Transcript: Impeachment and War

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Impeachment and War.
Image: Iranians tear up a U.S. flag during a demonstration in Tehran on Jan. 3, 2020 following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. strike on his convoy at Baghdad international airport.
Iranians tear up a U.S. flag during a demonstration in Tehran on Jan. 3, 2020 following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Major General Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. strike on his convoy at Baghdad international airport.Atta Kenare / AFP - Getty Images

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Impeachment and War

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, January 6, and here's what's happening.

Stephanie Ruhle: (CHANTS) Congress returns to Washington today, and the situation in the Middle East is expected to take center stage.

President Trump: We do not seek war. We do not seek nation building, we do not seek regime change. But as president, I will never hesitate to defend the safety of the American people, you. (CHEERS)

Kornacki: Late last week, President Trump authorized a strike to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. After being consumed by impeachment proceedings for months, Washington now faces another major decision.

Ruhle: Speaker Pelosi announcing last night that the House will vote on a War Powers Resolution this week, taking its first step to limit exactly what actions the president can take when it comes to Iran.

Kornacki: There will be a new debate on Capitol Hill this week, about the president's authority to order such a strike. This is all unfolding as impeachment remains stalled. The House of Representative still hasn't sent over those two Articles of Impeachment to the Senate to allow a trial to begin. It's a new year and a new set of challenges for Congress.

Today on Article II, we're asking, how is Congress juggling these two responsibilities? The power to impeach, and the power to check the president when it comes to acts of war. Mark Murray is a senior political editor here at NBC. Mark, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Mark Murray: Hey Steve, thanks so much for having me.

Kornacki: So we have been talking about all of Washington sort of being transfixed by the impeachment drama the last few months, and now as we have this whole dispute over whether and how a Senate trial may play out, suddenly there comes this major foreign policy news.

The killing late last week of General Qassem Soleimani, one of the most powerful, one of the most well-known figures in Iran, the head of the Quds Forces there, also the head of a sort of informal but powerful terrorist network. That's how the United States has looked at him for years. He was killed in a drone attack late last week. Now there is talk from Congress, specifically the House of Representatives about a possible legislative response to this, Nancy Pelosi talking about introducing a War Powers Resolution. Take us through what Pelosi is talking about the House potentially doing here.

Murray: So what Pelosi is saying that it should be Congress and the House of Representatives, that if the Trump administration wants to take action against Iran, it actually has to declare a war, and Congress has a role there. And the legislation that she's considering, and Senator Tim Kaine has companion legislation in the United States Senate is that, if no further congressional action is taken, the administration's military hostilities to Iran need to cease within 30 days.

And so that is the legislation that she's taking. But, you know, it's really striking to me that Pelosi wants to take this action, as those Articles of Impeachment are dangling and still haven't been sent to the U.S. Senate.

Kornacki: There's a potentially major dispute here then, as you're sort of outlining between the legislative branch and the executive branch, when it comes to this. Because this administration, the Obama administration, the George W. Bush administration, three administrations going back basically two decades now could point to these two resolutions that Congress passed all the way back in 2001-2002.

One was just days after 9/11, sort of declared the global war on terrorism. The other in 2002, that set the stage for the war in Iraq. Those resolutions were adopted by Congress. They are still active. And an administration, in this case the Trump administration, and in previous years, Obama and Bush, can try to invoke them for sorts of things like this.

Murray: Yeah. And Steve, the shorthand here is that the executive branch, and that is the Trump administration, whatever president holds the administration, has really important authority and powers when it comes to exercising military action and on foreign policy.

And of course, even one other example during the Obama administration, when it came to potentially striking Syria after that chemical weapons attack, then President Barack Obama went to Congress and said, "Hey, I want you guys to authorize me taking action." And Congress wouldn't even step up to the plate. And so they've actually ceded a lotta territory here. And that is gonna make Nancy Pelosi's job very difficult to be able to pass this.

Kornacki: How much oxygen on Capitol Hill do you think this debate is going to take up in the days and weeks ahead?

Murray: A lot of it depends on if we continue to end up getting really big developments. The impeachment story has dominated Washington politics over the last 3-1/2 months. In fact, during the Trump presidency, I'd argue, I don't think that there's been a single event that has really dominated the headlines and the daily back and forth the way impeachment and the Ukraine have.

But this story, and now we've actually had a week-long event on this, has really taken a lot of the thunder from the impeachment story, and has almost relegated it to the back burner. And then even put the 2020 presidential campaign on the back, back, back burner. And I do think it really signals the potency of this escalation in the hostilities with Iran. But a lot of it depends on what ends up happening in the days and maybe weeks ahead.

Kornacki:I wonder too, the Democrats in the House, one of the impeachment charges was the obstruction of Congress. And you have obviously Democrats out there saying, "Hey, Trump needed to consult on this," some saying he needed authorization for this. And then you had the president actually going on Twitter over the weekend and saying, "Let this tweet serve as my notice to Congress that I have the right to do this."

In terms of Democrats, if not the formal impeachment case that they're making, but in terms of the argument behind their push for impeachment, sort of the political argument behind it, do these two things go together? Saying, "Hey, you know, we charged him with obstruction of Congress, and look how he's treating Congress here."

Murray: Yeah, for some Democrats it certainly does. Ro Khanna, the Democratic Congressman from California was just on today saying that, "This could be an impeachable offense."

Ro Khanna: He would be again, violating the constitution by disregarding Congress. And it's illegal. It's frankly another impeachable offense for him to continue an escalation without Congress's authorization.

Murray: And while I do think that that's an argument that many of the more progressive and other liberal-leaning Democratic members of Congress might be making, I'm not necessarily sure that you're gonna end up having the 229, 230 votes that we saw Democrats pass with their two Articles of Impeachment. Because a lot of the moderate Democratic members probably want to keep this as narrow as possible.

And of course, that was the strategy that Nancy Pelosi had from the outset. And so, while there might be Democrats like Ro Khanna who want to widen this, I do think that those kinds of Democrats who passed this, who were responsible for there being a majority probably won't go along with it.

Kornacki: It also seems too, Mark, that Republicans see an opportunity to connect this development with Iran to their political arguments when it comes to impeachment. And basically, to try to make the case that, "Hey, you know, while Congress is dealing with this dispute over Ukraine, there are much bigger fish to fry."

Murray: Yeah. The argument the Republicans are gonna make is, look, Trump is trying to go after terrorists like General Soleimani, and Democrats just want to impeach the president. You're hindering the president's ability to go after Iran, go after potential terrorists. Someone like Steve Scalise, the number two House Republican, made that very argument.

Steve Scalise: Yeah, I think it just goes to show you, there are some people in Washington right now that are so concerned about their own political agenda, their own political power, that they'll criticize a move that's good for America and good for freedom all around the world.

Murray: And you're gonna hear it from Republicans, do the same.

Kornacki: Mark, we're gonna take a quick break here, but we'll be right back. So Mark, one thing we've heard from a few Democrats I think over the weekend, and again into the early part of this week now we're hearing as well is, an attempt it seems to say, or at least to suggest, to hint around the idea that Trump made this decision with Iran because of, or in some relationship with impeachment.

That there was a connection there. He's being impeached, and maybe this is a distraction. Maybe this is an attempt by him to distract from that, to change the subject. Elizabeth Warren was on Meet The Press on Sunday. She seemed to be hinting around that.

Elizabeth Warren: I think the question reasonable ask is next week, Donald Trump faces the start potentially of an impeachment trial. And why now? I think people are starting to ask why now did he do this?

Kornacki: Is this something you can expect to be hearing from Democrats sort of on a concerted level here?

Murray: Yeah, it's the wag the dog theory, and we even heard this type of theory from then civilian Donald Trump on Twitter back in 2011-2012, where he ended up saying that, "Maybe an Iran attack would help Barack Obama's re-election chances."

