Meet the Press - January 12, 2020

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, Iran fallout.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

We stopped him quickly and we stopped him cold.

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump cheers the killing of Qasem Soleimani, but what's behind the administration's shifting explanations?

SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO:

Those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period. Full stop.

REPORTER:

So you were, you were mistaken when you said you didn't know precisely when, and you didn't know precisely where?

SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO:

Nope. Completely true. Those are completely consistent thoughts.

CHUCK TODD:

Now, anti-government protests have erupted across Iran over the downing of that Ukrainian passenger jet. My guests this morning: President Trump's National Security Adviser, Robert O'Brien and Republican Senator Rand Paul. Plus, impeachment trial. After a month of jockeying between Senate Leader Mitch McConnell --

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

I'm going to take my cues from the, from the president's lawyers.

CHUCK TODD:

-- and Speaker Nancy Pelosi --

REP. NANCY PELOSI:

I'm not holding them indefinitely. I'll send them over when I'm ready.

CHUCK TODD:

-- Pelosi finally moves to send articles of impeachment to the Senate, having won no Republican concessions.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

She should have sent them a long time ago.

CHUCK TODD:

What will the Senate trial look like? I'll talk to one of the jurors, Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado. And 22 days to Iowa.

PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Iowa.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR:

Iowa.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN:

Iowa cauceses.

CHUCK TODD:

Will the impeachment trial hamstring the senators running, as a new Iowa poll shows what now looks like a four-way sprint? Joining me for insight and analysis are: NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Time Magazine columnist David French, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour and Steve Inskeep, host of NPR's Morning Edition. Welcome to Sunday. It's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, the longest running show in television history, this is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD:

Good Sunday morning. Think of this as a three "I" morning: Iran, impeachment and Iowa. On Iran, you can argue that President Trump's killing of Qasem Soleimani was either reckless or bold, but the administration now finds itself struggling to justify its evolving and contradictory explanations of whether Soleimani posed an imminent threat. At the same time, anti-government protests broke out in cities across Iran after officials there finally admitted that it was the Iranian military that shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people. Next, there's impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved, finally, to send over articles of impeachment for a Senate trial that could begin as early as this week. That was a victory for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who resisted Pelosi's delay tactics and refuses still to commit to allowing new witnesses or the introduction of new evidence. And on Iowa, a Des Moines Register poll released this weekend shows one more reshuffling at the top of the caucus race, now just three weeks away. Bernie Sanders has jumped to the lead for the first time in this poll, with Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden all still within striking distance -- no one else really that close. By the way, each of those top four candidates has now led the Des Moines Register’s poll at least once at some point in the last year. And that gap between first and fourth, as you saw there, is well within the margin of error. Typically, Iowa would be our lead Sunday story three weeks before the caucuses, but this race has been overshadowed by events in Washington and overseas.

CHUCK TODD:

After a three week delay, and grumbling from some Democrats, Pelosi signaled she will send articles of impeachment to the Senate this week:

REP. NANCY PELOSI:

We are concerned that the Senators will not be able to live up to the oath that they must take to have an impartial trial.

CHUCK TODD:

And she denied Democrats were divided over her delay:

REP. NANCY PELOSI:

Absolutely total cooperation.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL:

There will be no haggling with the House over Senate procedure. We will not cede our authority to try this impeachment.

CHUCK TODD:

But several Republican senators are joining with Democrats, pressing McConnell to allow some witnesses to testify.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY:

At this stage, I’d like to hear from John Bolton and other witness with direct information.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS:

I am working with a group of Republican senators and our leaders to see if we can come to an agreement.

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump is promising to block Bolton's testimony, now tying impeachment to Iran tensions after the killing of Iranian General Soleimani.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

We got to take this guy out. We are not going to have another shot at him maybe ever again. But, but I can't make it now because I'm trying to impeach trump.

CHUCK TODD:

And highlighting new protests in Iran - praising its "brave, long-suffering people" - after Iran’s admission Saturday that human error brought down a Ukrainian plane while the country was on high-alert for a possible American counter attack. That’s after shifting explanations from the Trump administration to justify the Soleimani killing.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

We did it because they were looking to blow up our embassy. He was looking very seriously at our embassies, and not just the embassy in Baghdad. I can reveal that I believe it would have been four embassies.

CHUCK TODD:

That claim contradicts many of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's explanations.

SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO:

There were a series of imminent attacks that were being plotted by Qasem Soleimani. We don't know precisely when and we don't know precisely where. We had specific information on an imminent threat, and those threats included attacks on U.S. embassies. Period. Full stop.

REPORTER:

You were mistaken when you said you didn’t know precisely when, and you didn’t know precisely where?

SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO:

Nope. Completely true. Those are completely consistent thoughts.

CHUCK TODD:

But on Capitol Hill, where senators were briefed by top military and intelligence officials --

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

Not one word of that was mentioned.

SEN. MIKE LEE:

Probably the worst briefing I've seen, at least on a military issue in the nine years I've served in the United States Senate.

CHUCK TODD:

-- and the president's Democratic opponents have been energized by the foreign policy contrast:

VOICEOVER:

This is a moment that requires strong, steady, stable leadership.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS:

President Trump's actions represent a dangerous escalation that brings us closer to yet another disastrous war in the Middle East.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is the national security adviser, Robert O'Brien. Ambassador O'Brien, welcome back to Meet the Press.

