NBC News - Meet The Press
This Sunday, violence in Virginia.
MALE POLICE OFFICER (RECORDING):
If you do not disperse immediately, you will be arrested.
White nationalists clash with counter-protesters in Charlottesville. One person is killed when a car plows into a crowd. We'll have a report from the scene this morning and I'll talk to the mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer. Plus, the president's reaction. President Trump denounces the disturbance, but not the neo-Nazis nor the Klan participants.
DONALD TRUMP (RECORDING):
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.
Did the president fail his first task as healer-in-chief? And the president's tough talk on North Korea. It started here.
DONALD TRUMP (RECORDING):
They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.
Went to here.
DONALD TRUMP (RECORDING):
If anything, maybe that statement wasn't tough enough.
And landed here.
DONALD TRUMP (RECORDING):
If he utters one breath, he will truly regret it. And he will regret it fast.
Is it all bluster or a necessary warning to a rogue nation with nuclear weapons? I'll ask National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen. Joining me for insight and analysis are Joy Reed, host of AM Joy on MSNBC; Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review; Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report; and Helene Cooper, pentagon correspondent for the New York Times. Welcome to Sunday. It's Meet the Press.
From NBC News in Washington, the longest-running show in television history, celebrating its 70th year, this is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.
Good Sunday morning. In the opening months of this presidency, many of us have wondered how President Trump would respond to the type of crisis when the nation looks to its president. Could he lead? Could he inspire? Could he heal? He didn't have one test this week. He's had two. We'll get to the North Korea situation later. But yesterday, we received another reminder of just how volatile race and extremism can be in America today.
Violent clashes broke out in Charlottesville, Virginia, between white nationalists protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue and some counter-protesters. Shortly after, the Virginia governor, Terry McAuliffe, declared a state of emergency and the clashes broke up. A car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring 19 others. The F.B.I. has now opened a civil rights investigation into the incident.
Adding to an already tragic day, a chopper carrying two Virginia state police officers who were hovering in the air monitoring the violence crashed a few miles outside of the city. Both officers were killed. Here's how Charlottesville's city manager reacted to the violence.
MAURICE JONES (RECORDING):
Hate came to our town today in a way that we had feared, but we had never really let ourselves imagine would.
Our own Tom Costello is on the ground in Charlottesville this morning. And Tom, I take it a lot more calm this morning than there has been the last 48 hours.
Chuck, good morning to you. We are at the epicenter. That is the statue behind me of General Robert E. Lee. It is now, as you know, Emancipation Park, no longer Lee Park. And this is where those white supremacists came yesterday. We now have an identity on that woman who was killed when that car came barreling through the counter-protesters, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed.
And we have a name of the suspect who has been arrested, 20-year-old Alex Fields of Ohio charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding, one count of hit-and-run. He will be in court tomorrow. Three more people arrested as well, charged with disorderly conduct, misdemeanor assault, battery, carrying a concealed weapon. This got out of hand very, very quickly. But this morning, peace in Charlottesville and a very heavy police presence, Chuck.
Now, I'm going to be talking to the mayor in a minute here. And there have been some folks there questioning the police response yesterday. Did they stand back too much? But there were times when you were watching the video that we saw a lot of armed people. But those weren't police. Who were they?
Well, what's very interesting is that some of these white nationalists and neo-Nazis and KKK members apparently came here armed and prepared for battle. They were dressed in this almost paramilitary garb, if you will. They had body armor on.
Some veterans, by the way, of the military say that some of that stuff looks like it came right out of the military. Also, they were wearing helmets. They had shields. They had clubs. Some of them were actually carrying weapons. Keep in mind this is an open-carry state. And, so, they came into this in a very intimidating fashion. They were met with counter-protesters who were determined not to allow those white nationalists to gain any momentum in this town.
And, as a result, we had the clash literally where I'm standing. What you can't see is at my feet the street is covered in dye and in paint. They've had bottles and broken bottles and cans all over the streets. They've been picking that up today. But it does appear that those individuals, those white supremacists, left town yesterday.
And they seem to have scattered. We don't know where they all went. We presume all went back to their homes, wherever that might be. But the locals here say that they didn't recognize any of those white supremacists as locals. They believe that they all came from out of state, or many of them came from out of state.
All right, Tom Costello on the ground for us. Tom, thanks very much. Shortly after the violence in Charlottesville broke out, President Trump tweeted, "We all must be united and condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Let's come together as one." But it was what the president said later in the day, or more to the point what he didn't say, or even tweet, that is getting by far the most attention. The president's comments and the sharp reaction to them put a political coda on a day that many feared for weeks would end in the kind of violence we saw unfold yesterday.