Trump: Our president will start a war with Iran, because he has absolutely no ability to negotiate. He's weak, and he's ineffective, so the only way he figures that he's going to get reelected, and as sure as you're sitting there, is to start a war with Iran. Now, I'm more militant and more militaristic than the president. I believe in strength, but to start a war in order to get elected, and I believe that's going to happen, would be an outrage.

Murray: This is something that Donald Trump is even familiar with. But I've heard three different arguments, and actually all of them could end up being true. On the one hand, the administration says that there was an imminent threat, and that the Trump administration needed to take action against Iran.

Reason number two was, the president was furious about the protests that he saw from Iranian-backed groups protesting the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. (CHANTS) And then the third is that, it is the wag the dog. This is all about a distraction. And I think that you could actually make a plausible argument that all three things could be true at the same time.

Kornacki: You mention Wag The Dog. Of course, some folks might remember that movie came out just as the Lewinski-Clinton scandal was breaking. Got a lot of attention as having some potential parallels there. And then, as the House of Representatives in December 1998 was voting to impeach Bill Clinton, literally at the same time, Clinton launched Operation Desert Fox, those air strikes in Iraq.

Tom Brokaw: The impeachment debate postponed today because of the war will begin tomorrow morning. But as NBC's Claire Shipman tells us now, the president insists he's worried only about Iraq. Claire.

Claire Shipman: Tom, Republicans are now saying that even if the attacks go on, they're ready to start the impeachment debate tomorrow. But aides here insist that the president has been almost single-mindedly focused on Iraq, from that moment early yesterday morning when he told his military team, "We have no choice but to attack."

Kornacki: There were obviously some Republicans back then who were saying, "That was a wag the dog tactic that Clinton was using there." Of course, Clinton vehemently denied that. I'm curious though, are there political lessons about how those events, the impeachment, the international crisis, how those events were paired 20 years ago, are there political lessons we could see today from a similar situation?

Murray: Well, there's one similarity that makes me go, "Hmmm," a little bit. And that is that Mark Penn has been giving political advice to Donald Trump. It has been reported that Penn ended up meeting with Trump a few weeks ago, and of course, Mark Penn was one of Bill Clinton's top advisors for his reelection campaign, but also even afterwards on impeachment.

And one of the arguments that you often end up hearing from people who advised Bill Clinton was, it was important to compartmentalize impeachment, to act like the president was doing other things, other than being consumed by impeachment. And of course, President Trump has really been consumed by impeachment. His Twitter feed tells us that. But this is a way, even if you didn't want a kind of a wag the dog theory is that, here is the president taking bold, decisive action, and not letting impeachment get in his way.

Kornacki: And again, there's the question hovering over all this when it comes to impeachment is when? I say when, when or if Nancy Pelosi and Democrats are gonna send those formal Articles of Impeachment that the House passed over to the Senate. Those were passed before Christmas, and they've sort of been sitting there. What is your sense of the timing on that, and how Democrats are feeling about it right now?

Murray: It's still to be determined, and the clock is ticking. I think there was a sense that the House of Representatives and Congress had to get back from its holiday break before they ended up deciding what to do with those Articles of Impeachment.

But again, the fact that you end up having Nancy Pelosi considering war powers legislation instead of moving these Articles of Impeachment to the United States Senate as its first act does a little bit minimize the urgency from Democrats saying, "Hey, this is a really big deal." If this is a big deal on impeaching the President of the United States, if the president took this historic action that mandated him being impeached by the House, that he was interfering in a United States election, if they aren't sending this right away to the Senate, that Republicans are allowed to say, "See, this wasn't that big of a deal after all." That there is no urgency coming from Nancy Pelosi.

But on the other hand, you're gonna end up hearing Democrats saying that, maybe we ended up extracting a victory from this type of delay. John Bolton, who was President Trump's national security advisor, just put out a statement on Monday morning, ended up saying that he would end up testifying in a Senate trial if he is subpoenaed to do so. Democrats have ended up saying that, had Nancy Pelosi not kinda held that leverage, maybe you wouldn't end up seeing a statement like that from John Bolton.

Kornacki: Yeah. I'm curious about the Bolton thing, 'cause I'm hearing different theories about this. Obviously, this surprised a lot of people that he came out and said this. One version of it, one theory that's out there is, he's doing this for show, kind of knowing, kind of expecting that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate are not gonna subpoena him.

So he gets credit in the court of public opinion, at least from some quarters, for saying he'd be willing to do this, without ever actually having to do it. And there are others saying, you know, this is potentially something that could scramble the political calculations on this. Do you have a sense of that?

Murray: Yeah. Steve, I think you laid out the two really good arguments. The ones the Democrats are gonna be making is, "Hey, look, John Bolton is willing to testify. Shouldn't we be able to hear from witnesses?" And that's what Democrats are wanting to negotiate with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But I also do think that you end up laying out a pretty good argument for John Bolton too on being able to kinda hedge his bets a little bit. And I don't necessarily think this is a watershed moment in whether or not you're gonna end up hearing witnesses. But Democrats I think as of right now have a little bit more powerful argument to say, it's, like, "Hey, John Bolton wants to say something. Let's let him say something, and if he doesn't, and you keep him from doing it, then maybe you are trying to cover up some kind of wrongdoing that the Trump administration committed."

Kornacki: One final question on the politics of this. There used to be this term, the rally around the flag effect. You know, a president would launch a war, would launch some kind of military action, military operation, and would see a noticeable bounce in support in polling.

Jimmy Carter in the Iran hostage crisis, at least in the early part of that, got the rally around the flag effect. George H.W. Bush with the Gulf War in '91. Bill Clinton when he would launch military strikes in the '90s. We could go on and on with the list here. One of the aspects of the Trump administration that I think has really fascinated a lot of politics watchers is that, so many of the supposed rules and laws of politics just haven't applied with him. Do you think this is another case? Or do you think there might be a rally around the flag effect here that-- that boosts him in the polls?

Murray: I am pretty convinced in the Trump era, this was also true, although to a lesser extent in the Barack Obama era, that everyone's views are already cemented. That no event, no new information really ends up changing attitudes about the president.

And if President Trump, not only rallying around the flag when it comes to Iran, but if the president of the United States ended up saying today that he's rooting for the Baltimore Ravens to win the Super Bowl, that you might end up seeing about 40% to 45% of the country saying, "Yes, I'm going for the Ravens," and about 52% to 55% saying, "I'm going against the Baltimore Ravens." And it being completely politicized along national lines on Trump's approval rating. And I think that's the situation with impeachment. I think that's the situation with Iran. And whomever the president decides to support for the Super Bowl.

Kornacki: Well, for the record, I'm a Patriots fan, so I don't have a dog in the fight anymore. Maybe I'll go with the Ravens then. (LAUGH)

Murray: But you know what, Steve? You had a tremendous run that any fan would be envious of, so enjoy the great run that you had. No that most fans never have that kind of dominance over a 20-year period.

Kornacki: I have complaints about the game on Saturday, but I'm not gonna share them, 'cause I know there's not a person in America who'd sympathize with me. (LAUGH) Mark Murray, Senior Political Editor here at NBC. Thank you, Mark, for coming on.

Murray: Hey, thanks, Steve.

Kornacki: If Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to withhold those Articles of Impeachment, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham suggested the Senate may take matters into its own hands.

Lindsey Graham: What I would do, if she continues to refuse to send the Articles as required by the constitution, I would work with Senator McConnell to change the rules of the Senate, so we could start the trial without her, if necessary.

Kornacki: Senator Graham told Fox on Sunday, he would move to change the rules in days, not weeks, and that he wants the trial to be over by the end of January. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.