Pentagon says U.S. Strike. TRANSCRIPT: 1/2/20, The Last Word w/ Lawrence O’Donnell.

Daniel Benaim, Ned Price, Cory Booker, Wendy Sherman

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  Good evening, Rachel, and we`re going to

be continuing the breaking news coverage of this event. 


The information in the last 10 minutes has just changed dramatically. 




O`DONNELL:  As you began reporting on it, it was hard to even confirm this

had happened, we really just had Iraqi sources at the beginning and we

finally had Iranian forces and now the Department of Defense.  So it seems

everything we need for confirmation of this we now have. 


MADDOW:  They all fell into place fairly quickly.  It was for long tonight,

not that long, but for the initial coverage, it was all those Iraqi TV

sources and then everything sort of fell into order pretty quickly in term

of Iranian sources, unnamed U.S. government sources and then finally this

on the record statement. 


O`DONNELL:  Andrea Mitchell is going to join us this hour, as she`s rushed

into the D.C. bureau, of course, as she would in a situation like this. 

But one of things striking about it is, she had Secretary of Defense Esper

on her program this afternoon.  And when he was speaking about this

situation, it really sounded like from his perspective, things were under

control now and the situation had calmed down. 


You couldn`t get any clue from that appearance this afternoon that

something like this was planned. 


MADDOW:  Yes, and I mean – you know, U.S. military and CIA targeted

killings around the world are a big deal, and they always are.  But in

terms of a consequential targeted assassination, in term of its military

consequences, it`s hard – it`s hard to imagine all that many that would be

more consequential than this.  I mean, when you set aside putting a strike

on the head of a foreign head of state, for example.  If you take away the

idea of decapitating a state, one level below that kind of the most

consequential military assassination you can imagine in the world is to

kill the head of the Quds Force from Iran. 


I don`t know how long they had this planned and how much they prepared for

what the response is going to be, but we are about to see it. 


O`DONNELL:  We have a bunch of experts here going to help us with it. 

Thank you very much, Rachel.


MADDOW:  Thanks, Lawrence.


O`DONNELL:  We appreciate it. 


Before we get to what`s happening in Iraq tonight, I just want to say that

presidential candidate and future Trump impeachment trial juror, Senator

Cory Booker, will be joining us tonight.  And there has been plenty to talk

to him about as a presidential candidate and a Senate trial juror, but now,

we will also drawing on Senator Booker`s expertise as a member of the

Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get his reaction to these

developments in Iraq tonight where the Pentagon has just confirmed that the

top Iranian general has been killed in a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad



I want to read you the Department of Defense statement on this that has

just been released.  I`m going to read it in full. 


It says: At the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken

decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing

Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the

Quds Force, a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization. 


General Soleimani – this is continuing with the Department of Defense

statement.  General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack

American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. 

General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of

hundreds of Americans and coalition service members and the wounding of

thousands more.  He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq

over the last several months, including the attack on December 27th

culminating in the death and wounding of additionally American and Iraqi

personnel.  General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the U.S. embassy

in Baghdad that took place this week. 


And this is the final part of the Department of Defense statement tonight,

the final two couple of sentences.  The strike was aimed at deterring

future Iranian attack plans.  The United States will continue to take all

necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are

around the world. 


We are joined in our breaking news coverage of these developments in Iraq

tonight by Andrea Mitchell.  She is the chief foreign affairs correspondent

for NBC News. 


Cal Perry is with us.  He`s an international correspondent for MSNBC and

NBC News. 


Ambassador Wendy Sherman, former under secretary of state in the Obama

administration will join us.  She was the lead negotiator on the Iran

nuclear agreement, and she`s now an MSNBC global affairs contributor. 


Ned Price is with us, a former CIA analyst and a former senior director and

spokesperson for the National Security Council in the Obama administration. 


And Daniel Benaim, a former State Department and White House official in

the Obama administration, is also with us. 


Andrea, I want to start with you and I actually want to start with that

interview you did this afternoon with the defense secretary.  I watched

every minute of it.  It seemed as though things had calmed from his

perspective, and there was no clue about what was going to happen tonight. 



were some hints along the way because he had briefed Pentagon reporters

this morning as well and said there could be a preemptive strike if they

felt that U.S. interests or certainly U.S. lives were at stake.  But

there`s no real hint in our interview.  We asked what would happen next,

and appropriately, if they were planning this, he certainly would not

comment on it. 


They had him do our interview, he did one other interview I know of, and

Mark Esper was very carefully saying that the U.S. had the forces, that the

U.S. would respond, that enough is enough, said he.  And we also heard

earlier today over at the Pentagon that correspondents there from the

chairman of the joint chiefs saying that anyone trying to issue a further

attack would run into a buzz saw.  Certainly, Esper was saying they thought

other attacks were planned. 


And what they are saying in the statement tonight is that they have a legal

predicate for what was done because they said U.S. interests, that further

attacks were planned and that this was defensive in nature and that would

be according to the legal strictures that have been obtained for decades on

official kills or assassination, targeted assassinations. 


This is, as you and Rachel were discussing, the most significant attack I

can remember since certainly what happened with Baghdadi, what happened

with bin Laden.  But this is more hierarchical and now this relates to –

certainly, the widespread state sponsored terror that has emanated from

Iran, that has been the source of what Esper was saying 40 years of Iranian



Now, they have claimed they had diplomatic overtures to Iran.  There`s none

that I can detect.  Wendy Sherman whom I covered for years during the Iran

negotiations, both the secret negotiations, that she under – that she was

leading and then the former negotiations knows very well that there is

diplomacy that`s engaged with Iran for years until that was canceled by

this president with the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. 


