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Meet the Press Transcript - August 31, 2014

MEET THE PRESS -- SUNDAY, AUGUST 31, 2014

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Good morning. Huge challenges for President Obama this holiday weekend from enemies old and new. The president admits he does not yet have a strategy for defeating ISIS as Britain raises its terror threat level. I’ll ask Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee about the threat posed to the U.S. and whether the president’s recent comments show weakness.

And, facing down an old adversary: Ukraine’s president says his country is near full-scale war with Russia. How far will Vladimir Putin go, and can President Obama and the allies get him to back down? Plus, a new era on Meet the Press, a revealing look at Chuck Todd from those who know him best.

ANNOUNCER:

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

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And good morning, two major military flashpoints this Sunday, both with strong consequences for the U.S. After fierce fighting, Iraqi troops have reached a town in northern Iraq that was under siege by ISIS militants. Overnight, the U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS fighters near the town and dropped humanitarian aid. An estimated 15,000 people had been trapped in the siege.

And in the Ukraine crisis, the European Union is now giving Russia an ultimatum: Change course in one week or face tougher sanctions. But this morning, a defiant President Putin calling for talks on statehood for eastern Ukraine and saying it is impossible to predict when the crisis will end. So how should President Obama respond to both crises? I’m joined by Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Senator Feinstein, welcome. Thank you very much.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Thank you very much.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

We're approaching another 9/11 anniversary and we've heard of this dire warning, Great Britain has raised its security level. How serious is the ISIS threat, the threat from ISIS and other related groups to the American homeland?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Well, I believe it's potentially very serious. They have announced that they don't intend to stop. They have announced that they will come after us if they can, that they will quote, "spill our blood." They have indeed done that by beheading Mr. Foley and who knows how many others that are unknown. This is a vicious, vicious movement. And it has to be confronted. I think Senator McCain and Senator Graham really laid the basis in Saturday's New York Times in an op-ed for confrontation. And I happen to agree with what they said.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Then is the president wrong to signal indecision by saying that we still don't have a strategy against ISIS?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Well, in that same newspaper, down below the McCain op-ed is one by our secretary of State, John Kerry. And in that, he does in fact lay out a strategy, which begins next week at the NATO Conference, NATO Summit, talking with our NATO allies. The United States taking over the presidency of the Security Council in September. And the beginning of a strategy to put together a coalition of the willing, if you will. I mean, it's a savage movement.

And in this case, they have money, they have direction, they have moved rapidly to cross the Syrian border, take over Mosul, and then give a sermon from the mosque in Mosul. They took over the Mosul dam, well, that's changing now, but I believe the goal is Baghdad. And I think it's very, very serious. And we have to have a strategy to deal with it in Syria and in Iraq, in this new caliphate, and to prevent that caliphate from expanding.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

The fact is, they have been on the march now for months, if not years. So why does the president still say we don't have a strategy yet? Doesn't that project weakness from the White House?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Well, I mean, I know what you want me to say. But I'm not going to say it in that sense. I think I've learned one thing about this president, and that is he's very cautious. Maybe in this instance, too cautious. I do know that the military, I know that the State Department, I know that others have been putting plans together.

And so hopefully, those plans will coalesce into a strategy that can encourage that coalition from Arab nations, Jordan's at jeopardy, Lebanon's at jeopardy, the UAA and other countries are in jeopardy. So there is good reason for people to come together now and begin to approach this as a very real threat, that it in fact is.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

The president back in January told The New Yorker magazine, David Remnick, that ISIS is the JV team. That was clearly wrong.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Well, I think it's wrong too. I think it's a major varsity team. And if you want to use those kinds of monikers. But I see nothing that compares with its viciousness. I've been on the intelligence committee now since before 9/11, and I've watched this evolution of non-state actors into world terror very carefully and closely.

And this is really the first group that has the wherewithal in terms of financing, the fighting machine in terms of a structure-- a heavy equipment, heave explosives, the ability to move quickly, I mean, they crossed the border into Iraq before we even knew it happened. So this is a group of people who are extraordinarily dangerous. And they'll kill with abandon.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Was that an intelligence failure, or was the White House not listening to the community?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Well, I think our intelligence in Syria has not been good for a number of reasons. But I do know that the breaking through of the borders was not known ahead of time. I think a lot of that hopefully has been repaired now. And I think the intelligence community is well aware of the need to get up and running in a major way, both in Iraq and in Syria.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And do we have to go to Syria to get at the root of ISIS?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Well, I don't know exactly who was where when. But there's no question, but they have a home-base in Syria. They have expanded that base now into Iraq. That part of it is a fighting base. And it is devoted to taking over cities. It's failed to hold the Mosul Dam, thank God. I believe it is on its way to Baghdad. And I believe that they will try to attack our embassy from the West, which is a Sunni area, where I believe they are infiltrating now.