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Great to be with you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with the imminent threat situation. Because no one in the administration had talked about specific embassies at all. It was a very vague explanation that we got from various officials, whether it was yourself, Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Esper. But here's what the president said on Friday evening. I want to play it and get some information on the other side. Here it is.

[BEGIN TAPE]

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I believe it would have been four embassies. And I think that, probably, Baghdad already started. Baghdad certainly would have been the lead. But I think it would've been four embassies. Could've been military bases. Could've been a lot of other things, too.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Four embassies. If they were targeting four embassies, did you guys see that as a declaration of war by Iran? I mean, that's a,that’s a big thing. What four embassies are we talking about here?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

So we were very concerned about the situation. We had exquisite intelligence. And the intelligence showed that they were looking at U.S. facilities throughout the region, and that they wanted to inflict casualties on American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, as well as diplomats. The threat was imminent. I saw the intelligence. There's been a lot of discussion of the intelligence. I know everyone would like to see it. I'd love to have the intelligence out there now. Unfortunately, if we declassified it, we could end up losing that stream of intelligence that will allow us to protect Americans, going forward, and so we can't. But the president's interpretation of that intelligence is very consistent with it. And so I think this has been a, this has been a Washington thing. I think, when we tell the American people that there was exquisite intelligence, and there was going to be an attack on Americans, we had to stop that.

CHUCK TODD:

But let me get you to respond to this. This is what the Washington Post is reporting. "'The embassy in Baghdad did not receive an alert commensurate to the threat that President Trump described,' said a person familiar with the situation, who is not authorized to comment publicly. "When the U.S. government has specific information about threats to embassies, warnings, or alerts, they are often sent to embassy personnel to be vigilant." Apparently, nobody in Baghdad was told this. Why was that?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Well, this is a very fast-moving situation. And Soleimani was traveling around the region, plotting against the United States. As soon as it looked like there was going to be some sort of action against the U.S. embassy, the president was decisive and bold in his action. We moved a Marine company in immediately. We moved an Army infantry platoon in immediately. And we made it clear. We put Apache helicopters in the air. We made it very clear this was not going to be Tehran 1979. This was not going to be Benghazi.

CHUCK TODD:

And that was for one embassy. What did you do for the other three embassies?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

I’m not -- Look, we took, we took measures with respect to other embassies in the region. I'm not going to get into the details of those and give our playbook out to the other side. But we were very concerned about embassies throughout the region.

CHUCK TODD:

Well why is it there was no specific -- I mean, there seems to be a disconnect here. That this is -- I mean, is it the definition of imminent? I mean, do you guys see -- is imminent months, not weeks? Are people misinterpreting that word?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Yeah. I think imminent, generally, means soon, quickly, you know, in process. So, you know, I think those threats were imminent. And I don't want to get into the definition further than that. But we took the measures necessary to protect American diplomats and our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. And I think what you see, because of the prompt action that we took, both with respect to the embassy in Baghdad, which they would've attempted to overrun and storm, and with respect to our military bases that were hit by the Iranians with our ballistic missiles, there was no loss of American life in either case. And I think that's a credit to the president of the United States.

CHUCK TODD:

Why, if you were so concerned that Soleimani was about to launch an imminent attack on, perhaps, as many as four different embassies, why do you think the Iranian response was so muted?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Well, I don't think it was a muted response. They fired off 16 ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases, where American and coalition forces were. So I don’t think that --

CHUCK TODD:

You're accepting it as a muted response, though. Because they seemed to issue warnings. They let everybody know in advance. We were able to protect ourselves. I mean, it seemed as if they telegraphed this on purpose, no?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

No, I don’t think they -- they issued warnings that they were going to retaliate. They didn't issue warnings of what they were going to do. We had -- we've got, you know, fantastic systems that can pick up launches of ballistic missiles in space. We've got early-warning systems. And because of our diligence and our vigilance, we were able to make sure that the American soldiers in those areas were dispersed. But look, I think it's a pretty serious thing, when you fire off 16 ballistic missiles. Now, because no Americans were killed, the president showed great restraint in responding. The Iranians appear to be standing down. We’ve put -- we're putting additional economic sanctions on the Iranians. And they will continue to receive the maximum-pressure campaign.

CHUCK TODD:

What is our posture, the U.S. government and the Trump administration's posture? If Iran, right now, it looks like they're trying to, at least, expand their nuclear capabilities? The president has said, "No nuclear weapon." What does that mean, if he's saying that? Because I know some senators have asked. If you’re going -- If stopping them from getting a nuclear weapon is a top priority, then don't you need to go to Congress to, essentially, get authority to do that?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Well, there are a number of ways to stop them from getting a nuclear weapon. But the president made it very clear. In fact, when he walked out and gave his speech, which I thought was a great speech, the morning after the missile attack, the first thing he said, before even saying, "Good morning," was, "Iran will never have a nuclear weapon." That is U.S. policy. Right now, we've got a maximum-pressure campaign that is strangling the regime. Their economy is contracting dramatically. The people of Iran are upset. They're protesting. They have been protesting for some time. They've been brutally put down in Tiananmen-Square-style massacres that the press has not been covering. And we think the regime is in real trouble.

CHUCK TODD:

Not to sit here -- The press does everything it can to cover. It is a very difficult country to cover, in fairness.

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

It is.

CHUCK TODD:

This is not a press trying to omit things, here. I would like that not to be a shot at us.