MALE CHARLOTTESVILLE WITNESS:
And just went flying everywhere, the pedestrians. And, I mean, it's the most horrific thing I've ever seen in my life.
CHUCK TODD (RECORDING):
Tragedy and violence, a 32-year-old woman killed, and 19 injured when a car accelerated into a crowd of counter-demonstrators. Police arrested James Alex Fields of Ohio and charged him with one count of second-degree murder. Hours later, two state police officers assisting with public safety died when their helicopter crashed.
The deaths were a painful end to a violent day as white nationalists chanting neo-Nazi slogans, many carrying weapons, holding Nazi symbols and Confederate flags clashed with counter-protestors. Over just the past several weeks, Mr. Trump has condemned his party's leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, members of Congress, and his own attorney general. The president's response to white supremacists in Charlottesville was tepid by comparison.
DONALD TRUMP (RECORDING):
We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.
Asked to clarify, an unnamed White House official told NBC News the president was condemning hatred, bigotry, and violence from all sources and all sides. There was violence between protesters and counter-protesters today.
FEMALE REPORTER (RECORDING):
Mr. President, do you want the support of these white nationalist groups, who say they support you, Mr. President? Have you denounced them strongly enough?
As some of the white nationalists cited Trump's victory as validation for their beliefs.
DAVID DUKE (RECORDING):
We are determined to take our country back. We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what we believed in. That's why we voted for Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump chose not to condemn them. Many elected Republicans seemed to agree the president did not go far enough. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who is in charge of getting Senate Republicans elected in 2018, tweeted, "Mr. President, we must call evil by its name. These were white supremacists and this was domestic terrorism."
Florida's Marco Rubio, quote, "Very important for the nation to hear POTUS describe events in Charlottesville for what they are: a terror attack by white supremacists." Utah Senator Orrin Hatch tweeted, "My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home." And Texas Senator Ted Cruz, quote, "The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil. And all of us have a moral obligation to speak out." And joining me now is the mayor of Charlottesville, Michael Signer.
Mr. Mayor, I know it's been a tough 48 hours for you in your job. So, let me just ask you this right now. 24 hours later, do you look back and think, are you prepared to say what you could have done better, what you could have done to prepare for this? Or is this something that just no city can prepare for?
MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER:
Well, thanks, Chuck. The first thing I'd start by saying is that our thoughts and prayers are with Burke Bates and Pat [sic] Cullen, the two Virginia State police troopers who lost their lives yesterday, and Heather Heyer, the civilian who was killed in that, I think it's clear a terrorist attack with a car used as a weapon. Our hearts are grieving right now. And three people died who didn't need to die. Charlottesville is one of the great cities in the world. And we're a Southern city, too. We're very progressive and tolerant. But we made a decision about a year and a half ago to, at long last, start telling deliberately the full story of race in our city, in our past, to tell the truth.
And that put us on the map for a whole bunch of folks in this country who oppose everything about that. And, so, what we saw this weekend was a deluge of outsiders trying to intimidate us away from that work. But to your question, we had the largest assembly of law-enforcement personnel in Virginia since 9/11. They were charged with one mission, which was setting the conditions for people to peaceably express themselves and assemble. They didn't do that starting right at the beginning.
So, an unlawful assembly was properly called. And events unfolded from there. But we're going to move past this. The healing has just begun here. We've got important work to do in our democracy and we're going to get going on that now. This is the city to do it.
You, on one hand, thanked the president for condemning the violence. But you added this. You said, "I do hope he looks himself in the mirror and thinks very deeply about who he consorted with during the campaign." What are you referring to there?
MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER:
An old saying, “when you dance with the devil, the devil doesn't change, the devil changes you.” And I think they made a choice in that campaign, a very regrettable one, to really go to people's prejudices, to go to the gutter. These influences around the country, these anti-Semites, racists, Aryans, Nazis, KKK, they were always in the shadows.
But they've really been given a key and a reason to come into the light. That's exactly what happened last week. If you looked at the chatter online, they said this will be a shot heard around the world. This will be alt-right 2.0 in Charlottesville.
The time has come for this to stop. This should be a turning point. This movement jumped the shark. And it happened yesterday. People are dying. And I do think that it's now on the president and on all of us to say enough is enough. This movement has run its course.
Mr. Mayor, I know it's been tough. I know you've got students coming in, U.V.A. session’s about to begin, freshmen. I will pass on to them, and I know you will, Charlottesville is a great city and a very safe city.
MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER:
Thank you. It is.
And a bunch of outsiders can't mess it up. Thank you, mayor.
MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER:
If anything, we're going to get better. Thank you.
You got it. Let's jump to the panel that's here, Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review, U.V.A. alum; Helene Cooper, Pentagon correspondent for the New York Times; Amy Walter, national editor for the Cook Political Report; and Joy Reid, host of AM Joy on MSNBC.
