The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 4/6/2017
Show: The Rachel Maddow Show
Date: April 6, 2017
Guest: James Stavridis, Adam Schiff, Michael McFaul
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC ANCHOR: Good evening, Chris. Thank you, my friend.
And thanks to you at home for joining us this hour.
We are, of course, watching the Pentagon closely right now. We are
watching a golf club in south Florida closely right now because that`s
where the president is tonight, at the first night of his major summit with
the Chinese president.
We`re also, of course, watching the Mediterranean Sea tonight and the
Middle East closely. As we await word as to whether or not this brand new
American administration is about to take major military action against the
We will let you know as soon as we have any word either direction from the
Pentagon or from any of those other locales that we are watching right now.
We`ve got people on standby literally all across the globe tonight as we`re
awaiting the furtherance of this news.
But while we`re waiting to find out what the president is going to decide
to do and how it`s going to work, it seems to me that there are basically
two ways to view the proximate story, the proximate history of how we got
here. The sort of two arcs of the story that led to this point.
One of them I think starts in August 2013, in the suburbs of Damascus, when
there was a massive, massive chemical weapons attack on two Syrian civilian
neighborhoods. That was an attack by the Syrian government. They used
chemical weapons. They used what was later determined to be sarin gas.
That attack in August 2013 killed more than 1,400 civilians including
hundreds of children. And the global response, the U.S. response,
naturally, was absolute horror. Outrage. A clamor for a response of
sufficient magnitude to match and dissuade and punish an attack that
horrific by the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad. Again, over 1,400 people
killed in that gas attack in 2013.
Now, in terms of the American response to that attack four years ago, the
decision-making process in our government was very much colored by the fact
that the previous year in 2012, President Obama had described the
widespread use of chemical weapons as something that would be a red line in
terms of the Syrian conflict. That would be a red line for the United
Now, it`s one thing to say that, right, to lay that out as a hypothetical.
It is another thing to still have to decide exactly what you`re going to do
when that moment arrives in the future. And in August 2013, when that
moment arrived, when that terrible massive chemical weapons attack
happened, President Obama prepared U.S. navy ships in the Mediterranean to
launch cruise missile strikes against Syrian military targets as
If that sounds familiar, it`s because that`s what we are being advised
tonight, that the U.S. military may be making similar preparations this
But back in 2013, though, when President Obama got those Tomahawk missiles
ready on those Navy ships in the Mediterranean, he ended up not using them,
he ended up deciding to proceed in two ways. He asked the U.S. Congress to
vote to authorize the use of military force in Syria. There had been this
clamber in Congress that the United States must respond with military
force. President Obama said, OK, authorize the use of military force then,
whereupon Congress suddenly got very quiet and never acted on that.
At the same time, a new path opened up in the wake of the gas attack in
2013, a new opportunity that was brokered internationally, chiefly with
Russia, to take away Syria`s chemical weapons. So, the practical
consequence of that massive gas attack in 2013 was, yes, the threat of U.S.
military force, U.S. Congress deciding that they didn`t want to decide
about military force, and an international agreement, practical effort to
take Syria`s chemical weapons away from Bashar al Assad and destroy them in
a verifiable way.
Russia, of course, is Bashar al Assad`s greatest ally. Russia said they
would be the guarantor of that progress. They would be the ones who would
agree to make sure, they would step up for Assad, they would step up for
Syria, and guarantee that Assad would not hide any of his chemical weapons,
he would not cheat in that agreement. And in fact, thousands of tons of
Syrian chemical munitions were destroyed.
But now, it is 3 1/2 years later and we haven`t had another attack on the
scale of what we saw back in 2013 with over 1,400 people killed and
hundreds of children killed in a sarin attack, but there was some kind of
gas attack. There was some kind of chemical attack on Syrian civilians
again, this week, on Tuesday of this week.
And you have probably read or heard over the last few days, you`ve probably
read or heard certainly today that what happened in Syria this week was a
sarin attack. That it was the same chemical weapon used in the Damascus
suburbs 3 1/2 years ago. You know, that may yet turn out to be true, but
right now, it is a matter of investigation, international chemical weapons
experts right now are trying to determine for sure whether or not sarin was
used in this attack on Tuesday.
The only declaration from any official body on this point yet was a
statement from the Turkish health ministry today. They said it was sarin,
but that`s the Turkish health ministry. There`s to reason necessarily to
take them as the international standard on this kind of assessment.
It`s worth noting for context that the Turkish government very much would
like to get rid of Bashar al Assad. They are not a neutral party in terms
of the Syrian conflict.
So, while we await some sort of more determinative assessment as to whether
or not this was sarin. This attack this week undeniably was horrific and
was an attack on civilians. The U.S. military says – two U.S. Pentagon
officials telling NBC News today that the attack was launched by U.S. –
sorry, by Syrian military planes. Fixed-wing Syrian military aircraft were
seen dropping the bombs that then civilians responded to as if it was a gas
attack. The death toll is thought to be over 70. Dozens of children were
Well, in addition to the immediate horror of that attack on Tuesday,
there`s also this overarching question of whether this really might have
been sarin or might have been some other chemical weapon. There`s a
question of whether this means that Syria did cheat that international
process that was designed to rid them of chemical weapons, the prospect
that Russia didn`t actually guarantee Syria`s compliance with the
international effort to destroy all their chemical weapons. It`s possible
now we realize that Bashar al Assad retains that capacity and proved this
week that he was unafraid to use it against his civilian population.
So, that`s – that`s sort of one story arc in terms of how we got here.
That`s one way to understand the proximate history of how we got to this
place that we`re in tonight, where we`re hearing from the Pentagon tonight
that once again the U.S. military may be readying military strikes in
Syria, may specifically be readying U.S. missile strikes from U.S. Navy
vessels right now that are in the Mediterranean.
So, that is – that`s one way to get there. That`s a history largely of
the previous administration intertwines with the moderate history of this
terrible Syrian civil war. That`s one way.
