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Meet the Press Transcript - February 15, 2015

CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, terror in Denmark. Two victims dead, plus the alleged shooter.

HELLE THORNING-SCHMIDT (ON TAPE):

We feel certain now that it is a politically motivated attack. And, thereby, it is a terrorist attack.

CHUCK TODD:

One target, a Swedish cartoonist on al-Qaeda's hit list. He survived. But a man shot dead outside a synagogue. We'll have all the latest. Also, fixing the VA. What the agency's new leader has done.

ROBERT MCDONALD (ON TAPE):

900 people have been fired since I became secretary.

CHUCK TODD:

And what's still ahead, making sure veterans have the care they deserve. Plus, one year out, we have brand-new numbers in the race for 2016 from the first three states that will start the voting. And 40 years of funny.

DANA CARVEY (ON TAPE):

40th anniversary. Press. Todd. People. Clip. Bush.

CHUCK TODD:

Dana Carvey and the S.N.L. effect on politics. I'm Chuck Todd. And joining me to provide insight and analysis this morning are NBC's Joe Scarborough, White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks April Ryan, the Washington Post's Kathleen Parker, and former senior advisor to President Obama, David Axelrod. 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 morning. For the second time this year, a European capital is recovering from an apparent terrorist attack linked to Islamic extremism. This time, it's Copenhagen, Denmark, where overnight police shot dead a gunman they believe was responsible for a pair of attacks that left two people dead, one in a café where a free speech event was taking place.

And another at a synagogue. Our Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel has been following the story and he joins me now from Istanbul. So, Richard, what can you tell us? Do we know for sure that the attacker was doing this on behalf or inspired by al-Qaeda?

RICHARD ENGEL:

Certainly, officials in Denmark believe that this was a terrorist attack. And they are going to great lengths to say that Denmark is not at war with Islam, but is at war with radical Islam. So, they seem to be linking it. And it is almost a mini Charlie Hebdo-style attack, a mini attack like the one we saw in Paris.

What happened was yesterday, around 3:30, this gunman goes up to a café, opened fire with an automatic rifle. The gunman was wearing a mask, a heavy winter coat. He fires about 40 shots into the café windows. At the café at the time was a free speech event. And the keynote speaker at that event was Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who's been targeted for death by al-Qaeda, who has drawn caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as a dog in the past. So, someone clearly that al-Qaeda wanted to kill. Then, the attacker got away. He was on the run for several hours as Danish police were looking for him.

Around 1:00 in the morning, overnight, he opens fire, not surprisingly, at a synagogue, again, a Jewish target, very similar to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. He killed a guard at the synagogue. And then, in the early hours overnight, around 4:50 in the morning, police confronted the suspect. The suspect opened fire on police. Police returned fire and they killed him.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Well, as Western Europe deals with this, I know you just got back from Iraq and were obviously going to be debating this war resolution, that the president wants to go after ISIS, to get Congressional authority to do this. And it will mean that it's going after ISIS in Iraq and Syria. What did you see in Iraq? Because officials here claim they're making progress against ISIS in Iraq.

RICHARD ENGEL:

I was incredibly depressed, frankly. I knew that Iraq was in bad shape. It was even worse than I thought. ISIS is a huge problem in Iraq, in Syria. But unless you confront the much bigger issues, the issue of will Kurdistan be an independent state? What happens to Sunni areas? Will the government in Baghdad continue to be run by Shiite militias? What happens with Hezbollah? What happens with Assad?

Unless you address these bigger issues, ISIS is still going to be there. I was completely discouraged by what I saw. The Iraqi army has been described as pathetic, little more than a coalition of militias. So, I got no indication that things are going well.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Richard. Thank you for your sober account there. We're going to discuss this attack plus the war against ISIS with two key senators from the Armed Services Committee. The first one, of course, is the chairman of that committee, Senator John McCain of Arizona and the 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee.

After Senator McCain, I'll speak with a ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed. Senator McCain, though, I want to start with you. Welcome back to Meet the Press. Believe it or not, it's been over a year since we've had you on the program.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start, actually, based on what you just heard Richard Engel report about the state of things in Iraq. And as we debate this war resolution, first of all, why does the president need this authorization when we have two authorizations that essentially give him the authority to do what he wants in, arguably, both of these countries?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN:

Probably it's not absolutely necessary. But it's been since 2002, as I recall, that we've had a resolution that was aimed particularly at al-Qaeda and those responsible for the attacks on the United States. So, I think it's probably appropriate and it's probably appropriate to have the debate.

That president hasn't come forward yet with a plan or a strategy for us to succeed, and in his proposal he left out Bashar Assad, which is really amazing in that we are training young Syrians to go in and fight against Bashar Assad. Does that mean we aren't going to protect them against the barrel bombing of Bashar Assad, where's already killed well over 200,000 Syrians? It's really kind of convoluted. And I'd say maybe call it an uncertain trumpet.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you going to be one of those proposing for broader authority for the president in the resolution as it gets debated?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN:

I think we should not restrain the president of the United States. The Congress has the power of the purse. If we don't like what the commander-in-chief is doing, we can cut off his funds for doing so. But to restrain him in our authorization of him taking military action, I think, frankly, is unconstitutional and eventually leads to 535 commanders-in-chief.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you this larger question. You're somebody that's been pushing hard to see a little more military presence in some of these countries, to increase the security. But as Richard just outlined, if you don't have the Iraqi government ready with a political solution, if you don't have a stable Syria, if you don't have a stable Libya, it doesn't matter. The minute the U.S. pulls out, if they get involved in a country, they pull out, chaos ensues. If we stay in, you keep the stability. But we seem to want stability more than these countries. So, why keep doing it?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN:

Well, I think it's pretty clear. In fact, it's absolutely clear that once we have the situation stabilized thanks to the surge and sacrifice of a lot of American lives, if would have left a residual

force behind, the position would've remained stable.

To pull everybody out, as the president did, was a huge mistake. These things don't happen by accident, just as if he pulls everybody out of Afghanistan without condition space you're going to see the same thing happen there. And, so, many of us predicted. It was predictable. And we predicted it, Lindsey Graham and I, that this would happen because of our many visits there.

So, you have to have a stabilizing force. You're going to also have to have American boots on the ground. That does not mean massive numbers, as the president sets up that straw man all the time. But it does mean forward air controllers, special forces, and many others.

And it will be a tough, tough time rebuilding the Iraqi military, which is defeated, which means get arms to the Peshmerga, who are fighting well and can fight. But in Syria, there is no strategy whatsoever. When they train 3,000 to 5,000 people, we just hear from our defense people that 20,000 people have already come into Syria.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me get you a couple other quick questions. There's this Homeland Security funding dispute that's taking place, essentially. And it feels like it's between Senate Republicans and House Republicans. Where do you stand on this? Do you think using Homeland Security funding should be the way you protest the president's action on immigration?

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN:

I think it would be terrible. The American people didn't give us the majority to have a fight between House and Senate Republicans. They want things done. We cannot cut funding for the Department of Homeland Security. We need to sit down and work this thing out. And there's ways we can address what the president did was unconstitutional. But it's not through shutting down the Department of Homeland Security. It's too serious.

CHUCK TODD:

Already, Senator McCain, I'm going to have to leave it there. I've got a lot to get through this morning. I appreciate you coming on.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

You've got it.

CHUCK TODD:

You've got it. Senator Reed, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SENATOR JACK REED:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to pick up on a couple issues I didn't get to get to with him. We were talking about Syria. He brought it up. You heard Richard’s reporting in Iraq. But the Syria strategy is something everybody agrees nobody quite knows what it is. Are you going to support a resolution giving the president more authority to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria without knowing what his Syria strategy is?

SENATOR JACK REED:

Well, the resolution is based upon an immediate threat of ISIL against the United States. They're holding territory in Iraq against our regional (INAUDIBLE). It's a national effort. We have the Jordanians flying with us. We have the U.A.E. with us, et cetera. And we have to concentrate on the most immediate threat. That threat is ISIL in both Syria and in Iraq. And that's what the authority is requested for.

CHUCK TODD:

You don't think you have to outline? Okay, you get rid of ISIS. That's fine. Something will replace it in Syria that's probably not going to be friendly to the United States.

SENATOR JACK REED:

What we're trying to do, and this is very challenging, is to develop an alternative to the radical jihadists in Syria, and that is the Free Syrian Army. We're beginning to train them. We've authorized the training. It's going to take time.

We're going to have to build it. We're going to have to introduce it onto the ground. We're going to have to effectively protect it. And hopefully, that will be the nucleus for moderate forces to begin to turn the tide in Syria. It's going to take a much longer time, relatively speaking.

CHUCK TODD:

It should be longer? You think three years is too short a time?

SENATOR JACK REED:

Oh, I think the resolution for three years a time limit is not appropriate. We don't want to send a signal to the world that we're there for just so many years. Unfortunately, this battle is going to take a long time. It's a battle, and you pointed out quite rightly, based upon Richard's reporting, and he said that some of the fundamental issues are not operational, tactical, military, they're political.

The engagement of Sunnis, the allocation of resources within Iraq. Even when you get into Syria, what is this political opposition going to look like, not so much what kind of tactical means we're going to have on the ground? So, this is not months. I think we would be better off having a resolution that did not have a specific time limit. I do think, though, it does make sense to indicate very strongly that our engagement would be limited in terms of American military personnel. And that, I think, is included within the resolution.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask a question I get a lot. Why is this our fight? At some point there is this feeling like, "You know what? We can't do it. Why is this our fight?."

SENATOR JACK REED:

You know, this became our fight in 2002, 2003, when we decided to preemptively take out the Iraqi government.

CHUCK TODD:

But whether you agree with the Iraq War or not, you believe the United States Government has a responsibility now to basically put the Middle East back together?

SENATOR JACK REED:

We have the consequences of that decision, which I opposed. And those consequences are destabilized countries in Iraq, to a degree, Syria. A lot of this is flowing from that decision. We have to do this in our own self-interest.

We're doing this to help countries. But ultimately, it's about protecting ourselves. We don't want a radicalized, well-trained individuals coming back from Iraq or Syria and attacking the United States. We don't want other countries that are our allies being subjected to this pressure. But the fight ultimately has to be theirs. Again, the fight ultimately is as much about the politics of the situation as it is about operational technique and forces on the ground.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you one other question. Another hot spot has to do with Ukraine. Both you and Senator McCain are aligned when the comes to this idea of giving Ukraine arms, arming this opposition so that they can beat back the Russians.

Ukrainian Army could never defeat the Russian Army if the Russians chose to basically escalate. So, if we do this and Ukrainians get slaughtered, is the United States then responsible to escalate yet again, to get NATO involved? I mean, where does it stop on that front?

SENATOR JACK REED:

I've made it very clear that providing defensive weapons to the Ukrainians, counter-battery radars, anti-tank weapons, should not be conflated with ultimately sending any ground forces or more overt help. That has to be very clear to them.

But what it will do is it will increase the cost to the Russians, and not only these military efforts, but probably more importantly, the economic sanctions. When these costs accumulate, at some point, the hope is that Putin will begin to become much more sensitive to what he's doing and stop this. And then, also, I think it sends a very strong signal to not just the Ukrainian people, who are fighting very valiantly and very tenaciously, but to our Baltic allies who are part of NATO and other countries that we are not just going to stand completely aside.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, you seem a lot more optimistic about changing Putin's behavior than most people are these days.

SENATOR JACK REED:

I have no great optimism. But the way you do that is to first get his attention. And I think this may be a way to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Jack Reed, thank you very much. Before that, Senator John McCain. Thank you both.

Before that, Senator John McCain. Thank you both. Now I'm going to go over to the panel. And guys, we have some new polling. Joe, you and I were discussing this on Friday.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

And it was this issue of while the majority of Americans support what the president's trying to do, there's basically mixed feelings about whether there's confidence in the president's strategy. And I think it goes to this where I think Americans realize they want to get rid of this threat, but they, I think, assume, "Boy, once we get rid of it, we'll never get out."

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

Well, they've learned. They've watched the news since 2003. And they hear Republicans blaming Democrats for getting out of Iraq too early. We heard that today. And then, they hear Democrats blaming Republicans for getting into Iraq in the first place.

And they sit here. And here we are 11, 12 years later, we're worse off. And you're exactly right, Chuck. What you've heard is what I've heard, and I'm sure what David hears when he's out on book tours. I've probably given 300, 400 speeches one way or another. Nobody wants us to go back in there. Yes, we may have to put boots on the ground. But they don't want America fighting this battle alone anymore. Denmark has a stake in it. Japan has a stake in it. Saudi Arabia, the world has a stake in it. And the numbers shocked me, to be honest with you. All I hear is, "Enough. This is not America's war. We'll help out. But we're not leading the parade anymore."

CHUCK TODD:

Well, except nobody else seems to want anybody else--April, I've got to put up another poll number here. And this is, "What's the president going to be remembered for, ending wars or starting a war?" And more people said, "Starting a new war." You just wrote a new book covering the three presidents you've covered. That's not the legacy candidate Barack Obama thought he was going to have, and already maybe half the country thinks he's going to have a legacy of starting a war.

APRIL RYAN:

And that's interesting. Number one, when America believed in hope and change, one of the pieces of hope and change was the fact that he was going to pull the troops out of Iraq. And I was, too, surprised at this poll when it said something about the president, his legacy, starting a war.

Is he starting a war? Or is he responding to being acted upon? We've had people killed, Americans killed. We've had American interests affected. And not only that, we're seeing advances in Iraq by ISIS. And the Iraqis are not able to stand up for themselves. So, we are dealing with situations that we are having to respond to, especially with the lone wolf issue that we’re wondering what's going to happen.

CHUCK TODD:

Right. David, there was something in the war resolution. And you're a wordsmith. The president's proposed war resolution name checked every American that ISIS has killed. And I thought that was an interesting decision. Here, you're asking for Congressional authority to military action. Should you be name checking them? Is it all about pulling at heart strings? Well, I was surprised to name check.

DAVID AXELROD:

I think it's a way of saying, "We have a real national security interest in being there." Remember, the president, and I wrote about this in my book, in 2002 as a young candidate for the Senate, he opposed the invasion because he said it would release sectarian strife in the region America targets.

That's what happened. And that's the problem that Jack Reed was talking about. Until we find a political solution, all we can do is create the time and space for the Iraqis to try and get together. But they have to get together. As Joe says, others have to join this fight. This can't be America as the point of the spear.

CHUCK TODD:

Kathleen, it just feels like a vicious cycle. I mean, it's just like wash, rinse, repeat. You've got to go in because you've got to clear, you've got to create stability. You've got to create the space for them to create their own stability. They don't do it, some other group rises up. It was al-Qaeda, then it's ISIS, it will be some other name.

DAVID AXELROD:

Chuck, I want to point out we had 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan when the president took office. And there are 15,000 there now. So, history is hard to judge in the moment. I think history will record that he did bring those troops home.

CHUCK TODD:

But Kathleen, on this vicious cycle?

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, look, President Bush, when he was president and had to go to war under these circumstances we all believed in at the time, he put in place a lot of tools, the Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, all that, as well as the authorization.

And he told me once during an interview, he said, "You know, I did the very difficult things that were very unpopular. But the next president is going to be grateful. Because he's going to need them." And I think President Obama is in that situation right now, where he does see, and the ball's in his court, and he feels that he has to do something. And, yet, he would be in a lose-lose situation no matter what he does. Because if he doesn't do anything, people say he's a coward, he's not leading. If he does something, it's the wrong thing.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it's a debate we're not going to end this morning here. I'm going to be back in a minute. I'm going to change topics a little bit. The race for the White House. We've got brand-new polling data out of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Believe it or not, a week from this Sunday we'll be dealing with the South Carolina primary.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Nerd Screen time, one year from this Sunday we'll have already gotten through Iowa and New Hampshire, and we'll be in the heat of the South Carolina primary. So, we thought it would be a good time to see where do they start? We've got brand-new NBC Marist polls from those early primary presidential battleground states.

And here’s the biggest takeaway. It's obviously a wide-open Republican field. Let me go through the leaders. In Iowa, Republican primary was Huckabee, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, the only three guys in double digits there, essentially tied. New Hampshire, four guys made double digits, Bush, Walker, Paul, and Christie. And in South Carolina, five hit the double-digit mark, including favorite son Lindsey Graham, then comes Bush, Walker, Huckabee, and Carson.

In all, there were seven different Republican candidates who got double-digit support in at least one of the three polls we did there, you saw from Jeb Bush all the way down to Lindsey Graham. Interestingly enough, if you sort of give their standings and you do a little point system, and I kind of aggregated together on the back of an envelope. So, here are the four leaders in total.

Jeb Bush and Scott Walker were the only two candidates to get double-digit support in all three states. Then came Huckabee and Paul. Interestingly, you could argue that might end up being the final four in the four parts of the Republican Party.

By the way, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton leads the pack and she leads it with 68%, 69%, 65%. This is not 2007, folks. She is blowing away the Democratic field. We do not see the vulnerability that we saw before. So, let me bring it to the desk. Kathleen Parker, those four. I think the one thing I grab from this is there's no one front runner, but I think we know what the top tier is. And the top tier right now is Bush and Walker.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Yes, absolutely. I was actually surprised to see that Jeb Bush is doing as well as he is in Iowa. Yes, in Iowa. He hasn't been there since 2000. He's really starting from scratch there. I wasn't surprised to see Lindsey Graham leading in South Carolina.

CHUCK TODD:

Little name recognition.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

We'll see how long that lasts. But the thing that I think is interesting is Huckabee's place in that top four. And I don't know how long that will hold. Because one thing I've heard from social conservatives is they're finally going to follow the William F. Buckley rule, which says you nominate the person who is most conservative, but also is most electable. And, so, I don't know where Huckabee fits into that calculation.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, Joe, if we look at it in sort of the four, right, you have sort of the insider, the governor, the evangelical, and the libertarian, right. And, so, the question is, which one of 'em, I guess, could eat into the most of the other guys' support here? And that's what this comes down to?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

Well, really, it does. But you have three, I don't want to say moderate, but establishment Republicans who are going to cut each other up. Jeb Bush and Chris Christie. You've got Scott Walker.

CHUCK TODD:

Where do you put Walker? Do you put him in the establishment wing?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

He's actually the sweet spot. He's a little bit of both. You know what's so fascinating, is over the past year, I've heard people saying, this is the Republican establishment, "Scott Walker is a great shortstop and hits .300. But he's a double-A short stop. And he's not big enough to fill the stage." He's going to go into triple-A and he's about to go into the big. There are a lot of people in the Bush camp surprised that he's doing as well as he's doing.

CHUCK TODD:

It's interesting. And April, on Democratic side, look, nobody's popping. I mean, this is Hillary's nomination. This is not going to be competitive, despite all the push polls that Elizabeth Warren supporters push around.

APRIL RYAN:

But Chuck, at this moment, it's Hillary Clinton's stage. But you never know. Anything can happen. But she is the rock star for the Democratic Party. And I've always said this, and I say this now, when Barack Obama leaves the office, there's going to be a lot of air let out of that balloon.

But you either love to love him or love to hate him. And Democrats are going to try to find somebody to bring back that love to hate or love to love, and even Republicans. And also, that first kind of thing. So, I think he's got it for a while. And we'll see what happens. Anything can happen.

CHUCK TODD:

David, very quickly, who's the Republican Hillary Clinton should want to face in Bush and Walker, if she had to pick between those two?

DAVID AXELROD:

Well, the thing about Walker is we haven't seen him yet.

CHUCK TODD:

You don't know yet.

DAVID AXELROD:

We don't know how he's going to deal with the pressures of running for president. I've been through this a few times. And the bar gets raised every time. And whether he clears those bars is a big question. I don't know yet. I think Jeb Bush would be a very tough candidate for him.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

Can I just say really quickly? We saw Rand Paul stumbling, clearly. Scott Walker has been through three tough fights in a really blue state in four years.

CHUCK TODD:

It's not about the stumble.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

It's not about the stumble. It's how you recover. And the guy who knows how to recover best will probably end up the nominee. Already. Coming up a little later on the show, you don't want to miss this. Dana Carvey, who helped turn doing impressions of politicians into an art form.

DANA CARVEY (ON TAPE):

Rockefeller Center. 40th anniversary. Press. Todd. People. Clip. Bush.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. As you may remember, last year, Veterans Affair Secretary Eric Shinseki was forced to resign after it was revealed that some veterans had died while waiting for care at VA facilities in Arizona and elsewhere. In a moment, I'm going to be joined by the new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald for his first Sunday show interview. But first, our special correspondent Tom Brokaw has been investigating the plight of homeless veterans in Los Angeles.

(BEGIN TAPE)

TOM BROKAW:

Every two years, an army of volunteers fans across greatest Los Angeles--

MALE VOLUNTEER:

We're just out doing a count tonight.

TOM BROKAW:

To count the homeless. And more than one in ten is a veteran.

JANICE CICCO:

Every person is important. But when it comes to a homeless veteran, they're somebody who went above and beyond, and gave sacrifices that none of the rest of us will ever understand.

TOM BROKAW:

Los Angeles long has had the largest population of homeless veterans in the country, even though many get a cool reception. It wasn't always that way. In 1888, 300 acres of land were given to the federal government to be permanently maintained as a national home for disabled volunteer soldiers.

A VA facility was established, but much of what became 387 acres was leased to outside interests having nothing to do with the veterans, and the land became some of the priciest and most coveted in California. Neighborhoods such as Brentwood and Westwood close in. Veterans like James Carr, homeless for more than a year, see a raw deal.

JAMES CARR:

They don't care about any of us. They want to take this property and turn it into what they want.

TOM BROKAW:

In 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed to force the government to honor the original deed. The vets had a powerful ally in attorney Ron Olson.

RON OLSON:

When you've got politicians going around the country saying it's not right for these young men and women to go abroad and fight for their country, and then have to come home and fight for a roof over their head, and yet these same politicians don't make something happen, that's hypocrisy.

TOM BROKAW:

Olson and his coalition felt they had a slam-dunk case. But the Department of Justice disagreed, arguing the agency was within its rights to lease out land meant for the veterans.

RON OLSON:

I thought once it was brought light that something would happen. And I was wrong.

TOM BROKAW:

Former Santa Monica City Councilman Bobby Shriver found many of his wealthy and powerful neighbors turned against him when he advocated housing homeless veterans here. And many of the state's most prominent Democratic leaders were nowhere to be found. Were you surprised by the pushback?

BOBBY SHRIVER:

Yes, I was. I hesitate to say yes because it makes me sound so naïve. Because, of course, I thought--girls, by the way, women vets are in the dumpster. These are empty buildings. Let's put them in the empty buildings. I thought, who could be against that? And yet, I found many people were.

TOM BROKAW:

But just two weeks ago, a breakthrough.

ROBERT MCDONALD:

We're moving forward together, designing a plan to end homelessness among veterans in Los Angeles County.

TOM BROKAW:

The new VA Secretary Robert McDonald, a West Point graduate, announced an agreement to settle the lawsuit. But he sides moving from adversaries to potential partners in a matter of weeks. Veterans like Robert Malone, formerly homeless himself, saying, "It's about time."

ROBERT MALONE:

For crying out loud, we're Americans. Let's help our guys. Since the minute man, we've been protecting our country, you know. Let's protect them now.

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now is the new Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald in his first Sunday show interview. Secretary, thanks for coming on Meet the Press.

(END TAPE)

Joining me now is the new Veterans Affairs Secretary, Robert McDonald, in his first Sunday show interview. Secretary, thanks for coming on Meet the Press.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Thank you, Chuck. It's great to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with a basic question about the story that Tom just did on the homeless veterans' issue. I know you've been hands-on on it. Why did it take a lawsuit to get this solved?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I don't know the answer to the question, Chuck. I think from my point of view as soon as I learned about this, I felt like this was something we had to solve. I've known the Shriver family for a number of years. I was involved in Special Olympics in the early 1980s with the family.

And I helped move the Special Olympics around the world when I was CEO at Proctor & Gamble Company. I knew of Ron Olson through friends, mutual friends. And so I made a phone call, and they made a phone call back, and they knew we were aligned on the mission, which is taking care of veterans.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. How quickly can we see L.A., largest, homeless veteran population in the country-- how quickly are we going to see these homeless veterans with temporary housing?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

As you know, we announced the agreement that we were supposed to get done this week. And as a result of that, we're moving ahead right now. We're putting in more vouchers, more HUD-VASH vouchers that will get people into the housing. On the property itself, we have buildings which are vacant. We need to do some seismic work on some of the buildings. They're not safe. They're not should something happen. But we're moving full speed ahead.

CHUCK TODD:

So do you erect temporary housing tents and things like that?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

We can. We're looking at all the options. Nothing's taken off the table. The critical piece is we need to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. That's been the president's commitment. That's my commitment. We're moving full speed ahead.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I understand that and it's already an extension of a year of the original goal. As you know, you're in the Office of Inspector General for the VA. The issue of the homelessness call center. Forty thousand, five hundred missed opportunities where the call center either didn't refer homeless veterans to medical facilities or other or take care of their problems. And I know you give out your private, cell phone number.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I have given out my private, cell phone number.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm glad you're doing it. Is it trickling down? What about this call center? You can be responsive. What about the call center?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Well, it's not just trickling down. We're making fundamental changes in the department in terms of leadership. We have held accountable about 900 employees who are no longer with us that were with us before I became secretary.

CHUCK TODD:

What does held accountable mean? Have you fired them?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Nine hundred people have been fired since I became secretary.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, so.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

We've got 60 people that we fired who have manipulated wait times. We've got about 100 senior leaders who are under investigation now whose performance reviews have been deferred until we get feedback from the IG and Department of Justice. So we're holding people accountable.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, look, we're nine months since this scandal erupted at the VA. The GAO, General Accountability Office, named parts of the VA high risk, and they identified the following. The weaknesses in VA management: ambiguous policies, inconsistent processes, inaccurate oversight and accountability, information technology challenges, inadequate training for VA staff, unclear resource needs and allocation priorities. It's interesting to me that you come from the private sector. If you took over a company like this, that company would have been in bankruptcy, would it not?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I have taken over--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

--as bad as the VA looks right now when you read all this?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Well, I met with the comptroller general a few weeks ago, and I actually encouraged him to put us on the high-risk list. Why? We're a health care system. We're one of the largest businesses in this country. We have a budget which is nearly a $170 billion. We run a lot of hospitals. Over 150 hospitals.

I want to be on that list. I want to shine light on what we're doing. I want to improve. And that's what we're working to do with our plan called My VA. Wait times are down 18% nationally. Our backlog of disability claims are down 61% nationally. Homelessness is down 33% nationally. We're making progress.

CHUCK TODD:

As you know, you're now being treated like a politician in the hot seat these days in the job you took. And you were on Capitol Hill this week, and you got in a bit of a heated exchange. Let me play it here with Republican Congressman Mike Coffman.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CONGRESSMAN MIKE COFFMAN:

I think that that's just characteristic of your glossing over the extraordinary problems confronted by your department.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Actually, I've been here six months. You've been here longer than I have. If there's a problem in Denver, I think you own it more than I do, and I'll give you my cell phone tonight and you can answer some of the calls and see if I'm making a difference for veterans, and see what they say. I run a large company, sir.

CONGRESSMAN MIKE COFFMAN:

The fundamental--

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

What have you done?

CONGRESSMAN MIKE COFFMAN:

--challenge.

CHUCK TODD:

Now Congressman Coffman put out another statement in response, and this is what he said. "Let me start by telling you something I haven't done. I have never run a federal agency that tolerates corruption the way the VA has. I've never built a hospital that's years behind schedule and hundreds of millions over budget."

"And I've never been a shill for inept bureaucrats who allowed American heroes to die on a medical waiting list while waiting for medical service. This is the most arrogant administration in our lifetime. Most would apologize for a scandal committed against our military service men and women. This administration is seemingly incapable of feeling shame." You were pretty ticked off at him. He's pretty ticked off at you. Was that an appropriate back and forth that you guys were having?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Well, I think if you looked at the entire hearing, what you find is tremendous unanimity bipartisan support for what we're trying to do and what veterans are trying to do. That was our budget hearing.

CHUCK TODD:

You think he's being unfair.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Well, what I'm saying is there was tremendous unanimity.Everybody is for veterans. Chairman Miller, the chairman of the committee, went around the room and asked even the veteran service organizations if they've seen a change.

And everybody, everybody to a person, X one, said they've seen a change. We're not where we need to be yet. I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is we're making progress. We're moving in the right direction.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm curious. Can you run a government agency like a business?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I think you can.

CHUCK TODD:

People talk about it. Can you really do that?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I think you can. In fact, that's the proposition we're testing.

CHUCK TODD:

You're determined to do this?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I am.

CHUCK TODD:

You're determined to take P&G ideas or ideas that you ran a company in Proctor & Gamble, and apply them here?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I'm determined to take business practices and apply them to government and make them work. And I think so far, with what we've done, the changes we've made, the improvements we've seen, it works.

CHUCK TODD:

The movie, American Sniper, this has really hit home for a lot of veterans.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

It's a great, great movie.

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say what's the important message that you think folks should take away from the movie and the story that it tells about the plight of veterans when they come home?

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

I'm hoping that this will help raise the consciousness of the need for mental health professionals, mental health treatments in the general public. We see that need at VA. We're the canary in the coalmine. But it's a national need.

CHUCK TODD:

Secretary McDonald, you run an agency that everybody is rooting to succeed.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Good luck to you, Sir.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Thank you very much.

CHUCK TODD:

Thanks for coming on Meet the Press.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Thanks for your help.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it.

VA SECRETARY ROBERT MCDONALD:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

And when we come back, we've got a special treat, a little fun here. Forty years of Saturday Night Live with none other than Dana Carvey.

DANA CARVEY:

Well, George Bush Senior, here. Read my lips. Meet the Press coming back. No new channel.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Tomorrow is President's Day. It's a day now set aside to celebrate our past and present leaders. We honor these men in many ways. We name monuments after them, buildings, airports, including cities. But did you know there are also 197,000 counties in 40 states that are named after presidents? But do you know how they vote? Do you think you know how they vote?

Do people in Jefferson and Jackson Counties vote Democratic? Do residents of Lincoln and Grant Counties vote Republican? The answer to that, and much more about our presidential counties, on our website. We'll be back in a moment with S.N.L.'s Dana Carvey.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. If you've been watching NBC at all over the last couple of days, you know this weekend marks 40 years of Saturday Night Live, which has given us everything from the Bass-O-Matic to "living in a van down by the river." But for political junkies like me, the enduring charm of S.N.L. has been its take on politics. And it all started with Chevy Chase's admittedly unfair portrayal of then-president Gerald Ford.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHEVY CHASE:

It was my understand that there would be no math.

CHUCK TODD:

Four decades ago, the Not-Ready-for-Primetime Players debuted a show called Saturday Night and changed the way presidents and happen competing for the job are portrayed on television.

DAN AYKROYD:

Watergate. W-A-T-E-R-G-A-T-E. Watergate has no place in these debates.

CHUCK TODD:

In the wake of Watergate, America was ready to see its political leaders lampooned. Since Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd tangoed in 1976, there have been two sets of presidential face-offs: the official, nationally televised debates and the send-ups live on Saturday night.

DANA CARVEY:

Let me just sum up. On track. Stay the course. 1,000 points of light. Stay the course.

JAN HOOKS:

Governor Dukakis, rebuttal?

JOHN LOVETT:

I can't believe I'm losing to this guy.

CHUCK TODD:

In 1992, Dana Carvey plays President Bush and Ross Perot in a three-way debate.

DANA CARVEY:

While we've been here jabbering, our deficit has increased by a half million dollars.

CHUCK TODD:

Before Bill Clinton even took the oath of office, Phil Hartman had created one of the most unforgettable portrayals in the show's history.

PHIL HARTMAN:

See, right now, we're sending food to Somalia. But it's not getting to the people who need it because it's being intercepted by warlords. Your McNugget is relief from Great Britain to Somalia, intercepted by warlords.

CHUCK TODD:

The Saturday Night Live primary has had few winners.

CHRIS PARNELL:

I will instead ask each candidate to sum up in a single word the best argument for his candidacy. Governor Bush?

WILL FERRELL:

Strategery.

CHRIS PARNELL:

Vice President Gore?

DARRELL HAMMOND:

Lock-box.

CHUCK TODD:

The vice president's staff reportedly made him watch that debate to correct his actual performance. The show has fine tuned the art of summing up the story of a campaign in a sound bite.

SETH MEYERS:

I have consistently supported the war in front of pro-war audiences and condemned it when speaking to groups that oppose it.

CHUCK TODD:

Or some awkward body language.

FRED ARMISEN:

How do we, as a people, come together? So, let me tell you another story that I’ve never shared before.

CHUCK TODD:

Creating fictional doubles that are larger than life.

AMY POEHLER:

I believe that diplomacy should be the cornerstone of any foreign policy.

TINA FEY:

And I can see Russia from my house.

CHUCK TODD:

While politicians attempt to play along.

TINA FEY:

And now, I'd like to entertain everybody with some fancy pageant walking.

LORNE MICHAELS:

I really wish that that had been you/

CHUCK TODD:

Forty years after Saturday Night Live's debut, American politics isn't the same.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH:

Don't see it.

DANA CARVEY:

And I was totally exaggerated. It's not me, those crazy hand gestures, the pointing thing, I don't do 'em. And, also, "Nah gah da," never said it. In all my years of government service, I never once said, "Nah gah da."

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

And I sat down with the man we just saw there, who brought the first President Bush and many other characters to life on S.N.L., Dana Carvey

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

You were, at least for my generation, the political impersonator. Starting with that '88 campaign.

DANA CARVEY:

Yeah, that was, you know, it's funny because Jon Lovitz was doing Dukakis on the show, and I was doing Bush, which I didn't really have. Because we thought, "Oh, after Reagan what are we going to do? It's just a guy that talks like this." But then Jon did actually call me after the election and concede and congratulate me.

CHUCK TODD:

He called you?

DANA CARVEY:

Yeah, because he knew I was going to be in 25 or 30 cold openings as the president. Playing the president on Saturday Night Live is, you know, is a really cool thing. So then it took me a year to break it.

You know, but I kind of, it took me a long time to find the hook. And I was with now-Senator Al Franken, sitting where you are. And we were just jamming. And suddenly this rhythm came out of, "That thing out there, that guy out in that whole area." And, that was the hook.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me play our first clip.

(OVERTALK)

DANA CARVEY:

It's a good clip, yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

Let's play it and then I'll let you tell me about it.

((BEGIN TAPE))

ANNOUNCER:

Debate ‘92. The challenge to avoid saying something stupid.

DANA CARVEY:

Because you see, this election is about who can take the heat. It’s hot in there, very hot. Who do you want there when that phone in the White House rings at 3 a.m. Do you want someone who will answer the phone politely. "Hello, this is the President. Speak slowly and clearly and tell me what the problem is." Or do you want someone who's cranky, who says, "This better be important," or "Do you realize what time it is?" Or simply says, "Shut up," hangs up the phone and sleeps like a baby while the world burns.

((END TAPE))

DANA CARVEY:

That was good rhythm. I haven't seen that in a long time.

CHUCK TODD:

I read in the SNL book where he only actually said the word "prudent" or used it in a phrase once.

DANA CARVEY:

Yeah, I would make up things about him. Like, I think I saw him once kind of go, "It's bad." You know, kind of. But that became a huge hook. No, but the “not gonna do it," was kind of the furthest we ever took it. Where, instead of "no going to do it." And on the cue cards it would say, "N-A-G-A-D-A it." "Not gonna do it."

CHUCK TODD:

I read stories after he lost that basically you were a shtick for him. He would call you and say, "Hey, I've got a few people I want to play pranks on," and you would make phone calls.

DANA CARVEY:

Well, he did call me. It's weird when you get called by the president and they go, "This is the White House operator number one, hold for the president." And this was after he lost the election, and everyone thought he was really depressed, and you know. So I'm talking and he's going, "Well, Dan thought you'd come out, you know, come out to the White House, cheer up the troops. He's thinking about his staff and everything."

And I was so young and naive at the time, I literally said, "Well, where would I stay?" And, you know, to the president he goes, "You'll stay right here in the White House." And we did. We spent two days with him, had a wonderful, wonderful time.

CHUCK TODD:

You also became Perot for so many people. Let me play some of my favorite Perot stuff.

DANA CARVEY:

Oh, Perot was great.

((BEGIN TAPE))

DANA CARVEY:

Yes, sir! You won it, hands down! I tell ya, those press people? They're just loony! They say you're a drag on the ticket? They must have been watching a different show. When you were quiet there for an hour, that was world class. Showed you ain't just talk! You know, a quiet man, a lot going on upstairs. Them others just went shooting their mouths off!

PHIL HARTMAN:

Who am I? Why am I here?

DANA CARVEY:

Well, you're the Admiral. You're taking a joyride.

((END TAPE))

CHUCK TODD:

Was Perot easy because it's Southern?

DANA CARVEY:

Well, Perot was a gift, you know? I feel like as a character, in an apolitical sense, that Sarah Palin and Ross Perot bookend each other as these fully formed characters walking on to the political stage.

CHUCK TODD:

They had their own caricature. You could easily do the caricature.

DANA CARVEY:

Yeah. And Lorne had said to me, "Dana, there's a Texas millionaire, Ross Perot running for president. We have a videotape down the hall. See if you can do anything with it," you know? And I put it on, and it's like, “Can I finish on time? Can I finish on time?” And I was like, "My God. My God."

I loved saying, "Can I finish one time? Or are you going to interrupt me?" So I mean, he was just such a fun rhythm to do. And, you know, people still yell it out.

CHUCK TODD:

You heard from H.W. He loved it. Ross Perot?

DANA CARVEY:

Perot invited me, called me up, invited me to be with him in Dallas the night of the election. "Now here's the deal. Now you come on down, there'll be two of us, see? They'll be looking over at me and looking over at you. And two's funnier than one. You know what I'm talking about?" I mean, literally that's the way he talks, you know? "We'll go on the road together. You’ll campaign one way, I'll campaign the other."

CHUCK TODD:

This current Republican field, anybody jump out that is going to be easy to impersonate?

DANA CARVEY:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

Scott Walker? Jeb Bush?

DANA CARVEY:

There's always a way.

CHUCK TODD:

Ted Cruz?

DANA CARVEY:

Yeah, I think I could do a Ted Cruz. I think that I, you know, I want to keep my powder dry. Ironically I do have the first inkling in my head of you.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, okay.

DANA CARVEY:

Well, it's just starting.

CHUCK TODD:

I don't want to hear it.

DANA CARVEY:

No, you won't. You'll see it on Saturday Night Live, you know?

CHUCK TODD:

Dana Carvey, a pleasure--

DANA CARVEY:

Thanks for having me, I'm very honored.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Big news affecting both politics and show biz this week, Jon Stewart announcing he's stepping down from The Daily Show after 17 years. I want to bring in the panel on this. And Joe and Ax, I want you guys to deal with this first.

Liberals are just in mourning, Mr. Axelrod, about losing Stewart. And it was a reminder to me that when you think about it, political satire, dominated by liberals right now. Stewart, Oliver, Colbert, throw in Bill Maher. Conservative talk radio, it's Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Hugh Hewitt. Liberals can't succeed on radio. And conservatives aren't succeeding in political satire.

DAVID AXELROD:

There's a long history of this. You go back to the beginning of radio and Father Coughlin. Right-wing radio has always been populist. It's always had huge audiences. There hasn't been a corollary on the Left. But satire goes to, I think, kind of a more unique audience.

CHUCK TODD:

It's the liberals, it's the traveling salesman?

DAVID AXELROD:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

What's your theory?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

Yes, it's the audience. You've got the audience, the conservative audience. You're talking about the traveling salesman, the business people that are out there. They turn on their radio. Talk radio is still a conservative domain and it probably will remain that way. As far as comedy goes, you know, the entertainment industry gets filmed by--

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think part of it is they just don't reward the conservatives?

JOE SCARBOROUGH:

Yes. But that said, Jon Stewart had a couple of years after Barack Obama was elected where he didn't go after Barack Obama. But, boy, he did in the final few years. He went after him on immigration. He had a skit about him being an emperor. He went after him on Benghazi. He's a fundamentalist, but he has his authenticity. And he went after artifice.

CHUCK TODD:

Everybody, including the news media. So, Kathleen, April, do you think we should see a woman replace Jon Stewart, by the way?

APRIL RYAN:

Oh, yes.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, I know I'm supposed to say yes. But I have to say I hope it's just somebody who's really funny.

CHUCK TODD:

Funny first. Funny first.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

And that's why succeed. Is because liberals put funny first. And I think conservatives put politics first.

APRIL RYAN:

It's time for women to take the big seat and sit in the big chair. And I think we are the ones to help make that spoon full of sugar and make the medicine go down, the medicine being politics.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, it's too bad Christopher Hitchens isn't still with us to talk about whether a woman could actually fill that seat.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, there you go. I'll tell you, April, you're pretty funny. But liberal talk radio, it's hard. It doesn't catch on as much, does it?

APRIL RYAN:

It doesn't. You're right. Conservative talk really moves, but liberal talk, especially black liberal talk, is not as big as it used to be.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Well, that's all. This was an eclectic show. We loved it. We had fun. We'll be back next week. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *