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MEET THE PRESS: MAY 17, 2015

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

This Sunday: that special forces raid that killed an ISIS commander. Just how big a blow is this to the terror group? Also, the Amtrak crash.

MALE VOICE:

I thought I was a goner. I think most of us did. I mean, it was just so violent.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Does this tragedy end up sparking a bigger debate on rebuilding America? Plus, Jeb Bush's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week on Iraq.

MEGYN KELLY:

Would you have authorized an invasion?

JEB BUSH:

I would've. And so would've Hillary Clinton.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

How his brother's past is haunting Jeb's future. And Republican candidates suddenly all opposed to the Iraq war. Leading that charge, Rand Paul. He joins us exclusively. Finally, blow like a bee and sting like a butterfly? Mitt Romney's fascinating charity fight with Evander Holyfield.

I'm Chuck Todd and joining me for insight and analysis this Sunday morning are former senior advisor to President Obama, David Axelrod. Former White House political director under President George W. Bush, Sara Fagen. Helene Cooper of The New York Times, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist and author, Tom Friedman. 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 Sunday morning. A fierce battle is raging right now for the Iraqi city of Ramadi, capital of that country's biggest province between Iraqi government troops and ISIS, as the terror group continues to make advances, despite 11 months of U.S.-led air strikes.

But this weekend, the U.S. has been heralding a blow against ISIS, announcing the killing of an ISIS commander and the capture of his wife, and a special forces mission in Eastern Syria. Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel has been assessing the significance of this raid into Syria.

RICHARD ENGEL (V/O):

ISIS has gotten used to fighting U.S. troops when they attack from the air. For months, Washington has led an air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But this was very different. A bold raid into Syria, into an ISIS stronghold, with U.S. boots on the ground.

U.S. officials say American Delta Force commandos took off from Northern Iraq in Black Hawk helicopters and Osprey, plane/helicopter hybrids like these, and flew deep into ISIS territory in Eastern Syria, into Deir ez-Zor. It was Friday evening Syrian time. No allies on the ground.

If U.S. forces were captured, they risked unthinkable horrors. A Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS was burned alive in a cage. U.S. officials say the Americans' target Abu Sayyaf, was a top ISIS money man, who managed ISIS's oil and gas income and was personally close to the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

ARI PERITZ:

And the fact that the United States was willing to mount a capture mission to grab him, showed that he was a really important person in the infrastructure itself.

RICHARD ENGEL (V/O):

The target did not go quietly. There was a gun fight, even hand-to-hand fighting. Abu Sayyaf was killed, along with a dozen or more ISIS fighters.

ARI PERITZ:

0You can kill a lot of fighters in ISIS, but if you take out the money man, it really can dent the organization's capability to do things.

RICHARD ENGEL (V/O):

The U.S. commandos left under fire, but unharmed, taking with them Abu Sayyaf's wife, known as Umm Sayyaf. U.S. officials allege she helped manage hostages taken by ISIS. The Delta Forces also freed an ethnic Yazidi woman held by the couple as a slave. It was a bold and risky operation and could yield intelligence. But it is unlikely to change the course of the war on ISIS.

This week, the group attacked the center of the Iraqi city of Ramadi with car bombs and took control of a government compound. ISIS is also fighting its way into the historic Syrian city of Palmyra, threatening to destroy it, the way it has razed other historic treasures. But this week, it was Washington that took the initiative, going into the ISIS heartland and making it out alive.

CHUCK TODD:

Joining me now live is Richard Engel. And Richard, just how significant is Sayyaf? And can you say this was fully successful if we didn't get him alive?

RICHARD ENGEL:

A lot of counterterrorism analysts had never heard of Sayyaf, I personally had never heard of him before. One analyst we spoke to described him as like Al Capone's accountant. Yes, he's significant, he has a lot of information, no doubt. But he will be replaced. I think the most significant thing here was the symbolism, that U.S. Special Operations forces went into the ISIS heartland, grabbed someone, Sayyaf's wife, killed other militants on the ground, and left successfully.

It is a psychological blow, or an attempted psychological blow against ISIS. And I think that's probably one of the most important missions here. Was it a complete success? They wanted to get him alive. They got his wife. But I think the idea of rattling ISIS by going into their heartland, that was successful.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, is it fair to say that this was almost like a test case for U.S. intelligence, almost testing? They're now getting better intelligence in Syria about ISIS, so they acted on this. It's successful, so this means success will beget success and we'll start seeing more raids because they now trust their Syrian intelligence?

RICHARD ENGEL:

Maybe, maybe. And I think once you put your toe into the water, there might be a temptation to put another toe in or the foot in. This is only the second time U.S. Special Operation forces have gone into Syria. The first time was a rescue attempt, to rescue hostages. That turned out to be what they call a "dry hole." Nobody was there. The hostages had been moved.

This time, a snatch-and-grab operation, but the White House wants to be very careful about ordering up lots of these. Just imagine what would have happened if it had gone wrong, if one of those helicopters had been shot down. Terrible consequences for the commandos who were involved, but also terrible political consequences.

CHUCK TODD:

That's for sure. Richard Engel in Istanbul for us this morning. Richard thanks very much. Richard thanks very much. We're going to turn now to the latest on the investigation into the Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia on Tuesday, killing eight, and injuring more than 200. Earlier, I spoke with the NTSB's Robert Sumwalt and asked him about reports that the F.B.I. is on the scene to help investigate whether or not the train was hit by a projectile before it crashed.