And that and the increasing sanctions, the maximum pressure that failed to

collapse the regime which certainly was the underlying theme even though

they denied it, has certainly led to this eventuality.  Now, I cannot

predict what will happen, but in talking to Ali Arouzi, our Tehran bureau

chief, and talking to other experts, in my experience of having covered

every other engagement that the U.S. has had with Iran since the taking of

our embassy back in 1979, and having witnessed what happened when the shah

fell in all of these years, Lawrence, you`ve seen this from your experience

as a journalist and previously at the Senate – there are going to be

reprisals around the world. 


Iran is the most widely engaged foreign military force in both terror and

in diplomacy and is recognized by Great Britain, by all of our European

allies who had embassies in Tehran.  Iran is not Iraq.  This is not Saddam

Hussein.  This is much larger country, a much more established culture and



And we`re going to face repercussions for this now acknowledged that it was

an American military strike that killed Soleimani who is an official leader

in Iran. 


O`DONNELL:  Cal Perry, I want to quote one more line from Andrea`s

interview with Secretary Esper, defense secretary today, because there were

lines, as Andrea says, where he said enough is enough, he said other

things.  But one of the notes struck that sounded to me he was trying to

take down the temperature was this, he said, there`s a lot we can do and

then he followed that immediately by saying, but I think it`s important at

this point in time to not make this a United States versus Iran issue. 


His department tonight has just issued a statement saying this is a United

States versus Iran issue. 



communication is inside the Defense Department.  I think Donald Trump`s

tweet of just an American flag is going to leave many people to wonder,

what is the strategy here?


This man is and was an icon in Iran and in the Middle East.  The face of

the Middle East as we know it, and it`s hard to overstate this, is in large

part drawn by Qassem Soleimani.  The war against ISIS ended the way it did

in large part because of Qassem Soleimani.  Lebanese Hezbollah has its

power because of Qassem Soleimani. 


Many hundreds of U.S. troops and this is something we will hear from the

Pentagon, died during the war in Iraq because of Qassem Soleimani.


So, depending on who you talk to, he was a terrorist.  Others will say he

was a stabilizing force.  It`s impossible to imagine anyone in Iran and

Iraq and Syria and Lebanon viewing this as anything but the U.S. versus

Iran from today forward. 


And as Andrea is saying, you can expect there will be a response.  Iran is

now put in a position where its back is against the wall, and it has to

respond.  And, you know, with someone like Ambassador Sherman on the panel,

I have to wonder how we step this back. 


The Iran nuclear agreement was partly such a break through because it

opened communication between the U.S. government and Iran in a way that we

haven`t had in a generation.  And those communications tonight are just not

going to exist.  The U.S. will certainly as far as its military posture

have to go to a war footing.  Folks who are in that Baghdad embassy are

going to be in an incredibly delicate position to say the least.  And Iraq

will go almost immediately to a war footing. 


So, you know, however you want to put it, the doomsday clock has ticked

another step towards midnight.  And it certainly looks as though the U.S.

is headed towards a wider conflict now in the Middle East, Lawrence. 


O`DONNELL:  Ambassador Wendy Sherman, Cal Perry has just handed it to you

with now what? 



Well, I wish I knew what all the now what`s were.  I quite agree with what

they`ve said.  There will be terrible, terrible reprisals.  They will

likely happen in the Middle East, but they could happen really anywhere in

the world.


And as both of these journalists have pointed out, we have people all over

the world that could become targets.  And, of course, our military and Iraq

are targets.  Our embassy in Baghdad is a target.  Lebanon is a likely

place to be targeted. 


In a situation like this, Lawrence, what usually happens is if there`s a

small group in the White House with all of the Pentagon, the intelligence

community, the State Department meeting very quietly, they send out a

classified note or briefing to key embassies to have a regional security

meeting, to get ready to figure out how they`re going to defend themselves,

whether there are authorized departures so that families can leave

embassies.  An enormous amount of work goes in so we can make sure we`re

steady and ready when such an action is taken. 


Qassem Soleimani is a ruthless, ruthless killer.  There is no doubt about

that.  Nobody weeps that he is gone as a person and what he did and the

terror he brought about in the world. 


But that said, the Obama administration at least to my knowledge did not go

after him and target him because we understood what the consequences were. 

We were in the midst of diplomacy.  We hoped that we would find a peaceful

path, understanding that there were many issues in Iran that still had to

be addressed besides their nuclear program, and we had the sanctions, the

tenacity, the alliances to do it. 


So I think tonight, the immediate concern for all of us is what both Andrea

and Cal have said, and that is the reprisals, where and how they are going

to happen, they will be asymmetrical.  It doesn`t matter where our troops

are, they can be targets.  But Qassem Soleimani had deputies.  They know

how to do what he did in, even though he was this unbelievably unique

counter military strategist.


But we are at a very, very escalatory moment here which can lead us into a

wider war.  I hope we do not go there. 


I pray with all my heart that the Trump administration has a plan and

strategy.  But all I`ve seen to date the Iran policy is one off actions,

and this one off action can have unbelievably horrific consequences. 


O`DONNELL:  Ned Price, given what we just heard from former Undersecretary

of State Wendy Sherman, there comes the question of why.  We understand the

reasons not to do this as just outlined by Ambassador Sherman, the reasons

why the Obama administration did not take an action like this and

presumably what the resources they had could have. 


