LAWRENCE O`DONNELL, MSNBC HOST: That is tonight`s LAST WORD. "THE 11TH HOUR" with Brian Williams starts now.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC HOST: Well, good evening once again from our NBC News headquarters here in New York. Day 1,083 of the Trump administration. And if you`ve been watching our live continuous coverage, then you know this is the night Iran struck back for the death of Soleimani.
Iran fired something over a dozen ballistic missiles into two Iraqi military bases where U.S. personnel are housed and operate, Al Asad and the base at Erbil in the north. Two big questions as we come on the air at 11:00 p.m. Eastern time, 8:00 p.m. on the West Coast, is this it? Is this the Iranian retaliation for the death of their general? And if there is to be a U.S. response to this, what will it be?
Especially crucial since tonight Iran warned if the U.S. counter strikes now, they say they will destroy the city of Dubai in the UAE, always full of westerners, and the seaside city of Haifa in Northern Israel. So that got the attention of a lot of people.
Iran in a statement said tonight it does not seek escalation of war but will defend itself against any further act of aggression.
Did the Iranians kill Americans tonight? There were initial reports that they did, but at air time the Associated Press is telling us the latest assessment from the U.S. Central Command appears to be no immediate reports of American casualties.
A lot of senior civilian and military commanders, as you might imagine, rushed over to the White House tonight. We`ve been told we should not expect anything from there for the remainder of the evening. There are no plans for the Pentagon to comment tonight on camera or on the record. Earlier today, the President was asked about this conflict escalating.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the U.S. prepared for an Iranian attack?
DONALD TRUMP, (R) PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We`re prepared. We`re totally prepared. And likewise we`re prepared to attack if we have to as retribution.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: Then there came this. A little over an hour ago tonight, the President sent this out over Twitter, and we quote, "All is well. Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties and damages taking place now. So far so good. We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world by far. I`ll be making a statement tomorrow morning."
With all of that in mind, let`s get to our leadoff discussion in a moment. But first with us for the very latest, Richard Engel, our NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent, who is in Erbil, Iraq for us in the north and Ali Arouzi, our Tehran Bureau Chief, is with us from Tehran, Iran, the capital city.
Ali, beginning with you, are we, at this hour, and I understand we have quite a sizable satellite delay between us and you. Are we left to hope that the Twitter correspondence of the two leaders will hold into tonight, into tomorrow, and maybe decide future policy going forward?
ALI AROUZI, NBC NEWS TEHRAN BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Brian, that is the big question here. Iran has taken full responsibility for the attacks launched into those Iraqi air bases housing U.S. personnel. It came from Iran`s IRGC, not their proxies. It was a clear message from Iran, but it seems to have been somewhat calibrated not to cause mass casualties.
Iran are making unsubstantiated claims that it has claimed American lives, but those are totally unverified reports. It doesn`t seem that they wanted to launch an attack that would invite an all-out reprisal from the United States. They are saying this was revenge for Qassem Soleimani`s death, but they are also saying right now that if the United States does not respond to these attacks from Iran, they will not attack any further.
Iran is saying, the ball is in the court of the United States. But they have also warned -- that comes with a caveat. They say if the United States does decide to attack Iran for these missile strikes, then they will attack, as you mentioned, the city of Dubai because they say there are U.S. planes that could take off from there. They have threatened to attack the city of Haifa because they see Israel as complicit in anything America does that regards Iran.
A senior adviser to the Iranian President Rouhani has just said that if America doesn`t attack, this may be over. But if America does attack Iran, they will unleash war in this entire region. And they have said it time and time again, Brian, that they have proxies spread across this entire place that are close to U.S. assets, and if this was going to escalate, those would all be targets.
We are hearing reports through Iranian state media that Iranian-backed militias are ready for any orders from Tehran if this was going to escalate. Hezbollah in Lebanon have said that they are ready to attack Israel if there is any reprisal from the United States. But the main message coming from Iran right now is if we don`t get attacked, they are ready to de-escalate.
Iran`s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, said that this was a proportional attack from what happened to the killing of Qassem Soleimani. They don`t want this to escalate further. So the question is right now what is President Trump going to do in response to this, and have there actually been any American casualties. That is what will determine how we go forward.
There are also some extraordinary reports coming out of Iran that Iran`s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, was there in the control room coordinating these attacks. That was reported by state media here.
The man that replaced Qassem Soleimani, General Ghaani, had stepped out of the shadows, being very forceful. He made a statement through state T.V. saying that we have heard the cries of the Americans. We have crushed their burns. It`s now time to leave this region. So once this fog clears, we`ll see what happens next, Brian.
WILLIAMS: Ali Arouzi in Tehran for us tonight, thank you.
And over to Richard Engel, as day breaks on a new day in that region in Erbil. Richard, I was listening to you live earlier say that you were -- you heard a sound, some noises in the night, got in a vehicle to go around the area, looked around, and you were rather surprised to learn that this had been on the target list that Erbil was among the facilities hit.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brian. I can tell you we`re feeling quite a bit better now that the sun is rising here. Things seem to be a little bit calmer, not just in Erbil but across the region than they were a few hours ago when it looked like we were heading down a very, very dangerous path.
