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Meet the Press Transcript - February 1, 2015

MEET THE PRESS -- SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2015

CHUCK TODD:

This Super Bowl Sunday, Mitt Romney gets out just as he was being pushed.

MITT ROMNEY (ON TAPE):

I've decided it is best to give other leaders in the Party the opportunity to become our next nominee.

CHUCK TODD:

So with Romney out, the Republican field is now set. Which candidates benefit from the Romney departure? I'll be joined by Mitt Romney's 2012 running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan. Plus ISIS executes a second Japanese hostage. Former defense secretary Robert Gates joins me on the fight against the terror group. Also, are the big hits the fans love jeopardizing the future of football?

LEONARD MARSHALL (ON TAPE):

I would forget things, I would forget places. I would have this erratic behavior towards my child for no reason.

CHUCK TODD:

What more does the NFL need to do to protect players from brain injuries? And how young is too young to let your child play football? Finally, how athletes are like politicians. And why this--

MARSHAWN LYNCH (ON TAPE):

I'm here so I won't get fined. I'm here so I won't get fined.

CHUCK TODD:

--reminded us of this.

AL GORE (ON TAPE):

There is no controlling legal authority. There is no controlling legal authority.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm Chuck Todd. And joining me to provide insight and analysis this morning are CNBC's Jim Cramer, Savannah Guthrie of The Today Show, Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post, and Mark Halperin of Bloomberg News. Welcome to Super Bowl Sunday. It's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

From NBC News in Washington, this is Meet the Press with Chuck Todd.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it's your pre pre-game show, right here on NBC, home of Super Bowl 49. All joking aside later on, but we will talk about the game, about head injuries, and the future of football. But let's start with the most important matchup for all, for other people, at least next year, and that's the 2016 presidential race.

The Republican field is now set, Mitt Romney deciding not to run for president a third time. Republicans had been full of praise for another Romney run, right up until the point when Mitt Romney actually considered making another run. Then former Romney supporters decided they really didn't want to take "yes" for an answer. In fact, here was a typical example.

REP. VIN WEBER (ON TAPE):

There's not a lot of good precedent for somebody losing the election and coming back four years later and becoming the nominee. Thomas Dewey is the best nominee in our party, it didn't work out too well.

CHUCK TODD:

So who better other join us than Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate from 2012. And he's also chairman of the influential House Ways and Means Committee. In fact, Ryan maybe the most important Republican in Washington these days because if President Obama is going to get deals done with the new Republican Congress, most of them are going to be brokered by Ryan. And in fact, Ryan surprised many when he signaled his willingness to work across the aisle, at least on taxes, when he praised President Obama the morning after the State of the Union.

PAUL RYAN (ON TAPE):

You'll see it when we get our tax reform package done. I'm glad that he sort of held back on the partisanship and the demagoguery. But I guess I'd say in his speech, he dialed it down a bit. We're used to seeing more divisive, partisan speeches from the president. He didn't do that as much. I think that's a good thing.

CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back to Meet the Press, Congressman Ryan.

PAUL RYAN:

Thank you. Good to see you.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Before we get to the budget and what you can work out with the White House, let's start with what happened on Friday. Your running mate, Governor Mitt Romney deciding not to run for president. Did he make the right decision?

PAUL RYAN:

Well, it's the right decision for Mitt and Ann based upon what they decided was ultimately the best thing to do for the country. It's just--

(OVERTALK)

PAUL RYAN:

Well, yeah, it's bittersweet to me. I was going to support Mitt in whatever it is he decided to do.

CHUCK TODD:

You would have endorsed him?

PAUL RYAN:

Oh, sure. Sure.

(OVERTALK)

PAUL RYAN:

I think Mitt Romney would have been a fantastic president. It's bittersweet to me in that sense. But it's a perfect style Mitt Romney decision. Country first. He did what he thought was right for the country the way he decided this. And the statement he made reflects that. And so he's just a class act.

CHUCK TODD:

Does this mean it makes it easier for you to support your home state governor--

PAUL RYAN:

Well--

CHUCK TODD:

- who is likely a presidential candidate--

PAUL RYAN:

As you probably know, it was two weeks ago I was named the chair of the Republican National Committee presidential trust, helping my friend Reince Priebus from Wisconsin. So I'm in charge of the trust which is preparing for the general election, for the eventual nominee.

And that means I have to be neutral in this. Now, had Mitt jumped in, I think that would have changed circumstances. But since I'm the chair of this trust, chair of the fund to get ready for the eventual nominee, that requires my neutrality. But, look, let me say Scott Walker's a great governor. He's a good friend of mine. He's a reform governor. He's done some amazing things. We like to say in Wisconsin he's so good he got elected governor three times in four years.

CHUCK TODD:

I know you decided not to run for president. Would you be willing to go through the vetting process to be a running mate?

PAUL RYAN:

I haven't even given any thought to that. I've been through it.

CHUCK TODD:

That's not a no.

PAUL RYAN:

Well, I haven't been asked that before. I haven't really given any thought to it. Look, I decided early on in this year to pull myself out of this presidential contention because I want to focus on my job as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. I think I can make an enormous difference for our country where I am and help our party put together an optimistic agenda for the country to show how to restore a healthy economy, upward mobility, all of those things. And that's where I'm focused now. That's what I'm focused on. And I don't even think it's worth discussing. Because it's just a pie in the sky--

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Let's move to that. It was interesting. In your book, you wrote this: "You've got to be willing to take criticism even from your friends and trust that the people will understand that governing requires tradeoffs." You sounded like somebody that wanted to make a deal with the president right up to the State of the Union, one of the few Republicans that didn't criticize his State of the Union. Does that mean you are ready to be a compromiser with the president when it comes to tax reform?