What is the why for the Trump administration?  When you read the Department

of Defense statement tonight, it seems to be because of what they expected

General Soleimani to do next.  They say General Soleimani was actively

developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq

and throughout the region. 


Now, that`s the Trump administration asking us and the world to believe

them about that point. 


NED PRICE, FORMER CIA ANALYST:  Well, certainly, Lawrence, I think it`s

true what others have said that no one should be shedding any tears for

Qassem Soleimani.  He was, in fact, responsible for – he had American

blood on his hands, indirectly so, and American blood nonetheless in

conflicts throughout the region from Syria to Iraq to elsewhere. 


But at the same time I think the fact as Ambassador Sherman said that the

consequences of this could be unbelievable.  Look, my concern throughout

this had always been a conflict with Iran would start not with a bang but

with a whimper, a whimper that was the results of any number of tit-for-tat

escalations and retaliations derived from this so-called maximum pressure

strategy that the Trump administration has mounted against Iran since May

of 2018.  Today, however, tonight I should say, I think we heard that bang

and it was a very loud one. 


It is impossible to overstate the level of prominence, the authority figure

that Qassem Soleimani was within the Iranian society.  He was a military

figure.  He was a security figure.  He was a political figure.  He was a

cultural figure. 


Unlike Osama bin Laden, unlike Baghdadi, this was not a transactional and

essentially stateless terrorist that was homeless without a country who

would weep for him.  This is – this was, I should say, a revered figure in

Iran and I think we have consider all possibilities for retaliation, and I

certainly hope the Trump administration has done so.


Ambassador Sherman mentioned a few potential theaters, I would add one

more.  I think back to a case in 2011 when individuals were arrested in the

United States for a plot to attack the Saudi ambassador at a Washington,

D.C. restaurant.  Just across town from where I am now.  This was a plot

that had links to the Quds force that Qassem Soleimani oversaw at the time. 


So, it`s certainly to true to say that our diplomats, our service members

in Iraq, Americans in Syria, Americans in Lebanon, Americans throughout the

region will be under increased threat.  My concern more so is that

Americans here at home will also be under increased threat as a result of

what happened tonight. 


O`DONNELL:  Daniel Benaim, your reaction to where this story stands at this




first of all, I`m thinking about the Americans who are serving overseas

right now who are facing incredible danger of retaliation and are hoping

that the Trump administration as folks have said have a real plan to deal

with that.  This is brutal thug with blood on his hands all across the

Middle East, in his own country, peaceful protesters in Iraq. 


So, again, no tears for Qassem Soleimani.  The question is, what now?  And

America and Iran had been in a kind of slow-boiling collision course, stuck

in between war and peace ever since Trump walked away from the Iran deal. 


And the question now really is, where do we go?  We seemed to have entered

a whole new phase of this conflict marked by serious escalation and a risk

of a kind of spiral into retaliation and more bloodshed.  I still don`t

think that Iran wants to go to full-fledged war with America, but I think

they`re backed into a corner where they`re going to have to find some way

to respond and inflict pain. 


And that could well lead both sides into further escalations that neither

side wants, and that`s a really dangerous place to be.  And what concerns

me most maybe is I don`t see a way back from them.  It is a good thing that

Qassem Soleimani is dead.  The question is where the Middle East goes from

here and where America and Iran can go? 


O`DONNELL:  Andrea Mitchell, where does the story go from here?  Tell us

how to cover this story and the questions we should be asking? 


MITCHELL:  All the questions that you are asking and the experts that you

have around you, Lawrence, because we`re all caught between knowing his

history, his history of terror and oppression against his own people.  But

the fact is at recent stages, he was the most popular political figure in

Iran because of Iranian popular reaction against the so-called moderates –

and I use that phrase very carefully against Rouhani and Zarif and others

who blessed the Iran nuclear deal. 


They were blamed because the Iranians had been promised economic benefits

for signing onto a deal they also did not like.  It was a compromise

neither side is totally satisfied with as Wendy knows better than any off

of us.  And it was a compromise the first step to limit for at least ten

years and for longer than that in terms of the fuel supply lines, to limit

production of nuclear weapons material to permit space for diplomacy to get

to the delivery systems, the ballistic missiles and other things that were

never contemplated to be covered. 


It was not signed off by the Senate because the Obama administration could

probably not get confirmation in the Senate.  So, it was not a treaty but

it was a U.N. agreed upon agreement signed by the United States and by the

other six powers ratified by the United Nations.  And the fact we walked

away from it was such a dramatic departure from diplomacy, from agreed

upon, you know, deals that it marked a real departure and an end of

diplomacy with Iran. 


And how we cover this now, there`s no way to protect our forces adequately

overseas because individual Americans will be targeted, individual

intelligence operatives, as well U.S. uniform military and our diplomats as

well as others, as well as American interests.  I mean, Iran through

Hezbollah has been active in South America, in Argentina, years ago when we

covered those attacks against Jewish community groups in South America. 


So there`s no telling what will happen to Israel, and it is interesting

that Saudi Arabia, Iran`s adversary, has recently been having back channel

talks to try to reach accord with Iran because they felt after Iraq – the

U.S. did not really support them following Iranian-backed attacks against

the largest Saudi oil field.  Half of their oil supply for weeks knocked

out that they could no longer rely on America, their closest ally in the



So, there are so many ramifications diplomatically, military and in the war

on terror.  And as both Ned and Wendy have pointed out, we do not know that

the usual steps to protect American interests overseas and American

diplomats have been taken. 