So I think this is extraordinarily serious and I think the president is wise in this sense. What I understand, he's trying to do, is give an opportunity for this new Iraqi government, new because of a new prime minister, al-Abadi, to begin to make the moves which offer an alternative to the Sunni people in his country.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I want to ask you about Vladimir Putin because there is a lot of talk that Putin cannot be stopped, and that he has moved with tanks, with artillery, with troops across the border. We're calling it an incursion, not an invasion. Is there anything we can do to stop Vladimir Putin?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

I think there ought to be direct discussions with Vladimir Putin. I think he is the singular figure in Russia. Russia is a huge country. The Ukraine is a large country. The Crimea is gone. I think there ought to be steps taken to send people, to talk with him, to have our secretary of State talk with him personally.

I think this is deeply personal with him. I really do. And I think he's calling the shots himself. And he's enjoying intensely high favorability in his country. People say, "Well, just wait till the sanctions bite and the economy slips." I don't think so. I think if Russians follow him, and up to date, they are following him, the Russians are very brave and very long-suffering. And they will tough out any economic difficulty.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And you don't see sanctions working in the short term?

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

I'm not sure they will work. I'm not sure that shakes the people that much. And it's the people that have to be spoken to. And it's their solitary leader, Vladimir Putin, who has to be spoken to.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, thank you very much.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

Thank you.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Thanks for being with us on Meet the Press.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN:

You're welcome, thank you.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And for more now on the ISIS threat. I'm joined by our chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, who has really been studying ISIS for quite some time in the field. And Richard, what about the President's reluctance to take the fight against ISIS to Syria?

RICHARD ENGEL:

Well, I speak to military commanders. I speak to former officials. And they are apoplectic. They think that this is a clear and present danger. They think something needs to be done. One official said that this was a Freudian slip, that it shows how the United States does not have a policy to deal with Syria.

Even when you have ISIS, which has effectively become a terrorist army, roughly 20,000 strong, about half of them foreign fighters, and incredibly well armed after two major weapons hauls. The first when ISIS took over the city of Mosul and the Iraqi Army, the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army, disgraced itself by not fighting. And the second just last week, when ISIS took over a Syrian air base.

(BEGIN TAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL:

Like it or not, the U.S. may now be forced to take action against ISIS, not only in Iraq, but also, in Syria. This, critics say, could mean helping the Assad regime, which the president said had to go.

RYAN CROCKER:

If we think that we are not in their sights, we are delusional. They have the same agenda that al-Qaeda has.

RICHARD ENGEL:

So what has the U.S. done about it? To a large degree, the administration's policy has been to ignore Syria, ignore it until the horrors there become too barbaric to stomach. (YELLING) A year ago, that was a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, when Washington blamed the regime for gassing over 1,000 to death, including hundreds of children. The Syrian regime crossed, leapt over, in fact, the President's red line.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

This menace must be confronted. I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

RICHARD ENGEL:

Instead, without Congressional support, the bombings against Assad never came. Neither did large-scale support for the Syrian opposition. In retrospect, the bombings probably would have been too little, too late to have made things better in Syria. ISIS was already on the rise. Weapons given to the opposition would very likely have ended up in the hands of radicals.

Then, after empty threats and empty promises, the administration turned away from Syria again, for another year. (CROWD NOISE) Until ISIS shocked the world by occupying large parts of Iraq and declaring a new state, the Islamic state, the caliphate. The U.S. is now flying surveillance missions over Syria, looking for targets it can attack from the air.

RYAN CROCKER:

This is not mission creep. This is establishing a vital mission for American security. And we need to do it, we need to do it yesterday.

RICHARD ENGEL:

The U.S. risk, falling into what one former official called Bashar al-Assad's trap. Assad's regime helped ISIS grow by attacking other opposition forces and rarely targeting ISIS. Assad waited patiently until ISIS pushed out almost all other more moderate groups, and is now telling the world that he's fighting a just war against terrorism. If the U.S. starts bombing ISIS in Syria, it will be helping the Syrian regime, in effect, pulling weeds out of Assad's garden, which he allowed to grow, but which have now become a global threat.

(END TAPE)

RICHARD ENGEL:

The build-up of ISIS in Iraq and Syria was incredibly predictable, Andrea. We've reported about it. Reporters risk their lives going into Syria to talk about this buildup of-- extremists in the country. Yet, nothing seemed to have been done. And now we have a very serious situation.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Indeed. Thank you so much, Richard Engel. And for more on the military options for taking on ISIS, I'm joined by Michael Leiter, NBC national security analysts, who served as director of The National Counter-terrorism Center, Michele Flournoy, who served as under secretary of defense for policy in President Obama's first term, and she's now executive director at The Center for New American Security, and General Anthony Zinni, our former commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, and special envoy to the Middle East. His new book is Before the First Shots Are Fired: How America Can Win or Lost Off the Battlefield. Welcome all. Thanks so much. General Zinni, first to you. What we've seen is Dianne Feinstein just saying that the president is perhaps too cautious in this instance. Agreed?

