Meet the Press - September 22, 2019

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday: the president and the whistleblower.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I don't know the identity of the whistleblower. I just hear it's a partisan person.

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump responds to reports that while he held up aid to Ukraine, he was urging its president to create an investigation targeting Joe Biden.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I can say that it was a totally appropriate conversation. It was actually a beautiful conversation.

CHUCK TODD:

Then, without evidence, suggests more.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

It doesn't matter what I discussed, but I will say this - someone oughta look into Joe Biden's statement.

JOE BIDEN:

You should be looking at Trump. Trump's doing this because he knows I'll beat him like a drum.

CHUCK TODD:

I'll talk to Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Plus, growing tensions with Iran. The administration sending troops to Saudi Arabia.

SECRETARY MARK ESPER:

The president has approved the deployment of U.S. forces which will be defensive in nature.

CHUCK TODD:

As President Trump weighs military and economic responses to that attack on Saudi oil facilities.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

There's the ultimate option and there are options that are a lot less than that.

CHUCK TODD:

My guest this morning: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. And as Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren separate themselves from the field.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN:

Hello, Iowa!

CHUCK TODD:

The rest of the candidates are on notice with Cory Booker saying he'll get out in ten days if he can't raise enough money.

SEN. CORY BOOKER:

You gotta grow. Grow or get out.

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me for insight and analysis are: NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for The Washington Post, Former Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards, and former Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo. 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. We're following two huge stories today, both of which could have far-reaching consequences at home and abroad. One involves war and peace; will the United States respond militarily against Iran for last week's devastating attack on Saudi Arabia's chief oil facility? President Trump is weighing the risks of war against the cost of appearing weak and encouraging more aggression. Here, the president is seen as acting conventionally, in the public interest and in a manner many of us expect from a president. Then there's the other story. That one concerns multiple reports involving a whistleblower, President Trump and the mixing of foreign policy with 2020 politics. At issue: the allegation -- first surfaced by a whistleblower -- that President Trump pressured Ukraine's president to create an investigation into Joe Biden and perhaps withheld military aid as an inducement. Here, the president is accused of acting unconventionally, in his own personal interest testing the limits of the Constitution, again and yet, it's in a manner many of us have come to expect from this president. And that's where we begin this morning, with the charge that Mr. Trump tried to engage a foreign government to go after the Democratic candidate he sees as his chief political rival.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

It was a totally appropriate conversation, it was actually a beautiful conversation.

CHUCK TODD:

President Trump - responding to reports that he repeatedly pressed Ukraine's president in a July 25th phone call to work with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to investigate political rival Joe Biden.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

It doesn't matter what I discussed, but I will say this - somebody oughta look into Joe Biden's statement.

CHUCK TODD:

That phone call is part of a broader set of facts named in a secret August 12th whistleblower complaint to the intelligence community's inspector general. Mr. Trump reportedly pushed Ukraine's president Zelensky to pursue the probe of a Ukrainian gas company with links to Biden's son Hunter accusing Joe Biden of a conflict of interest.

JOE BIDEN:

Not one single credible outlet has given any credibility to his assertion. Not one single one.

CHUCK TODD:

Giuliani denied putting pressure on Ukraine.

CHRIS CUOMO:

Did you ask the Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden?

RUDY GIULIANI:

No, actually I didn't.

CHUCK TODD:

Before reversing himself and admitting it.

CHRIS CUOMO:

So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden?

RUDY GIULIANI:

Of course I did!

CHUCK TODD:

After Ukraine's new president won in a landslide in April, Mr. Trump and Giuliani began pressing him to investigate the Bidens in May.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

I'm hearing it's a major scandal, major problem. Very bad things happened, and we'll see what that is

RUDY GIULIANI:

It's a case that is crying out to be investigated.

CHUCK TODD:

Then in June, President Trump made it clear that if a foreign government offered him help to win in 2020, he would take it.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP:

If somebody called from a country, Norway, we have information on your opponent. Oh. I think I'd want to hear it.

CHUCK TODD:

Days after the two presidents spoke on July 25th, Giuliani met with a Ukrainian official in Spain to press him again to pursue a probe of Hunter Biden. Right around the same time the United States froze military assistance to Ukraine, prompting questions from lawmakers.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY:

The implication seems to be, to the Ukrainian president, that if he does what Rudy Giuliani asking him to do and investigates the Bidens, maybe he will get the money that the president is holding back.

CHUCK TODD:

The White House finally released the aid last week.The details in the whistleblower's complaint are still unknown. President Trump's newly-appointed director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire is refusing to release it to Congress.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF:

This was about wrongdoing and the idea that that complaint - which was intended for Congress - should instead end up in the White House is disturbing beyond belief.

JOE BIDEN:

You should be looking at Trump. Trump's doing this because he knows I'll beat him like a drum and he's using the abuse of power and every element of the presidency to try to do something to smear me.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who actually recently met with President Zelensky in Ukraine. Senator Murphy, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Good morning.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. So tell, tell me what your conversation was like with the president because I believe you met with him before the aid was released.

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

And it was during this time that the aid passed by Congress but for some reason was being held up by the administration. You were -- tell me was this meeting in Kiev, number one? And what was the circumstances?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

So I went to Kiev in part because I had heard these concerns from my friends there, that the government and Zelensky personally was really worried about these overtures he was getting in particular from Rudy Giuliani. And he didn't understand whether this was an official government position, these requests to investigate the former vice president. So I went there to make it clear to him that the worst thing that he could do for the U.S.-Ukraine relationship was to get involved in an election here in the United States. I will say what was interesting to me was that he dispensed with the diplomatic protocols of that meeting. As soon as we sat down at the table in the presidential palace, he asked us what was going on with the aid, why was it being withheld.

He seemed very concerned and I think out of sorts about it. And then later in the meeting I raised with him these overtures from the Trump campaign. He gave me a very strong answer. He said they had no intention to get involved in an American election. They knew what damage it would do to them. And I left that meeting fairly confident that he understood.

CHUCK TODD:

What did the Trump administration tell you officially when you were trying to figure out why -- what the holdup was?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

So the reason that was given in particular to Senator Johnson, who I was there with.

CHUCK TODD:

Ron Johnson, Republican from Wisconsin.

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Republican from Wisconsin who had talked with the president shortly before our visit to Kiev. The reason that was given was that the president was concerned about corruption in Ukraine and he thought that the Europeans should be providing the aid instead of the United States. Those were the two reasons that were stated to us as we went. The embassy there didn't seem to have really a readout from the White House at all when we asked them about it.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you have any reason to believe that the aid was suddenly released in connection with the discovery of this whistleblower complaint into the public?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

I mean, the timing is obviously incredibly suspicious. There was also a pending vote in the Appropriations Committee that was going to require next year's aid to be released outside of the discretion of the president. There are likely a bunch of different explanations. Political pressure was mounting on the president from Republicans. But obviously the timing of this looks really terrible.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to show you another coincidence that we noticed here. These are the departures among people that were involved in Russian and Ukraine policy decisions inside the Trump administration. The two top officials from DNI: July 28th, August 8th. Then you have three top officials in and around the State Department or NSC. The ambassador to Ukraine in May was forced out. The president's Russia advisor Fiona Hill resigned in June. Obviously, the ambassador to Russia John Huntsman in August. Maybe they're all coincidences. I’m not saying that -- anything about that timeline of all those folks that you find troubling? Because it's all happening at the same time that Giuliani is doing his thing and the president is doing his thing.

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

So the departure of the ambassador, one of the individuals on that screen, was very troubling to many of us. She was a credibly experienced, very well-thought-of diplomat. There seemed to be no reasons for her departure. And it's one of the reasons why in May I sent a letter to the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate asking them to investigate these overtures that Giuliani had been making and whether one of the demands that was being made was that this ambassador leave because perhaps the ambassador at the time was frustrating the Trump campaign's efforts to try to get this new president to investigate the Bidens.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I want some clarity here. Is the allegation that Rudy Giuliani was trying to get this ambassador out or the Ukrainians wanted our ambassador out?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

I think the worry is that it may have been amongst the Trump campaign's demands. And I think it's really important to get to the bottom of why she left, under what circumstances she left, and what was she unwilling to do.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to put up a tweet that you sent out I believe yesterday if I'm not mistaken. "Don't get creative," you write. "Don't look for new, interesting angles. This one is as simple as it gets. If an American president gets away with bullying foreign countries to do his political bidding, then we should just give up and accept our new banana republic." What's the next step?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Well, I don't frankly think it matters whether there was an explicit quid pro quo in this conversation with Zelensky. I think if an American president is asking another foreign leader to interfere in an American election -- essentially what we're trying to figure out -- what was going on between Trump and Putin, then there has to be consequences for that. We spent a year trying to figure out whether he had asked Putin to interfere. We just found out he asked Zelensky to interfere. I don't know that it matters it's another country.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. So you're saying that an impeachment investigation should be opened up right now?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

I think --

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, if you were in the House still. You were a former House member. You're now in the Senate. You could be a juror. I understand that. But at this point it sounds like you're saying, "This one's open and shut." Don’t be --- you just said here, "Don't get creative."

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Yeah, I think this one would be open and shut if we had more information than simply anonymous sources that newspapers have written on. I think the whistleblower has to come forward. I think that Republicans who claim to be national security experts need to demand that the whistleblower present himself or herself before Congress. But I think if we do have evidence from this whistleblower that the president indeed tried to bully a foreign power into affecting our elections, then we have to do something about it.

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, when the aid got released, they got an additional $140 million. Where did that come from?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Yeah, maybe an overcorrection on behalf of the president.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you know where that came from?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

No, I don't know the source of that secondary funding.

CHUCK TODD:

Did you guys appropriate this money?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

The president certainly has discretionary money at his -- that's available to him. It may have come from those accounts.

CHUCK TODD:

But you have no idea, and suddenly they got more aid. So do you view that as troubling?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Listen, I think this whole timeline is hard to figure out. And there may be someone who can tell us more about all of it, and that whistleblower individual has to come before Congress.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Toomey is going to come on here right after you. We're going to be discussing some other issues, but one of them is guns. He's pushing for Manchin-Toomey. Where are you on this? Did Beto O’Rourke -- Chuck Schumer essentially is almost pointing the finger that Beto O'Rourke has set, set things back. Has he?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Oh, I don't think that's true. Listen, I think Republicans who don't want to vote for a background checks bill are going to look for any excuse to do it. Beto's comments may be their latest hook. But the fact of the matter is: If Donald Trump supports a bill that expands background checks, we will get 60 votes for it in the Senate. The attorney general brought up to Congress last week a fairly reasonable proposal that would expand background checks to commercial sales. There are some things I don't like about it, but it's absolutely a platform for negotiation. The NRA opposes it. And so the critical question now is sitting on the president's desk. Is he willing to take on the NRA? If he is, we'll get a background checks bill --

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, you sound like a guy that says, "Hey, take what you can get every time you have a chance. Don't try to let the perfect be the enemy of this," right?

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

I mean, on this issue, this is about life and death, right? There are very few other issues that are like it. And I also think that maybe what's most important in the long-term perspective of the anti-gun violence movement is breaking this rock-solid alliance between the NRA and Republicans. And this may be our chance to do it.

CHUCK TODD:

Democratic Senator Chris Murphy from Connecticut, thanks for coming on and sharing your views, sir.

SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY:

Of course.

CHUCK TODD:

And joining me now is Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. Senator Toomey, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

Morning, Chuck. Thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

As I said, I invoked your name there. We will get to the gun issue in a second. I want to ask you about the top story we've been dealing with this morning. The president has actually already commented again, as he's headed down to Texas for that event with the prime minister of India. And he is admitting that he did bring up Joe Biden in the phone call with the president of Ukraine. Does this look like a president asking for foreign assistance for his presidential prospects?

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

It's very hard to say, Chuck. I don't, I don’t know what the conversation was --

CHUCK TODD:

I just told you. He said he did bring up corruption and Biden --

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

-- I think it could be spun that way.

CHUCK TODD:

-- I mean, was that appropriate under any level?

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

Yeah, again, I don't know the context. I don't know what was said. Look, it is not appropriate for any candidate for federal office, certainly, including a sitting president, to ask for assistance from a foreign country. That's not appropriate. But I don't know that that's what happened here.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think Congress should get its hands on this whistleblower complaint?

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

Well, as you know, this is an example -- recent example of cases that have gone back from the beginning of the republic of the tension between the executive over private conversations versus Congress' obligations and responsibilities for oversight. So what I think ought to happen here is what happens, typically, in these cases. You get some kind of negotiated agreement, whereby the administration shares what they think is not a -- doesn't need to be protected for national security purposes. It satisfies the members of the intelligence committees and allows us to determine whether this is something that really requires further investigation or not. I mean, at this point, we don't know anything. We're getting a bunch of leaked rumors. And that's all we have.

CHUCK TODD:

Are you at all concerned, though, that aid was delayed for as long as it was, and now, at the same time, we're finding out -- there was a second track of conversation going on while this aid was being delayed? Does that all concern you enough to say, "You know what? It is Congress' responsibility to look into this"?

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

So we should find out why that was the case. Now, we also know that we have a president who's always been very skeptical about U.S. foreign aid to almost any country. So there might be a reasonable explanation for this. And there might be a troublesome one. And we should, we should understand why that happened.

CHUCK TODD:

But you do think Congress should be looking into this in any way, shape, or form, at some point, that this is their job, to figure out -- I mean, you guys appropriated the money. I would assume you'd want to figure out why it was delayed and why Rudy Giuliani may or may not have been involved with it.

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

I certainly would want to know whether the law was followed, whether the president was exercising the discretion he actually has and for what reasons, if there were delays. I don't know the relevance of Rudy Giuliani. He's not part of this administration. But we certainly should understand how the funds that have been appropriated end up getting delivered.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think Rudy Giuliani's role has been important? Apparently, the State Department set up one of the meetings.

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

I'm not aware of that.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let me move to the issue that I was discussing there, at the end, with Senator Murphy. The last time there was a vote on your bill, on Manchin-Toomey, was in 2015. Sadly, and you know this already, I think, five of the ten deadliest mass shootings have taken place since then: Vegas, Orlando, Sutherland Springs, El Paso, Parkland. I don't have to say anything other than those names. You're very aware of it. Is this, now, the time? You say it is. It's stunning to me what has happened in the last four years, when you look at it from that, from that perspective.