Rich, I'm going to read right from your publication. Today, David French wrote this: "If there ever was a time in recent American political history for an American president to make a clear, unequivocal statement against the alt-right, it was today.
"Instead, we got a vague condemnation of, quote, 'hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.' This is unacceptable, especially given that Trump can be quite specific when he's truly angry. Just ask the Khan family, Judge Curiel, James Comey, or any other person he considers a personal enemy."
Hey, you had people in Charlottesville who were marching in the president's name. You had David Duke name-checking the president of the United States, which you would've thought made it all the more important for the president to be specific denouncing these white supremacists.
And this was a moment, Chuck, obviously, where the president could've elevated himself. Instead, he came up small. And that's one of the reasons I think you've seen such a premium on the statements from other Republicans on moral clarity, given the president's ambiguity.
Joy, it was amazing to see that. It was almost as if the Republican Party was waiting to see what he would do. And then, it was a rush to say, "Whoa." He's on an island right now, I think, in his party.
He is. Donald Trump failed the fundamental test of leadership. And this was an easy test for any president of the United States to clear. This is the country that heroically swooped in during World War II. The idea that a president of the United States cannot unambiguously denounce Nazism is extraordinary. And Donald Trump has placed himself in a history. There is no way that I think the American people could've contemplated that their president cannot unequivocally condemn David Duke and Nazis. And he couldn't. And he didn't.
Yeah, the president has been very clear. You can't defeat terrorism if you can't call it Islamic terrorism. Well, you can't unify the country without calling out hatred and bigotry. And there is no unity. There is no way that you can say there are both sides to this or equal sides to this bigotry.
There was one group that was bigoted and hateful and racist. And then, there was the anti-group. And what's curious is to see where we go from here. Is the president going to choose, after he's getting, as you pointed out, denounced by all sides. Will he choose tomorrow to come out and make a stronger statement?
He hasn't tweeted this morning, Helene. And, frankly, I think there hasn't been the clarification. There hasn't been any of that. I want to throw in Michael Gerson, George W. Bush speechwriter, now Washington Post columnist. He wrote this: "If great words can heal and inspire, base words can corrupt. Trump has been delivering the poison of prejudice in small but increasing doses. In Charlottesville, the effect became fully evident and the president had no intention of decisively repudiating his work." Gerson going farther, saying this was not just a choice, but a strategy almost.
I think that's a really interesting point to make. I think President Trump has had probably his worst week this past week. And that's because in the two instances that you alluded to earlier in the program, he has fulfilled every fear that his critics and a lot of people had about him when he became president.
And that is, one, because of his campaign and because of the side of America that he brought out in his campaign, that he would not be able to detach himself from these white supremacists who got him elected and who he has put in his government and in the White House. That's one. That's always, that’s been a big fear.
And the other great fear that people had before he came president was that he would be too loose, and this is not somebody that you necessarily might want in charge of a button that can launch a nuclear weapon. This is not somebody that you want receiving the 3:00 a.m. phone call. And with the way he has handled North Korea this past week and then, shockingly, shockingly, what he did yesterday and what he failed to do yesterday just feeds that. People think that this is what they expected.
I do think he, obviously, should've specifically denounced the white nationalists. But there are two sides to this now. This country now has a violent fringe on the right and on the left, both of whom, the white nationalists and the so-called anti-fascists who like violence, who thrill to violence, like the attention that comes with it. And this is going to get worse before it gets better.
Can I say? And I think Helene made a very important point. Because I think that both-sidesism doesn't serve anyone well. This is an unambiguous evil that is plaguing the country. But Helene made, I think, the crucial point. One of the reasons that Donald Trump cannot properly respond to what was an obvious proper response from an America president is the people in his government. Who's writing the talking points that he was looking down and reading from?
He has people like Stephen Miller, claimed as a mentee by Richard Spencer, who is an avowed, open white nationalist. He has Steve Bannon, who's been allowed to meld into the normalcy of a governmental employee, but who ran breitbart.com, which I reread today the post that's still on their website where they self-describe as the home of the alt-right. What is the alt-right? It's a dressed-up term for white nationalism. They call themselves white identitarianism. They say that the tribalism that's inherent in the human spirit ought to be also applied to white people.
What is who is in his government. Sebastian Gorka, who wore the medal of Vitezi Rend, a Nazi organization, being paid by the taxpayer in the government of Donald Trump. The former Publius Decius blogger, Michael Anton, in the government. He is surrounded by these people. It isn't both sides. They're in the White House with him.
Look, you have so-called anti-fascists who dress in black, wear masks.
Were they beating clergy yesterday?
There was violence on both sides.