By no means are we out of this yet. We are still standing on the edge of a very slippery slope that could still lead to an open war across the region. But a few hours ago, there were these initial reports that Iran had responded. We heard some explosions here. Initially you could probably see that it`s quite windy. We weren`t even sure that they were explosions. We went driving around looking to see if we could see any damage. There were some reports that it may have been a car bomb, but couldn`t find any.
So, apparently there was an attack here. The U.S. military says there was two ballistic missiles fired, but it was not a devastating attack. The city of Erbil is still here. And I think what Ali said is very important, that Iran apparently calibrated its attack to send a message to its own population that it stands strong. It is willing to face up -- to stand up to the United States, stand up to the strongest military in the world, stand up to President Trump despite threats that President Trump would basically wipe out Iranian cultural sites, but not go so far as to trigger a direct military confrontation that Iran would certainly lose.
So, we will see what happens. But if Iran has succeeded in threading this needle, succeeded in doing a tit for tat attack in which the U.S. attacked an Iranian military target, General Qassem Soleimani, and Iran responded by attacking military targets here in this country, and it allows both sides to have an off-ramp, then we are looking at a new day. But this is -- this is an erratic administration. You have a divided regime in Iran in which hard-liners are in the ascendancy. So we are not out of the woods yet, but I can tell you things are looking better now than they were four hours ago.
WILLIAMS: OK, my friend, as a sunny and windy Wednesday dawns in that part of the world after a sportier than usual Tuesday night, we hope you can get some rest amid your reporting on this new day. Richard Engel in Erbil in northern Iraq for us.
We mentioned our leadoff discussion. Let`s begin now with Retired Four- Star U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey, a Decorated Combat Veteran of Vietnam, former battlefield commander notably in the Persian Gulf, Phil Rucker, Pulitzer Prize-winning White House Bureau Chief for "The Washington Post," Brett McGurk, the former special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, and our Foreign Affairs Analyst here in New York, our own Ayman Mohyeldin, who has reported extensively of course from that region, and at the Department of Defense, Courtney Kube, NBC News Correspondent covering national security in the Pentagon.
And, Courtney, we need to start with you and go over a few things. First and foremost, something people are picking up on their phones in just the time before we came on before the air. This is a report out of Tehran that a Ukrainian commercial airliner has gone down with 180 souls onboard. Normally we`d be tempted to say there`s no relation, but coming off a night where Iranian air defenses have been on a hair-trigger, as we say, it gets your attention. Do you have anything to add to this story?
COURTNEY KUBE, NBC NEWS NATL, SECURITY CORRESPONDENTS: No. I mean I can totally understand, and I understand that there`s probably going to be a lot of conspiracy theorists out there, but at this point we`re not getting any indication that these two things are linked, Brian.
WILLIAMS: OK. Now to our story in chief, and that is the volley of ballistic missiles launched by Iran. Courtney, let`s talk about early warning, and let`s just assume we have automatic and live eyes on the entire country, if not the known missile launching sites. A lot of their ballistic missiles are on mobile launchers. They drive upwards of a 100 miles away from their bases. So let`s presume we had advance warning. What do we do with that, and how long in advance do you think we knew that this was -- some sort of volley was coming?
KUBE: So, there were indications that was -- that something was brewing all day today and even last night. But it unfolded in a really unusual way. So it started with late this afternoon Eastern Time, some reports that the U.S. military in Baghdad was under attack from rockets or some kind of incoming, and that Camp Taji, which is just north of Baghdad, was also taking rocket fire. Those reports exploded on social media.
People in the press corps, everyone was trying to figure out what was going on. It turns out that none of them were true. So people here and people - - U.S. military here and U.S. military in Iraq, they have absolutely been on the edge of their seats today. Tensions are very high. It was clear that they were expecting something.
What`s now unclear is exactly how did it all unfold that suddenly there were these two reports, very serious and widespread reports of attacks that turned out to be completely untrue. They were taken so seriously that the U.S. military, they were in bunkers in both locations and they were hunkered down. So, but they ended up to be false.
And then literally within a very short time period after that, the strikes started on Al Asad. So it seems that this is all coordinated or there was some kind of coordinated campaign here, effort here to deflect. That being said, the U.S. military, as you said, Brian, they have eyes on Iran. They know -- they have a good warning sense when they might be preparing to launch any kind of a ballistic missile.
These were most likely short-range ballistic missiles, which they`ve shown the capability to launch even beyond Al Asad in western Iraq from Iran. They`ve taken some short-range ballistic missile strikes into Syria. And they`ve shown that their capabilities have actually improved in the last several years. They took pretty specific precision strikes against ISIS in Syria on two separate occasions that we know about, one in 2017, one in 2018.
So, the fact that they would be able to take relatively precise strikes into Iraq at Al Asad and up in Erbil shouldn`t be surprising. The U.S. would probably have a sense that they -- me may have a sense -- many of these are liquid propellants, but they may have a sense they`re doing it sometime in advance.
From the time they`ve launched until they`ve landed in some place like Al Asad, they would have minutes anywhere depending on how far inside Iran they launched, anywhere upwards of maybe even 10 minutes before they would actually start impacting to have the warning for the troops there.
WILLIAMS: And real quick, Courtney, can you explain to the folks watching what BDA is, and why it is both under way tonight as the sun comes up over there and incredibly crucial to the U.S.
KUBE: Yes. So it`s the battle damage assessment. It happens anytime there`s some kind of attack or some kind of kinetic event with the U.S. military.
In this case, because this all happened at night, it makes it a little more difficult for them to see the full extent of what happened here. Now that the sun is starting to come up in Iraq, they should be getting a better sense of what locations were struck. They have a sense already that it was more than a dozen, somewhere around 15 total missiles that were fired, but exactly what they struck, they`re not talking about any kind of casualty numbers right now. We`re not hearing any reports of U.S. casualties specifically, but once the sun comes up and they get a little bit of more time in between the actual attack and they may start talking a little bit more about exactly any kind of injuries, what specific locations, so building, if any buildings were hit and then we might start getting a better sense hop little bit more time a little bit more time between the actual attack and they may start talking a little bit more about exactly any kind of injuries, what specific locations, so if any buildings were hit. Then we might start getting a better sense, hopefully into Wednesday, of whether they think these targets were actually what they targeted or whether it was -- maybe they were -- the missiles weren`t as accurate as they tried to, and they were just lobbing them into the area.
WILLIAMS: Courtney Kube over at the Pentagon for us.
Phil Rucker, let`s talk about your beat. What was seen? What went on tonight at the White House? Why did reporters briefly have a flurry that we might get a statement to the nation from the President tonight? We later got a wave-off on that. He`ll speak at some point tomorrow morning. Who was seen coming and going, et cetera?
PHILIP RUCKER, WASHINGTON POST WHITE HOUSE BUREAU CHIEF: Yes, Brian. So as you could imagine, very soon after these missile attacks, the President`s relatively slimmed down war Cabinet assembled at the White House with him to go over what was happening. That included Defense Secretary Esper, the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is having outsized influence in the Iran strategy in recent days. Vice President Pence was there and others. And they were trying to assess the damage.
There was an effort according to my reporting with my colleagues, Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey, to convince the President, to explain to the President that things were not an, in fact, spiraling out of control as they may have seen if you were watching on television news, but that there were not mass casualties. In fact, the President was very interested in discovering whether there were any casualties at all. And there was an effort to get him to sort of take his time, to be judicious, to be measured in how he responded to this.
There were reports early on in the evening because White House officials were letting out word that they were preparing for a possible presidential address to the nation that would have occurred sometime tonight. But then Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, announced that there would in fact not be an address to the nation. Trump then announced that he plans to be addressing the nation tomorrow, and that`s when we`ll find out what his response will be like.
But it`s important to note the change in the President`s rhetoric. Over the last few days, he`s been warning on Twitter that he would respond without hesitation to Iran, that he would use the best, the most beautiful new military equipment. Those are his words. And that he would be responding in a disproportionate manner to Iran.
But he did not do so in the immediate aftermath tonight. In fact, he seems to be trying to buy some time to get the full assessment as Courtney was alluding to and make a more reasoned decision in the morning.
WILLIAMS: Yes. A marked change to the President`s rhetoric, you`re right. A lot of folks read that two and three times over when it came out.
Brett McGurk, I`m tempted to widen out the focus in our conversation with you and ask you what these past five days must have been like given your recent life`s work. Our fight against ISIS is over. We`re repositioning to defend ourselves against Iran. The fight against ISIS used to link us with Iran. Iraq is our ally.
As we said here last night, under the you break it, you buy it policy, we not only broke it, we bought it, and we`ve been there throughout. And then you add in tonight, you add in a possible U.S. response. Where does this leave us tonight?
BRETT MCGURK, FMR. SPECIAL ENVOY GLOBAL COALITION TO DEFEAT ISIS: Well, Brian, tonight what is extraordinary is it seems like, I think, a consensus emerging we kind of dodged a bullet. We dodged a ballistic missile. And everybody is taking a deep breath. It`s just -- it just speaks to how extraordinary this moment is that Iran launched almost a dozen ballistic missiles at Americans housed in Iraqi bases in Iraq and that we might actually see this as a moment to pause and take a deep breath. That just shows just how critical this moment had become.
Just kind of going back, rewinding the tape the last 96 hours or so, my first reaction to the Soleimani strike, as someone who served a long time in Iraq and have colleagues who have been killed by Iranian-backed militias, was just a kind of gut sense of justice. But then immediately how do you respond to this? And what has been troubling was the somewhat inept, haphazard response from the administration with shifting explanations. The Iraqis moving very rapidly perhaps to kick us out of the country, which would be a total disaster.