PAUL RYAN:

If we can find common ground, the answer is yes. Look, we got to get this economy growing. Look, we have had such a stagnant economy, the slowest recovery since World War II. Middle income wages are stagnating. We've got to break out of this slog. And I do believe that there are things we can do hopefully in the next year to get this economy growing faster--

CHUCK TODD:

And you believe the tax code is a way to do that?

PAUL RYAN:

Absolutely. So we really believe that we should reform the entire tax code for all people. Individuals, families, businesses. Do it simpler--

(OVERTALK)

PAUL RYAN:

--fairer, the whole thing. But it's pretty clear to us that the president doesn't agree with that on individuals. So the question is, which I don't know the answer to: Is there common ground on aspects of tax reform that we think can help grow the economy? For us, small businesses have to be a part of that puzzle.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, but--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Let's get into some specifics. A couple of the tax cuts that the president's proposing for middle class families include expanding the earned income tax credit. This would be for working families actually that don't have kids.

PAUL RYAN:

For childless adults.

CHUCK TODD:

Childless adults, yes. And then expanding the childcare tax credit. What do you think of those?

PAUL RYAN:

I actually endorsed the idea of the EITC reform, the first one--

(OVERTALK)

PAUL RYAN:

The first one. I think that that's something that actually pulls people into the workforce. It's one of the more effective welfare reforms that we've had. And so that is something that I think we should work together on in finding common-- childcare or childcare--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

The childcare--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

--credit, yes.

PAUL RYAN:

Childcare tax credit. That's something we're going to have to look at and see if there's common ground. What I want to make sure is we don't put in place the rest of his agenda, which are all these tax increases he's calling for.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, you've talked about the idea of lowering the tax code but getting rid of some loopholes--

PAUL RYAN:

Absolutely--

CHUCK TODD:

Some people call them loopholes, others deductions. And so one of the things the president wants to get rid of is this trust fund loophole, the idea that you can pass off some inheritance without--

PAUL RYAN:

The last time that was done--

(OVERTALK)

PAUL RYAN:

--the Democrats in Congress quickly rescinded it because--

CHUCK TODD:

All right. But what do you think of it--

(OVERTALK)

PAUL RYAN:

-destroyed family farms. It--

CHUCK TODD:

What do you think of it?

PAUL RYAN:

I think it's a bad idea. Because you're actually making it really hard for a family to pass on a family business to the next generation. So what I think the president is trying to do here is to, again, exploit envy economics. This top-down redistribution doesn't work. We've been doing it for six years. Look, it may make for good politics. It doesn't make for good economic growth.

CHUCK TODD:

You know the full budget comes later this week. When do you put out a tax plan? When should we expect one from you?

PAUL RYAN:

Well, so I think what we're going to do is see what the president-- we have Jack Lew coming Tuesday on the Ways and Means Committee. Then we want to go and see if there's common ground. And so we want to work with this administration to see if we can find common ground on certain aspects of tax reform. And we want to exhaust that possibility.

And if and when that possibility is exhausted, then we will put out what we think ought to be done. So we fully intend on the Ways and Means Committee of showing what full, comprehensive tax reform for everybody, individuals and families alike, looks like. When? I don't know the answer to that. Because right now, we want to exhaust this possibility of seeing if we can find common ground with the administration.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I want to play something you said right after the election in 2012 about the president and the economy. Here's what you said.

(BEGIN TAPE)

PAUL RYAN:

It's true that President Obama won reelection. And I congratulate him on his victory. But on January 20th, he'll face a stagnant economy and a fiscal mess. You might even say he'll inherit these problems.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Now, got a little graphic here, December 12th, unemployment rate, 7.9%, stagnant GDP, Dow sitting at barely 13,000. Look where we are two years later. Unemployment at 5.6%. GDP, 2.6%. Not as much as some people would like. The Dow up 5,000 points. Is that the definition of an economic policy that hasn't been working?

PAUL RYAN:

We're under 3%. We have tens of millions of people who are not working or looking for work. They aren't even counted in the unemployment statistics. We got 45 million people living in poverty. We have middle income wages that have been stagnant. So, yeah, that is not economic success.

Are we better than where we were before? Yeah, but we got a long ways. The big beef I have with the president's State of the Union, you know, you talked about how I talk about the State of the Union, is he gave us a lot of happy talk about the economy as if it was a mission accomplished speech. It is not mission accomplished. We got a long ways to go. People are hurting. And we've got to get back to work to fix this.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to quickly change. Is it appropriate for Congress to invite a world leader to address them without telling the president?

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think the Netanyahu thing, do you think that this was sort of getting involved in foreign policy in a way that maybe the legislative branch shouldn't have done that to begin with?

PAUL RYAN:

So look at the constitution. These are three separate but equal branches of government. We don't subserve one to the other.

CHUCK TODD:

Hasn't happen before.

PAUL RYAN:

Well, I don't know. You could probably go back into history and maybe find an example. Do I think it's wholly appropriate that the speaker of the House of a separate but equal branch of government is free to invite a foreign leader to address us? Absolutely.

CHUCK TODD:

To antagonize the relationship though between the two sides, is that worth doing?

PAUL RYAN:

I don't know if I would say it's antagonizing. I think we would like to hear from the leader of Israel about his thoughts on Iran. Look, by the way, the President's policies with Iran have bipartisan concern. A huge bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate are very worried about the handling of these negotiations, Iran playing us, and the delay of these negotiations.

So I would argue that there's concern on both sides of the aisle about how the president is handling this situation. And I think it's totally appropriate that we had Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, come and address us with his thoughts.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Paul Ryan, you're going to enjoy the Super Bowl? Can you root for the Seahawks after what they did to the Packers?

