Meet the Press   |  September 08, 2013

1: McDonough gives latest update on Syria

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough visits Meet the Press to discuss the administration's efforts in Syria.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> this sunday morning, the crisis in syria . a huge test for president obama . can he successfully make the case for a military strike ?

>> it's tough because people do look to the united states . and the question for the american people is, is that a responsibility they're willing to bear?

>> the president's hard sell. will congress go align? here with me live to help answer that question, the white house chief of staff , denis mcdonough . right now much of congress is undecided, and polls show strong public opposition. we'll go coast to coast with three influential members of congress . plus, president obama 's primetime address to the nation tuesday night. our roundtable weighs in on his challenge ahead.

>>> and there's just 48 hours before new york city 's primary.

>> stay out of the public eye .

>> that's not for you to judge, my friend.

>> embattled mayoral candidate anthony wiener goes one on one with "today's" savannah guthrie in an exclusive interview. i'm david gregory . all that ahead on "meet the press" for sunday, september 8th .

>> announcer: from nbc news in washington, the world 's longest-running television program, this is "meet the press."

>> and good sunday morning. the obama administration has released disturbing pictures that apparently show the aftermath of a chemical attack in syria . this is video, the administration showed members of congress this week in order to make the case for military strikes. it appears to show victims of the august 1st attack by bashar al assad that killed more than 1,400 people. joining me now, the president's chief of staff, denis mcdonough . welcome back.

>> thanks for having me, david .

>> you have made the statements that these pictures, among other evidence, makes the case to congress and the american people , and yet congress doesn't appear to be with you when it comes to military strikes. why not?

>> look, i hope that every member of congress , before he or she decides how they'll cast their vote, will look at those pictures. let me tell you what i've been up to for the last couple weeks, david , talking to members of congress , dozens of them, including at least two who will be on your panel. nobody is rebutting the intelligence . nobody doubts the intelligence . that means that everybody believes that bashar al assad used chemical weapons against his own people to the tune that you just said, of killing nearly 1,500 on august 21st . so the question for congress this week is what are the consequences for his having done so? how congress chooses to answer that question will be listened to very clearly in damascus , but not just in damascus . also in tehran and lebanese and hezbollah.

>> i want to apologize for interrupting. you're saying, look, if we don't do this, iran, which you believe is developing a nuclear weapon , looks at that and says, aha! the natures could be trifled with.

>> i think it's very difficult for us to know exactly what is happening in tehran . but what we do know is to communicate with them, we have to be very clear, very forthright. this is an opportunity to be both with the iranians to make sure that they understand that they do not have greater freedom of action. they do not have greater operating space to pursue a nuclear weapon which would destabilize that entire region, threaten our friends and allies and ultimately threaten us.

>> is this more about iran than it is syria ?

>> this is about a series of very important things. in the first instance, almost 100 years old now, a prohibition against the use of chemical weapons . why does that matter? well, it matters for the reason that you started the show with, but it also matters for another reason. our troops have not been subjected to chemical weapon as tacks since world war i. imagine, it was the weapon of the day in world war i, but because of our work and the work of our partners, it has now been prohibited except in many few instances, and we have to make sure that for the sake of our guys, our men and women on the front lines , that we reinforce this prohibition.

>> you know, i'm hearing you make this case. i know the president's speaking tuesday night, and i'm sure he will say similar things. and yet you look at the polling. this past week, nearly 60% of the american public is opposed to military strikes in syria . it's almost a collective sense in the country saying why is the united states going to start another war?

>> right. and it's entirely understandable. given everything that our country has gone through, the great sacrifices that our families, that our troops and their families have made, the investments that we've made. that's why the president has been very clear. and let me just underscore that now. here's what this is not. no boots on the ground . not an extended air campaign. not a situation like iraq and afghanistan. not a situation even like libya. this is a targeted, limited, consequential action to reinforce this prohibition against these weapons that unless we reinforce this prohibition will proliferate and threaten our friends and our allies.

>> but what's the point? if you're outlining what it's not, what does it actually accomplish that forces assad to never use these weapons again?

>> here's what it does. it degrades his capacity to use them again. it also makes him think twice before he goes to these dastardly weapons again. and why does that matter? if he's going to use these things more aggressively, david , he's going to take them out of secure storage, push them onto the front lines . you know what that means? there's a greater risk of them being proliferated.

>> is there any question that he ordered attack personally?

>> no question in my mind. and i just want to bring back to this question, david , not a single member of congress has rebutted the intelligence as i've consulted with them. and the question then becomes what are the consequences for him for having done this, and what does the world read from how we react to it?

>> but congress , nor the public, is convinced that what you say you'll do will actually accomplish what you say you must accomplish.

>> well, that's why it's so important, and that's why the president went to congress and said, you know what? we want to get off this permanent war footing . that's what the president has been doing. he ended the war in iraq . and he said to congress , i want you to be my full partner in the prosecution of this effort. you, congress , as full partners will ensure greater discipline in how we carry this out. you, congress , will ensure that when we say it's a targeted mission, it does not creep. and that's exactly why we want congress involved.

>> are you committed to changing momentum on the syrian battlefield?

>> we have a policy that includes all the indications and all the weapons of our strength, diplomatic, economic and kinetic that would undercore and help us carry out our policy goal at the end of the day .

>> does the president want the rebels to win or not?

>> the president wants there to be a resolution, a political resolution, among syrians . that's how these things end. so we need to empower the syrians , the moderate opposition, we're supporting them.

>> do you want to change -- with military action . direct question , do you want to change the momentum on the battlefield?

>> there is no doubt that this military action will degrade his capability, and it will send a very clear signal. we've seen now indications that for these several weeks since we've been having this debate in this country, the syrians are on high alert. when they're on high alert worrying about what's going to happen to them, it erodes their capability to attack the opposition and carry out these heinous attacks. that's in our interests.

>> do you want to change momentum on the battlefield? i think that's a critical question in terms of where the mission goes.

>> there is no doubt that momentum on the battlefield will be changed by a targeted, limited effort, but ultimately the resolution of this, david , there's not a military resolution to this. mrs. a political resolution. and our effort to target this effectively will only help that political diplomatic resolution.

>> the president seems to me has a bit of a predicament here. he doesn't want to get into hypotheticals in case congress says no. but here's the reality. both the president and secretary of state kerry have made references to the holocaust. they have said american credibility is at stake. the president in europe said europeans know what happens, referring to the holocaust, when europe basically turns away and doesn't act in the face of this kind of carnage. my question is, how does the president not act even if congress says no?

>> look, the president's been very clear that going to congress was a step designed to make congress a full partner. when they're a full partner, we're stronger. so this is not an emplty exercise. the question is if you want there to be consequences for the assad regime with all the intended and associatesed complications for our national security if we don't, then you have to vote yes on this resolution, and that's a message that we'll be working throughout this week, after having really set the table.

>> my question is if they say no, has not the president made it impossible not to act given what he says is the consequences the stakes are, and the fact he's already made it clear he doesn't feel he needs congressional authority to act?

>> david , i'm not going to start -- i'm not going to be the first person who answers the if questions on your show. i'm not going to get into hypothetical. it's a very high-stakes question for congress this week. with the intelligence showing what it shows, what are the consequences for the assad regime? they have an opportunity to answer that question.

>> i think a lot of the criticism of the president has been trying to understand why there's been some zigzag to the approach, some changes in the approach, and indeed, what the ultimate leadership position is of the president. he said something that raised some eyebrows on wednesday with regard to the red line . here's what he said.

>> my credibility is not on the line. the international community 's credibility is on the line. and america and congress 's credibility is on the line.

>> why is the president's credibility not on the line? he's the one who issued the red line . he's really out in front of the international community , isn't he?

>> no, david . if you look at the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons , it goes back more than 100 years. in fact, it was then ratified in the chemical weapons convention by the republican-led senate working with president clinton in 997 where they passed it in a bipartisan way. this is a bipartisan thing, an international standard .

>> is the united states just an equal partner on the international stage? or are we the world 's leader?

>> there's no question that we're the world 's leader.

>> it appeared he was trying to distance himself from his own credibility. he is the one who said, if he used a bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized that would change my calculus. that would change my equation. hasn't the president of the united states put his credibility on the line saying you do this, if you cross this line, you're in trouble?

>> declarer to policy is something we do all over the world . and we set very clear -- communicate very clear signals to our adversaries so that they understand exactly what's on the docket. i was sitting in the national security council staff at that time. we saw indications, public and private, of what he was preparing to do. and so we undertook a very aggressive effort, publicly and privately, directly with him and his cohorts, but also with our other allies to make sure that this did not happen. because the implications of it are very robust, very negative for our national security interests. and what this intelligence shows, what we've debated and what we've briefed and nobody has debated or rebutted is that he did it.

