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Pentagon says U.S. Strike killed top Iranian Gen. TRANSCRIPT: 1/2/20, 11th Hour w/ Brian Williams.

Guests: Daniel Benaim, Wendy Sherman, Anita Kumar, Robert Costa, FredKaplan, John Harris, Victoria Defrancesco Soto

LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST:  That is our last word for this hour.  I want to thank you all.  Andrea Mitchell, Wendy Sherman, Daniel Benaim, Jonathan Adler, Ned Price, Cal Perry, thank you all for guiding us through this breaking news event tonight.  We really appreciate it.  That is tonight`s "Last Word."  "The 11th Hour with Brian Williams" starts now.

STEVE KORNACKI, MSNBC ANCHOR:  The breaking news tonight, the Trump administration takes a major step in hostilities with Iran inside Iraq killing a top Iranian general after strife outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.  This as more troops are on their way.  We have the latest.

And more than two weeks after the House impeached President Trump, the Senate leaders prepare to square off and Democrats hammer away at new report, accusing the White House of a cover-up.

Plus, the presidential race gets even more volatile as new deadlines close and voting is just weeks away as "The 11th Hour" gets under way on this Thursday night.

Good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.  I`m Steve Kornacki in for Brian Williams.  Day 1078 of the Trump administration, and tonight this president is facing rapidly increasing pressure, both at home and overseas.

The president has been spending his last few days at his resort in Florida.  His administration has been preparing for impeachment trial in the Senate.  But it turns out the Trump White House has also been working on a military strike against a prominent Iranian leader.

The defense department tonight has confirmed that the United States has killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.  Soleimani may not be familiar to many Americans.  He was the head of Iran`s Quds Force, that is an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

Iraqi state TV says the general and Iraqi militia leader were among several people who died in a drone strike at Baghdad`s airport.  The defenses department said the president took, quote, decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel o overseas, adding this quote, General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.  General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more.

Tensions have been rising between the United States and Iran after protesters attacked the American embassy in Baghdad on New Year`s Eve.  The demonstrators were said to be reacting to recent U.S. air strikes on militia outposts in Iraq and Syria, which the U.S. said was retaliation for the death of an American contractor last week.  That night the president was asked about Iran as he was about to walk in to his new year`s party at Mar-a-Lago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Mr. President, do you foresee going to war with Iran?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I don`t think that would be a good idea for Iran.  It wouldn`t last very long.  Do I want to?  No. I want to have peace.  I like peace.  And Iran should want peace more than anybody.  So I don`t see that happening, no.  I don`t think Iran would want that to happen.  It would go very quickly.


KORNACKI:  Before we begin our discussion, let`s get the latest on tonight`s developments from Ali Arouzi, NBC News Tehran Bureau Chief.  He joins us now from London.  Ali, thank you for joining us.

Obviously this caught a lot of folks here in the United States in the media off-guard.  This news tonight trying to play catch-up here a little bit.  Take us through what we know at this hour about this killing.

ALI AROUZI, NBC NEWS TEHRAN BUREAU CHIEF:  That`s right, Steve.  Iranian state TV and the IRGC, which is the Revolutionary Guard have confirmed that Qassem Soleimani was killed in Iraq on the way to airport.  Qassem Soleimani is a revered figure in Iran, and it wouldn`t be an exaggeration to say that he is the second most powerful person in Iran after Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader.

He has developed a huge network of militias throughout the region that are under his patronage and fiercely loyal to him.  So this is going to have reverberations all through the region.  And Iran is taking this very seriously at this moment.

The former head of the Revolutionary Guard, a man called Mohsen Rezaee just sent out a message saying that Iran will take very strong revenge against the United States for the killing of Qassem Soleimani, a security council in Iran is now holding an emergency meeting, and the lines that are coming out of Tehran right now are that this is a declaration of war by the United States on Iran and they are going to strike back forcefully.

Now how or where they`re going to do that is obviously unknown to us, but they do have this huge network of militias and also a very powerful army in Iran itself.  They have a huge missiles program, and they have always constantly threatened that if Iran is hit, if Iran is threatened, all U.S. bases and personnel are within striking distance.

But Steve, if that was to happen, if Iran was to strike U.S. bases in the region, then all bets are off.  I mean the United States is going to strike back and we are going to be in some sort of a conflict between Iran and America that is going to have spread across the region because of those militias and proxies that we`ve been speaking about.