ANTHONY ZINNI:

I agree with Senator Feinstein. This ISIS has committed atrocities, potential genocide. That's unacceptable. And I think that we shouldn't be so cautious. We should blunt them before their recruiting really grows, before they gain more territory.

But I would say one thing that's key to this, a lesson we should have learned in Afghanistan, even back to Vietnam, you can't give sanctuary to a potential enemy. We will have to go to Syria. If we sort of honor that border, unfortunately, they'll be allowed to rebuild, much as AQY al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into this ISIS.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Michael Leiter, you led The Counter-terrorism Center during very, very difficult times after 9-11 in two administrations. Right now, the Brits have raised their threat level to the second highest threat level in Great Britain. The U.S. has not. What is the threat to the American homeland from ISIS?

MICHAEL LEITER:

I think the threat from ISIS is growing. And the threat from other organizations within Syria is probably even higher than it is from ISIS. What the British threat level increase really means is they don't know what's going on in their country. They don't see something specific, but they know there've been many people from the West traveling to Syria and Iraq, and they're not sure where they are and what they're doing. The U.S. doesn't have that same scale of problem, but we do still have that issue. And it's really got people scared.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And when you say, "Others," you mean al-Nusra and other very militant groups.

MICHAEL LEITER:

That's right. I mean ISIS is in the news now. But the al-Nusra front, which is affiliated directly with al-Qaeda, same ideology, and in some ways, more focused on attacking the West than ISIS has been in the past, but I expect ISIS is also going very much in that direction.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Michele Flournoy, I wanted to play for you a little bit of what Chuck Hagel said a week before the president issued his caution warning. Let's watch.

CHUCK HAGEL:

They are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else. This is beyond anything that we've seen.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

The president seemed to be almost speaking to his own national security cabinet. You've served in the situation room. You've been in the national security team with this president. He seemed to be saying to Chuck Hagel and to John Kerry and others, "Not so fast."

MICHELE FLOURNOY:

I think we have, in President Obama, a very deliberative decision maker. He wants to take his time to get it right. And yet, I think what you heard Secretary Hagel reflecting is that growing sense of urgency about the nature of the threat. But the truth is you watch what the administration's doing, they are putting the pieces of a strategy together.

You have John Kerry going to the region to consult with partners and allies, start to bring them on board to a common approach. The have the intelligence mission now flying over Syria to try to understand the possibilities there to set up the possibilities of strikes. So you have the engagement in Iraq trying to form a government that could enable the Iraqi forces to be more effective against ISIS. So the pieces are starting to emerge. But I think, again, this is a president who wants to take his time and get it right.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And the way presidents frame would matter. The way they frame--

MICHELE FLOURNOY:

Yes.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

--the threat does matter, especially around the world. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two frequent critics of the President's foreign policy, were editorializing on the op-ed page in The New York Times and said, "Mr. Obama has begun to take military actions against ISIS in Iraq, but they have been tactical and reactive half measures. Continuing to confront ISIS in Iraq but not in Syria would be fighting with one hand tied behind our back. We need a military plan to defeat ISIS wherever it is." General Zinni, what is the military plan, though? What are the pieces, as Michele Flournoy was just saying, beyond surveillance? Don't you have to have boots on the ground in order to really do air strikes effectively?

ANTHONY ZINNI:

Well, I think there are many parts to this. First is the intelligence piece, especially tactical intelligence and targeting. The second is to provide the air support and the capability that will bolster the Kurds, the Iraqi military. We need to revamp the security assistant program in both Iraq and with the Kurds that we've been reluctant to do because of Iraqi objections. I think the same with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others, because they have a front in this literally.

The boots on the ground question's always the toughest one. I wish we were not so paranoid about boots on the ground. We can't even define it. There's going to have to be Special Operations Forces. There’s going to have to be people that can in and adjust air and fires and advisors to be with these units.

And very simply put, if you put two brigades on the ground right now of U.S. forces, they would push ISIS back into Syria in a heartbeat. And probably take less time, less cost and, I think in the long run, fewer casualties overall. Let me say one thing. The important piece of this is not just the military plan. That's not a strategy in and of itself.

We need to rebuild the coalition in the region. It is fractured ever since we first went into Iraq. We have allies out there that no longer trust us, believe in us, and think we can get it done or have the leadership. We need to bring together a coalition of outsiders, Europeans and others, like we did in the first Gulf War.

I don't know why we're waiting for a U.N. Resolution to condemn ISIS and authorize use of force, which makes this easier. So all the other pieces that Michele talked about that are starting, we don't have the time for this kind of deliberation. There is a battle of the narrative going on, and we're losing it.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

As you point out, in Before the First Shots Are Fired, you have to build these coalitions. Has that become appreciably harder, Michael Leiter? You know the Gulf so well, since the president backed down, said he was going to ask for Congressional support after Assad crossed that red line last year. And is it now harder when Secretary Kerry goes to the region? Are the Saudis and others going to be more reluctant to follow us?

MICHAEL LEITER:

I think they are. And the best illustration of that was what happened last week with the UAE, working with Egypt, to bomb in Libya. This is airplane where we had been deeply involved. These are two important allies in the region. And we didn't even know they were doing it. That shows their view that there has been an absence of U.S. leadership in the region.

So it is going to take very forceful leadership. I agree with Michele. The pieces are now starting to come together. The question is how quickly they can do it. Because we've been playing on defense. We have to get on the offense, because otherwise, with counter-terrorism, the intelligence people can't stop all the threats.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Let's wait just a moment. We want to talk about another major foreign policy crisis. And then we'll pick it up there. And that is Ukraine, of course. Our Jim Maceda looks at who is winning the showdown with Vladimir Putin, President Obama or Putin?

JIM MACEDA:

Vladimir Putin, as he wants fellow Russians and the West to see him: in charge, projecting power by land, by air, and by sea.

JIM MACEDA:

And ever defiant. (GUNFIRE) Despite international condemnation for what N.A.T.O. calls an invasion of Eastern Ukraine like Crimea before it. Putin's response? Sending yet more troops and tanks over the border, N.A.T.O. sources say, and opening a new front in the form of conflict that's killed at least 2,600 people, according to U.N. figures.

But some critics fear Putin's carving out new territory. The Kremlin referring officially, for the first time Friday, to Novorossiya, or “New Russia.” What's Putin really up to? Theodore Lukyanov, who advises the Kremlin on defense matters, says Putin has no grand strategy to resurrect the Soviet Union.

THEODORE LUKIANOV:

But the former Soviet states should be recognized by the West as a zone of special interest and in exclusive rights for Russia.

JIM MACEDA:

For Putin, Ukraine is a red zone within that space, though he still denies Russia plays any role in the war there. Putin's unpredictability has made relations with the U.S., already at a post-Cold War low, even more strained, with Putin resisting all efforts by Obama and the West to reign him in over Ukraine. In June, Obama told NBC's Brian Williams that he and Putin spoke, quote, "Repeatedly."

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

We generally have businesslike relationship. And are very candid and blunt with each other.

JIM MACEDA:

But according to Kremlin phone records, confirmed by the White House, the two have spoken just ten times all year. The last call a month ago. Dismissing boots on the ground in Ukraine, the president says targeted sanctions have hurt the Russian economy and Putin, even if he doesn't admit it.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Russia is already more isolated than at any time since the end of the Cold War. (VOICES, GUNFIRE)

JIM MACEDA:

Still, Putin is undeterred, triggering calls to arm the Ukrainian forces lethally.

STEVEN PIFER:

Except there may be tools that we give them, for example, light anti-armor weapons, that would allow them to defend their country better.

JIM MACEDA:

But that could risk a major escalation, with Putin, just this week, warning that Russia is a nuclear power not to be messed with.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And our thanks to Jim Maceda. Joining our conversation now is Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Michael Leiter, Michele Flournoy, General Zinni are still here with me. First to you, Ambassador McFaul. Let's talk about Putin. What will it take to get him to back down?

AMB. MICHAEL MCFAUL:

I'm not sure, to be honest. What you see today in Jim Maceda's report is him escalating on the ground in response to the Ukrainian military winning just a few weeks ago. He decided he did not want his separatists, his mercenaries in eastern Ukraine to lose, so he opened up this third front. And until there's a stalemate in eastern Ukraine, which I don't see any time soon, I think it's very unlikely that we're going to have real negotiations.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And Michael McFaul, we also heard Putin saying today that Eastern Ukraine should be able to vote on its own statehood, which sounds like the next step, similar to what already happened with Crimea.

AMB. MICHAEL MCFAUL:

Well, he said that, and then his press secretary rolled it back. So they have their communication problems, like sometimes our leaders do, too, in terms of what the phrase actually meant. But it was notable for the first time they did use this phrase, "noveracia," which he hadn't used for about four months. And that, inside eastern Ukraine, for the separatists, was taken as a major vote of confidence for them from Vladimir Putin, who had not really supported them for a long time. So it was a rhetorical escalation, as well.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Michele Flournoy, is there a military option here as NATO begins its meetings next week in Wales?

MICHELE FLOURNOY:

You know, I don't think there's an exclusively military option that would be meaningful. But I do think what we do with N.A.T.O. and what we do in terms of assistance to Ukraine matters a great deal. This is a significant escalation. Putin is now watching what are we, the West, going to do.

I think bolstering N.A.T.O.'s posture along the N.A.T.O. frontier is very important. But more significantly, I think we need to be having a serious discussion about enhancing the military assistance we provide to Ukraine. We cannot afford to see them be trumped on the battlefield and to see them lose even more territory in eastern Ukraine.