ROBERT SUMWALT (ON TAPE):

I've seen it reported that the F.B.I.'s investigating. That's a little bit of a misnomer there. We're investigating the accident. We have asked the F.B.I. to come in and provide technical expertise to help us resolve and figure out what was a particular damage pattern on one of the windshields. But we're investigating it at this point. And we've just asked them to come in and help us out on identifying that fracture pattern.

CHUCK TODD:

And Tom Costello now, how is of course just outside the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. And Tom, it does seem as if NTSB is trying to sort of tap the brakes a little bit on this growing story that maybe some outside entity or force caused this accident.

TOM COSTELLO:

Well, here's why they're concerned about this, because they had a Septa regional train hit by something. In fact, the engineer thought he'd been shot at. We had an Acela train hit by something at about the same time, a brick or something, and then potentially, this Amtrak train, 188, hit by something right there on the windshield.

And so, nobody knows the answer to this right now, because the engineer says he doesn't remember. But the question is, is it possible that when that brick, or whatever it was, hit the front of Amtrak 188, if that's in fact what happened, did it so rattle this engineer that he lost situational awareness? That he forgot he was supposed to start slowing down because the train at that point was speeding up.

Keep in mind, this engineer had only been on that stretch of these tracks for three weeks. That's it. And by the way, they've been having problems with rock throwers on this stretch of Amtrak track for more than a hundred years. Teddy Roosevelt's train was hit by something called an "iron plumb bob" back in 1905.

But I can also tell you that the federal railroad administration has ordered emergency steps for Amtrak to take. They have to immediately put on more speed limit signs. Believe it or not, there aren't that many. They have to add something called "automatic train control," which is automatic braking. Not positive train control, but automatic braking. Amtrak says it's doing all of the above.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, Tom Costello, thanks very much. I'm joined now by Democratic senator, Cory Booker of New Jersey. Senator Booker, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SENATOR BOOKER:

Good to be here, thank you.

CHUCK TODD:

Hey, I want to start quickly with the ISIS raid, and then of course turn to infrastructure, which is something I know you were focused on all week with this Amtrak derailment. What you have heard about the raid, do you feel A) it's a success from what you understand of it now, and that B) the overall campaign against ISIS is, so far, more successful than failure?

SENATOR BOOKER:

Well, certainly this raid, it looks like it was a success. A lot of the information we pulled out of there could be very, very valuable, the computers and other data that was recovered that's now being analyzed. This is going to be a long effort. ISIS is a terrible threat in that region as well as to American security. And we're going to be involved in a many-months, if not longer, effort.

So we've seen some gains from the recruitment of foreign fighters going down, in their territory. But then we see things like this week, where we end up losing some ground. So I'm encouraged by some of the progress we're making, but we have a lot more work to do when it comes to eliminating this threat.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let me move to the Amtrak derailment. You know, this week, some House Republicans have been criticizing some Democrats, not you by name, but other Democrats, for attempting to politicize this derailment. Do you think that's a fair critique?

SENATOR BOOKER:

Well, look, I think it's a distraction from the reality. United States of America is falling behind dramatically its global peers in terms of the quality of its infrastructure. We have trillions of dollars of an infrastructure debt right now. And the accident that we saw happen, which the NTSB says could have been prevented, should we have had positive train control, we should not be scrimping on investments in public safety.

But what's even more important to understand this, as China invests about 9% of their G.D.P. in infrastructure, Japan 6%, Europe 5%, America's only doing 1.5%. By withholding this investment, in what America used to dominate the globe in, the number one infrastructure globally, now out of the top ten, depending on who you look at, number 12 or 18th, we are losing economic competitiveness.

We are losing out on jobs. We are missing out on growth. So let's leave that partisan argument aside for a second and just say the fiscally conservative thing to do right now is to invest in your, whether it was a company in your physical plant, whether a homeowner in your roof, but as a nation, we have fallen way out of pace with where we were in previous years in terms of overall investment.

CHUCK TODD:

But do you really think it's a fair implication that the lack of infrastructure spending is to blame for this accident?

SENATOR BOOKER:

I think the lack of infrastructure spending is costing us lives in America. It's costing every commuter. In my region especially, you see commuters paying over $1,000 a year in terms of damage to their cars, lost productivity. It's costing us in economic growth, it's costing us in jobs. And so the safety of our roads and bridges, we already know unequivocally, months I've been working on this issue.

We know unequivocally our safety as a nation, our air traffic, our aviation infrastructure, our rail infrastructure, our roads and bridges, is inadequate. We should be investing more. That's unequivocal, unassailable. And for us not to do that in a bipartisan fashion is unacceptable to me. And it's what we should be working on.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me focus on Amtrak here for a minute. I want to put up a couple of graphics here that sort of show maybe why it's politically so hard to get support for Amtrak on Capitol Hill. Ridership by congressional district in 2014, look at this, in Democratic congressional districts versus Republican congressional districts in use in terms of ridership on Amtrak.

And then if you look at the 25 busiest Amtrak stations in 2013, almost all of them concentrated on the two coasts, which frankly, are very Democratic, very blue. And you're struggling winning over Republican support. Amtrak really isn't thought of as a feasible part of public transportation in the middle of the country, where there's much more Republican representation. Is that a big challenge for Amtrak?

SENATOR BOOKER:

Well, you know, in a very practical, political way, very likely. But I'll tell you this. I'm a pro-growth guy. And we know, for example, in the Northeast Corridor, one-sixth of the American population, one-fifth of the economic growth. That economic growth and that fueling of our G.D.P., doesn't just go to Republicans or doesn't just go to Democrats. It benefits this country as a whole.

And so in my negotiations over the past few months, with people like Roger Wicker and others, on the Senate side, we're seeing some movement in the idea that we must invest in this precious asset that creates so many jobs, so much economic dynamism. And so it's a political fight, yes. But in fact, those folks who are fiscally conservative, where in the world, in fact, any Wall Street investor, for every dollar you invest in things like the Northeast Corridor passenger rail, you get about $2 back in economic growth and activity.

Any investor will take that. And if we are stewards of American dollars, and caretakers of this great infrastructure we've inherited from our grandparents, we don't want to pass it on to our children with an infrastructure debt. We want to make those investments and reap those dividends.

CHUCK TODD:

Hey, before I let you go, when you were running for the Senate in 2013, you said this. You know how to be a disruptive force in Washington. You said, "In Washington, on day one, if the leadership's already told me, 'I'll be able to have an impact that a freshman senator usually won't have.'"

A year later, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post asked this question. "What is Booker afraid of? This paradox has puzzled many since he arrived in the capital last year after a special election. How could he use his star power to do most anything, yet he is acting like a conventional pol." Are you being too conventional?

SENATOR BOOKER:

Well, look. I'm not paying attention to one columnist or critic. The reality is, in the short time I've been in the Senate, I've been able to join together, in fact, the majority of my legislation has been in the bipartisan manner, working on issues that may not be popular, may not capture the attention of some columnists.

But let's look at one of the biggest issues of injustice facing our nation, which is this over-incarceration problem we have. Five percent of the globe's population, 25% almost of the globe's prison population, and now working with everybody from Rand Paul to Ted Cruz to Mike Lee, we've started forming a bipartisan movement in this country to correct a grievous injustice.

I'm going to continue working on both sides of the aisle on pragmatic issues that frankly fiscal conservatives can join with me from infrastructure investment to criminal justice reform to try to push our country forward because we're being devastated, in my opinion, by too much partisan talk and a failure to come together and solve problems.

CHUCK TODD:

Easier though to be disruptive as a mayor than as a senator? Are you finding that out?

SENATOR BOOKER:

You know, I disagree. I think that in both areas, there's different types of work that are necessary. In Washington, while I'm not going to be necessarily doing the same kind of work, it's a different job, but in Washington, there is a huge space for which we can work together. Find commonalities and move things forward. That's the kind of disruption we need. And I'm happy to see people on both sides of the aisle more and more coming to that conclusion.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. An optimistic note there at the end, Senator Cory Booker, Democrat from New Jersey, thanks for coming on Meet the Press.

SENATOR BOOKER:

Thank you for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me bring in the panel, David Axelrod, Sara Fagen, Helene Cooper, and Tom Friedman. All right, I want to go to ISIS first and then we'll go to infrastructure. You wrote the lead story for The New York Times this morning. First of all, how confident are you in the government storyline here?

HELENE COOPER:

I think there's certainly a lot that we don't know. The initial reporting in all these sorts of cases is always very incomplete. There's a lot that we don't know. For instance, one of the questions I was most fascinated by, because I was talking to military officials yesterday when they said that these guys were using human shields, women and children as human shields, and they had freed a Yazidi slave, was how did she differentiate herself from the women and children who they were using as human shields.

So I think that's something that we don't know yet, was she tied up, is that how they found out that she was a slave? Did she go running to them? There's so much yet that we haven't found out. But it's still, I think, a fairly significant operation because let's face it, a lot of wars are about the war of public opinion and propaganda.

And it looks good for the United States to be able to say that we sent in highly trained Delta Force commandos in there, they snatched one of these guys, they killed him, took his wife, the laptop that they seized could yield a lot of intelligence. And so from a public relations angle, I think this is not a bad deal.

CHUCK TODD:

Tom, do you think we could've done this without Assad's acquiescence of some sort?

TOM FRIEDMAN:

Oh yeah. I don't think that he has much control there up in Deir ez-Zor, yeah. That's the first thing I'd say. The second thing, I mean, I agree with you know, Helene, that obviously you take down a key financial guy like Abu Sayyaf, that's a good. You rattled them. We now have clearly penetrated them, that's going to--

CHUCK TODD:

We got intel.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

That's a big deal.

TOM FRIEDMAN:

That's going to require them to obviously deploy assets to protect that. But I'd say, Chuck, you know, having covered the Israeli-Palestinian thing for a long time, I can't tell you how many times I reported Israel killed the number-two man in Hamas. And I mean, the number two--

CHUCK TODD:

The number-two guys, you never want to be number two.

TOM FRIEDMAN:

That's right, you never want, and then there's always another number two. The fact is, the only way to defeat ISIS is on the ground, door to door, by getting other Sunnis to do that. And the fact that in the same week, ISIS actually took a major urban area, we're talking about Ramadi, this is not a small town, tells you what's going on on the ground. And that's where this war will be decided.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. Let me now switch gears, infrastructure funding. David, do you believe your party should be trying to take political advantage--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID AXELROD:

No. Look, I think one of the things, I agree with Cory Booker that the lack of investment in infrastructure generally has been scandalous, particularly in an era of very low interest rates. The fact that we haven't taken advantage of that is really scandalous. But I also think Americans get very, very fed up when they see, I mean, before the bodies are even removed from the crash, people are rushing to try and blame each other for it. And they're looking for our folks to find out what happened and address it. And so no, I don't think it was the right thing to do to leap in and politicize the thing.