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

It is stunning, Chuck. And of course, I'm making an all-out effort to get our legislation passed. I will have to acknowledge that it's not clear that, had Manchin-Toomey been law, that any one of those particular shootings would've been prevented, although I think the shooting in Odessa might have been blocked, had Manchin-Toomey been law. But look, I think there's momentum now that we didn't have before. We have Republican senators who are reconsidering the whole issue of expanding background checks to commercial sales, which is all we're talking about here. And we've got a Republican president who's very interested and personally engaged. So I don't know how this is going to turn out. But I'm hopeful, and I'm going to keep pushing.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to put up some quotes here. It seems to me, there's a whole bunch of your Republican colleagues who are, essentially, saying, "I'm not going to tell you where I stand until the president says where he stands." Let me put up some of these quotes. Roy Blunt, "This does not go anywhere, unless we explicitly know what the president's willing to do." Chuck Grassley, "We aren't going to do anything that the president isn't going to sign, anyway." John Thune, "In the end, Trump is going to have to make a hard decision." You know, this is a -- I mean, you guys are playing a game of chicken here, a little bit. At what point do you need to force the president's hand and pass something?

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

Well, the problem is, if we attempt to force the president's hand and pass something, it might very well not pass, right? Having the president onboard would make all the difference. And part of it, Chuck, is the president has a unique bully pulpit. He can explain what this is. Expanding background checks to commercial sales is very widely supported, even among gun-owners and NRA members. Part of the problem we've always had is the mischaracterization of the legislation. The president can uniquely cut through that, make it clear what this is really about. I think we'd have a big collective sigh of relief from pro-Second-Amendment people, which I consider myself one of them. And then we could pass something really meaningful.

CHUCK TODD:

How much has Senator Mike Braun's argument carried the day with some skeptical Republicans? He's been making an interesting case, essentially, for your bill, not quite saying it that way. But if you don't do what he calls common-sense reforms now, and another five years goes by, like has happened, with no movement since the last time there was a vote on your legislation, and that suddenly, it won't be just background checks that has popular support.

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

Look, it's a strong point. I'm not sure quite how much it's persuading people. But I can tell you that a number of Republican senators are open to this who were not in the past. I do think that Beto O'Rourke does not help things, when he advertises that his real plan is to confiscate guns. That's not helpful to this conversation. But the attorney general has been very constructive, very helpful. The president's engaged. We've got broader interest among Republican senators than we've ever had.

CHUCK TODD:

One quick question on Iran. Does the president have the authority to strike Iran right now? Or do you believe he has to come to Congress?

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

So first of all, I think it's extremely unlikely that we would have a unilateral strike, by the United States, against Iran. And by the way, the sanctions are working very, very well. And this next round is likely to be devastating to the Iranian economy. I do think that it's essential that we reestablish deterrence. And the Iranians have been demonstrating, recently, that they don't feel very deterred. I would prefer that be led by a coalition, probably, of Arab Gulf states, probably, with U.S. support. And that, I think, the president has full authority to do, as commander in chief.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Senator Pat Toomey, Republican from Pennsylvania, much appreciate you coming on and sharing your views, sir.

SENATOR PAT TOOMEY:

Thanks for having me, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, the two big stories of the week, the whistleblower and growing tensions with Iran. Panel is next.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. The panel is here, former Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo, of Florida; former Democratic Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland; NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker; and Robert Costa, national political reporter for the Washington Post and moderator of Washington Week on PBS. Well, the president is busy this morning. He's on his way to Texas for what will be quite the event with Prime Minister Modi down there, in Houston. But as he does all the time, Kristen, he stopped to speak with reporters. And he appears to have admitted that, yes, indeed, he brought up Joe Biden in his conversations with the president of Ukraine. Here he is.

DONALD TRUMP (ON VIDEO):

We had a great conversation. The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don't want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating the corruption already in the Ukraine.

CHUCK TODD:

Nothing is done by accident, Kristen Welker. Suddenly, he is admitting the Biden portion of this conversation. That sounds like somebody who just was reminded what he said.

KRISTEN WELKER:

Right, may have revisited the transcript and the context of the phone call. It also moves the needle from what he said to me, in the Oval Office, on Friday, when I asked him if he'd discussed Joe Biden as a part of this conversation. And he said, "It doesn't matter what I discussed." Is the president trying to push this into the headlines, this story, this controversial story, which is unsubstantiated? Of course, the Biden campaign underscores the fact that the allegations against the former vice president have never been substantiated. There's never been any evidence of wrongdoing. The bottom line is, from the president's perspective, the only way to put this story to bed is to release the transcripts. I can tell you, there's a debate right now, in the White House, whether or not to do that. What would the implications be for national security? What message would that send to other foreign leaders? And would it be gray?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I can tell you this. Secretary Mnuchin, who will be on in a little bit, it's my understanding that the argument, right now, that's winning the day, is don't. It sets a bad precedent. Robert Costa, are we being gaslit here, meaning that they have tried to create this storyline of, somehow, corruption that's somehow connected to Biden. There had been no takers. And now, all of a sudden, because of the lengths with which the president has gone, that this is actually, in some ways, strategic?

ROBERT COSTA:

They may have a political strategy at the White House. But the story remains the president's conversations with the president of Ukraine, Zelensky, this former comedian and actor. I was in the room with Zelensky earlier this month, in Warsaw, and talking to Ukrainian officials.