At the same time, turning up the sanctions-- and opening a channel of dialogue with Putin, it's very disturbing that we aren't engaging him more fully. I'm not suggesting that will be immediately productive. But you've got to have some kind of dialogue to try, over time, to figure out how is he going to come out of the tree. How is he going to come out of this situation that he's created for himself?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

With Dianne Feinstein also was suggesting in that area, earlier this morning. Now, Samantha Power, the same day that President Obama was in the briefing room suggesting that we should take it a little slowly with Vladimir Putin, Samantha Power was at the U.N.. Let me show you this contrast.

SAMANTHA POWER:

It has manipulated, it has obfuscated, it has outright lied.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

I consider the actions that we've seen in the last week a continuation of what's been taking place for months now.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Tone matters. Anthony Zinni?

ANTHONY ZINNI:

Yes. It does. I believe Putin is doing two things. One, testing American leadership, particularly in Europe. And second, testing European will, resolve and cohesion. It's very important that our leadership be demonstrated clearly and decisively, and that the Europeans, through N.A.T.O., stand. I agree with everything that Michele said. Now is the time to bolster Ukrainian military support.

It's also time to find a way to engage Putin. And maybe even leadership to a meeting or a summit with the president and Putin. But of course a lot of work done before that. I think one mistake we make, and it's a point I would disagree with Senator Feinstein, sending the secretary of state out to meet with Putin probably insults him even more. I think you need to do the groundwork to build up to something. But we're going to need a way to walk this down where there's face-saving, or else we're going to have a confrontation that we don't want.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And briefly, Michael McFaul, is there a way to give Putin an exit strategy?

AMB. MICHAEL MCFAUL:

Yeah. I think it's easy. This is not like a lot of other conflicts around the world. It would entail more decentralization in eastern Ukraine, the use of the Russian language, perhaps some international monitors there. And by the way, I think the government in Kiev would be willing to negotiate along those lines.

It's different who would sit down with them. Because it can't be Putin. But I think that a deal is ready to be made. But Putin has to want to negotiate. And so far, I think it's very clear, that he doesn't want to negotiate. He thinks he can advance his interests through military means on the ground.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Thank you all. Thank you Michael McFaul, thank you here at the table. And coming up next, is the White House playing politics with immigration? Why President Obama will likely now delay action until after the midterm elections. And why does the Congressional leader greet visitors with this little guy? Our roundtable will reveal all, coming up next.

***Commercial Break***

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And welcome back. The roundtable is here with a lot to discuss. Daniel Henninger, columnist and the deputy editorial page editor for The Wall Street Journal. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, whose latest book, now out in paperback, is The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Wes Moore, Army combat veteran and host of Beyond Belief on The Oprah Winfrey Network. And Ruth Marcus, columnist for The Washington Post. Welcome all. Dan Henninger, first here, we've been talking a lot about the fallout from what the president said last week. What about his comments? Do they matter if the strategy comes together?

DAN HENNINGER:

Well, it matters a lot. I mean I think what we're seeing here, and everyone is pretty much describing, Andrea, is a political model, foreign policy model, they described earlier in the administration, which was "leading from behind," the idea that others would sort of coalesce and take the lead. I think we've seen that does not work.

And if you try to lead from behind, you are always playing catch-up. And clearly we are playing catch-up in both the Middle East right now and in Ukraine. And the problem when you do that is that your so-called partners begin to make deals on their own. As Michael Leiter was just describing, the Egyptians and the UAE bombed Libya on their own. One might way that's a positive development.

But in the short term, if people out there start making deals that are only in their interest and not in the U.S. interest, then the United States will have a very hard time getting to the point where we can form a coherent strategy involving our partners.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

But Doris, you've written historically about presidents, and having teams of rivals, if you will, or teams that give him different points of view. Is it a good thing that he is hearing from a Kerry, a Hagel, and deciding on his own?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

Well, I think the most important part of the discussion that history suggests, that we haven't talked about, is whatever the right decisions are, and we've been talking about possibly special ops on the ground, air support, air strikes going into Syria, if it's going to be a long struggle, and it sounds like it might, the public has to get involved.

And that's where the leadership challenge comes from the president at a time when we're very war weary. We've been through Iraq, we've been through Afghanistan. You know, way, way back in 1937, FDR understood the threat that Mussolini and Hitler posed. And he made a quarantine the dictators, which, "We've got to do something." And he said, "You look back, and no one is following." And that's the trouble. So he had to move step by step to get the country involved.

So Congress better debate this. They've got to come back. I don't know why they're not here talking about this. This is important. The country has to understand it. They have to have simple language. Is it containment? Are we destroying? Is it an arsenal? What are we doing? We need to understand this before this goes much further.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And what's more, you have military experience in Afghanistan. The military also wants a Congressional debate. They want to know what direction the leaders are taking them.

WES MOORE:

And what they really also need to do for a military expression is Congress can help give the president air cover. Congress can help the president be able to enact the policies that need to be enacted. And we need to be clear about that, because we need domestic support.