I mean, if we -- we came back to Iraq in 2014 in a very careful way, a very limited investment. We`re not fighting. We`re not taking casualties. We`re not spending much money. Brian, we built a big coalition. We have NATO. We have almost 20 other western allies with us in Iraq. And were we to get kicked out of the country, the vacuum would just open up entirely to these Iranian-backed groups. ISIS would have a vacuum to resurge. And as we left and all of our western partners left, you would see Russia fill that vacuum immediately. That would be an irreversible strategic setback.
And I was very concerned that out of this crisis, a decision could be made for that which would set us back, you know, a generation. I think that would be a disaster.
I`m hoping now, out of what happened tonight, if this is a moment to kind of take a pause, that we can really slow things down, really have a dialogue with the Iraqis to re-establish our bases of our presence there, continue the fight against ISIS, get back at that, and just begin to kind of calm the waters. But that could be wishful thinking.
I don`t think this is over. These proxy groups Iran has throughout the region, you know, Soleimani had pretty good discipline on them. And now that he`s gone, I think there`s a risk that some of them could act on their own. That could cause another cycle. So we really need to be on guard.
WILLIAMS: General McCaffrey, a number of people have pointed out that if it was Iran`s aim to kill a great number of Americans in the region by a different targeting set, they could indeed have done so with ease. If I ask you to look for the good news out of tonight and where we stand right now, what would it be?
GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.): Boy, I`m unprepared for that one. We ended up striking Soleimani, a legitimate target. The outcome has been we restarted the Iranian nuke program. We solidified the Iranian leadership which had gunned down hundreds of their own people. And we incited huge hostility among the Shiite majority in Iraq with a scattered vulnerable population of U.S. military.
So, look, you know, our self-protection capabilities on these military bases is really good. We`ve got great short-range, anti-missile capabilities. We can shoot down 82 millimeter mortars in the sky. We`ve got great underground facilities. And as an entry soldier, we tell you, the walls of a fox hole are 4,000 miles thick.
So I`m not surprised that these -- by the way, that anti-warning system for missiles works terrifically. You actually get time off the ground. You get a countdown when it`s going to hit. They`ll tell you where it`s going to hit. So I`m not surprised that we were ready to absorb a blow. But I don`t think this is over. As Brett says, the next strikes will be through proxy forces. If President Trump doesn`t do something fool hardy and escalate the situation in the coming week.
WILLIAMS: So, general, real quick if you were sitting down to write remarks that we already know are coming from the President tomorrow morning, how do you thread that needle? If the position of the U.S. is we honestly don`t want to go another volley because we know where that`s going to take us, to Dubai and to Haifa and beyond, how do you do something tough, do something proportional, say something proportional after the night we`ve just witnessed?
MCCAFFREY: Well, we don`t have a lot of track record out of President Trump for being thoughtful. He`s not surrounded by a very capable crew in the White House. I think Secretary Esper and Mark Milley, the chairman, are pretty solid people. But the bottom line is we`ve got to engage with them. They`ve got to start talking to them.
Personally, my preference is always private engagement, perhaps through a third party. But if we don`t give them a way out of the economic box we`ve placed them in, their primary objective is still to run us out of Iraq in the Middle East. T hat`s not going to stop until we start talking to them and get some kind of negotiation.
WILLIAMS: Well one of the things we learned during the impeachment hearings is we`ve got some great diplomats already on the payroll. Perhaps they`re going to go to work starting tonight.
Ayman Mohyeldin, thank you for your patience. When the Iranians tweeted out tonight that if we responded, their next volley would be aimed at Dubai and Haifa, that, as we said, got the attention of us and the whole region. Explain why.
AYMAN MOHYELDIN, MSNBC HOST, "MORNING JOE FIRST LOOK": Well, in some ways that is their deterrence, that is their way of saying to the Americans, now the ball is in your court. The next round is not going to be us trying to be strategic about military targets, which is what they wanted to try to do in this first round because they killed an Iranian general -- the Americans did -- so they needed to respond in kind by attacking a military facility.
The next time around if there is any kind of incoming into the sovereignty or the country of Iran itself, they feel they have the legitimate right to go after these countries. Now, why these countries specifically, it is because in many cases they have American forces on their soil. In the case of the UAE, they have air force capabilities. Qatar has central command. Israel obviously a close American ally. So as a result of all of that, the Iranians see themselves as having the capability and the right to take the fight to the entire region, say everyone will pay for the consequences and the decisions of this American action.
WILLIAMS: Haifa obviously brings Israel in to a conflict they are watching. Dubai, as we mentioned, there are usually hundreds of thousands of people, usually westerners, in that gleaming model city that was produced out of the desert, out of nowhere.
MOHYELDIN: Yes, absolutely. And Dubai has become now an international city, a major international tourist destination. It is a commercial hub. It is a transport hub. It is now a city that is known all around the world, so people have a vested interest in it because of all the reasons that you said.
But more importantly, the symbolism that nobody in the region is safe is the message that the Iranians want to communicate. It`s not so much just about the destination of Dubai. It is about the fact that we know where the most sensitive places are in the region. We can get to every one of those spots.