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

It's a difficult place to cover, because they have an authoritarian regime. And they shut down the internet. And we get -- there are more questions about what the United States is doing to try and help the people of Iran than, necessarily, what the regime is doing. But I agree with you that it's a tough place to cover, because of the regime.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you to respond to something. Former Senator Jim Webb, who was also a Reagan secretary of the Navy, and you know he's got very, very interesting views, when it comes to war and peace and the Constitution. And her writes this. "It is legally and logically impossible to define one part of a national government as an international terrorist organization without applying the term to that entire government. The Revolutionary Guards are a part of the Iranian government. If they are attacking us, they are not a terrorist organization. They're an attacking army." And he was basically calling -- we took out a commander of another country's army. And to call him to a terrorist -- then, at that point, then, if you are calling him a terrorist, then isn't everybody in that regime a terrorist, by definition?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Well, in this case, the Quds Force, the IRGC Quds Force, which operates outside of Iran and foments revolution and terrorism in Yemen, in Syria, where 50,000 people have been killed, in Lebanon, with Hezbollah, in Iraq, that organization has been designated, legally, as a terrorist organization. Soleimani was the head of it. But he's not just been designated by us. He's under a travel ban from the UN. He shouldn't have even been outside of Iran. I mean, this is a -- this was someone who was a leader of an organization that was engaged in terror. He was involved in plotting imminent attacks against the United States. The president made a very difficult decision, but a bold decision, to remove him from the battlefield.

CHUCK TODD:

Would he have not have been -- Let me ask you this. If he had not been designated, officially, as a terrorist, would he have been targeted on the battlefield?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Well, that's a hypothetical. But what I will say, and what the president has said, is if there are folks out there that are planning to kill, maim, and harm Americans, that's a red line for us. And you've got to be very careful. If you're out, trying to attack the United States of America, you'd better be careful.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you one final question on the issue of troops in Iraq. Here's what President Trump said on Friday, to a fairly provocative question by Laura Ingraham, who said, "Why not leave?" Here's what he said.

[BEGIN TAPE]

LAURA INGRAHAM:

Why not leave?

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I'm not so bad with it. You know, when I heard that, I said, "Hmm." You know, I have it down to 5,000 troops. We had many, many troops there, in Iraq. And we're there only in a training. We train them. But if they'd want us to leave, but they speak publicly than they do privately.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

There is a bit of confusion, sometimes. President Trump seems like somebody that wants to leave Iraq sooner rather than later. Secretary of State Pompeo and some others on the national security team are concerned about the strategic vacuum that that could leave and seem to push back. Is our official policy that we're trying to get out of Iraq or not?

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Look, we'd like to get out of a lot of countries, if we could. I mean, we want to bring American sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines, home. And so eventually, we'd like to get out of Iraq. We've been there for 17, 18 years now. And so I think it would be great. And I think the president believes it would be great to get folks home. But we want to do it in a way that preserves the victory that we had against the caliphate. When President Trump came into office, the caliphate was as big as Great Britain. We've destroyed the physical caliphate. We're working with the Iraqis, so that they can defend themselves against Daesh but also maintain a sovereign country, vis a vis their neighbor, Iran.

CHUCK TODD:

We've sent more troops to Saudi Arabia. Are you concerned that, in the four years that President Trump's been in office, it seems as if we've sent more troops to the Middle East than we've removed.

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Look, I think our goal is to have a Middle East that's stable, secure, with independent countries, that their sovereignty's respected, and Americans can come home to the extent possible. And that's what we're working on. By the way, curtailing Iran's terrorist activities and proxy activities around the region will allow us to bring more troops home from all of those countries.

CHUCK TODD:

Ambassador Robert O'Brien, national security adviser, good to see you, sir. Thank you for coming on and sharing your views. I appreciate it.

AMBASSADOR ROBERT O'BRIEN:

Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.

Thank you. Great to be with you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now from Bowling Green, Kentucky, is Republican Senator Rand Paul. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Paul, welcome back to Meet the Press, sir.

SEN. RAND PAUL:

Good morning.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with what you have heard from the administration. You heard from the Ambassador I think just now. I know you've had other briefings. Do you feel as if you have got enough information to make you feel comfortable with what President Trump did?

SEN. RAND PAUL:

You know, I think we've heard contradictory information. We've heard that the -- from the Secretary of State that they don't know where or when but it was imminent. That to me does seem inconsistent. He thinks he can square the circle, but to me it seems pretty inconsistent. To me there's a bigger question too, though. This is what really infuriated me about the briefing: Is they maintain both in private and in public that a vote by Congress in 2003 or 2002 to go after Saddam Hussein was a vote that now allows them to still be in Iraq and do whatever they want, including killing a foreign general from Iran. And I don't think that's what Congress meant in 2002, nor do I think one generation can bind another generation. So my point in being for this war powers debate is that we really need to have a debate about whether we should still be in Iraq or in Afghanistan. There needs to be authorization from Congress.

CHUCK TODD:

I do want to get your reaction to something President Trump said, because he, he makes no apologies for not informing Congress. Let me give you -- read -- play for you the explanation here gave.

[BEGIN TAPE]

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

Yeah, I am worried about it. Can you imagine? Here we are, split second timing, executed like nobody's seen in many, many years on Soleimani. Can you imagine? They want us to call up and speak to crooked, corrupt politician Adam Schiff.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Now Senator, I know that politics is high and the polarization is high, but if that becomes a standard where presidential administrations decide they're not going to inform Congress because they just don't like somebody who is in line to receive that information, where does that leave us?