O`DONNELL:  Ambassador Wendy Sherman, you helped negotiate and put in place

the Iran nuclear agreement with the United States and other countries that

prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  Where would you put that,

the Iran nuclear deal if say you were part of editing tomorrow`s page one

“New York Times” story about these events tonight? 


SHERMAN:  I think some of those things have even been said in the last

couple of days after the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and that is

in my view very painfully, it is President Trump`s withdrawal from the Iran

nuclear agreement that started a series of steps that have led us to this

day.  Now, that doesn`t mean Iran is not responsible for taking steps to

counter steps we have taken.  Iran does bear enormous responsibility, but

nonetheless there seem to be a set of one off actions as I said earlier

without a coherent strategy. 


The president, I think, believed that the Iran nuclear deal should have

dealt with all of the problems in Iran, the states sponsorship of

terrorism, the unlawful detention of American citizens which goes on even

today and those Americans who were held in Evin Prison today I also have

great concern for under these circumstances.  They`re not getting out any

time soon. 


Iran`s human rights abuses, Iran`s maligned behavior in the region and all

over the world, all of these things, their ballistic missile programs, all

of these things are of great concern, but you cannot deal with all these

issues in one negotiation.  Otherwise, you just end up with a mediocre

middle on everything.  Iran would say, OK, I`ll have a few less centrifuges

but I want some more missiles, or I will agree to maybe not give Hezbollah

so much money but I want this nuclear technology.  So you don`t end up

really solving any problem because it`s a negotiation.


So, President Obama thought he had to first get rid of the potential for a

nuclear weapon, because if Iran had a nuclear weapon, imagine if we are

where we are today and if they could project power of a nuclear power into

the Middle East, how our deterrent would be so nearly impossible.  So I

think that President Trump walking away without a strategy basically hoping

that maximum pressure would either incite a riot that would overthrow the

theocratic regime or that Iran would be brought to its knees was without an

understanding of the consequences. 


We saw the other day that the president should have known if in fact we

took the retaliatory action we did in response to Americans being killed,

by taking a strike on KH, on Kataib Hezbollah, that there would be a

reaction.  So, we should have fortified our embassy. We should have talked

to the Iraq government and it doesn`t appear we did any of those things, to

get ready for that retaliatory attack, which makes me very nervous about

whether in fact there is a plan to deal with what`s to come in the days



And Iran would be smart about this.  They would react but do it as we

would, at a time and place of their choosing and that means we have to be

prepared everywhere. 


O`DONNELL:  Joining us by phone from West Palm Beach is Hallie Jackson, NBC

News chief White House correspondent. 


And, Hallie, what are you learning from the White House tonight, and have

you heard anything from the White House about plans to deal with




interesting question, Lawrence.  We`ve been doing a lot of reporting from

our sources here in West Palm and back in Washington.  I can tell you that

President Trump was at Mar-a-Lago tonight. 


Our team is confirming he spoke with his national security advisor and

Ambassador Robert O`Brien.  Tonight, I`m told by one source that O`Brien is

at Mar-a-Lago with the president or had been this evening at Mar-a-Lago

with the president, obviously, and not surprising given the enormity what`s

at stake here. 


The president, you have to think about how he spent his day.  He was

largely for most of the day off Twitter which has been somewhat unusual

over this holiday break.  He`s been particularly vocal about the

impeachment proceedings against him.  We did not see much of that after

9:00 this morning.  He spent about 5 hours plus at his golf club and then

returned back to Mar-a-Lago where he`s been since right around 3:15, 3:30

this afternoon. 


So, that is what we know about the president`s activity.  The White House

is leaning on this statement you have been reporting tonight from Defense

Secretary Mark Esper confirming, of course, the death of Soleimani, the

question now is what happens next with Iran, how does the U.S. essentially

disentangle itself or not from this escalation that has occurred tonight? 


The president – keep in mind – the activities this week just 48 hours ago

was standing at the steps here in Palm Beach telling reporters, telling

Americans, telling the world he believed that peace with Iran would be the

better solution, essentially.  Telling people he did not want war with

Iran.  Yet, that is exactly the concern from experts we`ve been talking to

tonight, that that is what the U.S. is stepping into potentially here. 


The other piece of this we`re watching is not just what would happen to the

president tomorrow, and by the way, it`s still not clear what his schedule

will be.  Typically, we know sometime in the evening, to see what the

president is going to be doing the next day.  I can`t share that with you

right now because we just don`t know.  He`s been set to visit a church for

an evangelical sort of rally or event with evangelicals who support him. 

So, it wouldn`t be surprising if we did see the president tomorrow.  I

would imagine he would want to speak about this now the defense secretary

has confirmed it. 


You also have what`s happening in Congress, and how Capitol Hill is going

to react to that.  We have seen some of this already tonight and perhaps

surprisingly really bifurcated along party lines.  You have some

conservatives, for example, Senator Ben Sasse, others, Senator Marco Rubio,

who are coming out, essentially supporting the action here of the killing

this terrorist, as they put it.  Senator Sasse calling Soleimani, forgive

my French here, but an evil bastard essentially. 


You have on the other hand, people like Senator Chris Murphy who are very

concerned that the president took this action without seeking congressional

approval, and I think that`s the other piece of this fight that you`re

going to see play out on Capitol Hill side of this thing, Lawrence.


O`DONNELL:  Hallie Jackson, chief White House correspondent, thank you very

much for joining us.  Really appreciate that. 