Another way to see this, there`s another lens, at least, through which you
can view this, a different arc of recent events that bridge brings us to
tonight. That`s the story specifically of this current administration.
This new administration who`s making the decisions now on this issue.
This is a very young administration. They had a very difficult transition.
They had a very hard time doing just the basic work of keeping government
up and running between the last administration and the new one. There are
roughly 550 key administration positions that need to be confirmed by the
Senate. To this day, this administration has not even nominated anyone for
more than 500 of those 550 positions.
At the Department of Defense, there`s precisely one person on staff in the
entire Pentagon who has been Senate confirmed in this new administration.
That`s the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis. Other than that, they got no
one through the Senate confirmation process.
Same goes at the Department of State, there`s one person at the State
Department who`s been confirmed by the Senate, that is the secretary of
state and he`s the only one.
At the National Security Council and in the White House, national security
matters have not been handled in a way that is impressive. This new
administration made history when they fired their first national security
adviser after only 24 days on the job. He was fired because of lying about
his contacts with the Russian government. It was only later determined
after he was fired that he had also secretly been on the payroll of the
government of Turkey. He`s now requesting immunity in response – excuse
me, in exchange for his testimony on the Trump/Russia investigation.
The first person the new administration named as a deputy national security
adviser to Michael Flynn was basically unhired from that position before
she was ever really on the job. The second person who was named to be a
deputy national security adviser to Michael Flynn technically, she still
holds her job but she`s rumored to be on her way to Singapore to become the
new ambassador to Singapore basically against her will because they want
her out of there now, too, but haven`t figured out how to get her out yet.
Mike Flynn`s replacement as national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, tried
apparently to fire the National Security Council senior director for
intelligence who`s a 30-year-old guy who had been brought in to the
National Security Council by Mike Flynn. The White House intervened to
stop that firing. They stopped the national security adviser from having
his own chosen senior director for intelligence and they instead insisted
that that young man who came in with Mike Flynn, he had to stay on at that
Subsequently, that young man was one of two Trump National Security Council
staffers who became involved in this bizarre plot to feed sensitive
intelligence information out of the National Security Council to
Congressman Devin Nunes in what appears to have been an effort to divert
the various investigations into the Trump/Russia connections during the
campaign. That scheme today resulted in Chairman Nunes recusing himself
from the Trump/Russia investigation on the House Intelligence Committee
that he chairs. He`s now under investigation by the House Ethics Committee
for potentially having leaked classified information in the middle of
whatever that scheme was.
And whatever you think about Devin Nunes and his role in that, what do you
think about the National Security Council being used for that in this
The National Security Council`s a very important thing. We`ve had it since
1947. The main purpose of the National Security Council is to provide the
best possible information to the president for the purpose of him making
decisions on national security matters. The National Security Council is
supposed to sift through various sources of information, various arguments
on important national security matters and help the administration arrive
at a consensus view – a clear, unified view that integrates everybody in
the U.S. government into an all for one effort when it comes to making
important national security decisions.
When it comes to war and peace, when it comes to defending the United
States, when it comes to life and death decisions where we work with and
sometimes confront other countries, the United States government must speak
clearly, directly, consistently, and with one voice.
That has been a difficult achievement in this administration, and it`s a
worrying piece of context for what appears to be tonight a decision by this
administration as to whether or not they may rapidly increase their
military involvement in Syria.
I`m told that we are getting breaking news now. That we`re alerted now
that this decision may be under way.
I`m joined now by my colleague, Brian Williams, here in the studio.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Rachel, thanks.
And we are just learning from our producers at the Pentagon that there has
been a sizable launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles tonight. We`re told over
50 of them in a single volley hitting targets on the ground in Syria.
Our correspondent, Hans Nichols, is ready to tell us what they`ve been told
at the Pentagon – Hans.
HANS NICHOLS, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: We`re still learning more on this.
Here`s what we know. There have been Tomahawk cruise missiles fired off
Navy ships in the eastern Mediterranean. They had a single target. That
target was an airfield near Homs, which is a major commercial city. It was
an airfield. It looks like there are more than 50 impacts.
It just looks like the Tomahawks were fired. The goal there might have
been to pock up the runway, maybe take out some Syrian aircraft. We`re
learning more as we speak but this launch has happened against the regime
of Syria`s President Bashar al Assad. This marks an escalation in an
already very complicated war.
We`ll get back to you when we have more information – Brian.
WILLIAMS: OK. Hans, just one more point here. In the Mediterranean, I
believe we have the USS Porter and USS Ross that would be ready to fire
missiles like this, even though all of our vessels over a certain size and
certainly all of our nuclear submarines are potential launching platforms.
How big, how small is a volley of 50 of these considering we`re talking
about a thousand-pound warhead on each?
NICHOLS: A thousand-pound warhead is what they can carry. The fact they
were just Tomahawks and didn`t include any fixed-wing bombings gives you an
indication, Brian, that this is a proportional response. You know, when
there had been talk about this leading up to, there had been a range of
options the Pentagon had been preparing. Far end of the range, disabling
the entire Assad air force.
It looks like they didn`t go in that direction. It looks like President
Donald Trump ordered a more proportional response, it came from the two
ships you mentioned in the Eastern Med, just Tomahawks.
Now, we want to find out if there are ally conversations with U.S. allies
in the counter-ISIL regime, and crucially if there`s a conversation with
the Russians. Remember, there`s a deconfliction hotline going on right now
for the fight against ISIS. That`s the other enemy and adversary in Syria
and the Russians and U.S. counterparts speak all the time on that hotline.
Whether or not the Russians were given a heads-up, any sort of tip, that`s
another thing we`ll be looking for. We also don`t know if there have been
any casualties on the ground, if there`s been anything like that. We can
report the strike happened, it happened moments ago and it appears it`s
over, this appears to be a one-off strike.