They have felt this has been a bizarre experience for them. For months, they had Rudy Giuliani coming over to talk about maybe having an investigation into Joe Biden, this phone call with President Trump. And then Vice President Pence went over in a meeting in Poland with Zelensky and said, "You'd better investigate corruption." And the Ukrainians have been saying to themselves, "Does this mean we must investigate corruption in order to get that $250 million?"

CHUCK TODD:

Carlos Curbelo, the president, right now, has admitted that he brought up Joe Biden. At this point, how is that not asking for foreign assistance? And if so, let's not get creative here, as Chris Murphy said. Has he just committed an impeachable violation?

CARLOS CURBELO:

Well, Chuck, I want to point to your interview with Pat Toomey. Because most Republicans tend to be elusive when asked specific questions. And you asked him, "Is this appropriate?" And he said, "Absolutely not." It is not appropriate for the president, any president, to reach out to a foreign leader to ask for help for his election. Pat Toomey said it. Most Republicans still will not say it. And that's what we have to focus on here. Sure, there's the Biden angle and everything else. But at the end of the day, it's the president asking another foreign leader for support for a U.S. election. That is troubling. Now, politically, could this end up helping him? Maybe. This is going to fuel impeachment talks in the House. This is going to put pressure on Nancy Pelosi, again, to take that step. And we know people in the White House would like to see the president impeached, because they think it would help him politically.

CHUCK TODD:

Donna, take a look at the pressure already, this morning. I'm going to put up a few quotes and tweets. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, "The bigger national scandal isn't the president's law-breaking behavior. It is the Democratic Party's refusal to impeach him for it." Congressman Steve Cohen, also a progressive Democrat, "We back off everything. We've been very weak." Senator Elizabeth Warren, "By failing to act, Congress is complicit."

DONNA EDWARDS:

Well, I agree. I mean, I think that this is a president who, you know, clearly, you give him an inch, he takes two miles. And he's done that every time he moves the bar. And in this instance, he learned, "Nothing was going to happen after the Mueller report. And so I'll make that phone call to Zelensky." And I think that, unless Democrats really intend to hold his feet to the fire, then they should just stop screaming about it. Because it makes them look weak and feckless. And this president takes advantage of every single opportunity.

KRISTEN WELKER:

And Chuck, I think the divisions, the confusion over impeachment, was laid bare this week, during the Corey Lewandowski hearings, when Democrats seemed ill prepared to deal with some of his barbs. He came loaded for bears, certainly. This is adding fuel to the impeachment momentum. There's movement, there's no doubt about that. But I've been talking to leadership aides on Capitol Hill, who say, "Look, we're still just not there yet." Leader Pelosi's not there yet. She wants the investigations to play out. And they also raise the fact that, "Look, we don't know, specifically, yet, everything that happened in this phone call."

CHUCK TODD:

Ask her again Thursday. I'll be curious.

ROBERT COSTA:

The frustration among House Democrats isn't just about this Ukrainian story. If you look at Corey Lewandowski coming to the Capitol Hill this week, defiance at every turn, blocking of documents, witnesses. This White House keeps saying, to Democrats in Congress, "We're not cooperating at any level." And that's why Democrats are simmering.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to get the two of you on Iran here, for a second. You've had to make these tough decisions about agreeing to send troops. David Ignatius writes the following, "For Trump, this is a self-inflicted wound. Now, Trump must decide whether to fight a war he and the country don't want or to accommodate an Iran whose truculence he helped create. Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. President." Carlos, do you think that, essentially, the president miscalculated on the Iran deal?

CARLOS CURBELO:

Well, look, I think we have to be fair. This is a president a lot of people feared would be extremely impulsive, would get us into unnecessary wars. Here, he's showing restraint. And those who criticize him have to choose. Are they going to criticize him for being too aggressive?

Or is this, maybe, now, hypocritical, and they're saying, "Well, he's sending mixed messages"? Secondly, to Ignatius' point, Iran is a terrorist regime. They were going to carry out this expansionist campaign in the Middle East regardless of the president-- had done.

CHUCK TODD:

How do we know that? I've heard this argument. How do we know that?

CARLOS CURBELO:

Because they were doing it after President Obama signed the nuclear agreement with them. So to say that Iran is acting in this way in reaction to the president, I don't think that's really fair, either. I think the president does risk speaking loudly and carrying a small stick, the opposite of what Teddy Roosevelt used to say. There is some risk there. But I think restraint is something most people celebrate, when it comes to Donald Trump.

CHUCK TODD:

Donna?

DONNA EDWARDS:

Yeah, but this has really stemmed from the president's-- pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and not having a plan B. There was never a plan for what happens the day after you pull out of that deal. And what we've seen is the devolution of all of the policy with Iran, precisely because the president never had an idea of where to go next.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, we're going to try to figure out where he's going next with my next guest. When we come back, confronting Iran, I'll talk to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who just wrote a bunch of new sanctions.

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Defense Secretary Mark Esper this week announced the deployment of a few hundred U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia, as well as some air and missile defense systems. This of course after that attack on Saudi oil facilities last week. The administration is blaming Iran. President Trump has said he'd prefer to avoid getting into a shooting war over the incident. Mr. Trump did announce new sanctions on Iran's national bank, tightening the economic pressure the administration has applied. And joining me now is President Trump's Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who was involved in getting those sanctions imposed. Secretary Mnuchin, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Great. Good morning. Good to be here with you.

CHUCK TODD:

Before we get to Iran, this situation between the president, this whistleblower, his conversations with Ukraine's president, and this issue of an investigation. I take -- I assume you don't know some of these details, but let me just ask this. Do you know why the president hasn't gone to the FBI about these allegations?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

I don't, but let me just say I wasn't on this call but I've been on many calls with world leaders. So, first of all, there are multiple people on these calls. I think it would be highly inappropriate to release a transcript of a call between two world leaders. And I think the bigger story here is really what went on with Biden and his son. He came out over the weekend and said he never spoke to his son, yet the facts are his son said they had spoken.

CHUCK TODD:

I don't understand how that has anything to do with what's going on with this situation. Going back to what you just -- why -- if the president believes an American is doing something wrong, why didn't he go to the FBI? Why is he outsourcing the investigation to the Ukrainian government?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

I don’t know if -- I wouldn’t know if he -- I don't believe he did outsource the investigation. I wasn't on the call. And I don't know what conversations the president has had with the attorney general. He may have had conversations already.

CHUCK TODD:

Is -- do you know if -- why the aid was delayed? And did it have a connection to the Ukrainian president's decision not to work with Rudy Giuliani?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Well, that I can tell you, that there was no connection. I have been involved with Secretary Pompeo and others on the national security team on the issue of --

CHUCK TODD:

How do you know? How do you know for sure? Do you know 100%?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Well, what I know is I've been in discussions when we discussed that. And that issue never came up.

CHUCK TODD:

During your meetings --

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Absolutely.

CHUCK TODD:

-- with the president. And can you explain how all of a sudden when the aid got released more money showed up? Where did that money come from? There was $250 million, and they got an additional, I think, $140 million that they didn't expect. Where did that -- do you have any idea where that came from?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Well, it was appropriated money that came through the State Department.

CHUCK TODD:

So they -- was there -- they didn't know they were getting this money. Is there any indication why they got the money when they did?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

I'm not sure it's correct for you to say they didn't know they got the money. --

CHUCK TODD:

The president said he was surprised to get it. The president of Ukraine said he was surprised to get an additional $140 million. He said it was a pleasant surprise but that he was surprised.

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

I think he was referring to his expectations, as opposed to necessarily a surprise. But you're getting into details. Again, these are foreign policy issues. They've been discussed at the National Security Council at the principal’s level. These were not connected issues.

CHUCK TODD:

But do you have any problem with Congress looking into any of this?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

What I have a problem with is Congress asking for a transcript between world leaders. I think that those are confidential discussions and that's a difficult precedent.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. But does the president have any -- he says he said he said nothing inappropriate. So why not release a transcript?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Because, again, I think that these are confidential discussions between world leaders and world leaders expect that they're going to be kept confidential. It has nothing to do with this call per se.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. Let me move to Iran. You guys announced new sanctions --

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Thank you, because that is the bigger issue.

CHUCK TODD:

No. Look, war and peace. I'm with you here. Let me ask you about Iran. You guys made a decision to do more economic sanctions. It has led us of us to say, "What's left to sanction economically?" Is there a point where these sanctions have diminishing returns?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Well, let me just put this in perspective, and then I'll comment on the details of the sanctions. This was clearly an Iraq -- an event against -- from Iran against not just Saudi Arabia but really against the world economic system. And that's why the president has reacted. The first thing he did was authorize more sanctions against the central bank and against the sovereign wealth fund. Although we're pretty much maxed out on our end, we will begin to sanction third-party entities where we see violations. And we take our responsibility very seriously --

CHUCK TODD:

Third party means other countries that accept Iranian oil or anything like that?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Correct. So we will begin to go after. We know that there have been some cases --

CHUCK TODD:

India was doing this. I assume they have since stopped. But they're not happy that they can't get Iranian oil.

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

I can't comment on whether they're happy or they're not happy. I think our allies understand what we're doing with Iran. This is a maximum pressure campaign so that Iran stops exporting terrorism and attacking their neighbors.

CHUCK TODD:

Is there any acknowledgement here that the campaign's not working? Meaning I think the theory of the case was, "Maximum pressure, more sanctions, get out of the nuclear deal, they'll come to the table." They have since shot down an American drone, done what they've done, hijacked tankers, this attack in Saudi. Obviously it's not working.

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

No I think --

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, if they're not coming to the table, it's not working. What's the next step if you still can't get them to the table after all this?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

I think quite the contrary. I think this is an example of it's absolutely working. Because what we've done is we've cut off the Iranian regime's money. And they are now desperate. So all these actions are because their economy is suffering, they're running out of money, and these are all signs of desperation. So our maximum pressure campaign is about weakening Iran so that they can't spend money on terror. So I think this is absolutely a sign of desperation that the campaign is working.