I want to go to Cal Perry.  Cal, the question comes up – I`d also like to

ask the control room to go back to the photographs we have of the scene

tonight.  That`s what you were seeing before.  That is at Baghdad airport,

that is where this missile strike occurred. 


And, Cal, it raises the question what was General Soleimani doing there? 

Why would someone that high ranking, a military officer that valuable be in

the line of fire tonight? 


PERRY:  I think it speaks to who he was as a figure in Iran when I tell you

he did this fairly frequently, that he would visit the front lines, that he

would visit the battlefields both in Syria and in Iraq, and then his photo

would then be circulated across Iranian media and across the country. 


Interesting to note it was actually his name being spray painted along the

walls, the outer walls of the U.S. embassy during those protests.  Our

bureau chief, Ali Arouzi, in Tehran, just actually handed me this.  The

former head of the IRGC is, quote, vowing revenge against the United



So, we`re starting to get some reaction now from Iran. 


When you look at this from the Iranian perspective, we talk about why

perhaps Obama never followed through and did something like this to

Soleimani.  And keep in mind, it was widely understood across the region

that Qasem Soleimani is somebody you don`t touch because of the



I can`t think of anybody who else who is sort of in that category, maybe

Hassan Nasrallah, who is the secretary-general of Hezbollah, who would fall

into that category.


But the reason you don`t do this is because of that strong response, but

also because of what it does politically in Iran.  It strengthens those who

are radical and those who speak out against the U.S.  It lends weight to

those who want to develop nuclear weapons in Iran to protect Iran from what

they would consider a rogue state in the United States.


That is how this is going to be viewed in Iran and in parts of Syria and in

parts Iraq and in parts of Lebanon.  And keep in mind, we`re talking about

a region that continues to sort of lie on a knife`s edge, especially when

you look at Lebanon.


And when you talk about the places that we could see a reaction, Lebanon

has to be the top of that list where Hezbollah is very strong in the south

and could retaliate in some way against Israel.  And it raises the

question, and I know this is a string of questions of what the president

knew, when he knew it and how the U.S. prepared for this.


What did the Israelis know?  Were they a part of this?  What was the talk

amongst allies, if there was any talk?  Certainly a figure of this stature

makes you wonder not only how the decision was made, but as everybody else

is saying, not only what happens now but in what way was the U.S. military

prepared, in what way the U.S. State Department prepared?  This is going to

have ramifications on countries that not in the regions.  This is going to

ramifications, frankly, on the global economy this morning, Lawrence.


LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  Ned Price, again to this question of

Soleimani putting himself in the line of fire like this.  We never see an

American commander of that high rank, this is equivalent in effect to a

cabinet level position, joint chiefs of staff officer.  This is just an

extraordinarily high level.


But Soleimani himself had to know – General Soleimani had to know the kind

of chance he was taking by being in Baghdad and being in the Baghdad




it`s possible, Lawrence.  But at the same time, this is something that

General Soleimani had done for quite some time, frankly.  And he had this

aura of invincibility around him.  He was quite often in Iraq, he was quite

often in Syria, he`s quite often elsewhere, even traveling as far afield in

some cases as Russia.  Because, again, this was not a stateless terrorist

as Bin Laden or Baghdadi was.  This was a powerful military, security and

political figure within Iranian life, probably the most powerful – the

second most powerful person in Iranian society.


And to your question, we`ve been talking about this question of why.  I

think we also need to raise the question of how this was done.


And I would flag two things.  Number one, this was done in Iraq.  And that

is significant, I think, because it really puts on a knife`s edge and

potentially even has the potential to eliminate the partnership that we

have enjoyed with the Iraqi government for some time, a partnership that

was, of course, predicated on the initial disastrous decision in 2003 but

that successive administrations have found a degree of success working with

Iraqi authorities against collective challenges, chiefly the challenge of

counterterrorism and combating ISIS.


I think the operation tonight on sovereign Iraqi soil really calls into

question whether we will have a partner in Baghdad going forward.


But, second, we are already seeing the Trump administration essentially

crowing about this.  The Department of Defense has issued a statement

saying very explicitly that President Trump ordered this operation himself.


Look, the chances of retaliation on the part of the Quds Force, on the part

of other Iranian proxies are profoundly high, and I don`t think we`re going

to get away without some sort of retaliation.  At the same time, if the

administration had taken a different approach, even if they had decided to

undertake this operation but had done so in a way that was quieter, in a

way that was perhaps more discreet, leaving open questions and even this

idea of plausible deniability.


Look, this is region where bad things happen to bad people.  Instead of

taking that route, Trump has decided really to, it seems, take a victory

lap, tweeting this strange American flag tweet, having his Defense

Department say it was him who personally ordered this strike.  And I think

that unfortunately puts even more of a target on Americans both in the

region and, as I said before, even further afield to include in the United

States, where we know the Quds Force in the past has had associates and

even some degree of operational capability.


O`DONNELL:  Hallie Jackson, when she was just with us, talked about the

president this week, saying that he was interested in peace with Iran.  We

have video of that, of what Hallie was referring to.  Let`s watch that.




DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT:  I don`t think that would be a good idea for

Iran.  That wouldn`t last very long.  Do I want to, no.  I want to have

peace.  I like peace.  And Iran should want peace more than anybody.


So I don`t see that happening.  No, I don`t think Iran would want that to

happen.  It would go very quickly.




