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Trump: Iran made "big mistake". TRANSCRIPT: 6/20/19, The 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Tessa Berenson, Barry McCaffrey, Nancy Cook, Philip Elliott

ALI VELSHI, MSNBC ANCHOR:  But Trump leaves himself some options questioning Iran`s true intentions.  Congressional leadership have been briefed and the question tonight on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, if and when the U.S. retaliates.

Also, House Judiciary`s transcript of Hope Hicks, the 155 unanswered questions and the ones she did answer and how she broke from the boss.  "THE 11TH HOUR" on a Thursday night begins now.

Good evening, once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York, I`m Ali Velshi in for Brian Williams.  Day 882 of the Trump administration.  And tensions in the Middle East have reached a new height tonight after Iran shot down an American unmanned surveillance drone last in the Gulf of Oman, adjacent to the Strait of Hormuz last night.

The United States says the drone was shot down in international airspace.  That`s the dot on the left of your screen.  Iran claims it was shot down over Iranian territorial waters.  The difference wouldn`t be big.  Both countries agree it was shot down, and are in general agreement about where.  But the distinction may prove to be important.

The U.S. military released this video that shows smoke trailing from the drone as it goes down.  Iranian state T.V. released this video that it claims shows Iran`s revolutionary guard shooting the drone down.

Earlier today, the President posted on Twitter, "Iran made a very big mistake."  Hours later, he repeated that statement while meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office.


DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Iran made a big mistake, this drone was in international waters, clearly we have it all documented.  It`s documented scientifically, not just words, and they made a very bad mistake.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How will you respond?

TRUMP:  You`ll find out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Are you willing to start war with Iran with this?

TRUMP:  You`ll find out.  You`ll find out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. President --

TRUMP:  Obviously, you know, we`re not going to be talking too much about it.  You`re going to find out.  They made a very big mistake.


VELSHI:  But then in an interesting twist, Trump also suggested that the drone being shot down could have been unintentional.


TRUMP:  I have a feeling, I may be wrong and I may be right.  But I`m right a lot.  I have a feeling that it was a mistake made by somebody that shouldn`t have been doing what they did.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Are you saying you think it wasn`t intentional to strike the drone?

TRUMP:  I don`t know.  I find it hard to believe it was intentional, if you want to know the truth.  I think that it could have been somebody who was loose and stupid that did it.  We`ll be able to report back, and you`ll understand exactly what happened.  But it was a very foolish move, that I can tell you.


VELSHI:  Somebody who was loose and stupid.

Earlier today, the White House briefed Congressional leaders on Iran, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.  Both Democratic leaders spoke to reporters after the briefing.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, (D) NEW YORK MINORITY LEADER:  I told the President that these conflicts have a way of escalating.  The president may not intend to go to war here, but we`re worried that he and the administration may bumble into a war.  We told the room that the Democratic position is that Congressional approval must be required before funding any conflict in Iran.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) CALIFORNIA, HOUSE SPEAKER:  We know that the high tension wires are up there and we must do everything we can not to escalate the situation but also to make sure that our personnel in the region are safe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Madam Speaker, are you personally convinced based on the intelligence you`ve seen that this was an Iranian attack on American asset operating legally in international space?



VELSHI:  Today`s news comes amid a week of rising tensions in the Middle East.  The United States is blaming Iran for attacks on two tankers last week in the Gulf of Oman.  Iran has denied any responsibility for those attacks.

Here for our leadoff discussion on a Thursday night, our friend Michael Crowley, newly minted White House Correspondent for "The New York Times."  Tessa Berenson, White House Correspondent for "Time Magazine" who interviewed the President this week.  And with me here in New York, Ben Rhodes, former Deputy National Security Adviser for President Obama.

Michael, I want to start with you, a piece has just posted in "The New York Times," with our byline along with Maggie Haberman, Michael Shear, and Eric Schmitt in which say that the President had approved military strikes against Iran to take place before dawn Friday, which would be now, Iran time.  You write, "But the action was abruptly called off for the evening putting a halt to what would have been the President`s third military action against targets in the Middle East."  Tell us about this Michael.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, THE NEW YORK TIMES WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, that`s right.  I with several colleagues doing good reporting do have the story, and as late as 7:00 o`clock or so this evening, officials in the U.S. government did believe that there would be strikes on Iran.

Our understanding was that this approval by President Trump followed a spirited debate among top U.S. officials in which key officials, including National Security Adviser, John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were pushing for some sort of military response to these Iranian actions, that the President did approve a strike, the plan as we were told was for the strike to occur tonight, U.S. time, which would have been predawn in Iran.  The goal was to avoid any casualties in Iran.

So this would be the kind of strike that, I guess, you might call symbolic, although of course it would be incredibly consequential and dramatic action.  But the idea was not to kill any Iranians.