There was certainly not.
Yes, there was.
Were they attacking clergy?
You didn't see the video?
I spoke with clergy who were being beaten with brass knuckles by neo-Nazis.
Anti-fascists also beat people up, break things, and burn things. They both should be condemned. And look, I want the alt-right to be as limited as possible. I want it to go away and die. But you're not doing folks on my side any favors by defining it so widely that it includes Stephen Miller and Mike Anton. That's what they want. You're helping them by defining them so widely.
Have you read what they've read [sic]? Have you read the blog post that they've posted?
I don't think Mike Anton is a white nationalist. That's crazy.
I'm going to pause it here. Because we're going to take a break and we're going to keep having this conversation. I promise. Change it a little bit, but you guys will have a chance to continue when we come back. As I said, we'll continue our coverage of the violence in Charlottesville and the possible mainstreaming of these white nationalists in our political system. We'll be right back.
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Welcome back. In 2017, are we seeing some of these hate groups become mainstream? Sort of part of the conversation we were just having, according to Southern Poverty Law Center, there are currently 917 active hate groups in the United States. Between 2015 and 2016, we saw 197 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate groups.
That was a tripling of its number and a 23 percent increase in the nom-Confederate groups. Here's the center's map of all the active hate groups around the country. Amy Walter, look, it is not new to have this fringe. The Republican Party for a long time has fought very hard to keep these people out, you know. The Democratic Party pushed them out. Republican Party pushed them out. Until 2015, there's been this sense that there was a permission slip.
Yes, and I think to take it away from partisanship for a second, too, we're talking about a country now that is being divided in so many different ways. And the fact that we can't just have this conversation about a country that is diverse and continuing
to diversify, and how we have to grapple with these issues.
And we need leaders that are standing up and helping take us there. This debate started in Charlottesville over something that's going to continue in other cities across this country, which is how do we deal with the legacy of slavery? How do we deal with the legacy of the Confederacy? This isn't going away. This didn't start in 2016. This has been building and building and building. And what we don't have are people that are bringing us back together. Instead, we're having a debate over who's responsible for this fringe, who's responsible for that fringe.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post wrote on this issue of the shrines. And she writes this: "We've now erased the fictions that these monuments are about Southern heritage. No, they are giant concrete shrines to white nationalism." A lot of people are going to read that and hear that and get angry on this.
And a lot are going to say, "It's about time."
Yes, no. This is about time. It's very hard for me to have this conversation with you as a black woman and not personalize it. But we've talked about this before. We talked about this on this show, about the Confederate flag and what black people think when they see that. It's impossible given the legacy of slavery in this country and given what black people went through during the Civil Rights Movement, given that these are descendents of the exact same people who were standing outside that public school in New Orleans throwing oranges at that little girl as she was being taken in.
These are their descendents. These are the same people. And this is the same fight that has been going on in this country for more than 200 years. And, so, the idea that, "Oh, we're going to anger a few white nationalists because we're taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee," fine, get mad.
I've always been skeptical of the rush to tear all these things down. There's a distinction between Robert E. Lee and, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest, an early figure in the Klan. But if these monuments are going to become rallying points for neo-Nazis, maybe they do all have to go.
Right. And you wonder, why would you erect a monument? The Confederacy waged war on the United States. And, so, the idea of putting up those monuments actually didn't even happen right after the Civil War. It happened during the 1960s. It happened over the fight for desegregating schools.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, no one would've thought of putting up the flag of the Confederacy. Because they were treasonous. But in the 1960s, the idea was to make a statement. And the statement was being made to black people. It was being made to civil rights advocates that, "We're going to put up these statues of the Confederacy for a very distinct reason." That's why those statues are there. That's when they went there.
Let me throw this challenge at all four of you. Nobody here thinks President Trump handled it well. What can he do tomorrow? What can he do tomorrow to at least begin the scabbing process, I guess, to put it crassly?
I think one possible analogy is when he came out a couple weeks ago after that trip to Europe saying there was going to be a U.S.-Russia cybersecurity agreement. And you had every Republican denouncing it and mocking it. And then, he backed off. So, maybe he'll take a second bite of the apple, just sit down somewhere, maybe in the Oval Office, give a ten-minute speech that's written appropriately and says the right things. And it's really not hard to do.
Richard Painter has given Donald Trump the way out. And he's been tweeting about it repeatedly. He needs to rid his government of the alt-right. If there was ever an opportunity to do so, this would be the chance. The Bannonites inside of his government are the problem. They are who are writing these talking points. They are whose words he's reading on these podiums. And they are the source of the ideological rot inside of the White House.
What I really worry about is that we are going to move from this conversation very quickly because some shiny object is going to get thrown in front of us and we're going to miss the opportunity to have this conversation. There are very few people who are leading this conversation beyond just the violent piece of this. And I just fear that by Monday, we're going to be moving on to something else.
All right, when we come back I'm going to talk to the president's national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, about the other big story of the week, North Korea. And, of course, he's had his own run-ins with the alt-right. We'll be right back.
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CHUCK TODD: Welcome back. With the nuclear threat and provocations from North Korea growing by the day, much of the world was focused on President Trump’s somewhat incendiary rhetoric from “fire and fury” to “locked and loaded” to how much and how fast Kim Jong Un will regret attacking or even threatening the United States. The tough talk unnerved some, even as it heartened many of the president’s supporters. Still many were asking whether Mr. Trump’s words were all bluster or if it’s possible that we are edging toward a military confrontation with North Korea. Joining me now is the president’s National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. General, welcome to Meet the Press.
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Good morning. Great to be with you, Chuck.
CHUCK TODD: Before I get started there, I gotta ask about Charlottesville. And, perhaps, you’ve had a chance to talk with the president, either this morning or last night. Why didn’t he single out the neo-Nazis and the white supremacists.
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well, when he condemned bigotry and hatred on all sides, that includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis and I think it’s clear -- I know it’s clear in his mind -- and it ought to be clear to all Americans, we cannot tolerate obviously that bigotry, that hatred that is rooted in ignorance, ignorance of what American stands for, what America is.
CHUCK TODD: Should we expect to hear instead of from you, from him, some of those words?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I’m sure you will hear from the president more about this. I mean, this is important to the president to bring all Americans together. He said what we all have to be is all of us have to be Americans first. And that’s our common identity as Americans, grounded in our commitment to liberty, to human rights, to equal rights, and to tolerance, tolerance over this kind of hatred and bigotry.
CHUCK TODD: When you watched all of this yesterday, what was your reaction?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: It’s heart-breaking. It’s heart-breaking. You know, as a soldier, what you see in our military is you see men and women from all walks of life, all different backgrounds, come together, come together in their common commitment to their country and to each other. And then you see them in combat fighting courageously for our nation and our values. Everybody bleeds the same color. And we’re bound together as soldiers -- when we ought to be as a nation -- bound together by mutual respect and common commitment to our values.
CHUCK TODD: Was that domestic terrorism yesterday?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I think what terrorism is is the use of violence to incite terror and fear. And, of course, it was terrorism.
CHUCK TODD: So you do classify that as terrorism?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well, and from a legal sense --
CHUCK TODD: -- I understand that.
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: -- there will be a full investigation, as you know, but certainly I think we can confidently call it a form of terrorism.
CHUCK TODD: As I said before the break, you’ve had your own run-ins with the alt-right. And, in fact, one of the self-described leaders of this alt-right, this Mike Cernovich, tweeted this yesterday about you:
“McMaster’s media allies who he leaks to are trying to frame Bannon for #Charlottesville.”
Um, what is going on inside this White House with you and Mr. Bannon?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well, this is just a lot of noise from my perspective. I think everybody sees the president has assembled a tremendous national security team. And it’s, it’s a great privilege for me to be able to support and enable people like Secretary of State Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Director Pompeo, Ambassador Haley at the United Nations. And despite this noise, we’re getting quite a bit done in terms of developing and advancing strategies to prioritize the safety and security of the American people and to promote American prosperity.
CHUCK TODD: But I want to ask you about a couple of people individually. First, this gentleman by the name of Sebastian Gorka. What is his role in the National Security Council.
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Uh, you know, he is not in the National Security Council. So what we have --
CHUCK TODD: He seems to represent himself, though, as a spokesperson on national security, so why is that?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well, the scheduling people for the media and spokespeople is not my area of responsibility. What we focus on is coordinating and integrating efforts across the government and with our multinational partners and allies to present the president with options, options about some very serious national security challenges we face today and, and also options to take advantage of opportunities to secure the American and protect the American people and promote American prosperity.
CHUCK TODD: Should his word be taken on national security policy or not? Mr. Gorka?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well, you know, actually frankly I have not seen anything he’s said lately, so -- I’ve been focused on --
CHUCK TODD: He said Rex Tillerson -- when Rex Tillerson said everyone can sleep well at night -- he basically said to the BBC we should not take him at his word. Military matters aren’t his lane.
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well, we should always take Secretary of State Tillerson at his word. He is a tremendously talented leader and diplomat. And, of course, what’s different, I think, about President Trump’s approach in this administration is we’ve been able to achieve a very high integration of military efforts, but really military efforts to support diplomatic efforts and economic efforts. And so I think what you’re seeing with the problem set associated with North Korea, but others as well, is a very tight integration of all elements of national power done so in an effort move forward with our allies and partners.