SEN. RAND PAUL:

Well, you know this is not a new trend --

CHUCK TODD:

Nope.

SEN. RAND PAUL:

-- this started probably very aggressively with Truman in the Korean War, LBJ in the Vietnam War, President Obama did hundreds and hundreds of targeted killings without asking for permission. So I think presidents of both parties have been trying to usurp the authority. But our Founding Fathers wanted it to remain in Congress. They wanted to make it difficult to go to war. And I think we've been drifting away from that for a long time. But that's why I'm willing to stand up. Not because I distrust President Trump. I actually think he has shown remarkable restraint. But I'm willing to stand up even against a president of my party, because we need to stand up and take back the power. We also need to debate whether or not we're going to keep sending kids forever to Afghanistan and Iraq. And I, frankly, think we ought to end those wars.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you concerned? I mean look, the numbers tell the story. It does feel as if we've sent more troops to the Middle East, look at what's happening in Saudi Arabia, which I know you've been against, then we're bringing them home. What kind of message does that send to the American people?

SEN. RAND PAUL:

Well, I think it's a mixed message. I think President Trump has been very consistent saying he doesn't want perpetual war. But I have pushed back and I've said, "If you keep sending more troops, you will have perpetual war." The troops are merely targets. I'm going to be having a hearing in the next couple weeks about the Afghan Papers. It troubles me that in private commanders and generals have been saying for more than a decade that there's no mission in Afghanistan. We had two young men die this week. You know, I have friends who will be sending their kids there in the next six months. I don't want to send these young men and women to war if there is no mission and if the generals are privately saying it can't be won.

CHUCK TODD:

Is there a way -- it's my understanding during the briefing, according to George Will's reporting, that Senator Chris Coons multiple times asked whether, whether they would seek congressional approval to deal with Iran if Iran got a nuclear weapon, to deal with Iran in a military way. And they just kept dodging the question. How important do you think it is to get that, essentially, on paper?

SEN. RAND PAUL:

I think it's incredibly important. Throughout the whole briefing they were dismissive of Congress. They , in the end, said they didn't have time to come back. We only had about eight senators ask questions and they said, "Oh, we don't have time. We're busy" about coming back to brief the rest of us or take questions from the rest of us. So it was very dismissive. But it's also arrogant to say that a vote from Congress, 16, 17 years ago, that that vote now binds another generation and another generation to war in Iraq. It was against Saddam Hussein, for goodness sakes. This is a completely different government. This is not even the Iraqi government we're now fighting. It's Iranian generals that happen to be in Iraq. But here's the great irony of the Iraq War, and this is something Trump gets incredibly right. And that is that since the Iraq War we now have an Iraq that is more aligned with Iran than us. We're trying to force them to keep our troops. The irony of that is glaring. And I think we really need to have a full throated debate in Congress. The majority of American people want to come home. They don't understand why we're still there. I want to have that debate and I want to bring our kids home.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, it's interesting. You have -- and I think in some ways you believe President Trump's instincts comport with your instincts when it comes to national security and foreign policy. But his advisers are in a different place. How much do you think that -- does that bothers you? Or is that healthy?

SEN. RAND PAUL:

I'll give you an example. You know I'm on the Foreign Relations Committee and all of his nominees come before me. And I even warned some of them in private, "I'm going to ask you, 'Do you agree with President Trump that the Iraq War was a mistake?'" You know what? Most of them don't agree with him. He keeps appointing people to represent him that think the Iraq War was just great. They loved Dick Cheney's position and they still don't admit it was a mistake. So that's why he keeps getting policy that isn't his policy. I do this his instincts are pure. He's been saying it since -- for 20, 30 years. He's been saying it for a long time that the wars have drained our treasury and that he's not in favor of these wars. But then they convince him if we leave, we'll look weak. I actually think this is a time of strength right now. Soleimani's dead. The leader of a lot of the mayhem is dead. This will be the time to come home. The Iraqi government, the democratically elected government, wants us to come home. We should come home. And the only way --

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say you think the President should take them up on this offer? You want us out? Let's do it.

SEN. RAND PAUL:

Absolutely. And the only way people become stronger is when they stand up for themselves. In Afghanistan when the government, and the soldiers, and the police finally fight the Taliban, they'll do better. When Iraq says, "Oh my goodness. Iran is overrunning us," or they see that the Sunni extremists are overrunning us, they have to stand up and fight. If they can't fight for their country, why are we always the patsy sending our kids there?

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Rand Paul, Republican from Kentucky. Thank you for coming on and sharing your views. I appreciate it. Good to see you, sir.

SEN. RAND PAUL:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, how much power will Democratic senators have at an impeachment trial? I'll ask one of them who's also trying to run for president at the same time. It's Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. He joins me next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. So what do you do, if you're a Democratic presidential candidate looking to spend as much time as possible in Iowa and New Hampshire, but at the same time, you're a senator, and you have to be in Washington for what is among our first trials of this century, well, President Trump's impeachment trial? Well, if you're any one of these people, you're going to have to figure that answer out very soon. And if you're my next guest, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, who remains in the race and who joins me now from Manchester, New Hampshire. Senator Bennet, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

Thanks, Chuck, great to be back.

CHUCK TODD:

So other than scouring airlines for finding out how many nonstops exist at 7:00 p.m., 7:30 p.m., after these impeachment trials, how disruptive do you expect the impeachment trial to be on the campaign? And should it be?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

I think it is going to be disruptive. And there's nothing I can do about it. So I choose not to worry about it. We have, all of us, a constitutional responsibility that we have to fulfill, here. And I take my oath seriously. And I will. And in the meantime, I'm spending every single second I can in New Hampshire, trying to fulfill my commitment to hold an additional 50 town halls here. I've already spent more time here than any other candidate. And I'm just going to continue to do that.

CHUCK TODD:

You're a guy that spends -- has spent a lot of time reading Federalist Papers, unlike many U.S. senators. So, what do you believe? What power do you believe you have, even though your party's in the minority, at a Senate trial, in order to force a fair trial?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

You know, I think the stakes could not be higher here. Because I've been listening to the program, Chuck. And this is a president whose holding the American people in contempt and holding the Constitution in contempt. When it comes to war powers, the decision to provoke a war, potentially, with Iran, his stonewalling of the House, and now, his stonewalling of the Senate. So I think the stakes are really high. And I think the framers of the Constitution would demand of the people that are sitting in judgment that they put the Constitution in front of the president, and that they use this as an opportunity to remind the American people why the rule of law is so important and why nobody, including the president, is above the law.

CHUCK TODD:

Where does public opinion fit into this, as far as you're concerned, after the trial? And the reason I say this is, at the end of the day, he was a democratic elected, small-d democratically elected president by our rules, okay, the Electoral College. If the public -- if the two-thirds of the public isn't there, right, does that matter to you?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

I think it's important for public opinion to at least understand that what we are trying to do is hold the president accountable. And we may not have gotten, in the end, a conviction of the president. But maybe what we did was reestablish the standard of ethics that we expect out of a president and the standard of constitutional law that we expect from a president. I think that's important, in and of itself.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you expect to find four Republicans to join with the Democrats, to get a John Bolton to testify?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

I don't expect anything. But I don't think it's impossible. I've seen -- I've been in rooms, where people have heard somebody say something. And they say, "You know what? I want to hear more about that. Let's bring the witnesses." And I hope my Republican colleagues will be open to having witnesses. The American people want witnesses. And they want to see the records from the White House, as well.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to talk a little bit about the presidential race and Iran here, a bit. The way the president made his decision and the way it’s had an impact, I think, on the Democratic electorate, are you concerned that, in some ways, the president's actions have inadvertently strengthened the Sanders wing of the party over, say, the Biden wing or the moderate wing, where you reside?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

Actually, I'm much more concerned that what he's strengthened is the hardliner wing of the Iranian government. That is what he has done since he became president. I think that's what he's done, again, with the action that he's taken. And Rand Paul mentioned it. You know, the Afghanistan papers, that the Washington Post have now published, demonstrate that after the first six months of that war, we not only didn't accomplish the objectives we told the American people we were accomplishing, but we may have made matters worse on a whole range of dimensions, from corruption, to drugs, to the rise of the Taliban. In Iraq, our own war college tells us that there was a winner of the Iraq war, and it was Iran. So Chuck, I think this is a moment where heightened congressional scrutiny of the president, no matter who the president is, is critical. But when you have a president who's as lawless as this one seems to be, on the international stage and the domestic stage, I think it's important for not just Democrats to come together, but Americans to come together and say, "We're going to put the Constitution ahead of this president."

CHUCK TODD:

Is it harder to unite the Democratic Party if you voted in favor of the Iraq War?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

I think it is much harder to unite the Democratic Party if you voted in favor of the Iraq War. And I think it's much harder to take on Donald Trump, who takes every single position, including a position that the Iraq War was a mistake.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I just described Joe Biden. Does that make him less electable than, say, a Bernie Sanders?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

I think that many people would say that was not his finest hour. And I think that, from my vantage point, there's a real question, in my mind, about whether any of the leading candidates can take on Donald Trump, which is why I've stayed in this race. Chuck, voters in New Hampshire are more undecided today than they were six weeks ago or six months ago because they know how much is at stake. And they know we need to nominate somebody who can beat Donald Trump. I think I come from the right kind of state, with the right kind of agenda, to do that. And by the way, I would invite congressional participation in these foreign policy decisions. I would invite congressional participation in evaluating whether my work was consistent with the Constitution, as previous presidents have done.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you this. Is there a point, not only for your own campaign, but for a lot of campaigns, that you have to coalesce around a leader, if there is an obvious leader at, say, the end of February or the end of March?

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

Yeah. I definitely think that's the right timeline. I think we will have to coalesce around somebody. My hope, Chuck, is to come in in the top third in New Hampshire. And I'm slogging it out, in a venerable tradition of people that have put one foot in front of the other, trying to get to storefronts and get to town halls and see if we can make progress here. But at some point, the most important thing for us is to come together and make sure Donald Trump is a one-term president

CHUCK TODD:

Well, Senator Michael Bennet, you are right about history. There's plenty of people who have been in your position, who have taken off like a rocket in New Hampshire. We will be watching.

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

Well, I'm still waiting. Thanks, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it, buddy. Thanks for coming on and sharing your views. I appreciate it.

SENATOR MICHAEL BENNET:

Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

A lot to get through this morning: the three Is, Iran, impeachment, and Iowa. A tremendous panel is next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here. Steve Inskeep, he's host of NPR's Morning Edition, so you will recognize the voice, and the author of Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War. Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for PBS NewsHour. NBC New chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell. And Time Magazine columnist David French, who's also the senior editor of The Dispatch. It is the new fact-based conservative media company. David, congratulations on the launch of that.

DAVID FRENCH:

Thanks so much --

CHUCK TODD:

To our good friends Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Hayes as well. Andrea, you've heard all of this. You've covered a bunch of these back-and-forths, whether it's between Congress and the executive branch over military strikes or what we're seeing today in the Middle East. Where are we now, and is this administration being bailed out by Iran's incompetence with the passenger jet?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

For sure. The administration had angered the European allies, all of the NATO allies, by not giving them any notice. The only government that we know was notified in advance, I've been told by my sources, was Israel. They and Lindsey Graham at Mar-a-Lago had the advance notice. The Gang of Eight did not. Mike Pence telling Savannah Guthrie that, "It's sources and methods, and we can't share that with Congress," when we don't know of any leak from the top eight members, Nancy Pelosi and the others. Even going back decades, there haven't been leaks. Other administrations have always notified Congress, the top leaders. Iranians who had been protesting for months against their regime were suddenly all unified against America. And the Iraqis were ordering us out, who had been protesting against the Iranians. So it was a nightmare scenario. And the fact that it was done at Baghdad Airport. All of that was happening.

But, yes, to your answer. The fact that the air force component of the Revolutionary Guard took down a civilian plane. And it's arguable whether or not Rouhani, and Zarif, and even the Ayatollah were aware of it. My experience and direct information from Iranian officials in the immediate aftermath was, "No, this didn't happen." They were repeating what the air force minister was saying. It's very, very possible that they were not told and then had to when the evidence became clear. And this also, you know, undermines the Europeans. And now, they have today arrested the British diplomat. Finally released him. But that is only going to unify Europe with Donald Trump.

STEVE INSKEEP:

And this has brought back the strain of Iranian discontent that was muted for a few days there --

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Look at those protests.

STEVE INSKEEP:

-- Exactly. And in recent months, there have been many protests that have had to be put down. And in truth, people have been protesting for many years in Iran. When I've been there, when I've interviewed people on the streets though, there's something about those protests. People will speak very frankly about their problems with the government. They may even march in the streets. But they do it with an attitude that it's going to make no difference, that it's going to fail. And they will explicitly say, "This will make no difference, but we're going to do it anyway." The question is whether some event has happened here, some moment has been reached where people would go that extra mile.

CHUCK TODD:

David, you know, what's amazing here is, I'm sorry, I'm shocked the Iranians 'fessed up so fast. I mean, it doesn't happen very often.

DAVID FRENCH:

Well, the evidence was overwhelming.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Absolutely.

DAVID FRENCH:

I mean, you could look at the videos of the actual crash, of the actual impact of the missile. You could see the videos of the crash with the plane breaking up in midair. That's not a normal mechanical difficulty. The evidence was all over the place. But, you know, going back to the Trump justification for the Souleimani strike, can I tell you what is confusing to me? There was no need for a low-trust administration to provide a low-trust answer as to why they did this. No need at all. We had almost 20 years of a record of Soleimani's activities against American interests.

CHUCK TODD:

In your mind, that would have been enough.

DAVID FRENCH:

It was enough. We had just had an attack on American bases that had killed an American contractor. We had just had Iranian-supported militias attack our embassy. He was an enemy combatant commander in the theater of war meeting with enemy combatant commanders. Under the law of war, under Congressional authorizations, he was fair game. To then say, "Well, oh wait. There were other imminent attacks," completely unnecessary.

CHUCK TODD:

Yamiche, this was Jeh Johnson's point last week. I mean, he said, and this somebody-- is a Democratic-appointed official, "This was lawful," making the enemy combatant argument. Would the president have a better time on Capitol Hill if he had just been more honest about this?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR:

Yes, because you heard Democrats and Republicans really saying, "This was a bad person." No one's really saying that he was a good person. There are a couple people that were getting pushback like Senator Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who were calling it an assassination. But for the most part, people were angry about the process. And what we saw with this White House is what we've seen in the past. You're describing a layup almost for President Trump, and they don't really take layups. What we have is a White House--

(OVERTALK)

YAMICHE ALCINDOR:

-- that often boggles their own communication message. And in this way, what we saw was an evolving description of why this was imminent. And what we saw also was top national security officials go to Congress and infuriate both Democrats and Republicans. Mike Lee said he was insulted by the fact that national security officials were saying, "Don't even debate. Don't even ask us essentially why we can do what we're doing in Iran because you're emboldening Iran." Add to that the fact that you have now the president saying on Fox News and saying before thousands of people in Toledo, Ohio all this information that he wouldn't share with lawmakers. So I was on Capitol Hill talking to all sorts of lawmakers after the briefing, and all of them are coming out, saying, "We don't actually understand anything more than when we walked in there." So that what we have now is the White House and President Trump talking about embassies, talking about diplomats being targeted, and they didn't tell Congress, which is pretty remarkable.

STEVE INSKEEP:

Two vital phrases to look at. When the president said four embassies were targeted, he actually said, "I believe -- "

CHUCK TODD:

"I believe."

STEVE INSKEEP:

-- "four embassies were targeted -- "

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

It's his new construction. It's smart. You can't fact check a belief, right?