Remember, Trump emphasized the fact that the Iranian -- that the U.S. drone that the Americans had shot down was unmanned.  It was a surveillance drone with no pilot, and so I think the idea was somewhat to respond in kind, not to inflict any casualties but to inflict some damage.  But that there was a spirited debate about this, some Trump officials including Pompeo have spoken publicly about the idea of reestablishing deterrents.  That`s a phrase that Pompeo has used.  And I think that was part of the thinking here.

For reasons that are not clear, the plan was pulled back, the President pulled back, the strikes were not executed.  And our understanding is that they have not and will not happen tonight.  It`s not clear whether that means the plan is tabled forever, and it`s not clear exactly what led to this kind of checked swing you might say.  But certainly further raises the drama and the stakes around this mounting confrontation with Iran.

VELSHI:  This is a remarkably important piece of reporting.  General Barry McCaffrey will be joining us in a few moments to discuss the implications from a military perspective.

I want to talk to our former Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben, this is a dramatic development if true.  It`s been very, very hard as we`re going to speak to Tessa about in a moment to track where President Trump`s mind has been on this.  He talks about big mistakes.  He talks about things being relatively minor, then he talks about it being somebody loose and stupid.  This would be a market escalation if we saw a U.S. attack on Iranian soil.

BEN RHODES, FMR. DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR:  It would be a massive escalation for the United States of America to take any military action on Iranian soil.  This is a president who doesn`t seem to think there are going to be consequences for the things that he does.

When pull out of a nuclear deal that Iran is complying with, when you stack on sanctions and provocations and threats to the Iranians, you are going to invoke a response from the Iranians and we are living through that response now, the announcement that they`re increasing their enrichment, the shoot down of this drone.

What we have to understand here, though, Ali, is if we were to take a strike.  And let`s say there are lots of IRGC, Iranian Revolutionary Guard targets inside of Iran that we could take a shot at, the Iranians are going to respond to that.  That is the logic of how they think about their national security.

VELSHI:  And something you said on Rachel`s show tonight, which is important for people who don`t maybe have a great familiarity with the region is that Iran`s influence goes well beyond its borders.


VELSHI:  So it`s not Iran doing something to anybody in Iran, it`s Libya, it`s Syria, it`s Lebanon, it`s Iraq, it`s Yemen, it`s all over -- it`s Afghanistan.

RHODES:  We looked at the scenarios of what the Iranians would do if we took precisely the kind of strike that is being envisioned here.  These are kinds of things that lots of people thought about, lots of analysts.  The Iranians could respond in Iraq.  They could try to attack our embassy there.  They could respond in Afghanistan by fermenting instability there.

They could attack in Lebanon in a terrorist attack.  They could fire rockets from Hezbollah into Israel.  They could attack in the Strait of Hormuz by trying to shutdown the flow of oil like we saw with these tankers on fire.

I actually think what the Iranians have been doing is messaging to the United States and the world, here are the different ways in which we can respond.  And so we have to recognize that this could be very complicated asymmetric war --

VELSHI:  Right.

RHODES:  -- essentially, but it can escalate really fast into a very real and deadly and costly war against an adversary in Iran that is much more sophisticated, much more ready for this than Iraq or Afghanistan were and look at how those conflicts turned out.

The Iranians have been preparing for this contingency of a conflict with the United States for a very long time, and I don`t think you can assume that they`re going to take a military strike inside of Iran is something they`re not going to respond to at some point.

VELSHI:  Tessa, the price of oil, Ben was talking about the Strait of Hormuz, a remarkable proportion of the world`s oil, much of which comes from that area around the Persian Gulf goes through the Strait of Hormuz.  The price of oil was up 5 1/2 percent in one day today on these increased tensions.  But a lot of people have been saying in the last few weeks the President doesn`t want war with Iran, Bolton does, and Pompeo does.  These have been guys who have been hawkish about Iran since day one, since they first learned to say the word Iran.

You spoke to the President about it earlier this week about the attacks on those tankers, the promenades of which are still disputed, and the President said those attacks he thought were relatively minor.

TESSA BERENSON, TIME MAGAZINE WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Yes, he did.  He`s speaking of the providence being disputed.  He told us he does believe that Iran perpetrated those attacks.  But we tried to draw him out a little bit on what would cause him to engage militarily.  And what he told us is that he would -- as he said, certainly go to war with Iran to prevent the country from getting nuclear weapons but he would leave it a "question mark" whether he would engage with them based on any of the actions in the Strait of Hormuz.

And one reason for that is he told us in his view that is now a much less strategically important area for the United States than it used to be.  He said we don`t get as much of our oil there as we used to, and so it was making him less likely to want to respond because in his view, we would basically just be protecting the oil supplies for other nations more than for ourselves and that`s something Trump -- President Trump really doesn`t like in foreign policy is the idea that America is protecting the interests of other countries at the expense of ourselves.