So the situation is extraordinarily serious right now.  Qassem Soleimani is a very revered figure in Iran and in the region by all of these people that follow him.  I`ve seen t a lot of footage of Soleimani traveling in the region.  He basically can travel from Tehran through Iraq into Syria unimpeded.  He doesn`t usually travel in military fatigues.  He doesn`t carry a weapon with him, which shows how confident he is about traveling in the area.

When you see him visiting these militias that were fighting ISIS or whoever else on the front lines, he would go there.  He would kiss one of them on the head.  They would act as if they have been kissed by god.  That`s how important he was to them.

So this is going to make those people that were very loyal to him extraordinarily angry.  And those people are outside of Iran.  So, I think this has opened a Pandora`s box.  In the past, Soleimani had been in the crosshairs of the Unite States, and they had decided not to hit him because of what might unravel.  I think we`re going see what`s going to unravel now, Steve.

KORNACKI:  You mentioned too the range of possible responses here from Iran in terms of the United States anticipating any of those responses and being prepared to counter them or to prevent them from happening, what do you know about American capabilities, American preparation for that?

AROUZI:  Well, America has a lot of bases in the region.  They have a lot of naval vessels in the region.  They have some huge bases in Kuwait, in Doha.  So America could strike back very seriously.  But don`t forget, they`re playing in Iran`s backyard.  That is where Iran is armed to the teeth.  Iran has a huge missile program.  Iran has a massive army, and it`s twofold.  They have an army and they have the IRGC.  Together that puts in about 400,000 troops.  They also have militias spread over there.

So this is a lot of firepower against a lot of firepower.  Obviously the U.S. firepower is a lot more serious than what Iran has, but that is going to make a very dangerous situation in Iran.  If we do get into a shooting match between Tehran and Washington in that region, I think Iran is going to throw everything it has towards U.S. troops and possibly other U.S. allies in the region as we`ve seen in the past.

So, we have to see exactly what Iran`s next move is, how they decide that they are going to take what they call revenge for Qassem Soleimani`s death.  What scale of reprisal they are going to launch and what the United States` response to that will be.

KORNACKI:  Let me just ask you, you may be answering the question here in your commentary so far, your reporting so far.  But the question of how confident we can be that Iran will launch some kind of attack in response to this.  Let me ask you from this standpoint.  You mentioned the confidence with which Soleimani was walking around pretty much in broad daylight, did not expect something like this was going to happen.  I assume the Iranian leadership did not expect something like this would happen.  Does the fact that something so unexpected, so traumatic happened to somebody so high up in the Iranian food chain, does that perhaps alter their thinking when it comes to a response that hey, if the United States is willing to do this, do we really want to go down this road?  Is it possible that thinking enters into this at all?

AROUZI:  It is a possibility that that thinking comes into it, but I don`t think the Iranians are thinking that way right now.  Their whole new strategy since President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal was to show strength.  Not to negotiate from a position of weakness.  And right now when their most powerful military leader and the second most powerful man in the country has been killed, they want to show strength.

The IRGC want to show from a position that they haven`t been weakened by this, that they can close ranks.  They are still a very strong organization that can respond to these sort of things.  And even though their main figurehead has been assassinated, this is not going to affect IRGC operations, and I think they`re going to be very keen to get that message across very quickly.

KORNACKI:  All right, Ali Arouzi joining us again from London.  Ali, we appreciate that.  Thank you very much.

In here now for a lead-off discussion on this Thursday night, Clint Watts, former FBI special agent, author of "Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News" and a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  Anita Kumar, White House correspondent and Associate Editor for POLITICO, and Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for "The Washington Post" and moderator of Washington Week on PBS.  Thanks to all of you for being with us.

Anita, let me be with you again.  Again, we say this was a surprise development to most folks tonight.  In terms of what has been playing out behind the scenes around the president, what do we now know?

ANITA KUMAR, POLITICO WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT:  Well, the president`s been in Mar-a-Lago in Florida for the last couple of weeks, and obviously, he has been asked some questions about Iran as things have escalated over recent days.  We didn`t know what was going to happen obviously.  We did see the national security adviser Robert O`Brien was down there in Florida with him and had left and returned today, probably to brief him on what was to be happen or what was happening.

But, you know, the president has given some hints here and there about Iran, but we didn`t -- we didn`t know what was going to happen.  And there is some talk at the White House and talk at the National Security Council about how prepared the United States.  What we haven`t seen is what we generally have seen in past White Houses, which is, you know, a briefing coming out of the White House right now or the Pentagon where they would explain what has happened.