>> before you go, i want to allow you to respond to some criticism that has come from the right, a consistent critic, columnist charles krauthammer in "the washington post " really summing up some of the criticism against the president. i'll give you a chance to respond. i'll put it on the screen. assad has to go, says obama , and then lifts not a finger for two years. obama lays down a red line and then ignores it. shamed finally by massive poison gas attack, he sends kerry to make an impassioned case for retaliation and the very next day obama undermines everything by declaring an indefinite time-out to seek congressional approval. the stunning zigzag following months of hesitation, ambivalence, contradiction and studied delay left our regional allies shocked and our enemies gleeful.

>> a couple things. the president has led the international community and bringing to bear sanctions, travel bans, and greater isolation for them. but what we've learned is that is insufficient to stop them from using these dastardly weapons. and so it's a very precise question. he, having used these weapons, should be held to account. that question is before congress this week. and it's an opportunity for all of us. we're in partnership. we're stronger and i think charles krauthammer as well as anybody else would recognize that congress working together with the president makes us stronger and sends a very clear signal to damascus , tehran and beyond.

>> victory in syria means that assad can never use chemical weapons again.

>> victory in this targeted effort means that he is degraded from being able to do it again, and he is deterred from doing it again. ultimately resolution of the wider conflict, that's an issue for syrians to resolve. we will continue to support the moderate opposition in ways that the president has already laid out to the country. so we will resolve -- help them resolve it, but that's theirs to resolve. we have a very narrow issue here. that we need to address. which is the use of these dastardly weapons which have not been used against our guys in nearly 100 years. we want to make sure that continues.

>> the debate goes on. i appreciate your time very much.

>> thanks, david .

>>> we want it turn to the fight on capitol hill where the president is trying to convince even skeptical members of his own party. joining me the senator from new mexico, a democrat on the foreign relations committee . he voted against giving the president authority for strikes this week in a key preliminary vote. senator, welcome. you just heard denis mcdonough preview what the president will say to you and the rest of the country tuesday. have you changed your mind?

>> no, david , i haven't changed my mind. and i think the most important thing here is we -- we all know, first of all, that what he did, bashar al assad , was a heinous act. it's despicable. my heart is broken when i see that video and you see women and children dying as a result of chemical weapons . so let's be clear on that. and i think it's pretty clear that he did this. but the big question for the congress right now is what is the most effective way to move forward? and i think the american people don't want to be embroiled in a middle eastern civil war . this is an act of war that we're going to take. we haven't exhausted all of our political, economic and diplomatic alternatives. and that's where i want to be focusing. we ought to be rallying the world . we ought to be rallying the world because all the world agrees, david , all the world agrees you shouldn't use chemical weapons . and make sure that russia knows that they're complicit in this. this is what we need to be doing.

>> senator --

>> i'm very disappointed that the administration has given up -- they have given up on the united nations and on rallying the world .

>> senator, we have a three-second delay, so it's difficult, a apologize for jumping in, but i want to pin you down on something. the world has not been rallied. russia is opposed to this. but you just heard the chief of staff of the president say that the intelligence here is rock solid. the president has issued a red line . are you not concerned about inaction on the part of the united states if this, in fact, occurred and the president said he'd have to take action if that were to happen?

>> i don't think we have inaction, number one. i think we're doing more than any other country in the region. i think we have moved effectively there to provide defenses to our allies who are rallying the international community in terms of humanitarian aid . but the key question right now is how are we going to be effective in the future? how are we going to save lives? how are we going to move to this political solution? and i don't think a couple of tomahawk missiles delivered in on top of the syrian military are going to do that. i think what we're talking about is moving much too rapidly down the war path and not trying to find a political solution through the international community . and russia , we haven't even made them vote. you know, everybody says, well, russia 's going to veto it. they keep saying they haven't seen the intelligence . we ought to show them the intelligence . we ought to take the intelligence to the world and like has been done in the past, in the united nations and the security council , a presentation has to exactly what has happened here and why russia is complicit in all of this. and i think we have a real chance to move us forward in a very, very positive vein.

>> all right, senator tom udall this morning with quick reaction to the administration's case. i appreciate your time very much.

>>> coming up later here, our political roundtable on what may be the biggest challenge yet for the presidency of president obama . david axelrod , newt gingrich , jane harman and chuck todd with us.

>>> plus, "today's" savannah guthrie in an exclusive interview with anthony wiener. why is he still in the race?

>>> when we come back, the debate in congress over syria . three house members on the tough choice they are now facing.