O`DONNELL:  That was the president Tuesday night on New Year`s Eve.  Here

we are Thursday night.  Daniel Benaim, a couple of things to react to in

there, but let`s react to the last thing the president said.  He doesn`t

want war with Iran, but he said war with Iran would go very quickly.  I

guess he means it would go quicker than war with Iraq.



that`s exactly it.  Look, America is the most powerful military in the

world.  We have the most powerful conventional military.  We`re stronger

than Iran.  They are experts at unconventional warfare.  It`s not clear

where that kind of war would end.  It would be incredibly destructive for

both sides.


And Trump is right that, conventionally, we are superior, but they have all

sorts of other ways to make America feel pain, and there are simply better

ways to handle this problem than reaching the precipice of war with Iran. 

And I think the Iran nuclear deal showed that, and the kind of violence we

may see in the days ahead is deeply troubling.


And I personally hope – I agree with President Trump.  I prefer peace.  I

just don`t see that he`s put us on a path to de-escalate this conflict. 

It`s good to get rid of bad people, but it`s bad to have the region on the

brink of war.


O`DONNELL:  Joining in our discussion now, Jonathan Alter.  He`s a

Columnist from The Daily Beast and an MSNBC Political Analyst.


And here is President Trump who ran on the, I was against the war in Iraq,

I`m going to get everybody out of there.  He`s actually increased the

number of troops in the region, specifically in Iraq and certainly

increased the tensions to put it mildly in Iraq tonight.



wouldn`t last very long –


O`DONNELL:  War with Iran wouldn`t last very long.


ALTER:  You know what that reminded me of, Lawrence?  In 1914, both the

Germans and the French thought that this little fight between them was

going to last for a couple of weeks.  It was kicked off by an assassination

of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Sarajevo, it was called World War I.


People don`t know how wars end.  It`s much easier to start a war than to

end one.  And this was an act of war.  I mean, maybe the predicate made it

necessary.  We don`t know all the details yet.  But the only comparison to

this in all of American history was after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt

ordered the assassination of General Yamamoto, who was the architect of

Pearl Harbor in retaliation of that.  But that was 1942.  That was in the

middle of the war.


So what the United States did tonight, I think it will be understandable

for the Iranians to react to it as an act of war.  The question is how

hardened are our targets around the world?  And I think the answer is not

hardened enough.


Look at the $750 million embassy that we have in Baghdad.  They were able

on December 26th to breach the wall of that unbelievably fortified embassy. 

Now, think of all our other embassies around the world and what the folks

who work there thinking about tonight.


O`DONNELL:  Yes, all of which are generally less fortified than Baghdad.


Andrea Mitchell, I want to bring you back into this going off the point

that President Trump made on New Year`s Eve where he said it would go very

quickly and he`s talking about, of course, full-scale war with Iran, if

now, which will occur, it would go very quickly.  It`s reminding people of

different things.  It`s reminding me of a moment on MEET THE PRESS with our

dear friend, Tim Russert, when the vice president of the United States said

to him that the American troops would be greeted as liberators in Iraq and

in Baghdad, meaning that was his way, that was Dick Cheney`s way of saying

it will go very quickly.  We are still with guns drawn patrolling Iraq.



you brought it back to Iraq because one of my deepest concerns tonight is

how this would be viewed in Iraq, where there`s so much Shia influence, so

much Iranian influence, where the U.S. embassy is so close to Baghdad (ph)

City , where Iranian militias, Iranian-backed militias and the attacks they

were – the U.S. retaliated against killed 25 Iraqis.


Now, they were Iranian sympathizers, Iranian supporters but there was fury

in Iraq.  All those protests, weeks and weeks of protests that we`ve seen

over the months, in fact, against Iran and other interests in Iraq changed

almost overnight after those weekend attacks because it was considered

disproportionate because Iraqis died, because there was no warning.


We warned other leaders in the region, but there was no warning to the

Iraqi leaders.  That was probably considered because of military security. 

But the fact was that Iranian – Iraqi nationalism has arisen against

America over this in the last couple of days.


We`ve seen anti-Americanism run rampant in Iraq and no longer considered

liberators at all with all the ups and downs of our terrible experience in

Iraq, which you remind us of with that Dick Cheney interview with Tim



The fact is that in the days since last weekend`s strikes, where an

American contractor tragically died and there was reason to retaliate, but

the way we retaliated and the deaths of 25 Iraqis really enraged the Iraqi



And when Mark Esper said to me, the defense secretary said to me today,

well, they reacted too slowly solely, that was a signal we`ve also heard

from other U.S. officials that I`ve been told that there`s no way that the

militias – they`re not protesters, they were militants, they were rioters,

they could not have gotten into the green zone that close to the embassy

walls if there was not some compliance from the Iraqi security that is so

heavily embedded with Iranians and with Iranian supporters.


The Iranian influence, I mean, the Iraqi government is torn between the

U.S. and Tehran and Tehran is its neighbor next door, and we`re not going

to win that battle.


O`DONNELL:  We`re going to have squeeze in a quick break right here. 

Everyone is going to stay with us.  When we return, we`ll be joined by

presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker.  We will get his reaction to

the developments in Iraq tonight.


We`ll be right back.




O`DONNELL:  We`re covering breaking news from Iraq tonight.  It is best

described in a statement issued by the Defense Department, which I will

read the beginning of tonight.  It says, at the direction of the president,

the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S.

personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian

Revolutionary Guard Corps, Quds Force, U.S.-designated foreing terrorist



General Soleimani was killed in a missile strike by the United States at

Baghdad Airport tonight in Iraq.