But more importantly, how they`re going to move ahead, how they are prepared to assure, you know, assure Americans they are.  We haven`t seen that.  We saw the president statement from the Pentagon.  One U.S. official told my colleagues at POLITICO that this was not something that had been talked about for a long time and was a surprise even to U.S. officials.

KORNACKI:  Robert Costa, again, in terms of the reaction in Washington to this, we have some members of Congress, some senators who have tweeted some reactions here.  What are you hearing from Democrats and Republicans about this decision by the president?

ROBERT COSTA, THE WASHINGTON POST NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER:  I just got off the phone with Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut, a Democrat, and he said for many Americans, but particularly those who are serving in Congress and dealing with this tonight, it`s a sleepless night for them, and is alarmed, among other Democrats and sources on the democratic side of mine who say the administration in their view has taken hostile military action in Iraq against Iran without communicating with Congress, without seeing if they needed congressional approval.  So the red flag is in the air tonight, and they`re going press the administration to come to Congress to provide answers about what action was actually taken and what was the intelligence that led to this action being taken, and to do it under oath in testimony in the House potentially.

On the Republican side, a flurry of statements tonight.  More muted but embracing the president`s position.  Not surprising this is a Republican Party that on every issue is in lockstep with President Trump, and they say that Soleimani is someone who they`re glad to see killed.

At the same time, calling around my Republican sources tonight, many of them top sources, people at high-ranking positions feel like they were caught off guard by this news, that Republicans too do not feel like they have been briefed.  But so far no reporting on any kind of break from the president on the GOP side.

KORNACKI:  And just to follow up on that, to make clear to folks here, your reporting here, that there has been no communication from the White House to members of Congress at all on this topic tonight?

COSTA:  Well, that`s not entirely the case because some of my sources as you might imagine have relationships inside of the administration, whether it`s at the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department.  So there are members of Congress who are being informed about what is happening.  But in terms of formal briefings between these branches of our government, little detail at this moment.

KORNACKI:  All right.  Clint Watts, in terms of the potential here for an Iranian response to this, some kind of Iranian military response, some kind of Iranian proxy response to this, what can and should the United States be doing right now?

CLINT WATTS, FMR. FBI SPECIAL AGENT:  So the idea that General Soleimani was killed, Americans should not shed a tear for him.  He was a ruthless commander and a killer.  Many U.S. soldiers have suffered due to his backing of Shia militias. At the same point, this is something that could have been done as you talked about at the beginning here, this is a person walked out in the open in Iraq for years.

This attack could have been carried out at any time.  So the reason is why.  What is the calculation for why do it now and what are you trying to achieve.  What this could bring, what the scenario is and why we didn`t do this before is it could lead to regional terrorist attacks against Americans, U.S. personnel.  If you are a U.S. service member anywhere in the Gulf right now or in Iraq, if you are the marines that just landed there at the embassy, you could be under a much direr threat in the coming days and months.  Those Shia militias in Iraq are very loyal to Soleimani and the Quds Force.

Even beyond this in the region, when we talk about proxies, Hezbollah, they are oftentimes referred to as the A team of terrorist groups.  You had al- Qaeda, an ISIS, yes, we talked about them a lot but this is a vertically organized terrorist group with lethal capability, strategic intentions, very sharp decision making, and they prepare their responses.

So would they attack out in the region?  These are the scenarios we`ve always worried about.  This could be something that would trigger it.

KORNACKI:  What can realistically the United States be doing right now with that possibility looming?

WATTS:  The first thing would be to immediate harden all facilities in and around the region, particularly embassy, soft targets.  If you`re looking at western hotel chains, for example, or places where westerners congregate, those would be things that you would start to want to be putting in a counterterrorism or really anti-terrorism defensive positions around.

If you look back at Hezbollah and the way they have striked before, how they interact with things like the Quds Force and the IRGC, they might prepare those sporadic attacks around the perimeter of the U.S. as a retaliatory sort of measure to go at U.S. personnel to send a message back to the United States government.

The other thing we would do is maybe see regional troop deployments, regional troop deployments or beefing up of forces.  So would the U.S. Navy essentially send them or carrier groups?  Will we see missile defenses deployed into the region?  One of the thing the Quds Force is particularly known for as we talked about at the beginning of the hour is missiles.  They have very extensive missile forces.  Would they launch an attack either sea, air, ground against U.S. forces in the region.

So, you would expect this sort of a build up, this sort of a shield, this protection shield if you`re going to go ahead and make one of these strikes.  Maybe a lot of this has been happening and we`ve not been paying attention.  It`s been a lot of things going on around the world.

