Show: 11TH HOUR WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS Date: April 13, 2018 Guest: Barry McCaffrey, Jack Jacobs, Matt Apuzzo
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: -- the 11:00 hour here on the East Coast, which would normally be our hour of programming on a week night like this. But we are covering, of course, a different story. We`re going to be mixing in some of the political coverage. The 11:00 hour has indeed arrived.
And if you`ve been following the news this evening, either here on television or via your device, you know that after a tumultuous day in the life of this administration and American politics, it has been capped off tonight by American military action in Syria. American pilots and aviators have gone to work in the skies surrounding that nation. A lot of American Navy assets have gone to work tonight, and we`re hearing that approximately 120 cruise missiles in all were lobbed into Syria, mostly at three different locations.
The mission tonight was clearly stated at the Pentagon, and that was to degrade Syria`s chemical weapon ability. It all started 9:00 Eastern Time with about a five-minute address by President Trump. Here`s a portion of that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States. The combined American, British, and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power, military, economic, and diplomatic. We are prepared to sustain this response until the Syrian regime stops its use of prohibited chemical agents.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Well, I got one mistake on the board already, and the night is young. Obviously that was President Donald Trump, after a two-term President, it`s always a hard habit to break. I apologize for mislabeling that.
As I said, President Trump spoke for about five minutes from the White House tonight. There was something of a disagreement between his remarks, talk of an extended or prolonged campaign, and the remarks delivered at the Pentagon by Retired General Mattis, now the Secretary of Defense, who really in effect used a phrase like how tonight was a one-shot deal.
Courtney Kube is our NBC News National Security and Military Reporter. She`s been present at the Pentagon tonight for all of this.
Courtney, do you see the disagreement in the language? It was striking in realtime. Do you think it has any deeper meaning, and are we to assume that the Secretary of Defense had the last word on this one?
COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS NATIONAL SECUIRTY REPORTER: Well, he certainly said that this wave of attacks is over and that this was a one-off. But defense officials are explaining the difference between what we heard from President Trump at the White House tonight and what we heard from Secretary Mattis about this campaign and whether it`s a sustained campaign or not as, well, if Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons again against his people, then the U.S. will retaliate again.
So when President Trump is talking about a sustained campaign, it seems he didn`t mean something that would be a matter of one or two days or three days in a row, but something that might continue to evolve over time in the Assad regime continues to attack their people with chemical weapons.
WILLIAMS: We`re seeing some of the first still images alongside of you on the screen, and they are striking against the night sky. Courtney, is this estimate I`m hearing 120 cruise missiles? Does it sound about right given what else you`re hearing?
KUBE: Well, Secretary Mattis and General Dunford didn`t want to give out a whole lot of operational details, which is sort of what we in the press corps here crave. What Mattis did say at one point was that they used about double the number of weapons that they did in the April 2017 attack. That was 59 T-lams, Tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean for that April of 2017 attack.
We can assume that means that there were twice as many cruise missiles. What we don`t know is if that was all U.S., and we also don`t know there were manned aircraft involved in this strike tonight, and we don`t know what was dropped from those and if there was some combination of the two.
We`re all waiting to hear that. We`re going to supposed to get some more operational details tomorrow morning, Saturday at 9:00 a.m. in another briefing.
But we can assume that there was about that many dropped or that were targeted. They were precision weapons as President Trump said against three targets. And it`s important to point out here, you know, these three targets were Syrian military. When they talk about, you know, chemical weapons storage facility and a production and research and development, and then a command and control, these are Syrian military targets.
But part of the reason that the U.S. military and the French and the British targeted them in the middle of the night was to minimize civilian casualties and to minimize casualties among Syrian regime who might be there. If it`s the middle of the night, chances are unless you`re in the Pentagon at 11:00 on a Friday night, chances are there aren`t going to be as many people in the building at that time. Brian.
WILLIAMS: And, Courtney a lot of people just getting home and hearing this news that we went after. The mission was to degrade Syria`s chemical weapons ability. When people hear we went after chemical weapon targets per se, what does that mean about the weapons themselves in an act that`s trying to destroy them, they become airborne?
KUBE: So, Secretary Mattis was specifically asked about that, too. So in April of 2017 when they hit Shayrat airfield, the U.S. military specifically did not target a storage facility where they new the chemical weapons were stored. And at the time, you know, a lot of us ask, "Why didn`t you go after it?" And they said, "Well, we`re concerned about potentially going into the atmosphere, going into the groundwater, what not."
Well, tonight they hit one of those storage facilities. We don`t know what was stored there, whether it was chlorine, whether it was some sort of a nerve agent. When Secretary Mattis was asked specifically, you know, "Could you guarantee that none of that would get out," and he said, "No, of course, I can`t."
WILLIAMS: And we still don`t know with any certainty if air defenses engaged with seriousness and if any aircraft from any of the three nations were hit either on the way in or on the way out.
KUBE: Or missiles for that matter. But General Dunford did say that there were no U.S. losses. You know, the British and the French didn`t speak of anything. They weren`t going to get out ahead of their governments. But no U.S. losses means we can pretty safely assume that no U.S. aircraft were hit in this strike.
