The Rachel Maddow Show, Transcript 4/12/2017
Show: The Rachel Maddow Show
Date: April 12, 2017
Guest: Derek Chollet, David Nir
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: And thanks to you at home for joining us this
At the southernmost tip of the great state of Nevada, there`s a town called
Cal-Nev-Ari. Cal-Nev-Ari, which sounds like a pasta, I know. But it`s
not, it`s actually kind of a portmanteau, it`s a combined jumble of
abbreviations for California, Nevada and Arizona. Cal-Nev-Ari, that`s the
name of this town.
It has 200 or 300 people in it. It`s on Route 95. I have driven through
Cal-Nev-Ari. It`s way out in the desert. But it is emphatically not in
the middle of nowhere, which you can tell from its name. It`s in a very
specific, identifiable memorable place. It`s right at the point where
California, Nevada, and Arizona come together on the map. Hence the name
Now, there is a place sort of that has that same function on the map, all
the way around the world in Syria as well. It doesn`t have the same catchy
name, it doesn`t have a little portmanteau. It`s a place called Al-Tanf.
But it is that memorable in the same way in terms of how it fits on the
Al-Tanf is inside Syria, but it is right at the corner where the borders of
Jordan and Iraq and Syria all come together in a triangle point. And as
such, it`s an important spot.
It is really remote. It is way out there in the Syrian deserts, but it is
close to that three-way border between those three countries and it`s also
right on the main road that runs from Baghdad in Iraq to Damascus in Syria.
When ISIS controlled big swaths of both Iraq and Syria, so much so that
they basically obliterated the border between those two countries and areas
they controlled that spot, al-Tanf, was considered to be an important point
on an important supply line for ISIS between major ISIS-controlled cities
in Iraq and the ones in Syria. Again, it`s called al-Tanf, I think that`s
how you say it.
And these days, it`s a well-known place. It`s sort of on the map
internationally, not just because it defines that triangle, not just
because it`s tucked into that strategic corner where those three countries
The reason al-Tanf tough is now a very high-profile spot it`s because that
is where U.S. troops are based in Syria. It`s not the only place, but it`s
one of them. The United States has about a thousand servicemen and women
on the ground in Syria. The new administration is quietly arranged to send
hundreds more American service members into Syria, but because they have
abandoned in the practice of previous administrations of making
announcements about those troop deployments, we don`t know much about where
the new Americans are going.
We do know that several hundred U.S. marines set up in our artillery base,
studded with howitzers several weeks ago. We do know, of course, that U.S.
pilots are flying bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria basically
every day. But the biggest longest standing complement of U.S. troops in
Syria are the special operations troops, and special operators will
sometimes do raids themselves on high-value targets, but their primary
mission and what they spend most of their time doing is arming and training
and assisting some of the rebels that are fighting in the Syrian civil war,
rebels that specifically are fighting against ISIS.
And even though these are special operations forces who are doing this work
and special operations stuff is often secret, this mission, this arm and
train and assist mission, it`s not – it`s not entirely a secret. It`s a
known and widely reported thing, for example, that one of the basis that
U.S. forces are operating from to do this kind of work is a small base in
southern Syria that`s right at that Cal-Nev-Ari spot, right at that key
border spot between Iraq and Jordan and Syria. That little base called al-
Well, on Friday, Syria time, when the new administration decided to shoot
Tomahawk missiles at Syrian air base in a different part of the country,
that was not an abstract thing, that was not just a matter of political
debate for these hundreds of U.S. service members who are on the ground in
Syria. “The Wall Street Journal”, NBC News, “Stars and Stripes”, few other
outlets have all now reported that when those U.S. missiles were shot into
Syria, the U.S. Special Operations troops who specifically were based at
that that little base at al-Tanf, that little base at that corner of those
three borders, when those missile strikes were launched Thursday night East
Coast Time, Friday morning in Syria, those special operations troops left.
They left their base.
Now again, it`s not a secret that they`re there. I mean, the United States
has been bombing ISIS targets in Syria every day for a long time now
thousands of airstrikes the U.S. has had some military presence and
involvement in Syria all the way back to September in 2014. In all of that
time though, the U.S. has not had American pilots shot out of the sky by
Syrian aircraft or by the Russian fighter jets or by Syrian ground-to-air
anti-aircraft defense systems, right?