CHUCK TODD:I don’t mean to belabor this point, but you have this memo that was written by a gentleman you have since fired by the name of Rich Higgins and it was frankly some very conspiratorial stuff, Marxists -- and he apparently put everybody in there -- “Globalists and Islamists recognize that for their visions to succeed America, both as an ideal and as a national and political identity must be destroyed. … Hence the sexism, racism and xenophobia memes.”
I guess I can understand why you got rid of him. But is it important to the president that this worldview be represented on the National Security Council.
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well, what’s really important is we have real work to do in the National Security Council. And so we have to have people in place who are going to advance that work. And so what you’ll see in the National Security Council is a team of extremely talented and dedicated sort of unsung heros who work very very hard to advance the president’s agenda, to provide the president with options, and then once the president makes decisions, to drive the sensible --
CHUCK TODD: I understand that. But is that worldview still represented on this National Security Council or is that something you’ve gotten rid of?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Well--I'm not really aware of any worldview at all except to serve our nation and to serve the president within the National Security Council and if there are those who, who come in, yea, with their own narrow agendas that aren't there to enable the president, who aren't there to serve the nation, then there shouldn't be a spot for them.
CHUCK TODD: The president was asked 'are we going to war?' and he said 'i think you know the answer to that.' We don't. What's the answer?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: The answer to that is, is that the most effective way to prevent war is to be prepared for it. And to make sure that there is a viable military option that, if necessary, you could execute to protect the American people, knowing that this is the gravest decision that any leader has to, has to make. And so what we're endeavoring to do is to resolve this North Korean crisis, a crisis that has grown, as you know, over the years and, as Dr. Kissinger said in a great, in a great editorial in the, in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, it's been--the approach to North Korea has been characterized by provocation and procrastination. Well, we can't procrastinate anymore. And so, the effort is to combine what we're doing diplomatically economically and with key allies and partners and others including China to resolve this short of any kind of military conflict.
CHUCK TODD: There's been a lot of confusion. Has the president drawn a red line? Is it a threat from Kim Jong Un? Is it a missile test to Guam? Can you explain how his words should be interpreted here? Particularly cause he seemed to say, the last one, even a threat was going to get a response. What's the red line here?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: The president doesn't draw red lines. What he does is he asks us to make sure that we have viable options for him. Options that combine diplomatic, economic, and military capabilities. And so that's what we've done. What's critical here, I think, is the president, through his engagement with world leaders, with our allies, our great allies Japan and South Korea, but also now with China, have recognized really three fundamental things. The first is this isn't just a US problem, this is a world problem. The second is that China has real influence to be able to cope with this. And the third and this is what's most important, that the goal, the common goal that we have to pursue is denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
CHUCK TODD: Are you concerned, I know tomorrow there's potential, the president's gonna sign a memo that begins the process of potentially punishing China on some trade practices. Are you concerned that that then pushes China away from being part of the solution here in North Korea?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: No, not at all. I think recognizes that we have to compete. America has to engage with the world---
CHUCK TODD: So they will separate this? This will not be conflated? Or should it be?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Certainly. And the operative word is not punish. The operative word is to compete effectively, to demand fair and reciprocal trade and economic relationships with not just China but with all countries. And so what the president is doing is everything he can to ensure a fair playing field to make sure that American workers, American businesses are not disadvantaged by the theft of intellectual property, or other unfair trade or economic practices.
CHUCK TODD: Can you and Steve Bannon still work together in this White House or not?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I get to work together with a broad range of talented people and it is a privilege every day to enable the national security team.
CHUCK TODD: You didn't answer can you and Steve Bannon work in that same White House?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I am, I am ready to work with anybody who will help advance the president's agenda and advance the security, prosperity of the American people.
CHUCK TODD: Do you believe Steve Bannon does that?
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: I believe that everyone who works in the White House who has the privilege, the great privilege every day of serving their nation should be motivated by that goal.
CHUCK TODD: Ok. General McMaster, the national security advisor, thanks for coming in.
LT. GEN. H.R. McMASTER: Thank you Chuck
CHUCK TODD: Appreciate it. When we come back the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, about whether it's time to accept North Korea as a nuclear power.
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Welcome back. Last night, I caught up with the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, about the threat North Korea poses and how we can keep the rhetorical warfare from turning into a shooting war that no one wants. I began by asking the admiral what he's telling his own family and friends about the apparent escalating tensions with North Korea.
