Meet the Press Transcript - February 8, 2015

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CHUCK TODD:

This Sunday, crises from ISIS to Iran to Ukraine.

JOHN KERRY (ON TAPE):

President Putin's got to make the decision to take an off-ramp.

CHUCK TODD:

The Obama administration calls for strategic patience. My exclusive interview with Secretary of State John Kerry. Also, the measles outbreak, the debate over government mandates like vaccines for children. Is personal liberty being denied in the name of the public good?

MEGAN HEIMER (ON TAPE):

Mandating vaccines opens up the door for them to mandate all sorts of other things, what my child eats, where my child goes to school.

CHUCK TODD:

Plus violence in the name of religion, as the world reacts with horror to the atrocities committed by ISIS. Was President Obama right to point out Christianity’s violent past?

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

Remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.

CHUCK TODD:

I'm Chuck Todd, and joining me this morning to provide insight and analysis are David Brooks of The New York Times, Andrea Mitchell, my colleague here at NBC, the BBC's Katty Kay, and Stephen Henderson of The Detroit Free Press. Welcome to Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

ANNOUNCER:

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

CHUCK TODD:

Good morning. It's been a weekend of tense diplomacy. And we're going to bring you my exclusive interview with Secretary of State John Kerry in just a minute. The debate of American aid worker Kayla Mueller remains unknown. Two days after ISIS claimed that she had been killed in a Jordanian missile strike in Syria, ISIS still has offered no proof, and the State Department says it has been unable to verify the claim.

Meanwhile, peace talks have been taking place at the Munich Security Conference, in an effort to end the intensifying fighting between Russia and Ukraine. France and Germany's leaders are now warning that the conflict could develop into a total war that could spill beyond Ukraine's borders into eastern Europe unless a peace deal is reached.

On Friday, President Obama unveiled his updated national security strategy. It's a document that has been criticized by Republicans for outlining too cautious of an approach. Here's the president's national security advisor, Susan Rice, outlining the new strategy.

SUSAN RICE (ON TAPE):

While the dangers we face may be more numerous and varied, they are not of the existential nature we confronted during World War II, or during the Cold War. We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism and a nearly instantaneous news cycle.

CHUCK TODD:

Yesterday, I spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry from Munich, and I started by asking him whether the U.S. is winning in our goal of diminishing and eventually destroying ISIS.

(BEGIN TAPE)

JOHN KERRY:

Well, I believe we are on the road to, yes. I absolutely do. And I think the evidence is not in my saying it. But it's in the facts of what is happening. First of all, the coalition is strong, more committed than ever, particularly in the aftermath of the burning of the Jordanian pilot.

The resounding reaffirmations of commitment throughout the Arab world have been heartening and strong. here's what's happened. 22% of the populated areas that they held have been taken back already. And that's without launching what we would call a major offensive.

It's with the efforts of the Iraqi army, as it's being retrained and standing up again to reclaim some territory as they begin to probe. We have taken out a significant proportion of the top leadership of ISIS. Their command and control facilities have been attacked, interrupting their command and control.

They no longer can communicate the way they were, as openly. They no longer travel in convoys, they was they were, as openly. Or where they do, they're at great risk.Now, there's a lot more to do. We have said, since the beginning, this is a long-term operation, not a short-term one, BUT we believe everything, including the governing process in Iraq itself, is moving in the right direction.

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say, not everybody agrees that the U.S. is doing enough. My colleague, Richard Engel, had an interview with the head of the Kurdish province in Iraq. I want you to take a listen to what he said about the war.

RICHARD ENGEL (ON TAPE):

President Obama said there is a strategy in place to degrade and defeat ISIS. Do you believe him?

CHANCELLOR BARZANI (ON TAPE):

Well he’s the President of the United States.

RICHARD ENGEL (ON TAPE):

But do you believe there is a strategy in place to do that?

CHANCELLOR BARZANI (ON TAPE):

I hope there is. But we need that strategy to be translated into action.

RICHARD ENGEL (ON TAPE):

So you're not seeing it.

CHANCELLOR BARZANI (ON TAPE):

Not yet.

RICHARD ENGEL (ON TAPE):

You're not seeing the strategy.

CHANCELLOR BARZANI (ON TAPE):

We have not seen--

RICHARD ENGEL (ON TAPE):

But the great--

CHANCELLOR BARZANI (ON TAPE):

Not yet. I mean, so far, we have not seen any serious action that can quickly defeat ISIS.

RICHARD ENGEL (ON TAPE):

Or slowly? Can it work over the long term?

CHANCELLOR BARZANI (ON TAPE):

It can. It can. But once again, I mean, we are sacrificing more lives and putting many innocent lives at risk by allowing ISIS to survive for a longer period.

CHUCK TODD:

Now, Secretary, that was Chancellor Barzani. That's what he was telling Richard Engel. He's essentially saying they need more support. They need swifter action from the United States. What do you say in response?

JOHN KERRY:

Well, you heard the key word there, which was not quickly. But he said, over time, it can work. And we have said, consistently, that this is going to take a certain amount of time. Now, why? Is that because we want it to take an amount of time? No.

The fact is that the Iraqi army itself needs to be retrained and stood up. There have to be ground troops involved in order to win this victory. And it is clear they're not going to be American. They're not going to be British. They're not going to be French and European.

They are going to be Iraqi. And that's the way the Iraqis want it. But they're not ready to move yet. And it would be a great mistake, strategically, for them to move before they are ready. So I understand Mr. Barzani's impatience. I fully understand it. The Peshmerga have been particularly brave and courageous.

We have supplied them with an enormous amount of ammunition, weapons, other things. And others are supplying them, our allies. So I think, as we said from the beginning, people need to be recognizing the importance of putting in place a strategy that can win.

CHUCK TODD:

Now, you're pleading for patience. And it was something that a former colleague of yours in the U.S. Senate, Lindsey Graham, was sort of mocking. And it had to do more with a speech that Susan Rice gave on Friday, outlining the new national security strategy.

And he tweeted this. He said, "I doubt ISIL, the Iranian mullahs, or Vladimir Putin will be intimidated by President Obama's strategy of strategic patience." And the other implication here, Mr. Secretary, is that patience, waiting too long, is what allowed an ISIS to gain a foothold, that we didn't react soon enough. And now, we're paying the price for it.

JOHN KERRY:

Well, ISIS gained a foothold that it gained in Iraq, principally, because the army had been personalized and fundamentally become a sectarian entity. And so within Sunni areas, unfortunately, there weren't enough people with a stake in the game in order to stand their ground. Because that wasn't their army.

And so there are a lot of reasons for how we got to where we are today. What we need to understand is that we have moved from instant one to buttress Iraq, to build a coalition. People were astonished that we were able to get five Sunni nations to join us in taking on the challenge of Syria.

I think we have put together a strong coalition. I just don't buy into that.

CHUCK TODD:

I know that Vice President Biden gave a speech at the Munich conference essentially on Ukraine, saying that the United States would be there to provide assistance to Ukraine. He didn't quite outline it. But obviously, it was an indictment of what Russia's been doing in there, the weapons they've been providing. How soon will the United States be providing more security assistance, heavier artillery, to Ukraine?

JOHN KERRY:

Well, I'm not going to go into precisely what items are going to be provided to Ukraine. But I have no doubt that additional assistance of economic kind and other kinds will be going to Ukraine. And we do so understanding that there is no military solution. The solution is a political, diplomatic one. But President Putin's got to make the decision to take an off ramp. And we have to make it clear to him that we are absolutely committed to the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine no matter what.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Do you think believe President Putin is a rational actor here? Because you outline the economic sanctions and the drop in oil have had a huge impact. And yet, it has not changed his behavior.

JOHN KERRY:

Well, I'm not going to get into characterizations, except people can draw their own conclusions based on what they see. He is leaving the global community with no choice but to continue to either put more sanctions in place or to provide additional assistance to Ukraine. And hopefully, he will come to a point where he realizes the damage he is doing is not just to the global order and the process.

But he is doing enormous damage to Russia itself. And I'm convinced, I think most people are convinced, that each month that goes by, that will catch up to him, ultimately, in Russia itself. The nationalistic card is playing for the moment. But ultimately, people want their lives to be better.

CHUCK TODD:

Quickly, last question. The Iran nuclear talks, I know that's also front and center. You have a very, very busy agenda these days. Is it just a deal or no deal? Or is there a chance that you extend the current sort of temporary deal that's in place now?

JOHN KERRY:

Well, the only chance I can see of an extension at this point in time would be that you really have the outlines of the agreement. But if we're not able to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made over the course of the next weeks, literally, I think it would be impossible to extend. I don't think we would want to extend at that point. Either you make the decisions to prove your program is a peaceful one, or if you're unable to do that, it may tell a story that none of us want to hear.

CHUCK TODD:

Is there any scenario that you would run for president in 2016?

JOHN KERRY:

I have no scenario whatsoever in my mind. I haven't thought about it. As you can tell, pretty busy.

CHUCK TODD:

I know. Is it a never say never?

JOHN KERRY:

Well, nobody says never. But I mean, I have no concept of it. Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Secretary Kerry, safe travels. Thank you, Secretary.

JOHN KERRY:

Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

And this morning, what's being seen as a last ditch effort to salvage a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, it's been announced the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany -- no United States -- will attend a summit in Minsk, Belarus, on Wednesday. I'm joined now by Michael McFaul, he’s the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, and of course the panel is here, David, Andrea, Katty and Stephen. But Ambassador McFaul, let me start with you. We talked, you heard me ask Secretary Kerry about, essentially, is Vladimir Putin a rational actor here. How do you answer that question?

MICHAEL MCFAUL:

He's a rational actor. He's also very emotional, like most people, by the way. He's playing a long-term game here with multiple objectives over a long period of time. I think the kind of fundamental tension that you see is that the West, we want to solve the problem, we want a deal, we want a peace plan. Putin's perfectly happy not to have a peace plan, to let this linger, to let it fester. And that will help him achieve other goals.

CHUCK TODD:

There was a report earlier this week that there is some secret dossier from a war college examination that Vladimir Putin has-- might have Asperger's Syndrome. Now we actually e-mailed a professor, Simon Baron Cohen, director of The Autism Research Center in Cambridge, who, by the way, is a relative of the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. And he said this: "The claim that Putin has Asperger's Syndrome, based solely on a movement analysis, is unlikely to stand up to valid scientific scrutiny." But obviously, you guys do this. The intelligence community tries to assess-- leaders-- emotionally or psychologically. What is the psychological profile of Vladimir Putin that you've read?

MICHAEL MCFAUL:

Well, I've read lots of them over many years. And let me give you my kind of base analysis is that he's a person who feels aggrieved, who feels like the West helped to destroy the Soviet Union. He sees the world in zero sum terms. And he assigns a lot of power to our covert capabilities. He's obsessed with the C.I.A..

So with respect to Ukraine, he thinks that we led the coup in Ukraine. The Ukrainians in his view had nothing to do with it, it was all the C.I.A.. And therefore, what you see him doing today, first in Crimea and now with his proxies in eastern Ukraine, that is him striking back against what he thinks his American-led imperialism.

The second really important thing, Chuck, he's become much more conservative over the last several years, in my view. And by that, I mean just a small "C" conservative. And he sees the West as the kind of decadent, liberal West. And therefore, this is not just a contest about interests, this is also a contest about values for him.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I'm going to bring in the panel. Andrea Mitchell, we are three or four days away, Angela Merkel, actually, the German chancellor's, going to be here in the United States.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

I think she's on her way now. She is the one doing everything to stop the U.S. from arming Ukraine here. It really is sort of a clash here. She is trying to be the peacekeeper of Europe.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Right.

CHUCK TODD:

And the United States is united-- this is not one where there's a Republican/Democrat divide about arming Ukraine.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Well, there is that divide, somewhat. But the fact is that--

CHUCK TODD:

Not big.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Not big. This is Merkel and Hollande, who went on Friday, saw Putin, came back. She gave a very strong speech in Munich saying, "Do not arm, this is will escalate everything." And she's coming here to tell President Obama that. But she's meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee first on Monday morning, tomorrow morning.

The fact is that-- that decision is fraught with problems. There's a lot of support in Congress. The bipartisan delegation in Munich of senators all were in favor of arming. And they're talking about radar, they're talking about drones, surveillance drones, they're talking about anti-tank missiles.

But the fact on the ground is that they are going back to Moscow on Wednesday to again negotiate with Putin. Putin and these separatists, so-called separatists, these Russians, have taken 500 square miles since the ceasefire was negotiated in Minsk, and, you know, they are taking the ground. And the big definition is how much of a demilitarized zone will they get to take.

CHUCK TODD:

And it does sound like Merkel's willing to sort of--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

--give the Russians more. This divide between United States and Europe on Ukraine is, I guess, much wider than it was before, Katty.

KATTY KAY:

It is wider. And you have the British Foreign Secretary this morning being quoted as saying, again, that he opposes the idea of arming the Ukrainian government. The fear in Europe is that you put arms in a volatile situation, the Ukrainians cannot win this militarily.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

KATTY KAY:

And all they're doing is upping the stakes. You're hearing European leaders talking about making cannon fodder out of Ukrainian soldiers that you're sending on a mission with-- American arms, which increases America's role in this. And what's the endgame? You're not thinking two or three steps ahead. You're not thinking about escalation. And the realization that President Putin, it matters much more to him to keep Ukraine than it matters to the West to lose Ukraine.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

I guess, David, though, that this is sort of what happened. Do you sort of appease Putin? I mean, you know, I hate to throw the A word around, because it gets, I think-- but is Europe appeasing Putin?

DAVID BROOKS:

Well, America's from Mars, Europe’s from Venus, as I’ve said before. You know, I'm for arming. I think we should have armed them. Putin is driven, as Michael said, from quasi-theological, quasi-realist versions. I'm told he's being strongly pushed by a security apparatus. We're not going to defeat him, as Katty says. But we can raise the cost.

And there's no way he's gonna seriously come to the table as long as he's winning on the battlefields. And so this worked with Milosevic. This has worked before. But you've got to raise the cost for these guys.

CHUCK TODD:

Stephen Henderson, you're the editorial page editor of The Detroit Free Press. This decision is made, what do you write?

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

I think, you know, arming the Ukrainians makes some sense. You don't want to do it unilaterally. You want to get the European allies--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

So you have a problem if European allies don't support--

(OVERTALK)

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

I think that's a fool's errand. You know, that's the kind of action that we've seen come back to bite us in recent here's.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, Ambassador McFaul, have you have the last word. Where are we headed here? Are we going to arm them?

MICHAEL MCFAUL:

My guess is yes. And I do support that. I think the Ukrainians should have a vote in their own security, by the way. But where we're headed is we're going to be talking about this for months and here's to come. I don't see this resolving any time soon.

CHUCK TODD:

Ambassador McFaul, coming to us from Stanford. I appreciate it. We'll be back. We've got a lot more. So panel, we'll hit the pause button here. When we come back, two likely presidential candidates question the value of vaccinating children. Sort of. It did spark a national debate. That's all coming up next.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back. Both the British philosopher John Stuart Mill and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes cited the example of shouting fire in a crowded theater as a moment when personal freedom should be restricted for the greater good. And that fundamental argument about what role the government should play in our lives was resurrected this week when two presidential candidates, Rand Paul and Chris Christie, raised questions over the wisdom of government mandating vaccines for children. All this coming against the backdrop of an outbreak of measles right here in the United States.

(BEGIN TAPE)

SINGING VOICES:

Buckle up for safety, buckle up.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

From the debate over seatbelt laws--

CRASH DUMMY #1:

Larry, for years, have been proving how safety belts save lives. But nobody's listening.

CRASH DUMMY #2:

Sure they are.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

To the efforts to ban smoking in public places.

MALE VOICE #1:

There’s this whole big thing about secondary smoke. How’s that going to--smoke's going right up in the air.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

The question of how far government can limit personal freedom to protect public health is a familiar tug-of-war.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG:

If you want to eat a lot and get fat, you have a right to do it. But our job as government is to inform the public.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

The limits of what critics call The Nanny State were tested when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried and failed to ban oversized sodas. Now, with confidence in public institutions near historic lows, the debate over the appropriate role of government has touched a public health issue where scientists are in near universal agreement: Vaccines.

ANTHONY FAUCI:

You have one of the most highly effective vaccines against any virus. And you have a highly contagious disease, measles, that can have serious complications. So to me, it's really a slam dunk.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

But a small yet significant percentage of parents aren't listening. In 17 states, preschool vaccination rates are below 90%, the baseline goals set by federal health officials. Last year, 644 measles cases were reported in 27 states, a 20-year high. And this year's off to a bad start.

SETH MNOOKIN:

In some ways, I think we can say that vaccines have been a victim of their own success. If you have a child today, you're not likely to have lived during a time when thousands of Americans were infected every year and hospitalized every year.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

The anti-vaccine movement gained steam in 1998 when a now-discredited study linked the measles shot to autism. That medical journal later retracted it, calling it "utterly false."

MEGAN HEIMER:

I believe many parents do not trust the CDC or the government or think that they're putting our best intentions first.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Megan Heimer is a mother of two toddlers and an anti-vaccine advocate. She and her husband have chosen not to vaccinate their children, even though he performs vaccinations at the clinic where he works as a family doctor.

MEGAN HEIMER:

Mandating vaccinations opens up the door for them to mandate all sorts of other things, what my child eats, where my child goes to school, how often my child sees a doctor

SETH MNOOKIN:

The vast majority of parents, Republican and Democrat, vaccinate their children.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

But the fact that the science is clear hasn't stopped politicians from pandering to this small minority.

CHRIS CHRISTIE:

We vaccinate ours. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well.

RAND PAUL:

I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who've wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they're a good thing. But I think the parents should have some input.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

After criticism, both Christie and Paul jumped to clarify their comments. Paul posted this picture of himself getting a booster shot. Christie's office put out a statement saying, quote, "There is no question kids should be vaccinated."

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

And of course during the '07 and '08 campaign, both candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, were cautious on vaccinations, citing the concerns about the autism link at the time. Katty, first of all, is this vaccination debate, is this happening in Europe as much as it happens here?

KATTY KAY:

Well, it could happen in Britain, of course, because the original study came out in Britain, which is now being called the most dangerous medical hoax in the last 100 years, that that study, which is being retracted, has caused so much damage. Look, the science is absolutely clear. If you want to keep the public safe, 92% of people need to be vaccinated against measles. Some people can't be. Their immune systems--

CHUCK TODD:

Sure.

KATTY KAY:

--don't allow them to be. Those who choose not to be are putting their own children at risk, and they're putting other children at risk, as well.

CHUCK TODD:

Stephen, I imagine you wrote about this, this week.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Yeah. This is a pretty clear public issue. It is not a freedom issue. Think of the things that the government mandates that we do already. Lots of things. This is one of the ones that shouldn't be debated. And it's really disappointing to see people who want to lead the country, pander this way, I think there's a real question there about pandering versus leadership.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, I feel like, David, that this is the perfect storm of what happens when we've combined the way social media can spread misinformation, people doing-- the more research they do, the more you can find your biased research. What presidential candidates pandering to local fringes, naturalists on the left. You know, we've seen what Beverly Hills is like, one of the more lower vaccination rates. And of course your anti- government movement. And then the trust issue with leaders.

DAVID BROOKS:

Yes.

CHUCK TODD:

I you heard that woman talked about, "I can't trust the CDC." What? If you can't trust what the CDC says, we've got a problem in America, right?

DAVID BROOKS:

They're nefarious down there. Yeah, no, I wonder if there's a vaccine for pandering. We could open up a little shop down there on every corner.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:

No, I agree, it starts with the distrust. Distrust of institutions.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

DAVID BROOKS:

A lack of common sense about our common community. Like, the air we breathe, that is what we have in common.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

DAVID BROOKS:

The microbes and things that travel, that's what we have in common. And with them the disgusting things, the way, you know, Rand Paul knows the truth about this. Chris Christie knows the truth. Glenn Beck has been mouthing off about this.

CHUCK TODD:

Oh!

DAVID BROOKS:

They know the truth about this. They're doing it for a media strategy.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

DAVID BROOKS:

For political viability. And it seems to me a test of integrity and leadership is telling people the truth, even if you're trying to great their--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

You know, it's funny you said that Glenn Beck-- let me play this Glenn Beck quote from earlier this week.

(BEGIN AUDIO)

GLENN BECK:

The measles hoax? Is it possible we have been lied to about the measles, this outbreak, and that we are now being told all kinds of things for one purpose, for the herd mentality, to get us all to grab our children and obey the government?

(END AUDIO)

CHUCK TODD:

You know, it's interesting here, Andrea, before I get you to react to this, we actually surveyed-- the Political Unit. We surveyed every member of Congress.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Every member of Congress. About half of them got back to us. Not a single one, not a single office that responded to us said that they didn't vaccinate their children. Every one of them did. So these elected leaders, do as they do, not as they say?

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Rand Paul is a doctor. He's a medical person. I mean he doesn't get a pass at all. Both Obama and Hillary Clinton, in the '08 campaign, both sort of tried to hedge it on a--

CHUCK TODD:

And you know how that happens? Because they're raising money out in California, and we know it's some of the more prominent donors in this.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I've got to tell you, I am the daughter of someone who had polio back in the day. And we were vaccinated. Our parents were so intent on vaccinating us when the Salk vaccine came out. Because we knew, and we came out of the generation that knew, the horrors of these kinds of diseases.

KATTY KAY:

And that’s the irony. There are countries in Africa where they have higher vaccination rates than--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Exactly.

KATTY KAY:

--than here in the United States. Because when a people really need it, and they see the effects that measles can have on their community, they will make sure their children are vaccinated.

CHUCK TODD:

Stephen, you wanted to jump in.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Yeah, and Michigan is one of the states that has a really low rate of vaccination. Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the University of Michigan is--

CHUCK TODD:

Intellectual elite.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

That's right. Has a real problem with this in its schools. It is not-- this is not about unintelligent or ignorant people.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

It's a deeply held emotional belief.

CHUCK TODD:

Wow, it is something else. And I guess this, it's the issue of a larger issue of sort of personal freedom versus the public good, which does do divide the two parties.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

How about seat belts?

DAVID BROOKS:

But I would say it's a trust issue. If you asked Americans, "Do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time," through the 20th century, 70-80%, now it's down to 23%. Can you trust most of the people around you? It's plummeted. And you know the group with this lowest level of trust, it's not old people, it's people in their 20s.

CHUCK TODD:

No, I know. That's what I mean. This is an important discussion, not because of the issue of vaccination, because of this issue in collective community trust. All right. When we come back, was President Obama right to cite the Crusades as an example of people justifying their actions in the name of Christ? That debate is next.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. The annual National Prayer Breakfast brings together the president with faith leaders of all walks. It's not supposed to be a controversial event. But during the Obama years, it has always seemed to attract a little bit of extra attention. This week, the moment that grabbed headlines was when President Obama referenced the Crusades in pointing out that violation in the name of religion is not unique to Islam.

PRESIDENT OBAMA (ON TAPE):

Unless we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. And our home country, slavery, from Jim Crow, all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

CHUCK TODD:

That drew criticism from many Republican, including a couple of possible candidates in 2016. Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said the remarks by the president, quote, "were inappropriate. And his choice of venue was insulting to every person of faith at a time when Christians are being crucified, beheaded and persecuted across the Middle East."

Another Republican, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said, "The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President. Please deal with the radical Islamic threat today." And former New York Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, responded this way Friday on Fox News.

RUDY GIULIANI (ON TAPE):

Actually the wrong thing at absolutely the wrong time. And the president is as weak a historian as he is a president, and as a weak a theologian.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I'm joined by Jon Meacham. He's executive editor at Random House. But he's also author of many books, including American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation. I don't know if there's any person that understands the cross section of religion and American politics better. Well John, let's pick up on Rudy Giuliani's quote there. Said the president's not a good historian and not a good theologian. What do you say? Fact check him.

JON MEACHAM:

Fact check him. Well, the Crusades were not good, I think is a fairly safe bet. Complicated, two centuries, 1095 to the end of the 13th century. Urban II was the pope, who's one of the central figures. A lot of scholarly debate about how much of it was about religion itself, how much of it was of a re-conquest of Muslim lands, how much of it was colonization, a search for wealth, in which religion became a justifying force. Complicated debate.

What is not complicated is that, on the Christian Crusades, there were many, many atrocities. What I think the president failed to mention was, or what he did fail to mention, was that the Crusades were, in some ways, an exception to a rule. And the rule of Christian history in the Middle Ages forward into the modern era, was one of Christian humanism.

The Crusades ended, and the Renaissance began. The idea of Aquinas. And Dante was born shortly after the end of the Crusades. So the idea that Christian faith had a huge amount to contribute to the rise of what ultimately became democratic capitalism is inarguable. So if you're going to start this debate, it's better not to do it with one or two sentences.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it's interesting. So Jay Michaelson of The Religious News Service wrote this analysis. And I want to read it to you, because I wonder, if the president had said it this way, if there'd be less debate. He said, "The other narrative is that all people, all creeds, all nations, contain elements of moderation and extremism. Thankfully, racist Christian extremists are today a tiny minority within American Christianity. But only 100 years ago, they were as popular among American Christians as the Islamic State is among Muslims today. Thus, in the battle against Islamic extremism, it is extremism that is the enemy. Christians should not be insulted by the facts of history. Rather, all of us should be inspired by them to recognize the dangers of extremism, wherever they lie." Had the president explained it that way, is there no furor?

JON MEACHAM:

There's probably less furor. My question is why he felt compelled to bring this up at all.

CHUCK TODD:

I have my own theory. He's not a big fan of the prayer breakfast, I think. And I think he almost enjoys creating a rhetorical debate.

JON MEACHAM:

Yes. And so he brings up, unquestionably, the sins of Christianity, which are many. And part of the drama of religion is trying to live up to an ideal, but knowing that, on this side of paradise, we're always going to fall short.

And so I do think that, when you're talking about politics, when you're talking about civilizational shifts, which is what is going on here, the lesson out of Christianity, to my mind, is that Christianity managed to reform itself through the years. Dark chapters, but ultimately working towards the light. And the hope here is that Islam itself will find its own sense of reformation and push forward.

CHUCK TODD:

Did you find the extreme pushback on the president, because there's been some-- almost as if-- part of this criticism all goes because they believe the Obama administration doesn't acknowledge the religious aspect of this.

JON MEACHAM:

Sure.

CHUCK TODD:

And then some Obama folks will push back and say too many people on the Right want a religious war. And that plays into ISIS' hands.

JON MEACHAM:

This is not quite seasonal yet, but it was a hanging curveball for the right, unquestionably. The president brings up the sins of Christianity at a moment when the airwaves are full of the extremism of the Islamic world and the perversions of that.

The president, I think to some extent, missed an opportunity here. Because I think what you want to talk about is how does a civilization with dark impulses, because all civilizations are like that, we're all fallen, we're all sinful, how do we overcome those? And I'm just not sure how many people are really on that high horse.

CHUCK TODD:

Right, yeah.

JON MEACHAM:

And I think it's a little bit context-less, too.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Jon Meacham, like I said, not many people can have this niche discussion that you can have.

JON MEACHAM:

Urban II is a very important figure.

CHUCK TODD:

Exactly.

JON MEACHAM:

I appreciate it.

CHUCK TODD:

I want to get the panel over here. David Brooks, is our political discourse, are we too immature to have this debate?

DAVID BROOKS:

I know I am. So--

CHUCK TODD:

Okay. But I--

DAVID BROOKS:

Why are you asking me this?

CHUCK TODD:

Well, I feel like--you're the guy we look to in some ways on these culture-- But it does make you wonder, can politicians have this debate?

DAVID BROOKS:

Well, I'm pro-Obama. I'm totally pro-Obama on this. I think he said the right thing. Listen, it was a gospel of humility. What sorts of people need a little gospel of humility? People in Washington, pundits, religious believers. I happen to be all three of those things. And so we're told to walk humbly in the path of the Lord. The Lord's ways are mysterious. And so you're saying we're prone to zealotry. As Jon said, we're fallen.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:

That's useful in Washington today. That's useful always.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

You don't use the word "crusade," is number one, in any context right now. It just-- it's too fraught. And the week after a pilot is burned alive in a video shown, you don't lean over backwards to be philosophical about the sins of the fathers. You have to deal with the issue that's in front of you, or don't deal with it at all.

(OVERTALK)

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Talk about faith.

KATTY KAY:

--the point that our political culture does not allow for much nuance debate.

CHUCK TODD:

We’re not allowed to have a nuance.

KATTY KAY:

Unfortunate. And because, as you have just shown with Jon Meacham, this is a very nuanced debate to be had, and that should be had. But having it in the context of 30 seconds added into a speech at a prayer breakfast where the impulse of the president's opponents is just to jump on him--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Right.

KATTY KAY:

--and criticize him for anything, whatever he said, is very strong. It's unfortunate, but I don't think it's possible.

CHUCK TODD:

Should the president not have done it?

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Well, I think it was fine to do it. I think one of the things that's bothering people here is the invocation of race, which this president doesn't do all that often, talk about our racial history. And--

CHUCK TODD:

You think it was that last element that set people off?

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

I think that's what set people off.

(OVERTALK)

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

And I also think that it's important for him to be doing that. Think of all the context right now in which we're having a more frank discussion about our racial history. You see it on the big screen in movies like Selma. I think the president was trying to echo some of that at the breakfast.

CHUCK TODD:

It is, you do sit here and you say-- the president himself, David, and you've spent a lot of time with him, and off the record, he wants to have more conversations like this. But perhaps presidents can't. You can't do it until after you leave office. I mean is that where we're at?

DAVID BROOKS:

No, I think he was right. He gave the race speech. It was a beautiful speech. He's given a whole series of great speeches, Trayvon Martin. I think this was literally fine. This is exactly the moment you want to see this. We are at most immoral danger to ourselves when we're caught up in the righteous fervor against an evil foe, which is what we have. And so while we exercise hard power, we have to take morally hazardous actions, and be prone to get caught up in our own self righteousness. This is exactly the moment--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

There are a lot of politicians, conservative politicians, who invoke religion when talking about fighting--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

But he's the president.

CHUCK TODD:

--ISIS.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

He's the president. And you can't really go back to 1095.

CHUCK TODD:

You think he made a mistake.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I do. Because it's so out of context, and it is so much in passing. If you're giving a major speech about theology, perhaps. But this is the prayer breakfast. And remember, you know, the context of that is very limited.

CHUCK TODD:

Just a reminder, Katty, why Europe loves to be secular. I mean this is the biggest difference between the two, the basic Western divide, right, in Western Europe and--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

--you guys are a bunch of secularists.

(OVERTALK)

KATTY KAY:

The big divide is God, guns and government.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes.

KATTY KAY:

The three G's.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

KATTY KAY:

We are much more secular. We are much more prone to liking government. And we cannot understand the gun culture in this country. And that's really what divides us. And I think it's-- I think you're absolutely right, this discussion needs to be had, and this is the time to have it. I just think that the American political debate at the moment, is so hyper conscious of elections and winning elections and people criticizing each other that it's very difficult conversation to--

CHUCK TODD:

You know, actually, this issue of extremism, and it is going to come up again in a couple of weeks, right? The White House is going to have this summit. And it's about how to deal with Islamic extremism. But the question, you know it's coming, as far as some are going to be concerned, Stephen, it won't be enough focus on radical Islam.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Yeah. Well, and, you know, that's his Achilles heel here, is that you've got-- his opponents wanting to make this about religion, and wanting to define our enemies in religious terms. And I think he's right to resist that. I think he's right to construct this summit in a way that resists that, and pushes back against it, and to stand firm on that.

CHUCK TODD:

Just one of those classic cable catnip stories, wasn’t it? Whether they like it-- he could just like-- he almost wondered, did he intend to say, "Watch this." You know? And all that. Anyway, thanks--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Second term.

CHUCK TODD:

Thank you much. We've got a lot more to come, including a fascinating nerd screen about presidential age requirements. We'll be right back.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

A personal note: There are few things that are more uncomfortable for those of us who report the news than to become the news. And as most of you know, NBC News has been the news this week. Well, last night, NBC News released this statement from my colleague, Brian Williams:

"In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions. As managing editor of NBC Nightly News, I decided to take myself off of my daily broadcasts for the next several days. And Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us." We'll be right back.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

NerdScreen time. And today, we're going to take a look at 2016 and how much a candidate's age matters, whether he or she gets elected president. Turns out it may matter more than you think. In fact, take a look at this. If you look back at the past century, the results are pretty clear. Younger is apparently always better.

Since Woodrow Wilson, on average, when we've elected a new president, that president has been, on average, seven years younger than his predecessor. In fact, every successor since Wilson has been younger than the man he replaced with the exception of just two people: George W. Bush and the president he succeeded, Bill Clinton, were the same age, both born in 1946.

And of course Ronald Reagan, the oldest president to assume office, completely broke the mold. He was 13 years older than the man he defeated, Jimmy Carter. But Bush and Reagan are the outliers. So what were the biggest jumps from older to younger? Well, Barack Obama was 15 years younger than George W. Bush when Bush left office in 2009. President Clinton was 22 years younger than the man he defeated for reelection, President George H.W. Bush. In fact, Clinton was 46 when he took office, H.W. Bush was 68 the day he left.

But the biggest gap in the past century between presidents was Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was 27 years younger than Eisenhower. Kennedy, of course, 43 at the time when he took office. Kennedy was the youngest candidate ever elected president, by the way.

So what about 2016? Looking at the current wide field of presidential contenders, there's a real mistake. Some are younger than President Obama, including Governor Chris Christie, Senators Paul, Rubio and Cruz, Governor Scott Walker, and even former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. Again, all younger than President Obama. Here are the list of candidates that are older than him, including businesswoman and former Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, former Governor Mike Huckabee, Governor John Kasich, and on the Democratic side, Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and former Senator Jim Webb, all older.

But the two people considered by many to be the frontrunners both are older than President Obama. Take a look at this. Jeb Bush would turn 64 just after taking office. He's eight years older than the president right now. And Hillary Clinton, she would be 69 on the day she would take the oath of office, 13 years older than President Obama, and technically, a bigger spread, by a couple of months, than Carter and Reagan. And what's more, she would become, of course, the second oldest person ever elected to the presidency for a first term, after Reagan.

So why does this matter? Well, generations matter. We had two Baby Boomer presidents in a row in Clinton and George W. Bush. Barack Obama was sort of the first post-Boomer president. Do we really go backwards and elect another Baby Boomer president? Bush and Hillary Clinton both would be that. Or do we go full-fledged Gen-X, like a Scott Walker or somebody else? This generational stuff, it matters more than you think when you start talking about future versus the past. It’s something to watch on the trail. We'll be right back.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

I will disappoint some of you out there if I don't do '16 at least for a couple of minutes on the show, right? So anyway, the '16 race, of course, is heating up, especially on the Republican side. In fact, I feel like each week we're going to be able to show you stories that actually mattered. And three of them this week, we think, actually mattered and tell us something about the race going forward.

First of all, the two likely Republican candidates, two of them proved to be pretty thin skinned, we learned, this week. Chris Christie frankly had a train wreck of a week in London. And Rand Paul got hit from all sides for his comments about vaccines, we talked about it earlier in the show.

Second was the news that Hillary Clinton has hired yet another Obama official for her campaign. It's just one more sign she's not running away from the president, it isn't going to be a split. Is it Obama's third term? We'll let other people decide that. And last, of course, was the fact that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker continues to become, as The Washington Post put it, "The first ‘it’ candidate of the 2016 race."

And David Brooks, if we're going to label people "frontrunners," if people want to label Jeb Bush, "frontrunner," fine. But you better call him the co-frontrunner. Because he may be the money guy, Scott Walker's the poll guy.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Yeah.

DAVID BROOKS:

Yeah.

CHUCK TODD:

Right?

DAVID BROOKS:

I think, early in this race, don't look at the fundraising, don't look at the institution. Think of your spring training, you're looking at a pitcher. Do they have stuff? What kind of stuff do they have? Chris Christie has wild stuff. And so--

CHUCK TODD:

Can't find the strike zone?

(OVERTALK)

DAVID BROOKS:

Guys who are showing stuff right now are Scott Walker--

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

DAVID BROOKS:

-- and Marco Rubio, who's come out with a lot of really good ideas. So they look the best to me right now. And I would ignore all that other stuff, at least for now.

CHUCK TODD:

It's fascinating. You know, I cannot figure out how Rubio gets out of Jeb's shadow. You know, Andrea? And yet, he is blowing people away on the right on his policy speeches.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And Mitt Romney is no so quietly, you know, getting behind him. Because he keeps talking about the next generation. It's anybody--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

--Rubio.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

Oh, he's anti-Jeb Bush.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Oh well, that we know.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And his view is--I believe you cannot have-- they can't both be it. It's got to be either Jeb or Marco Rubio when it comes down to, you know, the finish line. So if you pump up Marco Rubio, that stops Jeb Bush in his tracks.

CHUCK TODD:

Katty, London is like a--

(OVERTALK)

KATTY KAY:

--London.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Are you guys hosting a caucus or something? Scott Walker's headed there, too. I guess it's raising expat money, right?

KATTY KAY:

It's clearly treacherous territory. Because do you remember Mitt Romney went there just before the Olympics and--

CHUCK TODD:

Not well.

KATTY KAY:

--made that comment about how the Olympics were not going to be safe? And he had a disastrous week in London. Chris Christie's just come back from London, as well. And I think one thing we've learned from Chris Christie and Rand Paul this week is don't-- first of all, don't shush female reporters. It never looks good. Which is what Rand Paul did. And Chris Christie--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

On air.

KATTY KAY:

--if you're abroad and you refuse to answer a question on foreign policy, and you are there to boost your foreign policy credentials, you look like a lightweight.

CHUCK TODD:

You know Stephen, going to the Hillary Clinton hire-- so the communications director for the Obama White House, Jennifer Palmieri, is about to go do the same job over there.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Is that the strength of the Obama administration?

CHUCK TODD:

Wow. But I think one of the reasons what's interesting in her hire in particular, is that she has good relations with the press. Hillary Clinton, historically, has not.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Right, right. I mean I think that's got to be something to think about as you're gearing up for this campaign, how to make her more sort of, you know, amenable to press coverage and dealing with those of us who write about it.

CHUCK TODD:

I was just going to say, what were your interactions? Do you feel like they weren't that good eight years ago?

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

You know, I shouldn't have said that, maybe, as harshly as I did. I just think this is a White House that has had a hard time communicating, and certainly has not had great relations with the press, we all know about their sort of harsh look at what we do. The use of the Espionage Act against members of the press. I think they have had a hard time communicating. And that's not been something I would hold up as a star for them.

DAVID BROOKS:

Yeah.

ANDREA MITCHELL:

And I think they feel, the Clinton campaign, feels that they need to warm it up, they need to reach out. They've had a lot of defenses. And they need to take a different posture.

CHUCK TODD:

Clinton, it does seem as if they're not going to-- you know, there's always been the speculation she's going to try to split from Obama.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

She's not doing that, is she, David?

DAVID BROOKS:

No.

CHUCK TODD:

There's no-- probably that's something-- why create a problem for yourself on the left when you're not really going to have a challenge, right?

DAVID BROOKS:

Yeah, and I think she has to move left. I do. But Obama's moving left for her. So that State of the Union address was moving in the direction that she wants to go. The party is significantly to the left of both of them. And I still think if she doesn't significantly move left, toward where the core of the party is, not only the left of the party, but what used to be the right or the middle of the party, guys like Larry Summers, and they've all move left, if she--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

He's moving left. I was-- noted Larry Summers is suddenly a populist.

DAVID BROOKS:

Suddenly, if she doesn't-- you know, politics abhors a vacuum. Somebody will get there and will challenge her.

CHUCK TODD:

Hey Stephen, Jeb Bush was in your town.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Sure.

CHUCK TODD:

How'd he do? I have to say, I thought the written speech was interesting to me. I thought his oratorical skills were a little rusty.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

Yeah. Well, I mean I think it's interesting. You're seeing these Republican candidates pick up this mantra of picking up the lower end of the economic ladder and expanding opportunity. One thing that was notable to us was that he gave the speech at Cobo Hall at the same time Wayne County was meeting with people who are behind on the property taxes, talking about taking their houses. You had hundreds and hundreds of--

CHUCK TODD:

That’s a stark contrast.

STEPHEN HENDERSON:

--poor people, sure, in that hall at the same time that Jeb Bush is talking about doing things differently. And the question is, "What policies are you going to implement to take care of this?"

CHUCK TODD:

By the way, we talked about Chris Christie and Rand Paul not handling questions from the press very well. Jeb Bush was stronger in the Q&A, in both informal and formal--

(OVERTALK)

KATTY KAY:

--and get out of Jeb Bush's shadow.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah.

KATTY KAY:

He gives a much better speech than Jeb Bush does.

CHUCK TODD:

Yeah. Yes, that he does. All right, before we go, Vox.com posted an article this week by an anonymous member of Congress. It's garnered quite a bit of attention here in Washington. It was entitled Confessions of a Congressman. And it lists nine secrets from Capitol Hill of those of the following-- to those of those nine secrets, these stood out to me. Congress listens best to money. And this Congressman writes, "Campaigns are so expensive that the average member of Congress needs a million dollar war chest every two years. And then think about that, you're paying us to do a job, and we're spending that time you're paying us asking rich people and corporations for money."

Then this one, you have no secret ballots anymore, he notes how easily we find out what primaries you vote in. And since there are not that many good candidates, they know who you voted for. He admits that congressional committees are a waste of time, David Brooks. Congress is simply a stepping stone to getting a lobbying job. And the best people don't run for Congress. We've been screaming about this for a decade. I guess thank you anonymous member for telling us.

DAVID BROOKS:

Another act of courage.

CHUCK TODD:

Yes.

DAVID BROOKS:

No. And he also said we have a parliamentary system, not a Congressional one, which is just the leaders control everything. And as Katty knows, parliamentary system rode to a--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Oh, not only that, I was meeting with some Israeli political leaders, and they were talking about they can't govern domestically because of how crazy their parliament--

ANDREA MITCHELL:

I think the lobbying issue is one of the big factors there. The best people don't run, and the fact that it is such a revolving door, we've known it. But this-- they want to get on committees to raise money and to then get a better lobbying job.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

That’s the only reason to get on a good committee. Anyway, it was a great piece. Don't be anonymous. That's all for today. We'll be back next week because, if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

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