The United States has not had U.S. forces on the ground attacks wholesale
either by the U.S. military or by the Russian military. American forces
have been able to mount what are now sustained military operations of
various kinds inside Syria all this time, all the way back to 2014, because
the U.S. has not become a full-scale combatant in that country civil war,
We have said all this time that our troops are only there to, yes,
occasionally fight ISIS ourselves, but mostly to help other people fight
ISIS inside Syria, and that limited U.S. mission is what has created room
to operate. It sort of created political space around these hundreds of
U.S. service members that have been in this very dangerous place in the
middle of this very bloody civil war for years now doing this work. And
that political weather changed all of a sudden.
On Thursday night, Washington time, which was Friday morning in Syria, that
whole political arrangement changed. That whole weather system blew out
and another one blew in. And that had a very significant material
consequence for dozens of American special operations troops who real quick
had to get out of that base at al-Tanf, because with ordering that missile
strike, the United States government changed its policy position 180
degrees all of a sudden, and now, the U.S. military is not just in Syria
fighting ISIS. Now, the U.S. military is in Syria to attack the Syrian
So, that changes the proverbial weather for American forces who are in
Syria that day right there already in a dangerous place but that changed
the weather in which they operate from stormy to hurricane, instantly,
right? If there was going to be a retaliation for that U.S. missile
strike, if there was going to be retaliation by the Syrian military or by
the Russian military, if they were going to come after U.S. forces in
retaliation for that missile strike, it suddenly became very important in
very practical terms that the United States should not have a known base
full of dozens of American elite troops sitting there inside Syria, with a
bull`s eye on them waiting to be attacked because everybody knows they`re
And so, when that missile strike happened, these U.S. special operations
troops left al-Tanf quickly. And reportedly, they took off into the
desert. So, they wouldn`t be sitting ducks on that base. And from out in
the desert they would wait out whatever retaliation might come.
And in fact, after those special operators left their base and went out
into the desert, all hell did break loose. But it was not a bombing raid
by Syrian planes or by Russian planes. Turns out it was a car bomb at the
ISIS fighters rolled a car bomb up to the entry to al-Tanf, that U.S. base
and they blew the gates open and then they streamed in. U.S. military is
describing to ISIS fighters, some of them wearing suicide vests. They used
a car bomb to blow the gate. They breached the perimeter. They got inside
they started to overrun that us base in southern Syria.
Now, the U.S. special operations troops who have been there, they had left.
They had gone out into the desert. But some U.S. -allied Syrian fighters
were at that base they did their best to defend that position. CentCom now
says that three of them were killed in the resulting firefight.
But once that battle started, it wasn`t just Syrians against Syrians, it
wasn`t just Syrians against ISIS, once that battle started according to
multiple reports those U.S. special operations forces who had hunkered down
out in the desert to try to avoid whatever retaliation might come from the
missile strike, once the firefight started at their base they came
screaming back out of the desert to try to save that base.
And what followed were told was about three hours of an extraordinary close
combat firefight between these 20 to 30 ISIS fighters and dozens of U.S.
special operators who are based at that base in southern Syria.
Apparently, the fighting culminated in the U.S. troops calling in multiple
airstrikes to hit the ISIS guys and thereby save that outpost.
And in the end, these U.S. forces were able to take it back. They won that
battle. They save that base. But as I mentioned, CentCom is now confirmed
some of their allies were killed in the fight.
And the Pentagon is calling this a serious fight. They`re describing it as
a rare, extended close quarters battle between U.S. troops and a large
number of ISIS fighters. One Defense Department official telling “Stars
and Stripes” this was a coordinated complex attack.
American military families who have loved ones serving overseas on the
ground in Syria, they know acutely, right, obviously now that`s a very
seriously risky place for any American to be serving right now. But with
that missile strike, with the United States, with that missile strike
becoming a whole different kind of combatant in this six-year-long civil
war, with that missile strike launched Thursday night U.S. time, Friday
Syria time, with that strike, all of a sudden, the threat environment in
which these American troops are serving in Syria, their threat environment
And again, this is not an academic thing. This is not esoteric. This is
not a, you know, broad-scale generic assessment. This is about specific
This is these dozens of Americans who are operating out of that base at al-
Tanf. That missile strike put those Americans in a position of having to
ultimately fight tooth and nail for hours in close combat ultimately with
air support just to hold on to that base.