General Dunford did say that some of the Syrian surface to air missile systems engaged. We don`t know exactly what that means, whether they locked on to any U.S. aircraft or allied aircraft or cruise missiles or whether, you know, they just at some point they sort of fired up but didn`t actually engage and fire off. That`s something, again, another thing that we hope to hear a little bit more about tomorrow.
You know, another question that came up, of course, is more details about the U.S. confidence in the attack over the weekend in Syria, in Douma, that killed at least 40 people, injured as many as 500 Syrian civilians in that area. And Secretary Mattis said tonight that he is very confident that that attack was carried out by the Syrian regime. He said that they are confident that there was at least one chemical present, potentially a second one, and he would not rule out that that second one was sarin.
WILLIAMS: And I`m duty-bound to point out that what is it, two weeks since the President called for our withdrawal from Syria. This certainly marks a striking reversal.
KUBE: Well, but you have to keep in mind -- I mean, yes, you`re right, absolutely, Brian. But, you know, keep in mind what he`s talking about in the withdrawal from Syria is --
WILLIAMS: Two thousand ground troops.
KUBE: -- exactly. Where these strikes were tonight, near Damascus, outside Damascus and up near Homs, the U.S. military is on the opposite side of the country from that. They`re fighting in the lower and sort of up towards the middle Euphrates River Valley and the up towards Mezzeh (ph).
And Secretary -- I`m sorry, President Trump was specifically talking about that mission, and that mission being virtually over. He said something else during his remarks tonight that in the last year, nearly 100% of ISIS` territory has been taken away. That`s just not true.
I mean over the course of the entire sustained campaign against ISIS by the U.S. and by the Syrian defense forces -- I`m sorry, the Syrian democratic forces, the U.S. ally there on the ground, they have taken back a large percentage of the ISIS territory that`s been taken. Somewhere around 95%. But that`s been a sustained campaign over several years. It`s not just since President Trump came into office, Brian.
WILLIAMS: All right, Courtney Kube at the Pentagon for us. Courtney, thank you as always for taking our questions. Courtney`s been there at work all night.
Cal Perry is our NBC News Global Editor. He is in our newsroom with what he`s been able to see and gather and vacuum up regarding video and reporting from overseas on just what took place tonight. Cal?
CAL PERRY, NBC NEWS GLOBAL EDITOR: Yes, Brian, just off the phone with somebody in Damascus in the western part of the city, and I can crystallize a little bit what Courtney is saying there about the targets. Three targets in and around Damascus. The first, an airfield, the Mezzeh airfield, excuse me, just south of Damascus. This is where helicopters have been launched from over the past two years. Of course it`s been those horrible barrel bombs in addition to the use of chemical weapons that has claimed the lives of so many Syrian civilians. That base central for that effort.
In Jamraya that`s in the northern part of the city, a barracks believed to house what they call the 41 guard. That is the Syrian republican guard. Those are the sort of front line troops that Assad has been using backed by Russian forces.
The final target in a neighborhood called Barzeh. It`s in the eastern part of the city. This is what the Pentagon referred to as the "scientific research facility." When you hear the phrase scientific research facility, that means a chemical weapons production facility.
The person I spoke to on the ground in Damascus and all of these targets also confirmed by the Syrian opposition, saying that there is sort of a red glow from that facility where it`s believed that fires are burning this morning. The strikes, it`s important we should say to our viewers, terrifying of course for those living in Damascus. It`s worth also reinforcing the idea that the Syrian people have been through, you know, seven years of horrible, horrible war, and this was another long night.
There does seem to be some relief there on the ground that this may have been a one-off strike, that this may have been a message to the Syrian President, and they will now wait to see if there are further messages. Also, these targets in Homs, Brian, very difficult to get information on those targets because Homs, as you know, is a city that`s been flattened repeatedly.
WILLIAMS: All right. Cal Perry, thank you for that. To viewers who have tuned in hoping for and looking for coverage of today in politics, in all things administration-related, we will have that as well. We were handed this breaking news earlier this evening.
To Andrea Mitchell we go next, our Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent. And, Andrea, let me start with you where we boldly went with Rick Stengel a few moments ago. And that is it didn`t take long. Bolton`s first week of work as national security adviser. The reports that surfaced today of a, let`s called it a disagreement over what tonight should be, how big tonight should be.
Should tonight be the first strike of a long series of them? Not the first time there`s been tension generated by a national security adviser who has proximity to the President.
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Indeed. And this is a national security adviser who, in fact, does not have a secretary of state to deal with right now. So there`s an acting secretary. He`s in Peru with the Vice President, pretty much babysitting the summit of the Americas.
There was a great deal of distress that the President was not there for that. The explanation was that he was watching Syria. But those close to the White House said he was really watching cable television and all of the reports about that raid on Monday against his personal lawyer, so that that was as much a preoccupation if not more these week then these number of national security meetings to come up with a strategy.
Only 11 days ago, as quite he was alluding to there was a fierce national security debate with the President having said twice, once in Ohio and once in the White House, that he wants to get out of Syria, that we`re done with ISIS. And at the very same time, General Votel, the Regional Commander only a couple of blocks away in Washington, simultaneously saying that the hard work is now beginning in Syria, the really hard work, that we`re not at all done. That was not resolved at that April 4th national security meeting.