And what was interesting in tonight`s attack is that for the first time, rather than using a proxy, the Iranian government took full responsibility for their actions, and I think that is really the one takeaway from tonight is that they are now, excuse me, putting skin in the game.
WILLIAMS: We could not ask for better folks to talk to on this breaking news night. So our thanks to General Barry McCaffrey, to Phil Rucker, to Brett McGurk, to Ayman Mohyeldin, and Courtney Kube over at the Pentagon after the evening she has covered.
Coming up for us, as the damage of tonight`s strikes are assessed, that battle damage assessment going on right now, we`ll have the latest from our reporters in the field and in Washington, D.C. when our coverage continues in view of the White House right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. RAND PAUL (R), FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE, KENTUCKY: I hope saner minds will pull back and say, you know, enough`s enough. Let`s try to have some means of conversation or some means of engagement. But it`s difficult right now because the Iranians are very, very upset with the killing of their general, and I don`t see them being open to any type of engagement at this point.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: As we`ve been covering tonight, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles, an important distinction we`ll get to in a bit by the way, at two different Iraqi military bases that house U.S. troops as their base of operations. Iranian state TV described the operation as Tehran`s revenge for the killing of General Soleimani. The Pentagon says it is now working on battle damage assessments. Day has broken. It is now after dawn on Wednesday.
NBC News International Correspondent Cal Perry is with us from nearby Doha in Qatar with the very latest. And, Cal, I imagine when you are rousted in the middle of the night with news like this, it can make this broad expanse of a region suddenly feel quite small and localized.
CAL PERRY, INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: Yes, and it was that warning from the Iranians that anyone who assists the U.S. in attacking Iran will be held responsible and could become a target. So let`s talk about that. Oman houses a few hundred U.S. troops right there in the Strait of Hormuz. Here in Qatar, 20 minutes where I am, between 10,000 and 15,000 U.S. troops. Kuwait is a staging area. Bahrain hosts the Fifth Fleet. So people got very, very nervous about four hours ago when that warning came out.
And I think picking up with what Ayman was saying, for these gulf nations for so long, U.S. bases were a sign of protection. It was something that they took as a sign of comfort, and now it`s being seen as potentially something very risky to have in your country. This is why the Qatari Foreign Minister was in Tehran over the weekend trying to ratchet down tensions. But the problem that these gulf nations have is it seems like the most bombastic rhetoric from each side is what`s carrying the day.
The Iranians say they could hit Dubai or Haifa. Then the Americans say they will act in a disproportionate manner. That`s what has people here on edge, especially when you look at the U.S. troops that are here in the region, keeping in mind of course as we`ve said, it was Iraqi bases in Iraq. The U.S. bases are here in the gulf.
WILLIAMS: And, Cal, let`s talk about the different audiences for all of these messaging tonight if, indeed, kinetic activity, the launching of missiles, can be seen as messaging. The domestic audience within Iran, the global audience, the rest of us watching, and think about in this country, the people who have fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, the exact folks you just mentioned, the folks in uniform, some of whom are too young to buy a drink in the United States, serving over in the desert, serving the United States. So two very different audiences, one of which would love to know our young folks are not going to be drawn into conflict over there.
PERRY: Yes, some men and women born after 9/11. The Fifth Fleet is in the gulf. You know, in speaking to U.S. military commanders and having been out there with them, they`ll tell you the nightmare scenario is that the Strait of Hormuz is shut and the Fifth Fleet is suddenly on the equivalent of an Iranian lake.
The domestic audience in Iran needed a strike. They needed a strike back as the General Soleimani was buried. He, in the eyes of Iranians, was a national hero. He was the man who kept ISIS out of Iran. So that domestic audience really, I think, today has been satisfied.
For the U.S., it is now of course a concern about servicemen and women who are in this region. And let`s make it very clear. The other concern here is between me and that base 20 minutes from here is 2 million civilians who are worried. They once again are going to get caught up in what is very quickly an escalating thing here, Brian.
WILLIAMS: And a beautiful modern, gleaming city just over your shoulder. Cal Perry in Doha early in the morning Wednesday for us. Cal, thank you for that.
And with us tonight for more, Andrea Mitchell, our NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent and of course the host of "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on this network each day. Steve Schmidt, an MSNBC Contributor, a former Republican Strategist who has since left the party. Chris Hill, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, the Chief Global Adviser and Diplomacy Professor at the University of Denver, also among our diplomatic experts. And Robert Costa, National Political Reporter for The Washington Post, Moderator of Washington Week on PBS.
Andrea Mitchell, I`d like to begin with you. There is a great phrase in Washington that comes from the highway business, and that`s the off-ramp. Does the battle damage assessment going on in the light of day right now, if indeed we stay at zero casualties? Does that afford the President of the United States an off-ramp? I`m going to ask you the question I asked General McCaffrey. For those drafting the President`s remarks overnight for delivery tomorrow morning, what can he say that`s tough, but what can he say that if this is the American wish, takes a pass at us launching a return volley?
ANDREA MITCHELL, CHIEF FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: Well, in fact the most hopeful thing I heard was a couple of hours ago from a well placed source who can`t be identified, that their early initial assessment -- and, again, this was in nighttime and not with a formal BDA or battle damage assessment -- was that Iran had deliberately missed, that they have such highly precise missiles. We know they do. They were able to take out the major Aramco oil field in September in Saudi Arabia. We know that they can do this if they really want to, and they apparently, according to this early report, may have hit a not populated part of the al-Asad base and, in Erbil, landed in a field.
Now, if that were true -- and at that stage, Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Esper, the Defense Secretary, and others were huddled with the President, and we still had been hearing nothing but bluster and threatening remarks all day. You saw the President earlier today when the Greek Prime Minister was there, and certainly we all heard Mike Pompeo today, who has been the strongest defender and the chief hawk, hawk in chief, not chief diplomat, but really the chief military adviser urging Soleimani to be taken out.
And so when they were there and then the White House announced that it was all over for tonight and the President`s tweet was really significant, that and Zarif`s tweet saying it was proportional and it could end there, and the President saying all is well, which surprised a lot of people given the situation, and that he would have a statement in the morning. So, yes, there`s an off-ramp, and those riding it should probably be mindful of satisfying the President`s instinct to sound tough. But as long as there`s no more retaliation, no counter-strike, this thing could end more positively.
I was also struck by something Steve Hadley wrote in The Washington Post today. You know him well as the former National Security Adviser to George W. Bush and a wise man, who said that this could, best case, open the door to diplomacy. We haven`t seen any diplomacy with Iran and the United States. Worst case is to collapse Iraq, to force U.S. troops out, and this carefully structured reintroduction of troops in Iraq and the NATO training in Iraq and all of the things that have been disrupted by this sudden decision by the President, urged by Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, without warning U.S. allies in Europe, much to their distress, that perhaps they could try to recalibrate going forward.
WILLIAMS: And, Ambassador, that brings us to you. How much of the rigor of your life`s work has been reversed in five days? We keep pointing out to our viewers who have not paid much attention to the Middle East in recent years, Iraq was our ally and, indeed, the fight against ISIS often combined our interests and our military efforts with those of Iran.
CHRISTOPHER HILL, MSNBC DIPLOMACY EXPERT: Yes, you bet they did. I mean, the issue has always been for us -- the main issue has been al-Qaeda and then ISIS, and we worked very hard with the Iraqis. We especially had to work with Iraqis who had a tendency to be closer to Iran and to try to make sure they understood that it was a better situation for the country to be closer to us. I mean, this was took a lot of work, a lot of effort.
But I must say it seems the President has kind of launched forever war on the Foreign Service. I mean he`s come after professional diplomats like, you know, he was doing this well before the impeachment issues came up. So, you know, this is a President who thinks he`s the only person who can solve things, who can do things. He`s not interested in sending emissaries. When he does have emissaries, he basically discredits them and has nothing to do with them.
So, I mean, we need a president who understands this is kind of a team sport, and he also has a tendency, you know, to look very carefully at how he`s being perceived, and he thinks if he kind of does a lot of end zone dancing, albeit on his own 10-yard line, he`ll be perceived as winning. He does not just hand the ball to the referee. So, I mean, a lot will depend on how the President sees things in the coming weeks, whether he`s perceived as gotten away with something, you know, killing off Qasem Soleimani, who, I join with others in saying he was a hideous individual, but I also join with others in the idea that this President had no idea and no context what he was doing.
And finally, I`d like to say that the Secretary of State needs to be careful that when he says something, we have a right to be able to take that to the bank. And no one feels we have that with this Secretary of State. And, you know, if he has further ambitions or whatever he`s doing, I guess he`s not going to go back to Kansas, he needs to really work on his credibility and how he manages to explain these issues to the American people, who have a right to know.
WILLIAMS: Steve Schmidt, so it comes to this. People in the United States, in Iran, in Iraq, people who do not wish to be drawn into a wider conflict, go to bed tonight hoping that two comments on twitter, a repository of random comment for the world and occasional pet videos, two comments on twitter stand and hold as we go into tomorrow as the latest update on this conflict. Define for us this moment you and I find ourselves in right now.
STEVE SCHMIDT, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: Well, the United States has been in a long, protracted state of hostility with Iran going back to the revolution in 1979, 41 years. But tonight is the first night where you saw direct engagement between the military of Islamic Republic of Iran targeting the United States of America. Ballistic missiles aimed at Iraqi bases that hold or house American personnel. So we`re at the most dangerous hour that we have been at in the Middle East with regard to our national security, and there have been many precarious hours in our lifetimes.
Right now, tonight, this could very quickly spiral out of control into a regional war. We don`t know what will happen tomorrow. We know that this President is ignorant. We know that he`s rash. We know that there`s no plan. We know that he makes policy by twitter and by watching Fox & Friends in the morning.
And so we stand here tonight in almost the 20th year of war in the Middle East, trillions of dollars of American treasure already evaporated. Thousands and thousands of lives lost. Tens of thousands of Americans already wounded in these wars. At the edge of a new disastrous chapter.
And so tonight, we pray for restraint, but when we look at Trump, when we look at his volatility, when we look at the decision-making, when we look at the evisceration of the diplomatic corps, the attacks on the intelligence agencies, on the professionals who understand these issues, nobody should underestimate the danger of this hour tonight.
WILLIAMS: With that in mind, Robert Costa, we note that on said twitter, the cheering section around the President has begun. We have learned a lot of overseas news via twitter tonight. I`m wondering what the Republican officeholder appetite will be in Washington because twitter is nothing but cheap seats. It`s noise except for those decision makers tonight in D.C. and Tehran.
ROBERT COSTA, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Earlier in your program you played a clip from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a noted non-interventionist in the Republican Party. And when he and others look at this White House, based on my reporting, they see a President who wants to be cast as tough and militaristic when it comes to foreign policy but still has a non- interventionist streak and has removed some of the generals from his inner circle that populated it early on in his administration. And there is a pull in Congress among the hawks to keep President Trump taking a hard line on Iran, working alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel and other U.S. allies who would like to see a diminished Iran.
At the same time, the base of the Republican Party, after this decade-plus of war, remains very non-interventionist in different pockets. And so you`re going to see Senator Paul and other voices try to work this President as much as the hawks in the coming days to see what would unfold and if they can contain him in this instinct.
WILLIAMS: Robert, talk about what you know to be the structure around this President. For example, whose shop does the speech come out of? Presumably there are people on desktops and laptops putting together remarks that the President will deliver from that building to a national global audience tomorrow. A lot of people very interested in his choice of words because it will indicate the next actions by the United States.
COSTA: The way it works, based on The Washington Post reporting and my phone calls in recent days, is that Secretary of State Pompeo is the face along with President Trump of the policy, working very closely with the President. The President`s also built a bond with Robert O`Brien, the new National Security Adviser, a bond and a rapport he did not necessarily have with former NSA John Bolton. And you also see Vice President Pence involved in connecting the President with lawmakers.
Early on when it was a Republican House, Pence played that role. He`s playing it again based on our reporting, trying to make sure the President is hearing from Republican members of Congress in particular about where they are, and that`s informing the kind of rhetoric he`s using.
WILLIAMS: Andrea Mitchell, if I can do a callback with you to your time in Washington and the administrations you have covered, if we take a snapshot tonight of the team of people around this President, this may call for some candor on your part. How does it differ in size, caliber, and quality to the norm?
MITCHELL: Well, I would say norms have been broken. The least experienced, the least effective, and the smallest cadre of advisers. Really, you know, the Defense Secretary is almost brand-new so is the chairman of the joint chiefs. And they don`t have the battleground experience, the real experience that Jim Mattis had certainly. But Jim Mattis pushed back against the President, and these gentlemen are not likely to although, to his credit, Secretary Esper did push back against the President`s declaration that he was going to target cultural sites, which would have been a war crime according to a 1954 international law.
Mike Pompeo is the supreme loyalist. And I was writing today that he is probably the most powerful Secretary of State that we`ve had in decades. He is now in likes -- because of his proximity to the Oval Office and his authority with the President and the absence of competing interests, John Bolton`s gone, Jim Mattis is gone, there`s no one to push back against what Pompeo wants. He is also the former CIA Director. He knows how the bureaucracy works. He has ties on the Hill as a former Congress member.
There`s an acting DNI. There is, you know, a new national security adviser who is a Washington lawyer but never had foreign policy experience before. So Pompeo is the guy, and he has the authority, and he is an Iran hawk. And he wanted this last summer when the Iranians shot down the drone, and The Washington Post reported, as Robert Costa knows, that he was morose at the failure of President Trump to react. He wanted something to happen after they targeted Aramco in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were furious that there was no U.S. response and started back-channel talks with Iran through Pakistan. So this is the -- I would say the worst national security team that I`ve ever seen.
WILLIAMS: And yet, Steve Schmidt, if there is, excuse me, an old-school GOP Republican hawk neocon icon in Washington, it`s John Bolton, about whom there`s a debate. The Republican side of the Senate among members, do we want to hear from this guy where it intersects with impeachment?
SCHMIDT: Obviously many Republicans don`t want to hear from John Bolton. John Bolton obviously has some things to say, and the things that John Bolton would say likely incriminate the President. What would he be incriminated on? He would be incriminated using the power of his office to benefit his self-interest, his political interest at the expense of the national security of the United States. And that`s important to understand in the context of the hour we are at now because being impeached, what Donald Trump did, and this is a President who has lied thousands of times, who has constantly put his self-interest above the national interest.
What degree was the targeted assassination of General Soleimani about the impeachment process? And it`s fair to look at this President, because of how he`s comported and conducted himself, and to say that it`s highly suspect. The intelligence seems suspect. What this seems to be is a matter of domestic politics influencing a decision that could have profound consequences. And so all of this fits together.
And so when you look at John Bolton, though he is an Iran hawk historically, we stand at an hour that`s so profoundly dangerous maybe because the President wanted to throw up a smokescreen and a diversion from his domestic political crisis. And that`s a very bad place for this country to be.
WILLIAMS: Our thanks to all our guests on this breaking news night, to Andrea Mitchell, to Steve Schmidt, to Ambassador Christopher Hill, and to Robert Costa. We are now joined, I`ve been told, by telephone with former CIA Director John Brennan, who also happens to be a Senior National Security and Intelligence Analyst for us. Director Brennan, I`m tempted to ask what, in your view, what the next move should be, and what should the President say from the West Wing tomorrow?
JOHN BRENNAN, MSNBC SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY AND INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, Brian, I think as your other guests have said, we`re still in very uncertain and stormy waters with Iran, and I think the next 24, 48, 72 hours are going to be very important. And I think the strike against the bases in Iraq in some respects was catharsis for the Iranian people, and that`s why the Iranian leadership decided to go ahead with something that I think was limited and minimal.
And there could be some follow-on strikes by Iran or by their proxies and that`s why I think what Mr. Trump says tomorrow is going to be critically important. And maybe, just maybe not only have the Iranians been taken aback by, you know, the strike against Qasem Soleimani, but maybe Donald Trump is a bit unsettled by the agreements (ph) of the reaction internationally and specifically in Iran.
And maybe he is now going to be a little more cautious in terms of moving forwards because I think as we all know, he does not want to get into a real fighting war with Iran right now. It`s not in his interest. It`s certainly not anything in the United States interest.
And so maybe he is going to take attack now that is going to be a bit more accommodating. We have seen what he did with North Korea after calling Kim Jong-un rocket man and other types of, you know, names, he then got into his flattering mode.
I don`t know whether or not that`s possible with Iran, but I think sending some type of signal about the United States is not intractably opposed to having better relations with Iran, even the current government is something that`s critically important. And maybe Donald Trump is going to not follow, I think, the hard line ideological guidance that he`s getting from Mike Pompeo and even from Vice President Pence. So I`m hoping he`s going to look for a way to get out of this situation right now with Iran that still is very fraught with great danger for us.
WILLIAMS: Do you concur with this view that if Iran`s goal was to kill multiples of Americans tonight and inflict the most damage, they had that option and their target selection was chosen for another reason, to prove, to show they could reach out and touch American forces on Iraqi territory, in Iraqi bases?
BRENNAN: Absolutely. I think they could have rained down quite a bit of ordnance on top of U.S. targets, including the U.S. embassy in Iraq, and they chose not to do that because I don`t think they want to get into this escalatory spiral.
So I think it was sent as a very clear signal against the Iranian people that they`re not going to just ignore the killing of Qasem Soleimani, but also a signal to the United States that they are going to take actions, but it`s not going to be irrational, and it`s going to be done, as they said, proportionate.
Now, Foreign Minister Zarif is, you know, one of the leading moderates in Iran, so I don`t think he speaks for all of the individuals in the Iranian leadership. But at least the targeting so far, as far as we can tell, was very limited in terms of the casualties that it could have caused.
WILLIAMS: I thought of your former line of work last night when General McCaffrey -- and I`ll paraphrase, knowing him well -- remarked that the dispatch of the general could have been done in clandestine fashion as a standoff action by the United States, which could have then just remained quiet, held our fire instead of tweeting out after a very public assassination, an American flag. No one doubting this was a bad guy. No one disputing this guy was a terrorist who`s had blood on his hands of a good many Americans and others. But could his dispatch have been handled differently?
BRENNAN: Absolutely. I think just from the standpoint of what might have happened in the past in certain times in terms of trying to conceal the hand that would actually take the action. But this is also something that Iran could do at some point in the future. It took responsibility for the attack against the bases today.
But if some American, diplomats or military officer or civilian is killed, it might be the work of Iran, but it`s not necessarily going to be something that the Iranians are going to tout. In fact, I think they would not do that.
So, yes, it was kind of -- it`s curious as to what led the U.S. administration to decide to take that strike at that moment. We still haven`t seen the intelligence. But it also is interesting that they publicly touted the fact that this was a strike that was carried out by the U.S. very intentionally and targeted against Mr. Soleimani.
WILLIAMS: John Brennan, former CIA Director, thank you so much for joining us by telephone tonight as part of our live coverage of this breaking news event we`ve been covering this evening.
And again quickly by the numbers as we wrap up this portion of this hour, we think somewhere north of a dozen ballistic missiles, not entirely the largest or longest range in the arsenal of Iran, were fired at these two Iraqi bases. There are no more totally U.S. bases inside Iraq. Iraqi military bases among the bases where the U.S. personnel are housed and operate from. Battle damage assessment, BDA, under way now in the light of day to see what was hit and to check on casualties. So far, none reported.
We`re going to stick around here and do another hour of live coverage at the top of the hour as we continue.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END