VELSHI:  Right.  And so the President did say that the one reason he would, when asked why he would go to war in Iran, he said to prevent them from getting a bomb.


VELSHI:  I want to ask you Michael about whether your reporting suggests that this idea, this strike, that was being considered as late as 7:00 p.m. Eastern time this evening, is that still on the table as far as you know?

CROWLEY:  I just don`t think that we have the answer to that question right now.  We did not hear definitively that it is off the table.

Again, the circumstances of the pull back are not entirely clear.  So I don`t know what to tell you about that.

But look, what we do know is that there are some very influential Trump officials who are not afraid of using force and using force against Iran, and there are even some signs they are eager to do it.  You know, viewers of this show I think will be familiar with John Bolton`s very hawkish record and that he has spoken and written publicly over the years of frequently advocating a pretty aggressive use of American force and power, that it`s not something we should shy away from, that our adversaries have to be met with force.  And I think that that philosophy has a very strong current in the Trump administration.

What`s interesting is that Donald Trump himself has often struck a very different tone.  Of course he was extremely critical, even as a candidate of the U.S. war in Iraq, has repeatedly said that America has made dumb mistakes getting tangled up in Middle East conflicts, wars are expensive and basically doesn`t seem to have much appetite for that type of a thing.

But what may be going on here is that Trump has really put so much focus on Iran, and made it almost kind of a prideful battle with the regime in Teheran, dating back to his denunciations of the Iran Nuclear Deal, his withdrawal from the deal last year, that it has become a kind of matter of pride as well as very real geostrategic issues like the Strait of Hormuz.

VELSHI:  I want to just update the story that you have just found, Michael.  The operation was underway and in its early stages when it was called off.  A senior administration official said, "Planes were in the air, ships were in position but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down," the official said.

Ben Rhodes, talk to me about where things like this go?  I`ll have Barry McCaffrey on in a few minutes to talk militarily about how this goes.  But there are people that Michael Crowley said in the U.S. administration that are eager to do it, eager to go to war with Iran.  And there are people in Iran who are eager to go to war with America.  Both countries have these factions.  For whom does this war, such a war make sense?

RHODES:  Nobody.  This -- assuming this escalates which I unfortunately think a conflict between the U.S. and Iran would escalate, whether it happens gradually or very quickly is a question.  I think everybody would end up losing in the end.

However, what you have is hard liners inside of the Iranian system, and hard liners inside of the U.S. system, both of whom have gotten control of the policies of those two governments.  So we`re in a situation right now where there`s an escalation cycle started by the United States when Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement.

VELSHI:  Because Iran was certified to be in compliance with that agreement.

RHODES:  Certified compliant with the nuclear agreement.

VELSHI:  At no point was Iran not in compliance with that.

RHODES:  You know the IAEA, the international agency responsible for certifying compliance found that they were not only meeting all their obligations, there were inspectors there to make sure they were doing that.  We pull out, we sanction them, we isolate ourselves.

What we see is a completely incoherent approach to foreign policy, right?  Trump wants the feeling that he`s confronting Iran but he doesn`t want a war.  And yet everything that he`s been doing since he pulled out to that nuclear deal has made him more and (ph) more likely.  At the same time, he has no Secretary of Defense.  So, not only do we have the potential kind of chaos, if this report is true, of a military operation literally underway being pull back.

We don`t even have a Secretary of Defense, nor if we had one for six months to confirm Secretary of Defense.  We don`t have a clear decision making process in the National Security Council.  That`s been widely reported.

We have said for a long time, Donald Trump has not been tested by a crisis.  We are seeing before our own eyes what happens when this kind of chaotic White House and this kind of incoherent foreign policy, and this kind of belligerent rhetoric collides with the reality of a regime in Iran that has its own interests, that has its own hard liners, that is not going to capitulate just in the face of Trump`s threats and rhetoric.

And Trump has to decide now whether he wants to follow his own rhetorical direction towards Iran and the interest of his National Security Adviser John Bolton all the way into a shooting war with the Islamic Republic of Iran or whether or not he thinks, as he said during the campaign, that U.S. has fought too many wars in Middle East.

VELSHI:  Right.

RHODES:  And really the only person who knows the answer to what`s going to happen is Donald Trump, and it sounds like he`s made both decisions within the last few hours and that is truly extraordinary.

VELSHI:  That is truly extraordinary.

And Tessa, we turn to you because maybe the only way to know how this turns out is to have been in the room with Donald Trump and to be to look into the whites of his eyes and determine which Donald Trump we`re talking about because as Ben describes it, there are two distinct directions the President can take in this case.  He can tell the hawks in his administration to stand down or stand back a little bit or he can decide that this is his moment and that war with Iran makes sense.  Which Donald Trump do you think you saw?