But we also do need international partners are on board. And it's important for three main reasons. You know, one for the idea of capacity, and also for the idea that this is not just our war. You know, last week alone we had a Lebanese soldier who was decapitated, who was beheaded. We have 40 Turkish diplomats who are now being held captive by ISIS. This is not just our issue. This is a global issue that has potential for global and regional conflagration.

The second thing is intelligence. If we're so cautious and weary about putting boots on the ground, which ironically, we actually already do have boots on the ground, but if we're cautious about adding the number of troops on the ground, the challenge of that is, in order to be effective, you have to be able to have intelligence on the ground. Not just air intelligence, but human, human intelligence.

And the third reason is, if we go at it alone, we're playing right into ISIS's hands. ISIS is extraordinarily complex and complicated in terms of social media strategy and how they're going and affecting the disaffected. We have to be able to bring in an international coalition, not leading from behind, but an international coalition that can help justify these actions and be truly effective in what we're trying to do.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And while we're talking about all these foreign challenges, domestically, the president is signaling, also, a retreat on a promise that he made only earlier this summer when John Boehner basically said there was no Congressional action on immigration, Ruth Marcus. The president said, "I will come up with a plan, my people will come up with a plan, and I will act on it quickly."

RUTH MARCUS:

Yes. And it's very similar to the debate we're having about the President's handling of foreign policy. Because Senator Feinstein used the nice phrase, "too cautious." I want to use a slightly less nice phrase, "Herky jerky." We just see him veering in one direction and then the other.

So on immigration, he told the Hispanic groups and the labor groups, which are very focused on this issue, that he was going to act, essentially, by the end of the summer. All of a sudden, he's changing his mind. He's now in a position where he is going to aggravate everybody.

It's not yet decided, but it's fairly clear which way this is trending, to put this off until after the election. So he's going to have Hispanic and labor groups angry with him for not acting swiftly. He has Senate Democrats agitated that he raised the profile of this issue and endangered them. And so they're all worked up.

(OVERTALK)

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Four major states.

RUTH MARCUS:

Yes.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Their red state Democrats are trying to hang on.

RUTH MARCUS:

And then, whatever he does, he is going to have Republicans asserting that he's overstepping his executive authority. Why was this not thought through when he made the announcement on June 30th that he would be getting recommendations and acting, essentially, by the end of the summer? Because the border crisis did explode immediately after that. But it was entirely predictable that immigration would be an issue in the fall campaign. And--

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

And you know, it is predictable that they will yell at him. Every executive order in history there's the cry of, "Dictator." So he knew that was going to come anyway. And some of those executive orders have been really important, ending discrimination in housing, the executive orders that have done socially just things.

But the question is he shouldn't have promised, as you say, "I'm going to do it by a certain time." He may be right to relate the timing now till after the election. Because he can still do it in December. But if he hadn't promised, it would have been fine.

RUTH MARCUS:

Right.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

And then he wouldn't have gotten the cries of "dictatorship," but he could have said, "Yeah, but--

(OVERTALK)

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

--this is a good thing being done."

DAN HENNINGER:

But Doris, they've got to get past November, I think, to Ruth's point. The president has put his party in a very difficult spot. The most important metric in the midterm elections is the President's approval rating. That's what's going on in all of these red states that the Democrats are running in.

His handling of foreign policy just keeps going down. It's below 40%. And I'm sure it's going to drop further after the past week. And so I doubt that these Democrats want to come back to Washington and have a debate. Perhaps they should. But that's the last thing they're going to want to talk about. And somehow they're out there on their own, having to defend themselves against the criticisms we're now hearing of the president.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

But as promised, we do have the monkey in the room, which is that Congress hasn't come back. Take a look at the monkey, (CHUCKLE) we saw, the only thing we've seen from Congress is John Boehner putting out a video where he introduces the monkey on the table when people come into his office. Now, basically, Wes Moore, they are missing in action, members of both houses, who've had a series of foreign policy crises. Why haven't they come back?

WES MOORE:

Well, the reason I think they haven't come back is exactly what we're saying, is that there are certain things that they don't want to debate before the midterm elections. The problem is that we don't have time to wait until after the midterm elections. The problem is that the people who are in office, they're in office to make actions and they make decisions.

And people want leadership that's going to be driven by a sense of passion and a sense of pragmatism, and not my pollsters. And so these issues that people have been waiting on for years to be address have to be addressed. And you cannot simply wait for an election cycle to determine a timeframe.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

And the public has to--

RUTH MARCUS:

And the--

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

--stop being so passive about it. Everybody is mad at Congress. Everybody says what's going on in Washington is horrible, it's dysfunctional. And what do we do? We just talk about it. Somehow there has to be some way to move this group of people. They were elected for a reason.

JIM MACEDA:

Yeah.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

They're supposed to be doing the public business.

RUTH MARCUS:

And--

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN:

They should be proud of being politicians. And yet, we're looking at the monkey in the room.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And speaking of other issues that come up on Capitol Hill, coming up next: sexism in the Senate. Our roundtable discusses a Senator's shocking revelations of boorish behavior from male colleagues. Stay with us.

***Commercial Break***

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Earlier you saw my interview with California Senator Dianne Feinstein about Iraq and Ukraine. I also asked her about the so-called C.I.A. Torture Report. She said that report will not be released if it is redacted, in other words, censored, too heavily. And definitely include her committee's main findings. That extended interview on MeetThePressNBC.com. More coming up with our roundtable. And one Senator's charges of sexism in the Congressional gym.

***Commercial Break***

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And welcome back. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has stirred up a storm with excerpts from her upcoming new book Off the Sidelines about sexism in the Senate. People Magazine reports that she describes one older male lawmaker as telling her in the House gym, "Good thing you're working out, because you wouldn't want to get porky."

She quotes another House member as saying, "You know Kirsten, you're even pretty when you're fat." And an older Senator once squeezed her waist and said, "Don't lose too much weight. Now I like my girls chubby." Our roundtable is back with us, Daniel Henninger, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ruth Marcus and Wes Moore. Ruth, you've written about this today. "I like my girls chubby?" (CHUCKLE) Squeezing her waist? I mean we both cover the Senate, we both covered the Clarence Thomas hearings and all of the ruckus after that. Have things not changed?

RUTH MARCUS:

Oh well, yes and no. Anybody who's been around there, certainly any woman who's been around there, is not exactly shocked, shocked that there are comments like this going on. And by the way, for politicians of both parties, might I suggest that weight is the new rape. It's really a bad idea to talk about. (LAUGHTER) Certainly to one of your colleagues.

But I do think it's simultaneously important to note. And Senator Gillibrand talks, in some way, about how this a generational thing, that there is a difference between the 60, 70, 80-year-old politicians in the way they handle gender issues-- not to say that it's a gender equity paradise in Congress, it's not-- and the way some of the younger senators, younger, when I say younger, I mean middle aged, like me, in both parties handle it. They're different.

Their spouses work for Goldman Sachs, they work for lobbying firms. They're used to dealing with working women. And from the conversations that I've had with women senators, their male colleagues of a younger age are a little bit more adept at dealing with them.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

This is generational, Wes. But there still is a lot of sexism on the Hill.

WES MOORE:

A tremendous amount. But the thing is, we can't just have Senator Gillibrand speaking out about it, we also need males speaking out about it, as well. You know, I have a dear friend who met his wife at Harvard Law School. And he says how, when he met his wife at Harvard Law School, there was a professor who would only call on women on Tuesdays. (CHUCKLE) And it was an unspoken thing that happened. But when women raised their hand, it was only on Tuesdays that he thought that they had something to contribute to the conversation.

And when I speak to him about it now, he talks about how embarrassing that it was. But he said, "But it wasn't even embarrassing that the professor did it, because that's who he is." What was embarrassed was that none of the men said anything. Not a single man said a single thing. So it cannot just be a conversation amongst female lawmakers, male lawmakers have to be part of that conversation, as well.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Well, we're going to have to leave it there. Doris, Daniel, Wes and Ruth, thank you all so very much. And coming up, a special shout out from President Obama this week for the new moderator of Meet the Press.

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

I'm going to start with somebody who I guess is now a big cheese.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I'll be joined by the big cheese himself coming up next.

***Commercial Break***

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Welcome back. For the tenth anniversary of Meet the Press, John F. Kennedy wrote, "I know of no other radio or television program which has become such a firm and widely respected institution in American life." Well, there's no one better suited to uphold and build on that legacy than my friend, Chuck Todd.

(On Tape)

ANNOUNCER:

This is Meet the Press with--

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Chuck Todd. Chuck Todd.

Robert Gibbs:

Chuck

Jay Carney:

Chuck

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Chuck Todd. Where's Chuck?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

I'm going to start with somebody who I guess is now a big cheese. I understand this is going to be his last chance to ask me a question in the press room. So I want to congratulate Chuck Todd and give him first dibbs.

Chuck Todd:

I’m glad you said “In the press room.”

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Chuck Todd defines being a White House correspondent.

CHUCK TODD:

You began your term, your first term, big fanfare.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

He would ask the question, he'd ask the follow-up.

(OVERTALK)

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

Chuck, how many you’ve got?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

He'd ask another question.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU:

This is not a kosher question, but don't hog it. (CHUCKLE)

CHUCK TODD:

I want to talk about my colleague over here, and the follow-up that he had, and then another question I have for you.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

He's relentless. He's (CHUCKLE) like a dog with a bone.

CHUCK TODD:

Why do you believe the Israeli people have not embraced President Obama the same way they embraced our last two U.S. presidents?

PRESIDENT OBAMA:

So you had to get a polling question in there, right? (LAUGHTER) Chuck, I mean you're incorrigible.

CHERI ROPER:

I think Chuck has an amazing brain, which he, I'm sure, inherited from his father. He always knew who was running for what office locally. He knew who was running for office in the state and nationally.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

If you've ever seen him on election night, it's like a tour de force of political nerd fest.

CHUCK TODD:

You didn't let me geek out a little bit on Florida here.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:

Go ahead, man.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:

Hang on, Chuck. Hang on, Chuck.

(OVERTALK)

BRIAN WILLIAMS:

We got some critical calls.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes, we do.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:

Chuck, I don't see this often enough. Great work on the board tonight.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

If you look up, "Political junkie" in the dictionary, you will find a picture of Chuck Todd and his goatee.

MALE #1:

The control room would like you to shave too.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, well good luck with that. (CHUCKLE)

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

The first time he was on with Tim Russert, that was a dream come true for him.

TIM RUSSERT:

What is a blog?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, blog, so the actual term itself, by the way, is short for web log. And you know, you drop the W and you get the blog.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Tim always used to say, "Meet the Press is a national treasure." And I can't think of a better custodian for that treasure than Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

The voting rights act doesn't pass... Are you in Congress?

REP. JOHN LEWIS:

I wouldn't be standing here as a member of Congress.

CHUCK TODD:

And President Obama?

REP. JOHN LEWIS:

President Obama would not be president.

KRISTIAN DENNY TODD:

Chuck Todd is my best friend. People think that he only wants to talk to, you know, high level folks at the White House or-- not really that at all. He wants to hear what everybody thinks.

TOM BROKAW:

I've known Chuck Todd since Tim Russert brought him to NBC News. And we agreed (CHUCKLE) that he was a walking encyclopedia of politics. He knew all the players, all the moves, all the consequences. And, as the director of our national polling, he also knew where the country stood on these many issues. So Chuck Todd is the perfect man for this job, especially in this critical year.

I'm here in Montana, where Chuck and I have been talking about how the Republicans hope to pick up a Senate seat. But there are a lot of these contests across the country. This is a time when American politics is not only in play, but it's on trial, in many ways. And Chuck is the guy who can bring this home to the American people. So I want to wish you all the best, my friend. I also want to wish all the best to another friend, to David Gregory, for his future.

BRIAN WILLIAMS:

So what have we learned? Chuck Todd is a goatee enthusiast. He is a walking political briefing book. But most of all, he is a good guy, and he is, by the way, the only good reason to allow a camera crew on a good, beach day in the waning days of summer here at the Jersey Shore. Mostly for me at work, he is a friend and he's a guy with whom I can talk football year in and year out. The new NFL season is about to start, so, too, begins a whole new season for my friend, Chuck Todd.

(END TAPE)

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Chuck has said that politics is not a game it's a passion, because it reflects the worst and the best of our democracy. And here's here now. Chuck, politics, how did that become a dirty word? Politics is all about America.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm still recovering. My mother in there, (CHUCKLE) my wife, saying things about me, so nice. Anyway it's very--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Yes, she did surprise me. (CHUCKLE) I did not see that or hear any of that stuff. You know, the issue of politics, and I've said, the art of politics is a very important part of how the world governs itself, how Americans governs themselves. This show today has been emblematic of, like, when Meet the Press was at its best.

I mean that was an amazing-- when I think about that roundtable of General Zinni, Michele Flournoy, Mike Leiter, Mike McFaul, these are people who've been in the room making decisions, helping to translate what's going on inside the situation room for the American public. And you were doing a great job asking them some of the questions the American public is asking. And that's our job as political journalists. In many ways, we're the go-between.

Which is why people sometimes get angry at us. Politicians get angry at us. The public gets angry at us. Because they know that's-- they want us to be that interpreter. And my issue these days when people say, "I hate politics," it's like, "No. No you don't. What you hate is the politicians who don't know how to practice it."

You know, it's like watching a game. You want to compare it to a game, it is like watching a game of people that don't play the game very well. You'd stop watching the game because you're like, "Those baseball players stink," or, "Those football players, they don't respect it." If you have politicians that know how to practice the art of politics, the democracy gets stronger, the world gets safer. And then that's when you realize politics is a good thing.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And it doesn't stop at the beltway. Because--

CHUCK TODD:

Not at all.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

This is--

CHUCK TODD:

In fact, you know that sometimes (CHUCKLE) the beltway is part of the problem.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

So we go outside and we look at the elections, the midterm election that's coming up. But it all has to do with redistricting.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

With things that are very granular but really affect the way people live--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

It is. And I'm frustrated by the fact that people are not participating.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

And that's why I'm really upset. It's sort of like, "Okay, you guys have really broken it." I've had plenty of advice or critics that say, "You and the media have helped break this." But, you know, that's the part of this, I think, that is problematic is that people aren't participating. So that's one of our jobs is sort of make it big, make it important enough so people realize they have to participate. If you have problems with Washington, look in the mirror.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And participation, making people care, the passion that you bring to all of this, it's all very exciting.

CHUCK TODD:

Look, I do. It is fun. I'll admit. Politics can be fun, too.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And you have the last word.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Well, if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press. I'll see you next week.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *