BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Tonight, chaos and confusion. And this time, we`re talking about the Pentagon. As a letter seems to indicate we`re pulling out of Iraq, but then the top brass come forward to say, pay no attention, it was a poor choice of the words.
And in the real world, the U.S. yesterday ended the fight against ISIS so the U.S. military could be ready for whatever Iran decides to do to avenge the killing of their top general by the U.S.
And on the impeachment front tonight, one of the keepers of Trump`s secrets has stepped forward. John Bolton says he is prepared to testify if called, setting up a tough call for Senate Republicans and Bolton`s former boss, Donald Trump. All of it as a new week starts and THE 11TH HOUR gets under way on this, the first Monday night of 2020.
Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 1,082 of the Trump administration, and for a time today the United States looked like the gang that couldn`t shoot straight. A letter came out on Pentagon letterhead written by a U.S. Marine general that talked about U.S. forces moving onward and sure seemed to indicate we were pulling out people out of Iraq.
Then the Pentagon brass met with reporters in a nondescript room to say, don`t believe it. That`s not the case. The letter was a draft, and it was poorly worded. All of this is an issue in the first place because of the President`s decision to launch the air strike that took out Iran`s top general, a bona fide bad guy whose death we are now realizing may bring consequences for the U.S. and its allies.
Today was a bad look for the Pentagon. That was underscored by a man who once ran the Pentagon as defense secretary.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: They`re scrambling around trying to figure out what the hell to do. I hope they make every effort to try to maintain our forces there because frankly the issue we`re forgetting a lot about in the middle of all of this Iranian crisis is the fact that ISIS still remains a real threat to the United States.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: And about ISIS, just yesterday we heard the U.S. got out of the fight. "The New York Times" reports the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has halted its campaign against ISIS as forces instead brace for retaliation from Iran.
Tonight "The Washington Post" reports, Iraq may be facing sanctions, "Senior administration officials have begun drafting sanctions against Iraq after President Trump publicly threatened the country with economic penalties if it proceeded to expel U.S. troops. Such a step would represent a highly unusual move against a foreign ally that America has spent almost two decades and hundreds of billions of dollars supporting."
Also reports tonight that the U.S. Air Force is sending half a dozen B-52 bombers to the military base in Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean, out of range of Iranian missiles. The White House maintains the Iranian commander was at the center of imminent attacks targeting Americans in Iraq and Syria. And that they say they have the intelligence to back that up.
This afternoon the President called into Rush Limbaugh to defend his decision.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He was a terrorist. He should have been taken out a long time ago, and we had a shot at it, and we took him out. And we`re a lot safer now because of it. We`ll see what happens. We`ll see what the response is.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Democratic members of Congress have been clamoring to see the administration`s evidence, pointing to planned assaults on Americans. NBC News has learned that tomorrow top congressional leaders who make up what`s called the gang of eight will be briefed on the matter after the fact. Wednesday secretaries of state and defense as well as the joint chiefs chairman and the CIA director will hold classified briefings for members of the House and Senate.
Meanwhile, the crisis over Iran and the crisis over impeachment, you might say found common ground today. That`s because former National Security Adviser John Bolton, a longtime hawk on Iran, now says he will, in fact, testify in Trump`s Senate impeachment trial if he is subpoenaed to do so.
And tonight one Trump ally in the Senate is pointing to Bolton as having had a hand in Trump`s latest confrontation with Iran.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RAND PAUL, (R) FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: The death of Soleimani, I think, is the death of diplomacy with Iran. I don`t see an off ramp. I don`t see a way out of this.
I think that he got bad advice. I think that basically, even though he let John Bolton go, this is John Bolton. John Bolton`s clapping and jumping up and down and rubbing his hands together because this is what he wanted.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Here for our leadoff discussion on a Monday night, Nancy Cook, White House Reporter for POLITICO, Jeremy Bash, former Chief of Staff at the CIA and the Pentagon, former Chief Counsel to the House Intel Committee, and Greg Miller, National Security Correspondent for "The Washington Post."
Jeremy Bash, I`d like to begin with you. How has this President changed our position in the Middle East over the past four days?
JEREMY BASH, FMR. CIA CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, first I think actually you have to go back about six months because after the U.S. drone was shot down by Iran on June 20th, the President did not respond with proportional military responses. In fact, you`ll recall, Brian, he called off that military response with 10 minutes to go. And then after Iran brazenly attacked Iranian -- excuse me, Saudi oil facilities on September 14th, again Washington and the white house did not respond. And then on October 6th, the President yielded to President Erdogan of Turkey and said, go right ahead into Syria. We`re getting out of there. That again emboldened Iran and even ISIS.
So, for the Middle East, what they`ve seen from Washington is a vacillation, weakness, abandonment, and then comes along this supposed information about Qasem Soleimani plotting against U.S. forces, and the President overcompensates. He overcompensates for his weakness. He over rotates and conducts an extremely escalatory, dangerous, and inflammatory step that brings us now to the brink of a full-scale military conflict.
WILLIAMS: Nancy Cook, there were rumblings that guests at Mar-a-Lago seemed to know something big was on the way. But a week ago, a week ago tonight, would anyone at the White House have guessed or told you that we`d be where we are now?
NANCY COOK, POLITICO WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: No, absolutely not. And I think that the strike early Friday morning against Soleimani came as a huge surprise to a number of White House officials, even National Security Council officials.
And what was fascinating to me was that the people who were in the loop were largely, you know, Mar-a-Lago members, had some sort of hint maybe something was happening. A Trump family members hinted at it on Twitter. Senator Lindsey Graham was told. And so it seemed like initially it was largely Trump`s allies and people who he felt like were loyal to him that were informed whereas, you know, key congressional leaders, this was a surprise to them.
And I think that what we`re going to see this week as Congress returns to Washington from the holiday break, I think we`re going to see more and more congressional leaders clamoring for a sense of why the President decided to do this strike now, why the timing -- what`s it for and what was the justification at this point.
WILLIAMS: Greg, let`s be clear in our predicate. This President has trashed intelligence agencies. Having established that, what is your reporting on how thick the intel was on this strike? We obviously knew where he was. How did we know his intention?
GREG MILLER, THE WASHINGTON POST NATL. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it doesn`t look like -- I mean Qasem Soleimani was not somebody who was -- took great pains to conceal his movements across the Middle East. I mean he often took selfies that he would post later about his whereabouts on the front lines of battlefields and so forth.
And so I`m sure that the United States had abundant intelligence on his whereabouts and has had that intelligence for many months now, if not years. I mean the big question is why was this decision, this strike taken at this moment. And I think that, you know, we have yet to see any hard evidence, and members of Congress have yet to point to anything they have learned that suggests that there was some calculation altering new information that had surfaced, right?
I mean, sure, Qasem Soleimani was leader of an organization that is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen. That has been true for a long time. The question and the calculation for a president is what is the smartest thing to do for the country`s security? And what we`re seeing in the aftermath here, it`s hard to see that there was a lot of thought given to those second and third-order effects of this strike.
WILLIAMS: Jeremy Bash, how many things need to go wrong for the Pentagon to look as bad as they looked today?
BASH: Well, today was a rough moment because you had a commander down range in Iraq who sent a letter that was clearly not blessed or vetted by the Pentagon, by the joint chiefs, and certainly not by the White House. But I think the bigger issue, Brian, is that the handwriting is on the wall about the U.S. presence in Iraq. And in effect, Qasem Soleimani is achieving what he wanted, which is to drive American forces out of Iraq, and this time it`s going to be -- we`re going to be kicked out by the Iraqis themselves, by the very country and by the very military we`ve been assisting and we`ve been training.
And there are other second and third-order effects. Iran has said that they`re going to fully break out of the nuclear agreement and begin to fully enrich uranium and develop their nuclear capabilities. You`re going to see them continue to perfect their precision guided munitions and their ballistic missile capabilities. They won`t stop arming Hezbollah and other proxy groups.
And so the region grows more and more dangerous while U.S. forces and U.S. diplomacy pulls back. I don`t see how this benefits the security of the American people.
WILLIAMS: Nancy, please help me emphasize to our viewers that in normal times, we`d start a broadcast like this one showing comments from today`s White House briefing. While yesterday we passed the rubicon. It`s been 300 days as of yesterday since our last White House briefing, 302 at the end of this hour. Remind people the absence and how we pay a price for it every day.
COOK: Well, the price that we pay was it was the President`s first day back in Washington after a two-week holiday at Mar-a-Lago. You know there is a major crisis, potential war with Iran on the horizon, and we have very little information out of the White House, just out of the White House broadly but out of the White House press office in particular.
The President had no public events on his schedule today, so apart from him calling in to Rush Limbaugh, we did not hear from him. And that was a pretty friendly interview as you can imagine. And there was no opportunity to sort of publicly question top White House officials, including the White House communications director and the press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, about what the justification was for the strike, what the White House`s plan was moving forward, if and when Iran retaliated.
And so I think there was just a real vacuum of information. And as you said earlier, you know, what filled that in was a lot of confusion coming out of the Pentagon.
WILLIAMS: Greg, is there any way to speculate if Mattis and McMaster and their ilk were still in the circle around this President? Would that military briefer have ever been sent in that room at Mar-a-Lago with this option to place in front of the President even if it is, as the reporting indicates, even if it was the worst-case, break-glass option?
MILLER: I mean what you`re getting at here, Brian, is that the ways that senior national security officials have briefed presidents often over many years now has to be rethought with this President in many cases because the reporting so far suggests that this option of a strike on Soleimani was sort of put out there as an extreme, possibly even to make the other options that the military was laying out look more reasonable and measured and look better by comparison. And instead President Trump, according to some military officials who are talking to news organizations, reached for that most extreme one.
And so, you know, it`s hard to -- it`s hard to manage that if you`re a secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It goes against the sort of way you lay out options for presidents going back many decades now because this is a president who, you know, who proudly and defiantly makes decisions by gut instinct rather than leading on the advice of those experienced people around him.
And what we`ve seen over the past year in particular is a depletion of those ranks of experienced officials. You`ve named several of them who have been replaced by others, including the current defense secretary, who may be very skilled at his job but doesn`t have the same level of experience in the Middle East, in Iraq, with adversaries like Iran as somebody like Jim Mattis.
WILLIAMS: And, Jeremy Bash, going back to your Pentagon experience, what does it mean to you to hear that B-52s have landed and taken up position at Diego Garcia?
BASH: Well, it means we`re going forward with a force posture, a force package that can conduct offensive bombing strikes if the military situation requires it. We`re also surging members of the 82nd Airborne, the 75th Ranger Regiment, some Marine air ground task forces into the region because now we have to be on a war footing. We`ve got to be leaning forward in case Iran strikes us.
Again, this is a president who wanted to end endless wars or end military engagements, and he`s careened between this non-interventionist, isolationist, America-first policy, and this highly escalatory interventionist mode. So there`s no real clarity in what American foreign policy looks like in the Middle East, and I think we`re going to pay a price for that.
WILLIAMS: Much obliged to our starting team, as we said, this first Monday night of 2020. To Nancy Cook, to Jeremy Bash, to Greg Miller, our thanks for coming on.
Coming up for us, as Iran warns of harsh retaliation, the White House vows Americans are safer after the death of this general. A retired four-star U.S. general and a former FBI official are standing by to tell us what they think.
And later, more on today`s other big story, we`ll ask a former federal prosecutor how she reads Mr. Bolton`s surprise offer to testify in the impeachment trial if asked to as THE 11TH HOUR is just getting started on this Monday night.
WILLIAMS: The Iranian general replacing the now deceased Soleimani is vowing to avenge his death. On Sunday, our Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about retaliation from Iran. Here`s what he told Chuck Todd.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: It may be there`s a little noise here in the interment that the Iranians make the choice to respond. I hope that they don`t. President Trump has made clear what we will do in response if they do, that our response will be decisive and vigorous just as it has been so far.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: There is also growing concern over possible Iran cyberattacks and in part because they`re good at it. The chief of cyber security at the Department of Homeland Security warned Americans today to brush up on Iranian hacking techniques.
"The Washington Post" underscored that the Iranians have very capable hackers at their disposal. They report Soleimani`s death at the hands of the U.S., "threatens to unleash a fully unshackled Iranian response. Analysts and former U.S. officials warned. They said a variety of potential cyberattacks possibly in conjunction with more traditional forms of lethal action would be well within the warned. They said a variety of potential cyberattacks possibly in conjunction with more traditional forms of lethal action would be well within the digital arsenal."
Back with us again tonight, two critically important guests, Retired Four- Star U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, a Decorated Combat, veteran of Vietnam and notably a former battlefield commander in the Persian Gulf and Frank Figliuzzi, former FBI Assistant Director for Counterintelligence. Welcome to you both, gentlemen. Happy new year to you.
And General, I`d like to begin with you. What happens when you hear about a country like Iraq, which under the you break it, you buy it policy, we broke and we bought, and now when you hear we are working up sanctions against Iraq, how do you respond?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.): With disbelief. You know, we`re in a bizarre world. The interview with Trump and some of his closest associates in which he basically in a fit of bluster talked about refusing to leave Iraq if they told us to go until they paid for the Air Force base. We talked about hitting 52 targets, one for each hostage. This kind of stuff being manufactured inside a small group in the White House, this never came out of the JCS.
A lot of it`s illegal. Most of it`s stupid. It`s embarrassing for the President of the United States to be saying it.
Look, hitting Soleimani, a legitimate target, was an option that could have been examined. He`s been leading an attack on U.S. forces and killed tens of thousands of people in the Middle East. The problem was when you analyze it for about 10 minutes and you say, you know, we`re going to kill this guy at the Baghdad airport along with a Shiite senior leader, the President is going to immediately take personal responsibility for it, proudly tweeting out an American flag.
What do you think was going to happen? We restarted the nuke program in Iran. We solidified their Iranian leadership. We destabilized Iraq. This was an ill thought out, impulsive, and stupid move.
WILLIAMS: And yet, Frank Figliuzzi, our President and our Secretary of State say we are safer because of it. What do you say?
FRANK FIGLIUZZI, FMR. FBI ASSIST. DIRECTOR FOR COUNTERINTELLIGENCE: Well, I say I think we`re at greater risk right now. And here is the thing, we don`t quite understand the risk. The President, through his tweets and statements, seems almost singularly focused on conventional, traditional warfare. He keeps talking about the number of missiles, the number of missile sites he has in his mind. But there`s a new battlefield out there, and Iran has, over the last several years, given us a sneak preview of what they`re capable of doing on the new battlefield. That new battlefield is cyber.
And, look, over the last several years, we`ve seen things like the Iranian government taking over the command and control system for a dam in New York State. We`ve seen them hit finance and banking. We`ve seen them all over our social media. Talk to folks at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. They`ll all tell you they`ve had to remove Iranian government accounts and operations from their platforms.
So, are we about to see kind of the new face of warfare that we may or may not be ready for and we may not have plans in place to understand an equal and opposite reaction to whatever they do. But our daily lives are controlled by digitalized, automated, electronic transactions. Whether you`re hitting an ATM, you`re pumping gas at the gas station, you`re using your GPS or you`re stopping at a traffic light, you`re dependent highly on computers and cyber. And Iran has shown us that they can get in there and mess with us.
WILLIAMS: General McCaffrey, "The New York Times" reminded us today the last time the United States killed a foreign military commander overseas was when we shot down Admiral Yamamoto`s plane in World War II. Of course during an era that couldn`t be more different, during a titanic struggle against tyranny around the globe.
If I read you correctly, you are agreeing this was a bad guy. This was a terrorist, and while we don`t mourn his death, perhaps we should have thought steps one through five, maybe one through 15 out in advance before taking this life.
MCCAFFREY: Yes, I know. It`s preposterous. You know, there might have been an argument to say have the CIA do a covert hit on this general officer while he was in Syria, and then, you know, deniability and try and not be out there in public. Even then it would have been a pretty bad option, which was examined several times in other administrations who decided this is the wrong move.
When you think about it, if you kill any senior leader, they get replaced an hour later. There is no indispensable gentle officer, not, you know, Stone Wall Jackson, not Irwin Rommel, not Patton when we sideline him (INAUDIBLE). So if it really was an imminent attack which would may will be the case, why would we think killing the general officer at the Baghdad airport was going to actually be a defense of the United States?
So, the other thing we`ve got to take into account, we are tactically vulnerable on the ground in Iraq. We`ve got pacts of troops, 5,000 spread all over the country, the embassy, oil executives, contractors. Our tool that we`re going to have to use to respond if they really get a hit on us like the Beirut Marine barracks bombing is to use strategic air and Naval power to go after the Iranian mainland. So, you know, we started with a decision that`s not working out for us.
WILLIAMS: Frank, let`s hope if they hit us overseas, they`ll be met by a superb military force, but you get our attention when you talk about things domestic, like ATMs, like the phones we all carry now. Give us some more examples of how they could hit us electronically. I`m assuming there`s a wait list before they get involved in our elections, correct?
FIGLIUZZI: There is -- there are reports, Brian, that the Iranian government has explored the possibility of looking for our voting system, hacking into our election campaigns. Don`t be surprised if we see that. And then I predict you`ll see a sudden passion from this President about election security if they hit that.
But here`s a specialty of theirs that we`ve already seen played out, and that is the wiping out of data. Just -- you wake up one morning and your business, your private sector, your bank -- talk to Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate at the Sands in Las Vegas. He`ll tell you about getting his data wiped out by Iran. They can do it, and they`re very good at it, and I would expect our private sector to be the most vulnerable here.
We keep talking about government targets, but many sensitive government targets are locked down tight, great strong firewalls, great monitoring. The private sector is more vulnerable, and I think we`ll see a hybrid attack in both areas.
WILLIAMS: Well, gentlemen, thank you. A sobering conversation, but we appreciate being able to talk to both of you. General Barry McCaffrey, Frank Figliuzzi, our thanks.
Coming up, John Bolton now says he`s ready to talk about Ukraine. There`s a big condition attached. We`ll talk to a former fed about all of it right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER, KENTUCKY: Even with tensions rising in the Middle East, House Democrats are treating impeachment like a political toy.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER, NEW YORK: Glaringly, the Republican leader has yet to make one single argument why witnesses should not testify. One single argument. I`m waiting to hear it, Leader McConnell.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So the news today was this. Out of nowhere, one of the keepers of the secrets in the Trump White House, John Bolton, said this, and we quote. "If the Senate issues a subpoena for my testimony, I am prepared to testify."
Bolton, who can fairly be called a longtime conservative Republican foreign policy darling, had said he would only testify if a judge ordered him to adhere to a congressional subpoena. Democrats want the Senate Majority Leader to agree to allow new witnesses like Bolton to testify before the House sends over the articles of impeachment. So far, McConnell hasn`t done that, and so far at least one Republican -- prominent Republican senator has said he`d be curious to hear what Bolton has to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R), UTAH: I`d love to hear what he has to say. He has firsthand information, and assuming that articles of impeachment do reach the Senate, I`d like to hear what he knows.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Let`s talk to Barbara McQuade about all of these. She happens to be a veteran federal prosecutor, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Barb, a dual question to start you off. What do you -- Where do you put the chances that we`re actually going to see John Bolton raise his right hand, get sworn in on national television in the well of the U.S. Senate? And, second part, if that doesn`t happen, can Pelosi call him into a House committee and get the same amount of testimony responding to a congressional subpoena on the House side?
BARBARA MCQUADE, MSNBC LEGAL ANALYST: Brian, I put his likelihood of testifying at less than 50 percent. I think today`s announcement was as much about P.R. for himself as it was about really volunteering to appear as a witness. He has a book deal. He wants to sell books, and I think he is currently in a tough spot because there is at least the appearance that he has a story, an information that is of value, but that he is withholding it to make money as opposed to sharing that story with the public. So I think that his likelihood of testifying is relatively low.
Now, your other question is the really intriguing one, which is can Nancy Pelosi call him and have him testify before the House. The answer is yes. You know, he promised to testify before the Senate. He hasn`t promised to testify before the House. But there`s nothing that stops the House once those articles of impeachment have been returned from continuing to investigate or investigating other matters.
It`s very much like what prosecutors do when they continue to investigate and then file what`s known as a superseding indictment with additional charges. It happens all the time. There`s no end to the impeachment process just because Trump has been impeached once.
WILLIAMS: OK. Let`s fast forward. Scenario number two. Let`s say it`s the eve of his testimony answering a subpoena by the House. Can`t the White House come in and throw a flag and say, sorry, executive privilege. We`re not going to allow the guy to talk?
MCQUADE: I think so. I think they can. You know, it`s similar to what President Trump did -- what the White House did with Don McGahn when McGahn was subpoenaed to testify. In fact, not just saying executive privilege to prevent him from answering particular questions, but invoking absolute immunity and saying he doesn`t have to appear at all. So I think it`s likely they would try to do the same thing there.
Now, of course we had the McGahn case working its way through the courts. We may find out ultimately whether there is such a thing as absolute immunity that prevents people like John Bolton or like Don McGahn from testifying in impeachment proceedings, and it may be that we have the answer to that question at some point before this testimony would actually take place. But it`s a little bit of a race to the courts on that one.
WILLIAMS: And a final question, which should be a layup for you. What do you want to find out from John Bolton?
MCQUADE: Yes. You know, John Bolton obviously has lots of information. He was in the room. He had conversations. We know from Fiona Hill and from Tim Morrison that there were times when he made the reference to the drug deal. He made reference to the -- Rudy Giuliani being a hand grenade that`s going to blow all of us up. And there`s reference to at least two meetings that he had with President Trump where he sought to urge President Trump to release that aid to Ukraine.
So I think he has potentially very important information that could either implicate President Trump further or exonerate President Trump. He has information, and everyone in the Senate should be concerned about the quest for the truth rather than what is in their best political interests.
WILLIAMS: With apologies for mixing football and basketball metaphors, our thanks to the always great Barbara McQuade for being with us on this Monday night. Really appreciate it.
And coming up for us, it`s the most volatile time yet for this presidency. We`ll look at how Congress might steer the ship from here.
WILLIAMS: Democrats in Congress are moving forward with efforts to limit the President`s unilateral actions in Iran now that the President has taken unilateral action in Iran. Tim Kaine is sponsoring a war powers resolution in the Senate to require Congressional approval for U.S. forces in the Middle East. Speaker Pelosi announced Sunday the House will vote on a war powers resolution, which while meaningful will be nonbinding. The President meanwhile blowing off the need to consult with Congress, writing on Twitter that, quote, "Such legal notice is not required".
With us to talk about all of it tonight, Donna Edwards, former Democratic Member of Congress from the Great State of Maryland, these days a Washington Post Columnist. And Rick Wilson, longtime Republican Strategist, Author of the book, "Running Against The Devil," which as all his followers know is due out next week. He also happens to be Co-founder of The Lincoln Project, a Super PAC created by Conservatives with the aim of defeating Trump and Trumpism. Welcome to you both.
Congresswoman, I`d like to begin with you. The President has implied Senator Schumer and perhaps other Democrats would have leaked if they had had advance heads-up on this mission. Is the danger of a president acting unilaterally, to you, the fact that it then becomes easier the next time?
FMR. REP. DONNA EDWARDS (D-MD): Well, I mean we`ve seen this frankly over successive presidencies, Republican and Democrat, that when Congress refuses to exercise its authority when it comes to questions of the use of military force, then the executive branch, the president, gathers more authority for itself. And what we see here with President Trump is that he`s taken it completely to the extreme.
I think it`s an outrageous claim that notifying as is -- has been traditionally done with presidencies, but is also required under law suggesting that notifying Democrats would have meant that somehow that exposed the operation to leaks is really pretty shameful. And, you know, we have a process that requires and, in fact, demands consultation between the President and the legislative branch. And the President seems to have just thrown all of that out. Not only that, but I mean it`s taken now a week before there`s even a briefing of the most senior of our leadership, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is a constitutional officer of the United States.
And so, you know, I think it`s time for Congress frankly to begin to claw back, to reclaim some of its authority when it comes to war powers and war authorization. And we should not be living off of a 2002 authorization for the use of military force in Iraq.
WILLIAMS: Rick, to our other lead story tonight, knowing that you worked at DOD years ago as a young man, how bad do things have to get for the Pentagon to look today the way they looked, like they couldn`t find their own keister with both hands and a flashlight?
RICK WILSON, CO-FOUNDER, THE LINCOLN PROJECT: You know, the coordination process in the Pentagon has always been a cryptic and sort of baroque beast. But a lot of it is built to prevent sending out documents that could cause a gigantic national or international incident. And this one was so sloppily handled, and I suspect what we`ve really got here is a document that went out, was meant to go out, and the President and the White House recognized what a catastrophe it was going to be, panicked, and made them claw it back.
The thing doesn`t have a draft or a decisional -- pre-decisional stamp on it. It does have a live date stamp on it. I`m sorry. There is something fishy about their excuse. And I think that right now we`re seeing the consequences of the President shooting from the lip every day. We`re about to have a very unstable situation that puts the 5,000 or so American troops in Iraq at enormous risk because this President and his administration are sloppy and amateur.
WILLIAMS: Yes, that seal of the Department of Defense at the head of that letterhead used to mean something today for a brief time.
WILLIAMS: It meant nothing. Donna, to our other subject, and that is John Bolton. I note Senator Collins today used a collection of words that seemed to have in common their membership in the English language and took no position on Mr. Bolton. But this may have a way of focusing the mind of Collins and similarly vulnerable Republicans in the Senate, an up or down vote on, what do you say? Should we hear from John Bolton?
EDWARDS: Well, you know, I`m actually -- I refuse to look at Senator Collins` words anymore in terms of trying to convey some kind of meaning. I think she proved that in the Kavanaugh hearings. But, look, I think Mitt Romney`s statements to me are the most interesting. He has no reason to be allied with this administration and with this President. He has every reason to want to seek the truth.
And I think that his statements suggest that he could be one to actually lead the charge for a process that`s fair, which would then give, I think, Speaker Pelosi some confidence that the articles of impeachment that they worked so hard on are going to be treated seriously in a fair process in the United States Senate.
WILLIAMS: We`re going to take a break. Both of our guests have agreed to stick around.
Coming up, Mike Pompeo told us to do something, and so obediently we have. We`ll explain when we come back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MIKE POMPEO, UNITED STATES SECRETARY OF STATE: President Trump didn`t say he`d go after a cultural site. Read what he said very closely.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: So we actually did read what the President wrote, and here it is. The President said the U.S. would target 52 Iranian sites, some at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture. He threatened it again while on Air Force One just last night. Striking Iranian historic and cultural sites would be a violation of the Geneva Convention and considered a war crime.
Trump`s own Defense Secretary indicated he would defy such an order, telling Pentagon reporters today, "We will follow the laws of armed conflict". Interesting dance around the boss there.
Back with us, Donna Edwards and Rick Wilson. Rick, explain to viewers who may not get the stakes of such a thing why such a thing is important.
WILSON: Attacking cultural landmarks, attacking religious sites, attacking civilian population centers is not just frowned upon in warfare as something that`s counterproductive and wrong. We`ve actually codified it and made it into part of the western value set of how we wage war. We do not wage war by destroying the cultural artifacts and religious sites of other countries. That`s what ISIS does.
And so Donald Trump is basically saying, we`re going to be like ISIS when it comes to Iran. And, you know, you can have a full package of every kind of chaos. If we had to go with Iran tomorrow, there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of legitimate military sites that could get a good whacking. There`s no reason to go after mosques and hospitals and things like that.
This is a President who loves being transgressive and loves being a bully and loves being a thug. And so he`s trying to do this thing to generate the sort of, you know, a sense of sputtering testosterone inside of his brain to make himself feel like a big man by threatening to go and whack cultural sites. It is really an outrageous thing and the military would rightly, I hope, ignore and refuse to carry out those orders because they would, in fact, be illegal orders, and they are obligated to ignore or defy illegal orders.
WILLIAMS: And, Rick, in fact let`s go C-SPAN on this, at least 30 more seconds. Didn`t Hitler famously ask, is Paris burning because he had ordered his generals to plunder the beautiful sites of Paris, and they had in fact resisted that?
WILSON: Indeed. And, you know, this is -- I hate comparing Trump to Hitler because Hitler could concentrate for more than 30 seconds and had normal-size human hands. But, you know, this is the kind of thing that, again, he likes being transgressive. He likes being over the top. He likes being, you know, the crazy man figure.
And unfortunately that doesn`t make American forces safer. It doesn`t make America safer. It puts American troops in the role of being asked basically, will you commit war crimes for this man? And the generals who command them, will you commit war crimes for this man? And, you know, that`s a bad place for American forces to be, and it doesn`t make our country safer in the slightest.
WILLIAMS: Donna Edwards, let`s talk unbridled politics, domestic politics. The Democrats have a huge task in front of them. While all of this is going on, they have to steer the mechanism of impeachment going forward, especially now that everybody`s back in town from the recess. Can they play from here on out with no or minimal unforced errors?
EDWARDS: Well, I mean, that`s a tall order, I think, in a campaign that has a lot of twists and turns. But what I will say is that I think that especially the senators who have to -- who may have to come back to Washington and sit as jurors in a Senate trial of Donald Trump that they`re going to do their constitutional duty. It`s what they`re obligated to do. It`s what they signed on for. And I think it`s what the american people expect, even those who are in the early primary states. It will be a bit of a dance.
Let`s look at what we have at hand. It isn`t just that we have a Senate trial coming up. We also have a state of the union message in early February. We have, you know, the members of the House and the Senate who are focused on the business of the nation and a debate in the middle of all of that. So there are a lot of balls to juggle.
But I`m confident that, you know, Democrats are going to continue to run their race, and we`re going to see, you know, some people rise and some people fall. And they`re still going to be able to do their constitutional duty, which is to try the President of the United States for two articles of impeachment.
WILLIAMS: Hey, Rick, Pompeo apparently told McConnell that he`s going to pass on running for Senate in Kansas. Is that a loss for Kansas or a loss for the State Department?
WILSON: You know, I think Kansas probably dodged a bit of a bullet here. But they are now going to have a different bullet, and that`s in the form of Kris Kobach, which makes the Democrats competitive in that seat in 2020.
WILLIAMS: Our thanks to Donna Edwards, to Rick Wilson as we wish both of you a happy new year and appreciate you coming on this first Monday night broadcast of 2020.
WILSON: You too,
WILLIAMS: Coming up for us after a quick break, the relentless fight to save a beautiful place.
WILLIAMS: Last thing before we go tonight, the dangerous and worrisome and relentless and relentlessly depressing bushfires in Australia. The toll thus far is this. Twenty-five dead, 2,000 homes destroyed along with a staggering estimate that half a billion animal friends have been affected. In terms of sheer size, this shows all of Australia superimposed over the United States. The area that has burned in Australia thus far roughly the size of West Virginia, twice the size of the State of Maryland, for example.
As you`ve no doubt seen by now, the smoke plumes are being monitored from space. They have darkened the skies over New Zealand, which is 2,500 miles away. And then there`s this. The helicopter air crews flying rescue missions in zero visibility. Just smoke, glowing orange, while blotting out the sun, flying on instruments and skill alone.
Most of the firefighters on the job tonight in Australia are volunteers. And just like wildland firefighters in this country, many of them leave their own homes and their own families exposed to go and save others. Some of them have left their loved ones and their day jobs behind to go be part of this Herculean effort.
Other countries including ours are responding to the crisis in Australia. Just today, some of our very best federal wildland firefighters and incident managers arrived. But as you watch this drama, please remember the worst of fire season in Australia stretches right through next month, and it`s going to be a long fight to save a beautiful place.
That is our broadcast for this back-to-work Monday night with my thanks to my friend Steve Kornacki for filling in over the holidays. Thank you for being here with us. Good night from our NBC News headquarters here in New York.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END