Today, the new president did an interview on the Fox Business Channel,
where in the middle of that interview, he volunteered and sort of an
awkward new thought about Syria. I should tell you I`m going to play what
he said here, but I should tell you, it`s also awkward how they broadcast.
They sort of covered it with a fancy cable TV animation, but you can hear
what he says here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just so you understand,
we`re not going into Syria.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: So, this was not the, you know, response to a question. This is
the start of their segment. We`re not going into Syria. I don`t know if
by we he means – I don`t know who he means. Like me and my interviewer?
You know, we the Trump family? I don`t know.
But it if by we he means the United States military isn`t going into Syria,
that makes no sense because the United States military is already in Syria,
in pretty big numbers, and that makes these comments today – these sort of
volunteered out of nowhere, eurph comments about Syria, it makes – it
makes them a strange thing to hear.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Just so you understand, we`re not going into Syria. Just so you
understand, we`re not going into Syria. Now, are we going to get involved
with Syria? No.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: No. We already are involved with Syria, if by involved you mean
hundreds of brave Americans risking their lives there every day.
I mean, this – this president, any president, right, is commander-in-chief
of the U.S. Armed Forces. Right now, that includes hundreds of U.S. troops
who are very much involved in Syria as we speak tonight. And the
administration`s actions in Syria just over the last few days have already
raised the mortal stakes for those Americans immensely.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Now, are we going to get involved with Syria? No.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
As the administration, this new administration strides into the middle of
some of the most complex stuff on Earth, for a lot of Americans, statements
like that from the president today, right, they bring about kind of a like
a gut check moment on whether or not our government – this is the only
government we`ve got – whether they`ve got you know handle on the basics,
right, whether they understand the basics. Whether, of course, they can do
the basic stuff that an American government ought to be able to do.
In that same interview today, the president told Fox Business that in the
last call that he just had with the president of China, he says the Chinese
president walked him through thousands of years of history between China
and Korea. He said – this is what he said, quote, “He explains”, meaning
the Chinese president, “explains thousands of years of history with Korea.
Not that easy. In other words, not as simple as people would think.”
By which I mean presumably what he means is not as simple as he thought it
was, but now that the president of China has explained it to him, whoo, no
idea was that complicated.
The president of the United States learning basic world history from the
president of China in a phone call is not ideal in terms of this – this
gut check moment as to whether the government knows what it is doing. But
worrying about one person even if that one person is the president, that`s
an easier thing than worrying about the government more broadly, right?
And this isn`t a one-man worry.
There are also gut-check questions now on days like today in the news about
how the whole us government operates and whether basic standards basic
minimum standards are something they can handle or that they even have an
interest in attempting.
For example on that call with the president of China today, both sides, the
Chinese side and the American side, both sides released what`s called a
readout of the call, a readout of what was discussed between the two
leaders. And this is how it`s done, right? When presidents of countries
have discussions with each other, it`s never a personal matter. That`s
literally international relations and there is a national interest in both
There`s an international interest in knowing what happened in those calls.
There`s a basic expectation that there will be note-takers. There will be
an official record of what happened in that call. There will be a public
statement about what was discussed between these two leaders, right?
That`s how it`s done. For obvious reasons , that`s how it`s done.
So, as to avoid misunderstandings, to make sure everybody is on the same
page, nobody misunderstands something that happened, nobody
mischaracterizes something that happened, nobody accidentally starts a war.
We had a conversation. We agree. This was what was said and what was
decided. That`s how you do it.
After this call today between the Chinese president and our president, the
Chinese side released a lengthy readout. This isn`t all of it. I would
quote from parts of it.
The Chinese president and his U.S. counterpart had a telephone
conversation. They discussed the situation on the Korean peninsula and in
Syria. President Xi said China sticks to the target of the
denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. China holds that the issue
should be solved through peaceful means.
On Syria, President Xi said any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.
He asked for teams from China and the United States to work together
closely to make sure that President Trump`s visit to China later this year
could achieve fruitful results.
The two leaders held in-depth discussions and reached important consensus
on bilateral relations in the new, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Yes, that`s – it goes on and on and on and on, about all these points of
detail, all these points of discussion. That`s what these readouts are
like. That was the Chinese read out today of what happened in that call.
Here was the American read out today of what happened in that call. Here
it is: President Donald Trump spoke with President Xi of China to follow up
after President Xi`s visit to Mar-a-Lago. It was a very productive call.