BERENSON:  Right, so I think it`s interesting too, that Ben used the word rhetorics and rhetorically because that`s something President Trump talked to us a lot about on Monday.

And as we were discussing the specific incidents of aggression from Iran, Trump -- President Trump was emphasizing to us that he feels that on a rhetorical level, Iran has softened it`s stance towards the United States.  And President Trump was saying in his mind back in 2015 you were hearing, "Death to America from the country", and he said he doesn`t hear that anymore.

And so he feels that regardless of whatever these actions the country is taking, which again, he on Monday told us that he thinks the attacks on oil tankers were "very minor."  Rhetorically he feels like Iran is in a better posture towards the United States and so he was presenting that as what may be a rationale for not engaging further in response.

VELSHI:  What a remarkable set of developments and I couldn`t have a better team to get us through this as we`re learning about this.  Michael, thank you to you and your team, Michael Shear, Eric Schmidt, and Maggie Haberman at "The New York Times" for this remarkable piece of reporting.  Michael Crowley, Tessa Berenson from "Time Magazine," Ben Rhodes, thank you to the three of you.

Coming up, if these tensions lead to war, how do you prepare?  How do you define success?  We`re going to ask a retired four star general what comes next.

And later, Hope Hicks said she lived the Mueller report but hasn`t read it.  We`ve got new details tonight from the 273 paged transcript of her closed door testimony.  "The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Thursday night.


VELSHI:  I want to update you on Breaking News reported by "The New York Times" that we have just been talking about here.  President Trump approved military strikes against Iran as late as 7:00 p.m. on Thursday.  Military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike.  "Officials said the President had initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets like radar and missile batteries, the operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off, a senior administration official said.  "Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down," the official said.

With me to talk about this is General Barry McCaffrey, a retired U.S. Army Four Star General, a heavily decorated combat veteran of Vietnam, a U.S. ground commander in the Gulf War, a veteran of that region, someone who knows it well.

General, I`m grateful to have you here tonight.  This is a remarkable development after a day in which the President said Iran has made a mistake, and then he said somebody loose and stupid committed an error, and he doesn`t think it was an intentional, and now to understand that there may have been military action underway.  Give me your analysis please, sir.

BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY VETERAN:  Well, you know, Ali, I spent a lot of time in the White House National Security Council meetings, hundreds of hours under two presidents, I have never seen anything like this.  Ben Rhodes` principal statement that we ought to focus on is there is no national security process where you bring together all elements of U.S. power, the military will always give you a military option.  It may tell you it`s stupid but they`ll give you a military option.

State Department, Treasury, Justice, you said, you know, and get everybody`s views, and then you go up and talk to the President, and tell him here`s what we recommend you do.  I think the President must have gotten angry at downing a hundred million dollar Global Hawk missile.  It may have been a rogue action by the Republican Guards, and he ordered a strike and then somebody, I`ll bet it was the JCS got to him, and told him you better back off, which fortunately, I think he did.

There`s no reason to escalate this conflict.  The Iranians, the Gulf Coast States, the Saudis, the Israelis, nobody`s going to win in a Persian Gulf War.

VELSHI:  I think this is interesting what you just said because a lot of people have talked for two-and-a-half years about who`s the adult in the room, who`s the person who`s going to stop something dangerous from happening, and you just said the JCS, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, because we know that the people giving the President advice particularly on military and international actions, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, both take a militarily aggressive view of what to do with Iran.

MCCAFFREY:  Yes.  Look, we`ve always had powerful senior public servants as the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State in particular.  But in addition, we always get, you know, the Department of Justice in their international legal aspect of this.  So we`ve always had sort of a committee approach to understanding the issues, and by the way, bringing in our allies and keeping them apprised of our thinking.

I think most of that process has evaporated and we saw it, if the reporting is correct, and I`ll bet it is, that he actually ordered a strike and then stopped it during launch.  This is the kind of miscalculation that will lead to a shooting war.

By the way, I don`t want to overstate this, but we actually have devastating capabilities to go after the Republican Guard, maritime units in particular.  We can`t keep the gulf open if the Iranians wanted to stop it.  We could never find all the missile batteries and the artillery.  But we definitely -- they`ve got something to lose out of a war also.  We could go after their oil industry.


MCCAFFREY:  So, again --

VELSHI:  Well, they`ve got a collapsing economy at the moment, and that has been.


VELSHI:  There are lots of -- and I guess that`s the point, sir, because you understand the region well, you understand the military well.  There are lots of things between now and war.

MCCAFFREY:  Yes.  And, you know, at the end of the day, what we try and do on national security issues is write down your political objective, and then try and understand the military means by which we`ll achieve the political objective.  What is our political objective?  We want to get them back in a nuclear accord, we want to rethink, that and try and reduce our influence on terrorism throughout the Middle East, trying reduce our missile testing systems, maybe that`s a political objective, but it seems unlikely that a shooting war in the Persian Gulf is going to get us in that direction.  By the way, we can`t get their nuclear facilities using air power, enabled power.

VELSHI:  Because they`re deep underground.

MCCAFFREY:  Well, and there`s too many of them.  There`s 72 unclassified nuclear figure and nuclear sites.  And we don`t know if there`s actually 104, and if the 72 were valid or not.  So, to go after all those sites would require an air campaign of several months.  We could wreck their industrial capacity, I suppose, but again, that just doesn`t make any political sense at all.  The American people aren`t there.  The allies aren`t there, and you can bet your bottom dollar, you know, we were talking about aggressive actions, it`s not the U.S. military that will vote what a great idea it is to go to war with Iran.

VELSHI:  Let`s talk about the differences in the wars that we have been involved in, in the Middle East for a very, very long time.  Why is Iran different from Iraq or Afghanistan?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, of course it`s the Persian Empire, you know, it`s a classical enemy as a Shia religious grouping of the Sunni Arabs.  It`s a very different challenge to us.  It`s got a lot of oil, since the demise of the Shah, it`s been in an adversarial relationship, not just with us but probably equally importantly with the Israelites and with the Sunni Arabs nations.

It is a problem.  Trump inherited that problem.  It does -- it can`t be resolved easily.  It takes patience and using every element of U.S. national power and our allies as influence.  But we`ve -- we`re going into this thing, again, it`s impulsivity on the part of the President making decisions.  I can guarantee you, Secretary -- Acting Secretary Esper wasn`t in the room.  I`d be probably surprised if Secretary Pompeo was there.  This is all off the cuff.

VELSHI:  Yes.  In fact, the reporting of "New York Times" has got on this cites multiple senior administration officials who were involved in or briefed on the deliberations.  The White House did decline to comment as did the Pentagon.  No government officials, however, asked "The New York Times" when "The New York Times" asked them about this to withhold the article.  We know today that the President called leaders from Congress and both parties to the situation room, we didn`t know what was going on there.

Are we in a position to -- obviously the administration didn`t ask "The New York Times" to withhold the story, they`re OK with the signaling to Iran that America was ready to strike Iran tonight in the early dawn hours for Iran time.  Is that -- will that signal help, General?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, you know, it may well be appropriate from a tactical viewpoint, but again, the question is what are we trying to achieve?  If we want to renegotiate the nuclear accord, one of the lesson number one of diplomacy is talk nice to people in public, and threaten them if you must in private.  So, we`ve got it reversed.  You can`t just unlikely to change Iranian behavior by public belligerency, by threatening military action.  You`ll also going to know the limits of your own military power.

You know, to some extent, the President understand -- ought to understand he`s bluffing.  Military power is not an appropriate tool to keep the Gulf open.  We can punish the Iranians terribly, and nor is it an appropriate tool to end their nuclear capability.

VELSHI:  Why is that?  Why do you say that?  Why would military punishment, which you argue wisely can be inflicted upon Iran, while we may not be able to get to their nuclear plants all that effectively, we can certainly take out a lot of their refining capacity, their military capacity, why wouldn`t that be a deterrent in your opinion, why would it not be effective?

MCCAFFREY:  You know, it`s hard to imagine us achieving our objective by doing so.  And by the way, in the `80s, the US Navy went after the bog hammer boats and they basically knocked out 50 percent of the Iranian Navy in 48 hours.  So I think we could probably do something like that again.

But air campaigns have never been conclusive on their own in achieving an objective like this.  You have to do diplomacy backed up perhaps by the threat of allied economic and military intervention.  We got to sit down and think through our strategy, decide on our objectives and engage these people.

I don`t think, by the way, Ali, we`re going to end up in a shooting war in the Middle East because it doesn`t serve anybody`s interests.  But there is the potential for miscalculation here.

If the Iranians nail one of these US Navy destroyers and kill a bunch of our sailors, my guess would be it`s 100 percent certain we`re going to go after them.  I will be an ugly war with our overwhelming advantage, not asymmetric favor of the Iranians.  It`s a US advantage but it`s not going to achieve our purpose.

VELSHI:  General, I just want to read one more sentence from this New York Times brand new reporting, "It was not clear whether Mr. Trump simply changed his mind on the strikes or whether the administration altered course because of logistics or strategy, it was also not clear whether the attacks might still go forward."

So as of now, we do not know what the plan is, but we do know that until 7:00 pm this evening, there was the possibility and an operation underway in which airplanes had been launched, ships were in position.  General, Barry McCaffrey --

MCCAFFREY:  Airplanes and cruise missiles, Ali, so they can dial this thing up if they wish but it won`t be decisive use of military power.

VELSHI:  Sir, it`s always good to talk to you.  Thank you, General Barry McCaffrey.

Coming up, there were 155 non-answers in Hope Hicks testimony, but what did she reveal to the House Judiciary involving Russia, WikiLeaks and oppo research.  "The 11th Hour" back after this.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Any comment on Hope Hicks testifying yesterday?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES:  No, she was terrific.  I heard she was terrific, really great.  She`s a great person.  And I heard she was terrific yesterday.


VELSHI:  Late today the House Judiciary Committee released the transcript, all 273 pages from Hope Hicks closed door interview yesterday.  She worked closely with Trump on his 2016 campaign and as communications director at the White House.  She was also a witness for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and is mentioned multiple times in his report.

The committee says the four administration lawyers at the interview intervened 155 times to stop Hicks from answering questions about events during her time in the White House such as James Comey`s firing, Michael Flynn`s resignation, Jeff Sessions` recusal, attempts to remove Robert Mueller, and the misleading statement used to cover up the Trump Tower meeting with the Russians.

The transcript also shows she even refused to answer whether she was truthful with the Special Counsel.

Hicks did discuss what went on during the campaign, including the use of information hacked by Russia and released by WikiLeaks.

She insisted, "The campaign didn`t have a Russia strategy.  There was an effort made by the campaign to use information that was publicly available."  She went on to say, "It is not my position that we benefited from those e-mails.  It is my position that we used publicly available information in the course of the campaign to differentiate between candidates."  And she said the WikiLeaks releases, "allowed the campaign to discuss things that would not other side be known but that were true."

Hicks also told the committee, she was directed to make a public statement denying a relationship between Trump and Karen McDougal, and testified she had no direct knowledge of whether the President knew that Michael Cohen had made payments to Stormy Daniels during the campaign.

We also learned that Hicks has talked to Trump five to 10 times since leaving the White House in March of last year.

Here with me now, Chuck Rosenberg, a former US Attorney and former Senior FBI Official who served as counselor to Robert Mueller.  He`s also the host of the MSNBC podcast "The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg."

Chuck, good to have you here.  What in your opinion, if anything, did the House Judiciary Committee get out of this interview?

CHUCK ROSENBERG, MSNBC PODCAST HOST:  Well, substantially not all that much.  But if what they want to do one day, Ali, is litigate whether or not executive privilege applies and protects statements that were made to the President in the White House, then they`ve done what they had to do which is get on the record, the White House`s objections to Hope Hicks, and perhaps others, being asked questions about her tenure there.

It`s a little confusing but think of it this way.  Executive privilege is a real thing.  Other administrations have asserted it.  If the House wants to challenge it, they first have to have an objection on the record.  That`s what they got today.

VELSHI:  There was no substance -- everybody said no substance of material that came out of this in any meaningful way.  She did talk about the use of the Russian information, and WikiLeaks, and the campaign.  Was that meaningful to you?

ROSENBERG:  Well, it`s meaningful but it echoes what we learn from Robert Mueller in volume one of the report.  I mean, the Mueller team did a phenomenal job, in my view, sort of figuring out what the Russians did and all of the context between the Trump campaign and the Russians witting and unwitting.

She echoed that.  She added a little bit of detail to it.  But I don`t know that the Democrats on House committee really got to sort of the heart of it with her.

VELSHI:  So really, for experts like you who observe this, there is an issue that we keep hearing a couple of phrases, absolute immunity and executive privilege.


VELSHI:  And to the untrained like me, they sound very similar.  They sound like they could mean the same thing but they don`t.

ROSENBERG:  They don`t mean the same thing and I think I can explain it.  Absolute immunity, if you had absolute immunity, Ali, that would mean you don`t have to show up, OK.  You don`t have to go.  You don`t have to honor the subpoena.

And that doesn`t make sense to me.  I think that`s a bridge too far as a legal argument.  Executive privilege means you can go, in fact, you have to go because you have been subpoenaed, Ali, but there are certain questions you wouldn`t have to answer.

And so what you saw today was Hope Hicks with lawyers from the White House beside her, asserting on behalf of the President executive privilege.  She had to show up.  There`s no absolute immunity but she didn`t have to answer every question because of an exertion of the executive privilege.

Now, I hope that makes sense.

VELSHI:  It does.  I guess my question is, has this idea of executive privilege, preventing people from talking about things that they know because of their role in the administration, has that grown along with growing executive authority?  Because every president, the last several presidents have used executive privilege.

ROSENBERG:  Another great question.  So I think there is probably lines that run together there in parallel, not perfectly but presidents of different administrations over many years have asserted executive privilege.

Now, what normally happens is they reach some sort of accommodation with the Congress, rather than having everyone run off to court and litigate this thing, which could have uncertain outcomes, you try and accommodate the Congress and give them stuff so they can do their oversight work.  It doesn`t appear to me that this administration is all that amenable to accommodating Congress.

VELSHI:  If the House, there`s a discussion amongst members of the House about the more they can do to have people understand the contents of the Mueller report, the more people will support whatever they want to do with Donald Trump.  Can they rely on the courts to get them the information they need or should they do it a different way?

ROSENBERG:  Well, you could rely on the courts because the courts have been pretty clear in the past that if you have an ongoing let`s say criminal investigation, executive privilege gives away, right, that was the holding of US v Nixon back in the `70s, right.  The Nixon White House had to turn over the tapes despite its assertion of executive privilege because there was an ongoing criminal investigation.

So the courts might be helpful but it takes a while and it`s uncertain.  And so, what I would rather see happen is some form of accommodation.  Again, it doesn`t look like the White House is amenable to.


ROSENBERG:  So, do the Democrats have a winning strategy?  Maybe.   Can they do it quickly?  Very unlikely.

VELSHI:  Chuck, no one better to explain it than you.  Thank you for being with us tonight.

ROSENBERG:   Yes, sir.

VELSHI:  Chuck Rosenberg.

Coming up, the President is putting a lot of faith in the people who put him in the office.  Why he`s shrugging off swing voters when "The 11th Hour" continues.


VELSHI:  I want to go back to our lead and breaking news this hour.  The President has approved military strikes against Iran as late as 7:00 pm on Thursday, according to new reporting from the New York Times.

Military and diplomatic officials were expecting a strike on Iran.  This information came from multiple senior administration officials involved in or briefed on the deliberations.  The White House has declined to comment as did Pentagon officials to the New York Times, but no government officials asked the New York Times to withhold the article.

Here is the line that is most hair raising in the article.  "The operation was underway in its early stages when it was called off."  A senior administration official said, "Planes were in the air and ships were in position, but no missiles had been fired when word came to stand down," the official said.

Joining us now Nancy Cook, White House Reporter for Politico, Philip Elliott, Politics correspondent for Time Magazine, both of whom have been covering other stories and are going to be discussing them tonight, including the campaign, the 2020 campaign.  But I do want to hear from both of you on this.

Nancy, let`s start with you.  This, one would have had difficulty gleaning that this is the situation having tried to follow President Trump`s comments on Iran over the last week.  He has gone from saying it`s dangerous and they have made mistakes to telling Time Magazine, these were minor infractions prior to today`s shooting down of the drone and then today saying it was somebody loose and stupid who accidentally did it, and he didn`t think it was intentional.

So to find out that planes were in the air and ships were in position is a major development.

NANCY COOK, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO:  It certainly is, and it is not reporting that I have confirmed or Politico has confirmed yet.  But I will tell you that this has been an intense debate in the White House.

And you have to go back to the campaign, you know, President Trump has always been a much more isolationist president.  He`s been very critical of the Iraq war and the conflict in Afghanistan.  He`s indicated before that he doesn`t want to, you know, put us in another conflict situation.

And so there`s just been a lot of tension this whole week between those impulses that he has and more hawkish advisers like National Security Adviser John Bolton who has really wanted to, you know, do military action and take military action against Iran for a long time.

What this shows me is that, you know, potentially Bolton won out this argument, although Trump may have pulled it back.  But there has been this ongoing tension.  And Trump earlier this week really indicated that there would be a red line on this, that unless US civilian was killed by some sort of military action from Iran, that the US wasn`t going to act.

And so I`ll be curious, sort of what precipitated him ordering the strike.

VELSHI:  Yes.  And, Philip, the President had actually said earlier today because it was an unmanned drone, it`s not as serious.  But to Nancy`s point that John Bolton may have had the day until something happened.

Earlier this evening in the show, I spoke to Michael Crowley one of the reporters of the New York Times who broke the story.  Listen to what he told me.


MICHAEL CROWLEY, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  As late as 7:00 or so this evening, officials in the US government did believe that there would be strikes on Iran.  Our understanding was that this approval by President Trump followed a spirited debate among top US officials in which key officials including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were pushing for some sort of military response to these Iranian actions that the President did approve a strike, the plan as we were told was for the strike to occur tonight, US time, which would have been predawn in Iran.  The goal was to avoid any casualties in Iran.

So, this would be the kind of strike that, I guess you might call symbolic, although, of course, it would be an incredibly consequential and dramatic action.   But the idea was not to kill any Iranians, remember, Trump emphasized the fact that the US drone that the Americans had shot down was unmanned.  It was a surveillance drone with no pilot.

And so, I think the idea was somewhat to respond in kind, not to inflict any casualties, but to inflict some damage.


VELSHI:  Philip, I want to get your take on what you believe happened.  That reporting is very thorough, as Nancy points out, it`s not confirmed by us, either.  But it is thorough and detailed to try to give us some sense of a nation potentially on the brink of war without any particular clear strategy or messaging or even an understanding of what the goal of the war would be.

Elliott:   Exactly.  I will join the unconfirmed camp on this, I have not been able to confirm this.  But I do know that reporting also indicates that just because it didn`t happen right then doesn`t mean it couldn`t happen again.  That this President has been hyping up the potential, the stay tuned, we will see.

He knows how to create drama, and having the country think about whether it wants to engage in a military retribution against Iran will be good.  The white house is very good at monitoring public sentiment on this, and it will be interesting to see what cues the President takes on this.

Things could quickly develop on this, I would say, stay tuned.

VELSHI:  They developed more quickly than I certainly expected.  We`ve been following it very closely.  This of course comes in the wake of President Trump launching his 2020 re-election campaign with a red meat pitch that seemed directly aimed at his base.

That move appears intentional, by the way.  A new Monmouth Poll out today put the President`s approval rating at 41 percent, which extends his streak as the only president in the history of the United States to never crack 50 percent approval.

Trump was confronted by that stat during a recent interview in which he said, "I think my base is so strong, I`m not sure that I have to do that."  He told Time Magazine after being asked whether he should reach out to swing voters.

Philip, I`m going to go back to you, because you`ve been following this campaign so closely.  What does that messaging tell you about Donald Trump?  That he is -- Democrats are falling over each other to try to figure out how to continue to expand the base and the President doesn`t seem interested in doing that at all.

ELLIOTT:  No, but that fits with the President`s strategy since day one.  That it is not about winning over America, uniting us, bringing us all together, having us have a moment of unity, and then being able to build a bipartisan legislative agenda.

For the President and his team, this has always been about red meat.  Appealing to the loudest corner of the Republican Party and crowding out any naysayers.  And he thinks, in his calculation, that it`s enough.

He told my colleagues that he`s always been a gambler and he`s gone with his instinct, and in talking with the team around him, his team has basically stopped trying to guide that and shape that.  And now they`re just taking their cues, whatever he blows up, they run through the breach, and that is one senior official told my colleagues for that story.

VELSHI:  Well, that`s interest, Nancy, maybe they`ll run through the breach, they believe it`s a strategy worth following.  Do they agree with the President in that strategy or they`re, "hey, we`re Team Trump, we`re going forward?"

COOK:  Well, I think the campaign is always very quick to defer to the president and say, he is our strategist, he is our communications leader.  And while he has this rhetoric, you know, that he doesn`t need to appeal to people and he has his base.  My reporting shows that the campaign really does know that they have to reach out to a wider swath of voters.  And you see that through a bunch of things.

You know, Vice President Mike Pence is going to be in Miami on Tuesday, ahead of the Democratic debates, and he`s going to be unveiling a list of prominent Hispanic and Latino business executives and supporters.  They are looking to corner more Hispanic voters heading into 2020 with the hope that could expand the electoral map.

You know, they are building the campaign.  He`s building an app.  They`re obsessed with data and trying to figure out electronically how to stay in touch with voters, how to stay in touch with volunteers and motivate them.

And so, I think that they really do see the idea of courting voters, particularly in key states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, they see those states as places that they do have to win over voters.

So, you know, Trump can say all he wants, this bombastic rhetoric that, you know, his base is with him and that`s all he needs.  But I think if you ask his top campaign advisers, they know that`s not entirely the case.

VELSHI:  Phil, that new Monmouth Poll shows the majority of Americans would not re-elect Donald Trump.  Is he betting on a strategy in which it`s a simple Electoral College strategy?  Because, you know, that for months, more than a year after the election, the President went handout maps of his electoral colleague success.  Maybe he`s just figured out that that`s all he has to do.

COOK:  Well, maybe.  But we`re also 16 months away from anyone actually having to decide that, and until there`s a nominee, all of these hypothetical will Trump win or will he not have very limited utility.  But it does tell us that there`s an opportunity for Democrats, if they can figure out how to run against Trump and not run against each other and tear themselves apart, next Wednesday and Thursday on this network, it will be - - there is a way for that number to become a reality.

VELSHI:  Thank you to both of you for joining me, Nancy Cook and Philip Elliott.  There is much more of "The 11th Hour" just ahead.


  VELSHI:  Before we go tonight, we`ve got some reminders for you, especially our time shifting viewers.  You can watch "11th Hour" at any time you please, by downloading the MSNBC app on your phone.

If you are on the move, listen live each night on SiriusXM Satellite Radio Channel 118.  And we are also available as a podcast, so there`s really no reason why you`d ever have to miss a single broadcast of "The 11th Hour."

You can also catch me tomorrow and every weekday at 1:00 pm Eastern with Stephanie Ruhle and then again at 3:00 pm Eastern.

That is our broadcast for tonight.  Thank you for being with us and good night from NBC News Headquarters in New York.

  THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.                                                                                                     END