STEVE INSKEEP:

Yeah, exactly. You can't fact check a belief. And --

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And the --

STEVE INSKEEP:

-- Robert O'Brien when he was talking on NPR the other day acknowledged they don't know the precise time and place of these attacks, although he did say the intelligence was very strong. But how do you have imminent attacks --

CHUCK TODD:

Exquisite is what he said.

STEVE INSKEEP:

-- when you don't know the exact time and place?

DAVID FRENCH:

You know, another --

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And the Defense secretary, Mark Esper, is saying that he did not have specific intelligence. Look, there's a 1990 law that says that if embassies are warned of a threat, that you have to warn the public. You cannot give the personnel something different from what you are telling the world and the American people.

CHUCK TODD:

And there has clearly --

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

-- been no warnings.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

We've checked. There was no warning --

CHUCK TODD:

David, you wanted to jump in.

DAVID FRENCH:

Well, you know, one of the things. There are costs to this. So here you have a person who has blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands, including some men that I served with in Iraq. This guy has been an open enemy of the United States for years. He bragged to General Petraeus via text message in a famous story that he's in charge of things with these Iranian-backed militias. And instead of uniting the country at a moment when an actual enemy is killed and when we're on the knife's edge of a larger conflict which requires public support, he's more interested in "owning the libs" than uniting the country.

CHUCK TODD:

And ironically, I'm going to close it here. Some leaders like Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, Eliot Engel, these are people that are very much Iran hawks. You could have built a bipartisan coalition for something --

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Exactly.

CHUCK TODD:

-- like this. They chose not to. When we come back, how the world views us three years into the Trump presidency.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHUCK TODD:

We are back. Data Download time. Recent tension with Iran is a reminder of the massive role the United States has on the world stage and of President Trump's own reputation around the world. And this week, the Pew Research Center has a new look at how much trust people in 33 countries have in the American president to do the right thing. While no world leader inspires much confidence -- not that surprising -- the most trusted leader overall in these 33 countries is Germany's Angela Merkel, sitting at 46 percent, followed by France's Emmanuel Macron, then Russian president Vladimir Putin. It is in fourth that President Trump comes in, with only 29% of people believing he would do the right thing regarding world affairs. By the way, he's only one point ahead of China's Xi Jinping. And Mr. Trump's low numbers appear to be more about him personally than about the United States. Three years into President Obama's first term, he was getting high marks in the U.K. 75 percent of people there had confidence in him, compared with 32 percent for Trump at this same moment in his presidency. In Canada in 2013, President Obama was 53 points ahead of where President Trump is now. In Germany in 2011, President Obama was a full 75 percentage points ahead of President Trump's current 13 percent. But while Donald Trump's election surprised many, the rise of populist conservative movements from Brazil, to Italy, to Israel suggest 2016 may have been less of a fluke here and more of a harbinger of right-leaning electoral success around the globe. In France, there's a 21-point difference in trust in President Trump to do the right thing between French liberals and French conservatives. It's a 30-point gap in Canada, a 35-point difference in Italy. And trust in President Trump among populists has gone up as well. Canada has seen conservative faith in Trump to do the right thing climb by ten points in just the last year. In Italy, confidence in Trump has grown by 11 points among conservatives. And in France, conservative confidence in President Trump to do the right thing has climbed 17 points. Now, we should all keep all of this in mind this election year. Sure, American elections aren't often decided on foreign policy, nor on the president's popularity abroad. But there's a difference between a U.S. president who is disliked versus one who isn't respected around the globe. When we come back, End Game. And are we really down to a four-candidate race in Iowa and beyond?

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with End Game and the other two I's of our open today. And that's impeachment and Iowa. Yamiche, look, we don't know when the impeachment trial is. And as I remind people, we shouldn't even presume the outcome. I’m sure -- I know a lot of people presumed last night's outcome of Baltimore and Tennessee, right, Mr. French? A big Tennessee Titan fan. So we're not going to presume any outcome. But the fact of the matter is -- I'm going to put up these two polls in Iowa and New Hampshire here. Of the presidential race, top four in Iowa, it's a bunched race. Look at that. The difference between first and fourth is five points, margin of error stuff. Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Biden. Let's put up a new New Hampshire poll that came out this week. Literally almost the same percentage numbers closely. Just a slightly different order. But margin of error in both places. Two of those four candidates are sitting U.S. senators. The Clinton trial took 37 days from start to finish. We are 22 days away from Iowa. At this point, it looks like we're going to have a Senate trial during Iowa and New Hampshire. Now what?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR:

And if you're in the margin of error and you're looking at what might make the difference, and that small thing, it might be that you had longer time to sit in the living rooms of Iowans, which is what most people think it takes to win Iowa. So if Senator Sanders and Senator Warren are taken out of that, of course they're going to be in some ways worried about that. But when I talk to aides for both of those people, when I talk to aides for Joe Biden, they're also making this point, they're really making this idea that it's going to be about who feels for them. It's going to be an emotional connection to them. It's not going to just be that Bernie Sanders was the last person to stop by your firehouse or your elementary school. And the people when I talk to Bernie Sanders' campaign, they make this point that he has fiercely loyal support. And I'm someone who's covered 2016 and Bernie Sanders and then President Trump. I think what they have in common, at least what their supporters have in common, that there's really a visceral connection to their candidate there. So when I look at who could possibly be the person who is possibly favored here, Bernie Sanders I think could be somebody who could sit out part of this and still retain his support in a way that maybe Warren wouldn't.

CHUCK TODD:

Steve, what I'm trying to get people to visualize here is we're going to have two weeks of this Senate trial, and that's the backdrop for Iowa.

STEVE INSKEEP:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

And I think we don't fully comprehend how that is going to impact things.

STEVE INSKEEP:

We don't. I guess there'll be a lot of breakfast meetings for candidates in Iowa and going back to Washington in the afternoon --

CHUCK TODD:

You think they'll plane pool? I'm hoping they should --

CHUCK TODD:

-- plane pool, right? The five senators --

STEVE INSKEEP:

--get on a private jet or something.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Don't do that.

STEVE INSKEEP:

I think you're exactly right, that someone like Sanders, someone like Warren, they're brand names. They are known by the people who are going to support them, and it may not affect them that much. The media environment is affected, but I'm not sure that we fully understand that. This Senate trial could be quite dramatic but could also be quite boring. And we don’t real -- I'm just being honest. And I'm interested as a citizen. I don't know if TV networks are going to be that interested or if they're going to find things more dramatic in Iowa. We just don't know how that's going to play out.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I think also the foreign policy issues, which haven't at all risen to the top of the debate, are going to give I think Bernie some advantages, having campaigned against the Iraq war and now taking on Biden. Let's see how these coming debates go because I think that Bernie versus Biden on the war and peace issue is going to be a subject. Iowa has always cared about that issue --

CHUCK TODD:

And they’re kind of -- they can be kind of dovish. You know, David, the other thing that I'm interested in here is let's say this Tuesday night debate is basically framed as Biden versus Bernie on war and peace. You have Buttigieg, and Warren, and Klobuchar who are -- you know and I think Klobuchar is on that, she's in the middle of almost top tier, almost second tier, right? Her own tier. They could get swallowed up by that debate and it just becomes Biden-Bernie.

DAVID FRENCH:

Oh, it could absolutely be Biden-Bernie. But I tell you, don't sleep on Buttigieg in that scenario. He served. He's been in Afghanistan --

CHUCK TODD:

How important is that to you? I've always been curious. To other people who have served, how important is it that he wore that uniform, too?

DAVID FRENCH:

I think it's important, but it's not close to dispositive.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay.

DAVID FRENCH:

It's the kind of thing where, you know, when a politician says, "I've been to Afghanistan six times," well, you've been on a guided tour. You know, you've seen what people have wanted you to see. When you've had boots on the ground, it's a transformational experience. It was for me. It was transformational. It changed the way I viewed many things about the Iraq War in the Middle East. So I think having that experience and being the only one who can bring it to the stage is going to be important. And he's shown an ability in these debates to stand up for himself in a way that perhaps people didn't anticipate.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR:

And --

CHUCK TODD:

Go ahead.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR:

Biden aides say that they think that he is really playing to his strengths when he's talking about foreign policy, when he's talking about the Middle East. But I think there are a lot of people who still remember the report from the Washington Post saying that the Obama administration, along with other administrations, were not forthcoming with how the Afghanistan war went. And then you saw Bernie Sanders at the last debate say he was wrong for supporting the Afghanistan war. So I think that that gives in some ways a lane for Buttigieg and Warren to talk --

CHUCK TODD:

Andrea, think about this stat that I like to remind people. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama are the last three Democratic nominees. Two voted for the Iraq war. One didn't. Which one won the presidency, and which two lost?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

That was what I was saying exactly about Bernie. Barack Obama was, you know, the senator from Illinois, the Illinois state senator who came out against the Iraq war. And that is what really propelled him in Iowa. And Iowa propelled him through the next primaries to come. I do think that however "boring," quote/unquote, without witnesses perhaps, opening statements the impeachment trial is, I think it is going to consume the media environment. The networks are going to be wall to wall. And it's going to be very hard for this 2020 race to get enough focus.

CHUCK TODD:

There's also, there's also other parts of the 2020 campaign that matter in this impeachment trial. Republican senators who -- what would you do if you were Cory Gardner, David?

DAVID FRENCH:

Look, the bottom line is -- and I don't think people truly appreciate the situation these Republican senators are often in. Because if they say, "I'm open to impeachment. I want to hear from John Bolton," a lot of people in their base that might be motivated to turn them out of office in a primary get really angry. But then if they don't say this very common sense thing, which is, "I want to hear from available witnesses like the national security adviser at the time --"

CHUCK TODD:

Seems pretty reasonable.

DAVID FRENCH:

-- then in the general election you have people who are, you know, on the fence who say, "This guy, he's just in the tank for Trump. I'm not electing an independent thinker at all."

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

John Bolton looks like the game changer on that.

CHUCK TODD:

Steve Inskeep, Mitch McConnell, is he prioritizing protecting Trump at this impeachment trial or that Senate majority?

STEVE INSKEEP:

Senate majority, although he certainly supports the president, supports his party, believes I think that he's doing it within the traditions of the Senate, even though people looking at him from the outside would see it differently.

CHUCK TODD:

All I will say is 37 days. If it really is 37 days, it means we go to the Nevada Caucuses before we have the impeachment trial behind us. Anyway --

YAMICHE ALCINDOR:

Incredible.

CHUCK TODD:

-- thank you, guys. That's all we have for today. Thanks for watching. We'll be back next week. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.