Meet the Press - October 20, 2019

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday: President Trump, testing limits. His chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney admitting a quid pro quo with Ukraine.

MICK MULVANEY:

We do that all the time with foreign policy. And I have news for everybody: Get over it.

CHUCK TODD:

Stunning many Republicans.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER:

I have no idea why he said what he said.

CHUCK TODD:

And prompting Mulvaney to deny his own words and blame a media witch hunt.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY:

I think Mick Mulvaney clarified his statement to be very clear.

CHUCK TODD:

Plus: Turkey, Syria and the Kurds. President Trump's green light to Turkey...

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

The Kurds are much safer now.

CHUCK TODD:

...leads to a bi-partisan condemnation by the House...

SENATE FLOOR:

The yeas are 354, the nays are 60.

CHUCK TODD:

...an angry meeting with Democrats...

REP. NANCY PELOSI:

He just couldn't handle it, so he engaged in a kind of meltdown.

CHUCK TODD:

...and an agreement to push out the Kurds, hailed by the president...

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

Great day for the Kurds. It's a really great day for civilization.

CHUCK TODD:

...and criticized by many Republicans.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY:

What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American History.

CHUCK TODD:

My guests: former Republican, now Independent Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan...and Brett McGurk, who ran Syria policy for Presidents Obama and Trump. Also, the Democratic race:

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything except this.

CHUCK TODD:

I'll talk to Mayor Pete Buttigieg who just had his most aggressive debate performance yet. Joining me for insight and analysis are: Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, Joshua Johnson, host of "1A" on NPR, and Betsy Woodruff Swan of the Daily Beast. 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. This week we saw President Trump test the limits of his presidency... gambling on how much the public, his party and the world can accept. At home, Mr. Trump tested the limits of how much the public is willing to believe. Shortly after his Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, said, yes, of course the president held back aid to Ukraine as part of a quid pro quo, Mulvaney had revised and extended his remarks, saying there was absolutely no quid pro quo. On Capitol Hill Mr. Trump tested the limits of what his party will accept. A majority of House Republicans joined Democrats to overwhelmingly condemn the president's abandonment of the Kurds. Then, after Vice President Pence announced a deal universally seen as a total capitulation to Turkey. The president called it "a great day for civilization." And overseas, Mr. Trump tested the world's faith in relying on America. As retired Admiral William McRaven wrote in an Op-Ed essay, that was fairly powerful; "If our promises are meaningless, how will our allies ever trust us?" In fact, in a sign of Mr. Trump's weakening position, apparently there are limits. Last night he gave in to critics and reversed his decision to hold next year's G-7 -- G-7 summit at his Florida Doral resort. But despite cracks in his support in Washington, President Trump's approval rating remains resilient among Republicans, so far, as it has throughout other crises in his presidency. And his base is showing no sign that its patience is being tested yet.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

I took a lot of heat, even from some of our congressmen even from some of our senators but now they're all happy.

CHUCK TODD:

But that's not true. After a week of damaging impeachment depositions in Congress a much criticized so-called "ceasefire" in Syria - and the admission of a "quid pro quo" with Ukraine, the president's Republican support in Congress is showing signs of erosion. On Monday - the president's former top adviser on Russia testified that former National Security Adviser John Bolton called Rudy Giuliani a "hand grenade who's going to blow everybody up.” Bolton describing Giuliani's work in Ukraine as a "drug deal." On Wednesday - the House voted 354 to 60 to condemn the president's Syria policy, a stinging bipartisan rebuke.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER:

We ceded, effectively, Syria over to Russia and Turkey.

CHUCK TODD:

That afternoon - the president exploded in a closed-door White House meeting with Democrats, after comments from Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

REP. NANCY PELOSI:

I have concerns about all roads leading to Putin. That seemed to have angered the president.

CHUCK TODD:

On Thursday - the president's acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted what the president has long denied:

DONALD TRUMP:

There was no quid pro quo. No quid pro quo. No quid pro quo.

CHUCK TODD:

But Mulvaney said President Trump did hold up military aid to Ukraine to pressure its president to assist in a Justice Department investigation into the 2016 election.

REPORTER:

What you just described is a quid pro quo.

MICK MULVANEY:

We do that all the time with foreign policy.

CHUCK TODD:

Just hours after confirming the quid pro quo, Mulvaney walked that back in a statement:

"There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election." Some Republicans have defended the president.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY:

Mick Mulvaney clarified his statement to be very clear.

CHUCK TODD:

But increasingly - there is skepticism and now criticism:

SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI:

You don’t hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative. Period.

CHUCK TODD:

And the so-called Syria "ceasefire" Vice President Pence announced that afternoon gave Turkey what it wanted, at no cost.

SEN. MITT ROMNEY:

What we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history. Senator Lindsey Graham warns of "ethnic cleansing" and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell calls the president's policy a “grave strategic mistake.” While the majority of Republicans continue to oppose impeachment - cracks are beginning to appear.

JOHN KASICH:

Does this rise to the level of impeachment? I now believe that it does.

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY:

I'm very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate, everybody said “It’s a witch hunt to get Nixon.” Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt. It was actu -- absolutely correct.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now are NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel from northern Syria and from Stanford University, Brett McGurk. He's the former special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS for both Presidents Obama and Trump. Brett McGurk, welcome back to Meet The Press. Richard, let me start with you in northern Syria. Yesterday President Erdogan said in a speech about the pause, cease-fire, whatever we want to call this right now, "If it works, it works. If it doesn't the minute 120 hours expire we will continue from where we left and keep crushing the heads of the terrorists." I know you've been in touch with the SDF commander on the ground there. In 48 hours is when this expires. What's going to happen?

RICHARD ENGEL:

Well, the commander told me he fully expects that the violence is going to resume because the Kurdish forces here, led by the commander I spoke to, and the Turkish government, which brokered a deal with the United States don't agree on the terms. They're talking about two different things. Turkey says, "Unless the Kurds pull out of a very large area, they're going to restart the violence." But the Kurdish commander says it's a much smaller area that he's talking about. So they are set up to resume a collision course. And while this is happening, there is ethnic cleansing underway. That is a very, very big word, but it is the only word we are hearing right now. Already a quarter of a million people have been forced to leave their homes and the Kurdish commander thinks, once the Turks restart this offensive, the rest of them are going to be forced out.

CHUCK TODD:

Brett McGurk, you just heard that report from Richard. I know you've been to Syria, you've been to where Richard's at right now. Ethnic cleansing’s a strong phrase. Is there any other way to describe it though?

BRETT MCGURK:

Well, first where Richard's standing is that is the heart of what used to be the ISIS Caliphate. So I think it's important to remember why is this area important, why are we there? This was the headquarters of ISIS, the main supply routes for ISIS, which came through Turkey, when they were enslaving thousands of women, holding slave markets to trade them around with different fighters, planning and plotting attacks against us, here in the United States, and against our friends in Europe.That's why this is so important. Erdogan, by his own terms, I think we have to listen to what he's saying. He is saying that he is planning a safe zone and that he has an agreement with President Trump, which runs 450 kilometers by 30 kilometers, which is the entire -- from the Euphrates River all the way to Iraq. And that he will then repopulate that zone with two million people. And he claims that that has been agreed to with the United States. U.S. officials describe it as a much far -- more narrow area. And I think Kurdish fighters will probably begin to pull out of that much more narrow area. But then to be replaced by these Turkish-backed extremist groups, who are responsible for war crimes and all sorts of other atrocities. Another reason why this is a real strategic debacle is that in 48 hours the cease-fire ends, but also in 48 hours, President Erdogan will be meeting with President Putin in Sochi. And that is where the fate of the Kurds, particularly in these areas like Kobane and others, which are majority Kurd. There are other areas in this strip that are majority Christian. And the fate of those areas, unfortunately, as we are evacuating our bases and ceding all of our influence --

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

BRETT MCGURK:

-- will be decided by President Putin of Russia.

CHUCK TODD:

Richard Engel, the defense secretary announced earlier today on his way to, I believe he's headed to -- we just found out he's in Afghanistan. He announced that these troops are not coming home. They're going to be moved from Syria to Iraq, which actually already has some Republicans, who actually supported the withdrawal going, "Well, what's the point of this now if you're not even bringing them home? You're sending them to Iraq." What, what are they going to be doing in Iraq?

RICHARD ENGEL:

Well, partly they're going to continue to fight against ISIS, but effectively what they will be doing is leaving their old friends, their old allies, the Kurds, two million people who fought alongside of them, who supported them, who did not attack them here in northern Syria, they will be leaving them to a broadened campaign of ethnic cleansing. Now Brett was just talking about these extremist groups. They are fundamental to this entire equation because there are about 10,000 of them, according to Kurdish and U.S. officials, who are now operating in conjunction with the Turkish government. So it's not just that the Turkish military, a NATO country, is assaulting, has paused now, will soon assault again in 48 hours, it seems very likely this area. They are using about 10,000 extremist fighters, going house to house killing people, terrifying people, putting out videos threatening to behead people. And that is why so many people are already running for their lives, heading toward regime areas, heading toward the Iraqi border, heading anywhere they can because they are afraid they're going to be slaughtered.

CHUCK TODD:

Brett McGurk, what is Syria now? Is it a full-fledged country? Is it being carved up? Is Turkey annexing a piece of it? I mean, what is the future of Syria here?

BRETT MCGURK:

Well, it's always been one of the most complex situations. And the situation President Trump inherited actually was on the road to some stability. And we executed a plan, and I served two years in his administration, in which we defeated the physical ISIS Caliphate and stabilized a third of Syria. The rest of Syria, most of it, is under the control of the Assad regime. And then in northwest Syria, another very serious problem, that's where the opposition is but also it's the dominant home for Al-Qaeda in Syria, the largest Al-Qaeda safe haven really in the world. So it's kind of in these three zones. The zone in the northeast was pretty stable. And we had it, about 2,000 American troops. It was, it was peaceful. I used to go in there every couple months. What really -- when this really started to get much harder is when President Trump in December announced --

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

BRETT MCGURK:

-- that he wanted to leave entirely. He then somewhat reversed that but cut the force arbitrarily by 50%. And that sent the message to all the other players in the region here, to Putin, to Erdogan, to Hominay, to Assad, that the Americans want to leave. It also significantly decreased our leverage and influence to manage the situation. So what happened on October 6th in this phone call, the President just threw all of our leverage out the window. So I am afraid that now the future of Syria will be determined by actors who are quite hostile to our interests and that includes Iran, Assad, and Erdogan. And putting 1,000 troops in western Iraq is good because we want to help the Iraqis, but it's not going to make a significant difference.