Joining us now is presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker.  He is a

member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  And, Senator, I want to

get your reaction to this development from Iraq tonight, the killing of the

top Iranian general at Baghdad Airport.



clear, Soleimani has American blood on his hands.  He has been involved and

ordered attacks that have cost American lives and wounded many of other

soldiers.  This is somebody who is a bad person.


But we also have to look at the larger strategic situation in that area. 

We have a president who has had really a failure in his Iranian policy,

who`s had no larger strategic plan, who has made that region less stable

and less safe not only for Americans but for other countries, whether it`s

our ally, Israel, whether it`s the fact that Hezbollah as of now better

armed.  And, in fact, Syria now has become a super highway for arming those

terrorists, whether it`s a situation in the gulf, whether it`s a situation

in Yemen and more.


And so this is something that facts are still unfolding.  We have a lot

more to have to understand whether this met the standards for the

authorization of military force.  What was the involvement with Iraqis in

terms of their strategic objectives and what will be the following days be

like for the safety and security and the strength of our overall situation

right now with Iran?


O`DONNELL:  If the Iran deal – the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by

President Obama and Ambassador Wendy Sherman, John Kerry, if that had held

in place, if President Trump had not tampered with it, where would we be



BOOKER:  Well, first of all, understand, the president`s America first

policy is really America – isolated America alone.  We turned our backs at

having a – standing firmly with our allies in a strategy with Iran, and we

pulled out of that deal.  And now Iran has been doing more things to

disable that region as well as now violating the original plans, the

original part of that deal by heading more quickly towards a nuclear



So, clearly, that was a bad decision and has destabilized the region and

has alienated us more so from critical allies we would need in a diplomatic

fashion to reduce tensions in that area.  And this again goes to the fact

that this president has no larger strategic plan for that area, has

destabilized it, made it less safe and made it a lot harder for us,

frankly, to come to diplomatic conclusions that won`t necessitate what it

seems like he`s going towards is more and more military conflict.


O`DONNELL:  Now, if the Iran nuclear deal had stayed in place and we never

got to this point, which may be the case this wouldn`t have come up, but it

is now in front of us as a presidential decision, and I want to put the

presidential decision to you.  And it`s in the first – it`s in the second

sentence, actually, of the Defense Department`s statement tonight.  They

said this.  General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack

American diplomats and service members in Iran and throughout the region.


How would you make the presidential decision about what to do about that if

that`s accurate and if you were accurately presented with information that

said General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American

diplomats?  What would you need to make a presidential decision about what

to do here, and what would that decision be?


BOOKER:  Let`s have no – no unclarity about this.  Let`s be resolute and

clear.  If there are imminent attacks on the United States of America, the

president of the United States has an obligation to defend this nation,

whether it`s here at home or our troops abroad.  And so, again, these are

statements coming from the Trump White House.  There`s a lot more facts

that have to come out to see if indeed this president who already has done

things that have undermined what people on both sides of political aisle on

the Senate have said do not constitute an authorization for the use of

military force.


Again, our involvement in Yemen, bipartisan rebuke of that, again, his

attacks on the Assad regime, there were many of us in the Senate that said

very clearly that that did not amount to having an authorization, the use

military force.  So, clearly, there`s no question about it.  The presidents

need to be resolute and strong in defending this nation.


But this is a president that, again, has made this country less safe

because of his lack of strategy and doing foreign policy by impulse, by

Tweet against even his generals and his advisers, who many of them are

finding out about his policy decisions from his social media.  This is not

a way to run American foreign policy and not a way to create safety, not to

mention peace in that region.


O`DONNELL:  Senator, I want to ask you about the president`s New Year`s Eve

comment.  We ran it earlier on video on the show, what he said about war

with Iran.  He was asked about that by a reporter who said, do you foresee

going to war with Iran, and he said, I don`t think that would be a good

idea for Iran.  He said, I like peace, and his final line about a war with

Iran was it would go very quickly.  What is your reaction to that?


BOOKER:  Look where we are right now in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is a

president who has had now years of being a president at war, and he has not

ended them very quickly.  This is a president who claims to know more about

military issues than his own generals.  This is president who has shown, in

my opinion, from the situation in the Middle East to the situation in

countries like El Salvador, Honduras, to be an ultimate failure when it

comes to foreign policy.  He believes the national security threat is

Canada then because he used national security waivers to put tariffs on our

Canadian neighbors.


So I have grave concerns about the safety of this nation and our ability to

stand with our allies to meet our challenges, whether it`s nuclear

proliferation in North Korea or in Iran, or even the greatest national

security threat we see, the humanity over the next 20-plus years, which is

climate change.  And, again he pulls out of international agreements.


This Middle East we have seen is not going to be solved.  As we know in

Afghanistan now with the Afghan papers coming out, we are not going to

solve these problems, as our own generals are saying with our United States

military.  There must be diplomatic solutions.


And we had a clear diplomatic with our Iran anti-nuclear deal with multiple

nations, from China to Russia, to our European allies.  This is a president

who turned his back on that.  And now, we`re seeing the consequences of

more instability and unfortunately more violence.


O`DONNELL:  Senator, before you go, I have to ask you about Impeachment. 

Senator Schumer had a conference call with all of you Democratic members of

the Senate on the last day of the year, and I think the afternoon of New

Year`s Eve.  He apparently told you where he was strategically, where he is

going forward.  He intends to make a speech, as he told you, Democratic

senators, on Tuesday.


Tomorrow, on the Senate, presumably after Mitch McConnell makes a speech on

the Senate floor about what to expect in the impeachment trial or where

their two positions are at the moment in the impeachment trial.  What do

you expect to hear from Senator Schumer tomorrow?


BOOKER:  In the short strokes, I`m not sure how this is going to play out. 

I know in the longer term, this is a trial that will come to the United

States Senate.  But, clearly, there`s something wrong here and most

Americans know that.  We have serious accusations but yet the relevant

witnesses have never come before Congress because this president hasn`t

allowed them to do.  We could clear this all up real quick if having people

the president`s chief of staff, who was in the room when this happened,

swear under oath that you`ll the truth and then tell the American people

what happened.


I don`t know what they`re afraid of, but they don`t want to let relevant

witnesses come in that could let us shine a light on exactly whether the

president is exonerated or, frankly, what I think is more likely to happen

because we already know from information that all the people around him

knew what he was doing was wrong, tried to cover it up or tried to get him

to change his mind.


So it`s time that we have the relevant witnesses come to the United States

Senate.  All of us should want the truth to come out.  Why are they

preventing the truth being presented to the American people?  These folks

should testify in the Senate in a trial.  And I know that`s what Nancy

Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are trying to achieve.


O`DONNELL:  Presidential candidate Senator Cory Booker, thank you very much

for joining us.  I really appreciate it.


BOOKER:  Thank you for having.


O`DONNELL:  Senator Cory Booker joining us from New Hampshire.


And our panel is back with us.  And, Ambassador Wendy Sherman, having

worked on the Iran nuclear deal, that it contained, I believe, a hope

beyond just control of nuclear weapons, but a path, an opening to generally

better relations with Iran, if that had gone the way you hoped it would go,

where would we be now three, four years later after negotiating that deal?



I would hope he would be in a very much better place than we are today.  It

would have at least, as I think Cal said earlier, opened a channel of

communication that will allow us to take care and deal with very difficult

situations that happened after the deal when American sailors were taken by



John Kerry, secretary of state, was able to pick up the phone and talked to

Foreign Minister Zarif and get our sailors back within 24 hours.  So it

became a sort of a hotline ability to deal with very difficult situations

and we still had plenty of sanctions in place to deal with all of the other

nefarious behavior or Iran.


I would hope we get back there someday tonight.  I`m rather skeptical.


O`DONNELL:  Cal Perry, it seems like there`s no hotline to anyone in Iran



PERRY:  No.  And I think it`s worth mentioning we are, of course, mindful

of U.S. troops in the field.  But as the sun comes up in Iran and it is

7:00 A.M. there now, it is worth mentioning, it is worth remembering that

millions of people in Iran and in Syria and in Lebanon and in Israel are

waking up this morning very, very scared in a region that seems to be one

step closer to another war, Lawrence.


O`DONNELL:  Daniel Benaim, what do you expect to see in news coverage what

we will see, literally see in Iran tomorrow?


BENAIM:  I think you`ll see Qasem Soleimani treated as a martyr and treated

as a hero of his country, which is not how we Americans see him.  But you

can certainly expect the Iranian regime to use this for all the propaganda

value they can inside Iran, across the region, and in Iraq, where the

Iraqis are just caught in between America and Iran and feeling trampled

under these big dogs at the moment, as you can expect Iran to try to use

this for propaganda value everywhere.


O`DONNELL:  And, Jonathan Alter, one thing we are sure of is that this

president won`t be handling the aftermath of this publicly the way any

other president would.


ALTER:  Right.  I think that`s what`s maybe most frightening about it.


But let`s assume for a minute that he was at the Baghdad Airport and

deserved this, okay.  Let`s just stipulate that.  Let`s just say maybe it

was the right decision to take him out.  But you have in that case, right

decision, wrong commander-in-chief.


So you need somebody at the helm who can navigate skillfully in

extraordinarily complex set of events that he has now set in motion.  And I

personally have no confidence that this particular commander-in-chief can

do that.  So we have like a guy who is driving down the highway at 100

miles an hour going through the guardrails.  He was going through

guardrails here in the United States.  Now, he`s going through guardrails

internationally.  And we do not know what the wreckage is going to be.


O`DONNELL:  Andrea Mitchell, what are you looking at as the next stage of

this story?


MITCHELL:  Well, there is going to be a lot of claiming of credit for this. 

The president with his flag tweet has certainly made this a U.S. versus

Iran event, if it weren`t already from the claim of responsibility for this

as a defensive act, they say.


Interestingly, Israel had many opportunities to take Soleimani out and did

not for fear of retaliation, for fear of what a cultural figure he was

throughout the Middle East.  So I fear retaliation.


And as others have suggested, at the time and place of Iran`s choosing,

which could even reach over the waters to the United States, grave concerns

that there is no plan, that there is no policy, that this is another one-

off act, perhaps, well, justified by Soleimani`s career of murder and

terrorism, but one that has not been well thought and well planned.


O`DONNELL:  Wendy, on that point that Andrea just mentioned that Israel

certainly had the capacity to do this, they chose not to.  Israel is a bold

actor in the region.  They`re not timid about making the decisions that may

make.  Review for us quickly just the case against taking out this general

this way.


SHERMAN:  The case against taking him out is because of the retaliation,

because of how he is seen in the Middle East.  He`s not loved by all the

Iranian people.  But among the politicians in Iran, he is a cult figure,

and he has used to really pull the country together.  So this will increase

the nationalism, and it will increase the retaliation.


O`DONNELL:  That is our last word for this hour.  I want to thank you all,

Andrea Mitchell, Wendy Sherman, Daniel Benaim, Jonathan Alter, Ned Price,

Cal Perry, thank you all for guiding us.




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