CHUCK TODD:

What are you saying to folks like Senator Lindsey Graham? Let me put up the tweet. "The measured response by President Trump regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness." Many of your allies that are a little more hawkish than the president believe the Iranians are simply testing the electrical fence essentially and every time we don't respond to something it means they can keep going. Do you buy that?

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Well, I like Lindsey a lot. I consider Lindsey a good friend. I don't agree with him on this. I think the president has specifically said-- he said this in the Oval Office when we were with the Australian prime minister. "It would be very easy to make the decision to attack. It's actually the decision of restraint." So the president is on a three-part plan at the moment. One is sanctions. Two: He authorized troops to go to Saudi Arabia for defensive purposes, which Saudi has requested. And we're expediting arms sales. The military option is always on the table.

CHUCK TODD:

There's a headline in the editorial board of the Washington Post that simply says this: "Should U.S. troops put their lives on the line for Saudi Arabia?" It’s a complicated -- it's a simple question, but obviously there's a complicated answer. But speak to the parents of troops that are thinking about that question.

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Well that, look. When the president thinks about these issues, the first thing he thinks about is the issue for the troops. And I will say I have tremendous respect for the military and the sacrifice these troops make every day. So that's an issue that I'm sure the president always thinks about. On the other hand, this is, this is responding to an ally and friend of ours, and this is not just an attack on Saudi Arabia. This is an attack on the world economic system. And we are sending troops there in a defensive posture.

CHUCK TODD:

Secretary Mnuchin, Treasury secretary for the president of the United States, thanks for coming on and sharing your views. I appreciate it.

SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

When we come back, the latest from our NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. Why the good news for Democrats could also turn out to be bad news for them. But as we go to break, there are two passings in our TV news family that we want to note. We lost TV veteran Sander Vanocur this week. Vanocur worked right here at NBC News in the '60s and '70s, and he was one of the panelists at the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960.

[BEGIN TAPE]

MALE VOICE:

The correspondents.

SANDER VANOCUR:

I'm Sander Vanocur, NBC News.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

He also interviewed Robert Kennedy shortly before Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Vanocur later worked for ABC News for a decade and a half. Sander Vanocur was 91. We also lost Cokie Roberts this week at the age of 75. Cokie was more than just another TV journalist. She was a friend, a competitor, and a Sunday morning colleague. She was best known for her work on NPR and later as a co-host of This Week on ABC News from 1996 to 2002. A Louisiana native, she was famously the child of politicians, the daughter of House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, who died in a plane crash, and of Lindy Boggs, who was elected to fill his seat. Roberts was inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame and was celebrated for helping young women break into a business that was not always welcoming to them. But Cokie Roberts wanted to be remembered for something more personal.

[BEGIN TAPE]

COKIE ROBERTS:

I'd like to be remembered as a mother and a wife and friend of people that I love very, very much.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Data Download time. As the energy and enthusiasm of the Democratic primary moves to the left, our latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found the overall electorate of registered voters seemed poised to reward a Democrat, but one who doesn't take things too far. First, there is good news for progressive Democrats who do favor big change in a few areas. Take a look at support for providing free tuition at state colleges and universities. 81% of Democratic primary voters support that idea, compared with 58% of registered voters. So, a majority of voters overall, pretty good sign for that idea. And what about providing college for so-called Dreamers? 89% of Democrats support that, along with 67% of all registered voters, again, some synergy there. And remember when supporting a public option was considered politically risky? Well, 78% of Democrats support allowing people under 65 to buy their health coverage through a Medicare program, along with two-thirds of registered voters. But as some Democrats have argued, not all progressive ideas have a majority support among all voters. Take certain parts of healthcare. While 64% of Democrats want to give government healthcare to undocumented immigrants, only 36% of all registered voters agree. And 63% of Democrats support a Medicare for all, single-payer healthcare system in which, quote, "private health insurance would be eliminated," compared with only 41% of registered voters who would like to see that. Look, for the past generation, pollsters have found this to be a center-right country on some of these policies, something that has favored moderate Republicans on some fiscal issues. But while these numbers suggest a shift to the left, it's not yet to the extent that progressive Democrats may want. Maybe we're center-center or heading to center-left. The next six to eight months will determine where the Democratic nominee will eventually end up on these issues. And these numbers hint that, if the party's nominee moves too far too fast to placate primary voters, he or she may have a hard time tacking back to the center in the fall. When we come back, End Game and a look at who the new leader is in Iowa, in the state's most-respected poll.

CHUCK TODD:

Back now with End Game. And something happened this week in the presidential race. I think the polls, ours, AND the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, and the new Des Moines Register poll that's out is showing a similar finding, which is the sorting has begun. Here it is, in Iowa, Elizabeth Warren sitting at 22%, Joe Biden at 20%, then a nine-point gap between second and third place, to Sanders at 11%, Buttigieg 9%, Harris 6%. Donna Edwards, it does look like our poll, basically, had a 56% of Democrats choosing either Biden or Warren, 41% choosing the other 22. I think we're starting to see a sorting here. What does this mean?