CHUCK TODD:

Alright.

BRETT MCGURK:

One final point.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes, sir --

BRETT MCGURK:

Leaving Syria cedes so much influence to our adversaries. It has ceded initiative to Iran. That is one reason we're seeing so much increased tension in the region and that President Trump has sent 14,000 American troops to the region since May. So he can't tell his political rallies that he's getting troops out of endless wars when he's sending 14 times the amount back into the region.

CHUCK TODD:

An excellent point to end on there. Brett McGurk, the former special envoy that was essentially in charge of the ISIS policy for Presidents Obama and Trump. Richard Engel, in northern Syria for us. Richard, as always, stay safe out there.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is a former Republican, now independent member of Congress, Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party shortly after reading Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. He does back impeachment. Congressman Amash, welcome to Meet the Press.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Thanks so much for having me on.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to start with the Syria decision. You, you have a very principled stand when it comes to foreign policy, and you seem to be caught in your own principles. You voted "present" because, on one hand, you didn't think we should have ever been there in the first place. On the other hand, you weren't comfortable with how the president did this decision. Explain this conundrum for you.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Yeah, that's right. I don't think we should have been in Syria without congressional approval. We never had congressional approval for the mission. I think the president should have withdrawn troops long ago. But when you withdraw troops, you have to plan ahead of time how to handle it. And he could have prepared in advance for the obvious consequences. He certainly knew what Turkey would do. And then he acts surprised that they're coming in and committing acts of violence. I think you don't wait till after withdrawing the troops to make a plan to go pressure Turkey to ease up and then call for a ceasefire.

CHUCK TODD:

What can be done now? I mean, this feels like a chaotic situation. And, again, I know where you are philosophically, but what do you think we should do now?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I think it's very difficult to put it all back together. You can't, I think, return the troops into the combat zone. I don't think that's feasible right now, and I'd defer to some military experts on that. But certainly if you're going to put troops back in harm's way, you should get congressional approval. You should go back to Congress and ask for approval from the American people.

CHUCK TODD:

The president has talked about this as sort of, hey, he's fulfilling a promise that he made that troops need to come home. Do you believe people in Michigan that voted for him will view this move as him fulfilling a promise that he's bringing troops home from the Middle East?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I think there are people who support the president who believe things he says. But it's pretty clear he's not bringing home the troops, he's just moving them to other parts of the Middle East.

CHUCK TODD:

You tweeted about that this morning.

JUSTIN AMASH:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

You’re like, the troops -- watch his -- you said, "Words versus actions."

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Right. Yeah, he's moving troops back into Iraq. He's moving other troops into Saudi Arabia. And he's using our forces almost as mercenaries, the paid mercenaries who are going to go in and, as long as Saudi Arabia pays us some money, it's good to go. What happened to the American people having their voices heard through their representatives in Congress? We should make those decisions in Congress. And, frankly, we've been in the Middle East for way too long. We've been in Afghanistan for obviously way too long, and we should bring people home.

CHUCK TODD:

If there was a vote right now in Congress to decide, "It's time to open an impeachment inquiry," and I know there's still a debate about whether there's going to be a vote or not, how many of your former Republican colleagues do you think, after this week's actions, might actually vote with the Democrats on that?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I think maybe one or two. But --

CHUCK TODD:

We may have heard one of them in there, in Francis Rooney.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Yeah. But realistically, politics drives a lot of this. And representatives are elected every two years, and they hear from their constituents. And frankly, a lot of the Republicans will be worried about primaries, and they think the president is popular within the primary electorate, and he is.

CHUCK TODD:

Is this why you had --

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

So they --

CHUCK TODD:

-- to leave the party? In order to stick to your principles that you felt if you wanted to criticize the president and you did it as a Republican, you probably would have been voted out, right?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I don't think so. I was comfortable sticking to my principles regardless, and I've built up enough of a reputation in my district. They know I'm independent. They know I will do what I believe in and stand by what I said on the campaign trail. But --

CHUCK TODD:

But you left the party anyway.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Yeah. But I've been frustrated for a long time with the party system. I've been frustrated with the way Washington works. I've been frustrated with the top-down approach to everything in Washington where a few leaders dictate everything to everyone, whether it's the president of the United States or the speaker of the House or the Senate majority leader. And we need to open things up again.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. How are you -- how can you do that? I'm curious. You've left the party. What has that meant? Have you -- does Kevin McCarthy still talk to you? Do you still --

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Well, he talks to me but not in a nice way.

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, do you feel as if you can be effective?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Yes, I can be more effective.

CHUCK TODD:

Why?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I can reach people on the other side of the aisle that I couldn't reach before. A lot of times --

CHUCK TODD:

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

But have you been rejected by your former members?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

No. You know, actually, they're less frustrated in many ways because, when you are a Republican and you break from the party, they treat it like you've abandoned the family or something, on a particular issue. So I can be more effective because the people in my former party are more respectful of my decisions now. They're more accepting of the fact that I'm going to, you know, vary from their views on a whole bunch of issues. And then people on the other side of the aisle will be more accepting of me because they don't think I'm just going along with the Republicans.

CHUCK TODD:

Is the House the most effective place for you to make your political arguments these days? Or is the Senate or running for the presidency a better place?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Well, I think I'm very effective in the House. I think my constituents want an independent congressman. My support in the district has been great as an independent. But we do need new voices on the national stage running for national office, including the presidency. I don't think that the current Democratic field is sufficient. If you look at the top three candidates on the Democratic side, they're all over 70 years old. The president's over 70 years old. I think that there is a large segment of the population that is not represented in the top candidates on either side of the aisle, and that's something I think about.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you concerned what would happen if the president survives impeachment? Meaning, the House impeaches him and the Senate acquits.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I'm more concerned about what happens if we don't go forward with impeachment. I think Congress has so neglected checks and balances, and over the years, the executive branch has become so powerful. And we need to restore that power in Congress. We need to restore separation of powers. And, yeah, there are consequences to finding him not guilty in the Senate, but there are consequences to not holding him accountable in the House.

CHUCK TODD:

Is there -- I guess the fear -- and I've heard this, that he will think, "Boy, I'm untouchable now"?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

He's going to think that anyways. I mean, here's a guy who thinks that nothing matters. Everything he does is applauded by people who are afraid of him, frankly. And, you know, I don't think he's that concerned about it.

CHUCK TODD:

What is -- what is it that you think that voters in Michigan saw in him? Versus -- was it about him or do you think it was about Hillary Clinton?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

I think it was a little bit of both. You know, in my neck of the woods on the west side of the state, he wasn't that popular, but neither was Hillary Clinton. But I do think that Hillary, you know, upset a lot of people in the Midwest, that she did not connect with them, in a way. And she certainly connected with people in the Northeast and on the West Coast. But in places like the Midwest, she didn't really connect. And people were drawn to Donald Trump because they thought she wasn't connecting.

CHUCK TODD:

100% you're running for Congress? Or could you still run for another office?

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

No, I wouldn't say --

CHUCK TODD:

-- in 2020.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

-- 100% of anything, you know. I'm running --

CHUCK TODD:

Right. But there had been talking about a Libertarian presidential candidate.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Yeah. I'm running for Congress, but I keep things open and I wouldn't rule anything out.

CHUCK TODD:

Justin Amash, thanks for coming on, sharing your views.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Thank so much, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

It’s good to have you on Meet the Press. Hope to have you on again soon.

REP. JUSTIN AMASH:

Appreciate it.

CHUCK TODD:

You got it.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back: impeachment, Turkey, Doral, the Democratic debate. Lot to talk about. Panel is next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Panel is here. Joshua Johnson, host of 1A on NPR. Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. Betsy Woodruff Swan of The Daily Beast. And Dan Balz, the chief correspondent for the Washington Post. Peter Nicholas, at The Atlantic, wrote the following on Friday. "The country is entering a new and precarious phase, in which the central question about President Donald Trump is not whether he is coming unstrung, but rather just how unstrung he is going to get. The question is whether Trump's base starts to notice or care that the man it elected, facing pressures he's never seen before, is devolving unmistakably into a different sort of man." Joshua Johnson, it certainly feels like there's something different about the president this week, perhaps.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

Not to me.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah?

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

I mean, people have been talking about whether Donald Trump is unraveling. I think he's just unwrapping. There is nothing that we've seen this week that is not of apiece with everything we've known about Donald Trump thus far. This is still the same person who has dealt in conspiracy theories, including against his predecessor, Barack Obama, who was in fact born in the United States.This is the same person who came to prominence through his reputation as a bomb thrower and a disrupter, on this network, on The Apprentice. This is the Donald Trump we've known, kind of, throughout. I don't know why Washington has not learned the lesson that Maya Angelou tried to teach us. When people show you who they really are, believe them the first time. And I think what's more interesting than whether or not Donald Trump is unraveling, which he's not, is whether or not his base is going to start to move away, or, I would suspect, that this remains of apiece with the person they elected. So, I'm not sure that this week, for the base, moves the needle. What may move the needle is the behavior and how Congress may react to that that forces him in another direction. But this is him.

CHUCK TODD:

Dany, let me put it another way. Is this a week that Republicans in Congress start to get more uncomfortable with him?

DANIELLE PLETKA:

Yeah, I think there's no doubt about that. When you see the majority leader in the Senate, coming after the President of the United States in the pages of the Washington Post, yes, I think that this is a real split. The question is, is it going to widen? Or is it just going to remain that way? And in some ways, that's up to the Democrats. This is, you know, we've talked about this again and again. If the Democrats end up with a far-left set of choices, then the Republicans are going to stick with Donald Trump. If, in fact, it looks like there are other options, then maybe you start to see the split become wider.

CHUCK TODD:

Dan Balz?

DAN BALZ:

Well, I think that the last several weeks, I think since Ukraine, became the central issue.

CHUCK TODD:

Since the start of impeachment, essentially.

DAN BALZ:

Right. I think we have seen a somewhat different Donald Trump. I mean, I take your point, that Donald Trump is Donald Trump. But I think that there has been more sort of sense of defensiveness, of franticness on his part, a kind of sense of urgency, on his part, to keep his view pushed forward. And I think it has manifested in a variety of ways. I mean, we've seen it in the tweets. We've seen it in Oval Office sprays. We've seen it on the South Lawn. We've seen it at the rally. He is feeling under pressure in a way that I don't think he felt quite as much during the Russia investigation.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

At the same time, the shift in his behavior does also predate the initiation of the impeachment conversation. The longer he's in office, the more comfortable he is going with his gut, following his instincts, and jettisoning what his advisors tell him. And the Turkey decision was a perfect encapsulation of that. We saw him withdraw U.S. troops without any credible plan from his team. It appeared that there wasn't much of an infrastructure in place to do that successfully. And it's really significant, not just because of his trend line, but also because of how it impacts his base. A really important subplot of the last two weeks that's gotten lost, because the last two weeks were so crazy, was the extent to which Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, and a really influential evangelical Christian leader, was part of the conversation about Syria. Once the president announced the decision to pull troops back, Graham actually urged his followers on Twitter to pray that Trump would change his mind, because of the Christian communities in northern Syria, who the Kurds protect. But when Mike Pence, who of course would be close with Graham, would be close with evangelicals, negotiated the ceasefire, if we'll call it that, in Turkey, Graham said it was great and came out in support of it.

CHUCK TODD:

So it didn't take much. I'm curious what you guys think of the Doral decision now, overnight. Because look at this. It feels as if, maybe he actually got buzzed by the electric fence for once. There were members of congress criticizing him that we had not seen criticize him before on this one. Here's Mike Simpson. "You have to go out and try to defend him? Well, I don't know if I can do that." This was on the Doral decision. "I think the optics aren't good," said Jeff Duncan. "But we have a lot more problems to worry about," South Carolina Republican. Tom Reed of New York, "This is a legitimate criticism. The profit issue? That clearly has to be transparent." And then Marco Rubio's, "I understand the arguments others are going to make. But as a Floridian, you know, I think it was good for Florida to have that event." But it did feel as --

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

That’s such a Florida thing to say.

CHUCK TODD:

It was, it was. Rick Scott didn't even hand wring. He just said, "There's no conflict of interest. Bring it to Florida." But it does feel like he knew that he was putting too much pressure on his own party.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

He was putting too much pressure on his own party. And I said this to you before the show. This is not just corrupt. This is like south Florida corrupt.

CHUCK TODD:

You're taking those tweets today, brother.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

You know what? Look, I covered South Florida for a very long time. And you and I both know that region has dealt in an array of very open, naked, almost brazen corruption.

CHUCK TODD:

Pay to play is sort of the first line of defense.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

The idea that the president would deal a federal contract to himself is unlawful. Doral is a bad place to hold this event. It's right under the flight path at MIA. It's surrounded by corporate headquarters, Univision, Carnival Cruise Line, the Miami Herald. It's inland. It's surrounded by property. You can't buttress it on one side with, say, water, which is what's often done at G7 summits. So it's a bad place. The idea that this is the best place in the whole country to hold the G7 is ridiculous. But beyond that, I'm not sure the G7 really cares that much, because they have bigger things to worry about. This week, they were more concerned with Facebook's cryptocurrency, called Libra, and whether it would actually harm real currencies, like the Dollar or the Euro. So in a weird way, that makes it even more South Florida corrupt. Because at the end of the day, it may not matter that it even happened at all.

CHUCK TODD:

Dany?

DANIELLE PLETKA:

I don't know. I wonder. I mean, Donald Trump is so ferally adept at throwing stuff out to distract you from what happened last week. We've talked about this again and again. None of us can remember what the outrage of two weeks ago was because he picks another one. I wonder whether maybe he did this on purpose. Because it seemed so ridiculous. It seemed to confirm every single thing that everybody had said --

CHUCK TODD:

Well it seemed to be the motif. What was weird, it was the motive to send Mick Mulvaney out there, who created the disastrous quid pro quo answer.

DANIELLE PLETKA:

Yeah, for me, it's inexplicable. But it did deflect fire onto Mulvaney, which is kind of interesting, Acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney, by the way.

CHUCK TODD:

They always insist on calling him, "acting." You know, I assume we're days away from that.

DAN BALZ:

I guess I would disagree with you slightly just by the idea that this administration has never seemed to be that cleverly strategic in the kinds of things they do. I mean, it is chaotic in the way they operate. My sense on the Doral decision is, he's just got too many fronts that he's fighting right now. And just take some of the pressure off. Back away. And give his Republican friends or allies or critics an opportunity to say, "Well, he did the right thing."

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

The Mulvaney press conference was truly one for the history books. And for people outside the White House, many of his close allies, even before he got to the quid pro quo part, there was a lot of head scratching about the fact that the White House would have a press conference to brag about this particular situation, the same week when they've spent tons and tons of airtime complaining about the Biden family, because of this focus on how self-dealing, the Trump administration was arguing, was inappropriate. It was a weird call and, obviously, did not go the way they'd hoped.

CHUCK TODD:

It was. And as everybody knows, Mick Mulvaney did not make the decision by himself. When we come back, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. But as we go to break, a word about Congressman Elijah Cummings, who died this week at the age of 68. The son of a sharecropper, Cummings became a lawyer, a Baltimore congressman, and one of the most-powerful Democrats in the country. But he was also that rare figure in current-day Washington, a man who sought to build, not burn, bridges between people of opposing viewpoints. When President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress, Cummings reminded us all of his humanity, grace and faith in America.

[BEGIN TAPE]

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS:

When we are dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Pete Buttigieg burst onto the Democratic primary scene with a gusher of good press and campaign contributions. But after that impressive start he did fall back into the second-tier candidates, well-behind Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. But at Tuesday's debate the South Bend Mayor tried to regain the initiative with a more aggressive approach.

[BEGIN TAPE]

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

We heard it tonight, a yes or no question that didn't get a yes or no answer. Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything except this. I don't need lessons from you on courage. Political or personal. You can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump's policy as you are doing --

TULSI GABBARD:

Will you end the regime change war is the question?

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

And Mayor Pete Buttigieg joins now me. Welcome back to Meet the Press.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Good morning, thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

Before I get to the campaign, I want to start with the current situation in Northern Syria. You may inherit a situation, if you're president, where the Turks have this sort of uneasy oversight over Northern Syria. The Kurds are a bit displaced. We have multiple nations, in sort of -- with troops in Syria. What do you do? What do you do now? We know what you wouldn't do. I understand that. What do you do now?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, things are going to evolve in so many different ways that it's hard to gauge the future, except this. We know that we need to promote stability, that we need to stand by our allies and that there will be legitimate Turkish security concerns that will also be part of the equation. But right now what's happening is the future over there is being decided by everybody but the United States. Russia, Iran, Turkey. And we are nowhere because American leadership has been withdrawn. And the implications of this aren't just the regional security picture in the Middle East. It's the credibility of the United States ourselves. And the first order of business will be to restore U.S. credibility. Not just with regard to the Middle East but globally.

CHUCK TODD:

The first -- one of the first relationships that might need reorienting is Turkey. Does Turkey belong in NATO?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, what we know is that they are not behaving in a way that's consistent with stability. And I think if they continue to behave in this way, there have to be consequences. But right now --

CHUCK TODD:

Is kick -- a suspension or kicking out, some form of suspension from NATO, one of those consequences?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, right now what we've got to do is engage Turkey as an ally. You know, I served alongside Turkish troops in Afghanistan. That alliance is important. And it's leverage for us to make sure that we use our influence to prevent bad outcomes like the one that Donald Trump greenlighted that they're doing right now. If they don't act like an ally in the long-run, that's going to have consequences.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to ask you about Afghanistan. Peter Beinart reacted to your debate performance and he wrote, he writes this over this headline, "Democrats are hypocrites for condemning Trump over Syria. If Trump's unilateral, non-negotiated withdrawal for Northern Syria makes it harder for Buttigieg to look America's Afghan allies in the eye, the same might be said of the unilateral, non-negotiated withdrawal that Buttigieg and the other leading Democratic candidates are proposing in Afghanistan itself." Is there a lesson learned, what we're seeing in Northern Syria, about the situation in Afghanistan?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Yeah, but the lesson validates my position. Because what I've said about Afghanistan is that where we need to get to, and by the way, it will involve negotiations. It's not a unilateral, non-negotiated withdrawal. What we need to do in Afghanistan is get to where we have a light footprint presence of counter-terrorism, specialized, special operations troops and whatever intelligence capabilities we need to protect the homeland and no more.

CHUCK TODD:

So we will always --

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Now here’s the thing, --

CHUCK TODD:

-- and in your mind, for the foreseeable future, we're going to have some force in Kabul.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: The way to end our unending, massive ground troop presence there is to have this other footprint in the median term. But here's the thing, that's exactly what we had in Syria. A matter of just a few dozen troops, special operators in just the right places, making it possible to prevent the descent into chaos we're seeing now. So you see, what was withdrawn from Syria is exactly the sort of thing that if we had it in Afghanistan would prevent endless war of the scale that we're seeing now.

CHUCK TODD:

One of the criticisms that you and others have leveled is that the president's not respecting sort of deals that America has made. You know, we're walking away from the Kurds, in particular. This is, this is, this part is unamerican. How constrained are you going to feel by deals that President Trump cut? Because on one hand, you've got to restore faith among folks around the world that you can-- that when you cut a deal with America, that America will stick by it. But if you don't like a deal President Trump cut what are you going to do?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Make a better deal. But what we're not going to --

CHUCK TODD:

Sounds like President Trump.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

No. What President Trump does is wake up in the morning, have a phone call or maybe a tweet and completely change years, or even decades, of U.S. policy, surprising his own generals and country in the process. That's not how this works. If we think that there is a commitment, a treaty or a deal that we can improve on we go to the table and we make it happen. But the credibility of the United States is something that our lives depend on. And when the president undermines it with things like the action in Syria, that is going to cost us for years and years. We've got to be a country known to keep its word.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me move to the debate and the back and forth in particular you had with Senator Warren. You were pretty tough on her and her inability to tell you how she's going to pay for her Medicare for All plan. You've been pretty evasive on how you're paying for yours. You've said it's going to be some cost-savings plus corporate tax reform. But you haven't said much after that. What are some details on how you're paying for your Medicare for All who want it?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Sure. So we score it out as $1.5 trillion over that period of time. The vast majority of that can be recovered by rolling back the corporate tax rate cut portion of the Trump tax cuts.

CHUCK TODD:

So it would go from what to what?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

That'll take care of the $1.4 trillion. If we just revert to the pre-Trump level.

CHUCK TODD:

So you want to just basically roll back the entire corporate tax cut?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Uh-huh. And --

CHUCK TODD:

Is that going to be easy? It's easier said than done.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, governing is easier said than done. But we have a responsibility to make sure that dollars that have gone to line the pockets of people who didn't even need it are instead going to make sure that the American people can get health care. Now just to give you a full mathematical answer, that's almost enough to deliver what I say that we need. But there's a little bit more that we're going to recover through the savings to the government from my prescription drug plan. Because when we allow the government to negotiate drug prices, that actually leads to a return to the treasury. So the bigger point here is my plan is paid for. And we have an opportunity to get everybody health care without kicking people off their private plans and without the multi-trillion dollar hole that appears to be there, unexplained, in Senator Warren's plan.

CHUCK TODD:

Before I let you go, I'm just curious if you had any reaction to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton implying that Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard might be a Russian asset.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

What I'll say is that I'm not going to get into their dispute. What I will say is that we know right now --

CHUCK TODD:

Is that appropriate?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, I suppose when you become a private citizen you can say whatever you want. But --

CHUCK TODD:

No I understand that.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

-- I would --

CHUCK TODD:

But she's a sitting member of Congress, she served.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, I certainly honor her service. As we saw in the debate I also have strong disagreements with her on topics like Syria. But the bigger issue here is Russia is working to interfere with our elections right now. And we know a big part of how they're going to do it is exploiting divisions among the American people with their information operations. We've got to become a harder target. And as president, I will make sure, using all of our tools, diplomatic, economic and security, that there is enough deterrence, that Russia would, or any country, would never again calculate that it is in their interest to mess with our democracy.

CHUCK TODD:

I just wonder if you're comfortable, I mean -- throw a charge out there making her deny it. That's a Trump -- that’s a Trumpian move.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, we've got to focus on the task at hand right now. And that includes making sure that this presidency comes to an end. That is my focus. That and what happens after this presidency comes to an end.

CHUCK TODD:

So you're comfortable with Hillary Clinton's critique of Tulsi Gabbard and how she went about it?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

No, I'm not. I'm also not going to get in the middle of it because we, as a party and as a country, have to focus on the future.

CHUCK TODD:

Pete Buttigieg, the soon to be former mayor of South Bend. Right? We've got another six weeks --

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

About ten more weeks.

CHUCK TODD:

-- about ten more weeks. Stay safe on the trail. Thanks for coming in.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Thank you. Good to be with you.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, how the NBA is hardly alone among U.S. businesses being very careful about criticizing China's human rights abuses. See if you can guess why.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back, Data Download time. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have been grandstanding in their criticism against the NBA in recent weeks for allegedly placing dollars over human rights in China. It happened after the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted support for the Hong Kong protestors, then felt pressured into apologizing.

But the numbers explain why the league cares so much about China and why so many other American businesses should be breathing a sigh of relief that it's the NBA taking the arrows publicly, right now, and not any of them. Last season, roughly 800 million people in China watched an NBA game. That's more than twice as many people as there are in the United States. And the NBA, as a standalone business, is estimated to be worth more than $5 billion in China. But the league is not alone. There are hundreds of companies here, in America, with ties and deep roots in China, everything from Amazon to Westinghouse. And they've largely escaped scrutiny these past few works. Start with General Motors, the big Detroit automaker currently involved in contract negotiations with the United Auto Workers. The contract story is a big one here. But in reality, there are 9,000 more GM workers in China than there are UAW workers here in the states. And then there's Nike. The company has about 5,400 employees here, in the United States, in just over 40 factories, compared with 145,000 employees in China at over 100 factories, according to its website. And what's more American than Kentucky Fried Chicken? Well, if you count restaurant locations, the C in KFC may stand for China now. As of late June, there were more than 4,000 KFC locations in the United States and more than 6,000 in China, according to the fast-food chain's parent company. Look, while it's fair to criticize the NBA, and its stake in China is no different than that of many, many other American businesses in this country. So politicians, who are grandstanding about this issue might want to look in the mirror and decide why their outrage appears to be so selective, and why so many companies can legally do what they are doing. When we come back, exactly what did Hillary Clinton mean, when she suggested a Democratic candidate was backed by Russia and being groomed as a third-party candidate? End Game is next.

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with End Game. If you're trying to figure out who the frontrunner for the Democratic Party is, sometimes, you should ask the candidates actually running for president. I think that's a good way of doing it. Because if you just ask the candidates, they told us who the frontrunner is. Take a look.

[BEGIN TAPE]

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG:

Well, we heard it tonight, a yes-or-no question that didn't get a yes-or-no answer.

SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR:

I appreciate Elizabeth's work. But again, the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done.

JOE BIDEN:

I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill. I convinced people to vote for it. So let's get those things straight, too.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Dan Balz, Elizabeth Warren, the Democrats think she's the frontrunner, not Joe Biden anymore.

DAN BALZ:

Well, she's the person who has been rising in the polls and who is now, you know, roughly even with Vice President Biden and is moving in Iowa and has good organizations and has run a very disciplined campaign. But I think, as we saw in that debate, there are questions that she's going to have to answer, that she's unwilling to answer. And those aren't going to go away. And she's going to have to figure out how to kind of power through that. And so far, she hasn't been prepared to say what she would do on that Medicare plan.

CHUCK TODD:

Betsy, she didn't take the bait, directly, from anybody. She tried to brush it all off.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

That's right. She sort of always wanted to cease back the center of gravity in a way that provided her some protection. But these attacks are only going to get more intense. And now that she's the frontrunner, she's going to be facing it not just from Democrats, but also, of course, from the president and his allies. That's something that's going to be difficult for her. And this week, itself, was pretty challenging for the Warren campaign. She not only had that tough answer in the debate, where she didn't give a clear explanation of the pay force for her healthcare plan, which is the most-important issue to Democratic voters, but on top of that, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and some of her allies in the House endorsed Bernie Sanders. That's a big lost opportunity for Warren.

CHUCK TODD:

Joshua, though, what does it say about Biden?

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

I think, and I've said this before, I am viewing the field right now like the Democratic candidates are the Avengers, and Joe Biden is Robert Downey, Jr. Like, he's the bankable guy. He's the one you know you can put at the top of the marquee, and people will show up.

I'm not really convinced that he's the frontrunner in the sense of getting the most-fervent response, where people are like, "Yes, I want you to lead the country. You've got these one or two ideas that I'm so passionate about." He's the guy who we know is bankable. He's still got the Barack Obama halo around him, understandably and deservedly. But I just think he's kind of the de facto leader, right now. I think, in a way, it's great for Democratic voters. Because if there's one thing that a lot of Democratic voters said, in 2016, is that they don't like being told who the frontrunner is supposed to be. And if we're just going around enthusiasm, Andrew Yang has a tremendous center of gravity.

CHUCK TODD:

You're right.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

He's getting ignored for some weird reason. And there's lots of Democrats who are like, "No, no, no, no, no. We like this guy." So I think the fact that the frontrunner keeps moving, in a way, for the Democratic voting base, is probably a great thing. Because it means that they are still driving the process.

CHUCK TODD:

I think the Biden campaign wishes they had that Iron Man suit.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

Well, yeah, I think so, yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

Biden could use the Iron Man suit.

DANIELLE PLETKA:

I like that analogy. He really does remind me of Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr., looks old. I'm sorry. Sorry, please don't yell at me.

CHUCK TODD:

But he's still a bankable star.

DANIELLE PLETKA:

But I don't see Joe Biden being able to take this back from Elizabeth Warren. She is the disciplined candidate. Maybe they'll start changing around. They'll get back to the top of the batting order, at some point, with him. But he doesn't have what it takes. He's shown, both in fundraising and in his own personal discipline, that he's not ready.

CHUCK TODD:

Has Buttigieg? Can he beat? I mean, it does seem as if, if there's anybody in sort of tier 1A, not in the top tier, not in the full-fledged second tier, sort of in frontrunner purgatory, maybe.

DAN BALZ:

Well, he's moved, in Iowa, into a place where you could envision him being in the top three, by the time this ends, and maybe the top two, if Biden were to fall significantly. But I'm not predicting that, frankly. But I think that what we've seen with him is that he has clear campaign skills. But we don't know whether he has a low ceiling. There's question of, can he expand beyond that kind of well-educated, white electorate.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, I'm going to move to the bizarre Hillary Clinton attack, Betsy, on Tulsi Gabbard. First, I want folks to hear it.

[BEGIN TAPE]

HILLARY CLINTON:

I think they've got their eye on somebody who's currently in the Democratic primary, and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She's a favorite of the Russians... And that's assuming Jill Stein will give it up, which she might not, because she's also a Russian asset.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

“Also a Russian asset.” Tulsi Gabbard responded, Betsy, "You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long... it's now clear that this primary's between you and me. Don't cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly." Tulsi Gabbard is on the verge of sort of not making it into the next debate. But Hillary Clinton just gave her a lifeline.

BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN:

Look, either Hillary Clinton has some very explosive information that none of the rest of the public has access to, or she floated a conspiracy theory about Tulsi Gabbard. Claiming that someone who deployed twice, who joined the military, is covertly being groomed by the Russian government, that's a conspiracy theory. And there's not public evidence for it. And of course, it's understandable that Gabbard would respond with immense anger. Now, to be fair, Gabbard saying that Clinton was using her proxies in the corporate media to conspire to keep her from being a successful candidate also is like, come on. But this particular episode was not awesome.

CHUCK TODD:

Joshua, criticize her for hanging out with Bashar al-Assad. That's a fact. None of this other stuff are fact-based.

JOSHUA JOHNSON:

Not fact based, and also, I'm just not sure that it, like you said, I'm not sure it's going to make a difference at the end of the day. If she had said this about Elizabeth Warren, totally different story. But Tulsi Gabbard, the center of gravity around her is not that strong. So in the end, this might not move the needle.

CHUCK TODD:

That was a weird sideswipe, though, especially when people are lecturing conspiracy theory in chief, Donald Trump. That's all I have for today. Thank you for watching. The World Series starts Tuesday. And it's a local story for us. Houston, you have a problem. Our Washington Nationals are coming. We'll be back next week. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.