There was a fierce debate with the Pentagon, with Jim Mattis saying to the President, "We`re not done. We cannot withdraw 2,000 troops." And he`s saying, "Well, how long will it take? Six months, a year?" And he said he wanted to -- reluctantly he said -- he was really angry. "I want it to be months, not years." So that was exactly 11 days ago.
And then of course this chemical attack, the proof that they were trying to gather. They were obviously waiting until they had enough and had the allied response. But the fact is this was a one-and-done attack. Twice as many weapons as a year ago, but the question that Helene Cooper, our colleague and friend from "The New York Times" asked of Jim Mattis and General Dunford, if it didn`t work a year ago, April 6th, 2017, why will this deter Bashar al-Assad, excuse me --
WILLIAMS: Bashar al-Assad.
MITCHELL: --and of course his Russian and Iranian protectors? One thing about what you were just discussing is John Bolton`s first week. The language the President used in a speech that was vetted by the National Security Council was so different from the explanation, the description of Jim Mattis and General Dunford that you have to think that that is where the disconnect, the messaging is going to be.
One thing out of the White House and certainly the President on Twitter and another message coming from the Pentagon who are trained to be precise. They know the importance of being fact based. And that`s where I think you`re going to see this disagreement. And it is really confusing allies and adversaries, and there`s a lot of discomfort on the Hill.
The leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell -- the leaders were briefed in both parties, the gang of eight. But the fact is that both Schumer and Pelosi have said this is not a strategy. One strike is not a strategy.
And importantly, John McCain in his statement says, while praising this action against the chemical targets, and he was waiting to hear more about the targeting, he said, "To succeed in the long run, we need a comprehensive strategy for Syria and the region." He writes, "The President needs to lay out our goals not just with regard to ISIS, which has been the administration`s goal, but also the ongoing conflict in Syria and malign Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Air strikes disconnected from a broader strategy may be necessary, that they alone will not achieve U.S. objectives in the Middle East."
He is still the sitting chairman of Armed Services, and he`s still very much engaged even from his sickbed in Arizona.
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Andrea Mitchell, thank you so much for that report.
We`re going to bring on someone you know as well, and that`s John Brennan, Former CIA Director, currently NBC News Senior National Security and Intelligence Analyst. I`m told we have a healthy satellite delay, so I`ll ask my questions and stand back and wait for the answers.
Director Brennan, a two-part question to start you off. Your opinion of the mission as you`ve heard details of it on this broadcast and elsewhere that was executed tonight. And the second part of the question, is it fair to apply extra scrutiny to what the U.S. did tonight in the context of the President`s state of mind, the day he had today, yelling on social media in all capital letters, name-calling a highly agitated state because of the turn the investigation has taken toward him via his personal counsel?
JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Well, good evening, Brian. And I think the way that the strikes were carried out was, I think, consistent with what the United States has tried to do in the past when dealing with such a difficult situation such as Syria. One is that we didn`t do it unilaterally. We did it with our closest allies and partners, France and the U.K.
Secondly, we were very surgical in terms of the strikes, going after the fabrication facilities, storage as well as delivery mechanisms and airfields. So I think the way that was done was, again, consistent with what the U.S. military tries to do in these situations. As far as whether or not some of these other things came into play, I hope they didn`t. I certainly don`t know.
There is good reason to be able to try to deter Bashar al-Assad from continuing to carry out these chemical attacks. And one could argue whether or not, you know, the types of strikes that were taken were appropriate. There are questions about the President`s constitutional authorities. I`m sure he used his Article II authorities, which allows him to take action to bench arm to our U.S. national security.
This is different than the strikes that we`ve been taking inside of Syria against terrorist elements like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. That`s done under the EW&F (ph). This is a different type of strike against Syrian targets.
WILLIAMS: I neglected to say you are at an airport prior to hopping on a plane. We appreciate you doing that. That should explain some of the noise our viewers are hearing in the background.
Director Brennan, I`m going to read you a quote from Mr. Comey`s book, copies of which started circulating yesterday. It`s called "A Higher Loyalty." He speaks specifically here in what I`m going to read you about the meeting that you well remember, January 17, Trump Tower. The early transition meeting where our big three in your line of work, and that would be Brennan, Clapper, and Comey, briefed the President and his small circle of advisers on the world they are inheriting, specifically Russian meddling.
Here`s what Comey writes. "What I found telling was that Trump and his team didn`t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be, nor did they ask how the United States might prepare itself to meet that threat. Instead, with the four of us still in our seats, including two outgoing Obama appointees, the president-elect and his team shifted immediately into a strategy session about messaging on Russia. And about how they could spin what we`d just told them."
"I have been in many intelligence briefings with the two previous presidents and have never seen Presidents Bush or Obama discuss communications and political strategy in front of intelligence community leaders. There had always been a line."
Director Brennan, your response, your memories of that day in Trump Tower.
BRENNAN: Well, my recollection of that meeting and the reactions to our briefing are consistent with what Jim Comey has written in his book. Obviously this was a very important session with the incoming administration, and we wanted to make sure that we underscored just how serious this issue was and the challenges that we faced from the Russians. And so, we tried to deliver the briefing as factually and as directly as we could.
This is a new team. I can understand that. I would have hoped by then, in early January, that they would have appreciated the importance of this issue and tried to look at some of the aspects of what they could do to prevent a recurrence. But, yes, what Jim Comey wrote is wholly consistent with my memory.