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I'm really concerned, because I don't know where this goes in terms of a peaceful resolution. It's an incredibly difficult, complex problem, and we have rhetoric, some very strong rhetoric, coming from both North Korea, as well as from the United States. And that rhetoric, it seems to me, has taken away options or its reduced maneuver space, if you will, for leaders to make decisions. So I am extremely concerned, and I have heard from family and I have heard from friends about what's going on, who are extremely concerned with where we are and what the outlook is, which it seems to be one of forming critical mass. And if this results in a military strike, the unintended consequences of that, the possibility that there are disproportional responses, miscalculations. It can really get out of control fast.
CHUCK TODD: The president's rhetoric. Let's get to that on North Korea. There's been a whole round of it, and we've played it a lot earlier in the show. Is it effective or is it making things worse?
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Chuck, I, for some time, I think this actually has to be resolved through Beijing, and whether or not our president's rhetoric has moved Xi Jinping or not, I know they talked recently. Whether China actually is able to prioritize this – resolution of this – as a high interest to them, a national interest to them, is, to me, will be a big indicator as to whether or not what's going on is in any way moving in the right direction. I think it's got to be resolved politically, diplomatically through negotiations to ensure that we don't have a military conflict that could just get out of control.
CHUCK TODD: You said you're concerned the rhetoric has limited options. What options are you concerned that the president has eliminated with his rhetoric?
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: Well, I think it eliminates maneuver space for him because it looks like brinkmanship to me. And it looks like clearly he’s, at least, verbally focused very specifically on the military options with the rhetoric that's out there. It's almost a fire and brimstone, "Don't make another move or else." And the comment that military options are locked and loaded – We've always had military options, and they're very complex, but they can be executed. It almost seems as if we're leading with those, which makes an awful lot of, it unsettles an awful lot of people.
CHUCK TODD: Jim Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, he says, essentially, it, the notion of North Koreans denuclearizing is just – I think he called it a non-starter. And he essentially says it's time to accept the notion that they're going to be a nuclear regime, and we kind of have to move on from that. Do you accept that?
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I don't accept that yet. I, I recognize that as an option or an outcome, and certainly there is, there is one option is to accept that and then contain him. Obviously the concern you would have with that is somehow he has this weapon. And he's still somewhat of an unknown to us. And unpredictable and someone that we –
CHUCK TODD: Do you think he's rational?
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: -- couldn't in any way, shape or form predict.
CHUCK TODD: Do you think he's a rational actor--?
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: No, I don't think he's rational.
CHUCK TODD: You do not think he's rational?
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: I don't think he's a rational actor.
CHUCK TODD: Okay.
ADM. MIKE MULLEN: No, he’s got a – I don't think he's a rational actor. He's got a rich history in his family, the legacy to uphold. He is on a race to gain this capability. Much different from his father or his grandfather in terms of developing capability. He is in a flat out sprint to develop this capability, and then see what happens. I just can't bring myself to the point where we say, “Well, it's okay if this leader has these devastating weapons.”
Coming up, why is President Trump picking a fight with the one man he needs the most in the United States Senate? Oh, yeah, that happened this week, too. We'll be right back.
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Welcome back. I would like to talk a little North Korea. Before we get there, General McMaster, Steve Bannon, is that a relationship that's going to last the week? Anybody?
It does seem that if Steve Bannon was ever in jeopardy, this would be the time when he would be in the maximum jeopardy. Because you have these stories that Donald Trump is concerned he's a leaker, combined with the fact that his wing of the party is in the glare of the spotlight (unintelligible) because of Charlottesville. I think it's a question of whether the Kelly McMaster access can get control of this White House, which I think the majority of Americans would very much like for them to do.
An easy boil to lance politically, isn't it?
It was really an extraordinary moment. Because, obviously, H.R. McMaster, quick learner. He knows Washington speak. But he used Washington speak three times to basically answer your question, "No, I cannot work with Steve Bannon."
That's an important point. All right, where are we in North Korea? Where is Jim Mattis on North Korea this morning? Your beat, Helene, the secretary of defense, we've all been asked this question, friends and family. How serious is this?
The last thing that Jim Mattis or the Pentagon or the defense or General McMaster want or America's top military leaders want is any kind of military option on North Korea. You heard General McMaster right now saying we want to say that there's a viable military option.
It's very hard to imagine one that does not end up with retaliation not against the United States, not even against Guam necessarily, but Seoul. This is about South Korea. This is about Seoul, which is 45 minutes from the de-militarized zone. There are about 130,000 Americans who are in Seoul. You have more than 3 million foreigners there. You have 25,000 American troops in South Korea.
There is no way, and any military leader will tell you this,that there is no way, to strike North Korea without putting one of America's biggest allies in jeopardy. And at the end of the day, that underlies this reluctance to use a military option.
Do we need to be more patient with North Korea that eventually this will collapse? I think the Chinese think we can be more patient.