DONNA EDWARDS:

This is a race. It's a two-person race, in my view. And I think that, I mean, you can see who's gaining and losing in the poll, I mean, Bernie clearly losing and Elizabeth Warren gaining that.

CHUCK TODD:

Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, especially Buttigieg, looks like it all went to her.

DONNA EDWARDS:

That's right. And I also think what's happening is that, you know, voters are saying, ‘We're going to have two really good choices here. We want to hear from them.’ And what surprised me is that Elizabeth Warren's unfavorability, people who, you know, were detractors, has actually gone down, which is very significant, in terms of her being able to secure a nomination.

CHUCK TODD:

In our poll, her personal rating is getting better. Joe Biden's personal rating is not. But this is putting downward pressure on a couple of candidates here, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, in particular, are not hiding the desperation. Take a listen.

[BEGIN TAPE]

SEN. CORY BOOKER:

This is a determining moment for us. We either are going to reach $1.7 million to stay in this race, or we're going to have to make really tough decisions at the end of this quarter.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS:

I don't know if you heard, but I'm kind of planning to kind of live in Iowa.

[END TAPE]

CHUCK TODD:

Kristen?

KRISTEN WELKER:

I think it underscores the fact that those are two candidates, Booker and Harris, who are running as moderates. And it feels as though this moment is about, you know, Joe Biden, obviously, representing one side of the Democratic Party, Elizabeth Warren representing progressives. And it seems like she's surging, because there is that energy within the Democratic Party. I also think it's notable that the difference between Sanders and Warren is larger than the difference between Sanders and Buttigieg. They're divided by just two points. Buttigieg, by the way, his campaign feels like, "Look, we still have some room to grow," because his favorabilities are so high. We'll have to see. Time's running out.

CHUCK TODD:

Bob, does it matter? Is third place going to matter in Iowa, if one and two is Warren and Biden?

ROBERT COSTA:

It may not, especially if Senator Warren keeps gaining this kind of traction. You listened to her speech earlier this week, in New York City, speaking to 20,000 people. She's not just running as a Massachusetts senator. She's running as a message. This is an economic populist, who started with consumer protection work for years. And she is running as a counter to President Trump, on that economic populist message. And that is what makes her a powerful candidate in a field full of people who are running as different kinds of personalities or different kinds of policy pitches. She has a broad theme that has really carried her to this point.

KRISTEN WELKER:

She's also going to get the frontrunner status, the frontrunner treatment.

CHUCK TODD:

Treatment. Well, let's see what she looks like in six months, yeah.

CARLOS CURBELO:

Well, and this is also becoming a race about two strategies, right? Do Democrats go for a base-versus-base strategy, the liberal Democratic base against Trump's base? Or do they go for a candidate that can build a coalition, reach out to those swing voters? That is going to be the choice a lot of Democrats are going to be making, when they go to the polls.

CHUCK TODD:

Donna, I want to show you something. Because you and I have seen this, I think, through previous Democratic campaigns, and it's the two coalitions that Warren and Biden have put together in the Democratic Party. I want to put up, from our NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. Biden has a coalition of African Americans, men that are over the age of 50, men and women that are over the age of 65, and self-described moderates, conservatives. The Warren constituency is liberals, college-educated women, men and women under 50, those that want large-scale change. When I saw that, I did not automatically assume, "Ooh, Warren's on the move." I said, "Oh, that looks like Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, those cases. She needs African American voters, if she's going to be the nominee. And there's yet to be any clue that she's going to be able to win them over.

DONNA EDWARDS:

Well, I think that's true. But I also - you know, when you look at Elizabeth Warren, I remember, in the spring, she started out with, like, you know, 1% approval among African Americans. And that number actually has started to tick up. I saw her in the lower teens among African Americans. But they don't know her. And they trust Biden. And they know him. And so I think it's going to be a tough call. And once you get out of Iowa and New Hampshire, you've got to go to South Carolina, where there are African American voters. And that's where she's going to have to win this election.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm not sure who's got the bigger challenge, Biden winning over the skeptical progressives or Warren winning over the skeptical, small-seat, conservative Democratic voters, who are like, "Look, it's about getting Trump."

KRISTEN WELKER:

That's right. And I think, look, Biden knows that he has a lot of support among African Americans. So that could make a big difference for him. Elizabeth Warren, as she tries to win them over, she's going to have to answer tough questions about her policies, including her healthcare plan. What does it mean, for example, for middle-class taxes?

ROBERT COSTA:

And moderates, in the Democratic Party, may start looking around. The fall matters.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think so?

ROBERT COSTA:

At this point, they're with Vice President Biden, for the most part. But with Senator Booker out there and Mayor Buttigieg drawing a big crowd in Iowa, you could see Senator Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Booker, others start to get a little bit of a look, same with Senator Harris, as the moderate wing wonders, "Is Biden truly viable in a general election and to be the nominee?"

CHUCK TODD:

All right, I'm going to have to leave it there, because this is a conversation, on that score, that I know we'll continue to have. I think you're right. Biden-Warren may be the topic for quite some time. That's all we have for today. Thank you for watching. We'll be back next week, because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.