But I`m not seeing the significance sort of announcements that would normally accompany this movement of personnel around the region or even the world or even sort of preparatory talks about this.  And we don`t even have an announcement coming out really from the Pentagon or the White House today about what is going on.  We have an American flag tweet as sort of this is something we maybe we did.  It`s very elusive at this point.

KORNACKI:  Well, yes, and Anita, you were talking about this.  Let me follow up on that again for the sake of clarity here.  What communications have we received publicly from the administration on this?  And has there been any suggestion, any coordination behind the scenes about when we might hear more?

KUMAR:  Well, we haven`t heard when we`re going to hear more.  You just showed the president`s tweet earlier, which was just the American flag with no commentary.  We assumed that meant confirmation.  The Pentagon followed up very quickly with a statement saying that this was, you know, an American -- the United States did do this.  And actually had sort of a justification there and said that there was -- they were trying to prevent an attack.

And so I think that`s a legal justification as members of Congress, as Bob had mentioned, members of Congress are going to coming and saying why are you doing this.  The Pentagon is saying they were trying to prevent attack on Americans.

But we haven`t heard a briefing as I mentioned before.  There hasn`t been that interaction you would normally expect.  I checked in with all, you know, the official White House Office -- Press Office and other people over there.  They don`t expect anything else to come out of there.

So what we have is the president down in his resort in Florida, and we`ll wait to see what else he says.  You can bet he`ll probably tweet some more.  He does have campaign event tomorrow and he`ll probably speak about it at that time.

KORNACKI:  And again, this is a decision that was a surprise as I said to many folks tonight.  We are still getting plenty of reaction just coming in.  This was handed to me moments ago, a statement from former Vice President Joe Biden, obviously, the Democratic for president for president.

An extensive statement here, but let me just read part of it to folks here.  Biden says I`m not privy to the intelligence and much remains unknown, but Iran will surely respond.  We could be on the brink of a major conflict across the Middle East.  I hope the administrations that thought through the second and third order consequences of the path they have chosen, but I fear this administration has not demonstrated at any turn the discipline or long-term vision necessary and the stakes could not be higher.

That again a statement just coming in from Jo Biden, former vice president, democratic presidential candidate.  And Robert Costa, I think that potentially echoes a lot of what you`re hearing from Democrats on Capitol Hill tonight.

COSTA:  It does echo what I`m hearing from Democrats because Democrats look at the situation and they have very serious questions about President Trump, his judgment.  But they also worry about oversight of this administration.  This attack comes amid the impeachment inquiry.  And it doesn`t happen in a vacuum.  This administration they tell me tonight the Democrats has been opposing them at every step about information, about its conduct, about what officials have done in terms of enacting foreign policy on the impeachment front.

And because of that, the way that`s played out, they do worry tonight. That`s why Blumenthal said sleepless night, because if the administration is blocking all information on impeachment, what`s to say they`re suddenly going the offer all sorts of information about the intelligence and decision-making process that led to this.

And it comes back to the bigger picture issue of the AUMF, the Authorization of the Use of Military Force.  Congress used to be the institution, the branch of government that decided to go to war along with the executive branch, but the Congress would approve it.  But we`ve seen over the last two decades a removal of that power in many respects towards the executive branch.  And that`s the dynamic tonight.  Impeachment and that long pull away from Congress on war.  That`s all combining tonight in this situation.

KORNACKI:  Clint, again, in terms of Iran`s reaction to all of this, we had some of that reporting up top from Ali Arouzi there, the former vice president here not the only one tonight saying it is almost certain there will be some kind of response here from Iran.

But, again, the idea that this was from the Iranian standpoint a surprise, this guy walking around in broad daylight, not expecting this, how would something like this be received inside Iran?  Would they reassess it all their sense of what this administration, what this country might do them and how it might treat them?

WATTS:  Yes, I think they would.  I think something we haven`t really touched on is how this is playing out inside Iraq.  As much as we, you know, think it`s Iran versus the United States, remember, this is occurring in Iraq, and there is some interesting dynamics going on there right now.

Over the past several years, you`re seeing Iran really step up its role in Iraq, really back a lot of these Iran-backed militias that have actually pushed, you know, into other sectors of Iraq in ways the entire nation is not totally on board with.

If you went and looked right now, there is mixed reception.  Many people in Iraq are actually very excited that Soleimani was killed.  On the other side, you have others that are probably trying to decide which particular in the Shia coalition inside the government, which way to sort go.  Should they lean towards Iran or should they lean towards the United States.

And there are key religious fixtures in country, Shia religious fixtures that will actually help determine the tide that goes back and forth on this.  So while we`re talking about it mostly in the context of U.S. versus Iran, I think there`ll definitely be a response by some form in Iran.  They almost have to in order to stand their ground against the United States, especially in the time of tough sanctions.  This will play out in a very intricate way.  And so this might have been a strategic move by the U.S. to test conditions on the ground in Iraq and try and really reassert their interests.

Remember, this started with the U.S. contractor being killed.  We then retaliated against essentially local Iranian-backed militia.  We then see the embassy have people storming it.  According to the DoD it was basically on Soleimani`s word they were going to do this.  And now we see this strike.

It`s probably a way to sort of test the waters to see what we can get through and what our interests are in Iraq.  What`s not clear, when you just watch this picture from the outside, as we sit here, what are our intentions in Iraq?  When you listen to the president say we`re going to withdraw from the Middle East, we`re going pull back from Syria.  What are our strategic outcomes in Iran, and how does this support that? It`s really difficult to figure out how all these pieces fit together, and maybe they don`t because there -- there may not be a plan at all.

KORNACKI:  OK, Clinton Watts, Anita Kumar, Robert Costa, thank you all for joining us.

And coming up more on the escalating violence in Baghdad, one critic warns the president has no strategy for dousing the flames.  And later, how tonight`s developments in Iraq could impact the other critical issue facing this president, his pending impeachment trial in the Senate.  "The 11th Hour" just getting started on a Thursday night.



MARK ESPER, DEFENSE SECRETARY:  For several months now, particularly in the last couple, we`ve had these Iranian sponsored militia groups, in this case Kata`ib Hezbollah that has been attacking our personnel and our bases.  Enough is enough.  This is part of Iran`s malign behavior that they`ve been spreading across the region.


KORNACKI:  As we have been discussing tonight the commander of an elite unit of Iran`s Revolutionary Guard, quote, was killed in a drone striking near the Baghdad airport tonight.  An Iraqi militia leader was also reportedly killed.

Tonight, the Pentagon says the strike was, quote, aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.  Middle East experts warn that tonight`s developments have the potential to spark a massive escalation of regional tensions.

Joining our conversation is Fred Kaplan, national security columnist for Slate.  He is also the author of the fourth coming book "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War."  Fred, thank you for joining us.

We`re talking so much about how significant this death is, how this will be taken by Iran, the possibility, maybe the likelihood that they see this as an act of war.  To put in some perspective in the Iranian political hierarchy who Soleimani was, what would you say?

FRED KAPLAN, SLATE NATIONAL SECURITY COLUMNIST:  Well, it would be as if in the early stage of the Iraq War after an air strike of ours the Iranians were to have killed General Petraeus, General Mattis, Vice President Cheney and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and also assuming that all of these people were imbued with a certain religious charisma as well.  I mean there is actually no one quite like him in America or even most western political context.  It`s an enormous deal.

KORNACKI:  This is a name that I think to most Americans is probably new.  To Iranians, this is a household name.

KAPLAN:  Yes.  And also to American military officers.  I mean, Mattis has some comments in his book that he kind of dreamed about this guy sometimes and figured that he was dreaming about him too.  You don`t kill someone like this unless you`re at war with the country.  So, we`re basically at war with Iran with this act.  The Iranians are certainly look at it that way.  And the only question as to whether we think this, Trump thinks this, I mean which is more reckless, that he did this without thinking this was an act of war or doing it knowing that it was an act of war?

KORNACKI:  Well, in terms of how Iran is taking it we can show you this too.  This tweet went up 10:58 p.m. Eastern time.  So basically a half hour ago.  This is from the foreign minister of Iraq, Javad Zarif.  The U.S. act of international terrorism targeting and assassinating General Soleimani, the most effective force fighting Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda at all -- is extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation.  "The U.S. bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism."  This, an official response essentially from Iran here.

FRED KAPLAN, AUTHOR, "THE BOMB":  Yes.  And, you know, I think the attack also killed the head of Kata`ib Hezbollah who is an Iraqi in charge of the militia that stormed the embassy the other day.  So you have a U.S. air strike killing the most prominent Iranian in the region, which has incredible influence on Iraqi military and politics as well as the head of a very large militia in Iraq, on Iraqi soil, almost certainly without the clearance of Iraqi political leadership.  It`s -- you know, it`s an act of war.  There`s really no other way to look at it.

KORNACKI:  To take a step back here and just put this in context of the U.S. relationship with Iran and the trajectory that has been on the last three years, the Trump presidency, you think back to what Trump inherited, there was that Iranian nuclear deal that the Obama administration had worked out.  That was in place when Trump came in.  Three years later, that deal has been torn up.  Now this.  What has been happening that precipitated this?

KAPLAN:  Well, there`s a direct link.  I mean this Iran nuclear deal, keep in mind remember, this wasn`t just Obama.  It was Obama, six other countries, the European Union and codified in a U.N. Security Council resolution.  And it was working out.  You know, every few months, the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors would go in, see if the Iraqis were -- the Iranians were complying.  They were in full compliance.

Trump tore it up against the advice of all of his advisers, many of whom were very, very suspicious and distrustful of Iran, basically, because he didn`t like it.  Mainly because he didn`t like anything that Barack Obama had been associated with.  And this was Obama`s probably signal diplomatic achievement.

If this -- if he had not scuttled the deal -- not only did he scuttle the deal and reimpose sanctions, but he also put secondary sanctions on any country that continued to do business with Iraq -- with Iran, I`m sorry, which was another violation of the deal by the way.  And so Iran is hurting.  They`re scrambling.  And so they`re striking back.  If the Iranian nuclear deal were still in place, none of this would have happened, absolutely none of it.

KORNACKI:  All right, Fred Kaplan, thank you for taking a few minutes.  Appreciate that.

And coming up, we are going to continue to keep an eye on tonight`s breaking news out of the Pentagon.  We`re going have an update from there coming up.  There is also another important story that we are following tonight concerning the Pentagon, Ukraine, and impeachment.  We will have more on that when "The 11th Hour" continues.


KORNACKI:  We`re also following important developments related to impeachment tonight.  There is new reporting that reveals never before reported concerns within the Pentagon over withholding aid to Ukraine.  The details come in the form of unredacted e-mails between Defense and Budget officials obtained by the just security blog.  That blog is associated with the New York University School of Law.

One notable e-mail was sent by Michael Duffey, who works for the Office of Management and Budget to the acting Pentagon comptroller saying this, "Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold."  That hold seemingly referring to the aid to Ukraine.

Kate Brannen also reports, "What is clear is that it all came down to the president and what he wanted.  No one else appears to have supported his position."

We should note that NBC News has not viewed the e-mails and cannot verify their authenticity.  NBC News has asked to be shown the documents, but the reporter has declined.

Here with us, John Harris, founding editor of Politico and Victoria Defrancesco Soto, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Thank you to both of you for being with us.  John, I`ll start with you.  You are somebody who covered every sort of twist and turn of the Bill Clinton presidency.  I mention that because there have been a number of key plot points in this impeachment that have matched up on the timeline with Bill Clinton`s, the House vote to impeach Bill Clinton was almost exactly the same day as the House vote to impeach Donald Trump.

But here`s another parallel tonight.  At the height of Bill Clinton`s impeachment in 1998 as the House was getting ready to vote, he launched military action in Iraq.  And now as we`re talking about what the Senate may do with the Donald Trump and impeachment trial, here comes military action involving Iran.

JOHN HARRIS, POLITICO FOUNDING EDITOR:  You know, that`s a very good point, Steve.  And now, as then, the fact of a political context domestically I think is the prism through which many people are viewing it.  In other words, can a president and his commander in chief role be taken at face value?  Does he deserve the benefit of the doubt when in every context, his credibility is being challenged.  That was true in `98, and I think it`s true now.

KORNACKI:  Victoria, we mentioned that new reporting that was prior to a few hours ago getting a fair amount of attention might be eclipsed at least momentarily by this news.  But in terms of the political calculation that Democrats have been making here, withholding the formal transmission of these articles to the Senate, trying to gain leverage there, hoping there would be new reporting, new developments that might change the politics, do you see this new reporting playing that role at all?  Or is this just another development that comes and goes without the politics changing?

VICTORIA DEFRANCESCO SOTO, LBJ SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS:  Steve, I`m going say it comes and goes.  I really see the impasse in terms of the impeachment strategy on the part of the Democrats.  It`s a losing strategy.  I mean nationally, we see a tie in terms of folks supporting and opposing the impeachment of the President.  But when you dig down deeper, you see that the removal of the President has less support, less than 50%.

In one number, I always fixate on is independents.  So only about four out of 10 independents want to see Trump removed from office.  So that boils down to not a wave of support.  And then in terms of the base, for Trump, this is a core rallying point.  This is highlighting the swamp and the politicos that are out to get me.  And among Democrats, yes, it was important.   You know, the democratic principle of it.  But at the same time, Democrats care about bread and butter issues.

And as of tonight, the guns and butter issues that we`re dealing with and impeachment just doesn`t have that same hold.  And I think we risk apathy and frustration by the part of Democrats.  So I think this -- again, this is a risky proposition.

KORNACKI:  John, it`s an interesting assessment there from Victoria.  I`m curious what your sense is of the politics within the United States Senate.  We`ve made a lot of conversation here over the number four.  Four Republicans would need to break with Mitch McConnell`s side with the Democrats procedurally to get the Democrats the kind of trial they`re talking about.

Susan Collins made some noise over the last couple of days.  She`s not happy with McConnell`s public posture on this.  Do you see a realistic scenario where there are four Republicans who do that?

HARRIS:  We haven`t heard their voices publicly yet.  I think in the background conversations, we do hear even from Republicans discomfort with sort of blind deference that the Republicans are giving generally to the President.  But I guess based on available evidence, no, I don`t see it, Steve. 

KORNACKI:  OK.  We are going to have another update for you, by the way, on that breaking news overseas tonight.  We also have some other news we want to bring you from the campaign trail as one candidate bows out, others rake in millions, and one front-runner takes a big shot at a chief rival.  We`re going to tally it all up and see where we stand with just 32 days to go until the Iowa caucuses when "The 11th Hour" continues.


KORNACKI:  A month out from the Iowa caucuses, Senator Bernie Sanders is taking his most direct shot yet at the front-runner, Joe Biden.  Sanders telling the "Washington Post" Robert Costa, "It`s just a lot of baggage that Joe takes into a campaign, which isn`t going to create energy and excitement.  He brings into this campaign a record which is so weak that it just cannot create the kind of excitement and energy that is going to be needed to defeat Donald Trump."

Sanders` comments come as we learn he is leading the fourth quarter fundraising race with more than $34 million brought into the last three months that is almost $10 million more than Pete Buttigieg, nearly $12 million more than Joe Biden.  President Trump, meanwhile, raked in $46 million and has more than $100 million on hand right now.

Still with us, John Harris and Victoria Defrancesco Soto.  Victoria, I think the attack here from Sanders on Biden is interesting in that somebody is now attacking Joe Biden.  This has been something I think folks have been asking for months.  Who`s going to go after Biden?  He is sitting there in the lead.  There were a couple of shots taken at him in debates, but mainly, the gloves have been kept on by the candidates until now.

SOTO:  The gloves have come off.  And as my college students would say that Bernie is throwing mad shade at Joe Biden.  And I don`t get it.  I just do not get where these attacks come from, Steve, and that what is the population of folks who are undecided between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden?  I`m not going to say it`s zero, but it`s probably not more than a couple of dozen people.

So I get why you might want to come at Joe Biden.  But Bernie Sanders, the real person that he needs to be focusing on and throwing shade on is Elizabeth Warren.  Because he is not going to be fighting voters from Joe Biden, it`s Elizabeth Warren.  It`s folks who might be further on his left, Julian Castro is out of the race.  So he doesn`t have to worry about that.

So I`m scratching my head.  I just don`t see the point of attacking Joe Biden.  He`s already in the headlines.  He`s raking in money.  When is he going to attack Elizabeth warren?  That`s what I want to know.

KORNACKI:  John, I`m wondering how you assess Joe Biden standing in this race.  Because it seems there are two very different ways of looking at it.  On the one hand, he has led the national polls basically the entire way through, about a 10-point lead, despite all the scrutiny of his past record, those sorts of things.

On the other hand, we just put those numbers up, this is not the first time he has not been at the top of the fundraising game.  He`s in third place there right now in fundraising for this quarter.  The polls in Iowa and New Hampshire have been a lot shakier for him than they have been nationally.  There`s one version of the story where Joe Biden is a pretty solid consistent front-runner.  There`s another version where he`s poised on the brink of disaster.  How do you look at it?

HARRIS:  You know, it is the Mona Lisa, is she smiling or frowning?  Historically, all you can say that historically candidates who have not done well in those early states even if they have high national standing, they lose that rather rapidly.  So it seems to me that I look at Biden`s standing and I would say that is rather precarious, because if he doesn`t come strong in Iowa and New Hampshire, the assumption of his campaign is that they would recover that ground in South Carolina.  But that may be problematic.

Incidentally, I didn`t hear it as a terrible attack that Sanders made on Biden.  I supposed maybe calling his record weak is an attack.  I heard him saying something that you hear from lots of people say across the ideological spectrum, including a lot of Washington operatives which is they are worried about that enthusiasm gap.  Biden doesn`t attract large crowds on the stump.  He`s not attracting a lot of grassroots fundraising.  So Sanders was identifying a genuine concern.

KORNACKI:  That is true, Victoria, when you look at polling among Democrats you see that idea of electability, however you want to define it, just the idea of finding a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump, it seems much more prominent on Democratic voters` minds than you`ve had in the past going into these things.  There`s a lot more apprehension about it seems understanding Trump`s political strength and how to counter it.

SOTO:  There`s a lot of apprehension.  Trump being the target for Democrats, but also looking at the size of the Democratic field I think is another thing that is making Democrats very nervous, because they want to beat Trump.  They absolutely want to beat Trump.  But at the same time they don`t want to fight it out so much that folks become apathetic and frustrated and they get angry, and they don`t want to turn out.

Let`s think back to 2016.  Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, the fight got so ugly, a lot of Bernie folks said I`m going to sit it out.

KORNACKI:  All right, Victoria Defrancesco and John Harris, thank you both for being with us.

HARRIS:  Thanks, Steve.

KORNACKI:  And coming up, we have much more on tonight`s breaking news that U.S. strike killing one of Iran`s top commanders when "The 11th Hour" continues.


KORNACKI:  More now on that breaking news out of Iraq tonight.  The Pentagon confirms that a top Iranian military commander was killed in an air strike near Baghdad.  DOD officials say that General Qassem Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats in service members in Iraq.

With us now is, Courtney Kube, NBS News correspondent covering national security in the Pentagon, she has been following everything that`s been going on tonight, joins us now.

Courtney, thank you so much for joining us.  So again we have been talking about this in terms of the limited communication we have received here from the administration.  What do you know about what has been going on inside this administration with this decision and with the fall out from it?

COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  So you`re right, the only thing we`ve actually heard on the record is this written statement from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.  What we know of course is that President Trump directed the U.S. military to take this action to target Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force.

But we don`t know a whole of detail about exactly how they did -- how they did it.  Was it drone?  There are some reports it was a drone, a strike.  We don`t know who else was with him and may have been killed.  There`s plenty of reporting coming out of the region and rumors, but nothing that`s actually been confirmed from the U.S. military or U.S. government yet.

We do know as you mentioned that the U.S. is saying that he was planning future attacks.  The reality is Qassem Soleimani is behind dozens of if not hundreds of attacks across Iraq and Syria in the region over the years.  There`s -- if you talk to U.S. military officials they say unequivocally that he has U.S. and Iraqi blood on his hands over the years from planning these attacks.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke to the Pentagon press corps early this morning off camera and spoke a little bit about some of the more recent rocket attacks and specifically said that they were being directed by the Iranian government.  The fact that they were -- that Kata`ib Hezbollah, who is an Iran-backed militia group in Iraq that they were the ones who actually carrying it out, would indicate that in fact Esper was saying and the U.S. government is saying in fact Qassem Soleimani and the Quds Force, they are the ones who are also directing these attacks.

So the U.S. was sort of laying out the plan here now, now in retrospect we can see that that U.S. government, the Pentagon was laying out that in fact they were blaming Soleimani for these more recent attacks, for being complicit in them.

KORNACKI:  Just quickly here, Courtney.  Again, there`s written statement from Esper, not much else in terms of public communication.  Do you have a sense if and when there will be more communication about all of these questions that you`re sort of raising here?

KUBE:  We don`t.  I mean, at this point the most -- what would seem to be the most likely next step would be for President Trump to speak about it.  You know, we know that he was the one who ordered this action, so he is down in Mar-a-Lago still.  We know from our colleagues at the White House that in fact he has some free time tomorrow morning with nothing on his schedule, so it`s plausible that he would come out and make some sort of statement.

But at this point, there`s no additional plans to hear from the U.S. military in Iraq or from the Pentagon.  We -- as I said, we heard from Secretary Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley this morning for the first time to talk about the situation in Iraq.  But of course they didn`t tell us anything about this.  This was a complete surprise to the reporters who are all there today, Steve.

KORNACKI:  OK.  Courtney Kube, thank you very much for the update there.  Appreciate that.  And there is much more of MSNBC`s continuing coverage of the air strike at the top of the hour.  "The 11th Hour" continues right after this.


KORNACKI:  That is our broadcast for tonight but our coverage of this story does not stop here.  A live special edition of the "Rachel Maddow Show" begins right now.  Rachel?

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST:  Steve, thank you very much my friend.  Much appreciated.

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