Will Trump take the opening to de-escalate tensions with Iran?

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: A man walks by a huge screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tokyo
A man walks by a huge screen showing U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tokyo, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.Koji Sasahara / AP

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — Iran has given President Trump an exit ramp from the past week of hostilities.

The question is whether the president of the United States will take it when he delivers his statement later this morning.

“Iran retaliated for the killing of a top general by firing more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi air bases housing U.S. forces on Wednesday local time,” per NBC’s Courtney Kube and Doha Madani.

Notably, there were no reported U.S. casualties. And the message from Iran was it wanted to de-escalate — if the United States follows.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, tweeted in English after the strikes last night.

And Trump appeared to reciprocate just minutes later.

“All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning,” Trump tweeted.

The wild card here is that, if Trump does take the exit ramp, the conversation returns to the president’s impeachment.

Tweet of the day

2020 Vision: Highlights of Lester Holt’s interview with Biden

On Tuesday — before Iran’s missile strikes at two military bases in Iraq — NBC’s Lester Holt interviewed Joe Biden. Here are some of the highlights:

On whether he gives Trump the benefit of the doubt on whether the targeting of Iran's general was based on intelligence of an imminent attack: “I don't give him the benefit of the doubt because he's lied so much about virtually everything.”

On Bernie Sanders' criticism that Biden won't energize Democratic voters: “Bernie, I'll see you at the caucus. I'll see you in New Hampshire, I'll see you in the primaries, I mean, let the voters decide that, whether there's enough energy and I -- all I know is out on the stump, things are feeling really good, there's a whole lot of energy.”

On his son Hunter Biden's work for a Ukraine energy company: “[Trump] is going to make up lies about whomever the nominee is. Imagine what he'll say about- I won't even mention other candidates. I have- only thing I've noticed is the more he's attacked me, the more I have gone up in the polls... Why won't you release any of your tax returns? Stop talking about the corruption, Mr. President, unless you release your tax returns. Hush up. Step up.”

On the campaign trail today

Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney and Deval Patrick are all in New Hampshire… Pete Buttigieg raises money in Colorado… And Michael Bloomberg is in Chicago and Minnesota.

Dispatches from NBC’s campaign embeds

After Iran’s missile strike, NBC’s Julia Jester reports that Tulsi Gabbard, a veteran who served in Iraq, got fiery and emotional during a gaggle with reporters: “Gabbard got heated when asked about her experience as a soldier seeing the price of war firsthand, saying seeing alerts of the attack ‘brought back a flood of memories from the time I served,’ adding she got a flood of text messages from friends who she deployed with saying, “what the f*** is going on?’ She also teared up when talking about the sacrifice of military families, saying of those ‘speaking with bluster’ that ‘the vast majority have no idea what it means to serve in harm’s way nor do they understand’ what families are going through. ‘This is how special and rare this sacrifice is, it is so critical that we have leaders in Congress and a commander that understands this’ and honors that sacrifice, and ‘not throw it around like it’s worthless.’ Gabbard said.”

Talking policy with Benjy

Julian Castro endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren shortly after ending his own presidential campaign last week. But arguably his biggest contribution to the race on policy could also follow Warren, for better or worse: His call to decriminalize border crossings and make them a civil offense, NBC’s Benjy Sarlin notes.

More from Benjy: Democrats mostly agree on the basics on immigration, but Castro pushed the envelope in April by releasing a plan to repeal a piece of immigration law, Section 1325, that allowed the government to prosecute migrants. The relevant statute was from the 1920s, but rarely employed until the Bush and Obama administrations used prosecutions more frequently as a deterrent, drawing criticism from immigrant rights groups. These concerns hit overdrive when President Trump’s administration began prosecuting parents crossing with children, leading to family separations.

But Castro’s specific solution went largely under the radar, even in immigration policy circles, until the first Democratic debate last June, where he attacked fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke for opposing it (O’Rourke, ironically, was falsely accused by Senator Ted Cruz of holding the same position as Castro in 2018). Several candidates, including Warren, adopted Castro’s position and arguments flared again at the next debate in July.

Greisa Martinez Rosas, an activist with United We Dream, said Castro’s proposal "shaped the debate in a huge way.” Her group backed a similar plan on the eve of the June debate along with progressive groups like Indivisible, who saw it as a way to inspire activists and move the goalposts on immigration further left.

But Republicans also seized on the plan — it even made it into a GOP ad in last year's governor’s race in Kentucky — and labeled it “open borders,” even as Castro sought to clarify border crossers could still be deported. That has some Democrats and activist nervous. While the conversation faded into the background again among Democrats, Marshall Fitz, managing director of immigration at the Emerson Collective, said early signs suggest Trump would “go for broke” resurfacing it in a general election.

“This is what happens in primaries, obviously,” Fitz said. “Especially where there’s broad agreement, you end up talking about the marginal case and that becomes the focal point. I thought that was unfortunate."

Data Download: The number of the day is … $209 million

That’s the combined TV and radio ad spending that the Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer campaigns have spent in the 2020 presidential race as of yesterday, per ad-spending data from Advertising Analytics.

Total TV and radio ad spending (as of Jan. 7)

  • Bloomberg: $142 million
  • Steyer: $67 million
  • Sanders: $10 million
  • Buttigieg: $10 million
  • Yang: $6.6 million
  • Trump: $5.7 million
  • Warren: $3.3 million
  • Biden: $2.6 million
  • Klobuchar: $2.5 million

The Lid: Second verse, same as the first

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at some similarities between how Sanders is talking about Joe Biden now and how he talked about Hillary Clinton in 2016.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Andrea Mitchell reports on how Mike Pompeo has made himself the most powerful Secretary of State in decades.

DNC chair Tom Perez says that the Democratic debate may be moved if it conflicts with the impeachment trial.

Trump is planning an Iowa rally days before the caucuses.

Joe Biden says that Trump has brought the United States “dangerously close” to war.

Along with everything else last night — A Ukrainian passenger plane crashed in Iran, with officials saying mechanical issues were the cause.

Trump Agenda: “Soon”

Nancy Pelosi may send the articles of impeachment to the Senate “soon.”

Mitch McConnell says he has the votes to start the impeachment trial, but that doesn’t mean the question of witnesses is settled yet.

We now know the identity of the American defense contractor killed in Iraq on December 27.

Even Trump’s allies are confused about the White House strategy in Iran, writes the New York Times.

2020: Inside Bloomberg’s unconventional campaign

Alex Seitz-Wald reports on what, exactly, Mike Bloomberg is planning with his unusual campaign strategy.

Bloomberg’s rivals aren’t happy with how he’s skipping the debates.

Republicans have cleared the primary field for Trump in Wisconsin.

A donor to Trump’s inaugural committee has been charged with obstructing a federal investigation.

Elizabeth Warren is using Julian Castro already on the campaign trail.