But President Trump making good in restoring this idea of crossing red
lines, doing something President Barack Obama didn`t do and that is attack
the regime of Bashar al Assad – Brian.
WILLIAMS: So, Hans, I understand you`re limited to what we know.
Far from regime change, far from targets all over that country, this could
turn out to be a strike on the air facilities where it`s believed the sarin
gas, suspected sarin gas, air strike started.
NICHOLS: Yes, we don`t know the source of the sarin gas. We haven`t
confirmed that it`s sarin gas, but this would be the airfield from which
the fixed-wing aircraft that U.S. radar clearly saw hit that building about
72 hours ago, this is the airfield that they took off from. That gets back
to this idea of proportionality.
Now, I know we heard from Secretary Mattis earlier today talking about the
idea under way being an effort for regime change or a transition of power
for Assad. This doesn`t seem to be a strong hint that the U.S. is
militarily going to go in the direction of regime change. This seems like
it`s a proportional response.
And also think we should note, Brian, the speed with which this happened,
the velocity of this response. Just 72 hours ago on Tuesday morning, dawn
in Syria, that`s when this chemical weapons attack happened, 72 hours
later, there`s a response from this administration – Brian.
WILLIAMS: All right. Hans Nichols at the Pentagon, we`re going to let him
go report and see what more we can find out about this, again, this volley
of cruise missiles launched tonight from U.S. Navy vessels onto land
targets in and around the city of Homs in Syria, specifically aviation
targets, we`re told. That could change – airfields, aircraft on airfields
and the like.
Kristen Welker is at the White House tonight.
Kristen, what will we hear, if anything, from the building behind you or
from the traveling White House in Florida?
KRISTEN WELKER, NBC NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESOPNDENT: I anticipate we will
hear something from the traveling White House, Brian. President Trump, of
course, meeting with the president of China this evening. The two had
Vice President Mike Pence, I can tell you, had been meeting with his
staffers here inside the West Wing. No word an specifically what those
conversations have revolved around, but clearly the key topic of
conversation here at the White House has been Syria and trying to determine
what those next steps will be. And now, of course, we have our answer to
This is President Trump`s first biggest major foreign policy crisis and
test, Brian, and it also marks a shift in tone in terms of how the
president has discussed and thought about intervention in Syria. Just
several days ago, his secretary of state said it`s up to the people of
Syria to determine the future of Bashar al Assad. We heard him change that
stance today, Brian. The secretary of state now saying essentially that
Assad cannot stay in power and that the United States is working on a
political solution with its allies abroad.
And that was a point echoed by President Trump who made it very clear
yesterday in the Rose Garden during a press conference that he was
horrified by the images that he saw coming out of Syria in the wake of that
chemical weapons attack. He described his devastation over that and
described the need to take some type of action. And so, again, tonight, we
are seeing that shift here in policy.
You`ll recall back in 2013 when then-President Obama was weighing his
options in Syria, Mr. Trump at the time urged him not to take action. So,
this really marks a shift in tone now that he is the one in the West Wing,
in the White House.
Again, he`s traveling right now, Brian, and of course, the White House
travels with him. So, he`s undoubtedly huddling with his top advisers
there as we anticipate his reaction which I suspect will detail the
specific steps he took tonight and what we can expect moving forward,
WILLIAMS: All right. Kristen Welker, thanks.
And we expect as Kristen pointed out, we expect more from the Pentagon,
more from the traveling White House in Florida.
And, Rachel, when we talk about a change in tone, a change in policy, this
has been a neck-snapping change in policy in just days.
MADDOW: One of the things that has been, I think, worrying about the new
administration is the way their National Security Council has been so much
influx. The role of the National Security Council is to coordinate, bring
about a whole of government effort, unified message and a stable message,
particularly on volatile issues in national security. And for whatever
reason, we really haven`t seen that. We saw over the course of one week,
Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, we saw him turn 180 degrees on
whether or not the fate of Bashar al Assad should be decided by the Syrian
people or whether it should be something that the United States should take
responsibility for as he indicated today.
We`ve seen a similar U-turn from U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Those
changes were not in concert. They were not made at the same time.
Today, the message from president, himself, was that maybe something should
So, it`s been – the messaging, the language around these issues has been
sort of all over the place and I think it`s led to some worries about the
decision-making process is around things like this. Clearly tonight, a
decision has been made.
WILLIAMS: And Tillerson`s words were so strong today, there was a walk
back on background after he finished speaking.
MADDOW: Yes. And that shouldn`t happen on the same day that you`re making
a decision about military strikes.
WILLIAMS: That`s right.
MADDOW: I mean, ideally, you would want to have not just – not just a
whole of government effort, but you would want to have such discipline
around your message and around your rollout, especially a unilateral strike
you decide on your own terms.
But, you know, helter-skelter. You roll with it, it`s the now reality.
This administration will be I think as surprising on national security
matters as they are on everything thus far.
We`re joined now by retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis. He`s the
dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Admiral Stavridis, thank you very much for being with us tonight.
Can you shed some light for us on the strategic decision to do this with
Tomahawk missiles? These ship-fired missiles. Some of the other options
they may have considered, what are the advantages of doing it this way?
ADMIRAL JAMES STAVRIDIS, U.S. NAVY (RET.): I think they made the right
call in terms of doing something proportional, something relatively
immediate, something that connects very much with the chemical strike,
itself. What this tells you, Rachel, is that they wanted to take a low-
risk profile. We didn`t take manned aircraft.
And the fact the strikes weren`t directed against anti-air systems, which
is what you would do, knock those down if you were going to send in manned
aircraft later, tells you that probably we`ve seen a volley. We`re now
going to take a pause, reset, follow the conversation, push the Russians,
send the message.
This is a conservative, a proportional, and I think a fairly correct
response to what we`ve seen thus far. We`re going to know a lot more in a
couple of hours as we hear statements coming from the president and the
Pentagon, but I`m confident there will not be another wave. This is not
shock and awe over Baghdad. This is more like 1998 when we launched a bag
of cruise missiles at bin Laden in Afghanistan after the East African
MADDOW: Admiral Stavridis, stay with us for moment. I`d love to ask you.