PAUL RYAN:

It's the N.F.L. equivalent of a Greek tragedy. But we're big Russell Wilson fans where I come from. He is a Wisconsin Badger.

CHUCK TODD:

Fair enough. So at the end of the day?

PAUL RYAN:

In this case, we're rooting for the Seahawks because of Russell Wilson.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Paul Ryan, enjoy the game.

PAUL RYAN:

Great. Thanks. You got it.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, we're going to stick to a 2016 theme, it's as if on cue. Romney gets out and our friends at the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg come out with a one year from now Iowa caucus poll. In fact, let's take a look at it. And here's the big surprise here. Look who's in the poll position: Scott Walker. This was with Mitt Romney in the race. Scott Walker at 15, Paul 14, Romney 13, Huckabee ten, and Ben Carson at nine. We'll let you know what candidate is not in that top five.

And then, our friends at the Des Moines Register were able to reallocate Romney second-choice supporters, and here's what it is without Romney. Walker 16, Paul 15, Huckabee moves up the most, he gets three points, and he gets to 13, Carson ten. And oh, look, there's an establishment candidate, Jeb Bush sneaking in there at 9%.

Mark Halperin, you guys were behind this poll at Bloomberg and the Des Moines Register. Scott Walker in the poll position, how about that? That's your headline. I mean, lots of margin of error here, but that was, "Oh wow, how about that?"

MARK HALPERIN:

Very strong performance. It's a four-candidate forum last weekend in Iowa, and now an opportunity for him, Mitt Romney leaves a huge vacuum in the establishment lane. Scott Walker, as you and I have discussed, plays in both lanes. He can be a grassroots activist kind of candidate, but also an establishment candidate.

He would be smart right now to not let Jeb Bush and Chris Christie lock up the establishment donors from the Romney world. He can be the winner of Iowa and the second-best-funded candidate this year. If he does that, he's right in the game.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Kathleen, it was interesting. When Romney got out Friday, it did feel as if he actually launched the starting gun. Because now we know the field. We know who's there, we know everybody else who's running now. There's no more dominoes to fall.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

That's right. And I think one of the things that Romney set out to accomplish, besides removing himself for what I think amounts to personal reasons, is he wanted to set an example for the rest of the field. In other words, he wanted to show that you can do this thing without ripping each other apart. So he really did.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah, really? And Mitt Romney didn't do that in '08? I mean, the toughest negative ads were Mitt Romney's against John McCain in '08.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, we're in a period of reform. So maybe this is why Mitt Romney is as well.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Savannah, what interests me now is watching Jeb Bush. So I have a Washington Post clip here, and it says, "Jeb Bush has become the GOP front runner for 2016. So now what?" And I'm sitting here going, since when does we have a front runner who doesn't lead many polls?

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Well, exactly. On what basis is that?

CHUCK TODD:

On what basis is it? Right.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

In fact, when Romney was still polling with there, he had much better numbers than Jeb Bush does. So I think that's what's interesting. I think establishment people who cover Washington think Jeb Bush is a formidable opponent, and he may well be, particularly in a general election. But when you look at grassroots Republicans, he doesn't even make it to the top five of the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll.

CHUCK TODD:

That was what--he is not going to play well in Iowa. But Cramer, I think about your audience. I think about the business audience. I'm guessing they love Jeb. What do they think of Scott Walker?

JIM CRAMER:

Look, they're not pro-union.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

They're going to like the Scott Walker story?

JIM CRAMER:

He's good for earnings per share. He's good for higher stock prices.

CHUCK TODD:

So where does the Wall Street money go? Does it all go to Jeb and Christie first? And then Walker gets to play in it? What happens?

JIM CRAMER:

There are some Christie fundraisers, Ken Langone. This man who started Home Depot may be the most powerful fundraiser. I mean, everyone takes his call. And you tend to do what he wants.

CHUCK TODD:

Okay, but that's Christie. How many more people are going to follow Ken Langone?

JIM CRAMER:

Surprising number, because he is so boisterous and because he really has on his rolodex the S&P 500. Everyone takes his call. And I think it's surprising to hear how reasoned he is about why Christie would be great for business, given the fact that and New Jersey has the highest debt service of any state. This has not been a banner time to be Jerseyite.

CHUCK TODD:

No, I don't know how Chris Christie sells himself. I'll be honest, whether his economic record, he's got to me, a lot of challenges. But he may be able to raise a bunch of money. But let's go back to the Jeb comment. I saw you wanted to jump in on that. Jeb as not frontrunner, but sort of frontrunner.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Well, he's not frontrunner in Iowa because he didn't go to Iowa. And he has a lot of problems with the base, as you know. His immigration position is problematic, as is his support of Common Core. Those are surmountable obstacles for him, I think. But one of the things that Scott Walker has in his favor is that he's already, Jeb has to sort of prove that he's a conservative to the base. And Scott Walker has already done that. He's already identified himself as one of them. And he can appeal both to the grassroots and to the more establishment people, and he's not crazy.

MARK HALPERIN:

Jeb Bush has a great story to tell about being a conservative governor of Florida. And he's biding his time to tell it. He can consolidate a lot of support. We may wake up by November 1st and Jeb Bush has raised around a $100 million on no one else is over $25 million.

CHUCK TODD:

But he can raise all that money and still not be in the lead?

(OVERTALK)

MARK HALPERIN:

But it's never happened in the Republican Party. They've always nominated the person who's raised the most money the year before the election. And he may raise a lot more. He's got to perform. If he does not perform as a grassroots candidate, people talk about the issue positions. To me, it's more about excitement. I haven't met a single voter outside Cramer's viewers, who are super excited about Jeb as a candidate.

CHUCK TODD:

Excited about Jeb.

MARK HALPERIN:

What does he stand for, what would he mean for America? He's got to demonstrate that.

(OVERTALK)

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

--underestimated.

CHUCK TODD:

No, I hear you. Cramer, I want to quickly on tax reform. You think we'll get something done?

JIM CRAMER:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

You watched this?

JIM CRAMER:

Not a chance.

CHUCK TODD:

You don't buy it?

JIM CRAMER:

Never.

CHUCK TODD:

Does Wall Street think it?

JIM CRAMER:

No, there's nothing. Nothing is going to happen.

CHUCK TODD:

You have no expectations of anything happening to make your life--

(OVERTALK)

JIM CRAMER:

Absolutely zero. There's no corporate tax lowered, there'll be no meeting of the minds. No one's even counseled on it. It's just draw. The State of the Union was colossally just misplaced in terms of the 529, in terms of the notion to step up in bases, which would hurt the middle class more than anybody.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

--know that people outside of Washington are as cynical as we are here in Washington these days about things--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

They're more down on us than we are. All right, pause, we'll be coming back to you guys in a little bit. Coming up though, ISIS executed a second Japanese hostage. I had a talk with Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates about what the U.S. needs to do to win this fight against that terror group. And with the NFL's biggest game just hours away, we're your pre, pre, pre-game show, the league faces a big problem in the future. How should it tackle traumatic brain injury? I'll have the head of the NFL players union and the NFL's most senior lawyer on the show.

* * *Commercial Break* * *

CHUCK TODD:

Later on this Super Bowl Sunday, we will politicize anything. Food fight, what your big-game snack says about what kind of NFL team you root for. We're going to hit the NerdScreen on what Patriots and Seahawks fans are likely going to be munching on today.

* * *Commercial Break * * *

CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back. President Obama has condemned the murder of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto by ISIS after the release of another propaganda video by the terror group appearing to show his beheading. The video comes less than a week after the killing of another Japanese hostage, Haruna Yukawa.

Meanwhile, Jordan has announced that it's still willing to hand over a jailed Iraqi militant in exchange for the release of the Jordanian pilot who is also being held by ISIS. To discuss U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS, I'm joined by Robert Gates, who of course served as secretary of Defense between 2006 and 2011 under two presidents of two different parties. Secretary Gates, welcome back to Meet the Press.

ROBERT GATES:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

So let's talk about ISIS. Is it fair to say we're not winning this battle against ISIS right now?

ROBERT GATES:

I think that's correct. I think we've made some steps, some successful steps to contain it. But at the same time, in a way, ISIS has sort of reached the natural limits of where they would have sympathetic people, the Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq in particular. But I think that the airstrikes have contributed to containing them. But we're a long way, in my view, from being in a position to roll them back or push them out of Iraq.

CHUCK TODD:

So how do you? You've said that you felt the president was making a mistake by continuing to say, "No boots on the ground, no boots on the ground." Because at the end of the day, you believe some boots on the ground are going to be necessary. But I am curious, how does that square with that famous speech you gave at West Point that anybody that advocates for more ground troops in the Middle East ought to have their head examined?

ROBERT GATES:

Well, what I said was a large land army.

CHUCK TODD:

Fair enough.

ROBERT GATES:

And I think that the notion of the alternative, as being what we're doing now, and a reinvasion of Iraq, if you will, with large ground forces, is a false set of options. I think that there are other options. And I think it will be very difficult to roll ISIS back without forward air controllers and spotters, without embedded trainers, with the Sunni tribes, with the Iraqi army, with the Peshmerga, the Kurds, and I think some limited use of special forces.

But what I'm talking about here is potentially a few hundred troops, not thousands of tens of thousands. And I think that the president has set an ambitious and, I think, under current circumstances, unrealistic goal when he talks about our intent being to destroy ISIS. With the news that he has approved so far, I think that's an unattainable objective.

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say, we've killed a lot of Islamic radicals. Whether they were members of Al Qaeda, members of ISIS. But we don't seem to defeat this ideology. How do you defeat? Should we stop saying we're going to defeat? Because it seems like once you get rid of one group, another one pops up with another name, but the same radical ideology.

ROBERT GATES:

I think we've set unrealistic goals for ourselves. When we say we're going to destroy the Taliban, we're going to destroy Al Qaeda, I mean, we've been after Al Qaeda with all the resources of an American military and intelligence community for 14 years now. And we haven't destroyed it.

So I think a different kind of strategy in terms of how do we, first of all, contain them, and then how do we limit their ability to carry out these attacks and these atrocities, and to occupy territory. It seems to me that particularly with respect to ISIS, our objective should be to deny them the ability to hang onto territory, because that gives them a base from which potentially to plot against us and against western Europe.

CHUCK TODD:

But I was thinking here, I was looking at so, we've got problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. In all these places where there's fear that it could become safe havens of some sort for radical Islamic terror groups. We don't have good partners on the ground in any of these countries right now, or stable partners.

We may have some good partners, but we don't have stable partners that seem to be able to build up the governing part of this. So how much more do we throw a military solution at this if we don't have a governing partnership?

ROBERT GATES:

Well, I think you need to take a step back and realize the complexity and historical magnitude of the challenge we're facing. First of all, we have four conflicts going on simultaneously in the Middle East. Sunni versus Shia, authoritarians versus reformers, Islamists versus secularists. And then the question of whether artificially-created countries like Syria, Libya, and Iraq can hold together absent repression.

So you've got all that going. And that's a generational conflict there. At the same time, you have what appears to be the beginnings of the falling part of the entire state system in the Middle East. You now have a half a dozen different caliphates--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

We're going to go back to trouble.

ROBERT GATES:

You have a half a dozen countries, including major ones like Iraq and Libya, where the central government does not control the countryside fully in their own countries. And there are other countries as well. So these are huge problems that are going on.