WILLIAMS: What do you make of the news today of the pardon of Scooter Libby?
BRENNAN: Well, I think it sends a bad signal certainly to a lot of C.I. officers who very much are concerned about the protection of their identities, particularly those who are under cover. And to give a pardon to an individual who was responsible for the leaking and disclosure of an officer`s name is something that I think agency officers took very seriously. And so, there are questions about what was the motivation of Mr. Trump in granting this pardon. I don`t think he had a particular relationship or affinity with Scooter Libby.
Was it designed to send a signal that he`s willing to use his pardon authority for whatever purposes he wants? That may be the case. But it was something certainly that was not welcomed, I`m sure, by the intelligence community.
WILLIAMS: Director Brennan, Rod Rosenstein, acting A.G. on all matters Russia-related, is being quoted. It`s the reporting of NBC News that he has told intimates he is mentally prepared at least to be fired, something that`s been long rumored. If that happens, if it happens tonight, Sunday night, next week, what stage do you think we will have reached? What will that mean for the country and this investigation? What level of warning would you recommend?
BRENNAN: Well, I am very worried about the possibility that Rod Rosenstein may be fired. I think Mr. Trump can come up with some pretext for the firing, which would be a prelude to trying to undermine the ongoing special counsel investigation.
I think that if Rod Rosenstein was fired, that the members of Congress should go to basically battle stations because this, I think, is going to send a clear signal that Mr. Trump will do whatever it takes to undermine this investigation and prevent it from coming to its conclusion. But a number of developments over the past several days, including the subpoena that was issued as far as gaining information from David -- from Cohen`s office, the lawyer for Mr. Trump, I think it clearly suggests that there is increasing basis to pursue this investigation with all due vigor. And Rod Rosenstein is one of the people who I think is ensuring that it is going forward in the appropriate manner consistent with the law and to make sure that no one, absolutely no one in this country is above the law.
WILLIAMS: When you settle into your seat on whatever plane you`re taking to whatever destination tonight and close your eyes, are you content that some action will take place in Washington, D.C., even among elected officials, to protect the job and the role of the special counsel?
BRENNAN: Well, I am very confident that this country`s democracy is very, very strong and that when push comes to shove, those who may have been reluctant in the past to do what is necessary to protect this democracy will rise to the occasion. I`m hoping that certainly is going to be the case, and so I have confidence that we will prevail during this period of time, which is challenging. And I do hope that Mr. Trump just does the right thing here for the good of the country, not put himself first but put the country first.
And those surrounding him in the White House, those in the Congress, particularly in the Republican leadership need to recognize that this is a critical point in this nation`s history. And what happens in the days, weeks ahead could, in fact, be very dispositive as far as this country`s future in terms of making sure that we adhere to the rule of law and make sure that we hold Presidents to account for their actions.
WILLIAMS: One more question. Then I swear you`re as good as on the jetway. And the question is this. About a month ago, I guess, you on this network said to our friends at Morning Joe, the Russians may have something on Trump personally.
A, do you still believe that? And, B, knowing what we know now about the Trump Tower meeting January `17, was that part of your original source material for believing that?
BRENNAN: What I was doing was responding to a question about whether the Russians might have something on Mr. Trump, and I think I said possible, perhaps. I don`t know. But I was questioning why Mr. Trump was being so submissive to Mr. Putin, why he was not confronting the Russians.
I`m glad that he has taken, I think, a very appropriate and tough stand against the Russians in terms of support for Bashar al-Assad. But I am concerned that -- where this investigation is going to go when I hear now that there are reports that Mr. Cohen was in Prague despite his repeated denials. There is more and more indications that there is something here that is far, far from being anything near a witch hunt.
And I think, again, the people who have the responsibility for leading this country, whether it be in the Congress or in the Executive Branch, need to do the right thing. Need to put political parties and political agendas aside and make sure that now they follow, I think, a path that is going to get this country back on track because as we confront issues such as Syria, North Korea, other matters, this is the time that we need a President who is strong, who is capable, and someone who has the trust and confidence of the american people. And I am very concerned that that`s not the case right now.
WILLIAMS: The senior most of our analysts around here, John Brennan, Former CIA Director, thank you very much for taking time out of your travels and your night to be with us. Really appreciate it.
We are joined now by our two military analysts, retired U.S. Army Four-star General Barry McCaffrey. He`s out in Seattle. We should also mention as a former ground commander in the Middle East, he`s got more than a little experience in this part of the world. And retired U.S. Army Colonel Jack Jacobs, a heavily decorated combat veteran from Vietnam, one of only 71 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. Gentlemen, great to have you both back on, and thank you for doing so.
General McCaffrey, what do you make of the initial reports of what went on tonight of you and Colonel Jacobs have been talking about defining the mission. Do you feel that was reached tonight?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S ARMY (RET): Look, Brian, I think on balance, it was a very competent military operation run by CentCom commanded by General Votel in Tampa, Florida. I thought the President`s statement was well crafted and straightforward. Secretary Mattis and General Dunford unsurprisingly were coherent and focused.
It`s worth underscoring that this was a very, very limited strike both in the scope and probably more importantly in the target set.
We talk about storage facilities, scientific research or production facilities. There`s not much research needed to make sarin gas, never mind chlorine. The production facilities for these one-off disastrous strikes against civilians are not giant industrial capacities. So I don`t think we did much more than send a determined military signal to the Syrians that we`re not going to tolerate the reintroduction of chemical warfare into the world arena.
So the good news is it apparently didn`t involve Russian significant casualties. I don`t hear anything that suggests the S-400 missile systems the Russians have there were engaged against tomahawks or other cruise missiles. So very carefully crafted operation by Secretary Mattis, a good news.
WILLIAMS: Colonel Jacobs, same question.
COL. JACK JACOBS, U.S ARMY (RET): Yes, I think it`s interesting that it was limited. I think that Richard Stengel you had on earlier raised a very interesting question about this whole business when he said that Assad pretty much has the war won with Russian help, with Iranian help, and it didn`t make a great deal of strategic sense to drop chemical weapons on that cloistered set of civilians near Damascus. And it was just inviting a response from the United States, and perhaps maybe that was what it was, an attempt to see whether or not what we were made of and whether or not we would respond.
I think that it`s unlikely that they`re going to use chemical weapons again in any case, not because we`ve denigrated their capability, not because we`ve punished them excessively, but primarily because they don`t need to anymore. The President`s assertion that this is something of a continuing exercise, I think was put to rest when General Mattis and General Dunford talked about this being a one-off.
WILLIAMS: General McCaffrey, a friend of mine calls General Mattis the human guardrail over at the Pentagon for the Trump administration. I think it`s fair to say that a lot of people watching tonight were probably made uneasy to learn that there had been a military action taken tonight given the week it`s been for this president, personally, specifically his state of mind, the pressure, and quite frankly because it`s part of the conversation, the need for a distraction, however grand a military action that took. Do you think it`s fair to have that conversation?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, look, I think as a categorical statement, the Armed Forces has enormous trust in Secretary Mattis. You know, he`s a defense intellectual. He`s very thoughtful. He`s a law-based guy. He`s also had machine guns fired by his ears. So I think there`s a great deal of confidence. We know that most of these people, the enormous battle experience of the senior military leadership today, they`re looking for ways to not fight. So we can count on both General Dunford and Secretary Mattis to have that mindset.
I don`t think anything is going to go through the chain of command that doesn`t make sense without Mattis standing up to it. But back to Jack`s point, which I totally agree with, look, there`s other audiences listening to what`s going on in Syria tonight. The North Koreans have immense chemical, biological, and now nuclear weapons. The Iranians have employed chemical weapons on the battlefield. Israel is a potential target.
So it`s extremely important not that we try and fix Syria with U.S. military power or our allies, thank God, the Brits and the French were involved. But it`s incredibly important we state we`re not going to allow these weapons to be re-introduced.
Brian, they don`t have much impact on U.S. military forces. We can fight in a chemical environment. Abject misery, but it doesn`t kill many of us. Against civilians, these are devastating weapons.
WILLIAMS: Jack, same question I asked Barry about the backdrop that went into today, what we had all been watching and covering and talking about prior to the lead story becoming an attack on Syria.
COL. JACK JACOBS (RET.), U.S. ARMY: You mean the wag the dog end of it. Well, I`m not a fan of single-factor analysis, so you can posit a wide variety of reasons why the attack happened and why it occurred just now. Don`t forget we`ve had some time, as General McCaffrey was just mentioned to get the -- our allies onboard, we had to talk to the emir of Qatar. It was important that we talk to him as well. So that took time.
Second, I think there was some kind of -- there was probably substantial discussion inside the administration and across the river to determine what the target set was going to be, how extensive it would be and so on, and that took time as well.
And finally, I think one of the things that took time and made the attack occurred now rather than earlier and why it may seem like it`s coincident with some of the president`s domestic difficulties was something that was mentioned in the briefing when it was asked whether or not the secretary of Defense was absolutely certain that the -- that chemical weapons were involved, not just chlorine, and there was the assertion that there were. And when were you sure that this was so? And I think he said yesterday.
All these things conspired to put the attack today, and while it may seem like it was coincident with the president`s biggest domestic troubles, I think that may have been only one component.
MCCAFFREY: I agree.
WILLIAMS: We sure are covering the western half of the nation tonight tonight. Director Brennan was in San Francisco. Jack is in Austin. General McCaffrey is in Seattle. There you have it for geographic diversity. Gentlemen, thank you on a busy night. Thanks very much for making the time to take our questions on this military action.
Speaking of which, one more stop on our lead story before we switch our focus and pivot into the Trump administration today and politics. To Hans Nichols we go back at the Pentagon. Hans, you`ve noticed something about some of the utterances by the U.S.
HANS NICHOLS, MSNBC NEWS PENTAGON COOPER: Yes. Look, as they say here at the Pentagon, Brian, as you well know, that they always see the enemy gets a vote. And I think what we`re going to have here in the next 10 to 12 hours as Damascus and Moscow wakes up is their view on just how successful this military action was.
I think it`s significant that we did not here from either Chairman Dunford or Secretary Mattis that this was a successful military operation. They gave us the legal justification. They gave us the rationale. They gave us the targets. They gave us the intent. The intent was deterrence. But we still don`t know how successful it was in hitting the targets. We`ll get all that tomorrow when we get something called a BDA, battle damage assessment. I think that`s key to look for in the next 12 to 24 hours.
I also think it`s significant, though, that they said -- and this came directly from General Dunford, that the Russians did not engage their air defense systems. They kept their guns silent. The fact that the Russians kept their guns silent and that there was a conversation over that deconfliction line between the U.S. side and the Russian side gives you an indication of how the Pentagon wants to make sure that this doesn`t escalate because, Brian, that`s clearly been a concern in this building this week when we`ve had some of the rhetoric we`ve had from President Trump.
WILLIAMS: All right, Hans, without giving away the store, it`s fair to assume the home team has, as they call it, eyes on Syria 24/7 at several levels from satellites to spy planes to fixed wing, to drone, to whatever they need to get a live look at any scurrying going on after tonight`s attacks.
NICHOLS: They have a lot of what they call ISR here, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. And it`s true -- you know, we got a sense of just how good it was because of last year`s strike. You remember when they were trying to make the case that Sarin was used in the initial attack last year by the Assad regime on his own people, they went and showed us some very granular -- excuse me -- some pictures showing just where the crater was in the middle of the street.
So you do get some pretty high-quality pictures. They have a lot of assets up in the air. It`s one of the main places they have a lot of assets because of course they`re prosecuting that war just a few kilometers to the east against ISIS, and you do, as we`ve mentioned, have American troops on the ground in Eastern Syria. Brian?
WILLIAMS: And, Hans, one more thing, and that is the Mattis versus Bolton reported tension or disconnect or disagreement.
WILLIAMS: It was striking that from your building there, the Defense secretary called this, in effect, a one-shot event.
WILLIAMS: It fought the president`s wording at 9:00 p.m. from the White House.
NICHOLS: So the president seemed to be thinking of this in terms of a continuum, and what I heard from Mattis was the last time they did this, he was very clear that he would -- they would do it again. They would act again. And I think this time he said at a certain point, this time we struck harder and saying they used double the amount of weapons. Last year if you think they used 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, that puts you well over 100.
So it does seem that Mattis sees this as a response and call along the escalation ladder. If the Syrians do act again, it seems like Mattis is preserving his ability to defend what he says are these universal rights, this international law that`s been enshrined in international law since the First World War. That`s Mattis` justification.
I think another thing we need to look for in the next 12 to 24 hours is any daylight between President Trump`s rhetoric, even his tweets, and what Secretary Mattis and the generals are saying here at the Pentagon. Brian?
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. A good point to make. Hans Nichols, thanks a lot for your reporting tonight.
We want to show you a social media video as you may have seen on your own device, as you may be aware is coming in to us, we have this with sound we can air. This came to us from Syria as the attack was getting started.
So you saw there what appeared to be and sound like impacts in part of at least the outskirts of Damascus. Malcolm Nance is still standing by to talk to us. Malcolm, anything through your eyes and ears we should know about that video, a lot of which will be coming in overnight?
MALCOLM NANCE, MSNBC TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, what it sounds like is that that`s the air defense boxes of triple-a, anti-aircraft artillery going up in the air and just shooting.
You know, my first strike in Syria was in 1983, but I spent the better part of 20 years planning to strike it about every couple of years. And that air defense system has not changed at all. I know Damascus. I`ve worked in Damascus. And, you know, the main air defense systems are done in Almaza Air Base, south near the Ministry of Defense, along the mountains to the west. And they will throw up everything that they have, guided or unguided.
Interesting fact is we`re very good at electronic warfare. So where those missiles are going when they boost up off the mountains, the SA-2s, AS-3s, and SA-22s, they may be going towards targets that are not there, and we`re just that good, which is why we most likely have struck the targets that we wanted to hit today.
WILLIAMS: The good news will come when we learn from the Pentagon tomorrow morning that all the pilots and aviators from all three nations involved are back at their base, back on the decks of their carrier, safe and sound, having done whatever they went to work to do tonight, correct?
NANCE: Absolutely correct. The only question now is the next phase, you know, the consequence management of this operation. Will the Russians allow this to go unanswered? Will they make an attempt like they did just two months ago by using, you know, armed mercenaries, subcontractors or the Syrian Fifth Corps, which is sort of a militia group that runs around and carries out brutal operations to try to get some retribution whether it`s against our special forces, or will they, you know, work with -- in concert with the Iranians and try to conduct an act of terror? We don`t know, but we need to be prepared for all of those.
WILLIAMS: Malcolm Nance, thank you. It`s been great to be able to run our questions by someone tonight who`s actually carried out actions in the country we`re talking about in Syria.
As we mentioned on any other night, of course, at this hour, we would be 41 minutes into our coverage of today in this administration. Because of this story, we have been covering tonight, we are getting to it now, and that is the politics we witnessed today. And that brings us to our other breaking news. "The New York Times" reporting that aides to this president are sounding the alarm about the expanding case against Michael Cohen, the president`s personal lawyer, and what it means for Donald Trump.
The "Times" is reporting it this way. "President Trump`s advisers have concluded that a wide-ranging corruption investigation in New York poses a greater and more imminent threat to the president than even the special counsel`s investigation according to several people close to Mr. Trump."
With us tonight is Matt Apuso of "The New York Times" who led the byline on the reporting.
Matt, because this is our first chance to kind of take a breath, catch up and bring our viewers in on the events of the day, as you and I have this conversation, I want them and the control room to roll the video of a bizarre scene we watched unfold this afternoon in New York City, outside the Regency Hotel where Mr. Cohen is staying temporarily. He joined some friends who are apparently cigar aficionados to coin a phrase. And in his plaid blazer with no tie, on the street corner like it`s a normal day in a normal life in New York city, there was Michael Cohen, lawyer to the president, longtime employee of the Trump organization, sitting there with friends of his while photographers and everyone passing with a smartphone snapped away.
Now, Matt, can you give us the lead-all, where we stand tonight and why the forces around Donald Trump are more worried about this investigation in the southern district of New York than they are the larger investigation writ large by Mr. Mueller?
MATT APUZZO, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Sure, Brian. And this was not a normal day in the Trump universe. If -- you know, we`ve obviously heard a lot from President Trump and from his lawyers about the Mueller investigation, and I think that there was at least a sense among his closest confidants that they understood kind of the parameters of the Mueller investigation, at least as it applied to President Trump. You know, whether they were going to go in for an interview or what the ground rules would be.
I think they had a sense of what the landscape was. What is striking in this case is -- and this being the Cohen case in New York -- is that the FBI conducted these raids on Monday, and neither Trump`s lawyers nor Cohen`s lawyers even now really have any idea what was seized. You know, they took his phones and his laptops and years of his financials, plus we now know that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed Michael Cohen`s e-mails.
So there`s this trove of stuff, and Donald Trump doesn`t know what`s in it, and neither does Michael Cohen or -- well, neither do Michael Cohen`s lawyers, and there`s a sense that, well, do we really even know what was in there and will Michael Cohen even be straight about what was in there to begin with? So there`s a sense of sort of foreboding and uncertainty that you don`t want to have when you now know that one of your closest advisers is at the heart of a wide-ranging corruption investigation involving allegations or suspicion of bank fraud and campaign violations.
WILLIAMS: Matt, does anyone talking about the percentage of Cohen`s work that was lawyering per se -- and I ask because this will speak directly to the case they`re trying to make about privilege. You know, you can`t go near this stuff because this is lawyer and client. In this case, client happens to be the president of the United States. Cohen himself has talked about being a fixer, in effect, for Donald Trump for years.
APUZZO: Yeah, and that`s a great point. It`s a point that was actually playing out in federal court today. It`s going to actually get revisited again on Monday. Cohen is essentially saying that this is -- we`ll call it Mueller by proxy. That Bob Mueller knew that he couldn`t go rummaging around the president`s files. He knew that was outside of his jurisdiction. So he basically passed it off to the southern district of New York with a wink and a nod and set them loose on the president`s lawyer.
The Justice Department came back with a rejoinder and said, look, this is our own investigation. We`ve been doing it for four months, and to be honest, Michael Cohen`s not really a lawyer. He`s a businessman who appears to be out for his own interests. And we`ve looked at his personal e-mails, and we don`t see communications with Donald Trump, and we don`t see much lawyering. And so they`re saying, look, if there are records to be scrutinized, this isn`t going to be a heavy lift here because he`s not doing legal work. He`s doing whatever it is Michael Cohen does, fixing or responding to crises for Mr. Trump.
And so the litigation that we`re going to see play out on Monday is largely should there be an independent lawyer who comes in and gets a first read of these documents to decide what might be privileged, and the Justice Department says that is just absolutely not necessary. We can have, you know, a clean FBI team take a look at it, and Michael Cohen is really just not really a lawyer.
WILLIAMS: When I heard the words used today that he is under criminal investigation, when I further heard that the investigation into him has been going on for months, the people I talked to and heard from today said he is in very serious trouble. He is looking at very serious time if the book is thrown at him. So why is he kind of -- why today? Why living his life in the open, sitting around on a street corner in a plaid blazer in New York City with cameras snapping away?
APUZZO: Well, I think we`ve seen from Michael Cohen that he`s obviously trying to present himself as unnerved by this. He tweeted the other day that he`s loyal and that he would protect the president to the end. And we know that the president of the United States called Cohen today out of the blue. We were told it was just to, "check in." But that in and of itself raises all these questions because, you know, two people involved in an investigation communicating, what was that about?
And Cohen wants to present himself as kind of a loyal defender of the president just like he`s always been. But the challenge is going to be when and if the Justice Department brings to bear criminal charges that have the possibility of sending him to prison and bankrupting him in legal fees, will he really stand up and take the proverbial bullet for the president? And I think that is what concerns people around Mr. Trump as well as the uncertainties, the question of what will Michael Cohen say if it comes to that.
WILLIAMS: Well, Matt Apuzzo, just another day for you, another day for "The New York Times" and another blockbuster byline. Great piece of work. Thank you very much for waiting all this time to share your work with us on the broadcast tonight. Matt Apuzzo of "The New York Times".
APUZZO: Thanks, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Chuck Rosenberg is back with us. Former U.S. attorney, former senior FBI official, current MSNBC contributor.
So, Chuck, let`s start off where Matt just ended. What do you counsel a principal about talking to other people who might be involved and caught up in an investigation, say nothing of people you know to be caught up in the investigation of you? Should the president and Mr. Cohen be talking by phone?
CHUCK ROSENBERG, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY: Under no circumstances, Brian, is what a good defense attorney tells his or her client, is under no circumstances do you talk to anybody who could be another witness in this case, and here`s why.
One of the first questions I would ask as a federal prosecutor, one of the first questions an FBI agent would ask is who else did you talk to? Particularly since the investigation started and what did they say because they`re looking for people trying to get their story together. They`re looking for obstruction of justice. This is easy. You don`t talk to anyone else.
WILLIAMS: Chuck, this reported fear in the Trump camp that the Southern District of New York case poses, in their view, a greater legal peril to the presidency than Mueller at all and that investigation going on. I feel like asking you a two-part question. Can you see why they see it that way and is that the correct way to view it?
ROSENBERG: Yes, and I think I can answer both of those questions at once. Yes, it`s the right way to view it and here`s why. The part that we know about, at least the things we think we know about the part we know about, the Muller investigation seems to be obstruction and Russian interference in our election.
But my goodness, Mr. Cohen has been Mr. Trump`s attorney for a very long time and he`s not his attorney, his partner, his fixer, his friend, his confidant. There`s a lot of files in a lawyer`s office when he takes on that role for a client over years and years. And it`s probably hard for either of them to now sitting here today, all they`ve done, all they`ve talked about, all that has been memorialized. And, you know, who`s going to know next? The FBI and the U.S. attorney and the Southern District of New York.
So, yes, Brian, I think there`s quite a bit to -- for them to worry about and they probably don`t even know the scope of it themselves.
WILLIAMS: I want you to react to something Andrew McCabe said on social media today. We can put it up. This is the -- President Trump said about Andrew McCabe. "DOJ just issued the McCabe report which is a total disaster." This came out this afternoon and people had to read it twice. "He lied, lied, lied. McCabe was totally controlled by Comey. McCabe is Comey. No collusion, all made up by this den of thieves and lowlifes."
There`s a lot to get to there, A, did you work at a den of thieves and lowlifes, B, what is the truth about Comey and McCabe, and, C, anywhere you want to go? As I said, that`s a lot of materials.
ROSENBERG: It was a remarkable privileged to work at the FBI with men and women of great integrity, mission focused. I know I sound a little sort of over the top frame, forgive me if I do, but I mean everything I say. It was a privileged of a lifetime. Andy and Jim are friends of mine. I have great respect for both of them.
One of the ironies in the I.G. report is that they are at odds with one another. They were colleagues, very important incident, very differently. They are 180 degrees apart. I don`t believe the president has taken the time to read the I.G. report because he would realize that McCabe is not Comey and Comey is not McCabe. And one of the findings that the I.G. made is that Andy said X, Comey said not X and that led to one of their findings that Andy had been not candid.
So without getting into the details and boring all your viewers at this late hour, Brian, I would only tell you it`s unfortunate that the president would continue to attack the men and women of the FBI and the integrity of these two men. It troubles me greatly.
WILLIAMS: And what -- I haven`t talked to you since the pardon of Scooter Libby. What do you make of that?
ROSENBERG: Well, so, on one other hand, you know, with legal hat on, it`s within the president sort of unfettered discretion to pardon whoever he wants for whatever reason he wants. On the other hand, it seems to be a signal. And I don`t want to guess here or speculate.
But it seems to be signal. Both to the special counsels of the world and right now I know only one and to those who may have lied to the special counsels of the world and I know of several, that there`s exit to this highway, there`s a path out of trouble. Maybe the president is simply doing what he believes is right for Scooter Libby, that`s entirely possible but I don`t think it`s all that plausible, Brian. I think it`s a message.
WILLIAMS: How impactful do you think the James Comey book -- and again, we`re talking about it as if it`s on coffee tables across the country. News organizations have obtained copies of it. It doesn`t come out until Tuesday officially at your local retailer or on the web. But how impactful do you think at the end of the day it`s going to be?
ROSENBERG: Well, I am assuming that Bob Mueller knows already everything that is important to his investigation directly from Jim Comey. The rest of us are going to be playing catch up.
So legally Mueller already has it. He knows that he`s talked to Jim Comey who`s a very important witness. But what I think people will see in this book -- first of all, let me -- can I just take a step back for a minute, Brian? Everybody has flaws. If you`re human, you`re fallible, if you`re human, you have flaws, and Jim Comey is human and has flawed just like the rest of us. Jim can be headstrong, Jim has a healthy ego. I`m not saying anything now that I haven`t said to Jim or that he wouldn`t agree with.
But Jim tells the truth. In all of my years and I have known him for, you know, 25 plus years now, he has always told the truth. And so what I think people will see when they read the book is not just someone who writes very well but somebody who remembers it very well and who is a man of great integrity. You can call him names, that`s fine, you can tweet about him, that will be done, but this man tells the truth and this is an opportunity for a lot of folks to catch up to where Bob Mueller already is and to read the truth.
WILLIAMS: And always learn about where above Mueller is is that we are always several weeks, if not, months behind in the news media but that`s fine, we`re contempt with our role and certainly used to it.
Chuck Rosenberg, former U.S. attorney, former senior FBI official, as we mentioned, former colleague of Mr. Comey and others, current MSNBC contributor which we`re very happy about, thank you so much for your time late on a Friday night. Very close to the beginning of Saturday, and as the approaches, we`re going to do something we have yet to do tonight. We`re going to take a commercial break allowing everyone to break. Our continues right on the other side.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END