Pentagon says U.S. Strike. TRANSCRIPT: 1/2/20, The Last Word w/ Lawrence O’Donnell.
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.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST, “TRMS”: Yes.
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
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.
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, there
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
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.
CAL PERRY, MSNBC INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I`m not sure what the
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?
AMB. WENDY SHERMAN, FORMER UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS:
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
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
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
DANIEL BENAIM, MIDDLE EAST POLICY ADVISER, OBAMA ADMINISRATION: Well,
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
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
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
HALLIE JACKSON, NBC NEWS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. It`s an
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
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
NED PRICE, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR, OBAMA NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Well,
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.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
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.
DANIEL BENAIM, MIDDLE EAST POLICY ADVISER, OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Well,
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
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.
JONATHAN ALTER, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, when he said it
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
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.
ANDREA MITCHELL, MSNBC CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: And I`m glad
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.
SEN. CORY BOOKER (D-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, first, let`s be
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
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
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
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?
AMB. WENDY SHERMAN, FORMER LEAD NEGOTIATOR ON THE IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL: Well,
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
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
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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Copyright 2020 ASC Services II Media, LLC. All materials herein are
protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced,
distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the
prior written permission of ASC Services II Media, LLC. You may not alter
or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the