Just stand by.
We`re going to go back to the Pentagon briefly for a second. Hans Nichols,
our correspondent there.
I believe, Hans, you have additional information in terms of what happened
NICHOLS: Yes, Rachel, we`re getting a little more confident on the number
of Tomahawk cruise missiles that were fired. It`s about 60 and they hit
both aircraft and infrastructure on that air base near Homs. It`s the
latest from here.
You know, taking a step back on this, given all our reporting earlier
today, this does seem like a smaller version of the variety of options that
were presented to President Trump. Remember, the big option was actually
taking out the entire air force of Bashar al Assad. So, it looks like they
went for the smaller one.
A couple things that we need to figure out here. Number one, were allies
informed? Number two, was Congress informed? Was it just the Gang of
Eight? What sort of back and forth?
And then, ultimately, what led President Donald Trump to use force against
a sovereign country, against the government that although there are
problems with it, it is the elected government of Syria.
There could be some legal questions. We suspect they will argue on the
doctrine to protect, the responsibility to protect. But what legal
authority did the U.S. have going in there, launching these cruise
And remember, there are Russian forces that are working closely with the
Syrian regime and you have close to a thousand U.S. troops, about 500
special forces that we know of, they move other troops in and out of,
they`re fighting a separate fight against ISIS, but there are a lot of U.S.
troops in there that could potentially be targets if the regime is still
This could get very messy. We still need to figure out all the details.
As of now, both aircraft and infrastructure were hit. Tomahawk cruise
missiles. And the strike is now over. This was a single target all on the
airfield – guys.
MADDOW: Hans, let me just ask you one clarifying question in terms of who
was notified, who was in on this. One of the things Admiral Stavridis just
mentioned there was the issue of the Russian government, obviously, the
most important ally to the Assad regime, and also a big military presence
on the ground in Syria.
Do we know if the Russians were given a heads-up about this?
NICHOLS: We do not. All we know on that, Rachel, is there is this
deconfliction line that is used quite frequently because both American
aircraft and Russian aircraft are fighting ISIS and more of the eastern
part of the country.
This strike took place more in the western part of country, just off sort
of the border with Libya, close to Latakia, where, of course, the Russians,
themselves, have a big air base. But most of the deconfliction talks that
take place, these are daily conversations saying we have a plane up in this
area, you have a plane up in this area. It`s designed to avoid any sort of
friction or frankly escalating incidents between the United States and
We don`t know if that deconfliction line was used on this strike – Rachel.
MADDOW: Hans Nichols for us at the Pentagon.
I believe we got one picture. It`s not a live picture. It would be sort
of a conceptualizing picture of al-Shayrat airfield. This is what we were
told is the target tonight.
This is, of course, not post-bombing, not if 60 Tomahawk missiles were
launched at it. But this is the image we`ve got of that site. Again,
close to the Syrian city of Homs, which is the city we`ve read a lot about
in terms of our coverage of the fighting in the Syrian civil war.
What Hans Nichols just reported from the Pentagon is that infrastructure at
that airfield was hit and also aircraft were hit. The Syrian air force is
a considerable force. It`s used for targets in the north of Syria.
But this is what we believe the targets – this is what we believe the
target was of this major U.S. strike.
We`re going to bring back in the conversation Admiral Stavridis.
Admiral, looking at that site, what we know about that location, the fact
this was one site that was targeted apparently with pretty massive number,
dozens of these missiles, what would be the strategic goal, how much
destruction would that sort of rain down on a site like this to hit it with
all those missiles?
STAVRIDIS: It is a significant strike but one that is limited
geographically as you point out, Rachel. I would put this very much in the
category of sending a signal to the Assad regime and to the Russians and
oh, by the way, to the Iranians as well that we are not going to hesitate
to use force, that we have, in fact, shifted back to what I would argue is
the appropriate position, that Assad is a war criminal. We have to
undermine him at every step and try and get him out of power.
But this is a signal we have sent. I think what`s really interesting is
going to be, what do we do now?
What I would hope the administration will do is go to the Russians, say
we`re serious, you cannot continue to support Assad as a client. There`s
more firepower where this came from to say the least. And that we are
very, very committed to ending Assad`s control in Syria. If you`re going
to do that, you need a plan “B”, and that is what one would hope the
administration`s doing now.
That probably looks like building a Syrian opposition in a serious way in
the eastern part of the country, supplying it, creating safe zones.
Working with the Turks to provide that kind of operationalization in the
north. And, I would argue, over time, diplomatically, with the Russians
working on a solution. Much has happened in the Balkans in the 1990s.
Frankly, Rachel, I think Syria as a nation is probably going to have to be
partitioned or broken apart. That`s the longer-term strategy. This
initial strike is the first step in sending a signal.
MADDOW: Admiral James Stavridis, very helpful to have you with us here
tonight, sir. Thank you for your time. Appreciate your insight into this.
WILLIAMS: Also standing by with us retired Army Four-Star General Barry
McCaffrey. He is in Seattle tonight.
And, General, welcome. Given the limited target selection of this mission,
what do you think the objective is of blowing up this one air facility?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, NBC NEWS MILITARY ANALYST: I think Admiral Stavridis
put it very nicely. There`s a lot of political importance to what just
happened. There will be a direct devastating impact on the air units that
were involved. There may well have been Russians on that airfield, by the
way. I`m sure they would have pre-coordinated the strike with the
Russians. Not giving them too much time to react.
But at the end of the day, Brian, look, a half million people have been
killed in Syria. There are literally a dozen brutal warring factions.
There have been multiple chemical attacks since the famous Obama red line.
Assad`s entire sect, the Alawite, and their associated allies, the
Christians, Jews and others, know they`re going to be slaughtered if they
lose this fight. I`m always uncomfortable about signaling political intent
with military power. You never know where it`s going to go. In this case,
it clearly – the military aspect is nominal at best.
WILLIAMS: So, where does this leave us? If you are the Assad government
looking and wondering?
MCCAFFREY: Well, I think the best thing to come out of it is the Russians
say, oh, my gosh, we`ve gone too far. Now, you know, we`ve got to
underscore the fact the U.S. air force and U.S. naval air power is to
significant and capable compared to the Russian presence in general, never
mind their deployed strength in Syria, they are very unlikely to want to
take us on in direct combat.
They may well now have to think through I wonder if we ought to walk away
from Assad. But I cannot imagine – they`re on the wrong side of this
argument, by the way. They`re supporting a Shiite minority presence inside
Syria. They`re allying themselves with Iranian guards, Hezbollah, militia.
They`re on the wrong side of this fight. There`s a lot of Sunni Muslims in
the world particularly living near Russia.
So, I think Putin`s way out over his skis on this one. It may well be that
it causes him to rethink their support for Assad. We`ll see.
WILLIAMS: And with your familiarity of a kind of target package like this,
or this specific target, let`s call it 60 of these, half a million dollars
a throw, 18 feet long. I`m guessing we have cratered the runway and the
taxiways. I`m guessing since it`s a military air base, they have those
protected kind of bunkerized, hardened hangars. But I`m guessing we`ve
struck all of those and any visible aircraft on the ground.
MCCAFFREY: Well, we all love the Tomahawk. They`ve been improved
dramatically since the first time I watched them used during Desert Storm.
They are now incredibly lethal, low-risk, non-jammable option.
They`re not a very good runway cratering device. The air force has got
some incredible weapons to do that. So they would have tried to knock out
all the aircraft they could find. They would have gone after the command
But Admiral Stavridis makes an important point. They weren`t used in the
obvious prep session to take out air defense missiles and radar systems as
phase one of a major strike with air power.
So, so far, this is a signal to Assad and the Russians, we`ve had it. But,
again, the background of the conflict, most of Syria has been destroyed,
self-propelled artillery, tanks, brutal murders of innocent civilians. So,
you know, one could sort of question why the sudden chemical warfare strike
would prompt a total change in U.S. national security policy.
WILLIAMS: After six years and 500,000 people.
General Barry McCaffrey, thank you for being part of our coverage and
continuing to be tonight as we cover this Tomahawk missile launch.
MADDOW: All right. We`re going to bring in Bill Neely now. Bill Neely,
NBC global correspondent. And he is in Moscow tonight, which is a
particular and interesting place from which to be watching these
Bill, what can you tell us tonight about Russian reaction, if any, to this
young news of these big strikes?
BILL NEELY, NBC NEWS CHIEF GLOBAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, good evening,
Rachel. Well, it is 4:30 in the morning, so no official reaction here in
Moscow. But interestingly, just before news of those air strikes was
confirmed, Russia`s ambassador at the U.N. warned the United States that
military action in Syria would result in negative consequences. Now that I
suppose is to be expected from the Russians.
Remember also that these 50 or so Tomahawk cruise missiles will have flown
over the Russian air bases, the naval base at Tartus and the main airfield
south of Latakia. They were flown at relatively low altitude and tracked
by the Russians and by their S300 radar installations.
We don`t know yet, crucially, what one U.S. official told NBC News and
this, indeed, has not been confirmed, but we don`t yet know if the U.S.
warned Russia in any way about what it was going to do and, indeed, warned
the Russians to get any air crews that it might have at that airfield near
Homs out of harm`s way. We don`t know that yet.
MADDOW: Bill, in terms of the –
MADDOW: In terms of the Russian exposure here, you mentioned the Russian
base there. Obviously, when, you know, Syrian fighter jet pilots are in
the sky, they`re flying Soviet-made, Russian-made planes, right? There`s -
- that`s the anti-aircraft defenses that they`ve got and they`re
considerable. Those S-200, S-300 missile defense systems and aircraft
defense systems. Those are all Russian-made.
But what about Russian personnel? In the United States, we have to worry
about force protection efforts for our own 500 to 1,000 service members who
are on the ground in Syria. Russia, obviously, has a large number of their
own personnel on the ground there. Is there – is the deconfliction
process something that would be expected to protect them as well?
NEELY: Absolutely right. Those are the two key differences between
President Trump`s decision now and President Obama`s decision in 2013.
When Obama was weighing this up, there were no U.S. grounds on the troop in
Syria and there were no Russians. Now for the last 18 months, we have both
American bombing and of course large numbers of American – of Russian
troops on the ground.
The last time I was in Aleppo, for example, there were Russian foot patrols
out on the streets. The Russians and Syrians are intermingled all over
Syria, at air bases, at installations. They are advising the Syrians.
There are thousands of Russian troops there. So, obviously, the danger
with the United States which does not want a wider war, certainly not with
Russia, is the dangerous of Russian military casualties.
MADDOW: NBC News global correspondent Bill Neely on the ground for us
tonight, 4:30 in the morning Moscow time – Bill, thank you very much.
Really helpful to have you here with us.
Here in studio with us in New York, the top Democrat on the House
Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California.
Congressman, it`s good to have you here tonight.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you. It`s good to be with you.
MADDOW: We never know exactly what within your remit of the intelligence
committee is going to be the subject or discussion tonight. Obviously,
it`s this news that the United States has launched nearly 60 Tomahawk
cruise missiles, apparently from ships in the Mediterranean, targeting a
Syrian air base on the western side of that country.
Let me first get your reaction, find out how much you know about this.
SCHIFF: Well, I received a call from the director of national intelligence
not long I think after the missiles were on their way and he has cleared me
to share this. It was I think close to 70 missiles fired from ship at a
single target. That target was the airfield where it`s believed that the
chemical weapons attack originated from.
It is, I think, at the present not the intention to have more than this
single strike, but, of course, the administration is reserving their
options depending on whether the regime responds against our troops or
takes any other action against the U.S. targets or allies. But it was our
best intelligence per the director that this is where the attack, the
chemical weapons attack originated from and that was the response.
MADDOW: When you say this is where the chemical weapons attack originated
from, meaning that Syrian aircraft that dropped munitions that appear to be
chemical weapons munitions on Tuesday, that`s the field they took off from?
SCHIFF: That`s the field, as well as apparently some facilities involved
in creating the chemical munitions that would go on that aircraft.
This, of course, isn`t the first chemical weapons attack by the regime and,
you know, one of the concerns that I have about the action tonight – I
certainly think it was on the range of military options, one of the more
limited options. It didn`t utilize aircraft. There wasn`t the risk of
loss of life of our pilots.
They also evidently did everything they could to vet the site to make sure
there wouldn`t be human casualties, wouldn`t be Russian casualties. But it
is obviously a very abrupt change of course by the administration from just
a few days ago when they said basically it`s up to the Syrian people to
decide who will remain the leader of Syria, as if the Russians, the
Iranians, Hezbollah, weren`t involved.
And, of course, this wasn`t the first time we`ve seen those terrible
images, but it was the first time we got a sense that the president
recognized the gravity of his office because those were very much the same
kind of photos President Obama was confronted with and, of course,
President Trump had a very different reaction when he wasn`t the commander
in chief, now he is. But, you know, I would certainly strongly caution the
administration not to make this a military effort to change the regime.
Now, I fully concur that the regime has to go, because as long as Assad is
there, that fighting is going to go on, that terrible war is going to go
on. But this is not something that can be accomplished via the air at a
standoff location. At most, we can hope that this will deter the regime
from using chemical weapons again. That is probably the most significant
thing you could hope for as well as a deterrent to other regimes in the
future by using chemical weapons.
But there are still a lot of issues to be resolved and one of them for the
Congress is all of this is being done, not just the attack today, but the
presence of our troops there, all of this is being done without any
congressional vote, any congressional authorization and Congress really
needs to deal with this.
MADDOW: Was this – was this strike legal?
SCHIFF: Well, I did ask the director that question. What`s the legal
basis for this? What`s the U.S. legal basis and what`s the international
That was out of his lane as I thought it might be, that`s really not
directly responsibility of the DNI. But that`s a question Congress needs
But I think we already know the answer to the question in terms of U.S. law
and that is none of what we`re doing in Syria is authorized and this is an
issue I took with the Obama administration. I introduced the AUMF that
would authorize the use of force against ISIS and al Qaeda. I`m going to
be reintroducing that after the recess.
But even that authorization, even the argument the Obama administration
used that the pre-existing authorizations were broad enough to go after
ISIS in Syria, that rationale doesn`t hold up. Even if it did, it wouldn`t
extend to attacks like this one on the regime.
MADDOW: If the administration sees this as a standalone, one-off strike,
that this isn`t the first in an escalating military campaign, you seem to
indicate that was the gist of the message tonight that you got from the
director of national intelligence. Does that effect whether or not it`s
legal? Does a one-off strike require a different amount of authorization
from the Congress legally speaking than an escalating campaign?
SCHIFF: No. I mean, the Congress should still be involved in the
authorization even of a single attack of this magnitude. There may be a
legal rationale that the White House offers that, well, these chemical
weapons were a threat to our own troops. They could have been used against
our troops. That`s a tough argument to make I think here.
Then, of course, there`s the challenge of making the argument under
international law for the intervention. That`s a problem that the Obama
administration was similarly wrestling with.
But it`s really clear, I think what the congressional obligation is here,
and that is we still need to have a vote on whether we should be using
military force at all in Syria. And, unfortunately over the last several
years, there`s been this terrible confluence of interest between then the
Obama administration, which didn`t want to have to devote the political
muscle to getting that through the Congress, and a Congress that didn`t
want to have to vote on it.
A few of us, you know, have been trying, Tim Kaine, myself and a handful of
others, but we`ve never been able to generate sufficient political will to
actually force a vote on this.
MADDOW: Congressman, let me ask you to go back to the initial point that
you raised which is the decision-making process that led to this.
Obviously, this does represent a major shift in course by the
administration. Not just to escalate to military force, but to strike
against the Syrian regime at all.
As you mentioned last week, the secretary of state was saying a week ago
today the secretary of state was saying it`s up to the Syrian people
whether or not Assad must go. We also had the U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley
saying last week that the United States is not looking to bring about
regime change. The president, himself, faced with previous chemical
weapons attacks by Bashar al Assad had said there should be no invasion,
should be no U.S. military force in response.
There has been a 180-degree turn that has – that was not signaled for very
long, that came about very, very rapidly.
What is your perception of why that happened, what are your concerns about
that? Is it possible that this attack on Tuesday was just so egregious
that it was worth throwing out the entire previous strategy and inventing a
new one on the spot?
SCHIFF: Well, I have a couple reactions. The first is, in that footage we
saw so often of those photographs of those kids that were suffocating. You
also had – I don`t know as a physician or a parent who was saying no one
is doing anything about this. How can the world allow this to happen? No
one is doing anything about this. That to me is the most powerful argument
against standing still, doing nothing, and countenancing this by our
That gentleman I thought made the most powerful and eloquent argument that
something has to be done and we have this awful paralysis in the United
Nations which is really the body that ought to authorize action against
people who are gassing their own citizens. But with a Russian veto, with
the Chinese veto or inaction, getting that done has been impossible.
But what is the answer to that? Does the world just sit still and let
people be gassed?
I think, you know, that`s what the administration is confronting, this
administration and the last administration.
What concerns me about the last 24, 48 hours, is this attack, as awful as
it was, it wasn`t the first. It`s one of several by the regime, and it
does concern me that we not have an impulsive administration that is ready
to completely change direction, that isn`t necessarily thinking through
what are all the consequences here?
What I would have argued before today is we use coercive diplomacy with
Russia. They made this bargain. They brokered this bargain. Assad would
get rid of his chemical weapons. He obviously didn`t.
And use coercive pressure, build pressure to use force if Russia doesn`t
get their client under control and put an end to this. And the marshaling
of that coalition would have put a lot of pressure on Russia. Well, that`s
all in the rearview mirror at this point.
You know, it does, I think, send the message to other places like North
Korea that this administration is not unwilling to use force, and, you
know, that may have a salutary impact in other places. But I do worry that
this president who now has this responsibility of office not act
impulsively, that these things really need to be thought through. If we`re
lucky, there won`t have been civilian casualties and if we`re luckier
still, there won`t have been Russian casualties. But even these single
strikes can have a danger of getting away from their original purpose.
MADDOW: Let alone trying to understand what the knock-on consequences will
be in terms of way all the multivariate actors respond. One of the things
you hope has been gamed out in advance.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence
Committee – thank you for helping us understand this tonight. Appreciate
I will ask you, if we are going to hear from the president tonight, and
we`re advised that we may hear from the president tonight, can we ask you
back in terms of responding to what the president says?
MADDOW: All right. We`ll put an ankle monitor on you. Thank you, sir.
WILLIAMS: Besides, it`s still early in California.
Congressman, thank you for coming by the studios.
During this interview, this conversation, we`ve been receiving a few more
facts starting with the exact number as the Pentagon sees it, 59 cruise
missiles impacted this airfield. As military airfields go, not massive.
Kind of a standard layout of two long military length, mind you, runways
separated by the usual taxiways. Styles differ in construction between the
U.S. and nations overseas.
This is now – this airfield has received 59 impacts tonight from these
incoming cruise missiles. Indeed, we`re told by the White House, the
guidance is we will hear from President Trump tonight who has, of all
thing, the leader of about 20 percent of the world`s people in Florida
tonight, at Mar-a-Lago – President Xi of China.
So, we`re told the statement will be a tape turnaround. He will make a
statement to news media. We`ll all roll that at the same time. You`ll see
it as we see it.
For the moment, our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel standing by
And, Richard, question that kind of melds politics with what we`re seeing
in the military tonight. The world has watched the first 75 or so days of
this presidency and this president. They have seen deeds and statements or
the lack thereof. With that in mind, how will the world view this military
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: I think it was just
enough for president Trump to show that he`s different than President
Obama. That he acted when his predecessor did not.
But it is not going to get him into any real trouble. It was not a
decisive action. It was more symbolic. It was a slap on the wrist,
actually, and it`s the kind of thing you can do – it has a complete
The U.S. military said earlier today that it has radar footage showing the
aircraft taking off from this now presumably destroyed air base and flying
about 70 miles – 67 miles is the distance to the town that was hit. I
wouldn`t be surprised if at some stage we get to see that radar footage.
And now, that air base has been obliterated and there`s ISR, there`s drones
up in the air probably taking pictures of all of this.
So, it creates a full narrative of a horrific event then how it unfolded
and then the air base destroyed. But it doesn`t fundamentally change
Assad`s capabilities. It doesn`t fundamentally change his grip on power.
It doesn`t change the dynamic of the civil war in that country.
It is a response that I think President Trump can go to the American people
and say he did something and here`s the evidence.
WILLIAMS: So, Richard, this is – if you want to look at it brass tax
terms, we just spent $30 million tonight. We endangered in launching these
things, as you know, every time one of these clears the tube on a navy
vessel, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. All the young sailors on these
vessels that launch these things tonight.
We killed some Syrians, I`m guessing. We may have killed some Russians, as
kind of collateral damage. I`m guessing there`s fuel on fire. There`s
cratered runways. There`s destroyed aircraft.
Is that the extent of what we get?
ENGEL: Well, I`m not saying that this was some political stunt. There was
a horrific attack, and there was a response on that location. I`m saying
that this was the minimum that could have been done in order to send that
WILLIAMS: All right.
ENGEL: The U.S. does have its hands tied in Syria to a degree because of
the Russian presence. If the U.S., it turns out, killed some Russian
advisers – and we`re being told that the Russians were given something of
a heads-up, which would be standard according to Barry McCaffrey, who was
on your air a short while ago, saying that in this kind of sensitive
operation, another major power in the battlefield would be given a short
amount of heads-up to try and deconflict the area but not enough for them
to really change their operating status.
But if the Russians had been killed, it would escalate dramatically.
That`s a limitation. There are also hundreds of American troops in Syria
right now on a counter-ISIS mission. If this had been a massive U.S.
operation and many Syrian troops had been targeted and many Syrian troops
had been killed, then it would be logical to assume that these Syrians
might try to respond against those American troops, who would be sitting
ducks in the country, within range of Syrian weapons.
So, it`s not that he had a full range of options to deal with. All these
options are bad. But what he did, it seems, he picked the least amount he
could do that has a complete narrative. Hit the base where the attack was
launched and leave it at that. And I wouldn`t be surprised if he leaves it
at that and then gives a statement in a short while talking about decisive
leadership and how the U.S. is now – is back in a leadership role.
MADDOW: NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel joining us from
London – Richard, thank you for being with us tonight. We do have a
couple of quotes from this statement that we are expecting shortly from the
Again, it is a recorded statement, and we`re told via the “Associated
Press” that the president will say the strike on Syria was in the vital
national security interest of the United States. We`re also told that he
will call on civilized nations to join the U.S. in seeking to end the
slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.
Again, those are sort of advance quotes from what we`re expecting in terms
of the statement from the president tonight. The president obviously is in
south Florida at his golf resort, where he is hosting the president of the
China for their summit.
Joining us now is Michael McFaul, who is the former U.S. ambassador to
Professor McFaul, thanks for being with us.
MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Sure. Thanks for having
MADDOW: Let me ask how you think Russia will respond to this. Russia
obviously has been Assad`s greatest ally in Syria, not just in politics but
in military matters as well. Lots of Russian military personnel. Lots of
Russian weaponry. Lots of Russian missile defense systems on the ground in
How are they going to respond to this?
MCFAUL: Well, as you`ve just been discussing, if there are Russian
casualties, that will trigger, of course, a radical negative response. And
I hope that there weren`t, and I hope that that was coordinated before this
So far, the Russian government stance has been that there wasn`t a chemical
weapons attack and that they`ve denied that. And so, right now, their
formal position, I think, will be to defend their ally, Mr. Assad, and
defend the sovereignty of the state of Syria.
Having said that, there`s a little “but” in my head, which is to say that
in 2013, I was in the government. I was with the president when he met
with president Putin. We did a deal with the Russians to eliminate
chemical weapons in Syria, and at that time president Putin was the hero.
Let`s remember that. He was the guy that convinced Assad to get rid of all
these weapons, or so we thought.
This doesn`t make him look like a hero, and so I can imagine a scenario
where they do not overreact because after all, this has been a very limited
attack. This is not an escalatory attack. This is not regime change just
as all your previous guests have said. I could foresee a response that was
much more muted than you might otherwise think, but because Putin himself
was involved in getting rid of or at least trying to get rid of these
chemical weapons in the first place.
MADDOW: There has been – on the issue of what this chemical weapons
attack was on Tuesday, obviously there was an international effort where
there was verified disposal of thousands of tons of Syrian chemical
weapons. They had a huge weapons of mass destruction stockpile, and a lot
of that stuff was gotten rid of. Since then, there have been a number of
allegations of the use of chemical weapons, but ultimately what it boiled
down to in most of those allegations is that something like chlorine or
something like mustard was used, that there was a chemical element to a
conventional attack but they weren`t, technically speaking weapons of mass
We do not have confirmation that this was a sarin attack on Tuesday. The
Turkish health ministry has said that it is. No other official body has
made that sort of declaration. As far as we understand it, that`s still a
matter of international investigation.
Is there an argument to be made that before there was any official
determination about the use of banned chemical weapons, that this may have
been a premature response?
MCFAUL: That`s a hard question because you`re absolutely right about the
forensics of what was exactly used. For me, as somebody who was involved
in those negotiations back in 2013, I`m wondering about the inspections
regimes. What was – you know, what went wrong that this was allowed to
happen? And most certainly it was a rapid response.
Most – you know, I watched what the president said yesterday. It was
clear to me that he wanted to do something, and he did something.
You know, I have to say for me personally, I support the response. There`s
just been too many people that were innocently killed in Syria for me,
where we didn`t do enough. And at least to put Mr. Assad on notice that
there will be a response, I think is a good thing.
The thing I worry about, however, is what if he doubles down? He gets to
respond to this by the way. It`s not like we get a vote and he doesn`t get
a vote. And I worry about whether he challenges the United States, he
challenges the international regime by escalating and perhaps using
chemical weapons again.
What will then be the response from the United States and the Western
world? But today, I think it was the appropriate response for a horrible
terrorist attack that President Assad did to innocent civilians in Syria.
MADDOW: Mr. Ambassador, let me just ask you one last point. On that
matter that you just said in terms of Assad having a vote and it not just
being our action and there`s no response, several Pentagon officials told
Nancy Youssef, who`s a reporter who`s now at BuzzFeed, a very experienced
reporter on national security matters.
MADDOW: Several Pentagon officials told her this week that the chemical
weapons – what appears to have been this chemical weapons attack on
Tuesday by Assad may itself have been an action that Assad took to test the
United States after Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said on Thursday
that it`s up to the Syrian people whether or not Assad is their leader,
after the U.S. appeared to back off its previous insistence that Assad must
go, that the attack on Tuesday itself may have been a test of the new
administration, essentially to find out where the new lines are.
From your experience in these matters, from the way that you`ve seen this
unfold over the years, does that seem plausible to you?
MCFAUL: Well, I`ve heard that reporting and, I don`t want to doubt that
reporting. It doesn`t seem plausible to me. I don`t think it would be
that quick of a causal chain, right? They said that a few days ago, and
then they decided to do this.
I can tell you that the supporters of the Assad regime, including those in
Moscow, did react to those statements from Trump administration officials.
That seemed like it was a departure in policy, and as of yesterday, it was
a radical departure from that departure, as you, yourself, was just talking
about earlier in the program. And now this is a radical departure from
previous, more deliberative responses before taking this action. And I
think it makes everybody uncertain about where this goes forward.
MADDOW: Former Russia ambassador, Michael McFaul, now professor at
Stanford University – Professor, thank you very much. It`s good to have
you with us tonight. Appreciate it.
MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.
WILLIAMS: So this is what`s happening in Florida. The president has
spoken to television cameras. We`re told he spoke for about three minutes.
Rachel read some of the little dribs and drabs we`ve been given from his
We are – the tape has arrived back at a central location that feeds all
the television networks. It is cued up and ready to go. We`re going to
get a two-minute warning to when they roll that. We will then watch the
president together. We have one minute left to go in this hour before the
top of the hour here Eastern Time.
MADDOW: The one piece of information we`ve gotten in terms of what damage
may have been done by this strike, we`ve just had a report from a U.S.
official to NBC News tonight, Courtney Kube at the Pentagon actually,
saying that these Tomahawk missiles appear to have hit aircraft, at least
one runway, and gas fuel pumps.
There`s no word yet that there were human casualties or that there were
human targets in this strike whatsoever. So far, they`re saying one
runway, some number of aircraft, and gas pumps.
WILLIAMS: At the same time, it is hard to imagine a facility that size, a
facility supporting the battle tempo that`s alleged to have been supported
there without humans in and on the grounds.
MADDOW: Particularly when you`re talking about more than 50 missiles
coming in. Those are thousand-pound munitions.
MADDOW: So, at this point, we sort of – we remain – we await the
strategic information in terms of what the U.S. strategic thinking was
behind this specific target.
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