CHUCK TODD:

But at the same time, Republicans are probably now going to have to be a little more open to Amtrak funding.

SARA FAGEN:

Well, perhaps. But I do, the Democrats have been shameful this week on this. If Amtrak was a corporation, you would fire the CEO and replace the board. The reality is it loses money every year. And the reason it loses money is because it fails to prioritize. There are needs in the Northeast. You could argue along with West Coast. But much of Amtrak, you know, is spread out throughout the country, and there's nobody riding it.

CHUCK TODD:

Right. And Tom, if I'm talking infrastructure, it'd be weird not to ask you a question. You spent a lot of time on this issue. Should Amtrak even be a for-profit? Should it try to be run as a for-profit enterprise, or should it be the way every other public transportation system in this country is run, which is with a government subsidy?

TOM FRIEDMAN:

Well, I'm all for government subsidy, as long as the money is being spent efficiently. You know, China, Chuck, moves 2.5 million people a day on high-speed rail. And everyone who travels in and out of this country knows that when you fly from Hong Kong to LAX, it's like flying from The Jetsons to The Flintstones. And anyone who's gone into New York City, Penn Station, and taken the elevator there up from the track, it's like it was invented before suitcases, okay? It can fit, like, one narrow body. Our infrastructure--

CHUCK TODD:

They do close the second elevator door--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

Right? You know, it does have the old, like, 19--

TOM FRIEDMAN:

It's a travesty. And we should be discussing it without this kind of tragedy. It should be a top priority.

CHUCK TODD:

All right. I will pause there. Thank you all. You'll be back. We've got a lot more to discuss, including more on Iraq, but in political terms. Coming up, my interview with Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul. But first, and we'll ask Rand Paul about this, why did Jeb Bush need five takes to answer the question he had to know was going to but coming? If you knew then, what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq?

JEB BUSH (ON TAPE):

Yeah, I don't know what that decision would've been. That's a hypothetical.

* * *Commercial Break* * *

CHUCK TODD:

As you know, a Saturday doesn't go by without Republican hopefuls gathering somewhere. Yesterday, they gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, at the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner. Eleven Republican hopefuls were there. And once again, the candidates focused on foreign policy, not social issues. Here's a sampling.

(BEGIN TAPE)

LINDSEY GRAHAM:

If I'm president of the United States, and you're thinking about joining Al Qaeda, or ISIL, anybody thinking about that? I'm not going to call a judge, I'm going to call a drone and we will kill you.

SCOTT WALKER:

Well, I've got news for you, Mr. President. Once and for all, we need a commander in chief who calls it what it is. And that is radical, Islamic terrorism is a threat to us all.

JEB BUSH:

Many of you all know me as George and Barbara's boy, for which I'm proud. Some of you may know that W's my brother. I'm proud of that too. Whether people don't like that or not, they're just going to have to get used to it.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Jeb Bush acknowledging his rough week there. Perhaps he had the most on the line. And he's still trying to untangle his many answers on Iraq. We'll have that story coming up next.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

Welcome back. It's possible that months from now, after Jeb Bush officially announces his candidacy, after he lets us know that he's outraised every competitor, and has perhaps been leading in the polls, we'll look back at this dreadful week for him and say, "Remember when we thought that was relevant?"

But for now, it is relevant. And he's answering a lot of questions about his inability to answer a very simple one. Were we right to invade Iraq? Arriving in Iowa for his second visit this year, Jeb Bush was still trying to put a grueling week behind him.

(BEGIN TAPE)

JEB BUSH:

We're all going to make mistakes. If you're looking for a perfect candidate, he probably existed 2,000 years ago.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

But hoping to launch to a campaign focused on the future, Jeb Bush has been stuck reminding voters that he's a throwback to the past, bundling what can only be called an obvious question over four painful days. Monday, answer number one.

MEGYN KELLY:

On the subject of Iraq, obviously very controversial, knowing what we know now, would you have authorized the invasion?

JEB BUSH:

I would have. And so would've Hillary Clinton, just to remind everybody. And so would've almost anybody that was confronted with the intelligence they got.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

After universal criticism, Bush went on conservative radio to do cleanup, saying he'd misinterpreted Kelly's question. So Tuesday, came answer number two.

SEAN HANNITY:

In 20-20 hindsight, you would make a different decision?

JEB BUSH:

Yeah, I don't know what that decision would've been, that's a hypothetical.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

But that didn't work. And as the week went on, the answers just kept on coming.

JEB BUSH:

Going back in time and talking about hypothetical, what would've happened, what could've happened. Of course, you know, given the power of looking back, and having that, of course anybody would've made different decisions. There's no denying that.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Finally, the full retraction. Thursday, with answer number five.

JEB BUSH:

If we're all supposed to answer hypothetical questions knowing what we know now, what would you have done, I would have not engaged, I would not have gone into Iraq.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

Bush has been slammed by conservatives.

LAURA INGRAHAM:

You can't still think that going into Iraq now as a sane human being was the right thing to do.

CHUCK TODD:

Lampooned by late night.

SETH MEYERS:

When people ask about Iraq, just be honest and say it's weird to talk about it because George is your bro.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

And enthusiastically corrected by potential 2016 rivals, suddenly eager themselves to repudiate the war.

TED CRUZ:

There's no way we would've gone to war with Iraq.

CHRIS CHRISTIE:

If we knew then what we know now, and I was the president of the United States, I wouldn't have gone to war.

RICK SANTORUM:

His brother even said in his own book that he would've done something differently. I don't know how that was a hard question.

CHUCK TODD (V/O):

All of these Republicans, eager to remind voters of Jeb's last name, and force him to lug around George W. Bush's unpopular Iraq baggage.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

Let's bring back the panel. Sara Fagen, I'm going to make you have to handle this first.

SARA FAGEN:

Sure.

CHUCK TODD:

One of the impressions I got from this is that Jeb Bush was not prepped for this question somehow, and didn't think about it. And that there wasn't a conversation with the senior advisors, "All right, how are you going to answer that question?"

SARA FAGEN:

Yeah, I don't think that's the case at all. I think if you look at his answer, his final answer, all you have, he says exactly why this was a difficult question for him to answer. Which is that, you know, when you're a commander in chief of the Air National Guard in your state, which he was at the height of the Iraq War, and made many, many phone calls to families of the fallen, it's hard to now come back and say, "Eh, you know, we should've done something differently." Interestingly enough, Mike Huckabee also, in that position, governor during that time, had a similar answer. These other folks didn't deal with that.

CHUCK TODD:

And so I get that. There is a difference. You know, David, you must be having a little P.T.S.D. going back to '07 and '08 because watching Jeb Bush deal with this, to me, made me think of watching Hillary Clinton deal with her vote on Iraq when she refused to repudiate it. Here's a little montage of that.

BEGIN TAPE:

MEREDITH VIEIRA:

You refused to say it was a mistake. Why?

HILLARY CLINTON:

Well, you know, obviously it was wrong to believe this president.

Using coercive diplomacy was not an unreasonable act.

This was not a vote for preemptive war.

It is absolutely unfair to say that the vote, as Chuck Hagel, who was one of the architects of the resolution, has said was a vote for war.

It was a sincere vote based on my assessment at the time and what I believed he would do with the authority he was given.

(END TAPE)

CHUCK TODD:

All of that in 2008, David Axelrod. By 2014, six years later, in her book Hard Choices, she finally said this: "I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had, and I wasn't alone in getting it wrong, but I still got it wrong. Plain and simple." What can Jeb Bush learn from Hillary Clinton's mistake in not repudiating?

DAVID AXELROD:

Well, the thing I find bewildering is this was the most obvious question you could anticipate. So I appreciate what you're saying, Sara. But he certainly had a lot of time to think about what he wanted to say. He whiffed four times on a question he should've anticipated. Now look, as you pointed out, we're eight months before anybody votes, we're 18 months before the general election.

CHUCK TODD:

John McCain's candidacy is dead at this point, right?

DAVID AXELROD:

Yeah. We shouldn't do what we always do in this town and make every day election day. On the other hand, I think there's an important question that pushes this forward, which is not what you would've done, but what have you learned? And the fact that he has Paul Wolfowitz and some of the cheerleaders and architects of that policy on his advisory committee on foreign policy should give people some pause. And that's something that he should address.

CHUCK TODD:

Oh, go ahead Sara.

SARA FAGEN:

This election is not going to be decided on Iraq retrospectively. It's going to be decided on the world in which these candidates would take over as president. Which is Syria that is a mess, ISIS on the rise, and Iran getting a nuclear weapon.

CHUCK TODD:

But hypotheticals matter. I think it does tell you something about judgment.

HELENE COOPER:

Not to mention though that all of those three things that you just mentioned are, you can argue a direct result of the war in Iraq.

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, that is what makes a war.

(OVERTALK)

SARA FAGEN:

You can also argue that they're direct results of President Obama prematurely pulling out of Iraq as well.

CHUCK TODD:

Tom, there's been some debate here. What is the right question to be asking about Iraq? You know, the one hypothetical is this, and that's fine. But you have some other ideas.

TOM FRIEDMAN:

Well, and obviously going forward, look, we decapitated Iraq to a disastrous effect. We decapitated Libya, also to disastrous effect. The Syrian people decapitated their own government to disastrous effect, and the Yemeni people decapitated their government to disastrous effect. We have a pluralistic region here that lacks pluralism, that has been governed by top-down authority.

I think the problem for the next president is going to be the fact that we are in post-imperial era, no one wants to go into control of this. We're in a post-colonial era, no one wants to go into control of this. And we're increasingly in a post-authoritarian era. And unless these people can learn how to govern themselves horizontally, by forging social contracts for how to live together, this region is going to be a human development disaster area for the next president.

CHUCK TODD:

So, but what is the right question for the next president to figure that out? I mean--

TOM FRIEDMAN:

Basically, I mean, you heard Lindsey Graham say, "Well, I'm going to drone them." You know, I mean, well, good luck with that, you know? Frankly, I think we are at the cusp of an incredibly new problem. Post-imperial, post-colonial, post-authoritarian. And I haven't heard anybody who's got an answer for that one.

CHUCK TODD:

Can't buy diplomacy anymore.

HELEN COOPER:

Well, the--

DAVID AXELROD:

Look, I think that the thing we should be thinking about, about Iraq, is why didn't people ask the question, "What next?" If you remove Saddam, Barack Obama said before that war, "We're going to release sectarian strife, make America a fulcrum of extremism." You have to think beyond the next step. And ask, "What lessons have we learned?"

CHUCK TODD:

Well, and with Libya, I'm going to pause it there, because this question's coming up again, I promise you, in my interview with Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Trust me. He's not only got thoughts on Jeb Bush, but on Libya, and on Iraq, and on this question. But first, I want to tell you a surprising statistic this week. The fastest growing religious affiliation in this country is no religious affiliation at all. Why that should make one political party very nervous.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

NerdScreen time. And this week, it's about church and politics. Hard to separate them these days. And the rapid rise and increase in the number of Americans who say they aren't religious at all. And in fact, the big political headline is this could be good news for Democrats. Let me show you. The Pew Research Center reported that the number of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion rose almost seven points from 2007 to 2014, essentially in the age of Obama.

These are self-described atheist agnostics, and those who have no firm affiliation at all, the religious "nones" as Pew is calling them. And they now make up almost a quarter of the population. By the way, that's about equal to the catholic population in this country.

At the same time, the number of Americans who identify with major religions, Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, et cetera, other protestant groups, they have declined. The religious "none" category is now ranked second in religious self-identification, after evangelicals. Seven years ago, they ranked at the very bottom of this list.

So why is this good news for Democrats? Well, the religious "nones" tend to be young, and ideologically liberal. The median age for those affiliated with religion is rising, getting older, it's now about 50. The unaffiliated, this young age, 36 and dropping. And guess what? In 2012, the religious "nones" voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. Another long-term demographic change that's favoring the Democrats. The country gets less religious, bad news for the Republicans.

We've talked about the increasing number of non-whites, a demographic shift that is helping Democrats. Well, here is another one. These religious "nones." Coming up, my interview with Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul. See you in a minute.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

And welcome back. Moments ago, we talked about Jeb Bush's challenging week. Joining me now is one of his chief rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who, by the way, has a brand-new book coming out, Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America. It'll be released in just over a week. We got an exclusive, first look at it. And we'll be talking with the senator about it. Welcome back to Meet the Press, Senator Paul.

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

Thanks, Chuck. Thanks for having me.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me start with-- the issue that got brought up by governor-- essentially by some-- with Governor Bush this week, and it's the war in Iraq. Are you satisfied after Governor Bush's sort of fourth answer on this, saying that he wouldn't have gone into the war in Iraq, knowing what we know now? Are you satisfied now that Governor Bush won't be taking us back to the Bush foreign policy? You had said that that was an important litmus test for him.

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

Well, I think it's an important question and I don't think it's a historical anec-- anecdote. I don't think it's-- something that's a hypothetical question. I think it's a recurring question in the Middle East. Is it a good idea to topple secular dictators? And what happens when we do?

I think when Hussein was toppled, we got chaos. We still have chaos in-- in Iraq. I think it emboldened Iran. I think-- we now have the rise of radical Islam in Iraq as well. But I think the same question, to be fair, ought to be asked of Hillary Clinton, if she ever takes questions.

They should ask her, "Was it a good idea to invade Libya? Did that make us less safe? Did it make it more chaotic? Did it allow radical Islam and I.S.I.S. to grow stronger?" So I think the war in Iraq is a good question and still a current question, but so is the question of, "Should we have gone into Libya?"

CHUCK TODD:

You know-- Senator Marco Rubio, in being asked this same question about Iraq, gave this answer. He said, "Presidents don't have the benefit of hindsight. And the fact of the matter is, the world is a better place 'cause Saddam Hussein is not around." You're sort of implying that you disagree with that. Do you believe the world would be a better place if Saddam Hussein were still the strongman in Iraq?

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

I don't think that's exactly how I put it. But I would say that I think that we are more at risk for attack from people who are training, organizing, and fighting in Iraq than we were before. So, for example, I.S.I.S. is-- more of an aberration than even Hussein was. So you have this radical brand of jihad, this radical brand of Islam, that is now strong and growing stronger because of sort of the failed state that Iraq is.

You have the same thing going on in Libya. So this is a valid debate and we're gonna have to have this debate, not only in the Republican primary but in the general, as to whether or not it's a good idea. Is intervention always a good idea? Or sometimes does it lead to unintended consequences?

CHUCK TODD:

You know, you laid out in your book very clearly, your foreign policy; basically a peace-through-strength foreign policy. Essentially saying, you know what, intervention, and-- and making a strong case against intervention; that intervention over the years has only served to create more problems than it was designed to stop.

But, I guess, let me ask you this. If-- would you consider going after a country that was trying to put together a nuclear weapons program? Right? That was the reason to go in, in Iraq, as far as George W. Bush was concerned. And that is a reason some people say we might have to have the-- that military option on the table with Iran. Is that a viable reason to go to war? To prevent another country from starting a nuclear weapons program?

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

I think that we always have to have the threat of military force behind diplomacy. But I would prefer diplomacy. I think we can still have negotiations. And the thing is-- is that we negotiated with the Soviets for 70 years and we ended up coming to a peaceful outcome. I think, with Iran, we need to be steady and firm that they cannot have a nuclear weapons program. There has to be the threat of military force. But my hope is really that negotiations continue. There are some in my party who say, "Oh, I don't want any negotiations." They're ready to be done with it.

CHUCK TODD:

Right.

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

But once you're done with negotiations, the choices are war, or they get a weapon, and I don't wanna have just those two binary choices.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, you also imply in your book-- I thought it was a fascinating quote. And you were connecting Libya and Iran. And you say this: "The problem is, we've already sent the wrong message. The last time a leader gave up his desire for weapons of mass destruction, we bombed his country and took him out."

You're referring to Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear ambitions. And then, two years later, in a different administration, the Obama Administration, they ended up taking him out. You're implying that the Iranians shouldn't trust the United States in these negotiations, are you not?

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

I think it's more a criticism of Hillary Clinton because I think she should've thought through the repercussions of the invasion and toppling of Gaddafi. Because Hillary Clinton made the decision to do this, with President's Obama assent, what you end up having is-- is that now it does send a signal to Iran and it makes them question whether or not we will honestly be a good broker or a good negotiator with-- eliminating of nuclear weapons. Because Gaddafi did give up his nuclear ambition and was toppled anyway. So it's an-- it's an argument for not doing what we did in Libya.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me move to the Patriot Act. We have reauthorizations coming up before June 1st. It's unclear whether it's gonna get reauthorized at all before you guys go on your Memorial Day recess. Senator McConnell's talking about a two-month extension. I know you want to filibuster any Patriot Act extension. Would you even support a two-month extension?

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

Well, the court has ruled that the bulk collection of all of our phone records, all of the time, is illegal. So, really, it oughta stop. If the president's obeying the law, he should stop it immediately and we shouldn't be doing this. I don't want to replace it with another system.

I really think that we could get along with the Constitution just fine. We did for over 200 years. You can catch terrorists. Judges will grant warrants. In fact, if you look at the history of our country, judges are actually very much-- it's not a difficult lift to get a warrant for most activities that you want to be investigated.

But the warrant should have someone's name on it. Shouldn't say, "Verizon," and then we shouldn't collect all of the customers of Verizon. That's a general warrant and that's one of the things we fought the Revolutionary War over-- is that we wanted individualized warrants.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, you're so critical of the N.S.A. in your book. I have to ask, would you eliminate it if you were president?

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

No, I would actually-- keep the N.S.A. In fact, I would have the N.S.A. target their activities, more and more, towards our enemies. I think if you're not spending so much time and money collecting the information of innocent Americans, maybe we could've spent more time knowing that one of the Tsarnaev boys, one of the Boston bombers, had gone back to Chechnya.

We didn't know that, even though we'd been tipped off by the Russians. We had communicated, we had interviewed him, and still didn't know that. Same with the recent-- jihadist from Phoenix that traveled to Texas, and the shooting in Garland; we knew him. We had investigated him. We had put him in jail. I wanna spend more time on people we have suspicion of, and we have probable cause of, and less time on innocent Americans. It distracts us from the job of getting terrorists.

CHUCK TODD:

All right, let me go with one last question here. And it goes-- it's an idea that's in your book; perhaps the most intriguing idea I-- found, reading your book. And that is-- is-- if you-- you say if you find the best teachers on a subject, perhaps in the country, that the idea is we shouldn't have smaller classrooms. We should have a classroom perhaps of a million students, meaning the best calculus teacher oughta teach calculus to anybody who wants to learn calculus in America, and the-- the-- the teacher on the ground implements the curriculum. It's an intriguing idea. But two pages later, you say there shouldn't be a national curriculum. How is that not in contradiction with being against common core but for, like, nationalized teaching like what you described?

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

What I'm talking about is something truly extraordinary. One of the big leaps forward for America was when we started becoming a meritocracy and everybody was open for education. There are still some people in America, but particularly in other countries, that are trapped in poverty and don't have access.

When the internet expands this access and someone in the-- the recesses of the jungle can learn from the-- the best calculus teacher on the planet, we're going to discover genius that's going to allow progress and mankind to improve at-- at-- and I think it's gonna be a huge leap for technological progress.

But it's by having larger classrooms. It's counterintuitive; not smaller. And it will be virtual classrooms and it will be extraordinarily cheap. But I'm not saying this comes from government. I think this comes, really, more l-- more than likely, from the innovators that you meet in Silicon Valley or the innovators you meet in Austin, Texas. I think that's where it's going to come from; not from government.

CHUCK TODD:

But it's not gonna be local control?

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

Well, I'm not advocating against-- something that is-- transmitted even worldwide or international. I'm not arguing against any kind of-- national communication, or even national testing. I took national tests when I was a kid. What I'm arguing is against centralized control in the body of one government.

I'm arguing for something where someone in Madagascar, who's a genius, who's in the street, living in poverty, and we never discover that genius, is gonna be connected to someone at Harvard or M.I.T. or Baylor or some great university. And they're, all of the sudden, going to-- have that knowledge awaken something in their mind that we haven't seen before. That's the real beauty of the internet. We aren't quite there yet.

But people have misconstrued that intelligence is gonna come from smartphones. It's gonna come from connecting intelligent people to intelligent people, and great teachers to the masses. But I think there's extraordinary possibility for progress.

CHUCK TODD:

Senator Paul, I gotta leave it there. A lot more in your book, including your tax plan; some other things in there. Hopefully, I'll get you on again and we'll go through that as well. Stay safe on the trail, sir.

SENATOR RAND PAUL:

Thank you, Chuck.

CHUCK TODD:

Coming up in our End Game segment, the Clinton who's doing the most talking to the media. Here's a hint, it's not Hillary.

***Commercial Break***

CHUCK TODD:

End Game time, and the panel is here. And I'm starting off, you just got a hint of the graphic there. I'm starting off with a retort that is becoming familiar with Republicans, David Axelrod, which is this. When is Hillary Clinton going to answer questions from the media? Well, we did our own little math here.

And what's been amazing, since Hillary Clinton became an official candidate for president, there has been a Clinton that has taken quite a few media questions on camera. Bill Clinton has taken 39 questions on camera. That includes Letterman, Cynthia McFadden, and our colleague, also a CNN interview. Hillary Clinton has done nine. NPR puts it up to 13 because of a question--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID AXELROD:

Part of that reason, part of that is because a lot of questions were about the Clinton Foundation, and they made a decision to let him handle those. But look, I think she has to get out there. She has to answer questions, and she has to do it routinely, so it's not a major news event when she takes a few questions from the news media.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, it makes the press conference thing relevant.

DAVID AXELROD:

She has to do it quickly and she has to start getting into the rhythm of a campaign where she's out there, she's answering questions, she's making speeches, and she's not, you know, it would be a terrible mistake to not do that.

CHUCK TODD:

But it does make Bill Clinton right now the face of the Clinton campaign.

SARA FAGEN:

Oh.

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, in an odd way. I mean, I don't think that was necessary.

SARA FAGEN:

And he's puzzling.

CHUCK TODD:

And right, he hasn't been helpful.

SARA FAGEN:

He's not been helpful at all. I mean, he said this notion, you know, that she's inauthentic.

(OVERTALK)

DAVID AXELROD:

I'm sorry, Sara, go ahead.

SARA FAGEN:

No, I mean, you talk about the fact that, you know, "Oh, we have to pay our bills." You know, "We have a different standard, it's unfair." And, you know, you guys watched into the White House on change you can believe in, because you knew that she was viewed as dishonest--

DAVID AXELROD:

Well, we learned in 2008--

SARA FAGEN:

And it's the same problem she has today.

DAVID AXELROD:

We learned in 2008 that Bill Clinton, who's a brilliant politician, is not necessarily a brilliant politician when his wife is involved in the campaign, and maybe it's better to keep him in the background.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, we also got the financial disclosure. Tom Friedman, do you think this matters? Over the last year, it's a stunning number. 104 speeches that the two Clintons have gave over 16 months, they made over $25 million for these speeches. It seems as if, was that met, you know, do you have to do all of that? It's all paid speak. And here she wants to talk about income inequality. Do you think that's going to lead to sort of a tone-deafness?

TOM FRIEDMAN:

You know, I don't know Chuck. Money in politics now is big as all outdoors. I don't know how long that lasts. But I would tell you this, I'll go back to what David and Sara said. It's going to last a long time if she doesn't come out there and talk about a real vision that she has for the country and why she is running for president. I've only covered one campaign, it was Bill Clinton's. And I knew why he was running.

CHUCK TODD:

From the beginning.

TOM FRIEDMAN:

From the beginning. He was a conservative Democratic. He had a take on the world and everything was connected to that. And I think what hobbled Hillary last time is what I see hobbling her again, which is what is your take on the world? What do you really believe? And how is this connected to that? And until she fills that void, money, everything else is going to jump in there.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, Helene, I know you're a national security reporter, you're not a political reporter. So you covered her as a national security leader. But do you feel like you got a sense of what her vision is for the world?

HELENE COOPER:

I don't think I have as good a sense as I could have. And I'm really perplexed, because she's been through this before. And the weird thing for me is that I see her making a lot of the same mistakes as she did in 2008. And I find that a little perplexing.

We've seen a lot of, you know, Hillary Clinton on the defensive. We haven't seen her on the front foot going forward. And I'm very perplexed as to why we have not seen that. I do agree that she should be coming out a whole lot more, and particular so that it's not as big a new event.

SARA FAGEN:

She's been at it.

TOM FRIEDMAN:

The hypothetical for her, Chuck, is that if you were secretary of State and negotiated the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, and the Iran nuclear deal, would you support the Trans-Pacific trade deal and the nuclear deal? I mean, and she's--

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

And if it does seem as though--

(OVERTALK)

HELENE COOPER:

She's just been so tentative on that.

SARA FAGEN:

And that's, like, it's, Rand Paul had the right question. Knowing what we know now, would you have gone into Libya?

CHUCK TODD:

No, it's another--

DAVID AXELROD:

And thank you, the old baseball manager had the right adage, which is no-risk baseball is second-division baseball.

CHUCK TODD:

Well, and let me tell you about risk. And this is a guy, that he's taking risk after he runs for president. And that was Mitt Romney. I think any 68-year-old man who takes his shirt off in public, is running a risk.

SARA FAGEN:

Amen.

CHUCK TODD:

And look at Mitt Romney here, boxing Evander Holyfield on Friday night.

SARA FAGEN:

And look at him.

CHUCK TODD:

And by the way, way till you see this. Hey, you know what? We should all--

HELENE COOPER:

I think--been enhanced

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

You do?

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

You know, look, Evander's a professional athlete, but look at Mitt Romney. He's 68 years old, not 48, not 58, David Axelrod.

DAVID AXELROD:

No, I know.

CHUCK TODD:

Will you take your shirt off and box--

(OVERTALK)

DAVID AXELROD:

Fighting Holyfield is scary, but appearing in public without your shirt at our age, that's frightening.

CHUCK TODD:

You know, kudos to him. What do, you know?

HELENE COOPER:

I think he looks great. I think he's sucking his gut in, but I think he looks great.

CHUCK TODD:

You know what? If I were doing it, I would've done it too.

(OVERTALK)

CHUCK TODD:

God bless him.

DAVID AXELROD:

What a tough audience.

SARA FAGEN:

He's had one of the best post-elections of any candidate who failed.

CHUCK TODD:

It's always amazing.

SARA FAGEN:

He's done really well.

CHUCK TODD:

Always good in hindsight. That's all for today. We'll be back in two weeks. So enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. Because if it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

***END OF TRANSCRIPT***