And frankly, I think we are so preoccupied with dealing with today's crisis, we haven't stepped back to figure out what kind of a long-term strategy do we have, and what are the tools that we can use. The military is clearly one tool, but it is by far not the only one.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm going to go to another crisis, and that is Russia. There is a massive economic crisis going on in this country. I'm going to put up a graphic here. The ruble's down 50% since early last year. Things like sugar, the cost of it up 40%, bread prices are up 20%, this is a case where the economic sanctions, combined with oils cratering, has created a potential for an economic catastrophe in Russia. I've had some people almost concerned that things are going too bad there, and that Russian nationalism, and that in a weird way, this could empower Putin oddly even more. Are you concerned about that?

ROBERT GATES:

Putin, you have to understand the narrative that Putin is putting out to Russia, to Russians, on the now state-controlled media. And that is that this is all a conspiracy by the West to break Russia. To deny them their nuclear weapons and to make sure that they do the bidding of the West.

So he is basically making the argument to the Russian people, "We sacrificed before for our country, we're going to have to sacrifice again." And he's telling them this will take a couple of years for them to work their way through. His popularity is in the high 80s.

CHUCK TODD:

Supposedly. But nobody trusts whether the media is-- would you change the posture here? Sanctions are doing what they were intended to do, they're causing pain, but they're not getting him to change his way.

ROBERT GATES:

Look, the key issue here, there are areas where we have a commonality of interests with Russia. Dealing with jihad is one of them. Dealing with Iran is another. And so the question is, does this boil down to Ukraine? And is Ukraine the crux of our major differences with Russia, and what's the kind of outcome we want in Ukraine, what is a realistic outcome in Ukraine?

This is another area where I feel like we're dealing with the situation day to day, but we don't have a broader strategy in terms of what do we want out of the Russians, what are the Russians willing to agree to, that perhaps leaves Ukraine not in the West and not in Russian hands, but calms this thing down so we don't end up with a renewed cold war with the Russians.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let me ask you this. If you could ask one question that you feel like needs to be answered by presidential candidates in 2016 that will convince you they're ready to be commander in chief, what's that question? What's that initial question for these guys to test their mettle?

ROBERT GATES:

I think the question is, what kind of people do you want around you to advise you? There's a great quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior, about FDR. And he said that he had a second-rate intellect, but a first-rate temperament. And I think that if you look at our greatest presidents, Washington, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan, they were people who had a first-class temperament.

And so they never considered themselves the smartest guy in the room, but they wanted the smartest people around them. And then they could take their advice, shape it based on their own instincts and their own views. So I think the kind of people that a candidate wants advising him or her is critically important. The rest of it is, I think, you can't predict the problems that a president will face.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Robert Gates, former secretary of Defense, thanks for checking in.

ROBERT GATES:

Thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

Good to see you.

ROBERT GATES:

My pleasure.

CHUCK TODD:

Coming up, are you ready for some nerd-screen football? Super Bowl food fight that is. We'll politicize anything here. Why what you eat and drink actually does say a lot about which party you vote for.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

NerdScreen time. The Super Bowl is just hours away, and as we promised, we’ll politicize your snack food. That’s right. So what’s in your refrigerator and what could it say about where you live and your political leanings? Well, we’ll start with what you drink. Which fans do you think will be drinking more tonight? Well, if you’re a Patriots fan and you’re in New England, they’re going to be a lot of beer at your Super Bowl parties because, on average, people in the Northeast drink about 6 percent more beer than the country-at-large.

And, that said, who do you think drinks more beer? Liberals or conservatives? Well, when you split it up by political leanings, it’s liberals who are 32 percent more likely to drink beer than conservatives. And their beer of choice? Well, liberals are 52 percent more likely to be drinking one of those craft beer than the average American. So, combine the Northeast, liberals and a Patriots fan base, it’s safe to say that today, a lot of Sam Adams is going to be consumed.

Conservatives, when they do drink beer, they tend to go domestic. And remember, of all the big brands, it was an American brand named Coors who produced a Republican candidate for Senate not too long ago, Pete Coors, way back in 2004. Now, what about snacks? Well, liberals, they tend to lean toward things like pita chips. In fact, they eat 30 percent more than the average American. Conservatives? Pretzels is what they prefer. So, and what about those folks that consider themselves middle of the road or your swing voters? Well, I’m not making this up, it’s a Chex mix -- that’s right, your party mix -- for your swing voters.

But there’s one snack apparently we all agree on, liberals to conservatives, and that is a big bag of corn chips. A little Fritos, a little Tostitos. Finally, what are your political leanings of the fan bases of the two Super Bowl teams? Well, two Republican strategists crunched the consumer data and found that on a liberal to conservative spectrum, Patriots fans are Solidly blue. That shouldn’t be a surprise since, well, they’re from liberal New England. So you would think the Seattle Seahawks would be just as blue. It’s Seattle. Not so fast, don’t forget the rest of the Northwest: not as blue. In fact, the Seattle fans tend to be more purple. And teams, by the way with purple fan bases, they’ve done more winning in the Super Bowl in recent years.

Think about that, Vegas. By the way, the most liberal fan base in the NFL? The Oakland Raiders. And the most conservative? John McCain’s Arizona Cardinals. You had fun with this? Well, you can find out where your team stands and much more about your football snacking and the politicizing of it all on our website.

Coming up on this Super Bowl Sunday of Meet the Press, head injuries in football, and how young is too young for your child to start playing?