That`s the official U.S. government readout of what happened on that call,
from the press secretary. I mean, maybe it`s progress, no mention of
Hitler. But seriously, that was it, that`s it.
And that – that`s not like taking a test and getting the answers wrong.
That is like showing up to take a test and you`re not wearing pants and
you`re drunk and they won`t let you in. I mean, this is not even trying to
meet the basic standards of what even a lousy government does in basic
international relations easy stuff.
And when it comes to expectations not just for how any country will behave,
but for how the us government will behave specifically, there`s another
thing to understand today about how they are blowing it, how they are just
doing it wrong, and the best we can hope here is that they`re just ignorant
and screwing up, because if they`re doing it this way on purpose, we need
to have a whole different conversation. And that story is next.
MADDOW: Take a look at this. This is a famous piece of tape here at NBC
News. I actually think it`s famous among American foreign correspondents
generally. It`s not just NBC famous.
But you`ll get recognized that this is an incident that happened in 2005.
It`s in Sudan. The dictator of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, is meeting with the
then American secretary of state who was Condoleezza Rice at the time. This
was during the George W. Bush administration.
And during their meeting, the American press corps was on the outskirts of
the photo op between Condi Rice and the Sudanese leader. And American
reporters including NBC`s Andrea Mitchell started to ask questions, which
is what they do, but the Sudanese did not like that and they reacted very
poorly to the reporters shouting these questions.
So, you`ve seen some of this tape. We`ll play some of it now. But watch
in particular, watch the way the U.S. people in the room responded. Watch
out like that the State Department, Condoleezza Rice people, in the room
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don`t ever touch our journalists again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Did you catch that? And we put a subtitle on that so you can you
can catch that. This is the place I want to replay. This is one of the
State Department people, one of the American people is on this trip with
the U.S. secretary of state and watch just what he does. When the Sudanese
start pushing around these U.S. reporters, just watch.
(VIDEO CLIP PLAYS)
MADDOW: You guys – this is wrong tape we get to that in a second.
What happened in Sudan in 2005 is that Andrew Mitchell shouts out this
question. The Sudanese minders sort of grabbed her. She gets manhandled
out of the room. She just grabbed from behind and thrown out, and this
official from the U.S. State Department steps up and says, as you saw there
in the previous tape, never touch our journalists again.
Now, that was news itself when it happened, but after that happened, the
Secretary of State at the time, Condoleezza Rice, to her credit, but also
because it`s why you expect of an American secretary of state, she made a
huge issue out of this on her trip. She demanded an apology from the
Sudanese government. She demanded assurances that this would never happen
And, you know, in that moment, she`s not just sticking up for an American
citizen who was grabbed and thrown around by the foreign government, but
she`s also standing up for journalists, right? Standing up for the
American ideal of how a reporter gets treated even if in this other
country, they`re not used to treating reporters with respect or allowing
them to ask questions.
That`s the way we expect the secretary of state to deal with something like
this and it doesn`t have to be a physical altercation, right? Fast forward
a decade to 2016, Andrea Mitchell again, this time in Cuba. You might
remember the weird press conference where President Obama and Raul Castro
appeared side-by-side. Castro on one point tried to make it a photo-op and
he held Obama`s arm up and Obama wouldn`t put his fist in the air and the
Part of the tension, part of the difficulty in that press conference even
before that failed attempt at that photo op was because President Obama
stood up for American reporters. In this case, again, Andrea Mitchell,
when she was ignored and then insulted by Raul Castro.
President Obama called on Andrea Mitchell to ask a question. She asked a
question that was directed at both President Obama and President Castro.
President Obama answered first, and then this is what happened when he
finished up his answer and Raul Castro didn`t want to answer Andrea`s
question, frankly, because he`s not used to having to answer any reporters
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I guess, ultimately, what this comes
down to, Andrea, is I have faith in people. I think that if you meet
Cubans here and Cubans meet Americans, and they`re meeting and talking and
interacting and doing business together and going to school together, and
learning from each other, then they`ll recognize people are people. And in
that context, I believe that change will occur now.
But I`m done, but, Senior Presidente, I think Andrea had a question for you
just but your vision. It`s up to you and he did say he was only going to
take one question I was going to take two. But I leave it up to you if you
want to address that question.
Andrea – she`s one of our most esteemed journalists in America, and I`m
sure she`d appreciate just a short brief answer.
RAUL CASTRO, CUBAN PRESIDENT: Andrea –
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: Mr. President –
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Mr. President.
He`s going to ignore Andrea Mitchell and President Obama is like, she has
asked you a question, she`s one of our most esteemed journalists. Raul
Castro is not happy about it.
But that is how the U.S. government usually handles foreign leaders, right,
mistreatment, foreign leaders` disrespect, foreign leaders` disregard of
American reporters and the whole idea of a free press, right? That`s what
we expect of American president, of American secretaries of state, because
we have a free press in this country.
And ostensibly, the United States government believes and promotes the fact
that there should be a free press everywhere, and part of that part of a
basic way we do that as a government is that our government officials,
particularly somebody like the president of the secretary of state they
model what it means to respect the free pass, to respond to the free press.
We model what that means by in part standing up for American reporters when
our government goes abroad and leaders from other countries disrespect
Well, today, the new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, went to Moscow
where the Putin government has increasingly taken over all forms of the
media. And at the start of a photo op with the American press corps, on
the edge of the proceedings, a lot of people thought what happened here was
actually injury Mitchell again. I think this is related to his reputation
for asking tough questions in difficult environments. But this wasn`t
Andrea Mitchell actually. It was Carol Morello of “The Washington Post”.
And she shouted out a question at the start of the photo op as American
reporters want to do, and the Russian foreign minister responded by staring
her down by yelling at her and insulting her and watch out Rex Tillerson
(BEGN VIDEO CLIP)
CAROL MORELLO, THE WASHINGTON POST: Mr. Secretary, the Russians don`t
believe the intelligence. How confident are you, Mr. Secretary, that
intelligence is correct?
SERGEY LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: Who was bringing you up? Who was
giving you your manners, you know?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: And Rex Tillerson smiles and puts on his glasses. I actually
think we had that subtitled as Andrea Mitchell. That was not Andrea
Mitchell, though. It`s Carol Morello from “The Washington Post”.
But the reaction there from Rex Tillerson is astounding, right? This
foreign minister is yelling at an American reporter, “Who brought you up?
Where`d you get your manners?” Tillerson puts on his readers and smiles to
That is not how the U.S. government behaves in situations like this, right?
That is doing it wrong, when it comes to the basic expectations for the
behavior of the U.S. government. That is – that`s screwing up even the
easy stuff that you`re expected to do on behalf of long-standing non-
controversial American values.
I mean, sometimes when these guys threw stuff up, it is funny or it is
embarrassing or it is insulting. Sometimes, it`s potentially life and
No matter how much you dislike or disagree with any American president,
this kind of stuff is the reason nobody should ever root against an
American president, because when they fail, when they can`t be even
basically competent, when they can`t do even the basic day-to-day easy
stuff, it can very quickly get very scary.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don`t ever touch our journalists again.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: Today, the former campaign chairman for the sitting U.S. president
registered retroactively as a foreign agent. He registered as having
worked as a foreign agent in the past, although he`s only filed the
registration today. Paul Manafort spokesman said today that former Trump
campaign chair Paul Manafort has been in talks with the government on this
matter, talks, quote, “with federal authorities about the advisability of
registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act for some of his past
Mr. Manafort received formal guidance recently from the authorities and he
is taking appropriate steps in response to the guidance.
OK. This retroactive registration as a foreign agent after talks with
federal authorities, that makes Paul Manafort the second high-ranking Trump
campaign official to have to retroactively register as an agent of a
foreign government now, but after the fact.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was also apparently advised
that he should register for his previous work on behalf of a foreign power.
He made that registration several weeks after he was fired from the
administration for lying about his contacts with the Russian government.
Today`s news about Paul Manafort comes on the same day that the “Associated
Press” confirmed that Paul Manafort received at least some of the millions
of dollars that were earmarked for him in a secret ledger maintained by the
ousted pro-Vladimir Putin dictator of Ukraine for whom Paul Manafort used
Now, these payments were reportedly routed through shell companies in
Belize for some reason. Paul Manafort had previously denied that the
ledger of secret payments was real or that he had received any payments
listed in that ledger. He now basically admits that he did receive those
payments but he says there`s nothing wrong with them. He says they were
not illegal off the books cash payments. They were wire transfers and wire
transfers aren`t cash. So, there. Nothing to see here.
It is an amazing fact that the sitting presidents former campaign chair
receiving off the books payments from an ousted dictator routed through
Bolivian shell companies and then retroactively registering herself as an
agent of a foreign country, it`s an amazing fact that that`s not even the
biggest story unfolding in this news cycle about the Trump campaign and its
connections to foreign governments.
Last night, of course, “The Washington Post” broke the news that this past
summer, the FBI obtained a FISA warrant to surveil a foreign policy advisor
to the Trump campaign because they were able to persuade a FISA court judge
that there was reason to believe he was knowingly acting as an agent of a
foreign power, specifically of Russia.
They obtained that FISA warrant for Carter Page last summer, according to
“The Washington Post”. After they initially obtained that warrant last
summer, they renewed it at least once after 90 days. For all we know, the
FBI still has him under FISA surveillance.
Quoting from “The Post”, “The government`s application for the surveillance
order targeting Carter Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out
investigators basis for believing that he was an agent of the Russian
government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on
behalf of Moscow.”
Carter Page denies that he had any inappropriate contacts with the
Russians. Since this news broke, he`s been telling all sorts of news
outlets that this FISA warrant to surveil his communications just shows
that the Obama administration was out to get him. In an interview this
afternoon, Carter Page still would not say who exactly brought him into the
Trump campaign, although he was asked many, many times in many ways that
question by Jake Tapper.
Everything we are learning pretty much every day now about the Trump
campaign, about people like Paul Manafort and Carter Page, the question
still remains unanswered of all the people in the world, Donald Trump could
have hired for his campaign, why did he end up with all these guys, with
all these creepy previously undisclosed now emerging ties to Russia?
MADDOW: This was a question, do you support or oppose President Trump`s
decision to launch a missile strike on a Syrian air base? Right? Maybe a
complicated issue but that`s a very straightforward question. Do you
support or oppose?
That`s when “The Washington Post”/ABC poll this past week. Now, here`s the
fascinating thing – that same poll, “The Washington Post”/ABC poll, they
asked that question now, this week, but they also asked that exact same
question back in 2013 when it was this guy, President Obama, who is
considering a missile strike in Syria.
So, we not only have the new polling on that question this week, we have
basically the exact same polling question frozen and amber from four years
ago in 2013. And just look at the response – everybody who`s ever told
you that Democrats and Republicans are mirror images of each other, they
both have all the same problems, look at – look at this.
Look at the Democrats numbers first. Back in 2013 when it was President
Obama considering missile strikes in Syria, the proportion of Democratic
voters who supported that was 38 percent. Now, four years later, new
president 2017, it`s no longer 38 percent, it`s 37 percent, difference of
one point, basically a rounding error. So that`s how Democrats have
changed their minds on that issue over four years.
Now, let`s look at the Republicans. 2013, when it was President Obama, the
proportion of Republican voters who said they thought it would be okay for
President Obama to shoot missiles into Syria was 22 percent. Ask
Republicans today, now that we have a Republican president, look at their
response – oh! The number jumps from 22 percent to 86 percent when you
ask Republican voters if they support missile strikes into Syria now that
the president doing it would be named Trump instead of Obama. A difference
of 64 points, a 64-point slides is the polling equivalent of a unicorn that
spits fire and also makes delicious lasagna out of vegan food stuffs.
But there it is – raw data, clear as day. Democrats moved on this by one
point. Republicans move 64 freaking points, after the one variable that
changed then to now is the political party of the president considering
Anybody who tells you that Republicans and Democrats are flip sides of the
same coin, they`re also partisan, anybody who tells you that look at that
and just tell me that makes sense.
National security sort of ought to be a nonpartisan thing. If we`re going
to have anything that`s nonpartisan, that ought to be it. For some people,
it is a nonpartisan thing.
Joining us now is Derek Chollet. He`s a former assistant secretary of
defense for international affairs in the Obama administration. He`s also a
former senior director for strategic planning at the National Security
Mr. Chollet, I wanted to talk to you for a long time. Thanks for coming.
DEREK CHOLLET, FORMER ASST. SECY. OF DEFENSE: Great to be here. Thanks,
MADDOW: Secretary of state is in Russia today. The tensions are
reportedly off the charts in part because of this U.S. missile strike into
Syria on Thursday.
Is it clear to you that that air strike fits whatever U.S. policy is now in
CHOLLET: No, because I don`t think it`s clear what us policy is. I don`t
think Trump or his team had really decided. They`ve been all over the
place in the last several days.
You`ve heard from Nikki Haley about regime change. You`ve heard Rex
Tillerson say, no, we`re not going to do that. It`s all about ISIS.
And they seem to be changing their view almost hour by hour. I`m just
going back to that poll that you pointed out – I mean, it`s notable that
one of the people who is driving down those Republican numbers in 2013 was
Donald Trump who was, of course, tweeting to President Obama not to take
the strike. I spent a lot of my time up on Capitol Hill during that I`m
advocating for congressional authorization for the use of force.
And it`s – it`s really depressing that we see that flip that you pointed
out where the 60-some percent now support a strike that they opposed in
MADDOW: It is one thing to see that happening among senior administration
officials, to see these public statements that don`t cohere among the
different seniors in the administration. It`s a very practical thing
though – part of what we`ve been talking about tonight is that there are a
thousand U.S. service members in Syria.
CHOLLET: And I`m very glad you in sorry either way.
MADDOW: Is it clear to you – even just thinking about them, even just
thinking about their families tonight – is it clear that the knock-on
effect – the potential knock-on effects of those strikes, the potential
retaliation, the way the threat environment changes for those Americans –
is it clear to you that that has been considered? That that`s being
adequately factored into American decision-making?
CHOLLET: Well, I think certainly the Pentagon, there`s evidence that it
was considered, which is why those special operators were moved out of that
CHOLLET: As you pointed it out at the top. I mean, that was a force
protection move that I`m sure this was acutely on General Mattis or
Secretary Mattis` mind. Whether or not it`s in the calculation of the
president, who knows?
MADDOW: Do you have any idea what the president means when he says we`re
not going into Syria given that there are a thousand American already
CHOLLET: I don`t. I mean I think I`m very glad you pointed out at the top
of this show that the United States has been bombing Syria every day since
September of 2014. American pilots are getting in the aircraft or driving
drones from afar to try to fight ISIS in Syria, and we have special
operators on the ground about a thousand now who are risking their lives to
support Syrian forces in their fight against ISIS.
So, we are engaged in Syria. Now, U.S. military forces are not engaged in
an effort to try to take down Assad or conduct regime change. I actually
think that`s a smart move.
My guess is that`s what President Trump is saying when he`s saying we`re
not going to get into Syria, but I think he at least should acknowledge the
fight that our troops are in in Syria against ISIS, absolutely.
MADDOW: And how he may be changing that with his actions that even if he
CHOLLET: It absolutely raises the risk, no question.
MADDOW: Derek Chollet is a former assistant secretary of state in the
Obama administration – I really appreciate your time tonight. Will you
come back and talk to me more about other national security?
CHOLLET: Absolutely. I`m happy to.
MADDOW: Thanks for being here. I appreciate it.
MADDOW: All right. We`ll be right back. Stay with us.
MADDOW: Here is the man changing his mind, a member of Congress changing
his mind for real. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GAINESVILLE RESIDENT: I have a very simple, direct question.
Why do you not support bills that force Trump to show his IRS records?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Answer that question.
REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: I was against this, because umber one: it`s
YOHO: Sara Walters, came in, and I said that to her. And she goes, “Don`t
you think that the executive, the president of our country, that has
business deals all around the world that we might want to know what`s going
on with this taxes, to make sure that here`s no funny business?
YONO: And she changed my opinion.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: She changed my opinion. This person from the Indivisible group
locally came into my office, walked me through this, talked to me about it
in a way that made me change my position.
That was Florida Republican Congressman Ted Yoho in his very Republican
district, explaining to them that pressure from them, his constituents, had
changed his mind and now, he`s willing to say you know what, you`re right.
I disagreed with you before, but you`re right, the president should release
his tax returns. You have changed my mind about that.
It can happen. That was it happening in nature.
Members of Congress are home this week supposedly sort of getting a little
taste of what things are like in their home districts, talking to their
constituents. It`s not always going the way they expect it to that is
starting to have some national implications and that`s next.
MADDOW: The Republican who used to hold the seat in Kansas`s fourth
congressional district is Mike Pompeo who is now the CIA director. He was
just reelected in November by 31 points. Trump won that same district in
November by 27 points.
Last night, the Republican candidate elected to replace Mike Pompeo,
though, he only won by about seven. Democratic contender got within inches
of that Republican in deep red Kansas, and he did it with barely any
support from the national Democratic Party. While on the Republican side,
every Republican up to and including the president big-footed themselves
into that race to try to help save that race.
