And even more important than that, she has a terrific ground operation. Which, as you know, in a caucus atmosphere, is critical.

CHUCK TODD:

She thought she had a good ground operation eight years ago.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

But not as good as Obama.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Joy, I had a flashback, The New York Times does this, "What's wrong with the Clinton campaign?" You know, here we go, the blind quotes are coming, and all this stuff. The flashback I had was not to Clinton '08, it was to Al Gore, 2000. It was to George H. W. Bush '88. When you're running for the third term, you're passionately fighting for continuity.

JOY-ANN REID:

For continuity.

CHUCK TODD:

And Bernie Sanders is passionately fighting for change.

JOY-ANN REID:

For change, absolutely. But at the same time, there is a little bit of a flashback to '08 in the sense that the Clinton team just seems to have this talent for a combination of underestimation and overcorrection. And I say they underestimate the threat, they did so with Barack Obama. And then when they realized it, it sort of delayed it even, they sort of overcorrected, overattacked.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you see it coming again?

JOY-ANN REID:

And I think they're doing that with Bernie Sanders. I think this sort of DEFCON 1 response to every single thing, to his medical records, everything else, among the sort of Clinton world is a bit of a throwback.

CHUCK TODD:

Steve, you absolutely captured this the other night during the State of the Union coverage. And it was right after Sanders' interview. You said, "It's remarkable that she's made a 74 year old, former gadfly senator relevant."

STEVE SCHMIDT:

Absolutely. Look, much of this is about Hillary Clinton as a candidate. But it's also about the Democratic party. And we've talked a lot about on the Republican side, the rise of the teaparty and the drift right. But remarkable polling numbers, 43 percent of Iowa Democrats identify as socialists, not as capitalists. So what Hillary Clinton - what Hillary Clinton in this race has found herself in is an ideological fight with the challenger to the left. And I don't think anybody should doubt that had Elizabeth Warren gotten into this race, she would've been the likely Democratic nominee--

STEVE SCHMIDT:

--president of the United States. And so Hillary Clinton has a formidable challenge now from her ideological left. And he has every capacity to win in Iowa, to win in New Hampshire.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

Iowa has always had, whether they call themselves socialists or liberal Democrats, has always had this tremendously liberal strain in the Democratic party.

CHUCK TODD:

It's like the really conservative on the Republican side of the state.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

And it was there in '08, and it was there in 2012. Which is why as an Obama campaign official, we never really pushed too hard back on the socialist arguments that people in your party were making. But I--

CHUCK TODD:

Does it help in Iowa?

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

I think that Hillary Clinton has done everything right. She has run a good campaign. She has outperformed in debates, she's raised money, she's done a great ground game. But what she can't control is this string of anger that is connecting both parties right now. It's what's given rise to Trump and it's what's given rise to Sanders--

CHUCK TODD:

I agree with Stephanie here.

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

The Republicans have not figured out how to handle it.

CHUCK TODD:

But it has impacted the Democratic--

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

And the Democrats haven't--

STEPHANIE CUTTER:

And that's the rise of Bernie Sanders. And it struck me when I was watching the two interview that he's got this sense of anger and injustice about the economy, and she's talking about advanced manufacturing. And there's a difference in that when you're two weeks out from an Iowa caucus --

HUGH HEWITT:

Her weakness remained. In fact, her ten minutes with you, Chuck, was both her best and worst that I've seen thus far. She was very good at the top on Iran. She dodged the Rahm Emanuel question. She did not answer the Thirteen Hours question. I hope tonight you follow up and ask her if she's seen the movie. And I think on Groundhog's Day, which is the day after the night of the Iowa caucuses, she is going to have the Bill Murray experience--

CHUCK TODD:

Wow.

HUGH HEWITT:

--of living the same thing that you did to her eight years ago--

JOY-ANN REID

Except that Sanders voters will vote for her.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, that's all right. But the Groundhog Day reference, Hugh, all right. You win the interview segment. That's all for today. Don't forget to tune into tonight's Democratic debate. Our coverage will begin on MSNBC and NBCNews.com at 8:00 Eastern. And then just before the debate starts, tune in on your local NBC station a few minutes before 9:00. I'll be there, Lester and Andrea. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *