DAVID GREGORY: Good Sunday morning. Speaking to U.S. officials over the weekend, they say they are very concerned. They've not yet found that missing Malaysian Airlines jet. Was it sabotage or a terror plot? The mystery has only deepened. We'll discuss that story this morning as well as the other big developing story, that's Crimea. Thousands of Russian troops are massing at the Ukrainian border as Crimeans vote on whether to join Russia today. So how does the U.S. stop Russia from going even further? I'll be joined by the president's senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer and just back from Ukraine two key voices from the Senate.
Plus, the politics of this election year. Danger ahead for Democrats after a special election that puts Obamacare at the center of the fight.
And a different perspective on the country's ideological debates this morning. Comedian Bill Maher working the red states and speaking his mind about what's ailing America.
ANNOUNCER: From NBC News in Washington, the world's longest running television program, this is MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory.
GREGORY: Lost, the Malaysian Airlines 777 vanished now nine days ago. And all of our 21st century technology has turned up no concrete evidence of what happened to Flight 370. These are the latest pictures from the U.S. Navy as they're tracking any potential wreckage. The fate of the 239 people on board is still unknown. However, the latest signs are pointing to a criminal act. Malaysia's prime minister now saying the plane was deliberately diverted and its communication systems disabled. In a moment, I'm going to speak to Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to President Obama. He's here about what the White House knows at this juncture. But first, Greg Feith, a former NTSB investigator, pilot and NBC News analyst. He joins me from Denver and he's been tracking this now for all the days that it's been missing. Greg, it's good to see you here. So I just mentioned the evidence, the concrete evidence that points to this being a criminal act. Take me through that that leads you to believe that's the case.
MR. GREG FEITH (Former NTSB Investigator): Well, early on, David, one of the things that we had was the initial radar track. That was just the outbound portion that tended to believe-- make us believe that this was just at event that took place and we didn't know if it was an accident. It was that second turn. It was that initial left hand turn with the track for about an hour, and then the subsequent return or right turn that-- that caused me and I think others to believe, especially the Malaysians that that was not on the flight plan route, that it had to have been human intervention that actually initiated that turn. And so when you're going away from your intended destination of Beijing and you start to wander well off that course, that to me having done SilkAir, working with the Indonesians, that led me to believe that there was something else going on that was not intended as far as conducting this flight point A to point B.
GREGORY: So-- so Greg, the point is that there is evidence that somebody in the crew is turning off its communications, turning off the radar and then all of a sudden you see it re-emerge on a different flight path-- plath-- path, rather, after a turn. That says to you somebody has-- has made a deliberate decision to commandeer this aircraft and go in a different direction?
MR. FEITH: Absolutely. There would never be a reason for a pilot to turn off the transponders. That is the key for air traffic controllers to be able to track that airplane at all times when it's in the air. So there would have been no reason to turn off the transponders. The fact that the ACAR systems or at least the data portion was shut down indicates that somebody didn't want to be tracked, either through the transponder or the ACAR system. And as a primary target, the military only had a skin paint, non-descript blip on the radar that said the airplane was at a distance and heading in a direction. But that was it.
GREGORY: So let's look at potential flight paths here on the map because it's interesting, it could have gone a couple of different directions. The-- the southern route versus the northern route. If you're going north, all of a sudden you get over a big land mass in South Asia and Middle East. A lot of U.S. military assets there, other military assets that other countries have. It seems implausible that you could fly a plane and not be detected. Doesn't this still point to the idea that it's crashed?
MR. FEITH: It-- it does to an extent, David. I would think that if this person, whoever is flying the aircraft, turned off all the transponders and the ACAR system, they didn't want to be detected. So if you take that northerly track you go back into a radar environment and at a potential environment where we have space assets that are looking down on that part of the world. Why would you want to go back and get into a detected area? If you go south, there is very little radar coverage, if any. And, of course, I don't believe that we would be looking there from space because that's the middle of the ocean and there's not really any activity going on out there. So that would be a great place to disappear.
GREGORY: So theories run wild. You're an experienced investigator. In just a few seconds, what do you have to be running through here to think about likely outcomes?
MR. FEITH: I think right now, while we all hold out hope that there may be a successful end to this situation, if you will, the airplane is sitting somewhere even though there may have been a nefarious intent but I believe based on my experience in all the years that this will not have the outcome especially for the families that they want, but we're not really going to be fully confident as to what the-- the motive was for this type of event, whether it was some sort of intentional act by a pilot for selfish reasons or some sort of terroristic type or at least implied terrorististic event.
GREGORY: All right. Greg Feith, thanks so much for your expertise this morning. I appreciate it.
MR. FEITH: You're welcome.
GREGORY: Here now is Dan Pfeiffer senior adviser to President Obama. Dan, welcome back. Besides the personal toll, which is potentially devastating and devastating for families already, what else troubles the president at this point?
MR. DAN PFEIFFER (White House Senior Adviser): About the crash in Malaysia?
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, look, we don't know the-- what's troubling is we don’t know the answer yet. The Malaysian government is in the lead. But the president has directed his administration to dedicate the resources necessary to help them. So what we are doing is, we have the FBI, supporting the Malaysian criminal investigation. We have naval assets helping to look for the plane and the National Transportation Safety Board is on the ground trying to figure out what happened. So we're going to do everything we can to help them, but we need to get the answers and we need to get them soon.
GREGORY: Do you have specific evidence that points to a terror plot of any kind?
MR. PFEIFFER: It's too early to rule anything in or out yet. We-- we simply just don't know enough information.
GREGORY: Any elevated chatter that the government is concerned about in terror circles?
MR. PFEIFFER: Not-- not necessarily around this. We're still-- we have to get to the bottom of what's happening here.
GREGORY: The question about security. A lot of people look at the situation and say, wow, could a-- could a plane originating in the United States experience this kind of trouble, this kind of criminal act? Does the president want to see any additional reviews around our own security?
MR. PFEIFFER: I think we have to figure out what happened here and then go back into an after action report and see what could be done better. We just don't know enough to know exactly how this would impact things in the United States in the future.
GREGORY: Let me move onto the big developing story in Ukraine. Is Crimea lost at this point?
MR. PFEIFFER: Look that is-- we don’t-- we are putting as much pressure on the Russians as we can to do the right thing. They-- we have given them the opportunity and the path to deescalate and get this in the right place because they know that there are costs to their action here. The costs are economic, the Russian economy, the Russian stock market and the Ruble are at five-year lows. Russia's isolated in the world. You saw that in the U.N. Security Council yesterday and the more they escalate, the longer this goes, the greater those costs will be.
GREGORY: So if Crimea votes to become part of Russia, there's still a concern there might be an attempt to move into eastern Ukraine, maybe even militarily move into Crimea further. Do you think that’s going to happen, starting with Crimea?
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, first, as relates to the referendum…
MR. PFEIFFER: …as we've said this referendum is in violation of international law. The United States is not going to recognize the results of that referendum and we are working with our partners around the world, the Europeans in particular to marshal forces against the Russians to put pressure on them in the form of sanctions and the president has signed an executive order last week that gives them authority to do this and you can expect sanction designations in the coming days.
GREGORY: If there is a move militarily into the rest of the Ukraine, how important is it from the president's point of view to arm Ukraine, to send military aid to Ukraine to be able to protect itself.
MR. PFEIFFER: Supporting the new Ukrainian government in every way possible is the top of our priority list. We're looking at all-- at all-- all ways of assistance and we're going to keep talking to the Ukrainians…
GREGORY: But would-- would the president call on Congress to pass more military aid for Ukraine?
MR. PFEIFFER: We-- we are calling on them right now to pass economic aid for Ukraine. There's a bill that came out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just last week. They should do that and we're going to keep working this as much as we can.
GREGORY: Is Eastern Ukraine the new red line here?
MR. PFEIFFER: What we have to do here, everything the Russians have done thus far has been in violation of international law and bad for peace and stability in the region and bad for the Russians. And President Putin has a choice about what he's going to do here. Is he going to continue to further isolate himself, further hurt his economy, further diminish Russian influence in the world or is he going to do the right thing.
GREGORY: Let's talk about domestic politics and the president's approval rating. We had a big poll out, Wall Street Journal, NBC News this week. Here's what it found, overall job approval for the president 41 percent. Handling the economy 41 percent, same number when it came to foreign policy. And here's what's striking. Approval is 74 percent among Democrats, sounds high, but it's the lowest that the president's had in terms of his approval among Democrats. He can't very well blame Republicans for this. The president has really slipped.
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, look, on this-- the public polls are a little bit all over the map. On a same day, your poll came out, another poll came out that showed the president gaining six points in the last couple months. But look, I've looked at a lot of data and let me tell you what we see. There's no question that everyone in Washington, the president included took a big hit from the double whammy of a shutdown in the problems of healthcare.gov. We have stabilized and we're working our way back and look at the aggregate of public polling. We've gained three points in the last couple of months. But there's no question we have more work to do.
GREGORY: But there's so much disappointment, there's so much disappointment in Washington, but this is an election year and Democrats are worried, in the New York Times this morning-- I've been reading. Jonathan Martin and Ashley Parker write this. "Democrats are becoming increasingly alarmed about their midterm election fortunes amid President Obama's shrinking approval ratings, a loss in a special House election in Florida this past week, and millions of dollars spent by Republicans-aligned groups attacking the new health care law. The combination has led to uncharacteristic criticism of Mister Obama and bitter complaints that his vaunted political organization has done little to help the party's vulnerable congressional candidates."
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, look, there is no question this is a tough map for Democrats. That's what happens when you win a lot of elections like we did in 2008. But-- but the good news is this that we have good candidates and most importantly we’re on the right side of the issue that matters most to the-- most to the public, jobs and the economy. Here's what the president's going to do. He is going to lay out the terms of-- of the debate in this election as a choice between Democrats who support an agenda of opportunity for all, for Republicans for an agenda of opportunity for a few. And-- and let's not forget, this president wrote the book on running and winning modern campaigns. So we're going to take all of our resources and help Democrats up and down the ballots, our technology, our…
GREGORY: Right. But do they want your help? Is the president more of a liability than he is an asset at this stage for Democrats?
MR. PFEIFFER: We-- we are going to set the terms of the debate. We’re going to provide our-- our organizational ability to help them if the president's going to raise money. We want to help them in every way we can. If…
GREGORY: Liability or asset?
MR. PFEIFFER: The president will be an asset in every way possible and help these candidates.
GREGORY: But you're talking about framing this as a choice that frankly is-- is an argument the Democrats have been making for 20 years in terms of jobs and the economy. Republicans are very unified around one thing, Obamacare is bad. And a lot of voters seem to agree with that. How much does Obamacare hurt Democrats?
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, David, that’s not true. The-- the Republican position on Obamacare of repeal at all costs is opposed by a majority of Americans. It was not a factor in the Florida '13 election. But don’t take my word for it. Peter-- Geoff Garin, who was the pollster in that race, who’s the partner of NBC's own Peter Hart, said it was a negligible effect. Karl Rove, someone I don’t agree with often, said this…
GREGORY: Geoff Garin-- since you brought him up. Geoff Garin also told us--because we've looked at his comments--there is no question that Obamacare is a huge motivator for Republicans and turning out the vote, which they did very effectively in Florida '13 much more so than Democrats could become a national trend.
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, we absolutely have to do-- Democrats have to do a better job at turning out in midterm elections. We’re very good at presidential years and less good in midterms. And if more Democrats don't turn out, we will not do well. (Unintelligible) coming up all of us, the president included, to get as many people to the polls in November as possible.
GREGORY: There is an issue with Obamacare, too, is about ultimately how is going to look, what impact is it going to have, and did the president sell this thing accurately? Here is the latest. You go back to Jan-- June of 2009 and even last Friday. Listen to this.
(Videotape; June 6, 2009)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you like the plan you have, you can keep it. If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor, too. The only change you'll see are falling costs as our reforms take hold.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: For the average person, many a folk-- folks who don't have health insurance initially, you know, they're going to have to make some choices and they might end up having to switch doctors in part because they're saving money.
GREGORY: The president had already apologized for saying if you like your plan you can keep it. That didn’t turn out to be true for everybody. Now it seems like he's backtracking on whether you can keep your doctor if you like your doctor.
MR. PFEIFFER: No, David, this is a very different issue. Insurance companies make decisions about what doctor is in your network. That was true before Obamacare. That’s true after Obamacare. There's nothing in Obamacare that's going to cause-- mandates an insurance company make any change around doctors. That's a decision for insurance companies because Obamacare is built on the private insurance system.
GREGORY: Can you rule out the idea that the president doesn't delay the individual mandate?
MR. PFEIFFER: Yes, I can.
GREGORY: You can? That will not happen.
MR. PFEIFFER: That will not happen.
GREGORY: But there're so many changes that the administration has made. And I wonder whether you worry that a future president, a Republican president could make the same kind of rollbacks unilaterally to the implementation of the law that Democrats wouldn't like.
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, look, what-- what we’re doing here is very consistent with how large pieces of legislation are implemented. This is how it was done with Medicare, how it was done with the prescription drug benefit passed under President Bush is to find ways to implement it in a way that is best for everyone. If that includes giving people some additional transition time like we’ve done for businesses, then that's the right thing to do and it's very consistent with how law-- laws are implemented.
GREGORY: Let me ask you about the-- the debate now between the Senate and the CIA over past interrogation techniques. But this has become a big debate about this. Is this a fight over documents or did the CIA spy on the Senate?
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, look, let's take a step back to what this entire issue is about. This is about a Senate report and the conduct conducted under the previous administration, conduct this president outlawed on his first day in office.
MR. PFEIFFER: We've provided millions of pages of documents to the Senate and the president is urging the Senate Committee to finish the report as soon as possible so he can declassify the findings. Now there're allegations on both sides and those have been referred to the appropriate authorities of the Inspector General and the Department of Justice and we'll let them get to the bottom of it.
GREGORY: So you're not prepared to say whether the head of the CIA John Brennan should apologize?
MR. PFEIFFER: Let's let them get to the bottom of what happened here.
GREGORY: Let me ask you about immigration. The president's supporters in some quarters have taken to calling him the deporter in chief. Some two million deportations under his tenure and counting. Will the president take executive action to do anything to slow those deportations?
MR. PFEIFFER: The president has asked his secretary of Homeland Security to look at our current enforcement practices and see how we can enforce them more humanely within the constraints of the law. That is the right thing to do, because the president…
GREGORY: But that would mean slowing down deportations.
MR. PFEIFFER: What it means is it-- what it means is enforcing them more humanely and directing our resources towards the highest priorities, like…
GREGORY: Give me an example of what that could be.
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, what that means is-- I'm not going to prejudge the results of Secretary Johnson's review. But it means looking at how focusing our resources towards folks crossing the border, towards criminals-- which is what we've been doing. And the president is-- he feels the pain of the community, the separation in the community from our broken immigration system. But here's what I’ll say. There is nothing that will come at the end of this review that is a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform.
GREGORY: Right. But part of the reason to take executive action, my understanding, from my own reporting within the White House, the debate is-- look. If-- if immigration reform is dead, the president's got to do something unilaterally. Or else his own supporters, Democrats, are going to have a hard time with so many deportations and a president who fails to get immigration reform. Is immigration reform dead? Is that your fear? I know it's not your hope. Is it your fear?
MR. PFEIFFER: Look, there is a window to pass immigration reform. There is a bipartisan majority for it in the House right now. There are a series-- there are a number of Republicans, I think the speaker included, who sincerely want to solve this problem. The problem we have is that the power in the Republican party right now is in the self-deportation wing of the party. And if we-- if the speaker will allow us-- allow a bill to come to the floor, I think we can get something done.
GREGORY: So when does the window close?
MR. PFEIFFER: I think we're going to keep pushing this and try to get this done as soon as possible.
GREGORY: Hard it see it this year though, right?
MR. PFEIFFER: Well, look, if-- it could happen this week…
MR. PFEIFFER: …if the Republicans would put a bill on the floor.
GREGORY: Final question about politics. Is the Senate in danger of falling to Republicans?
MR. PFEIFFER: I believe we will keep the Senate. We had-- we have great candidates with experience winning in tough states, and we're on the right side of the issues.
GREGORY: All right. One of the president's political gurus, Dan Pfeiffer, thanks so much. Appreciate you being here. We're back here in 90 seconds. Will Russia invade Ukraine after this key secession vote in the Crimean region today? I'm going to be joined by two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who have just returned from Ukraine. I'll ask them if Crimea is lost to Russia? And if so, who lost it? Coming up.
GREGORY: We are back. The latest now on the other big story we're following this morning, the crisis in Ukraine. Ukraine has accused Russia of seizing a gas plant over the Crimean border, calling the move a military invasion. As Crimeans vote today on whether to secede from Ukraine to join Russia, referendum President Obama, and you heard it for-- here from his advisor, says it would be illegal. So every indication suggests the Crimeans will vote yes on this vote. So on Saturday, Russia blocked a draft UN resolution that would condemn the referendum. But China, normally a staunch Russian ally, abstained. I'm joined now by two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, just back from meetings with Ukraine's new government in the country's capital of Kiev: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona. Welcome to both of you. Nice to have you here in the studio after a long trip, so I appreciate you being here.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL/Assistant Majority Leader): Good to be here.
GREGORY: So, look. I'm operating, Senator Durbin, on the assumption that Crimea is gone, effectively. That this vote moves forward and it's into Russia's orbit. So what's the plan to change Putin's calculation? To either get him to reverse this or to stop where he is?
SEN. DURBIN: First, this election or referendum is a lame excuse by Putin to invade Crimea and take it over. You know, when you move in thousands of Russian troops from Sochi Olympics to garrison their positions in Crimea, then to have these masked gunmen with automatic weapons and no insignia roaming the streets, what a-- what a delightful election atmosphere. This is a Soviet-style election, we know what-- what the ending is going to be. Now the west has to decide-- not just the west, but the civilized world has to decide whether we're going to do anything to stop Putin's design.
GREGORY: Right. But what's the thing? So what's the thing? That's my question.
SEN. DURBIN: Well, there are plenty of things we can do. And the president is working now to put together an agenda. We passed-- Jeff and I are in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee-- we passed a measure-- a 14 to 4 bipartisan measure last week, that provides not only economic assistance to Ukraine and the possibility of IMF loans coming their way with reform; but also some very serious sanctions against Russia for its conduct.
GREGORY: What about military aid to Ukraine? I mean does that have to become a bigger issue? Are you for it? Does-- does Ukraine need more military support to hold off Russia if it would-- were to move into the eastern part of the country?
SEN. JEFF PEGUES FLAKE (R-AZ/Foreign Relations Committee): Their military has been hollowed out over the past couple of years. They have-- according to some Ukrainians, we have nothing that-- that shoots, runs or flies. And it’s because the Russians have had such close ties with the previous government that they hauled the military out. So, yes, they need a lot of help. But nothing we can do will help the Ukraine withstand what Russia is going to do if they decide to go into (unintelligible) Ukraine.
GREGORY: But what if Russia decides not to? What if they get the successful vote, it becomes part of Russia; and then they say, okay, that’s it, we’ll have a truce, we’re not sending any more troops in. Is that an acceptable status quo?
SEN. FLAKE: No. Yeah.
SEN. DURBIN: From my-- from my point of view, no. I mean they have invaded--
GREGORY: So the sanctions would still go? Asset freezes?
SEN. DURBIN: They’ve invaded a sovereign nation.
SEN. DURBIN: And if we are going to stand by and let them do to Ukraine what they have done to Georgia, the Republic of Georgia eight years ago, then-- you know-- you can expect more.
GREGORY: But Senator Flake, can you reverse that with economic penalties?
SEN. FLAKE: Possibly. Possibly. It’s going to be difficult, let’s face it, Russia has always had its design on Crimea, it considers Crimea a part of Russia. And so that’s going to be difficult. But all you can do is increase the cost significantly, and-- and hope that they don't move further into Ukraine. It's going to be very difficult.
GREGORY: All right. So to that point, is eastern Ukraine a red line for the United States?
SEN. FLAKE: Well, certainly we've got to move in hard now with sanctions, regardless of whether they move tomorrow or the next week or hold back. We're going to move forward with sanctions; not just us, but our European allies as well.
GREGORY: You know, when we deal with Vladimir Putin, this issue of hypocrisy comes up. And the United Nations spoke of this this week. The United Nations pointedly criticized the U.S.' human rights record over drone strikes, NSA surveillance, the death penalty. Does it make it hard to deal with the likes of Putin and Lavrov when you’ve got the U.N. criticizing the U.S. that way?
SEN. DURBIN: Listen, there are plenty imperfections in every government of every nation. But look at what we have here. Putin-- this is the-- I think the single most serious act of aggression since the Cold War.
SEN. DURBIN: He ended up the final ceremony at the Sochi Olympics, which are network-covered, trying to make it a charm offensive for the world that this is a modern Russian nation. And within hours he’s invading one of his neighbors, sending the same troops that were protecting the athletes at Sochi into the Crimea. Now, are we going to stand by and say this is acceptable conduct? Because this isn't the end of his ambition. He’ll go as far as (unintelligible)…
GREGORY: But how do you change the calculation? That's what I still don't see.
SEN. FLAKE: Speaking of the U.N., what's important is what happened yesterday, when the U.S. and the Security Council-- with China actually abstaining, not siding with Russia-- actually voting to condemn what happened. That's important. What resolutions in the General Assembly or whatever are less important, certainly; and there's no way you can have some moral equivalency of what Putin is doing and what we've done in the past.
GREGORY: Today, another foreign note before I ask you a couple things domestically, and that is Syria. NBC News devoted a great deal of coverage to the untold suffering of the children of Syria in this refugee crisis. On the heels of that, Congress has taken action, moving to-- as you did, Senator Durbin, with your name on it-- pushing for more humanitarian aid. But the reality is, as this moves into its fourth year, those children in Syria, those refugees are not going to be helped unless something is done to step Assad. Can anything besides some sort of military intervention do that?
SEN. DURBIN: First let-- let's focus on refugees and children. I'm glad NBC did. 2.3 million was one estimate that I've read that’s close to accurate. The United States has absorbed so few of these families. We have to be more welcoming and open to help these families transition into a safe place in their lives. Then comes the political question: what can we do in Syria to change what's happened there for several years? And it is a quandary. You know, trying to find the right opposition force that will stand by us and effectively fight against Assad has been a challenge. Many of the opposition forces are the not friendly to the United States. So let's be careful. The allies we choose, let's support them as best we can, so that we put pressure on Assad to end the killing.
GREGORY: Senator Flake, the president two years ago, said Assad's days were numbered. How did he misjudge it?
SEN. FLAKE: Well I think we do have a problem when you have somebody willing to draw red lines that nobody has a problem stepping over. And so I think that was a miscalculation and could have been handled better. Now, I'm not suggesting that we could end the suffering there or would have ended it all or future suffering. But I think we could have done a better job with our policy in Syria.
GREGORY: But this is the ultimate thing with Russia, as well. Conservative Charles Krauthammer calling it Obama's fruitless accommodationism. Does it invite Russia's Putin to take the action he's taken, or Assad to feel like he's got more staying power, when the president doesn’t follow through with Syria?
SEN. DURBIN: Mister Krauthammer has a short memory. Do you realize what happened in the Georgia Republic under President Bush? Virtually the same thing that's happening in Crimea. Putin went in there and seized territory and held it. Now what does Mister Krauthammer say of the Bush administration those days? And as far as our policy in responding to Putin's aggression, there's a basic question here. What will the bipartisan Congress do to support the president's actions? When the president asked for just the authority for military action to stop chemical weapons in Syria, it was hard to get. In fact, we couldn't achieve it on the floor of the House or the Senate. We couldn't get a bipartisan consensus behind foreign policy.
SEN. FLAKE: I-- I--I voted to give the president that authority.
SEN. DURBIN: You did. Yeah.
SEN. FLAKE: I've been-- I've been critical of the president in the past, but I don't think anything the president did or said lended itself to what Putin did here.
GREGORY: Just a few seconds left. Do you both believe the CIA illegally spied on the Senate?
SEN. DURBIN: I have the highest respect for Dianne Feinstein. There isn't a person in the Senate who works harder to be bipartisan and fair, with one of the toughest assignments as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee. I read her statement she gave on the floor. It was a thoughtful, serious effort to establish the role of Congress and the Senate and the oversight of the CIA. And I am...
GREGORY: Did it illegally spy on the Senate?
SEN. DURBIN: Well, I can tell you this, I-- I don’t know the particulars. But we need to get to the bottom of it, and I've called on the administration and the CIA to release this report once and for all.
SEN. DURBIN: So we know what happened.
GREGORY: But my question is, did the CIA illegally spy on the Senate?
SEN. DURBIN: I am…
GREGORY: Are you prepared to reach a conclusion?
SEN. DURBIN: Dianne Feinstein believes that's the case. I'll stand behind her. But let's get the investigation underway.
GREGORY: Should Brennan apologize?
SEN. FLAKE: I'm not prepared to say it. I'm not on the Intel committee. There is a lot of confusion surrounding it. So I'll wait until they do their investigation.
GREGORY: All right. I'll leave it there. Senators, thank you so much. Appreciate you being here. Coming up here, our roundtable. With the country restless and pessimistic and hostile toward both parties of Congress, they're now on notice that November may be pretty tough. We're going to analyze the key themes that you may be seeing in videos like this one from Republican Scott Brown, former senator, now a possible Senate candidate from New Hampshire.
MAN: It's been proven that nothing is working in Washington.
WOMAN: We need change in Washington. Nothing down there seems to work.
MAN: I am so worried about the future of this country.
GREGORY: We're going to talk some nitty-gritty politics this week. I want to show you a couple of findings from our Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that are pretty striking, about the-- the pessimism, the hostility toward both parties. Look at this, positive and negative. Republicans: 27 positive, 45 negative. Democrats: 35 positive, 38 negative. And the-- the country's just overall in a kind of malaise. Look at this. 71 percent think that the government's not working well or is stagnant. Right track, wrong track, 65 percent say it's in the wrong direction. And 57 percent still think that the country is in recession. So my roundtable is here and let me get to it this morning. Joining me back here is Carolyn Ryan, Washington bureau chief for the New York Times; Robert Gibbs, who's served as White House press secretary between 2009 and 2011. I'm pleased to welcome a couple of new faces to the program as well: Israel Ortega of the Conservative Heritage Foundation; and to get a perspective from outside Washington, Jon Ralston, long time political reporter from Nevada and host of the Ralston Reports, which airs in Las Vegas on our NBC station there. Welcome to all of you. Jon, let me start with you. I think this is the ultimate question about what is driving such disappointment with both parties right now?
MR. JON RALSTON (Nevada Political Journalist, Ralston Reports): Well, people are always disappointed, David, I-- I found in covering politics, and anybody who does. It's just especially with the polarization in Washington, and it's spreading across the country. People are upset that things are just not getting done. And-- and you saw it, Dan Pfeiffer, in an almost Robert Gibbs-like masterful way, dodging every question that-- that you asked. They don’t want to talk about whether the president's going to go out to the States. I don't think anyone's clamoring. But I think people forget. And I don't think it's just a D. C. phenomenon. It's March. Things could dramatically change by-- by November. But I think the Democrats are worried, not just because of what happened in Florida; but because of those numbers that you put up, and the fact that the president's approval rating is in the low 40s.
MS. CAROLYN RYAN (Washington Bureau Chief, New York Times): I think what unites all of these recent developments and what would be most worrisome to the Democrats and to the Obama administration is, it feels like in some real way, that people have lost trust in President Obama. And I don't mean trust just in the narrow sense of-- is he honest, is he forthright. But do they trust President Obama to solve the problems that are most important to them and to their families? So when you look at those numbers from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, it really cuts across a range of issues-- foreign policy, the economy-- the economy. But it was the Obamacare rollout and the kind of halting incompetence of that, that really I think vividly demonstrated it.
GREGORY: And-- and you're writing about it in the paper this morning, the disappointment, Robert. The disappointment that Democrats have in this president, about ObamaCare. That seems to be-- I mean, you know what the Republicans are coming after him. But his own party’s saying, ah. They’re just not so motivated.
MR. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary, 2009-2011): Well, I think there's a trust deficit in America with Washington. I think there's a belief when looking at Washington that we're in no danger here of solving any problems that people suffer out in actual America. There's no doubt that the rollout for healthcare is still providing a huge hanger-- hangover. I think the genuine problem that Democrats are nervous about, is-- we're looking at a midterm election where the electorate is much less likely to look like a presidential, and much more to look like 2010. And quite frankly, if this electorate is more conservative, less Hispanic, less African-American and less young…
MR. GIBBS: …then there's…
GREGORY: Much like the presidentials.
MR. GIBBS: Right. There's real, real danger that the Democrats could suffer big losses. Because the real estate and the turf in which these elections are taking place begin with an advantage to the Republicans.
GREGORY: You also see-- you see motivated Republicans, Israel?
MR. ISRAEL ORTEGA (Contributor, The Foundry; The Heritage Foundation): Yeah.
GREGORY: You see disappointed Democrats. And whenever I look at that right track, wrong track, I see a very high wrong track number; that also tells me that a lot of independent voters…
MR. ORTEGA: Right.
GREGORY: …are turned off to the majority party.
MR. ORTEGA: Right.
GREGORY: So that's quite a trifecta.
MR. ORTEGA: Yeah. I know. And I think-- I think it goes to-- to the-- the questions you just raised about trust. And I think, you know, you heard Kathleen Sebelius this week said premiums are likely to go up next-- next year. And you see this on a lot of-- you know, that-- that clip you just played, David, of-- of the president basically saying, well, if you like your doctor, you can keep it. I mean this is going to be something that's going to be come-- coming up a lot in the midterm election. And so I think it's got to be raised.
MR. GIBBS: But let's-- let's be clear. Because the NBC polls showed that the American people don't want to see a wholesale repeal of healthcare…
GREGORY: True enough.
MR. GIBBS: …reform, because they know what healthcare was like. They know that an insurance company got to control whether or not they got treatment. And the American people don't like that. It is incumbent upon Democrats, though, in order to even that number up, to have aggressive campaigns that push Republicans, not just on what they'd repeal-- we know that-- but what would they do in its place?
GREGORY: But Jon, it's-- my question is, as you talk to people, especially outside of Washington, are they still listening? Do they want to hear the particulars that-- that Robert's talking about on healthcare? Or do they-- are they kind of thinking, wow, this thing just is kind of a disaster?
MR. RALSTON: Yeah. You know, David, I think the whole repeal question is misleading. Maybe people don't want it repealed, but they're still upset with-- with healthcare.gov, they're-- they're upset with the rollout. They may have friends or members of their family who have had problems with healthcare.gov. In Nevada, we set up our own exchange, which has been an absolute disaster, almost makes the-- the federal one look like a well-oiled machine. So people are upset with it. So it's not going to be a binary choice, repeal or not repeal. It's do you think that this it is working? Do you have confidence in the Democrats who have-- who have supported this?
GREGORY: So-- so here's a question that came up in our polling and that we-- we've been asking on the program, which is what do people actually want in their elected representatives here in Congress? We sent our John Yang to southwestern Iowa, to an historically swing district, to get some of the answers to that question. Have a look.
MR. JOHN YANG: For more than 70 years, breakfast in Indianola, Iowa has meant the Crouse Café, where the servings are big and often come with a side of politics. In this swing state, Indianola is deep purple; going for Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. The Republicans and Democrats we talked to here, differed on Obamacare and other issues; but on one question, there was unanimity.
How do you think Washington is doing these days?
MAN #1: Terrible-- terrible.
MAN #2: Well, it seems a bit dysfunctional.
MR. YANG: They want less bickering and more problem-solving.
WOMAN: We have to work together.
MAN #3: It's time to stop worrying about who's going to be in office next, who's going to in charge next, it's time to start thinking to make America what we used to be.
MR. YANG: Democrats hope candidate Staci Appel can turn Iowa's third district-- which includes Indianola-- from red to blue; and become the first woman to ever represent the state in the House or Senate. Six Republicans have filed for the June primary.
(Videotape; Staci Appel web video)
MS. STACI APPEL: Put Iowa values to work in order to get things done.
MR. YANG: Her website's video never mentions her party or President Obama's name; instead stressing bipartisanship, independence and making things work.
MR. JOE SHANNAHAN (Democratic Strategist): We want the Democrats to act like Democrats and-- and support the things that we care about. You know, improving middle class, improving education and making the environment safe.
MR. YANG: In the state Senate race, key in the struggle for the majority, groups like Americans For Prosperity are already slamming Democrat Bruce Braylee for supporting Obamacare.
(Videotape; Americans for Prosperity Ad)
WOMAN #1: Tell Congressman Braylee Obamacare is hurting Iowa families and we deserve better.
MR. TIM ALBRECHT (Republican Strategist): Republicans are fired up. Democrats are depressed, because they understand that their president just isn't that popular here anymore.
MR. YANG: As the battle for Iowa voters begins to heat up; for MEET THE PRESS, John Yang, NBC News, Indianola, Iowa.
GREGORY: So Carolyn, what do you take away from it?
MS. RYAN: One thing that's very striking-- and it comes across in that piece and I think it came across in your poll-- is that voters do want to see Washington, the parties working together. And it's-- and it is striking given that politicians are such conscientious, if not obsessive, readers of polls that they don't seem to pick up on that. But there aren’t examples. What we have is an accumulation of examples to the contrary.
MS. RYAN: Just the most simple, basic, fundamental workings of government seem so difficult for them.
GREGORY: Well, but there's also this contradiction among voters that I find so striking. In our poll-- let me show it to our viewers, it's very interesting. More-- are you more or less likely to vote for a candidate willing to compromise? Eighty-six percent says yes, you're more likely. But as our political team noted, it seems like the conclusion from all the questions was, we want brand new politicians who will compromise, raise the minimum wage, cut spending, and build new bridges back in your home state if they need repair. I'm scratching my head, voters seem to be saying a few different things at once, Israel?
MR. ORTEGA: Right. Well I guess we can't have what we want. But I think a lot of these themes have been playing out of course on Tuesday, there was a special election. And so I think you saw the argument about-- that Dan was making earlier about-- about Obamacare and sort of tweaking it. And I think it's just-- it's not as crisp of-- of an argument to make. And I think that’s going to be a problem for a lot of Democrats, particularly in-- in Republican states. You know, Senator Mary Landrieu, Senator Kay Hagan, among others, you know-- senators, by the way, who weren’t at the Tuesday all-nighter, during the climate change talkathon. So this is-- I think it’s playing out and it's going to continue to be a problem till November.
MR. GIBBS: I think what you saw, I loved that NBC was coincidentally in Iowa. I think you saw in that video what's going to be a big issue in this race, and that is, outside spending, right? Ads that are going to come not just by the millions, but by the tens and maybe the hundreds of millions. And I think if Democrats are going to survive that way, the president’s going to have to get a lot more involved in raising money for the party committees and for the national party, if the Democrats are going to have any hope of keeping the Senate.
MR. RALSTON: But I-- and I think that's why Harry Reid goes on the Senate floor, not to talk about the minimum wage as much as he wants to talk about the Koch Brothers, right?
MR. RALSTON: Americans For Prosperity. The Democrats want to make this about outside spending. And this is how they frame-- the-- the-- the issues. This is the Republicans trying to buy the election. There’s no evidence, though, David, that people really respond to those kinds of arguments as much as they’re-- they’re going to respond to healthcare.gov, Obamacare-- that’s why Scott Brown announced by saying Obamacare Democrats got…
MR. RALSTON: …in-- into the race, as opposed to moving to New Hampshire...
GREGORY: It's very 2010, right?
MR. RALSTON: Right. Exactly.
GREGORY: That was the great strategy.
MS. RYAN: But when you talked about Democrats' disappointment or depression or feeling disaffected, one interesting thing that you're seeing on the Hill and in Washington, is the private grumbling about the Obama campaign operation, the political operation; in that Democrats are saying, you know, where is it? Where's the cavalry? You know, who's going to rescue us? And was Obama-- Obama tends to see himself as sort of a singular figure in American politics. And he got himself elected very impressively. But has he built a party? Does he care about these (unintelligible)? And it seems like Democrats are saying that he doesn’t.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that's going to be the difference. Because if he doesn't get, as I said, more involved in raising money, in getting voters excited-- we know, as you said, that Obamacare is going to bring Republicans out. What issues can the president try to put on the table to get Democrats excited? But if he doesn't get more involved in-- again, raising money and-- and-- and making this a-- a-- a choice as-- as Dan Pfeiffer said, you lose the Senate, and if you lose the Senate, turn out the lights because the party's over.
GREGORY: Is the Senate in danger?
MR. GIBBS: Definitely.
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. There’s…
GREGORY: How come Dan Pfeiffer didn't say it?
MR. GIBBS: Because I-- I did the same thing a few years ago on your show…
MR. GIBBS: …and I still have tire tracks from Nancy Pelosi, from saying…
GREGORY: Not being so happy with you?
MR. GIBBS: …that I thought that-- you-- you…
MR. GIBBS: Honesty, you can only go so far in Washington when you're employed. So as a consultant, I can say all these things now. But there’s no doubt. I mean, and if you look at-- they’ve got to pick up six seats, which is not a small number. But what gives them a huge advantage, obviously, is the states that they're in. As Israel mentioned…
MR. GIBBS: …in-- in-- in Louisiana and in North Carolina, in Montana, places that the president didn't do well.
GREGORY: All right. But Israel, be a little counterintuitive here against your own party. Yeah, David Jolly won in-- in Florida '13 and he ran on a big anti-Obamacare message, shows that he can get voters out behind him, Republicans who are certainly motivated to-- to make a statement against Obamacare as a symbol of what they don't like about the president. But there is still the government shutdown. There’s still the idea as Dan Pfeiffer said that Republicans are going to be seen as the wrong-- on the wrong side of the those economic issues. Is there something you worry about?
MR. ORTEGA: I think Kimberly Strauss had a great column in The Washington Post or-- I’m sorry…
MR. ORTEGA: …(Unintelligible) Journal on Friday. And she basically said that what-- what was interesting about that election was that now, Congressmen-elect David Jolly was on the offensive. And so not only was he criticizing Obamacare, but he was talking about conservative policy prescriptions on providing health insurance for those who don't have it. And so I think that could be what you can draw from that election is if-- if conservatives are on the offensive…
MR. ORTEGA: …and are not just receiving the Democrats’ and-- and liberals' attacks, then I think they can be successful.
GREGORY: You know, John, again, to get a perspective outside of our-- our focus inside the beltway. What breaks this? I mean if you-- you sense this pessimism, a sense of stagnation in Washington. What shakes it up? Because that's a question I get a lot as I go around the country.
MR. RALSTON: You know, the interesting thing is, Tip O'Neill said what he said for a reason. You know, all these places are different. You know, the swing district in Nevada, which is congressional district three, held by a Republican, it's very close to the district. A lot of resources there. It’s different than Florida '13 or-- or-- or any other place in the country. People have different feelings about where they live and-- and-- and what motivates them. We can talk about the macro all we want, but it’s-- there's a reason 95 percent of-- of-- of congressmen keep getting re-elected. It’s how those districts are drawn. The one really interesting thing that Dan Pfeiffer said and it kind of was a throwaway line to you, David-- was this technology and-- and the ability of the Obama campaign to go to a different level on this. I think Republicans are finally like waking up, oh-- oh, the internet? It exists? And-- and so, I think, they're finally learning how to use some of the same techniques. But the Democrats have been so far ahead, thanks to the Obama campaign. That could still make a difference in some of these races.
GREGORY: All right.
MS. RYAN: But I think what-- what breaks is a string of successes that some-- some evidence or examples of Washington working together and…
MS. RYAN: …one of the more discouraging points is that the one issue where it seemed like there could be progress, immigration-- it really seems dead and it seems like that was all but an admission of it.
GREGORY: I-- I-- the incentives have to change. And…
MS. RYAN: Right.
GREGORY: …this is-- this is-- this is about citizens, you know, changing the incentives for politicians. All right. We’re going to take a break here. We'll come back with all of you. Coming up next, our Harry Smith talks to outspoken comedian Bill Maher. Maybe he has the answer on what ails America. He does think our political system is broken, including some strong words for the president's health insurance plan.
MR. BILL MAHER: The problem with Obamacare is not, of course, too much socialism. It’s still too much capitalism.
GREGORY: Now, time for our MEET THE PRESS Moment. And on this Sunday, we couldn't help but go beyond the MEET THE PRESS archives. This week mark, as you know, the 25th anniversary of the invention of the World Wide Web. And here's some keen insight into future trends from a young reporter with KCRA television in Sacramento way back in 1994.
(Videotape; KCRA-TV 1994)
GREGORY: What's out there is limitless. There's an internet yellow pages listing subjects of information from A to Z you can access on the system.
It's estimated there are at least 30 million people using the internet service worldwide and experts predict by the turn of the century, that number could go up to several hundred million.
And while the service has always been able to be offer facts about the world or the weather, coming in 1995…
WOMAN: This is the Godiva Chocolate homepage.
GREGORY: That's right. Purchasing power. You can buy such things as chocolates on the internet or even order pizza from this electronic storefront.
GREGORY: Wow. I just-- I couldn't resist poking a little bit of fun at myself the idea that you can buy chocolate on the internet. It's as if they did that a hundred years ago.
MS. RYAN: It's a revolution, yes.
MS. RYAN: The-- the piece that you did and we've seen a lot of 25th anniversary pieces, the-- but the innovation that the internet has offered my industry, for example…
MS. RYAN: ...just in terms of changing communication from a unilateral model to bilateral model, different level of civic engagement, it's still kind of wondrous to people.
GREGORY: It's just show-- I mean, you know, even-- even 1994 doesn't seem like that long ago. It was-- in this realm, it was a long time ago. Okay. We'll get another break in here. We're going to come back with our images to remember. And later, as I said, comedian Bill Maher with his take on what needs to be fixed in this country.
GREGORY: Here now some of this week's images to remember.
MH370: Praying for passengers of missing Malaysia plane.
Throwback Photo: Colin Powell posts selfie from 60 yrs ago.
St. Patrick's Day: Chicago River dyed green.
Iconic WWII Image: Man known as kissing sailor dies at 86.
Paralympics: U.S. sled hockey wins gold against Russia.
GREGORY: This week's images to remember. In a moment here, our Harry Smith meets comedian Bill Maher who speaks his mind about Obamacare, marijuana legalization and what he says is the biggest problem in the country today.
MR. BILL MAHER: Harry Reid, the leader in the Senate, the cure for common charisma, a man with the oratorical skills of the OnStar operator.
GREGORY: We are back. So when it comes to politics, comedian Bill Maher doesn't pull any punches. You might have noticed that if you watch his HBO show. Well recently, he's been thinking about how dysfunctional politics has become in this country and he’s been dishing on both parties as he takes his message to red state America. Our Harry Smith caught up with him.
MR. HARRY SMITH: Reliably funny and reliably liberal, Bill Maher has been mounting a one-man comedic insurgency around the country.
MR. MAHER: I know everywhere there are smart, progressive, free-thinking people. They're just surrounded by a bunch of red necks. I understand that.
MR. SMITH: What's it like when you take your stuff to a red state?
MR. MAHER: Better than-- better than blue states even. But there is an extra added excitement in the red states in places where people don't often see someone like me. There is not a place I can find in America that is so red that I can't get 3,000 screaming atheists to come see me on a Sunday, you know.
MR. SMITH: Maher’s sardonic smirk has held forth Friday nights on HBO for more than a decade. He says if the country has a case of the blahs, he's not surprised. Take health care, please.
Was Obamacare a mistake?
MR. MAHER: The problem with Obamacare is not of course too much socialism. It's still too much capitalism. The reason why it's so screwed up is because we have to have this Rube Goldberg plan that allows for pharmaceutical companies to get their cut and insurance companies to get their cut and hospitals to enrich themselves and doctors to get rich. It should be a non-profit thing. Perhaps elections should not be a profit-making endeavor or cost two billion dollars. Of course, we're American, the exceptionalism, exceptionally stupid on this point but we are exceptional.
Obama's soft on terror. Ask any wedding party in Afghanistan. He is so soft on terror. Like remember that time he found bin Laden and he let him off? With a warning and a stiff fine.
MR. SMITH: And if anyone's to blame for most of what ails us, including the president's low approval ratings, it's not hard to guess who he faults.
Who are you most displeased with these days, Republicans or Democrats?
MR. MAHER: Oh, come one. Really? Seriously? Republicans. You know, I mean, in the last 20 years, that has not really been a choice. They just drove the short bus to crazy town at a certain point.
MR. SMITH: In a Bill Maher run world there’d be more news on the news, more Democrats in Congress, and a marijuana store in every strip mall.
Is legalization of marijuana…
MR. MAHER: Yes.
MR. SMITH: …an inevitability?
MR. MAHER: I think it is, yeah. I keep comparing it to gay marriage. Once you see it becoming legal and the world doesn't fall down the next day or the next week or the next year the issue kind of goes away.
MR. SMITH: For Maher's admittedly clouded perspective the world is most definitely askew.
MR. MAHER: I understand why the one percent-- the richest one percent vote Republican, they deserve those votes. You know what, they represent the richest one percent perfectly. Anybody else who does, just corporate America's useful idiots.
MR. SMITH: As for (Unintelligible) or malaise, if it's real, it's our fault.
What's wrong with us?
MR. MAHER: Well, oh gosh, where to begin with there? Well first of all, we're not very well informed. I mean, the political process, you know people used to take civics to at least know how the country work. We have become a country where science is pooh-poohed. It’s another one of those things that somehow has become politicized. People never used to argue that much about science.
We might argue about how we take these facts and move forward in a different direction. But we don't argue about the facts themselves. That's not true anymore. Facts themselves, come on, Harry, how much do we really know about facts?
MR. SMITH: For MEET THE PRESS, Harry Smith.
GREGORY: Thank you, Harry. I want to end with this. Bill Maher is talking about comparing Republicans and Democrats. We posed this question a little bit earlier on Facebook. Will President Obama be an asset or a liability for Democrats in November? It ties this conversation together. What do you think, Israel?
MR. ORTEGA: Well, I mean, I think especially this week, I think it's going to be a liability. I'm going to be curious to see how the president follows through on-- on the Russian Ukraine situation. We heard a lot of frankly platitudes and so I'm looking for-- for substance. At the Heritage Foundation we made a number of recommendations including withdrawing from the-- the New START Treaty. So that's what I'm looking for.
MS. RYAN: One Democrat and our reporters found-- said that Obama has become poison, so I think that's in the liability column.
GREGORY: That's in the liability. What do you see, Jon?
MR. RALSTON: I think it's a little literally. This 41 percent, no one's going to be inviting him now. We don’t know what's going to change but the other thing that was in that poll, Republican brand is not very good at all. In fact, it's-- it's worse than the Democratic brand in term when it comes to Congress. So it's not going to be like the Republicans are going to be able to capitalize on that that much. But I don't think you're going to see the president visiting as many places as he has in the past.
MR. GIBBS: Real estate wise, obviously, it will not be a positive but the only person that can get Democratic voters excited and push an agenda that gets them some matter of enthusiasm to change turnout has to be the president.
MS. RYAN: Or Bill Clinton.
GREGORY: Or Bill Clinton. Right. Where's Bill Clinton? All right. Thank you all very much.
Final note here, March Madness is here and this year it will include my alma mater, American University, the Eagles. They're going to the big dance for the first time since 2009 after winning the Patriot League Championship. We're very proud. Go AU. That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.
First published March 16 2014, 11:12 AM