So, the Democrats lost but they sort of feel like they won. Is that an
outlier or is that the start of a pattern?
Republicans are reportedly also anxious about holding on to Ryan Zinke`s
old seat in Montana now that he`s interior secretary. Republicans in the
state nixed a bill that would have made that an all mail-in election, an
all vote by mail election because the Republican state party chairman said
it would make it too easy to vote and that might help Democrats win that
In Georgia, there`s Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price`s old
seat. He won that district in November by over 20 points, but Trump barely
won that district by less than two. Is that winnable?
Republicans have launched many attack ads now against leading Democratic
candidate in that race Jon Ossoff, who has raised a startling $8.3 million
for that race, which is an astonishing amount of money for a congressional
Whether or not the Democratic Party itself gets it together to contest
these special congressional elections, the Democratic base is freaking
fired up about trying to win these seats. How realistic is that
Joining us now is David Nir. He`s political director for “Daily Kos” and
publisher of “Daily Kos Elections”. “Daily Kos”, I should tell you, helped
raise a majority of Jon Ossoff`s campaign donations in Georgia sixth, and a
big chunk of what was raised from outside the state in Kansas.
David, it`s nice to see you. Thanks for being here.
DAVID NIR, DAILY KOS POLITICAL REPORTER: Pleasure to be back.
MADDOW: So, how do you view Kansas last night?
NIR: I think that Republicans should be very worried about that result.
It should have been an utter blowout for them. It should never have been
closed. And the fact that we`re even talking about it at all speaks to the
huge grassroots enthusiasm that made that election close in the first place
and there are a lot of much more vulnerable Republicans and much more at
risk seats who are going to be up for re-election next year. If they
continue on as they have with Donald Trump, there`s a huge chance that GOP
loses the House.
MADDOW: Which is almost – something you couldn`t even imagine talking
about in any realistic terms, you know, even before the presidential
election I think. People it felt like the House would be out of reach.
The Democratic Party itself seems to be getting increasingly enthusiastic
about that race next week in Georgia. Do you think they should also be
more involved in Montana, potentially in South Carolina, and some of these
other races that are going to come up in red states?
NIR: I think that it`s definitely all hands on deck time, and I think, as
you said though, it`s that grassroots enthusiasm that has just been
absolutely through the roof. We saw it with the Ossoff donations, but we
have also seen it with huge fundraising halls from small donations in
Montana as well, where Democrat Rob Quist has raised over a million
And what I like to say is follow the small money, that`s where stuff is
really happening and Republicans should be afraid.
MADDOW: In Montana, it`s interesting because Montana that`s it`s one
congressional district but it`s the whole state and Montana has been very
happy to elect statewide Democratic candidates. They`ve had a Democratic
governor for a decade now, more than a decade. Jon Tester has been
reelected twice – been reelected for that Senate seat there.
It seems – yes, you can look at Montana and say Donald Trump won there by
a lot, but that seems like very much reachable goal for the Democrats if
they could sort of come up with a big push for it.
NIR: I definitely agree with that. Montana is certainly in reach and also
Republicans nominated a candidate who`s a very out of touch one percenter
while the Democrat is this very popular folk musician running a populist
campaign. It`s almost the perfect matchup that you`d want in a state like
that, and it could definitely be in play.
MADDOW: David, the last time you and I talked – one of the things we
discussed was a question of whether or not there is a split between the
Democratic Party and its activist base, is personified more than anybody I
think by “Daily Kos” and by your community there. Is this a fight on the
Democratic side now?
NIR: I don`t feel it that way. I feel that we at “Daily Kos”, we like to
lead by example, and that`s why we made these endorsements, especially the
early endorsement of Jon Ossoff, where we infused a whole bunch of money
into his campaign and got him a lot of attention and it`s been this amazing
feedback loop leading to that $8 million haul that you mentioned.
And I think that people are taking what we do seriously and taking what the
grassroots is doing seriously and I feel surprisingly unified for the
Democratic Party for sure.
MADDOW: David Nir, political director for “Daily Kos”, publisher of “Daily
Kos Elections” – David, it`s nice to see you. Thanks for being here.
NIR: Thank you, Rachel.
All right. That does it for us tonight. We will see you again tomorrow.
Now, it`s time for “THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O`DONNELL”.
Good evening, Lawrence.
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