Well, that's an excellent question. But the president's rhetoric doesn't suggest that we can be. And this is really what the point of the McMaster-Bannon question was about, really is there's a good cop bad cop going on, certainly publicly, between the McMaster and Mattises and Tillerson about, "We can wait. We're going to do diplomacy versus fire and fury."
But we don't know what's going on internally. And that, really, to me is the bigger question. Is this battle that is coming out in the public also happening? Who's making the decisions? Who's going to decide whether we can wait or not? And we really don't have an answer to that.
But that's why what Admiral Mullen said in that interview with you is so important. Because he talked about President Trump limiting his own options, limiting his own maneuverability, by going out and saying, "If you even make a threat."
North Korea said they were going to do missile tests near to Guam. He's turned that into a threat. And he's raised to ante to the point that you really do end up limiting your own ability to strike a deal. Because now if we turn around, if North Korea goes and does some sort of missile test in the Pacific, we have now set it up. He's going to look as if he's backing down if he doesn't retaliate.
But Rich, hasn't the problem been that the North Koreans and the Chinese actually just don't believe the United States will act militarily, so they've basically called the bluff, and that's the concern?
I really see this as more lurid rhetoric around the same old strategy of detaching China from North Korea and having negotiations to, as Tillerson says, denuclearize the Korean peninsula. That is never going to happen. North Korea is a nuclear power.
Let's admit it. They're not going to stop being a nuclear power. We're not going to negotiate them out of it. And I think we should adopt a longer-term strategy of regime change that in the short term would be a robust policy of deterrence and (INAUDIBLE).
That's the new debate. Do we let them have it or not?
Yes, but they already have it. All of that presupposes a president who can exercise enough self-control not to say the kind of bizarre things that Donald Trump says. And I don't see any evidence that he can do that.
Well, I think what we're all learning is that you don't take everything at his word at first. Back in 45 seconds with End Game and what's behind the outbreak of this crossfire between the president and Mitch McConnell.
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Back now with End Game. It feels small now, but this week with the North Korean rhetoric before the tragedy in Charlottesville, we had a president this week targeting, it seems like every week he's targeting a supposed political ally. He's done going after Jeff Sessions, but Mitch McConnell. What's this about?
Donald Trump is protecting his brand. And his brand is the anti-establishment brand. And he's going against. It doesn't matter if it's somebody who's on your side. He is defined also by who his enemies are, not who his allies are. The short-term effect could be, he's hoping, of course, to sort of shame the party into getting the work done that they need to get done.
However, it could backfire, not just legislatively, but politically. The most toxic brew for Republicans right now in 2018 is a disengagement by the party, a party that feels like they're not getting anything done, we're not accomplishing the Trump agenda. And they're going to blame Republicans in Congress for not doing it. And the president's helping make that case.
Rich, the timing was especially awkward. Because Mitch McConnell orchestrated the president's endorsement in this Alabama special Senate race. And, by the way, for political junkies, it's quite a wild ride over there. Tuesday is the first round of that voting. But it seems that this could actually cause primary fights all over the United States Senate battleground next year. That's a problem.
I think Trump intuits that he has some running room here. Because the hierarchy of blame for his base if things continue not to go well, media is first to be blamed; then Congressional leadership, we're now in that stage; then, his staff; and then, the last one who'll be blamed is President Trump himself.
But I think this is foolhardy for a lot of reasons, including he needs the party for scandal defense, and he may conceivably need Mitch McConnell to run his defense and impeachment trial in the Senate in the Senate 2019. So, I would not alienate the guy.
It's interesting you say scandal. The fact is you could argue that the alienation, that's why Thom Tillis feels comfortable sponsoring a bill that says, "We're going to guarantee Mueller’s job."
But isn't it possible that there is no strategy, that Donald Trump is simply being Donald Trump and lashing out at anyone in the moment that he perceives as an enemy? He employs Mitch McConnell's wife. He gave her a post in his cabinet. It doesn't matter. If he's angry in the moment, he lashes out. And I don't think he does it for strategic reasons. I think he can't control himself.
But we just got an example during the health care debate of what happens, how these chickens come home to roost, when you had Lisa Murkowski, who Trump very much tried to intimidate into voting. And you have John McCain, who Trump said was not a hero and who he lashed out at during the campaign who came back and voted against him.
But it is interesting. All Senators seem to be taking McConnell's side over Trump. But the voters may take Trump's side.
They are absolutely taking Trump's side. And when you talk to voters, as I have been, and you look at the data, when they say, "Why are things not happening in Congress? Why is Trump's agenda not coming forward?" it's because of Republicans in Congress. So, he wins in the short term. The president's brand wins in the short term. But in the longer term, it's his party.
Wow. What a week. What a show. Thank you all. I appreciate it. That's all we have for today. We'll be back next week. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.