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

As popular as the game is, the NFL has had a rough year: from the Ray Rice scandal to Deflategate, the league has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But none of those controversies seriously threaten the future of the league. What does? Football-related concussions and brain injuries, with an increasing number of ex-players becoming seriously ill.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

It's not just a contact sport, it's a collision sport, violent and unforgiving. That explains its popularity - and its peril. Boston University neurologist Ann McKee directs the nation's largest brain bank of former players diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

ANN MCKEE:

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that affects individuals who've been exposed to repetitive brain trauma.

LEONARD MARSHALL:

I could literally go out and physically hit somebody that hard -- that could cause in me to be concussed, or perhaps even laid out cold on the football field.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Leonard Marshall, a two-time Super Bowl champion for the New York Giants, has been diagnosed with CTE.

CHUCK TODD:

When did you sit there and go "what's wrong?"

LEONARD MARSHALL:

I would forget things, I would forget places. I would have this erratic behavior towards my child for no reason.

CHUCK TODD:

This scare you?

LEONARD MARSHALL:

Scared the daylights out of me. And I started talking to people and I started to figure out: I'm not in this by myself. There ‘s other guys like me.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Researchers have discovered the signs of CTE in the brains of dozens of former players: Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011. Jovan Belcher who killed his girlfriend before taking his own life, and 12-Time Pro Bowler Junior Seau who killed himself in 2012. This weekend he was voted into the Hall of Fame.

JIM KELLY (OFF-CAMERA AT THE 2015 NFL HONORS):

The late, great Junior Seau.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

The NFL released new data this week showing a 25% drop in concussions last year in regular season games.

ROGER GOODELL:

We spend a great deal of time on player health and safety. We want to make this game as safe as possible for them.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Commissioner Roger Goodell has promised to hire a chief medical officer to oversee the NFL's health policies. But McKee -- a Green Bay Packers fan -- says the game needs more fundamental changes.

ANN MCKEE:

I'm very concerned about the numbers of hits, some of those are asymptomatic, non-concussive hits. So to me, looking at the concussion rate really doesn't tell me much.

CHUCK TODD:

Should the NFL permanently be taking care of your health care? You think that--

LEONARD MARSHALL:

I think they should. You know, you told me everything else. But you didn't tell me about the risk associated with traumatic brain injury.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think they knew then?

LEONARD MARSHALL:

They had to know something.

CHUCK TODD:

You do?

LEONARD MARSHALL:

Chuck, they had to know something.

VINCE WILFORK:

I think it's bullcrap.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Not all players agree.

VINCE WILFORK:

I think when you sign up -- this is a violent sport. That's what we're signing up for. You think a boxer go in the ring say he don't expect to have problems after boxing. Well you're getting punched in your head.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

But while fans love watching the game, they're beginning to wonder whether it's safe for their kids to play. Nearly four-in-10 Americans say they would encourage their child to play another sport because of concerns about concussions. We found some of those parents in Pinecrest, Florida, a suburb of Miami, on the soccer field.

ETHAN KRABLIN:

The reports are kinda scary, but--but I still wanna play.

CHRISTINA KRABLIN:

I think it serves a great purpose for a lot of kids. Just not my kids.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Participation in youth football has been declining and this week researchers from Boston University published a study that found former NFL players who started playing football before age 12 had a higher risk of developing cognitive problems than those who began playing later. And even some former players are wary of letting their kids play football.

BRETT FAVRE

I would be real leery of him playing -- and that sounds--in some respects I'm glad I don't have a son.

CHUCK TODD:

Do you believe football can be safe enough to play in the future?

LEONARD MARSHALL:

I think it can, but i think it's gonna take an overwhelming and an alarming thing to happen for there to be change.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

I'm joined now from outside of the University of Phoenix Stadium, site of the Super Bowl, by DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association. D, welcome to Meet the Press.

DEMAURICE SMITH:

Thank you for having me, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

You just heard, in that piece, mostly Leonard Marshall, some other former players, Brett Favre, being concerned about the safety of the game. You represent nearly 2,000 players on any given day as executive director of the NFL Players Association. Do you believe this game is as safe as it can be on the field?

DEMAURICE SMITH:

I don't think that we will ever be content that the game is as safe as it can be. You know, Chuck, when I took this job in 2009, I know it sounds a little bit like the punchline of a bad joke, but when I took this job in 2009, the head of the NFL's concussion committee was a rheumatologist.

So over the last five years, we've done things to revolutionize-- not only the way in which fans enjoy football but trying to make the game safer. There's sideline concussion experts for the first time. There's limits on the amount of contact for the first time.

We've eliminated two-a-day practices for the first time. And all of those changes didn't come about because the National Football League suddenly got an issue of the conscience. All of those things came about, because organized labor and our union made decisions that we were going to make the game safer.

CHUCK TODD:

You feel like you've done everything you can? I've heard from a lot of players that don't like Thursday night football, that don't like those short weeks, that don't like the idea of an 18-game season. And yet, you have agreed to, for instance, Thursday night football being year round. Was that a mistake?

DEMAURICE SMITH:

No. And I don't believe that the evidence right now indicates that that was any sort of mistake. You know, you remember, Chuck, when we went through this, it was the National Football League that wanted us to play 18 games. We said no. The changes that we've made in this game, I think, are always going to evolve.

Something that doesn't get a lot of discussion from a lotta the media, but we took a very tough stand on the use of Toradol. Why? Because it rendered a lot of our players asymptomatic when we were concerned about the anti-coagulant effects of Toradol.

We've asked for credentialing and received credentialing of all of the medical personnel for the first time in history. And you know that, at times, we've been very vocal and deliberate about some team doctors that needed to be removed. I mean, after all, we are talking about a league that nonetheless allowed a San Diego team doctor to remain the team doctor, even though he had lost his privileges in all of the San Diego hospitals. We made those changes because of organized labor. And we are satisfied with our efforts. They are never going to end. We're never going to be content with it being safe enough.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me move on to the personal conduct policy that the NFL has unveiled. And I know where you stand on it as far as how it was unveiled. But let me go through it and tick through it here. The new personnel conduct policy would include lead investigations, paid leave if formerly charged with a violent crime for any player. The NFL special council would hand on the initial discipline. A player could appeal that initial discipline. But the commissioner would have final say on that discipline. What issue do you have with that proposal?

DEMAURICE SMITH:

Well, Chuck, it's the process by which the proposal was implemented unilaterally by the National Football League. I mean, one thing you didn’t mention all the way through the litany of the issues there is we have a commissioner who has been overturned twice on personal conduct policy.

First time, he was overturned by the former commissioner. The second time, he was overturned by a neutral arbitrator. One thing that's not in that proposal is a neutral arbitrator to hear these appeals. So we have issues with a number of the individual issues. But I honestly believe that we should be working together to make an overall policy fair for both players and owners.

CHUCK TODD

Before I let you go, I know you're a big fan of the Washington Redskins. Where are you on the name change? Do you think they should change their name--

DEMAURICE SMITH:

Hey, let's keep it straight, pal. I grew up a Redskin fan. But I'm a fan of the players right now. And--

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think the name should change--

DEMAURICE SMITH:

--well, I think that, for all of the fans who love that team, they love that team because of the Art Monks and the Darrell Greens and the Sonny Jurgensens and the Billy Kilmers. I think that the right course is to sit down with our fans. And let's really talk about what we love about that team. And if it's in the best interest of everybody that we not offend anybody, then let's make that change.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA. Hey, enjoy the Super Bowl.

DEMAURICE SMITH:

Hey, man. Happy Super Bowl.

CHUCK TODD:

In a few minutes, we’re gonna talk to a representative of the NFL. But first, as you saw earlier, I sat down with former New York Giant Leonard Marshall, who despite changes to the game, still doesn’t believe professional football is safe enough today. Take a listen.

(BEGIN TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Would you be comfortable playing under these rules?

LEONARD MARSHALL:

I’d want it to be even safer. They’ve got to do something to take the helmet out of the game. Somehow, I don’t know what that is.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

And now representing the league, I'm joined by Jeff Pash, executive vice president and general counsel for the NFL. Mr. Pash, welcome to Meet the Press.

JEFF PASH:

Thank you, Chuck. I appreciate your having me this morning.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, let me start with that basic question. Do you feel as if the game is as safe as it can be for the players of today?

JEFF PASH:

I think the game is safer than it has ever been, and the progress that's being made means it's going to be safer in the future. And I think if you look at what's been done during Commissioner Goodell's tenure, whether it's in the context of preventing concussions by rule changes, better equipment, and teaching safer tackling techniques.

Better medical care for the players with the use of independent neurotrauma consultants, and a negotiated return to play protocol with the NFLPA, and the research that's being done in conjunction with the NIH, General Electric, international sports federations. I think there's a tremendous amount of progress being made.And I would say to people the game has never been safer. The statistics show that.

The fact is that helmet to helmet collisions, which have been the biggest cause of concussions in the past, that helmet to helmet contact is down by more than 40%.

So we are definitely making progress, but there's more work to be done. And we want to work with the players and the coaches to continue that culture change and foster that culture of safety.

CHUCK TODD:

And some of that culture of safety may go all the way down to youth football. We saw the New York Times story about this initial study, it's preliminary. I know it's a very small sample. There's a lot of studies that say the brain isn't fully formed until at least 12 years old.

JEFF PASH:

Yeah, I think the authors of that study themselves have highlighted some of the questions about it. And it's clear that more work needs to be done. And we've promoted safe play, whether it's in the context of tackle or flab football. And it's again, Chuck, let's look at actions.

Through our efforts there are youth concussion laws that have been passed in all 50 states. To work with professional athletic trainer associations. We put athletic trainers on the playing fields for thousands of children across the country. That program is going to double for this year. Not just football, but all sports. We've worked with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and its past two chairmen to bring safer and newer equipment to youth football programs across the country.

CHUCK TODD:

Could you envision a day where the NFL says, "You know what? We support the idea of no tackle football until 12."

JEFF PASH:

Well, I think you've got to have the facts and you've got to see what the alternatives are. I don't know if that's a practical solution or not. But we support kids getting out and playing, whether it's flag, tackle, as safely as possible. That's our goal.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let's go to the player personal conduct policy that you released. I just talked to DeMaurice Smith, head of the NFLPA. And he seems to have less issue with your proposal and more of an issue that it's not being done in a collective bargaining situation. You wouldn't impose drug testing without the NFLPA negotiating it, so why are you imposing this without the NFLPA in the room?

JEFF PASH:

Well, the NFLPA has been in the room. They've been in the room for the past 15 years when we've talked about this. We've had probably ten rounds of collective bargaining over 40 years, which have defined very clearly the authority to impose discipline for conduct detrimental. The personal conduct policy simply builds on that.

CHUCK TODD:

It feels like the beginning of a Dickens novel for the NFL: The best of times on the field financially, but it's been the worst of times off the field this last year. How would you describe this last year for the NFL? Was it a good year, a bad year, or a learning experience?

JEFF PASH:

It was challenging. It was a learning experience. But I think, like any strong organization, we have great leadership in our commissioner. We have great leadership from our ownership. And we have a great partnership with the NFLPA. We've accomplished, as De said, a tremendous amount together. And I'm confident that we'll take the learning we have from this year and we'll have a better game. And when we get together to talk a year from now, you'll have seen a lot of positive things.

CHUCK TODD:

Jeff Pash, happy Super Bowl. Enjoy the game.

JEFF PASH:

Okay, thanks Chuck, you too. Take care.

CHUCK TODD:

Don't go anywhere. In less than a minute, the Seahawks Marshawn Lynch teaches us why football is a lot like politics, and well, vice versa.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. Because we know we're going to be rolling right into the Bob Costas coverage here soon, so we're going to talk Super Bowl here with the panel. Let's get a little serious here. Jim Cramer, you deal with a lot of CEOs. Roger Goodell is a CEO. It's been a tough year for him. As a politician, I could see of him being forced to resign, I could see shareholders demanded his head back if he was dealing with shareholders. How did he survive this?

JIM CRAMER:

Well first, he was great for TV deals. And that's where the money is. He was a between-the-lines commissioner where you had to be outside the lines. Within a 16-game period, he was able to go outside the lines, which was major. I think when he lost ESPN, he realized he had changed. And he did bring in the best minds.

I was listening to Secretary Gates, bringing in the best minds, that's what he did. And by the last game of the season, I think he had it. I think people knew that he was a go-to guy who had changed a lot of people's view of the NFL. Successful season for him.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, it's funny Mark, and I would think you and I would look at the problems he faced almost like, how would a politician have handled this? And even the worst politician would've handled it better than he did.

MARK HALPERIN:

Without a doubt. They seem to now understand they have a problem, which is the first step in solving it. Look, every problem they have from the off-field behavior, outrageous behavior of players, to questions about cheating, to drug use, to concussions, to youth, every one of them can be solved without damaging their bottom line or the game. They just have to recognize that they put some resources into it, put some PR into it, but put some substance into it, and we can all love the NFL without concern.

CHUCK TODD:

It is interesting to me, Savannah and Kathleen, that they eventually do the right thing. Look what they're doing on domestic abuse. They're doing some PA. And this is one of these, they're damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they did nothing, everybody would say, "Why aren't you doing something? They're doing this. Oh, you're just playing catch-up." But when they play catch-up, they like to throw a lot of money at the problem.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think they are doing the right thing both on domestic violence and concussions. They've probably become sort of the clearing house for the latest progressive ideas towards helping combating domestic violence.

(OVERTALK)

KATHLEEN PARKER:

And for developing new scientific strategies on concussions. So it's a win-win at this point. But they looked bad for a long time.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. You're a new mom. And granted, you have a daughter. But it's a conversation that my wife and I with our son, just what's your reaction to the game? Would you feel comfortable?

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

I don't know. Well, first of all, I do have a daughter. And if she has any of the athletic skills of her parents, we're not going to--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

You won't have a problem?

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

But I do think a lot of parents are having those kinds of soul-searching conversations with themselves. And the question for the NFL is whether it can do things that preserve the integrity of the game, the fun of the game, what people love about football, but also acknowledge it that there's a real problem here. For the NFL, this concussion thing, it's potentially an existential crisis. They've got to get out ahead of it.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I'm going to do a little lighter note on football, because on Super Bowl media day, I kind of wish we had a political equivalent, right, of politics media day. But nobody stole the show like Marshawn Lynch. And it did get us thinking that he kind of reminded us of somebody else. First, here's a little Marshawn on Media Day, which of course, players are required to do, as he made it very, very clear based on every single question that was asked of him.

MARSHAWN LYNCH (ON TAPE):

I'm here so I won't get fined. I'm here so I won't get fined. I'm here so I won't get fined. I'm just here so I won't get fined.

CHUCK TODD:

It sort of reminded us of one of my favorite moments from the '90s. Here is Al Gore having to deal with an interesting political problem that he had, campaign finance issues, was he illegally raising money out of the official office of the vice president. Here is Al Gore in this infamous press conference from 1997.

AL GORE (ON TAPE):

According to my counsel, there is no controlling legal authority. There is no controlling legal authority that says this was in violation of law. There is no controlling legal authority. There is no controlling legal authority.

CHUCK TODD:

Just so you know, we're bipartisan here. And here's Republican Congressman Mike Coffman who was asked by a local Colorado reporter to clarify his comments about the president not being an American citizen. Listen to how he responded to numerous questions.

(BEGIN TAPE)

MIKE COFFMAN:

I stand by my statement that I misspoke, and I apologize. I stand by my statement that I misspoke, and I apologize. I stand by my statement that I misspoke, and I apologize.

INTERVIEWER:

Is there anything that I can ask you that you'll answer differently?

MIKE COFFMAN:

No. I stand by my statement that I misspoke, and I apologize.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Kathleen, who did it better? Who did it better? Gore, Coffman, or Lynch?

KATHLEEN PARKER:

I'm a big fan of Lynch. Look, I think it'd be like asking us to go out and play football. If he doesn't want to speak to the media, don't make him, right?

CHUCK TODD:

All right, fair enough. It's a new definition of beast mode, right?

KATHLEEN PARKER:

I think there's going to be something up on YouTube very soon where they think those words are something else.

CHUCK TODD:

And what is it when you make it into a song, what is it, auto-tune it?

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Shouldn't we be auto-tuning Marshawn Lynch?

MARK HALPERIN:

It's already been done.

KATHLEEN PARKER:

I'm sure.

MARK HALPERIN:

If you Google. Look, Lynch did it with humor. If you're going to do that, you've got to do it with a wink. And he did.

CHUCK TODD:

He did. All right. That's all for today. Stay tuned, of course to NBC. There's a sporting event that takes place sometime this afternoon. But there's a more important event right before it. My friend Savannah here is going to be interviewing the president live. It's rare that he does live interviews. A five-minute, live interview. A lot more tomorrow morning on The Today Show, the real serious stuff. Okay.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:

Yeah, we'll do a live interview, and then sit down and do a longer interview.

CHUCK TODD:

Excellent. Well, if it's the Sunday after the Super Bowl, it'll be Meet the Press. It'll be next week.